Siege of Khe Sanh - Vietnam, 1968
Siege of Khe Sanh
The gem of American military superiority in Vietnam was the strategic Marine
Corps base a Khe Sanh. Located a few miles from the borders of North Vietnam and
Laos, Khe Sanh was heavily fortified in late '67 by Gen. William Westmoreland,
and designed to carry out reconnaissance attacks on the Ho Chi Minh trail and
enemy supply lines from the north.
The sudden massive siege of Khe Sanh stunned the nation, and reminded many
Americans, including the Johnson administration, of the humiliating defeat of
the French at Dienbienphu fourteen years earlier. In his typical Texas way
Johnson tells one of his advisors, "I don't want any damn Din Bin Phoo". The
siege would play to a massive audience on American television each night for the
next few months, proving the resolve of the Vietcong to win their struggle.
Americans from all walks of life saw the desperation of American forces as
supplies were literally dropped onto the air-***** at Khe Sanh, with the
occasional plane exploding from enemy fire. They also saw Operation Niagara,
where 18,000 tons of ammunition were dropped each day in the jungle surrounding
the base. The total American causalities would be 205 killed, while the North
Vietnamese would loose between ten to fifteen- thousand. Khe Sanh would prove a
military victory for the American forces, a psychological victory for the North
The Battle of Khe Sanh began at 0530, 21 January 1968. The North Vietnamese Army
forces hammered the Marine-occupied Khe Sanh Combat Base with rocket, mortar,
artillery, small arms, and automatic weapons fire. Hundreds of 82-mm. mortar
rounds and 122-mm. rockets slammed into the combat base. Virtually all of the
base's ammunition stock and a substantial portion of the fuel supplies were
destroyed. The actions around Khe Sanh Combat Base, when flashed to the world,
touched off a political and public uproar as to whether or not the position
should be held.
On 22 January, North Vietnamese mortar fire was placed on Khe Sanh and Hill 881.
The North Vietnamese firing positions were in turn taken under fire by tactical
air and ground artillery. Two resupply helicopters and an Air Force fighter-bomber
were lost to North Vietnamese ground fire. To the west, across the Laotian
border, an North Vietnamese force of three battalions assaulted and overran a
Laotian unit positioned astride Route 9.
To counter the North Vietnamese pressure, Marine units engaged in active
patroling in the hills around the base. These outposts were regularly attacked
by large numbers of North Vietnamese soldiers, but the Marines held their
ground. In some cases, company locations were nearly overrun in fierce night
battles, but survived due to leadership, artillery and close air support when it
Around Khe Sanh, North Vietnamese soldiers dug numerous trench lines around the
base and approaching the perimter. Artillery was called on these postions and
patrols were sent to thwart these North Vietnamese attempts at infiltration.
The base at Khe Sanh remained relatively quiet throughout the first week of the
North Vietnamese Tet offensive, but the lull ended with a heavy ground attack on
the morning of 5 February. The North Vietnamese penetrated the perimeter of the
position on Hill 861A, and the resulting hand-to-hand combat drove the North
Vietnamese back. A second attempt to overrun the position was less successful
than the first. Elsewhere the North Vietnamese were more successful when, on 7
February, they struck at the Special Forces camp at Lang Vei.
The Lang Vei Special Forces Camp was located astride Route 9 some nine
kilometers west of Khe Sanh Village. Beginning about 1800 on 6 February, the
camp was subjected to an unusually intense mortar and artillery barrage. The
defenders immediately responded with counter fire from the camp and requested
supporting fire from the Khe Sanh Combat Base.
The North Vietnamese ground attack began about midnight on the morning of 7
February. The initial force to reach the protective wire around the perimeter
included two of the approximately twelve Russian manufactured PT-76 amphibious
tanks. The two armored vehicles were sighted in the outer wire on the southern
side of the camp, taken under fire, and knocked out.
The armor defeating weapons in the camp consisted of two 106-mm. recoilless
rifles, a few 57-mm. recoilless rifles, and 100 light antitank weapons known as
LAWS. The LAW is designed to be fired once and discarded. These special weapons
had been provided to the camp shortly before the attack as a result of
intelligence reports which indicated that an attack was imminent and that
armored vehicles would most likely be involved. Because of the newness of the
weapons, few of the indigenous personnel and only half of the Americans had had
the opportunity to fire the weapon before the attack. One survivor reported that
several LAW'S failed to fire. This may have been due to lack of training or to
Additional tanks moved around the destroyed vehicles and overran the company
manning the southern sector. The troops pulled back, but continued fighting.
They fought the tanks with small arms, machine guns, hand grenades, and antitank
weapons. As the attack continued, the defenders were forced to continue their
withdrawal from the forward positions. They re-formed in pockets and continued
to resist and fire at the North Vietnamese troops and tanks as they moved
through the camp. As the North Vietnamese soldiers advanced, they used explosive
charges to demolish the fortifications within the camp. The North Vietnamese
tanks used their 76-mm. main guns against the combat positions and tactical
operations center in the camp.
As the battle continued, air strikes were called in. When day broke over the
battlefield, the defenders located in the operations center called for and
received air support to assist them in breaking out of the still surrounded
position. Their escape was aided by a rescue force that had returned to the camp
to help extract survivors. By day's end the camp had been evacuated and all
surviving personnel extracted.
As the Lang Vei battle progressed, the Marines were requested to implement their
contingency plan to reinforce the Special Forces camp. However, because of the
fear that this attack was but a part of an all-out general attack in the area,
Lang Vei was not reinforced. By noon on the 7th, General Westmoreland was being
briefed on the need to evacuate the survivors. Also at the meeting were General
Cushman and General Tompkins. General Westmoreland directed that aircraft be
made available to support the reaction force, and that afternoon the extraction
When 7 February came to an end, the Lang Vei Camp was empty. Almost half of the
500 defenders were dead or missing. The survivors left behind them seven
destroyed North Vietnamese tanks and at least as many North Vietnamese
casualties as they themselves had suffered. The North Vietnamese attack stopped
at the camp. It did not continue east toward Khe Sanh.
At Khe Sanh the marines were monitoring the battle at Lang Vei. After the
seriously wounded had been evacuated by helicopter, the remaining survivors and
many refugees moved east on foot. On the morning of 8 February some 3,000
refugees, including the Lang Vei survivors and Laotian 33d Battalion troops who
had withdrawn from their attacked position on 23 January, appeared at the front
gate of the Khe Sanh perimeter. At first denied admittance, the people were
later searched and permitted to enter. Most were soon evacuated out of the area
with the Laotians being returned to their own country.
At 0420, 8 February, a reinforced North Vietnamese battalion assaulted a platoon
position of the 9th Marine Regiment. The marines were forced back from that
portion of their perimeter which bore the brunt of the assault, but maintained
control of most of the position. A company-sized counterattack at mid-morning
restored the position, but the Marine commander at Khe Sanh decided to evacuate
that platoon position because of its exposed location.
North Vietnamese pressure on the Khe Sanh Combat Base continued during the
following two weeks but not in the form of any major ground attacks. Probes,
minor clashes, and sniping incidents occurred daily although the main North
Vietnamese interest appeared to be the consolidation of his position and
preparation for an all-out effort. In attempts to deter these preparations by
artillery and air strikes, the marines were themselves hindered by the weather.
During this period Khe Sanh and its surrounding outposts continued to be
supplied almost entirely by air. Marine and Air Force cargo aircraft made
numerous daily runs to keep the base provisioned, to bring in replacement
troops, and to take out wounded. The pilots had to brave both poor weather and
intense North Vietnamese antiaircraft fire to accomplish these tasks.
On 10 February, a Marine C-130, loaded with fuel containers, was laced with
bullets just before touching down on the runway. The aircraft was lost along
with some of the passengers and crew. This incident caused major revisions in
the offloading procedure. As a result of this loss and the damage inflicted on
other aircraft while on the ground, landings of the large C- 130 type aircraft
were suspended at Khe Sanh on 23 February.
Operation NIAGARA II continued throughout this period. This intensive air
interdiction campaign continued to provide excellent results. The high volume
reconnaissance missions, added to other intelligence sources, recommended an
average of at least 150 targets per day. On 15 February, one of the most
lucrative targets, an ammunition storage area, was pinpointed 19 kilometers
south southwest of Khe Sanh in the Co Roc Mountain region. Flight after flight
of strike aircraft were directed into the area throughout a 24-hour period. Many
secondary explosions and fires revealed additional stockpiles which were in turn
attacked. In all, it proved to be a good day's work resulting in over 1,000
secondary explosions and fires, some of which continued two and one-half hours
after a series of strikes had been completed.
Air operations on the logistical side also progressed. Following the termination
of G- 130 aircraft landings, the Air Force introduced a new procedure to
continue supplying the main Khe Sanh base. Known as the Low Altitude Parachute
Extraction System or LAPES, this self-contained method of delivery had been put
to good use while the air ***** was being repaired in late 1967. The name of the
system accurately described the technique. As the aircraft came in low over the
air*****, the pilot opened the tail gate and released a reefed cargo parachute
which was connected to the pallet mounted cargo in the aircraft. When the pilot
electrically cut the reefing line, it caused the parachute to fully deploy and
inflate. The parachute then jerked the pallets out of the aircraft over the
roller system mounted on the aircraft floor. After a five- to ten-foot drop, the
cargo skidded to a halt on the runway. Experienced pilots could consistently
leave their loads in a 25-meter square.
A second technique was also used to deliver cargo by aircraft without actually
landing. This method, known as the Ground Proximity Extraction System or GPES,
was used less frequently than the low altitude system. In the GPES delivery, as
the C-130 aircraft came in low over the air*****, the pilot would try to snag an
arresting line on the ground similar to the line a navy pilot uses in landing on
an aircraft carrier. The ground line then jerked the cargo from the opened rear
of the aircraft.
About 65 deliveries using the low altitude and ground proximity systems were
made before Khe Sanh was relieved and resupply effected by way of Route 9. By
far, the majority of the supplies for the base were delivered by parachute
because weather was too poor to permit the visual flying required for the two
extraction type systems.
Another aspect of the air operations was the last leg of the resupply system in
which helicopters picked up supplies at Dong Ha and carried them to the outposts
on the surrounding hills. They faced the same problems as did the fixed-wing
pilots, but to a greater degree. The low-flying helicopter pilots were more
vulnerable than their higher flying, faster fellow aviators. Because of the
additional exposure, helicopters soon were escorted by strike aircraft to
provide suppressive fire as they dropped off supplies and picked up troops.
Helicopters were greatly affected by the weather. When the helicopters were
grounded, life became hard on the marines in the outposts. One period of weather
when the helicopters could not fly persisted for nine days and created such a
water shortage that one small position was authorized to conduct a two-hour
march to obtain water from the nearest stream. The patrol surprised a group of
North Vietnamese soldiers and eliminated many of them.
Fighting on the ground in Operation SCOTLAND, a Marine designation, continued
through the end of February. The last day of the month, 29 February, General
Tompkins and Colonel Lownds pieced together the relevant facts to reason that a
big North Vietnamese push was imminent. Each day brought better weather and
longer flying hours. Numerous intelligence reports pointed to a massing of North
Vietnamese units at three points around the main base. Although the North
Vietnamese had failed to gain control of the hill outposts, he could not afford
to let the weather improve much more before he acted.
During the early evening hours of 29 February, a string of sensors indicated a
major movement of troops along Route 9. The fire support control center at the
base directed all available assets against the area. The firepower was massive.
Artillery, radar-guided fighter bombers, and minor and major B-52 strikes
pounded the North Vietnamese's route of march.
A battalion of the 304th North Vietnamese Army Division made the first strike at
2130 on 29 February. The 37th Vietnamese Army Ranger Battalion received the
brunt of the initial assault, and all available supporting fire was given the
rangers. Hit with this concentrated firepower, the North Vietnamese was unable
to breach the outer defenses. His second attempt two hours later met a similar
fate. So did the third at 0315 on 1 March. The supporting fires had prevented
the assault waves from gaining momentum.
Although the North Vietnamese continued to harass the base, to probe the
weakness along the perimeter, and to shell it from a distance, they had changed
their basic tactics. They assumed a less aggressive posture and began waiting
for the Marine patrols to come to them. But this did not help them either. As
time passed and the weather improved, indications by mid-March were that major
North Vietnamese Army units were leaving the area around Khe Sanh.
The Marine's last significant clash during Operation Scotland took place on 30
March when a company, moving under a closely co-ordinated artillery support
package, swept 850 meters south of the Khe Sanh perimeter and assaulted a
heavily fortified North Vietnamese position. Surprise was with the attackers,
however, and the marines drove the North Vietnamese out of his positions,
destroyed the fortifications, and returned to their base.
Pictures at: http://grunt.space.swri.edu/jwodecki.htm
A couple of more facts at: