By Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Eric Lockwood, Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
It was 47 years ago today when the birth of the Vietnamese New Year started off with a bang: the Tết Offensive of the Vietnam War.
Those in the North referred to it as the General Offensive or General Uprising on Jan. 30, 1968. No matter the name, it was the largest military campaign conducted by either side of the war to that point.
Among the largest battles was Huế City. The Marines fought with considerable distinction and bravery. Because of this, the guided-missile cruiser USS Huế City (CG 66) is named in their honor, and is the only U.S. Navy ship named after a Vietnam battle.
“It’s a great honor that I can hardly describe, serving at the helm of a warship named for the Battle of Huế City,” said the cruiser’s commanding officer Capt. Wyatt N. Chidester. “The history of the Vietnam conflict is often viewed through the emotional lens of the upheaval the war caused back home, overlooking the acts of true heroism and sacrifice of those who fought it. Whether pierside for training, or deployed, the crew and their families have been and continue to be inspired by, and are proud to honor those who served so bravely at Huế City.”
In fact, as it has done for the past 21 years, the ship will hold a special memorial observance at the ship’s homeport of Mayport, Fla. in March.
‘All Hell Broke Loose’
To start off the Vietnamese New Year—Tết—the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) took the South Vietnamese, U.S. and allies mostly by surprise when they attacked by night various command and control centers in the northern half of South Vietnam.
Rear Adm. Kenneth L. Veth, Commander, U.S. Naval Forces, Vietnam (COMNAVFORV), remembered during a 1977 interview, “The first thing we knew about it was when we were all waked up (sic) in the middle of the night, and all hell broke loose in the way of gunfire and explosions.”
By the morning, the Communists were attacking targets from Quang Tri close to the border in the north to Ca Mau near the southern tip of the country. Though the Viet Cong and NVA beat back Southern forces and captured several cities during the initial confusion, the South usually managed to regain their losses within a few days.
Except, however, for the city of Huế. A key city logistically, Navy supply boats were headquartered there on the banks of the Perfume River, and the Vietnamese army’s Highway One supply line ran through it.
The NVA planned to capture the Tây Lộc Airfield, Mang Ca Garrison, the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) compound, and the Imperial Palace. The three-pronged attack began shortly after midnight. By 8 a.m., the National Liberation Front for Southern Vietnam banner was flying from the Citadel.
Artillery, mortar shells, tank blasts, sniper fire, and tried-and-true foot soldier firefights in the streets besieged the city for nearly a month.
“Almost every spot that was an open piece of ground was under fire,” said U.S. Marine then-Capt. Myron Harrington, in a 1981 interview with the WGBH Educational Foundation. “You were almost in the face-to-face, eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with the NVA. […] As a result of their being so entrenched and utilizing the concrete type of buildings that we were running across, it required us to bring maximum fire power at our disposal to eliminate them.”
Soon after it started, the U.S. Marines came to lead the defense. However, these Marines and soldiers had never fought in a city.
“[They] had been accustomed to the rice paddies,” said Harrington. “Street fighting was an entirely new experience for everyone in that company. Our last Marine Corps experience in street fighting had been in 1950 in Seoul, Korea. There were very few Marines left on active duty and those who were would have been too senior to participate in the Battle of Hue.”
They had to learn anew the tactics—to spread out in a firefight, not to gather at spots that could come under fire, to take cover in a ditch and not in a building, or similar structures.
But firefight-by-firefight, meter-by-meter, block-by-block, they retook the city. By the end of the month the South Vietnamese flag was flying from the Citadel once again.
“For the American military that [Tết] offensive was a grand paradox,” said retired U.S. Army Col. Harry G. Summers Jr. “At the battlefield tactical level, the enemy was defeated and turned back at every turn without achieving any territorial gain. At the theater-of-war operational level, their campaign was an absolute failure. Not only did the South Vietnamese people fail to flock to their banners, the South Vietnamese military stood firm and their own Viet Cong guerrilla forces were so decimated that they ceased to be an effective fighting force for the remaining seven years of the war. But at the strategic level, the Tet Offensive was an unmitigated disaster for the United States.”