Late last summer, George Haught, who lives in Monaca, made up his mind to go back to Vietnam.
Halfway across the Truong Tien Bridge, walking north, George Haught seemed to jolt. He grabbed at the air and found Danny Cholewa beside him.
With arms over each other’s shoulders they proceeded, walking back into 1968, when they were 19, hearing the screams of their buddies being hit and the din of machine gun tracers clanging off the bridge girders, darting for cover, firing weapons to get to the other side while dragging their wounded and dead against fire coming from the Citadel.
Suddenly, the intersection was today’s. It teemed with scooters and bicycles carrying people who were born in the 1980s and ’90s. Mr. Haught stared wide-eyed past them and wiped his cheek.
“You all right?” Mr. Cholewa asked, looking carefully into his friend’s round, sweet face. He knew the answer. He had been a first-time returnee once himself.
“It took a day to cross a street”
Late last summer, Mr. Haught, who lives in Monaca, made up his mind to go back to Vietnam. He had been buoyed by support at gatherings of the local Veterans Breakfast Club, with whom he first shared the horror of his weeks in Hue as a corporal in Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines.
His father-in-law encouraged him to go, too.
“He said, ‘You only have one 50th.’”
Military Historical Tours, a company in Woodbridge, Va., was offering a trip to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive — a blitz of surprise attacks throughout South Vietnam by North Vietnamese military and their southern allies just before the Tet lunar new year holiday. Of the many battle sites of the Tet Offensive, Hue (pronounced Hway) was the trip’s focus.
Mr. Haught remembered the traffic circle at the entrance to the city off Highway One and the gas station where his company commander, Capt. Chuck Meadows, now a retired colonel, found a tourist map. He remembered a market, boats on the Perfume River. He remembered, in blips between panic and running and hiding and ducking, the French colonial villas and gardens, the plane trees along the sidewalks.
He remembered only dozing, afraid to fall asleep “because if you did, you might not wake up.”
As someone who had buried his story for 48 years, telling it for the first time in a torrent of emotion, he was prepared for more of the same as he planned his trip: “I want to see what it’s going to bring up,” he said. “I tell people it took a day to cross a street and they look at me like I’m crazy.”
The Battle of Hue, part of the Tet Offensive, 1968
The Tet Offensive
It started on Jan. 30, 1968, the eve of Tet (the Vietnamese lunar new year): More than 80,000 soldiers from the People’s Army — North Vietnamese and southern allies — staged simultaneous attacks on cities, towns and U.S. bases throughout the south, a mass occupation meant to inspire the rest of South Vietnam to rise up in solidarity. One of those cities was Hue.
Battle of Hue
The battle raged for more than a month, from Jan. 31 to March 2, 1968.
Forces involved: It began with two companies of U.S. Marines and the 1st Army Division of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam fighting more than 8,000 members of the People’s Army — the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. It ultimately took eight battalions of U.S. Marines, troopers from the 1st Cavalry Division and 11 South Vietnamese army battalions to turn back North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces.
The toll: 384 ARVN soldiers killed, 1,800 wounded and 30 missing; 147 U.S. Marines killed, 857 wounded; 74 Army deaths, 507 wounded. An estimated body count of Communist forces totaled 5,000 in the city; 80 percent of the city was destroyed, 116,000 civilians left homeless and an estimated 5,800 reported killed or missing. Of those, 2,800 bodies were discovered in mass graves and barely concealed smaller sites inside and outside the city.
The Battle of Hue was the bloodiest battle of the war in Vietnam, with some estimates as high as 10,000 civilians and combatants killed. It was also a rare urban battle, with snipers in second- and third-story windows. News from Hue was light because Gen. William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces, told the government and the media that Hue was under control.
In his 2017 book “Hue 1968,” Mark Bowden described this misleading narrative as “a conspiracy of denial.”
Hue was fully under the control of the North Vietnamese army and their southern allies. More than 8,000 of their troops had amassed around Hue, occupying the city and its heavily fortified Citadel as Tet festivities were about to begin.
Resistance initially came from just two companies of Marines to support several battalions of the South Vietnamese army, or ARVN.
The imbalance was perverse, but so much about the foray into Hue was out of whack.
There was almost no intelligence to suggest any major concern about enemy activity, plus a ceasefire was supposed to be on for Tet.
Capt. Meadows didn’t know what he was leading his 160-man Golf Company into. He even had to scavenge for a city map.
The mission was to retrieve ARVN’s Gen. Ngo Quang Truong, commander of his army’s first division in the Citadel, and take him safely back to Phu Bai. It sounded like an easy day trip to a city — a rare treat for guys whose war experiences had been in the jungle and the boonies.
So they left their packs behind.
Capt. Meadows had a funny feeling as their 6×6 trucks rolled north on Highway One. It was almost Tet — a time of travel for homecoming — and no one was around? he thought. No traffic on the roads? Strange.
When they arrived in Hue, they found Alpha Company, 1st battalion, 1st Marines in tatters, already ambushed. Together, they made their way to the compound of military advisors under attack. Then they headed to the Citadel to retrieve ARVN’s general.
“I’m glad we didn’t make it in”
Mr. Haught was one of few Marines who spent the entire Battle of Hue in Hue. A scrap of a guy at 140 pounds when he entered Hue and 130 when he left, he was trained to handle a 3.5 rocket launcher, a flamethrower, a machine gun and a 106 recoilless rifle.
In the first day of fighting, he saw his friend Clyde Carter go down, the first of the company to be killed. Seven others from Golf died on the first day and 45 were wounded.
There was no air support — in part because of bad weather, in part because the threat in Hue was still not officially recognized. Bombing was off limits because of Hue’s historic architecture. That order was eventually rescinded, but not before scores of men were killed.
Some of those men were on Mr. Haught’s mind as he and Danny Cholewa fell in with the rest of the returning veterans from Golf Company, walking peacefully to the end of the bridge.
On Tran Hung Dao Street, parallel to the river, the group turned right at the first intersection,a street that led into the Citadel through the Truong Tu gate.
“This is a critical spot for Golf Company,” Col. Meadows said. “This is the corner were Larry [Lucas] was wounded, where [Rich] Cobb hid behind a tree. We lost Glen Lucas, we lost [Don] Kirkham and we lost [Gerald] Kinny.
“Even for Marines, we were a little outnumbered,” said Col. Meadows. “I reflect back to the second time I made this trip, trying to piece together the pieces. I still shake my head at how we made it over the bridge.”
Col. Meadows, who was 28, lost nearly 35 percent of his men, wounded or killed. He decided not to enter the CItadel but to pull back, recross the bridge.
“We couldn’t get any further. I never completed the mission I was sent on, and that stayed with me for years,” he said. “The first trip back, in 1996, I went to the farthest point we got to and then I walked into the Citadel.”
Fifty years ago, he had no idea that just inside the gate, a wide open space would have become a killing field.
“If we had gotten in, we would have all been lost, obliterated,” he said. “I am fully reconciled to the fact that I’m glad we didn’t make it in.”
The Battle of Hue was a technical victory for the South and its American allies, as the North Vietnamese were eventually driven out of the Citadel. But the Tet Offensive was, by all accounts, the point at which the resolve to win began to erode for the American government and its public.
It was finally clear that the enemy was willing to sacrifice more to unite its country than the U.S. was to keep it apart.
“Old Marines do cry”
“I credit the colonel with not getting us into the Citadel,” said Rich Cobb, whose daughter Amanda accompanied him on this trip. They live in Winston-Salem, N.C. “She wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for his decision. We would have been wiped out in five minutes.”
As the colonel, now of Tigard, Ore., provided narrative to the tour group, three men approached.
“This must be a military group,” one said. He introduced his father, Tom Odom, of Cookeville, Tenn. In 1968, Mr. Odom was a first lieutenant with the Green Berets stationed six kilometers southwest of Hue.
Spotting Col. Meadows, his face began to crumble.
“I know who you are,” he said as Col. Meadows put his arm around his shoulder. “You guys were getting shot to hell and our lieutenant said he wasn’t able to provide fire.” Mr. Odom choked back a sob. “We couldn’t help you.”
The colonel asked Mr. Odom and his sons to walk with the group into the Citadel.
“I’d be proud to,” Mr. Odom said.
Entering the Citadel this time was a symbolic action but not without its modern-day challenges. The roadway over the moat is narrow, so people have to walk single file, hugging the sides as traffic flows by. Once inside, the group gazed up through the mist at the blackened tower above the gate. Then everyone walked back across the moat and regrouped on Tran Hung Dao Street.
Mr. Haught asked for a prayer. He had traveled in part to say goodbyes he didn’t get a chance to say 50 years ago.
The Hue guys gathered into a huddle — the colonel, Mr. Haught, Mr. Cholewa, Mr. Cobb, Larry Verlinde, Larry Lucas and Corpsman Bruce Gant. They stood with their arms over each other’s backs, their heads bowed.
There were murmurs and sniffles, and then the colonel’s words: “You were the guys who made me want to keep being a Marine.”
“‘You don’t know it,” Mr. Haught told the colonel, “but I thank God every day for you.’”
As they stood apart, each man saluted him.
“He’s the type of Marine who thought his guys were more important than he was,” said Mr. Verlinde, of Chico, Calif., who has made multiple trips back.
Col. Meadows said it is rewarding to help returning veterans find a measure of peace.
“I know doing that takes a lot of rocks out of their packs. It’s like the end of the tunnel. Old Marines do cry. We have an old tradition of crying together.”
Dreaming in jungle green and blood red
The morning before Golf Company veterans retraced their steps across the bridge, Danny Cholewa had yet to arrive at the hotel. Mr. Haught sat over his breakfast, his buddy on his mind. Then he glanced up to see him bounding toward him.
He popped out of his chair and grabbed Mr. Cholewa in a bearhug.
“I wasn’t sure I was going to make it,” Mr. Cholewa said, joining him at the table, grinning, describing his decision and his preparations breezily, as if you jump on a plane to Vietnam on a whim.
A Chicagoan who lives in Benton Harbor, Mich., Mr. Cholewa is a motorcyclist with body-builder arms and confident patter. He is the winged spirit to Mr. Haught’s caution. But he would be the anchor this time, having returned to Hue in 1998 as a step in his own healing.
“It was great for me to have Danny here on this trip,” Mr. Haught said later. “He said he was worried about me because of the effect it had on him the first time he came back.”
The veterans who had previously returned seem to have the drill down, less riveted retracing old steps.
Amanda Cobb said her dad has dealt with his pain with humor. He enjoyed his friends’ jokes about the tree that saved his life: It was so badly injured that a younger tree now stands in its place.
But he was circumspect when asked if each trip back makes the damage easier to live with. He cocked his head, grinned and said, “a little bit.”
Mr. Cholewa, who like Mr. Haught was wounded in Hue, said he spent the first 15 years after the war struggling.
“I dreamed in jungle green and blood red,” he said. “I kept it to myself. No one to talk to about it. My dad said, ‘Get a job, forget about it.’
“My girlfriend helped get me through,” he said. “And then I got a letter about a Golf Company reunion in Washington, D.C. I decided to go, and when I entered the lobby, I saw four or five guys I knew. These were my people.”
“I lost it, yes”
Mr. Haught, who after the war worked for Shell Oil in Florida and later at a manufacturing company in Chester, W.Va., said he is disheartened that Vietnam veterans are not more appreciatively honored on anniversaries like veterans of previous wars. Their intentions were no different.
“I knew this was going to be a rough journey for me,” he said. “It’s surreal, a trip I didn’t expect to make again. Seeing the university where I got wounded [now a five-star hotel] brought back a lot of emotion. The first day when we crossed the bridge, the same rush of emotion. I could feel my heart beating like it did then, the adrenaline pumping.
“We grew up real damn fast that day,” he said. “As Danny and I walked along, his movement and my movement, I could feel the bullets ricocheting again.
“I lost it, yes. Thousands of images, a super-fast replay. You could hear the screams, hear the bullets, see the blood. If you didn’t have blood all over you, you wondered if you were doing something wrong.
“I would like for people to remember the people who died here,” he said. “Why Clyde Carter and Gerald Kinny and not me? That was all part of my emotion.”
The return to Hue, he said, gave him some relief from pain he has carried for 50 years, “but whether you ever have closure, that’s debatable.”