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On Jan. 31, 1968, just hours into the Tet Offensive, a 27-year-old Marine captain named Chuck Meadows received an order that sounded insane.
Meadows and his company of 160 Marines were holed up in an American compound in the South Vietnamese city of Hue. They were completely surrounded by thousands of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers. Meadows was ordered to leave the shelter of the compound and attack an enemy-controlled citadel — a large medieval-looking fortress with tall, thick walls.
To get to the citadel, Chuck Meadows and his men would have to cross a bridge about the length of four football fields. At the other end, the enemy waited behind a heavy machine gun.
Meadows knew the attack was a bad idea. So did his commanding officer in Hue, a guy named Marcus Gravel.
"But Gravel, who recognized the futility of the order, nevertheless insisted that Meadows do it because he was not equipped to basically take a stand and push back against what everyone recognized was a really bad order," says author Mark Bowden, who has researched the Battle of Hue.
So Meadows and about a hundred Marines charged.
The North Vietnamese soldiers waited until the Marines were halfway across the bridge. Then they opened fire.
None of the Marines would make it into the enemy-controlled citadel. By the time Meadows and his men retreated to the besieged American compound, 10 Marines had been killed and 56 had been wounded. Meadows was furious about what he considered an idiotic mission.
"He felt, 'Where was his commanding officer? Where was somebody to stick up for him and his men?' He didn't have the clout," Bowden says. "He needed somebody who would say, 'This is an asinine order, and I'm not sending my men out to do that.'"
The Americans were back where they started — in a compound about the size of a square block, surrounded by thousands of enemy troops.
Two days later, Chuck Meadows finally received some good news: a lieutenant colonel named Ernie Cheatham was coming to help.
'An NFL Lineman On Their Staff'
By the time he received orders to join the besieged American troops in the city of Hue, Ernie Cheatham was 38 years old and 14 years removed from professional football.
Cheatham, who died three years ago, would probably have been the first to admit his NFL career wasn't particularly remarkable.
The Pittsburgh Steelers picked him in the 21st round of the 1951 draft. Cheatham put his NFL career on pause for two years to fight in the Korean War. Then he suited up at defensive tackle for the Steelers for the first two games of the 1954 season.
"And then they traded him for what Ernie would say was a helmet and a water bucket to the Baltimore Colts, where he finished out the season," Bowden says. "And later he said that it was a real shock to him that the paychecks from the NFL stopped coming when the season ended."
Cheatham figured he could make better money — and have more success — back in the Marine Corps.
So he decided to leave football behind. Or at least he tried.
"Much to Ernie's chagrin, commanders at various Marine Corps bases were thrilled to have an NFL lineman on their staff because most of these Marine bases had their own football teams," Bowden says. "So he was traded from one Marine Corps base to another in order to beef up that base's football team. He didn't like that. He didn't like being known primarily as a football player, so he asked to be transferred to Alaska, where apparently they didn't have a football team."
Cheatham got his wish. And over the next decade, he rose through the ranks, and eventually was transferred from Alaska to Idaho to California.
In 1967, he was sent to Vietnam and promoted to lieutenant colonel.
Cheatham stood out from other American commanders. For one thing, there was his physical size.
"Most Marines said that the helmet swam on their heads. But Ernie looked like he was born for it or maybe even a little bit too big for it," Bowden says.
But even more important, Cheatham wasn't afraid to push back against his higher ups — and he listened to those he outranked.
"Ernie Cheatham definitely had an experience with being fairly successful at something," Bowden says. "To have played in college and to be drafted by the NFL, even in the early 1950s, meant that you were a pretty remarkable athlete. And so I think you grow up with a sense of security in your own ability when you’ve had early success like that."
Of course, early success can also lead to overconfidence.
"In the case of Cheatham, it didn't swell his head — speaking metaphorically here because he had a very large head — but it did, I think, give him the self-confidence to lead with good judgement," Bowden says.
In the hours after the fall of the city of Hue, good judgement was lacking. American commanders outside the city refused to accept that the enemy had the strength to actually control it.
"General William Westmoreland — the top commander — I think serves as a kind of stereotype or prototype for a certain kind of command folly, and that is believing your own theory of what's happening on the battlefield so strongly that facts from people who are actually in the fight didn't even make a dent in what he believed," Bowden explains. "He continued to tell everyone — including in secret cables to President Johnson and the commanders of the Joint Chiefs — that there were only small pockets of enemy soldiers in Hue when his own field commanders were telling him that that wasn't true."
Ernie Cheatham was a few miles south of the city when he got the order to join Meadows and the Americans trapped in Hue.
Cheatham wouldn't be able to get to the city until the following morning, so he had an evening to strategize.
Unlike Westmoreland, Cheatham was willing to acknowledge there was a lot he didn't know about the situation in Hue. As Bowden points out, he didn't know the size of the enemy. He didn't know what kind of weapons they had. He didn't know about their supply lines. But he did know one thing: the fighting would take place inside a city.
"And he knew that his men and he himself had no experience fighting in an urban setting," Bowden says.
Up until that point, the Marines had been fighting with smaller arms in the jungle and in rice paddies. So in his final hours before joining the battle, Cheatham sought out a large trunk that the battalion carried around. It contained field manuals — and Cheatham found the ones on fighting in urban settings and attacking heavily fortified positions.
"And he spent the night reading them and realizing that what he was going to need were heavier weapons than what he had," Bowden says. "He went to the battalion armory, and there were these heavy-duty bazookas, which were World War II-era rocket launchers which fired a big, fat, 3 1/2 pound rocket, which made a big hole in things."
Cheatham and his weapons officer rounded up as many of these unused bazookas, anti-tank rifles and tear gas canisters as they could find.
And then they headed into Hue.
'That Was Ernie Cheatham's Accomplishment'
By the time Cheatham arrived, the Marines in Hue had suffered about 100 total casualties and gained just a block and a half. They'd have to go about another 10 blocks to take the southern part of the city.
Cheatham began putting what he'd read into practice. Instead of sending men charging into the street, he'd start by using the heavier weapons.
"To essentially hammer the target building, fill it full of holes and then pump tear gas into it," Bowden explains. "This would clear out most of the enemy before he actually sent men running across the street. And instead of going through doors, you blew holes in the walls and sent men in through those holes because the enemy would likely have set up their guns to cover the entrances.
"These sound like simple things. But until you're actually tasked with doing them, you probably haven't given them much thought."
During the ensuing fighting, Cheatham was interviewed by CBS's John Laurence.
"This is my first crack at street fighting, and I think this is the first time the Marine Corps's been street fighting since Seoul in 1950," Cheatham told Laurence.
"Cheatham's tactics worked very well right from the beginning," Bowden says. "It was still terrible fighting, block to block, but the Marines began achieving rapid success and they were not losing men at quite the rate that they were."
After about four days, the Americans had taken the southern half of Hue.
"That was Ernie Cheatham's accomplishment," Bowden says.
And by the end of February, the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong had been pushed from the citadel and the entire city.
A Terrible Cost
But while Cheatham’s tactics were effective, they came at a terrible cost. Thousands of Vietnamese civilians had been trapped in Hue when the battle began. Many dug bunkers under their homes.
"And that provided a certain degree of safety until someone like Ernie Cheatham came along and started raining heavy rockets on that position," Bowden says.
It's impossible to get an exact number, but Bowden estimates somewhere between 5,000 to 8,000 civilians died in Hue.
Back in the U.S., as the battle dragged on for weeks, attitudes about the war and the Americans commanders started to change.
"The idea that this was somehow going to be easy and that American forces were in complete control was shattered," Bowden says.
CBS’s Walter Cronkite began to distrust the government’s account of the Tet Offensive and decided to visit Vietnam himself. He stopped in Hue during the second week of the battle.
Cronkite had been told by General Westmoreland that the fighting in Hue was over. After two days in the city, Cronkite could see that wasn’t the case.
He left the city in a military chopper filled with body bags — and with material for a special report on the war:
"It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy and did the best they could."
"I don't think that America's perception of the war ever really recovered from the Battle of Hue and from the Tet Offensive," Bowden says. "It was at that point that the anti-war movement really took off."
Ernie Cheatham returned to the U.S. that July. He retired a lieutenant general in 1988. He remains the highest ranking military official to have played in the NFL.
"I think he stands in sort of stark contrast to the higher level commanders in Vietnam," Bowden says. "He knew what he didn't know. And he was determined to find out what he needed to know in order to be successful. And I think those are lessons that we can apply to just about any task any of us is ever given."
You can read more about Ernie Cheatham and the Battle of Hue in Mark Bowden's book, "Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam."
This segment aired on September 16, 2017.
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