"Forty days at Khe Sanh"


by Maj Mark A. Swearengen, USA


While the battle is over, the lessons learned remain for historians and future commanders.


A dead-serious voice sounded in the Marine command bunker at Khe Sanh: "Spunky Hanson’s got gooks and tanks in the wire!" The U.S. Special Forces Camp at Lang Vei was under heavy attack. Tet 1968.

There were three big events in the news during early 1968: Khe Sanh, Pueblo, and the garbage strike in New York.

One of the strongest efforts made by the Communists in Vietnam was the Tet Offensive of 1968. The most critical action during the time was the Marine defense of Khe Sanh. The instinctive questions at the time were, "Can the U.S. forces hold Khe Sanh?" and "Will it be another Dien Bien Phu?"

Obviously, now, it was not the latter, and the Marines did hold. The Americans, in contrast to the French in 1954, suffered not the slightest setback in strategy. In fact, when Khe Sanh ceased to be a problem, there was little more said about the old combat base.

In 1970, a song by the Blues Image was believed by some to be a story of the ill-fated Pueblo. It also reminds many of Khe Sanh because of the simultaneous occurrence of the two headline events. No one really wants to be reminded of the garbage strike in New York. But the story of the near forgotten battle for Khe Sanh should not go untold.

Prelude to a storm

The first major engagement in the area was on 28 April 1967, almost a year before the siege. This battle was known as the "Hill Fights." It centered around the Hill 861/881 complex northwest of Khe Sanh. It was a successful effort by two Marine battalions to stop an attack by elements of the 325C North Vietnamese Army (NVA) division. Had the enemy not been stopped on the hills, they would have pressed on to overrun the Khe Sanh main base.

After this action Khe Sanh became relatively calm. Enemy units practically disappeared from the area, and there was little evidence of activity for several months. This lull permitted an appreciation for the physical beauty of the area which was characterized by green, heavily wooded mountains around the Khe Sanh plateau. The atmosphere was peaceful with days of warm, quiet sunshine. On a clear day, looking from Dong Tri Mountain, looming high on the northeast side of Khe Sanh, one could see Laos to the west, the ocean to the east, and wonder where the war had gone.

Things were to change. The monsoon would bring storms in November, and the North Vietnamese were planning an offensive that would turn the focal point of the world to South Vietnam, and that of the war to Khe Sanh.

Enemy units were detected around Khe Sanh in December. North Vietnamese elements previously had passed through the area, but now they were staying. Intelligence sources indicated the determined 325C NVA Division, defeated near Khe Sanh earlier, had returned in greater strength. The 304th NVA Division, a home guard unit which had seen action against the French at Dien Bien Phu, was also in the vicinity.

On 20 January 1968 an interesting thing happened. A North Vietnamese Lieutenant walked into the main base and surrendered. He willingly gave a wealth of information to his interrogators with more detail than would be expected of an officer in his position. He had been the commanding officer of the 14th Antiaircraft Company. He was able to give extensive details of the forthcoming Tet offensive, the plans for besieging Khe Sanh, and preparations for an imminent attack of Hill 861.

His description of the attack plan turned out to be accurate. Hill 861 was assaulted at 0100 on 21 January after a heavy 30-minute mortar attack. The attacking forces numbered 250 men, and the defending Marine forces consisted of a company, reinforced by two platoons.

The NVA succeeded in overrunning part of the outpost, but a strong counterattack by the defenders, coupled with heavy defensive fires from supporting artillery, repulsed the attack.

The action was broken off around 0515. Shortly thereafter the main base came under a strong rocket and artillery attack. Hits were scored on the base ammunition dump which within minutes exploded in giant fiery clusters.

Other ground action the same day involved attempts by elements of the 304th NVA Division to overrun the combined action units in Khe Sanh Village. These attacks were beaten off with the help of Marine air and artillery support. By late afternoon the air was quiet but the siege of Khe Sanh had begun.

The decisions


Public focus on Khe Sanh brought recollections of the disaster at Dien Bien Phu. The world suddenly recalled the French defeat in 1954. Parallels inevitably were drawn. Khe Sanh, like Dien Bien Phu, was largely surrounded by hills; however, the latter was at the bottom of a valley while Khe Sanh was situated on a plateau which provided some measure of defensive advantage.

The enemy plans of attack appeared similar: take the important outposts (Hills 861/881 complex); choke off the Khe Sanh base with siege tactics; and, when the main defending force withered, conduct the final assault. The Viet Minh successfully employed such tactics at Dien Bien Phu.

High level French and American decisions concerning the two bases were similar: reinforce rather than withdraw. But the underlying reasons for the decisions were different. The French considered Dien Bien Phu an indispensable blocking position on an invasion route to Laos. When they recognized the enemy buildup they decided to reinforce, but they did not see the true difficulty of defeating a larger force in defensive battle. Closer examination of the American decision in Vietnam reveals differences in outlook and estimation.

The importance of Khe Sanh and its outposts to the United States was the defenders’ role in interdicting and monitoring movement through the Rao Quang River Valley and Route 9, into Quang Tri Province. The decision to hold the base came from the belief of Gen William C. Westmoreland that troops could be afforded for the reinforcement, they could be adequately re-supplied by air, and if an overland relief force were needed, it could be provided. Further, he correctly understood the need for heavy fire power and knew he possessed it. Finally, since the enemy appeared ready to accept a major battle, it was an opportunity to inflict heavy casualties.

Following the reinforcement theory, another U.S. battalion was transferred to Khe Sanh on 22 January; an ARVN ranger battalion arrived on the 27th, bringing to five the total number of infantry battalions defending Khe Sanh. The specific units were the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Battalions of the 26th Marines; 1st Battalion, 9th Marines and 37th ARVN Ranger Battalion.

The storm


Daily rocket and artillery attacks on the base and outposts provided most of the action during the two weeks following the 21 January attack. Even on 30 January when the Tet offensive was launched, Khe Sanh was relatively quiet. But the siege effort continued as more enemy troops, artillery, and antiaircraft weapons moved into the area.

The enemy tried another assault on Hill 861 in the early morning hours of 5 February. This battle was similar to the one on 21 January, but this time the enemy’s supporting fires were heavier and better coordinated with the ground attack. The base and Hill 861 received nearly 400 artillery and mortar rounds during the battle.

Unfortunately for the NVA, our own fire power was more devastating. The Khe Sanh fire support coordination center (FSCC) called the supporting heavy artillery and requested a "wall of steel" be placed northeast of hill 861, 100 meters from the Marine perimeter. Within minutes 175mm guns were delivering a deadly barrage impossible for the NVA to penetrate. Elsewhere around the hill, Marine artillery and mortars were cutting the enemy units to pieces. By 0700 the action had terminated. Another attempt to take on of the outposts had failed. The enemy suffered 109 known dead (by body count near the wire); many bodies were carried away by comrades.

The only enemy victory achieved during the siege was by the 66th Regiment over the Army Special Forces Camp at Lang Vei. Although the camp defenders and Marine artillery at Khe Sanh inflicted heavy casualties on the attacking force, the enemy deserves credit for conducting a skillful operation. This successful attack occurred on the night of 7 February, and employed both armor and infantry.

After Lang Vei it became apparent with each succeeding night that a heavy ground attack on Khe Sanh was imminent. Daily, enemy gunners fired artillery and rockets at all defensive positions; heavy enemy troop concentrations were detected all around the base. On 23 February, the main base at Khe Sanh was hit by more than 1,000 rounds, a record for the war at that time.

The siege


Like the armies of the Middle Ages, the enemy encircled the main base and sat there, digging sap trenches which protruded at various angles toward the Marine perimeter. His work on these trenches was not detected immediately because of poor visibility in the bad weather.

Historically, no two sieges ever have been alike, but the primary idea is to encircle the besieged force, choke it off from reinforcements and supplies, and eventually conduct an overwhelming attack. Trenches allowed the attacking troops to advance rapidly under artillery fired and emerge in heavy assault formations at the defensive perimeter. The Viet Minh used these methods at Dien Bien Phu. At Khe Sanh this technique proved a fatal mistake.

In contrast to various sieges of the 18th century and that of Dien Bien Phu, Khe Sanh could not be "choked off." Re-supply came by air for months preceding the siege. In February when the airfield became somewhat untenable, supplies were simply air-dropped or helilifted. The low altitude parachute extraction system (LAPES) was also used extensively. The longer the enemy tarried, the stronger grew the possibilities for sending a U.S. relief force, namely the 1st Air Cavalry Division.

Enemy strangulation attempts were shredded by an American air and artillery pounding that continued day and night. The weather prohibited close air strikes during most of February; however, it did not stop the B-52 strikes which often numbered 16 per day. It did not stop the radar controlled bomb strikes (TPQ’s) which hit the NVA every 12 minutes, around the clock. And nothing stops the Artillery!

The redleg forces consisted of four U.S. Army 175mm gun batteries (2nd Bn, 94th Arty and A btry, 8th Bn, 4th Arty) located at Camp Carroll and the Rock Pile, and five Marine batteries (1/13) with weapons ranging from 4.2 inch mortars to 155mm howitzers. These units were located on the main base and the outposts.

Most of the friendly artillery fire took place at night since the enemy was more likely to be exposed then. Concentrations of various sizes were fired each night on known enemy locations.

A new technique of mass fire power was formulated by an army liaison officer at Khe Sanh, who outlined his concept to the Marine officers in the FSCC. This technique involved the massing of all available artillery on a TPQ target so that bombs and artillery rounds landed simultaneously on one area. This technique, used extensively throughout the siege, became known as the "mini-arc light" and usually saturated an area 500 by 1000 meters. The effect proved devastating.

On 8 and 21 February enemy ground attacks hit the main base. Both attacks were stopped with the fire power at the Marines’ disposal.

After 40 days a failure


Intelligence reports toward the end of February indicated that a large regimental size force would attack the base from the southeast. The reports proved correct; the attack came on the 29th. Three attacks were made during the night, and although these assaults were the heaviest effort made to this point, they failed to break the Khe Sanh defense.

The Marines and ARVN rangers supplied heavy interlocking fires, augmented by close air strikes and all available artillery. The attackers not only were cut down at the perimeter, their routes of approach and assembly areas near Route 9 were saturated in depth by air strikes and artillery. The attack never achieved a full head of steam.

While an accurate body count was never obtained, it was estimated that an entire enemy regiment had been wiped out. Montagnards later reported hundreds of bodies in piles along the approach routes.

This attack on 29 February occurred approximately 40 days after the first ground attack. Although the enemy continued to shell Khe Sanh throughout March, it was the last attempt to take either the base or the outposts.

Interestingly, the sieges of some feudal armies lasted only 40 days. The soldiers of the besieging armies were paid only for 40 day commitment; if a fortress were not conquered during this time, the siege failed. The attackers would simply go home, their term of service having expired.

For the NVA, the battle on 29 February marked the end of a 40-day failure. A safe conclusion is that by this time their pockets had been cleaned.

Those beautiful Phantoms


With clear weather in March, the American firepower was further augmented by daily close air support missions. The enemy could do little more than sit and take the overwhelming punishment. By late March it was evident he would never recover from the beating.

Firepower has been mentioned throughout the discussion because it was probably the most critical difference between Khe Sanh and Dien Bien Phu. At Khe Sanh, the NVA never approached the volume of preparatory and supporting artillery fire they had dropped on the French at Dien Bien Phu. The Marines expected the volume of eventually build into something comparable to our own fire preparations, but this was never achieved. This time the Communists faced fire power which more than tripled what they delivered on the French during their last great siege in 1954.

The enemy guns were well camouflaged and emplaced using methods similar to those at Dien Bien Phu; at Khe Sanh the camouflage afforded little protection from saturation bomb strikes.

The aerial re-supply of the main base and the outposts has been touched upon only lightly. Nevertheless, it too was an important contribution to the American victory., The re-supply operations were daring, timely and coordinated properly to keep the bullets and rations flowing into Khe Sanh. A quick comparison of air missions by number well illustrates the difference between American and French air support. During the siege of Dien Bien Phu, the besieged fortress received 10,400 air missions. Only 6,700 were supply or troop missions; the other were combat missions. Air missions for Khe Sanh approached 40,000. Around 28,000 of these were bombing missions; the rest were re-supply. A typical mission around Khe Sanh involved a Phantom jet (F4), whereas a typical French mission employed a WW II vintage Marauder (B-26). The ordnance load of the B-26 approaches about half that of the Phantom.

In early April, the 1st Air Cavalry Division launched Operation Pegasus which resulted in the relief of Khe Sanh. It was at this point that final and complete success could be realized. Re-enforcement’s, re-supply, fire power and the relief force; the original concepts of the stand for Khe Sanh had transpired smoothly.

The Communists fate was inevitable when someone (perhaps Gen Giap) decided to lay siege to Khe Sanh. After the decision, it remained only for thousands of enemy soldiers to surround the base and take the shellacking.

The marines lost 205 men during the siege, while the NVA had a reported 12,000 men killed in action. The siege tactics were unsuccessful because the enemy could not choke off the logistical support, or even begin to stop a relief force. Heavy encirclement of the base was disastrous to the enemy as he fell prey to the heavy bomb and artillery strikes. Considering the losses, Khe Sanh was a North Vietnamese flop.

Khe Sanh veterans returning there today would recognize the calm atmosphere provided by Dong Tri Mountain northeast of the plateau; and the ghosts of Khe Sanh would quietly whisper the memories which some will never forget.

Mud, torn sand bags, cold air, burning odors, dirty skin and more mud; cautious ears, cautious eyes, C-rations and P-38 can openers (the Marines call them John Waynes); a cigarette for a buddy, a short prayer for a tomorrow – spoken in a silent whisper or written on a helmet cover. Some sleep now and then. Night darkness and fog which completely masked all vision; ChiCom grenades, screaming enemy soldiers, mortars and then rockets; silence after a battle, another prayer and removal of the dead. This was life from a trench at Khe Sanh. A hero is a man who works hard to do his job the best way he possibly can. There is little glory in the actual fighting of a war. In Washington, statements had been signed indicating the base could be held. At Khe Sanh the Marine’s job was to fight and defend. He did his job the best way possible. And in New York, the garbage strike continued.