JAMES R. ARNOLD
TET OFFENSIVE 1968. TURNING POINT IN VIETNAM

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The First Team

Meanwhile, outside Hue, a battalion of the hard- fighting 1st Air Cavalry Division air-assaulted into the middle of the Communist supply line in an effort to interdict the flow of supplies to Hue. Attacking through the fog, 2/12 Cav had to do without its customary helicopter gunship and aerial rocket artillery support. Confronted with two dug-in NVA battalions, the cavalry failed and retired to prepare against the expected counter-attacks.

At dawn a heavy mortar barrage landed within the 150-yard-wide battalion perimeter. Charging NVA infantry, firing their AK-47s from the hip and supported by numerous machine-guns giving grazing support fire, followed the bombardment with repeated assaults. Only accurate defensive fire from a 105 mm battery preserved the position.

Prohibitions on the use of artillery, such as the very accurate 8-inch howitzer, made the recapture of Hue even more difficult. The Allies had to retake Hue one building at time.

As the afternoon wore on, casualties mounted as mortar rounds scored direct hits within the crowded perimeter. The cavalry's ammunition ran low. Medevac helicopters were able to rescue only the most seriously wounded in the face of heavy Communist fire. As nightfall approached, the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Dick Sweet, realized that his isolated unit could not hold out. Sweet made a bold decision. Rather than await the final NVA assault, his unit would break out from their perimeter. Furthermore, instead of heading in the expected direction toward the nearest friendly unit, the cavalry set out across an exposed rice paddy. The most reliable point man led the way. As Private Hector Comacho recalls: 'It was dark, but I trusted myself. The hardest part was finding some place where everyone could go, and making sure that everyone could keep up.' Officers instructed the troopers not to fire under any circumstances, and if they received fire they were to hit the ground and remain silent. Sweet recalls the march: 'We had men who had refused to be medevaced that afternoon. They hid their wounds so they could stay with the battalion... You'd see them limping; there was no talk. No noise at all. I've never seen such discipline in a unit... You'd find that the man up ahead of you who was dragging a foot had a bullet in his leg, and had it there for almost 24 hours. That's why the night march worked.'

A Pat ton tank supports the 1/5 Marines beside the citadel walls on 12 February.

Eventually the Air Cav was able to isolate Hue from outside reinforcements. Some 6,000 defenders held Hue for nearly a month. When it was all over, American commanders speculated what would have happened had the enemy sent one of the big 10,000-man divisions stationed along the DMZ into Hue. West-moreland's replacement, Lieutenant General Creighton Abrams, thought he knew. In 1969 he told a reporter: 'We'd still be fighting there.'

Taking all their wounded with them, the troopers trudged through a rainy, cold, pitch-black night. After a perilous eleven-hour march, 2/12 Cav arrived atop a low hill from where they could receive helicopter resupply. It had been exceedingly well done, but still the cavalry had failed to shut off the Communist flow of supplies into Hue.

House-to-House Combat

Hack in the city, the difficult house-to-house fighting frustrated the Allied commanders. Prohibitions on the use of artillery and air strikes, intended to preserve historic sites within Hue, coupled with poor weather limited Allied progress. On 9 February, a reporter asked the commander of the 1st ARVN Division whether the Imperial Palace, which served as a defensive strongpoint, was not too important to bomb. General Truong pragmatically replied: 'You exaggerate. It is good for tourists, but if we meet heavy resistance we will use air strikes, artillery, everything.'

Still, the poor weather and the special Rules of Engagement employed in Hue meant that the Marines went without their customary fire support. Fortunately the big Patton tanks and the 106mm recoilless rifles provided accurate direct- lire weapons to reduce a sniper's lair or a machine- gun nest. First though, these positions had to be located, and this was usually done at cost. A Marine recalls watching a decimated platoon huddle beneath one of the ubiquitous garden walls. Several boosted one grunt over the wall. As his head reached the top a concealed AK-47 fired. The grunt flopped to the ground. He had been shot in the face. Crying out 'Momma!', he died.

By 10 February the Marines had cleared the South Side. Now they had to turn their attention to the Citadel across the river. Higher command back at Phu Bai remained badly out of touch with reality. For example, its plan called for crossing a bridge that had been destroyed by NVA sappers one week earlier. Although ARVN forces had cleared about three-quarters of the Citadel, the NVA still held formidable positions and retained a functioning supply line to their strongholds in the western mountains. In addition they struck back with bold counter-attacks whenever possible. Indicative of their fighting spirit was a spectacular nocturnal raid by VC combat-swimmers, who mined another important river bridge and dropped two of its spans into the water.

Reinforcements arrived for the drive against the Citadel. Vietnamese Marines, having just finished clearing Saigon of VC resistance, arrived to relieve the battered airborne battalions. The US 1/5 Marines entered battle on 12 February. The street fighting chewed the battalion up as witnessed by its losses among platoon leaders. After nine days of combat, its ten rifle platoons, which would normally be led by first lieutenants, were commanded by three second lieutenants, one gunnery sergeant, two staff sergeants, two buck sergeants, and two senior corporals.

The exhaustion of this Marine is apparent as he sleeps on the deck of an Ontos, an anti-tank vehicle used for direct tire support and armed with six l06mm recoilless rifles.

On 26 February, soldiers moving through the Gia Hoi High School yard came across freshly turned earth. They investigated and uncovered the bound bodies of numerous civilians. They were the first of a colossal number of victims of a Communist atrocity, the dimensions of which were not fully appreciated until mid-1970 when the last graves were found. Around Hue, searchers eventually found 2,810 bodies, while nearly 2,000 more remained missing. Apparently the slaughter began when the VC first occupied Hue. Special commandos had rounded up and executed civilians on a blacklist of government workers and politicians. When it appeared that the Communists might be able to hold Hue, a second wave of executions took place. This time the victims were intellectuals and students who seemed to represent a threat to the new Communist order. When it became clear that the battle was going adversely, the largest number of killings occurred. The VC systematically killed anyone who might be able to identify the local Communists who had surfaced during the offensive. Following the mass killings, they tried to hide their work. Preoccupied by the ongoing combat the Allies failed to publicize the atrocity. The Press tended to disbelieve the early reports of mass graves, since these came from sources they considered discredited. Instead reporters concentrated on stories of Allied setbacks and pictures of the urban destruction.

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