Thomas Calabrese — Hue, (Pronounced Way) South Vietnam, February, 1968. The Battle of Hue (also called the Siege of Hue), was one of the bloodiest and longest battles of the Vietnam War. 11 battalions of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), four U.S. Army battalions, and three understrength U.S. Marine Corps battalions, for a total of 18 battalions, defeated 10 battalions of the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN or NVA) and the Viet Cong (VC).
The beginning of the North Vietnamese Tet Offensive began on January 30, 1968, (the Vietnamese lunar New Year). Large conventional American forces had been stationed from the Mekong Delta to the DMZ for almost three years now. Highway 1 passed through Hue and was an important supply line for ARVN, US, and Allied Forces and it was strategically located between the coastal city of ĐaNang and the Demilitarized Zone.
Hue also provided access to the Perfume River at the point where the river divided the city into northern and southern parts and was also a base for United States Navy supply boats.
Considering its logistical value and its proximity to the DMZ (only 50 kilometers (31 mi)), Hue should have been fortified and prepared for any communist attack, but the city had few fortifications and was poorly defended.
Corporal Spencer Matheson had been in country for only two months when his unit, Hotel Company 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines was sent to Hue. Combat was a new experience for the 19 year old Marine and fighting in an urban environment was a new experience for his entire Marine Unit.
Spencer’s platoon was originally assigned to protect the airfield at Phu Bai and it was while he was there, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong commenced simultaneous attacks on his position, the Truoi River Bridge and the Phu Loc sector. He was sent with a hundred other Marines to reinforce the detachment at the bridge that was on the verge of being captured by enemy forces.
Spencer could hear gunfire coming from every direction when he arrived. The impromptu plan was to follow three M-48 tanks from the 3rd Tank Battalion across the bridge and neutralize the enemy’s positions. That was quickly dismissed when the tankers determined that the bridge wasn’t strong enough to support the weight. The ARVN’s had M-24 light tanks, but they refused to go, so that left it up to the infantry.
A young Marine experiencing his first taste of battle is going to follow orders, not because he’s brave or patriotic, it is because he just doesn’t know what else to do, so he’ll walk into the gates of hell if he is told to. The machine gun opened fire when the Americans were halfway across the span and two Marines alongside Spencer immediately went down in a hail of bullets. A thought flashed through his mind about stopping to help them, but his training and instincts told him otherwise. He threw a grenade as far he could and it bounced up to the enemy’s position and it exploded. In a split second Spencer heaved another and this one landed right next to the machine gun and silenced it.
Three platoons made it across the bridge and came under heavy sniper and automatic weapons fire from the Citadel wall as soon as they reached the other side. Spencer found cover with two other Marines who were doing their best to keep their heads from being shot off, “How you doing?”
Pfc Don Griffith replied, “Alright, how ‘bout’ you?”
A bullet hit the wall two inches from Spencer’s helmet and the rock fragments stung his face, “You guys take it easy, I’m going to head out.”
“Take it easy,” Pfc Griffith said.
“You too,” Spencer took off at a full sprint while weaving from left to the right to make himself a more difficult target. Bullets were hitting all around him and he saw muzzle flashes coming from a building about fifty yards to his left so he ran in that direction, crashed through the front door and shot three North Vietnamese soldiers. His adrenalin was pumping so fast that he had to visually check his body to make sure that he wasn’t wounded.
From his vantage point, Spencer saw Marines taking heavy fire from numerous buildings. Not knowing what else to do, he moved to the next structure and shot another sniper. Spencer came across a rifle squad from the 1st Air Calvary Division and teamed up with them to clear several houses of enemy fighters.
It was brutal fighting, sometimes as close as a few feet away and in a matter of minutes Spencer killed a dozen enemy fighters, but it seemed to have little effect on the incoming fire, it was as heavy as always. It was while he was with the Army that Spencer overheard a radio transmission that there was not going to be artillery or air support because of the historical and religious value of the city. This was the last thing that a grunt wanted to hear and if that wasn’t bad enough, the weather was growing worse.
Spencer’s Marine unit moved in to the area and when he recognized them, he turned to the soldiers that he had been fighting with, “Thanks for letting me hang around, but I see my guys.”
“No problem, see you around,” Sergeant Ellis replied, “Hang in there.”
The Marines were hunkered down behind a wall when Spencer came rushing in and dived for cover just a few feet ahead of a burst of enemy machine gun fire.
“I thought you were dead,” Staff Sergeant Brimley called out.
“I got close a few times,” Spencer responded as he took off his helmet and ran a bloody hand through his sweat soaked hair.
“Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades and speaking about grenades, good job back there on the bridge. You’ve got a hell of an arm, must have heaved that pineapple fifty yards.”
“Thanks, I did play a little baseball in high school, but back then I was wilder than a west Texas wind, I’m glad I found my strike zone this time,” Spencer shrugged.
“You better catch some zzzzz’s, it’s going to get a hell of a lot worse before it gets better,” Sergeant Brimley surmised.
The slow steady rain, low cloud cover and fog were a mixed blessing for the Marines as it encompassed, surrounded and concealed them from the enemy. In their fatigued minds it was a temporary sanctuary as night swallowed the embattled city like a voracious predator. Spencer wrapped his poncho liner around his shoulders then slipped his poncho over his head. He searched through his pack and found a can of ham and lima beans and heated it with a sterno tablet. When he finished eating, Spencer tucked his M-16 under his poncho to protect it from the damp weather, leaned against the stone wall and dozed off. He didn’t even realize that Sergeant Brimely had excluded him from guard duty until he woke up at 0400 hours to the sound of Lieutenant Ramirez’s voice, “Rise and shine, Marines.”
A few dozen Marines slowly stirred from their various positions of uneasy sleep, the sound of gunfire and explosions were a stark reminder that their nightmares were indeed real.
“I’ve got good news and bad news; the good news is we know exactly where the enemy is,” Lieutenant Ramirez called out, “the bad news is they know that we’re coming and they’re waiting for us.” It wasn’t exactly what the Marines wanted to hear, but this is what they signed up for, so it was a little late for a do over, “Check your weapons and no more than seventeen rounds per magazine. I don’t want you compressing the springs to the point where they’re not feeding rounds properly; you don’t want a malfunction out there. Machine gunners, hump whatever ammo that you can carry.”
We move out at dawn…one more thing, I want every rifleman carrying at least six bandoliers (a bandolier is a belt with pockets for cartridges or magazines and M-16 bandoliers usually held seven magazines.)The Marines quickly complied with their orders while making small talk to avoid discussing their upcoming mission.
Pfc. Lee Colter cleaned the barrel of his M-16, “I’m undecided about where to go on R&R, I’ve narrowed my choices down to Sydney, Australia and Bangkok.”
Lance Corporal Chris Jenkins responded, “You’ve only been in country two months, it’s a little early to be thinking about leaving the Nam.”
“I don’t want to wait until the last minute.”
“ If you go too early then you got nothing to look forward to,” LCpl. Weber interjected, “I’m going to wait until I’ve got at least eight months here, then when I get back I’ll almost be a short-timer. What about you, Matheson?”
“I don’t even know where the hell that I’m going to be at the end of this day,” Spencer commented.
Before the Marines could continue with their diversionary banter, the order got passed down, “MOVING OUT.”
The Devildogs saddled up and started moving out, not far away the door to a reckoning was open and beckoned their arrival. Once they got to the west wall of the Citadel, a North Vietnamese sapper team dressed in ARVN uniforms opened fire on the Marines, killed two and wounded four before Spencer and his fire team neutralized them. The cloud cover was too low for a medivac chopper so the dead and wounded were loaded onto wooden carts that were left behind by the South Vietnamese villagers and Marines pulled their comrades out of the line of fire.
“Damn it,” Spencer cursed to himself when he examined the dead NVA soldiers, “Now we got to watch out for the ARVN’s. This just keeps getting better all the time.”
The Marines moved toward the Citadel tower while coming under heavy enemy fire. Even though they sustained numerous casualties, they knew they had to take to high ground. A round from a 57 mm enemy recoilless rifle hit the building next to Spencer’s position and it collapsed into a pile of rubble right on top of him. He would have been crushed to death if a large beam had not landed on a pile of debris a foot above his head. The Marines were pushed back by a barrage of mortar fire and by the time the smoke and dust had cleared, North Vietnamese soldiers had moved into the area and set up a machine gun several feet away from where Spencer was trapped. He could hear them talking and there was a slight opening where he could actually see the NVA soldiers mulling about so he pushed himself as far back into the hole as he could without making a sound. Spencer knew that if he tried to extricate himself, he would be killed so he cursed to himself under his breath, “This is getting better all the time.”
Spencer’s knees were pushed up to his chest and he could barely move either arm and for thirteen hours his body grew more numb with each passing minute. He was tempted to call out so that the NVA soldiers could end his misery. Then just when he didn’t think he could take it any longer, he heard the distinctive and reassuring sounds of M-16 rifles and M-60 machine guns growing ever louder.
The Marines were counterattacking and the enemy machine gun was in position to kill a lot of good men. Since the NVA soldiers’ attention was diverted from his position, Spencer took this as his opportunity to shake some life into limbs. He struggled to put his M-16 in a position where the barrel protruded between two jagged pieces of stone wall. Spencer hoped that his aim was true because he couldn’t bend over to sight in on his target. He squeezed off a short burst and killed both machine gunners and slowly pulled the barrel back from view. When two more NVA took their place, he shot them as well. The other enemy soldiers assumed that an American sniper had locked in on their position so they hit the deck or scrambled for cover. This gave the advancing Marines precious minutes to make their assault.
Staff Sergeant Brimley saw the machine gun and the dead enemy soldiers next to it then heard a muffled voice, “How about a little help?”
“Who said that?” Staff Sergeant asked as he scanned the area.
“I did,” Spencer stuck several fingers out of the hole and wiggled them.
“Get some Marines over here!”
Ten Marines rushed over and Staff Sergeant Brimley ordered them to start removing the debris and when they reached Spencer, they had to pull him out because he couldn’t stand, “What in the hell were you doing in there, Matheson?”
“For the last thirteen or fourteen hours, I’ve been asking myself that same question,” Spencer replied.
“Did you kill these guys?” Staff Sergeant Brimley pointed to the dead NVA soldiers.
“Yeah why, were they friends of yours?” Spencer joked then grimaced as he tried to move his legs. When he tried to stand up; he wobbled and fell back down.
“You need a corpsman to look at you,” Staff Sergeant Brimley observed.
The Marines started taking incoming small arms fire and Staff Sergeant Brimley and Spencer found cover next to each other, “There are a lot a Marines that are worse off than me, let the Corpsmen take care of them, I’ll be alright…just give me some time.”
Later that day the Marines set up defensive positions next to a communication compound in Southern Hue, ten Marines were killed and 56 wounded during this latest battle. Spencer’s platoon had taken a lot of casualties, so he was now fighting with Marines that he barely knew. There is an old saying in combat; the enemy of my enemy is my brother and to Corporal Spencer Matheson, it was simple; if they were wearing a Marine uniform, he would die for them and they would die for him.
By now Spencer was operating on instinct and training because the adrenalin rush of combat had been drowned out by days of physical fatigue and emotional exhaustion. The NVA forces launched a mortar attack on Camp Evans which caused an ammunition dump to explode, disabling most of the aircraft from the 229th Assault Helicopter Battalion. Other attacks along Highway 1 damaged or destroyed 20 bridges and 26 culverts between Hai Van Pass and Phu Bai.
By the time the word got passed down that the Marines were preparing for a counter attack, Spencer had lost most of his friends and he was eager to inflict some serious retribution. Many of the other Marines saw it in a much different light; they knew that if it was this rough holding ground, then the price for taking it back would have to be paid in blood…buckets of it.
The rank structure of Hotel Company had been decimated to the point that Staff Sergeant Brimley was forced to assume command. He called Corporal Matheson over, “I’m making you acting first sergeant.”
“I ain’t qualified for that,” Spencer protested.
“This isn’t a request, you lead and your men will follow,” Staff Sergeant said in no uncertain terms.
Staff Sergeant Brimley quickly discounted the current plan of urban warfare and compiled a list of equipment and sent Spencer and a group of Marines to get it in any way possible. Several hours later they returned with four M-20 bazookas, three 106 recoilless rifles mounted on M274 mules, several boxes of C-4 explosives, two flamethrowers and six boxes of tear gas grenades.
“Good job,” Sergeant Brimley said when he saw the arsenal.
“The Army was more than happy to give us everything we wanted,” Spencer said, “When I told them that we were doing a counterattack, they probably thought; let those crazy Marines go in first and we’ll wait and see what happens.”
Spencer led two rifle platoons and after fierce fighting they retook portions of Hue University then continued their assault and eliminated enemy positions at the Catholic chapel at the Jeanne d’Arc High School. When they made it to the Treasury Complex, Spencer ordered his men to take a much needed and well deserved break. The dead were placed in one room, the badly wounded in another and the walking wounded, which was just about everybody else found a place to sit down, eat some chow and check their weapons. Epitaphs were written on the back of c-ration cartons and eulogies were filed away in the memories of these men and would be accessed years later in a different lifetime. The Marines were battered, bruised and beaten down, but they were unbowed and undefeated.
When Staff Sergeant Brimley arrived with the rest of Hotel Company, he saw Spencer going down the line to check on the welfare of his men and his initial assessment of Corporal Matheson leadership abilities were confirmed, “How you doing?”
“Alright” Spencer replied, “You?”
“Same,” Staff Sergeant Brimley smiled.
These two men did not need to comment on the obvious and their lack of conversation spoke volumes. On February 25, 1968 mopping up operations began in the area and when the numbers came in, they were staggering; ARVN losses were 452 killed and 2,123 wounded, while U.S. losses were 216 killed and 1,584 wounded. NVA losses are a matter of debate as the North Vietnam Department of Warfare gave figures of 2,400 killed and 3,000 wounded from 30 January until 28 March. A captured enemy document by the ARVN’s stated that 1,042 NVA troops had been killed in the city proper and several times that number had been wounded. The South Vietnamese government gave figures of 5,133 killed and 1,900 wounded during the battle. 4,856 civilians and captured South Vietnamese military personnel were either executed by the North Vietnamese or went missing during the battle.
When the smoke had cleared and the American flag flew over every place that it had before the TET offensive, the North Vietnamese did not control one piece of ground in the city. Two warriors stood side by side in front of the badly damaged Citadel and surveyed the carnage and destruction in silence. Staff Sergeant Brimley swallowed his emotions and remained stoic. A phantom ray of sunshine pierced the ominous and impenetrable dark gray cloud cover and illuminated a single lonely teardrop as it fell from the eye of Corporal Spencer Matheson and rolled down his dirt streaked face.
No matter how you spelled it, there was No Way that these two Marines and their brothers in arms were going to lose the Battle of Hue City.