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JAMES R. ARNOLD
Inside the city, Brigadier General Ngo Quang Truong, the commander of the 1st ARVN Division, had received Westmoreland's alert calling for cancellation of the cease-tire. Considered one of the best South Vietnamese generals, Truong gathered his staff at his HQ compound and kept them on 100 per cent alert. This vigilance paid dividends when the enemy attack struck. But over half his division's manpower still received holiday leave. Furthermore, given Hue's record as an 'open' city, Truong did not think the Communists would attack the city itself. He positioned his battalions to defend outside the urban area. Here too was a failure in preparation.
When the attack came, the only regular garrison comprised the all-volunteer Hoc Bao (Black Panther) Reconnaissance Company, 1st ARVN Division. They guarded Truong's HQ in the northern corner of the citadel. Scattered throughout the rest of the city were support troops. Across the Perfume River was the South Side, where a Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MAC A) compound housed American and Australian advisers and staff. These two strongpoints were to become islands of resistance when the 12th VC and Hue City VC Sapper Battalions, two NVA infantry regiments, and a rocket battalion flooded the city.
Surrounded by rows of thick-walled masonry houses, with many streets too narrow to permit access by Marine armour, the Citadel at Hue was a difficult position to even approach. Tall trees and hedgerows limited visibility to 25 yards. With two weeks to prepare, the defenders dug hundreds of camouflaged, mutually supporting positions rendering the Citadel an extremely tough objective. The old fortress and flag tower, from where the Communist banner flew during the long battle.
At 2am, 31 January, one of Truong's outlying patrols reported at least two enemy battalions advancing on the city. Apparently the Tet-induced torpor prevented him from making much use of this warning. In any event, he did not notify his allies at the MACV compound. They first learned of the enemy's presence an hour and forty minutes later when a dozen 122mm rockets detonated in their compound. Additional rocket and mortar bombardment provided preparatory fire while local VC, who had already infiltrated Hue dressed as civilians, took up positions to await the arrival of NVA assault troops hurrying into the city.
The Communists mistimed their first assault on the MACV compound. Instead of following on the heels of the rockets, they waited some five minutes. This gave the defenders just enough time to gather weapons and man defensive positions. A brave army soldier purchased another five minutes by manning an exposed machine-gun position atop a 20-foot wooden tower built on the compound's walls. His fire stopped the first rush of some forty NVA soldiers belonging to the 4th Infantry Regiment, who tried to advance to the walls to set satchel charges. A B-40 rocket round toppled him from his perch and allowed the attackers to storm the gate. Here they encountered some US Marines manning a bunker. They too slowed the attack until falling to a hail of RPG rounds. The time bravely bought allowed the defenders, including a tough crew of Australian warrant officers, to form a cohesive defence. The enemy changed tactics and tried to subdue the garrison with mortars and automatic weapons fire delivered from overlooking buildings. Isolated, unaware that enemy attacks had exploded nation wide, the garrison hunkered down and prayed for help.
All around their compound, and across the river, the 4th and 6th NVA Regiments and their VC comrades controlled most of the city and were freely roaming the streets. While the combat soldiers began fortifying mortar and machine-gun positions, special operatives began rounding up the people on their numerous lists. From atop the Citadel flagpole, a huge red-blue-gold Viet Cong flag flew. It had taken about two hours for the Communists to capture Hue, the country's second largest city.
Eight miles south of the city was the US Marine Corps Phu Bai Combat Base. Here the assistant commander of the 1st Marine Division, Brigadier General Foster LaHue, sifted through reports telling him of enemy activity throughout his area of responsibility. Included in the reports was one sent by the beleaguered defenders of the MACV compound, which had slowly drifted through the chain of command. Having been filtered by so many command levels, it conveyed little sense of urgency. Amid the confusion, Lallue apparently failed to appreciate both the scale and the critical nature of events in Hue. But, responding to orders, he did send reinforcements. Two and a half platoons belonging to 'A' Company, 1/1 Marines, boarded trucks and headed for Hue, not knowing that close to a full division of enemy soldiers awaited them.
Fortunately, the Marines married up with four M-48 Patton tanks along the way. As the small convoy neared Hue's outskirts, Communist marksmen opened fire and wounded several grunts. The convoy ran the gauntlet of fire, crossed a teetering canal bridge that enemy sappers had partially destroyed and approached a cluster of buildings. They reminded the company commander, Captain Gordon Batcheller, of an old western town, two-storey wooden buildings with no sidewalks, and - most ominously - with no people. The captain ordered his men out of the trucks and on to the tanks. Then, in best Marine Corps tradition, he boarded the lead tank and ordered the advance. From the tank decks the grunts sprayed the buildings with fire as they drove by. In return came a tremendous volume of AK-47 fire and volleys of RPGs. One RPG thudded into the leading tank spraying Batcheller with shrapnel and cutting the legs off his radioman. The survivors gathered along a ditch and tended their wounded. From adjacent buildings and rooftops Batcheller could see NVA infantrymen firing at his unit. It was very different from the paddy and jungle war where one seldom saw the enemy. Alpha Company needed help.
Joining the 'A' Company convoy were two Army 'Dusters', 40mm antiaircraft weapons used with deadly effect against ground targets.
Around noon the commanders at Phu Bai learned of 'A' Company's plight. Lieutenant Colonel Marcus Gravel received the mission of taking another company, Golf 2/5, forward to retrace Alpha Company's steps and try to relieve them. He had no information other than Alpha Company was pinned down. Naked valour would have to substitute for preparation, firepower and tactics. Although the NVA would ambush, with dismal regularity, most of the convoys that drove along the road to Hue, this group made it without incident. They joined Alpha Company's survivors, now led by a wounded gunnery sergeant, and fought their way towards the MACV compound. A dug-in NVA machine-gun opened fire. Although already wounded, Sergeant Alfredo Gonzalez crawled towards it along a roadside ditch. Drawing near, he tossed a grenade into the position and silenced the machine-gun. The advance continued to the MACV compound. One of the defenders was to recall: 'I have little doubt that many of us would not be alive today, had those Marines not arrived.'