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As dawn broke on the holiday morning of January 31, 1968, nearly everyone in the old walled city of Hue could see it. The gold-starred, blue-and-red National Liberation Front banner was flying atop the historic 120-foot-high Citadel flag tower. When the residents of the elegant former capital city had gone to bed just hours earlier on the eve of Tet, they were filled with anticipation for the festivities and celebrations to come. But now, a shroud of fear and foreboding descended upon them as they found themselves swept up in war. Seemingly in a flash, the Communists were now in charge of Hue.

Of course, months of meticulous planning and training had made this moment possible. The Communists had carefully selected the time for the attack. Because of Tet, they knew the city’s defenders would be at reduced strength, and the typically bad weather of the northeast monsoon season would hamper any allied aerial re-supply operations and impede close air support.

In the days leading up to Tet, hundreds of Viet Cong (VC) had already infiltrated the city by mingling with the throngs of pilgrims pouring into Hue for the holiday. They easily moved their weapons and ammunition into the bustling city, concealed in the vehicles, wagons and trucks carrying the influx of goods, food and wares intended for the days-long festivities. Like clockwork, in the dark, quiet morning hours of January 31, the stealth soldiers unpacked their weapons, donned their uniforms and headed to their designated positions across Hue in preparation for linking up with crack People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) and VC assault troops closing in on the city. Infiltrators assembled at the Citadel gates ready to lead their comrades to strike key targets.

At 3:40 a.m., a rocket and mortar barrage from the mountains to the west signaled the assault troops to launch their attack. By daybreak, the lightning strike was over and the invaders began to unleash a harsh new reality over the stunned city. As PAVN and VC troops roamed freely to consolidate their gains, political officers set about rounding up South Vietnamese and foreigners unfortunate enough to be on their “special lists.” Marching up and down the Citadel’s narrow streets, the cadre called out the names on their lists over loudspeakers, ordering them to report to a local school. Those not reporting voluntarily would be hunted down.

What became of those rounded up would not be readily apparent until long after the battle ended. Even then, as with so much in Vietnam, the facts surrounding their fate would be the subject of often angry and anguished debate among Americans, mirroring the chasm of distrust cleaved by the war and shaded by ideological rigidity, a debate that endures four decades later.

The action unfolding at Hue on the morning of January 31 was just part of a ferocious coordinated attack that was stunning in its scope and execution. An estimated 80,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops simultaneously struck three-quarters of South Vietnam’s provincial capitals and most of its major cities. They achieved nearly total surprise in most objective areas, as they did in Hue, where the longest and bloodiest battle of the Tet Offensive was just getting started.

One of the most venerated places in Vietnam, Hue’s population of 140,000 in 1968 made it South Vietnam’s third largest city. In reality, Hue is two cities divided by the Song Huong, or River of Perfume, with two-thirds of the city’s population living north of the river within the walls of the old city, known as the Citadel. Once the home of the Annamese emperors who had ruled the central portion of present-day Vietnam, the three-square-mile Citadel is surrounded by walls rising to 30 feet and up to 40 feet thick, which form a square about a mile and a half long on each side. The three walls not bordering the Perfume River are encircled by a zigzag moat that is 90 feet wide at many points and up to 12 feet deep.

Inside the Citadel are block after block of row houses, apartment buildings, villas, shops, parks and an all-weather airstrip. Tucked within the old walled city is yet another fortified enclave, the Imperial Palace, where the emperors held court until the French took control of Vietnam in 1883. Situated at the south end of the Citadel, the palace is essentially a square with 20-foot-high, 2,300-foot-long walls. As an observer once put it, the Citadel was a “camera-toting tourist’s dream,” but in February 1968 it would prove to be “a rifle-toting infantryman’s nightmare.”

South of the Perfume River and linked to the Citadel by the Nguyen Hoang Bridge is the modern part of Hue, which had about half the footprint of the Citadel and in which resided about a third of the city’s population in 1968. Here was the city’s hospital, the provincial prison, the Catholic cathedral, the U.S. Consulate, Hue University and the newer residential districts.

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As Vietnam’s traditional cultural and intellectual center, Hue had been treated almost as an open city by the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese and thus was spared much of the war’s death and destruction. The only military presence in the city was the fortified Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) 1st Infantry Division headquarters at the northwest corner of the Citadel. The only combat element in the city was the division’s reconnaissance company, the elite Hac Bao Company, known as the “Black Panthers.” The rest of the division’s subordinate units were arrayed outside the city. Maintaining security inside Hue was primarily the responsibility of the National Police.

The only U.S. military presence in Hue on January 31 was the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) compound located about a block and a half south of the Nguyen Hoang Bridge on the eastern edge of the modern sector. The compound housed about 200 U.S. Army, Marine Corps and Australian officers and men who served as advisers to the 1st ARVN Division. The nearest U.S. combat forces were at the Phu Bai Marine base eight miles south down Route 1, home of Task Force X-Ray, a forward headquarters of the 1st Marine Division that was made up of two Marine regimental headquarters and three Marine battalions.

Communist forces in the Hue region numbered 8,000, a total of 10 battalions, including two PAVN regiments of three battalions and one battalion each. These were highly trained North Vietnamese regular units. Six Viet Cong main force battalions, including the 12th and Hue City Sapper Battalions, joined the PAVN units.

While very adept at fighting in jungles and rice paddies, the PAVN and VC troops required additional training for fighting in urban areas. While the soldiers trained for the battle ahead, VC intelligence officers prepared a list of “cruel tyrants and reactionary elements” to be rounded up in Hue during the early hours of the attack. On this list were most of the South Vietnamese government officials, military officers and politicians, as well as American civilians and other foreigners. After capturing these individuals, they were to be evacuated to the jungle outside the city where they would be held to account for their crimes against the Vietnamese people.

The PAVN 6th Regiment, with two battalions of infantry and the 12th VC Sapper Battalion, launched the main attack from the southwest, linking up with the VC infiltrators, and speeding across the Perfume River into the Citadel toward the ARVN 1st Division headquarters. The 800th and 802nd battalions of the 6th Regiment rapidly overran most of the Citadel, but Brig. Gen. Ngo Quang Truong, 1st ARVN Division commander, and his staff held the attackers at bay at the division compound.

Meanwhile, the ARVN reconnaissance company managed to hold its position at the eastern end of the airfield until it was ordered to withdraw to the division headquarters to help thicken defenses there. Though the PAVN 802nd Battalion breached the ARVN defenses on several occasions during the pre-dawn hours, its troops were hurled back each time, leaving the 1st Division compound in South Vietnamese hands. By daylight however, the PAVN 6th Regiment held most of the Citadel, including the Imperial Palace.

South of the Perfume River, the situation was little better for the Americans. The PAVN 804th Battalion twice assaulted the MACV compound, but was repelled each time by rapidly assembled defenders armed with individual weapons. The North Vietnamese troops then stormed the compound gates, where a group of Marines manning a bunker held off them for a brief period before being taken out with several B-40 rockets. This action slowed the PAVN attack and gave the Americans and Australians time to organize their defenses. After failing to take the compound in an intense firefight, the Communists tried to reduce it with mortars and automatic weapons from overlooking buildings. The defenders went to ground and called for reinforcements.

While the battle raged around the MACV compound, two Viet Cong battalions took over the Thua Thien Province headquarters, the police station and other government buildings south of the river. At the same time, the PAVN 810th Battalion took up blocking positions on the city’s southern edge to prevent reinforcement from that direction. By dawn, all of the city south of the Perfume River, with the exception of the MACV compound, was controlled by the North Vietnamese 4th Regiment. Thus in very short order, the Communists had seized control of virtually all of Hue.

With only a tenuous hold on his own headquarters compound in the Citadel, General Truong ordered his 3rd Regiment, reinforced with two airborne battalions and an armored cavalry troop, to fight their way into the Citadel from their positions northwest of the city. These forces encountered intense resistance, but by late afternoon reached Truong’s headquarters.

As Truong consolidated his forces, another call for reinforcements went out from the surrounded Americans and Australians in the MACV compound. Responding to III Marine Amphibious Force orders, but not fully aware of the enemy situation in Hue, Brig. Gen. Foster C. “Frosty” LaHue, commander of Task Force X-Ray, dispatched Company A, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines (1/1), to move up Route 1 from Phu Bai to relieve the 200 surrounded MACV advisers.

After entering the city, the Marines were pinned down just short of the adviser compound. More Marines from Phu Bai, Golf Company, 2/5, joined up with the original force and together they fought their way to the compound, sustaining 10 killed in the fight. After the link up, the Marines were ordered to cross the river and break through to the ARVN 1st Division headquarters in the Citadel. As they crossed the Nguyen Hoang Bridge, the Marines were driven back by a hail of enemy fire, suffering heavy casualties in the process.

With the 1st ARVN Division fully occupied in the Citadel and the U.S. Marines engaged south of the river, ARVN I Corps commander Lt. Gen. Hoang Xuan Lam and Lt. Gen. Robert Cushman, III Marine Expeditionary Force commander, met to discuss how to retake Hue. They decided that ARVN forces would be responsible for clearing the Communist fighters from the Citadel and the rest of Hue north of the river, while Task Force X-Ray would assume responsibility for the southern part of the city.

General LaHue, now fully realizing what his Marines were up against, dispatched Colonel Stanley S. Hughes, 1st Marine Regiment commander, to assume overall control of U.S. forces. The Marines launched a bitter building-by-building, room-to-room battle to eject the Communist forces. Untrained in urban warfare, the Marines had to work out the tactics and techniques on the spot, and their progress was methodical and costly. Ground gained was measured in inches, and every alley, street corner, window and garden was paid for in blood. Both sides suffered heavy casualties.

On February 5, H Company, 2/5 Marines, took the Thua Thien Province headquarters, which had served as the command post of the PAVN 4th Regiment, causing the integrity of the North Vietnamese defenses south of the river to begin to falter. Hard fighting continued over the next week, but by February 14, most of the city south of the river was in American hands. Mopping up would take another 12 days as rockets and mortar rounds continued to fall and snipers harassed Marine patrols. The battle for the new city had been costly for the Marines, who sustained 38 dead and 320 wounded. It had been even more costly for the Communists; the bodies of more than 1,000 VC and NVA soldiers were strewn about the city south of the river.

Meanwhile, the battle north of the river had continued to rage. Although additional ARVN forces were inserted, by February 4 their advance had effectively stalled among the houses, alleys and narrow streets along the Citadel wall to the northwest and southwest. The Communists, who had burrowed deeply into the walls and tightly packed buildings, were still in possession of the Imperial Palace and most of the surrounding area and seemed to be getting stronger as reinforcements made their way into the city.

His troops stalled, a frustrated and embarrassed General Truong was forced to appeal to III MAF for help. On February 10, General Cushman directed General LaHue to move a Marine battalion into the Citadel. On February 12, elements of 1/5 Marines made their way across the river on landing craft and entered the Citadel through a breach in the northeast wall. At the same time, two Vietnamese Marine battalions moved into the southwest corner of the Citadel. This buildup of allied forces put intense pressure on the Communist forces, but they stood their ground.

Attacking along the south wall, the Marines took heavy casualties, as the fighting proved even more savage than in the southern part of the city. Backed by airstrikes, naval gunfire and artillery support, the Marines inched ahead, but the enemy fought back desperately. The battle seesawed back and forth until February 17, when the 1/5 Marines had secured its objective, after losing 47 killed and 240 wounded.

Fighting continued for days, but finally, at dawn on February 24, ARVN soldiers pulled down the Viet Cong banner that had flown from the Citadel flag tower for 25 days and hoisted the South Vietnamese flag. On March 2, the longest sustained infantry battle the war had seen to that point was officially declared over. The relief of Hue cost the ARVN 384 killed, 1,800 wounded and 30 missing in action. The U.S. Marines suffered 147 dead and 857 wounded, and the Army lost 74 dead and 507 wounded. Allied claims of Communists killed in the city topped 5,000, and an estimated 3,000 more were killed in the surrounding area in battles with elements of the 1st Cavalry and the 101st Airborne divisions.

The epic battle for Hue left much of the ancient city a pile of rubble as 40 percent of its buildings were destroyed, leaving some 116,000 civilians homeless. Among the population, 5,800 civilians were reported killed or missing.

The fate of many of the missing took time to emerge, but in the months after the battle grisly discoveries were filling in the blanks as some 1,200 civilian bodies were discovered in 18 hastily concealed mass graves. During the first seven months of 1969, a second major group of graves was found. Then, in September, three Communist defectors told 101st Airborne Division intelligence officers that they had witnessed the killing of several hundred people at Da Mai Creek, about 10 miles south of Hue, in February 1968. A search revealed the remains of about 300 people in the creek bed. Finally, in November, a fourth major discovery of bodies was made in the Phu Thu Salt Flats, near the fishing village of Luong Vien, 10 miles east of Hue. All total, nearly 2,800 bodies were recovered from these mass graves.

Initially, the mass graves were not widely reported on in the American media. The press tended not to believe the early reports, since they came from sources they considered discredited. Instead, most reporters tended to concentrate on the bloody fighting and the destruction of the city. As the graves were discovered, however, investigations were launched to get at the facts of the killings. In a report published in 1970, The Viet Cong Strategy of Terror, the U.S. Information Agency analyst Douglas Pike wrote that at least half of the bodies unearthed in Hue revealed clear evidence of “atrocity killings: to include hands wired behind backs, rags stuffed in mouths, bodies contorted but without wounds (indicating burial alive).” Pike concluded that the killings were done by local VC cadres and were the result of “a decision rational and justifiable in the Communist mind.”

Remains of a Vietnamese family killed by North Vietnamese Army soldiers in Hue city during the Tet Offensive. (Defense Dept. photo)In 1971, journalist Don Oberdorfer’s book Tet! revealed vivid eyewitness descriptions of what unfolded when the VC took control of the city. Stephen Miller, a 28-year-old American Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Information Service, was in the home of Vietnamese friends when he was taken away by the VC. They led him to a field behind a Catholic seminary, bound his arms and then executed him. German doctors Raimund Discher, Alois Alteköster, and Horst-Günther Krainick and his wife, all of whom taught at the local medical school, thought they would be safe as foreign aid workers, but the VC came and took them away. Their bodies were later found dumped in a shallow grave in a nearby field. Similarly, two French priests, Fathers Urbain and Guy, were seen led away. Urbain’s body was later found, bound hand and foot, where he had been buried alive. Guy’s body, with a bullet in the back of his head, was found in the same grave with Urbain and 18 others. Witnesses reported seeing Vietnamese priest Buu Dong, who had ministered to both sides and even had a photograph of Ho Chi Minh hanging in his room, being taken away. His body was found 22 months later in a shallow grave along with the remains of 300 other victims.

Making the Viet Cong list of “reactionaries” for working as a part-time janitor at the government information office, Pham Van Tuong was hiding with his family when the VC came for him. When he emerged with his 3-year-old daughter, 5-year-old son and two nephews, the Viet Cong immediately gunned them all down, leaving the bodies in the street for the rest of the family to see.

On the fifth day of the occupation, the Viet Cong went to Phu Cam Cathedral, where they had gathered some 400 men and boys. Some had been on the enemy’s list, some were of military age and some just looked prosperous. They were seen being led away to the south by the VC cadres. It was apparently this group whose remains were later found in the Da Mai Creek bed.

Omar Eby’s book A House in Hue, published in 1968, relates the account of a group of Mennonite aid workers who were trapped in their house during the Communist occupation of the city. The Mennonites told Eby that they saw several Americans, one an agriculturist from the U.S. Agency for International Development, being led away by VC cadre with their arms tied behind their backs. They too were later found executed.

Several writers, including Gunther Lewy in his America in Vietnam, published in 1980, and Peter Macdonald, author of the 1993 book Giap, cite a captured enemy document stating that during the occupation of the city the Communists “eliminated 1,892 administrative personnel, 38 policemen, 790 tyrants.”

Truong Nhu Tang, author of A Vietcong Memoir, published in 1985, tells of a conversation about Hue he had with one of his Viet Cong comrades that acknowledges that atrocities occurred, but his account differs in terms of motivation for the killings. He wrote that a close friend told him that “Discipline in Hue had been seriously inadequate….Fanatic young soldiers had indiscriminately shot people, and angry local citizens who supported the revolution had on various occasions taken justice into their own hands….It had simply been one of those terrible spontaneous tragedies that inevitably accompany war.”

Not everyone agrees that a massacre occurred at Hue, or at least one as described by Pike, Oberdorfer and others. In an article in the June 24, 1974, issue of Indochina Chronicle titled “The 1968 ‘Hue Massacre,’” political scientist D. Gareth Porter called the massacre one of the “enduring myths of the Second Indochina War.” He asserted that Douglas Pike was a “media manipulator par excellence,” working in collusion with the ARVN 10th Political Warfare Battalion to manufacture the story of the massacre at the direction of Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker. While acknowledging that some executions occurred, Porter contended that the killings were not part of any overall plan. Additionally, he claimed that Pike overestimated the number of those killed by the VC cadres and that “thousands” of civilians killed in Hue “were in fact victims of American air power and of the ground fighting that raged in the hamlets, rather than NLF [National Liberation Front] execution.” Moreover, Porter claimed that teams of Saigon government assassins fanned out across the city with their own list of targets, eliminating NLF sympathizers. His conclusion: “The official story of an indiscriminate slaughter of those who were considered to be unsympathetic to the NLF is a complete fabrication.”

Regardless of the actual circumstances of the civilian deaths, U.S. and South Vietnamese authorities trumpeted the killings as an object lesson in Communist immorality and a foretaste of atrocities ahead.

The passage of time did not quell the controversy. In her 1991 book The Vietnam Wars, historian Marilyn B. Young disputes the “official” figures of executions at Hue. While acknowledging that there were executions, she cites freelance journalist Len Ackland, who was at Hue, who estimated the number to be somewhere between 300 and 400. Attempting “to understand” what happened at Hue, Young explained that the task of the NLF was to destroy the government administration of the city, establishing in its place a “revolutionary administration.” How that justifies the execution of any civilians, regardless of the number, is unclear.

In his 2002 memoir, From Enemy to Friend, former NVA Colonel Bui Tin shared his insights into the Vietnam War and its aftermath. Present at the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu and once a guard for Ho Chi Minh, Tin served as a frontline commander who, on April 25, 1975, rode a tank onto the Presidential Palace grounds in Saigon to accept the South Vietnamese surrender. About Hue, Tin acknowledged that some executions of civilians did occur. However, he contended that under the intensity of the American bombardment, the discipline of the troops broke down. The “units from the north” had been “told that Hue was the stronghold of feudalism, a bed of reactionaries, the breeding ground of Can Lao Party loyalists who remained true to the memory of former South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem and of Nguyen Van Thieu’s Democracy Party.” Tin explained that more than 10,000 prisoners were taken at Hue, with the most important of them sent north. When the Marines launched their counterattack to retake the city, the Communist troops were instructed to move the prisoners with the retreating troops. According to Tin, in the “panic of retreat,” some of the company and battalion commanders shot their prisoners “to ensure the safety of the retreat.”

Official Vietnamese military histories cast additional light on Hue. The translation of the official Vietnamese campaign study of the Tet Offensive in the Thua Thien–Hue area acknowledges that Viet Cong cadre “hunted down and captured tyrants and Republic of Vietnam military and government personnel” and that “many nests of tyrants and reactionaries…were killed.” Hundreds of others “who owed blood debts were executed.” Yet another official history, The Tri-Thien-Hue Battlefield During the Victorious Resistance War Against the Americans to Save the Nation, acknowledged widespread killings but maintained they were done at the hands of civilians who armed themselves and “rose up in a flood-tide, killing enemy thugs, eliminating traitors, and hunting down the enemy.…The people captured and punished many reactionaries, enemy thugs, and enemy secret agents.”

Regardless of the actual circumstances of the civilian deaths in Hue, U.S. and South Vietnamese authorities trumpeted the killings as an object lesson in Communist immorality and a foretaste of the atrocities ahead—should the Communists triumph in South Vietnam.

We may never know what really happened at Hue, but it is clear that mass executions did occur and that reports of the massacre there had a significant impact on South Vietnamese and American attitudes for many years after the Tet Offensive. The perception that a bloodbath like the one that occurred at Hue would follow any takeover by the North Vietnamese cast a long shadow and significantly contributed to the abject panic that seized South Vietnam when the North Vietnamese launched their final offensive in 1975—and this panic resulted in the disintegration and defeat of the South Vietnamese armed forces, the fall of Saigon and, ultimately, the demise of the Republic of Vietnam as a sovereign nation.

Vietnam veteran James Willbanks is the director of the Department of Military History, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, and is the author of several books, including The Tet Offensive: A Concise History and Abandoning Vietnam.