The 1968 Tet Offensive and the Battle for the City of Huế — Memories of an Airborne Soldier

“Hue had become a city of the dead.” ― Mark Bowden, Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam


This story is dedicated to the men of the 2nd Battalion, 501st Airborne Infantry (2/501) who fought in the critical Battle for Hue. According to the US Army Center of Military History, “The fight for Hue turned into a slow, grinding campaign of attrition that lasted nearly a month before the enemy was finally defeated.”

I dedicate it to men like SSG Joe Ronnie Hooper and SSG Clifford C. Sims, Delta Company, 2/501, both of whom were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, SSG Sims posthumously. SSG (later Captain) Hooper was the most decorated soldier eclipsing both Sergeant Alvin York and Audie Murphy in the number of awards and decorations.

I dedicate it to the 2/501 airborne infantry Commanders: LTC Richard Tallman, Battalion Commander; Captains Reiss, Alpha Company, Nickels, Bravo Company, Denny Gillem, Charlie Company; 1st Lieutenant Cleo Hogan, Delta Company (the Delta Raiders) and 1st Lieutenant Buch, Recon Platoon leader. All were and still are true leaders of men.

Men like Captain Ken Crabtree, Commander, B Battery, 1st Battalion, 321st Field Artillery, who was my boss, mentor and personal friend. Lieutenant Colonel Crabtree would be killed on April 17, 1984 in a SWAPO guerilla bombing near the Angolan border, SW Africa. But that is another story for another time.


The Battle of Huế began on January 31st, 1968 and ended on March 2nd, 1968. I was there as a field artillery forward observer with the 2nd Battalion, 501st Infantry Airborne, 2nd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division.

This is my story. I am writing this on the 54th anniversary of the Battle of Huế to honor those men I served with who gave the last full measure in defense of our nation and the Vietnamese people.

I am also writing this for those who were not there on the ground and those who have never heard of the Battle of Huế.

I do this because those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.

My Background

My father was born in Kyiv the capital of Ukraine. My grandfather graduated from Kyiv’s Bogomolets National Medical University school of medicine. My grandfather, grandmother and my father then moved to Moscow where my grandfather opened a medical practice. My grandfather was required to serve in the Czar’s army as a medical officer. After the November 1918 Bolshevik Revolution my grandparents and father had to flee Russia as the Bolsheviks were killing Czarist officers.

My father after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941 joined the U.S. Army Air Corps. My father reached the rank of Staff Sergeant before the end of WWII. After the war he married my mother who bore three children. All boys of which I am the oldest.

After completing my college education I joined the U.S. Army and was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant. My branch was one of the three combat arms the field artillery (13). The other two combat arms are infantry (11) and armor (12). I served 23-years in the U.S. Army and retired as a Lieutenant Colonel.

Now let’s look at my memories of the Battle of Huế.

The Battle of Huế

The Battle of Huế was also known as the “Siege of Huế.” It was a major military engagement in the Tết Offensive launched by the Communist North Vietnamese Army (NVA) in conjunction with their Communist allies in South Vietnam know as the Viet Cong (VC), made up of para-military gorilla units.

The Tết Offensive and the battle of Huế was considered a turning point in the war. It was a turning point on the ground in Vietnam where American forces with their allies and the South Vietnamese Army defeated the onslaught of the NVA and VC. Using American air supremacy and the professionalism of the combat units deployed in country the NVA and VC were totally defeated and in many cases decimated. U.S. and allied forces killed, destroyed and removed a large percentage of the NVA and VC forces. They were driven into the A Sầu Valley and from there fled South Vietnam back to Cambodia and Thailand.

However, on the streets of Washington, D.C. the anti-Vietnam War protestors convinced the U.S. government and the American people that all was lost.

We are now facing yet another war involving Russia, just as Russia was involved in the Vietnam War.

From July 1965 to December 1974, more than 6000 generals and officers and more than 4,500 soldiers from the former Soviet Union were sent to Vietnam as specialists. Small contingents of auxiliary forces from other states like Bulgaria and Cuba accompanied the Soviet specialists.

When the Tết Offensive began my infantry unit was located in was later known as Phu Bai combat base south of Huế where U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps combat units were stationed during and after the Tết Offensive.

On January 30-31, 1968, the base was hit by Vietcong mortar and rocket fire as part of the Tết Offensive. The base was used to support U.S. and Army of the Republic of Vietnam forces fighting in the Battle of Huế.

To this day I can remember the mortar and rocket fire my unit took. And thus for me and my fellow airborne soldiers the Tết Offensive began.

I was in A Company when Tết Offensive began and we moved out with the objective of taking the Western wall of the Đại Nội Citadel located in ancient city of Huế which had already been overrun by the NVA and VC forces. My unit was attached to the 1st Calvary Division at that time.

The battles were many and long and hard fought by both sides. It took us over 30 days to reach our final objective the Western wall of the Đại Nội Citadel.

One thing is in my mind that will not ever be forgotten. As we approached the Đại Nội Citadel we came across the Huế Kim Long Church (click here to view the church) where many Christians were hiding from the Communist forces. We liberated the Church. Kim Long Church was established in the 17th centaury.

However, as we were speaking to the people who were liberated our unit encountered one sniper who kept firing upon us and those whom we had just liberated.

We eventually found and killed this sniper but not until the sniper shot my recon sergeant who was standing next to me. It was at that moment is said to myself “there but by the grace of God go I.”

When Hue was liberated we found over 7,600 civilians in shallow graves. Men, women and children with their hands tied with barbed wire behind their backs with gun shots in the back of the head by their NVA occupiers. Yet another Communist atrocity in South Vietnam that the American press refused to report on was this massacre.

I vividly recall that on the morning of February 26th a small boat pulled up to the A Company CP, located in a three story building along the Perfume River. The Perfume River (Sông Hương) is a river that crosses the city of Hue. In the autumn, flowers from orchards upriver from Hue fall into the water, giving the river a perfume-like aroma.

In the boat were a Vietnamese man and his very pregnant wife who was in labor. Our company medic was called into action and with the help of some hot water delivered a beautiful baby boy. I remember thinking that God is sending a message that life goes on even among all the carnage we had witnessed since January 31st.

The 2/501 left Hue in unit formation counting cadence all the airborne way. We lined up by company and marched out of the city to our next mission. Along the way young children would pull on our 101st Screaming Eagle shoulder patches, saying “Chicken die, chicken die” – so much for our liberating the Vietnamese from their NVA oppressors.

The road to hell made a turn for the 2/501 troopers to reopen QL – 1 or Highway 1, also known to the French as “the Street without Joy” and then due West into the A-Shau valley (the Valley of Death) and triple canopy jungle.

The Bottom Line

My infantry company was part of that bloody battle to drive the NVA and VC out of Hue and eventually out of South Vietnam. We accomplished both missions with minimum casualties on our side but massive casualties on their side.

The Tet Offensive and the Battle of Huế played an important role in weakening U.S. public support for the war in Vietnam because Walter Cronkite and the legacy media began telling the public that the Vietnam War was lost.

WATCH: 53 years ago Walter Cronkite calls for the U.S. to get out of Vietnam.

The reality on the ground was that Tet 1968 was a total and complete military disaster for the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the Viet Cong (VC). Once the Tet Offensive began it became clear that U.S. and allied forces, using their military advantage in capabilities and their air supremacy, killed or captured tens of thousands of enemy Communist forces.

Those of us who were on the ground during Tet 1968 saw us winning and winning big.

This was my first experience with fake news that lost us a war that we won.

I hope this never happens again, ever.

I believe that the United States should enter a war with one purpose in mind – win at all costs. Our mantra must be unconditional surrender of the enemy. We must demand the unconditional surrender of our enemies, just as we did in World War II.

Airborne, all the way.

©Dr. Rich Swier, LTC, U.S. Army (Ret.). All rights reserved.

3 replies
  1. Royal A Brown III
    Royal A Brown III says:

    Cronkite dishonored these brave soldiers by falsely reporting the war in Viet Nam had been lost. He was a traitor from my point of view. The head of the NVA even stated that they had lost Tet ’68 and that this misinformation by Cronkite helped them.

    I served near Hue/Phu Bai in 1971 and the devastation in the ancient city was still evident.

    Reply
  2. Dr. Rich Swier
    Dr. Rich Swier says:

    Fellow Vietnam veteran John Walsh sent us the following in an email:

    Rich’s story got me thinking about my own rather more pleasurable experience in Vietnam. I had orders to the 1st Special Forces and arrived in country a month after the Tet Offensive, armed with my Randle knife and ready to eat snakes. Then, in one of those fateful events that happened in the Army before computers allowed them to organize everyone, the clerk, when I checked in, said I was going to the 4th Psychological Group in Saigon instead of Special Forces in Danang. They are both part of Special Operations, but the change meant I became a lover instead of a killer and sought to change hearts and minds instead of bodies. This meant for most of my tour I lived in Saigon with a maid to spit shine my shoes and still got to travel all over the country visiting units and seeing the people.

    The Tet Offensive was as pivotal as Rich describes. Tactically, it was a resounding victory for the US. Ho Chi Min had been one of the architects of the theory of insurgency. They were to occur in phases as the guerillas built strength culminating in phase IV which was a conventional attack to defeat the government forces. Ho and the Politburo in the North had made a terrible miscalculation that they were strong enough to win phase IV. In their subsequent meetings after the debacle (they had lost almost 100% of the officers and NCOs) they were trying to decide how to get out of this losing war without surrendering. As the discussions went on, they read what was happening in America after Tet when the American anti war movement really rose up. Ho was committed to the theory, but others saw that the loss was actually a victory. Or, saying it in a more straightforward way, the hippies that had used anti war talk to hide their cowardice, were the weapons that allowed North Vietnam to win the war.

    Now they are in charge of America. The parallels between the pictures from Afghanistan and Vietnam were horrible for a VN vet to watch. Now they are supposed to deal with Valdimir.

    John

    Reply

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