MARINE CORPS TANKERS VIETNAM HISTORICAL Foundation's
Vietnam Personal Accounts
Marine Tanks in the Battle for Hue City: Tet 1968 – A Tale of Two Cities
by Ray Stewart
On 8 March 1965, Marine Tankers came ashore in their M48A3 Gun and M67A2 Flamethrower Tanks with the 9th MEB (later designated MAB) across Red Beach in the city of Da Dang, Republic of (South) Vietnam. Tanks were among the first ground combat units introduced into the Republic of Vietnam. On 9 March the LCU’s landed “A” Company, Third Tank Battalion (3d Tanks), commanded by Capt. Edward A. Cercone, embarked on the USS Vancouver (LPD-2). The tank company moved ashore, establishing its command post a few hundred yards west of “Dog Patch” with two of its three platoons. The tank company’s mission was to defend the Da Nang Airfield. A third platoon was sent north to Phu Bai in support of 2/3. This landing was followed on 7 May by “C” Company, 3rd Tanks across the beach at Chu Lai, RVN, to the south of Da Nang, in support of the 4th Marines.
Two months later, Battalion Landing Team (BLT) 3/7, supported by 3d Plt, “B” Company, 1st Tanks landed at Qui Nhon, RVN. Within days, BLT 3/7 was replaced by BLT 2/7, which was supported by 2d Plt, “B” Company, 1st Tanks. In the meantime, “B” Company, 1st Tanks moved its CP from Okinawa to Chu Lai and came under the administrative and logistics control of 3d Tanks located in Da Nang. 1st Tanks was under the operational control, and/or in direct support, of Col. Oscar F. Peatross’ Regimental Landing Team (RLT) 7 and its subordinate units.
Shortly thereafter (18-24 August, 1965) Marine tanks participated in, and acquitted themselves admirably, during what Otto Lehrack refers to in his book as “The First Battle”, Operation Starlite, south of Chu Lai, RVN. Operation Starlite, the first regimental-size - and largest amphibious - operation conducted since the Korean War, brought tanks ashore from the Amphibious Landing Force (AL:F) with those already based 9 miles to the north at Chu Lai, together under the command of Capt. Allan W. Lamb, C.O., “B” Company, 1st Tanks.
Marine tanks – attached to, and in direct support of, Marine infantry units - participated in virtually every aspect of ground combat operations from the opening days of the Vietnam War to their final back-load across Red Beach, Da Nang, RVN more than 5 years later.
Today, when a Marine Corps Vietnam Veteran Tanker is asked what he “did” in Vietnam, his reply “I was a Tanker” is as often as not met with “Tanks? I didn’t know they had tanks in Vietnam”. Or, “That wasn’t ‘tank country’, was it?” And, it is a testimonial to the aggressiveness and inventiveness of Tankers that, in many cases, tanks were in fact employed at all. Tracked Vehicle School, located at Camp Del Mar, Camp Pendleton, CA offered tactics training in tank/infantry coordination, somewhat grudgingly covered the use of tanks in an artillery-type role, did not address anti-tank mine and missile avoidance tactics, and spoke little of convoy/Rough Rider operations. Training needed to adequately and successfully prepare the Tanker for the situation and terrain to be encountered during operations in Vietnam was not yet clearly and doctrinal developed. And certainly – if triple canopy jungle, rice paddies, and rivers were not “tank country” – urban warfare with house-to-house fighting - was even less so.
Prior to the Vietnam War, few if any Marine units – infantry, tracks, artillery, air, engineers – had been adequately trained for city fighting - “combat in built-up areas”. What abbreviated individual training or small unit training that was provide did not extend to the actual coordination of combined arms – especially in the context of city fighting.
During most of the Vietnam War, Marine Tankers “sold” the use of their weapons system to the mostly skeptical supported infantry in any way they saw appropriate, often outside the schoolbook doctrine they were taught at Camp Del Mar’s Tracked Vehicle School. For example, tanks supplemented artillery in long-range fires. To do so they were ramp-ed up and tubes were set at maximum range to deliver harassing and interdicting (H&I) fire. The smaller bursting radius of both white phosphorous (Willy Peter) and high explosive (HE) 90mm tank rounds was compensated for by the greater accuracy and quantity of rounds placed on the target. When the supported infantry units realized the effectiveness of tanks in the “artillery role”, their use as such became routine. Similarly, Tankers developed “Rough Rider” procedures that enhanced the security of the convoy and ensured the continued resupply of forward operating bases. Capt. Harris Himes, in an oral interview taken at the end of his Vietnam tour, articulated quite clearly how best to employ tanks in the convoy mode. Tankers busted bunkers and cleared anti-personnel mines that saved many infantry casualties. Road, checkpoint, and airfield security were among the many “employment opportunities” presented the Tanker. “Doctrine” was arrived at ad hoc and none so clearly developed and applied as the tank, Ontos, infantry coordination and teamwork during the Battle for Hue City.
The sub-title “A Tale of Two Cities” must be explained. The “City of Hue” was more accurately 2 cities. Nolan states “Just as Hue was actually two cities, the battle to retake it turned into two distinct fights.” North of the Perfume River was the Old City, or often referred to as “The Citadel” and as the French called it, of classical Chinese and French military engineering. Within massive walls honeycombed with narrow winding streets, the Old City housed a population of more than 65,000, not counting refugees, which had flooded the city during the war. Inside the walled city was the Imperial Palace more accurately called “The Citadel”. Across the Song Huong or “River of Perfumes” and connected by the Nguyen Hoang bridge was the “New City” or South Hue with its wide boulevards and modern, westernized buildings. The battle for each of these “Two Cities” started and finished at different times – the battle to secure the South City being fairly well concluded by the time the pitched battle for the North City began. Both the friendly and enemy orders of battle were separate and distinct – other than that both friendly forces were under the distant and nominal command and control of Task Force X-Ray with Headquarters located at Phu Bai. Simplistically enough, 1/1 and 2/5, supported by 3d Tanks, fought the South City battle and 1/5, supported by 1st Tanks, fought the North City battle. As Hammel points out “… two battles is what any two units, from company on up, fight in adjacent sectors.” This was even more obvious with the “Battle for Hue City”. And, in the context of tank deployment, the rather unstructured and checkered use by 2/5 of the 4 tank “Provisional Platoon” led by 2dLt. Georgaklis in South Hue contrasted starkly with that of the closely coordinated tank/infantry/Ontos employment by 1/5 which included the tank platoon led by 1stLt. Ron Morrison in North Hue.
Tankers and Ontos crewmen carried with them into the Battle for Hue City their considerable experience gained in improvising. The Tankers had essentially no prior training or practical experience in the use of their “crew-served weapon” in urban house-to-house, block-by-block, street-by-street fighting. Nor had the supported infantry been trained in either combat in built-up areas tactics or close-in tank/infantry coordination. Further, Tankers had no street fighting experience in working with the Ontos. Yet, a tribute to the infantrymen, tankers, and Ontos crewmen, tactics were worked out and developed on a case-by-case basis, often under the harshest combat environment. This article presents just some of the story how Marine tanks and Ontos participated in, and contributed to the success of, the Marines’ “Battle for Hue City”.
Over the years the ancient imperial city of Hue, former capitol of Amman, pre-dating the Republic of Vietnam, had become an “open city” by the time of the opening shots of the Vietnam War. There was minimal military presence in the city. The 3d RVN Regiment, closest to Hue, was 5 kilometers to the northwest. U.S. Army and Marine forces were located at Phu Bai 12 kilometers to the south and U.S. Army units were positioned to the west of the city.
Hue was planned to play a significant role in the NVA campaign to conquer Quang Tri and Thua Thien Provinces. The city was a key choke point along the critical U.S. and ARVN north-south line of communications (LOC), Highway 1. A railroad also ran through Hue. Navy supply boats used its ramps as an embarkation and debarkation point for supplies moving to and from the ocean. Taking Hue would sever the American's LOC and prohibit the movement of supplies from Da Nang to the DMZ. The NVA viewed the city as a weak link in the allied defense of the two northern provinces, which were increasingly oriented against an anticipated attack along Route 9. As part of the January “Tet Offensive”, the NVA began infiltrating Hue some days before to augment the VC 5th Column already infesting it.
“11 January, as part of Operation Checkers, in an effort to rotate units of the 1st Marine Division north to relieve the 3d Marine Division, Task Force X-Ray (commanded by Brigadier General Foster “Frosty” C. LaHue) Headquarters was activated at Phu Bai. Task Force X-Ray subsequently relieved the 3d Marine Division Headquarters at Phu Bai, which moved to Dong Ha in Quang Tri Province.”
“As the month of January drew close, the Viet Cong announced a seven-day Tet truce to last from 0100, 27 January (1967) until 0100, 3 February.” They had no intention of honoring that temporary truce and, in fact, were on the move toward offensive operations across the length and breadth of South Vietnam designed to catch the American forces completely off guard. In addition to the country-wide confusion caused by the NVA/VC violation of their announced truce, the surprise launching of the “TET Offensive” in late January further complicated the Marine’s ability to counter it since they were on the move to the north. In response to earlier intelligence reports, radio intercepts, and other indicators that the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) was staging north of, and infiltrating through, the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), entire Marine units were being relocated from the south to meet the enemy build up. In support of the re-deploying infantry units, 3d Tanks had moved its command post (CP) from Da Nang to Phu Bai. 1st Tanks was moving its CP from Chu Lai to Da Nang and then further north to Phu Bia.
During this time, “With an invisibility almost incomprehensible to Occidentals, the North Vietnamese had infiltrated two regiments of regulars into the ancient imperial capital of Hue to join the local force Viet Cong units already embedded in the city. At 0340 on 30 January 1968, as part of North Vietnam's great Tet Offensive; these forces materialized behind a thundering rocket and mortar barrage and seized most of the city in an iron grip.” When the enemy signaled the occupation of Hue on 31 January with a mortar and rocket barrage, the enemy occupiers changed into military uniform and took control of the city. What the enemy did not take control of was the Military Advisory and Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) Compound and the “LCU Ramp” in South Hue. Also, the ARVN Compound in the northeast corner of the Old City remained in the friendly hands of ARVN forces.
In response to the urgent calls from Hue and with “Inadequate intelligence concerning the attack initially prompted TF X-Ray to dispatch just a single rifle company, Company A, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines (A/1/1), to relieve the U.S. and ARVN forces under siege”. Company “A” moved north to Hue from Phu Bai along Highway 1, linking up by pure chance with four 3d Tanks tanks along the way south of the new city. Since the VC were unsuccessful in their initial attempts to drop the An Cuu Bridge, A/1/1 was able to cross over the Phu Cam Canal before it came under heavy attack just short of the MACV Compound. With Company “A” pinned down and stalled, BGen LaHue attached Company G, 2d Battalion, 5th Marines (G/2/5) to LtCol Marcus J. Gravel, the commander of 1/1, and dispatched him to Hue as well.
Lt.Col. Karl J. Fontenot had just returned to be C.O. of 3d Tanks when the Tet Offensive broke, and his battalion (as part of Operation Checkers) was in the process of displacing north towards Dong Ha. “We had four remaining tanks…. They were due to go into the city of Hue that morning that Hue fell to load onto LCUs to go on up to Dong Ha.” The vehicles included the two command (M48A3 90mm gun) tanks (H-51 and H-52) from 3d Tanks headquarters, and two additional (M67A2 Flamethrower) tanks (F-32 and F-33).
2Lt Lt J.E. Georgaklis, C.O. of H&S Company was packing up his kit to move 2 of his headquarters M48A3 gun tanks – H-51 & H-52 - and 2 of his M67A2 flame tanks - F-31 & F-32 - to the LCU ramp 8 miles north in Hue. And then to join the rest of 3d Tanks in Northern Quang Tri Province at the Tactical Command Post (TCP) at Dong Ha. Lt. Georgaklis had no idea that the anticipated “administrative” move would take 2 ½ weeks, would include some of the toughest and unique fighting tanks had encountered to-date in the Vietnam War, and would write another page in the impressive history of Marine Tank operations.
Despite the (Tet Holiday) truce, Fontenot’s CP had taken thirty or forty rockets the night before. “We were shelled that night, but we didn’t know any more than that. The four tanks left in the morning with the Division Embarkation Officer to go up there and boat in.”
According to the 3d Tanks’ January Command Chronology, “At 0800 on 31 January the gun tanks from Battalion Headquarters and two flame tanks departed the Battalion Command Post en route to Dong Ha via Hue. On Route #1 the unit was advised of heavy enemy activity toward Hue. The unit continued on and linked up with an infantry company also moving toward the city. In the vicinity of YD 7821 the tanks and infantry encountered another infantry unit (A/1/1) which was engaged with the enemy. The combined force fought its way into the southern portion of the city in an effort to reach the LCU ramp. While en-route the unit was ordered to relieve the MACV Compound in Hue, which was under siege. (The tank/infantry ad hoc team was reinforced by G/2/5). After eight hours of house to house street fighting the unit (crossed the Phu Cam canal bridge and) entered the MACV Compound (at about 1445) and joined in its defense.”
LtCol Fontenot had gone to the Division HQ, where he found that “The G-3 didn’t know that I had tanks on the road. I went in and told him, I said ‘I’ve got four tanks going up the road, and I’m just going to tell them to join the first unit they find.’” The Division Embarkation Officer, an unnamed infantry officer, stayed with the tanks, “… and I had a major, who was with the tanks, he was on leave from the United States. He took leave to go there and observe what was happening, and he ended up in Hue. He got a good look.” Perhaps more than he had counted on.
A/1/1, commanded by Capt Gordon Batcheller, now pinned down outside of South Hue City, had been on the move north with the DMZ in mind. When LtCol Fontenot found that the infantry was on the road into Hue, says he, “I got on my radio and called my tanks (Plt. Cmdr. 2D Lt J.E. Georgaklis) and told them to watch for this battalion, and lower their gun tubes and get ready to fight when they went in (to South Hue and the MACV Compound)”.
LCpl Carl “Flash” Fleischman, a tank driver of H-52 tells his story in graphic detail. The first indication that the situation was dangerous was when Fleischman “saw an ARVN M41 tank blown up with human pieces hanging out of it.” Then, when crossing the Phu Cam Canal on the southern border of Hue “all hell broke loose. Having no idea of what was going on and with no prior combat experience” Flash witnessed the Tank Commander (TC) riding in the cupola of the lead tank (H-51) shot through the neck with the round exiting his back. Cpl. Hicks was evacuated to the rear and the column of tanks and infantry fought their way toward the MACV compound.
Some of the Grunts had left their trucks and, seeking the protection of heavier metal, climbed onto the four tanks. With Capt. Batcheller taking his place along side the turret on the lead tank (H-51), they proceeded down the road, pouring fire into the silent buildings as a precaution. To speed up the advance and take advantage of the cover tanks could provide, Capt Batcheller “… ordered the rest of his men to leave the trucks and climb onto the tanks.” “… and they hauled ass down the road”.
Then the incoming increased – small arms rounds sounded like gravel thrown against a metal-sided building, rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) knocked exterior-mounted equipment off the tanks, and B-40s did their best to deal a mobility or fire power kill to the tanks. The riding infantry was swept from the tanks. The tanks buttoned up and were guided by the supported infantry’s eyes and ears. In turn, the TC commanded the gunner where and what to shoot and Flash where and how to maneuver his tank.
Suddenly, the lead tank took a direct hit from an NVA B-40 rocket. The crack and boom of another B-40 erupted and automatic weapons fire sprayed the entire column. A Navy corpsman fell dead and Capt Batcheller's young radioman was blown off the tank, mortally wounded. Batcheller jumped from the tank and began pulling the dead and wounded to cover. He was joined by GySgt J. L. Canley - the Company Gunny - a huge black man with a reputation for bravery, while the rest of the company crouched behind the tanks, triggering their M-16 rifles, returning fire. Capt Batcheller had been seriously wounded when the B-40 hit the tank he was riding. He was later med-evacced and ultimately recovered from his wounds.
When the Task Force X-Ray-dispatched G/2/5 reached the tank/infantry column they coordinated their plan to advance to the MACV Compound. Several Marines climbed aboard the tanks and continued down Route 1. The road cut across an urban rice paddy, with two large buildings situated on either side of it halfway through. Small trees lined the street and a cover of leaves swept the road. The tanks led the way and the remaining infantrymen trailed behind, using the tanks, trees, and road bank as cover from the fire coming from the city. At around 1430 the tank-infantry team swept into the MACV compound to the joy of its Army and Marine advisers.
Platoon Sergeant Sgt B.L. Mitchell, describes his role in the fight 1/G/2/5 was in to force entry into the MACV Compound. “A/1/1 was already there when we came up. They were pinned down and we combined our outfits along with some tanks that were with A/1/1. We took the point along with the tanks. They provided a tremendous base of fire and kept the snipers off our ass. We directed the tanks from the phone on the rear fender. They provided us cover as we moved toward the MACV Compound. Tanks was the only way we could get them gooks out. Without them – hell, we’d still be there getting our asses shot off”.
No sooner had the combined tank/infantry force reached the MACV Compound when G/2/5 received orders to attack across the Perfume River via the Nguyen Hoang Bridge and “take the Citadel”. The tanks were not allowed to provide main gun 90mm covering fire for the attacking Marine company out of concern for damage to North Hue’s buildings. However, the tanks took on the snipers across the river with high volumes of .50 cal and .30 cal. machine gun fire. “With the help of tanks, they (G/2/5) got across the river but at great cost.” The attack stalled and the infantry began to sustain unacceptably high casualties. “G” Company’s C.O., Capt Chuck Meadows, requested permission to withdraw his company back across the bridge. His first request was denied but later granted
1st Lt R.L. Horner, Platoon Commander, 2/F/2/5 describes the same effort by his unit the next day when the just-arrived F/2/5 was called on to assist the pinned down G/2/5. Paraphrasing Lt Horner, two tanks were called up to provide support but the rules of engagement were such that they could not use their 90mm main guns. They, however, did provide suppressing covering fire with their .30 cal and .50 cal machine guns while the infantry withdrew. Subsequently, they went forward to rescue the fallen wounded and extract the Marine KIAs. When all the Marines and Corpsmen were “present or accounted for”, the combined force returned to the MACV compound. As Keith William Nolan wrote in Battle for Hue: Tet 1968, "The Marine command at Task Force X-Ray was separated from Hue by eight miles of road and by a wall of optimism, disbelief, and misinformation."
There was no time to relax. Cpl R.D. Hull, assigned to the MACV Advisory Group under Maj. Frank Breth, was in the MACV Compound on 31 January when alerted to the infantry attack by the NVA. He describes the attack and his participation in stopping it: Then, going on the offensive the next day, when they busted out of the compound with 2 tanks and 60 Marines in an attempt to rescue some US Army and civilian communications personnel in an adjacent compound. According to Hull, eight Marines were killed and the force took many casualties. Unsuccessful in reaching the compound, they returned to the MACV compound with the protective cover of the tanks.
Then the word was passed that med-evac helicopters with a supply of ammunition were incoming. Again, the tanks with accompanying infantry, saddled up and proceeded to the adjacent LZ. They picked up the wounded as they fell while providing suppressing machine gun fire received from the enemy on the north side of the Perfume River. To the consternation of the Army Colonel in charge of the MACV Compound, the tanks took the most direct – and safest - “route” to the LZ. They “walked” their way to the LZ through houses and walls. Ed Gilbert writes, “Tanks were used to smash a path through buildings to make a narrow, protected path to the LZ.” Hammel in Fire in the Streets said “After January 31, (LtCol, C.O. 1/1) Gravel always took a tank along to make new streets, right through buildings and walled compounds. The method destroyed a lot of Hue, but it saved (Marine and civilian) lives.”
Col S.R. Hughes, C.O. of the 1st Marines and commander of the “Hue City Task Force”, along with LtCol E.C. Cheatham, C.O. of 2/5, arrived at the MACV Compound on 3 February. LtCol Cheatham took command of his H&S and three of his four letter companies. No time was wasted in attacking out of the compound. The next day 3/F/2/5 with 2 tanks attacked west down the street. Within no more than a block or 2 the NVA fire brought the attacking force to a halt. While the tanks provided volumes of suppressing fire, the NVA in well-concealed and heavily covered building and from behind concrete walls, could not be overcome by the inexperienced infantry. Marines, fighting in urban environment that was foreign to the most seasoned Vietnam veteran - used to fighting in the rice paddies and jungle - would require. To paraphrase LtCol Cheatham “however, it took less than 36 hours for his Marines to become the match of the best street fighters.”
“Because every street constituted a prepared killing zone over-watched by snipers, the Marines were forced to employ ingenious tactics and techniques to attain their objectives. The steep learning curve was by trial and error, and it was costly. Accustomed to rural and jungle warfare against hit-and-run ambushes, the Marines in Hue now faced both VC and NVA troops in an urban defense in depth. Tanks (and Ontos )were the only advantage in weaponry the attacking Marines had, and the movement of these weapons was greatly restricted by the NVA's use of B-40 anti-armor rockets.” While RPGs could not readily destroy a tank, they proved deadly to its crewmen. The small hole apparent on the exterior of the tank sustaining an RPG hit resulted in interior spalling, sending the tank’s shrapnel throughout the turret. The damage by the newer RPG-7 was much greater than the older RPG-2. ”Hue clearly demonstrated the value of direct tank fire in mid- to high-scale urban combat. The M48s provided critical support to the infantry by opening ‘new’ routes knocking down walls and obstacles and blasting openings to enable troop movement and casualty evacuation under cover.”
Within a couple of days the tanks were supporting the 2/5 attack toward Hue University. Flash, driving H-52 witnessed his first death – a 2/5 infantryman who was shot in the head. Flash has never been able to erase the incident from his mind. The Marine “died with a big smile on his face”. Shortly thereafter H-52 took an RPG round that severely wounded the exposed Tank Commander (TC) Cpl. Robert Hall. Flash and others got Hall back to the aid station. “The doctor and the corpsman said that there was nothing they could do for him because he had no face. Robert was holding on to me. They said ‘just hold on to him until he passes on’. I did. And he passed on”. Flash returned to his tank. He said in an interview with Ed Gilbert “It was still functional, the gun would still function even though we had holes in it. Unfortunately, the brain matter and the blood and everything from Robert and the other guy (the loader) were throughout the tank, it was still a functional tank. We kept going. To this day it still haunts me on that one.”
And the 2/5 attack continued west along the Perfume River. Tanks and Ontos – working together as teams – usually in pairs by providing cover for each other and, at the direction of the supporting infantry, blew holes through the concrete walls separating the buildings that provided cover and concealment to the NVA.
LtCol Gravel’s meager force, comprising A/1/1 with tank/Ontos attachments, was ordered to take the Joan of Arc School. After battling its way to – and then into – the compound, the Marines entered the church to clear out the snipers. Upon entry, the Marines were taken under attack. The NVA were in the rafters, dropping hand grenades on the Marines. LtCol Gravel, fully understanding the possible ramifications of destroying the building, weighed his options. Placing the well-being of his Marines first, Gravel turned to the tankers and said “Take the roof off.” The tanks first blasted the roof with 90mm H.E. Then blew holes through the walls to provide ease of entry. In an oral interview taken just after the battle, PFC. R.P. Albright described what he saw – “The dead gooks were hanging from the rafters like spaghetti.”
Capt Ron Christmas H/2/5 was given the Provincial Capitol to secure. He called for tank support and one came rumbling up. Christmas directed the tanks fire from the TI phone at the rear of the tank. The tank blasted the building with its 90mm main gun and .50 and .30 cal machine guns. The tank took 2 (maybe 3) incoming B-40s but didn’t stop shooting.
With 1/1’s taking of the Joan of Arc School and 2/5’s occupation of the Provincial Capitol, Nolan states in his book “Battle for Hue”, that the NVA enemy fighting in south Hue “back was broken.” “By the end of the first week of the battle, enemy resistance on the south side began to show signs of crumbling, although LtCol Cheatham's battalion was still in heavy contact. With the securing of MACV and the nearby major enemy positions - including Joan de Arc - the battle broke down into a systematic house-to-house action of squad and platoon rushes. Success depended on the coordination of mortars, tanks, and recoilless rifles, good radio contact, as well as strong leadership and the valor and aggressiveness of the individual Grunts.” There was still a lot of fighting ahead in South Hue but never again did the Marines falter in their steady advance.
“Poor tactical maneuver initially had operational consequences as it produced excessive casualties. The Marines of both 1/1 and 2/5 were ill-trained for urban operations, both having been committed to Hue following extensive jungle fighting. The learning curve was very steep. What the Marines lacked in formal urban training, they made up for with ‘the imagination, aggressiveness, and esprit de corps’ of each combatant."
On 9 February one of 2nd Lt Georgaklis’ 2 gun tanks (H-51) was destroyed by 4 RPG rounds (also reported as B-40s) that hit the turret front just below the gun mantle. The hits, penetrating the turret, caused the considerable quantity of ammunition stored inside the turret to explode. The tank burned all day as the 90mm rounds cooked off. The 3d Tanks’ Command Chronology describing the incident, reports that 3 of the crewmen were wounded with the anti-tank hits and also while exiting the flaming tank. However, an eyewitness reports that the crew was actually out of the tank at the time of the RPG attack assisting civilian evacuees, so “there could not have been casualties”. Such is the result of “the fog of war”.
The battle assumed a rhythm: the Marines would attack each morning after a cold C-ration breakfast, fight all day, with luck, be fed one hot meal, and at night hold up. LtCol Cheatham, during a 1973 panel discussion held at the Amphibious Warfare School with his 3 former company commanders, described this rather routine scenario in South Hue as somewhat of a “gentleman's war – in fact, almost civil”. By 6 February 2/5 had retaken the province headquarters, the prison, and the hospital. 1/1 had taken the Joan of Arc School. By 9 February they had “snuffed out all organized resistance south of the river”. According to official Marine Corps documentation, “Last organized resistance south of the (Perfume) river was extinguished on 9 February”.
On 11 February A/1/1, commanded by Lt Ray Smith, was making a sweep near the Hue stadium. The 2 supporting tanks – one gun and one flame - was flanked by protecting infantry. The gun tank was hit by 3 or 4 B-40s and/or RPGs. The tank was stopped, belching smoke. The dieing tank driver was pulled out of his hatch and he, along with a number of wounded infantry, were piled on the flame tank, which backed quickly away. In doing so, the tank backed over a wounded corpsman. Luckily enough - considering what it might have been – the hapless corpsman sustained only a broken arm.
In an oral interview, Lt Mike McNeil described his fight for South Hue as a Platoon Commander in G/2/5 leading 48 Marines. His platoon was soon reduced to 15 effective's by the time he assaulted through the hospital to the prison. Of interest is that he expressed great pride in his “John Waynes” and cites with pride no employment of tanks or Ontos to support his Marines. Go figure. One wonders how many young warriors, his “John Waynes”, would still be among us today if McNeil would have provided available “tank or Ontos support!!!
At 112200 the 2d Platoon, “A” Company, 1st Tanks landed at the LCU ramp having boated through a severe storm up from Da Nang. The C.O., Capt C. Casey set up his Company CP in South Hue from which he monitored the North Hue battle soon to be joined by 1/5. His company provided support for the remaining infantry units of 2/5 in South Hue. On 11 and 17 February additional 1st Tanks assets arrived by landing craft at the LCU ramp from Da Nang.
When a second A/1st Tanks platoon was landed on 13 February, Lt Georgaklis’ 3d Tanks Provisional Platoon tanks were on the move back to the LCU ramp. On 17 February at 1630 3 of the 4 tanks that helped break the ambush en route to the MACV Compound with A/1/1 and G/2/5, made their way to the LCU Ramp and loaded out for Dong Ha to rejoin their parent unit. Flash recalls that he saw the platoon of “A” Company, 1st Tanks offloading on the North Side of the Perfume River as his tanks were boarding their LCUs on the South Side. Says three-time wounded Cpl Fleischmann, “I was one of the original ones there who made it through the whole thing.” Flash picked up his second of three Purple Hearts on the way down the Perfume River to the open sea. And that’s another story.
The 3d Tanks’ Command Chronology reports that the Provisional Platoon’s 2 gun tanks fired 1,147 rounds of 90mm, the 2 flame tanks expended 60 seconds of napalm, the 4 tanks fired 15,000 rounds of .50 cal, 155,000 rounds of .30 cal. The 4 tanks took a total of 28 anti-tank weapons (RGP-2’s and -7’s and B-40’s) hits. The platoon sustained one KIA and 14 WIAs and was credited with 145 confirmed enemy KIA. Not that shabby for 4 tanks, fought by previously-inexperienced crews, who made up their “rules of engagement” and tank/infantry/Ontos coordination tactics, communications, and teamwork pretty much on their own under the most trying of combat conditions.
1st Lt W.M. Sherer, the Artillery Liaison Officer who observed the battle of South Hue not in the street but from the bigger picture perspective, stated in an in-country interview a few weeks after the conclusion of the Battle for Hue City that “Tankers did one heckuva job. When the front door entry was not an option (i.e., the streets being raked by mutually supporting machine gun and rocket fire) the tanks made the difference. They’d blast holes in the building’s (which were often more bunker than residence) and compound’s concrete walls to allow the infantry to enter the building without exposing themselves to the street.”
Similarly, Tank Officer, 1st Lt R.M. Johnstone, who had just returned to Vietnam from the hospital in Guam recovering from a non-combat injury, observed the tanks in action from the “A” Company, 1stTanks Command Post (CP) in South Hue. Lt Johnstone, in an oral interview taken shortly after the operation’s completion, stated “I was sent to Hue City as an Assistant S-3 (Operations) Officer. While there, I was basically an observer of Alpha Company, commanded by Capt Casey, who did a marvelous job in supporting the infantry” - both Marine and ARVN.
On 12 February, as 2/5 – supported by the just-arrived “A” Company, 1stTanks - was mopping up the few remaining pockets of resistance and expanding its offensive to both the east and west of South Hue, Major (LTCol-Sel) Robert H. Thompson’s 1/5 was heli-lifted into the North Hue – the Old City built around the Citadel. The heli-lift coincided with additional troops and a platoon of M48A3 90mm gun tanks from Capt Collin Casey’s “A” Company, 1st Tanks via LCU. They’d boated up the Perfume River from Da Nang. The tanks, and accompanying infantry, entered North Hue through the Trong Dinh Gate, located in the northeast corner of the city’s wall, and into the adjacent 1st ARVN Division Compound.
The platoon – referred to as the “Second Platoon” - was in fact a cobbled together mix of Capt Casey’s Company Headquarters tanks (A-51, A-52 blade tank) and one tank from each of the three tank platoons (A-11, A-21, A-31). Lt Ron Morrison’s unit could be referred to as a “platoon” because it comprised 5 tanks. However, the Marine Tankers – from different platoons, having met each other for the first time on the LCU ride up from Da Nang, and with no experience in urban combat - would probably not have called themselves a “well oiled fighting machine”. That they were Marine Tankers, led by a superior Tank Officer (who was to receive the Silver Star Medal for his recognized bravery), who would fight like no others, there was no doubt.
Upon his arrival, Lt Morrison met and game-planned his proposed use of tanks with Maj Thompson and his staff. It was determined early-on that the supporting tanks, with their infantry protection, would fight the battle together. Included on this team was the 106mm recoilless rifle-armed Ontos. Each element of this team brought to the party unique capabilities that, if worked together, would insure the best chance for success in winning the battle for North Hue - The Citadel.
According to Cpl Mario Tamez, a tank TC, typically, every night as the day’s battle wound down, the tanks came clanking back to the ARVN Compound. Then-LtCol Thompson said during an interview, that “They reminded me of knights returning to the castle after fighting the dragon.” The infantry squad leaders assigned to the team - and who provided the eyes and ears to the Tank TC as they worked through the confined streets - met with the tank and Ontos crewmen to critique the day. After the evening meal, the next day’s plan of attack was worked out for the team. The tanks would top off with fuel, ammo, and food for the next day. After gun cleaning and maintenance, they usually enjoyed a fairly decent night’s sleep – used to the sniper rounds and occasional mortar hits.
Cpl Tamez estimated that the platoon took more than 63 RPG/B-40 hits during the 9 days they battled the NVA/VC enemy. This number was confirmed during an interview with another tank crewman, LCpl Dennis Martin. The tanks led the attack down the narrow streets. Tamez stated that “we were always entirely surrounded.” Martin said that within a few days the tank crews were down to 3 Tankers. The TC (and senior Marine) was often a LCpl., and the remainder of the crew PFC's.
Capt C.R. Casey, C.O. A/1st Tanks was also Task Force X-Ray’s Armor Officer. He stated in a personal interview, and also quoted by Gilbert, “The Ontos was primarily used as a back up for the tank. We primarily used them in a hit and run type of thing.” While they had great firepower – 6-106mm recoilless rifles - their armor was thin and could be penetrated quite easily by the NVA’s weapons “so the Ontos was best employed by protecting them. It was primarily a building buster, just like we were doing with the tanks.”
However, though Capt Casey was an advocate for the full use of combined arms, the unique status of Hue dictated caution. For example, “The M67A2 flamethrower tank saw limited use. The amount of collateral damage they could cause in the somewhat ‘protected’ city was too much of a risk.” Capt Casey stated that the flame tanks saw “Nowhere near what the gun tanks did.” But, a testimonial to the Tanker’s aggressiveness and inventiveness, a flame tank crewman stated “So we were a (armor-protected) gun platform, and we just fired the hell out of the thirty and fifty. Non-stop”.
In an telephone interview with retired Col Bob Thompson, he acknowledged the value he and his company commanders placed on tanks. The rules of engagement (ROEs) required pinpoint accuracy of his supporting arms. Tanks and Ontos provide that. When asked “What would you have done without the tanks?” Col Thompson said. “Oh, we would have won; it would have taken us longer and we would have sustained greater casualties – greater than the 60% we did.” At one point during the battle, Thompson’s force had gone 4 days without resupply. Because so much of the success of the battle was dependent on tank and Ontos support, then-Maj Thompson would not continue the attack until they were re-armed. Maj Thompson’s 1/5 used “his” tanks “… to clear streets. As long as we could keep some form of infantry protection around them we could run them down those streets. Where they were receiving fire, we could knock a hole in that building, and usually put a damper on that fire.”
“By combining the M48 tanks with the Ontos antitank vehicles, the innovative Marines dominated the close-range fighting along the confined streets of the Citadel. While tank fires were correctly employed at the tactical (in fact, the small unit) level, it is critically important that the operational commander makes armored assets available to his subordinate commanders in these circumstances. In studying armor employment during the battles of Hue and Khorramshahr (Iraq), one officer found that ‘armor dominance in the urban setting translates to a four to seven-fold increase in the application of combat power in the close fight.’"
The toughest objective (in North Hue) was the massive Dong Ba tower which looked down on and controlled access to the Dong Ba Gate which was at the mid-point along the eastern wall of North Hue. Tanks were somewhat disadvantaged in that they could not elevate their 90mm guns sufficiently to engage the top levels of buildings. Also, the streets in some sectors of North Hue were so narrow that the tank track end connectors made contact with the building on both sides. Without prior recon, tanks could find themselves in blind alleys.
On 21 February, L/3/5 employing Lt Morrison’s tanks and the Ontos in a similar fashion as 1/5, turned the corner toward the Imperial Palace and presided over the waning NVA/VC resistance. “On 22 February, the Marines seized their final objective, the southeast wall of the Citadel.” None of Capt Casey’s tanks - on either side of the Perfume River – were disabled or destroyed though each sustained multiple hits.
Pfc T.L. Foster, whose squad was assigned “Tank Security” in the battle of North Hue, describes the block-by-block fighting from the ARVN compound to the Citadel in great detail – tactical Phase Line by Phase Line. His tank – taking 2-3 hits every day from RPGs and B-40s, continued to knock down walls – both of bunkers (fortified houses) and surrounding compounds which gave the NVA/VC enemy both cover and concealment. Says Foster, “If had it not been for tanks we could not have pushed in – they had bunkers every where. Tanks is about all that saved us at Phase Line Purple.”
At midnight on 27 February, Operation Hue City officially ended. Lasting 26 days, the battle for Hue was the longest and bloodiest of the Tet Offensive. A total of 3 Marine battalions and 11 ARVN battalions were eventually committed to retaking the city. Ten thousand homes were damaged or destroyed. The battle created 116,000 homeless refugees and left 80 percent of the historic city in ruins. Americans lost 216 killed and 1,364 wounded in action, while the ARVN lost 384 killed and 1,830 wounded. Some 5,800 civilians died, at least 2,800 of which were killed by the VC/NVA, who sought out and exterminated those with pro-U.S. sentiments as well as those who could identify them and compromise their efforts. The United States estimated enemy casualties at 5,000 with 1,042 killed.
During a panel discussion held at the Amphibious Warfare School, Quantico, VA in 1973 LtCol Cheatham and his 3 Hue City Captain Company Commanders – Majors Michael P. Downs, George R. Christmas, and Charles L. Meadows – described very briefly the value of tanks in breeching walls and buildings - allowing the infantry to move through the city to some degree without canalizing and exposing the ground troops to the enemy pre-planned fires down the streets.
I’ve played way down the fact that LtCol Cheatham didn’t like tanks – though I have some eyewitness quotes with his expletives. Hammel, who gives tanks great coverage in both his Hue City books, says that Cheatham has softened a bit with his indictments.
Col. Thompson loved “his’ tanks and could not have done the job without them with the same outcome.
A number of oral interviews taken by the Oral History Section of the Marine Corps History Division just after the battle (s) for Hue City are replete with troopers’ testimonial to the value that tanks provided. Several of the troopers stated during their interviews that they believed they would not be telling their story had it not been for tank support. I cited but a couple in this article.
Dr. Allison’s organization provided unlimited access to the Marine Corps Oral History Archives from which many of the quotes and a whole lot of first-hand information has been extracted for this article. The Marine Corps Vietnam Tankers Historical Foundation has received a grant to write summaries of the several thousand Vietnam War oral histories collected - both in-country and shortly after returning to CONUS - of Vietnam Veterans.
And my many “Tanks a lot” to Combat Photographer Sgt. Steve Berntson, USMC (Ret.) who gave us a first-hand account of the battle from his perspective. Sgt Berntson was seriously wounded and med-evacced before the final day of the battle in north Hue just short of the Imperial palace when the tower – reduced to rubble by Lt Morrison’s tanks - collapsed on him.
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