For the typical Marine replacement, the first sight of the Khe Sanh combat base came from several miles out. From the air, the base was clearly visible, set against a backdrop of red soil, the distinctive earth color of the plateau, and the deep green vegetation surrounding the perimeter wire. Flights into Khe Sanh during the siege took on an added dimension, similar to a thrill ride at a theme park, for aircraft were forced to execute violent maneuvers to avoid North Vietnamese antiaircraft fire, particularly the 12.7-mm machine guns emplaced near the runway. Typically, aircraft approached the base at an altitude above 3,000 feet and then executed a very quick dive to the runway—leaving passengers with that “controlled crash” look on their faces and their stomachs in their mouths.
Located in the remote, sparsely populated mountainous highlands only ten kilometers from Laos, Khe Sanh was extremely isolated. The base was the western terminus of the “McNamara Line,” a series of strong points across the top of South Vietnam, designed as a barrier to stop the North Vietnamese from infiltrating into the northern provinces. The brainchild of Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, the barrier was a costly failure that tied Marine Corps infantry to fixed positions, giving the enemy the freedom to maneuver. Its tenuous supply lifeline was maintained by air and truck convoys, with the single one- lane road, Route 9, particularly susceptible to ambush. The crumbling macadam road ran for several tortuous miles through terrain studded with thick foliage right to the edge of the roadway, sharp turns, narrow bridges, and limited visibility—a convoy commander’s worst nightmare.
The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) took advantage of this situation by ambushing several convoys, one of which was particularly important because it carried Army 175-mm self-propelled guns that would have helped offset the NVA’s Soviet 152-mm and 130-mm guns. My company, Lima of 3d Battalion, 26th Marines, escorted another convoy a few days after the fight, and evidence still littered the road—thousands and thousands of spent .50- caliber and 40-mm shell casings covered the ground where the escort had attempted to counter the ambush. By early August 1967, a succession of ambushes forced the suspension of convoy traffic, effectively cutting the land route to Khe Sanh and leaving the base dependent on supply by air.
When the siege began in January 1968, the entire area was covered by jungle, much of it triple canopy that contained a rich and varied plant and animal life. 1 was intimately familiar with the area, having run company-sized patrols along the ridgelines and valleys for several weeks before the siege. On that particular operation, we went under the canopy and found evidence of a large North Vietnamese complex with log and earth bunkers that would withstand everything but a direct hit from a 500-pound bomb. From more than a few feet away, the heavily camouflaged position was impossible to see, and the high-speed trails showed evidence of heavy traffic.
By March 1968, the jungle was gone, totally devastated for miles by the bombing campaign. There did not seem to be a square inch of ground from the perimeter to the Laotian border that was not cratered by a bomb or shell. Later estimates showed that 100,000 tons of bombs were dumped around the base in an effort to destroy the encircling North Vietnamese.
Into the Hills
In mid-December 1967, I rejoined my company at Khe Sanh after a 5-day rest and recuperation in Hawaii. After making the December sweep, the battalion returned to the base on Christmas Eve. The commanding officer of the 26th Marines, Colonel David E. Lownds, was on the horns of a dilemma, because placing infantry in the hill positions that dominated the plateau isolated them and made the units totally dependent on resupply by helicopter. It was obvious, however, that Dong Tri Mountain and the hill positions 881 North, 881 South, 861, and 558 would influence tactical dispositions. If this critical terrain was not garrisoned, it would uncover avenues of approach into the base and cede freedom of maneuver to the NVA. Three companies were detached from the battalion and helo-lifted into the hills—India and Mike Company to 881 South and Kilo to 861. As reinforcements poured in, Colonel Lownds ordered the 2d battalion to defend Hill 558, a main avenue of approach from the north.
As predicted, the positions became increasingly isolated as the NVA surrounded them with automatic weapons and mortars. Normal helicopter resupply quickly became impossible. A new strategy was developed: the Super Gaggle, comprised of helicopters with external loads, helicopter gunships, and attack jets, usually A-4 Skyhawks (see “Historic Aircraft,” p. 16). On supply day, the helos would take station at a safe area while the A-4s bombed and strafed around the designated hill. The last Skyhawk would release smoke canisters, obscuring the helicopters approaching the landing zone, while gunships flew alongside, providing last-minute fire suppression. As the supply helicopters passed over the zone, they would release their loads and swoop away, never creating a stationary target for NVA mortar crews. The operation tied up scarce assets and required a tremendous amount of coordination, but it paid off. Supplies got through, and no aircraft were lost during a Super Gaggle.
On the plateau, my company, Lima, was ordered to dig in along a 1,000-meter section of the perimeter that eventually became part of the Red Sector, tying in with 1st Battalion, 26th Marines, on the right flank and the Army’s forward-operating base on the left. We did not trust the indigenous strikers at that base, even though they had Special Forces advisors, so we “sealed” that flank with wire barriers covered by two machine gun positions. We also started to wire in the perimeter, place claymore mines, and build above-ground bunkers in conformance with a design standard prepared by the battalion operations officer. Just before dark on 21 January, our unhurried approach to perimeter defense changed dramatically.
My command group was sitting outside one of the new bunkers, shooting the bull, when I heard the unmistakable “pop” of incoming artillery. Almost without thinking, I launched myself toward a slit trench, followed by several others who managed to knock the hell out of me as we landed together in the bottom of the hole. Several rounds impacted near us, and then we heard the cry for a corps- man. Within moments, one of my Marines was carried past, on the way to the battalion aid station—a large-caliber round had landed on the lip of a trench, decapitating one man and wounding another in the eye. In a gruesome footnote, some days later, while checking the lines, I stumbled across the helmet of the man who had been killed. It was blasted out of shape, scorched and hardly recognizable.
From that time on, we dug like moles— bunkers went underground, their roofs hardened with logs, stolen runway matting, steel pallets, anything that would stop a direct hit. They were designed as two-man fighting positions with the firing ports offset and a sloping front of hard-packed dirt to defeat rocket-propelled grenade rounds.
The battalion combat operation center was located deliberately in a small grove of trees that was made off-limits to vehicle traffic in an effort to conceal its presence. A bulldozer operator was bribed to dig a hole some 20 feet deep, 12 feet wide, and 40 feet long, which was then covered with stolen runway matting, a layer of crushed rock, expended artillery shells with base up, a layer of hard-packed soil, and a final 2-inch plywood sheet. Altogether, the main roof was about 12 feet thick. Finally, a tent and camouflage netting were erected over it. It was a hell of a lot of effort, but it paid off on one memorable occasion.
I was handing a cup of C-ration cocoa to Major Matt Caulfield when the battalion tactical net came alive with the warning: “Arty, arty, arty, Co Roc Mountain, 220°!” The radio operator from India Company on Hill 881 South, some 7,000 kilometers west of the base, had the opportunity to hear the pop of incoming and broadcast a warning, giving us several precious seconds to react. I distinctly remember wondering where the round would land—we seemed to be on the gun-target line and the recipient of several rounds from this location—when there was a terrific explosion. The lights went out, thick dust filled the bunker, everything went deathly quiet, and a heavy smell of cordite permeated the air.
My ears rang with the concussion, but I clearly heard someone yell out, asking if everyone was all right. After verifying there were no casualties, Major Caulfield and I climbed topside and noted a gaping hole in the tent, now perforated by shrapnel, and about four feet of the bunker’s roof gouged out. We had taken a direct hit—-a point-detonating, heavy-caliber round had hit the plywood, exploded, and then taken out part of the roof. If the plywood had not detonated the shell, it would have penetrated the bunker.
As the siege progressed, incoming artillery and mortar rounds took a heavy toll in casualties and morale. We worked, ate, slept, and even defecated under the threat of violent death, becoming attuned to the rhythms of the North Vietnamese gunners. Shelling would start about midmorning, when the fog burned off, and would continue until dusk when their observers no longer could spot targets. Some days were worse than others, depending on the proximity of exploding rounds or the number of casualties, particularly if someone you knew had been hit.
The men seemed to cope well, many adopting that sarcastic attitude so prevalent with young Vietnam combat veterans. “Don’t mean nuthin’” was the standard response to truly frightening experiences. When the combat operations bunker took the hit, two Marines just entering the tent were knocked unconscious by the blast. Remarkably, neither was hurt except for minor burns, scratches, and headaches. Upon coming to, one looked up at the corps- man and said, “Don’t mean nuthin’.” Bravado or balls, 1 could not tell, but it sure impressed the hell out of me.
Humor also took on an added dimension. I received word that a fire team was going to surrender. I ran over to their bunker and noted a flattened six-by-six truck embedded in the ground a few feet from the entrance. The team leader and his two stalwarts met me and stated with great aplomb: “If the NVA are going to drop trucks on us, we’re going to surrender!” With that, the three broke up and related how a CH-53 helicopter had lost the externally slung truck from an altitude of 1,000 feet, dropping it within ten feet of the bunker, shaking the ground and scaring the hell out of them. At that point, they needed a laugh.
Early in the siege, a 152-mm round impacted the base’s crushed rock, hard-packed main road. Major Joe Laughran, the battalion’s executive officer, asked me to have a look at it so we could determine what we needed to do to strengthen our bunkers. As I stood looking at the gigantic crater—five feet across and five feet deep—all I could think about was the comparison between that hole and the size of our entrenching tools. With no fancy engineer equipment, we dug all day, every day, extending the trench system from rear to front, connecting battalion to company, then company to platoon. Bunkers were connected to one another by zig-zag trenches that acted as baffles, limiting the effectiveness of a direct hit or enfilade fire. Eventually, one could move throughout the battalion without going above ground.
Those not occupied with digging were stringing barbed wire and concertina that stretched for 30-40 meters in front of the fighting bunkers. This barrier consisted of belts of wire strung in various military designs to slow down and break up tactical formations of advancing infantry. The goal only was to “slow down,” because many of us had seen former NVA sappers demonstrate how they could penetrate even the most difficult wire defenses.
We were not the only ones digging trenches. The North Vietnamese were past masters of going underground. Their system began near Laos and zig-zagged for miles toward the base despite constant pounding by air and artillery. Someone had a copy of Hell in a Very Small Place, Bernard Fall’s excellent account of the battle of Dien Bien Phu, which we read with great interest because of the similarities with Khe Sanh—an isolated battlefield dependent on air support and the main base dominated by critical terrain. The NVA tactics seemed to be right out of this book, particularly the movement of heavy antiaircraft guns into the area. An aerial observer spotted suspicious-looking foliage in an area that was clear the day before and called in air strikes that uncovered the guns, knocking them out before they could be emplaced. We knew we were not the only ones who were worried, because a newspaper article quoted President Lyndon Johnson as saying: “I don’t want any damn Dinbinphoo.” The article went on to say that the President had received assurances from the Joint Chiefs of Staff that the base would not fall No one had asked our opinion.
To provide additional security, we placed trip-wire flares and hundreds of claymore mines in the wire. The claymores were oriented so that, when fired, they would give overlapping bands of pellets. In addition, engineers put in a minefield containing antitank and antipersonnel mines. The antipersonnel mines—small, explosive-filled plastic containers—were particularly vicious because they were almost impossible to detect. An engineer working in front of our lines made a crucial mistake and stepped on one of his own mines, severely injuring a foot.
To round out the defense, we were assigned two Ontos (a small, tank-like vehicle mounting six 106-mm recoilless rifles), a couple of tanks, and an Army searchlight detachment. I also was able to procure several .50-caliber machine guns from the regiment’s motor transport platoon.
We always believed our defenses would exact a heavy toll on any infantry assault, but we also knew the crucial shield remained supporting arms—close coordination and integration of artillery and tactical air support, including the use of B-52 bombers in the close-support role—to break up enemy formations before reaching our wire. A prime example of this integrated support occurred in the sector held by Rangers of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, a bubble extending in front of the 1st Battalion, 26th Marine, on the southeastern sector of the perimeter. Late one evening, one of their listening posts reported hearing noise and movement in a North Vietnamese trench line about 100 meters from their position. Camp Carroll’s 175- mm guns, firing antipersonnel ammunition, targeted the NVA trenches, while the base’s 105-mm and 155-mm howitzers fired on likely assembly areas. A B-52 arc-light strike was diverted to the target, dropping 500-pound bombs within 1,000 meters of Khe Sanh. Hearing nothing more that evening, a patrol was sent out the next morning and found a trench filled with dead NVA sappers, still kneeling in the assault position. Farther out, they found more evidence of a slaughter—pieces of flesh, parts of bodies, and the heavy, penetrating smell of death. Intelligence reports indicated that the combined-arms attack had annihilated an entire battalion of North Vietnamese.
Air power simply overwhelmed the NVA, keeping them off-balance and preventing them from massing their forces. It was ’round-the-clock bombing: daylight found Marine Corps and Air Force O-1 and O-2A aerial observers controlling flight after flight of F-4 Phantoms, A-4 Skyhawks, F-100 Super Sabres, and even propeller-powered A-1 Spads. At night and during reduced visibility, Marine Corps and Air Force radars took over, directing A-6 Intruders and B-52s. This air show had a tremendous effect on morale because we knew it was kicking the hell out of the North Vietnamese.
The air assault was not without cost, however. Many aircraft suffered damage, and two were shot down right in front of us by NVA 12.7-mm antiaircraft fire. One, a Sky- hawk, was hit coming over the target and crashed into Dong Tri Mountain, but not before the pilot ejected over the runway, landing on its very edge (to the cheers of the defenders), just a few hundred meters from the NVA trenches. Some days later, we listened for several emotionally charged minutes to the plaintive call for help from a shot-up med-evac helicopter trying to make it to Dong Ha—it did. The battalion’s motor transport officer was killed when his C-130 was hit by artillery and burned after landing, causing the permanent closing of the runway.
The closing was critical, because supply of the base then became dependent on air drop or LAPES (Low Altitude Parachute Extraction System), an innovative method of delivering supplies without landing. A C-130, loaded with a specially designed pallet, flying at 140 knots and an altitude of 5 feet, deployed a parachute pulling the packaged load out of the aircraft. It dropped to the runway and skidded to a halt, usually within 750 feet. Unfortunately, one of the devices went awry, and the load crushed a bunker, killing the Marine occupant. The drop zone was located just outside our perimeter and had several concealed NVA machine guns around it that played havoc with our planes. Some years later, I had occasion to talk with one of the transport pilots who attested to the accuracy of enemy fire. Many were hit, but fortunately none was shot down.
By late March, it was obvious that the NVA were withdrawing, although they continued to shell the base in an attempt to cause casualties and keep us fixed in position. The initiative passed to U.S. forces. At 0700 on 1 April 1968, elements of the 1st Air Cavalry assaulted into the operational area, while the 1st Marines advanced from Ca Lu to clear Route 9. Eight days later, a sky soldier from the 7th Cavalry shook hands across the wire with a Marine Corps lance corporal, unofficially ending the siege.
Khe Sanh Revisited
In 1998, 1 returned with a tour group to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the siege. Arriving by bus, we had about an hour to sightsee before the official ceremony, which was to take place near a Vietnamese monument honoring the soldiers of the North. Orienting myself by the remains of the old runway, I was able to find the approximate location of my company’s position. Young coffee trees had been planted recently, plowing up remnants of our occupation—boot soles, plastic sheeting, cartridges, and a host of other recognizable odds and ends, including live ordnance. It was fairly easy to trace the old positions because of the spaced indentations in the earth and, here and there, the larger depression of a command bunker. Looking out across the expanse of new tree growth, I could see the hill positions outlined against the horizon that figured so strongly in the fighting.
At the appointed hour, the group of about 35 gathered to hear former Commandant of the Marine Corps General Carl Mundy deliver an emotional talk, recalling memories of battle and lost comrades. As he spoke, I looked over his shoulder at the high ridge, its base hidden by low fog that made it appear to be floating toward us—a ghostly apparition. During a pause in his remarks, the absolute stillness and 30-year-old thoughts caused me to strain to hear sounds from so long ago. 1 found myself tense with anticipation. A light breeze caressed my cheek, I could feel the spirit of that hallowed ground, and it overwhelmed me. Others struggled to control their emotions, bodies shaking with the effort. Frank Johnson, the acclaimed Washington Post photographer and former Marine, snapped pictures with tears streaming down his cheeks.
I still can see the latticework of sand-bagged trenches and bunkers etched against the red soil and the stark outline of the gray aluminum runway, a camouflage-painted C- 130 thundering along its length while 82-mm mortar rounds drop in its wake. I can see the jungle-covered ridgeline to the north, dominant and forbidding, concealing the enemy’s artillery spotters and God knows what else. The air still is filled with a cacophony of sound— the sharp, explosive boom of outgoing artillery; the far-off warning pop of an incoming round; the heart-stopping tearing sound as the round splits the air and the crump of its explosion; jet engines at full power as a fighter pulls off the target; and the myriad voices of young men going about the business of war.
Looking back, I have tried to picture the Marines I served with during those 77 historic days. Most were in their late teens and seemed to have that typical teenager’s irreverent sense of humor, but also a Marine’s sense of dedication. Time after time, 1 saw them give their all, often at the risk of their lives. Corporal Terry Smith, a Marine I thought the world of, volunteered to go to Hill 881 South as a replacement for a wounded radioman, despite my attempt to talk him out of it. During a helicopter resupply, he was killed by a mortar round. After the Lang Vei Special Forces Camp was overrun by tanks on 6 February, the battalion was overwhelmed by the response to a request for volunteers to form special hunter- killer teams. The battalion’s mess chief, affectionately nicknamed “Ptomaine Six,” constructed below-ground bunkers for his field ranges, enabling him to supply the troops with fresh-baked cookies twice a week—a tremendous booster of morale. The temperatures in those bunkers, however, reached 130°, often overcoming his cooks. At the dreaded cry of “Corpsman,” help rushed in from all fronts, often during the heaviest shelling. I relearned, time and time again, the true meaning of Semper Fi.
The memory of Khe Sanh will always evoke the powerful emotions of esprit de corps, valor, youthful vigor, sense of purpose—but most of all, unstinting sacrifice.