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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


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

*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).

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