After punishing early experiences, Col. Ernie Cheatham literally reread the manuals on urban warfare. He realized advancing down the streets was suicide, and that the best way to assault a building was not through the door or window, but by blowing a hole in the wall. He mustered all the heavy weapons he could find—mortars, 106-millimeter recoilless rifles, M42 Duster self-propelled antiaircraft guns, LAW antitank rockets—and then used them to systematically blow open opposing defensive positions one building at time. Then he’d send in riflemen to clear the ruins of survivors.
One obscure weapon which featured prominently was the Ontos antitank vehicle, which mounted six recoilless rifles. You can see one in action in Hue in the video below.
A single platoon of M48 Patton tanks played an outsized role as well, their metal hulls providing vital cover for Marines advancing down streets, and transport for the injured. The shell-shocked crews also occasionally disobeyed the rules of engagement to blow up an enemy position. The North Vietnamese were well equipped with their own recoilless rifles, and these punched through the Pattons’ armor on several occasions, injuring or killing crew. The tankers grew paranoid about leaving their armored vehicles, which became clouded with pot fumes during their breaks from combat at the MACV compound. After a brutal battle to capture the city stadium, the tankers raced each other around the track before being relieved by a replacement platoon, though not before a last tanker was seriously wounded by a mortar round while loading his tank on a boat.
The Terrible Toll
Hue 1968 pays particular attention to key role played by journalists played in exposing the fact that a major battle was taking place in Hue, contrary to inaccurate claims from Saigon and Washington that all was under control. Bowden also describes the attempts by U.S. Army units to relieve pressure on the Marines by hitting the NVA logistical base in the nearby jungle. Once again, initial attacks were given too little support to succeed, and one surrounded Army battalion was even forced to exfiltrate by night to avoid destruction.
Bowden does not mince words about the cruelty and senselessness of the North Vietnamese executions, nor the casual racism and disregard for civilian refugees exhibited by U.S. forces in Vietnam. Civilians attempting to cross the shifting frontlines ran unfathomable risks. Thousands of refugees would eventually gather around the MACV compound, where they were left without food or water for days. One U.S. soldier recalls a middle-aged woman prostituting herself in exchange for combat rations to feed her family.
Not everyone was heartless. Vietnamese civilians risked their lives to shelter foreign guests. Priests harbored thousands of civilians in their places of worship on the Northern-held side of the city. Military and civilian medical personnel alike worked tirelessly to save as many lives as they could.
After a week and a half of bloody warfare, Cheatham’s battalion succeeded in clearing the southern triangle of Hue. The task of recapturing the formidable walls of the citadel was then assigned to the fresh troops of Maj. Bob Thompson’s Alpha 1/5 Battalion. Crossing the Perfume River under a hail of fire, the new unit repeated many of the mistakes of its predecessors and suffered atrocious casualties in the opening days of its push in the citadel. For the following three weeks, Marines fought for control of the citadel’s fortified towers, with soldiers scaling up stone walls as if assaulting a medieval fortress.
Clear skies and changes to the rules of engagement finally allowed the wrath of American airpower and artillery to fall upon the citadel. Used to crush the fiercely defended Communist strongpoints, the bombs and shells also killed countless civilians hiding in their homes. Others were shot down by soldiers on both sides who treated everything moving as a target.
Hue 1968’s later chapters lack the diverse Vietnamese viewpoints featured in the first part of the book, both from the North Vietnamese side and even more so from the South Vietnamese, who were present in Hue in larger numbers and suffered heavier casualties than the Marines. Bowden’s street-level approach also provides only incidental detail about Air Force and Navy operations in Hue, which clearly grew considerable, as Navy ships provided direct naval gunfire fire support and Air Force Skyhawk and Phantom jets blasted the citadel. The ambitious global scope of the early chapters narrows down to the more fragmented view of Marines struggling to capture one building at a time.
By the time the survivors of the last NVA units slipped out of the city on March 3, Bowden estimates that ten thousand had died in the struggle for Hue—including roughly 250 U.S. military personnel, at least ten times that many North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers, five hundred South Vietnamese military and around six thousand civilians.
The Tet Offensive marked an unusual turning point in the war. In military terms, North Vietnamese forces a costly defeat from which its troops spent years recovering.
But in committing to a losing battle, Hanoi had won the war. The battle shattered Washington’s confident illusion of steady progress, the faith in the “body counts” being propagated by Westmoreland. It made clear that South Vietnam could barely hold on to its major population centers without heavy American support.
To an American public already leery about the escalating costs and moral compromises of the Vietnam War, the Battle of Hue established that “winning” in Vietnam would require far more time, effort, and lives than it was willing to sacrifice. And it demonstrated that Communist forces were ready to sacrifice a lot.
Hue today stands as testimony to how communities can recover from even the greatest trauma given enough time. The city is now once again a center of culture, religion, and even cuisine. Small family-owned restaurants along the canals beckon passersby to sample their delicacies. The imperial palace has been partially restored from the ravage of the war.
In one corner of the citadel, a small military museum with a collection of tanks, jet fighters, and heavy weapons also bears some personal relics of the conflict, providing a pro-Hanoi narrative of the battle with more than a bit of swagger. A plaque under a light machine gun proclaims that it was used to “shoot down four American helicopters.”
But Vietnam today is more likely to buy an American helicopter than shoot one down, as Washington and Hanoi tentatively explore closer economic and military ties. Political differences remain between the United States and Vietnam, of course, but the deepest scars of war gradually fade as new buildings, new national projects and new generations come into being.
Bowden’s book reminds us of the cruel lessons learned at Hue by intertwining the personal and the political, and the tactical realities of combat with the strategic dysfunctions underpinning the American war in Vietnam. A few critics have grumbled that Bowden is too harsh on the generals, that his very personal account lacks the comprehensive strategic vision to evaluate America’s options in the war, that it is impossible to describe any battle as a turning point, that his hundreds of footnotes are not meticulous enough and so forth.
Yes, given the choice between writing an intimate and riveting narrative or a more guarded, academic, high-level analysis, Bowden opts for the former. That is no mistake, in my view: the historical lessons that have a human face, that sicken our guts and tug at our heart strings, are more intuitive and more persuasive than dry scholarly formulations abstractly speculating about the victories that could have been.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.
This article first appeared in 2017.