In the closing days of January 1968, North Vietnam unleashed the Tet Offensive, a monumental effort to topple the South Vietnamese government by simultaneously attacking thousands of state facilities across the country. The Communists expected this massive offensive to spark a popular uprising culminating in the establishment of a Viet Cong-dominated coalition government in South Vietnam. From a position of authority, the Viet Cong would demand that the United States withdraw from Vietnam, paving the way for its reunification under Communist rule.
The Developing Storm
The highest concentration of People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) units in South Vietnam was in the northern part of the country and some of their best divisions and regiments had been deployed there. A headquarters some thirty kilometers southwest of Hue commanded Communist forces in Thua Thien Province and in the lower half of Quang Tri Province. The upper half of that province, along with the southernmost region of North Vietnam, was commanded from headquarters near the Demilitarized Zone. Between them, those two commands had at their disposal about 30,000 regular troops and 20,000 guerrillas. With little need to defend fixed installations or wide swaths of territory, PAVN commanders could mass troops at the time and place of their choosing, to achieve local superiority.
Back in November 1967, U.S. joint forces commander General William Westmoreland had determined to move north three U.S. Army air assault brigades, to counter the growing North Vietnamese presence in Quang Tri Province. They were to be employed in Operation Jeb Stuart, an airmobile operation in two PAVN supply and training areas, one near Quang Tri City and one near Hue, where the enemy was thought likely to be staging troops and supplies for an offensive against the coastal cities in northern South Vietnam.
The approximately 450 aircraft attached to the three air assault brigades would provide a rude shock, as the two PAVN base areas had until then functioned beyond the reach of U.S. ground forces. Operations against North Vietnamese supply and infiltration routes entering northern South Vietnam by way of Laos were planned for later in 1968. That would impair support for PAVN divisions deployed along the central coast, enabling the pacification of regional towns and villages to proceed at an accelerated pace.
The Vietnamese New Year Approaches
As Army units began deploying to the region and the operation kicked off, the Vietnamese New Year, called Tet, drew near and warning signs began to multiply. On January 21, the U.S. Marine Combat Base at Khe Sanh in western Quang Tri Province was attacked. South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu reduced the Tet cease-fire period for most of the country and cancelled it entirely for Quang Tri Province.
In the final week of January, people from rural districts to the west began streaming into the provincial capital, telling of North Vietnamese soldiers laden with supplies moving into their villages. Intelligence reports confirmed enemy movements from north to south and from west to east, while informants reported that PAVN planned to take and occupy Quang Tri City in the near future.
A Viet Cong sapper platoon dressed as civilians would infiltrate the city on the evening of January 30, while PAVN units advanced through the darkened countryside towards the provincial capital. At 2:00 AM, the sappers would emerge from hiding to destroy key government and military installations. Simultaneously, one battalion would assault Quang Tri City from the east and split into two thrusts. One would enter the southern part of Quang Tri City and one would enter the northern part and head for the Citadel.
Meanwhile, a Viet Cong main force unit (mostly filled with North Vietnamese soldiers) would position itself north of the city to block South Vietnamese or American reinforcements coming down Highway 1, and a PAVN battalion would interdict Highway 1 south of the city and attack the headquarters of a South Vietnamese infantry regiment located there.
The Assault on Quang Tri City Begins
The 1st Brigade of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) arrived in late January, surprising the enemy. With little time to adjust, PAVN pressed ahead with the original plan. On the eve of the Tet holiday, allied forces stationed near Quang Tri City were on the alert.
In the wee hours of January 31, the regular North Vietnamese units arrived at least two hours behind schedule, due to rain-swollen streams and confusion caused by unfamiliar terrain. The delay was fatal for the sappers, most of whom were killed or captured before they could carry out their missions or escape.
The Citadel was attacked from the east, but defensive fire prevented the invaders from climbing or getting past the walls. Similarly, the assault from the north was mostly ineffective. The enemy attack against the southern part of Quang Tri City was at first more successful, but their advance north towards the Citadel was slowed by a combined force of South Vietnamese irregulars and National Policemen.
Adding to their difficulties, the popular uprising that the North Vietnamese soldiers had been told to expect never materialized. Most civilians just hid in their homes.
As daybreak neared on January 31, the Communist assault lost momentum. Shortly after dawn, Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) forces on the scene were ordered to recapture the city. Three battalions marched towards the city from the north and collided with the Viet Cong blocking force. A mechanized column entered a large cemetery on the southern outskirts of the capital and was rebuffed by three North Vietnamese companies lying in wait. At midday, it appeared unlikely that the South Vietnamese units would reach the embattled capital any time soon.
Enter the 1st Cavalry Division
The picture looked grim, with one PAVN Battalion controlling much of the city and another North Vietnamese battalion entrenched around the southern half of the capital. No South Vietnamese reinforcements were likely to reach Quang Tri for several days, due to the widespread Tet attacks happening elsewhere in the region. Colonel Donald V. Rattan, commander of the 1st Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, proposed an "aerial envelopment" operation east of the capital. Several companies would be dropped by helicopter on the eastern outskirts, trapping the Communist forces between the air cavalrymen and South Vietnamese defenders within the city. With their supply lines cut, the enemy would have little choice but to withdraw. Seven U.S. artillery batteries would provide supporting fire from nearby landing zones, as would gunships and helicopters assigned to the division.
The cavalrymen touched down and the North Vietnamese soldiers fought back ferociously, threatening to overrun part of one company until a pair of U.S. fighter-bombers delivered a timely and accurate strike. The enemy was forced to break contact the same evening, leaving behind sixty-three dead comrades. Southeast of the capital, enemy soldiers were flushed out into the open, where they fell by the dozens to allied artillery and gunships. Having suffered crippling losses, they had no choice but to break contact.
As the U.S. troops were landing in the enemy's support zone on Quang Tri's eastern outskirts, South Vietnamese ground infantry and paratroopers launched counterattacks along the eastern and southern edges of the capital, with support from U.S. Air Force fighter-bombers.
A Decisive Victory for Allied Forces
As night approached on January 31, the North Vietnamese began to withdraw from Quang Tri City. As of noon on February 1, few if any PAVN troops remained in the city, except for those who had either been captured or too badly wounded to flee.
Quang Tri City's defenders were hard-pressed in the initial hours of the battle, but held out long enough for the 1st Brigade of the 1st Cavalry Division to fatally disrupt the assault. When intense pressure on the ground and from the air forced the North Vietnamese support units on the eastern outskirts to break and flee, PAVN units on the front line were left with no choice but to retreat from the capital.
The main phase of combat in Quang Tri City was over less than twenty-four hours after it had begun. The rapid defeat of the North Vietnamese regiment-size force proved to be one of the most decisive allied victories during the Tet offensive.