No one saw it coming on that calm, cool, 1968 morning in the heart of Vietnam. Certainly not a young United States Marine Captain from Auburn, who found himself there working on a CIA mission before the enemy struck. Sadly, 50 years ago during that surprise attack that changed the course of an entire war, Capt. Robert W. Hubbard ’63 lost his life.
But not until, as one witness described it, “he put up a damned good fight.”
Vietnam at the time was torn from years of war, with Communist North Vietnam battling the U.S.-supported South Vietnam. The North Vietnamese strategy was to inflict as many casualties as possible, hoping to further sway the American public against the war and force the U.S. to withdraw.
The war seemed to be at a stalemate, but momentum took a drastic shift on Jan. 30-31, 1968. Within 24 hours, the enemy engaged in more than 120 attacks throughout South Vietnam, some involving massive military assaults, others involving organized suicide squads at strategic targets.
It was called the Tet Offensive. One such target was the city of Hue.
Hubbard was there.
Recruited by the CIA to “win the hearts and minds” of the local people, Hubbard’s job was to help plant seeds amongst the Vietnamese in favor of freedom and democracy, rather than in communism. He often wore civilian clothing, as did Marine Capt. Ray Lau, who joined Hubbard and a small group of others living and operating in Hue.
It was Lau who managed to survive the Tet attacks and was allowed to tell his story last December to Studies in Intelligence magazine, which focuses on topics of interest to the Central Intelligence Agency community.
Out of ammunition, out of food, out of water and mostly surrounded, the handful of young Marines knew they had to do what Marines do: stay mobile.
On the morning of Jan. 31, “We were awakened at about 4 a.m. to the sound of gunfire and explosions in the distance,” he wrote in his first-person account. South Vietnamese guards reported that a guard camp across a nearby canal was under attack, but to Lau, nothing seemed unusual from previous, small-scale attacks.
After the continued sound of gunfire, they realized something bigger was afoot.
Hubbard and Marine Sgt. Howard Vaughn arrived in a Jeep at about 7 a.m. concerned about the lack of radio contact that morning with other colleagues. Hubbard, with a former special-forces member named Jim, left on foot to learn more.
Lau and Sgt. Vaughn were standing by their compound’s gate posts when Vaughn noticed enemy soldiers running down the street about 70 yards away. Vaughn let go a short burst of fire with his M-16 rifle.
“Almost immediately, his volley was answered with automatic fire,” Lau wrote in his accounts. “Vaughn wheeled away from the post and fell to the ground.” He was wounded, but not killed. Mortar rounds began falling and an explosion from one on a roof showered the men with debris.
Hubbard and Jim returned and checked on the injured Sgt. Vaughn, moving him into a side bedroom of the house as streams of enemy soldiers poured into the city, wondering when more troops would arrive. Cornered, already exchanging enemy fire, they realized the scale of the attack and knew they would be taking enemy lives. So they made a vow: They would not be taken alive.
Day 2 arrived. Around 11 a.m., the enemy returned. Grenades and gunfire sprayed the house; soon it was close-quartered fighting.
“It seemed as if the (enemy) were now in the other bedroom, as one grenade rolled into our room,” Lau recalled. “Bob Hubbard dived for it and threw it back outside the living room, where it exploded.” A second grenade rolled in and exploded near the doorway.
Shots were fired into the small room they occupied. One of them hit Vaughn as he lay on the floor, inflicting yet another serious wound.
Lau recalled Hubbard’s response:
“Hubbard yanked the door opened and fired, killing three NVA.”
As days passed, supplies ran out and the enemy continued to hold the city, they knew American forces would retake the area sooner or later, but they had no idea how widespread the attack had been. Their survival depended on finding help.
Vaughn’s injuries had become too serious to move him, and he passed away. Lau described more firefights before the men eventually became separated. Villagers during the next several days hid Lau and gave him food and water.
Finally, on Feb. 7, 1968, Lau heard the most wonderful words he could hear being shouted in English:
They were looking for survivors, and in Lau, they found one. Only later did he learn that his fellow serviceman who had fought so heroically and helped save his life, Bob Hubbard of Auburn, was killed by gunfire while trying to cross a bridge in his own escape attempt. One report said he was leading others, armed only with a single hand grenade.
But Lau hasn’t forgotten about his brave friend.
On February 6, 2018 in Auburn University’s Langdon Hall, an all-star cast of heroes were on hand for a portrait dedication ceremony organized in part by Alabama Assistant Attorney General John Davis, a family friend.
Among those who attended and spoke at the portrait dedication were Medal of Honor recipient and 1962 Auburn graduate, Marine Maj. Gen. James E. Livingston, and retired Marine Capt. Ray Lau.
Semper Fi, Capt. Robert W. Hubbard.
By Troy Turner ’84
This story has been adapted from its original version published Feb. 4, 2018 in the Opelika-Auburn News.