- Mark Bowden
It may grate on you when you read of the ‘Higher Command’s’ methods of conducting the war, and anecdotes such as General Westmorland (Commander Vietnam) listing the month’s Body Counts’ while seated alongside President Johnson while the president eats breakfast in bed at the White House. Westmoreland mostly told the president and America what he thought that they wanted to hear, and not what they should know. Eventually it was the journalists that told the truth.
Johnson in a media meeting referred to the Vietnamese as a ‘Raged arsed little nation’ a Journalist shouted “ They might be ragged arsed but they are certainly efficient and viciously aggressive”
The Battle for Hue
This was one hell of a fight, it caught the Americans off balance, it was part of the VC ‘Tet Offensive’ whereby the Americans had agreed a New Year Truce with the North and with the local VC. Tet is the term for the ‘New Year’ in Vietnam. The North Vietnamese Army ‘NVA together with the Vietcong managed to renege on the truce and slip 6 well-armed Regiments, each regiment of about three battalions Into the Ancient walled city of Hue with its French Colonial buildings ancient university and other classical buildings, many hundreds of years old. The six Regiments comprised about of about 20,000 men, though exact figures are still not known. The American fight to relieve the city took three weeks and the deaths of nearly 300 Americans and nearly two thousand wounded, there were countless VC and civilians deaths. To this day the North Vietnamese have not released them.
The American forces in Hue numbered about 120 men in a fortified signal and administrative compound. The first they were aware of any skulduggery was a massive VC attack on their compound. They asked for help from Bn HQ to be told ‘Bullshit deal with it! The fight went on and after the loss of some twenty men dead, two companies of Marines were sent to their aid. It took the two companies nearly two days to fight 200 M into the compound. The losses of dead among the two companies was about twenty five men per company, very few were unwounded when the compound was eventually reached.
Gen Westmoreland ignored the situation and denied there was a problem, he refused to allow Artillery and air support until over 200 Americans had died. The American casualty evacuation from Hue by chopper and USN River boats was quite amazing, the courage of the pilots and Navy personnel was quite unbelievable, all done under very heavy Machine gun, mortar and rocket attacks. Bodies of dead Americans were piled up in the Signals compound, they eventually ran out of body bags.
Eventually there were nearly 400 Marines in the compound, the concentrated attacks along the streets mostly lost them about ten men killed. The senior Marine company commander at the compound asked for reinforcements from his unit 25km away, so he could perform flanking attacks, only to be told. “You have enough men to eat the F-------g place, stop panicking and let me hear of success not just F-----g panic!”
An army battalion was sent a few miles to the north of Hue and tasked to attack the VC supply lines, in the attack they lost half the battalion in dead and wounded, they asked for reinforcements, only to be told “ Do a night attack and get that position” After a small mutiny in the ranks, they did attack and gained the position, but the unit was finished with hardly a few men standing. ( WW1 comes into mind)
There are instructions from Higher Command such as; ‘Bomb them back into the stone age’ to be answered by ‘How can we, when they never left it’ Then the case of the million dollar air raids on North Vietnam to bomb a wooden bridge, only to find by air reconnaissance that the bridge had been rebuilt two days later.
A good interesting aspect of this book is the detailed character description, and the home town details etc of each officer and soldier, some soldiers were only eighteen years of age. There were most certainly brave Americans in Hue, It was a tragedy that some New Drafts arriving at Da Nang Airport a few miles away direct from the US, were sent immediately into the battle, and in some cases strait to their deaths in firefights. A few lasted only minutes. There is also great sadness in the book; the Marines don’t leave their dead laying out when a firefight concludes, it was mostly their mates that went out to get them in. There are some ‘lump in the throat’ moments when events such as this are described. One young Marine officer nicknamed ‘Rat’ he even had it written on his helmet, he was an effective leader, he loved his men and they loved him. He died courageously in one of the street attacks.
On receiving some Raw Recruits one of the Marine company commanders said over the radio. “Don’t send me, kids get me some Chicago Gangsters” Some of the battle scenes, the house clearing and the attacking along the streets with massive incoming, rocket, mortar and RPG fire, certainly Stalingrad comes to mind. When the battle eventually ended after 22 days one of the original Marine companies were down to seven men, the other just over twenty men, out of totals of 147 and 156 respectfully.
Gen Westmoreland ‘sugar coated’ the war, he was eventually promoted out, In effect ‘Sacked.’ He was replaced by Gen Abrams. One of Gen Abrams first instructions was that a frontline sergeant from different units each time would have dinner with him a few times each week.
General Abrams came too late to do any real good, as the war was practically lost, but that ‘Ragged arsed little nation, a nation of peasants managed to defeat in the field, the most powerful nation on earth’ Meanwhile the VC have gone back to one of the other things they do best, that is to grow rice and vegetables, and to keep a few pigs and chickens and live in their own simple style.
Very good reading and well worth 5 stars.
At the American Westpoint Academy today, and quite ignored by the instructional staff, the cadets themselves on graduation nominate ‘The best looking but most ineffective leader on their course’. This is to get back at Gen Westmoreland deceased, who appears to have been exactly that!