Tet 4

Pham Van Tuong, a part-time janitor at a government office, was gunned down in his front yard along with his two small children. Mrs. Nguyen Thi Lao, a cigarette vendor, was executed, presumably because her sister worked in a government bureau. Anyone resisting arrest was promptly killed, and those who surrendered to the Com¬munists often fared no better. Five South Vietnamese officers, who emerged from their hiding place without a fight, were taken to a high school playground and each shot in the head. Many people disappeared after submitting to Vietcong promises of a quick release, as one woman later recalled: “The Communists came to our house and questioned my father, who was an elderly official about to retire. Then they went away, returning afterward to say that he had to attend a study session that would last only ten days. My mother and I were worried because the Communists had arrested his father in just that way in 1946. Like his father, my father never came back.”
Clandestine South Vietnamese teams slipped into Hue after the Communist occupation to assassinate suspected enemy collaborators; they threw many of the bodies into common graves with the Viet- cong’s victims. The city’s entire population suffered in one way or another from the ordeal and Trinh Cong Son, a poet who survived the holocaust, later expressed his sentiments in an ironically macabre ballad.
I saw, I saw, I saw holes and trenches.
Full of the corpses of my brothers and sisters.
Mothers, clap for joy over war.
Sisters, clap and cheer for peace.
Everyone clap for vengeance.
Everyone clap instead of repentance.
On February 24, South Vietnamese troops ripped the Vietcong flag down from the south wall of the citadel, hoisting the government’s red and yellow banner in its place. Many were natives of Hue whose families had been ravaged by the Communists, and they had fought well. But three U.S. marine battalions played the decisive role in the liberation of the city. Myron Harrington, then commanding a hundred-man company, remembered afterward his apprehensions as a truck convoy transported his unit toward the battle from Phu Bai, a marine base to the south: “I could feel a knot developing in my stomach. Not so much from fear—though a helluva lot of fear was there—but because we were new to this type of situation. We were accustomed to jungles and open rice fields, and now we would be fighting in a city, like it was Europe during World War II. One of the beautiful things about the marines is that they adapt quickly, but we were going to take a number of casualties learning some basic lessons in this experience.”
Leaving their vehicles, the marines crossed the Perfume River aboard landing craft as Communist troops peppered the boats from both shores. The weather was cold and clammy, and the low overcast made tactical air support almost impossible. They entered Hue from the north, cautiously threading through its streets as they headed to¬ward the citadel to bolster another marine unit already there. Har¬rington was prudent, but the scene appalled and frightened him: “My first impression was of desolation, utter devastation. There were burnt-out tanks and trucks, and upturned automobiles still smolder¬ing. Bodies lay everywhere, most of them civilians. The smoke and stench blended, like in some kind of horror movie—except that it lacked weird music. You felt that something could happen at any minute, that they would jump out and start shooting from every side. Right away I realized that we weren’t going to a little picnic.”
Harrington’s orders, received soon after reaching the marine com¬mand post near the citadel, were to take a fortified tower located along the east wall that was bristling with North Vietnamese and Vietcong troops. The next morning, he launched a frontal assault with two platoons and a tank. Artillery and mortars had shelled the target in advance, but his men faced an implacable enemy. As one of the pla¬toons moved out, a round hit its radio operator, breaking Harrington’s contact with his right flank from the start. “Needless to say, we continued. The marines, super guys, crawled and crept toward the wall and up the tower, clearing the North Vietnamese and Vietcong from their spider holes one by one with hand grenades and rifle fire. At one stage, we began to draw fire from buildings nearby, and that caused us problems for several days. But our artillery neutralized it, and we finally took the tower, which gave us the high ground, the critical terrain that marines always try to gain.”
The marines could now direct artillery against the citadel, their forward observer giving the batteries such precise readings that the shells often fell within twenty-five yards of their position inside the fortress. But the battle went on for another ten days as they pushed ahead into the intricate recesses of the old structure, and, Harrington recalled, the combat became increasingly close, almost intimate.
As a marine, I had to admire the courage and discipline of the North Vietnamese and Vietcong, but no more than I did my own men. We were both in a face-to-face, eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation. Sometimes they were only twenty or thirty yards from us, and once we killed a sniper only ten yards away. After a while, survival was the name of the game as you sat there in the semidarkness, with the firing going on constantly, like at a rifle range. And the horrible smell. You tasted it as you ate your rations, as if you were eating death. It permeated your clothes, which you couldn’t wash because water was very scarce. You couldn’t bathe or shave either. My strategy was to keep as many of my marines alive as possible, and yet accomplish our mission. You went through the full range of emotions, seeing your buddies being hit, but you couldn’t feel sorry for them because you had the others to think about. It was dreary, and still we weren’t depressed. We were doing our job—success¬fully.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *