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Allied troops who had recaptured the imperial capital of Hue from the North Vietnamese during the Tet Offensive discover the first mass graves in Hue.
It was discovered that communist troops who had held the city for 25 days had massacred about 2,800 civilians whom they had identified as sympathizers with the government in Saigon. One authority estimated that communists might have killed as many as 5,700 people in Hue.
The Tet Offensive had begun at dawn on the first day of the Tet holiday truce (January 30), when Viet Cong forces, supported by large numbers of North Vietnamese troops, launched the largest and best coordinated offensive of the war. During the attack, they drove into the center of South Vietnam’s seven largest cities and attacked 30 provincial capitals ranging from the Delta to the DMZ.
Among the cities taken during the first four days of the offensive were Hue, Dalat, Kontum, and Quang Tri; in the north, all five provincial capitals were overrun. At the same time, enemy forces shelled numerous allied airfields and bases. By February 10, the offensive was largely crushed, but resulted in heavy casualties on both sides.
Talk:Massacre at Hue/Archive 1
What are the sources for this page? If I understand correctly, all we know about the "Hue massacre" is derived from a single intercepted report that does not mention executions. A certain term was translated as "executed" by the US intelligence services, yet turned out to be highly ambiguous. Is there any material evidence or postwar scholarship? How come the massacre was completely unknown to the US army?
Is the picture from Hue, or does it depict a victim elsewhere?
The 2/5th Marines took back Hue in February 1968, thats why the army had so little involvement in it. The picture was sent to me by someone in the 2/5th who took the photo. There are large volumes of information on what happened at Hue, although I think it is safe to say that there is no single concise source for what happened at Hue the way that there are many books about Mai Lai. TDC 22:38, Jul 27, 2004 (UTC)
It should also be noted that Hue did not recieve much press attention at the time, and even less over the years. If you want to find out more, there are a few good books on the Tet Offensive, which I would recomend.
The Battle for Hue: Tet 1968 by Keith Nolan, has a fair ammount of information on what happened to the civilians at Hue that the NVA killed, including many first hand accounts of what the 2/5th saw.
Gareth Porter did a hatchet piece on Hue, in which he basicaly calls it a lie, but he himself has quite a bit of reason to lie about it. TDC 22:46, Jul 27, 2004 (UTC)
No serious history of the Vietnam war considers the "Massacre at Hue" to be anything but a propaganda stunt by the US and their South Vietnamese puppet regime (the number of people executed was much lower). This page should be changed to reflect that. --Sus scrofa 16:55, 3 Jun 2005 (UTC)
First of all what exactly constitutes a “serious history”? What happened at Hue is overshadowed by two things. It took place when the north occupied the city and therefore press access was non existent. It also took place around the time of Mi Lai, and was therefore overshadowed by the massive media attention around that. No “serious” source on what happened at Hue will deny that a massacre of several thousand took place. Former Vietcong Troung Nhu Tang admits to as much in his memoirs. Nolan’s book about Tet also provides a first hand account of what the 2/5th ran into when they took back Hue. This whole incident should not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with NVA tactics. In December of 1967 the NVA wiped out the Degar of Dak Sok killing several hundred villagers. Porter is a lying piece of shit apologist for any shade of Maoist under the sun, and seeing as how what happened at Hue during Tet demanded that the anti-war left needed someone to admonish the North Vietnamese, porters hatchet job fit nicely in with that. I doubt that even Porter would dismiss the meat of this article today. TDC June 28, 2005 16:24 (UTC)
The Battle of Hue, January 30 – March 3, 1969
As part of the Tet Offensive of 1968, the VC and North Vietnamese dedicated two regiments to the seizure of the imperial capital of Hue. On the morning of 31 January 1968, the North Vietnamese 6th Regiment attacked the walled citadel north of the Perfume River. The 4th Regiment attacked the new city south of the river.
U.S marines wounded during the battle. Image is in the public domain via Wikimedia.com
Hue was defended by minimal South Vietnamese and US forces. They were fixated more on the fighting in the countryside. In the initial fighting, the communists seized most of the city. All except for the headquarters of Gen Ngo Quang Truong’s 1st ARVN Division in the citadel and a small MACV compound south of the river. Numbering only a few hundred men, both outposts held out against heavy communist assaults. Initially concerned more with the fighting at nearby Khe Sanh, US and South Vietnamese commands were slow to respond to the threat and sent minimal reinforcements.
Once the threat had become clear, troops from the 1st Cavalry and the 101st Airborne worked to cut off communist supply lines outside Hue against elements of three North Vietnamese divisions that US planners had thought were engaged at Khe Sanh. In Hue, three battalions of US Marines made their way to the new city south of the Perfume river. Then nearly 11 South Vietnamese battalions fought their way into Truong’s embattled defenses in the citadel.
The South Vietnamese forces go house-to-house
When the situations both south and north of the Perfume River were secure, US and South Vietnamese forces took the offensive in a street-to-street and house-to-house urban battle. Realizing that keeping their flag above the fabled citadel and imperial palace had immense psychological value, communist forces fought tenaciously. The fighting on both fronts moved very slowly. There were very heavy losses until 12 February. This continued until South Vietnamese I Corps commander Gen Hoang Xuon Lam gave permission to use whatever firepower was necessary to clear the city. Communist forces fought with desperation. Finally resulting in artillery and air strikes leveling much of the city and the citadel to blast out communist resistance. With less organic heavy weapon support, South Vietnamese forces in the citadel were augmented by the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines.
On 21 February, the 1st Cavalry Division closed off communist supply lines to Hue after heavy fighting. On 24 February, the Second Battalion, 3rd ARVN Regiment overran the southern wall of the citadel. They took down the VC flag that had been flying there for nearly a month. The next day, South Vietnamese troops recaptured the imperial palace, heralding an end to the battle. In the fighting, US forces suffered more than 200 dead, while the South Vietnamese lost nearly 400 killed. North Vietnamese and VC losses exceeded 5000 dead. More than half of the city was destroyed in the fighting, leaving 116,000 civilians homeless from a population of 140,000.
Horrifying Discoveries in Hue
After the fighting, US and South Vietnamese began to unearth mass graves in the areas of Hue that the communists had once held. Especially the Gia Hoa district outside the citadel. During their rule over Hue, the communists had swept through the city bearing lists of those who had aided the ‘puppet government’ of South Vietnam. Nearly 3000 bodies were discovered. Some estimates suggest that the communists summarily executed as many as 6000 civilians during the fighting.
Dr. Chris McNab is the editor of AMERICAN BATTLES & CAMPAIGNS: A Chronicle, from 1622-Present and is an experienced specialist in wilderness and urban survival techniques. He has published over 20 books including: How to Survive Anything, Anywhere. An encyclopedia of military and civilian survival techniques for all environments. Special Forces Endurance Techniques, First Aid Survival Manual, and The Handbook of Urban Survival.
Learning From the Hue Massacre
The Battle for Hue, part of the Tet offensive, started with an assault by communist forces in the wee hours of Jan. 30, 1968. The former imperial capital of Vietnam, Hue was defended by the Army of the Republic of (South) Vietnam, local militia units, the United States Marines and the United States Air Force. The core of the communist forces in Hue was the North Vietnamese Army with support from southern communist forces — the National Liberation Front, also known as Viet Cong, and from communist sympathizers, many of whom were former members of the defunct Struggle Movement, organized in Hue in 1965 by Buddhist monks and students, which had led the Buddhist Uprising that was suppressed by the ARVN in 1966. Many Struggle Movement activists fled to the mountains and joined the communists during the Tet Offensive, they returned to Hue with the communists.
The fighting, which lasted until Feb. 24, was the largest urban engagement of the war. The communists lost an estimated 5,000 combatants, ARVN losses stood at around 400, and the Americans had 216 killed in action. Some 80 percent of the city of Hue was destroyed. But the battle toll also included the sufferings and deaths of civilians.
During the communist takeover, the southern communists and the N.V.A. forces organized so-called liberated zones, conducted indoctrination sessions, rationed food, conscripted youth for labor and combat, and identified enemies, and sometimes their family members, in the local population for denunciation and death. Former members of the Struggle Movement who had fled Hue in 1966 and returned with the communists in 1968 were intimately familiar with the city and became instrumental in marking people for execution.
Not only were government and military officials massacred, but so were innocent civilians, including women and children, who were tortured, executed or buried alive. After the battle, thousands of people were missing. People did not know where their loved ones were they roamed the streets, searching, digging and finding bodies. The people of Hue even found corpses in the Citadel and around the emperors’ mausoleums outside of the city.
Within a few months, people started to find mass graves. The body count continued to rise with the discovery of more graves through the fall of 1969. By then, the total number of bodies unearthed around the city had risen to some 2,800, and kept rising. The massacre of unarmed civilians on such a scale left a deep scar in the memories of survivors.
In the decades since, the massacre at Hue has become a touchstone and a flash point for debates about the war, both within Vietnam and in the United States. It began a few months after the battle when Nha Ca, a well-known South Vietnamese writer, wrote an account of the battle, “Mourning Headband for Hue.” It was first serialized in a newspaper and then published as a book in 1969. On the eve of the Tet offensive, Nha Ca had come to her hometown Hue from Saigon for the burial of her father, and she remained there during the battle.
In the book, she described the atrocities committed by the communists, but also gave examples of their humanity. She showed the dark and bright sides of American and ARVN soldiers, creating a vivid picture of the terrible plight of the civilians. Describing the atrocities committed by the communists, she lamented the plight of her country, the fate of all Vietnamese who found themselves pawns in the power play between the communist and anti-communist blocs. This book was translated and published in English in 2014 (I provided the translation).
For many Vietnamese, “Mourning Headband for Hue” remains one of the key commemorations of the massacre and their loved ones. But not everyone sees it this way. When she wrote in 1969, Nha Ca called on her readers to share responsibility for the destruction of their country. But many former South Vietnamese disagree with her willingness to attribute to her compatriots a shared responsibility for the war, which they see as a result of communist aggression by the former North Vietnam.
While the discoveries of mass graves unfolded in Hue, the attention of Americans was diverted to the shocking domestic events of 1968: On March 31, President Johnson announced that he would not run for reelection on April 4, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, an event that provoked days of rioting in American cities on June 6, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in August, violent clashes between police and protesters accompanied the national convention of the Democratic Party in Chicago finally, the presidential campaign resulted in the election of Richard Nixon. The fate of the Hue victims did not break through these headlines.
Then, even though in Hue local people continued to unearth corpses of missing people and the number of uncovered bodies was rising into the thousands, the news of another tragedy overshadowed Hue again. On March 16, 1968, less than a month after the events in Hue, American soldiers entered the hamlet of My Lai and killed between 300 and 400 of its inhabitants, including children, old men and women. When they found out in 1969, Americans were rightly appalled by the actions of their countrymen in Vietnam, and the My Lai victims and the American perpetrators pushed the Hue victims and the communist perpetrators out of the American media and, by extension, out of the attention of the American public and of world opinion.
To the extent that Americans paid any attention to the massacre, it was through a partisan, politicized lens. Douglas Pike, a journalist who joined the U.S. Information Agency in Vietnam and later as a State Department employee, was one of the first Americans to call attention to the massacre, and cited it as evidence of the dangers of a communist takeover of South Vietnam. Pike’s view was adopted by President Nixon and hawkish members of Congress to justify avoiding a sudden withdrawal from the war.
Antiwar politicians, in contrast, drew on the work of Gareth Porter, a political scientist and journalist, who argued that the killings in Hue were committed on a smaller scale than reported, merely acts of revenge by an army in retreat. Drawing on Porter’s work, Senator George McGovern accused the Nixon administration of using the events in Hue as a pretext to continue American involvement there. He went as far as to refer to the killings in Hue as the “so-called Hue massacre.”
Lack of attention to events in Hue continued after the war. Unlike the My Lai massacre, which is mentioned in most general books about the war and is analyzed in dozens of specialized books published from the 1970s to the present, the events in Hue have not received any serious study and have largely, if not completely, faded from American memory and scholarship.
The politicization of the Hue massacre extends beyond Vietnam and the United States. No mention of the massacre occurred in the Soviet press or in any other public forum in 1968 or in later years. The only concerned voice on the Soviet side came from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Soviet dissident. The situation has not changed in the Soviet Union’s successor state of Russia.
In 2012, while giving a presentation on the Hue Massacre and Nha Ca’s account of it at an academic conference in Moscow, I was told that we must focus on the atrocities committed by Americans and by their South Vietnamese “puppets.” I expressed agreement that we must and will discuss American atrocities, but that we should not overlook what the other side did. No, I was told, the communists fought for the right cause and we must focus on the American perpetrators, an exchange that was reported in the conference’s proceedings. Out of 50 or so people in the room, no one voiced support for my view later, it was related to me that there was no need for my “Western objectivity.”
As a historian, I’ve seen an odd confluence of American and Soviet/Russian academic perspectives on the massacres and a Soviet/Russian-American alliance, if not intentional, in accepting Hanoi’s version of the war. American scholarship has focused largely on either the American side of the war or the North Vietnamese perspective either way, America’s erstwhile ally has been largely ignored. South Vietnam, whose many citizens fled Vietnam and found a new home in the United States, was pushed to the margins, if not completely off the pages, of postwar narratives, and meanwhile the former enemy was romanticized.
Putting the United States front and center as the only perpetrator of the war denies agency to the South Vietnamese who did not want to live under communists and who fought for this cause, and it simultaneously conceals the fact that expelling Americans was only the first step of bringing the South under the sway of the North. Hanoi always insisted that the unified Vietnam would be a socialist country. Thus, even in the context of the Cold War, it was a civil war between North and South Vietnam for the future of their states.
The American appropriation of the war translated even to the analysis and representation of atrocities and other wrongdoings. But without discussing the wrongs committed by all sides, no true reconciliation or study of history is possible. To be fair, the situation in the United States has started to change, however slowly, as a new generation of scholars trained in the Vietnamese language and having genuine interest in all sides of the conflict are developing the field beyond the America-centric focus.
This is a much-needed change for the Vietnamese sides as well. As the United States and Vietnam pursue their reconciliation agenda, it is incumbent on American scholars to probe more deeply the experience of southern Vietnamese during the war. Nor can reconciliation come from the victor’s syndrome as currently practiced by the Socialist Republic of Vietnam — namely, we won, so let’s celebrate our victory and put everything behind. It can come only through a dialogue and discussion of crimes committed by both sides.
Many Vietnamese in Vietnam and in the Vietnamese diaspora still want and need to mourn their loved ones lost in the Hue massacre. They cannot do it in Vietnam. During the war, North Vietnam and the communist forces in the South did not recognize the massacre and did not punish any of the perpetrators. Neither has postwar Vietnam recognized the massacre, preferring to ignore it or call it a fabrication. During commemorative events of the Tet offensive in Vietnam, the Hue massacre does not appear.
The monopolization of the “crime zone” by the United States contributes to modern Vietnam’s obliteration of the communists’ own wrongdoings. A sense of history is an important factor in forming a country and maintaining one’s identity, but many students in Vietnam dismiss the study of their own history, at least in part because they understand how limited they are in their access to documents and other resources and how constrained they are in their interpretations of it. This encourages distrust of the government, which will grow as more materials challenging the party-line version of history appear. I grew up in the Soviet Union, and I know firsthand how damaging it was for us to maintain a mandatory veneer in which we could not believe. Given technological advancements, Vietnam faces a more formidable task than did the Soviet Union in keeping its population at bay.
Reconciliation and inclusive historical narratives are also necessary for Americans. Many Vietnamese who lost their relatives in Hue and then lost their country are now an integral part of American society. Mourning what happened in Hue reminds us Americans of our self-absorption in how we think about our role in the war and our unwillingness to learn more about “others,” which even today haunts American policies toward other countries.
Tet – What Really Happened at Hue
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.
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)
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.
The Hue Massacre
Thousands of American and South Vietnamese soldiers, along with many more Viet Cong, were killed or wounded at the Battle of Hue during the Vietnam War. But the ultimate cost of the battle would not be known until months and years afterward, when mass graves containing thousands of noncombatants were discovered in the vicinity of Hue&mdashthe victims having been shot, bludgeoned to death, or buried alive by the Communists.
Yet the Hue Massacre was completely overshadowed by the media attention devoted to My Lai, and has largely been forgotten in the decades since. In “This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive” (Encounter Books), author James S. Robbins highlights the Hue Massacre, which he is careful to distinguish from My Lai. He explained the moral distinction during a recent interview with Failure.
The My Lai massacre was a great tragedy in which American troops killed innocent South Vietnamese civilians. It became part of the moral indictment against the Vietnam War [along with the Eddie Adams photo Saigon Execution]. But the important distinction between My Lai and similar events is that the men who perpetrated My Lai were not acting under orders they were acting against U.S. policy. And the U.S. government considered it a crime and punished it.
The Hue Massacre, which took place during the Tet Offensive, was perpetrated by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong and was an act of policy. The Communists had lists of people when they went into the city. They knew who they were after, and the killing was relentless. Even when they were losing the battle and retreating from the city, they took people with them and killed them outside the city.
The anti-war crowd said that what happened at Hue was exaggerated&mdashthat the victims had been casualties of the fighting, or had been killed by U.S. bombs. But the fact is that they were ruthlessly and systematically slaughtered by the Communists. It was a conscious, deliberate, cold-blooded act of policy.
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Storming the Citadel
It was a chilly morning and the skies were a lead gray as the convoy slowly snaked its way along Highway 1. Captain Gordon D. Batcheller, commanding officer of Company A, 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment (1/1), was worried. His orders were to relieve the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) compound at Hue and link up with Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) units north of the city. But he had little information to go on. Moving up the main coastal highway that ran from Da Nang all the way through Dong Ha in the north, where the 3rd Marine Division Headquarters was located, things were unusually quiet. Batcheller knew something was up. The previous day, January 30, 1968, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong units had taken advantage of the Tet cease-fire to attack cities and towns throughout Vietnam. Fighting raged everywhere.
Batcheller’s understrength company advanced, fortuitously meeting four M-48 tanks of the 3rd Tank Battalion, 3rd Marine Division, also heading north. As they approached Hue, the polyglot force experienced harassing sniper fire that wounded several Marines, but the convoy hurriedly pushed on and crossed the An Cuu Bridge spanning the Phu Cam Canal on the outskirts of Hue. Large holes in the cement testified to the enemy’s attempts to destroy the bridge, but, luckily for Alpha Company, they had failed. A downed bridge would have delayed the Marines for hours, even days. Ahead of the convoy was majestic Hue City, the old imperial capital of Vietnam.
The column halted while Batcheller assessed the situation. There was no one visible in the streets. Odd, he thought, since Hue was the third-most-populated city in the country. An eerie silence prevailed. Batcheller gave the order to move out, and the Marines climbed aboard the tanks. As the clanking machines roared forward through the narrow streets, the leathernecks raked the surrounding structures with automatic-weapons fire.
Suddenly a B-40 rocket ripped into the lead tank, shattering Batcheller’s eardrum and fatally wounding his radio operator, whose legs were severed at the knees. Both sides exchanged a tremendous fusillade of small-arms fire. The North Vietnamese Army troops began dropping mortar rounds among the Marines, as the tanks’ 90mm cannons and .50-caliber machine guns opened up to support Alpha Company. All radio sets were jammed with Vietnamese voices. Pinned down, the infantrymen dragged their wounded to safety behind the tanks, in ditches, anywhere to escape the deadly barrage. As the morning sun burned away the overcast, giving way to a pale blue sky, the first day in the struggle to retake Hue City had begun.
Not realizing it, the Marines of 1/1 had walked right into a deathtrap. The 800th and 802nd battalions of the NVA 6th Regiment had launched a two-pronged assault from the west in the early morning hours of January 30. Storming through the lightly defended gates, their plan was to destroy the ARVN’s 1st Division near the Citadel. However, both NVA units were repulsed by the ARVN’s elite Black Panther Battalion and their drive was abruptly halted. Brigadier General Ngo Quang Truong, 1st ARVN Division commander, a short, wiry man, had heeded the reports of mass NVA/VC troop movements and consolidated his forces in the HQ compound. Although half his men were on leave because of the Tet holiday, he managed to deploy his units and keep the enemy at bay.
While this fight was raging on, two additional units, the 804th and K4B battalions of the NVA 4th Regiment, swept in from the south and east to attack the MACV compound in Hue. Two hundred Americans held off the enemy throughout the night. Meanwhile, another NVA unit, the 806th Battalion, set up blocking positions on roads leading out of the city to the north and yet another enemy unit, the KC4 Battalion, did the same in the south, along Highway 1. In all, nine enemy battalions were firmly entrenched in the town.
Around noon, news of Alpha Company’s Hue dilemma had reached Task Force X-Ray (1st Marine Division Forward HQ) at Phu Bai. Lieutenant Colonel Marcus J. Gravel, commanding officer of 1/1, quickly set out with his operations officer Major Walter J. Murphy and Company G, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines (2/5), attached to Gravel’s command.
Racing up Highway 1, 2/5 reached the beleaguered Marines and, with cover fire, were able to drive the NVA back. The wounded were evacuated, and Batcheller, peppered by shrapnel, was medevaced to the 1st Marine Medical Battalion at Phu Bai. Pushing forward, the Marines reached the MACV enclave and hastily established a perimeter. They also secured the Navy boat ramp and the base of the Nguyen Hoang Bridge, an important move, since it was directly across from the Citadel. A small park near the boat ramp was utilized as a landing zone (LZ). A few Marine and ARVN tanks formed a semicircle around the LZ to protect it from enemy fire across the Perfume River. The Marines had gained a small foothold.
On the second day of the Tet battle, February 1, the Marine headquarters at Phu Bai was in a quandary. The men had little information as to what was happening at Hue. Brigadier General Foster C. LaHue, assistant commander of the 1st Marine Division, thought his Marines were in control of the south side and that the enemy would soon be finished because it lacked resupply capabilities. Also, Saigon had issued a press release saying the “enemy was being mopped up.” Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF) HQ at Da Nang concurred, stating, “[Marines] were pushing VC out of Hue this morning.” Even Lt. Gen. Hoang Xuan Lam, overall head of I Corps, thought the enemy had been routed with the exception of a “platoon” holding out in the Citadel. They were all woefully incorrect.
Despite this optimism, two additional companies, Fox and Hotel of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, were alerted for immediate duty in Hue. As the C-46 Sea Knight helicopters approached the embattled city, several Marines were wounded in their seats when bullets tore through the thin-skinned “birds.” Landing on the university soccer field, the heavily laden infantrymen scrambled from the rear door and bolted for cover near the MACV HQ. That night was spent organizing for the following day’s attack.
Lieutenant Colonel Ernest C. “Big Ernie” Cheatham Jr., 2/5 commander, and Colonel Stanley Smith Hughes, 1st Marine regimental commander, arrived on the scene. Hughes’ orders were simple and straightforward—clear Hue’s south side. To Cheatham’s 5th Marines went the bulk of the task: push west from the MACV compound, following the Perfume River all the way to the Phu Cam Cathedral. Their main route would be along Le Loi Street paralleling the river. Unknown to the Marines, this was the site of the NVA HQ and the location of most of their troops. Gravel was given the assignment of keeping Highway 1 open for traffic, since Alpha 1/1 had suffered the most casualties and was undermanned.
The attack began on February 4, but this was not the type of combat 2/5 was accustomed to. Since arriving in Vietnam, it had been a frustrating game of cat and mouse for the leathernecks. Booby traps, hit-and-run tactics and nightly ambushes were the mainstay. Some Marines would go months without ever seeing an enemy soldier. This time it would be different—the fighting would be house to house, and the NVA and VC had no intention of retreating.
Hunched over maps scrounged from a nearby Shell gas station, Cheatham was dismayed. Confronting his Marines were 11 blocks of enemy-held territory, all with excellent fields of fire for their mortars, recoilless rifles and automatic weapons. It would have to be taken a house at a time, street by street and block by block. Captain Michael Downs, Fox Company, was slated to assault the Treasury complex, and Captain Ron Christmas’ Hotel Company would move on the public health building. Golf Company would be in reserve. The use of supporting arms was restricted—no bombing or strafing runs by jets, no naval bombardments and no heavy artillery. Saigon wanted to save the city from complete ruin.
“You must dig the rats from their holes,” Cheatham informed his company commanders.
Advancing up Le Loi Street, the Marines of F 2/5 used smoke grenades to shield their movements, as platoons scrambled to gain entry to buildings. A mechanical “mule,” a small flatbed vehicle, brought up a 106mm recoilless rifle, and it silenced several NVA machine-gun nests. Bazooka men, armed with a 3.5 rocket launcher, provided additional support fire. However, it was the aggressiveness of the grunts that ousted the enemy from their lairs.
“The NVA in Hue were mean, motivated bastards,” said one combat correspondent, “but, the plain fact is, we were better.”
The streets sprang to life with the unremitting noises of combat. The fighting grew in intensity as squads of Marines converged on the buildings. It was precision. As four men covered the exits, two rushed in hurling hand grenades and several others followed with their M-16 rifles on full automatic. “Timing,” said Cheatham, “has to be as good as a football play.”
While 2/5 was moving westward along Le Loi Street, Gravel’s 1/1 command, 2-1/2 platoons of Alpha Company, was ordered to take the Joan of Arc School, just 100 yards from the MACV compound. Approximately 100 NVA soldiers were quartered there, pouring fire onto Hughes’ HQ. Tanks and recoilless rifles pounded the structure. The roof was completely blown off, glass and cement flying everywhere. Rushing in, fire teams blazed away, and the fighting was at close quarters. Screams of the wounded, the incessant “pop-pop” of the M-16s mixed with AK-47s, exploding grenades, Light Antitank Weapons (LAWs) and B-40 rockets filled the air. One by one the enemy was flushed out of the rafters, classrooms and school grounds. Bodies were everywhere. The leathernecks suffered 22 casualties. Huge holes gaped in the wall where the school’s crucifix was hanging. It was still intact.
That afternoon, the remaining platoon of Alpha Company, along with Bravo Company, arrived at Hue. In the evening, as red and green tracers filled the night, the 12th VC Sapper Battalion blew the An Cuu Bridge, cutting the land route from Hue to Phu Bai, but not before five reinforced Marine companies had crossed it. Had the NVA destroyed the bridge several days earlier, it might have been a disaster for the allied forces.
By February 6, 2/5 had in its possession the Treasury complex, the university library and the hos- pital. Hotel Company was given the assignment of assaulting the Thua Thien Province capital, a two-story building with enemy troops on the top floor. Beside its tactical importance as the NVA Command Post, it was a major irritant to the Marines. The red and goldstarred flag of North Vietnam fluttered from the flagpole. And the Marines wanted it.
Tear gas was fired at the building as the attack commenced, but a cold wind blew the gas away from its objective. Donning gas masks, Lieutenant Leo Myers’ First Platoon sprinted through an iron gate, across the street to an open courtyard facing the capitol. Captain Christmas, using the radio in the rear of his vehicle, directed a tank forward. Several 90mm rounds exploded against the masonry walls as the leathernecks rushed through the front door. The first two were cut down by small-arms fire. A flurry of fragmentation grenades was hurled, M-60 machine guns spewed empty brass shell casings in every direction and the NVA fell back. Then, as fire teams hunted down the stragglers, Gunnery Sergeant Frank Thomas pulled down the NVA flag and replaced it with the Stars and Stripes.
On February 7, VC sappers detonated another bridge over the Perfume River. Luckily, the Navy boat ramp was in full operation. As replacements and supplies motored in and out of Hue, sporadic enemy fire from the opposite shore was directed at the vessels, but it had little effect. Also, choppers from the Marine helicopter squadrons ferried in reinforcements and took out wounded.
As the infantrymen progressed in both directions along the south bank, the fighting began to slacken off. But a considerable “mop up” would have to be implemented before the area could be considered safe.
In the wake of the battle, other major problems arose. Thousands of homeless refugees who had fled the fighting had to be cared for. One Catholic church housed 5,000 another 17,000 camped around the university. Food and medicine were in short supply and had to be brought in. Navy doctors and corpsmen, U.S. civilians from the Public Health Office, an Australian doctor and Vietnamese medical personnel worked wonders.
By the second week, the once-beautiful “lotus flower” was in a shambles. Shell-pocked buildings, remnants of houses, debris scattered all along the tree-lined avenues that once teemed with shoppers, and bullet-riddled walls were evident throughout the city. Then there were the dead and wounded. Navy doctors and corpsmen went without rest to patch up Marines. Some begged to return to their outfits to be with their friends. Others with minor injuries never even bothered to report them. They stayed in the battle.
Although the south side of Hue was officially declared secured on February 10, pockets of snipers continued to plague Marine patrols trying to root them out. Enemy troops mingled with the civilian population and, as a result, innocent people were killed or wounded. On one street, a father held his blood-splattered child as he stared vacantly at the ground after getting caught in a crossfire.
“A woman knelt in death,” wrote one reporter. “A child lay…crushed by a fallen roof. Many of the bodies had turned black…rats gnawed at the exposed flesh.” The people of Hue were suffering badly.
With the An Cuu Bridge damaged, only one overpass remained over the Phu Cam Canal that permitted entry into Hue City’s south side. Called the Ga-Hue, it was located on the extreme northwest bank, where the waterway emptied into the Perfume River. It was imperative that it be held, and a platoon from Hotel 2/5 cleared a one-block area around the vital causeway. Establishing a perimeter, the Marines repulsed numerous counterattacks through the night, and at dawn, the bridge was still in their hands. They were relieved by 1/1. Out of the way though it was, this bridge allowed the land route between Hue and Phu Bai to remain open while combat engineers repaired the An Cuu roadway.
General Truong and his 1st ARVN Division, cut off and surrounded on the north side of the city, were making a defiant stand of their own. One Black Panther Company, led by Captain Tran Ngoc Hue, repelled Communist units at the Citadel airfield. A wounded ARVN officer, Lieutenant Nguyen Hi, with a collection of office clerks, drove the enemy back when they gained entry to the medical area. Truong maintained radio contact with his people, and each unit fought its way back into the compound. From there, Vietnamese paratroopers, marines and rangers clashed with a tenacious enemy to gain control of the Citadel. Whole companies became stranded and had to claw their way back using grappling hooks to scale walls within the maze of parapets. Finally, on February 9, his units weakened to the point of exhaustion, Truong grudgingly requested U.S. assistance. The 1st Battalion, 5th Marines (1/5), were ordered up to Hue.
From Phu Loc Combat Base, two platoons from Company B, under Captain Fern Jennings, were helicoptered into the ARVN HQ stronghold. The 3rd Platoon, coming under intense fire, was forced to pull out after the pilot was wounded, and limped back to base camp. On the south side, Major Robert H. Thompson, commanding officer of 1/5, conferred with Colonel Hughes. It was decided that Thompson would take Companies A and C, via Navy landing craft, join up with Company B and attack southward, pushing the NVA toward the Perfume River. There, the enemy would be caught between 1/1 and 2/5 on the opposite side.
The morning of February 12 was like most mornings in Hue during the Tet battle—cold and windy, with a misty rain. The Marines boarded the landing craft for the short trip to the northern tip of the Citadel, where they quickly disembarked at a ferry landing. Thompson and his men made their way to the ARVN command post, where Thompson met with Truong. The feisty Vietnamese general informed him that the Communists had two battalions in the Citadel and another to the west that was resupplying them. The enemy held the northeast and southeast walls near the Imperial Palace. Thompson was responsible for securing the northeast wall— 2,500 yards long, 20 feet high and widths from 50 to 200 feet. With the 1st ARVN Airborne Battalion attached, the three Marine companies (Company B’s 3rd Platoon arrived with Thompson) would make a frontal assault down the wall. Meanwhile, the 3rd ARVN Regiment would continue attacking to the southeast, moving in their direction, on their right flank. Once the Imperial Palace was taken, they could begin their southward sweep.
That evening, the Marines received some good news. General Lam, after meeting with South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu, authorized allied forces to use whatever weapons were available to them in the Citadel. The only exception was the Imperial Palace. It was still off-limits.
Tuesday, February 13, Captain J. J. Bowe and Alpha 1/5 proceeded down the northeast wall. They had advanced only a few yards when the entire area erupted in an ear-shattering barrage of AK-47s, B-40 rockets and mortars that cascaded from a large tower onto the Marines below. The ARVN unit that was supposed to have taken the southeast cordon had been pulled back, but no one told Thompson. In only 10 minutes, Alpha Company took 30 casualties. Preparatory fire from 155 howitzers and 5-inch shells from Navy destroyers offshore were placed directly in front of Marine lines. By day’s end, the grunts of 1/5 held the wall 75 yards from where the ARVN unit had retreated. Thompson summoned Company D, still on the south side, to join him.
Captain Myron C. Harrington, Delta Company’s commanding officer, reached Bao Vinh Quay where Thompson had landed the previous day, near dusk on February 13. Throughout the next day, his men rested and reorganized in the ARVN sanctuary while Bravo and Charlie 1/5 once again hurled themselves at the NVA bastion. Six-inch projectiles from a cruiser slammed into the ominous-looking tower that was hampering the leathernecks’ progress. Fighters from the 1st Marine Air Wing fired rockets and dropped napalm and nonlethal tear gas inside the wall. Still no headway could be made.
The following day, February 15, Harrington’s Marines crept cautiously down the northeast barricade, after ships in the South China Sea and artillery from the 11th Marines sent rounds crashing into the tower. Chunks of brick and cement crumbled to the ground, and houses nearby were razed. Two F-4 Phantoms roared overhead and released canisters of napalm and 500-pound bombs on the seemingly invincible spire.
As if untouched by the pounding they had just received, within a few minutes the NVA let fly a broadside at the Marines. A driving, miserable rain made the going treacherous, and the screams of the wounded and the cries of “Corpsman!” filled the air. Tanks lurched forward to lend support, sending 90mm rounds screeching at the fortified Communist bulwarks. Men with 3.5 rocket launchers and disposable light antitank weapons moved back and forth to help trapped infantrymen. Second Lieutenant Jack S. Imlah and his 1st Platoon slugged their way through the rubble and placed themselves at the rear of the tower. From here, the Marines lobbed grenades into spider holes where individual NVA soldiers would emerge like jack-in-the-boxes, let loose a few bursts and rapidly disappear. After nearly three hours of continuous combat, the tower was in Marine hands. From its summit, which made an excellent observation point, the Imperial Palace could be seen through the fog.
An enemy message was intercepted on February 16 and relayed to Major Thompson: “…original commander of the force inside Hue…killed…many officers killed or wounded…[new commander] recommended [his units] to withdraw. Senior officer ordered new commander…in Hue…to remain in position and fight.” The outcome was inevitable. The NVA and VC, who had lost 219 confirmed dead as well as an undetermined number of wounded thus far, knew they were going to die.
For the next four days, the Marines of 1/5 hammered away at the northeast wall. Each day was an exact duplicate of the day before: artillery and heavy gunfire, followed by infantry assaults with tanks, bazookas and mortars. Numbed with fatigue, many of the men could barely walk. The constant flow of wounded kept the medical teams busy. To expedite things, the more serious cases were set aside and those who had any hope of surviving were attended to immediately.
After one week’s fighting, the Marines had suffered more than 300 casualties. Companies were now at half-strength. Morale was low. “We’ve got to get some help,” said one anguished Marine. “They’re going to annihilate 1/5.” But there were no available additional troops that could be committed.
In spite of everything, when ordered to attack, the Marines attacked. Finally, on February 21, Thompson’s grizzled grunts had in their possession the northeast wall. However, the ARVN units had literally stopped and waited. To their horror, the Marines of 1/5 were told to turn right and take the southeast wall as well. Reinforced by Company L, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, the infantrymen set out for the Imperial Palace. As the Marines pressed forward, 106mm recoilless rifles and tanks hurled round after round at the temple. When the sun came out and the weather cleared, Captain John Niotis, Lima Company commander, called in air strikes. Coming as close as possible without damaging the cherished building, fixed-wing aircraft discharged napalm against the palace wall. The jellied gasoline mixture created fireballs that leaped high in the air very close to Marine lines. The Marines pressed warily onward, clearing each building house to house. The attackers tossed grenades through broken windows while fire teams kicked down doors and rushed in, shooting anything that moved.
As they slowly inched forward, the riflemen noticed a huge structure with a tile roof and decorative carvings. The Marines ventured in and discovered an ornately decorated room, whose walls were completely covered in gold leaf. Inside, two thrones perched atop a raised dais. The room was also garnished with caricatures of lions and dragons richly adorned in red and gold lacquer. In a corner lay the crumpled bodies of two dead NVA soldiers. A sergeant sauntered over and nudged the motionless corpses with the barrel of his rifle. The leathernecks had reached the venerated throne room of the Vietnamese emperors.
Led by Captains James Coolican, a Marine adviser, and Tran Ngoc Hue, a Hoc Bao (Black Panther) company stormed over 200 yards of open terrain to conduct the final assault on the Imperial Palace. Many there knew this was “strictly public relations.” To the South Vietnamese government, it was a matter of pride to have an ARVN unit seize this historic place. But every Marine there knew that 1/5 had taken the Citadel. The grunts watched as the NVA flag was torn down and replaced with the yellow and red banner of South Vietnam. It was fastened and hoisted— ironically—over the Palace of Perfect Peace. Everyone cheered. The city of Hue had been recaptured. Liberation had taken 26 days.
But the true agony of Hue was not to be fully realized until the Communists had fled. During the occupation by NVA/VC troops, thousands of civilians were massacred by death squads. The district worst hit by the slaughter of innocents was Gai Hoi, a large triangular residential zone northeast of the Citadel. Because it had little military importance, it was left untouched and not liberated until the end of the battle. Government officials, teachers, priests, nuns, doctors, foreigners and anyone aiding the Americans were singled out for execution. Coaxed from their homes by loudspeakers and radio broadcasts and, in some cases, forcibly abducted, they were led away never to be seen again. With hands tied behind their backs, they were removed to a remote area and shot, bludgeoned or buried alive. As late as September 1969, mass graves were being discovered. In one, the skulls and bones of 428 people of Phu Cam stretched as far as a football field, scrubbed clean by a running stream. In all, 2,800 citizens of the city were systemically and methodically murdered. It was political mass-murder at its most barbaric.
Upon being relieved, the Marines returned to the rice paddy war they were all too familiar with. During Operation Hue City, the Marines lost 147 killed and 857 wounded (these figures don’t take into account casualties among those serving with support units, or who died of wounds later in hospitals). The South Vietnamese units lost 384 killed and 1,800 wounded. The exact count of Communist dead may never be known, but existing records show the NVA/VC dead to be 5,113, an unknown number of wounded and 89 captured.
In 1969 the Hue battle streamer was affixed to the Marine Corps flag, and every outfit that participated in that fight was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation, which read in part: “The men of the 1st Marines and 5th Marines [Reinforced] soundly defeated a numerically superior force…by their effective teamwork, aggressive fighting spirit and individual acts of heroism…achieved an illustrious record of courage and skill which was in keeping with the highest tradition of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.”
But it was the dirty, bearded and exhausted Marine grunt who deserves the accolades. With rifle in hand and a “tight knot” in his stomach, he overcame his fear and drove the invaders from Hue.
Originally published in the February 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.
Who Filled the Graves Of Hué?
Both Ken Burns and Anthony Bourdain have recently recycled the myth of National Liberation Front massacres in Hué during the Vietnam War. The real story, however, was quite different, as revealed at the time by one of the great correspondents of the era Wilfred Burchett. In order to set the record straight, we are reprinting his piece on Hué for The Guardian in 197o.–JSC
The recent attempt to equate the Son My (My Lai) massacre and scores of other similar atrocities with the so-called “Vietcong massacre at Hué” is a vain attempt to cover up what have been genocidal methods by the United States in South Vietnam since the war started.
The bodies in the mass graves of Hué — said to have been killed by the National Liberation Front — are victims of the same military machine and the same genocidal policies in operation at Son My. They are not the victims of the NLF but of American bombs, bullets and napalm.
Any discriminating reading of press reports published at the time will show what really happened in Hué. What follows is a true account of the Hue massacre.
The NLF attack on Hué was co-ordinated with an internal uprising on January 31, 1968. The main part of the city was in the hands of liberation forces within hours, practically without a shot fired.
Among the vanguard forces re-entering the city was Nguyen Chi Chanh, Hué’s former police chief who had sided with the people in the Buddhist uprising of 1966. He was a member of the Revolutionary Committee established as soon as Hué was liberated. If ever there was an example of what the South Vietnamese people really wanted, it was the manner in which the NLF took over the city of Hué.
Saigon’s power dissolved overnight. The Saigon army was incapable of even attempting its recapture. The population of Hué voted with its fists, feet and weapons — when it had j them — for the NLF. No power in South Vietnam, except the American invaders, was capable of physically overthrowing the new people’s power.
The South Vietnamese army simply refused to fight. All its positions in Hue, except the headquarters of its 3rd Division, were overrun or surrendered in the first minutes. US Marines were called in to do the job the South Vietnamese refused to do — recapture Hué even at the price of its destruction. And destroyed it was.
Here is an account from the British ultraconservative Keesing’s Contemporary Archives, which prides itself on digging up the facts from the most responsible press for the historical record:
A large part of Hue was reduced to ruins by fighting and bombing. Le Monde reported ‘no large town in the Far East has been so devastated since the fighting in Seoul during the Korean war… Vast areas of the beautiful city were demolished.’
Of 145,000 inhabitants, 113,000 were homeless refugees. Bodies lay rotting in the streets for days and sanitary facilities broke down.
This implied the city was 80 per cent destroyed. Reuters reported that more than 90 per cent was destroyed. By the NLF? No — by US planes and artillery, including the guns of the Seventh Fleet.
The Keesing’s account continued:
After the assault on the southern ramparts was hurled back on February 14, the United States fighter bombers dropped bombs, rockets, napalm and nausea gas on the Citadel and the following day warships of the Seventh Fleet shelled its walls, in addition to fresh United States air strikes.
“In the old part of the city, South Vietnamese air craft had carried out heavy air attacks on February 3, wherein many houses were destroyed.
The city which the NLF and the Hue population liberated in a few hours took US Marines 26 days to recapture, at the price of Hue’s almost total destruction.
At a certain stage, helicopter gunships, hovering over the roofs, joined dive bombers and naval guns in shooting everything that moved in a total war against the entire population while Marine artillery tanks systematically destroyed the city block by block.
All public facilities broke down including sewage, water supply and garbage disposal. In many areas the streets were choked with bodies — limbless, headless, napalm-charred and cut into pieces by bombshell fragments. NLF sanitary services were forced to bury victims in mass graves nightly under constant air and artillery bombardment.
On April 23, two months after the destruction and reoccupation of Hue, the Saigon army — after their psychological warfare teams had done certain rearranging of the bodies — invented the “Vietcong massacre” myth, presenting the evidence of mass graves.
The US embassy in Saigon solemnly weighed the evidence and added “confirmation” later in the week. The US’s own atrocious massacre in Hue thus was attributed to the “Vietcong” and has been revived to offset the massacre at Song My.
A Western news agency estimates the civilian casualties in Hue as between 2000 and 3000, about the figure attributed to the NLF.
This fakery is totally consistent with the US “body count” fabrications, where every baby and grandfather killed by the US is listed as another “Vietcong casualty.”
Every time US propaganda services need a new diversion from increasing revelations of American atrocities, a new “Vietcong atrocity” is discovered. If the graves in Hue did not exist, US propaganda would have been forced to invent them. But they do exist — courtesy of the Pentagon.
Perhaps the Song My massacre and other instances of US atrocities will help to open the eyes of the American people as to exactly who it is which is resorting to terror in Vietnam.
If the American people could only understand why their soldiers are losing in Vietnam they might also understand why all the stories about “Vietcong atrocities” are not true.
This is people’s war. An entire people is fighting against American, invaders.
For the NLF and the liberation army to commit acts of terror against the people would be the same as committing an act of terror against itself.
Of course it is true that the liberation army executes some political officials of the Saigon regime and village chiefs controlled by the Saigon regime.
They consider these people traitors to Vietnam. And of course some civilians have died as an accidental result of liberation army firepower.
But anyone who understands in the slightest the meaning of people’s war also understands that the liberation armies take every conceivable precaution against harming the civilian population.
Wilfred Burchett was an Australian journalist, who covered World War II, the Korean War and the war in Vietnam. His many books include Shadows of Hiroshima, Memoirs of a Rebel Journalist and Vietnam Will Win. Burchett died in 1983.
Mass graves discovered in Hue - HISTORY
Commemorating deceased ancestors and family members who were dead has been a tradition in Vietnam since time immemorial. On the date of their death on the lunar calendar, their living descendants or members of their families hold service in commemoration of them at home or sometimes at pagoda. Offerings -- usually food, fruit, wine along with flowers and incense sticks - are presented to them on the altar. The relatives pray for them and show their love, respect and gratitude prostrating in front of the altar.
The tradition also goes beyond the limit of family members and ascendants. On the 15th day of the 7th month every lunar year, Vietnamese Buddhists conduct rites that are more elaborated at pagodas. The congregation prays for the dead in general, particularly for the dead without offspring, soldiers killed in action, war victims. The rites may last a week or even 15 days in pre-war time.
Such tradition is the same in Hue City, the ancient royal capital of Vietnam. People in this city, however, have more to do with the war dead. In the 5th moon each lunar year (around late June to early July), every Buddhist family in the city holds commemorating services at the family altar as well as in all pagodas with offerings, to pray for innocent civilians killed by the French invaders in the late 19th century. On the 23rd day of the fifth month, the year At Dau (or the Year of the Rooster 1885), the French forces conducted a fierce counter attack against the Vietnam royal army who defended the capital city. Unscrupulous French fire power killed about 2,000 to 3,000 soldiers and residents.
Although the date is the 23rd day of the 5th month, people are free to hold service for the dead on any date to their family's convenience, providing that it is within the 5th month. If you visit someone in Hue during the 5th month, you will certainly be invited to such feasts, probably every day if you have a lot of friends and relatives living in this beautiful city.
Besides the Fifth Month Commemoration, for the last 28 years, Buddhists in Hue have also held services in the first month of the lunar year for war victims in the 1968 Tet Offensive. (Tet is the Lunar New Year celebration in Vietnam).
In the darkness of the 1968 Tet's Eve, North Vietnamese Communist Army units conducted a surprise attack at Hue City, while the two sides were in a truce that had been agreed upon previously. South Vietnamese Army units defending the city were not in good positions to fight as they expected that the enemy would abide by their 4-day cease-fire promise, as they did in the preceding years. On the first day of the new year - the Year of the Monkey - Hue City streets were filled with NVA soldiers in baggy olive uniforms and pithy hats.
The communist cadres set up the provisionary authorities. The first thing they did was call all SVN soldiers, civil servants of all services, political party members, and college students, to report to the "revolutionary people's committee." Those who reported to the communist committee were registered in control books then released with promise of safety.
After a few days, they were called to report again, then all were sent home safe and sound. During three weeks under NVA units' occupation, they were ordered to report to the communist committee three or four times. In the late half of January 1968, the US Marines and the South Vietnamese infantry conducted bloody counterattacks and recaptured the whole city after many days of fierce fighting that forced their enemy to withdraw in several directions.
Meanwhile, those who were called to report the last time to the communist authorities disappeared after the Marines and South Vietnamese Army units liberated Hue. Most of the missing were soldiers in non-combat units and young civilians. No one knew their whereabouts.
In late Feb.1968, from reports of Vietnamese Communist ralliers and POWs, the South Vietnamese local authorities found several mass graves. In each site, hundreds of bodies of the missing were buried. Most were tied to each other by ropes, electric wires or telephone wires. They had been shot or beaten or even stabbed to death.
The mass graves shocked the city and the whole country. Almost every family in Hue has at least one relative, close or remote, who was killed or still missing. The latest mass grave found in the front yard of a Phu Thu district elementary school in May 1972, contained some two hundred bodies under the sand. They had been slaughtered during one-month occupation of an NVA unit. Sand left no sign of a mass grave below until a 3rd-grader dug the ground rather deep for a cricket.
Besides more than two thousand persons whose deaths were confirmed after the revelation of the mass graves, the fate of the others, amounted to several thousands, are still unknown.
The 1968 massacre in Hue brought a sharp turn in the common attitude toward the war. A great number of the pre-'68 fence sitters, anti-war activists, and even pro-Communist people, took side with the South Vietnamese government after the horrible events. After April 30, 1975 when South Vietnam fell into the hand of the Communist Party, it seems that the number of boat people of Hue origin takes up a greater proportion among the refugees than that from the other areas.
Since April 1975, the Vietnamese Communist regime deliberately moved many families of the 68-massacre victims out of Hue City. People in the city however, still commemorate them every year. Because the people are mingling the rites with Tet celebrations, Communist local authorities have no reason to forbid them.
Most Americans knew well about the My Lai massacre of US Army Lieutenant Calley where from 200 to 350 persons were killed. The '68-massacre in Hue however, has not been covered at the same proportion by the English language media. When a Tet Offensive documentary film by South Vietnamese reporters was shown to the American audience of more than 200 US Army officers in Fort Benning, Ga. in November 1974, almost 90 percent of them hadn't been informed of the facts. Many even said that had they known the savage slaughter at the time, they would have acted differently while serving in Vietnam.
The US Navy has a warship named "Hue City." It is not known how many of her sailors realize that the city she carries as a name suffered so much. Would it be a good idea to have a rite once a year in the Tet season on the "Hue City" for the dead whom the US Marines were fighting for in February 1968?
Animosity should not be handed down to younger generations, but our descendants must be taught the truth. War crimes must not be forgotten, and history is not written by one-sided writers.
Mass graves discovered in Hue - HISTORY
Hue Massacre , Tet 1968
(An Excerpt from the Viet Cong Strategy of Terror, by Mr. Douglas Pike, p. 23-39)
(In Memory of the 7,600 civilians murdered in Hue by Vietnamese communists)
The city of Hue is one of the saddest cities of our earth, not simply because of what happened there in February 1968, unthinkable as that was. It is a silent rebuke to all of us, inheritors of 40 centuries of civilization, who in our century have allowed collectivist politics-abstractions all-to corrupt us into the worst of the modern sins, indifference to inhumanity. What happened in Hue should give pause to every remaining civilized person on this planet. It should be inscribed, so as not to be forgotten, along with the record of other terrible visitations of man's inhumanity to man which stud the history of the human race. Hue is another demonstration of what man can bring himself to do when he fixes no limits on political action and pursues incautiously the dream of social perfectibility.
What happened in Hue, physically, can be described with a few quick statistics. A Communist force which eventually reached 12,000 invaded the city the night of the new moon marking the new lunar year, January 30, 1968. It stayed for 26 days and then was driven out by military action. In the wake of this Tet offensive, 5,800 Hue civilians were dead or missing. It is now known that most of them are dead. The bodies of most have since been found in single and mass graves throughout Thua Thien Province which surrounds this cultural capital of Vietnam.
Such are the skeletal facts, the important statistics. Such is what the incurious word knows any thing at all about Hue, for this is what was written, modestly by the word's press. Apparently it made no impact on the world's mind or conscience. For there was no agonized outcry. No demonstration at North Vietnamese embassies around the world. In a tone beyond bitterness, the people there will tell you that the world does not know what happened in Hue or, if it does, does not care.
The Battle of Hue was part of the Communist Winter-Spring campaign of 1967-68. The entire campaign was divided into three phases: Phase I came in October, November, and December of 1967 and entailed "coordinated fighting methods," that is, fairly large, set-piece battles against important fixed installations or allied concentrations. The battles of Loc Ninh in Binh Long Province, Dak To in Kontum Province, and Con Tien in Quang Tri Province, all three in the mountainous interior of South Vietnam near the Cambodian and Lao borders, were typical and, in fact, major elements in Phase I.
Phase II came in January, February, and March of 1968 and involved great use of "independent fighting methods," that is, large numbers of attacks by fairly small units, simultaneously, over a vast geographic area and using the most refined and advanced techniques of guerrilla war. Whereas Phase I was fought chiefly with North Vietnamese Regular (PAVN) troops (at that time some 55,000 were in the South), Phase II was fought mainly with Southern Communist (PLAF) troops. The crescendo of Phase II was the Tet offensive in which 70,000 troops attacked 32 of South Vietnam's largest population centres, including the city of Hue.
Phase III, in April, May, and June of 1968, originally was to have combined the independent and coordinated fighting methods, culminating in a great fixed battle somewhere. This was what captured documents guardedly referred to as the "second wave". Possibly it was to have been Khe Sanh, the U.S. Marine base in the far northern corner of South Vietnam. Or perhaps it was to have been Hue. There was no second wave chiefly because events in Phases I and II did not develop as expected. Still, the war reached its bloodiest tempo in eight years then, during the period from the Battle of Hue in February until the lifting of the siege of Khe Sanh in late summer.
American losses during those three months averaged nearly 500 killed per week the South Vietnamese (GVN) losses were double that rate and the PAVN-PLAF losses were nearly eight times the American loss rate. In the Winter-Spring Campaign, the Communists began with about 195,000 PLAF main force and PAVN troops. During the nine months they lost (killed or permanently disabled) about 85,000 men.
The Winter-Spring Campaign was an all-out Communist bid to break the back of the South Vietnamese armed forces and drive the government, along with the Allied forces, into defensive city enclaves. Strictly speaking, the Battle of Hue was part of Phase I rather than Phase II since it employed "co-ordinated fighting methods" and involved North Vietnamese troops rather than southern guerrillas. It was fought, on the Communist side, largely by two veteran North Vietnamese army divisions: The Fifth 324-B, augmented by main forces battalions and some guerrilla units along with some 150 local civilian commissars and cadres.
Briefly the Battle of Hue consisted of these major developments: The initial Communist assault, chiefly by the 800th and 802nd battalions, had the force and momentum to carry it across Hue. By dawn of the first day the Communists controlled all the city except the headquarters of the First ARVN Division and the compound housing American military advisors. The Vietnamese and Americans moved up reinforcements with orders to reach the two holdouts and strengthen them. The Communists moved up another battalion, the 804th, with orders to intercept the reinforcement forces. This failed, the two points were reinforced and never again seriously threatened.
The battle then took on the aspects of a siege. The Communists were in the Citadel and on the western edge of the city. The Vietnamese and Americans on the other three sides, including that portion of Hue south of the river, determined to drive them out, hoping initially to do so with artillery fire and air strikes. But the Citadel was well built and soon it became apparent that if the Communists' orders were to hold, they could be expelled only by city warfare, fighting house by house and block by block, a slow and costly form of combat. The order was given.
By the third week of February the encirclement of the Citadel was well under way and Vietnamese troops and American Marines were advancing yard by yard through the Citadel. On the morning of February 24, Vietnamese First Division soldiers tore down the Communist flag that had flown for 24 days over the outer wall and hoisted their own. The battle was won, although sporadic fighting would continue outside the city. Some 2,500 Communists died during the battle and another 2,500 would die as Communists elements were pursued beyond Hue. Allied dead were set at 357.
In the chaos that existed following the battle, the first order of civilian business was emergency relief, in the form of food shipments, prevention of epidemics, emergency medical care, etc. Then came the home rebuilding effort. Only later did Hue begin to tabulate its casualties. No true post-attack census has yet been taken. In March local officials reported that 1,900 civilians were hospitalized with war wounds and they estimated that some 5,800 persons were unaccounted for .
The first discovery of Communist victims came in the Gia Hoi High School yard, on February 26 eventually 170 bodies were recovered.
In the next few months 18 additional grave sites were found, the largest of which were Tang Quang Tu Pagoda (67 victims), Bai Dau (77), Cho Thong area (an estimated 100), the imperial tombs area (201), Thien Ham (approximately 200), and Dong Gi (approximately 100). In all, almost 1,200 bodies were found in hastily dug, poorly concealed graves.
At least half of these showed clear evidence of atrocity killings: hands wired behind backs, rags stuffed in mouths, bodies contorted but without wounds (indicating burial alive) . The other nearly 600 bore wound marks but there was no way of determining whether they died by firing squad or incidental to the battle.
The second major group of finds was discovered in the first seven months of 1969 in Phu Thu district-the Sand Dune Finds and Le Xa Tay-and Huong Thuy district-Xuan Hoa-Van Duong-in late March and April. Additional grave sites were found in Vinh Loc district in May and in Nam Hoa district in July. The largest of this group were the Sand Dune Finds in the three sites of Vinh Luu, Le Xa Dong and Xuan 0 located in rolling, grasstufted sand dune country near the South China Sea. Separated by salt-marsh valleys, these dunes were ideal for graves. Over 800 bodies were uncovered in the dunes.
In the Sand Dune Find, the pattern had been to tie victims together in groups of 10 or 20 , line them up in front of a trench dug by local corvee labour and cut them down with submachine gun (a favourite local souvenir is a spent Russian machine gun shell taken from a grave). Frequently the dead were buried in layers of three and four, which makes identification particularly difficult.
In Nam Hoa district came the third, or Da Mai Creek Find, which also has been called the Phu Cam death march, made on September 19, 1969. Three Communist defectors told intelligence officers of the 101st Airborne Brigade that they had witnessed the killing of several hundred people at Da Mai Creek, about 10 miles south of Hue, in February of 1968. The area is wild, unpopulated, virtually inaccessible. The Brigade sent in a search party, which reported that the stream contained a large number of human bones.
By piecing together bits of information, it was determined that this is what happened at Da Mai Creek: On the fifth day of Tet in the Phu Cam section of Hue, where some three-quarters of the City's 40,000 Roman Catholics lived, a large number of people had taken sanctuary from the battle in a local church, a common method in Vietnam of escaping war. Many in the building were not in fact Catholic.
A Communist political commissar arrived at the church and ordered out about 400 people, some by name and some apparently because of their appearance (prosperous looking and middle-aged businessmen, for example). He said they were going to the "liberated area" for three days of indoctrination, after which each could return home.
They were marched nine kilometres south to a pagoda where the Communists had established a headquarters. There 20 were called out from the group, assembled before a drumhead court, tried, found guilty, executed and buried in the pagoda yard. The remainder were taken across the river and turned over to a local Communist unit in an exchange that even involved banding the political commissar a receipt. It is probable that the commissar intended that their prisoners should be re-educated and returned, but with the turnover, matters passed from his control.
During the next several days, exactly how many is not known, both captive and captor wandered the countryside. At some point the local Communists decided to eliminate witnesses : Their captives were led through six kilometres of some of the most rugged terrain in Central Vietnam, to Da Mai Creek. There they were shot or brained and their bodies left to wash in the running stream. The 101st Airborne Brigade burial detail found it impossible to reach the creek overland, roads being non-existent or impassable. The creek's foliage is what in Vietnam is called double-canopy, that is, two layers, one consisting of brush and trees close to the ground, and the second of tall trees whose branches spread out high above. Beneath is permanent twilight. Brigade engineers spent two days blasting a hole through the double-canopy by exploding dynamite dangled on long wires beneath their hovering helicopters. This cleared a landing pad for helicopter hearses. Quite clearly this was a spot where death could be easily hidden even without burial.
The Da Mai Creek bed, for nearly a hundred yards up the ravine, yielded skulls, skeletons and pieces of human bones. The dead had been left above ground (for the animists among them, this meant their souls would wander the lonely earth forever, since such is the fate of the unburied dead), and 20 months in the running stream had left bones clean and white.
Local authorities later released a list of 428 names of personswhom they said had been positively identified from the creek bed remains . The Communists' rationale for their excesses was elimination of "traitors to the revolution." The list of 428 victims breaks down as follows: 25 per cent military: two officers, the rest NCO's and enlisted men 25 per cent students 50 per cent civil servants, village and hamlet officials, service personnel of various categories, and ordinary workers.
The fourth or Phu Thu Salt Flat Finds came in November, 1969, near the fishing village of Luong Vien some ten miles east of Hue, another desolate region. Government troops early in the month began an intensive effort to clear the area of remnants of the local Communist organization. People of Luong Vien, population 700, who had remained silent in the presence of troops for 20 months apparently felt secure enough from Communist revenge to break silence and lead officials to the find. Based on descriptions from villagers whose memories are not always clear, local officials estimate the number of bodies at Phu Thu to be at least 300 and possibly 1,000 .
The story remains uncompleted. If the estimates by Hue officials are even approximately correct, nearly 2,000 people are still missing. Re-capitulation of the dead and missing.
The killing in Hue that added up to the Hue Massacre far exceeded in numbers any atrocity by the Communists previously in South Vietnam. The difference was not only one in degree but one in kind. The character of the terror that emerges from an examination of Hue is quite distinct from Communist terror acts elsewhere, frequent or brutal as they may have been. The terror in Hue was not a morale building act-the quick blow deep into the enemy's lair which proves enemy vulnerability and the guerrilla's omnipotence and which is quite different from gunning down civilians in areas under guerrilla control. Nor was it terror to advertise the cause. Nor to disorient and psychologically isolate the individual, since the vast majority of the killings were done secretly. Nor, beyond the blacklist killings, was it terror to eliminate opposing forces. Hue did not follow the pattern of terror to provoke governmental over-response since it resulted in only what might have been anticipated-government assistance. There were elements of each objective, true, but none serves to explain the widespread and diverse pattern of death meted out by the Communists.
What is offered here is a hypothesis which will suggest logic and system behind what appears to be simple, random slaughter. Before dealing with it, let us consider three facts which constantly reassert themselves to a Hue visitor seeking to discover what exactly happened there and, more importantly, exactly why it happened. All three fly in the face of common sense and contradict to a degree what has been written. Yet, in talking to all sources-province chief, police chief, American advisor, eye witness, captured prisoner, hoi chanh (defector) or those few who miraculously escaped a death scene-the three facts emerge again and again.
The first fact, and perhaps the most important, is that despite contrary appearances virtually no Communist killing was due to rage, frustration, or panic during the Communist withdrawal at the end. Such explanations are frequently heard, but they fail to hold up under scrutiny. Quite the contrary, to trace back any single killing is to discover that almost without exception it was the result of a decision rational and justifiable in the Communist mind. In fact, most killings were, from the Communist calculation, imperative.
The second fact is that, as far as can be determined, virtually all killings were done by local Communist cadres and not by the ARVN troops or Northerners or other outside Communists. Some 12,000 ARVN troops fought the battle of Hue and killed civilians in the process but this was incidental to their military effort. Most of the 150 Communist civilian cadres operating within the city were local, that is from the Thua Thien province area. They were the ones who issued the death orders.
Whether they acted on instructions from higher headquarters (and the Communist organizational system is such that one must assume they did), and, if so, what exactly those orders were, no one yet knows for sure. The third fact is that beyond "example" executions of prominent "tyrants", most of the killings were done secretly with extraordinary effort made to hide the bodies. Most outsiders have a mental picture of Hue as a place of public executions and prominent mass burial mounds of fresh-turned earth. Only in the early days were there well-publicized executions and these were relatively few. The burial sites in the city were easily discovered because it is difficult to create a graveyard in a densely populated area without someone noticing it. All the other finds were well hidden, all in terrain lending itself to concealment, probably the reason the sites were chosen in the first place.
A body in the sand dunes is as difficult to find as a seashell pushed deep into a sandy beach over which a wave has washed. Da Mai Creek is in the remotest part of the province and must have required great exertion by the Communists to lead their victims there. Had not the three hoi chanh led searchers to the wild uninhabited spot the bodies might well remain undiscovered to this day. A visit to all sites leaves one with the impression that the Communists made a major effort to hide their deeds. The hypothesis offered here connects and fixes in time the Communist assessment of their prospects for staying in Hue with the kind of death order issued. It seems clear from sifting evidence that they had no single unchanging assessment with regard to themselves and their future in Hue, but rather that changing situations during the course of the battle altered their prospects and their intentions.
It also seems equally clear from the evidence that there was no single Communist policy on death orders instead the kind of death order issued changed during the course of the battle. The correlation between these two is high and divides into three phases. The hypothesis therefore is that as Communist plans during the Battle of Hue changed so did the nature of the death orders issued. This conclusion is based on overt Communist statements, testimony by prisoners1 and hoi chanh, accounts of eyewitnesses, captured documents and the internal logic of the Communist situation.
Thinking in Phase I was well expressed in a Communist Party of South Vietnam (PRP) resolution issued to cadres on the eve of the offensive: Be sure that the liberated . cities are successfully consolidated. Quickly activate armed and political units, establish administrative organs at all echelons, promote (civilian) defence and combat support activities, get the people to establish an air defence system and generally motivate them to be ready to act against the enemy when he counterattacks. "
This was the limited view at the start - held momentarily. Subsequent developments in Hue were reported in different terms. Hanoi Radio on February 4 said: "After one hour's fighting the Revolutionary Armed Forces occupied the residence of the puppet provincial governor (in Hue), the prison and the offices of the puppet administration. The Revolutionary Armed Forces punished most cruel agents of the enemy and seized control of the streets. rounded up and punished dozen of cruel agents and caused the enemy organs of control and oppression to crumble.
During the brief stay in Hue, the civilian cadres, accompanied by execution squads, were to round up and execute key individuals whose elimination would greatly weaken the government's administrative apparatus following Communist withdrawal. This was the blacklist period, the time of the drumhead court. Cadres with lists of names and addresses on clipboards appeared and called into kangaroo court various "enemies of the Revolution."
Their trials were public, usually in the court-yard of a temporary Communist headquarters. The trials lasted about ten minutes each and there are no known not-guilty verdicts. Punishment, invariably execution, was meted out immediately. Bodies were either hastily buried or turned over to relatives. Singled out for this treatment were civil servants, especially those involved in security or police affairs, military officers and some non-commissioned officers, plus selected non-official but natural leaders of the community, chiefly educators and religionists.
With the exception of a particularly venomous attack on Hue intellectuals, the Phase I pattern was standard operating procedure for Communists in Vietnam. It was the sort of thing that had been going on systematically in the villages for ten years. Permanent blacklists, prepared by zonal or inter-zone party headquarters have long existed for use throughout the country, whenever an opportunity presents itself.
However, not all the people named in the lists used in Hue were liquidated. There were a large number of people who obviously were listed, who stayed in the city throughout the battle, but escaped. Throughout the 24-day period the Communist cadres were busy hunting down persons on their blacklists, but after a few days their major efforts were turned into a new channel.
Hue: Phase II
In the first few days, the Tet offensive affairs progressed so well for the Communists in Hue (although not to the south, where party chiefs received some rather grim evaluations from cadres in the midst of the offensive in the Mekong Delta) that for a brief euphoric moment they believed they could hold the city. Probably the assessment that the Communists were in Hue to stay was not shared at the higher echelons, but it was widespread in Hue and at the Thua Thien provincial level. One intercepted Communist message, apparently written on February 2, exhorted cadres in Hue to hold fast, declaring "A new era, a real revolutionary period has begun (because of our Hue victories) and we need only to make swift assault (in Hue) to secure our target and gain total victory."
The Hanoi official party newspaper, Nhan Dan, echoed the theme: "Like a thunderbolt, a general offensive has been hurled against the U.S. and the puppets. The U.S.-puppet machine has been duly punished. The puppet administrative organs. have suddenly collapsed. The Thieu-Ky administration cannot escape from complete collapse. The puppet troops have become extremely weak and cannot avoid being completely exterminated."
Of course, some of this verbiage is simply exhortation to the faithful, and, as is always the case in reading Communist output, it is most difficult to distinguish between belief and wish. But testimony from prisoners and hoi chanh, as well as intercepted battle messages, indicate that both rank and file and cadres believed for a few days they were permanently in Hue, and they acted accordingly.
Among their acts was to extend the death order and launch what in effect was a period of social reconstruction, Communist style. Orders went out, apparently from the provincial level of the party, to round up what one prisoner termed "social negatives," that is, those individuals or members of groups who represented potential danger or liability in the new social order. This was quite impersonal, not a blacklist of names but a blacklist of titles and positions held in the old society, directed not against people as such but against "social units."
As seen earlier in North Vietnam and in Communist China, the Communists were seeking to break up the local social order by eliminating leaders and key figures in religious organizations (Buddhist bonzes, Catholic priests), political parties (four members of the Central Committee of Vietnam), social movements such as women's organizations and youth groups, including what otherwise would be totally inexplicable, the execution of pro-Communist student leaders from middle and upper class families.
In consonance with this, killing in some instances was done by family unit. In one well-documented case during this period a squad with a death order entered the home of a prominent community leader and shot him, his wife, his married son and daughter-in-law, his young unmarried daughter, a male and female servant and their baby. The family cat was strangled the family dog was clubbed to death the goldfish scooped out of the fish-bowl and tossed on the floor. When the Communists left, no life remained in the house. A "social unit" had been eliminated.
Phase II also saw an intensive effort to eliminate intellectuals, who are perhaps more numerous in Hue than elsewhere in Vietnam. Surviving Hue intellectuals explain this in terms of a long-standing Communist hatred of Hue intellectuals, who were anti-Communist in the worst or most insulting manner: they refused to take Communism seriously. Hue intellectuals have always been contemptuous of Communist ideology, brushing it aside as a latecomer to the history of ideas and not a very significant one at that. Hue, being a bastion of traditionalism, with its intellectuals steeped in Confucian learning intertwined with Buddhism, did not, even in the fermenting years of the 1920s, and 1930s, debate the merits of Communism. Hue ignored it. The intellectuals in the university, for example, in a year's course in political thought dispense with Marxism-Leninism in a half hour lecture, painting it as a set of shallow barbarian political slogans with none of the depth and time-tested reality of Confucian learning, nor any of the splendor and soaring humanism of Buddhist thought.
Since the Communist, especially the Communist from Hue, takes his dogma seriously, he can become demoniac when dismissed by a Confucian as a philosophic ignoramus, or by a Buddhist as a trivial materialist. Or, worse than being dismissed, ignored through the years. So with the righteousness of a true believer, he sought to strike back and eliminate this challenge of indifference. Hue intellectuals now say the hunt-down in their ranks has taught them a hard lesson, to take Communism seriously, if not as an idea, at least as a force loose in their world.
The killings in Phase II perhaps accounted for 2,000 of the missing. But the worst was not yet over.
Hue: Phase III
Inevitably, and as the leadership in Hanoi must have assumed all along, considering the forces ranged against it, the battle in Hue turned against the Communists. An intercepted PAVN radio message from the Citadel, February 22, asked for permission to withdraw. Back came the reply: permission refused, attack on the 23rd. That attack was made, a last, futile one. On the 24th the Citadel was taken.
That expulsion was inevitable was apparent to the Communists for at least the preceding week. It was then that Phase III began, the cover-the-traces period. Probably the entire civilian underground apparat in Hue had exposed itself during Phase II. Those without suspicion rose to proclaim their identity. Typical is the case of one Hue resident who described his surprise on learning that his next door neighbour was the leader of a phuong (which made him 10th to 15th ranking Communist civilian in the city), saying in wonder, "I'd known him for 18 years and never thought he was the least interested in politics." Such a cadre could not go underground again unless there was no one around who remembered him.
Hence Phase III, elimination of witnesses. Probably the largest number of killings came during this period and for this reason. Those taken for political indoctrination probably were slated to be returned. But they were local people as were their captors names and faces were familiar. So, as the end approached they became not just a burden but a positive danger. Such undoubtedly was the case with the group taken from the church at Phu Cam. Or of the 15 high school students whose bodies were found as part of the Phu Thu Salt Flat find.
Categorization in a hypothesis such as this is, of course, gross and at best only illustrative. Things are not that neat in real life. For example, throughout the entire time the blacklist hunt went on. Also, there was revenge killing by the Communists in the name of the party, the so-called "revolutionary justice." And undoubtedly there were personal vendettas, old scores settled by individual party members.
The official Communist view of the killing in Hue was contained in a book written and published in Hanoi: "Actively combining their efforts with those of the PLAF and population, other self-defence and armed units of the city (of Hue) arrested and called to surrender the surviving functionaries of the puppet administration and officers and men of the puppet army who were skulking. Die-hard cruel agents were punished."
The Communist line on the Hue killings later at the Paris talks was that it was not the work of Communists but of "dissident local political parties". However, it should be noted that Hanoi's Liberation Radio April 26, 1968, criticized the effort in Hue to recover bodies, saying the victims were only "hooligan lackeys who had incurred blood debts of the Hue compatriots and who were annihilated by the Southern armed forces and people in early Spring." This propaganda line however was soon dropped in favour of the line that it really was local political groups fighting each other.