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US Marines in Vietnam: 1968 The Defining Year

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Page 164(The Struggle for Hue-The Battle Begins )


Chapter 9

The Struggle for Hue-The Battle Begins

The Two Faces of Hue-The NVA Attack-Redeployment at Phu Bai and Marines Go to Hue

The Two Faces of Hue

As the former imperial capital, Hue was for most Vietnamese the cultural center of the country. With an equal disdain for both northerners and southerners, the religious and intellectual elite of the city held themselves aloof from active participation in the war. Instead they advocated local autonomy and traditional Vietnamese social values that led to a distrust of the central Saigon government and its American allies as well as Communism. In both the 1963 Buddhist uprising and the 1966 'Struggle Movement,' the monks from the Hue pagodas and students and professors at Hue University provided the informal leadership against the successive Saigon regimes.

Despite the city's reputation for dissidence, the Communists failed to take advantage of the Hue protest movements. Both the South Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong troops for the most part refrained from any show of force in the immediate vicinity or in the city itself. With a sort of unspoken truce in effect, Hue afforded both sides a certain respite from the war.* With a wartime population of about 140,000 persons, Hue retained much of its prewar ambience. Divided by the Huong or Perfume River, the city emitted a sense of both its colonial and imperial pasts. It was, in effect, two cities.

North of the river, the three-square-mile Citadel with its ramparts and high towers gave the appearance of a medieval walled town. Built by the Emperor Gia Linh in the early nineteenth century, it contained the former imperial palace with its large gilt and dragon-decorated throne room. Within the Citadel walls lay formal gardens and parks, private residences, market places, pagodas, and moats filled with lotus flowers. Buddhist bells and gongs as well as the chant of prayers resounded through its streets.

South of the river lay the modem city. Delineated by the Perfume River and the Phu Cam Canal into a rough triangle, southern Hue was about half the size of the Citadel. The university, the stadium, government administrative buildings, the hospital, the provincial prison, and various radio stations were all in the new city. Attractive Vietnamese schoolgirls dressed in the traditional Ao Dai bicycled or walked along stately Le Loi Boulevard, paralleling the riverfront. The Cercle-Sportif with its veranda overlooking the Perfume River evoked memories of the former French colonial administration.

In January 1968 as the Tet season approached, however, a certain uneasiness lay over the city. The cancellation of the Tet truce and the enemy attacks on Da Nang and elsewhere in southern I Corps dampened the usual festive mood of the holiday season. On 30 January, Brigadier General Ngo Quang Truong, the commanding general of the 1st ARVN Division, canceled all leaves and ordered his units on full alert. Most of the troops, however, already on leave, were unable to rejoin their units. Moreover, the only South Vietnamese forces in the city itself were the division staff, the division Headquarters Company, the Reconnaissance Company, a few support units, and Truong's personal guard, the elite 'Black Panther' Company. The division headquarters was in the walled Mang Ca military compound, self-contained in the northeast corner of the Citadel. General Truong positioned the Black Panthers on the Tay Loc airfield in the Citadel, about a mile southwest of the division compound. In the southern city, the U.S. maintained a MACV compound in a former hotel which served as a billet and headquarters for the U.S. advisory staff to the 1st ARVN Division.1

The NVA Attack

Although allied intelligence reported elements of two NVA regiments, the 4th and the 6th, in Thua Thien Province, there was little evidence of enemy activity in the Hue sector. Indeed, the 1st ARVN Division dismissed any conjecture that the enemy had either 'the intent' or 'capability' to launch a division-size attack against the city. U.S. order of battle records listed the 6th NVA headquarters with its 804th Battalion in the jungle-canopied Base Area 114, about 20 to 25 kilometers west of Hue. One battalion, the 806th, was supposed to be in the 'Street Without Joy' area in


*Peter Braestrup, then the Saigon Bureau Chief for the Washington Post, observed that this informal truce only applied to Hue. Peter Braestrup, Comments on draft, n.d. [Jan95] (Vietnam Comment File).



Page 164(The Struggle for Hue-The Battle Begins )
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