On the night of January 30, 1968, the Viet Cong guerrillas launched a surprise offensive against American and South Vietnamese troops. Over 80,000 communists attacked more than 100 different towns and cities across South Vietnam over Tet, the Lunar New Year Holiday, in an attempt to break the will of the American government to continue to the war and to ignite a popular uprising against the South Vietnamese government.
The uprising never materialised, and in most places, the communists were quickly defeated. Except in the city of Hue, the former imperial capital of Vietnam midway between Hanoi and Saigon. The city was captured by the communist troops within hours of the start of the Tet offensive, and its ancient citadel on the north bank of the Perfume River provided an ideal defensive location for the guerrillas.
The citadel was protected by a stone wall that was in places more than 20ft high and 30ft wide. Access was only possible by a number of arched gateways, overlooked by towers that gave the defenders a commanding view of any attacking force. Inside, the communists were executing two and a half thousand people associated with the South Vietnamese regime, including scholars from the university, then buried them in pits.
Don McCullin initially planned to go to Khe Sanh but realizing that David Douglas Duncan was already covering the siege there, decided to go to Hue instead. He accompanied the 5th Marine Regiment to Hue and spent twelve days there, documenting their arduous task to retake the Citadel.
Later, the photo above of a dazed American soldier, entitled Shellshocked US Marine would become the most well-known of McCullin’s photos from Hue. McCullin himself would become tired of the photo, noting that, “I hate that picture. I’m fed up with it.” Even originally, he didn’t included it in when he chose photos for The Sunday Times Magazine (24 March 1968):
The picture that has been used more than any other photograph I took in Vietnam wasn’t one that I had included for the Sunday Times. I’d photographed a shell-shocked American soldier sitting in the yard where this battle was going on. That’s the picture that everybody remembers. They don’t remember the picture of the man throwing the grenade, the man dying with blood coming out of his mouth, the man who was hit with the Chinese grenade that I managed to miss. I didn’t choose the staring soldier, and of course it’s the perfect cover picture….
I took a photograph in Hue of a soldier who was shot terribly and was being pinned against the wall. It reminded me of Jesus Christ being brought down from the Cross. It’s the most iconic religious image that I have taken. I recognised it immediately. I photographed the man and then I told the soldiers to bring him over. They had to cross the gap, which was the killing zone. They ran with him, and they fell with him. They stumbled and he fell. He had the most awful wound in the upper part of his hip. There were screams and howls, but they got him over to me. I thought this was my chance to repay them. I owed them something. I put my cameras down and told one of the soldiers to look after them and I took this wounded soldier on my shoulders and carried him away from the battle. It was tricky because I didn’t want to stumble with him on my back. It was only about fifty yards and I carried him back to the compound where his colonel was.
It would take 4 weeks and 1,800 US casualties before Hue was finally recaptured. American public opinion started to swing away from military involvement in the region as news of casualties increased, and McCullin’s 14-page story in the Sunday Times revealed the grim reality the US military was desperate to hide.
McCullin wrote in the story: “The general attitude of the ordinary American soldier has changed a lot since I was with them two years ago. Then, they were confident about the war and felt sure they had a right to be there. Now they have their doubts.”