The Marines' Tenacious Stand

By Gregg Jones

In the end, the defenders of Khe Sanh never faced the nightmare scenario of an overwhelming attack. The absence of a denouement and the abandonment of the base only months after Westmoreland deemed it essential gave life to an unending debate and revisionist verdict: The siege of Khe Sanh was a mere ruse by the North Vietnamese.

Obscured is the story of what actually happened at Khe Sanh: 6,000 U.S. Marines and contingents of U.S. Army Special Forces and South Vietnamese Rangers were locked in mortal combat against some 20,000 North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regulars. When it was over, the blood of nearly 1,000 U.S. dead and thousands of Vietnamese stained the soil of Khe Sanh.

 

The First Blows

By December 1967, the United States’ increasingly bloody and unpopular war in Vietnam weighed heavily on President Johnson. He had watched public approval of his management of the conflict fall to 28 percent in October 1967, and the public mood was worsening. Facing reelection in the coming year, Johnson brought Westmoreland back to the United States in November 1967 to make the case for victory in Vietnam. In a 19 November address at the National Press Club in Washington, Westmoreland hinted at a U.S. win in Vietnam. “We have reached an important point where the end begins to come into view,” he said.

Yet within days, Johnson and Westmoreland possessed intelligence of an ominous gathering of communist forces north of the Demilitarized Zone that divided North and South Vietnam. Analysts concluded the likely enemy target was the Marine combat base at Khe Sanh, just north of an old French road, Route 9, that ran from the coastal highway westward into the Annamite Range and Mekong River market towns in Laos. Colonel David Lownds’ 26th Marines were busy fortifying the base and nearby hills.

By mid-January 1968, Marines and Special Forces “Green Berets” were scouring the area around Khe Sanh Combat Base for the North Vietnamese. The enemy’s first blow fell on Hill 861, occupied by K Company, 3d Battalion, 26th Marines (Kilo 3/26). In the early hours of 21 January 1968, North Vietnamese forces pounded the hill with artillery, rockets, and mortars, followed by a battalion-size infantry assault that penetrated the hill’s northwest perimeter.

Heavy-weapons fire ravaged the Kilo command group, seriously wounding the company commander and first sergeant and killing the gunnery sergeant. Marines sealed the breach as supporting fire from Khe Sanh Combat Base and Hill 881 South, to the west, pounded the attackers. Dawn found Kilo Company bloodied, but still in control of the hill. As the fighting on 861 ended, the North Vietnamese bombarded the combat base. An NVA round slammed into the main ammunition dump, detonating shells, small-arms rounds, tear gas, and grenades.

Amid the falling enemy shells, Lieutenant Edward Feldman, a Navy doctor, dashed for the smoking rubble of the 1/26 battalion aid station. Within minutes, Marines arrived with 19-year-old Private First Class Robert Mussari. The fuse assembly of an unexploded mortar round protruded from the Marine’s abdomen. Working with his hands, Feldman carefully separated cauterized tissue from the projectile, and an assistant carefully removed the round from the Marine, who would survive. Feldman would treat another 60 men over the next several hours.

Three miles to the south, Americans and South Vietnamese at the government’s Huong Hoa District headquarters in Khe Sanh village were fighting for their lives. The compound’s defenders—a four-man U.S. Army advisory team, 20 Marines of Combined Action Company Oscar, some 75 Bru tribal militiamen, and about 70 Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) officers and soldiers—held off repeated attacks by the vaunted 66th Regiment of the NVA 304th Division. The following day the compound defenders withdrew to the combat base, leaving behind the bodies of 154 enemy fighters. Twelve South Vietnamese soldiers and seven Bru militiamen died in the fighting, but no Americans.

 

The Attacks Intensify

In the days that followed, North Vietnamese artillery shells, rockets, and mortar rounds rained down on Khe Sanh Combat Base and its outposts. Snipers were a constant threat. After nightfall, NVA soldiers probed Marine defenses. Enemy fire took a mounting toll. In an all-too-typical tragedy, an NVA rocket streaked in from the west on the afternoon of 24 January and smashed into crude bunkers occupied by Marines of Bravo Company, 3d Recon Battalion. Survivors pulled 4 dead and 16 wounded comrades from the debris.

Acts of valor became commonplace. On 26 January, Corporal Dennis Mannion, an artillery forward observer with Kilo 3/26 on Hill 861, tracked a two-squad patrol of the recently arrived 2d Platoon of Alpha Company, 1/26. As the patrol worked its way into a draw off the western slope of 861, Mannion saw two groups of NVA soldiers emerge from hiding and fire on the Marines. One Marine stood up and advanced toward a concealed enemy machine gun, pumping rounds from his M-79 grenade launcher. Rather than drop to the ground to reload, the Marine kept advancing and firing until an enemy bullet struck him in the head. The fallen grenadier was Private First Class Dwight “Tommy” Denning, barely two months in Vietnam.

The beginning of the communist Tet offensive on 30–31 January only heightened concerns in South Vietnam and Washington that Khe Sanh soon would confront a massive ground attack requiring extraordinary intervention. On 1 February, General Earle Wheeler, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sent an “eyes only” cable to Westmoreland and the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, Admiral U. S. Grant Sharp Jr., inquiring whether tactical nuclear weapons might be needed to save Khe Sanh. Westmoreland expressed confidence in his ability to defend the base but did not rule out a dire turn. In that case, “I visualize that either tactical nuclear weapons or chemical agents would be active candidates for employment.”

Against that anxious backdrop, the North Vietnamese launched a series of ground assaults on Khe Sanh’s outer defenses. Shortly after 0400 on 5 February, explosions and gunfire raked the recently established Echo 2/26 outpost on 861 Alpha, off the northeastern flank of Hill 861. As soon as the initial barrage subsided, enemy sappers poured through a gap in the northern perimeter. The Echo 2/26 skipper, Captain Earle Breeding, deployed fire teams to a new line forming behind the shattered northern perimeter and called in fire support.

Inside the outpost, a Marine counterattack led by the 1st Platoon’s leader, First Lieutenant Don Shanley, shored up the northern perimeter. A final desperate NVA assault at 0616 was quickly broken. Echo had lost 33 men killed and wounded, about 20 percent of the company’s total strength, but held the hill. The broken bodies of more than 100 enemy soldiers lay scattered around the slopes.

 

Onslaught at Lang Vei

communist infantry backed by 11 Soviet-made PT-76 light tanks overran the Army Special Forces camp at the village of Lang Vei, southwest of the combat base. The last holdouts—8 Americans and about 15 South Vietnamese—withdrew to the camp’s underground tactical operations center. When the enemy threatened to blow up the reinforced concrete bunker, the South Vietnamese fled outside, where presumably they were shot.

Around dawn, the North Vietnamese blew a hole in one of the bunker’s walls, and by 0745 were on the verge of overwhelming the Green Berets inside. At the last possible moment, a pair of Navy A-1H Skyraiders from the USS Coral Sea (CVA-43) penetrated a “sucker hole” in the clouds for a series of life-saving sorties. More Attack Squadron 25 Skyraiders arrived and broke the communist attack with cluster bombs and napalm.

Seventeen of the 24 Green Berets who had been stationed at Lang Vei would survive the attack including three who were were captured. (They would remain in North Vietnamese custody until 1973.) Seven were killed in action or missing, including Sergeant Eugene Ashley, posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his efforts to save his trapped comrades in the command bunker.

The fighting southwest of Khe Sanh Combat Base continued on 8 February, when the North Vietnamese attacked in the predawn, nearly overrunning a platoon-size Alpha 1/9 outpost on Hill 64, about a mile from the base. The survivors held until daylight, when the Alpha skipper, Captain Henry “Mac” Radcliffe, led a relief force to the hill. Twenty-seven Americans died in the fighting, including platoon commander Second Lieutenant Terence Roach. The hill and surrounding terrain were littered with about 150 NVA dead.

 

Solving the Supply Problem

the ability to resupply Khe Sanh. More than six months earlier, U.S. convoys to the base had been discontinued because of North Vietnamese ambushes along Route 9, leaving only supply by air. But on 10 February, eight Americans died after a Marine KC-130 transport was hit by enemy fire on its approach to Khe Sanh’s air strip and burst into flames after a crash landing. The resupply burden shifted to more nimble C-123 transports and helicopters.

The North Vietnamese 325C and 304th divisions by now virtually had encircled the combat base. U.S. fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters faced a gauntlet of fire on their Khe Sanh runs. Despite their efforts, the base reported a staggering supply shortfall of 1,172 tons by 19 February. On the hill outposts, rations and water allocations were cut. Wounded men sometimes died waiting for medevac missions.

To alleviate the problem, 1st Marine Air Wing headquarters devised a large-scale helicopter resupply tactic. On 24 February, Operation Sierra—better known as the Super Gaggle—was launched. Fourteen Marine A-4 Skyhawk jets blanketed suspected NVA antiaircraft positions around Hill 881 South with high explosives, napalm, tear gas, and smoke. Immediately afterward, eight CH-46D Sea Knight helicopters dangling cargo nets packed with ammunition, food, water, and medical supplies arrived overhead, escorted by four UH-1E helicopter gunships. The Sea Knights swooped down and dropped the nets, replenishing the Marines on 881 South with 24,000 pounds of needed supplies. Almost overnight, Khe Sanh’s resupply crisis eased, but the grueling fighting continued.

 

Ambush and Assault

The next morning, Second Lieutenant Don Jacques led Bravo 1/26’s 3d Platoon outside the southeast perimeter of the combat base in search of enemy tunnels and trenches. Before the patrol reached its second checkpoint, three NVA soldiers jumped from cover and ran along an access road before ducking into a tree line. Overruling the warnings of his squad leaders, Jacques led his entire platoon into an L-shaped ambush.

Jacques suffered mortal wounds within minutes, and the patrol disintegrated. Stunned and injured survivors trickled back to the combat base through the late morning and afternoon. Fewer than half of the 40 men returned from what became known as the “Ghost Patrol.”

The Bravo patrol had revealed the threat outside the Khe Sanh perimeter. A Marine aerial observer flying overhead during the day reported the enemy’s extensive network of trenches and bunkers, including assault trenches that ended only 30 yards from the base’s southeastern wire. Fears of an impending attack spurred the Americans to saturate the surrounding terrain with artillery and air strikes. North Vietnamese activity still surged.

The sparring came to a head on the night of 29 February–1 March. Seismic and acoustic sensors revealed vehicle and troop movements along Route 9, indicating an enemy regiment or more on the move. In the Khe Sanh command bunker, Colonel Lownds set in motion a massive response. Inbound B-52 bombers were rerouted to pound likely enemy assembly areas south and southeast of the combat base. Air strikes, artillery fire, and mortar rounds blanketed preset targets.

At 2130, a wave of North Vietnamese assault troops emerged from the cauldron of fire and hit ARVN Ranger positions along the eastern and southeastern perimeter. One soldier made it inside the wire, and six others were killed in the wire before the attack was broken. A second battalion-size attack on the ARVN Rangers followed at 2330, only to fail. A final attack was shattered in the early hours of 1 March.

 

Final Bloody Operations

The struggle at Khe Sanh stretched into its third month, with death never distant. On 29 February, a Marine CH-46 Sea Knight flying from Dong Ha to Khe Sanh was hit by automatic-weapons fire and crashed, killing all 23 Americans aboard. On 6 March, an Air Force C-123 was shot down at Khe Sanh, killing all 49 aboard.

Depleted by U.S. fire and troop diversions, the North Vietnamese mounted a final quixotic assault on the eastern perimeter in the early hours of 18 March. The light of day revealed another 83 NVA dead. On 30 March, the Marines of Bravo 1/26 delivered payback for their ambushed comrades. Captain Ken Pipes, the Bravo commander, was seriously wounded in a World War II-style assault that rolled through North Vietnamese fortifications east of the perimeter, culminating with a bayonet charge. Ten Marines died and two were missing, against 115 enemy dead.

The following evening in the United States—Sunday, March 31—President Johnson offered to ease the U.S. bombing campaign against the North in exchange for peace negotiations. In a stunning finale, Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.

As the President spoke, Operation Pegasus got under way to reopen the land link to Khe Sanh. The 1st Cavalry Division and 1st Marines, supported by South Vietnamese airborne forces, pushed westward from Route 1 toward Khe Sanh. On 8 April, the official linkup between Pegasus forces and the Marines at Khe Sanh Combat Base occurred. General Westmoreland declared the siege of Khe Sanh lifted, and the media spotlight turned elsewhere in Vietnam.

 

History's Judgment

Khe Sanh slipped from the headlines and nightly news, but the fighting and dying continued for another three months until U.S. forces razed and abandoned the base on 11 July 1968. By the count of Navy Lieutenant Ray Stubbe—a chaplain at Khe Sanh and later a historian of the long battle—some 1,000 Americans (far more than the official count) gave their lives in the defense of the base.

A harsh verdict on Khe Sanh has taken hold over time. In his 1983 bestseller, Vietnam: A History, Stanley Karnow declared Khe Sanh a “fiasco” for the Americans. Karnow’s verdict was amplified by Neil Sheehan in his 1988 epic, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. Sheehan wrote dismissively: “The siege was a ruse to distract Westmoreland while the real blow was prepared.”

Khe Sanh revisionism has largely ignored the impact of the extraordinary firepower brought to bear on the North Vietnamese. Between 22 January and 31 March, U.S. Air Force and Marine aircraft conducted 24,000 tactical strikes against communist forces around Khe Sanh, in tandem with 2,700 B-52 missions under Operation Arc Light. Some Khe Sanh scholars believe the massive close air support campaign—Operation Niagara—combined with artillery fire thwarted and broke large-scale ground attacks at Khe Sanh.

Gaps in our knowledge resulting from Hanoi’s secrecy ensure that North Vietnamese objectives at Khe Sanh will remain a subject of ongoing debate. “They’ve released so much on the decision making in 1967, but the minute you get to the failures of 1968 they haven’t revealed as much,” said Lien-Hang Nguyen, a Columbia University scholar who is writing a new history of the Tet offensive. “So much of all of this is conjecture unless the party archives are opened.”

 



Sources:

Author interviews with the following Khe Sanh survivors: Arnold Alderete, Michael Barry, Earle Breeding, Calvin Bright, George Chapman, John Cicala, Michael Coonan, Dave Doehrman, George Einhorn, James Feasel, Edward Feldman, Robert Genty, Joseph Harrigan, Norman Jasper, Jim Kaylor, Guy Leonard, Paul Longgrear, Dennis Mannion, Dave McCall, Ted Mickelson, Miguel Salinas, Kevin Macaulay, Ray Milligan, Dave Norton, Ken Pipes, Henry Radcliffe, George Gregory Rudell, Charles Rushforth, John Rauch, Don Shanley, William Smith, Matt Walsh, Steve Wiese, and Michael Worth.

Oral History interviews: William Dabney, Virginia Military Institute Oral History Collection, Lexington, VA; Matthew P. Caulfield, U.S. Marine Corps Oral History Collection, Quantico, VA.

3d Marine Division Messages: from commanding general, 3d Marine Division to commanding general, III MAF, 20 February 1968; 1st Marine Aircraft Wing Operations Order 303-YR, 24 February 1968; from the 3d Marine Division to III MAF, 25 February 1968; from commanding general, III MAF, to commander Seventh AF, 25 February 1968, RG 127, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD (hereafter NARA).

3d Marine Division, Situation Reports: Operation Scotland, nos. 329–332, 385, 472, 484, 487, 553, RG 127, NARA.

Combat After Action Report—Battle of Lang Vei, 5th Special Forces Group, 22 February 1968, RG 472, NARA.

Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, vol. 6, Vietnam, January–August 1968 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2002).

George C. Herring, America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950–1975 (New York: McGraw Hill Education, 5th ed., 2014).

Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History (New York: Penguin Books, 1984).

Neil Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam (New York: Random House, 1988).

Mr. Jones is a former newspaper foreign correspondent, investigative reporter, and Pulitzer Prize finalist. His books include Last Stand at Khe Sanh: The U.S. Marines’ Finest Hour in Vietnam (Boston: Da Capo Press, 2014) and Honor in the Dust: Theodore Roosevelt, War in the Philippines, and the Rise and Fall of America’s Imperial Dream (New York: New American Library, 2012).
 
 

Preliminary Clash with the Enemy

By Colonel Dick Camp, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired)

My rifle company—Lima Company, 3d Battalion, 26th Marines—was assigned a segment of the northwest portion of the Red Sector at the Khe Sanh Combat Base just prior to and during the siege. Lima Company tied in with the Special Forces Forward Operating Base on the left and a 1/26 company on the right. My lines stretched in a semicircle for 1,000 to 1,500 meters and, prior to the siege, consisted of a series of foxholes and automatic-weapons positions. Our perimeter had good fields of fire, except on the right flank, which dropped off sharply into the Rao Quan River Valley.

A gully ran from this drop off to about 75 meters in front of our lines. It was an obvious avenue of approach for North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldiers. The mouth of the gully was marked by a lone tree that had a limb jutting straight from the trunk and then turned up at a 90-degree angle. Of course, my Marines quickly named it “the hangman’s tree.”

Just after dark on 2 January 1968, Lieutenant Nile Buffington, the 1st Platoon commander, sent out three men to set up a listening post (LP) close to the tree. Shortly after midnight, the LP reported North Vietnamese were near their hidden position. Buffington immediately passed the information to my radio operator, who then passed it to me.

Reinforcing the LP

I was sound asleep in my foxhole when I sensed someone crawling toward me. It was my radio operator. “Skipper, the 1st Platoon LP hears something.” I immediately made my way to the radio position—a big hole covered with a light proof plastic cover—and attempted to contact the LP. No response despite several anxious attempts—the LP was afraid to talk. Finally, I established contact and learned that a small group of North Vietnamese had just walked by the LP.

At this point I notified my reaction force—eight ammo humpers from the 60-mm mortar section—to report to Buffington. I also had the mortar section leader standing by with illumination rounds. As the reaction force made its way through the dark, I briefed Buffington that I wanted him to reinforce the LP.

Within minutes, which seemed much longer to me, the reaction force, now eight Marines and one officer, left the perimeter and cautiously made their way through the ankle-high grass and waist-high scrub growth. Buffington told the LP they were on their way. Needless to say I was extremely anxious, holding my breath fearing that something might go very wrong. Tactically it was dangerous: a stationary LP, a reaction force on the move, and a group of North Vietnamese somewhere close by.

I asked battalion headquarters to notify the base perimeter of what was happening. About this time, the reaction force made contact with the LP, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I now had a dozen heavily armed Marines in position.

The Challenge

At this point Buffington got his force on line to begin the search. The mortar section leader fired an illumination round, giving us an advantage by turning night into day. The reaction force started sweeping. Suddenly two shots rang out, instantly followed by a terrific volume of automatic-weapons fire. I could clearly see muzzle flashes.

Before I could find out the situation, an Army M42 Duster, a 40-mm self-propelled antiaircraft gun, fired several rounds in the general direction of the reaction force. I quickly contacted battalion and got them to stop the errant firing. Amid all the confusion, I told the reaction force to pull back to our lines and join me at the command post. Minutes later they showed up. Adrenalin had kicked in, and they were all talking a mile a minute. It took several minutes to calm them down and find out what happened.

Buffington took the lead. “After making contact with the LP,” he said, “the reaction force got on line and started forward. Almost immediately a Marine in the center of the line thought he saw a figure on the ground and voiced a challenge: ‘Who’s there?’” Buffington admitted that it wasn’t the smartest move because the figure fired two shots, that were instantly followed by a barrage of small-arms fire from the reaction force. At this point the situation got confusing, and that’s when I called them back.

USMC 5, NVA 0

After the brief, I patted the reaction force on the back and sent them back to their platoon position, intending to have the site inspected at first light. The next morning I stood watching as a fire team searched the area. Suddenly, one of them jumped in the air shouting, “Skipper, skipper, come here!” Several of us ran out and discovered five dead NVA. They were all wearing black pajamas and rubber-soled sandals. One of them had a hand grenade halfway out of his pouch, and another one was gripping a pistol. Rigor mortis had set in, so they were frozen in the positions in which they died, like wax statues. The corpses had straps over their shoulders that had been cut. We deduced that they had been attached to dispatch cases. After cutting the straps, a sixth comrade evidently had made off with the pouches.

Before the bodies were carted away by an intelligence team, I had one critical task: dividing up the souvenirs among the reaction force—NVA belt buckles and the Russian pistol, which went to the listening post leader. Afterward, I received word that the dead NVA were high-ranking officers, part of a larger group on a reconnaissance mission.

So, all in all, 1-2 January 1968 was a perfect day for Lima Company—Marines 5, NVA 0.

 

 

 
 

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