On a tactical level, the battle for Hue presented an unfamiliar environment to the Marines. At first, they were stunned at their inability to advance against the North Vietnamese defenses. The Marines were unable to use air strikes in support of their operations because of the weather and the rules of engagement—enabling the North Vietnamese to fortify their fighting positions, making squad and fire team rushes ineffective. Nevertheless, the Marines quickly adapted to the situation and developed the tactics needed to advance through Hue. They began to soften the enemy positions with 106-mm recoilless rifles, the 90-mm guns of their M48 tanks, LAAWs (light antitank assault weapons), 3.5-inch rockets, 81-mm mortars, and tear gas. When the Marines were able to get close enough to enemy-held buildings, they blew holes in the sides with C-4 explosive, then threw hand grenades in to clear the way. Then they entered the buildings through the holes that had been created by the C-4.
In this manner, the Marines advanced through the city—slowly and painfully. They took as many houses as they could during the day, then dug into defensive positions—waiting to resume house-to-house fighting the next morning. The closest Marine base was eight miles south of Hue, at Phu Bai, so the Marines had to secure the modern south side of the city first, after they arrived at Hue. On the first night of the attack, the defenders of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) building on the south side were able to repel invaders. This building became the base from which to launch all Marine counterattacks. From this position, the Marines moved southwest, with the Perfume River on their right flank, through the south side of Hue, taking back the city one block at a time.
Inside the Citadel, the South Vietnamese were able to defend the 1st ARVN Division's compound in the northern corner on the first night of the attack. The U.S. Marines launched their counterattack to retake the Citadel from this compound. Using tactics similar to the ones they had used in the south side, the Marines cleared away the enemy along the northeast wall, then turned 90o and continued their assault along the southeast wall. From this location, the Marines were able to capture the Imperial Palace, which housed the main command element of the NVA, thus breaking the North Vietnamese hold on the city.
Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication I (MCDP-I), written years after the Vietnam War, describes the philosophy of war fighting central to the U.S. Marine Corps. Many of the concepts outlined in MCDP-1 can be used to describe the action that the Marines saw in Hue City.
The battle for Hue was marked by a great amount of friction, uncertainty, fluidity, disorder, and complexity—while at the same time it produced violence and danger that played on the human impulses of those involved. The North Vietnamese had relied on speed and surprise to enter the city, and were quite successful. Their well-planned attack, combined with the poor communications and intelligence capabilities of the South Vietnamese and U.S. forces, allowed them to enter the city with virtually no resistance. Before the allies recognized the severity of the North Vietnamese attack, two regiments of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops—approximately 5,000 men—were in the city. The North Vietnamese had orchestrated a sound plan of attack to enter the city—but once inside, they failed to secure the city's centers of gravity. Specifically, they failed to seize the South Vietnamese headquarters in the Citadel, the MACV compound, and the boat ramp on the south side. They also failed to knock out the An Cuu bridge, which connected the south side to the Marine Corps base at Phu Bai, along the main highway running through Hue. Had the North Vietnamese taken out this bridge, the Marine reaction force would have been unable to enter the city as quickly as they did and the North Vietnamese might have been able to capture the MACV compound. By failing to secure the city, the North Vietnamese allowed the Marines to establish positions inside both the Citadel and the south side, from which to launch their counterattacks. The Marines exploited these opportunities, and were able to attack from the inside out.
On the first day of fighting, Company G, 2d Battalion, 5th Marines suffered 50 casualties out of the 150 men tasked with crossing the main bridge and entering the Citadel. This confrontation on the bridge, however, turned out to be a serious mistake by the North Vietnamese. They could have "held their fire and sucked all the Marines into the maze of streets; they could have cut them off, killed or captured everyone—and there wouldn't have been anything between them and the MACV compound." Instead, the North Vietnamese opened fire too early, and the Marines were able to pull back to the MACV compound. At this point in the battle, the critical vulnerability of the Marines was their shortage of men; yet the North Vietnamese failed to exploit this opportunity. After falling back, the Marines regrouped and launched an attack the following day in which they were able to secure a soccer field at the University, which they used to bring in reinforcements by helicopter. Again, the Marines exploited an opportunity they had created.
Another concept from MCDP-1 that can be readily observed in the battle for Hue is combat power. Though the North Vietnamese held an overwhelming advantage in sheer numbers of troops, the Marines held the advantage in terms of technology and firepower. The Marines developed new tactics during the battle as well, such as pairing an M48 tank with an antitank M50 Ontos. This allowed the Marines to concentrate superior firepower in one area to weaken the North Vietnamese resistance in their fortified positions. Along with their tanks and Ontos, the Marines were able to employ weapons such as tear gas grenades and 3.5-inch rockets to drive the enemy from their positions.
A final concept is decentralization of command. In Hue, the battle took shape as the Marines moved down the streets. When Colonel Stanley Hughes, the 1st Marine Regiment's commander, ordered Lieutenant Colonel Ernie Cheatham to clear the south side, he was handicapped by a shortage of intelligence the Marines had managed to gather about the city, but he remained confident in his subordinate's ability. Instead of giving a detailed order, Hughes told Cheatham, "You do it any way you want." With orders like this, corporals, lance corporals, and privates first class found themselves acting as squad leaders and making the decisions needed to continue the counterattack. Because of the many casualties the Marines suffered in Hue, junior Marines often found themselves thrust into positions where they had to make tough decisions, well above their pay grades. With a decentralized command, they were able to make those decisions rapidly, maintaining continuity during the counterattack.
Records of the battle put the number of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong dead at 5,113, with another 89 captured. With 147 killed and 857 wounded seriously enough to require evacuation from Hue, close to half of the U.S. Marine infantrymen committed to the battle had been killed or wounded, in addition to a number of South Vietnamese Marines and ARVN soldiers who fought alongside. Building on the successes and the lessons learned at Hue, the Marines began to formulate future warfighting doctrine for urban combat, which today is codified in MCDP-1.
Lieutenant Lawler is a 1999 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy.