By Raymond A Stewart.
Abstract (Summary) Lieuenant Colonel Karl J. Fontenot, the tank battalion commander, recalled: We had four tanks that were due to go into the city of Hue that morning that Hue fell, to load onto LCUs to go on up to Dong Ha. Georgaklis had no idea that the “administrative move” up the road to Dong Ha would take 2 ½ weeks, include some of the toughest fighting that tanks had encountered to date in the Vietnam War, and would write yet another chapter in the impressive history of Marine tank operations. Incoming medevac helicopters, with a supply of ammunition, prompted tanks with accompanying infantry to the adjacent landing zone (LZ) to provide suppressing machine-gun fire from the north side of the Perfume River.
In early January 1968, the Viet Cong announced a seven-day Tet truce to last from 0100, 27 Jan. until 0100, 3 Feb. However, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) had infiltrated two regiments of regulars into Hue City to join the local Viet Cong forces already embedded there.
At 0340 on 31 Jan. 1968, behind a thundering rocket and mortar barrage, the North Vietnamese seized most of Hue. However, what the enemy did not capture, and to their ultimate peril, was the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) compound the landing craft (LCU) ramp in south Hue and the 1st Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) Division compound in north Hue.
A little more than 10 hours later, four 3d Tank Battalion tanks with leathernecks of Company G, 2d Bn, Fifth Marine Regiment and Co A, 1/1 on board rumbled into the MACV compound in south Hue. Within hours of the NVA attack, the Marines were in the enemy’s face. The 26 -day Operation Hue City had begun.
Over the years, the ancient imperial city of Hue, former capitol of Amman, predating the Republic of Vietnam, had become an “open city.” There was minimal military presence in the city and not much more adjacent to it. The NVA saw Hue as key and thought it would be an easy target. The Marines were to alter that thinking by dealing the enemy a staggering defeat.
In response to the urgent calls from Hue, Task Force X-Ray, commanded by Brigadier General Foster C. LaHue and located south of Hue in Phu Bai, dispatched A/1/1 Marines to relieve the U.S. and ARVN forces under siege in the MACV compound. The company trucked north to Hue along Highway 1. By pure chance A/1/1 linked up with four tanks from 3d Tanks.
Lieuenant Colonel Karl J. Fontenot, the tank battalion commander, recalled: “We had four tanks that were due to go into the city of Hue that morning that Hue fell, to load onto LCUs to go on up to Dong Ha. The vehicles included the two command (M48A3 90 mm) gun tanks and two (M67A2) flame tanks,” commanded by Second Lieutenant J. E. Georgaklis.
Fontenot told Task Force X-Ray, “I’ve got four tanks going up the road and I’m just going to tell them to join the first unit they find.” Georgaklis had no idea that the “administrative move” up the road to Dong Ha would take 2 ½ weeks, include some of the toughest fighting that tanks had encountered to date in the Vietnam War, and would write yet another chapter in the impressive history of Marine tank operations.
The 3d Tanks’ command chronology reads, “At 0800 on 31 Jan., the gun tanks from battalion headquarters and two flame tanks departed the battalion command post en route to Dong Ha via Hue. On Route #1 the unit was advised of heavy enemy activity toward Hue. The unit continued and linked up with an infantry company also moving toward the city.
“In the vicinity of YD 7821 [grid location], the tanks and infantry encountered another infantry unit, which was engaged with the enemy. The combined force fought its way into the southern portion of the city in an effort to reach the LCU ramp. While en route, the unit was ordered to relieve the MACV compound in Hue, which was under siege. After eight hours of house-to-house street fighting, the unit entered the MACV compound and joined in its defense.”
The first indication that the situation was dangerous was when tanker Lance Corporal Carl “Flash” Fleischman, driving tank number H- 52, “saw an ARVN M41 tank blown up with human pieces hanging out of it.” Then, when crossing the Phu Cam Canal, “all hell broke loose.”
The incoming increased from both sides at very close quarters. Small- arms rounds sounded like gravel pelting a metal building. Rocket- propelled (B-40) grenades (RPGs) blew exterior-mounted equipment off the tanks and did their best to deal mobility or firepower kills to the tanks. The riding infantry was swept from the tanks. The tanks buttoned up and were guided by the supported infantry’s eyes and ears.
When G/2/5 reached the tank-infantry column, the combined force fought its way toward the MACV compound. The tanks led the way and the remaining infantrymen trailed behind using the tanks, trees and road bank as cover from the fire coming from the city.
Sergeant B. L. Mitchell, a platoon sergeant in G/2/5, described the fight: “A/1/1 was already there when we came up. They were pinned down and we combined our outfits, along with some tanks that were with A/1/1. We took the point along with the tanks. They provided a tremendous base of fire and kept the snipers off our a-. We directed the tanks from the phone on the rear fender. They provided us cover as we moved toward the MACV compound. Tanks were the only way we could get them … out. Without them-hell, we’d still be there getting our a- shot off.”
No sooner had the tank-infantry force reached the MACV compound than G/2/5 received orders to attack across the Perfume River via the Nguyen Hoang Bridge and “take the Citadel.” Tanks took on the snipers across the river with high volumes of .50-cal. and .30-cal. machine- gun fire. The leathernecks of G/2/5 rushed by squad across the bridge but began to sustain unacceptably high casualties. They withdrew.
Incoming medevac helicopters, with a supply of ammunition, prompted tanks with accompanying infantry to the adjacent landing zone (LZ) to provide suppressing machine-gun fire from the north side of the Perfume River. The tanks took the shortest, safest route to the LZ- through houses and walls.
The Marines wasted no time attacking out of the MACV compound. On 3 Feb., 3d Pit, F/2/5, with two tanks, attacked west down the street. Within a block, the NVA’s withering fire brought the attacking combined force to a halt. While the tanks provided volumes of suppressing fire, the NVA, in well- concealed and heavily covered buildings and behind concrete walls, overcame the inexperienced infantry. The Marines-used to fighting in the rice paddies and jungle- were fast learners.
To paraphrase LtCol Ernest C. Cheatham Jr., the 2/5 commander, it took just one good fight for his Marines to become the match of the world’s-best street fighters.
The word came down for A/1/1 with its tank and Ontos (six 106 mm recoilless rifle) attachments to take the Joan of Arc School. After battling their way to, and then into, the school compound the Marines entered the church to clear out the snipers. The NVA were in the rafters, dropping hand grenades on the Marines.
Fully understanding the possible ramifications of destroying the building, the company commander weighed his options. Placing the well- being of his Marines first, he ordered the tanks to, “Take the roof off.” The tanks blasted the roof with 90 mm high explosive (HE) rounds.
With 1/1 ‘s taking of the Joan of Arc School, and 2/5’s occupation of the provincial capital, the NVA’s back was broken. By the end of the first week of the battle, enemy resistance in south Hue began to show signs of crumbling. The fighting settled to a systematic house- to- house action of squad and platoon rushes.
The Marines would attack each morning, fight all day, and at night hold up. Under the cover of darkness, the Marines ate and replenished food, water and ammo. Tanks and commandeered civilian vehicles were used to evacuate the wounded. Success depended on the coordination of mortars, tanks and recoilless rifles, good radio contact, as well as strong leadership and the valor and aggressiveness of the individual grunts and tracked vehicle crewmen.
By 6 Feb., 2/5 had retaken the provincial headquarters, the prison and the hospital. According to official Marine Corps documentation, “Last organized resistance south of the [Perfume] river was extinguished on 9 February.” That day, 2dLt Georgaklis’ tank (H-51) was destroyed by four RPG rounds that hit the turret. The turret was penetrated wounding three of the crewmen. The tank burned all day as the 90 mm rounds cooked off.
At 2200 on 11 Feb., 2d Pit, “Alpha” Co, 1st Tank Bn landed at the LCU ramp. The tank company commander, Captain Conwill Casey, accompanied the platoon and set up his company CP in south Hue. On 11 and 17 Feb., additional 1st Tank Bn assets arrived.
On 13-14 Feb., Georgaklis’ provisional platoon from 3d Tanks packed up and moved to the LCU ramp. And on 17 Feb. at 1630, after 2 lA grueling weeks, they loaded out for Dong Ha. Cpl John Wear, a flame tank TC, recalled that he saw the platoon of Alpha Co, 1st Tanks offloading on the north side of the Perfume River.
Flash remembered “I was the only one of the original ones there who made it through the whole thing.” Flash picked up his second of three Purple Hearts on the way down the Perfume River.
The 3d Tank Bn command chronology credits the Provisional Pit’s two gun tanks with firing 1,147 rounds of 90 mm. The two flame tanks expended 60 seconds of napalm, and the platoon of four tanks fired 15,000 rounds of .50-cal. and 155,000 rounds of .30-cal. The four tanks took more than 28 antitank weapon hits. The platoon sustained one killed in action and 14 wounded in action and was credited with 145 confirmed enemy KIA.
On 12 Feb., as 2/5-supported by the just-arrived Alpha Co, 1st Tank Bn-was mopping up pockets of resistance and expanding its offensive to the east and west of south Hue, Major Robert H. Thompson’s 1/5 was helilifted into north Huethe Citadel. The helilift coincided with a platoon of M48A3 90 mm gun tanks from Alpha Co, 1st Tanks moving through the Trong Dinh Gate and into the adjacent 1st ARVN Division compound.
The platoon was a cobbled-together blend of Capt Casey’s company headquarters’ tanks along with tanks from each of the three tank platoons. Many of the tankers met each other for the first time on the LCU ride up from Da Nang. None had experience in urban fighting. However, there was no doubt that they were Marine tankers led by a superior tank officer, First Lieutenant Ron Morrison, and would fight like no others.
Once in the ARVN compound, 1stLt Morrison and Maj Thompson agreed that the supporting tanks, with infantry squad protection, would fight the battle together. Included in this Marine combat team was the 106 mm recoilless rifle-armed Ontos. Each of these elements- infantry, tanks and the Ontos -brought to the party unique capabilities that, if worked together, would ensure the best chance for success in winning the battle for the Citadel.
Cpl Mario Tamez said that most every night, as the day’s Citadel battle wound down, the tanks came clanking back to the ARVN compound. Later in his career, Thompson stated “They reminded me of knights returning to the castle after fighting the dragon all day.”
The infantry squad leaders, who provided the eyes and ears to their tanks as they worked through the confined streets, met with the tank and Ontos crewmen to critique the day. After the evening meal, the leathernecks would plan the next day’s attack while the tanks topped off with fuel and ammo for continuing the attack.
Tamez estimated that the tanks took more than 63 RPG/B-40 hits during the nine days they battled the NVA/VC. Another tank crewman, LCpl Dennis Martin, agreed. The tanks usually led the attack down the narrow streets. Streets in some sectors of north Hue were so narrow that the end connectors on the side of the tank treads made contact with the buildings on both sides. They were always surrounded. Within a few days fighting, the tank crews were reduced to three men. The tank commander was often a lance corporal, and two privates first class made up the crew.
Retired Colonel Bob Thompson, when asked, “What would you have done without the tanks?” said, “Oh, we would have won; it would have taken us longer and we would have sustained greater casualties- greater than the 60 percent we did.”
At one point during the battle, Thompson’s force had gone four days without resupply. Because so much of the success of the battle was dependent on tank and Ontos support, Thompson would not continue the attack until they were rearmed.
The toughest north Hue objective was the massive Dong Ba Tower, which looked down on and controlled access to the Dong Ba Gate. The tank 90 mm HE rounds turned the tower into a very large pile of rubble that seconded as an early grave for the NVA occupants.
On 21 Feb., the newly arrived L/3/5, employing IstLt Morrison’s tanks and the Ontos, turned the corner toward the Imperial Palace and presided over the waning NVA/VC resistance. On 22 Feb., the Marines seized their final objective, the southeast wall of the Citadel. Private First Class T L. Foster, a tank security squad leader, said “If had it not been for tanks, we could not have pushed in -they had bunkers everywhere. Tanks are about all that saved us.”
At midnight on 27 Feb., Operation Hue City officially ended. Lasting 26 days, it was a bloody fight of the Tet offensive. Three Marine and 11 ARVN battalions were eventually committed to retaking the city. Americans lost 216 killed and 1,364 wounded in action, while the ARVN lost 384 killed and 1,830 wounded. The United States estimated enemy casualties at 5,000 with 1,042 killed.
Marine tanks had led the charge into south and then north Hue, fired the opening shots and been credited with more than 300 enemy KIA. The tank-infantry team never performed more brilliantly in a built-up area.
Marine tanks have again proven their value in combined arms operations in the largely urban battles of Iraq.
Author’s note: For a more detailed account of Marine tanks in the Battle of Hue City, visit the Marine Corps Vietnam Tankers Historical Foundation Web site at www.usmcvta.org/foundation