TANKS & The VIETNAM WAR (1965-1975)

TANKS & The VIETNAM WAR (1965-1975)



The Battle of Hue City was fought by US Marines, US Army and ARVN during NVA Tet Offensive. This was one of the bitter battles in one of the bitter campaigns of the war. 

I have no intention to describe the battle in detail. Moreover, there are numerous articles and books, but we will touch only the armor related stuff.

Interestingly, many sources differ one from another in details.

Emphasizing the general confusion and chaotic climate – this was the first time since WWII. When US forces found themselves in fierce urban fighting. And what is most important to my story are probably personal accounts. And not the dry operational reports that have been written weeks after the battle counting the lost men and hardware.

During the night January 30-31, 1968, two NVA regiments, mainly undetected, managed to infiltrate the city and attack ARVN and US MACV compounds. Despite the late arrangements made by ARVN commander, Gen Troung, most of the units were on leave to celebrate Vietnamese New Year (TET). NVA 6th regiment took over the ‘Citadel’ – old city, while 4th regiment advanced into the modern city part. The ARVN 7th Cavalry armored convoy, directed to assist. Was blocked by NVA and was able to break through only after getting reinforcements from ARVN 2nd Airborne battalion. Another ARVN 7th Cavalry armored column with three M41 tanks led by 7th CO, Col Chi, made another attempt to assist surrounded troops who faced devastating AT fire. And pulled back after a B-40 round hit the lead tank and killed colonel Chi.

Even though the US high command did not realize the threat and had almost no picture. They were quite prompt on the response – 2/5 Marines were directed to assist the ARVN and trapped US advisors at MACV compound. Putting 1/1 units to reserve. On the way, infantry was joined by 4 tanks of H&S Company. 3rd Tanks that occasionally were moving towards the HUE LSU ramp to embark towards Dong Ha. This probably saved many lives in the coming hours of fight as infantry left the open trucks and continued riding the tanks. Getting inside the City the convoy came under heavy sniper, small arms and B-40 rocket fire.

“Then the incoming increased – small arms rounds sounded like gravel thrown against a metal-sided building, RPGs knocked exterior-mounted equipment off the tanks, and B-40s did their best to deal a mobility or fire power kill to the tanks. The riding infantry was swept from the tanks. The tanks buttoned up and were guided by the supported infantry’s eyes and ears. In turn, the TC commanded the gunner where and what to shoot and Flash where and how to maneuver his tank.
Suddenly, the lead tank took a direct hit from an NVA B-40 rocket.
The crack and boom of another B-40 erupted and automatic weapons fire sprayed the entire column. A Navy corpsman fell dead and a young radioman was blown off the tank, mortally wounded. When the Task Force X-Ray-dispatched G/2/5 reached the tank/infantry column they coordinated their plan to advance to the MACV Compound. Several Marines climbed aboard the tanks and continued down Route 1. The road cut across an urban rice paddy, with two large buildings situated on either side of it halfway through. Small trees lined the street and a cover of leaves swept the road. The tanks led the way and the remaining infantrymen trailed behind, using the tanks, trees, and road bank as cover from the fire coming from the city. At around 1430 the tank-infantry team swept into the MACV compound to the joy of its Army and Marine advisers.”

Very soon it became obvious that not tankmen neither infantry were ready for such combat, being trained and employed in rural/jungle action. During the first days the tanks were used mainly as pill-boxes – giving cover to infantry from one hand and attracting fire from another. In general tanks themselves were not too vulnerable for the AT means but the crews were pressed hard especially by sniper fire. There was no clear idea how to use the tanks and the officers tried to make sense of the confusion. Meanwhile the tankers main job was to keep themselves alive. Unexpectedly the best position was the drivers’ one – he was literally untouchable as all the fire was concentrated at the turret level and there was no mine threat. 

“From that point we were stuck inside the tank. We never left the tank. Once we buttoned up our hatches we lived in the tank. We pissed, we shit, we ate, we did everything in the tank. We had people on the tank, when we got hit with rockets, RPGs. People were actually blown off the tank. There was nothing we could do. The infantry was communicating through the phone box on the back of the tank. They would tell us what to do.”

On February 2, the first tanks of A Company, 1st Tanks arrived on the LCUs. The same day one of the 3rd Tanks was completely destroyed by RPG rounds that hit the front and detonated the ammo. At this point A Company, 1st Tanks CO assumed command over all armored units in the City. Marines continued to pour reinforcements of 1/1, 1/5 and 2/5 elements, the NVA on the other hand blocked all the ground transportation leaving only air and river to bring troops. In terms of armor there were 10 gun and 2 flame tanks of A Company, 1st Tanks and 3 tanks of 3rd Tanks, plus a VTR. In addition there were 10 Ontos (3 on one side of the river, 7 on another). Despite the great feedback given in the official books, the personal accounts are not that inspiring:

“The 106mm recoilless guns of the Ontos gave it considerable firepower and the HEP-T round proved to be very useful against masonry buildings of the old city but the Ontos was primarily used as backup for the tank. That Ontos is awfully vulnerable. If it’s hit just right, a thirty caliber will go right through it. And if it’s hit with an RPG, it’s just mayhem. We primarily used them in a hit-and-run type of thing. We’d run them up there between the tanks. They’d run out and fire those 106, and then turn around and be gone. It was primarily a building buster, just like we were doing with the tanks.”
TANKS & The VIETNAM WAR (1965-1975)

The US Army was also on the move toward Hue as the 3d Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division advanced from the west to establish blocking positions and to cut off the NVA forces in the city from outside support. Within two days, the 2/12th Cavalry established positions on the high ground with excellent observation of the main enemy routes in and out of Hue.

From there it was in position to interdict all daylight movement of NVA forces by using artillery fire. The 5/7th Cavalry conducted search operations along enemy routes further west. The success of these forces to restrict NVA forces from moving through the area was limited due to the poor weather conditions and low ceiling. The North Vietnamese continued to pour reinforcements and supplies into Hue. ARVN was also pushing troops, mainly by helicopters. Their armor was not much of a use as light M41 tanks proved to be a ‘turkey shot’ for the NVA AT teams.

An important milestone in the battle for Hue occurred on Feb 6, as the Marines captured the provincial headquarters in the new city. Expending over 100 mortar rounds and a large amount of other heavy ordnance, Company H overwhelmed the dogged defenders. Two M48 tanks supported this attack, one of which took multiple hits from B-40 rockets but continued to fire. With the poor weather for air support and limited effect of heavy artillery against the stone structures, the Marines had to rely on their organic weapons, particularly the mortars and armor. The tanks and Ontos vehicles were attached down to platoon level to increase their responsiveness. While the riflemen provided cover, the armor engaged point targets as needed.

Often, the tank commanders would dismount and go forward with the infantry to reconnoiter. (make a military observation)

On engaging a target, the armored vehicles would quickly reverse to gain cover and the Marines would surge forward. The tank crewmen quickly discovered that the standard HE rounds did little damage to the stone or masonry walls in the old city. The rounds often ricocheted back into friendly troops. The tank crewmen switched to HEAT rounds, which usually could breach the ancient walls with four or five rounds. Casualties were high among the armor crewmen, but the tanks generally stood up well against the B-40 rockets. The tanks were soon back in action with replacement crews.

TANKS & The VIETNAM WAR (1965-1975)

On February 9, another of 3rd Tanks gun tanks was destroyed by 4 RPG rounds (also reported as B-40s) that hit the turret front just below the gun mantle. The hits, penetrating the turret, caused the considerable quantity of ammunition stored inside the turret to explode. The tank burned all day as the 90mm rounds cooked off. Probably this is the same tank reportedly destroyed on Feb 2, as the reports in different units state different dates. This is quite common for the “fog of war” and reports made weeks after the action. On 11 February A Company, 1/1 Marines, was making a sweep near the Hue stadium.

The 2 supporting tanks of 1st Tanks (one gun and one flame) were flanked by protecting infantry, the gun tank was hit by 3 or 4 B-40s and/or RPGs. The tank stopped, belching smoke. The mortally wounded tank driver was pulled out of his hatch. And along with a number of wounded infantry, piled on the flame tank, which backed quickly away and squeezed the corpsman, who miraculously sustained only a broken arm.

The other issue was one that hampered Marine operations in general, the desire of the South Vietnamese government to limit the damage in the historic city. The flame tanks were of limited use serving mostly as machine gun platforms. The primary weapon proved to be overkill in the urban area:

“the tank fired one load and burned down a whole city block”

With the course of the battle tanks were effectively applied to serve infantry needs but not only as ‘pill-box-like’ protection.  The City had broad streets and open parks, the tank would be positioned at the intersection controlling the whole sector of the building , knocking down snipers and AT teams. In many cases tanks acted in the middle of crowds moving back and forth over the streets. Another job was ’mouseholing’, creating the alternative access for infantry, as the common ways like windows and entrances were under concentrated fire. 

On February 21-22, Marines seized the final objective and on Feb 27, the BATTLE of HUE was over. Armored forces were a key element in the hard-won victory at Hue. Tanks brought the firepower and mobility to the battle and were able to absorb a huge amount of punishment and keep fighting. This was especially important during the first days of battle chaos that saved numerous infantry and tankmen lives. The battle toll was about 600 US and ARVN soldiers and over 1000 NVA killed.

TANKS & The VIETNAM WAR (1965-1975)

Written by Efim Sandler

Editor of Tanks In Action

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TANKS & The VIETNAM WAR (1965-1975)