When I saw Hué for the first time in January of 1968, I had been in South Vietnam for almost nine months. I had spent most of that time in the field— first as a Marine infantry platoon leader and later as the company executive officer. What I had seen of the country during all those months were mainly rice paddies, small farming villages—some destroyed and some deserted—mud and grass huts, corrugated tin and bamboo huts, jungle trails, rain, mud, an often-unrelenting sun, and a lot of suffering and misery. We hunted for and chased the enemy, but rarely saw him, even when we fought him.
I had also seen cities, a bit of DaNang and more of Quang Tri. But until I saw Hué I had seen nothing of the legendary beauty and grace of Vietnam. In fact, I had stopped believing in their existence. The country itself had become part of the enemy, with tormenting heat and rain and insects, with mines and booby traps, and that mostly unseen enemy which was, it seemed, anywhere and everywhere.
By late January my outfit, the 1st Marine Regiment, was headquartered at Phu Bai, a base about ten miles south of Hué. Colonel Stanley Hughes had only recently taken command. In the initial days after our move to Phu Bai, my own shop (civil affairs and civic action) got organized, visiting the villages nearby and planning projects for the villagers. One of the things we hoped to do was inoculate the children against such diseases as measles and typhoid. We learned that we could obtain the serum we needed in Hué.
On the morning of 29 January three of us rode by jeep northward on Highway 1. We had heard that the war seemed to have ignored or even forgotten Hué, having had no military importance. It was left alone, allowed to live up to the idea that it was a lotus blossom growing in the mud—in this case, the mud of war. We came into the city from the south that morning, crossed a canal, and then passed a large, beautiful cathedral on our left. That in- spiring sight was my first clue that Hué was special.
Hué is divided in half by the slow, wide Perfume River, with the older part on the north and the newer, more modern part on the south. We stayed on the south side and drove directly to the MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam) compound which consisted of a perimeter of sandbags and concertina wire surrounding cement block, and one- and two-story buildings. One had outside balconies that made it look still much like the motel it probably once was. We made arrangements for the serum with the medical personnel there and then set off to see Hué.
We knew about the sights of Hué, so we drove first to the north side, where we visited the Citadel—an ancient three-mile-square city-within-the-city complete with moat and a wall 15 or 16 feet high, and from 60 to 200 feet thick. We toured the Imperial Palace (also called the Palace of Perfect Peace) until the guards chased us out. This was a stunning place with an ornate blue, gold, and red throne room inside and incredibly profuse flowering gardens outside. In the past the emperors of a united Vietnam had lived and reigned in the palace. We also visited a Buddhist pagoda a short distance to the west of Hué, a quiet and serene setting for the monks who lived there and who were, as I remember, as quiet and serene as their pagoda—happy and friendly men.
This was the time of Tet, the Vietnamese New Year was approaching, and it seemed that—with the possible exception of those guards at the Imperial Palace—all the people of Hué were in a good mood. In fact, what struck me most vividly at the time were the people. A cease-fire had been declared for the holiday, and in spite of the overcast and cool weather, the streets were full of smiling, jostling crowds preparing for their celebrations. We ate in a local cafe, enjoying the festive mood, the good food, and the noise of people all around us talking spiritedly.
After lunch we went back to the compound, where we packed up the serum, visited with the staff a while, and then left. On our way out of town, we stopped for one last bit of sight-seeing—at the cathedral that had caught my eye that morning. I wrote to my wife Marian that night: “I was in Hué today & we stopped by and looked at a very beautiful church . . . I’ll get some pictures of it the next time I’m up there.”
That visit to Hué of 29 January 1968 made a deep impression on me. It wasn’t only what I saw, but what it meant to me in light of what I had known up to then about the land to which I had come as a warrior. I began to see that the Vietnamese really did have a rich culture and an interesting and meaningful history. I hoped that one day all of Vietnam could be like Hué, that all Vietnamese could be as fortunate as Hué’s citizens.
The next night, back at Phu Bai, I dropped in at the officers’ club, where I sat with other members of the regiment. Among them was Major Walt Murphy the operations officer of the 1st Battalion, 1st Marines. We had never met, but I remember that he was easy to talk to, very friendly. I am sure part of what we talked about that evening was the trip to Hué and what I had seen there. The parks, the ancient buildings, and especially the people had made me feel more certain and more hopeful about my tour in Vietnam.
But these feelings did not last long. A few hours after I made my way from the officers’ club to my hootch, we were rocketed at Phu Bai. I spent the rest of the night holed up with the others in an underground bunker listening to the sickening whine of incoming fire. We did not know it then—we would not know it until hours later—but the Tet Offensive had begun. I would also learn later that less than one day after our shared evening, Major Murphy was dead, killed in the first salvos of the Battle for Hué—less than 48 hours after my visit to what had been a peaceful city.
In the morning the staff learned what had happened. Throughout the evening of 30 January and the early morning hours of 31 January, enemy forces—both North Vietnamese and Vietcong using the advantage of the cease-fire—had struck everywhere in the South in a fierce offensive. While I sat with Major Murphy in the club at Phu Bai, several enemy battalions prepared to attack Hué. Some of the enemy had carefully and thoroughly infiltrated the city in civilian dress, carrying concealed weapons in gaily wrapped parcels and blending into the population. There, among all those holiday crowds I had found so encouraging—in the streets, in the bars, the shops, and restaurants—the enemy had waited. At some prearranged time or signal, their forces swept over the unsuspecting city, occupying the university, the hospital, the provincial headquarters, and the Imperial Citadel—except that part held stubbornly by the headquarters of the 1st ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) Division.
By early morning the enemy occupied every important building in Hué except one. Although they controlled Le Loi Street, they did not hold the nearby MACV compound, the 200 Americans inside having also stubbornly managed to hold out. The attackers hit not only military and police institutions, killing anyone in the way, they also methodically and brutally murdered thousands of preselected civilian victims. These were mostly educated, professional South Vietnamese, but they also included any foreigners considered to be the friends of these people. Their mass graves were not discovered until months later.
Back in Phu Bai the radio reports kept coming in. By the second day we knew that the fighting in Hué was hard. We were getting the casualty reports along with news of the battle. By the third or fourth day we knew how heavily the North Vietnamese Army and Vietcong were dug in along Le Loi Street and that clearing it would mean days more of the meanest and hardest kind of house-to-house fighting of the war.
On 7 February Colonel Hughes, directing the fighting in Hué, sent for me. And so my next visit there was a trip into a nightmare, and I write this as one who was without a doubt one of the luckiest and most privileged people in the city during that time. The battle for Hué had destroyed Hué, had created a disaster for the civilian population, and had created some of the fiercest and most murderous fighting of the war for our Marines. The CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter that brought me into the city came in fast to avoid the fire trying to bring us down. Already, I could see our wounded waiting in the little park that served as the landing zone. Lined up along the edges were bodies of Marines wrapped in green bags and ponchos and waiting to be taken out. I thought I heard rounds hitting the sides of the chopper.
When Colonel Hughes sent for me, I went as directly as I could through the rubble to the compound. This was toward the end of the battle for the South Side, and danger was still enough to make one cautious of snipers and the occasional mortar attack. Colonel Hughes’s office was a room filled with maps and plans. He was, of course, busy with a lot of crucial life-and-death matters, but he stopped when I came in, and he spoke to me. He was a gentle commander, quiet, particular. He gestured out his window toward the street below. “Captain,” he said, “there are bodies in the streets. Bury them.”
That was all. Although the Army had a platoon of civil affairs people to help with such duties, I was it for the Marines. Colonel Hughes was not only a man of few words; but his subordinates were expected to follow his orders without bothering him for details. So I “hired” (C-rations were my currency) four or five old men (there were no young ones) from among the refugees taking shelter within Hué University. Together we went into the streets to bury all the bodies we could.
They were easy to find, even though some people had managed to crawl into doorways or behind garden walls before dying. It was a cool, overcast February day, but the bodies were already swollen and black and covered with swarms of flies. The stench was awful. None of us liked what he was doing, not just handling the dead but performing such a service for the enemy. But it had to be done.
At first the old men dug individual graves while I went through the pouches and pockets of the dead for anything that our intelligence officers might find of interest. I hated this part, but it, too, had to be done, even though most of what I found was of no intelligence value. These are not pleasant memories, and I try hard not to remember, but I can’t forget one Vietcong guerrilla we buried the first day. I think about him often. Among his possessions I found a picture of what must have been his wife and two children. I put that in his breast pocket and buried it with him.
He also had a flag, a roughly sewn flag about two-and- a-half by three feet, consisting of two wide horizontal strips of red on either side of a horizontal strip of blue. In the middle was a yellow star. It was a Vietcong flag, with all the basic elements, though produced inexactly. It was deemed worthless, but somehow I could not throw it away.
I cannot say why for sure, not even to this day, but I felt a certain responsibility for that flag. It was the flag of the enemy, the flag of men who had killed and wounded my fellow Marines. But still I could not destroy it. That guerrilla who lay dead at my feet on the street in Hué had cared about it. Just as those Marines who had struggled so hard only a few days before to raise the Stars and Stripes over the provincial palace—against orders—cared for their flag.
That Vietcong flag was obviously more than a piece of cloth to the guerrilla, more than a mere representation of something. It was one of the very few things he had carried with him into battle. I hated his flag. I could see one like it flying over the Citadel across the river. I hated his flag and what his flag stood for, and I hated what he had done to the people of Hué and to my fellow Marines partly in its name. But he had carried his flag to his death, and so I saw it as a symbol of, among other things, the deep mystery of what it is that makes men fight. He believed in something enough to die for it.
So I kept the flag, tucking it into my flak jacket that day, and months later I carried it home in my seabag. Years later I finally brought myself to unpack it, and then I preserved it behind glass. I find a strange peace in knowing that I have kept as well as I could the silent pact that seemed to me was made that bleak February day in Hué.
I had heard that burial is very important to the Vietnamese, so using my very bad French and make-do sign language, I asked the old men to help me bury the dead soldiers in the Vietnamese way. We erected little piles of stones and burned incense, both of which I had seen done. The graves were shallow, but since the old men were digging them individually, the going was still far too slow.
The bodies were not going to wait, and I was needed elsewhere. By the second day—when we had managed to bury only a dozen or so—I gave up and scrounged an earth mover with a large scoop and a driver. The driver prepared a large pit in a soccer field near the cathedral. Then we piled bodies in the scoop, and the driver emptied them into the grave and returned for another load until all of the dead had been collected and buried.
At the northeastern edge of the soccer field was the Hué National Police Station. It had been overrun in the first days of the attack on the city. All the while we were burying the North Vietnamese in that big pit, the surviving policemen and the relatives of the dead policemen were burying their comrades and loved ones. They were preparing separate graves, burning incense, placing small South Vietnamese flags near the grave sites while chanting a religious service of some sort.
The old Vietnamese workers and I finished our job and headed back to the compound. I knew I had done what had been asked of me, and I knew I’d done it as well as I could, but somehow I did not feel very good about it.
By this time the major fighting for the south side of the city was pretty much over, and the Marines had turned their attention to the north side, to the Citadel. It was still held fiercely by enemy forces, and that Vietcong flag still flew there. On the south side we fed and housed the refugees and tried to repair the hospital.
On the 14th, Valentine’s Day, I called my wife in Tacoma, Washington, by a radio hookup at the compound. It was the first and only call I made from Vietnam—the only time I had the chance—and it was a difficult call for us both. It was hard to bridge the huge gap that existed between my life and hers. I called from a building that had just survived a mortar attack. She answered in my mother’s warm, clean kitchen. It was hard to know what to say to the people back home. I didn’t say much.
On 18 February the hospital reopened with 29 patients. There seemed no end to the work that had to be done. Making my way around the city I could not help but notice the great destruction that had taken place. The buildings had been shelled, the garden walls shot up. What was not rubble was either pitted or full of gaping holes. It was obvious that terrible fighting had taken place just days, and in some cases only hours, before.
A grief-stricken civilian American, connected to some humanitarian agency in Hué, insisted on taking me through the ruins to a walled, two-story house. There he showed me the room where the North Vietnamese Army had executed his friend and coworker, another American. Still very shaken, sometimes crying, he told me that his friend’s body was found with his hands tied behind his back and a bullet hole in the back of his head. An execution. One of the thousands.
About this time something happened in Hué that I still see in my dreams. A wooden shed near the compound housed enemy prisoners of war. This shack was divided in two parts. Two guards occupied one side of the shack and about a dozen prisoners were on the other, behind a large padlocked iron-mesh door. On this particular day while fixing their meal, the guards lighted a heat tablet, as usual, but this one somehow got out of control and set fire to the walls of the shack.
By the time I arrived, the shed was engulfed in fire. The guards had escaped, and four or five of the prisoners had also managed to get out through a hole torn in the bottom of the mesh door. But the rest had been pressed too tightly against it to move, and they were burning to death. Their screams were terrible, and their burning bodies were turning black and blue and grey. There was absolutely nothing that could be done to get them out. Finally, a young Marine, a grunt, turned to a Marine major standing there with us and asked if he could shoot the trapped prisoners, to put them out of their misery. The major said yes, he could shoot them, and he did.
In my almost ten months in Vietnam I had seen many enemy dead, in fact several every day on the streets of Hué. Apart from that general, instinctive, natural regret we have about death, after a while I was not profoundly bothered. But these prisoners’ deaths bothered me, still bother me. I have thought a lot about why this is, and I believe it is because they were no longer an enemy capable of harming me or mine. They were no longer combatants. The war was over for them, and they should not have died in it.
The Marines fighting in Hué faced tremendous odds. There were three understrength Marine battalions and support units pitted against 14 well-armed and heavily dug- in enemy battalions. At first, because of the cultural and national importance of Hué, supporting artillery was severely limited for our men, and the weather precluded air support until late in the battle. Finally, the Marines in Hué were not trained for city fighting and had to learn as they went how to fight street-to-street, house-to-house. They learned well, and they fought fiercely and bravely. I saw Marines treated for wounds that normally would have sent them to a base hospital. But they refused to be evacuated, insisting on returning to their units and their buddies. That esprit de corps, that love of one Marine for another, is why we were successful in Hué.
If the Vietnam War had been like other wars in which Marines have fought, the name Hué would be uttered today with the same reverence and awe attached to names like Belleau Wood, Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, and Chosin Reservoir. But the Vietnam War was not like other wars.
On 26 February, shortly before I left Hué, I ran into Lieutenant Jay Olsner, a friend from my platoon at Basic School. Jay was a big, blond artillery forward observer, and as we stood on the street outside the compound trying to talk in the middle of those ruins, in the middle of that war (we had already lost several friends from our Basic School platoon), Jay told me how difficult the fighting had been to retake the Citadel. He told me that during the battle success was measured in feet and even inches. Dirty, grimy, and ragged, carrying his rifle in one hand and his helmet in the other, he told me he had never expected to get out of the battle alive. I’ll never forget how happy I was to see that Jay had gotten out safely when so many Marines had not. (An awful irony is that Jay was killed only a few months later, at home in a car accident).
So I remember Hué. I saw it as a beautiful place in an ugly war—on the eve of its own destruction. And I saw it destroyed, its historic monuments shattered and its citizens murdered. And I was there to see it saved from the enemy, at least for a while.
I wish I could see Hue again. A Marine friend who has visited there recently tells me the city has been rebuilt, but he says the spirit of the people does not seem to have been restored. I think he must be right. You can’t kill the best and the brightest as was done in Hué and expect recovery in one generation.
On 20 February, midway through my time there, I had my 25th birthday. The only notice I took was a comment in a letter I wrote home that night. “Today I turned 25,” I wrote, “but I feel 50.” That was 25 years ago last February, but it seems like only yesterday.