Vietnam was no exception, of course- there are few who fought in that war who don’t have some sort of emotion when someone brings up a three-letter word: Hue
Pronounced “hway,” the Battle of Hue is but one battle of a larger event known as the Tet Offensive, which could summarily be described as “that time the North Vietnamese launched a massive attack during a cease-fire and all Hell broke loose.”
Across the entire theatre of operations, US, South Vietnamese and coalition troops (from Australia to South Korea) were tested. However, Hue holds a distinction for being a particularly long and bloody test, lasting nearly a month and leaving friendly forces with 668 of their own to bury.
When one thinks of fighting in Vietnam, one tends to conjure up images of jungle warfare. However, Hue was, for the most part, a far uglier battle, the kind nobody wants to fight and one that almost always promises great numbers of casualties: urban warfare.
Fought in the ancient imperial city, the battle-tested the mettle of US and ARVN soldiers and Marines as they tried to flush out both conventional and guerrilla troops, house by house, block by block.
When Hue kicked off, many troops felt as if they were never going to return home alive. Surrounded amongst themselves in close quarters fighting, some -such as US Marine Sergeant Bob Thoms, resorted to rallying his men for what might be their final prayer as mortal men, mere hours before they were to assault a strategically-valuable tower the following morning.
“Everybody held hands,” Thoms recalled in an interview with CBS. “This was our prayer: ‘God, we know we are about to see you in person. If we got to die on this tower let us die like men and Marines and don’t embarrass ourselves, our families or the Marine Corps. Amen.'”
As dawn came and the Marines assaulted the tower, the first dozen men to go in were immediately met with fierce resistance. To quote US Army photographer John Olson, who had been present during the assault, “within 30 seconds, five of them were critically injured.”
At the time, urban combat was something relatively raw, unrefined and new for most American soldiers, who up until this point had been conducting “search and destroy” patrols from small forward operating bases, mostly in the countryside.
“It was a totally new combat experience for all these men,” said Olson. “They’d never been in house-to-house fighting before.
During his time on the ground, Olson told the story of the brave men who took to such a harrowing endeavor with nothing short of the legendary fighting spirit and ability to adapt under fire that Americans are known for.
Olson’s keen eye and willingness to stay as close as possible to the men whose stories he felt obligated to tell created stunning, poignant and chilling photographs that frequently find themselves on exhibit today.
Verily, so graphic were Olson’s photos that even broadcasting legend Walter Cronkite was so affected by the image that he spoke of it publicly.
“What I see when I look at that photo today are seven 18-, 19-, 20-year-old kids badly wounded,” Cronkite said, having only recently returned from Tet a changed man. “It’s painful to look at.”
The photo in question was that of several wounded US Marines haphazardly tossed atop a tank for medical extraction, the most prominently displayed being then-18-year-old A.B. Grantham, lain on his side, pale and shot through the chest.
“I remember it well,” a now 68-year-old Grantham told CBS News. “It was what we call a sucking chest wound..Hit the breastbone, went through the right side and exited under my shoulder blade,” he said.
In what often seems to be a thin line between the living and the deceased, Grantham was slumped halfway upon that mortal fence, with mere chance determining which side he would ultimately end up on.
“I don’t think it could have gotten any closer,” he said. “They had zipped me up into a body bag. And I remember somebody saying, ‘This one’s not dead yet,’ and lo and behold, they got me out and I made it.”
For fifty years, Hue -and on a larger scale, Tet- has weighed heavily upon the hearts and shoulders of those who survived it.
“Tried to hide back into society and just fade away, you know, and just be like everybody else and live a nice, normal life,” he told a reporter earlier this month. “But it didn’t last. The war has a way of rearing its ugly head from time to time. Once you learn something, it’s hard to unlearn it.”
When asked what he learned, Grantham gave an answer that has seemingly remained unchanged throughout recorded history, one only truly understood by those who have personally borne witness to the acts of man in its rawest form:
“I learned that humanity can be very cruel to each other.”
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