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Book excerpt: ‘Hue ‘68’

In his new book, Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam, Mark Bowden describes what would become the biggest and bloodiest battle of the American War in Vietnam, played out over 24 days and costing over 10,000 civilian and combatant lives.

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In the early hours of January 31, 1968, the North Vietnamese launched over 100 attacks across South Vietnam in what would become known as the Tet Offensive. The lynchpin of Tet was the capture of Hue, Vietnam’s intellectual and cultural capital, by 10,000 National Liberation Front troops who descended from hidden camps and surged across the city of 140,000. By noon, the entire city was in their hands save for two small military outposts. In his new book, Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam, Mark Bowden describes what would become the biggest and bloodiest battle of the American War in Vietnam, played out over 24 days and costing over 10,000 civilian and combatant lives. Here, in an excerpt from the book, Bowden recounts the first attempt by American marines to reenter Hue on the afternoon of January 31.

The Task Force X-Ray commander at Phu Bai still did not get it. His frame of reference for enemy encounters did not include anything like this. Sightings of even company-size elements of North Vietnamese Army (NVA) or Viet Cong (VC), much less battalions or whole regiments, were so rare as to be almost mythical. And hit-and-run, by small bands of dead-end VC commandos, was the message they were getting from all over the country; news had also broken about a daring and predictably futile such attack on the U.S. embassy in the heart of Saigon. So as the day wore on, General Foster LaHue was increasingly disappointed to learn that the two rifle companies he’d dispatched to Hue had failed to bring the city back under control. The general apparently saw no reason on earth why the more than 400 men in that compound — reinforced now with well over 300 fully armed U.S. Marines accompanied by four Patton tanks and an assortment of Army Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) armor, two Dusters, and two Quad-fifties, all of it being led by a certified marine lieutenant colonel — should not be able to flatten anything between them and the fucking Citadel and rescue poor General Ngo Quang Truong. What was needed was not more firepower, but a kick in the ass! So that’s what he delivered.

Captain Chuck Meadows pressed on west, toward the gate road. It was now late afternoon, and the sun was in their eyes. When they reached the road and turned the corner they came under heavy fire from the top of the south wall — rockets, grenades, machine guns, and small arms. The lead men tried to take cover in buildings on both sides of the road, but found the doors and windows nailed shut. Three more of Meadows’s men were killed on the corner. A corporal squad leader with just 10 days left on his tour, Glen Lucas, lay motionless on the road. When corpsman Donald Kirkham made a move to help him, Lucas suddenly moved, waving him back. The corpsman ignored him, and then dropped, shot through the throat.

On one corner of the intersection there was a pharmacy, to which Meadows sent a machine-gun team. He told them to get to the roof if they could. They crossed the street, broke down the door, and managed to make their way up. But from his spot behind a tree, the captain could see that the effort was hopeless. Before the big gate was a moat, spanned by a very narrow bridge. Over the gate there was a stone tower where he could see dozens of enemy soldiers. They could rain hell on anything that approached. He saw more enemy moving across the road to the southwest. Without supporting fire, either air support or artillery, there was no way this small force could assault this enormous fortress without being slaughtered. As they exchanged fire with well-concealed targets above, the captain reported to Lieutenant Colonel Marcus Gravel: “We are outgunned and outmanned.”

There was some initial pushback from the hard-pressed colonel, but Meadows’s mind was set. He was in the middle of disaster, staring at worse. His men continued to fall. Of the one hundred he had taken across, more than half were down: seven dead and forty-five wounded. Gravel knew what Meadows said was true. He could see downed marines all along the company’s path.

Meadows said on his own authority he was pulling back to the bridge. First he had to account for all of his men. He tossed his smoke grenades up the street, and this allowed for the retrieval of two downed men, Lucas and Kirkham. Several marines who had been pinned down were able to retreat to his corner. There were too many wounded and dead to carry, so one of Meadows’s enterprising marines hot-wired a flatbed truck parked on the street, and they piled men on that. Meadows and his gunnery sergeant Lou Heidel did a rapid count and found that one of the men was still missing. Gerald Kinny, an eighteen-year-old private with eight brothers and sisters back in Toledo, Iowa, was found lying on the street about fifty yards forward. Meadows ignored the heavy fire and sprinted toward him. His adrenaline pumping, with his rifle in one hand, he grabbed Kinny by the belt buckle and lifted him with one arm. Running for all he was worth, he half-dragged and half-carried him to the truck. Kinny died on the way back.

From the south side of the bridge, Gravel could see that the retreat might be as bloody as the attack. There were too many downed men to carry off. He radioed Colonel George Adkisson at the compound and demanded he send more trucks. None came. The army colonel had told Gravel that assaulting the bridge was folly, that his men were going to stay put, and that was that. So Gravel approached the men guarding the landing zone. He asked one of the Quad-fifty drivers, army sergeant Rober Lauver: “Can you help?”

Lauver and his crew had watched the marines being chopped down on the bridge. Their vehicle was largely unarmored, and attempting to cross looked as hopeless for them as it had for Golf Company. But there were downed men lying in the open at the far end. It would be the most difficult moment of Lauver’s 18 months in Vietnam, and he would replay it in his mind for the rest of his life. He felt there was no way he and his men would come back if they started across the bridge. He had not been ordered to do it, so it was up to him. He looked at his men and shrugged.

“Let’s go,” he said.

Excerpted from HUẾ 1968: A TURNING POINT IN THE AMERICAN WAR IN VIETNAM © 2017 by Mark Bowden. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Atlantic Monthly Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.

Photo credit: Amazon.com

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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