Saturday, February 21, 2009

Hue Revisited


Lt. General Ron Christmas, President of the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation was the speaker at February's Dinner and Speaker series at the Museum. He shared his experience as a Company Commander during the Tet Offensive in Hue City. He is pictured above standing in front of the the Ontos in the Vietnam War Gallery's Hue City exhibit.


Over the din of the Hill 881 soundtrack in the next gallery, he told the crowd of just over 100 that were packed into the gallery about how fitting it was that they start the evening's talk in this gallery. He pointed out the Ontos, a vehicle that proved quite helpful in the house-to-house, block-to-block combat that the Marines experienced. Pointing to the Navy Corpsman treating a wounded civilian, he described the importance of the Corpsman and how many Marines, including himself, owed their lives to the corpsman, but also how they were quick to treat wounded civilians as well as wounded enemy fighters. He then walked over to the 'figure' of Sgt. Jones peering around the corner of the wall, his M40 grenade launcher at ready, saying he had a Marine in his company that resembled this Marine.

After these introductions. Everyone filed out of the gallery and into Scuttlebutt Theater for the remainder of the presentation. To set the stage, he played the following CBS news clip:

General Christmas then began to give us the back story on how his company, Hotel company, ended up in Hue City and their subsequent action, which by the way, was shown in the above news clip.

General Christmas has taught classes on Urban warfare to Marines, he gave us a taste of what he tells young Marine leaders, but promised not to give us a class but to tell us "Sea Stories".

As Col Cheatham ( a former professional football player) told the CBS reporter, the Marines didn't have experience in urban warfare, in fact this was his first shot at it. (I can only imagine what the armchair generals would say today). Luckily, both the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the Marines made mistakes. Christmas said that the three principles of Urban warfare are:

1) Isolation of the enemy in the area you are attacking (doesn't have to be the whole city)

2) Choose entry points that are the most advantageous to you

3) Have a plan for execution.

For the Marines at Hue City, they didn't isolate the city and the NVA was able to resupply and bring re-enforcements in. Counter that, the NVA were unable to isolate the the Marines and the Navy was able to bring supplies up the Perfume River. The entry points were the Military Advisers Command Vietnam (MACV) compound in the south of the city and the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam (ARVN) compound in the northeast corner of the city. Those were the only areas that were able to prevent and resist the NVA infiltration.


Both formerly active duty Vietnam veterans in attendance and...


The Basic School Lieutenants paid close attention.


Lance Corporal Ingenuity, PFC Power

Another disadvantage for the Marines was lack of intelligence (not the brain kind but the spy kind). In fact, Christmas shared, they didn't even have accurate maps. When they tried to call in fire support the companies were identifying themselves as being in the blue building or the pink building next to the yellow building. Col. Cheatham would yell over the net, "Where the hell is the pink building?!"

Well, a couple Lance Corporals found a Shell gas station, broke-in and found three tourist maps of the city. The maps were so nice, General Christmas said, "All of the buildings were numbered and it was very accurate." Col Cheatham was given one of the maps. Whichever two companies were the leading the push through the city were given the other two.

Another case of LCpl ingenuity and PFC Power occurred when then Captain Christmas was trying to get his men across an intersection and into one of the government buildings. He said he was following what he had been taught, you lay down smoke and then move your men under its cover.

"Well guess what? The NVA had been taught the same thing. So when we laid down smoke and sent the first 4-man team across the road, the NVA opened up down the street, with their machine guns and took down all four men." After recovering the men, Christmas was trying to figure out how to get the guys across.

A LCpl approached him and said, "We can put the 106 on a Mule. That huge round will put the enemy to the ground and the back flash will provide cover, heck you could probably get the whole company across."

Christmas, lacking any other ideas, gave the LCpl the go-ahead. He and another LCpl rolled the 106 on the mule (this is not an animal but a flat bed type vehicle, kind of like a golf cart on steroids) out into the middle of the street, taking fire as they went, Christmas said it was like they had this protective bubble all around them. Just like the LCpl had said would happen, when they shot off the 106, the enemy took cover and the back flash provided the cover the Marines needed to get across the street.

Christmas noted that in today's Marine Corps, there are a lot of good ideas like that in the ranks, it takes a good leader to listen to them.

Christmas's company was the company that took the headquarters building that had been flying the NVA flag. He said the whole seven days they fought, they kept that flag in their sights, their mission, he said was to take the objective and take that flag down.

If you remember from the news footage, the African American Marine who flashed the big smile over the captured enemy, Christmas said that Marine always had a smile on his face. He was everyone's favorite because he was so positive. A couple days after this footage was shot, this Marine was wounded. After he had gotten patched up, he came trotting back up to Christmas and asked, "Where are my boys?"

Christmas answered, "Over there," and pointed in the direction of his platoon.

Hue City

Four hours after returning to his platoon, he was hit again, according Christmas, pretty hard this time. The Marine was sent back to the MACV compound where he was patched up and tagged for evacuation. An hour or so later, Christmas sees this Marine trotting back up the road, wrapped in so many bandages he looked like a Mummy from a horror movie. The MACV compound was 10 blocks away from their current position.

"Hey skipper, where are my boys?" the Marine asked.

Christmas again, pointed in his platoon's direction and said, "Over there."

The Marine rejoined his men. A few days later, this Marine's position was hit by mortar fire. Christmas ran over to the position. The Marine, horribly wounded, with tears streaming down his face said, "Skipper, I 'm sorry. I gotta leave my boys this time."

There was a deflated "Ohhh" from the audience. General Christmas responded by saying there was a happy ending to the story, the Marine survived, and Christmas spent a good amount of time with him at the VA hospital in Philadelphia.

On taking the Capital building and raising the American Flag

Christmas said the raising of the American flag is not political. It wasn't political that day, it was a matter of morale. The Marines had fought 7 days for this objective. The American flag to an American solider is just a symbol of pride in his and his men accomplishing their mission.

A Major gave him heck about flying this flag over the capital building and told Christmas to take it down. Christmas said he wasn't taking it down until they left the next morning. He told the Major, if he wanted it down, he could take it down himself, but Christmas couldn't guarantee what the Marines would do if he did.

The flag was left up until they left in the morning.

enemy flag

Now where did this Marine get this flag?

American Flag

Simple, from the MACV compound. Again, a couple Lcpls had returned to the MACV compound and lowered its flag and brought it forward, for just such an occasion as this.

Where is this flag now? It flies aboard the USS Hue City. Christmas says that every year, before it heads out on its deployment, a reunion is held aboard for all Hue City veterans (Vietnam veterans, not ship veterans).

Thank God for Chaplains

After taking the Capital building, Christmas's company was tasked with crossing a bridge and taking on the NVA on the other side of the railroad tracks. They were horribly out numbered and the Marines lost two squad leaders and a corpsman. When Col Cheatham realized they were out numbered, he ordered them back across the bridge. Christmas said not until he retrieved his men. Even though they were dead, he wasn't going to leave them there. So the Marines fought very hard to retrieve their dead. The only safe way across the bridge was to run.

He said that was horribly demoralizing for the Marines. Even though they had been ordered to fall back, having to run across that bridge made them all feel like they had run from the enemy.

While taking refuge at a boys school, the men were very down. The Chaplain approached Christmas and said the boys school had a chapel, it was bombed out, but still had its pews, could he give a mass in honor of the seven men they had lost? He'd like everyone to attend.

Well, Christmas couldn't make all the men attend, but he told everyone of the service and that it was a memorial. Everyone attended. He said it was amazing, when they entered, the chaplain was in full Catholic robes. The most touching point of the service was at the point of communion, the Chaplain went against the regulation of his church and provided communion to EVERYONE. That single gesture, Christmas said, turned the men around. Their priest/chaplain had given them closure. When they walked out of that mass, the spring was back in everyone's step.

Mistakes and Closure

Christmas told us of one of his two mistakes that he made as a company commander during the battle for Hue. He had deployed a sniper team to the top of the water treatment building and they were taking out NVA left and right.

Now, as a leader, the proper way to utilize a sniper team is to move them frequently. Because the team was so successful, he said he had gotten greedy. The NVA were able to zero in on the Marine snipers' position and they hit the top of the building with rocket fire.

Christmas lost his snipers. He said he had felt so guilty for their deaths over the past 40 years.

Three weeks ago, one of those snipers strode into the museum, walked up to General Christmas and gave him a hug. Christmas said he couldn't have been happier. He hadn't lost the sniper team and he had finally been given closure.


Samantha West said...

Your blog is always excellent however, your recent posts have been exceptional.

I can only begin to imagine the burden lifted from LtGen Christmas upon finding out his snipers did not die...

Thomas E. (Ed) Gregory, Col. USMC (Ret) said...

Great post! General Christmas has always been one of my personal heroes. (Then) Colonel Christmas commanded (then) Amphibious Warfare School when I went through in '86/'87. To me, he epitomized Gen. John A. Lejeune's concept of a Marine leader to the T.

Joe Tiscia said...

General Christmas is a true friend
of the enlisted Marines. He has
helped me out a number of times. We
had many great officers from the battle of Hue. A number have become
Generals and leaders of our nation;
but it was the PFCs and Marine Cpls
that won this battle. God bless all
those that fought this bloody battle and God Bless General Ron
Joe Tiscia, Cpl and Survivor