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

Flak-vested 1st Regiment Marines move a 106mm recoilless rifle into position to open the way through the next block of buildings during the house-to-house fighting in Hue.

While the Marines operated on the South Side, Lieutenant General Hoang Xuam Lam worked to recapture the Citadel. He planned to use the 1st ARVN Division HQ's perimeter as a base of operations. First he needed to send reinforcements, and this proved very hard. The 7th ARVN Armored Cavalry and two airborne battalions had to force a convoy through a major ambush to reach Hue. Similarly, two battalions of the 1st ARVN Division's 3rd Regiment took fearful losses during their approach march. During 1 February, the 2nd ARVN Airborne Battalions and the 7th ARVN Cavalry recaptured Tay Loc Airfield, but only after suffering heavy losses including twelve armoured vehicles and the death of the cavalry squadron commander. Facing resistance even bit as tough as that confronting the American Marines across the river, the South Vietnamese slowly advanced through well-prepared fortified positions. By 4 February, a battalion of the 3rd ARVN Regiment - a regiment that would consistently fight harder than any other ARVN formation and take crippling losses as a result - stormed the An Hoa gate taking the Citadel's north-west wall. This effort consumed the aggressive spirit of the airborne and regular ARVN forces. On the night of 6 February, a ferocious nocturnal NVA counter-attack by storm troops using grappling hooks drove the ARVN forces from the recently recaptured south-west wall.

The Americans tended to denigrate the combat skills and bravery of their South Vietnamese allies. After-combat reports and subsequent history focused on actions featuring Americans. However, ARVN forces took the brunt of the Tet Offensive and their losses reflected this. In Saigon alone, while the American attention focused on the Embassy, racetrack and Tan Son Nhut, on the first day of battle 88 ARVN soldiers died and 239 were wounded. The elite Airborne, Ranger and Marine units suffered most of these losses. ARVN Airborne soldiers with a captured Viet Cong. In Hue the American Marines felt badly let down by the lack of contribution from the ARVN. Said one: 'The ARVN were an unruly lot and they made sure to stay far to the rear of the advancing Marines... We'd see them after a pitched battle, driving up in trucks to loot the buildings we had just captured... I think if the ARVN ever enjoyed any fighting reputation with the Marines, they lost it in Hue.'

STREET FIGHTING IN HUE

1-27 February 1968. Typical urban combat scene as US and ARVN forces battle with NVA and VC units for control of the city.

The battle for the old Imperial Capital of Hue began on 31 January and continued until 2 March 1968. In a guerrilla war, Hue was an exception, an extended urban combat against a foe who tried to hold fixed objectives. The battle featured two NVA regiments backed by two VC sapper battalions against eight US and thirteen ARVN infantry battalions. The urban landscape denied the Allies their two greatest weapons — mobility and firepower. The battle became a savage small-unit house-to-house combat. After the first few days, the ARVN units had spent their impetus. It was left to the Marines to recapture Hue.

Aided by local sympathizers and impressed civilian labour, the defenders turned each block into a fortress. They sited crew-served weapons at doorways and windows to sweep the streets; they used back alleys and lanes to hasten reinforcements to threatened sectors and to launch sudden, unexpected counter-attacks.

For the attackers it was a battle of fire-team rushes. Battle-scarred Patton tanks operated in the main street, but in these confined areas they were unmistakable targets for NVA machine-guns and RPGs. Holed repeatedly, the tanks would withdraw briefly. The dead and wounded crew were removed, replacement crews installed and the tanks returned to combat. Many tanks went through several crews a day.

Behind them came the flak-vested grunts. Working in close coordination with the tanks, they methodically reduced the Communist positions and clawed their way forward. From adjacent buildings, Marine scout-sniper teams tried to eliminate Communist snipers while providing covering lire for the grunts in the street. Deadly man-to-man sniper duels ensued.

Jeep-mounted recoilless rifles and Ontos anti-tank vehicles gave direct-fire support. Lightly armoured, they utilized bold hit-and-run tactics. They would appear suddenly around a debris-clogged corner, lire, and then dash for cover.

When assault up the main streets proved impossible, Marine fire-teams manoeuvered through back alleys to attack from the rear. Numerous garden walls and hedgerows made such tactics difficult. To work up courage for the assault, many Marine teams chanted in unison as they awaited the signal to charge. A bazooka round provided this signal when it blasted a hole in the masonry wall separating one garden from another. Then the assault teams rushed through the breach. Too often the first through the breach fell to the defender's withering automatic weapons fire.

Both sides utilized CS tear gas rounds. Thus the battle was one of the few of the war where the presence of gas forced the combatants to fight wearing gas masks. Hue was urban combat at its worst. A day's advance was measured in yards.

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