|Loyde Yates, Hue City, Feb 1968||
Photo of me in Hue City
The Day Things Fell apart in Hue City, February 1968 – with Hotel/2/5, 1st Marine Div.
One of my more memorable experiences during the monthlong battle for Hue City, February 1968, was when my assistant machine-gunner, Marcus, and I were ordered to stay behind on the enemy’s side of the Phu Cam Canal – as part of a three-member LP (listening post). The third member was a radioman who neither of us knew, and, unfortunately, I can no longer recall his name. Our objective was to report any amassing of enemy troops that could storm the bridge.
We spent the night a half-block up in a dilapidated house that had endured many battles over the previous days. The shattered roof revealed enough light to glimpse a rat of considerable girth repeatedly throughout the night. The body alone was over a foot long! It kept bumping against us, grinding its teeth and hissing. We spent the rest of the time more worried about it than the enemy who roamed about, apparently searching for the nightly LP.
It was unusual for a machine-gun team to be sent as part of an LP. I believe the reason was due to the overall shortage of personnel. Not only had some of the other LPs had not survived, but the 2nd Battalion already had over 30 Marines KIA and well over 300 wounded. In previous nights, I was assigned to guard the bridge perched from a second-story window at the water’s edge, but on our side. In retrospect, they probably should have kept us there – as you will see.
Yet, against the odds, and after a couple of close calls, we made it through the night. Then, just as the sun began to rise, there was a massive explosion. At first, because of debris hitting the structure, I thought they had spotted us, and the next round might be our last. Then the radioman received information the bridge had been blown. In our minds, that was almost as bad as being seen because either could have the same conclusion – we were dead men waiting!
A short time later, three North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldiers appeared in a small alley behind the house. One checked the backyard gate leading to our hiding place, changed his mind, and the three continued down the dirt path – with rifles at the ready. Then, a moment later, they returned, opened the gate, and entered the back yard. Despite the noise, we had no choice but to open fire, giving away our location to the others.
We quickly abandoned the house for adjacent structures. The radioman received instructions from our platoon commander that troops would be sent to assist, but first, they had to check the other bridges for explosives. Meanwhile, we were to make our way towards the next bridge, approximately a mile west.
In another house, a street or two over, we surprised an older man hiding in a back room. When he saw us, he freaked out and attempted to flee. Marcus covered the man’s mouth and was ready to slit his throat with a bayonet when I motioned for him to wait. That would also be noisy, and I wanted to give this man a chance to live. He stared at me with wide-opened eyes and must have read my mind because he immediately quieted down. (Of course, the knife to his throat probably had something to do with his decision!)
A moment later, a pretty Vietnamese girl, maybe 19-years-old, opened a closet door. I assume she saw that we spared her father’s life and figured it was safe to reveal herself. We lowered our weapons, and much to our surprise, she addressed us in fluent English. In whispered tones, she explained that they were making their way back home – near Route One, opposite our intended direction.
Even so, she understood our predicament and offered to show us the best route to the next bridge. I was hesitant, but when she mentioned she was a student at Hue University, I knew anyone connected to the university, including students, was also high on the NVA’s kill list. That provided the confidence we needed to accept. And, more to the point, we had no better offers.
By midday, the five of us had made our way close to the next bridge. It was a slow and arduous journey. We came across a few people in other houses, which was not uncommon despite the city’s raging battles. Fortunately, she knew where to hide, and if there were people there, she talked to them before motioning for us to enter. Remarkably, everyone stayed quiet whenever enemy soldiers passed nearby.
The area around the second bridge was also littered with NVA. It seemed a suicide mission to cross, but our chances of survival were even less by not crossing.
We were thanking them and saying our goodbyes when the girl said that her father was willing to go up a ways to create a diversion. Although regular civilians were usually left alone unless they could be tied to a governmental institution, we declined. Our side was already waiting for us to cross. Our troops planned to open fire to keep the NVA’s heads down while we hustled across.
As the father and daughter left, I told her that I hoped someday we would meet again. She gave me a pretty smile, and they disappeared into the rubble.
We were preparing to leave when we heard a commotion up the street. We saw several NVA soldiers running in that direction. That reinforced our decision, and the radioman passed the word we were coming across.
Then, with all of our might, the three of us went for it. We began in single file, about ten feet apart, with Marcus, who had the lightest load, going first, then the radioman, and then me. Despite our weight, the radioman and I managed to parallel Marcus in a dead-heat for the finish line! With hundreds of rounds flying past our ears and marking our every step, we somehow made it with only one shot hitting the radio but not the operator. Our troops greeted us with great jubilation. As the cheers subsided, so did the firing from the other side.
Moments later, there were two single shots. In the pit of my stomach, I realized what must have happened.
Instead of returning to our unit immediately, Marcus and I obtained permission to wait and go back across with the Marines positioned there. It was a morning occurrence for Hotel platoons to cross the canal and engage the enemy. After dark, we would carry back our dead and wait for morning. On this day, if they too had an LP, they were already back, and the full platoon was only waiting for the bridge to be cleared of explosives, and, perhaps, waiting for us.
Sadly, my fears were realized. Both the girl and her father lie crumpled on the main street, with single gunshots to their heads. We received permission to carry their bodies back for burial.
Looking back, the odds of making it to the next bridge without their help is doubtful. They showed us the best routes and the safest places to hide. I don’t know if they deliberately distracted the enemy or were merely spotted. In terms of my guilt, I hope the latter. Either way, they put themselves at grave risk to help us, and for that, I am eternally grateful but also forever saddened.
Like many others, I volunteered to go to Vietnam to fight communism. The battles did little for the Vietnamese people, but it did help contain and isolate the Soviet Union. To that extent, the sacrifices of all those who served and died were not in vain. I will always have a tender spot in my heart for the Vietnamese people and those two in particular.
P.S. The photo was taken as the battles began to wain. I was returning from the MACV Compound, where I had been treated for dysentery and a 103-degree temperature. (The cause was most likely from a sample of food from a street vendor I got in exchange for a sliver of gold, worth hundreds of dollars, but that’s part of another whole story!)
On this day, journalists seemed to be everywhere. I remember feeling annoyed when this guy squatted in front of me to snap some photos. He asked my name as I walked by, and I said, “Rowdy.” Forty years later, I was surprised to find the picture in some military archives without my provided nickname. Beyond dysentery and the photographer, the day was etched in my mind for another reason.
While at the Compound, there was a mortar team that had just finished firing batteries of rounds, and two of the members were arguing as they carried their equipment up a stairway. At this point, I could only see their feet when I heard a .45 round discharge, and one of the guys tumbled down the steps. The others disarmed the shooter, so I headed back to my unit, figuring justice would be administered.
When I passed the photographer, between the senseless shooting and my abdominal pains, I wasn’t in the greatest of moods, as the look on my face reveals!
Thanks for listening.
|The Day Everything Fell Apart in Hue City, February 1968 – with Hotel 2/5||
The Day Things Fell Apart in Hue City, February 1968 – with Hotel 2/5
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