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Vietnam Veterans Recall the Pivotal Battle for Hue City

Molly Hamilton Mar 07, 2018

On Thursday, March 1, a full-to-capacity Smokey Stover Theater onboard the USS Yorktown listened intently as five veterans of the Vietnam War discussed the pivotal 26-day battle for Huế City as part of the latest symposium at Patriots Point – “Taking the Fight to the Streets: The Battle for Huế City.”   The fight for what many considered to be the religious and cultural capital of South Vietnam began January 31 and lasted through March 3, 1968.  This urban military engagement was the longest and bloodiest battle of the North Vietnamese Army’s Tet Offensive Campaign and marked a shift of the battlefield from the jungle to the city streets.

Panelists for the symposium included four Marines who served during the battle – Lt. General Ron Christmas, Colonel Myron Harrington, Jr., Colonel Robert Thompson and Captain Rob Black – and John Olson,  an Army photographer for Department of Defense newspaper, Stars & Stripes, who was on the ground much of the battle.

Each veteran detailed their memories of one of the most critical battles of the Vietnam War.  Though previous battles had been fought in the jungles, this was the first to come into the city streets and the warfare tactics had to change tremendously.   As Col. Thompson explained, “It was a combination of the two worst kinds of combat, in the city and in a jungle. The city was a jungle. You could never spot someone shooting at you until he shot first and you took a casualty.”

Lt. General Christmas recalled how while the fight had changed, the Marines were ready to adapt.  “I think it’s a critical point that because of the nature of the Vietnam War we had gone away from urban warfare training,” said Christmas. “For example, all of the lieutenants had had exactly one hour of urban warfare training.”  Yet the Marines were able to do what they needed to overcome this change and succeed in a new environment, despite the lack of formal training.

“It comes down to adaptation,” said Christmas. “Young Marines have an amazing ability to adapt to the circumstance and the situation that they are in.  And that’s exactly what I saw, and I would suggest that my fellow commanders saw that too.”

Still, there were many challenges that faced the men on the ground and some were factors over which they had no control.  Colonel Thompson recalled one major factor: “The weather was our enemy.  It was a monsoon season and resupply and the evacuation of the dead and wounded became a real ordeal.”  Many soldiers died waiting to be evacuated and air support was made nearly impossible.  As Thompson recalled, “The sky opened up two or three times and we were able to get a few strikes in.”

The casualties took a heavy toll on the morale of the troops on the ground. Col. Harrington remembered, “We lost 40 percent of our men on the first day.”  Still, the Marines fought on and over the course of 26 days, less than 2,500 Marines were able to defeat more than 10,000 deeply entrenched enemy troops in Huế City.

Despite the military victory, in many ways the win on the ground was a loss at home.  The increased access for journalists during this battle provided citizens back home with a true and uncensored picture of the war and it was hard for citizens at home to reconcile the loss of life so far from home.

But the commanders appreciated the work of the journalists to get and tell the story.  Col. Myron Harrington said of some of the journalists, “Their bravery was fearless.”  He added, “I was impressed because they came in and they stayed.  They came in and stayed with us for the duration, and they had my utmost respect.”

John Olson was the only photographer on the ground at the time for Stars & Stripes and he thought it was a “wonderful job.”  But he knew he needed to get close to the action to tell the accurate story. “I tell people, if you are a combat photographer, you can’t fake it,” said Olson.  “You’ve got to be in the middle of things and the more violent the better.”  During the battle, he used up 19 rolls of film. “Photographs were everywhere, everywhere to be made,” said Olson. His photos were also published in LIFE magazine and are currently part of a major exhibit at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

The lessons learned at Huế continued to help our armed forces for the 50 years that have followed. General Christmas shared, “Post Vietnam, we went through a period … that literally the Army and the Marine Corps went to a doctrine of urban avoidance.  It took folks like we have up on the stage and others to force the issue that we are going to fight in urban areas, whether we like it or not.”  Over time, this led the Army and the Marine Corps to develop training to properly prepare the troops for fighting effectively in urban areas, using many of the lessons learned at Huế.

“I’m very pleased to tell you, if you look at the past decade, if you look at the fights in Fallujah (Iraq) and Marjah (Afghanistan), what you find is an excellence. You find young men and women who are unbelievable and do some tremendous things–they understand the fight.”  Lt. General Christmas attributes the success today with the battle fifty years prior.  “This really has come from our experience in Huế and that is good,” said Christmas.

The symposium is part of the ongoing “Ordinary People Doing Extraordinary Things” series offered by Patriots Point’s Institute of History, Science & Technology.  The symposium is also offered by Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum in their role as an official Commemorative Partner of  the United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration by the Department of Defense.

To watch the symposium in its entirety, check out our Livestream page here.

See the gallery below for photos from the event:

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3 thoughts on “Vietnam Veterans Recall the Pivotal Battle for Hue City

  1. Gary Roberts says:

    I miss serving on the Yorktown on the cod 767 for 4 years. She was and is a great ship- LADY YORKTOWN

    1. John Spencer says:

      I served on the Yorktown from Dec 1964 to April 1968, I was assigned to V-6 over the tech library and the C1A.

  2. Don Nelligan USMC Basic School Class of 1-61. says:

    Congratulations to Col. Thompson who was my C.O. at Basic School in 1961 at Quantico on his outstanding career and inspiring leadership toall who served under him as well as those who knew him.
    God bless him and his family.

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