Tet and the Popular Uprising at Hue

At the beginning of the Tet Offensive, American media outlets focused on the spectacular Vietcong attacks in Saigon. On January 31, 1968, millions of American television viewers watched as U.S. military police attempted to root out and kill the Vietcong still inside the U.S. embassy grounds. The viewing public also saw in vivid techno-colour Vietcong sappers, who had barricaded themselves inside the Saigon radio station, detonate a huge explosive charge, killing themselves and destroying the communications facility

In the most memorable incident of the entire Tet Offensive, photographer Eddie Adams and a NBC camera crew captured on film the moment Chief of the South Vietnamese National Police General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executed Vietcong prisoner Nguyen Van Lem with a single pistol shot to the head. Notwithstanding the visual impact of those television images, and their influence on public perceptions of the war, the militarily-significant attacks, and the ones that indicated that the Vietcong had successfully orchestrated a series of popular uprisings, occurred elsewhere.

The most stunning Communist achievement during the Tet Offensive took place at Hue. While General William C. Westmoreland and his intelligence chief General Phillip Davidson focused on the Marine combat base at Khe Sanh, the Communists made preparations to seize Hue. As a precursor to the attack on the city, the Vietcong and North Vietnamese pre-positioned troops and supplies at two jumping-off points – one in the A Shau Valley west of the city and another north of the DMZ near the Vinh Moc tunnel complex.

North Vietnamese units had dominated the A Shau Valley since 1966, transforming it into one of their biggest logistical bases in South Vietnam. The Americans avoided the A Shau because it sat immediately east of the border with Laos and the Communist base camps in that country. Sizeable North Vietnamese units, marching south on the main truck routes in Laos or stationed in the Laotian base camps, could quickly pivot eastward and charge into the A Shau to contest any American incursion.

The A Shau’s unpredictable weather further limited American access to the valley.  Thick clouds, fog, rain, and high winds all-too-frequently blew into the valley, grounding U.S. helicopters, transport planes, and the fighter-bombers needed to support foot soldiers. Terrain and vegetation added to the difficulties of fighting there. High timbered hills flanked the valley floor – the very sort of environment that favoured dug-in Communist defenders.  General John R. Tolson of the 1st Cavalry Division described the A Shau. “This valley is one of the weirdest pieces of terrain I’ve ever seen…It’s a great big ditch among a whole bunch of hills. The valley floor is 2,000 feet deep.”[1]

In peacetime, Route 547 carried overland traffic between the A Shau and Hue. But by 1968, the North Vietnamese and Vietcong dominated the hills overlooking the road. Any American or South Vietnamese convoy attempting to enter the A Shau over Route 547 stood a good chance of being ambushed. The A Shau was a “no go” zone – an area deep in what the Americans called “Indian Country.”[2]

In the final days of January 1968, eight Communist battalions, or approximately 4,000 men, stepped quietly out of the A Shau and began walking the 22 miles toward Hue. Observing strict noise and light discipline and hidden by clouds and mist, the Americans never saw nor heard them coming. Route 547 took them to the western edge of the coastal plain, where they bivouacked and made final plans for the capture of Hue.

After sundown on the evening of January 30, the Communist troops again set out, marching along the north and south banks of the Song Huong Giang, known in English as the “River of Perfumes.” As they passed friendly hamlets, villagers joined the columns of men, volunteering as porters, stretcher-bearers, and guides. Near Hue, the troops and their civilian supporters skirted the Tomb of Emperor Minh Mang, its former groomed grounds overgrown with vines and its moats brimming with lotuses. Tourists rarely visited the tomb anymore, deeming the site too dangerous because of the Vietcong known to be living nearby.[3] The North Vietnamese regulars and Vietcong guerrillas quickened their pace after they passed the Linh Mu Pagoda, three miles west of the Hue citadel (the walled fortress that enclosed the former imperial city).[4]

Early on the morning of January 31, Communist soldiers, armed with AK-47s and RPGs, trotted up and over the pavement of National Route 1 and then dashed across the railroad tracks below the tall, thick brick walls of the citadel. Other units pushed into Hue south of the Perfume River, rushing on toward the American university and U.S. military headquarters complex located on the south end of the city’s picturesque suspension bridge.

By sunrise on January 31, the Communists occupied almost all of the citadel except the northeast corner, where South Vietnamese rangers held on desperately against the powerful forces arrayed against them. That the North Vietnamese and Vietcong had been able to get into Hue came as a shock to the American troops based at Phu Bai. W.D. Ehrhart, who served with the Marines eight miles south of the city, remembered the surprise he and his fellow grunts felt when they first learned that the Communists had taken Hue and that no one on the South Vietnamese side had forewarned the Americans of the pending attack.[5]

In subsequent days, the North Vietnamese and Vietcong succeeded in reinforcing their positions in the citadel. Two Communist supply routes provided them with ammunition, food, and replacements. One route extended from the DMZ southward between Highway 1 and the South China Sea. This route went through a region known since the First Indochina War as the Street Without Joy. The existence of this overland route meant one thing.  After three years, the Americans had still not pacified the Street Without Joy.  The region’s peasants remained solidly Vietcong.

A second supply route linked the citadel to the A Shau Valley. Five enemy battalions, or 2,500 men, entered Hue after the start of the battle along this route before U.S. units uncovered it and deployed a blocking force across its path.[7] The Hue-A Shau route, like the one through the Street Without Joy, pointed to widespread popular support for the Communists amongst the rural population living in the lowlands between Hue and the foothills of the Central Highlands.

The successful Communist seizure of Hue depended on the people of Hue and its environs.  Local peasants and the radicalized youth of Hue made Communist occupation of the city possible. Ms. Hoang Lanh, who served with the Vietcong at Hue during the Tet Offensive, believed that a popular uprising occurred in the city and in the area around it. She recalled, “…in Hue we conducted a mass mobilization. The people brought us food, they hid us, and took us to the road and showed us the way. Hospitals were set up to treat the wounded. Thousands and thousands of soldiers and officers were taken in by the people of Hue.”[8]

General William C. Westmoreland, who was always loath to acknowledge the popularity of the Vietcong and North Vietnamese amongst the South Vietnamese peasantry, later confessed that a fifth column helped the Communists at Hue. The American general neither specified the size nor composition of that fifth column. He also refused to clarify whether it consisted of tens of thousands of rural residents, thousands of city dwellers, or a combination of both.  He merely stated, “…enemy regular units…were able to infiltrate Hue with the help of accomplices inside the city.”[9]

As it turned out, both South Vietnamese peasants and South Vietnamese urbanites aided the Communists at Hue.  And it was that popular uprising that enabled the North Vietnamese and Vietcong to seize the city and then hold it for so long.

Endnotes

[1] New York Times, “U.S. Forces Begin Massive Assault on Ashau Valley,” April 29, 1968.

[2] Don Oberdorfer, Tet: The Turning Point in the Vietnam War, (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2001), 205; Willard Pearson, Vietnam Studies, The War in the Northern Provinces, 1966-1968, (Washington DC: Department of the Army, 1975), 78.

[3] Peter T. White, National Geographic Magazine, “Behind the Headlines in Viet Nam,” Illustrations by Winfield Parks, Vol. 131, No. 2, February 1967, 149-188, 152, 166; Martha Hess, Then the Americans Came: Voices from Vietnam, (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1994), 180-181.

[4] Pearson, War in the Northern Provinces, 39; Keith W. Nolan, Ripcord: Screaming Eagles Under Siege, Vietnam, 1970, (Novato, California: Presidio Press, Inc., 2000), 6; White, “Behind the Headlines in Viet Nam,” 188.

[5] White, “Behind the Headlines in Viet Nam,” 152; W.D. Ehrhart, Vietnam-Perkasie: A Combat Marine Memoir, (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995), 245.

[6] Nolan, Ripcord, 6; Robert Pisor, The End of the Line: The Siege of Khe Sanh, 1982, Reprint, (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2002), 178; Pearson, War in the Northern Provinces, 62.

[8] Hess, Then the Americans Came, 176.

[9] Marvin E. Gettleman, Jane Franklin, Marilyn B. Young, and H. Bruce Franklin, Vietnam and America: The Most Comprehensive Documented History of the Vietnam War, (New York: Grove Press, 1995), 347.

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