As much as it pivots on politics, strategy and tactics, much of military history is keyed to specific dates. America’s wars – long, short or somewhere in between – are linked to the calendar. There’s the Day of Infamy Dec. 7, 1941 when Japanese forces attacked U.S. Naval facilities at Pearl Harbor vaulting America into World War II. D-Day, June 6, 1944 is indelibly etched into the study of that war in Europe and June 25, 1950, when North Korean forces stormed across the 38th Parallel, is the date usually marked as the beginning of the short, brutal and indecisive American “police action” in Korea. Those dates and many others are the landmarks and milestones by which most students and many veterans of our wars in the 20th Century ponder the narrative of military history or celebrate service and sacrifice.
And then there’s Tet 1968, the shifting lunar observance of the Buddhist calendar, that Americans who were alive, aware or in uniform at the time, consider in a different light. Most historians studying our long, frustrating struggle in Vietnam consider Tet 1968 as the pivotal point of America’s military involvement in Southeast Asia. Tet, which occurred at the very end of January and ran through the first week of February in 1968, may have been an American victory or bloody embarrassment, depending on which pundit does the evaluating, but there’s no question that it empowered the anti-war factions in the U.S., turned worldwide public opinion against the war and eventually became a major propaganda boon for South Vietnamese insurgents and the communist regime of North Vietnam.
For those of us who fought through it and survived the major battles throughout the country that Hanoi unsuccessfully planned as a general uprising in support of their conquest, Tet 1968 is etched in memory as the time when our war shifted from long patrols and sporadic contact with an elusive enemy into a full-blown grind against conventional forces fighting with nearly suicidal fanaticism. After Tet 1968, the days of hunting and fighting little groups of guerillas in black pajamas ended. Our battlefield experiences became head-on smashes into formations of well-equipped and well-trained NVA forces willing to stand and fight to a bloody end.
There were Tet battles around allied enclaves and in most of the country’s major cities – notably Saigon, the South Vietnamese capitol – but one of the bloodiest struggles took place in Hue, the ancient seat of the Vietnamese emperors located in the northern part of the country, where upwards of three NVA regiments overran and held sway for nearly a month as U.S. Marines struggled to dislodge them from the southern and northern parts of a once-beautiful city divided by the Perfume River. It was in Hue during Tet 1968 that I became convinced, if I ever had any illusions to the contrary, that war in Vietnam was a very deadly game and it was way too easy to die playing it, no matter how skilled you were or how highly motivated you were to survive.
For me and the other Marines who fought there, Hue was a shock and a hard school where the tuition was paid in blood. We had been trained and had some hard-earned experience in jungle fighting
but the battles in the mean streets of Hue City was a different deal. It was a house-to-house, close combat gang-fight and barroom brawl where you often saw the bloodshot eyes of your enemy and where every round fired or explosive detonated was double-deadly due to flying concrete or rock shards that could kill or wound as easily as bullets or shrapnel. Fortunately, we had a few – very few – old salts in our ranks who had fought through similar conditions during the struggle to re-take Seoul during the Korean War and offered a few tips, but for the most part we had to fight in the urban sprawl of Hue on the fly, with major lessons learned at the cost of dead Marines. We eventually got it together sufficiently with experience on the south side of the city to attack and eventually dislodge the NVA from bastions inside Hue’s huge Citadel, a Southeast Asian version of a medieval castle, on the north side. It’s a massive understatement to say that no one who fought in Hue will ever forget that battle during Tet 1968. It’s likely why so many books – including my own “Run Between the Raindrops” – have been written about it.
It was a surreal experience; even more surreal than other battles during the war in Vietnam in which the enemy ambushed American forces in spooky jungle redoubts or stubbornly held the high ground on shell-blasted hilltops. For those of us who survived the battle for Hue City, this time of year holds a special meaning beyond the end of the first month of a new year. When we turn the page on our calendars from the end of January to the beginning of February, we do it with a shiver that has nothing to do with winter weather.