Battle of Khe Sanh begins

Battle of Khe Sanh begins

One of the most publicized and controversial battles of the Vietnam War begins at Khe Sanh, 14 miles below the DMZ and six miles from the Laotian border.

Seized and activated by the U.S. Marines a year earlier, the base, which had been an old French outpost, was used as a staging area for forward patrols and was a potential launch point for contemplated future operations to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos.

The battle began on this date with a brisk firefight involving the 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines and a North Vietnamese battalion entrenched between two hills northwest of the base. The next day North Vietnamese forces overran the village of Khe Sanh and North Vietnamese long-range artillery opened fire on the base itself, hitting its main ammunition dump and detonating 1,500 tons of explosives.

An incessant barrage kept Khe Sanh’s Marine defenders pinned down in their trenches and bunkers. Because the base had to be resupplied by air, the American high command was reluctant to put in any more troops and drafted a battle plan calling for massive artillery and airstrikes.

During the 66-day siege, U.S. planes, dropping 5,000 bombs daily, exploded the equivalent of five Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs in the area. The relief of Khe Sanh, called Operation Pegasus, began in early April as the 1st Cavalry (Airmobile) and a South Vietnamese battalion approached the base from the east and south, while the Marines pushed westward to re-open Route 9.

The siege was finally lifted on April 6 when the cavalrymen linked up with the 9th Marines south of the Khe Sanh airstrip. In a final clash a week later, the 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines drove enemy forces from Hill 881 North. Gen. William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. Military Assistance Command Vietnam, contended that Khe Sanh played a vital blocking role at the western end of the DMZ, and asserted that if the base had fallen, North Vietnamese forces could have outflanked Marine defenses along the buffer zone.

Various statements in the North Vietnamese Communist Party newspaper suggested that Hanoi saw the battle as an opportunity to re-enact its famous victory at Dien Bien Phu, when the communists had defeated the French in a climactic decisive battle that effectively ended the war between France and the Viet Minh.


Recounting the Casualties at the Deadly Battle of Khe Sanh

A U.S. Marine watches over bodies awaiting transport near Khe Sanh.

The 1968 Battle of Khe Sanh was the longest, deadliest and most controversial of the Vietnam War, pitting the U.S. Marines and their allies against the North Vietnamese Army. Both sides have published official histories of the battle, and while these histories agree the fighting took place at Khe Sanh, they disagree on virtually every other aspect of it.

In an unconventional war without conventional frontlines, statistics became the most critical measure of progress. The most controversial statistic in Vietnam was the number of killed in action (KIA) claimed by each side. If a battle tallied a sufficiently favorable body count ratio, American commanders declared victory, as they did after Khe Sanh. A closer look at the Khe Sanh body count, however, reveals anything but a straightforward matter of numbers.

Khe Sanh is a village located near the Laotian border and just south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separated North and South Vietnam. As early as 1962, the U.S. Military Command–Vietnam (MACV) established an Army Special Forces camp near the village. The Americans wanted a military presence there to block the infiltration of enemy forces from Laos, to provide a base for launching patrols into Laos to monitor the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and to serve as a western anchor for defense along the DMZ.

In 1966 the Marines built a base adjacent to the Army position, and organized their combat activities around named operations. By early 1967, the Marine position was reinforced to regimental strength. On April 20, Operation Prairie IV began, with heavy fighting between the Marines and NVA forces. The next operations were named Crockett and Ardmore.

Beginning in October 1967, the Communists greatly increased their forces in the Khe Sanh area to total two infantry divisions, two artillery regiments and an armored regiment. These forces, including support troops, totaled 20,000 to 30,000. The Marine garrison was also reinforced, and on November 1, 1967, Operation Scotland began. The Marine Corps casualty reporting system was based on named operations and not geographic location. Consequently, and unknown at the time, Operation Scotland became the starting point of the Battle of Khe Sanh in terms of Marine casualty reporting.

By the middle of January 1968, some 6,000 Marines and Army troops occupied the Khe Sanh Combat Base and its surrounding positions. Khe Sanh was situated on Route 9, the major east-west highway. Because of washed-out bridges and heavy enemy activity, however, the only way for Americans to get to Khe Sanh was by helicopter or airplane.

During the darkness of January 20-21, the NVA launched a series of coordinated attacks against American positions. At 0330 hours, soldiers of the NVA 6th Battalion, 2nd Regiment, 325C Division, attacked the Marines on Hill 861. Among the dead Marines was 18-year-old Pfc Curtis Bugger. About two hours later, an NVA artillery barrage scored a hit on the main ammunition dump at Khe Sanh Combat Base, killing Lance Corp. Jerry Stenberg and other Marines. At about 0640 hours the NVA 7th Battalion, 66th Regiment, 304th Division, attacked the Huong Hoa District headquarters in Khe Sanh village. This fighting was heavy, involving South Vietnamese militia as well as U.S. Army MACV advisers and Marines attached to a Combined Action Company platoon. That afternoon, as a rescue force was dispatched to the village, Army Lt. Col. Joseph Seymoe and other soldiers died when their helicopter was attacked.

The monumental Battle of Khe Sanh had begun, but the January 21 starting date is essentially arbitrary in terms of casualty reporting. Five Marines were killed on January 19 and 20, while on reconnaissance patrols. The Marine defense of Khe Sanh, Operation Scotland, officially ended on March 31.

On April 6, a front-page story in The New York Times declared that the siege of Khe Sanh had been lifted. According to the official Marine Corps history of the battle, total fatalities for Operation Scotland were “205 friendly KIA.” The Marines recorded an actual body count of 1,602 NVA killed but estimated the total NVA dead at between 10,000 and 15,000. Time magazine, in an April 12, 1968, article titled “Victory at Khe Sanh,” reported General William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, after flying into Khe Sanh by helicopter, declaring: “We took 220 killed at Khe Sanh and about 800 wounded and evacuated. The enemy by my count suffered at least 15,000 dead in the area.”

As journalist Robert Pisor pointed out in his 1982 book, The End of the Line: The Siege of Khe Sanh, no other battle of the entire war produced a better body count or kill ratio than that claimed by the Americans at Khe Sanh. Westmoreland echoed this judgment in his memoirs, and, using exactly the same figures, concluded that the North Vietnamese had suffered a most damaging and one-sided defeat. Senior Marine Corps General Victor Krulak agreed, noting on May 13 that the Marines had defeated the North Vietnamese and “won the battle of Khe Sanh.” Over time, these KIA figures have been accepted by historians. They produced a body count ratio in the range between 50:1 and 75:1. By comparison, according to another Army general, a 10:1 ratio was considered average and 25:1 was considered very good.

But Pisor also pointed out that “205 is a completely false number.” One had to meet certain criteria before being officially considered KIA at Khe Sanh. It was not sufficient to simply be an American military person killed in the fighting there during the winter and spring of 1967-68.

Only those killed in action during Operation Scotland, which began on November 1, 1967, and ended on March 31, 1968, were included in the official casualty count. On January 14, Marines from Company B, 3rd Recon Battalion, were moving up the north slope of Hill 881 North, a few miles northwest of Khe Sanh Combat Base. When an enemy rocket-propelled grenade killed 2nd Lt. Randall Yeary and Corporal Richard John, although these Marines died before the beginning of the siege, their deaths were included in the official statistics. The NVA used Hill 881 North to launch 122mm rockets at the Marines during the siege. On Easter Sunday, April 14, the 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines (3/26), assaulted Hill 881 North in order to clear the enemy firing positions. Lima Company finally seized the hill after overcoming determined NVA resistance. Unlike the Marines killed in the same place in January, since Operation Scotland had ended, the four Lima Company Marines who died in this attack on Hill 881 North were excluded from the official statistics.

Seven miles west of Khe Sanh on Route 9, and about halfway to the Laotian border, sat the U.S. Army Special Forces camp at Lang Vei. Khe Sanh had long been responsible for the defense of Lang Vei. Shortly after midnight on February 7, a large NVA force, reinforced with tanks, attacked the camp. Its mission was to destroy the Special Forces and their Vietnamese allies and to ambush any reinforcements coming from Khe Sanh. The Marines, fearing an ambush, did not attempt a relief, and after heavy fighting the camp was overrun. Ten American soldiers were killed the rest managed to escape down Route 9 to Khe Sanh. Those 10 deaths were also left out of the official statistics.

The American military presence at Khe Sanh consisted not only of the Marine Corps Khe Sanh Combat Base, but also Forward Operating Base 3, U.S. Army (FOB-3). Many American casualties were caused by the 10,908 rounds of rockets, artillery and mortars the North Vietnamese fired into the base and hill positions. Army deaths at FOB-3, however, were not included in the official statistics either.

The Operation Scotland tactical area of responsibility (TAOR) was limited to the area around Khe Sanh along Route 9 in western Quang Tri province. On March 6, two U.S. Air Force C-123 cargo airplanes departed Da Nang Air Base en route to Khe Sanh. At 1530 hours the first C-123, with 44 passengers and a crew of five, began to land. Enemy artillery rounds slammed into the runway. The tower at Khe Sanh instructed the pilot to take evasive action and go around for another approach. While climbing, the C-123 was struck by several bursts of heavy machine gun and recoilless rifle fire. The plane, piloted by Lt. Col. Frederick J. Hampton, crashed in a huge fireball a few miles east of Khe Sanh, killing all aboard. Since the Marines on board were not yet officially attached to the 26th Marine Regiment, their deaths were not included in the official Khe Sanh count, nor were the several other deaths associated with aircraft crashes. Had the plane been shot down departing Khe Sanh, the casualties would have been counted.

Besieged, Khe Sanh could only be resupplied by air. MACV therefore initiated an operation to open Route 9 to vehicle traffic. Operation Pegasus, begun the day after Scotland ended, lasted until April 15. The Pegasus force consisted of the Army 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) plus the 1st Marine Regiment. Setting out from Ca Lu, 10 miles east of Khe Sanh, Pegasus opened the highway, linked up with the Marines at Khe Sanh, and engaged NVA in the surrounding area. Operation Pegasus casualties included 59 U.S. Army and 51 Marine Corps dead. They too were left out of the official Khe Sanh casualty count.

On April 15, Operation Pegasus ended and Operation Scotland II began. The Marines at Khe Sanh Combat Base broke out of their perimeter and began attacking the North Vietnamese in the surrounding area. The Army’s 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), with more than 400 helicopters under its control, conducted airmobile operations deeper into enemy-controlled areas. The fighting was heavy. An additional 413 Marines were killed during Scotland II as of the end of June 1968. Operation Scotland II continued until the end of the year, resulting in the deaths of 72 more Marines. None of the deaths associated with Scotland II are included in the official count. Historian Ronald Spector, in the book After Tet: The Bloodiest Year in Vietnam, noted that American casualties in the 10 weeks after the start of Operation Pegasus were more than twice those officially reported during the siege.

The deaths of U.S. Air Force personnel, estimated between five and 20, are also omitted. The official figure of 205 KIA only represents Marine deaths in the Operation Scotland TAOR—that is, Marines killed in proximity to the Khe Sanh Combat Base during the period from November 1, 1967, to March 31, 1968. Scotland was a 26th Marine Regiment operation, so only the deaths of Marines assigned to the regiment, and attached supporting units, were counted. This time period does not particularly coincide with the fighting rather, it dates from before the siege began and terminates before the siege (and the fighting) ended. The distinctions between Operations Scotland, Pegasus and Scotland II, while important from the command perspective, were not necessarily apparent to individual Marines. For them, the battle started when the North Vietnamese attacks began in January. Fighting around Khe Sanh was continuous. For example, I served with a Marine heavy mortar battery at Khe Sanh during the siege. But only by checking my service record while writing this article did it become evident that I had participated in all three operations.

Upon closer analysis, the official figure does not accurately portray even what it purports to represent. According to Ray Stubbe, a U.S. Navy chaplain during the siege and since then the most significant Khe Sanh historian, the 205 figure is taken only from the records of the 26th Marine Regiment. Stubbe examined the command chronologies of the 1st and 2nd battalions, 26th Marines, plus the after-action reports of the 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines 1st Battalion, 9th Marines 1st Battalion, 13th Marines and more than one dozen other units, all present at Khe Sanh under 26th Marine operational control. These combined sources report a total of 354 KIA. Unlike the official figures, Stubbe’s database of Khe Sanh casualties includes verifiable names and dates of death.

On June 19, 1968, another operation began at Khe Sanh, Operation Charlie, the final evacuation and destruction of the Khe Sanh Combat Base. The Marines withdrew all salvageable material and destroyed everything else. The NVA continued shelling the base, and on July 1 launched a company-sized infantry attack against its perimeter. Two Marines died. NVA casualties were more than 200. The base was officially closed on July 5. Marines stayed in the area, conducting operations to recover the bodies of Marines killed previously. On July 10, Pfc Robert Hernandez of Company A, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, was manning an M-60 machine gun position when it took a direct hit from NVA mortars. Hernandez was killed. Ten more Marines and 89 NVA died during this period. They were not included in the official Khe Sanh counts.

On July 11, the Marines finally left Khe Sanh. This is the battle’s end date from the North Vietnamese perspective. The NVA 304th Division’s history notes that on “9 July 1968, the liberation flag was waving from the flag pole at Ta Con [Khe Sanh] airfield.” On July 13, 1968, Ho Chi Minh sent a message to the soldiers of the Route 9–Khe Sanh Front affirming “our victory at Khe Sanh.”

The Khe Sanh battlefield was considerably more extensive from the North Vietnamese perspective than from that of the U.S. Marine Corps, both geographically and chronologically. The NVA’s main command post was located in Laos, at Sar Lit. Battlefield boundaries extended from eastern Laos eastward along both sides of Route 9 in Quang Tri province, Vietnam, to the coast. Taking a larger but more realistic view, the Khe Sanh campaign resulted in a death toll of American military personnel that approached 1,000.

The official, public estimate of 10,000 to 15,000 North Vietnamese KIA stands in contrast to another estimate made by the American military. On April 5, 1968, MACV prepared an “Analysis of the Khe Sanh Battle” for General Westmoreland. The report, originally classified as secret, noted that intelligence from many sources indicated conclusively that the North Vietnamese had planned a massive ground attack against the base. The attack was to have been supported by armor and artillery. Due to severe losses, however, the NVA abandoned its plan for a massive ground attack. The losses—indicating that the enemy suffered a major defeat—were estimated at 3,550 KIA inflicted by delivered fires (i.e., aerial and artillery bombardment) and 2,000 KIA from ground action, for a total of 5,550 estimated North Vietnamese killed in action as of March 31.

Ray Stubbe has published a translation of the North Vietnamese history of the siege at Khe Sanh. According to this history, originally classified as secret, the battle deaths for all major NVA units participating in the entire Highway 9–

Khe Sanh Front from January 20 until July 20, 1968, totaled 2,469.

Ho Chi Minh’s oft-quoted admonition to the French applied equally to the Americans: “You can kill ten of my men for every one I kill of yours, but even at those odds, you will lose and I will win.” The calculation by Stubbe that approximately 1,000 Americans died on the Khe Sanh battlefield is especially compelling, given that Stubbe’s numbers are accompanied by names and dates of death. Since the official duration of the battle ends even earlier than the termination of the siege itself, a wider definition of the Khe Sanh battlefield to include Operations Scotland, Pegasus and Scotland II also seems reasonable. The official statistics yield a KIA ratio of between 50:1 and 75:1 of North Vietnamese to U.S. military deaths. The figures of 5,500 NVA dead and 1,000 U.S. dead yield a ratio of 5.5:1.

It is difficult to support the claim of an overwhelming American victory at Khe Sanh based solely on the ratios derived from the official casualty count. In fact, neither side won a resounding victory. The NVA surrounded Khe Sanh in an attempt to force the Marines to break out of their fighting positions, which would make it easier to engage and destroy them. If that failed, and it did, they hoped to attack American reinforcements along Route 9 between Khe Sanh and Laos. Operation Pegasus forces, however, were highly mobile and did not attack en masse down Route 9 far enough west of Khe Sanh for the NVA, by then dispersed, to implement their plan.

The Marines knew that their withdrawal from Khe Sanh would present a propaganda victory for Hanoi. On June 28, a Communist spokesman claimed the Americans had been forced to retreat and that Khe Sanh was the “gravest tactical and strategic defeat” for the U.S. in the war. It was the only time Americans abandoned a major combat base because of enemy pressure.

Strategically, however, the withdrawal meant little. The new anchor base was established at Ca Lu, a few miles down Route 9 to the east. Mobile combat operations continued against the North Vietnamese. U.S. reconnaissance forces continued to monitor the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The Marines and their allies at Khe Sanh engaged tens of thousands, and killed thousands, of NVA over a period of many weeks. Indeed, had enemy forces not been at Khe Sanh, they could have joined the NVA and VC who occupied Hue, a much more important strategic target. The Marines fought long, hard and well at Khe Sanh, but they sacrificed in much greater numbers than has been acknowledged by official sources.

Marine Khe Sanh veteran Peter Brush is Vietnam Magazine’s book review editor. For additional reading, see: Valley of Decision: The Siege of Khe Sanh, by John Prados and Ray W. Stubbe and the official Marine Corps history, The Battle for Khe Sanh, by Moyers S. Shore II.

This article was written by Peter Brush and originally published in the June 2007 issue of Vietnam Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to Vietnam magazine today!


The First Battle of Khe Sahn

A s Sergeant Donald E. Harper Jr. led his squad up a small rise during a routine patrol just west of the airstrip that served the Marine base camp at Khe Sanh, 50 North Vietnamese Army regulars hit the unit with small-arms fire, killing one American and wounding another. Harper pulled back and requested artillery support. After several artillery barrages and two ground assaults, the Marines finally took the height with heavy close-in fighting. The Marines, whose total losses for the day were one dead and 11 wounded, found nine enemy bodies, an 82mm mortar, mortar ammunition and range-finding equipment littering the mound.

That battle fought on Feb. 25, 1967, by Harper’s squad—from 2nd Platoon, Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division—proved to be a harbinger of even deadlier battles.

The village of Khe Sanh, in western Quang Tri province, was about 15 miles below the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Vietnam. A Marine combat base about 1 mile north of the village sat astride Highway 9, an east-west road leading into Laos. The NVA were active in the region, which provided valuable routes to infiltrate South Vietnam. Trails crossing the hills and low mountains were covered by jungle canopy up to 60 feet tall, while lower paths were hidden by dense elephant grass and bamboo thickets. The three main routes to Khe Sanh were dominated by the 3,330-foot Dong Tri Mountain, the highest terrain in the area, and Hills 861, 881 North and 881 South. That area, northwest of the Marine base, was sown with well-hidden bunkers and dug-in fighting positions the NVA used to protect troop-staging areas and secure supply caches.

After the late February fighting, the 3rd Marine Division bolstered units in the Khe Sanh area. On March 7 the division reinforced Bravo Company, led by Captain Michael W. Sayers, with troops from Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines, commanded by Captain William B. Terrill. The Marines increased their patrols with particular emphasis on the 861 and 881 hills as they tried to prevent the NVA from positioning artillery and mortars close enough to the Khe Sanh base to threaten it.

On March 16, 1st Platoon in Terrill’s company was returning from a night mission on Hill 861 after looking unsuccessfully for opportunities to ambush the NVA and was itself ambushed at 10 a.m. The platoon, led by Sergeant Donald Lord, was hit by intense crossfire on a bamboo-bordered trail. After a 15-minute firefight, the platoon’s three squads drove the enemy away and then returned to evacuate one dead and five wounded Marines. They again came under heavy fire. This time the casualty count was six killed, four wounded and one missing.

During the firefight, Lord had called in artillery fire, but the NVA still refused to withdraw. Help came to the beleaguered unit from two squads of the 2nd Platoon in Sayers’ Bravo Company, under 2nd Lt. Gatlin J. Howell, who had been operating about a half-mile east of Hill 861. “We were finishing up a nine-day day sweep of the area when we heard a firefight break out atop Hill 861, and we were ordered to reinforce the platoon in the fight,” remembered Kenneth Price, a medic in the 2nd Platoon.

Airstrikes drove the NVA from the crest of the hill, and both American units occupied the summit. They found 11 enemy dead from the gun battles and airstrikes. The Marines cleared a landing zone on 861’s summit for a helicopter evacuation of their casualties, but enemy harassment continued for the next several hours. “After arriving at the top of Hill 861 we came under heavy enemy mortar attack,” Price said. One of the attacks killed Sergeant Harper, whose squad had been the first to engage the NVA just a few weeks earlier, the former medic said in a posting on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial’s Web page for Harper.

Terrill and Echo’s 2nd Platoon were transported to the landing zone by helicopter and spent the next two days in a fruitless sweep of the area north and west of the hill. The NVA had slipped away. The March 16 action cost the Americans 20 killed and 59 wounded, almost all from Terrill’s company. The last of the American casualties were finally lifted off Hill 861 on March 17.

In the following weeks, the Khe Sanh base, with Sayers in charge, received welcome reinforcements in the form of a tank section, some Ontos armored fighting vehicles—each mounting six 106mm recoilless rifles—and a few armored trucks carrying 40mm cannons or .50-caliber machine guns. Artillery support was provided by Battery F, 2nd Battalion, 12th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, sporting a mix of 155mm howitzers and 4.2-inch mortars. Offsetting these gains was the departure of Terrill’s company on March 27. By early April, Sayers’ command totaled less than 1,000 men.

The combat losses in February and March 1967 were a prelude to the “First Battle of Khe Sanh,” one of the Vietnam War’s hardest-fought battles, which began on April 24.

That morning 2nd Lt. Thomas G. King’s 2nd Platoon in Sayers’ company moved to Hill 700, a little south of Hill 861, and positioned mortars to provide artillery support for a sweep that 1st and 3rd platoons were conducting north of Hill 861 to see if enemy troops were in nearby caves that 1st Platoon had found the day before. Five men from the 2nd Platoon mortar team went to Hill 861 to set up an observation point at the top, where they could direct the artillery fired from Hill 700. During the climb they were ambushed, and four were killed.

Marines lay down smoke to guide airstrikes near Khe Sanh in February 1967 and then scurry for cover. (AP Photo/Joe Holloway)

The gunfire on Hill 861 prompted King to send a squad to make contact with the mortar observation team. They too came under savage small-arms fire and returned to Hill 700, where King’s mortars, along with artillery at Khe Sanh base, shelled the NVA on Hill 861. The Marines then went back and recovered two of the bodies. The other two couldn’t be found.

Captain Sayers, who had left the Khe Sanh base, accompanied by a security platoon, joined King on Hill 700 and ordered the 1st and 3rd platoons to move southeast across Hill 861 and hit the NVA from the rear. The two platoons started forward, but were soon struck by five 82mm mortar rounds and heavy fire on their right, forcing them to pull back. The 1st and 3rd platoons dug in for the night at the base of Hill 861. Sayers, his security platoon and 2nd Platoon returned to the base camp.

The Battle of Khe Sanh’s initial action cost the Marines 12 killed, 17 wounded and two missing. Five NVA were known dead.

The Marines surmised from the April 24 engagements that the enemy was positioning itself in the hills to prepare for an all-out attack on the Khe Sanh base. To counter the expected NVA assault, the III Marine Amphibious Force headquarters at Da Nang sent elements of 3rd Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, to Khe Sanh on April 25. Regimental commander Colonel John P. Lanigan ordered Lt. Col. Gary Wilder, chief of the reg iment’s 3rd Battalion, to take his unit to Hill 861 .

Wilder’s lead unit, Kilo Company under Captain Bayliss L. Spivey Jr., moved two platoons up the hill. The 1st Platoon was battered with fire from an NVA company protected by bunkers and supported by mortars. Thick vegetation made it hard for the Marines to spot and counter enemy fire coming from the expertly hidden fortified positions. As darkness approached, 1st Platoon had advanced only about 200 yards, while 2nd Platoon also met fierce resistance and made little headway. Spivey’s entire command dug in for the night.

Earlier in the day, Sayers and his company’s 2nd Platoon had left Khe Sanh by helicopter, rejoined the men at the base of Hill 861 and tried to evacuate the wounded. But dense fog and incoming mortar rounds hampered helicopter landings and efforts to carry some of the wounded and dead out on foot. Bravo Company made little progress, and the three platoons spent another night in the field.

On April 26 the NVA pummeled Wilder’s battalion command post below Hill 861 with more than 200 82mm mortar rounds fired from Hill 881 South’s eastern slope. The enemy also fired 100 mortar and recoilless rifle shells at the Khe Sanh base, although most hit outside the compound.

During the morning, Captain Spivey’s Kilo Company of the 3rd Marines failed in a second attempt to scale Hill 861 and were pinned down just below the hill. Wilder sent newly arrived Captain Jerrald E. Giles and his Kilo Company of the 9th Marines to assist Spivey. Giles helped provide covering fire that enabled Spivey to withdraw.

In the meantime, Sayers’ company, attempting to link with Wilder at the battalion command post, was ambushed and suffered so many casualties that it could not move forward or backward. Sayers was among the wounded. That night his unit was in danger of being overrun and survived only because Battery F at Khe Sanh put “a ring of steel”—as Sayers described it—around the company’s position, and the enemy dared not attempt to penetrate it. Giles’ men were again sent to the aid of their fellow Marines and helped Sayers get what was left of his battered company to Wilder’s post the morning of April 27.

To provide more men for the defense of Khe Sanh base, Lt. Col. Earl R. Delong’s 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines, was airlifted from an area north of Hue City to Khe Sanh, where it went into camp east of Wilder’s battalion the night of April 26. Additionally, Battery B, 1st Battalion, 12th Marines, arrived at Khe Sanh on the 27th. For the better part of that day and the next, Marine and Army artillery poured 2,070 artillery shells onto Hill 861, while air attacks dropped 260 tons of ordnance to soften up the enemy on the height by obliterating his solidly built and concealed bunkers.

Late in the afternoon of April 28, the Marines prepared for a two-battalion assault on Hill 861, Hill 881 South and Hill 881 North, in that order.

Delong’s battalion charged Hill 861 with two companies abreast, but the Marines faced no opposition as they gained the crest. The air and artillery bombardment had forced the NVA to abandon the position and the 25 bunkers and 400 foxholes defending it.

Onc e Hill 861 was secured, Mike Company of Wilder’s battalion moved up on Delong’s western flank from Khe Sanh. The next day Wilder’s men captured a small hill about a half-mile northeast of Hill 881 South. An NVA night attack was broken up by artillery fire.

At dawn on April 30, Wilder prepared to attack Hill 881 South, while Delong moved toward Hill 881 North to secure Wilder’s right flank and find a site to assault the hill. A fierce firefight broke out between Hotel Company of Delong’s battalion and two NVA platoons holed up in a bunker complex near the summit. Nine Marines died and 43 were wounded during the close-in fighting.

Later that afternoon, after a heavy U.S. artillery bombardment followed by the prolonged combat of a ground assault, the Marines finally dislodged the NVA soldiers from their bunkers.

“There was no way of getting them out [of the bunkers]…unless you dragged them out after they were dead,” Staff Sgt. Ruben Santos of Golf Company in Delong’s battalion told a reporter after the battle.

Wilder’s battalion also ran into an entrenched enemy in their attack the same day on Hill 881 South. McDonnell F-4 Phantom IIs dropped tons of bombs on the hill before the Marines began their climb. The NVA hit them with automatic weapons fire from concealed bunkers and snipers in trees. Unable to go forward or to retreat—because of NVA positions bypassed on the way up—the Marines traded gunfire with the enemy for several hours before they could move back down the mountain with the help of a Huey helicopter’s guns. They lost 43 killed and 109 wounded. The enemy suffered 163 killed.

An M60 machine gun on Hill 881 North is fired at the enemy in May 1967. (AP Photo)

In the early light of May 1, the Marines plastered Hills 881 North and 881 South with 325 tons of bombs and artillery shells. The barrages and airstrikes caused one NVA platoon to bolt from its bunkers, only to be mowed down in the open by American aircraft. About 140 enemy soldiers were killed that way.

The next day Wilder’s battalion easily took control of Hill 881 South after the NVA withdrew from the site, where it had built 250 log-and-dirt-covered bunkers. Meanwhile, Delong’s men advanced up Hill 881 North with Golf Company attacking from the east and Echo Company from the south. Held in reserve was Hotel Company. After two attacks supported by artillery, Golf neared the summit under heavy mortar fire. Echo was fighting its way to the top until a squall with heavy rains and 40 mph winds forced Delong to suspend the assault and pull back for the night.

Two NVA companies counterattacked under cover of darkness the morning of May 3, striking at the northeast side of Delong’s flank on Hill 881 North. In hand-to-hand fighting, the enemy troops penetrated Echo Company’s lines and reoccupied some bunkers in the middle of the Marine position.

The Americans, cobbling together detachments of engineers and riflemen, stalled the attack with the assistance of gunships, artillery and jet fighters but could not push the intruders out of their position. A second wave of 200 North Vietnamese appeared to be moving toward Echo from the west, but were stopped by 106mm recoilless rifle fire from Wilder’s men perched on Hill 881 South.

During the morning of May 4, Delong’s men captured NVA-occupied bunkers after savage close-in fighting that resulted in the deaths of 27 Marines and the wounding of 84 more. NVA soldiers fought to nearly the last man with 137 killed and three taken prisoner.

On May 5 Delong’s men were ready to take the summit of Hill 881 North. After blasting the hill with artillery fire, Echo and Foxtrot companies started out at about 9 a.m. Enemy resistance forced those units to back off, but friendly aircraft and artillery worked the hill over with massive concentrations of bombs and shells. Foxtrot and Golf companies attacked once more and, encountering only sniper fire, took the summit just before 3 p.m. With that success the Marines commanded the high ground surrounding Khe Sanh.

Bodies from the hill fights are prepared for transport on May 6, 1967. (AP Photo)

For the next three days, the Marines had little contact with the NVA and then spotted the 325C Division withdrawing toward North Vietnam and Laos. Two platoons from Foxtrot Company in Delong’s battalion tangled with rearguard outfits of the Communist division on May 9, while scouting Hill 776 a few miles northwest of Hill 881 North. Echo Company joined the fight, and finally after a 30-minute duel, the NVA started to retreat. Marine air power and artillery, tearing into the enemy’s ranks, turned an orderly withdrawal into a rout. When the fight ended, 24 Marines were dead and 19 wounded. Thirty-one NVA soldiers lost their lives.

The action of May 9 was the last large encounter of the 16-day first battle of Khe Sanh. Although aggressive ground assaults had taken the hills in a conventional battle that pitted the Marines against a well-entrenched enemy, much credit also went to the artillery and air-support arms for overwhelming the enemy resistance.

The hill battles around Khe Sanh cost the Marines 155 killed with 425 wounded, compared with an NVA loss of 940 dead, mostly from 325C Division’s 18th Regiment. After the battle, Marines based at Khe Sanh patrolled the hills but did not maintain a full-time presence there.

By the end of 1967, the NVA once again began building up its forces in the Khe Sanh hills and began a siege of the Marine base on Jan. 21, 1968. The base remained under siege until April 8, when reinforcement finally forced the North Vietnamese to withdraw. V

Arnold Blumberg, an attorney in Baltimore, served in the Army Reserve, 1968-74, ending his term as a staff sergeant in a maintenance company. He writes on military topics for history publications.

First published in Vietnam Magazine’s August 2016 issue.


In January 1966 the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) attacked the base with 120 mm mortars and intelligence indicated that a PAVN buildup was taking place around the base. In March MACV instructed the III Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF) to plan a one-battalion security operation around the base. On 27 March 3rd Marine Division commander MG Wood B. Kyle ordered the 4th Marine Regiment at Phu Bai Combat Base to deploy the 1st Battalion, 1st Marines and supporting artillery and mortar batteries to Khe Sanh. 1/1 Marines commander Lt. Col. Van D. Bell flew into Khe Sanh to plan his deployment and found the Special Forces there to be nervous and leaving all patrolling outside the perimeter to Nùng forces. On 3 April the operational order for Operation Virginia was issued, with the operation to begin on 5 April. On 4 April an advance unit was landed at Khe Sanh, but the arrival of the rest of the force was delayed by bad weather and the effects of the Buddhist Uprising and it wasn't until 18 April that VMGR-152 Lockheed Martin KC-130s were able to complete the deployment. The plan called for sequential sweeps to the northeast, northwest and then southwest of the base. On 19 April HMM-163 helicopters landed the headquarters unit and Company C in a blocking position 6 km north of the base and then landed Companies A and B 9 km further east, Companies A and B then swept west meeting no PAVN and joined up with Company C on 21 April and the force then returned to the base. Reconnaissance patrols of the northwest sector indicated no PAVN presence and so the 2nd phase of the operation was cancelled. III MAF then ordered 1/1 Marines to march east along Route 9 which had been closed for several years to determine if there was any PAVN buildup south of the DMZ. The artillery unit was moved to Ca Lu to cover Route 9 and on 1 May the 1/1 Marines completed the 30 miles (48 km) march from the base to Cam Lộ encountering no PAVN. [1]

Fighting began there in late April 1967 with the hill fights, which later expanded into the 1968 Battle of Khe Sanh. U.S. commanders hoped that the PAVN would attempt to repeat their famous victory at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, which would permit the U.S. to wield enormous air power. Boeing B-52 Stratofortresses alone dropped more than 75,000 tons of bombs on the PAVN 304th and 325th Divisions encroaching the combat base in trenches.

On April 1, 1968, the U.S. Army's 1st Cavalry Division launched Operation Niagara to break the siege of the base. All three brigades from the 1st Cavalry participated in this vast airmobile operation, along with a Marine armor thrust. [2]

The defense of Khe Sanh commanded international attention and was considered the climactic phase of the Tet Offensive. On July 5, 1968, the combat base was abandoned, the U.S. Army citing the vulnerability of the base to dug-in enemy artillery positions in neutral Laos and the arrival of significant airmobile forces in I Corps (1st Cavalry and 101st Airborne divisions). However, the closure permitted the 3rd Marine Division to conduct mobile operations along the DMZ.

In 1971, Khe Sanh was reactivated by the U.S. Army (Operation Dewey Canyon II) to support Operation Lam Son 719, the South Vietnamese invasion of Laos. It was abandoned again in early April 1971. [3] [4] On the night of 23 March a PAVN sapper attack on Khe Sanh resulted in 3 Americans killed and several aircraft and 2 ammunition dumps destroyed, PAVN losses were 14 killed and 1 captured. [5]

On 27 January 1972 a U.S. Air Force Lockheed AC-130 gunship was shot down by a PAVN SA-2 missile over the base. [6] In March 1973, American intelligence reported that the PAVN had rebuilt the airstrip at Khe Sanh and were using it for courier flights into the South.

Khe Sanh Combat Base can be visited daily as part of tours starting in Huế. Most of the base is now [ when? ] overgrown by wilderness or coffee and banana plants. In a small museum on base historical pictures and weapons are shown. Additionally a C-130, Boeing CH-47 Chinook, Bell UH-1 Iroquois, artillery and armor, restored bunkers and portions of the airstrip are visible.


The Battle of Khe Sanh, January 21 – April 8, 1968

Khe Sanh combat base, built on a hilltop located 10 km from the Laotian border, was the westernmost in a line of Allied defenses south of the DMZ designed to prevent communist infiltration into South Vietnam. By 1968, Khe Sanh combat base was occupied by 3000 US Marines of the 3rd Marine Division. While a further 3000 Marines were stationed on four nearby hilltop positions surrounding the base. These positions had been the subject of heavy fighting during 1967. That fighting had demonstrated a sizable enemy buildup in the area. It prompted Gen William Westmoreland to believe that Khe Sanh was tenable even in the face of a heavy enemy siege. This was especially important given that it housed a runway capable of landing C-130s.

An Army 175mm M107 at Camp Carroll provides fire support for ground forces. By United States Army Heritage and Education Center. Image is in the public domain via Wikimedia.com

North Vietnamese Forces Launch Their Attack

As part of their planning for the Tet Offensive, North Vietnamese forces began to stream into the area around Khe Sanh in November 1967. They eventually totaled as many as 40,000 troops. Most were from the 325th Division and 320th Division, cutting US ground contact with the Marines at Khe Sanh. Communist planners, led by Gen Vo Nguyen Giap, hoped by attacking Khe Sanh to draw American attention from the cities of South Vietnam. They felt these were the real targets of the coming Tet Offensive. On 21 January 1967, North Vietnamese forces simultaneously attacked two of the outlying US Marine hilltop positions. They launched a massive artillery strike on Khe Sanh combat base, opening the siege.

Fearing a defeat reminiscent of the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, President Lyndon Johnson kept a close eye on the fighting. He continued to receive hourly reports and even having a mock-up of Khe Sanh constructed in the basement of the White House. He hoped to drawn North Vietnamese forces into what might prove to be a climactic battle. Westmoreland ordered the US Marines to hold firm and launched Operation Niagara. This was a series of bombing strikes on the North Vietnamese troop concentrations around Khe Sanh.

Tactical bombers flew more than 16,000 sorties in defense of the US Marines. They delivered more than 31,000 tons of bombs. While B-52 Arc Light strikes delivered nearly 60,000 tons of bombs. This made Operation Niagara one of the heaviest bombing campaigns in the history of warfare.

The North Vietnamese close in on Khe Sanh

At the beginning of February 1968, as the Tet Offensive raged throughout South Vietnam, fighting around the combat base intensified.

The strategic air offensive at Khe Sanh. Image is taken from the book American Battles and Campaigns

On 7 February, a North Vietnamese assault involving 12 tanks overran the Special Forces camp at Lang Vei, west of Khe Sanh on Route 9. Bitter fighting also took place on the Marine hilltop outposts surrounding Khe Sanh, with Hill 861 being overrun by mid-February. By late February, the North Vietnamese artillery barrage on the combat base strengthened. On 29 February elements of the North Vietnamese 304th Division stormed the base, but were driven off with major losses. Under heavy pressure from the air, and with the failure of the wider Tet Offensive, North Vietnamese forces began to withdraw from the Khe Sanh area in early March.

By early April, US forces in Operation Pegasus reopened ground communication with Khe Sanh and the siege was at an end. During the fighting, the Marines lost 205 killed and 1600 wounded. Then a further 97 US and 33 South Vietnamese were killed in the relief efforts. The North Vietnamese lost as many as 15,000 casualties during the siege of Khe Sanh.

Dr. Chris McNab is the editor of AMERICAN BATTLES & CAMPAIGNS: A Chronicle, from 1622-Present and is an experienced specialist in wilderness and urban survival techniques. He has published over 20 books including: How to Survive Anything, Anywhere. An encyclopedia of military and civilian survival techniques for all environments. Special Forces Endurance Techniques, First Aid Survival Manual, and The Handbook of Urban Survival.


Battle of Khe Sanh Begins

The Battle of Khe Sanh was conducted in northwestern Quang Tri Province, Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), between 21 January and 8 April 1968 during the Vietnam War.

The combatants were elements of the United States (U.S.) III Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF), elements of the South Vietnamese Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and two to three division-size elements of the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN). The American command in South Vietnam gave the defense of the base the nickname Operation Scotland.

The American command in Saigon initially believed that combat operations around Khe Sanh during the summer of 1967 were just part of a series of minor North Vietnamese offensives in the border regions. That appraisal was altered when it was discovered that PAVN was moving major forces into the area during the fall and winter. A build-up of Marine forces took place and actions around Khe Sanh commenced when the Marine base was isolated. During a series of desperate actions that lasted 77 days, Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB) and the hilltop outposts around it were under constant North Vietnamese ground, artillery, mortar, and rocket attacks.

During the battle a massive aerial bombardment campaign (Operation Niagara) was launched by the U.S. Air Force to support the Marine base. This campaign used the latest technological advances in order to locate PAVN forces for targeting. The logistical effort to support KSCB, once it was isolated overland, demanded the implementation of other tactical innovations in order to keep the Marines supplied.

In March 1968, an overland relief expedition (Operation Pegasus) was launched by a combined Marine/Army/South Vietnamese task force that eventually broke through to the Marines at Khe Sanh. The battle itself was a tactical victory for the Marines, but the battle had no clear strategic implications.

Was it a diversion or a serious attempt to seize the combat base? General Westmoreland was convinced it was no diversion. On the contrary, given the existence of the large build‑up of PAVN forces in the vicinity of Khe Sanh and the DMZ, Westmoreland felt it would be much more logical for the Communists to stage diversionary attacks elsewhere in Vietnam "while concentrating on creating something like Dien Bien Phu at Khe Sanh and seizing the two northern provinces [of South Vietnam]."18 Westmoreland's intelligence officer, General Philip Davidson, calls the notion that Giap viewed Khe Sanh as a strategic diversion to cover his attacks against the cities of South Vietnam during Tet a "myth. with no factual basis."


Contents

The village of Khe Sanh was the seat of government of Hương Hoa district, an area of Bru Montagnard villages and coffee plantations about 7 miles (11 km) from the Laotian frontier on Route 9, the northernmost transverse road in South Vietnam. The badly-deteriorated Route 9 ran from the coastal region through the western highlands and crossed the border into Laos. The origin of the combat base lay in the construction by US Army Special Forces of an airfield in August 1962 outside the village at an old French fort. [19] The camp then became a Special Forces outpost of the Civilian Irregular Defense Groups, which were to keep watch on PAVN infiltration along the border and to protect the local population. [20] [Note 2]

James Marino wrote that in 1964, General William Westmoreland, the US commander in Vietnam, had determined, "Khe Sanh could serve as a patrol base blocking enemy infiltration from Laos a base for. operations to harass the enemy in Laos an airstrip for reconnaissance to survey the Ho Chi Minh Trail a western anchor for the defenses south of the DMZ and an eventual jumping-off point for ground operations to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail." [21] In November 1964, the Special Forces moved their camp to the Xom Cham Plateau, the future site of Khe Sanh Combat Base. [22]

In the winter of 1964, Khe Sanh became the location of a launch site for the highly-classified Military Assistance Command, Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group. The site was first established near the village and later moved to the French fort. [23] From there, reconnaissance teams were launched into Laos to explore and gather intelligence on the PAVN logistical system known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, also known as "Truong Son Strategic Supply Route" to the North Vietnamese soldiers. [22]

Marino stated that "by 1966, Westmoreland had begun to consider Khe Sanh as part of a larger strategy." With a view to gain the eventual approval for an advance through Laos to interdict the Ho Chi Minh Trail, he determined that "it was absolutely essential to hold the base." He gave the order for US Marines to take up positions around Khe Sanh. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, then began planning for incursion into Laos, and in October, the construction of an airfield at Khe Sanh was completed. [21]

The plateau camp was permanently manned by the US Marines in 1967, when they established an outpost next to the airstrip. This base was to serve as the western anchor of Marine Corps forces, which had tactical responsibility for the five northernmost provinces of South Vietnam known as I Corps. [24] [25] The Marines' defensive system stretched below the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) from the coast, along Route 9, to Khe Sanh. In 1966, the regular Special Forces troops had moved off the plateau and built a smaller camp down Route 9 at Lang Vei, about half the distance to the Laotian border. [26]

Border battles Edit

During the second half of 1967, the North Vietnamese instigated a series of actions in the border regions of South Vietnam. All of the attacks were conducted by regimental-size PAVN/VC units, but unlike most of the previous usual hit-and-run tactics, they were sustained and bloody affairs. [27]

In early October, the PAVN had intensified battalion-sized ground probes and sustained artillery fire against Con Thien, a hilltop stronghold in the center of the Marines' defensive line south of the DMZ, in northern Quảng Trị Province. [28] Mortar rounds, artillery shells, and 122 mm rockets fell randomly but incessantly upon the base. The September bombardments ranged from 100 to 150 rounds per day, with a maximum on 25 September of 1,190 rounds. [29]

Westmoreland responded by launching Operation Neutralize, an aerial and naval bombardment campaign designed to break the siege. For seven weeks, American aircraft dropped from 35,000 to 40,000 tons of bombs in nearly 4,000 airstrikes. [30]

On 27 October, a PAVN regiment attacked an Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) battalion at Song Be, capital of Phước Long Province. [30] The PAVN fought for several days, took casualties, and fell back. Two days later, the PAVN 273rd Regiment attacked a Special Forces camp near the border town of Loc Ninh, in Bình Long Province. [30] Troops of the US 1st Infantry Division were able to respond quickly. After a ten-day battle, the attackers were pushed back into Cambodia. At least 852 PAVN soldiers were killed during the action, as opposed to 50 American and South Vietnamese. [30]

The heaviest action took place near Dak To, in the Central Highlands province of Kon Tum. The presence of the PAVN 1st Division prompted a 22-day battle there and had some of the most intense close-quarters fighting of the entire conflict. [31] US intelligence estimated between 1,200 and 1,600 PAVN troops were killed, and 362 members of the US 4th Infantry Division, the 173rd Airborne Brigade, and ARVN Airborne elements were killed in action, but three of the four battalions of the 4th Infantry and the entire 173rd were rendered combat-ineffective during the battle. [32]

American intelligence analysts were quite baffled by the series of enemy actions. No logic was apparent to them behind the sustained PAVN/VC offensives other than to inflict casualties on the allied forces. That was accomplished, but the casualties absorbed by the North Vietnamese seemed to negate any direct gains they might have obtained. The border battles, however, had two significant consequences, which were unappreciated at the time. They fixed the attention of the American command on the border regions, and they drew American and ARVN forces away from the coastal lowlands and cities in preparation for the Tet Offensive. [33]

Hill fights Edit

Things remained quiet in the Khe Sanh area through 1966. Even so, Westmoreland insisted for it not only to be occupied by the Marines but also for it to be reinforced. [34] He was vociferously opposed by General Lewis W. Walt, the Marine commander of I Corps, who argued heatedly that the real target of the American effort should be the pacification and protection of the population, not chasing the PAVN/VC in the hinterlands. [35]

Westmoreland won out, however, and the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment (1/3 Marines) was dispatched to occupy the camp and airstrip on 29 September. By late January 1967, the 1/3 returned to Japan and was relieved by Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines (1/9 Marines). A single company replaced an entire battalion. [36]

On 24 April 1967, a patrol from Bravo Company became engaged with a PAVN force of an unknown size north of Hill 861. That action prematurely triggered a PAVN offensive aimed at taking Khe Sanh. The PAVN forces were in the process of gaining elevated terrain before it launched of the main attack. [37] The 2nd and 3rd battalions of the 3rd Marine Regiment, under the command of Colonel John P. Lanigan, reinforced KSCB and were given the task of pushing the PAVN off of Hills 861, 881 North, and 881 South. PAVN forces were driven out of the area around Khe Sanh after suffering 940 casualties. The Marines suffered 155 killed in action and 425 wounded. [38]

To prevent PAVN observation of the main base at the airfield and their possible use as firebases, the hills of the surrounding Khe Sanh Valley had to be continuously occupied and defended by separate Marine elements. [39]

In the wake of the hill fights, a lull in PAVN activity occurred around Khe Sanh. By the end of May, Marine forces were again drawn down from two battalions to one, the 1st Battalion, 26th Marines. [40] Lieutenant General Robert E. Cushman Jr. relieved Walt as commander of III MAF in June. [41]

On 14 August, Colonel David E. Lownds took over as commander of the 26th Marine Regiment. Sporadic actions were taken in the vicinity during the late summer and early fall, the most serious of which was the ambush of a supply convoy on Route 9. That proved to be the last overland attempt at resupply for Khe Sanh until the following March. [42] In December and early January, numerous sightings of PAVN troops and activities were made in the Khe Sanh area, but the sector remained relatively quiet. [43]

Decisions Edit

A decision then had to be made by the American high command to commit more of the limited manpower in I Corps to the defense of Khe Sanh or to abandon the base. [44] [Note 3] Westmoreland regarded the choice as quite simple. In his memoirs, he listed the reasons for a continued effort:

Khe Sanh could serve as a patrol base for blocking enemy infiltration from Laos along Route 9 as a base for SOG operations to harass the enemy in Laos as an airstrip for reconnaissance planes surveying the Ho Chi Minh Trail as the western anchor for defenses south of the DMZ and as an eventual jump-off point for ground operations to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail. [45] [Note 4]

Not all leading Marine officers, however, had the same opinion. Cushman, the new III MAF commander, supported Westmoreland perhaps because he wanted to mend Army/Marine relations after the departure of Walt. [48] Other concerns raised included the assertion that the real danger to I Corps was from a direct threat to Quảng Trị City and other urban areas, a defense would be pointless as a threat to infiltration since PAVN troops could easily bypass Khe Sanh, the base was too isolated, and the Marines "had neither the helicopter resources, the troops, nor the logistical bases for such operations." Additionally, Shore argued that the "weather was another critical factor because the poor visibility and low overcasts attendant to the monsoon season made such operations hazardous." [49]

Brigadier General Lowell English (assistant commander 3rd Marine Division) complained that the defense of the isolated outpost was ludicrous: "When you're at Khe Sanh, you're not really anywhere. You could lose it and you really haven't lost a damn thing." [25]

As far as Westmoreland was concerned, however, all that he needed to know was that the PAVN had massed large numbers of troops for a set-piece battle. Making the prospect even more enticing was that the base was in an unpopulated area in which American firepower could be fully employed without civilian casualties. The opportunity to engage and destroy a formerly elusive enemy that was moving toward a fixed position promised a victory of unprecedented proportions. [25]

Attacks on the perimeter Edit

First skirmishes Edit

In early December 1967, the PAVN appointed Major General Tran Quy Hai as the local commander for the actions around Khe Sanh, with Le Quang Dạo as his political commissar. In the coming days, a campaign headquarters was established around Sap Lit. [50] Two divisions, the 304th and the 325th, were assigned to the operation: the 325th was given responsibility for the area around the north, while the 304th was given responsibility for the southern sector. [51] In attempting to determine PAVN intentions Marine intelligence confirmed that, within a period of just over a week, the 325th Division had moved into the vicinity of the base and two more divisions were within supporting distance. The 324th Division was located in the DMZ area 10–15 miles (16–24 km) north of Khe Sanh while the 320th Division was within easy reinforcing distance to the northeast. [52] They were supported logistically from the nearby Ho Chi Minh Trail. As a result of this intelligence, KSCB was reinforced on 13 December by the 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment. According to the official PAVN history, by December 1967 the North Vietnamese had in place, or within supporting distance: the 304th, 320th, 324th and 325th Infantry Divisions, the independent 270th infantry Regiment five artillery regiments (the 16th, 45th, 84th, 204th, and 675th) three AAA regiments (the 208th, 214th, and 228th) four tank companies one engineer regiment plus one independent engineer battalion one signal battalion and a number of local force units. [53]

During the rainy night of 2 January 1968, six men dressed in black uniforms were seen outside the defensive wire of the main base by members of a listening post. After failing to respond to a challenge, they were fired upon and five were killed outright while the sixth, although wounded, escaped. [Note 5] This event prompted Cushman to reinforce Lownds with the rest of the 2nd Battalion, 26th Marines. This marked the first time that all three battalions of the 26th Marine Regiment had operated together in combat since the Battle of Iwo Jima during the Second World War. [58] To cover a defilade near the Rao Quan River, four companies from 2/26 were immediately sent out to occupy Hill 558, with another manning Hill 861A. [59]

On 20 January, La Thanh Ton, a PAVN lieutenant from the 325th Division, defected and laid out the plans for an entire series of PAVN attacks. [60] Hills 881 South, 861, and the main base itself would be simultaneously attacked that same evening. At 00:30 on 21 January, Hill 861 was attacked by about 300 PAVN troops, the Marines, however, were prepared. The PAVN infantry, though bracketed by artillery fire, still managed to penetrate the perimeter of the defenses and were only driven back after severe close-quarters combat. [61]

The main base was then subjected to an intense mortar and rocket barrage. Hundreds of mortar rounds and 122-mm rockets slammed into the base, levelling most of the above-ground structures. One of the first enemy shells set off an explosion in the main ammunition dump. Many of the artillery and mortar rounds stored in the dump were thrown into the air and detonated on impact within the base. Soon after, another shell hit a cache of tear gas, which saturated the entire area. [62] The fighting and shelling on 21 January resulted in 14 Marines killed and 43 wounded. [63] Hours after the bombardment ceased, the base was still in danger. At around 10:00, the fire ignited a large quantity of explosives, rocking the base with another series of detonations. [64]

At the same time as the artillery bombardment at KSCB, an attack was launched against Khe Sanh village, seat of Hướng Hóa District. The village, 3 km south of the base, was defended by 160 local Bru troops, plus 15 American advisers. At dawn on 21 January, it was attacked by a roughly 300-strong PAVN battalion. A platoon from Company D, 1/26 Marines was sent from the base but was withdrawn in the face of the superior PAVN forces. Reinforcements from the ARVN 256th Regional Force (RF) company were dispatched aboard nine UH-1 helicopters of the 282nd Assault Helicopter Company, but they were landed near the abandoned French fort/former FOB-3 which was occupied by the PAVN who killed many of the RF troops and 4 Americans, including Lieutenant colonel Joseph Seymoe the deputy adviser for Quang Tri Province and forcing the remaining helicopters to abandon the mission. On the morning of 22 January Lownds decided to evacuate the remaining forces in the village with most of the Americans evacuated by helicopter while two advisers led the surviving local forces overland to the combat base. [18] [65]

To eliminate any threat to their flank, the PAVN attacked Laotian Battalion BV-33, located at Ban Houei Sane, on Route 9 in Laos. The battalion was assaulted on the night of 23 January by three PAVN battalions supported by seven tanks. The Laotians were overrun, and many fled to the Special Forces camp at Lang Vei. The Battle of Ban Houei Sane, not the attack three weeks later at Lang Vei, marked the first time that the PAVN had committed an armored unit to battle. [18]

PAVN artillery fell on the main base for the first time on 21 January. Several rounds also landed on Hill 881. [66] Due to the arrival of the 304th Division, KSCB was further reinforced by the 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment on 22 January. Five days later, the final reinforcements arrived in the form of the 37th ARVN Ranger Battalion, which was deployed more for political than tactical reasons. [67] The Marines and ARVN dug in and hoped that the approaching Tết truce (scheduled for 29–31 January) would provide some respite. On the afternoon of 29 January, however, the 3rd Marine Division notified Khe Sanh that the truce had been cancelled. The Tet Offensive was about to begin. [68] [69]

Westmoreland's plan to use nuclear weapons Edit

Nine days before the Tet Offensive broke out, the PAVN opened the battle of Khe Sanh and attacked the US forces just south of the DMZ. Declassified documents show that in response, Westmoreland considered using nuclear weapons. In 1970, the Office of Air Force History published a then "top secret", but now declassified, 106-page report, titled The Air Force in Southeast Asia: Toward a Bombing Halt, 1968. Journalist Richard Ehrlich writes that according to the report, "in late January, General Westmoreland had warned that if the situation near the DMZ and at Khe Sanh worsened drastically, nuclear or chemical weapons might have to be used." The report continues to state, "this prompted Air Force chief of staff, General John McConnell, to press, although unsuccessfully, for JCS (Joint Chiefs of Staff) authority to request Pacific Command to prepare a plan for using low-yield nuclear weapons to prevent a catastrophic loss of the U.S. Marine base." [70]

Nevertheless, ultimately the nuclear option was discounted by military planners. A secret memorandum reported by US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, sent to US President Lyndon B. Johnson on 19 February 1968, was declassified in 2005. It reveals that the nuclear option was discounted because of terrain considerations that were unique to South Vietnam, which would have reduced the effectiveness of tactical nuclear weapons. McNamara wrote: "because of terrain and other conditions peculiar to our operations in South Vietnam, it is inconceivable that the use of nuclear weapons would be recommended there against either Viet Cong or North Vietnamese forces". McNamara's thinking may have also been affected by his aide David Morrisroe, whose brother Michael Morrisroe was serving at the base. [71]

Operation Niagara Edit

During January, the recently installed electronic sensors of Operation Muscle Shoals (later renamed "Igloo White"), which were undergoing test and evaluation in southeastern Laos, were alerted by a flurry of PAVN activity along the Ho Chi Minh Trail opposite the northwestern corner of South Vietnam. Due to the nature of these activities, and the threat that they posed to KSCB, Westmoreland ordered Operation Niagara I, an intense intelligence collection effort on PAVN activities in the vicinity of the Khe Sanh Valley. [72]

Niagara I was completed during the third week of January, and the next phase, Niagara II, was launched on the 21st, [73] the day of the first PAVN artillery barrage. [66] The Marine Direct Air Support Center (DASC), located at KSCB, was responsible for the coordination of air strikes with artillery fire. An airborne battlefield command and control center aboard a C-130 aircraft, directed incoming strike aircraft to forward air control (FAC) spotter planes, which, in turn directed them to targets either located by themselves or radioed in by ground units. [74] When weather conditions precluded FAC-directed strikes, the bombers were directed to their targets by either a Marine AN/TPQ-10 radar installation at KSCB or by Air Force Combat Skyspot MSQ-77 stations. [75]

Thus began what was described by John Morocco as "the most concentrated application of aerial firepower in the history of warfare". [76] On an average day, 350 tactical fighter-bombers, 60 B-52s, and 30 light observation or reconnaissance aircraft operated in the skies near the base. [77] Westmoreland had already ordered the nascent Igloo White operation to assist in the Marine defense. [72] On 22 January, the first sensor drops took place, and by the end of the month, 316 acoustic and seismic sensors had been dropped in 44 strings. [78] The sensors were implanted by a special naval squadron, Observation Squadron Sixty-Seven (VO-67). The Marines at KSCB credited 40% of intelligence available to their fire-support coordination center to the sensors. [79]

By the end of the battle, USAF assets had flown 9,691 tactical sorties and dropped 14,223 tons of bombs on targets within the Khe Sanh area. Marine Corps aviators had flown 7,098 missions and released 17,015 tons. Naval aircrews, many of whom were redirected from Operation Rolling Thunder strikes against North Vietnam, flew 5,337 sorties and dropped 7,941 tons of ordnance in the area. [80] Westmoreland later wrote, "Washington so feared that some word of it might reach the press that I was told to desist, ironically answering what those consequences could be: a political disaster." [81]

Meanwhile, an interservice political struggle took place in the headquarters at Phu Bai Combat Base, Saigon, and the Pentagon over who should control aviation assets supporting the entire American effort in Southeast Asia. [82] Westmoreland had given his deputy commander for air operations, Air Force General William W. Momyer, the responsibility for coordinating all air assets during the operation to support KSCB. This caused problems for the Marine command, which possessed its own aviation squadrons that operated under their own close air support doctrine. The Marines were extremely reluctant to relinquish authority over their aircraft to an Air Force general. [83] The command and control arrangement then in place in Southeast Asia went against Air Force doctrine, which was predicated on the single air manager concept. One headquarters would allocate and coordinate all air assets, distributing them wherever they were considered most necessary, and then transferring them as the situation required. The Marines, whose aircraft and doctrine were integral to their operations, were under no such centralized control. On 18 January, Westmoreland passed his request for Air Force control up the chain of command to CINCPAC in Honolulu. [84]

Heated debate arose among Westmoreland, Commandant of the Marine Corps Leonard F. Chapman Jr., and Army Chief of Staff Harold K. Johnson. Johnson backed the Marine position due to his concern over protecting the Army's air assets from Air Force co-option. [85] Westmoreland was so obsessed with the tactical situation that he threatened to resign if his wishes were not obeyed. [86] As a result, on 7 March, for the first time during the Vietnam War, air operations were placed under the control of a single manager. [77] Westmoreland insisted for several months that the entire Tet Offensive was a diversion, including, famously, attacks on downtown Saigon and obsessively affirming that the true objective of the North Vietnamese was Khe Sanh. [87]

Fall of Lang Vei Edit

The Tet Offensive was launched prematurely in some areas on 30 January. On the following night, a massive wave of PAVN/VC attacks swept throughout South Vietnam, everywhere except Khe Sanh. The launching of the largest enemy offensive thus far in the conflict did not shift Westmoreland's focus away from Khe Sanh. A press release prepared on the following day (but never issued), at the height of Tet, showed that he was not about to be distracted. "The enemy is attempting to confuse the issue . I suspect he is also trying to draw everyone's attention away from the greatest area of threat, the northern part of I Corps. Let me caution everyone not to be confused." [88] [89]

Not much activity (with the exception of patrolling) had occurred thus far during the battle for the Special Forces of Detachment A-101 and their four companies of Bru CIDGs stationed at Lang Vei. Then, on the morning of 6 February, the PAVN fired mortars into the Lang Vei compound, wounding eight Camp Strike Force soldiers. [90] At 18:10 hours, the PAVN followed up their morning mortar attack with an artillery strike from 152 mm howitzers, firing 60 rounds into the camp. The strike wounded two more Strike Force soldiers and damaged two bunkers. [90]

The situation changed radically during the early morning hours of 7 February. The Americans had forewarning of PAVN armor in the area from Laotian refugees from camp BV-33. SOG Reconnaissance teams also reported finding tank tracks in the area surrounding Co Roc mountain. [91] Although the PAVN was known to possess two armored regiments, it had not yet fielded an armored unit in South Vietnam, and besides, the Americans considered it impossible for them to get one down to Khe Sanh without it being spotted by aerial reconnaissance. [92]

It still came as a shock to the Special Forces troopers at Lang Vei when 12 tanks attacked their camp. The Soviet-built PT-76 amphibious tanks of the 203rd Armored Regiment churned over the defenses, backed up by an infantry assault by the 7th Battalion, 66th Regiment and the 4th Battalion of the 24th Regiment, both elements of the 304th Division. The ground troops had been specially equipped for the attack with satchel charges, tear gas, and flame throwers. Although the camp's main defenses were overrun in only 13 minutes, the fighting lasted for several hours, during which the Special Forces men and Bru CIDGs managed to knock out at least five of the tanks. [93]

The Marines at Khe Sanh had a plan in place for providing a ground relief force in just such a contingency, but Lownds, fearing a PAVN ambush, refused to implement it. Lownds also rejected a proposal to launch a helicopter extraction of the survivors. [94] During a meeting at Da Nang at 07:00 the next morning, Westmoreland and Cushman accepted Lownds' decision. Army Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Ladd (commander, 5th Special Forces Group), who had just flown in from Khe Sanh, was reportedly, "astounded that the Marines, who prided themselves on leaving no man behind, were willing to write off all of the Green Berets and simply ignore the fall of Lang Vei." [94]

Ladd and the commander of the SOG compound (whose men and camp had been incorporated into the defenses of KSCB) proposed that, if the Marines would provide the helicopters, the SOG reconnaissance men would go in themselves to pick up any survivors. [95] The Marines continued to oppose the operation until Westmoreland actually had to issue an order to Cushman to allow the rescue operation to proceed. [96] The relief effort was not launched until 15:00, and it was successful. Of the 500 CIDG troops at Lang Vei, 200 had been killed or were missing and 75 more were wounded. Of the 24 Americans at the camp, 10 had been killed and 11 wounded. [97] [Note 6]

Lownds infuriated the Special Forces personnel even further when the indigenous survivors of Lang Vei, their families, civilian refugees from the area, and Laotian survivors from the camp at Ban Houei Sane arrived at the gate of KSCB. Lownds feared that PAVN infiltrators were mixed up in the crowd of more than 6,000, and lacked sufficient resources to sustain them. Overnight, they were moved to a temporary position a short distance from the perimeter and from there, some of the Laotians were eventually evacuated, although the majority turned around and walked back down Route 9 toward Laos. [99]

The Lao troops were eventually flown back to their homeland, but not before the Laotian regional commander remarked that his army had to "consider the South Vietnamese as enemy because of their conduct." [100] The Bru were excluded from evacuation from the highlands by an order from the ARVN I Corps commander, who ruled that no Bru be allowed to move into the lowlands. [101] Ladd, back on the scene, reported that the Marines stated, "they couldn't trust any gooks in their damn camp." [102] There had been a history of distrust between the Special Forces personnel and the Marines, and General Rathvon M. Tompkins, commander of the 3rd Marine Division, described the Special Forces soldiers as "hopped up . wretches . [who] were a law unto themselves." [103] At the end of January, Tompkins had ordered that no Marine patrols proceed more than 500 meters from the Combat Base. [67] Regardless, the SOG reconnaissance teams kept patrolling, providing the only human intelligence available in the battle area. This, however, did not prevent the Marine tanks within the perimeter from training their guns on the SOG camp. [102]

Logistics and supporting fire Edit

Lownds estimated that the logistical requirements of KSCB were 60 tons per day in mid-January and rose to 185 tons per day when all five battalions were in place. [104] The greatest impediments to the delivery of supplies to the base were the closure of Route 9 and the winter monsoon weather. For most of the battle, low-lying clouds and fog enclosed the area from early morning until around noon, and poor visibility severely hampered aerial resupply. [56]

Making matters worse for the defenders, any aircraft that braved the weather and attempted to land was subject to PAVN antiaircraft fire on its way in for a landing. Once the aircraft touched down, it became the target of any number of PAVN artillery or mortar crews. The aircrew then had to contend with antiaircraft fire on the way out. As a result, 65% of all supplies were delivered by paradrops delivered by C-130 aircraft, mostly by the USAF, whose crews had significantly more experience in airdrop tactics than Marine air crews. [105] The most dramatic supply delivery system used at Khe Sanh was the Low Altitude Parachute Extraction System, in which palletized supplies were pulled out of the cargo bay of a low-flying transport aircraft by means of an attached parachute. The pallet slid to a halt on the airstrip while the aircraft never had to actually land. [55] The USAF delivered 14,356 tons of supplies to Khe Sanh by air (8,120 tons by paradrop). 1st Marine Aircraft Wing records claim that the unit delivered 4,661 tons of cargo into KSCB. [106]

The resupply of the numerous, isolated hill outposts was fraught with the same difficulties and dangers. The fire of PAVN antiaircraft units took its toll of helicopters that made the attempt. The Marines found a solution to the problem in the "Super Gaggle" concept. A group of 12 A-4 Skyhawk fighter-bombers provided flak suppression for massed flights of 12–16 helicopters, which would resupply the hills simultaneously. The adoption of this concept at the end of February was the turning point in the resupply effort. After its adoption, Marine helicopters flew in 465 tons of supplies during February. When the weather later cleared in March, the amount was increased to 40 tons per day. [107]

As more infantry units had been assigned to defend KSCB, artillery reinforcement kept pace. By early January, the defenders could count on fire support from 46 artillery pieces of various calibers, five tanks armed with 90-mm guns, and 92 single or Ontos-mounted 106-mm recoilless rifles. [108] The base could also depend on fire support from US Army 175-mm guns located at Camp Carroll, east of Khe Sanh. Throughout the battle, Marine artillerymen fired 158,891 mixed rounds. [109] [110] [111] In addition, over 100,000 tons of bombs were dropped until mid-April by aircraft of the USAF, US Navy and Marines onto the area surrounding Khe Sanh. [112] This equates to roughly 1,300 tons of bombs dropped daily — 5 tons for every one of the 20,000 PAVN soldiers initially estimated to have been committed to the fighting at Khe Sanh. [113] Marine analysis of PAVN artillery fire estimated that the PAVN gunners had fired 10,908 artillery and mortar rounds and rockets into Marine positions during the battle. [114]

Communications with military command outside of Khe Sanh was maintained by an U.S. Army Signal Corps team, the 544th Signal Detachment from the 337th Signal Company, 37th Signal Brigade in Danang. The latest microwave/tropospheric scatter technology enabled them to maintain communications at all times. The site linked to another microwave/tropo site in Huế manned by the 513th Signal Detachment. From the Huế site the communication signal was sent to Danang headquarters where it could be sent anywhere in the world. The microwave/tropo site was located in an underground bunker next to the airstrip. [115]

Attacks prior to relief of the base Edit

On the night of the fall of Lang Vei, three companies of the PAVN 101D Regiment moved into jump-off positions to attack Alpha-1, an outpost just outside the Combat Base held by 66 men of Company A, 1st Platoon, 1/9 Marines. At 04:15 on 8 February under cover of fog and a mortar barrage, the PAVN penetrated the perimeter, overrunning most of the position and pushing the remaining 30 defenders into the southwestern portion of the defenses. For some unknown reason, the PAVN troops did not press their advantage and eliminate the pocket, instead throwing a steady stream of grenades at the Marines. [102] At 07:40, a relief force from Company A, 2nd Platoon set out from the main base and attacked through the PAVN, pushing them into supporting tank and artillery fire. [116] By 11:00, the battle was over, Company A had lost 24 dead and 27 wounded, while 150 PAVN bodies were found around the position, which was then abandoned. [117]

On 23 February, KSCB received its worst bombardment of the entire battle. During one 8-hour period, the base was rocked by 1,307 rounds, most of which came from 130-mm (used for the first time on the battlefield) and 152-mm artillery pieces located in Laos. [118] Casualties from the bombardment were 10 killed and 51 wounded. Two days later, US troops detected PAVN trenches running due north to within 25 m of the base perimeter. [119] The majority of these were around the southern and southeastern corners of the perimeter, and formed part of a system that would be developed throughout the end of February and into March until they were ready to be used to launch an attack, providing cover for troops to advance to jumping-off points close to the perimeter. [55] These tactics were reminiscent of those employed against the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, particularly in relation to entrenching tactics and artillery placement, and the realization assisted US planners in their targeting decisions. [120] [121]

Nevertheless, the same day that the trenches were detected, 25 February, 3rd Platoon from Bravo Company 1st Battalion, 26th Marines was ambushed on a short patrol outside the base's perimeter to test the PAVN strength. The Marines pursued three enemy scouts, who led them into an ambush. The platoon withdrew following a three-hour battle that left six Marines dead, 24 missing, and one taken prisoner. [119]

In late February, ground sensors detected the 66th Regiment, 304th Division preparing to mount an attack on the positions of the 37th ARVN Ranger Battalion on the eastern perimeter. [122] On the night of 28 February, the combat base unleashed artillery and airstrikes on possible PAVN staging areas and routes of advance. At 21:30, the attack came on, but it was stifled by the small arms of the Rangers, who were supported by thousands of artillery rounds and air strikes. Two further attacks later in the morning were halted before the PAVN finally withdrew. The PAVN, however, were not through with the ARVN troops. Five more attacks against their sector were launched during March. [122]

By mid-March, Marine intelligence began to note an exodus of PAVN units from the Khe Sanh sector. [122] The 325C Divisional Headquarters was the first to leave, followed by the 95C and 101D Regiments, all of which relocated to the west. At the same time, the 304th Division withdrew to the southwest. That did not mean, however, that battle was over. On 22 March, over 1,000 North Vietnamese rounds fell on the base, and once again, the ammunition dump was detonated. [123]

On 30 March, Bravo Company, 26th Marines, launched an attack toward the location of the ambush that had claimed so many of their comrades on 25 February. Following a rolling barrage fired by nine artillery batteries, the Marine attack advanced through two PAVN trenchlines, but the Marines failed to locate the remains of the men of the ambushed patrol. The Marines claimed 115 PAVN killed, while their own casualties amounted to 10 dead, 100 wounded, and two missing. [124] At 08:00 the following day, Operation Scotland was officially terminated. Operational control of the Khe Sanh area was handed over to the US Army's 1st Air Cavalry Division for the duration of Operation Pegasus. [114]

Cumulative friendly casualties for Operation Scotland, which began on 1 November 1967, were: 205 killed in action, 1,668 wounded, and 25 missing and presumed dead. [17] These figures do not include casualties among Special Forces troops at Lang Vei, aircrews killed or missing in the area, or Marine replacements killed or wounded while entering or exiting the base aboard aircraft. As far as PAVN casualties were concerned, 1,602 bodies were counted, seven prisoners were taken, and two soldiers defected to allied forces during the operation. American intelligence estimated that between 10,000 and 15,000 PAVN troops were killed during the operation, equating to up to 90% of the attacking 17,200-man PAVN force. [114] [17] The PAVN acknowledged 2,500 men killed in action. [125] They also reported 1,436 wounded before mid-March, of which 484 men returned to their units, while 396 were sent up the Ho Chi Minh Trail to hospitals in the north. [18]

President Johnson orders that the base be held at all costs Edit

The fighting at Khe Sanh was so volatile that the Joint Chiefs and MACV commanders were uncertain that the base could be held by the Marines. In the US, the media following the battle drew comparisons with the 1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu, which proved disastrous for the French. [126] [127] Nevertheless, according to Tom Johnson, President Johnson was "determined that Khe Sanh [would not] be an 'American Dien Bien Phu'". He subsequently ordered the US military to hold Khe Sanh at all costs. As a result, "B-52 Arc Light strikes originating in Guam, Okinawa, and Thailand bombed the jungles surrounding Khe Sanh into stubble fields" and Khe Sanh became the major news headline coming out of Vietnam in late March 1968. [128]

Relief and retreat from Khe Sanh Edit

Operation Pegasus (1–14 April 1968) Edit

Planning for the overland relief of Khe Sanh had begun as early as 25 January 1968, when Westmoreland ordered General John J. Tolson, commander, First Cavalry Division, to prepare a contingency plan. Route 9, the only practical overland route from the east, was impassable due to its poor state of repair and the presence of PAVN troops. Tolson was not happy with the assignment, since he believed that the best course of action, after Tet, was to use his division in an attack into the A Shau Valley. Westmoreland, however, was already planning ahead. Khe Sanh would be relieved and then used as the jump-off point for a "hot pursuit" of enemy forces into Laos. [129]

On 2 March, Tolson laid out what became known as Operation Pegasus, the operational plan for what was to become the largest operation launched by III MAF thus far in the conflict. The 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment (2/1 Marines) and the 2/3 Marines would launch a ground assault from Ca Lu Combat Base (16 km east of Khe Sanh) and head west on Route 9 while the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Brigades of the 1st Cavalry Division, would air-assault key terrain features along Route 9 to establish fire support bases and cover the Marine advance. The advance would be supported by 102 pieces of artillery. [130] The Marines would be accompanied by their 11th Engineer Battalion, which would repair the road as the advance moved forward. Later, the 1/1 Marines and 3rd ARVN Airborne Task Force (the 3rd, 6th, and 8th Airborne Battalions) would join the operation. [131]

Westmoreland's planned relief effort infuriated the Marines, who had not wanted to hold Khe Sanh in the first place and who had been roundly criticized for not defending it well. [132] The Marines had constantly argued that technically, Khe Sanh had never been under siege, since it had never truly been isolated from resupply or reinforcement. Cushman was appalled by the "implication of a rescue or breaking of the siege by outside forces." [133]

Regardless, on 1 April, Operation Pegasus began. [134] Opposition from the North Vietnamese was light and the primary problem that hampered the advance was continual heavy morning cloud cover that slowed the pace of helicopter operations. As the relief force made progress, the Marines at Khe Sanh moved out from their positions and began patrolling at greater distances from the base. Things heated up for the air cavalrymen on 6 April, when the 3rd Brigade encountered a PAVN blocking force and fought a day-long engagement. [135]

On the following day, the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Air Cavalry captured the old French fort near Khe Sanh village after a three-day battle. The link-up between the relief force and the Marines at KSCB took place at 08:00 on 8 April, when the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment entered the camp. [136] The 11th Engineers proclaimed Route 9 open to traffic on 11 April. On that day, Tolson ordered his unit to immediately make preparations for Operation Delaware, an air assault into the A Shau Valley. [135] At 08:00 on 15 April, Operation Pegasus was officially terminated. [137] Total US casualties during the operation were 92 killed, 667 wounded, and five missing. Thirty-three ARVN troops were also killed and 187 were wounded. [138] Because of the close proximity of the enemy and their high concentration, the massive B-52 bombings, tactical airstrikes, and vast use of artillery, PAVN casualties were estimated by MACV as being between 10,000 and 15,000 men. [139]

Lownds and the 26th Marines departed Khe Sanh, leaving the defense of the base to the 1st Marine Regiment. He made his final appearance in the story of Khe Sanh on 23 May, when his regimental sergeant major and he stood before President Johnson and were presented with a Presidential Unit Citation on behalf of the 26th Marines. [140] [141]

Operation Scotland II Edit

On 15 April, the 3rd Marine Division resumed responsibility for KSCB, Operation Pegasus ended, and Operation Scotland II began with the Marines seeking out the PAVN in the surrounding area. [137] Operation Scotland II would continue until 28 February 1969 resulting in 435 Marines and 3304 PAVN killed. [142]

Author Peter Brush details that an "additional 413 Marines were killed during Scotland II through the end of June 1968". [1] He goes on to state that a further 72 were killed as part Operation Scotland II throughout the remainder of the year, but that these deaths are not included in the official US casualty lists for the Battle of Khe Sanh. Twenty-five USAF personnel who were killed are also not included. [1]

Operation Charlie: evacuation of the base Edit

The evacuation of Khe Sanh began on 19 June 1968 as Operation Charlie. [143] Useful equipment was withdrawn or destroyed, and personnel were evacuated. A limited attack was made by a PAVN company on 1 July, falling on a company from the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, who were holding a position 3 km to the southeast of the base. Casualties were heavy among the attacking PAVN, who lost over 200 killed, while the defending Marines lost two men. [144] The official closure of the base came on 5 July after fighting, which had killed five more Marines. The withdrawal of the last Marines under the cover of darkness was hampered by the shelling of a bridge along Route 9, which had to be repaired before the withdrawal could be completed. [7]

Following the closure of the base, a small force of Marines remained around Hill 689 carrying out mopping-up operations. [7] Further fighting followed, resulting in the loss of another 11 Marines and 89 PAVN soldiers, before the Marines finally withdrew from the area on 11 July. [1] According to Brush, it was "the only occasion in which Americans abandoned a major combat base due to enemy pressure" and in the aftermath, the North Vietnamese began a strong propaganda campaign, seeking to exploit the US withdrawal and to promote the message that the withdrawal had not been by choice. [1]

The PAVN claim that they began attacking the withdrawing Americans on 26 June 1968 prolonging the withdrawal, killing 1,300 Americans and shooting down 34 aircraft before "liberating" Khe Sanh on 15 July. The PAVN claim that during the entire battle they "eliminated" 17,000 enemy troops, including 13,000 Americans and destroyed 480 aircraft. [145]

Regardless, the PAVN had gained control of a strategically important area, and its lines of communication extended further into South Vietnam. [10] Once the news of the closure of KSCB was announced, the American media immediately raised questions about the reasoning behind its abandonment. They asked what had changed in six months so that American commanders were willing to abandon Khe Sanh in July. The explanations given out by the Saigon command were that "the enemy had changed his tactics and reduced his forces that PAVN had carved out new infiltration routes that the Marines now had enough troops and helicopters to carry out mobile operations that a fixed base was no longer necessary." [146]

While KSCB was abandoned, the Marines continued to patrol the Khe Sanh plateau, including reoccupying the area with ARVN forces from 5–19 October 1968 with minimal opposition. [147] On 31 December 1968, the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion was landed west of Khe Sanh to commence Operation Dawson River West, on 2 January 1969 the 9th Marines and 2nd ARVN Regiment were also deployed on the plateau supported by the newly established Fire Support Bases Geiger and Smith the 3-week operation found no significant PAVN forces or supplies in the Khe Sanh area. [148] From 12 June to 6 July 1969, Task Force Guadalcanal comprising 1/9 Marines, 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment and 2nd and 3rd Battalions, 2nd ARVN Regiment occupied the Khe Sanh area in Operation Utah Mesa. [149] The Marines occupied Hill 950 overlooking the Khe Sanh plateau from 1966 until September 1969 when control was handed to the Army who used the position as a SOG operations and support base until it was overrun by the PAVN in June 1971. [150] [151] The gradual withdrawal of US forces began during 1969 and the adoption of Vietnamization meant that, by 1969, "although limited tactical offensives abounded, US military participation in the war would soon be relegated to a defensive stance." [152]

According to military historian Ronald Spector, to reasonably record the fighting at Khe Sanh as an American victory is impossible. [7] With the abandonment of the base, according to Thomas Ricks, "Khe Sanh became etched in the minds of many Americans as a symbol of the pointless sacrifice and muddled tactics that permeated a doomed U.S. war effort in Vietnam". [153] Correspondent Michael Herr reported on the battle, and his account would inspire the surreal "Do Long Bridge" scene in the film Apocalypse Now, which emphasized the anarchy of the war. [154]

Termination of the McNamara Line Edit

Commencing in 1966, the US had attempted to establish a barrier system across the DMZ to prevent infiltration by North Vietnamese troops. Known as the McNamara Line, it was initially codenamed "Project Nine" before it was renamed "Dye Marker" by MACV in September 1967. That occurred just as the PAVN began the first phase of their offensive by launching attacks against Marine-held positions across the DMZ. The attacks hindered the advancement of the McNamara Line, and as the fighting around Khe Sanh intensified, vital equipment including sensors and other hardware had to be diverted from elsewhere to meet the needs of the US garrison at Khe Sanh. Construction on the line was ultimately abandoned and resources were later diverted towards implementing a more mobile strategy. [9]

Assessment Edit

The precise nature of Hanoi's strategic goal at Khe Sanh is regarded as one of the most intriguing unanswered questions of the Vietnam War. According to Gordon Rottman, even the North Vietnamese official history, Victory in Vietnam, is largely silent on the issue. [155] The question, known among American historians as the "riddle of Khe Sanh," has been summed up by John Prados and Ray Stubbe: "Either the Tet Offensive was a diversion intended to facilitate PAVN/VC preparations for a war-winning battle at Khe Sanh, or Khe Sanh was a diversion to mesmerize Westmoreland in the days before Tet." [156] In assessing North Vietnamese intentions, Peter Brush cites the claim of Vietnamese theater commander, Võ Nguyên Giáp, "that Khe Sanh itself was not of importance, but only a diversion to draw U.S. forces away from the populated areas of South Vietnam." [157] That has led other observers to conclude that the siege served a wider PAVN strategy by diverting 30,000 US troops away from the cities that were the main targets of the Tet Offensive. [158]

Whether the PAVN actually planned to capture Khe Sanh or the battle was an attempt to replicate the Việt Minh triumph against the French at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu has long been a point of contention. Westmoreland believed that the latter was the case, and his belief was the basis for his desire to stage "Dien Bien Phu in reverse." [159] Those who agree with Westmoreland reason that no other explanation exists for Hanoi to commit so many forces to the area instead of deploying them for the Tet Offensive. The fact that the North Vietnamese committed only about half of their available forces to the offensive (60–70,000), most of whom were Viet Cong, is cited in favor of Westmoreland's argument. Other theories argued that the forces around Khe Sanh were simply a localized defensive measure in the DMZ area or that they were serving as a reserve in case of an offensive American end run in the mode of the American invasion at Inchon during the Korean War. However, North Vietnamese sources claim that the Americans did not win a victory at Khe Sanh but were forced to retreat to avoid destruction. The PAVN claimed that Khe Sanh was "a stinging defeat from both the military and political points of view." Westmoreland was replaced two months after the end of the battle, and his successor explained the retreat in different ways. [7]

General Creighton Abrams also suggested that the North Vietnamese may have been planning to emulate Dien Bien Phu. He believed that was proved by the PAVN's actions during Tet. [160] He cited the fact that it would have taken longer to dislodge the North Vietnamese at Hue if the PAVN had committed the three divisions at Khe Sanh to the battle there instead of dividing its forces. However, the PAVN committed three regiments to the fighting from the Khe Sanh sector. [161]

Another interpretation was that the North Vietnamese were planning to work both ends against the middle, a strategy that has come to be known as the Option Play. The PAVN would try to take Khe Sanh, but if could not, it would occupy the attention of as many American and South Vietnamese forces in I Corps as it could, which would facilitate the Tet Offensive. [162] This view was supported by a captured North Vietnamese study of the battle in 1964 that stated that the PAVN would have taken Khe Sanh if it could have done so, but there was a limit to the price that it would pay. Its main objectives were to inflict casualties on US troops and to isolate them in the remote border regions. [163]

Another theory is that the actions around Khe Sanh and the other battles at the border were simply feints ands ruse meant to focus American attention and forces on the border. A historian, General Dave Palmer, accepted that rationale: "General Giap never had any intention of capturing Khe Sanh . [it] was a feint, a diversionary effort. And it had accomplished its purpose magnificently." [164] [Note 7]

Marine General Rathvon M. Tompkins, the commander of the 3rd Marine Division, pointed out that had the PAVN actually intended to take Khe Sanh, PAVN troops could have cut the base's sole source of water, a stream 500 m outside the perimeter of the base. If only it had contaminated the stream, the airlift would not have provided enough water to the Marines. [125] Also, Marine Lieutenant General Victor Krulak seconded the notion that there was never a serious intention to take the base by arguing that neither the water supply nor the telephone land lines were ever cut by the PAVN. [166] [137]

One argument that was then leveled by Westmoreland and has since often quoted by historians of the battle is that only two Marine regiments were tied down at Khe Sanh, compared with the several PAVN divisions. [167] When Hanoi made the decision to move in around the base, Khe Sanh was held by only one or two American battalions. Whether the destruction of one battalion could have been the goal of two to four PAVN divisions was debatable. However, even if Westmoreland believed his statement, his argument never moved on to the next logical level. By the end of January 1968, he had moved half of all US combat troops, nearly 50 maneuver battalions, to I Corps. [168]

Use during Operation Lam Son 719 Edit

On 30 January 1971, the ARVN and US forces launched Operation Dewey Canyon II, which involved the reopening of Route 9, securing the Khe Sanh area and reoccupying of KSCB as a forward supply base for Operation Lam Son 719. On 8 February 1971, the leading ARVN units marched along Route 9 into southern Laos while the US ground forces and advisers were prohibited from entering Laos. American logistical, aerial, and artillery support was provided to the operation. [169] [170]

After the ARVN defeat in Laos, the newly-reopened KSCB came under attack by PAVN sappers and artillery and the base was abandoned once again on 6 April 1971. [171] [172]


Today in Marine Corps History. The Battle of Khe Sanh began.

via Marine Corps Historical Division.

The battle of Khe Sanh was taught to every Marine in boot camp not that long ago. Its the story of Marines under almost constant fire, living in hellish conditions and with the assistance of some extremely brave airmen fought and won where the French had failed.

Its one of those "finest hour" stories that is known only inside the military (note also that this was a truly joint service fight. the US Army, Air Force, Navy. everyone showed up, everyone fought and everyone bled).

One of the sidenotes to the fight is the battle for the hills surrounding the base. If those battles are analogous to what company landing teams will face (and that is my fear) then we're looking at sending future Marines into meat grinders.

This history is a must read.

6 comments:

Imagine what USMC could have done with JDAM and HIMARS.

i'm not sure. we wouldn't have had to rely so heavily on air power BUT the enemy would be advanced too so what would they do to counter heavy rockets and precision guided munitions?

It was that Airpower the French lacked.,men on the ground at Dien Bien Phu were of at least the same quality ,Legion Paras probably better than most of the words fighting units of the day, great many of them German WW2 veterans.

''Khe Sanh received 18,000 tons in aerial resupplies during the 77-day battle, whereas during 167 days that the French forces at Dien Bien Phu held out, they received only 4,000 tons'' tonage droped in bombs is in even greater contrast.

France asked for B29 rampage, but Eisenhower deny. I've even heard about nuke reqest, obviously and wisely deny too.
In both cases I think it was a bad idea, bad tactic, bad place for base, because or airstrip.
The Us, with bigger airpower, had made the victory. Dien Ben phu was lost when tha air supply was stopped with the shelling of the airstrip.

There are certain similarities in the Dien Bien Phu and Khe Sanh set-up. Why one ended in disaster and the other in tactical victory (but strategic defeat) has nothing to do however with the quality of airpower and only to a certain degree to lack of resupplying, in the case of Dien Bien Phu.
The quality of troops on the ground in both battles is beyond doubt. But Dien Bien Phu ended up as a fuck-up because the French brass in charge of planning the battle totally underestimated Giap's ability to move heavy artillery into the hills around Dien Bien Phu.
It's the actual superiority of the Viet Minh artillery that decided the fate of the French forces there, combined marginally with lack of resupplying and the fact the French were actually operating way behind ennemy lines.

That's where the differences with Khe Sanh start because the Marines there were in a better position when Giap decided the hit that base. The major cause for concern I would see for the future, is that today's Generals might actually underestimate the capibilities of tomorrow's ennemy just as much as the French did in 1954 and that is where future Marines might get unnecessarily into harm's way.


Battle of Khe Sanh begins - HISTORY

July - First Special Forces A-detachment arrives at Khe Sanh

September - SF Detachment A-131 sent to Khe Sanh

September - Vietnamese engineers build first airstrip at Khe Sanh

March - 70 ARVN paratroopers jump into the French Fort area.

April - Two O-1B observation planes come under heavy fire in the
valley between Hills 861 and 881.

March - O-1B "Bird dog" shot down. Pilot, Captain Richard Whitesides
becomes first American KIA at Khe Sanh. Observer,
Captain Floyd Thompson is captured and becomes the
longest held POW of the Vietnam War.

April - Marine Corps sends the Signal Engineering Unit (SESU) to Khe
Sanh. Includes Marines from 1st Radio Company, Company G
of the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines and a section of 81mm
mortars. This is the first Marine ground unit to conduct
independent operations in South Vietnam.

October - Strikers from Khe Sanh make contact with confirmed NVA
troops just inside Laos. Provides proof that Hanoi is
sending troops into the South.

Special Forces builds camp next to airstrip. This camp becomes
the site of Khe Sanh Combat Base.

April 17 - Marine Corps conducts Operation VIRGINIA looking for NVA
May 1 troop concentrations between Hill 558 and Khe Sanh Combat Base.
No significant contact was made.

June - SOG and reconnaissance patrols report increased activity.
August Sightings of large NVA troop concentrations indicate possible
attack in the Khe Sanh area.

September - Navy Mobile Construction Battalion 10 arrives at Khe Sanh to
rebuild airstrip. Special Forces moves to Lang Vei and 1st
Battalion, 3rd Marines moves to Khe Sanh.

February - 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines replaced by single company,
Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines.

March 15 - Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines replaces E/2/9 as
resident defense company.

April 20 - Combat assets at KSCB pass to operational control of Col.
Lanigan's 3rd Marines which commences Operation PRAIRIE IV.

April 24 - B/1/9 patrol engages large enemy force north of Hill 861 and
prematurely triggers attack on Khe Sanh. "Hill Fights" begin.

April 25 - 2/3 and 3/3 airlifted to KSCB to counter enemy drive.

April 28 - After heavy prep fires, Lt. Col. DeLong's 2/3 assaults and seizes
first objective, Hill 861.

May 2 - Lt. Col. Wilder's 3/3 seizes Hill 881S after 4 days of heavy fighting.

May 3 - 2/3 repulses strong enemy counterattack south of Hill 881N.

May 5 - 2/3 secures final objective, Hill 881N.

May 11 - "Hill Fights" terminate 940 NVA and 155 Marine KIA. 3rd Marines
May 13 shuttled to Dong Ha as 26th Marines (FWD) and 1/26 move into
Khe Sanh.

May 13 - Col. Padley, CO 26th Marines (FWD), relieves Col. Lanigan as Senior
officer present at Khe Sanh. Elements of 1/26 occupy combat base,
Hills 881S, 861, and 950. Operation CROCKETT commences.

June 13 - Due to increasing enemy contacts, LtCol Hoch's 3/26 airlifted
to KSCB.

July 16 - Operation CROCKETT terminates with 204 NVA and 52
Marines KIA.

July 17 - Operation ARDMORE begins.

August 12 - Col Lownds relieves Col Padley as CO, 26th Marines.

August 13 - Due to lack of significant contact around Khe Sanh, Company K & L,
3/26, transfered to 9th Marines and Operation KINGFISHER.

August 17 - Khe Sanh airfield closed to normal traffic for repair of runway.

Sept 3 - Remainder of 3/26 withdrawn to eastern Quang Tri Province.

Oct 27 - Air strip reopened to C-123 traffic.

Oct 31 - Operation ARDMORE terminated with 113 NVA and 10 Marines KIA.

Nov 1 - Operation SCOTLAND I begins

Nov 28 - MajGen Tompkins assumes command of 3rd Marine Division.

Dec 13 - LtCol Alderman's 3/26 returns to Khe Sanh because of increased
enemy activity in the Khe Sanh TAOR.

Dec 21 - 3/26 conducts 5 day sweep west of base and uncovers evidence
of enemy buildup around KSCB.

Jan 2 - Five NVA officers killed near western edge of main perimeter. Intelligence
reports indicate influx of two NVA divisions, and possibly a third, into
the Khe Sanh TAOR.

Jan 16 -17 LtCol Heath's 2/26 transferred to operational control of 26th Marines and
arrives KSCB 2/26 occupies Hill 558 north of the base. ASRT-B of
MASS-3 displaces from Chu Lai to Khe Sanh to handle ground
controlled radar bombing missions.

Jan 17 - Team from "Bravo", 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion ambushed near Hill
881N.

Jan 19 - While searching the recon ambush site, patrol from I/3/26 comes under fire
from an estimated 25 NVA troops and withdraws under cover of supporting
arms. Two platoons from M/3/26 helilifted to Hill 881S as reinforcements
for I/3/26 which prepares for sweep toward Hill 881N the next day.

Jan 20 - Capt Dabney's I/23/26 attacks and, with the aid of air and artillery, badly
mauls the NVA battalion entrenched on the southern slopes of Hill 881N
7 Marines and 103 NVA KIA. On strength of testimony of captured NVA
lieutenant that enemy attack is imminent, I/3/26 is withdrawn to Hill 881S
and KSCB is placed on Red Alert. DASC of MASS-3 moves to Khe
Sanh.

Jan 20-21 Estimated NVA battalion attacks K/3/26 on Hill 861. After penetrating
southwestern portion of Marines' perimeter, the enemy is repulsed leaving
47 dead NVA reserves are hit by heavy air strikes and artillery fire.

Jan 21 - KSCB comes under heavy mortar, artillery, and rocket attack which
destroys main ammunition dump. NVA battalion attacks and partially
overruns Khe Sanh village before CAC and RF companies drive off enemy.
After second attack, Col Lownds withdraws defenders to KSCB.

Jan 22 - US MACV initiates Operation NIAGARA to provide massive air support
for Khe Sanh. LtCol Mitchel's 1/9 arrives at KSCB and takes up
postions which encompass rock quarry southwest of combat base. E/2/26
is relocated from Hill 558 to prominent ridgeline northeast of 861 as
covering force for flank of 2/26 E/2/26 passes to operational control of 3rd
Battalion. New position is called 861 Alpha.

Jan 23-28 Large number of tribesmen and families are evacuated from Khe Sanh area
to avoid hostile fire.

Jan 27 - 37th ARVN Ranger Battalion arrives at KSCB and takes up positions in
eastern sector of combat base.

Jan 30 - Communists launch nation-wide TET Offensive.

Feb 5 - NVA battalion attacks E/2/26 on Hill 861A in concert with heavy shelling
of KSCB. Enemy gains foothold in northern sector of Company E perimeter
but is driven out by savage counterattack 109 NVA and 7 Marines KIA.

Feb 7 - Special Forces camp at Lang Vei overrun by enemy battalion supported by
PT-76 Soviet-built tanks first use of NVA tanks in South Vietnam.

Feb 8 - Some 3,000 indigenous personnel, both military and civilian, from Lang Vei
move overland to Khe Sanh. After being searched and processed, several
hundred refugees are air evacuated.

A/1/9 combat outpost 500 meters west of 1/9 perimeter hit and partailly
overrun by reinforced NVA battalion. During three-hour battle, reinforcements
drive NVA from Marine positions and with the aid of supporting arms kill
150 NVA Col Lownds decides to abandon outpost and units withdraw to
1/9 perimeter. 27 Marines from A/1/9 die in battle.

Feb 10 - Marine C-130 of VMGR-152, hit by enemy fire during approach, crashes after
landing at Khe Sanh and six are killed.

Feb - Apr Paradrops, low-altitude extraction systems, and helicopters are primary means
of resupplying 26th Marines due to bad weather and heavy enemy fire.

Feb 21 - After heavy mortar and artillery barrage, NVA company probes 37th ARVN
Ranger lines but withdraws after distant fire fight. It is estimated that 25-30
NVA were killed.

Feb 23 - KSCB receives record number of incoming rounds for a single day - 1,307.
First appearance of enemy trench system around KSCB.

Feb 25 - B/1/26 patrol ambushed south of KSCB 23Marines KIA. Patrol is later
called the "Ghost Patrol".

Feb 29 - Estimated NVA regiment maneuvers to attack 37th ARVN Ranger positions
Mar 1 but fail to reach defensive wire.

Mar 6 - USAF C-123 shot down east of runway 43 USMC, 4 USAF, and 1 USN
personnel KIA.

Mar 7 - Large groups of refugees begin to filter into the base and are evacuated.

Mar 8 - ARVN patrols attack enemy trenchline east of runway and kill 26 NVA.

Mar 15 - American intelligence notes withdrawal of major NVA units from KSCB area.

Mar 22-23 - KSCB receives heaviest saturation of enemy rounds for the month - 1,109.

Mar 24 - A/1/9 patrol kills 31 NVA west of 1/9 perimeter.

Mar 25 - 1/9 CavSqd, 1st ACD begins reconnaissance in force operations east of
Khe Sanh in preparation for Operation PEGASUS.

Mar 30 - B/1/26 attacks enemy fortified position south of combat base and kills 115
North Vietnamese 9 Marines are KIA. Operation SCOTLAND I terminates
with 1,602 confirmed NVA and 205 Marines KIA estimates place probable
enemy dead between 10,000 and 15,000.

Task Force KILO launches diversionary attack along Gio Linh coastal plain to
divert attention away from Ca Lu where 1st ACD, and 1st Marines are staging
for Operation PEGASUS.

Apr 1 - Operation PEGASUS begins 2/1 and 2/3 (1st Marines) attack west from Ca Lu
along Route 9. Elements of 3d Bde, 1st ACD conduct helo assaults into LZ
Mike and Cates. Joint engineer task force begins repair of Route 9 from Ca Lu
to Khe Sanh.

Apr 3 - 2d Bde, 1st ACD assaults LZs Tom and Wharton.

Apr 4 - 1/5 CavSqd moves northwest from LZ Wharton and attacks enemy units near
old French fort 1st Battalion, 9th Marines moves southeast from rock quarry
and assaults Hill 471.

Apr 5 - 1/9 repulses enemy counterattack on Hill 471 and kills 122 North Vietnamese.
1st Bde, 1st ACD departs Ca Lu and assaults LZ Snapper.

Apr 6 - One company of 3d ARVN Airborne Task Force airlifted to KSCB for the
initial link up with defenders. Elements of 2d Bde, 1st ACD relieve 1st Battalion,
9th Marines on Hill 471 1/9 commences sweep to northwest toward Hill 689.

1st Bde, 1st ACD helilifted north of KSCB. 2/26 and 3/26 push north of combat
base Company G, 2/26 engages enemy force and kills 48 NVA.

Apr 8 - 2/7 CavSqd links up with 26th Marines and conducts official relief of combat
base. 1/26 attacks to the west. 3d ARVN Airborne Task Force air assaults into
LZ Snake west of Khe Sanh and kills 78 North Vietnamese.

Apr 10 - LtGen Rosson arrives Khe Sanh and directs LtGen Tolson to disengage and
prepare for Operation DELAWARE in A Shau Valley.

Apr 11 - Engineers complete renovation of Route 9 and road is officially opened. Elements
of 1st ACD begin withdrawal to Quang Tri City in preparation for Operation
DELAWARE 37th ARVN Ranger Battalion airlifted to Da Nang.

Apr 12 - Col Meyers relieves Col Lownds as CO, 26th Marines.

Apr 14 - 3/26 attacks Hill 881N and kills 106 NVA 6 Marines are KIA.

Apr 15 - Operation PEGASUS terminated Operation SCOTLAND II begins.

Apr 18 - 26th Marines withdrawn to Dong Ha and Camp Carroll.

May 23 - President Johnson presents the Presidential Unit Citation to 26th Marines and
supporting units during White House ceremony.

Jun 23 - Although forward fire support bases are maintained in Khe Sanh area, the KSCB
is dismantled and abandoned. LZ Stud at Ca Lu is selected as base for air mobile
operations in western DMZ area.


The Withdrawal from Khe Sanh

On May 23, 1968, U.S. Marine Corps Colonel David E. Lownds was invited to the White House. There, President Lyndon Johnson awarded Lownds’ 26th Marine Regiment the Presidential Unit Citation, the nation’s highest unit decoration, for its bravery at Khe Sanh in 1968. The text noted that because of the unit’s actions, ‘enemy forces were denied the military and psychological victory they so desperately sought. An editorial in the Washington Star took the Marines’ accolades even further, claiming that One day, in fact, the victory over the siege may be judged a decisive turning point that finally convinced the enemy he could not win.

Vietnamese Communists view Khe Sanh differently. For them, not only did the Americans not win a victory at Khe Sanh, they were forced to retreat in order to avoid destruction. The Communists claim Khe Sanh was a stinging defeat from both the military and political points of view.

The fighting at Khe Sanh during Tet 1968 was widely covered in the U.S. media. As the battle continued, American military commanders gave frequent explanations as to why the United States sought a confrontation with Communist forces.

Khe Sanh had been garrisoned by Americans since 1962. General William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, felt maintaining a presence at Khe Sanh was critically important. It served as a patrol base for interdiction of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, as the western terminus for the defensive line along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), and as a barrier to Communist efforts to carry the fighting into the populated coastal regions of South Vietnam. By early 1968, 6,000 Marines at Khe Sanh were surrounded by 20,000 North Vietnamese troops. The siege began on January 21, 1968. In a report dated February 18, the New York Times explained the importance of Khe Sanh, noting that this area in northwest South Vietnam provided a base for allied operations against the infiltration by the Communists of men and supplies into the south. After the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) surrounded the Marine position at Khe Sanh, allied forces were unable to inhibit this infiltration it became too dangerous for the Marines to leave their base in sufficient numbers to greatly affect the movement of enemy forces. Although that situation may have reduced the strategic value of Khe Sanh in any conventional sense of the word, American military commanders believed the United States would suffer a heavy psychological blow if they retreated from Khe Sanh.

Unlike the Americans, the North Vietnamese were unable to hold fixed positions due to the efficacy of allied firepower. As a result, the Communists concentrated on harassing and disrupting allied forces. The American military command concluded that the only way to stop the disruption was to destroy enemy forces in sufficient numbers. The American commanders hoped that at Khe Sanh they would be able to kill enemy troops in a ratio of 10 to 1, 20 to 1, or even 30 to 1. The Americans clung to their belief in the value of a positive kill ratio in face of compelling evidence showing they were mostly unable to achieve it.

Despite the fact that Khe Sanh was encircled by enemy troops, the U.S. Defense Department claimed that the fortress blocked five avenues of infiltration from Laos into South Vietnam. According to the official view of the situation in February 1968, if Khe Sanh were abandoned, entire North Vietnamese divisions could pour down Route 9 [the major east-west highway below the DMZ] and four other natural approaches through the valleys and could overrun a chain of Marine positions the Rockpile, Con Thien, Dong Ha, and Phu Bai to the east. This would mean that the North Vietnamese could be in a good position to seize control of South Vietnam’s two northernmost provinces, Quang Tri and Thua Thien, with grave political and psychological consequences.

This strategic rationale was secondary to the primary reason for holding onto Khe Sanh: Washington was unwilling to give its enemy a psychological victory by giving ground. One official source explained the basis for this reasoning by recalling the first Battle of Khe Sanh, fought in 1967. We had to put our foot down, and for psychological and political reasons, we wouldn’t want to pull back, said the official. What would the newspapers have written if we had given up Khe Sanh afterward?

Another reason for holding Khe Sanh was its importance as the western anchor of the McNamara Line, a high-technology barrier designed to impede the flow of Communist troops and supplies into South Vietnam. The barrier was supposed to stretch from the South China Sea to the Laotian border. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara hoped the barrier would allow the Americans to reduce their reliance on the bombing of North Vietnam, thereby increasing Washington’s flexibility in seeking a diplomatic settlement to the war.

On February 25, General Westmoreland expressed doubt that the North Vietnamese could stand a long war. Responding to a question during an interview in Saigon about whether his fundamental strategy had been changed by the Tet Offensive, Westmoreland replied, Basically, I see no requirement to change our strategy.

The key to the defense of Khe Sanh was overwhelming air power. On March 27, senior Marine officers in Da Nang claimed that the effectiveness of allied airpower was so great that they have no plans for pulling the Marines out no matter how much the enemy might increase his shelling at Khe Sanh. An Air Force spokesman said that since January 22, allied airmen had dropped 80,000 tons of ordnance around Khe Sanh. We plan to keep up the pace indefinitely, he added.

The same report noted that airpower had limited effectiveness. Even though 80,000 tons of ordnance amounted to more than the nonnuclear tonnage dropped on Japan throughout World War II, it had not stopped enemy movement around Khe Sanh. On March 25, a Marine patrol was halted by heavy enemy machine-gun and mortar fire after traveling only 100 to 200 yards past the camp’s barbed wire perimeter. During the previous week, the enemy had managed to fire 1,500 rocket, artillery and mortar rounds at the Khe Sanh base.

Other examples illustrate that the protective aerial umbrella around Khe Sanh was less that 100 percent effective. On February 8, enemy gunners fired hundreds of mortar rounds into a Marine position on nearby Hill 64. The NVA assault that followed the mortar barrage resulted in 21 men killed, 26 wounded and four Marines missing in action. Only one Marine on Hill 64 was unscathed. Colonel Lownds, the base commander, however, later described the Marine casualties resulting from the fighting on Hill 64 as light.

On February 25, a two-squad patrol, instructed not to venture farther than 1,000 meters from the base perimeter, vanished. Two weeks later, casualties of the so-called ghost patrol were established as nine dead, 25 wounded, and 19 missing. A company-size patrol on March 30 had as one of its missions the recovery of the bodies of the ghost patrol. This second patrol suffered three dead, 71 wounded and three missing before being ordered to pull back. Only two bodies from the ghost patrol were recovered at that time.

On April 5, the 76-day siege was officially declared ended. Since 7,000 North Vietnamese were still reported to be in the vicinity of Khe Sanh, however, the end of the siege was more official than real. The North Vietnamese had fired more than 40,000 artillery, rocket, and mortar rounds into the Marine positions during the siege.

By April, the situation had changed in the Khe Sanh area. The New York Times noted that the North Vietnamese had built several new roads into South Vietnam from Laos–apparently in an effort to improve their ability to move troops, heavy weapons and supplies into combat areas. Two of the new roads pushed across the South Vietnam­Laos border to the north and south of the Khe Sanh combat base. No longer would NVA troops have to endure protracted marches along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. They could be driven closer to the battlefield in trucks. Heavy weapons and ammunition could be transported to the front more quickly and in greater quantity.

These new logistics capabilities had profound implications for American military commanders. General Westmoreland had built up the Marine force at Khe Sanh to approximately 6,000 men, a figure that represented a balance between the number that could be effectively supplied and the force level necessary to ensure adequate defense of the combat base. Since at that time the Marine garrison could only be supplied by air, any increase in the Communists’ ability to launch attacks against the Marine positions could tip the balance against the Marines.

According to a New York Times report dated May 24, both President Lyndon B. Johnson and General Westmoreland felt the decision to defend Khe Sanh was the proper one. They believed that the defense of the camp not only prevented the North Vietnamese from opening a major route into South Vietnam’s populated areas, but also greatly strengthened the American initiative toward peace talks, for they [the Marine defenders] vividly demonstrated to the enemy the utter futility of his attempts to win a military victory in the South, according to the New York Times.

Although the level of fighting fell off in April, it was not over. On May 30, 600 NVA attacked Marines in their night defensive positions around Khe Sanh. The attack was supported by mortar, artillery and rocket fire. Marine losses were 13 killed and 44 wounded. Two days later another battle took place when a large NVA force attacked Marine positions two miles southeast of Khe Sanh. Two-hundred-thirty North Vietnamese were reported killed in that battle, in some of the heaviest fighting in South Vietnam at that time.

In a June report, New York Times reporter Douglas Robinson described Khe Sanh as still a fearsome place of exploding shells and death. North Vietnamese artillerymen fired 130mm artillery shells from caves or dug-in positions on the Co Roc massif in Laos. These guns, out of the range of the largest U.S. artillery, had been firing on Khe Sanh for months. It was difficult to prepare adequate defenses against them, since even dud rounds penetrated four feet into the ground. The Americans were unable to destroy these guns. In early June, the North Vietnamese gunners at Co Roc were still able to fire more than 100 rounds in a single day into the base at Khe Sanh. Marine Brig. Gen. Carl W. Hoffman claimed, The North Vietnamese still want Khe Sanh and we are still trying to keep them from getting it. The general described the enemy as being composed of fresh, well-equipped troops with new haircuts and good morale, proof we are facing not a rabble but well-trained force.

In the six weeks preceding that June report, the Marines had killed about 1,300 North Vietnamese Army regulars within a four-mile radius of Khe Sanh. During that time, American dead and wounded had flowed in a steady stream to the Khe Sanh aid station, which was dug deep into the ground. General Hoffman conceded that the Communists had the ability to keep the Khe Sanh combat base under pressure for as long as they wished.

Months earlier, the Marines had made an effort that, had it been successful, would have given them means to counter the threat posed by the NVA heavy artillery at Co Roc. In August 1967, a large supply convoy left Dong Ha for Khe Sanh, including several U.S. Army 175mm self-propelled guns. General Westmoreland had wanted to position the guns at Khe Sanh to deal with NVA artillery in Laos. When the convoy ran into an enemy ambush along Route 9, however, the decision was made to deploy the large guns at Camp Carroll rather than risk their destruction at the ambush site. (See Expend Shells, Not Men in the August 1997 issue of Vietnam.)

That incident caused a change in thinking about resupply for Khe Sanh. Route 9 was too risky thereafter, during the period from August 1967 until Route 9 was reopened in April 1968, Khe Sanh would be resupplied by air. The reopening of the road was accomplished through Operation Pegasus, a combined Marine and Army sweep of Route 9 to the combat base.

With the arrival of the relief column, an Army colonel replaced Colonel Lownds as base commander. Army troops would replace the Marines, freeing them to go on the attack. Although ending the siege freed the beleaguered Marines for offensive operations, it also gave increased flexibility to the enemy forces. No longer would they have two divisions tied down at Khe Sanh. Even though a large portion of the NVA force withdrew into Laos near the DMZ, they could easily be shifted to other battlefields as needed. One American official claimed the North Vietnamese withdrawal had been prompted by the effectiveness of the American bombing campaign. The U.S. military command refused to say definitely whether it planned to keep American troops at Khe Sanh. However, since the purpose of the base had been to serve as a center for anti-infiltration activity before the siege, some senior officers hinted that a continued American presence at Khe Sanh was likely.

The reopening of Route 9 to convoy traffic did not mean that the supply problem had been solved. These convoys faced the same threats that they had in 1967. American units had to be stationed at every bridge and culvert to guard against ambushes. Steep cliffs lined the roadway, making it possible for the enemy almost to drop grenades into passing trucks. Supplies moving overland were threatened by almost nightly ambushes and firefights.

One June 16, Marines reported a North Vietnamese attack on Marine positions south of Khe Sanh, in which 168 Communist soldiers were killed. Although the fighting continued, the U.S. command felt significant changes had taken place around Khe Sanh. Friendly strength, mobility and firepower, had increased since the Army forces had arrived, but the extent of the enemy threat had increased due to a greater flow of replacements and a change in NVA tactics. Consequently, the base at Khe Sanh was to be abandoned.

Senior Marine commanders had long felt that maintaining a large force at Khe Sanh was more of a liability than an asset. They had only garrisoned the place because of pressure from General Westmoreland. In late 1967, an Army task force was formed to control activity in this critical sector of South Vietnam Westmoreland felt the Marines were unable to adequately direct the battle. In March, Army Lt. Gen. William B. Rosson took command of the task force. Unknown to General Westmoreland, Rosson and his Marine counterpart, Lt. Gen. Robert E. Cushman, decided on their own in April to withdraw American forces from Khe Sanh.

Naval gunfire experts and Air Force liaison officers were sent to Khe Sanh to plan for the destruction of the Marine positions. Marines began packing their equipment and filling in foxholes. The base chaplain at Khe Sanh noted in his diary, The general attitude of people in the base is that it is wrong to abandon the base after fighting so long for it.

When Westmoreland found out about Rosson and Cushman’s plan, a Marine general on Westmoreland’s staff in Saigon claimed that he never saw Westy so mad. The Marines at Khe Sanh were notified that the base would not be abandoned. They began unpacking their personal gear and started digging in again.

Marines would continue to occupy Khe Sanh and various nearby hill positions and engage in search and destroy missions. Fresh Marine and Army units would replace the Marines who had spent the siege at Khe Sanh. More than 400 American troops would be killed and 2,300 wounded in the 10 weeks following the end of the siege. Those figures were more than two times the casualties sustained by the Marines in the siege during the period from late January to late March.

On June 11, 1968, General Westmoreland relinquished his command of U.S. forces in Vietnam. The Rosson-Cushman plan to abandon the base, previously rejected by Westmoreland, was to be implemented. This version of the plan was dated the day after Westmoreland turned control over to his successor, Army General Creighton W. Abrams. The Marines who had fought at Khe Sanh were furious, with one of the battalions almost in open revolt over the decision.

There is speculation that the base closing was ordered by President Johnson, who wanted no more nonsense about defending exposed positions. According to some sources, Johnson told General Abrams to get out of Khe Sanh as soon as Westmoreland was gone from Vietnam and before he could become fully established as Army chief of staff in Washington.

It is clear that President Johnson took a great personal interest in the fighting. Earlier, the New York Times had noted that the ultimate command post for the battle of Khe Sanh was the White House in Washington, D.C. There, Johnson asked tense and urgent questions of his commanders in the field, probing policy, tactics, preparations, morale, according to the Times. The responses these questions evoked adds up to the largest volume of messages and reports ever gathered by the White House for a tactical engagement in the war.

General Abrams ordered the base closing to be kept secret for as long as possible. When it was finally made public, only a minimum amount of detail and explanation were provided. The decision was met with incredulity and bewilderment when the news reached the United States. National Security Adviser Walt W. Rostow noted, I believe we have a serious problem–perhaps of substance, certainly of public relations. Rostow pointed out that intelligence estimates on the enemy order of battle still placed about 40,000 NVA troops in the DMZ area. If it was good to pin down two divisions with 6,000 men, then why not now? he asked. The Pentagon acknowledged the base closing announcement caused a difficult public relations task.

The U.S. command in Saigon claimed the base closing was a result of a changed military situation around Khe Sanh. When the situation changes, you ought to change your tactics, explained an unnamed general on the Saigon command staff. The Marine presence at Khe Sanh had been established to inhibit infiltration. Explaining the logic of the decision, the unnamed general said that the construction of additional infiltration routes by the NVA into South Vietnam meant Khe Sanh had become less valuable as a means to check this infiltration. Khe Sanh had long served as a logistical center for the supply of the nearby hill positions. Now the general claimed that it did not make sense to maintain even a reduced garrison to defend Khe Sanh in order to use it as a supply base for servicing troops who would be conducting mobile operations in the area. Khe Sanh was in the way it was tying us down, the general explained.

Displaying a flawed grasp of geography that paralleled his convoluted logic, the general claimed the supply function of Khe Sanh could be taken over by other installations in the area, such as Camp Stud. This base, unlike Khe Sanh, is beyond the 17-mile range of the enemy’s artillery in the demilitarized zone at the border between North Vietnam and South Vietnam, said the nameless general. In reality, Stud was situated farther north than Khe Sanh, which puts it closer to the DMZ and not farther away. In any event, it was NVA artillery in South Vietnam and Laos that fired on the Marines at Khe Sanh, and not artillery from the DMZ.

An American colonel claimed he did not think we ever really planned to have a base there in the first place. According to this view, the Marines came into the small Special Forces camp at Khe Sanh. When the NVA surrounded Khe Sanh, all of a sudden we had five to six thousand men there. Responding to the question as to whether it was proper to defend the base at the height of the fighting there in February and March, the colonel rolled out the kill-ratio argument, saying: We killed many, many more of their troops than we lost ourselves. The colonel claimed, We showed them that if we wanted to hold Khe Sanh we could do it.

Although the vulnerability of Khe Sanh to enemy artillery was a reason given by the military for abandoning it, one high Army official stated it was unlikely that seven other bases within the range of enemy artillery in the DMZ would be abandoned. Khe Sanh was always different, he said. In reality, the major difference between Khe Sanh and other bases near the DMZ was simply that Khe Sanh was the only major American base to be abandoned.

The actual process of abandoning the Marine base was complicated and dangerous. Nine allied infantry battalions were operating in the vicinity of Khe Sanh when the decision to close was made. Those units had to be deployed elsewhere without advertising the move to the North Vietnamese. Allied forces would be extremely vulnerable to enemy attack while the base was being dismantled.

The U.S. command wanted to leave a completely clean piece of real estate at Khe Sanh. Ruined aircraft were cut up and hauled away so they could not be used for propaganda purposes by the Communists. Nothing would be left to indicate that the Americans had been forced to withdraw. Eight hundred bunkers, miles of barbed wire, and acres of metal runway materials were buried, destroyed, or physically removed.

Communist gunners continued to fire on the Marine positions as the trench lines were filled in and sandbags were emptied.

On July 5, the base was officially closed. Five Marines were killed in fighting near Khe Sanh that day. The final Marine withdrawal was conducted at night and was interrupted for several hours when Communist artillerymen scored a direct hit on a bridge on Route 9. The bridge was finally repaired, allowing the Marines to move down Route 9 to the east.

Fighting continued in the Khe Sanh area even after the base closing was complete. On July 9, Marines on Hill 689 near Khe Sanh vowed to hold the peak until the last attacking North Vietnamese had been killed. The Americans claimed 350 North Vietnamese died in this round of fighting. Echoing the rationale that brought the Marines to Khe Sanh in the first place, and seemingly unaware of the change in policy, the 3rd Marine Division commander, Maj. Gen. Raymond Davis, said, We are going to move off this hill, but not until we have defeated the North Vietnamese. That same day a Marine spokesman denied a Hanoi radio report claiming that a Viet Cong flag had been raised on the recently abandoned Khe Sanh combat base.

As predicted, North Vietnam was quick to exploit the propaganda benefits of Khe Sanh’s abandonment. In the five-day period beginning on July 7, 1968, Hanoi radio devoted 70 percent of its broadcast time in all Asian languages to discussions of the American defeat and the Communist victory at Khe Sanh. Hanoi specifically mentioned previous American explanations regarding the vital contribution of Khe Sanh to its strategy in the Vietnam war. In a report from Hong Kong, the New York Times noted that Asians believed the North Vietnamese explanation for the base closing and mostly rejected the American version that it was due to a changed military situation.

A clear distinction can be made regarding the merits of closing Khe Sanh between American military and political leaders on the one hand, and Marines who participated in the defense of Khe Sanh on the other. Like no other Vietnam battle, Khe Sanh captured the attention of the media and the American public. Roughly 25 percent of all Vietnam film reports shown on evening television newscasts during February and March 1968 were devoted to the situation at Khe Sanh. In the case of CBS, the figure was 50 percent. By March, supporters of the war among the American public were outnumbered by those who opposed the war. Gallup polls indicate nearly one person in five switched from the hawk position to the dove position between early February and mid-March. The best way to keep Khe Sanh from causing a negative influence on support for the war in Vietnam was to close it.

Official explanations for the closing are inadequate. As has been shown, the situation around Khe Sanh remained much the same before the siege as after. In May 1968, four North Vietnamese regiments supported by artillery were reported to be in the immediate vicinity of the base. According to the commanding general of the 3rd Marine Division, the situation at Khe Sanh at that time was the same as in late 1967, when Westmoreland had ordered Khe Sanh reinforced. As early as February 1968, the New York Times reported that civilian officials who studied Vietnamese history were unwilling to share the level of confidence of military men that Khe Sanh would prove to be an American victory. These civilians noted the North Vietnamese willingness to suffer overwhelming casualties for the sake of victories with political impact.

General Westmoreland, always the driving force behind the continued American presence at Khe Sanh, was unable to grasp this willingness. In his biography, Westmoreland says of North Vietnamese Army commander General Vo Nguyen Giap, A Western commander absorbing losses on the scale of Giap’s would hardly have lasted in command more than a few weeks. Still espousing the value of a positive kill ratio, Westmoreland claimed Giap’s casualties at Khe Sanh were far in excess of those incurred by the French at Dien Bien Phu. The Vietnamese Communists, who also compare the two battles, claim that Khe Sanh was America’s Dien Bien Phu.

The decision to abandon Khe Sanh is better described as a tactical withdrawal rather than a forced retreat. The Marines on the ground were willing to maintain their positions at Khe Sanh if ordered to do so. I was at Khe Sanh from December 1967, before the fighting began, until April 1968, when the siege was officially declared ended. There was no sense that we were a defeated force, and I had no idea the base was scheduled for closing. My Marine unit was told that we would remain at Khe Sanh until another mortar battery could replace us. When that happened we relocated to the east and continued operations against the North Vietnamese.

The aggressive spirit of the encircled Marine garrison at Khe Sanh is exemplified by a comment made by a Marine commander who found his unit in a similar position during the Korean War. Told his regiment was surrounded by Communist forces near the Chosin Reservoir on November 28, 1950, General (then colonel) Chesty Puller said, that simplifies our problems of finding these people and killing them. Intelligence personnel of the 26th Marine Regiment at Khe Sanh were well aware of Communist tactics at Dien Bien Phu. Initially, the Marines at Khe Sanh had tried to keep the North Vietnamese from getting too close to the base. Massed artillery fired could have accomplished this. With the overland route to Khe Sanh closed, it proved impossible to deliver sufficient massed artillery fires from a logistics standpoint–aerial resupply simply could not deliver the volume of artillery rounds needed. When that became evident, the Marines decided to let the North Vietnamese move in close to the base in order to simplify the problem of locating and destroying them. The Marines did just that until they were ordered elsewhere.

Since the Communists did not share the American belief in favorable kill ratios, it is necessary to use different criteria to determine who achieved a favorable outcome at Khe Sanh. In the long run, who had use of the combat base? In March 1973, American officials in Saigon reported that North Vietnamese troops had rebuilt the old airstrip at Khe Sanh and were using it for courier flights into the south. That was the first time North Vietnamese airplanes had flown into South Vietnam.

A New York Times story dated May 7, 1973, noted that several thousand North Vietnamese laborers had been sent south to construct roads and airfields. The single most ambitious project was construction of an all-weather road from Khe Sanh, through the A Shau Valley, to the outskirts of Da Nang. The same report indicated Khe Sanh was being developed into a major logistical center by the Communists. This represented a complete reversal of the supply path of the Marine Corps garrison at Khe Sanh, whose supplies frequently arrived from their logistical center at Da Nang. The NVA installed at least a dozen surface-to-air missiles sites around Khe Sanh in addition to anti-aircraft guns. Those facts cast further doubt on the explanation of American military commanders that Khe Sanh no longer had strategic value in the context of the war in Vietnam.

Although conventional war was what America fought best, Vietnam is known as a war without fronts. Consequently, search and destroy operations were the means by which America would try to win the war of attrition. Even though General Westmoreland acknowledged that a commander…wins no battles by sitting back waiting for the enemy to come to him, this is precisely the role he assigned to the Marines at Khe Sanh.

As a percentage of North Vietnam’s prewar population, the number of NVA killed in the war against the Americans was equal to the percentages of those killed in several of the European nations laid waste during World War I. Westmoreland was unable to grasp why his adversaries found that rate tolerable. The answer is, of course, because the stakes were equivalent for the Europeans and the Vietnamese Communists. As military historian Ronald Spector has pointed out, during the first half of 1968 (the period of heavy fighting at Khe Sanh), the Marine casualty rate in Vietnam exceeded the rate of American casualties in either the European or Pacific theater of World War as well as during the Korean War. With nothing to be gained by the Marines at Khe Sanh beyond killing Communists, ordering their withdrawal and closing the base was a sensible political and military decision. Although many claim that the United States never lost a battle in Vietnam, it is impossible to reasonably put the fighting at Khe Sanh in the American win column.

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Operation Pegasus

Throughout the weeks that the 1st Cavalry Division was engaged in the Tet Offensive, the 26th Marines at Khe Sanh were besieged by heavy artillery bombardment and ground attack. The North Vietnamese had ringed the lines of the Marines with a buildup of entrenched infantry and a multitude of antiaircraft weapons. On 11 March 1968, at the request of the Marine Command, the 1st Cavalry Division began a detailed plan, Operation PEGASUS, designed to relieve the Marines at Khe Sanh.

To accomplish the mission, the 1st Cavalry Division was augmented by the non-divisional units of the 1st Marine Regiment, 26th Marine Regiment, III Army of the Republic of Vietnam Airborne Task Force and the 37th Army of the Republic of Vietnam Ranger Battalion.

The Airstrip

It became evident during the planning that the construction of an airstrip in the vicinity of Ca Lu would be a key factor for the entire operation. The airstrip, which became known as LZ Stud, had to be ready well before D-day (1 April 1968). Also, it was necessary to upgrade Highway Nine between the “Rock Pile” and Ca Lu to allow pre-stocking of supplies at LZ Stud. Construction of the airstrip and road improvements were assigned to a team of the 1st Cavalry Division’s 8th Engineer Battalion, the Seabees’ USN Mobile Construction Battalion #5, and the 11th Engineer Battalion,

Having established a forward base of operations, the second key element to the success of this plan was the closely integrated reconnaissance and fire support effort of the 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry and air, artillery, and B-52 arc light strikes which were carried out during the 6 days preceding the launch of the main attack.

On 30 March the 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry began operations from LZ Stud in gradually increasing concentric circles up to the Khe Sanh area, working with air cover from the 7th Air Force or the 1st Marine Air Wing. The Cavalry Squadron was almost the only means available to pinpoint enemy locations, antiaircraft positions, and strong points that the division would try to avoid in the initial assaults. The squadron was also responsible for the selection of critical forward landing zones. Their information proved to be timely and accurate.

PEGASUS Commenced

At 0700 hours, on 1 April the attack phase of Operation PEGASUS commenced as the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Cavalry was airlifted by Chinooks and Hueys into LZ Stud in preparation for an air assault into two objective areas further west. Weather delayed the attack until 1300, when the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry air assaulted into LZ Mike, located on prominent ground south of Highway 9 and well forward of the Marine attack. The 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry followed into the same landing zone to expand the position. The 5th Battalion, 7th Cavalry air assaulted into an area north of Highway 9 approximately opposite LZ Mike.

Bad Weather

The bad weather of D-day was to haunt the 1st Cavalry throughout Operation PEGASUS. “Good weather” was considered to be any condition when the ceiling was above 500 feet and slant range visibility was more than a mile and a half. The bad weather further proved the soundness of establishing LZ Stud as the springboard for the assaults. Troops, ammo and supplies could be assembled there ready to go whenever the weather to the west opened up. Marshalling areas further away would have drastically deteriorated response time.

On 2 April, the 1st Marine Regiment continued its ground attack along the axis of Highway 9. Two Marine companies made limited air assaults to support the Regiment’s momentum. The 3rd Brigade air assaulted the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry into a new position further to the west while the other two battalions improved their positions. The 2nd Brigade moved into marshalling areas in preparation for air assaults the next day.

The initial thrusts had met less enemy resistance than expected. As a consequence, the 2nd Brigade was thrown into the attack a day earlier than the original schedule with its three battalions, the 1st and 2nd Battalions, 5th Cavalry and 2nd Battalion, 12th Cavalry. These battalions moved into two new areas south and west of our earlier landing zones. Under enemy artillery during the assaults, their objectives were secured without serious difficulty.

On 4 April, the 2nd Brigade assaulted one battalion into an old French fort south of Khe Sanh. Initial contact resulted in four enemy killed. Continuing the attack the next day, heavy resistance was encountered.

LZ Snapper

On 6 April, units of the 1st Brigade entered the operation with the 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry and 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry air assaulting into LZ Snapper, due south of Khe Sanh and overlooking Highway 9. The circle began to close around the enemy. As units were airlifted into the various LZs along Highway 9, they did not have the knowledge of the final operational plans. It had been decided by the 1st Cavalry Divisional Tactical Operation Center (DTOC), at Camp Evans, to only provide for their general distribution once all of the units were at final attack positions. With all units in position, a courier was dispatched to carry the plans to the commands of all units and the Marines at Khe Sanh.

The heaviest contact on that date occurred in the 3rd Brigade’s area of operation as the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry continued its drive west on Highway 9. Enemy blocking along the highway offered stubborn resistance. In a day-long battle which ended when the enemy summarily abandoned his position and fled, the battalion had accounted for 83 enemy killed, captured one prisoner and 121 individual and ten crew-served weapons. The troops of the 1st Cavalry Division were airlifted to Hill 471 relieving the Marines at this position. This was the first relief of the defenders of Khe Sanh. Two companies of Troopers remained on the hill while two other companies initiated an attack to the south toward the Khe Sanh Hamlet.

The 1st Cavalry Division forces on LZ Snapper were attacked by an enemy force utilizing mortars, hand grenades, and rocket launchers. The attack was a disaster for the enemy and twenty were killed. At 1320 hours the 84th Company of the Vietnamese 8th Airborne Battalion was airlifted by 1st Cavalry Division aircraft into the Khe Sanh Combat Base and linked up with elements of the 37th Ranger Battalion. The lift was conducted without incident and was the official link-up in forces at Khe Sanh.

On 7 April, the South Vietnamese III Airborne Task Force air assaulted three battalions into positions north of the road and east of Khe Sanh to block escape routes toward the Laotian border. Fighting throughout the area was sporadic as the enemy attempted to withdraw. American and South Vietnamese units began picking up significant quantities of abandoned weapons and equipment. The old French fort which was the last known enemy strong point around Khe Sanh was completely secured.

The Relief of Khe Sanh

At 0800 hours on 8 April, the relief of Khe Sanh was effected and the 1st Cavalry Division became the new landlord. The 3rd Brigade airlifted its command post into Khe Sanh and assumed the mission of securing the area. This was accomplished after the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry successfully cleared Highway 9 to the base and effected link-up with the 26th Marine Regiment. The 3rd Brigade elements occupied high ground to the east and northeast of the base with no enemy contact. At this time it became increasingly evident, through lack of contact and the large amounts of new equipment being found indiscriminately abandoned on the battlefield, that the enemy had fled the area rather than face certain defeat.

On 9 April, all 1st Marine Regiment objectives had been secured and Highway 9 was repaired and secured with only scattered incidents of enemy sniper fires. Enemy mortar, rocket and artillery fire into Khe Sanh became increasingly sporadic. Mop up operations continued.

On 10 April, pursuing the retreating North Vietnamese, the 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry recaptured the Special Forces camp at Lang Vei, four miles west of Khe Sanh and seized large stockpiles of supplies and ammunition. This action became the last major encounter with in Operation PEGASUS as later in the day, orders were received to extract the 1st Cavalry Division as soon as possible to prepare for Operation DELAWARE/LAM SON 216, an assault into the A Shau Valley. Advance units started the pull out the next day and returned to the base areas at Quang Tri City and Camp Evans.

Limited operations continued until 15 April 1968 when Operation PEGASUS was officially terminated. The 1st Cavalry Division had scored a major airmobile victory by quickly reaching the besieged Marines Khe Sanh bastion without setbacks or heavy losses. The careful planning and preparation preceding the raid was backed up by aggressive and innovative tactics during its execution. The final statistics of Operation PEGASUS totaled 1,259 enemy killed and more than 750 weapons captured.


Watch the video: USMC 1968 - REEL History - The Battle of Khe Sanh Vietnam original film