Editor: Michael Spilling and Consultant Editor: Chris McNab
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.
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.