By Don North, Vietnam Correspondent for ABC News
Texas Tech University, Vietnam Center & Archives
1968 and the Tet Offensive Conference
Wars are fought twice, once on the battlefield and again in our memory. The continuing Vietnam War is a battle of memory, history and truth. And the stakes are still high. Honest reporting can still shape our destinies at war and at peace.
As an ABC News correspondent on January 31st 1968, the first day of the Tet offensive, I first heard of the North Vietnamese attack on Hue in a briefing from General William Westmoreland. It was 9:15 AM on the lawn outside the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. After a six and a half hour battle the Embassy had finally been secured following the attack of 15 Viet Cong sappers. About 30 of us journalists who had observed the fighting overnight crowded around Westmoreland to hear his official report on the enemy attacks that had engulfed Vietnam in the past 12 hours. “No enemy got inside the Embassy,” he said. “It’s a relatively small incident. A group of sappers blew a hole in the wall and crawled in. They were all killed. Don’t be deceived by this incident,” he cautioned us.
Westmoreland’s relentless optimism struck us reporters as surreal, even delusional. The General was still spinning that everything was just fine as thousands of U.S. and ARVN were still fighting to take back four other enemy objectives in Saigon as well as the city of Hue. He told us Hue had been briefly occupied by North Vietnamese troops but had been cleared and recaptured.
It would not be the last time General Westmoreland gave optimistic and false reports of the siege of Hue. In reality a giant Viet Cong flag was now flying over the Emperor’s Palace inside the Hue Citadel and would fly for 25 days while battalions of NVA occupied the Palace and other positions in the Citadel. Yet this reality was denied and obscured by the top U.S. Commander as he continually assured political leaders in Washington and the American public that Hue had not fallen to the enemy. His refusal to face facts had tragic consequences for many of the Marines and soldiers who fought there as he continued to deny that his official casualty estimates of enemy troops were inflated and said the enemy’s offensive was a sign of desperation.
Westmoreland also wrote that many NVA and Viet Cong fought “half-heartedly”, an assertion that was strongly dismissed several weeks later in Hue when I interviewed American’s fighting there. They told me they had faced a disciplined, highly motivated, skilled, and determined enemy. To characterize them as otherwise was to diminish the accomplishments of the troops who finally drove them out of Hue.
Westmoreland’s analysis that the enemy attack on Hue was just a “feint” to deflect from the fighting at Khe Sahn destroyed his reputation for accurate foresight, but the news agencies in Saigon were convinced to keep full crews covering Khe Sahn. After the Embassy attack was over, I was assigned with my crew for several weeks in Khe Sahn.
But the fighting in Hue persisted and one TV crew after another was sent to Hue until either they or the camera equipment was exhausted and I was told “Don, it’s your turn for Hue.”
Everything about covering Hue was difficult. Our three man TV news crew began with a three-day wait on the airstrip at Phu Bai. When a US Marine CH-46 was finally ready for the flight to Hue, the crew chief said they only had two seats left, which meant leaving our sound man behind. We arrived inside the city in time for a supper of C-rations. A young Marine who appeared nervous was cleaning his 45-calibre sidearm beside me when it discharged. The bullet cleared my head and smashed into the wall behind me.
A frightening encounter with friendly fire.
Hue’s population of 140-thousand made it South Vietnam’s third largest city, with two-thirds of the population living within the walls of the old city known as the Citadel, three square miles surrounded by walls 20 feet high and 30 feet thick. Within the walls was yet another fortified enclave, the historic Imperial Palace, home of the Vietnamese Emperors before the French took control in 1883. It was the scene for the single bloodiest battle of the war and one of the most intense urban battles in American history. The enemy had strongpoints everywhere. Snipers crouched in the upper stories of buildings in small spider holes waiting for a Marine to show his head. Mortars, dug in to avoid detection, covered the approach routes. It was also monsoon season. Every day dark leaden skies closed in making close air support difficult.
But the Marines progressed stoically, gaining ground from the enemy by the bloody yard. Marines trained to fight in jungles and paddies soon grasped the tactics of urban warfare, avoiding booby trapped doors by smashing through the sides of buildings, clearing room to room, and staying off the street and open areas.
I had an excellent cameraman working with me in Hue, Jim DeSylva a lad from Lubbock, Texas. He worked for the local ABC News station, but the network wanted him in Vietnam. Jim passed away a few years ago and today I honor his memory with great admiration. He was like a cat with nine lives and I personally watched him gamble at least four of them on our assignment in Hue. While waiting for the Marines to move out one morning, Jim decided we needed a clear shot of the Imperial Palace that several battalions of the enemy were holding. So he moved down to a location that had a clear shot through the trees to the Palace. But it also gave the enemy a clear shot at him as he as he appeared to be a Marine with a camera that looked like a rocket launcher. I called to him to return to our shelter, but the mortars had already started landing around him and as he ran they walked shells in behind him until he was under cover again.
We got word that a final push to seize the South East Gate of the Citadel would be underway soon. We bounced along on a “mule” to get to the muster point for the operation. But the rough ride somehow disabled our camera. It wouldn’t work and Jim tried everything to get it going again. Suddenly a mortar landed very close to where we were hunkering down in a school room. There was a tremendous explosion and a concussion that knocked us over. Suddenly the camera started working again…we were back in business.
We were with the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines ready to make a final push to take the Citadel. We moved up with a company advancing to secure the southeast gate and took cover behind a small Buddhist shrine. I was talking to the radio operator when suddenly he fell to the ground, and the color drained from his ruddy face. As a Corpsman tore open his flack vest wisps of smoke issued from a small black hole marking the entry wound from an AK-47 round. With tracers arching over us and some rounds cutting through the company at knee level one Marine cautiously approached the shrine’s open door and tossed in a grenade. A North Vietnamese sniper tumbled out. Stepping over his still body, the company continued the last 1,000 yards along the south wall of the Citadel.
An estimated 80 percent of Hue structures were either destroyed or heavily damaged. A total of 250 American soldiers and Marines were killed and 1,554 wounded. South Vietnamese troop casualties were 458 killed and 2,700 wounded. Vietcong losses were estimated at between 2,500 and 5,000. The final toll of 25 days of fighting is well over 10,000 soldiers of both sides making it the bloodiest battle of the Vietnam War. The executions of Hue citizens suspected of Saigon sympathies were for a long time denied by Hanoi and were an inconvenient memory for the ruling Communist party of Vietnam.
After the war, while visiting Hanoi, I interviewed many former soldiers and party officials who solidly stood by the myth that the civilian executions were actually caused by crossfire and American artillery. It wasn’t until recently that on the PBS Ken Burn’s series we heard from North Vietnamese who admitted there was a massacre.
The American scholar Douglas Pike who studied the mass graves soon after the fighting estimated a count of 2,800. The total number of Hue civilian casualties is recognized as over 5,000.
There have been some fine books written on the Battle of Hue, but perhaps the best and most complete book was recently published by author journalist Mark Bowden. Bowden writes, “Both sides miscalculated. Hanoi counted on a popular uprising that didn’t come, while Washington blindsided refused to believe the truth. The armies on both sides played their roles courageously and to terrible effect. The battles clearest losers were the citizens of Hue.”
Bowden’s disdain for senior officers in the battle is at odds with his admiration for the “grunts”. He writes, “I was moved by the heroism and dedication of those who fought on both sides. In the worst days of this fight, facing the near certainty of death or severe bodily harm, those caught up in the battle repeatedly advanced. Many of those who served are still paying for it. To me, the way they were used, particularly the way their idealism and loyalty was exploited by leaders who themselves had lost faith in the effort, is a stunning betrayal.”
Another consequence of the Tet offensive and particularly the prolonged coverage of the Hue battle was the growing hostility among pro war Americans toward on-scene journalists who described U.S. military setbacks and contradicted the upbeat assessments from General Westmoreland. Peter Braestrup’s book “Big Story” observes, “Rarely has contemporary crisis-journalism turned out, in retrospect, to have veered so widely from reality.”
In his book “Hue” Marc Bowden writes,” journalism has long been blamed for losing the war, but the American reporting from Hue was more accurate than official accounts, deeply respectful, and uniformly sympathetic to the US fighting men.”In his exhaustive research Bowden interviewed hundreds of American veterans of the Hue battle and lists viewpoints they shared: “most were proud of having served, nearly all were angry over the betrayal of their youthful idealism mostly by American leaders who sent them to fight a war that was judged unwinnable, all felt sorrow for the friends they lost and the horror the war inflicted on everyone involved and many described their difficulties in adjusting to normal life after returning home.”
Some historians say the sweet spot for understanding an historical event is about 50 years—enough time for a measure of perspective while there is still living eye witnesses and after classified government documents closed for an unreasonable time are opened. Mark Bowden’s book may have put to rest fears that history must be written by those who experienced it. In five years of diligent research and interviews on both sides of the battle and an ability to analyse his research in terms of what each day’s events meant for the entire war, Bowden’s “Hue 1968” is a book critics say is the best understanding of the Battle of Hue and its effect on the Vietnam war.