DA NANG, South Vietnam -- President Nguyen Van Thieu ordered his troops today to counterattack but the imperial capital of Hue fell to the North Vietnamese army and the United States began the Herculean task of evacuating one million refugees from threatened Da Nang.
In an order of the day read over the national radio, Thieu said the Indochina War had reached a final, decisive phase and that the South Vietnamese army must seize the initiative and counterattack strongly. But already half of the country had fallen to the Communists.
U.S. officials said the first flight of refugees left Da Nang today aboard a chartered 727 plane of World Airways for the comparative safety of Cam Ranh Bay, the abandoned U.S. base on the coast 180 miles to the south. U.S. officials said 375 persons jammed into the plane, which normally seats 100 persons, for the 30-minute flight.
The mood of the people in this overcrowded coastal city 400 miles north of Saigon is one of gloom and doom. More and more people see it as a lost city.
The Communist ring around Da Nang was closing rapidly and the mounting panic in the city was causing real concern among both Vietnamese and American officials. Refugees poured into the city in a countless stream no one really knows how many and the city is bursting at the seams.
The city of Hue, where so many U.S. Marines died during the 1968 Tet offensive, was surrendered without a fight today. The 25,000 gov ernment troops withdrew by sea and North Vietnamese tanks rumbled into South Vietnam's third largest city without opposition. Communist gunners killed 14 persons in an attack on the airport, most of them civilians.
Most of the 300,000 residents had long since fled to Da Nang, and the United States began the incredible task of flying out the million or so refugees or taking them out on barges formerly used to transport food, fuel and ammunition to Phnom Penh. Those abandoned barges were under tow today and expected at Da Nang by Friday with their three tugs, also to be used in the evacuation.
The most spectacular plans for evacuation called for the use of a Boeing 747 stripped of every amenity -- seats, toilets, gallies. American officials chartered one from Seaboard World Airways and hoped to jam as many as 1,200 to 1,600 persons aboard each flight for Cam Ranh Bay.
Plans called for the evacuation of 10,000 persons a day, many of them aboard the 747 which was scheduled to arrive next Tuesday. In the meantime the 727 was making one flight today, three Thursday and to continue the flights until it is replaced by the Jumbo Jet.
The airlift was being financed by the U.S. Agency for International Development using civilian planes under contract to the U.S. Defense Department and carried out with support of the South Vietnam Ministry for Social Welfare. Most of the refugees were being taken to the three "safe" coastal provinces of Khanh Hoa, Nin Huen and Binh Thuan, already jammed with refugees.
Boats bringing refugees from Hue were still arriving this morning at the besieged port of Da Nang, 50 miles to the south, but in sharply reduced numbers.
The capture of Hue, one of the bloodiest American battlefields of the war, left the Communists in control of 11 of South Vietnam's 44 provinces and half the nation's territory.
More than 1,000 American Marines were killed or wounded during the 1968 Tet offensive in 26 days of fierce fighting for control of Hue, a walled city of stately streets and Buddhist shrines.
In Saigon, President Nguyen Van Thieu ordered government troops today to stand and fight in their current positions against the 2-week-old Viet Cong and North Vietnamese offensive.
Thieu, in an order read to troops, called on his "fellow soldiers" to stop the Communist advances "at all cost."
"You must mobilize all your initiative and ability to destroy as many enemies as you can and to counterattack strongly," he said.
Indonesia sharply cut back its 200-man peacekeeping force in South Vietnam in the face of the deteriorating military situation across the country.
A spokesman said 32 Indonesian members of the four-nation truce team would leave Saigon for home this afternoon because the force was unable to keep peace in South Vietnam.