The Tet Offensive and the Media
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Second Battle of Khe Sanh: Vietnam War

The 1967 first Battle of Khe Sanh evolved from U.S.-Communist engagements in northern South Vietnam. As part of his overall strategy, General William Westmoreland ordered the construction of interconnected bases along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) to act as an infiltration barrier, later using sensors and motion detectors to alert each base to enemy movements. The outposts were not to stop infiltration but to funnel it to areas where bombers could strike Communist troop concentrations.

One outpost was Khe Sanh, a base camp on high ground surrounded by dense tree-canopied heights up to 3,000 feet. It was 6 miles from Laos and 14 miles from the DMZ. These Allied defenses, roughly connecting a series of valleys, were designed to prevent enemy forces from cutting South Vietnam in half. The village of Khe Sanh, inhabited by Vietnamese and Montagnards, was surrounded by smaller villages and French coffee plantations in a majestic landscape of emerald green jungles, piercing mountains, and mist-shrouded waterfalls. Westmoreland hoped that Khe Sanh could serve as a patrol base for blocking enemy infiltration from Laos along Route 9; a base for . . . [long-range patrol] operations in Laos; an airstrip for reconnaissance planes surveying the Ho Chi Minh Trail; a Western anchor for defense south of the DMZ; and an eventual jump-off point for ground operations to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

In August 1962 officials of the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) ordered U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) and Allied troops to establish a camp for surveillance operations near the village of Khe Sanh. SOF units, called Study and Observation Groups (SOGs), used it to launch extended long-range reconnaissance operations into Laos to observe enemy infiltration. If they found a large enemy concentration they called in air strikes.

In April 1966 a single Marine battalion temporarily occupied the base. Six months later, General Westmoreland directed U.S. Marines, over their objections, to build a single-battalion base immediately above the SOG base. In October one battalion of Marines occupied the base. By spring 1967 they had been reinforced to regimental strength by the III Marine Amphibious Force (MAF).

Soon afterward SOGs observed marked increases in traffic on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, as did observation posts along the DMZ. Westmoreland believed the Communists were planning a siege at Khe Sanh reminiscent of that at Dienbienphu in 1954. In September he directed Seabees to upgrade the Khe Sanh landing strip to accommodate C-130s. Moreover, 20-mile range 175-mm guns were placed at Camp Carroll, 12 miles away in a secure area. Marine forces occupied these defenses.

In April 1967 a Marine patrol was ambushed near one of the surrounding hills west of Khe Sanh. A large rescue patrol suffered heavy casualties when many of their M16 rifles jammed, an incident leading to congressional hearings and Army reforms that produced more reliability in the M16.

From 24 April to 12 May 1967 the 3d Marines initiated several major assaults on three Communist-occupied hills surrounding Khe Sanh. These produced fierce hand-to-hand fighting that left 160 Marines dead and 700 wounded, but the Americans destroyed one entire People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) regiment and a large artillery emplacement in progress. At the end of this period the 3d Marines were replaced by the 26th Marines, which left its 1st Battalion at Khe Sanh. The above operations were part of Operations CROCKETT (April-July 1967) and ARDMORE (July-October 1967). Both were supported by a massive bombing campaign (SLAM) planned by U.S. Air Force General William Momyer.

These 1967 engagements convinced Westmoreland that with adequate bombing and aerial resupply U.S. outposts could survive even when outnumberedóa notion he sold to the Johnson administration. Thus, U.S. military planning called for maintaining and enlarging DMZ outposts, especially Khe Sanh. This led to the 1968 Battle of Khe Sanh.

Between October and December 1967 the Communists greatly built up their forces near Khe Sanh. U.S. Marines, reluctant to garrison the base in the first place, were ordered to fortify their defensive positions. At 8:30 pm on January 2, 1968 a Marine reconnaissance patrol spotted six shadowy figures on a slope near the base's outer defenses. The Marines opened fire and killed five PAVN officers. The incident convinced General William Westmoreland that several thousand enemy soldiers were near Khe Sanh and that General Vo Nguyen Giap hoped to repeat his Dienbienphu victory at Khe Sanh. Westmoreland, who was clearly using the Marines as bait to draw out the PAVN units, saw this as an opportunity for a decisive engagement.

Indeed, two regiments of the PAVN 325C division that had fought at Dienbienphu had crossed into South Vietnam from Laos and gathered northwest of Khe Sanh. Two regiments of the 320th Division had crossed the DMZ and were 20 miles northeast.

They were supported by an armored regiment, two artillery regiments, and the 304th Division in Laos. PAVN forces totaled between 20,000 and 30,000 men, many of whom were actually support or reserve forces.

Route 9, the only road to Khe Sanh, had been cut by the Communists months earlier, so Westmoreland poured in supplies and reinforcements via air. Included on the flights were numerous reporters anxious for a big story. By mid-January 6,000 Marines defended the main plateau and four surrounding hills named for their height—950, 881, 861, and 558. Approximately 3,000 Marines defended the Khe Sanh base itself and the same number were split among the hill positions. Infantry at each garrison were supported by 105-mm howitzers and mortars.

At 5:30 am on January 20, Captain William Dabney and 185 men of Company I launched a patrol from Hill 881 South to Hill 881 North. Although such patrols were common practice, Dabney sensed he would make contact that day and requested additional support. Colonel David Lownds, commander of the 26th Marines, deployed 200 additional men to support the patrol. Dabney divided his group, sending one platoon up one ridge and another two platoons up the other. As they ascended, the Marines were preceded by a rolling artillery barrage. Dabney hoped the Communist troops would respond and give away their positions. Instead the PAVN veterans waited until a platoon led by Lieutenant Thomas Brindley came within close range and opened up with automatic rifles, machine guns, and rocket-propelled grenades. The point man was killed immediately and several other platoon members were hit.

Dabney sent a second platoon to flank the enemy position while Brindley called in artillery directly on his position. The second unit was hit as it advanced, and a massive firefight followed. Brindley ordered his men to make a dash for the enemy position. Even though Brindley was killed and dozens of his men were wounded, with the support of fighter-bombers dropping napalm, the Marines took the position.

Lownds concluded early the same morning that a larger attack would ensue, and he ordered Dabney to withdraw. Already the Marines had lost 7 killed and 35 wounded. By nightfall Dabney's men were back on Hill 881S and the Khe Sanh combat base was on maximum alert.

That night the Marines received information from an apparent Communist deserter that a major attack was planned on 881S and 861 at 12:30 am on the 21st. The Marines brought up several special weapons, including two Ontos assault vehicles capable of firing flechette rounds, each with 10,000 steel darts. They also set out several layers of razor-sharp concertina wire, hundreds of claymore mines, and trip-flares.

PAVN forces attacked 861 on schedule using bangalore torpedoes to break through Marine defenses. The Marines' initial position was overrun, but at 5:00 am, supported by mortars, they counterattacked with success. At 5:30 am the PAVN began an intense rocket and artillery attack against Khe Sanh proper. The main ammunition dump took a direct hit, resulting in a succession of explosions that left the defenders with barely enough ordnance to return fire. Artillery officer Major Roger Campbell measured craters caused by enemy shells to target the distance and direction of the enemy guns.

Despite heavy damage to the landing strip, that afternoon six C-130 planes arrived. Their 24 tons of cargo was mostly artillery shells, but Colonel Lownds estimated he would need 160 tons of supplies per day to hold out.

At 6:30 am the PAVN attacked the village of Khe Sanh. Allied troops utilized air and artillery support to repel the attack, but thousands of local villagers fled their homes to seek refuge with the Marines. The Marines did not allow them into their lines for fear of sabotage. Nearly 3,000 tried to escape down Route 9 to Dong Ha but only 1,432 arrived. Despite setbacks, Marine defenses remained strong.

The ammunition dump explosion did produce wild headlines that fed public concerns about U.S. involvement in Vietnam. President Lyndon Johnson became so concerned that he had hourly reports sent to him and a map room set up in the White House basement with a large board replica of Khe Sanh.

Westmoreland controlled air operations, personally picking targets based on advice from General Momyer. For several days after the first attacks B-52s bombed targets every three hours. By March 31 they had dropped between 60,000 and 75,000 tons of bombs. In addition, U.S. fighter-bombers flew an average of 300 sorties daily. B-52s also struck PAVN command center caves in Laos. At times they dropped bombs within 1,000 yards of the Khe Sanh perimeter even though the Marines were unable to see the high-flying bombers.

Still, regular PAVN rocket attacks continued, making life on the plateau both difficult and dangerous. Hygiene and psychological strains were also a problem. Sniper duels were commonplace and became macabre games of life and death. Despite these tensions, morale at Khe Sanh remained high throughout the siege.

Between January 21 and February 5 the enemy mounted several small attacks against new Marine positions on Hills 861A near a quarry just outside the perimeter. On February 5 PAVN troops overran a portion of Hill 861, killing seven Marines. The Marines retook the position using tear gas and air and artillery support. Mortar crews on 881S fired 1,100 rounds into PAVN positions. The fighting ended in hand-to-hand combat.

In mid-February the defenders were completely overrun. Twenty-one Marines were killed and 26 injured. On the 25th a 29-man Marine patrol looking for a Communist mortar position stumbled on a PAVN bunker and was overwhelmed. Unable to rescue them, Lownds ordered the men to escape the best way they could. Only three got away. One, a Sioux Indian, Corporal Roland Ball, carried out the body of his commanding officer, Lieutenant Dan Jacques. Dead Marines lay on the field unburied for another month until the siege ended.

On 6 March Communist forces began their withdrawal. By the 9th only a few thousand rear guard units remained. Operation SCOTLAND, the final part of the siege at Khe Sanh, ended on April 1, officially terminating the battle. The same day Allied units began Operation PEGASUS to reopen Route 9. On the 8th they linked up with Khe Sanh. The next day was the first since January 21 that no enemy shells struck the Marine base. Two months later, on June 26, 1968, U.S. forces abandoned Khe Sanh base.

The official casualty count for the second Battle of Khe Sanh was 205 Marines killed in action and over 1,600 wounded. Base Chaplain Ray W. Stubbe placed the death toll closer to 475. This does not include Americans killed in collateral actions, Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) Ranger casualties on the southwest perimeter, 1,000 to 1,500 Montagnards who died during the fighting, or the 97 U.S. and 33 ARVN troops killed in relief efforts. MACV estimated PAVN losses at 10,000 to 15,000 men. Most of these casualties occurred as a result of U.S. B-52 ARC LIGHT bombing raids and other aerial and artillery support. The official body count was 1,602.

The siege of Khe Sanh in particular and the Tet Offensive in general disheartened the American public, who began to question the cost and worth of Vietnam to America. Khe Sanh and Tet marked the beginning of the end for America's involvement in Southeast Asia.

Who won the second Battle of Khe Sanh? Marine historian Jack Shulimson observed, "Controversy still surrounds the battle. It is not known if the North Vietnamese really intended to take Khe Sanh or if the attack was merely a feint to lure U.S. forces away from the cities." General Giap claimed victory for the PAVN. According to him, the Communists never intended to overrun the Marine base. If the siege of Khe Sanh was meant to be only a Communist ruse, then it was a successful one. Significant U.S. military assets were diverted to this isolated area of South Vietnam, permitting Communist forces to attack many key cities of South Vietnam during the Tet Offensive.

For the Americans Khe Sanh was meant to be the best opportunity to implement the strategy of attrition, to destroy Communist military forces at a rate above which they could be replaced. In the battle, U.S. forces achieved one of their most satisfying victories. Colonel Lownds was convinced that they destroyed two entire PAVN divisions. Thus, if Khe Sanh was intended as another Dienbienphu, it failed.

William Head and Peter Brush

 

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