Hue, Vietnam Battlefield Tour Chapter 1: Alpha 1/1

HueMasterMap

Above: Map depicting route of Alpha Co. 1st Bn/1st Rgt in Hue 1/31/1968

1A: Tank Battalion Rendezvous

1B: The Gauntlet

1C: Traffic Circle

1D: Hwy 1 Causeway

This is chapter 1 of a 5 chapter battlefield guide covering major U.S. Marine sites from the Battle of Hue City in January/February 1968. Stops 1A-1D are below and a Google Maps link of the associated sites is included in each stop title.


Stop 1A: Tank Battalion Rendezvous

1A

What Happened Here

Beginning at 1:15 AM January 31, 1968, 2 battalions of the 6th NVA Regiment spookily sauntered through the Chanh Tay Gate west of the Imperial Citadel in Hue, Vietnam. These North Vietnamese regulars had arrived to invade the provincial capital city of 140,000 as part of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong’s (VC) Tet Offensive, a joint military operation designed to turn the war upside down through a series of surprise attacks on South Vietnamese cities. Hue was bisected by the Perfume River, with the Imperial Citadel on the north bank and New City on the south bank.

In a coordinated assault, the 6th NVA Regiment proceeded to capture the Imperial Citadel (or Old City) while 3 battalions of the 4th NVA Regiment and two battalions of VC Sappers quickly overwhelmed ARVN soldiers and captured the New City south of the Perfume River. For psychological purposes, the Citadel was the more important capture since the walled city was the site of the government grounds used when Hue was the imperial capital of Vietnam. It was important for military purposes as well, due to the Tay Loc Airfield and the now-besieged 1st ARVN Division Headquarters being located within its walls.

However, the real military target was the New City, which housed the MACV Compound containing American soldiers and sailors as well as key administrative targets such as the Thua Thien Provincial Admin Complex, the local government complex for the province. Having been entirely caught off guard by the surprise NVA/VC assault that easily took most of the city, the Americans hastily assembled a reaction force of U.S. Marines to travel via military convoy on Highway 1 from Phu Bai Combat base 10 miles northwest to Hue to relieve the besieged Marines in the MACV Compound. The reaction force of Marines arrived near this spot to regroup for their relief mission in the foggy morning hours that rudely welcomed the Tet Offensive on January 31, 1968.

Who Fought Here?

A reaction force of 160 men from Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment (A/1/1) approached a bridge near Stop 1A three kilometers southeast of the MACV Compound around 10:30 AM. They arrived in a six-vehicle convoy containing:

  • 2 6×6 flatbed trucks
  • 2 light armored vehicles with twin 40mm guns (Fire Dragons)
  • 2 U.S. Army M-55 anti-aircraft machine-gun trucks (Quad-fifties)

Alpha Company was commanded by Capt. Gordon D. Batcheller, with Gunnery Sgt. J. L. Canley and company radioman Cpl. Larry Williams filling out his staff. The company was split into 3 platoons led by Staff Sgt. C.D. Godfrey (First Platoon), Cpl. Bill Jackson (Second Platoon), and Sgt. Alfredo “Freddy” Gonzalez (Third Platoon) respectively. North of Stop 1A, the convoy came across 5 M-48 tanks from Alpha Company, 3rd Tank Battalion, 3rd Marine Division, also on their way to the MACV Compound.

Capt. Batcheller asked the major of the tank battalion to support Alpha Company as they continued north to relieve the compound along Highway 1 on the Perfume River. He agreed, and Batcheller ordered the infantrymen of A/1/1 to dismount from their trucks and accompany the tank battalion across the An Cuu Bridge over the Phu Cam Canal into New Hue (or “The Triangle”).

Video: An Cuu Bridge over the Phu Cam Canal, Video Taken March 2018

The undersized Alpha Company (<160) was opposed by a much larger 3 battalion force containing mixed elements of soldiers from the 804th, 815th, 818th battalions of the 4th NVA Regiment as well as 2 VC Sapper Battalions. The Americans were equipped with M16 rifles and M60 machine guns and opposed by North Vietnamese regulars and VC carrying AK-47s. As Alpha Company arrived at Stop 1A, they were ominously greeted by a wrecked M-41 ARVN tank, with the burned body of a crewman hanging out of its turret hatch.

Who Commanded Here?

Born in Hingham, Massachusetts on October 16, 1939, In 1968, Capt. Gordon D. Batcheller was a rugged, intelligent 28 year old fashioning a shaved head at the time of the Battle of Hue. The Bostonian grew up as a military brat son of a Navy admiral and was described by a lance corporal in A/1/1 as, “a big dude who was always up in front when the shit hit the fan.” He received the Navy Cross for his actions as commanding officer of Alpha Company on January 31, 1968 at Hue. His wounds from the battle required a 10 month stay at a hospital back in the United States.

Capt. Batcheller retired a Colonel from the Marine Corps in 1991 and was a professor of military and strategic studies for seven years at the Army Management Staff College. In 2012, Col. Batcheller gave an interview to Crusade Magazine entitled “Why We Should Not Send Our Mothers, Wives and Daughters to Fight Our Wars” advocating against the U.S. military using women in combat. As part of his explanation he claimed, “The butchery of our wives and daughters and mothers would generate a national mood of sadness and shame. There has been no coverage of the killed and disabled women in Iraq and Afghanistan, even as we ‘celebrate’ the male wounded warriors. We’re proud of our fighting forces, but ashamed that they include women.”


Stop 1B: The Gauntlet

1B

What Happened Here

750 meters southeast of here at Stop 1A around 10:45 AM, A/1/1 began to cautiously advance towards a T-shaped intersection where Route 546 branched off to the west and Highway 1 made a hard right turn that they would follow into New Hue (“The Triangle”). Along the advance up the left side of Highway 1, Staff Sgt. Godfrey’s 2nd Platoon began to take fire from AK-47s.

Small arms fire poured in from NVA soldiers manning a building near the Route 546/Highway 1 intersection. Using their open field of fire from the second stories of buildings looking down on the road below, the soldiers of the 4th NVA fired effectively at Alpha Company at a range of 50 meters. A bullet from one of the bursts of fire struck Staff Sgt. Godfrey in the right leg and he was thrown into a mud-filled drainage pit just under 100 meters south of Stop 1B. He was loaded aboard a truck with 2 other A/1/1 Marines wounded in this initial exchange of gunfire.

The convoy continued to advance towards the intersection at a slow pace while exchanging sporadic small-arms fire. After receiving input from Lt. Col. Ed LaMontagne, an officer from the accompanying tank battalion, Cpt. Batcheller ordered the men of A/1/1 to mount their tanks and trucks and prepare to run the 600-meter-long “Gauntlet” of small arms fire from brick buildings that they received while approaching a built up area south of An Cuu Bridge entering the Triangle.

Panning NW towards the end of the Gauntlet south of the An Cuu Bridge

When they reached the intersection, they turned right on Highway 1 towards the Triangle and advanced 100 meters to Stop 1B. The space between stops 1B to 1C is a 600-meter-long span that became known as “The gauntlet” due to the volume of fire the Marines received from the NVA while their convoy sped through. While running the gauntlet, Cpt. Batcheller ordered suppressing fire on flank and front by the infantrymen of Alpha Company in order to make the ride a little easier. Unfortunately, they had no such luck and received a deadly volume of fire.

Just after 12:30 PM, a volley of B-40 rocket propelled grenades hit the lead tank’s upper works and killed Cpt. Batcheller’s navy hospital corpsman sitting next to him. Navy hospital corpsmen were medics for the Marines that were not officially Marines even though they wore the same uniforms. Many were conscientious objectors who sought a nonviolent route of military service.

While Batcheller was unhurt by the fire, 18 year old Petty Officer 3rd Class Hospital Corpsman Robert Kemelmacher had his lower limbs sliced away by the red-hot RPGs, cauterizing his wounds so that they were not bleeding but he was still dead. Dozens of Marines lay wounded along Highway 1 in the aftermath of the gauntlet run between Stops 1B and 1C. Just south of the An Cuu Bridge near the end of the gauntlet there was a Marine missing both arms and legs, but still alive and screaming.


Stop 1C: Traffic Circle

1C

What Happened Here

After crossing the An Cuu Bridge over the Phu Cam Canal and emerging from the heavy fire of the gauntlet around 1:00 PM, the men of A/1/1 again dismounted from their convoy vehicles and approached an open intersection with a large traffic circle. The satchel charges placed on the An Cuu Bridge by the NVA earlier in the day had failed to take it down, and failure to detonate the bridge would prove especially fateful, allowing American forces to cross into New Hue and attempt to relieve the MACV Compound.

Although they were in a safer spot in the now-quiet traffic circle, more ominous foreshadowing greeted the company in the form of 6 destroyed M-41 ARVN tanks. These tanks had been destroyed as part of 4 earlier failed attempts by the 7th ARVN Armed Cavalry Battalion to eject the Communists from New Hue. With the volume of fire having calmed down, Capt. Batcheller took time to reorganize his company and allow company corpsman to collect casualties.

As part of the reorganization, Batcheller ordered the lead tank to fire its 90 mm main gun into the Highway 1 causeway north of the traffic circle, where NVA soldiers were reported to be moving about in a sugarcane field bisected by the highway. Lt. Col Lamontagne deployed the quad-fifty trucks forward and ordered them to cover an advance on the MACV Compound to complete the relief mission. Around 1:30 PM, the dismounted infantrymen of A/1/1 began to advance from the traffic circle northwest along the right side of Highway 1, with widely separated supporting tanks advancing on the roadway to their left.

150 meters north of the traffic circle directly in the middle of Stops 1C and 1D, the convoy was hit again by NVA fire from buildings above. This time, Cpt. Batcheller was not so lucky. When the NVA suddenly erupted on the passing Americans, men from Alpha began to drop all over the road. Batcheller ignored his officer training and immediately ran over to one of the wounded men behind him. As he bent down to assist him, another burst of fire instantly blew the wounded man away, killing him and knocking Batcheller senseless into a coil of barbed wire at the base of a tree on the right side of the road between Stops 1C and 1D.

Batcheller was wounded, but conscious and responsive. After watching 22 year old corpsman Mike Fitzgerald of Dubuque, IA get gunned down by an NVA soldier while trying to save him, Batcheller ordered all men of A/1/1 to stay away from him and continue the approach to the MACV Compound. He transferred command of the company to Gunnery Sgt. J. L. Canley while he stared at the sky, out of the action and waiting for help. It was now after 1:30 PM, and the morning fog and haze had given way to clear blue skies and a more seasonable temperature of around 74 degrees Fahrenheit.

Who Fell Here?

22 year old Lance Cpl. Hospitalman Michael “Mike” Thomas Fitzgerald was killed when he attempted to treat wounded company commander Batcheller. While kneeling in the road and attempting to treat his wounds, he was fatally shot in the forehead. The shot knocked him backwards so that he was sitting on his rear upright, but still dead. The Dubuque, Iowa native was the second navy corpsman casualty of the day, along with Robert Kemelmacher.

16304_Fitzgerald_Michael_T_DOB_1945

Source: Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund

Who Commanded Here?

John L. Canley is an 80 year African American retired Marine from El Dorado, Arkansas who now resides in Oxnard, California. In 1968, he was the 30 year old Gunnery Sergeant for Alpha Company 1/1. He was often seen during the Battle of Hue with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. In recognition of his actions at the battle, he was awarded the Navy Cross in 1968 and on January 29, 2018 his Navy Cross was upgraded to the Medal of Honor after a 3 year campaign undertaken by Rep. Julia Brownley and his fellow Marines from Alpha Company. In a press release acknowledging the honor, Canley bestowed the following advice: “Being a leader is about taking care of your people. If you do that, they will take your view, and you don’t have to worry about your mission.”

Canley_Mug_t700

Above: Canley in 2018 (Source: El Dorado News-Times)


Stop 1D: Hwy 1 Causeway

1D

What Happened Here

The burst of gunfire that wounded Capt. Batcheller came from the same NVA force that attacked the Marines when they ran the gauntlet. The enemy had fanned out from their original firing positions in brick houses along the gauntlet to elevated firing positions in houses on both sides of the sugarcane field bisected by Highway 1. As the highway spanned northwest to the MACV Compound its road became elevated into a causeway, which made any soldiers traveling on it sitting ducks.

Orientation SE looking down Highway 1 Causeway Berm Site

With Batcheller wounded and out of the fight, Alpha Company’s Gunnery Sgt. Canley decided that a dangerous charge was necessary to suppress the enemy fire and allow the men of Alpha Company to reach the MACV Compound, still ¾ mile away up Highway 1. To complete the charge, he selected Sgt. Alfredo Gonzalez’s Third Platoon. Canley even joined the platoon in the assault, gruffly challenging the men with the famous question asked by Sgt. Dan Daly when the Marines charged at Belleau Wood in World War I: “Do you want to live forever?”

To access the house with the heaviest volume of enemy fire coming out of it, Third Platoon first would have to cross the raised road under enemy fire, regroup in a ditch on the left flank of Highway 1, and then run more than 100 feet in knee deep muddy water to the house in the canefield. In the ensuing charge, multiple men of the lead platoon sank deep into the muddy water in the ditch after crossing to the left side of the road. In the first charge, 5 Alpha Company Marines fell wounded and PFC Marty Marquez was killed by a shot to the temple.

Those from the platoon who were not wounded by gunfire when exposed crossing the raised causeway made their way towards the house shielding the enemy. Along their muddy trudge, they were exposed to NVA light machine gun fire from above. As the Third Platoon began to creep just out of range of NVA machine gun fire, the covering fire from the Quad-fifties and Dusters in the traffic circle started to seriously suppress enemy fire.

A squad of men led by platoon commander Alfredo “Freddy” Gonzalez” reached the canefield house shielding significant portions of the 804th NVA Battalion and drove them from it, with Gonzalez emerging with a cache of enemy rifles. Although this charge found limited success, the tanks accompanying Alpha Company were stuck where they were because moving forward or reversing would cause them to bulldoze any of the dozens of Marines lying wounded.

With their company commander Batcheller on his way back to Phu Bai Combat Base wounded and facing an enemy with a seemingly endless amount of ammunition, Alpha 1/1 was in need of reinforcement in their exposed position along Highway 1. Fortunately, relief was about to arrive in the form of the 1st Battalion/1st Marines commander Col. Marcus J. Gravel and a relief force from Golf Company, 2nd Battalion/5th Marines. Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines sustained over 50% casualties in the 2 hours it took them to travel a single mile to from Stops 1A to 1D, with 3 men killed in action.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series G/2/5 where we will follow Golf Company in its relief of the MACV Compound and penetration towards the Citadel.

Who Commanded Here?

Southern Texas native Sgt. Alfredo “Freddy” Gonzalez’s actions on January 31 surprised no one in Alpha Company. The platoon commander who emerged from a Hue home carrying a cache of weapons and wearing a shit eating grin was “all over the place” and “charging machine gun nests” all day on the 31st at Hue according to fellow Alpha Company Marine Herbert Watkins. So nor is it a surprise that he was killed in action less than a week later on February 4, 1968 shot while knocking out an enemy rocket position with Alpha Company pinned down. His mother was awarded his Medal of Honor in his place. In a May 2016 article in the southern Texas newspaper The Monitor, his 86 year old mother lamented her almost-50 years old loss: “He wanted to be a Marine. He wanted to be John Wayne. John Wayne never went to war.”


Works Cited

Bowden, Mark. 2017. Hue 1968: A Turning Point Of The American War In Vietnam. Atlantic Monthly Press.

Hammel, Eric M. 2006. Fire In The Streets: The Battle For Hue, Tet 1968. Pacifica Military History.

Kisken, Tom. 2018. “Courageous, Quiet Marine From Oxnard On The Cusp Of Gaining Medal Of Honor”. Ventura County Star. https://www.vcstar.com/story/news/local/2018/01/29/courageous-quiet-marine-oxnard-cusp-gaining-medal-honor/1049683001/.

Nolan, Keith William. 1996. Battle For Hue. Novato (Calif.): Presidio.

Rasmussen, Peter. 2016. “Honoring Fallen Son Never Gets Old For Dolia Gonzalez”. The Monitor. https://www.themonitor.com/life/article_55b4d21e-2219-11e6-bdaa-ab2fc0d0272d.html.

Rigdon, Kaitlyn. 2018. “El Dorado Native To Receive Medal Of Honor”. El Dorado News-Times. http://www.eldoradonews.com/news/2018/feb/12/el-dorado-native-receive-medal-honor/.

Sisk, Richard. 2018. “Marine Gunny Gets Medal Of Honor Nod For Battle Of Hue Actions”. Military.Com. https://www.military.com/daily-news/2018/01/12/marine-gunny-gets-medal-honor-nod-battle-hue-actions.html.

Snow, Shawn. 2018. “The Marine Gunny Who Kept His Men Alive At Hue City”. Marine Corps Times. https://www.marinecorpstimes.com/military-honor/2018/01/30/the-marine-gunny-who-kept-his-men-alive-at-hue-city/.

5 thoughts on “Hue, Vietnam Battlefield Tour Chapter 1: Alpha 1/1”

    1. I really appreciate you reading the post, George! I’m beginning the research process for Chapter 2 when your company enters the action and it has been exciting to re-read so many G/2/5 accounts from Hue including your own in the Post Gazette. One of these days soon I am making it up to your neck of the woods and coffee is on me!

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  1. Thanks for this excellent site and narrative. I am looking for any information on my father, US Marine Corps Sargent Bruce Allen Atwell, who was assigned to Alpha 1/1 as a combat photographer just before they went up the road to Hue. His photos are used in many of the essays and books about the Tet Offensive in Hue. He took several photos of Sargent Canley coming out of Saint Joan of Arc School/Church. He also made a haunting photo of the Church after it was bombed and his photo of two marines firing out a window near the compound is used frequently. I never knew him…long story…but I am trying to get some of his details right for a book about his Vietnam war. He was seriously wounded on 2/6/68. earning a Purple Heart and a trip home.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Robert. So glad you enjoyed the narrative. I have seen some of your father’s photos online, though not the photo of him with Sgt. Canley (which would really be a treat to see). Not sure what if I can be of help here, but my email address is okconnor@gmail.com and I would love to follow up if I find any new info.

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