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Capture of the Hue Field Office, Vietnam

525th MI Elements in Hue City and the NVA Capture of US MI Personnel


By David E. Mann, CWO4 USA (Ret)


Introduction


The 525th Military Intelligence Group maintained a large number of detachments and field offices in The Republic Of Vietnam. The Hue Detachment, was part of the I Corps, RVN MI deployment. The 525th MIG, 1st Battalion,had been organized in late 1967 and subsumed into its command the 135th and 149th MI Battalions; the 135th being responsible for counterintelligence and the 149th being responsible for uni-lateral and bi-lateral human intelligence collection. Other units were also brought under command of the 525th MI Group, including an aviation detachment, communications detachment, and the 519th MI Battalion which was a Technical Intelligence and Exploitation organization. All of this was preamble to the 525th MIG being upgraded to Brigade status with a Brigadier General commanding. At mid-1968 troop strength of the 525th MIG numbered over 5,000 military and civilian persons.

Map of Hue

Cover and Concealment


The Hue Detachment was located in a three-story villa inside a walled compound with parking and a garage. Apropos the Hue Field Office, it advertised its location by the fact that Americans came and went daily; there were antennas on the roof; there were M-151 jeeps in the yard; and most of the people coming and going were in civilian clothes.


The ostensible covers used were 'US Army Central Registry Detachment (CRD)", “Field Sociological Studies Agency (FSSA)”, “Joint Technical Advisory Detachment (JTAD)” and the “40th Communications Detachment”. CRD did Counterintelligence, FSSA did unilateral HUMINT collection and JTAD conducted bilateral collection with South Vietnamese intelligence agencies. “40th Communications Detachment” was another cover name for CRD.


Since those were the days before OPSEC (Operational Security) was mandated, the whole idea of a cover name military organization in an active combat zone was ludicrous. That lack of security played out as a disaster during the Tet Offensive of 1968.


The Tet Offensive Begins


The Tet Offensive or officially called The General Offensive and Uprising of Tet Mau Than was a major escalation and one of the largest military campaigns of the Vietnam War. It was launched on January 30, 1968 by forces of the Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnamese People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) against the forces of the South Vietnamese Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), the United States Armed Forces and their allies. It was a campaign of surprise attacks against military and civilian command and control centers throughout South Vietnam. The name of the offensive comes from the Tết holiday, the Vietnamese New Year, when the first major attacks took place.


The Attack


The personnel in the Hue Detachment villa held out during the attack, but rapidly went through all of their ammunition. They were armed with the ubiquitous "Special Agent Special" a Smith and Wesson 2" barrel .38 revolver, some M-14 rifles, several Swedish K sub-machine guns, and grenades.


During the small arms exchange, Ron Ray,[1], a 97C40 Case Officer, was wounded by rifle fire from the NVA; he died several hours later. It was during that time that the radio equipment was disabled; Special Agent (CPT O-3) Ted Gostas, the Field Office Commander, had attempted to warn the USMC G-2 elements that there was a strong indication of a city-wide invasion, but was unable to raise the USMC or the USA MACV compounds by radio.


The detachment house was located in the middle of a residential area of Hue and from the roof, S/A Gostas and the others could see fighting going on all around them. The detachment's short-range communications equipment consisted of an AN/ PRC-25 VHF radio with a base station adapter and a roof-mounted "AN/292" antenna. For long range communications, the villa had an AN/FRC-77 series Collins KWM-2A SSB HF radio system equipped with a wire dipole antenna strung between the building and some nearby trees. During the initial attack, the antennas were shot away and thus useless.[3]



The Waiting Game


After several more exchanges of small arms fire, the NVA main element played a waiting game, withdrawing and then returning. They left a small element, perhaps 4 or 5 NVA soldiers to shoot at the building occasionally. On 3 February 1968, the main NVA element attempted to enter the building and fired a B-40 rocket towards the upper floor. The rocket explosion killed Special Agent (CPL E-4) Barry Wolk [4] and knocked Special Agent Gostas unconscious. Special Agent (SFC E7) Donald Rander, the detachment's second in command, together with Special Agents Robert Hayhurst (SGT E-5) and Edward Dierling (CPL E-4) and HUMINT Case Officer (SSG E-6) (MOS 97C40) “Barry Savage”[5], swiftly returned fire using their remaining Swedish K 9mm ammunition and M-14 7.62 ball ammunition. When NVA soldiers attempted to gain access to the building's central staircase, Rander and Savage laid down suppressing fire while Hayhurst threw fragmentation hand grenades down the stairwell. When the fragmentation grenades were expended, Dierling threw the only other grenade in the field office, an incendairy document destroyer. It was during this exchange of fire that Savage was wounded severely by enemy rifle fire.


The Enemy Captures the Building


At some point, the NVA may have thought they were up against a larger force soldiers inside the building and again they withdrew momentarily. However, within a few minutes they returned and stormed the building. CPT Gostas was still only partially conscious, and SFC Rander had assumed command of the detachment.


NVA soldiers rushed the building and overwhelmed everyone, taking them captive. After disarming and binding their hands, the POW's were led out of the area, joining up with a larger group of civilian prisoners. At this point it is doubtful that the NVA knew that they were holding the key operating elements of Army Intelligence in Hue. Treatment of the POWs at that time appeared to be correct, without maltreatment.

{Uncorroborated anecdote: While in the house, the NVA team leader inspected Savage and noted that he was wounded. Case Officer Savage, who spoke Vietnamese, asked the NVA to treat them all humanely and to leave him behind. The NVA allowed the US personnel to make sure Savage's wound was treated with a bandage and then left him lying on a couch with a canteen of water.}


Gostas, Rander, Hayhurst and Dierling were escorted with other prisoners on a northward journey to Hanoi.



The Escape


On 23 February 1968, while the group of captives paused for food and water, S/A's Hayhurst and Dierling spotted what appeared to be an opportunity for escape. They were being guarded by either two or three NVA soldiers; the group in which they were captive numbered about 23 to 25 non-Vietnamese civilian men and women. When the two indicated to SFC Rander that they wanted to make a break, Rander informed them that CPT Gostas was not able to make the trip due to his extensive head injuries and told Hayhurst and Dierling to move out and get help.


After the two had escaped, two women, members of the “Friends Service Committee”, Marjorie Nelson [7] and Sandra Johnson, “in the interest of Peaceful Solidarity” informed their NVA captors that Hayhurst and Dierling had escaped and pointed out the directions of their travel. Nelson and Johnson later gave enthusiastic statements to anti-US media of the “heroic Freedom Fighters of Vietnam”.


After wading through a nearby stream, Hayhurst and Dierling encountered a USMC patrol. They informed the patrol leader about the group of captives and offered to lead the patrol back to the POW's rest site. Several radio transmissions were made, but permission to return and recover the POW's was refused personally by the G-2, III-MAF ; no record of this refusal is known to exist in the G2 radio log, thus this is only anecdotal information and cannot be verified. By the time the escapees found the USMC patrol, almost three weeks after the offensive, the NVA must have known that among the US and Foreign military and civilian personnel captured there were CIA and military intelligence personnel and had rapidly departed the area after the escape.


Practicality during combat operations sometimes overrides compassion and the author opines that the G2 probably knew that the group of POW's had been moved immediately after the guards discovered their charges missing and that a rescue unit consisting of a small recon patrol might also end up killed or prisoners themselves if they attempted to return to the area. Hayhurst and Dierling were flown first to Danang and thence to Saigon for debriefing. The rest of the group of POWs continued on to North Vietnam and captivity where they were either killed, died, or survived, until Operation Homecoming (Operation EGRESS/RECAP).


After the Event Investigations


The investigation team found that the field office security containers had been severely damaged by attempts to open them, but the classified documents within were still secure. The documents inside the containers included the true name identity lists of all US intelligence assets in the I Corps area; their loss would have been extremely serious.


The security containers were eventually lifted out of the MACV compound underneath a helicopter and dropped into the ocean about 30 miles off the coast of Hue in thousands of feet of water. Personal effects and other items were recovered and returned to the Danang HQ. After Hayhurst and Dierling were debriefed, it was discovered that the NVA had taken possession of their Army Intelligence Badges and Credentials and various pieces of official South Vietnamese intelligence agent identification, along with several sets of cover identity documents.


Information uncovered by a DIA CI damage assessment team conducting an unrelated Counterespionage investigation in 1988 discovered that the Badges and Credentials had made their way to Moscow and were in the possession of Soviet Army Intelligence (GRU), a potentially valuable resource for their bogus documentation people. As an interesting "deja vu moment", the Author, as an investigator of the DIA incident, participated in the initial inventory and inspection of the Hue field office after the Tet Offensive and thus knew the progeny of the sensitive documents.


When personnel of the Da Nang Field Office returned to Hue, part of our job was to clean out the Hue Field Office and assist the MACV area commander with counterintelligence damage assessments. The local Provost Marshal and CID requested assistance in inspection of captured material, enemy bodies, and bodies of US and foreign military and civilians who were victims of possible war crimes.


It was during that trip that the Da Nang CI Agents examined several hundred bodies of Vietnamese and foreigners. In many cases the people had suffered close-range gunshot wounds; usually to the back of the head or to the chest region. Since the exposed corpses were in an advanced state of decay and insect infested, it was difficult to establish identity. There was extensive rotting and fluid draining from the decomposition process. Generally, when the corpses were turned, large pieces of the body flaked off or stuck to the ground. Clothing assisted in keeping the bodies in a semblance of human shape.


The children's bodies had decomposed more quickly, especially the babies, since they were either nude or wearing only a diaper. I estimated at the time that of the 200 to 350 corpses I looked at, about 100 had had their hands tied behind them, usually with a pieces of woven bamboo fiber. The American civilians, who had been captured while rousted from their homes, had been shot by a high velocity bullet to the head; in some cases their family members including children had been hacked with what probably were machetes. The children appeared to have been hacked or shot without binding, possibly because they were held by their mothers during the actual moment of killing. It is unknown if the family members were killed before or after the American civilians.


The US military personnel bodies appeared to have been killed from either gunshots or missile fragments; there were no US military who appeared to have been killed execution-style, which indicates a pre-planned operation to capture military personnel rather than shoot them out of hand. Many civilians who were missing were members of the intelligence community, another factor which suggests a careful plan by the NVA to recover valuable POW's for future interrogation or exploitation.


The family members were all identified after the fact as Vietnamese or other Asian origin, married to or living with their American or other nationality husbands. The Americans worked for a wide variety of support organizations including engineering firms, aid organizations, medical and health activities, religious and voluntary groups. None of them were active participants in the war, but according to the North were "active combatants by complicity".


The Return


S/A Gostas and S/A Rander were returned to the USA during Operation Homecoming (EGRESS-RECAP); they had spent 5 years being tortured at the Hanoi Hilton prison camp. Captain Gostas, returned to active duty and was promoted to Major; however, he was medically retired from the US Army. Gostas’ head injury was exacerbated by frequent beating with a wooden cudgel in the hands of his North Vietnamese interrogators; SFC Rander, also maltreated, returned to active duty and retired as a Chief Warrant Officer. SGT's Savage, Hayhurst and Dierling served out the remainder of their military obligation and returned to civilian life. Major Gostas and CW3 Rander have since passed away and were buried with military honors.


Notes


There are a few web sites dedicated to the Hue City murders, but then, as now, historical revisionists would have the public believe that the only "war crimes and atrocities" were committed by the Americans.


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