Urban areas (cities and large towns), are important centers of gravity —points of interest that involve a complex range of human activities. Throughout history military commanders have acknowledged that urban areas are either places that require protection, or they are centers that demand firm control. These are mankind’s centers of population, transportation and communications hubs, seats of government, the sources of national wealth, and concentrations of industry. Over the past three-hundred years, humans living in agrarian areas have migrated to towns and cities in ever-increasing numbers. In just a few years nearly 85% of the world’s population will reside in urbanized areas —which places these areas squarely in the sights of military establishments seeking either to defend or seize them. Urban areas are also areas where radical ideas ferment, dissenters cultivate allies, where human diversity leads to ethnic friction, and where disgruntled people receive the most media attention.
In its expeditionary role, the U.S. Marine Corps is trained to fight battles within urbanized terrain. This was not always the case, but in recent history, Marine Air-Ground Task Forces (MAGTFs) of various sizes have been deployed to address conflicts in urban areas: Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Beirut, Granada. The acronym for these operations is MOUT (Military Operations on Urban Terrain). Important for Marines is the fact that 60% of politically significant urban areas (outside allied or former Warsaw Pact territories) are located within 25-miles of littoral areas; 75% within 150 miles; and 87% within 300 miles. In armed conflict, whoever controls the cities exercises de facto control over a country’s natural resources.
History demonstrates that there has been an abundance of guerrilla and terrorist operations in built-up areas: Belfast, Caracas, Iraq, Managua, Santo Domingo, Viet Nam come to mind. Beyond the fact that the control of urban areas offers certain psychological advantages that can affect the outcome of a large conflict, Marine planners are keenly aware that American embassies and consulates are located where host countries concentrate their centers of political and economic activity. One mission the Marines share with other naval expeditionary forces is the emergency evacuation of US civilians caught up in urban insurgencies. (Photo: Cpl Blake Miller, USMC, Fallujah. Credit: Luis Sinco, LA Times (Fair Use asserted)).
Urban areas have dramatically expanded over the past 100 years —often going beyond well-defined boundaries into suburban/countryside areas. Connecting the inner-cities to peripheral areas has been a parallel expansion of transportation: highways, canals, and rail systems. Industries and markets have grown up along these connectors and there has been an expansion of secondary roadways connecting outlying farms to urban areas —the effect of which further complicates the operational planning for and execution of military operations. It widens the military footprint needed to deal with emergencies.
Urban warfare takes place in a unique battlespace —one that provides aggressor and defender with numerous avenues of approach and defensive fields of fire. In essence, there are four distinct battle areas: buildings, streets, subterranean networks, and air. These are often fought simultaneously, which makes the urban warfare effort even more complicated.
The Marine’s first urban warfare experience occurred early in the Korean War. Since then, with lessons learned through actual combat, the Marine Corps has evolved from knowing next to nothing about urban warfare to becoming America’s preeminent expert. As a demonstration of this transition, I will offer my readers three examples: The Second Battle of Seoul, Korea (1950), The Battle for Hue City, Viet Nam (1968), and the First and Second Battles of Fallujah, Iraq (2003-4). Stay with me; I think you’ll find these interesting and informative.
Seoul, South Korea
The North Korean Army (NKPA) seized Seoul, South Korea during its invasion in late June 1950. After US Marines made their amphibious landing at Inchon in mid-September 1950, General Douglas MacArthur assigned them the mission of liberating Seoul from the NKPA force, which by then was an understrength division. In any normal situation, the NKPA would have the advantage of defending Seoul —but in this case, the NKPA were facing American Marines, the most tenacious combat force in the entire world —true then, equally true today.
Even so, the advance on Seoul was slow and bloody. The Marines faced the 78th Independent Infantry Regiment and 25th Infantry Brigade, in all, about 7,000 troops. Moreover, the NKPA decided to put every effort into obstructing the Marine advance until they could be reinforced by units operating south of Seoul. MacArthur, as Supreme Allied Commander, assigned responsibility for liberating Seoul (Operation Chromite) to his X Corps commander, Major General Edward Almond—who knew as much about urban warfare as he did about rocket ships to the moon. In any case, MacArthur wanted a quick liberation of Seoul and Almond, a first-class sycophant, applied continue pressure to Major General Oliver P. Smith, commanding the 1st Marine Division, to “hurry up.” To his credit, Smith would have none of it. (Photo: Marines attack Seoul, South Korea, 25 Sep 1950; DoD Photo (Fair Use asserted)).
Marines entered the city at 0700 on 25 September, finding it heavily fortified. Buildings were heavily defended with crew-served weapons and snipers. On the main highway through the city, the NKPA had erected a series of 8-foot-high barricades, located 200-300 yards apart. Every one of the city’s intersections contained such an obstacle. Anti-tank and anti-personnel mines laced the approaches to these barricades, supported by anti-tank guns and machine guns. The Marines had to eliminate these one at a time, which took about one hour for each barricade. Casualties mounted as the Marines engaged in house-to-house fighting.
General Almond declared the city “secure” on the first day. Clearing operations continued for five additional days, even though effective enemy resistance collapsed by 28 September. In the aftermath of the Second Battle of Seoul, Korea, there was no time for the Marines to analyze the campaign —such analyses would have to wait for a later time —but here I will pause to reflect on what it must take to succeed in urban warfare: the esprit de corps of fire teams who must, in the final analysis, win or lose the contest. Private First Class (PFC) Eugene A. Obregon from Los Angeles, California, was awarded the Medal of Honor for sacrificing himself to enemy machine gun fire to save the life of a wounded Marine on 26 September 1950.
Hue City, Viet Nam
In 1967, the North Vietnamese realized that their war strategy in South Viet Nam wasn’t working out quite the way they had intended. It was time to try something else. The government of North Viet Nam wanted a massive offensive, one that would reverse the course of the war. When defense minister and senior army commander General Vo Nguyen Giap  voiced opposition to such an offensive, believing as he did that a major reversal of the war would not be its likely result, the North Vietnamese stripped Giap of his position, gave him a pocket watch, and sent him into retirement. The politburo then appointed General Nguyen Chi Thanh to direct the offensive. At the time, Thanh was commander of all Viet Cong forces in South Viet Nam. When General Thanh unexpectedly died, senior members of the politburo scrambled to reinstate General Giap.
Earlier —in the Spring of 1966— Giap wondered how far the United States would go in defending the regime of South Viet Nam. To answer this question, he ordered a series of attacks south of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) with two objectives in mind. In the first, he wanted to draw US forces away from densely populated urban and lowland areas to a place where he believed the NVA would have an advantage over them. Second, Giap wanted to know whether the United States could be provoked into invading North Viet Nam.
Both questions seem ludicrous since luring the US/ARVN military out of villages and cities was the last thing he should have wanted, and unless China was willing to rush to the aid of its communist “little brothers,” tempting the US with invading North Viet Nam was fool-hardy. In any case, General Giap began a massive buildup of military forces and placing them in the northern regions of South Viet Nam. Their route of infiltration into South Viet Nam was through Laos . General Giap completed his work at the end of 1967; there were now six infantry divisions massed within the Quang Tri Province.
Leading all US and allied forces in Viet Nam was US Army General William C. Westmoreland, titled Commander, United States Military Assistance Command, Viet Nam (COMUSMACV or MACV ). Westmoreland responded to Giap’s buildup by increasing US/allied forces in Quang Tri —realizing that if one wanted to dance, they had to go into the dance hall. The one thing that Westmoreland could not do was invade either North Viet Nam or Laos . Realizing this, Giap gained confidence in his notion of larger battles inside South Viet Nam. But even this wasn’t working out as he imagined. Westmoreland was not the same kind of man as French General Heni Navarre. For one thing, Westmoreland was far more tenacious. Besides, meeting the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) outside populated areas would allow Westmoreland to make greater use of air and artillery fire support assets.
In phases, Giap increased North Viet Nam’s military footprint in the northern provinces of South Viet Nam. One example of this is the NVA’s siege of the Khe Sanh combat base. President Lyndon Johnson was concerned that the NVA were attempting another coup de guerre, such as Dien Bien Phu, where General Navarre was thoroughly defeated. Johnson ordered Khe Sanh held at all cost. With everyone’s eyes now focused on the events at Khe Sanh, Giap was able to launch a surprise offensive at the beginning of the Tet (lunar new year) celebration. He did this on 31 January 1968. It was a massive assault: 84,000 NVA and Viet Cong (VC) soldiers who violated the cease-fire accord and executed simultaneous attacks on 36 of 44 provincial capitals, five of the six autonomous cities (including Saigon and Hue), 64 of 242 district capitals, and 50 hamlets.
Giap chose to violate the Tet cease-fire because he knew that many South Vietnamese soldiers would be granted holiday leave. It was a smart move and one that opened the door for Giap’s early successes. VC forces even managed to breach the US Embassy enclosure in Saigon. Within days, however, the offensive faltered as US/ARVN forces were able to defeat the communist onslaught. Heavy fighting did continue in Kontum, Can Tho, Ben Tre, and Saigon… but the largest of these occurred at the City of Hue . It was the Marine’s longest and bloodiest urban battle up to that time.
In 1968, Hue City was the third-largest city in South Viet Nam. Its population was around 140,000 souls; about one-third of these lived inside the Citadel, north of the Perfume River which flows through the center of the city. Hue also sat astride Highway-1, a major north-south main supply route (MSR), located about 50 miles south of the DMZ. Hue was the former imperial capital of Viet Nam. Up to this point, Hue had only occasionally experienced the ravages of war —mortar fire, saboteurs, acts of terrorism— but a large enemy force had never appeared at the city’s gates. Given the city’s cultural and intellectual importance to the Vietnamese people —as well as its status as the capital of Thua Thien Province— it was only a matter of time.
The people who lived in Hue enjoyed a tradition of civic independence that dated back several hundred years. Religious monks viewed the war with disdain; few of these religious leaders felt any attachment to the government in Saigon. What they wanted was national conciliation —a coalition where everyone could get along.
Hue City was divided into two sectors: the Old Imperial City, and the New City. These two sectors were divided by the Perfume (Hoang) River, which emptied into the South China Sea five miles southwest of the city. On the north bank of the river stood the Citadel, a fortress extending nearly 4-square-miles, shaped like a diamond. Surrounding the Imperial City were 8-meter high walls that were several meters. There were eight separate gates, four of which were located along the southeastern side. A winding, shallow canal ran through the Citadel, with two culverts that connected the inner-city canal with those on the outside.
The “New City” was constructed south of the Perfume River; a residential and business center that included government offices, a university, the provincial headquarters, a prison, hospital, and a treasury. The US Consulate and forward headquarters of the MACV were also located there.
Despite Hue’s importance, there were few ARVN defenders within its limits. On 30 January 1968, there were fewer than a thousand ARVN troops inside the City. Part of this was because a large number of troops were on leave to celebrate the Tet holiday with their families.
Security for Hue was assigned to the First Infantry Division (1st ARVN Division), then commanded by Brigadier General Ngo Quant Truong. The 1st ARVN was headquartered within the fortified Mang Ca compound in the northeast corner of the Citadel. Over half of Truong’s men were on leave for the holiday when the offensive commenced; General Truong’s subordinate commands were spread out along Highway-1 from north of Hue to the DMZ. The nearest unit of any size was the 3rdARVN Regiment, consisting of three battalions, five miles northwest of Hue. The only combat unit inside the city was a platoon of 36-men belonging to an elite unit called the Black Panthers, a field reconnaissance and rapid reaction company. Internal security for Hue was the responsibility of the National Police (sometimes derisively referred to as “white mice”).
The nearest US combat base was Phu Bai, six miles south on Highway-1. Phu Bai was a major U. S. Marine Corps command post and support facility, including the forward headquarters of the 1st Marine Division, designated Task Force X-Ray. The Commanding General of Task Force X-Ray  was Brigadier General Foster C. LaHue, who also served as the Assistant Commander, 1st Marine Division. Also situated at Phu Bai was the headquarters elements of the 1st Marine Regiment (Stanley S. Hughes, Commanding) and the 5th Marine Regiment (Robert D. Bohn, Commanding). There were also three battalions of Marines: 1st Battalion, 1st Marines (1/1) (Lt. Col. Marcus J. Gravel, Commanding), 1st Battalion, 5th Marines (1/5) (LtCol Robert P. Whalen, Commanding), and 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines (2/5) (LtCol Ernest C. Cheatham, Jr., Commanding).
The attacking NVA force included 8,400 well-trained and equipped soldiers . The majority of these were NVA regulars, reinforced by six VC main force battalions (between 300 and 600 men each). The field commander of these forces was General Tran Van Quang. The NVA plan of attack called for a division-sized assault on the Imperial City with other units serving as a blocking force. True to form, the communists knew all they needed to know about their civilian and military objectives within the city. VC cadres had also prepared a list of “tyrants” who were to be located and terminated —nearly all of these were South Vietnamese civilian and military officials. Added to the list were US civilians, clergy, educators, and other foreigners. The communists also knew all they needed to know about weather conditions.
The NVA plan, termed the General Offensive/General Uprising, was designed to incorporate both conventional and guerilla operations intending to destroy any vestige of the South Viet Nam government or western authority, and if not that, then to discredit their enemies and cause a popular uprising among the people. If all worked out according to plan, western allies would be forced to withdraw its forces from Vietnam.
There were a few senior NVA planners who thought that a popular uprising was highly unlikely; a few more expected that ARVN and US forces would drive the NVA out of the city within a few days —but, of course, such defeatist notions were best left unsaid. Meanwhile, the young, idealistic, and gullible soldiers believed the NVA propaganda and went in to combat convinced of a great victory. When these same young men departed their training camps, they had no intention of returning. Many wouldn’t.
The NVA assault commenced at 0340 when a rocket and mortar barrage in the mountains in the west served as a signal for the attack to begin. The assault was over by daybreak and the communists began gathering up “enemies of the people” and killing them. NVA and VC soldiers roamed the city at will and began to consolidate their gains. Responding to the attack, General LaHue rushed Marines forward with only scant information about the shape of the battle. Company G 2/5 was pinned down short of the MACV compound. They eventually forced their way into the compound, but in that process, the company sustained 10 killed in action (KIA). After linking up with the handful of US Army advisors, the Marines were ordered across the river and fight their way through to the headquarters compound of 1st ARVN Division. Overwhelming enemy fire forced the Marines back across the bridge. Company G took additional casualties; weather conditions prohibited the immediate evacuation of the wounded.
Soldiers of the 1st ARVN Division were fully occupied; the Marines engaged south of the river. ARVN I Corps Commander, Lieutenant General Hoang Xuan Lam met with the III MAF commander, Lieutenant General Robert Cushman to devise a strategy for re-taking the city. They agreed that ARVN forces would concentrate on expelling communists from the Citadel, and Marines would focus their assets in the New City. By this time, General LaHue fully realized that his Marines were facing a large assault force. He dispatched Colonel Stanley S. Hughes, CO, 1st Marines, to assume operational control of US forces.
A brutal building-by-building, room-to-room campaign was launched to eject communist forces. Untrained in urban warfare, the Marines had to work out their tactics and techniques “on the job.” Their progress was slow, measured, methodical, and costly. The progress of the Marines was measured in inches … every inch was paid for in blood.
On 5 February, Company H 2/5 took the Thua Thien Province headquarters compound, which had until then served as the NVA’s 4th Regiment command post. This loss caused the NVA effort south of the river to begin faltering, but hard fighting continued over the next several days. By 14 February, most of the city south of the river was once more in US hands but rooting out pockets of resistance would take another 12 days. The NVA/VC continued sending rockets and mortars into Marine positions; snipers continued picking off American Marines. Operations south of the river had cost the Marines 34 dead and 320 WIA. It had been even more costly for the communists; over 1,000 NVA and VC soldiers lay dead on the streets of the New City.
The battle continued to rage in the Imperial City. Despite the insertion of ARVN reinforcements, their advance was stalled among the houses, narrow streets, and alley ways on the northwest and southwest wall. The communists burrowed deeply into the walls and tightly packed buildings; they maintained control of the Imperial Palace. They seemed to gain in strength with each passing day. Somehow, NVA forces were regularly receiving reinforcements.
An embarrassed General Truong was finally forced to appeal to the Marines for assistance. On 10 February, General LaHue moved a Marine battalion into the Citadel. Two days later, elements of 1/5 made their way across the river on landing craft and entered the Citadel through a breach in the northeast wall. Two South Vietnamese Marine Corps battalions moved into the southwest corner, which increased the pressure on communist forces. In spite of this, the communists held their positions. American Marines began an advance along the south wall, taking heavy casualties. The fighting grew even more savage as Marines brought in airstrikes, naval gunfire, and field artillery; the NVA grew more determined to resist the bloody American assault. On 17 February 1/5 achieved its objective but doing so cost the battalion 47 KIA and 240 WIA. The battle for the Citadel continued.
On 24 February, ARVN soldiers pulled down the communist banner that had been flapping in the breeze for 25 days. They replaced it with the RVN national ensign. The battle was declared at an end on 2 March; the longest sustained battle in the Viet Nam war up to that time. ARVN casualties included 384 KIA, 1,800 WIA, and 30 MIA. US Marines suffered 147 dead, 857 wounded. The US Army reported 74 dead and 507 wounded. NVA/VC losses were: 5,000 communists were killed inside Hue City; an additional 3,000 were killed in the surrounding area by elements of the 101st Airborne and 1st US Cavalry.
Forty percent of Hue City was utterly destroyed. More than one-hundred-thousand Vietnamese civilians were homeless. Civilian casualties exceeded 5,800 killed or missing.
From these two experiences, the US Marine Corps developed a doctrine for urban warfare: Marine Corps Warfighting Publication (MCWP) 3-53-3. Today, Marines are trained in the tactics and techniques for urban warfare. This publication was published in 1998; the Marines would rely on these guidelines and procedures when they were dispatched to Fallujah in 2003 (See also: Fish & Chips and Phantom Fury).
Warfare is both lethal and complex. Today, field commanders not only have to employ their infantry to win, they also have to consider the non-combat impact of such operations, the health and welfare of citizens, maintaining law and order, address media concerns, employ psychological operational teams, control refugees, guard against urban terrorism, and establish “rules of engagement.” The enemy in the Middle East may not look like much of a threat, but they do pose a clear and present danger to US combat forces. It is also true that insurgents exasperate US forces because they so easily blend in with innocent populations. This is the nature of war in the early 21st century. This is the danger imposed by domestic terrorists. Islamists are not fools; this enemy effectively uses our own rules of engagement to their advantage. American politicians have never quite figured this out.
 General Giap defeated the Imperial French after eight years of brutal warfare following the end of World War II.
 The reason behind America’s bombing of Laos and Cambodia, referred to by the liberal media as America’s Secret War.
 Major component commands included: US Army, Vietnam; I Field Force, Vietnam; II Field Force, Vietnam; XXIV Corps; III Marine Amphibious Force; Naval Forces, Vietnam; US Seventh Air Force; Fifth Special Forces Group; Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support; Studies and Observations Group; Field Advisory Element.
 The United States did deploy covert and special forces into Laos at a later time.
 Pronounced as “Way.”
 Task Force X-Ray went operational on 13 January 1968.
 In January 1968, everyone knew something was off-kilter. Tet was approaching. The people were uneasy. The cancellation of the Tet Truce and enemy attacks at Da Nang and elsewhere in southern I Corps dampened the normally festive spirit in Viet Nam. The first indication of trouble came shortly after midnight on January 30-31 —a five-pronged assault on all five of the provincial capitals in II Corps, and the city of Da Nang in I Corps. VC attacks began with mortar and rocket fire, followed by large-scale ground assaults by NVA regulars. These were not well-coordinated attacks, however, and by dawn on 31 January, most of the communists in outlying areas had been driven back from their objectives.
9 thoughts on “U. S. Marines in Urban Warfare”
An excellent account. History must be saved.
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Thank you …
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We need to give our service members all the tools they need, the weapons, the training and a ROE that isn’t a nonsensical accolade to political correctness.
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Spot on, Warren. I read the other day that the SecDef and JCS Chair think we will need to stay in the Stan for an indefinite period of time. Hell, we may as well make it our 51st state. Bad thinking, in my opinion.
I agree, Mustang.
Rake, burn and leave. As near as I can tell, there is no reasonable objective to our presence.
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I am, as always, mightily impressed by your historical columns. Mega salutes and accolades. The value of history seems largely ignored by people generally and elected,decision makers. Damned if I know why. I’d love to have you write a book. Cheers, Tad
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I know you folks who were there consider Viet Nam as a war we won – that the pols gave away. With that in mind do you think we will ever be able to Win a war again? We defeated the Iraq army but what did we ‘win’ ? We could in theory eliminate every taliban from Afghanistan but what would we win in the process ?
Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Mexican War.. Heck yea. Today’s wars seem only to satisfy the weapons makers.
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No one in America liked being involved in World War I; it simply wasn’t our fight, but America’s entry into that three-year contest did turn the tide. No one in America wanted to be involved in World War II, either, but Roosevelt wanted that war and he was going to have it. Japan’s attack (as if we couldn’t have predicted it) did the trick, but in this war, our survival really did depend on winning the battles and the war.
Every war following World War II was a result of political incompetence. In Korea, Truman. In Vietnam, Johnson. There were two attacks against the United States that originated during the Clinton administration: 1993 and 2001. Bush upped the ante by sending our troops into Afghanistan (we’re still there) and Iraq, which was a center piece for what never to do in an insurgency. We even screwed up Libya and were caught transferring vast quantities of stinger missiles to heathen Islamists. We lost an Ambassador and four good troops at Benghazi, and the moron McCain wanted to sell US Arms to ISIS because, in his view, they were freedom fighters. Bleh.
I think the answer to your question is not so much about our military capacity to win wars as it is about the general competence level of our diplomats. What is the likely result of placing someone like Hillary Clinton or John Kerry in the State Department? What are the consequences of electing a know-nothing like Barack Obama? If we want to win future battles and wars, then we ought to limit our engagements to those that really do matter in the defense of the United States (and its true and easily articulated interests), not some fourth-world crap hole that no one can find on a map. That’s my two cents … but I would add this: there is no greater need to defend the United States and its people than along the southern border of the United States. In my opinion, that invasion is not a “law enforcement” matter. It belongs to the Department of Defense and believe me when I say we do have the technology and equipment to deal effectively with unarmed invaders long before they reach the US-Mexico border.
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