Here’s What You Need to Know: The Communist strategy of bringing local VC cadres into the streets resulted in an unmitigated disaster.
The city of Hue was the capital of a unified Vietnam from 1802 until 1945. With its stately, tree-lined boulevards, Buddhist temples, national university, and ornate imperial palace within a massive walled city known as the Citadel, Hue was the cradle of the country’s culture and heritage. As late as 1967, Hue remained an open city, unscathed by the various wars that since World War II had raged up and down the Indochinese peninsula. But when Communist leaders in North Vietnam felt compelled to alter their strategy and launch a massive offensive in South Vietnam in early 1968, the Battle of Hue City suddenly placed the city into of some of the heaviest fighting of the entire Vietnam War.
Stung by reversals on southern battlefields and fearful of an American invasion of their homeland, North Vietnam’s Politburo members voted to abandon protracted-war tactics and mount a three-phase general offensive that would reverse the course of the war against the South Vietnamese and their American allies. When Defense Minister and Chief of Staff General Vo Nguyen Giap, vanquisher of the French in 1954 after a brutal eight-year war, voiced opposition to the offensive, command was given to General Nguyen Chi Thanh, leader of Communist Viet Cong guerrilla forces in South Vietnam. When Thanh died unexpectedly, Giap reassumed command and rapidly massed six North Vietnamese Army infantry divisions in South Vietnam’s northernmost province, Quang Tri.
The Tet Offensive Begins
In the fall of 1967, Giap launched a series of big battles near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that had two objectives: draw American forces north, away from the heavily populated coastal and lowland cities, and determine if the Americans would respond with an invasion of the north. A massive buildup of Communist troops and equipment in the south began. General William Westmoreland, commander of allied ground forces in South Vietnam, responded by sending more troops and firepower into the northern provinces, but he did not launch an invasion of Laos or North Vietnam. This gave Giap the confidence he needed to order the winter-spring offensive to proceed. Giap would find Westmoreland a far more tenacious commander than France’s Lt. Gen. Henri Navarre, who had allowed 15,000 of France’s finest troops to be surrounded and destroyed at Dien Bien Phu. Westmoreland, for his part, welcomed Giap’s deployment of sizable forces in outlying, sparsely populated areas where America’s massive firepower could be brought to bear.
The main effort of Giap’s preliminary phase began on January 21, 1968, at Khe Sanh in northwestern South Vietnam, where two NVA divisions lay siege to the U.S. Marine combat base there. Believing the Communists might be trying to achieve another Dien Bien Phu, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared that Khe Sanh must be held at all costs. With all eyes on Khe Sanh, the Communists then launched the main offensive in the early morning hours of January 31. Some 84,000 NVA and Vietcong soldiers, brazenly violating the Tet (lunar new year) cease-fire, mounted simultaneous attacks on 36 of 44 provincial capitals, five of six autonomous cities, including Saigon and Hue, 64 of 242 district capitals, and 50 hamlets.
With many South Vietnamese soldiers away on holiday leave, the Communists enjoyed widespread early success—even the grounds of the U.S. embassy in Saigon were breached. Within days, however, all of the assaults in the smaller towns and hamlets were turned back. Heavy fighting continued for a while in Kontum Province, Can Tho, Ben Tre, and Saigon, but after a week the offensive, by far the largest of the war to date, had been essentially halted everywhere except for Hue. There, the longest and bloodiest battle of the Tet offensive began to unfold.
The third-largest city in South Vietnam with a wartime population of 140,000, Hue was located astride National Highway 1 just west of the coast, about 50 miles south of the DMZ, on one of the principal land-supply routes to allied troops. One-third of the city’s citizens lived north of the Perfume River in the Citadel. Just outside the walls of the Citadel to the east was the densely populated district of Gia Hoa. The Citadel was an imposing fortress, covering three square miles with a labyrinth of readily defensible positions protected by an outer wall 30 feet high and up to 90 feet thick. Many parts of the wall were honeycombed with bunkers and tunnels built by Japanese occupiers during World War II. At the south end of the Citadel lay another enclave, the Imperial Palace compound, a square with 20-foot-high walls that measured 800 yards per side.
The 1st ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) Division, commanded by Brig. Gen. Ngo Quang Truong, was headquartered in the fortified Mang Ca compound in the northeast corner of the Citadel. Unfortunately for Truong, who was regarded by many American advisers as one of the ablest senior commanders in the South Vietnamese armed forces, over half his division was on holiday leave and out of the city when the Tet offensive erupted. Most of Truong’s remaining units were spread out along Highway 1 from Hue north toward the DMZ. The closest South Vietnamese unit was the 3rd ARVN Regiment, with three battalions, five miles northwest of Hue. The only combat unit inside the city was the division’s Hac Bao Company, known as the Black Panthers, an elite all-volunteer unit that served as the division’s reconnaissance and rapid-reaction force. Security within the city was the responsibility of the National Police.
South of the river and linked to the Citadel by the six-span Nguyen Hoang Bridge, over which Highway 1 passed, lay the New City. This modern section was about half the size of the Citadel and included about two-thirds of the city’s population. It contained the hospital, provincial prison, Hue University, government administration buildings, and the MACV (U.S. Military Assistance Command Vietnam) compound, which housed 200 American and Australian military advisers to the 1st ARVN Division. The advisers were the only allied military presence in the area when the Battle of Hue City began. Their lightly fortified compound lay on the eastern edge of the city just south of the Nguyen Hoang Bridge.
The nearest U.S. combat base was at Phu Bai, eight miles south on Highway 1. Phu Bai was a major Marine Corps command post and support facility, home to Task Force X-Ray, a forward headquarters of the storied 1st Marine Division. Commanded by Brig. Gen. Foster LaHue, assistant commander of the 1st Marine Division, the task force consisted of two Marine regimental headquarters and three battalions—the 5th Regiment, with two battalions; and the 1st Regiment, with one battalion. LaHue and most of the troops had only recently arrived in Phu Bai from Da Nang and were still getting acquainted with their area of operations when the Battle of Hue City began. There were U.S. Army units in the area as well. Two brigades of the elite 1st Air Cavalry Division (Airmobile), including the 7th and 12th Cavalry Regiments, were scattered over a wide area from Phu Bai in the south to Landing Zone (LZ) Jane just below Quang Tri in the north. The 1st Brigade of the famed 101st Airborne Division, recently attached to the 1st Cavalry Division, had recently arrived at Camp Evans, north on Highway 1 between Hue and Quang Tri.
Opposing the allied troops in the region were at least 8,000 well-trained, well-equipped Communist soldiers. The majority were NVA regulars armed with a vast array of weapons, including brand-new AK-47 assault rifles, RPD machine guns, B-40 rocket-propelled grenade launchers, rockets, mortars, and recoilless rifles. The NVA were backed by six Vietcong main force battalions, including the 12th and Hue City Sapper Battalions (a typical VC main force battalion numbered between 300 and 600 veteran, skilled soldiers). The Communists had prepared extensive plans for the assault on Hue, which would be directed by General Tran Van Quang, commander of the B4 (Tri Thien-Hue) Front. The plan called for a division-sized assault on the city while other units cut off access to block allied reinforcements.
With detailed information on civil and military installations within Hue, the Communists divided the city into four tactical areas and prepared a list of 196 specific targets. Communist assault troops received intensive training in urban warfare tactics before the offensive began. Vietcong cadres also prepared detailed lists of “cruel tyrants and reactionary elements” to be rounded up during the early hours of the attack. The list included South Vietnamese government and military officials, civil servants, American civilians, educators, clergy, foreigners, and other so-called “enemies of the people” who were to be relocated into the jungle outside the city once they were apprehended. The Communists were well aware that the bad weather that traditionally accompanied the northeast monsoon season would hamper allied aerial resupply operations and close air support, which would otherwise have given the allies in Hue a significant advantage.