The Siege of Khe Sanh lasted 77 days, from January 21 to April 8, 1968
. It pitted several divisions of the North Vietnamese Army
(NVA) against elements of the 9th and 26th U.S. Marine
Divisions in action at the Khe Sanh Combat Base and on several hills to the north and west of the base. It was one of the largest and most significant battles of the Vietnam War
, as much for the ways that the siege affected public opinion as for military reasons, if not more.
Khe Sanh is a village in central Vietnam, located approximately 10 miles away from the Laos border on Route 9. As the tensions mounted between North Vietnam and South Vietnam in the late 1950s and early 1960s, it became apparent that Khe Sanh was strategically important in the defense of South Vietnam, as Route 9 was the first major east-west highway south of the demilitarized zone that divided the two countries. In addition, the town controlled two mountain passes that had been used in several invasions, through one of which ran Route 9.
The first American military presence at Khe Sanh arrived in July 1962 when U.S. Army Special Forces set up a perimeter around a proposed airstrip site. The first airstrip was constructed that fall, a development that attracted the interest of the North Vietnamese. NVA anti-aircraft gunners established positions on the hills surrounding the airstrip.
In 1964 and 1965, additional Marine signals units and Green Berets arrived at Khe Sanh and construction was started on what was to become the Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB). Aside from small unit encounters (usually between opposing patrols), little fighting took place in the area. This lull wouldn't last, as both sides began building up strength in the area in late 1966, with a Navy Mobile Construction Battalion (Seebees) and a Marine battalion (the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Division or 1/3 Marines) occupying the area.
The "Hill Fights"
Intelligence indicated that the NVA was building strength in the vicinity of Khe Sahn, on both side of the Laos border. In April 24, 1967, a patrol from Bravo Company, 1/9 Marines encountered elements of the 4th Battalion, 32rd NVA Regiment on Hill 861, approximately 3 miles northwest of KSCB and 5 miles north-northwest of the Khe Sanh village.
This skirmish sparked a series of battles on the hills surrounding Khe Sanh which lasted until May 11, 1967. The heaviest fighting fell on the shoulders of three Marine battalions: 2/3, 3/3 and 1/26 Marines. Total confirmed casualties (confirmed by the U.S. Army, of course): 940 NVA and 155 Marine fatalities.
After the Hill Fights, the NVA seemed to pull out of the area temporarily, allowing most of the Marines at Khe Sanh to be transferred elsewhere. The respite would end in December 1967, as increased NVA activity seemed to indicate another buildup. Intelligence reports from January 1968 suggested that up to three NVA divisions (approximately 40,000 men) were concentrating in the vicinity of Khe Sanh. Unlike most intelligence reports, these were correct.
Then again, NVA and Viet Cong build-ups were taking place at many strategic locations across the country in preparation for the Tet Offensive. Khe Sanh was no different. On January 17, a Marine recon patrol was ambushed near Hill 881S (some 5 miles west-northwest of KSCB). Over the next three days, an NVA battalion was removed from positions at the hill's base; captured NVA soldiers indicated that a full-scale assault was forthcoming.
The assault began in earnest on January 20, as NVA regiments assaulted Hills 881 and 861. A fierce artillery and mortar barrage began to rain down on KSCB, and destroyed the main ammunition dump. On the 21st, the NVA attacked Khe Sanh village and, after a stubborn defense, the village is evacuated and the Marines are withdrawn to KSCB.
At this point, KSCB was defended by 1/26 and 3/26 Marines, as well as a detachment of Green Berets and three artillery batteries of the 1/13 Marines. These men were joined by 1/9 Marines on January 22 and by the 37th ARVN Ranger Battalion on January 27. 2/26 Marines and detached companies of 3/26 Marines were holding the various hills to the north of KSCB. A Special Forces outpost at Lang Vei (about five miles west of Khe Sahn village) was overrun on February 7, partially due to the use of Soviet-built PT-76 tanks.
After early NVA gains in late January and early February, things began to stabilize. The battle developed into a siege, with the opposing forces waging an artillery duel. The heaviest NVA shelling took place in late February, with an average of 2,500 shells landing on KSCB in a week.
Initial attempts to resupply KSCB, and to extract evacuees (both civilian refugees and military casualties), were made using C-130 cargo planes. As the siege wore on, NVA gunners zeroed in on the runway, making landings nearly impossible. After a C-130 was shot down on February 10, resupply was carried out using helicopters and paradrops. As any aircraft that approached the base would be peppered with .50 calibre anti-aircraft fire, rockets, mortars and artillery shells, resupply was limited to the bare essentials. Marines were sometimes limited to two C-ration packs a day. Fresh uniforms were unheard of. Men grew shaggy beards and afros. (This only proves two of Murphy's Laws of Combat: 'No combat-ready unit has ever passed inspection' and 'No inspection-ready unit has ever passed combat'.) The mounting helicopter losses required the use of a new tactic: the "Super Gaggle." Helicopter gunships and A-4 Skyhawks would pound NVA anti-aircraft sites, allowing several resupply helicopters to land at once; all of this was co-ordinated by command-and-control aircraft.
It was the Americans' control of the air that prevented the decimation of the defenders of Khe Sanh. Once a NVA position was detected, it would be pounded by the carpet bombing of B-52 Stratofortresses and napalm dropped by F-4 Phantoms. When NVA sappers dug trenchworks that nearly breached the perimeter of KSCB, these troops were only pushed back after relentless bombing, often dangerously close to friendly troops.
By April 1968, the NVA began withdrawing from the Khe Sanh sector, likely due to the damage inflicted by aerial and artillery bombardment. The siege was officially lifted on April 8, when elements of the 7th U.S. Cavalry Squadron (participating in Operation Pegasus) linked up with the 26th Marine Division. The total confirmed casualties included 1,602 NVA and 205 Marine KIA, but American estimates of NVA casualties reach as high as 10-15,000 killed.
Many people cite Khe Sanh as one of the major turning points of American sentiment towards the Vietnam War. Nightly reports detailed action around Khe Sanh, causing the American public to debate the use of defending an isolated outpost in a faraway land whose people didn't necessarily want or need American intervention. At the peak of the fighting, over 25 per cent of news reports on American television stations revolved around the battle.
A few months after the conclusion of the battle, the Khe Sanh Combat Base was dismantled. One of the lessons learned was that it was easier (and much, much safer) to resupply front line units at smaller LZs (landing zones) with helicopters.
General William Westmoreland, commander of the U.S. forces in Vietnam, would be largely unable to duplicate the success of Operation Scotland I (the defence of Khe Sanh and the reduction of the attacking NVA forces). Due in part to his objection to President Johnson's refusal to escalate the war, we was relieved of his command.
And to this day, no vegetation will grow on the former site of the KSCB airfield.
Khe Sanh Veterans Home Page - http://www.geocities.com/Pentagon/4867/
PBS' Battlefield Vietnam - http://www.pbs.org/battlefieldvietnam/index.html