A Look Back At Hue, Tet Offensive 1968: 26 Days of Hell


The 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Tet Offensive is on January 30, 2018. On that day in 1968, 10,000 NVA and Viet Cong soldiers captured the old Imperial city of Hue in a lighting surprise attack as part of their Tet Offensive. 

Hue was a beautiful city on the Perfume River about 100 kilometers south of the DMZ. It was a university city and the home of the ancient capital of Vietnam. It was a city of about 140,00 people at the time of the Tet Offensive in 1968. Up until that year, there was a tradition of holding a truce between the combatants during the annual Tet holiday, but that tradition was broken all over the Republic of South Vietnam that year.

Hundreds of thousands of NVA and Viet Cong troops attacked major cities and bases over the breadth and width of South Vietnam.

Source: Good Free Photos
A Marine gets his wounds treated during operations in Huế City, 1968 during Vietnam War.

The battle for Hue would go on for the next 26 days and it would prove to be the most brutal, intense, up-close-and-personal battle of the Tet Offensive. In the early hours and days of the battle, 10 battalions of NVA and VC troops took and controlled large sections of the city. They laid hold to most of the major buildings and neighborhoods quickly and began a brutal and bloody effort to eliminate many of the city’s civilian population.

Many of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, (ARVN) soldiers had been given leave to celebrate Tet. The ARVN and U.S. troops all around South Vietnam and in Hue were unprepared for the size and intensity of the NVA and VC attacks all over the country.  

Hue’s attack began at 2:33 a.m. with a signal flare that lit up the night sky. Immediately two battalions of the 6th Regiment of the NVA attacked the western wall of the CItadel. Their objective was to take the command headquarters of ARVN 1st Division. Other units attacked the airfield and the Imperial Palace.

And the battle was on.

Source: flickr/USMC Archives
Sgt. Hughes diving for cover in Hue ’68 – under incoming mortars, small arms, and automatic weapons fire.

Over the next 26 days, elements from 11 ARVN battalions, and 3 understrength U.S. Marine battalions would be engaged in the effort to retake the city. Over those 26 days the Marine units would literally claw back that city block by block and house to house until they would plant the American flag on top of the ruined Citadel.

One Marine, Staff Sgt. Bob Thoms, was involved in one of the intense battles during the battle for Hue. He and six Marines that were given the task to take the ruins of a structure called the Dong Ba Tower. He had already been wounded six times during the battle to retake Hue and he was still fighting and leading his men. Thoms and his Marines took the top of the tower and were ordered to hold the Tower, “at all costs.”

It was the highest point in the area and, therefore, the battle’s single most important position. As night came on, Thoms and his six Marines looked down and saw approximately 200 NVA troops slowly approaching. They were very close, close enough he recalled that they could smell the fish sauce on their breaths. 

Source: flickr/manhhai
U.S. Marines congregate in back of a tank on a residential street, firing over an outer wall of the citadel in Hue City.

They NVA waited through the night to attack. The Marines were understandably tense waiting for that attack. At around 4:30 in the morning one of Thom’s Marines said, “Hey, Sarge, we’re not going to get out of this. We’re not going to live through this. You need to pray for us.”

He asked his men then how to talk to God. One of them said, “It’d be like talking to a general, Sarge.”

Another suggested that they hold hands. And Thom’s prayed, “God, we know we’re about to see you in person. If we’ve got to die on this tower, let us die like men and Marines and don’t embarrass ourselves, our families or the Marine Corps. Amen.”  

Source: flickr/manhhai
Vietnamese refugees fleeing Hue City.

There are hundreds of individual stories that can be told by those who fought that fierce battle for the old Imperial City. Over those 26 days 216 Americans were killed in action and 1,584 were wounded. Between the ARVN and Americans 668 were KIA and 3,707 were wounded.

Official MACV figures say that over 5,000 NVA troops were killed and 98 captured. Among the civilians in Hue, 844 were killed and 1,900 were injured due to accidents of battle. 4,856 civilians and captured ARVN personnel were executed by the NVA or were listed as missing, according to the South Vietnamese government.

Hue and the Tet offensive was a very bloody beginning to the bloodiest year of the war for American forces.  

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On this 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Tet Offensive of 1968, the Veterans Site remembers and honors all who fought in Hue City from 30 January to 2 March, 1968. We offer our eternal respect for those who fell serving in the U.S Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps during those long and terrible days of the Vietnam War.

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Dan Doyle is a husband, father, grandfather, Vietnam veteran, and retired professor of Humanities at Seattle University. He taught 13 years at the high school level and 22 years at the university level. He spends his time now babysitting his granddaughter. He is a poet and a blogger as well. Dan holds an AA degree in English Literature, a BA in Comparative Literature, and an MA in Theology, and writes regularly for The Veterans Site Blog.