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Siege of Khe Sanh

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  • Category: Vietnam

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Vietnam was America’s longest war. And one of the most angrily fought battles during that war was the legendary Siege of Khe Sanh. At the end of 1966, many large scale North Vietnamese units began uniting around the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating North from South Vietnam. The Commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, General William C. Westmoreland, ordered Marine units northward – into a string of fire support bases just south of the DMZ. One of those bases was Khe Sanh. Khe Sanh was a United States Marines military base in the Republic of Vietnam (“the south”) which was built near the Laos border and just south of the border with North Vietnam which became the scene of a huge battle of wills between the North Vietnamese Army and US Marines in 1967. The defense of the base had codenamed Operation Scotland.

As a military action Khe Sanh was another costly failure on the part of the NVA, with estimates of 8,000 NVA dead and considerably more wounded, likely the overwhelming majority of the forces sent to the area. This must have been particularly galling given the similarities to Dien Bien Phu, there is no doubt that they did seriously intend to win the battle.

All during 1967, Marines continued moving in to reinforce the little outpost. By January 1968 over 6,000 Allied troops were on hand – dug in, ready to fight. But U.S. intelligence reports indicated that some 15-20,000 NVA soldiers had them surrounded, virtually cut off from the outside world. The siege had begun.[1]

“As we draw near the 30th anniversary of the major operations in Khe Sanh, my memory is of my first operation as a brand new Second Lieutenant in Vietnam…the Hill Fights in the Spring of 1967. Because of the potential danger of the siege and its high media profile, the battles of the previous Spring have not yet received their due recognition. Being an eyewitness to the final phases of the battle and its aftermath, I have known that ever since.”[2]

The official Marine Corps history, as recounted in “Marines in Vietnam 1967,” describes the battle as “…First Battle of Khe Sanh, one of the bloodiest battles and hardest fought battles of the Vietnam War.” Lt. Gen. Victor H. Krulak, speaks of the initial engagement: “The results were the bitterest fighting of the entire war for the Marines.”

 “First, the hills. These are ancient hills, formed by volcano, rounded by time, overgrown by triple canopy jungle, overspread by vast acreage of dense elephant grass, stands of bamboo scattered at random. Here and there are footpaths made by generations of Montagnards that wind over ridges and valleys, only wide enough for small people in single file. In some areas, the terrain is impassible; in other areas, the terrain and the vegetation deny passage.”[3]

Americans from all walks of life saw the desperation of American forces as supplies were literally dropped onto the air-strip at Khe Sanh, with the occasional plane exploding from enemy fire. They also saw Operation Niagara, where 18,000 tons of ammunition were dropped each day in the jungle surrounding the base. The total American causalities would be 205 killed, while the North Vietnamese would loose between ten to fifteen- thousand. Khe Sanh would prove a military victory for the American forces, a psychological victory for the North Vietnamese.

Many Americans overreacted, thinking Khe Sanh would be another Dien Bien Phu. But the Khe Sanh siege was different. According to Peter Braestrup in his book The Big Story, published in the 1980s, “The major differences between Khe Sanh and Dien Bien Phu [that] were observable in Vietnam during the siege concerned logistics, material, distance to friendly forces, besiegers’ efforts to take ground, and the relative firepower of both sides.” The main reasons Khe Sanh never became another Dien Bien Phu were firepower, air supply and Giap’s option play.

During the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the French had mustered 100 aircraft, while at Khe Sanh the Americans had more than 2,000 bombers and 3,000 helicopters on call. The French had launched an average of 189 sorties a day, dropping 175 tons of bombs, whereas U.S. air power averaged 320 sorties delivering 1,282 tons. The B-52s of Westmoreland’s Operation Niagara unleashed 59,542 tons of ordnance. In 10 weeks the Air Force, Navy and Marines dropped 103,500 tons in a five-square-mile area around Khe Sanh. Westmoreland called it “one of the heaviest and most concentrated displays of firepower in the history of war.”[4]

“There are just too many experiences to write about. It lasted 77 days. Each day was a lifetime. Some days were better than others. I can tell about the base, but the maps tell the story. There was a single runway (metal) used mainly by C-130 airplanes at first. Then it closed because of the losses — three 105s and one 155. There was a drop zone outside the wire — a dirty, red clay, rat infested place of death. What stands out are the deaths and horrors we suffered:

  • The fall of Long Vie.
  • The Russian tanks.
  • When we turned away 20,000 Bru and Laos people that were mostly killed after we turned them away.
  • The lost patrol the we were not allowed to save!
  • Westmoreland’s lack of vision and planning (worst ever war-time general)!
  • Action. A firefight that only a few of us made it out of on January 20, 1968. Hand-to-hand combat, mortars, rockets, artillery — you name it, we were in it!
  • The final day was uneventful. ”[5]

Because of air supply by the Military Airlift Command, Khe Sanh could be considered not a siege like Dien Bien Phu but a battle in which the Marines were at the most forward salient in the front lines. In 1982, Khe Sanh veteran Captain William Dabney said: “In my understanding of the term, we were certainly not cut off from the outside world. We could reinforce, we could withdraw, we could resupply and we could support. We were in a position where land reinforcements would have been quite difficult, but in all senses we were not besieged as such.” The French dropped only 100 tons of supplies on average each day, but the Americans dropped 1,200 tons a day at the height of battle throughout all of February.

After January 31, as the Tet Offensive got underway, Giap continued his operations at Khe Sanh. Many historians believe its main purpose was as a diversion, citing that Giap never intended to seize the base because he never seriously attacked the base. According to Giap, “We strictly followed this fundamental principle of the conduct of a revolutionary war: strike to win, strike only when success is certain; if it is not, then don’t strike.”

On January 22, the day after the first assault on Khe Sanh, a defector, Private Lai Van Minh, after surrendering to Marines at Khe Sanh, declared that his political officer had told the men that if the initial attack on Khe Sanh failed, North Vietnamese forces would pull back into Laos and then return to attack again around February 3. This did occur, but two more assaults failed. Between February 7 and 10, three regiments of the Route 9 Front slipped away and ended up fighting the 1st Cavalry outside Hue.

General Giap continued the assaults not because Khe Sanh was a diversion but because Phase II had stalled, except at Hue, and he hoped to jump-start it again. He also realized that with the firepower the Americans had assembled in defense of Khe Sanh he could not take the base. Thus he reverted back to his offensive doctrine and hoped to keep Phase II afloat.

When it became apparent that Phase II was unsuccessful, he canceled the second wave of the phase. Westmoreland carried out the relief of Khe Sanh, called Operation Pegasus, but only after I Corps was stabilized and secured. In fact, Westmoreland also reverted to Khe Sanh’s pre-Tet purpose as a jump-off point for the Laos invasion, which as late as March 10 he believed would be approved.

The Battle of Khe Sanh began at 0530, 21 January 1968. The North Vietnamese Army hammered the Marine-occupied Khe Sanh Combat Base with shoot up, mortar, artillery, small arms, and automatic weapons fire. Hundreds of 82-mm. mortar rounds and 122-mm. rockets crashed into the combat base. Almost all of the base’s bombs stock and a large section of the fuel supplies were damaged. The events around Khe Sanh Combat Base, when flashed to the planet, touched off a political and public chaos as to whether or not the location should be held.

“We started out on line, keeping low and moving slow. It was a clear, open field we were going across. We were halfway across when fire opened up from our right. Everyone got down, and the St/Sgt started yelling at us to keep moving; so, we being young, brave Marines got back on line and kept moving.

But then the bullets started zipping around our legs and raising dust. We knew for sure they were shooting at us then. We weren’t about to stay on line after that. We bolted to the right, ran about 25 meters, and took cover behind dirt piled up all along this road. ”[6]

Militarily it drew attention away from the buildups elsewhere. As the leadup to the battle took place over late 1967 and into January 1968, the entire American military system swung into a singular effort to win the battle. Although plenty of intelligence suggested that a large scale effort was being planned all over Vietnam, this information was largely ignored. This too was a part of the Khe Sanh plan, one that was executed perfectly, leaving the Americans surprised by the Tet offensive. That too would end in military failure, but was an even larger win in terms of weakening support for the war.

The fast and triumphant finale of Operation PEGASUS can be laid first to completed preparation and grounding. Second, the enemy was either not capable to, or did not know how to, react against airmobile strategy of huge numbers of combat troops and supporting artillery around and behind enemy locations. Third, an extraordinary amount of bomber and fighter air support was provided to the ground forces, and this combat power hit the enemy along the front line and throughout positions to his back.

Over 100,000 tons of bombs and 150,000 rounds of artillery were exhausted through the action. More significant, this weapons was expended in answer to brilliant brainpower. Fourth, the capacity to stay Khe Sanh and the troops in the field supplied was significant. Fifth, of great meaning was the determination and bravery of the personality combating man in the defenses.

In the end, the battle was a critical part of the war, highlighting both the need on both sides for development of new tactics militarily, but also reinforcing a pattern of a tactical win for the south but a strategic win for north by the erosion of support for the war in the U.S. Khe Sanh itself was abandoned on June 23, 1968 since it no longer had any military value.

War it is always the most horable time in the world. When two countries people figth to each other, kill each other don’t know exactly why, for what aim, its awfull. Compare the letter of different soldiers we can think only about their actions and hard life.

“I had been assigned to mess detail for three months and have been down here for two months now. What a pain in the ass detail. How I want to get back up to the flight deck, with fresh air, excitement. Something to look at besides white walls and dirty dishes. What the hell am I talking about, its safe down here, its normal down here, a person could grow old down here, live a long life down here…….I don’t belong down here, I’m not doing my duty down here.

I’m 23 years old and I’m thinking like an 18-year-old kid, I have a wife and daughter at home. Stay safe down here. God, I’ve got to get back up to the flight deck, I’m alive up there. Am I doing this for my country, for me, for the guy’s in country, or for a people who are strangers to me? Must I endanger my life for their freedom? Will I ever know the reason? Will I ever be able to explain the reason to someone else, …or even to myself? ”[7]

“The next impression, after all the milling around, was the smell of death. Everywhere Overpowering everything. Everything was shredded. Big trees had been splintered by big bombs. The ground was pulverized. Big trees had been splintered by big bombs. The foliage was finely sliced by all the shrapnel of a big battle. There seemed to be a fine powdery dust scattered over everything.”[8]

“When a shell from an artillery piece hits the bunker, it lifts it up ten feet, then drops it back down killing all. By the way, a lot of Chi Com ordnance failed; and to this day, unexploded ordnance is still at Khe Sanh. It wasn’t uncommon to find shells later and detonate them where they lay after an attack. Sometimes, there could be as many as 1,500 rounds a day incoming. We could muster up quite a few rounds ourselves all day and all night. Now, I don’t know if this was possible; but I don’t think I slept from March ’67 till June of ’67 when I left the base at Khe Sanh.”

Khe Sanh saw some of the most brutal combat of the Vietnam War. Some veterans of the Khe Sanh siege remember the stirring experiences they survived as young men fighting in a foreign land. “I was a platoon leader responsible for up to eight “Dusters” — M42A1 self-propelled light tanks (M41 Walker Bulldog) with a twin 40mm anti-aircraft gun system mounted in an open turret. Each “Duster” was manned by a crew of 4-6 men including the driver, and fired 40mm point detonating explosive rounds up to 4,000 meters at a rate of 240 rounds per minute.

This was devastating firepower used against enemy personnel and hard targets. I rarely had more than two “Duster” crews at any location, but at Khe Sanh, I commanded two “Dusters” and two “Quad 50’s” (four 50 caliber machine guns on an electric powered turret, mounted in the bed of a 2-1/2 ton truck firing at a rate of 1,000-1,500 rounds per minute).

Our mission at Khe Sanh was to defend the northern perimeter (blue sector), which ran parallel to the airstrip (approx. 3/4 mile), and was manned by one company of Marines (C 1/26), one Marine “Ontos” crew and ourselves. Other duties included direct fire support for Marine infantry operations, mine sweep, supply, and tactical convoy escort along contested highways to break up ambushes, and defensive perimeter security at forward firebases throughout “Leatherneck Square” along the DMZ.”[9]

“In mid-February 1968, I was ordered to Khe Sanh with three enlisted men, Private First Class Arthur Mortman from my platoon and two others from the attached Quad 50s (Golf Battery, 65th Artillery), to relieve the commanding officer of the Duster and Quad 50 sections. He and several of his men had received shrapnel wounds and had been medevaced before we arrived. By this time Khe Sanh had been under siege for several weeks, and Route 9, the only road access to the besieged base, had been completely cut off. Resupply and medevac aircraft were coming under heavy fire, and only volunteer medevac missions were being flown into the Khe Sanh combat base.

After trying unsuccessfully for two days to get a flight from Dong Ha to Khe Sanh, my men and I flew by chopper to Phu Bai, just south of Hue, where we stood a better chance of getting aboard a flight into Khe Sanh. We spent three days waiting on the sweltering runway at Phu Bai before finally getting aboard a Marine CH-53 Sea Stallion flying a volunteer medevac mission to Khe Sanh. The pilot, a Marine major, and the crew chief briefed us along with nearly a dozen grunts who had boarded the chopper. In Dispatches, Michael Herr describes our destination.”

Khe Sanh was a very awful position then, but the airfield there was the most horrible place in the earth. It was what Khe Sanh had in its place of a V-ring, the exact, expected object of the mortars and rockets hidden in the nearby hills, the sure objective of the big Russian and Chinese guns lodged in the side of CoRoc Ridge, eleven kilometers away across the Laotian border.

There was nothing random about the shelling there, and no one wanted anything to do with it. If the wind was right, you could hear the NVA .50-calibers starting far up the valley whenever a plane made its approach to the strip, and the first incoming artillery would precede the landings by seconds. If you were waiting there to be taken out, there was nothing you could do but curl up in the trench and try to make yourself small, and if you were coming in on the plane, there was nothing you could do, nothing at all.

All aircraft attempting to land at Khe Sanh received heavy ground fire, including 50-caliber machine gun, mortar, and artillery rounds. The crew chief had us lay our gear bags on the floor beneath us to shield our bodies from ground fire that might penetrate the underside of the chopper. Needless to say, we were all very nervous and “puckered” at the thought of .50-caliber rounds ripping through the thin underbelly of the chopper beneath us!

“We would circle down through a heavy cloud cover and have only a few seconds with the tailgate on the ground to disembark with all of our gear. As we began our descent, we saw tracer rounds streaking past the windows through the thick clouds. The crew chief shouted that we would have less than ten seconds on the deck, and we had better be off the ramp or know how to fly! Incoming mortars and artillery rounds exploded all around the landing area. The pilot didn’t even land the chopper.

The crew chief lowered the tailgate to the ground as the chopper hovered and we were dumped out like a heap of garbage from the rear of a sanitation truck. We scattered like rats for the nearest trench line or bunker and waited in sheer terror for what seemed like an endless barrage to be over. The chopper disappeared into the clouds without retrieving any of the casualties it had come for, and the incoming rounds finally ceased. We huddled for at least another twenty minutes before mustering the courage to crawl out from the relative safety of the trenches, and we made our way across the airfield. We found our gun positions along the northern perimeter of the runway and settled in with our beleaguered”

By the way, our ordnance would sometimes fail also and come down inside our compound. This was fun, but it made one a little nervous for a few hours after the second “short round” (as they were called). We blew up the rest of the lot in the woods nearby. There are some holes just outside the base that have holes bigger than any B-52 Bomb could make. I suppose that’s my signature which I left behind at Khe Sanh…a big Hole!! ”

Final preparations were being made for relieving the siege of Khe Sanh by the reinforced 1st Cavalry Division. On 22 March General Rosson held a meeting with division commanders at Camp Evans, 15 kilometers southeast of Quang Tri City and formulated plans for the relief of 1st Cavalry Division elements from their area of operation along the coastal areas of Quang Tri Province by units of the 101st Airborne Division. To insure that a sufficient force would be available to offset a new enemy threat at Hue, General Rosson requested that the Vietnamese Marine Task Force be retained at Hue.

If the force could not be retained, he requested that a fourth Vietnamese Airborne Battalion and U.S. forces be made available for employment in the Hue area. General Cushman forwarded General Rosson’s report to General Westmoreland with a recommendation that the airborne task force be raised to four battalions for the Con Thien-Gio Linh operation. The Con Thien operation was envisioned as a deception plan for Operation PEGASUS. This operation would also place the airborne task force closer to the ultimate zone of action in the Khe Sanh Operation.[10]

The battle was significant in terms of its weakening the resolve of some American people. Nearly a quarter of all television news was devoted to covering the battle, and was even higher for some, such as CBS which would spend half of their news coverage time on the siege. The intense coverage of war brought into people’s homes was one of the hallmarks of Vietnam conflict in general and is a subject of study as a psychological and social phenomenon. It also spurred debate over communist infiltration of the US media system in order to sway the populace. Either way it served as focal point for discussion of the war at that time and served as harbinger of increased and more current media coverage of wartime events.

The sudden huge siege of Khe Sanh astonished the nation, and reminded numerous Americans, together with the Johnson administration, of the embarrassing beat of the French at Dienbienphu fourteen years earlier. In his classic Texas way Johnson tells one of his advisors, “I don’t want any damn Din Bin Phoo”. The siege would play to a massive audience on American television each night for the next few months, proving the resolve of the Vietcong to win their struggle.

The US victory at Khe Sanh was a mostly profitless one – the Marines did not hold the support for any significant amount of time, or use the place to reach a serious planned aim. For the North Vietnamese military, it was vital more as a distraction in the bigger Tet offensive of 1968. But the US forces reached at least a strategic victory at Khe Sanh, keep away from the Dien Bien Phu that Johnson feared and the American press forecasted. Often the credit goes to air influence, and air influence certainly had a important collision. But it hardly seems fair to disregard the land forces, as the data relating to air power are so inconclusive and the ground Marines managed so well without full-capacity air support during the January-February period of the siege.

Nonetheless, for Khe Sanh at least, de Seversky’s theory of air warfare seems for the most part to hold. But then, Clodfelter’s views also make sense: the bombing campaign clearly had its limitations and misapplications. If Khe Sanh is representative of the Vietnam war as a whole, why was de Seversky’s way of looking at air power so successful while Clodfelter’s, while acknowledged, were largely ignored? Why hasn’t air power doctrine changed noticeably in response to the war?

There are some possible causes. There is always the off possibility that military leaders in universal simply favor air influence as it is, for some individual, emotional or visual reason. Or perhaps the community image of air warfare – built up by the media and continued by Air Force agenda designed to bolster this image, such as television announcement campaigns and the “Blue Angels” – is more optimistic than other mediums of fighting. But the most reasonable details is political. In the recent era, the President as Commander in Chief has sought more and more freedom to exercise autonomous military power.

Air authority plays straight to this wish, as it can be so rapidly turned “on and off”. Ground troops must be dedicated and cannot be so easily reserved, but air power can nearly immediately respond to the whims of the President or commanding military leader. To such leaders, the “instant gratification” that air power can provide is very appealing. And if statistics are “uncertain,” as Clodfelter points out, images of sudden destruction and videotapes of “smart bombs” speeding through air-conditioning vents are convincing enough.

The thing that advocates of air power really seem to be chasing is, in the end, the holy grail of limited war. It was this conception of “limited war” which first embroiled the United States in Indochina, and in air power people still seek the same end. Air power seems to promise the capability to fight only on the United States’ terms, attacking as is convenient, and always being in control. That is perhaps the greatest allure of air power. But as Karl von Clausewitz noted in On War, “War is an act of force–which can theoretically have no limits”. Trying to create limited war is to risk both defeat and a misunderstanding of the nature of war. Many have realized that the dream of limited war can, as in Vietnam, become a nightmare. Nonetheless, in regards to air power the dream–or fantasy–is still very much alive.

Though at Khe Sanh air power may have been less perfect than its popular depiction today, it nonetheless seems to have been usually important and very critical. But the typical criticisms are questions of competence, not destructiveness. In this respect, air power at Khe Sanh seems more doubtful. But while the Vietnam war has directed the United States to question a great many things about itself – militarily, politically and publicly – the country, attracted by the dream of partial warfare, has remained extremely positive about air warfare. Maybe it too merit a little Vietnam era doubt.

Worked Cites:

  1. Burl W. McLaughlin, “Khe Sanh: Keeping an Outpost Alive,” Air University Review, Nov-Dec 1968, p. 58; Bowers, p. 297.
  2.  Carmelo Meletiche, “Annual Historical Supplement of the 109th Quartermaster Company (Air Delivery): 1 January 1966 – 31 December 1967,” (Carlisle Barracks , PA: US Army Military History Institute), p. 1. (Hereafter, Annual Historical Supplement).
  3. FitzGerald, Frances. Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam. Boston: Little, Brown, 1972.
  4. Halberstam, David. The Best and the Brightest. New York: Ballantine Books, 1993.
  5. Haig, Alexander M. with Charles McCarry. Inner Circles: How America Changed the World: A Memoir. New York: Warner Books, 1992.
  6. Library of Congress Call Number: DS558 .T27 2003  The Battle for Khe Sanh
  7. Letters Home http://www.geocities.com/ksvredclay/issue-55-spring-2003memoirs.htm
  8. Mark Taylor. The Vietnam War in History, Literature, and Film. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2003.
  9. Memories: Michael L. Murphy Attack Squadron 153, Ordnance USS Coral Sea Vietnam 1967, 68, 69
  10. Moyers S. Shore, The Battle for Khe Sanh (Washington, D.C.: Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1969), pp. 10-17.
  11. Memories of the Hill Battles James Epps, http:http://www.vietvet.org/ltepps.htm
  12. Nixon, Richard M. The Real War. New York: Warner Books, 1980.
  13. Remembrances of Khe Sanh Jim Wodecki USMC, FLC, FLSG-A, Khe Sanh 66-67 http://www.vietvet.org/jwodecki.htm
  14. Vietnam War www.questia.com

[1] Mark Taylor. The Vietnam War in History, Literature, and Film. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2003.

      [2] Memories of the Hill Battles James Epps, http:http://www.vietvet.org/ltepps.htm

        [3] Memories of the Hill Battles James Epps, http://www.vietvet.org/ltepps.htm

[4] Memories of the Hill Battles James Epps, Lt. 1/26 http://www.vietvet.org/ltepps.htm

[5] FitzGerald, Frances. Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam. Boston: Little, Brown, 1972.

[6] Remembrances of Khe Sanh Jim Wodecki USMC, FLC, FLSG-A, Khe Sanh 66-67 http://www.vietvet.org/jwodecki.htm

[7] Michael L. Murphy Attack Squadron 153, Ordnance USS Coral Sea Vietnam 1967, 68, 69

[8] Moyers S. Shore, The Battle for Khe Sanh (Washington, D.C.: Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1969), pp. 10-17.

[9] Letters Home http://www.geocities.com/ksvredclay/issue-55-spring-2003memoirs.htm

[10] Library of Congress Call Number: DS558 .T27 2003  The Battle for Khe Sanh

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