Behind the Battle of Hue Photograph

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During the North Vietnamese Army’s surprise 1968 Tet Offensive, a fierce battle raged in the city of Hue. Pitting North Vietnamese Army regulars and Vietcong against South Vietnamese Army troops and U.S. Marines, the month-long battle ended in defeat for the attackers. This photograph from February 6, 1968, shows D.R. Howe treating the wounds of Private First Class David A. Crum of H Co., 2nd Bn, 5th Marines.

The Battle of Huế (also called the Siege of Huế), which took place from January 30 until March 3, 1968 was one of the bloodiest and longest battles of the Vietnam War. In February 1968 in the South Vietnamese city of Huế, eleven battalions of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, two U.S. Army battalions, and three understrength U.S. Marine Corps battalions, for a total of 16 battalions, defeated 10 battalions of the People’s Army of Vietnam and the Viet Cong.

To start off the Vietnamese New Year —Tết— the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) took the South Vietnamese, U.S. and allies mostly by surprise when they attacked by night various command and control centers in the northern half of South Vietnam.

Rear Adm. Kenneth L. Veth, Commander, U.S. Naval Forces, Vietnam (COMNAVFORV), remembered during a 1977 interview, “The first thing we knew about it was when we were all waked up (sic) in the middle of the night, and all hell broke loose in the way of gunfire and explosions.”

Almost every spot that was an open piece of ground was under fire,” said U.S. Marine (then) Captain Myron Harrington, in a 1981 interview with the WGBH Educational Foundation. “You were almost in the face-to-face, eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with the NVA. (…) As a result of their being so entrenched and utilizing the concrete type of buildings that we were running across, it required us to bring maximum fire power at our disposal to eliminate them.” Capt. Myron Harrington, added: “Street fighting was an entirely new experience for everyone in that company. Our last Marine Corps experience in street fighting had been in 1950 in Seoul, Korea. There were very few Marines left on active duty and those who were would have been too senior to participate in the Battle of Hue.

The original caption of the photograph reads: Twentieth Century “Angel of Mercy” — D. R. Howe (Glencoe, MN) treats the wounds of Private First Class D. A. Crum (New Brighton, PA), “H” Company, 2nd Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment, during Operation Hue City.

Twentieth Century "Angel of Mercy" -- D. R. Howe (Glencoe, MN) treats the wounds of Private First Class D. A. Crum (New Brighton, PA), "H" Company, 2nd Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment, during Operation Hue City - Battle of Hue

Pushing down Le Loi street during Battle of Huế, February 6, 1968. The corpsman in the picture is Doc Dennis Howie of “Hotel” Company, 2nd Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment. Howie was later medevaced after – as his squad leader did put it – his “mind went south“. The man being treated is David A. Crum from the same company. This was the first time he was wounded. Crum was wounded two more times before the end of the battle. The man in the back on the radio is T. J. Walker. After the squad leader, Lance Corporal Robert Meadows was medevaced on February 4, he took command of the squad from 1st Platoon, Hotel 2/5 until Lance Cpl. Meadows returned on February 11.

Wounding of Lance Corporal Robert Meadows (Febr. 3): “Hotel” Company, 2nd Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment (Hotel 2/5) was one of the last companies to arrive in Hue. They had gone to Hue by truck on Route 1. They were close to Hue when the lead truck hit a box mine. Meadows vividly remembers that there was a Lt. that just came from Khe Sanh and on his first day back was sent with the convoy to Hue. He flew up into the air and fell back down through the bed of the truck. Meadows took his squad around and didn’t realize that the Lt. was there until he came around the truck. Meadows stated that the flames were too intense and he knew the Lt was dead so he continued on. (1)

Once arriving in Hue, Hotel 2/5 set up CP on the second floor of Hue University in the library. Meadows remembers clearing out the chemistry room since he “shot up all of the beakers“. Once in the library, Capt. Christmas told him that he wanted him to take his squad down to a yacht club. Being a hillbillie from Kentucky, he asked “What in the hell is a Yacht Club?“. Christmas replied a building where they had the boats and stuff. Just go straight down Le Loi St., Meadows didn’t want to take his squad because they were low on men so he asked for volunteers. About 10 guys volunteered and they started stripping off all non essentials, just ammo and grenades. He also tried to motivate his men. In his own words he said, “All right, you first five son of bitches are gonna die. You next five sons of bitches are going to get wounded. I’m the only one who’s gonna make it down that street.”

Just as they were about to go, Christmas called Meadows upstairs and told him to delay. It might have been the next morning and they were about to advance again when Christmas called Meadows upstairs again and said that they were going to postpone the attack and that his squad was to support Foxtrot Co. during their assault on the treasury building. Again Meadows asked, “What the hell is a treasury?” Christmas simply replied, “Where they make all of the money, Meadows.” Christmas wanted them to get on the roof, but there weren’t any staircases so they shimmied up about 20 ft. using lead pipes to get up on top of the roof. They used ropes to bring up 3.5 in rocket launchers and for an hour they rained fire on the treasury which was to their bottom left.

Meadows estimated that the roof was about 80 feet long and 8 ft wide. Well after awhile, two black guys in the squad, Pal and Smith, were firing through a crack in the wall about 3 ft. wide. An NVA got an RPG right through the crack and it exploded in the corner, blinding both men and cutting one of their throats. He pulled them off to the side where they lowered them down using ropes. He turned around just in time to see his RTO get shot, so he helped him out of his radio and lowered him down. Then a Lt. Myers told him to get the civilian off the roof. Apparently there was a Marine Sgt. who was a photographer (and later helped write several Vietnam films). As he was moving toward the photographer, a mortar round landed and nearly knocked him off the roof, but it just knocked him out and put some shrapnel into him. When he woke up, he was strapped to a stretcher and was being taken off a helicopter at Phu Bai. In the operating room they cut off his fatigues and by looking at his reflection, he saw that he head a head wound. If he hadn’t been knocked out, he would’ve refused the medevac, Meadows added.So just about as they were going to operate on him, the NVA started hitting the base with everything they had.

The nurses and doctors ran off leaving him still strapped to the stretcher on the table along with several other men. He saw Pal rip out the IVs from his arm and run butt naked to one of the bunkers. Meadows told he couldn’t blame him. As he was lying there, he wondered how his mama was going to believe that he died in a hospital, strapped to a stretcher unable to move. Out of nowhere, a corpsman came back (2) and started putting people under beds and on the floor. He went over to Meadows and flipped him over onto the floor with the stretcher still attached to him. The attack lasted for about 20 minutes, Meadows remembered.

Questions:

  1. Who was this Lieutenant?
  2. Who was this Corpsman? (Meadows would really like to know.)
  3. Are there any soldiers who remember the fighting in Hue? And would be interested to share their memories in order to preserve it?
  4. Are there any Marines left from 1st Platoon, “H” Company or 2nd Battalion in general who can remember the fightings near Le Loi street or Hue?

References:

  1. Public domain source Wikipedia on Battle of Hue
  2. Public domain source The Sextant with their article Tet Offensive Battle of Huế City Gives Cruiser its Name
  3. Interview with Robert Meadows via Nathan Nyugen
  4. Facebookpage “Tripflare Outpost
  5. Photographical credits to NARA (National Archives)

Did you know?

  • The Movie Full Metal Jacket (1987) which based on Gustav Hasford’s novel The Short-Timers, the main characters are sent from Đà Nẵng to Huế to cover the fighting, and the majority of the Vietnam scenes take place during the battle.
  • The guided-missile cruiser USS Huế City (CG-66) is the only U.S. Navy ship named after a Vietnam battle.

Read more on the Vietnam War




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