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Book Reviews,Marines,Vietnam War

August 23, 2013

On Nicholas Warr, Phase Line Green and Hue City

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Phase Line Green The Battle for Hue, 1968 by Nicholas Warr

A Review by Ken Rodgers

The Siege of Khe Sanh had already been going on for over a week by the time the Tet Offensive began. Some historians believe that the North Vietnamese commander-in-chief, General Vo Nguyen Giap, planned the Siege of Khe Sanh as a ploy to draw off firepower so that when Tet arrived on January 30, 1968, the NVA and Viet Cong onslaught on South Vietnam would swamp the American and South Vietnamese militaries.

I recall sitting in my fighting hole, shivering in the trench, hiding in my bunker as news flashed out of my old transistor radio about the all-out assault on South Vietnamese and American forces during the annual Vietnamese New Year which almost all Vietnam vets just call “Tet.” All around South Vietnam, North Vietnamese troops were attacking cities, towns, villes and outposts, some of them falling as we sat inside the Khe Sanh fire base and listened to the battles…our battle, as well as the ones described over Armed Forces Radio. The assault on Khe Sanh was frightening, and the news reports from AFR piled on the panic. Saigon, Danang, Kon Tum, Dong Ha, were just a few of the names that blared out from the speakers of our transistor radios.

Most frightening of all to me was the fall of Hue City, the old Imperial Capital and the symbol of Vietnam’s regal past and a symbol, too, of what we were fighting to preserve. A way of life based on a blending of east and west, or so we thought. So when Hue fell it seemed like a portent of what eventually came to us in Vietnam, defeat. But at the time that portent wasn’t nearly as potent as the thought of a general butt-whipping to all of the American forces in Vietnam in early 1968, and something deeper, the fear of my own death. Yes, my death was paramount, or to put it another way, my life. Nevertheless, the thought of defeat, that the awesome and unbeatable American juggernaut might be defeated bothered me a lot. It still does…this notion of defeat.

I digress. Day and night, when we weren’t dodging incoming or sneaking outside the wire to set up ambushes and listening posts, to charge out on perilous patrols, we listened to the radio accounts of the battle to take back Hue.

I had very little training in house-to-house combat. What I had experienced at Camp Pendleton prior to my trip across the pond to the Republic of South Vietnam made me think at the time: I hope I never have to do that. Going in on the bottom floor, up stairs, in closets, down halls, with the enemy hiding in there, well ensconced, well armed, dropping grenades on our heads, spraying us with AK-47s.

At Khe Sanh we took tremendous amounts of incoming and when we went outside the wire, the ensuing fights were brutal, savage, with bayonet charges and hand-to-hand combat. Hue was a different type of battle. Not in terms of courage and fear, cowardice and death, but in how it was fought.

In Nicholas Warr’s memoir Phase Line Green, The Battle for Hue, 1968, the events surrounding the fall of Hue and its eventual recapture are played out in intensely personal, vivid images. The war is intimate, not something alluded to in wall charts and maps by intellectuals and staff command officers. This is war shouted from the throat of the fighting man.

Nicholas Warr was a second lieutenant and platoon commander with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines. His story begins when Tet begins, and Charlie Company is out in the bush between Hue and Danang. As the initial fighting begins, Charlie Company sits in eerie quiet as they listen to the war going on around them. This quiet allows us to meet Lieutenant Warr and the men in his command, men who will not survive much longer.

The 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment was ordered to proceed to Hue and retake the citadel, the old imperial headquarters surrounded by thick walls; a city of tree-lined streets with substantial houses, all held by crack troops of the North Vietnamese army. This war would be house-to-house. The men of Charlie Company had never fought house-to-house.

They entered the old citadel and assembled on one side of a residential street, a place named by the Americans, “Phase Line Green.”

I will not let slip the details of what happens to Warr and the men of Charlie Company, 1/5, but I will tell you that this story rages, begs, pleads, screams, cries, hates, commands and exults on a visceral, intimately personal level. As a young enlisted man, I never imagined that officers thought and feared and hated like us, the snuffies who fought the war, but Warr shows us that officers and gentlemen react and act just the same as enlisted men.

This is war through the eyes of the grunt, on the ground, in the spine-rattling chaos that is combat:

“Doc looked over at me with despair in his eyes and said, ‘We gotta do an emergency tracheotomy; his windpipe’s crushed. I need a tube, something to stick into the opening when I cut into his windpipe.

“I was stunned, stupid, unable to think or move. None of the Marines was any more help. Estes was dying on my lap, making feeble convulsive motions, and I couldn’t move.

“’Break down your .45, Lieutenant, goddammit. I can use the barrel as a temporary airway.’”

This story is fast-paced and compelling. You fall and stumble, hide and crawl with the men of Charlie Company, 1/5. Once I started this book, I couldn’t put it down. In some ways the combat was the same…the fear, the need to overcome fear, the need to not be a coward, the shaking and the tears…as what I had seen at Khe Sanh. Yet in other ways the combat at the battle of Hue City was foreign to me, like Fallujah in Iraq or cobblestoned European streets in WWII.

This story is about how it feels to see your comrades dead in the street thirty or forty feet away, and the inability to help them, retrieve them, grieve in the old honored ceremonial ways that allow us to put death in its proper slot. This story is about how it feels to assault across a frontier out of relative safety into the unknown region of death and mayhem.

Nicholas Warr tells us about rage, and not just about rage at the enemy, but the political machines that manage battle, and not to the benefit of the snuffies slugging it out. And of course, the rage against generals and presidents and senators is a focused rage, it seems to me, but also aimed at us, the American public, for our lack of commitment and patience, as we sat (and sit now in the current conflicts) in our houses while the few died and the rest enjoyed largesse at the warriors’ expense.

And related to this lurks the memory of the thirty year period after Vietnam when the warriors who carried the battle to the enemy were shunned. I was once told, “You guys couldn’t whip anybody.” This in reference to the men who fought in Vietnam, to me and my Marine brothers, both at Khe Sanh and Hue City. What made, and still makes, that phrase like a bitter lump of burning shrapnel trapped in my gullet is the fact that in a huge majority of the battles fought in Vietnam, American forces came out the victors. Yet our country lost the war. And it lost other things, too, like innocence and optimism. And we are only now beginning to hear the multitude of stories out of the Vietnam experience; decades later, when the Vietnam vet is suddenly popular, when he is thanked belatedly for his service to his country. Fifty years on.

You can find out more about Nicholas Warr, Phase Line Green and Warr’s other books here.

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  1. Heavy stuff. Hardly anyone remembers the fact that the NVA gathered up all the professors and gov’t official and prominent citizens, nearly 5,000 and summarily executed them and buried them in a mass grave.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Massacre_at_Hue

    FYI: Retired Lt. Gen Ron Christmas was a young Company Commander at Hue in 1968. He was severely wounded and received a Navy Cross. He was/is Colonel David Lownds son-in-law.
    http://www.mca-marines.org/ltgen-ron-christmas-usmc-ret

    Comment by Michael E. O'Hara — August 23, 2013 @ 11:03 am

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