- The Washington Times - Friday, January 24, 2003

LONDON, Jan. 24 (UPI) — 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.

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(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).


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