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JAMES R. ARNOLD
TET OFFENSIVE 1968. TURNING POINT IN VIETNAM

Marine Corps Patton tanks helped the grunts edge their way forward through Hue's streets. In officer recalls that the tanks drew heavy enemy fire: 'The moment a tank stuck its nose around the corner of a building, it looked like the Fourth of July' such was the volume and variety of hostile fire. One tank received 121 hits and went through five crews. Survivors came out looking 'like they were punch drunk'. This Patton halts before a destroyed canal bridge in Hue.

Once the objective had been attained, helicopters arrived to take out the many wounded. Then Gravel's two much-reduced companies received new orders from LaHue. He was to drive across the Perfume River, through the Citadel, and link up with General Truong in the 1st ARVN Division compound. Gravel protested to no avail. LaHue radioed back: 'Proceed.' Sadly, headquarters was out of touch with reality and would remain so for far too long. The misguided effort inevitably failed. The advance reached half way across the Perfume River bridge when NVA machine-gunners opened fire. Ten Marines fell dead or wounded in the opening volley. Golf Company pressed on, only to be ambushed in the narrow, winding streets bordering the Citadel. Gravel ordered an unauthorized retreat. Fifty of Golfs 150 men had been killed or wounded. That night, Gravel raged against the foolish orders that had sent his men to their doom. The only thing he felt thankful for was that the NVA had made a mistake too. Instead of holding fire just a little longer, which would have drawn Golf Company hopelessly into the maze of streets near the Citadel, they had shown their inexperience and fired too soon. The thought that the other side made mistakes provided some comfort as the two depleted companies manned a defensive perimeter around the MACV compound on the South Side.

Pin toon Sergeant Alfredo Gonzalez, 21 years old, served with Alpha Company during its ambush on 31 January. When his unit suffered intense enemy fire, and although wounded from multiple shrapnel hits, Gonzalez rushed through the kill zone to rescue wounded Marines and drag them to shelter. Later in the action, he crawled along a roadside ditch to hand-grenade an enemy machine-gun that continued to pin his unit down. Four days later, having refused medical evacuation, while fighting through the Joan of Arc School, Gonzalez kicked in a door and led the rush into a school room. The NVA fired a hail of RPGs from point-blank range across the courtyard. The sergeant returned the fire with LAW rockets and silenced the enemy position. Suddenly a last enemy rocket entered the room striking Gonzalez in the midsection. Called 'the perfect Marine' by his officer, Gonzalez received a posthumous Medal of Honor for his conduct on 31 January.

The successful defence of the MACV compound on the South Side, and the concurrent defence of the 1st ARVN Division HQ compound in the northern part of Hue unhinged Communist defensive plans. Helicopters could, and did, land reinforcements at these two points. Both then served as bases from which to begin the counterattack to recapture the city. Instead of having a secure perimeter along fixed lines, the Communists had to defend against multiple threats including eruptions from within what they had thought would be their defensive perimeter. This was the significance of the gallant defence of the two strongpoints during the initial terror filled hours of the Tet Offensive. It also highlights the importance of the successful relief drive by the two Marine Corps companies during the first day.

A Marine observation plane makes a low-level pass over the Perfume River. Lieutenant Colonel Gravel's Marines successfully assaulted the river but could not expand their bridgehead on the far side.

Counter-Attack

One of the first Communist targets had been the jail, housing some 2,500 inmates. After liberation, about 500 of them joined the attacking forces. The attackers also captured numerous American-made weapons when they seized the ARVN armoury during their opening assault. This, together with their ability to keep an open supply line from the A Shau valley, some 30 miles to the west, meant that the Communists were heavily armed and possessed ample ammunition. In addition, five reinforcing battalions joined the nine that made the initial assault. The weather too aided the Communists. Recurring misty drizzle greatly hampered Allied airpower. However, the rigid Communist plan could not adapt to the changed circumstances caused by the two Allied strong- points within their lines. Instead of making a major effort to eliminate these positions, the attackers yielded the initiative, dug-in and awaited the Allied counter-attack.

M48A3 Patton tank of 1st Tank Battalion, USMC, Hue. Illustration by Peter Sarson and Tony Bryan.

The second day in Hue, 1 February, established the pattern for the remainder of the battle. The generals, from LaHue on up, spoke in terms of 'mopping-up' and 'pushing the VC out of Hue this morning'. Meanwhile, three Marine companies, eventually reinforced by a fourth, began a building by building struggle through an eleven by nine block area to clear the South Side. Even alley, street corner, window, and garden wall harboured potential death. The only way to advance was to blast an entrance with bazooka or recoilless rifle lire and then send fireteams and squads into the breach. To charge through a blow-in door, clamber over an exposed garden wall, or sprint across an intersection required great bravery. The Marines' special espril de corps motivated the 18- and 19-year-old grunts to do these things and more, repeatedly, for nearly a month.

After fighting up a street, through a garden and into a house against tough resistance, a Marine officer who had led the charge took time to inspect the enemy position. He found two-foot-thick concrete walls with bunker-style firing slits. The slits provided a perfect field of fire down the street and into the building from where the Marines had staged the assault. Stepping back, the officer could only mutter: 'Son of a bitch, son of a bitch.'

In times past, a wounded Marine expected to receive medical evacuation and an extended recovery period. In Hue, those suffering from any but the most disabling wounds commonly were patched up by medical personnel and voluntarily returned to duty. A company leader later wrote: 'I had several men who had shrapnel in legs and arms and hobbled around and begged me not to medevac them.' Another officer thought that 'it was payback time' for the Marines who had endured prior months of sniper fire and booby traps without being able to hit back. The presence of even rifle-wielding grunt was badly needed. Since the High Command seriously under-estimated their opposition, the attackers received paltry reinforcements. For most of the long battle, a mere two understrength battalions conducted the advance. A frustrated battalion commander wondered: 'Why must they always piecemeal us into battle?'

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