Gordon Ward Gahan Collection

Hue

Hue

Gordon Ward Gahan

Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum

Gordon Ward Gahan

Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum

Gordon Ward Gahan

Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum

Just over halfway through Gahan’s year of service, on the night of January 30–31, 1968, the Viet Cong launched a coordinated, nationwide series of attacks against US and allied troops. Coinciding with the Vietnamese New Year (Tet) celebrations, during which time both sides usually called a cease-fire, the Tet Offensive proved to be a pivotal point in the war, especially in fueling antiwar sentiments in the United States. In fact, the military actions launched around Tet were closely related to the fighting Gahan had photographed in the hills of the central highlands during November and December. Retrospectively, those hill battles were “an enemy lure to get [the US and South Vietnamese armies] away from the populated lowlands” [1] and an opportunity to rehearse tactics before Tet. While the January attacks were put down quickly in most areas, protracted fighting at Khe Sanh, Saigon, and Hue lasted into March or April.

Hue, the northern capital of South Vietnam, was under siege for a month. In what has been described as the longest and bloodiest battle of the Tet Offensive, the city and its inhabitants were completely devastated. The battle was officially declared over on March 2, 1968, and shortly afterward Gahan was in Hue photographing the aftermath of the fighting, and documenting the presence and control of the US and South Vietnamese armies. The urban devastation stands in notable contrast to the thick jungle of the central highlands. Traveling between northern and southern Hue, Gahan captured the remnants of the Nguyen Hoang bridge, blown up on the morning of February 7, on what had been the main route linking the two sides of the city. A temporary walkway built on pontoons dipped close to the water and allowed pedestrians to travel back and forth. Elsewhere, Gahan documented the structural damage in different parts of the city. What had been a refuge of gardens, courtyards, moats, and stone buildings was essentially reduced to a rubble heap. In this respect, Gahan’s images reflect the sentiments of one observer who described Hue after Tet as “a shattered, stinking hulk, its streets choked with rubble and rotting bodies” [2].

 


1. Philip Jones Griffiths, quoted in Peter Howe, Shooting under Fire: The World of the War Photographer (New York: Artisan, 2002), 60.

2. Quoted in George Donelson Moss, A Vietnam Reader: Sources and Essays (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1991), 279, requoted in James H. Wilbanks, The Tet Offensive: A Concise History (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 54.