NVA attack on Hue I

No one dreamed that the Communists would launch a major assault anywhere in South Vietnam during the Tet truce. It was well known that something might happen just before or just after the three-day truce, but the Communists had never seriously violated Tet.

Weeks of intelligence gathering indicated that the 4th and 6th NVA regiments were, respectively, ten kilometers south and twenty kilometers north of Hue—a day’s march. The two NVA units had both been in evidence for some weeks and had not directly engaged any ARVN or U.S. units except Sergeant Jack Lofland’s tiny CAP patrol. Elements of the 5th NVA Regiment, which was hiding in the hills west of Hue, were not detected at all.

No one seemed to know why two crack regiments had suddenly appeared in the vicinity of Hue, nor how or when they had arrived. But they were not bothering anyone or even making threatening moves. The NVA regiments were tracked, but they were not molested. The 1st ARVN Division was spread too thin to challenge the NVA, and all the American combat units anywhere near Hue were too busy with moving-in problems to take decisive action.

That no special precautions—much less active attacks—were undertaken despite strong evidence pinpointing two elite NVA regiments violated one of warfare’s most enduring tenets: One must never base actions on what the enemy’s intentions might be; all action must be based upon the enemy’s capabilities. No one guessed what the 4th and 6th NVA regiments might be doing near Hue, but no one posited, either, what they could accomplish if they went into action. A mild report about the NVA regiments was issued to local military agencies, but neither ARVN nor any U.S. headquarters overseeing the sector promulgated an alert.

The first shots of the Hue offensive were fired at 2200 on January 30. The unwitting culprits were members of the South Vietnamese Regional Forces (RF) company defending a pontoon span at Nam Hoa, south of Hue, where the Ta Trach and Huu Trach rivers join to form the Perfume River. It is doubtful the typically jumpy RFs actually saw any Communist troops on their way toward Hue. They probably opened fire on shadows or images from their worst nightmares.

Lieutenant Nguyen Thi Tan’s 1st ARVN Division Reconnaissance Company was patrolling an area several kilometers west of Hue. Tan heard the shooting and routinely deployed to search the immediate area. This was fortuitous, because the reconnaissance troops discovered immediately that they were directly in the path of a large-scale military migration. As Lieutenant Tan and his Australian Army advisor crouched in the scrub growth, scores of dark forms filtered silently past them toward the city. Tan instantly warned his thirty-five ARVN soldiers to stay under cover and remain still and silent. Then he radioed the 1st ARVN Division CP and whispered his report of the contact and every detail he could make out. Before long, two enemy battalions had passed the reconnaissance company’s position.

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The Communists’ contemplated seizure of Hue was only one part of Resolution 13’s nationwide “decisive victory,” but it was a major part. Except for the massive assault scheduled to take place in and around Saigon, no attack on any city in South Vietnam would involve more Communist troops than the attack on Hue. Bright jewel of Vietnam’s briefly glorious past, Hue bore a symbolic importance greater than its size. The lightning victory the Communists expected to win there would be memorialized by special victory celebrations, including a triumphal parade by crack NVA regiments. They would march and celebrate and receive the accolade of the “risen” masses.

The Communists planned to seize Hue in one blow, a bluntly straightforward coup de main. To this end, they had gathered a force of over 5,000 crack NVA and VC soldiers under the direct leadership of the commanding general of the Communist Tri-Thien-Hue Military Region (encompassing Quang Tri and Thua Thien provinces). The Hue assault and occupation force comprised the elite, independent 4th, 5th, and 6th NVA regiments; the 12th NVA Sapper (engineer assault) Battalion; at least one other unidentified NVA sapper battalion; one NVA rocket battalion; local VC combat units of various types and sizes; and the VC’s crack Hue City Sapper Battalion. Elements of all these units were to take part in the initial assault on the city, following a precise tactical plan developed from close study of a scale model of Hue painstakingly constructed from cast-off American ration boxes. The eight-foot-square model was so detailed that even replicas of major radio antennas were included.

By the evening of January 30, VC spearhead companies had already slipped into the city in the guise of civilian pilgrims. They were to re-form at designated meeting sites, and, together with NVA units scheduled to slip into the city en masse during the night, attack and overrun a stunning variety of military and civil objectives. There were 314 immediate objectives in all, from the 1st ARVN Division CP to the home of Hoang Huu Pha, a schoolteacher and member of the Vietnamese Nationalist Party.

The planning, thorough to the last detail, had been the work of many weeks. Hundreds of infantry weapons—including .51-caliber heavy machine guns and perhaps hundreds of tons of ammunition, demolitions, and supplies—had been smuggled into Hue disguised as civilian goods or, at the last minute, in gift-wrapped parcels.

The initial attacks were timed to create maximum confusion and prevent mutual support by city-based GVN National Police and ARVN units. As the military and civil targets fell, VC political cadres supported by NVA infantry units were to fan out through the city, arresting political figures and civil workers and calling on the people of Hue to rally to the Communist cause. Once the city was completely subdued, the victorious VC and NVA units would have their glorious victory parade, after which they would help fortify the entire city to stand off possible counterattacks.

Because the seizure of Hue was to be part of a huge matrix of Communist assaults that same night, outside support was expected to be minimal inasmuch as all ARVN and American military units in the area would be under attack at once. The large U.S. and ARVN bases north and south of Hue would be heavily bombarded, and ARVN and American checkpoints and choke-points along Highway 1, such as passes and bridges, would be directly attacked or bombarded to sow maximum confusion and delay counterattacks.

Each section of Hue was literally an island isolated by the waters of the Perfume River, its complex of feeder streams and canals. Therefore Hue was an ideal military target. Each section could be isolated with great ease by attacking and holding the limited number of bridges. Efforts by surviving ARVN or National Police units inside Hue to reinforce one part of the city from another could be stopped by defensive positions at any of these obligatory crossing points. In the event of outside attack, each of Hue’s islands could be separately fortified and, because most of the waterways were narrow, supported by infantry weapons fired from adjacent islands. Moreover, except for in the wartime shantytowns, nearly all the buildings inside the Citadel and in the modern city were of stout concrete or masonry construction. Each building was a potential pillbox or bunker that could be fortified to withstand direct assault by even the most heavily equipped modern infantry.

But the Communists never really expected that they would have to defend Hue against a threat from the outside. Throughout South Vietnam, large components of the ARVN were expected to mutiny—many might even rally to the Communists. In swift course the hated Americans would be herded toward Vietnam’s ports, whence they would be free to sail away forever, as had the French in 1954. TCK-TKN would culminate in decisive victory, the reunification of Vietnam under the Communist banner. The Communists had no doubt about it.

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Because the Hue City Sapper Battalion had to cross especially rugged terrain, it was the first of the Communist combat units staged on the outskirts of Hue to begin its move into the city. The battalion left its jungle camps on the morning of January 29. The unit had to be broken up into very small groups so it could be safely ferried across the deep Ta Trach River, south of Hue, that night. The crossing went according to plan.

That same night the crack VC sapper unit was followed to the Ta Trach ferries by elements of an NVA sapper battalion and the 4th NVA Regiment’s 804th NVA Battalion, which were slated to attack and overrun the MACV Compound. These units also crossed the Ta Trach without incident. They followed the Hue City Sapper Battalion toward the southern outskirts of the city.

The 4th NVA Regiment’s plan and timetable came a cropper on the afternoon of January 29, when troops of the NVA sapper battalion and the K4C NVA Battalion were detected on the south bank of the Ta Trach. Though this component was bombarded by artillery for two hours, no ARVN or American infantry force was dispatched to investigate. The NVA dragged their casualties back into the jungle, regrouped, and waited until the next afternoon, January 30, to resume the crossing operation. A full day behind schedule, this major assault force did not have a prayer of attacking its objective in concert with the rest of the Tet assault forces. Thus the main body of the 7th ARVN Armored Cavalry Battalion, south of Hue, would be spared an early disabling blow.

Despite the discovery of one NVA force, ARVN and American units completely missed the next NVA arrival. The K4B NVA Battalion and an NVA sapper battalion, which were charged with seizing the heart of the modern city, moved into a village on the south bank of the Ta Trach and remained there under cover through January 30. They began crossing the Ta Trach and advancing on Hue at dusk.

The 810th NVA Battalion, a component of the 4th NVA Regiment, was apparently not slated to enter Hue until around noon on January 31. At any rate, it was not detected in Hue until then.

The four-battalion composition of the 4th NVA Regiment was strange, and it gives some credence to reports that the K4B and K4C battalions were actually amalgams of NVA and VC main-force companies-Indeed, the unit designations are more in line with the VC order of battle. It is possible that the amalgams were conceived to present the appearance of a general uprising— that is, to suggest that southern troops were involved in the liberation of Hue. Alas, what the NVA and VC did in 1968 to obscure their orders of battle from U.S. and ARVN intelligence also obscures it from historians.

(Though it confuses the issue, it must be said that all NVA battalion designations given here are somewhat speculative. To mask their true order of battle and the battlefield situation, VC and NVA regularly relabeled their units when identifying them in documents or broadcasts. It is virtually certain, however, that four battalion-size infantry units and two sapper battalions were employed to invest the city south of the Perfume River, and that all were operating under the 4th NVA Regiment.)

#

To the north and west of Hue, the 6th NVA Regiment began moving out of its jungle camps at 1000, January 30, about the time Brigadier General Ngo Quang Truong was putting his intuitive alert into effect. By 1800, shortly after dark, the lead element of the 6th NVA Regiment left the cover of the jungle and proceeded in orderly columns toward the city. The lead unit stopped on a high hill at 2000 and prepared the evening meal: a special Tet treat of dumplings, Tet cakes, dried meat, and glutinous rice mixed with sugar. After the meal the soldiers received one canteen of tea apiece, and the officers checked the troops’ gear. Many soldiers took the opportunity to change from their jungle clothing into fresh khakis, complete with unit tabs and decorations—a sign of their confidence that they would meet little opposition before the planned victory parade.

As soon as all preparations had been completed, the 6th NVA Regiment broke up into three assault groups. The first, composed of forty crack troops and a hand-picked infantry company, crossed Highway 1, passed through a large village, waded across a stream, and approached the northwest wall of the Citadel. When the general attack commenced, this force was to penetrate directly into the ARVN CP compound by way of an old water gate that ran through the center of the compound’s northeast wall.

The 6th NVA Regiment’s second element, the 806th NVA Battalion, crossed Highway 1 and prepared to attack and occupy an ARVN checkpoint and highway bridge at the western corner of the Citadel. Once its objectives had been seized, this force could fend off counterattacks from the direction of PK 17.

The battle plan called for the 806th NVA Battalion to attack the temporary camp of the 2nd ARVN Airborne Battalion also. This camp was just northwest of the Citadel. But on January 29 the crack ARVN airborne unit had been routinely transferred to another location, out of reach to the north of the city. The Communists were unable to alter their plans on such short notice. Consequently the 2nd ARVN Airborne Battalion and the accompanying 3rd Company, 7th ARVN Armored Cavalry Battalion, remained a potentially dangerous mobile force that would have to be countered if it moved on the city.

The 6th NVA Regiment’s main body, composed of the 800th and 802nd NVA battalions, waded across a wide creek due west of the Citadel. This was the force that had nearly walked over Lieutenant Tan’s 1st ARVN Division Reconnaissance Company. It was the only Communist force that any ARVN or American unit had pinpointed in advance. However, no action was taken to prevent it from reaching its jump-off positions.

After crossing the creek the 800th and 802nd NVA battalions proceeded to Ke Van Creek, which formed the Citadel’s southwestern moat. They crossed this barrier without incident and went to ground in the shadow of the Citadel wall. As soon as NVA and VC units opened the Hue offensive inside the Citadel, the 800th and 802nd NVA battalions were to fan out and seize the Chanh Tay and Huu gates, which were in the southwestern wall; attack Tay Loc Airfield; and then secure the Dong Ba and Thuong Tu gates, at the Citadel’s eastern corner.

As the 6th NVA Regiment’s infantry and sapper units moved toward the Citadel, an 82mm medium-mortar company veered off in the direction of PK 17. When the attack began inside Hue, this unit was to pin down the 3rd ARVN Regiment’s CP, thus preventing a coordinated counterattack by unengaged 3rd ARVN Regiment units before the city was fully in Communist hands.

As the 4th and 6th NVA regiments and other NVA and VC units tightened the rings around their objectives, the senior command group of the Tri-Thien-Hue Military Region broke out special treats at its command post, high atop Chi Voi Mountain, about twelve kilometers southeast of the Citadel. A special Tet message from Ho Chi Minh was read. Then the senior commanders convened in the operations room to monitor the kickoff of the assault.

#

By 0115, January 31, the entire 6th NVA Regiment and 12th NVA Sapper Battalion, the Communist force assigned to seize the Citadel and the northern approaches to Hue, were poised to launch simultaneous assaults. Spearhead elements had already penetrated the Citadel by climbing the northwest Citadel wall directly opposite the 1st ARVN Division CP compound. The village of An Hoa, right outside the western corner of the Citadel, had been quietly and completely occupied by the 806th NVA Battalion. And the 800th and 802nd NVA battalions, approaching the Citadel’s southwestern wall from the west, had stopped in front of Ke Van Creek to reorganize and deploy.

At 0130, January 31, a small NVA sapper detachment crossed Ke Van Creek and advanced across Highway 1 to occupy a bridge across a sluice about halfway along the Citadel’s southwestern wall. At the point where the sluice breached the wall, members of the sapper detachment moved up to cut several strands of barbed wire, the only barrier.

North and south of the Perfume River, all the NVA and VC units that could reach their attack positions on time were settled in by 0310, awaiting the signal to attack. The signal was to be a sheaf of rockets fired at Hue from the western hills at 0330.

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G hour, as the Communists had dubbed the assault kickoff, came and went. Nothing happened. No rockets were fired; no assaults were launched.

As a thick fog covered the approaches to Hue and parts of the city itself, the commander of the Tri-Thien-Hue Front waited at his observation post atop Chi Voi Mountain. Another minute passed in dead silence. And then another. At 0333, a staff officer called the 6th NVA Regiment commander by radio and asked if he had seen the signal yet. The regimental commander, Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Trong Dan, gave a tense, nervous response indicating that he had seen nothing. The front staff officer called an observation post and received this reply: “I am awake; I am looking down at Hue. The lights of the city are still on; the sky is quiet. Nothing is happening.”

Silence returned to the Tri-Thien-Hue Front command post, where everyone waited anxiously. What could have gone wrong?

#

After entering the Citadel through the sluice in the southwestern wall, four Communist soldiers—two members of a local VC unit and two NVA sappers—approached the Chanh Tay Gate, the northernmost entrance along the Citadel’s southwestern wall. The four, who were dressed in ARVN uniforms, were to overwhelm the gate guards and, from inside, open the way for the assault battalion lying in wait right outside the wall.

The team leader, Comrade Thanh, had scouted the guard post during the day, when twenty civil guardsmen had been on duty. Now, less than a handful would be there. As the four neared their jump-off position opposite the guard post, Comrade Thanh ordered the others to put out their cigarettes and stand in the shadows to await the signal to attack.

In his bedroom in the MACV Compound, Colonel George Adkisson, commander of MACV Advisory Team 3, awoke with a start. Alerted by some subconscious signal, he sat up in bed and fumbled for his field telephone, but the line was dead. Agitated now by an unremitting internal alarm, Colonel Adkisson put on his trousers, combat boots, and pistol belt. Then he started out the door of his room.

At 0340, January 31, 1968, the NVA 122mm rocket battalion—burrowed in firing positions in the hills west of Hue-launched the first salvo. Before the first rockets even landed, NVA mortars south of the Perfume River and east of Highway 1 opened fire at multiple targets.

Colonel Adkisson stepped briskly through the door of his bungalow. At that instant, two or three 82mm mortar rounds fired from within nearby Tu Do Stadium detonated directly on the tile roof of a building nearby. Seconds later, several 122mm rockets detonated in the MACV courtyard. Colonel Adkisson stepped back into the doorway just as several more rockets fell. His first thought was that Hue Sector Headquarters, directly across a back street from MACV, was under attack.

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