Looking back a half century, to when they were young officers, their memories of the battle of Hue are still fresh.
“What I saw was probably the most intense ground fighting on a sustained basis over several days of any other period during the war,” says Howard Prince, an Army captain who worked with South Vietnamese forces.
“We were under fire, under heavy fire,” says Jim Coolican, a Marine captain.
Mike Downs, another Marine captain recalls, “We didn’t know where the enemy was, in which direction even.”
The enemy forces were everywhere. Inside houses and tunnels and in the sewer system, and they captured the citadel, a massive castle-like expanse in this city that was once the imperial capital, just north of Saigon.
It was the bloodiest battle of the Tet Offensive and also the entire war — and it all took American officials completely by surprise, says author Mark Bowden.
“You had the incredible rose-colored reports coming from Gen. William Westmoreland, who was the American commander in Vietnam,” says Bowden, who wrote the recent book Hue 1968. “[He was] assuring the American people that the end was near, that the enemy was really only capable of small kinds of ambushes in the far reaches of the country.”
But then came Tet. North Vietnamese troops and their Viet Cong allies swept throughout cities and towns, into military bases, even breaching the walls of the U.S. Embassy grounds in Saigon.
Back in Washington, President Lyndon Johnson called his defense secretary, Robert McNamara, and asked for an explanation.
McNamara told him that the American people would realize that the enemy forces were stronger than they had been told, that the Pentagon was searching for targets but the Vietnamese enemies were still a “substantial force.”
A substantial force. But just six weeks earlier, a top White House official told New York Times reporter Gene Roberts the war was already over.
Roberts was heading off to Vietnam, so National Security Adviser Walt Rostow gave him a story idea. He told Roberts about a new U.S. agricultural program, Roberts recalls, “which would double the rice yields in Vietnam and would win the peace now that Americans had won the war.”