Saturday, March 8, 2014

Sharpening My Perspective on the Vietnam War

During the past few weeks, I have been plugging away on my new novel, Asphalt and Blood: U.S. Navy Seabees in the Battle for Hue City.  Although I’m depending heavily on my notes I took while I was there in the 1960s and interviews with other Seabee veterans, I also remain alert for new material from other sources. I recently found some excellent material on a media I’ve told my readers before not to trust: my television set.

While casting about for anything worthwhile in a barren wasteland last Monday evening, I stumbled onto a pair of Vietnam War shows on the Military Channel.  The American Heroes Channel, a group previously unknown to me, produced both programs. The first revealed newly discovered combat film taken during the Battle of Dak To. The horrors of jungle combat with the superbly equipped, highly professional North Vietnamese Army (NVA) were presented in all their raw detail.  Soldiers were seen being shot and blown apart with mortar bombs exactly as it happened. This was not reenactment. It was taken live during the battle. Combat cameramen went right in with the infantry as they penetrated triple canopy jungle to assault hilltop positions. The program drove home to me that Vietnam was not a homogenized war. It was a number of different wars being fought simultaneously, details depending on terrain and environment. Our troops had widely varying experiences according to where they fought.  When writing about Vietnam, an author must be sure to describe the right war for the geographical setting.

The second show I watched was called Against the Odds and covered the first half of the Battle for Hue City in 1968. I decided to watch the program to refresh my memories of Hue and its surroundings. I was soon struck by how accurate the producers got this one. For the first time I have seen on American television, the Hue battle was portrayed for what it was, a victorious fight against impossible odds by a few half-strength companies of U.S. Marines. During the Tet holiday celebrations, the NVA slipped nine regiments of highly trained troops inside Hue, seizing three fourths of the city overnight. The Marines at Camp Eagle in nearby Phu Bai had no concept of the enemy’s strength. Responding to calls for help from the besieged Military Assistance Command (MACV) compound in South Hue, a force of less that a company of Marines was originally dispatched. This group was heavily engaged by the NVA soon after entering Hue. Calls for reinforcements brought a few more small companies, and the Marines finally reached MACV.

As the overwhelming strength of the NVA became apparent through “reconnaissance in force,“ more individual Marine companies were fed into the battle. They still were unaware that the odds were about 100 to one against them. And this was not the sort of war for which they had been trained. In 1968, Counter-insurgency was the style of fighting American troops expected.  A few Marine captains soon realized that they now had to fight a battle more akin to that in Stalingrad in World War II, street-to-street, house-to-house, room-by-room. Amazingly, the young Marines quickly adapted and began to win these battles in microcosm. They were Americans and had been brought up to think for themselves. They were Marines, a band-of-brothers fiercely loyal to each other and to the Corps. And as one Hue veteran so aptly stated, “There is no fighting machine in the world as destructive as a pissed-off nineteen-year-old Marine.” And so they persevered, although many of them were walking wounded. One wounded captain continued fighting until he collapsed. His men brought him a wounded chaplain, who administered last rites. The captain’s dying words were, “God, please take care of my Marines.” Amazingly, these few hundred kids finishing clearing South Hue to the Perfume River, then boarded landing craft to cross to the north bank. 

Against the Odds closes at this point. The battle for the Hue Citadel was an equally amazing story. These were Nineteenth Century French-designed fortifications of stone blocks and brick enclosing tightly packed residential areas, the former emperor’s compound, and shrines. One paramount fact that the TV program omitted was that the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) 1st Division held onto their fortress in the northern corner of the city.  Again, a few companies of Marines entered the walls through the 1st Division compound and fought another house-to-house battle to evict literally regiments of NVA. It was said of the Marines in the Battle of Iwo Jima that, “Uncommon valor was a common virtue.” No less was true of the young Marines at Hue City. One of the tragedies of the Vietnam War was that their accomplishments were not properly recognized at the time. In fact, a large segment of the media ridiculed the battle, arguing that the time it took to retake Hue revealed American ineffectiveness. Such slanted reporting caused many of us that were then “in-country” to lose trust in the veracity of the media.

The Battle for Hue City is central to Asphalt and Blood. My story relates how U.S. Navy Seabees worked alongside the Marines, sharing their familiarity with the city, bridging canals and providing other essential construction support. I hope veterans consider my novel to be as accurate as I found Against the Odds.

Photo Caption: Flagtower Citadel of Huế with NVA flag flying.

Photo Credit: By Arabsalam (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Note: Warren Bell is a historical fiction author with two novels released and for sale either for Kindle or in paperback from Both are set during WWII, with Fall Eagle One taking place in Europe, and Hold Back the Sun set in the war in the Pacific. 

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