Feature: Tet Offensive remembered

By United Press International   |   Jan. 31, 2003 at 2:40 PM
share with facebook
share with twitter

Feature: Marine who took too long to die

By Al Webb

It is the noise that haunts across the decades -- the whine of a sniper's bullet that narrowly misses you and the thud of a rocket that doesn't, the eerie keening of a Marine dying with a third of his brain blown away, the thump of a mortar sending another death-dealing round on its way.

And memories that stick like photographs in your mind, unwanted yet unfaded after so many years. A young woman crumpled in death alongside a twisted bicycle, her long, white ao dai dress spattered by blood and mud. Nearby another body, a tiny boy -- perhaps her son, certainly just one more victim of a horror he could not have understood.

In a cage, the sad, emaciated body of a little yellow kitten. I sat in the rubble of the city's wall, exhausted, and wept weary tears of grief for the lost life of another innocent.

After 35 years, the recollections of those murderous days of January and February, 1968, of running and crawling past rotting bodies, through the mounting rubble of Vietnam's ancient, once-glorious imperial capital of Hue may be blurring a bit. But they remain sharp enough to hurt.

What remains engraved in my memory is the sheer cacophony of war -- the sounds of men fighting and dying that greeted my arrival in Hue as a United Press International combat correspondent aboard a truck loaded with U.S. Marines up Vietnam Highway 1 on Jan. 31. Not once in the next three weeks, day following night following day did the noise ever let up for more than five seconds.

In the predawn darkness of that day, an estimated 80,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops struck at 36 of 44 provincial capitals, plus 64 district towns, across the length and breadth of what was then South Vietnam in what became known as the Tet Offensive.

Not terribly fresh from weeks of diving for cover amid artillery, mortar and rifle fire the North Vietnamese rained down on a Marine outpost at Khe Sanh, a few miles south of North Vietnam, I grabbed my backpack, notepad, pens, canteen and cigarettes and hitched a ride with the Marines into the fury that had now engulfed Hue.

Hue straddled the ill-named Perfume River in the northern quarter of South Vietnam, and somehow it had remained a haven of sanity well into the war, a city of Oriental beauty, culture and education, of history and old tombs of old emperors centered in its walled Citadel.

Hue city had largely escaped the bullets and bombs. Many Westerners, including American correspondents, would call time out from the war to rest and relax at its pleasant little restaurants and bistros, or book a night of rest aboard one of the scores of small boats on the Perfume River, watching the flashes of combat in the distance.

But then was then, and now was now. By the time I arrived in a muddy dive for protection behind a low, gray wall across from the besieged U.S. military compound south of the river, 20th-century warfare had horrifically transformed the city of the Nguyen emperors and their Palace of Perfect Peace. Perhaps forever, I thought.

The emblem was plain enough -- the yellow-starred flag of the National Liberation Front, guerrilla Viet Cong, that waved over the fortress gate of the Citadel, on the north side of the Perfume River. It would flutter there for the next 25 days as the longest and bloodiest single ground action of the Tet Offensive waxed and waned in its shadow.

The battle for Hue was a two-part affair for American forces. They first concentrated their power on the south side of the river, with its broad boulevards flanking its respected university, the mansions of the wealthy and the Cercle Sportif that was their tennis and billiards and barroom playground.

For the next 10 days, Frank and Pancho and Kenny and the scores of other Marines who became my mates in combat battled door to door, in fighting the likes of which Corps veterans had not experienced since Seoul, South Korea, in another war more than 15 years earlier.

I watched helplessly as one by one, Pancho and Frank and Kenny were killed, as the Marines fought to recapture what was left of the city's south. First the university, with its classrooms of bullet-riddled blackboards, smashed test tubes and incinerated books.

Then it was down the wide street to the provincial government buildings and the Cercle Sportif, where in another time I had enjoyed quiet whiskies and sweet coffee by its swimming pool. Now its pool tables were makeshift morgue slabs, drenched with the blackened blood of Marine bodies.

Col. Ernest Cheatham's troops finally raised the Stars and Stripes over the Thua Thien province headquarters -- itself a risky job as North Vietnamese soldiers popped from human mole holes to open fire, until exasperated Marines silenced them with grenades dropped into their crude lairs.

But the job was only half-done. Across the river, inside the Citadel itself, other Marines were battling their way down the walls, capturing perhaps 100 yards in a day only to have to fall back 50 yards after nightfall, when the North Vietnamese struck back.

At one point along the northeast wall, the Marines hoisted an American flag on a slender tree they had uprooted, and supported it with a wooden kitchen chair. They had to take it down that night, but they put it back up again the next day, and the day after, until one day it stayed. To the Americans, it was one small sign that they were, at last, winning.

But horror, sadness and death permeated Hue. The body of the pretty girl in the bao dai, and the child, the tiny yellow kitten, the elderly Vietnamese we found curled, dead, beneath his bed. On a table was a photograph of himself, a smiling woman and three children. It had been taken at Disneyland, in California.

And there was a Marine I had struck up a friendship with, on the truck ride along Highway 1 into Hue south. He had just returned from a week's leave with his wife and two children in Hawaii. Eight days later he lay a few feet from me, his stomach ripped out by two bullets.

On Feb. 19, a sniper's deadly fire had pinned me and a Marine sergeant, Steve Berntson, beneath a wall behind a house. Across a street about 20 yards to our left, one of the sniper's bullets tore off a third of the skull of another Marine. His screams lasted for about 90 seconds that seemed an hour before he, too, became another of the American dead in Vietnam.

Minutes later, about five feet from me, a Marine sergeant took a bullet through his throat -- a Kennedy-assassination style wound that ripped off the back of his head. Berntson and I dragged him out of the line of fire, back to what we thought was relative safety, as we looked for something to use as a stretcher.

My part in the Battle of Hue ended a few seconds after that, in the blast of a B-40 anti-tank rocket that effectively was the death blow for the sergeant we were trying to rescue, crippling Berntson for life, wounding fellow journalist David Greenway and sending me to a hospital with shrapnel injuries.

The battle for Hue lasted another five days, until combined Marine and Vietnam Republic troops finally pulled down the Viet Cong flag from atop the fortress gate.

Military history books record the Battle of Hue as a U.S. military victory, but some critics see it as the turning point in what became the first war the United States has ever lost.

Years later, it is neither victory nor defeat that stirs my memory. What I do remember is a blond Marine who took too long to die, an old man who lay dead a few feet from his own memories of an American vacation, a sad-eyed little Vietnamese girl cradled in a Marine's arms. A tiny kitten.

Thirty-five years later, the land of dreams is sometimes an unpleasant place.


(This story, originally published Jan. 24, has been re-released on the anniversary date upon request. Al Webb, a United Press International writer who covered the Vietnam War, recalls the Tet Offensive, a turning point in the conflict, 35 years later. Webb was one of four civilians to be awarded a Bronze Star for meritorious action in Vietnam after being wounded while dragging the wounded Marine mentioned in the story).


Feature: Tet seen with other eyes

By Uwe Siemon-Netto, UPI Religion Editor

GURAT, France, Jan. 31 (UPI) -- The French military knew what was coming. They knew that the Communists had big and bloody plans for Tet, the day when every Vietnamese advances in age by one year. And because of this I became a witness to the pivotal event in the Vietnam War.

I was then the Far East correspondent for the Axel Springer group, West Germany's largest publishing house. It was late January 1968. The Vietcong and the Saigon government had called a temporary cease-fire for the lunar New Year. Nothing much newsworthy was going to happen during the festivities, or so I thought.

So I went to a French military rest center in the cool mountains north of Pakse in what the Americans called the panhandle of Laos. At night I was awakened by voices under my window. A man with the gruff accent of northern Vietnam snarled at the housekeeper, who was also Vietnamese.

In the morning the major commanding the center told me, "We have had a visitor last night."

"I heard him," I replied.

"He was North Vietnamese officer. You realize we are only about 50 kilometers west of the Ho Chi Minh Trail," he continued, referring to the Communists' elaborate network of supply routes running through eastern Laos and Cambodia.

"What did he want?"

"I can only tell you this much," the major said, "if I were a journalist, I'd go to Saigon immediately. All hell's going to break loose there at Tet."

In three years of covering Vietnam, I had long learned to pay attention to hints from the French, Indochina's former colonial masters.

The Royal Thai Airways plane that took me from Bangkok to Saigon turned out to be the last for quite some time. On my way from Thanh Son Nhut Airport to the Continental Palace in the center of town I watched an unusual spectacle.

The Saigon government had lifted the nightly curfew for the first time in years. Half a million South Vietnamese were milling in the streets of their capital, greeting the new lunar year with firecrackers.

I went to bed but woke up at 3 a.m. by what I thought was still the sound of firecrackers. I went to my window overlooking the square in front of the parliament building.

The square was eerily deserted. Even the "white mice," as we called the policemen usually posted there throughout the night, had gone. It was then that I realized that what I was hearing was not the resonance of celebration but the ominous crackling of Kalashnikovs, the Communists' standard weapon.

I dressed and ran in the direction of one of the firefights that were rapidly multiplying throughout the city. Suddenly, I found myself across the street from the U.S. Embassy observing the amazing spectacle of little men in black pajamas trying to charge this center of American power.

Next to me on the sidewalk stood the assistant German military attaché. "You must try to get to Hue," he said, "the North Vietnamese have abducted our doctors there."

One of these doctors, Horst-Guenther Krainick, and his wife, Elisabeth, were friends. He was a selfless man who had given up a lucrative position as a professor of pediatrics at Freiburg University to start a medical school in Vietnam's former imperial capital.

On weekends, he used to drive into the countryside around Hue to treat the sick and the wounded of both sides of the conflict.

West Germans in South Vietnam were at grave risk in those days because their country was second only to the United States in providing Saigon with humanitarian aid. But the East German and North Vietnamese propaganda claimed that Bonn had secretly sent combat troops, a lie that would later lead to the slaughter of many of my fellow countrymen.

A few days later, I managed to get a seat on a U.S. Air Force Hercules C-130 to Phu Bai, an airport 10 miles from Hue, then reported to have been in Communist hands. I arrived just in time to join the 5th Marines regiment as it fought its way into the imperial capital.

The streets were strewn with corpses, all women, children and old men dressed in their best attire for Tet, their highest holiday; all had clearly been killed execution style.

I was perplexed: Why would the so-called "liberators" massacre the civilian population of this most anti-American city in the country?

Why would they behave like this in Hue, where Vietnam's nationalist and Communist rebels had learned the revolutionaries' craft at the anti-colonialist Lycee Quoc-Hoc, the list of whose graduates read like a "Who's Who" of both North and South Vietnam?

Ho Chi Minh had studied here as well as his prime minister, Pham Van Dong, son of the highest mandarin at the imperial court. So did South Vietnam's Presidents Ngo Dinh Diem and Nguyen Van Thieu.

Why did the North Vietnamese not tread sensitively in this kettle of nationalist ferment where even the outside walls even of the Dowager Empress' residence displayed graffiti like "Chat Dau My" -- "Cut the Americans' Throats"?

I have never received a satisfactory answer to these questions and can only surmise that regardless of their xenophobia, this noble city's 100,000 burghers, some 20,000 of who were related to the imperial family, were not exactly the kind of people Communists would like to have around in the people's republic they envisaged -- regardless of what they thought about the United States.

Nothing else would explain the mass grave, either, at whose rim I later stood. It was filled with some 3,000 corpses, again mainly of women and children. Many of these bodies showed clear evidence that they had still been alive when thrown into that ditch; one could see that several women had tried to claw their way out with their beautifully manicured fingernails.

We reached the U.S. Military Assistance Command's buildings south of the River of Perfumes. It had been encircled for several days. At night, reporters and leathernecks slept on the bare floors protected against the cold only by body bags made from paper.

The next morning, I set out to find out more about the German doctors -- the Krainicks and fellow professors Alois Altekoester and Raimund Discher.

They had lived in apartments in the soulless Cite Universitaire housing estate. It was also situated south of the river and not far from Hue's station, which had not seen a real train for years, except for a locomotive and a coal tender that usually traveled one kilometer every morning and then steamed back, thus "proving" that Vietnam still had a functioning rail system.

I joined a patrol of Marines led by a black corporal called Rufus. We came under heavy sniper fire from one of the buildings along the road. The common procedure in such an event is to throw yourself to the ground and spray the building's windows with salvos from your M-16. This is what Rufus did.

Suddenly, a woman bearing her dead baby in her arms came out of the front door, screaming. Rufus whirled about like a dervish, crying, "Oh my God, oh my God, what have I done?" He fell and just lay there, twitching. His buddies carried him away while the snipers still fired at us.

Finally, I arrived at the Krainick's apartment. It had been taken over by a platoon of Marines, whose leader was an extraordinarily green lieutenant from New Mexico. From across a canal outside the building, a sniper had trained his gun on us. But the young officer paraded in front of the window without flak jacket or helmet, clad only in a T-shirt and trousers.

I said, "Don't tempt your fate, lieutenant!"

He replied, "I'm a Marine. Dying is our business."

Five minutes later, he was hit through the heart, and his platoon went on a rampage through the Krainicks' apartment.

Next morning at three, I joined a platoon of 53 battling its way into the old quarters of Hue north of the River of Perfumes. After 12 hours of house-to-house fighting, I realized that there were only 10 of us left.

I returned to a landing zone at the river's south bank. It was littered with horribly wounded Marines. But because of bad weather conditions no helicopter could evacuate them for some time. I hitched a ride on a landing craft that took me downriver to Danang.

Six weeks later, I sat in the German ambassador's office in Saigon when his deputy, Hasso Ruedt von Collenberg, came in to tell us that the Krainicks and the other two doctors had just been found.

Evidently the North Vietnamese, knowing all too well who they were, had forced them to dig their own graves, then tied their arms with copper wire behind their backs and shot them through the head.

A little later, it was von Collenberg's turn to die in similar fashion as he was trying to bring German residents of war-torn Saigon to safety. A Vietcong patrol stopped him. Collenberg identified himself by showing his diplomatic passport. The guerrillas killed him execution-style.

A few weeks on, I flew to Germany and France on home leave. Wherever I went, demonstrators were waving the Vietcong flag -- red and blue with a yellow star in the center -- chanting, "Ho-Ho-Ho-Chi-Minh."

I thought of the slaughtered Tet revelers whose corpses I had seen in Hue. I thought of the murdered German doctors and my friend von Collenberg, and told a left-wing editor who had never been outside Europe that the street scenes in Berlin and Paris made me sick.

"Ah, my dear friend," he admonished me, "the problem with you is that you have been far too close to the scene. Don't you see that this is why you cannot fully understand what's really going on in Vietnam?"


(This story, originally published Jan. 24, has been re-released on the anniversary date upon request. Uwe Siemon-Netto is a United Press International correspondent who covered the Vietnam war and recalls the Tet offensive, a turning point in the conflict, 35 years later.)

Trending Stories