12 days in Hue: An American advisor’s Tet Offensive experience, Part 2

This post is part two in a series. In part one, curator Frank Blazich introduced U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel James K. Redding, who served as an advisor to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) Airborne Division during the Vietnam War, and he described Redding’s initial experiences during the 1968 Battle of Hue, one of the first major conflicts of the Tet Offensive. Below, part two continues Redding’s story in Hue.

The initial charge of the  Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) 7th Airborne Battalion in the cemetery outside Hue failed. Survivors—including First Lieutenant James Redding—found what cover they could, aided the wounded, and fought to stay alive. That afternoon, the ARVN 2nd Airborne Battalion arrived to reinforce of the men of the 7th and together clear the enemy out of the cemetery. Both ARVN airborne battalions continued to slug it out with the enemy through the afternoon and by the evening were in possession of the cemetery as the enemy faded away. With the road clear to Hue, the 7th Battalion continued its mission on the morning of February 1 and entered the Citadel of Hue just after noon, the first allied troops to enter the city. The costs were high. “We lost a company just getting in the city,” Redding said. The official battalion history records 30 killed and 82 wounded, with 270 enemy killed and five taken prisoners.

Green and brown military uniform with red beret. Owner’s name, Redding, written on left breast
ARVN airborne uniform worn by Captain James K. Redding as the assistant advisor to the ARVN 7th Airborne Battalion. Redding acquired this uniform after the Battle of Hue as a “dress” fatigue/working uniform for special ceremonial functions. Redding most likely wore an American tropical combat uniform in olive drab when fighting in Hue. Redding’s uniform and other materials featured in this post are a part of the Division of Armed Forces History’s collections.
Redding poses next to a sign with the ARVN insignia
Captain James Redding at the ARVN Airborne Division headquarters outside of Saigon, Republic of Vietnam. Redding is wearing his ARVN “bloodcake” uniform on display in the exhibition "Price of Freedom: Americans at War." Photos courtesy of James Redding

Once inside the Citadel, Brigadier General Ngo Quang Truong issued orders for the paratroopers to clear the northwest wall to expand the Mang Ca perimeter. From the afternoon of February 1 to the afternoon of February 4, the ARVN 7th Airborne Battalion lost another 16 killed and 74 wounded while it managed to push back the communist forces from approximately 4,500 feet of Citadel real estate. Together with other ARVN forces, the battalion helped recapture the Tay Loc airfield. The urban combat inside Hue, house-to-house, street-to-street, was a bloody, methodical slog. Constant fire from automatic weapons, rocket launchers, mortars, and grenades mingled with dust and smoke to make any advance costly.

Map of movements of the ARVN forces inside the Citadel.
Map of movements of the ARVN forces inside the Citadel from February 2–10, 1968, from Erik B. Villard’s “Combat Operations: Staying the Course.”

The fighting began to subside as exhaustion and stalemate set in. Redding recalled that his troopers and the communists maintained an informal ceasefire. With both sides too weak to advance further, the opponents held their fire. On February 2, both the battalion’s commander Major Le Van Ngoc and its senior American advisor Captain Charles Jackson received wounds and were evacuated from the battlefield. Redding now became the acting senior American advisor. Redding himself almost joined the casualty rolls. While standing in a group eight to ten ARVN paratroopers, he decided to step aside to check his equipment on the other side of a building when an enemy mortar round went off, killing or wounding the entire group of men he had just left. By February 5, General Truong moved the three battalions of the ARVN 1st Airborne Task Force, now reduced to less than half their strength, from the Tay Loc airfield to the southeast sector of the Citadel. Here the Red Hats found themselves facing well-entrenched, strong enemy forces.

Green and brown military uniform. Owner’s name, Redding, written on left breast
Redding’s uniform features a blend of patches and direct embroidery. The collar displays his U.S. Army rank of captain; crossed rifles represent his service in the infantry branch. Above his name on the left breast pocket are his American master parachutist and combat infantryman badges. The left pocket displays his South Vietnamese airborne jump status indicator patch. On the upper center of the chest is the South Vietnamese rank device for captain (đại úy), and above the right pocket are South Vietnamese master parachutist wings.

Outnumbered and outgunned, the ARVN paratroopers nonetheless maintained high morale as supplies ran critically low. Led by highly experienced, well-trained, competent officers and noncommissioned officers, the esprit de corps and courage of the South Vietnamese paratroopers—as is the case of their American counterparts—was unshakeable. The ARVN and the American advisors received no resupply for the first 10 days of combat. Redding entered a Buddhist temple in the cover of night to take fruit offerings for him and his men to survive. Other paratroopers took to dropping grenades in ponds to eat whatever fish floated to the surface. Civilians within the ARVN perimeter shared what Tết sweets and luxuries they had available. When ammunition ran low for the paratroopers’ M16 rifles, the Red Hats fought with captured enemy weapons.

Green and brown military uniform. Shoulder patch with image of an eagle in flight and a parachute in the background
The left shoulder of Redding’s uniform features his U.S Army Ranger tab and the ARVN Airborne Division shoulder patch.

Relief came February 12 when two ARVN Marine battalions relieved the Red Hats after over 12 days of savage fighting. From the fight into the Citadel and operations to expand the Mang Ca perimeter and recapture the Tay Loc airfield, the ARVN 1st Airborne Task Force was a shell of its former self. Departing by air and ship back first to Phu Bai and then to Saigon, overall casualty figures soon materialized. The force sustained losses of 119 killed and 396 wounded while claiming 910 enemy killed. The ARVN 7th Airborne Battalion lost 47 killed and 163 wounded, and the 9th ARVN Airborne Battalion lost 55 killed and 125 wounded, while the ARVN 2nd Airborne Battalion lost only 17 killed and 115 wounded.

The Citadel was finally cleared of enemy forces on February 25, although additional fighting around Hue continued until March 2. The Battle of Hue resulted in the damage or destruction of large swaths of the Citadel and the structures inside and surrounding the walled city. U.S. Army and Marine Corps casualties numbered 216 killed and 1,584 wounded, with 452 ARVN killed and 2,123 wounded. Communist figures remain unknown, with estimates ranging from 2,800 to 8,100 killed. The Tet Offensive overall failed militarily, with the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong suffering heavy losses. The South Vietnamese people did not rise up against their government, but the ferocity of the fighting forced a downward shift in American public support for the Vietnam War. As 1968 unfolded, the Battle of Hue would become one of countless events in a tumultuous year.

Photograph of Brigadier General Elias C. Townsend and Captain James K. Redding shaking hands
In January 1969 Brigadier General Elias C. Townsend congratulates Captain James K. Redding after awarding him the Silver Star, Bronze Star with first oak leaf cluster, and Bronze Star with “V” defense and second oak leaf cluster for his services in 1968 as assistant advisor to the ARVN 7th Airborne Battalion.

For Redding and the 7th ARVN Airborne Battalion, the struggle against the communist forces continued throughout the year. In August 1968, Redding visited a tailor’s shop in Saigon and bought himself an ARVN Airborne fatigue uniform to wear at ceremonial functions. In December, Redding received new orders to join the U.S. 173rd Airborne Brigade which meant a return to wearing an American uniform. In January 1969 Redding put on his ARVN airborne fatigues one last time when he received decorations for his service with the 7th ARVN Airborne Battalion. Shortly after his medal presentation, Redding gave this uniform to a fellow Army officer who intended to donate the unique garments to the National Infantry Museum at Fort Benning, Georgia. For unknown reasons this did not come to pass, and in 1970, Redding’s advisor uniform arrived instead at the National Museum of History and Technology, now the National Museum of American History.

In 2017, Redding visited the museum to pay homage to his uniform and to reflect upon the brutal struggle for the Citadel of Hue, and the valiant soldiers who he fought alongside. He also donated his red ARVN Airborne Division beret he had treasured so many years, ensuring that the valor and honor of his fellow “Angels in Red Hats” would be properly represented for future visitors.

Frank Blazich Jr. is a curator in the Division of Armed Forces History. He has previously written about the life and legacy of Corporal William T. Perkins Jr., a 20-year-old Marine deployed to Vietnam as a combat photographer.