Killed in Action 45 years ago at Hue City
Posted 16 February 2013 - 07:44 PM
For 1st Battalion 5th Marines, Hue City became the climax of their experience in Vietnam
One of the most publicized battles that developed and persisted after the VC and NVA’s military failure during the TET offensive was the success they had in infiltrating and capturing the ancient imperial city of Hue. After battling through the southern part of the city across the perfume river, elements of the 1st and 5th Marines managed to begin the gradual clearing of vital structures and buildings over the next week. After 10 days of fighting, the combined ARVN and U.S. elements came upon the formidably held structure of the Citadel to which MACV offered to the ARVN a fresh battalion of U.S. Marines to reduce the NVA positions at the Citadel. The 1st Battalion 5th Marines under Major Robert Thompson was the battalion selected. 1/5 had been near Phu Loc where they had been engaged against the NVA since the TET offensive had begun. When news of the 1/5’s new assignment reached them in the predawn hours of February 10, 1968, they were engaged and had to break contact with the NVA and move to nearby Phu Bai where a very frigid rainstorm had made the night’s firefight seemingly even more miserable. The battalion was encouraged to ensure they were armed with their 3.5” bazookas, a weapon that received somewhat less use in the typical open style warfare the battalion had been used to. By February 12, 1968, the brunt of 1/5 entered Hue. One company (Delta 1/5) was pulled from the battalion and attached to 2/5 who had spent the brunt of the battle fighting their way throughout the city clearing buildings. That day the remainder of 1/5 crossed the Perfume River aboard LCUs loaded down with trucks carrying ammo and other supplies. Marines hunkered on the deck with weapons outboard could see the smoke and rubble along the banks as machine gun and rifle fire reverberated across the river. The occasional hum of stray rounds splashed in the water or passed overhead. By evening the Major Thompson’s 1/5 had liberated the ARVN Airborne Task force holding the northeastern Citadel Wall. From their 1/5 was to attack east. Uneasy over having the ARVN maintaining operational control over 1/5, it was agreed that the 1st Marines, who’d been fighting in Hue from the beginning, would maintain operational command over 1/5. After some negotiation and meeting, it was decided that the ARVN would stay in the area and remain operational along with 1/5.
The Citadel complex was massive; very much a strategic maze upon which platoons and companies could easily get mired into very isolated pockets where contact with the enemy would likely be at close proximity that no one in Vietnam had yet experienced. Men use to fighting in the open fields and vegetated terrain only weeks ago were now pitted into very complex urban combat using mostly only the organic weapons of the infantry. At dawn on February 13th, 1/5 would march out of the 1st ARVN division compound in column of companies and form up behind the 1st ARVN division and assault into the NVA position. In the front of the battalion column was Alpha Company 1/5 commanded by Captain Jim Bowe followed by Charlie Company and Bravo as the tail end. By 0800 the lead elements of Alpha Company approached the ARVN soldiers in the front of the 1st ARVN division’s position. They immediately dismounted the wall and made their way to the rear smiling and jeering at the approaching Marines of Alpha Company. The front point man of Alpha Company’s column turned slightly to the right and crossed by the front entry way to the Citadel complex in the vicinity followed by a second. As the third man crossed, a hail of NVA grenades came sailing over the walls. Several men were wounded from the ensuing explosions and the exchange lasted for about 15 minutes. The Marines were still supposedly 200 meters from what was deemed the ARVN front lines of control. The company hugged the edge of the 25-foot wall. Men fired sporadically around the corners. From above the wall, one NVA soldier leaned over to try and finish off the wounded point man and the two Marines trying to drag him to safety. Just as the NVA became visible a squad leader emptied his magazine into the enemy before pulling back. Another squad from Alpha Company came up and also met a hail of grenades. One Marine with an M79 grenade launcher had visual on the tower just as Corporal Walter Rosolie took off across the street into the open. Provided suppressive fire from the rest of the squad Rosolie made it to the entryway to the tower where he discovered an anti-personnel mine in the roadway. Rosolie quickly disarmed it in hopes the squad would be able to make it up to the tower entrance. Rosolie lobbed several grenades up into the tower where it was believed the NVA were located. Rosolie saw several NVA running along the wall but could not enter the entrance to the tower as he had been taken under heavy fire. All of this chaos was taking place several hundred meters behind what was then believed to be the ARVN lines. What had really occurred was that the ARVN had pulled back during the night and the NVA had maintained close contact and squeezed into the vacancy maintaining pressure on the ARVN. The misinformation cost Alpha Company several casualties.
The tower appeared to be the nucleus of the NVA position and so an M48 tank was called up and fired 5 rounds with virtually no effect into the tower. As Alpha Company’s CO and company command group relayed info over the radio awaiting word from battalion, an NVA RPG crew snuck into position firing a round that wounded most of the company command group including Captain Bowe. That first day, Alpha Company lost 2 Marines killed and 33 wounded. For his actions, Corporal Rosolie was awarded the Silver Star. Sadly he would not live to accept it as he would be killed March 31, 1968. Alpha Company was already understrength and was pulled back to regroup. Bravo and Charlie Company would resume the attack and maintain pressure on the NVA. The fight for the Citadel would swallow up Bravo and Charlie who continued the attack throughout the day.
Battalion CO, Major Robert Thompson had only been an infantry battalion CO for 2 weeks and had previously been a rear-echelon officer but his aggressive nature did not reveal his lack of line experience as he vigorously pushed for air and artillery cover for his Marines. Major Thompson’s situation was further complicated due to the nature of urban combat, something no force in Vietnam had any experience or preparation for.
With Alpha Company remaining back a bit, but still subjected to mortar and sniper fire, a platoon worked forward on February 16th working forward about 150 yards. Major Thompson had monitored radio contact with the Lieutenant in command. Suddenly the men were cut off from the rest of the company and pinned down by fire. Major Thompson sent in a young man named Lieutenant Patrick Polk to relieve the distraught officer and help pull members of Alpha Company out. Polk with about 8 other Marines made their way forward under fire the whole way. Polk immediately brought in 81mm mortar fire on the NVA who were keeping members of Alpha Company pinned down. The wounded were eventually dragged back as the heavy concentration of mortar fire kept the NVA suppressed.
The next day February 17, after it was learned from intercepted NVA radio transmission that several officers had been killed including a senior NVA commander. This news was rejuvenating to the Marines who’d been badly demoralized by the close quarters fighting and heavy casualties. By 0430, 1/5 again pushed forward and drew heavy NVA mortar fire. As the fire lifted, NVA well dug-in open fired with RPGs. The Marines responded with withering fire and 8-inch artillery fire that broke the NVA resistance. One Marine had been killed and 4 others wounded. By 0700 the elements of the battalion was inside the NVA zone of resistance. As the battalion waded further into the maze of the Citadel Walls, NVA guns resumed fire from a secondary position. The battalion continued its push until 1630 when they dug in along the Han Thuyen Street. Replacements were received but by the day’s end 12 Marines had been killed and 55 were wounded.
The next day, February 18th, a bone chilling rain hammered 1/5 dug in along the Han Thuyen Street and unable to get ammunition resupply sufficient to continue to mount pressure on the NVA, the battalion remained in place exchanging fire with the NVA. The supply problems were not relegated just to ammo. The battalion went all day February 17th without food. The battalion had also worked so close to the NVA lines that adjusting supporting fires was too risky. During the exchange throughout the day of February 18th, several NVA who made themselves visible were killed. Several 1/5 Marines were also killed by the exchange of fire. Six Alpha Company Marines were killed that day including 21 year old Pvt. James Harkenson who suffered a gunshot wound to the head. He was returned home and buried in Philadelphia National Cemetery. Semper Fi James you are remembered.
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