Battle of Khe Sanh

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Battle of Khe Sanh
Part of the Vietnam War
The Fight for Khe Sanh.jpg
NVA artillery shells strike near the Khe Sanh airstrip
Date 21 January – 9 July 1968[1][2][3]
Location 16°39′19.6″N 106°43′42.9″E / 16.655444°N 106.728583°E / 16.655444; 106.728583 (Khe Sanh)Coordinates: 16°39′19.6″N 106°43′42.9″E / 16.655444°N 106.728583°E / 16.655444; 106.728583 (Khe Sanh)
Khe Sanh Combat Base (Khe Sanh), Quang Tri Province, Republic of VietnamUTM Grid XD 852-418[4]

Both sides claimed victory[5]

  • Khe Sanh was relieved by ground forces on 6 April.[6]
  • July 1968, Americans destroyed the base complex of Khe Sanh and withdrew from the battle area.[7]
  • North Vietnamese Army gained control of the Khe Sanh region after the American withdrawal.[7][8]
  • Termination of McNamara Line.[9] North Vietnamese lines of communication were extended further into South Vietnam.[10]
 United States
South Vietnam South Vietnam
Laos Kingdom of Laos
North Vietnam North Vietnam
Commanders and leaders
United States William Westmoreland
United States David E. Lownds
United States Rathvon M. Tompkins
(3rd Div)
North Vietnam Võ Nguyên Giáp (theater)
North Vietnam Tran Quy Hai
(local, military)
North Vietnam Lê Quang Đạo
(local, political)

~45,000 in total[11]
~6,000 Marines at the Combat Base of Khe Sanh[12] Operation Pegasus: ~20,000 (1st Air Cavalry and Marine units)

Operation Arc Light and operation Niagara: US Air Forces

Siege at Khe Sanh: ~17,200 (304th and 325th Division)

Defense at Route 9: ~16,900 (320th and 324th Division)[10]:51
Casualties and losses

At Khe Sanh:
United States 274 killed
2,541 wounded (not including ARVN Ranger, RF/PF, Forward Operation Base 3 – US Army and Royal Laotian Army losses)[10]:91–2[13]
Operation Scotland I (1 November 1967 – 31 March 1968) Operation Pegasus ( 1–14 April 1968):
United States 730 killed in action
2,642 wounded,
7 missing[13]
Operation Scotland II (15 April 1968 – July 1968):
United States 485 killed, 2.396 wounded[14]
Casualties of USAF personnel:
United States 5 ~ 20 killed, wounds unknown[14]
Operation Charlie for the final evacuation (19 June – 5 July 1968):
United States At least 11 marines killed, wounded unknown[15]

South Vietnam ARVN losses: 229 killed, 436 wounded (not including CIDG, RF/PF and SOG losses)
CIDG losses: 1,000 - 1,500 killed or missing, at least 250 captured (in Lang Vei), wounded unknown[16]
Laos Kingdom of Laos: Few hundred casualties

Total (21 January – 9 July):

12,000+ casualties
(2,800-3,500 killed, 9,000+ wounded, 7 missing, 250+ captured)[10]:91–2[17][18]

Unknown (1,602 bodies were counted, US official public estimated 10,000–15,000 KIA,[19]:234–5[20][21] but MACV's secret report estimated only 5,550 KIA[22])

North Vietnamese figures:
1,436 wounded (before mid-March)[23]
2,469 KIA (from 20 January until 20 July 1968).[22]

The Battle of Khe Sanh was conducted in northwestern Quảng Trị Province, Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), between 21 January and 9 July 1968 during the Vietnam War. The belligerent parties were elements of the United States military III Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF), 1st Cavalry Division, the US Seventh Air Force, minor elements of the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) against two to three division-size elements of the People's Army of Vietnam (generally referred to in Western sources as the North Vietnamese Army or NVA).[14]

The American command in Saigon initially believed that combat operations around the Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB) during the summer of 1967 were just part of a series of minor North Vietnamese offensives in the border regions. That appraisal was altered when it was discovered that the NVA was moving major forces into the area during the fall and winter. A build-up of US Marine Corps forces took place and actions around Khe Sanh commenced when the Marine base was isolated. During a series of desperate actions that lasted 5 months and 18 days, Khe Sanh Combat Base and the hilltop outposts around it were under constant North Vietnamese ground, artillery, mortar, and rocket attacks.[24]

During the battle, a massive aerial bombardment campaign (Operation Niagara) was launched by the United States Air Force to support the Marine base. Over 100,000 tons of bombs (equivalent in destructive force to five Hiroshima-size atomic bombs) were dropped until mid-April by aircraft of the US Navy, Air Force, and Marines onto the area surrounding Khe Sanh.[25] This was roughly 1,300 tons of bombs dropped daily–five tons for every one of the 20,000 NVA soldiers initially estimated to have been committed to the fighting at Khe Sanh.[26] In addition, 158,000 large-caliber shells were fired on the hills surrounding the base.[27][28] This expenditure of aerial munitions dwarfs the amount of munitions fired by artillery, which totals eight shells per NVA soldier believed to have been on the battlefield.[26] The campaign used the latest technological advances in order to locate NVA forces for targeting. The logistical effort to support KSCB, once it was isolated overland, demanded the implementation of other tactical innovations in order to keep the Marines supplied.

In March 1968, an overland relief expedition (Operation Pegasus) was launched by a combined Marine–Army/South Vietnamese task force that eventually broke through to the Marines at Khe Sanh. American commanders considered the defense of Khe Sanh a success, but shortly after the siege was lifted the new American commander in Vietnam, General Creighton Abrams, decided to dismantle the base rather than risk similar battles in the future. Historians have observed that the Battle of Khe Sanh may have distracted American and GVN attention from the buildup of Viet Cong forces in the south before the early 1968 Tet Offensive.[29] Even at the height of the Tet Offensive, General Westmoreland maintained that the true intentions of the offensive was to distract forces from Khe Sanh.[30][31]

On 19 June 1968, another operation began at Khe Sanh, Operation Charlie, the final evacuation and destruction of the Khe Sanh Combat Base. The Marines withdrew all salvageable material and destroyed everything else. The NVA continued shelling the base, and on 1 July launched a company-sized infantry attack against its perimeter. On 9 July 1968, the flag of the Viet Cong was set up at Ta Con (Khe Sanh) airfield. On 13 July 1968, Ho Chi Minh sent a message to the soldiers of the Route 9–Khe Sanh Front affirming their victory at Khe Sanh. It was the first time in the war that the Americans abandoned a major combat base because of enemy pressure.[32]


The camp[edit]

The village of Khe Sanh was the seat of government of Huong Hoa district, an area of Bru Montagnard villages and coffee plantations, situated about seven miles from the Laotian frontier on Route 9, the northernmost transverse road in South Vietnam. The badly deteriorated Route 9 ran from the coastal region, through the western highlands, and then crossed the border into Laos. The origin of the combat base lay in the construction by U.S. Army Special Forces of an airfield in August 1962 outside the village at an old French fort.[19]:59 The camp then became a Special Forces outpost of the Civilian Irregular Defense Groups (CIDG), whose purpose was to keep watch on NVA infiltration along the border and to protect the local population.[33]

"As early as 1964 Westmoreland described Khe Sanh's possibilities: 'Khe Sanh could serve as a patrol base blocking enemy infiltration from Laos; a base for SOP [the original article likely means SOG - see below] operations to harass the enemy in Laos; an airstrip for reconnaissance to survey the Ho Chi Minh Trail; a western anchor for the defenses south of the DMZ; and an eventual jumping-off point for ground operations to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail'."[34] In November 1964 the Green Berets moved their camp to the Xom Cham Plateau, the future site of KSCB.

Map of northern Quang Tri Province.

During the winter of 1964, Khe Sanh became the location of a launch site for the highly classified Military Assistance Command, Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group or MACV-SOG (the site was first established near the village and was later moved to the French fort).[35] From there, reconnaissance teams were launched into Laos to explore and gather intelligence on the NVA logistical system known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail (also known as "Truong Son Strategic Supply Route" to the North Vietnamese soldiers).

By 1966, Westmoreland had begun to consider Khe Sanh as part of a larger strategy. 'I still hoped some day to get approval for a major drive into Laos to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail,' he said, 'in which case I would need Khe Sanh as the base for the operation.' In a meeting with Lt. Gen. Lewis Walt, commander of III Marine Amphibious Force (MAF), Westmoreland said that he placed great strategic importance on Khe Sanh. He believed it was absolutely essential to hold the base, which explains why he then ordered Marines there. In September 1966, Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) began detailed planning for an invasion into Laos, and an airfield was built at Khe Sanh in October.[34]

The plateau camp was permanently manned by the U.S. Marines during 1967, when they established an outpost next to the airstrip. This base was to serve as the western anchor of Marine Corps forces, which had tactical responsibility for the five northernmost provinces of South Vietnam known as I Corps.[36][37] The Marines' defensive system stretched below the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) from the coast, along Route 9, to Khe Sanh. During 1966 the regular Special Forces troops had moved off the plateau and built a smaller camp down Route 9 at Lang Vei, about half the distance to the Laotian border.[19]:60

Border battles[edit]

For more details on this topic, see Battle of Dak To.

During the second half of 1967, the North Vietnamese instigated a series of actions in the border regions of South Vietnam. All of these attacks were conducted by regimental-size NVA/Viet Cong (VC) units, but unlike the usual hit-and-run tactics used by the People's Army forces, these were sustained and bloody affairs.

In early October, NVA intensified battalion-size ground probes and sustained artillery fire against Con Thien, a hilltop stronghold in the center of the Marines' defensive line south of the DMZ in northern Quang Tri Province.[38] Mortar rounds, artillery shells, and 122mm rockets fell randomly, but incessantly upon the base. The September bombardments ranged from 100 to 150 rounds per day, with a maximum on 25 September of 1,190 rounds.[39] The American commander in Vietnam, General William C. Westmoreland responded by launching Operation Neutralize, an aerial and naval bombardment campaign designed to break the siege. For seven weeks, American aircraft dropped from 35,000 to 40,000 tons of bombs in nearly 4,000 airstrikes.[40]

Combat on Hill 875, the most intense of the battles around Dak To.

On 27 October, a NVA regiment attacked an Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) battalion at Sông Bé, capital of Phuoc Long Province.[40] The North Vietnamese fought for several days, took casualties, and fell back. Two days later, the 273rd VC Regiment attacked a Special Forces camp near the border town of Loc Ninh, in Binh Long Province.[40] Troops of the U.S. 1st Infantry Division were able to respond quickly. After a ten-day battle, the attackers were pushed back into Cambodia. At least 852 North Vietnamese soldiers were killed during the action, as opposed to 50 American and South Vietnamese dead.[40]

The heaviest action took place near Dak To, in the central highlands province of Kontum.[41] There, the presence of the 1st NVA Division prompted a 22-day battle that saw some of the most intense close-quarters fighting of the entire conflict.[42] American intelligence estimated that somewhere between 1,200 and 1,600 North Vietnamese troops were killed while 362 members of the U.S. 4th Infantry Division, the 173rd Airborne Brigade, and ARVN Airborne elements were killed in action. Nonetheless, three of the four battalions of the 4th Infantry and the entire 173rd were rendered combat ineffective during the battle.[43]

American intelligence analysts were quite baffled by this series of enemy actions. For them there appeared to be no logic behind the sustained NVA/VC offensives, other than to inflict casualties on the allied forces. This they accomplished, but the casualties absorbed by the North Vietnamese seemed to negate any direct gains they might have obtained. The border battles did, however, have two significant consequences that were unappreciated at the time—they fixed the attention of the American command on the border regions and they drew American and ARVN forces away from the coastal lowlands and cities, in preparation for the Tet Offensive.[44]

Hill fights[edit]

For more details on this topic, see The Hill Fights.
The Khe Sanh Valley

Things remained quiet in the Khe Sanh area through 1966. Even so, General Westmoreland insisted that it not only be occupied by the Marines, but that it be reinforced.[45] He was vociferously opposed by General Lewis W. Walt, the Marine commander of I Corps. Walt argued heatedly that the real target of the American effort should be the pacification and protection of the population, not chasing NVA and the VC in the hinterlands.[46] Westmoreland won out, however, and the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment (1/3 Marines) was dispatched to occupy the camp and airstrip on 29 September. By late January 1967, 1/3 was relieved by Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines (1/9 Marines). A single company was replacing an entire battalion. Prados argues that one of the mysteries surrounding the Battle of Khe Sanh was why, after running roughshod over the Marines concerning the defense of the base at Khe Sanh, Westmoreland allowed the drawdown, but Weider explains that Khe Sanh objectives of interdicting NVA infiltration through Laos were negated as the base was completely surrounded.[29][36]:71 Furthermore, NVA's General Giap claimed that Khe Sanh itself was not of importance, but only a diversion to draw U.S. forces away from the populated areas of South Vietnam.[47]

The Hill Fights

On 24 April 1967, a patrol from Bravo Company became engaged with a NVA force of unknown size north of Hill 861. This action prematurely triggered a North Vietnamese offensive aimed at taking Khe Sanh. The NVA forces were in the process of gaining elevated terrain before the launching of the main attack.[48] The 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the 3rd Marine Regiment, under the command of Colonel John P. Lanigan, reinforced KSCB and were given the task of pushing the North Vietnamese off of Hills 861, 881 North, and 881 South. North Vietnamese forces were driven out of the area around Khe Sanh after suffering 940 casualties. The Marines suffered 155 killed in action and 425 wounded.[20]:17 In order to prevent NVA observation of the main base at the airfield (and their possible use as firebases), the hills of the surrounding Khe Sanh Valley had to be continuously occupied and defended by separate Marine elements, thereby spreading out the defense.

In the wake of the hill fights there was a lull in NVA activity around Khe Sanh. By the end of May, Marine forces were again drawn down from two battalions to one, the 1st Battalion, 26th Marines. Lieutenant General Robert E. Cushman, Jr. relieved General Walt as commander of III MAF in June.

On 14 August, Colonel David E. Lownds took over as commander of the 26th Marine Regiment. There were sporadic actions in the vicinity during the late summer and early fall, the most serious of which was the ambush of a supply convoy on Route 9. This proved to be the last overland attempt at resupply for Khe Sanh until the following March.[36]:155 During December and early January there were numerous sightings of NVA troops and activities in the Khe Sanh area, but the sector remained relatively quiet.[49]


A decision then had to be made by the American high command: either commit more of the limited manpower in I Corps to the defense of Khe Sanh or abandon the base.[50] General Westmoreland regarded this choice as quite simple. In his memoirs he listed the reasons for a continued effort:

"Khe Sanh could serve as a patrol base for blocking enemy infiltration from Laos along Route 9; as a base for SOG operations to harass the enemy in Laos; as an airstrip for reconnaissance planes surveying the Ho Chi Minh Trail; as the western anchor for defenses south of the DMZ; and as an eventual jump-off point for ground operations to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail."[51]

Leading Marine officers, however, were not all of the same opinion. General Cushman, the new III MAF commander, supported Westmoreland (perhaps wanting to mend Army/Marine relations after the departure of Walt).[19]:67Arguments offered by other Marine officers against remaining included: that the real danger to I Corps was from a direct threat to Quang Tri City and other urban areas; that a defense would be pointless as a threat to infiltration, since NVA troops could easily bypass Khe Sanh; that the base was too isolated and that the Marines "had neither the helicopter resources, the troops, nor the logistical bases for such operations … The weather was another critical factor because the poor visibility and low overcasts attendant to the monsoon season made such operations hazardous to say the least."[20]:47 Brigadier General Lowell English (assistant commander 3rd Marine Division) complained that the defense of the isolated outpost was ludicrous. "When you're at Khe Sanh, you're not really anywhere. You could lose it and you really haven't lost a damn thing."[52]

As far as Westmoreland was concerned, however, all he needed to know was that NVA had massed large numbers of troops for a set-piece battle. Making the prospect even more enticing was that the Combat Base was in an unpopulated area where American firepower could be fully brought to bear without having to worry about civilian casualties. The opportunity to engage and destroy a formerly elusive enemy that was moving toward a fixed position promised a victory of unprecedented proportions.[52] NVA was acutely conscious of his position, as he voiced that opinion publicly in the press.

Attacks on the perimeter[edit]

First Skirmishes[edit]

Marine intelligence confirmed that, within a period of just over a week, the 325th NVA Division had moved into the vicinity of the base and two more divisions were within supporting distance. The 324th Division was located in the DMZ area 10–15 miles north of Khe Sanh while the 320th Division was within easy reinforcing distance to the northeast.[53] They were supported logistically from the nearby Ho Chi Minh Trail. As a result of this intelligence, KSCB was reinforced on 13 December by the 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment.[54]

At positions west of Hill 881 South and north of Co Roc Ridge, across the border in Laos, the North Vietnamese established artillery, rocket, and mortar positions from which to launch attacks by fire on the base and to support its ground operations.[55] They were assisted in their emplacement efforts by the continuing bad weather of the winter monsoon.

Dispositions of opposing forces, January 1968

During the rainy night of 2 January 1968, six men dressed in black uniforms were seen outside the defensive wire of the main base by members of a listening post. After failing to respond to a challenge, they were fired upon and five were killed outright while the sixth, although wounded, escaped.[56] This event prompted General Cushman to reinforce Colonel Lownds with the rest of the 2nd Battalion, 26th Marines. This marked the first time that all three battalions of the 26th Marine Regiment had operated together in combat since the invasion of Iwo Jima during the Second World War.[20]:30–1 In order to cover a defilade near the Rao Quan River, Foxtrot, Golf, Hotel and H&S Companies of 2/26 was immediately sent out to occupy Hill 558, with Echo Company 2/26 manning hill 861A.

On 20 January, La Thanh Ton, a NVA lieutenant of the 14th Anti-Aircraft Company, 325th Division, defected at the base and laid out the plans for an entire series of North Vietnamese attacks.[19]:72 Hills 881 South, 861, and the main base itself would be simultaneously attacked that same evening. At 00:30 on 21 January, Hill 861 was attacked by approximately 300 North Vietnamese troops. The Marines, however, were prepared. The North Vietnamese infantry, though bracketed by artillery fire, still managed to penetrate the perimeter of the defenses and were only driven back after severe close-quarters combat.[19]:258–9

The main base was then subjected to an intense mortar and rocket barrage. Hundreds of mortar rounds and 122mm rockets slammed into the base, leveling most of the above-ground structures. One of the first enemy shells set off an explosion in the main ammunition dump. Many of the artillery and mortar rounds stored in the dump were thrown into the air and detonated on impact within the base. Soon after another shell hit a cache of CS tear gas, which saturated the entire area.[57] Hours after the bombardment ceased, the base was still in danger. At around 10:00, the fire ignited a large quantity of C-4 and other explosives, rocking the base with another series of detonations. NVA forces, however, did not use the opportunity to launch a ground attack.

Images of the battle of Khe Sanh

Simultaneous with the artillery bombardment at KSCB was an attack launched against the village of Khe Sanh, seat of Huong Hoa District. That large village, three kilometers south of the base, was defended by 160 local troops, plus 15 American advisers and heavy artillery provided from the base. On the dawn of 21 Jan, it was attacked by a ~300-man NVA battalion. Reinforcements were dispatched aboard nine UH-1 helicopters, but were wiped out after landing near the NVA, along with one helicopter. A small ground rescue force from the nearby combat base was repulsed, while the survivors from the village assault evacuated themselves to the combat base. The NVA fought throughout the day, into the next night, and finally completed the capture of Khe Sanh Village at 09:30 on 22 January.[58]

To eliminate any threat to their flank, the NVA made the decision to attack Laotian Battalion BV-33, located at Ban Houei Sane, on Route 9 in Laos. The battalion was assaulted on the night of 23 January by three NVA battalions supported by seven tanks. The Laotians were overrun, and many fled to the Special Forces camp at Lang Vei. The Battle of Ban Houei Sane, not the attack three weeks later at Lang Vei, marked the first time that the North Vietnamese had committed an armored unit to battle.[58]

Due to the arrival of the 304th Division, KSCB was further reinforced by the 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment on 22 January. Five days later, the final reinforcements arrived in the form of the 37th ARVN Ranger Battalion, which was deployed more for political than tactical reasons.[19]:269 NVA artillery made its debut on the battlefield on 24 January, when a bombardment by 100mm and 152mm guns began with Hill 881 South, moved on to Hill 861, and then worked over the main base. The Marines and ARVN dug in and hoped that the approaching Tet truce (scheduled from 29–31 January) would provide some respite. On the afternoon of 29 January, however, the 3rd Marine Division notified Khe Sanh that the truce had been cancelled. The Tet Offensive was about to begin.

Westmoreland's secret plan to use nuclear weapons on Khe Sanh[edit]

Nine days before the Tet Offensive broke out, the NVA opened the battle of Khe Sanh and attacked the U.S. forces just beneath the DMZ. In response, General William Westmoreland, commander of the U.S. forces in Vietnam, reached for the nuclear button.

"In late January, General Westmoreland had warned that if the situation near the DMZ and at Khe Sanh worsened drastically, nuclear or chemical weapons might have to be used," said a separate 106-page declassified, "top secret" report titled, "The Air Force in Southeast Asia: Toward a Bombing Halt, 1968," written by the Office of Air Force History in 1970.

"This prompted Air Force chief of staff, General John McConnell, to press, although unsuccessfully, for JCS (Joint Chiefs of Staff) authority to request Pacific Command to prepare a plan for using low-yield nuclear weapons to prevent a catastrophic loss of the U.S. Marine base," it said.[59]

A secret memorandum reported by U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, sent to U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson on 19 February 1968, was declassified in 2005. It reveals the nuclear matter being excluded because of terrain peculiarity inside South Vietnam that reduces the effect of tactical nuclear weapons.

"Because of terrain and other conditions peculiar to our operations in South Vietnam, it is inconceivable that the use of nuclear weapons would be recommended there against either Viet Cong or North Vietnamese forces.

Robert McNamara, signed"[60]

Operation Niagara[edit]

For more details on the bombing campaign, see Operation Niagara.
For more details on the electronic sensor system, see Operation Igloo White.

During January, the recently installed electronic sensors of Operation Muscle Shoals (later renamed Igloo White), which were undergoing test and evaluation in southeastern Laos, were alerted by a flurry of NVA activity along the Ho Chi Minh Trail opposite the northwestern corner of South Vietnam. It was due to the nature of these activities, and the threat that they posed to KSCB, that General Westmoreland ordered Operation Niagara I, an intense intelligence collection effort on NVA activities in the vicinity of the Khe Sanh Valley.[61]

Niagara I was completed during the third week of January, and the next phase of the operation, Niagara II was launched on the 21st, the day of the first NVA artillery barrage. The Marine Direct Air Support Center (DASC), located at the Combat Base, was responsible for the coordination of air strikes with artillery fire. An airborne battlefield command and control center (ABCCC), in the form of a C-130 aircraft, directed incoming strike aircraft to forward air control (FAC) spotter planes, which, in turn directed them to targets either located by themselves or radioed in by ground units. When weather conditions precluded FAC-directed strikes, the bombers were directed to their targets by either a Marine AN/TPQ-10 radar installation at KSCB or by Air Force Combat Skyspot MSQ-77 stations. This LORAN-based system could direct aircraft to their targets in inclement weather or in absolute darkness.

National Security Advisor Walt W. Rostow showing President Lyndon B. Johnson a model of the Khe Sanh area, 15 February 1968

Thus began what many considered "the most concentrated application of aerial firepower in the history of warfare".[62] On an average day 350 tactical fighter-bombers, 60 B-52s, and 30 light observation or reconnaissance aircraft operated in the skies near the base.[63] Westmoreland had already ordered the nascent Igloo White to assist in the Marine defense.[61] On 22 January, the first sensor drops took place and, by the end of the month, 316 acoustic and seismic sensors had been dropped in 44 strings.[36]:301 The sensors were implanted by a special Naval squadron, Observation Squadron Sixty-Seven, VO-67. The Marines at KSCB credited 40 percent of intelligence available to their fire support coordination center to the sensors.[64]

U.S. Navy OP-2E Neptune of VO-67, a variant of a naval patrol bomber and anti-submarine warfare aircraft specifically developed for the Muscle Shoals mission.

By the end of the battle of Khe Sanh, U.S. Air Force assets had flown 9,691 tactical sorties and dropped 14,223 tons of bombs on targets within the Khe Sanh area. Marine Corps aviators had flown 7,098 missions and released 17,015 tons. Naval aircrews, many of whom were redirected from Operation Rolling Thunder strikes against North Vietnam, flew 5,337 sorties and dropped 7,941 tons of ordnance in the area.[36]:297 Westmoreland later wrote that "Washington so feared that some word of it might reach the press that I was told to desist, ironically answering what those consequences could be: a political disaster.[65]

While battles were raging around the Combat Base, other engagements were taking place in the headquarters at Hue/Phu Bai, Saigon, and the Pentagon. An intense interservice struggle over who should control aviation assets supporting not just Khe Sanh, but the entire American effort in Southeast Asia was being waged.[19]:487–515 Westmoreland had given his deputy commander for air operations, Air Force General William W. Momyer, the responsibility for coordinating all air assets during the operation to support KSCB. This caused problems for the Marine command, which possessed its own aviation squadrons that operated under their own close air support doctrine. The Marines were extremely reluctant to relinquish authority over their aircraft to an Air Force General.[36]:295–7

The command and control arrangement then in place in Southeast Asia went against the grain of Air Force doctrine, which was predicated on the single air manager concept. One headquarters would allocate and coordinate all air assets, distributing them wherever they were considered most necessary, and then transferring them as the situation required. The Marines, whose aircraft and doctrine were integral to their operations, were under no such centralized control. On 19 January Westmoreland passed his request for Air Force control up the chain of command to CINCPAC in Honolulu and there it stayed.

Meanwhile, heated debate arose among Westmoreland, Commandant of the Marine Corps Leonard F. Chapman, Jr. and Army Chief of Staff Harold K. Johnson. Johnson backed the Marine position due to his concern over protecting the Army's air assets from Air Force co-option.[36]:223 Westmoreland was so obsessed with the tactical situation that he threatened to resign if his wishes were not obeyed.[36]:295 As a result, on 7 March, for the first time during the Vietnam War, air operations were placed under the control of a single manager. General Westmoreland had won this battle.[63] He insisted for several months that the entire Tet Offensive was a diversion including, famously, attacks on downtown Saigon and obsessively affirming that the true objective of the North Vietnamese was Khe Sanh.

Fall of Lang Vei[edit]

Main article: Battle of Lang Vei

The Tet Offensive was launched prematurely in some areas on 30 January. On the following night, a massive wave of NVA/VC attacks swept throughout South Vietnam, everywhere except Khe Sanh. The launching of the largest enemy offensive thus far in the conflict did not shift Westmoreland's focus away from Khe Sanh. A press release prepared on the following day (but never issued), at the height of Tet, showed that he was not about to be distracted. "The enemy is attempting to confuse the issue …I suspect he is also trying to draw everyone's attention away from the greatest area of threat, the northern part of I Corps. Let me caution everyone not to be confused."[36]:286[66] There had not been much activity (with the exception of patrolling) thus far during the battle for the Green Berets of Detachment A-101 and their four companies of Bru CIDGs stationed at Lang Vei. That changed radically during the early morning hours of 7 February. The Americans had forewarning of NVA armor in the area from Laotian refugees from camp BV-33. SOG Reconnaissance teams also reported finding tank tracks in the area surrounding Co Roc mountain.[67] Although NVA was known to possess two armored regiments, it had not yet fielded an armored unit in South Vietnam, and besides, the Americans considered it impossible for them to get one down to Khe Sanh without it being spotted by aerial reconnaissance.[36]:319–20

It still came as a shock to the Special Forces troopers at Lang Vei when 12 tanks attacked their camp. The Soviet-built PT-76 amphibious tanks of the 203rd NVA Armored Regiment churned over the defenses, backed up by an infantry assault by the 7th Battalion, 66th Regiment and the 4th Battalion of the 24th Regiment, both elements of the 304th Division. The ground troops had been specially equipped for the attack with satchel charges, tear gas, and flame throwers. Although the camp's main defenses were overrun in only 13 minutes, the fighting lasted several hours, during which the Special Forces men and Bru CIDGs managed to knock out at least five of the tanks.[36]:329

The Marines at Khe Sanh had a plan in place for providing a ground relief force in just such a contingency, but Colonel Lownds, fearing a NVA ambush, refused to implement it. Lownds also rejected a proposal to launch a helicopter extraction of the survivors.[19]:276 During a meeting at Da Nang at 07:00 the next morning, Generals Westmoreland and Cushman accepted Lownds' decision. Army Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Ladd (commander, 5th Special Forces Group), who had just flown in from Khe Sanh, was reportedly, "astounded that the Marines, who prided themselves on leaving no man behind, were willing to write off all of the Green Berets and simply ignore the fall of Lang Vei."[19]:276

Attack on Lang Vei

Ladd and the commander of the SOG compound (whose men and camp had been incorporated into the defenses of KSCB) proposed that, if the Marines would provide the helicopters, the SOG reconnaissance men would go in themselves to pick up any survivors.[36]:332–3 The Marines continued to oppose the operation until Westmoreland actually had to issue an order to Cushman to allow the rescue operation to proceed.[36]:333 It was not until 15:00 hours that the relief effort was launched and it was successful. Of the 500 CIDG troops at Lang Vei, 200 had been killed or were missing and 75 more were wounded. Of the 24 Americans at the camp, ten had been killed and 11 wounded.[68]

Colonel Lownds infuriated the Special Forces personnel even further when the indigenous survivors of Lang Vei, their families, civilian refugees from the area, and Laotian survivors from the camp at Ban Houei Sane arrived at the gate of KSCB. Lownds feared that NVA infiltrators were mixed up in the crowd of more than 6,000.[19]:276–7 The indigenous soldiers, to the shock of the SOG and CAP personnel, were disarmed and forced to sit, under armed guard, in bomb craters. Without food or water, many of the Laotians turned around and walked back down Route 9 toward Laos.

The Lao troops were eventually flown back to their homeland, but not before the Laotian regional commander remarked that his army had to "consider the South Vietnamese as enemy because of their conduct."[36]:338 The Bru were excluded from evacuation from the highlands by an order from the ARVN I Corps commander, who ruled that no Bru be allowed to move into the lowlands.[36]:340 Colonel Ladd, back on the scene, reported that the Marines stated that "they couldn't trust any gooks in their damn camp."[19]:277 There had never been any love lost between the Special Forces personnel and the Marines. General Rathvon Tompkins, commander of the 3rd Marine Division, described the Special Forces soldiers as "hopped up …wretches …[who] were a law unto themselves." Pisor, p. 76. At the end of January, General Tompkins had ordered that no Marine patrols proceed more than 500 meters from the Combat Base.[19]:269 The SOG reconnaissance teams however, kept on patrolling, providing the only human intelligence available in the battle area. This, however, did not prevent the Marine tanks within the perimeter from training their guns on the SOG camp.[19]:277

Logistics and supporting fire[edit]

A truck-mounted Quad .50 at Khe Sanh Combat Base. This weapon along with the M42 Duster and Ontos-mounted 106mm recoilless rifles, provided the Marines with effective direct fire support.
An Army 175mm M107 at Camp Carroll provides fire support for ground forces.

Colonel Lownds estimated that the logistical requirements of KSCB were 60 tons per day in mid-January and rose to 185 tons per day when all five battalions were in place.[20]:90 The greatest impediments to the delivery of supplies to the base were the closure of Route 9 and the winter monsoon weather. From the beginning of the battle until early March, low-lying clouds and fog enclosed the area from early morning until around noon. Even then, the cloud cover rarely rose above 2,000 feet, closing the airfield to all but the most intrepid aviators.

Super Gaggle: CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters with sling loads (top) and A-4 Skyhawk providing suppressive fire.

Making matters worse, any aircraft that did brave the weather and attempted to land was subject to North Vietnamese anti-aircraft fire on its way in for a landing. Once the aircraft did touch down, it became the target of any number of NVA artillery or mortar crews. The aircrew then had to once again brave the anti-aircraft gauntlet on the way out.[69] As a result, 65 percent of all supplies were delivered by paradrops delivered by C-130 aircraft, most by the U.S. Air Force, whose crews had significantly more experience in airdrop tactics than Marine air crews.[70] The U.S. Air Force delivered 14,356 tons of supplies to Khe Sanh by air (8,120 tons by paradrop). 1st Marine Aircraft Wing records claim that the unit delivered 4,661 tons of cargo into KSCB.[20]:79

The resupply of the numerous, isolated hill outposts was fraught with the same difficulties and dangers. The fire of NVA anti-aircraft units took its toll of helicopters that made the attempt. The Marines found a solution to the problem in the "Super Gaggle" concept. 12 A-4 Skyhawk fighter-bombers provided flak suppression for massed flights of 12–16 helicopters, which would resupply the hills simultaneously. The adoption of this concept at the end of February was the turning point in the resupply effort. After its adoption, Marine helicopters flew in 465 tons of supplies during February. When the weather later cleared in March the amount was increased to 40 tons per day.[20]:89

As more infantry units had been assigned to defend KSCB, artillery reinforcement kept pace. By early January, the defenders could count on fire support from 46 artillery pieces of various calibers, five tanks armed with 90mm guns, and 92 single or Ontos-mounted 106mm recoilless rifles.[20]:33 The base could also depend on fire support from U.S. Army 175mm guns located at Camp Carroll, east of Khe Sanh. Throughout the battle, Marine artillerymen fired 158,891 mixed rounds.[20]:107 Marine analysis of NVA artillery fire disclosed that NVA gunners had fired 10,908 artillery and mortar rounds and rockets into Marine positions during the battle.[19]:283

A succession of attacks prior to relief of the base[edit]

On the night of the fall of Lang Vei three companies of the NVA 101D Regiment moved into jump-off positions to attack Alpha-1, an outpost just outside the Combat Base held by 66 men of the 9th Marines. Under cover of a mortar barrage the North Vietnamese penetrated the perimeter and pushed the remaining 30 defenders into the southwestern portion of the defenses. For some unknown reason, the NVA troops did not press their advantage and eliminate the pocket.[19]:277 A relief force set out from the main base and attacked through the North Vietnamese, pushing them into supporting tank and artillery fire.[36]:348

On 23 February, KSCB received its worst bombardment of the entire battle. During one eight-hour period the base was rocked by 1,307 North Vietnamese rounds, most of which came from 130mm (used for the first time on the battlefield) and 152mm artillery pieces located in Laos.[19]:279 Casualties from the bombardment were ten killed and 51 wounded. Two days later the first NVA trenches appeared, running due north to within 25 meters of the Combat Base perimeter. That same day, 25 February, 3rd Platoon from Bravo Company 1st Battalion, 26th Marines was ambushed on a short patrol outside the base's perimeter to test the strength of NVA units. The Marines pursued three enemy scouts who led them into an ambush. The platoon withdrew following a three-hour battle that left 6 Marines killed, 24 missing and one taken prisoner.[19]:279–80

Marine Corps sniper team searches for targets in the Khe Sanh Valley

At the end of February, American intelligence postulated that the 66th Regiment, 304th NVA Division was readying to mount an attack on the positions of the 37th ARVN Ranger Battalion on the eastern perimeter.[19]:281 On the night of 28 February the Combat Base unleashed artillery and airstrikes on possible North Vietnamese staging areas and routes of advance. At 21:30, the attack came on, but it was stifled by the small arms of the Rangers, who were supported by thousands of artillery rounds and air strikes. Two further attacks later in the morning were halted before the North Vietnamese finally withdrew. NVA, however, was not through with the ARVN troops. Five more attacks against their sector of the defenses were launched during the month of March.[19]:281

By mid-March, Marine intelligence began to note an exodus of NVA units from the Khe Sanh sector.[19]:281 The 325C Divisional Headquarters was the first to leave, followed by the 95C and 101D Regiments, all of which relocated to the west. At the same time, the 304th Division withdrew to the southwest. That did not mean, however that battle was over. On 22 March over 1,000 North Vietnamese rounds fell on the base, and, once again, the ammo dump was detonated.[19]:282

On 30 March, Bravo Company, 26th Marines, launched an attack toward the location of the ambush that had claimed so many of their comrades on 25 February. Following a rolling barrage fired by nine artillery batteries, the Marine attack advanced through two NVA trenchlines, but the Marines failed to locate the remains of the men of the ambushed patrol. The Marines claimed 115 North Vietnamese killed while their own casualties amounted to ten dead, 100 wounded, and two missing.[19]:282–3 At 08:00 on the following day, Operation Scotland was officially terminated. Operational control of the Khe Sanh area was handed over to the U.S. Army's 1st Air Cavalry Division for the duration of Operation Pegasus.[19]:283

Cumulative friendly casualties for Operation Scotland, which began on 1 November 1967, were: 205 killed in action, 1,668 wounded, and 25 missing and presumed dead.[20]:131 These figures do not include casualties among Special Forces troops at Lang Vei, aircrews killed or missing in the area or Marine replacements killed or wounded while entering or exiting the base aboard aircraft. As far as North Vietnamese casualties were concerned, 1,602 bodies were counted, seven prisoners were taken, and two enemy rallied to allied forces during the operation. American intelligence estimated that between 10,000 and 15,000 NVA troops were killed during the operation, that is, 90% of the attacking 17,200 men NVA force.[19]:283[20]:131 The NVA acknowledged 2,500 men killed in action.[71] The PAVN also reported they suffered 1,436 wounded before mid-March, of which 484 men had returned to their units while 396 had been sent back up the Ho Chi Minh trail to hospitals in the North.[23]

President Johnson's order to hold the base of Khe Sanh at all costs[edit]

The fighting at Khe Sanh was so volatile that not even the Joint Chiefs or the MACV commanders were certain if the base could be held by the Marines. Nevertheless, President Johnson was determined that Khe Sanh would not be an "American Dien Bien Phu." President Johnson instructed the entire military establishment to hold Khe Sanh at all costs. B-52 Arc Light strikes originating in Guam, Okinawa, and Thailand bombed the jungles surrounding Khe Sanh into stubble fields and Khe Sanh became the major news headline coming out of Vietnam in late March 1968.[72]

Johnson anxiously followed the fierce encounter from the war room in the White House. The beleaguered troops—substantially reinforced in response to Johnson's order to hold at all cost—lifted the siege in early April. They had been given the heaviest air support ever accorded to ground forces. Johnson, temporarily relieved by the reports of these momentous battles, continued to rally support in the nation. He even personally bid farewell to a contingent of troops being hurried to the war zone.

The war was entering a new phase. General Wheeler, who had rushed to Vietnam after the Tet Offensive, returned with a request from General Westmoreland for 206,000 additional troops. To raise and support that many men would require calling up reservists and adding $10 billion to the Federal budget. Johnson, seemingly aware now that his goal of "carrying forward the Nation's struggle against aggression in Southeast Asia" was not going to be achieved, instructed Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford to undertake a close study of the Westmoreland request. Clifford became the instrument through which the policy of constantly expanding the American presence in Vietnam was eventually reversed.[73]

Relief and retreat from Khe Sanh[edit]

Operation Pegasus (1–14 April 1968)[edit]

1st Cav forces at LZ Stud, staging area for Operation Pegasus.

Planning for the overland relief of Khe Sanh had begun as early as 25 January 1968 when Westmoreland ordered General John J. Tolson, commander, First Cavalry Division (Airmobile), to prepare a contingency plan. Route 9, the only practical overland route from the east, was impassable due to its poor state of repair and the presence of NVA troops. Tolson was not happy with the assignment, since he believed that the best course of action, post-Tet, was to use his division in an attack into the A Shau Valley. Westmoreland, however, was already planning ahead. Khe Sanh would be relieved and then used as the jump-off point for a "hot pursuit" of enemy forces into Laos.[36]:418–20

On 2 March, Tolson laid out what became known as Operation Pegasus. The operational plan for what was to become the largest operation launched by III MAF thus far in the conflict. The 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment (2/1 Marines) and the 2/3 Marines would launch a ground assault from Ca Lu (16 kilometers east of Khe Sanh) and head west on Route 9 while the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Brigades of the 1st Cavalry Division, would air-assault key terrain features along Route 9 to establish fire support bases and cover the Marine advance. The advance would be supported by 102 pieces of artillery.[36]:428 The Marines would be accompanied by their 11th Engineer Battalion, which would repair the road as the advance moved forward. Later, the 1/1 Marines and 3rd ARVN Airborne Task Force (the 3rd, 6th and 8th Airborne Battalions) would join the operation.[36]Template:419

General Westmoreland's planned relief effort infuriated the Marines, who had not wanted to hold Khe Sanh in the first place and who had been roundly criticized for not defending it well.[74] The Marines had constantly argued that technically, Khe Sanh had never been under siege, since it had never truly been isolated from resupply or reinforcement. General Cushman was appalled by the "implication of a rescue or breaking of the siege by outside forces."[75]

Regardless, on 1 April, Operation Pegasus began. Opposition from the North Vietnamese was light and the primary problem that hampered the advance was continual heavy morning cloud cover that slowed the pace of helicopter operations. As the relief force made progress, the Marines at Khe Sanh moved out from their positions and began patrolling at greater distances from the base. Things heated up for the air cavalrymen on 6 April, when the 3rd Brigade encountered a NVA blocking force and fought a day-long engagement.

Soldiers of the 1st Cavalry Division moving towards Khe Sanh Combat Base during Operation Pegasus.

On the following day, the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Air Cavalry captured the old French fort near Khe Sanh village after a three-day battle. The link-up between the relief force and the Marines at KSCB took place at 08:00 on 8 April, when the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment entered the camp.[19]:286 The 11th Engineers proclaimed Route 9 open to traffic on 11 April. On that day, General Tolson ordered his unit to immediately make preparations for Operation Delaware, an air assault into the A Shau Valley.[19]:287 At 08:00 on 15 April, Operation Pegasus was officially terminated. U.S. Army casualties in Operation Pegasus amounted to 59 soldiers killed in action and five missing. The Marines lost 205 men killed in action during the siege and approximately 200 more in the hill fights. Several hundred Marines and cavalrymen were also wounded or injured. Thirty-three South Vietnamese troops were also killed and 187 wounded. Because of the close proximity of the enemy and their high concentration, the massive B-52 bombings, tactical airstrikes, and vast use of artillery, estimates of NVA casualties vary from 5,000 to 10,000 killed and 13 captured.

Colonel Lownds and the 26th Marines departed Khe Sanh, leaving the defense of the base to the 1st Marine Regiment. Colonel Lownds made his final appearance in the story of Khe Sanh on 23 May, when he and his regimental sergeant major stood before President Johnson and were presented with a Presidential Unit Citation on behalf of the 26th Marines.

Operation Scotland II[edit]

On 15 April, the 3rd Marine Division resumed responsibility for KSCB, Operation Pegasus ended and Operation Scotland II began with the Marines seeking out the NVA in the surrounding area.[19]:289 On 16 April 1968, Company A 1/9 Marines began a patrol southwest of Hill 689, when it was ambushed by NVA soldiers in bunkers concealed in the thick vegetation. Two more companies from 1/9 Marines were dispatched to save them, but they became ensnarled in this confusing battle and were unable to disengage until the early morning of 17 April. Casualties amounted to 38 Marines and 3 Navy Corpsmen KIA, 3 MIA and 32 wounded. The battalion commander LTC John Cahill was relieved of duty.[19]:313–6

On 14 May the NVA ambushed a supply convoy 1 km north of Route 9, the 2/3 Marines was sent to relieve the convoy and pursued the NVA into a bunker complex killing 74 NVA for the loss of 7 Marines.[19]:317 On 17 May Company H, 2/1 Marines pursued several NVA into a bunker complex killing 52 NVA for the loss of 6 Marines.[19]:318 From 17–19 May, the 3rd Battalion 4th Marines (3/4 Marines) patrolling the ridgeline between Hills 552 and 689 killed 84 NVA and captured 5.[19]:318

At 04:00 on 19 May, an NVA platoon attacked Company H 2/3 Marines position on Route 9 southeast of Khe Sanh killing 3 Marines for the loss of 8 dead. Simultaneously Company I 3/4 Marines on Hill 552 was hit by NVA mortar fire, at dawn the Marines attacked the NVA position killing 42 and capturing 4.[19]:318 At 07:10 a platoon from Company F 2/1 Marines supported by 2 tanks on a road sweep operation from KSCB towards Route 9 was ambushed, the Marines attempted to assault the NVA positions but were repulsed. The remainder of Company F was sent to reinforce the platoon but the Marines attack was again repulsed, Company G was then sent to reinforce Company F and napalm strikes were called in close to the Marine lines forcing the NVA to retreat. Marine losses were 8 dead while NVA losses were 113 killed and 3 captured.[19]:318

Given the increased NVA activity around KSCB, in late May III MAF ordered 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines (3/9 Marines) to reinforce the units in the area.[19]:319

On 24 May Company G 2/3 Marines engaged an NVA Company in bunkers on a ridge overlooking Route 9, 4 km southeast of KSCB known as "Foxtrot Ridge". Air and artillery strikes were called in on the bunkers but the Marine attack was repulsed so further gunship and artillery strikes were called in which allowed the Marines to capture the position by 20:15 for the loss of 15 Marines killed, while the NVA had lost 58 dead. Company G was reinforced by Companies E and F and dug into positions 700m apart along the ridgeline. At 02:45 on 28 May Company F detected NVA movement outside their perimeter and artillery strikes were called in. Three NVA armed with satchel charges then attacked a listening post killing themselves and 3 Marines, this action started a Battalion sized attack on Company F's positions. The NVA forced the 1st Platoon from its position and overran the Company's 60mm mortar position. At 03:30 Company F was hit by NVA 130mm artillery fire from across the DMZ. At 04:15 an AC-47 gunship and a flareship arrived over the battle and were engaged by NVA antiaircraft fire. The NVA made repeated attacks to try to overrun the Marine positions supported by continuous RPG fire.[19]:319 At 07:00 a napalm strike against NVA reinforcements killed over 30 NVA and started a wildfire that forced Company F from its fighting positions. Company F regained its positions as the fire died down and the NVA began to disengage. At 11:50 Company E arrived to reinforce Company F and overran an NVA RPG position. The Marines lost 13 dead while the NVA lost 230 killed.[19]:320

In response to the renewed NVA artillery fire, on 30 May, 4 M107s and 4 M110s were deployed to KSCB from Camp Carroll and these engaged in a 48-hour artillery barage named Operation Drumfire II against suspected NVA artillery positions in the Co Roc Range, with little noticeable effect.[19]:320

At 04:00 on 31 May the NVA supported by artillery fire attacked Company E 2/3 Marines on Foxtrot Ridge but were beaten back. At 08:50 Company B 1/1 Marines was ambushed as it moved to support Company E, they were then reinforced by Company G 2/3 Marines and Company E 2/1 Marines who overran the NVA positions. The Marines lost 32 dead while the NVA lost 136 killed.[19]:320

An additional 413 Marines were killed during Scotland II through the end of June 1968. Operation Scotland II lasted until the end of the year, resulting in the deaths of 72 additional Marines. None of the deaths associated with Scotland II are included in the official body count. Historian Ronald Spector in After Tet : The Bloodiest Year in Vietnam notes that American casualties in the ten weeks after the beginning of Operation Pegasus were more than twice the casualties officially reported during the siege.

The deaths of U.S. Air Force personnel, estimated between five and twenty, are not included.[14]

Operation Charlie for the final evacuation[edit]

Final evacuation of Khe Sanh base complex, 1 July 1968.

On 19 June 1968, 8 days after General Westmoreland handed over command of MACV to General Abrams, Operation Charlie, the final evacuation and destruction of the Khe Sanh Combat Base commenced.[19]:324 The Marines withdrew all salvageable material and destroyed everything else. The NVA continued shelling the base, and at 03:35 on 1 July launched a company-sized infantry attack against Company I 3/4 Marines 3 km southeast of the base. The fighting lasted until the afternoon resulting in 2 Marines and over 200 NVA killed.[19]:326 At 20:00 on 5 July, the base was officially closed. Five Marines were killed in fighting near Khe Sanh that day. The final Marine withdrawal was conducted at night and was interrupted for several hours when Communist artillerymen scored a direct hit on a bridge on Route 9. The bridge was finally repaired, allowing the Marines to move down Route 9 to the east.[76]

The 1st Marines stayed in the Khe Sanh area, conducting operations to recover the bodies of 7 Marines killed previously near Hill 689.[77] 11 additional Marines and 89 NVA died during this period[19]:326 and were not included in the official body count. The following day the Marines finally left Khe Sanh. By any measure, the battle for Khe Sanh was finally over and this is the end date from the North Vietnamese perspective. The 304 NVA Division history notes that on "9 July 1968, the liberation flag was waving from the flag pole at Ta Con [Khe Sanh] airfield." On 13 July 1968, Ho Chi Minh sent a message to the soldiers of the Route 9-Khe Sanh Front affirming "our victory at Khe Sanh.[14]

The official NVA history stated:

“On June 26, 1968, the enemy announced he was withdrawing from Khe Sanh. Our armed forces rapidly tightened their siege ring, mounted shelling attacks, suppressed the enemy’s efforts to transport troops by helicopter, and conducted fierce attacks to block the overland route, forcing the enemy to prolong his withdrawal. On July 15, 1968, our soldiers were in complete control of Khe Sanh.”

Regardless of the inflation of the final actions at Khe Sanh, the NVA was now in control of a strategically important area and its lines of communication were extended further into South Vietnam.[10]

Once the news of the closure of the KSCB was announced, the American media immediately raised questions about the reasoning behind its abandonment. They asked what had changed in six months so that American commanders were willing to abandon Khe Sanh in July. The explanations given out by the Saigon command were that

"the enemy had changed his tactics and reduced his forces; that NVA had carved out new infiltration routes; that the Marines now had enough troops and helicopters to carry out mobile operations; that a fixed base was no longer necessary."[78]

By this point in the conflict, however, the Marine demand for more mobility was moot. The gradual withdrawal of U.S. forces began during the following year and the adoption of Vietnamization meant that, by 1969, "although limited tactical offensives abounded, U.S. military participation in the war would soon be relegated to a defensive stance."[79] While KSCB was abandoned, the Marines continued to patrol the Khe Sanh plateau and remained on Hill 950 until September 1969 when control was handed to the Army who used the position as a SOG operations and support base until it was overrun by the PAVN in June 1971.[80][81]

Termination of McNamara Line[edit]

The McNamara Line was first given the code name "Project Nine." MACV, U.S. Military Command, Vietnam, then changed the name of the plan to "Dye Marker,” following a compromise of the classified Project Nine sobriquet.

At that time, September 1967, the North Vietnamese began Phase I of their "General Offensive, General Uprising" campaign by attacking Marine positions along the DMZ. That made it especially difficult to advance the McNamara Line's construction.

As January 1968 came and went, NVA troops were massed for an all-out attack on the Marine base at Khe Sanh as part of the Tet Offensive. Sensors and hardware had to be diverted from other parts of the DMZ to Khe Sanh. After that siege ended in April, construction on the McNamara Line was abandoned.[9]

Riddle of Khe Sanh[edit]

The precise nature of Hanoi's strategic goal at Khe Sanh is regarded as one of the most intriguing unanswered questions of the Vietnam War. This perplexing problem, known among American historians as the "riddle of Khe Sanh" has been summed up by John Prados and Ray Stubbe: "Either the Tet Offensive was a diversion intended to facilitate NVA/VC preparations for a war-winning battle at Khe Sanh, or Khe Sanh was a diversion to mesmerize Westmoreland in the days before Tet."[36]:173 NVA General Giap explained that their strategy was to create a diversion to draw U.S. forces away from the populated areas of South Vietnam. This has led other observers to conclude that the siege served a wider NVA strategy; it diverted 30,000 US troops away from the cities that were the main targets of the Tet Offensive.[82]

Defense Minister Vo Nguyen Giap

Whether the NVA actually planned a genuine attempt to take Khe Sanh and whether the battle was an attempt to replicate the Viet Minh triumph against the French at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu has long been a point of contention. General Westmoreland believed that the latter was the case and this belief was the basis for his desire to stage "Dien Bien Phu in reverse".[83] If Hanoi was willing to mass its troops within a limited geographic area, making them vulnerable to American firepower, then so much the better, in his opinion.

Those who agree with Westmoreland reason that there is no other explanation as to why Hanoi would have committed so many forces to the area instead of deploying them for the Tet Offensive. The fact that the North Vietnamese only committed about half of their available forces to the offensive (60–70,000), the majority of whom were members of the VC, is cited in favor of Westmoreland's argument. Other theories argued that the forces around Khe Sanh were simply a localized defensive measure in the DMZ area, or that they were serving as a reserve in case of an offensive American end run in the mode of the American invasion at Inchon during the Korean War. However, North Vietnamese sources claim that the Americans did not win a victory at Khe Sanh but they were forced to retreat in order to avoid destruction. NVA claims Khe Sanh was "a stinging defeat from both the military and political points of view": Westmoreland was replaced two months after the end of the battle and his successor explained the retreat in different ways.[29]

General Abrams has also suggested that the North Vietnamese may have been planning to emulate Dien Bien Phu. He believed that NVA's actions during Tet proved it.[84] He cited the fact that it would have taken longer to dislodge the North Vietnamese at Huế if NVA had committed the three divisions at Khe Sanh to the battle there (although NVA did commit three regiments to the fighting from the Khe Sanh sector), instead of dividing their forces.[85]

Another interpretation was that the North Vietnamese were planning to work both ends against the middle. This strategy has come to be known as the Option Play. If NVA could take Khe Sanh, all well and good for them. If they could not, they would occupy the attention of as many American and South Vietnamese forces in I Corps as they could in order to facilitate the Tet Offensive.[86] This view was supported by a captured (in 1969) North Vietnamese study of the battle. According to it, NVA would have taken Khe Sanh if they could, but there were limits to the price they were willing to pay. Their main objectives were to inflict casualties on US troops and to isolate them in the remote border regions.[19]:67–8

General Wallace Greene, Commandant of the Marine Corps (l), Lieutenant General Robert Cushman, III MAF Commander (c), and General William Westmoreland (r).

Another theory is that the action around Khe Sanh (and the other border battles) were simply a feint, a ruse meant to focus American attention (and forces) on the border. General and historian Dave Palmer accepts this rationale: "General Giap never had any intention of capturing Khe Sanh … [it] was a feint, a diversionary effort. And it had accomplished its purpose magnificently."[87]

Marine General Rathvon M. Tompkins, commander of the 3rd Marine Division, has pointed out that had NVA actually intended to take Khe Sanh, North Vietnamese troops could have cut the Combat Base's sole source of water, a stream 500 meters outside the perimeter of the base. Had they simply contaminated the stream, the airlift would never have been able to provide enough water to the Marines.[71] Marine Lieutenant General Victor Krulak seconded the notion that there was never a serious intention to take the base by also arguing that neither the water supply nor the telephone land lines were ever cut by the North Vietnamese.

Khe Sanh airstrip, December 2006

One argument leveled by Westmoreland at the time (and often quoted by historians of the battle) was that only two Marine regiments were tied down at Khe Sanh compared with several NVA divisions.[88] But, at the time Hanoi made the decision to move in around the base, Khe Sanh was held by only two (or even just one) American battalions. It is debatable whether the destruction of one battalion could have been the goal of two to four NVA divisions. Yet, even if Westmoreland believed his statement, his argument never moved on to the next logical level. By the end of January 1968, he had moved half of all U.S. combat troops – nearly fifty maneuver battalions – to I Corps.[89]

Use of KSCB during Operation Lam Son 719[edit]

On 30 January 1971, the ARVN and U.S. forces launched Operation Dewey Canyon II which involved the re-opening of Route 9, securing the Khe Sanh area and re-occupying of KSCB as a forward supply base for Operation Lam Son 719. On 8 February 1971 the leading ARVN units marched along Route 9 into Southern Laos while the U.S. ground forces and advisers were prohibited from entering Laos. U.S. logistical, aerial, and artillery support was provided to the operation.

Following the ARVN defeat in Laos, the newly re-opened KSCB came under attack by NVA sappers and artillery and the base was abandoned once again on 6 April 1971.[90][91]

In media[edit]


  1. ^ Battle of Khe Sanh: Recounting the Battle's Casualties, by Peter Brush
  2. ^ 40th Anniversary of The Battle Of Khe Sanh, Khe Sanh Casualties in May 1968
  3. ^ 40th Anniversary of The Battle Of Khe Sanh, Khe Sanh Casualties in June 1968
  4. ^ Kelley, Michael P (2002). Where We Were in Vietnam. Hellgate Press. p. 5. ISBN 1-55571-625-3. 
  5. ^ Peter Brush, THE BATTLE OF KHE SANH, 1968
  6. ^ 100 Battles, Decisive Battles that Shaped the World, Dougherty, Martin, J., Parragon, p.236
  7. ^ a b The Withdrawal from Khe Sanh
  8. ^
  9. ^ a b The McNamara Line
  10. ^ a b c d e Rottman, Gordon L (2005). Khe Sanh 1967–68: Marines battle for Vietnam's vital hilltop base. Osprey Publishing. p. 90. 
  11. ^ LIFE Magazine – Feb 9th, 1968 – page 26
  12. ^ The Withdrawal from Khe Sanh "HistoryNet – From the World's Largest History Magazine Publisher
  13. ^ a b Khe Sanh 1967–68: Marines battle for Vietnam's vital hilltop base, By Gordon Rottman – page 91, page 92
  14. ^ a b c d e Recounting the Casualties at Khe Sanh ©2006 Peter Brush
  15. ^ 1968: The Definitive Year
  16. ^ A Global Chronology of Conflict: From the Ancient World to the Modern Middle East. Spencer C. Tucker. p. 2450
  17. ^ The low figure often cited for U.S. casualties (205 killed in action, 443 wounded, 2 missing) does not take into account U.S. Army or Air Force casualties or those incurred during Operation Pegasus. Prados and Stubbe, p. 454.
  18. ^ Not including ARVN Ranger, RF/PF, Forward Operation Base 3 – US Army, Royal Laotian Army and SOG commandos losses
  19. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag ah ai aj ak al am an ao ap aq Shulimson, Jack (1997). U.S. Marines in Vietnam: 1968 The Defining Year. History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps. p. 283. ISBN 0-16-049125-8. 
  20. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Shore, Moyars S., III (1969). The Battle of Khe Sanh. Washington DC: U.S. Marine Corps Historical Branch. p. 131. 
  21. ^ Smedberg, Marco (2008). Vietnamkrigen: 1880–1980. Historiska Media. ISBN 91-85507-88-1. 
  22. ^ a b Battle of Khe Sanh: Recounting the Battle's Casualties
  23. ^ a b The VVA Veteran - Khe Sanh: The Other Side Of The Hill
  24. ^ 40th Anniversary of The Battle Of Khe Sanh – Casualties in July 1968 when the base was officially closed
  26. ^ a b Operation Niagara: Siege of Khe Sanh – Peter Brush, Vietnam Magazine
  27. ^ New York Times – Battlefields of Khe Sanh: Still One Casualty a Day
  28. ^ Robert C Ankony, Lurps: A Ranger's Diary of Tet, Khe Sanh, A Shau, and Quang Tri, revised ed., Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Landham, MD (2009), pp.145–55.
  29. ^ a b c The Withdrawal from Khe Sanh
  30. ^ Battlefield:Vietnam | History
  31. ^ Video on YouTube
  32. ^ Battle of Khe Sanh: Recounting the Battle's Casualties, by Peter Brush
  33. ^ For a succinct overview of the creation of the CIDG program and its operations, see Stanton, pp. 35–48.
  34. ^ a b Strategic Crossroads at Khe Sanh
  35. ^ U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, Command History 1965, Annex N. Saigon, 1966, p. 18.
  36. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t Prados, John; Stubbe, Ray (1991). Valley of Decision: The Siege of Khe Sanh. Annapolis MD: Naval Institute Press. pp. 140–6. ISBN 0-395-55003-3. 
  37. ^ Dougan, Weiss, et al., p. 42.
  38. ^ Telfer, Rogers, and Fleming, pp. 129–131.
  39. ^ Maitland and McInerney, p. 164.
  40. ^ a b c d Maitland and McInerney, p. 165.
  41. ^ The most detailed account is in Edward F. Murphy, Dak To New York: Pocket Books, 1995.
  42. ^ Stanton, pp. 160–169.
  43. ^ Maitland and McInerney, p. 183.
  44. ^ Palmer, pp. 213–215.
  45. ^ Dougan and Weiss, p. 432.
  46. ^ Murphy, pp. 3–7, 13–14.
  47. ^
  48. ^ Murphy, p. 79.
  49. ^ Murphy, p. 233.
  50. ^ Only nine U.S. battalions were available from Hue/Phu Bai northward. Prados and Stubbe, p. 159.
  51. ^ Westmoreland, p. 236. General Westmoreland had been forwarding operational plans for an invasion of Laos since 1966. First there had been Operation Full Cry, the original three-division invasion plan. This was superseded by the smaller contingency plans Southpaw and High Port (1967). With Operation El Paso the General returned to a three-divisional plan in 1968. There was another plan (York) which envisioned the use of even larger forces. U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam Command History, 1966, Annex M. Saigon, 1967, p. 60. See also Jacob Van Staaveren, Interdiction in Southern Laos, 1961–1968. Washington DC: Center of Air Force History, 1993, pp. 230, 290.
  52. ^ a b Dougan and Weiss p. 42.
  53. ^ Dougan and Weiss, p. 43.
  54. ^ According to the official NVA history, by December 1967 the North Vietnamese had in place, or within supporting distance: the 304th, 320th, 324th, and 325th Infantry Divisions, the independent 270th infantry Regiment; five artillery regiments (the 16th, 45th, 84th, 204th, and 675th); three AAA regiments (the 208th, 214th, and 228th); four tank companies; one engineer regiment plus one independent engineer battalion; one signal battalion; and a number of local force units. Military Institute of Vietnam, Victory in Vietnam. Lawrence KS: University of Kansas Press, 2002, p. 216.
  55. ^ NVA 152mm artillery pieces had a range of around ten and one-half miles. The 130mm gun, introduced later in the battle, had a range of nineteen miles. The heaviest Marine ordnance at Khe Sanh, the 155mm, had a range of only nine miles. This discrepancy in ranges was used by the North Vietnamese in order to avoid counter-battery fire.
  56. ^ A whole myth has grown up around this incident. The dead men have been described as wearing Marine uniforms; that they were a regimental commander and his staff on a reconnaissance; that they were all identified, by name, by American intelligence. See Prados and Stubbe, p. 215.
  57. ^ Dougan and Weiss, p. 44.
  58. ^ a b Khe Sanh: The Other Side Of The Hill – BY JOHN PRADOS
  59. ^ The US's secret plan to nuke Vietnam, Laos – By Richard Ehrlichr 2008
  60. ^ Khe Sanh Declassified Documents, © 1998 – 2005 Raymond P. Anderson Jr. , Ballinger, Texas 76821
  61. ^ a b Van Staaveren, p. 290.
  62. ^ Morocco, p. 52.
  63. ^ a b Morocco, p. 178.
  64. ^ Nalty, p. 95.
  65. ^ Westmoreland, p. 252.
  66. ^ Pisor, p. 152.
  67. ^ Plaster, p. 154
  68. ^ Dougan and Weiss, p. 47. The official North Vietnamese history claimed that 400 South Vietnamese troops had been killed and 253 captured. It claimed, however, that only three American advisors were killed during the action. Victory in Vietnam, p. 222.
  69. ^ The fate of a USMC KC-130F of VMGR-152, provided a typical example of the difficulty in resupplying the firebase. Hit by groundfire during landing at Khe Sanh on 10 February, the fuel bladders aboard were set alight and the airframe burned out on the runway, further obstructing resupply operations.
  70. ^ Dougan and Weiss, p. 49. The most dramatic supply delivery system used at Khe Sanh was the Low Altitude Parachute Extraction System (LAPES), in which palletized supplies were pulled out of the cargo bay of a low-flying transport aircraft by means of an attached parachute. The pallet slid to a halt on the airstrip while the aircraft never had to actually land.
  71. ^ a b Dougan and Weiss, p. 55.
  72. ^ To the Limit: An Air Cav Huey Pilot in Vietnam, Tom A. Johnson (Chapter 18: Khe Sanh)
  73. ^ Lyndon B. Johnson – The final days, U.S. Presidential Profiles
  74. ^ Murphy, pp. 239–240. See also Pisor, p. 108.
  75. ^ Murphy, p. 240.
  76. ^ The Withdrawal from Khe Sanh, Vietnam Magazine
  77. ^ Khe Sanh Casualties in July 1968
  78. ^ Dougan and Weiss, p. 54.
  79. ^ Stanton, p. 246.
  80. ^ Smith, Charles (1988). U.S. Marines in Vietnam: High Mobility and Standdown 1969. History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps. p. 152. ISBN 978-1494287627. 
  81. ^ Long, Lonnie (2013). Unlikely Warriors: The Army Security Agency's Secret War in Vietnam 1961-1973. iUniverse. pp. 355–62. ISBN 9781475990591. 
  82. ^ Tim Page and John Pimlott, p. 324. Nam – The Vietnam Experience.
  83. ^ Pisor, p. 61.
  84. ^ James Warren, The Mystery of Khe Sanh in Robert Cowley, ed. The Cold War: A Military History. New York: Random House, 2005, p. 333.
  85. ^ Dougan and Weiss, p. 38.
  86. ^ Pisor, p. 210.
  87. ^ Palmer, p. 219. This is also the position taken in the official NVA history, but which offers no further explanation of the strategy. Victory in Vietnam, pp. 216–217.
  88. ^ Pisor, p. 240.
  89. ^ Murphy, p, 235.
  91. ^ Narrative of Events of Company B, 2nd Battalion, 506th Infantry, 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile) During LAM SON 719
  92. ^ Video on YouTube
  93. ^ The short-timers; Gustav Hasford, Harper & Row, 1979
  94. ^ Kruger, Debbie (2005). Songwriters Speak. Balmain, New South Wales: Limelight Press. pp. 267–287. ISBN 978-0-9757080-3-3. 
  95. ^ 2 Squadron RAAF | Australian War Memorial
  96. ^ [1]
  97. ^ ARMA 2


Unpublished Government Documents

  • U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, Command History 1965, Annex N. Saigon, 1966.
  • U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, Command History 1966, Annex M. Saigon, 1967.

Published Government Documents

  • Military History Institute of Vietnam (2002). Victory in Vietnam: A History of the People's Army of Vietnam, 1954–1975. trans. Pribbenow, Merle. Lawrence KS: University of Kansas Press. ISBN 0-7006-1175-4. 
  • Nalty, Bernard C. Air Power and the Fight for Khe Sanh. Washington, D.C.: Office of Air Force History, 1986. LCC DS557.8.K5 N34 1986
  • Shulimson, Jack; Blaisol, Leonard; Smith, Charles R.; Dawson, David (1997). The U.S. Marines in Vietnam: 1968, the Decisive Year. Washington DC: History and Museums Division, United States Marine Corps. ISBN 0-16-049125-8. 
  • Shore, Moyars S., III (1969). The Battle of Khe Sanh. Washington DC: U.S. Marine Corps Historical Branch. 
  • Telfer, Maj. Gary L., LtCol. Lane Rogers, and V. Keith Fleming. U.S. Marines in Vietnam: 1967, Fighting the North Vietnamese. Washington, D.C.: History and Museums Division, United States Marine Corps, 1984. LCC DS558.4 .U55 1977
  • Van Staaveren, Jacob. Interdiction in Southern Laos, 1961–1968. Washington, D.C.: Center of Air Force History, 1993. LCC DS558.8 .V36 1993


Secondary Sources

  • Clarke, Bruce B. G. (2007). Expendable Warriors – The Battle of Khe Sanh and the Vietnam War. Westport, Connecticut & London: Praeger International Security. ISBN 978-0-275-99480-8. 
  • Dougan, Clark; Weiss, Stephen; et al. (1983). Nineteen Sixty-Eight. Boston: Boston Publishing Company. ISBN 0-939526-06-9. 
  • Maitland, Terrence; McInerney, John (1983). A Contagion of War. Boston: Boston Publishing Company. ISBN 0-939526-05-0. 
  • Morocco, John (1984). Thunder from Above: Air War, 1941–1968. Boston: Boston Publishing Company. ISBN 0-939526-09-3. 
  • Murphy, Edward F. The Hill Fights:The First Battle of Khe Sanh. New York: Ballantine Books, 2003.
  • Palmer, Dave Richard (1978). Summons of the Trumpet: The History of the Vietnam War from a Military Man's Viewpoint. New York: Ballantine. 
  • Plaster, John L. (1997). SOG: The Secret Wars of America's Commandos in Vietnam. New York: New American Library. ISBN 0-451-23118-X. 
  • Prados, John; Stubbe, Ray (1991). Valley of Decision: The Siege of Khe Sanh. Annapolis MD: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 0-395-55003-3. 
  • Rottman, Gordon L. "Khe Sanh 1967–68". Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2005.
  • Stanton, Shelby L. Green Berets at War: U.S. Army Special Forces in Southeast Asia, 1956–1975. Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1985.
  • Stanton, Shelby L. (1985). The Rise and Fall of an American Army: U.S. Ground Forces in Vietnam, 1965–1973. New York: Dell. ISBN 0-89141-232-8. 
  • Warren, James. The Mystery of Khe Sanh in Robert Cowley, ed. The Cold War: A Military History. New York: Random House, 2005

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