The Lost Battalion of TET: Breakout of the 2/12 Cavalry at Hue

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9781439101148: The Lost Battalion of TET: Breakout of the 2/12 Cavalry at Hue
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February 3, 1968: There was no compelling reason for a U.S. infantry battalion to assault a fortified North Vietnamese Army force two hundred yards away with no artillery or air support. The defenders had every advantage....

A harrowing firsthand account of one of the earliest and bloodiest engagements of the Tet Offensive, this revised edition of Charles A. Krohn's masterwork of warfare gone tragically wrong remains as vital and incisive as when it first appeared, its lessons more relevant than ever. Why an ill-equipped U.S. infantry battalion was ordered to attack an overpowering North Vietnamese force -- a military foul-up resulting in more than 65 percent casualties for the 2d Battalion, 12th Cavalry -- is the bloodstained mystery Krohn lays bare even after the U.S. Army attempted to wipe the incident from official records. Captured here, too, are the supreme efforts of one bold commander to save the lives of his men and bring the doomed mission back from the brink of total disaster.

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About the Author:

Charles A. Krohn, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, is a combat veteran of Vietnam. As a civilian, he served as the Pentagon's deputy chief of public affairs from 2001 to 2004, including three months in Iraq as an advisor to the director of the Infrastructure Reconstruction Program. Recently, he was a visiting professor of journalism at the University of Michigan. He now works for the American Battle Monuments Commission and lives in Virginia.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1

AMERICA'S BEST

We saw the chopper approach.

The bastard rocketed us instead of the enemy positions. One soldier died instantly, and four more were wounded. The enemy, in a treeline two hundred yards in front of us, were unscathed.

When the ARVN gunners, after shooting two rounds, refused our next request to fire because the hamlet in front of us was considered friendly, Lieutenant Colonel Sweet, our battalion commander, called Colonel Campbell, the brigade commander, to explain our dilemma. Campbell said he was under pressure from division to keep us moving and ordered us to continue the attack toward Hue. It was a legal order, so there was no point in arguing.

Every man present intuitively realized he was like a sailor ordered to stay at his station on a sinking ship with no lifeboats. We were going to have to attack across an open field into foxholes and bunkers prepared solely for the purpose of discouraging anyone from getting closer. There would be no artillery support, air strikes, or helicopter rocket runs to soften the NVA positions, no smoke to conceal our attack. There was no possibility of pulling back and selecting another route, or even attacking indirectly from a flank using firepower and maneuver. No, this was going to be a frontal assault where every man would be exposed to lethal fire from the instant he got up until the dug-in enemy facing us either withdrew or was killed.

The difference in size between the 2/12th Cavalry Battalion in 1968 and the Light Brigade in 1856 was slight: our four hundred compared to their six hundred. It's true they charged for about one and a half miles with cannons on the front, right, and left, and we only had to advance two hundred yards or so, but both we and the Light Brigade offered human-wave targets that put the defenders at little risk.

It was quiet when we began to move across the otherwise nondescript field.

The ground had been cultivated at one time, so there was no place to hide. There weren't even shell craters. From behind our trees we looked out over the mud to see the enemy reinforcing their positions, ready to receive us shoulder-to-shoulder. It was the first time I used the new binoculars purchased on a recent R&R in Tokyo.

I had the feeling it was going to be my last.

This incident on February 3, 1968, just outside Hue was something that should have never taken place. There was no satisfactory or compelling reason for a U.S. infantry battalion to assault a fortified North Vietnamese Army force two hundred yards away over an open field with no artillery or air support. The defenders had every advantage. The only support available was a helicopter gunship that mistakenly attacked the U.S. forces instead of the NVA. A steady drizzle and heavy, low clouds meant further support from the air was unlikely for the foreseeable future. As the Americans started moving across the field just before noon, every man was a target. The Americans fired their rifles furiously as they rushed to the other side, but the NVA defenders were barely scathed. The NVA commander -- cool and firmly in control -- allowed the U.S. battalion to reach the treeline and one hundred yards beyond, withdrawing his forces slightly so the Americans could gain a foothold. His blocking forces were under orders to let the Americans in, so they would be encouraged to continue toward Hue, believing the withdrawing NVA had been defeated.

In fact, the NVA commander set a trap. As Americans labored hard to establish a hasty perimeter and consolidate their force before moving on, the NVA closed in behind the battalion with a three-to-one combat advantage in manpower and firepower. In one horrible instant, Lieutenant Colonel Sweet, the U.S. commander, realized that he was surrounded and confronted by two devastating realities: he could neither move nor maneuver his forces, and any notion of reinforcement or resupply was out of the question. No field manuals, training, or previous experience prepared him for what was to become an ultimate test of human endurance.

Nine hours after first making contact with the enemy, U.S. artillery units arrived and began firing to support the solidly surrounded infantry battalion. Ammunition available to the artillery was barely sufficient to ensure the outnumbered force was not instantly overrun, but as time passed and casualties mounted, annihilation was never ruled out by the youthful battalion commander, especially as he saw the perimeter shrink to ever-smaller circles. The size was a function of riflemen available to mount a defense. One of the battalion's four companies, normally 171 men, was down to 40.

During the next afternoon, the entrapped men saw that their fate was ordained: death or captivity. Help from higher headquarters was neither offered nor available in the time remaining. Artillery support became increasingly dangerous as the distance between attackers and defenders inexorably closed. Exhaustion, no food at all, and very little ammunition added to the despair.

The battalion commander, Dick Sweet, realizing now he was on his own to make whatever decision would save the most soldiers, pulled in his company commanders to give them a say in the options. After every commander spoke his mind, Sweet made the decision to make a run for it that night where encircling forces seemed to be the weakest. It was a gamble with high stakes. If the maneuver failed to take the enemy by surprise, the fight was over.

The dead and equipment were left behind to give those escaping every chance to succeed. Ruses were contrived to fool the NVA for a few needed minutes as the battalion started to move in single file toward a hilltop to the west. Failure meant every man for himself, an unspoken but understood reality. For the time being, the wounded would stay with the column. But they, too, faced an uncertain future.

That night, whatever force looks after infantrymen was with the remnants of the 2d Battalion, 12th Cavalry. The tattered, limping column made it to a mountaintop where the NVA could not follow. Although they didn't know it until much later, the Americans had stumbled into the headquarters of the NVA forces attacking and holding Hue. When the battalion set out toward Hue on February 3, it was supposed to take only a day to reach the city walls. It took nearly a month.

During the Vietnam War, U.S. soldiers were provided more and better support than any previous fighting force in our nation's history. Supply systems pumped in countless tons of war matériel of every description, and a well-greased distribution network ensured there was always enough firepower on hand to support the commander's scheme of maneuver, regardless of what it took. So plentiful was the support that soldiers and commanders too, with just cause, came to take it for granted. Despite occasional lapses, there was always more than enough to feed the war machine as many beans and bullets as it could digest.

Artillery pieces could be blown up, helicopters shot down, and trucks destroyed, but there was always enough matériel in the pipeline to provide a replacement in a matter of days, if not hours. Ammunition dumps occasionally took a direct hit and filled the sky with incredible pyrotechnics, but the system was so robust that men fighting the ground war were rarely affected. A world-class supermarket chain couldn't do any better.

But when the system went haywire, it went truly and disastrously sour, triggering first surprise, then shock. On even rarer occasions, commanders who had the power to move battalions and brigades from one place to another momentarily forgot about the rupture in the pipeline and issued movement orders as if nothing had happened. The first order, such as sending us toward Hue, may have been innocuous enough, seemingly insignificant at the time. Yet the results after all events were played out were disastrous. Not merely sad or unfortunate, but tragic.

I use the word "tragic" advisedly, because ill-advised attack orders can trigger a chain of events that once started cannot be stopped. For many unfortunate soldiers at the end of the chain the result was death, often senseless death. That no single person could be held responsible adds to the tragic dimension.

In the case of Vietnam, all lives were lost in vain, but some more than others. If tragedy can be measured one life at a time, the story is indeed worth recording.

This tragic tale began on February 1, 1968 -- the beginning of the Tet holiday -- when Major General John J. Tolson III, commander of the 1st Air Cavalry Division, was directed by higher command to send an infantry battalion toward Hue to help take pressure off besieged U.S. Marines trapped in the city who were holding on by the skin of their teeth.

Tolson alerted the commander of his 3d Brigade, Colonel Hubert S. (Bill) Campbell, who in turn called one of his battalion commanders, Lieutenant Colonel Richard S. Sweet, commanding the 2d Battalion, 12th Cavalry, or 2/12th Cav. Campbell read Sweet the order from a small sheet of Tolson's personal notepaper in the general's own handwriting.

Mission
(1) Seal off city on west & north with right flank based on Song Huong River.
(2) Destroy enemy forces attempting to either reinforce or escape from Hue Citadel.

Twenty-five years later Campbell still had this message among his personal papers saved from the war, folded in quarters so he could stick it in his pocket.

Until we received our order to move toward Hue, things were pretty quiet at Camp Evans, the new headquarters of the 1st Air Cavalry Division about fifteen miles north of Hue near Highway 1. Camp Evans was the new temporary station of the 3d Brigade. Just the day before, Campbell recorded in his diary several administrative matters, including the importance of "each day each man filling five sandbags." The Tet truce was just about to begin, so it was hardly surprising that everyone acted as if the war would slow down for a fe...

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