Fred Drew had been in Vietnam for seven months as a military advisor, spending much of his time in the historic city of Hue, when the North Vietnamese Army, along with collaborators in the south, launched Tet Offensive in 1968.
Drew, who was a 21-year-old Army first lieutenant, recalled the anniversary of the 26-day battle, the longest of the Vietnam War, during an interview with Richard Beene on NEWSTALK 1180 KERN on Monday afternoon.
From Jan. 31 to Mar. 2, 1968, the battle to retake Hue became one of the fiercest of the United States’ military operations during the war. Drew, who retired in 1984 as a lieutenant colonel, was in the middle of the fighting.
“I had come in about a month before Tet to the rear area,” said Drew, a resident of Bakersfield. “I had this really choice job and it was what they call the (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) compound. It was a compound of U.S. Army advisors. It was like our rear area.
“The only troops in the northern part of South Vietnam, in those days, were the Marine Corps. So it was the Marine Corps and the South Vietnamese army.”
With house-to-house fighting, Hue was a major departure from Vietnamese combat operations, which were generally reserved to the countryside and jungles. During the Tet Offensive, urban combat clouded the fight between U.S. and South Vietnamese forces and the attacking troops of the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong insurgents.
Drew said the duty to the rear was welcome after months in the field, but he had no idea he would be facing one of the biggest battles of the war. With the Tet holidays at hand, Drew said there was a nationwide truce during that time, and many troops went home to celebrate the New Year and other holidays.
“Well (the North Vietnamese) had been working on this for months,” Drew said of the planning. “The broke the truce and at 3:20 a.m. on the 31st of January they attacked every city in South Vietnam.”
Drew explained that Hue was important because it was the old Imperial capital, and that the city was the cultural capital of Vietnam. With heavy influences from its Imperial and French colonial periods, Hue was considered one of the most beautiful cities in Vietnam, and it was home to more than 140,000 people during the war.
“When they hit the first morning, we had gotten wind there was some buildup,” Drew said. “They had blown all the communication towers. We had no communication with Da Nang or Phu Bai, which was south of Hue.
With the South Vietnamese Army units depleted due to the holiday, Hue was vulnerable to attack by the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong.
“By daybreak (the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong) had basically overrun and captured everything in the city except our compound and 1st Division (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) headquarters.
“We were attacked on all four sides of the compound. The compound, if you can visualize, was football field by two football fields. That was the sort of the size of our compound. In the early morning when they hit, we had gotten word of their buildup and we were all in our bunkers. Everybody who was living in the compound had a bunker.”
From his bunker, Drew said he watched as a Marine Corps convoy, moving supplies from Da Nang north through Hue, was unexpected caught up in the attack. Drew said he was engaged in the battle for nearly six days before Marine Corps infantry and tanks began to arrive at the city.
“Fighting in cities was not what Vietnam was about,” Drew said. “It took the marines, when they finally got their stuff together, about three or four days to learn how to clear the buildings to go from one building to the next.
Drew was cited for valor during the battle and was awarded the Bronze Star. He was also awarded a Silver Star for his service in Vietnam.
The battle ended with a tactical victory for U.S. and South Vietnamese forces, but the Tet Offensive’s scale and shock cast doubt among many in the U.S. More than 200 U.S. troops died in the fighting at Hue, with more than 1,900 wounded.
Drew said that was the intent of the offensive to sow discontent in the U.S.
“In fact, (Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap) later wrote in his book that he was going for a psychological victory, because he knew he couldn’t hold the cities when they attacked,” Drew said.