THE BATTLE OF KHE SANH, 1968

by Peter Brush

 

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From The Tet Offensive edited by Marc Jason Gilbert and William Head. Copyright © 1996 by Marc Jason Gilbert and William Head. Reproduced with permission of Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc., Westport, CT. 

 

INTRODUCTION

 

In late 1967, U.S. commander General William Westmoreland and People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) commander General Vo Nguyen Giap deployed the forces under their commands to Khe Sanh.  Giap's and Westmoreland's own tactical and strategic goals, combined with their perception of each others intentions, led them into combat at this particular time and place.

The controversy surrounding this battle has lasted long after the silencing of the guns.  Westmoreland was convinced that the Communists were attempting a repetition of their triumph over the French at Dien Bien Phu.  Giap, on the other hand, 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.  Both sides claimed victory at Khe Sanh, fueling a debate that continues today‑‑was Khe Sanh a territorial imperative or a bait and switch?

 

 

BACKGROUND

 

It was Indochina's geography that made Khe Sanh important.  The Ho Chi Minh Trail had been used as a communications link between north and south since the fighting began between the French and Viet Minh in the First Indochina War.1  This series of trails and roads began in North Vietnam and entered Laos through various mountain passes.  Several branches of the Trail penetrated South Vietnam while other branches continued into Cambodia.  Khe Sanh was located where North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and Laos came together. For the Communists the region around Khe Sanh was a major avenue for their entry into Northern South Vietnam.  For the Americans a physical presence at Khe Sanh would allow them to observe traffic on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

It was in July, 1962, that the Americans began to arrive at Khe Sanh, when a U.S. Army Special Forces detachment moved into an old French fort near the village of Khe Sanh.  Also at this time, a Vietnamese engineer unit constructed the first airstrip at Khe Sanh.  In 1962 and 1963, U.S. Marine Corps helicopter units were deployed around Khe Sanh to support operations by U.S. Special Forces and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN).  In April 1964, the Marines sent a communications intelligence unit to the area to monitor Viet Cong and PAVN radio communications.  General Westmoreland visited Khe Sanh for the first time during the period of these early intelligence‑ gathering operations.2

Westmoreland felt the "critical importance" of Khe Sanh was readily apparent.  It would serve as a patrol base for the interdiction of enemy personnel and supplies coming down the Ho Chi Minh Trail from Laos into Northern South Vietnam; a base for covert operations to harass the Communists along the Trail; an airstrip for aerial reconnaissance of the Trail; the western terminus for the defensive line along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating North and South Vietnam; and a jump‑off point for invading Laos by land in order to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  According to the General, abandoning the U.S. military presence at Khe Sanh would allow the PAVN the ability to carry the fight into the populated coastal regions of Northern South Vietnam.3

 

THE BUILD‑UP OF FORCES

 

In the spring of 1966, Giap began to deploy large numbers of PAVN forces within the DMZ, in Laos, and in the southern panhandle of North Vietnam. According to Giap, the purpose of these deployments was to frustrate U.S. pacification efforts by pulling the Americans away from the populated areas of South Vietnam.4  By opening a new front away from central I Corps (the northernmost military region of South Vietnam) the Communists would have shorter supply lines, their movements would be harder for the Americans to detect, while the less‑accessible terrain would reduce the efficacy of the Americans' supporting arms.

The U.S. military command considered this buildup of enemy forces a precursor to a major attack across the DMZ.5  The Marines responded by moving units further north.  During the remainder of 1966 and early 1967, fighting along the DMZ between the PAVN and Marines increased in intensity.  U.S. sources claimed the Communists lost 3,492 confirmed killed in action (KIA) while the Marines lost 541 KIA.6  According to the official U.S. Marine Corps history of the battle at Khe Sanh, these casualties were unacceptable for the PAVN.  The PAVN response was to infiltrate South Vietnam by an end‑run around the DMZ.  The Khe Sanh area was the logical avenue of entry.7

In March, 1967, only one company of Marines was assigned to the Khe Sanh area.  At this time the Americans did not have the helicopter assets, troop strength, or logistical bases in the region to adopt a mobile type of defense. Consequently, the troops at Khe Sanh stayed in relatively static positions with an emphasis on patrolling, aerial and artillery interdiction of enemy infiltration routes, and occasional reconnaissance‑in‑force operations to break up enemy infiltration attempts.

In April 1967, the PAVN stepped up offensive activity against the Marine base at Khe Sanh.  The overland supply route into the base along Route 9 was cut by Communist demolition teams.  A PAVN regiment moved into positions around the base.  Other PAVN units launched diversionary 1,200‑round rocket, artillery, and mortar barrages at Marine fire support bases and helicopter facilities in I Corps.8  The main thrust was an attack designed to overrun the Khe Sanh Combat Base and capture the airfield.  A successful secondary attack was launched against the nearby Special Forces camp at Lang Vei.  The Marines airlifted two battalions of infantry to Khe Sanh.  Several days of bitter fighting allowed the Marines to defeat the PAVN attack and end the first PAVN attempt to take Khe Sanh.  With this immediate threat over, Marine forces in the Khe Sanh area were reduced. 

By mid‑1967, the war related hardships were increasing for the Communists; especially in the North.  The U.S. bombing of the North, although unable to halt infiltration, was taking a severe toll.  The U.S. still seemed convinced of its ability to achieve a military victory in the South.  A Maoist‑style rural struggle alone was not likely to defeat the Americans. There was concern in Hanoi that the U.S. was planning an invasion of North Vietnam.  After much discussion the Communists decided that the time had come to implement a different strategy.  This new strategy was designed to end the achievements of the U.S. pacification program, expand their control in the countryside, end any U.S. plans to invade the North, destroy U.S. faith in its ability to achieve a military victory, and nudge the Americans in the direction of negotiations.  Moreover, this new strategy would bring the war, for the first time, to the cities of South Vietnam.

In October 1967, Giap ordered men and material sent down the Trail to be infiltrated across the border in the vicinity of Khe Sanh.  PAVN units included the 304th Division, the first large regular formation of the People's Army to enter South Vietnam.  The 304th had fought at Dien Bien Phu and came to Khe Sanh supported by attached artillery and antiaircraft units. The other major units in this siege force were the 325‑C and 320th Divisions.  The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) concluded that the Communists had stockpiled enough supplies for a sixty-ninety day-engagement.  Experts estimated that all totalled PAVN military forces at Khe Sanh came to 22,000.9  Supporting troops in nearby Laos and the central DMZ pushed the total forces facing the Americans to between 35,000 and 40,000.10

By the fall of 1967, U.S. strength at Khe Sanh was one Marine infantry battalion reinforced with Marine and Army artillery and tanks.  In December and January three more Marine battalions plus one ARVN Ranger battalion were airlifted to Khe Sanh.  By the time the U.S. build‑up at the Khe Sanh Combat Base and surrounding fortified hill positions was complete on January 27, allied strength numbered 6,053--a reinforced regiment.

Control of the prominent terrain features to the north and northwest of the combat base was felt to be crucial to its defense.  Approximately half of the Marine forces were deployed outside the base perimeter.  These positions were named for the height of the hills in meters:  Hill 558, Hill 861, Hill 861 A or Alpha, Hills 881 North and South, and Hill 950.  The base at Khe Sanh was constructed on a slight plateau while the hill positions provided observation of enemy infiltration routes from the northwest and west.  The hill positions were heavily fortified with infantry, light artillery, mortars, recoilless rifles, and tracked anti-tank weapons.11

In addition to the Marines at Khe Sanh, Westmoreland sent his best Army units north into I Corps matching the PAVN buildup.  The 1st Cavalry Division and the 101st Airborne Division, plus other U.S. and ARVN units, were situated within striking distance of Khe Sanh.  Clearly Giap's attempts to draw U.S. forces away from the populated coastal areas were successful.  In response to this Communist buildup in I Corps, the U.S. military command had deployed fifty percent of all its maneuver battalions in Vietnam to the region, realizing that by doing so it would be hard pressed to meet all potential enemy threats directed at other targets in the South.12  The U.S. was so convinced of the severity of the threat to Khe Sanh that it was willing to strip the rest of the country of adequate military reserves, curtail its ability to go on the offensive, and risk tactical reverses in other areas of South Vietnam.13

U.S. military leadership in Vietnam soon informed the Marines at Khe Sanh that they were surrounded by thousands of North Vietnamese.  They were instructed to quickly improve their positions to the greatest extent possible‑‑to "dig in" in order to be prepared for a forthcoming ground attack.14  By mid-January, evidence of a strong NVA presence around the combat base became overwhelming.  On January 17, a U.S. reconnaissance patrol was ambushed by a PAVN force near one of the Marine hill positions around Khe Sanh.  Near daybreak on January 20, Company I, 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines under the command of Captain William H. Dabney, set out to find the ambush site of the reconnaissance patrol in order to recover classified communications information.  Dabney's men initiated their march from their position on Hill 881 South, the westernmost U.S. position in South Vietnam.  As they marched north, they ran into a heavily-fortified enemy defensive line constructed on an east-west axis.  Elements of an NVA battalion opened fire on the advancing Marines with small arms, heavy machine guns, and grenade launchers.  Heavy fighting continued for hours.  Eventually, Colonel David Lownds, overall Marine commander at Khe Sanh, fearing an enemy attack on the entire base, ordered the Marines to break off the battle and return to their defensive positions on Hill 881 South.15

On January 21, the Communists began a hundred-round mortar and rocket attack against the base.  Several helicopters were destroyed, a messhall was flattened, several trucks were riddled with shrapnel, and the base commander's quarters were destroyed.  At about 5:15 a.m., one or more NVA shells scored a direct hit on the main ammunition dump at Khe Sanh.  This attack set off an explosion that resulted in the destruction of 16,000 artillery shells, a large supply of C.S. tear gas which spread over the entire base, and, about five hours later, a sizeable quantity of C-4 plastic and other explosives.  In fact, due to the incessant fire caused by the original explosions the ammunition supplies continued to set off smaller subsequent explosions or, as the Marines described it, to "cooked off" in the flames for the next 48 hours. This spectacular event soon became headline news throughout the U.S. and the Western World.  It helped make the situation at Khe Sanh a cornerstone of most national evening news casts over the next several weeks.16

To assure the efficient use of the remaining shells, senior artillery officer, Major Roger Campbell, measured the enemy artillery craters in order to target the distance and direction of the enemy guns.  The immediate crisis was overcome that afternoon, when C-124s and C-130s began aerial resupply efforts to make up for the lost ordnance.   This resupply effort grew throughout the siege.  Later, as the enemy began to effective target the landing strip, resupply was carried out by helicopter drops.  One indication of just how seriously the U.S. leaders took this battle came on January 23, when a cargo plane unloaded four large crates addressed to "Fifth Graves Registration Team, Khe Sanh."  They were filled with 4,000 pounds of body bags.17

 

STRATEGY AND TACTICS

 

Was it a diversion or a serious attempt to seize the combat base? General Westmoreland was convinced it was no diversion.  On the contrary, given the existence of the large build‑up of PAVN forces in the vicinity of Khe Sanh and the DMZ, Westmoreland felt it would be much more logical for the Communists to stage diversionary attacks elsewhere in Vietnam "while concentrating on creating something like Dien Bien Phu at Khe Sanh and seizing the two northern provinces [of South Vietnam]."18  Westmoreland's intelligence officer, General Philip Davidson, calls the notion that Giap viewed Khe Sanh as a strategic diversion to cover his attacks against the cities of South Vietnam during Tet a "myth... with no factual basis."19

No matter the intentions of his enemy, Westmoreland was more than willing to shift his assets to Khe Sanh.  His great frustration in waging war in Vietnam was the inability of U.S. forces to locate and close with large enemy units on the battlefield in order to destroy them with massive firepower.  Indeed, Westmoreland felt the Viet Cong were "... uncommonly adept at slithering away."20  Westmoreland wanted the enemy to meet him on the battlefield at Khe Sanh; it was the perfect place for a decisive engagement. Khe Sanh was reinforced gradually by the U.S. military so as to not scare the enemy away.  The area was considered to be uninhabited by civilians21 and held few South Vietnamese government facilities, thereby minimizing coordination problems with the ARVN.  Most important of all was the fact that the NVA seemed willing to fight at Khe Sanh.  Westmoreland hoped that U.S. firepower would turn Khe Sanh into a killing ground for the North Vietnamese.  The process by which this would be accomplished was described by the base target selection officer, Major Mirza Baig:

 

Our entire philosophy [is] to allow the enemy to surround us closely, to mass about us, to reveal his troop and logistic routes, to establish his dumps and assembly areas, and to prepare his siege works as energetically as he desires.  The result [will be] an enormous quantity of targets...ideal for heavy bombers.22

 

For the U.S. military command, the Marines at Khe Sanh were bait; chum liberally spread around the Khe Sanh tactical area to entice large military forces of North Vietnam from the depths of their sanctuaries to the exposed shallows of America's high technology killing machine.  Many Marine commanders did not care for this role that had been assigned to them by their U.S. Army superiors.  The Marines thought Khe Sanh was too isolated and too hard to support.  The assistant commander of the 3rd Marine Division summed up the feelings of the Marines regarding the importance of the base by saying, "When you're at Khe Sanh, you're not really anywhere.  You could lose it, and you really haven't lost a damn thing."  Third Marine Division commander General Rathvon M. Thompkins felt that General Westmoreland was particularly sensitive about Khe Sanh, perhaps because the nearby Special Forces camp at Lang Vei had been overrun in 1967 (and would be overrun again by the PAVN during the fighting around Khe Sanh in 1968).23

When Hanoi began sending its forces to Khe Sanh the Communists were hoping to divert U.S. military assets away from the populated areas; it is not reasonable to think Giap would tie up an entire army corps with the mission of overrunning a single battalion of Americans.  To the extent both sides sought to bait one another by their presence around Khe Sanh, both the U.S. military and Vietnamese Communists were successful.  The tens of thousands troops facing one another at Khe Sanh represented the largest concentration of military forces on a single battlefield during the Second Indochina War.

There is evidence, however, to support the notion that the Communists planned on overrunning the base at Khe Sanh.  On January 2, 1968 a sentry dog at a listening post near the combat base signaled the Marines that there was activity nearby.  A squad of Marines was sent to investigate this sighting. Although no friendly patrols were reported to be in the area, the squad detected six men in Marine Corps uniforms.  The squad leader challenged these men in English.  When the challenge went unanswered, the Marines opened fire. Five of the six trespassers were killed.  The dead were North Vietnamese, and among them was a PAVN regimental commander, his operations officer, and communications officer.  For the PAVN commanders to conduct such a close personal reconnaissance indicated to the Marines that their intentions were serious.  The PAVN would have no need to get so close to the combat base if they were only engaged in a diversion.24

On January 20, Marines guarding the eastern end of the airstrip at Khe Sanh saw a PAVN soldier entering the base carrying a white flag.  The PAVN soldier surrendered to a Marine fire team sent to investigate the sighting. This soldier turned out to be PAVN Senior Lieutenant La Thanh Tonc, commander of the PAVN 14th Antiaircraft Company of the 325‑C Division.  Tonc was full of information and was willing to share it with the Marines.  Counter- intelligence experts were suspicious of Tonc's eagerness to talk and the quality of his information.  The base commander, Colonel Lownds, however, felt there was nothing to lose and much to gain by regarding Tonc's information as accurate.  Marine intelligence realized that deception and spreading dis-information were trademarks of the PAVN but Tonc's revelations were supported by other intelligence information.  If Tonc was legitimate it would be the biggest intelligence coup of the war.  Tonc was too important to be ignored.

Lieutenant Tonc claimed he had surrendered because he was disgruntled over being passed over for promotion, tired of being told things by his superior officers that he knew not to be true, and demoralized by the casualties inflicted on his men by the Americans.  According to Tonc, the PAVN attack on the base was planned to begin that very evening, commencing with an infantry assault on a nearby outpost, Hill 861 (all hills were designated according to their height in feet).  When Hill 861 had been overrun, two PAVN regiments would attack the base from the northeast and from the south.  PAVN infantry and mortar units would interdict helicopters sent to resupply the base, fire at the Marine heavy weapon positions, and bombard the airstrip to close it to incoming aircraft.  According to Tonc, the PAVN had tanks in reserve north of the DMZ which could support the attack.  This campaign was to be the most important PAVN effort against the U.S. since the Americans intervened in South Vietnam.  The purpose of the campaign was to gain bargaining leverage at the negotiating table by the conquest of the U.S. bases along the DMZ, resulting in the liberation of Quang Tri Province.  The campaign was being conducted by General Giap personally.

In late 1967, Robert Brewer, the CIA officer for Quang Tri, received a Communist party document from a North Vietnamese double agent.  This document explicitly referred to an upcoming attack, in early 1968, on Khe Sanh and other bases in the northern provinces.  This earlier intelligence report seemed to confirm Tonc's revelations.25  Intelligence obtained from U.S. radio intercepts also substantiated the deserter's information.  Tonc had predicted that the attacks would begin on January 20.  The Marines were ordered to a heightened state of readiness but nothing happened.  Then a few minutes after midnight on the 21st, hundreds of enemy rockets, mortar rounds, and rocket‑propelled grenades pounded Hill 861.  Shortly thereafter 250 PAVN soldiers attacked the hill position, thereby validating the information provided by the deserter.

By the time of the attack on Hill 861, General Giap had successfully effected a diversion of U.S. military assets from the heavily populated coastal regions to northern I Corps.  But the size of the Communist forces surrounding the Khe Sanh Combat Base suggests that a diversion was not all that he hoped to accomplish.  The PAVN force included three infantry divisions, a fourth infantry division nearby in a support role, tanks, and two artillery regiments with antiaircraft capabilities.  A diversion could have been achieved with less of a troop deployment than this.  According to General Davidson, as of January 20, Giap "obviously intended to overrun Khe Sanh and its marine defenders."26

At Dien Bien Phu the Communists achieved victory by successfully attacking the French outposts that surrounded the base, effectively isolating it.  At Khe Sanh, the Communists launched five battalion‑sized attacks against surrounding outposts.  These actions are consistent with siege warfare tactics which call for the attacking force to seize the high ground and cut the lines of communication leading to a fortified position.  But unlike the circumstances at Dien Bien Phu, the Communists were unable to capture the Marine outposts ringing Khe Sanh.  Only the Special Forces base at Lang Vei and Khe Sanh village were successfully assaulted.

The Marines at Khe Sanh had vastly superior air and artillery assets than did the French at Dien Bien Phu.  The area around Khe Sanh had been liberally seeded with remote sensors to track the movements of the PAVN.  U.S. firepower, alerted by these sensors and reconnaissance patrols, was able to break up formations of PAVN soldiers whenever they tried to mass for assaults on the base and the hill positions.

Giap faced a dilemma at Khe Sanh he did not encounter at Dien Bien Phu. Marine defenses around Khe Sanh were too strong to succumb to small and medium‑sized PAVN ground attacks.  A successful attack on Khe Sanh required the PAVN to mass their forces for an overwhelming assault.  Yet, whenever the PAVN attempted to mass their forces, they provided rich targets for U.S. firepower and were decimated. 

Perhaps the best example of this situation occurred at the end of February, 1968.  Sensors placed along Route 9 between the base and the Laotian border began sending large numbers of signals to monitors at Khe Sanh. By computing the length of the column of soldiers from sensor readouts, the commander at Khe Sanh became convinced that a PAVN regiment was attempting to close on the base.  B‑52 bombing runs and artillery attacks from within the base broke up the attempted attack.  Only one company out of this PAVN regiment was able to reach the base, and this company was destroyed by the South Vietnamese Ranger battalion positioned on the southeast corner of the base perimeter.27

General Davidson, Westmoreland's intelligence officer, feels that Giap's primary goal at Khe Sanh was to overrun the base.  When this proved impossible, according to Davidson, Giap changed his plans, and gave up his attempt to turn Khe Sanh into another Dien Bien Phu.  Cecil Currey, a retired U.S. Army colonel and professor of military history, says that Giap's primary intention was to stage a diversion, and that the notion of overrunning the base was secondary.28  Both Davidson and Currey allow that the PAVN had dual motives at Khe Sanh.  Their different interpretation seems to be one of emphasis.

One bit of evidence that Davidson offers in support of his position is the possible presence of General Giap himself in the vicinity of Khe Sanh. Radio signal intelligence detected the presence of a major PAVN headquarters in caves just north of the DMZ.  Aerial reconnaissance indicated significant vehicular activity in this area.  Numerous radio antennae were observed there, and PAVN prisoners of war reported that Giap himself was directing PAVN operations in the region.  Davidson notes that at Dien Bien Phu, Giap set up headquarters nearby and directed operations from this command post.  Further, an intelligence report indicates that Giap was not seen in Hanoi between September 2, 1967, and February 5, 1968.  Davidson feels the "best guess" is that Giap was in this forward headquarters planning the battle for Khe Sanh.

Peter McDonald, on the other hand, in his biography of General Giap, states that Giap "... was not there" [near Khe Sanh].  McDonald notes that the PAVN did not have the helicopter assets that would allow a quick move to the front and that he could not have afforded to be away from the center of military control in Hanoi.  McDonald does not otherwise account for Giap's absence from Hanoi during this period, and certainly the lack of PAVN helicopters does not preclude the possibility of Giap's presence in the vicinity of Khe Sanh.

Robert J. O'Neill, believes it is most unlikely that Giap personally directed the battle at Khe Sanh.  Hanoi was the only headquarters from which all the activities of the entire NVA could be controlled.  Issues of reputation and status were at stake.  Westmoreland was willing to leave tactical battlefield decisions in the hands of local Marine commanders at Khe Sanh.  Had the PAVN suffered a clear defeat at the hands of the U.S., Giap would have sacrificed much of his reputation.  In any event, the cave headquarters was bombed repeatedly by the U.S. Air Force and while it remained in operation for several weeks, its tactical importance faded over time.29

No matter how we define the intentions of the PAVN regarding Khe Sanh, the fact is that they had diverted large amounts of U.S. military assets to its vicinity by the time the fighting began.  Most of the Communist military forces sent into attack during the 1968 Tet Offensive were soldiers of the People's Liberation Armed Force (PLAF), the military arm of the National Liberation Front (NLF).  Only in I Corps did the Communists commit large numbers of their regular army troops.  This assignment of PAVN units reflects the special determination of the Communists to inflict severe and permanent military damage upon the South Vietnamese government in the northern provinces.  If Khe Sanh was only meant to be a ruse by the Communists to divert U.S. forces, then why did the Communists continue their attacks on Khe Sanh after a diversion had been accomplished?

In addition to Khe Sanh, Hue was another place where the Communists committed large numbers of their regular army forces to battle during Tet 1968.  On January 30, seven to ten battalions of PLAF and PAVN forces struck Hue City.  Their goal was to capture this important Vietnamese cultural and political center, destroy the Saigon administration there, establish a revolutionary administration, and hold the city for as long as possible.30

In support of this goal, on about February 10, the Communists shifted some of their military forces from Khe Sanh to Hue.  This deployment supports the notion that, at least by this stage of the fighting during Tet, 1968, the Communists had important priorities for their Khe Sanh forces in addition to the capture of the Marine base.  After bitter fighting, the Communists were unable to hold Hue, and on February 25, the enemy forces there had either fled or been killed.  Yet, during the night of February 29‑March 1, the PAVN staged their largest massed attack upon the Khe Sanh Combat Base.  This regimental‑ sized strike was broken up after sustaining overwhelming casualties at the hands of U.S. firepower.  An attack of this magnitude, although not large enough to be effective, does not lend itself to the notion that the Communists only planned a diversion at Khe Sanh.  Giap shifted five infantry battalions from Khe Sanh to Hue.  Had he shifted more troops it could have had an important effect on the fighting around Hue.  In effect, Giap left too few troops at Khe Sanh to overrun it, and shifted too few troops from Khe Sanh to Hue to effect the outcome of the fighting there.31

At Dien Bien Phu the Viet Minh constructed trenches to within a few meters of the French positions.  On February 25, a U.S. aerial observer noted a PAVN trench running only twenty‑five meters from the combat base perimeter. This represented an addition to an existing trench network and added 700 meters of trenching in a single night.32  As the PAVN dug ever closer, the U.S. tried a variety of means to neutralize the trenches, including napalm, one ton bombs, and huge amounts of artillery fire. In earlier battles such as Ia Drang and Con Thien, the PAVN concluded that this tactic of "hugging the belts" of the Americans would make the U.S. reluctant to employ their massive firepower due to fear of causing casualties among their own forces.  The U.S. response was to employ all manner of firepower against these close‑proximity targets, including B‑52 strikes.  To be sure, the willingness of the Communists to construct positions at the very edge of the combat base is not consistent with the idea of only staging a diversion.

By early March, it appeared as if the North Vietnamese were giving up on Khe Sanh.  On March 9, General Westmoreland reported to President Lyndon Johnson that enemy forces in the vicinity of Khe Sanh had fallen to between 6,000 and 8,000 men.  On March 10, it was reported that the enemy had stopped repairing their trench system.  The fighting was winding down.  After succeeding in creating a diversion but failing to overrun the base at Khe Sanh, why would the Communists leave the battlefield at that particular time?

General Davidson feels that one reason the Communists withdrew their forces from the Khe Sanh area was the fear of nuclear weapons.  Senior members of the U.S. military command had been comparing Khe Sanh to Dien Bien Phu.  The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff asked Westmoreland if there were targets in the vicinity of Khe Sanh that lent themselves to nuclear strikes and asked if contingency nuclear planning would be appropriate. Westmoreland replied that if the situation in the DMZ were to change dramatically he could "visualize that either tactical nuclear weapons or chemical agents should be active candidates for employment."  Davidson notes that the issue of the use of nuclear weapons was leaked to the press which published reports that Westmoreland had asked for permission to use nuclear weapons at Khe Sanh.33

Davidson speculates that Giap was aware of the nuclear weapons issue.  Giap must have known that the U.S. considered using nuclear weapons against Viet Minh forces besieging Dien Bien Phu.  If the U.S. had been willing to consider the use of nuclear weapons in support of the French, there existed an even greater possibility that the U.S. would use atomic bombs to protect the Marines at Khe Sanh.  Davidson notes that the possibility of the use of nuclear weapons must have frightened the North Vietnamese Politburo and thoroughly alarmed the Soviets and the Chinese.  Davidson's conclusion is that the North Vietnamese did not consider Khe Sanh to be a goal of sufficient tactical importance to risk World War III.  Davidson notes it may have been more than just coincidental that PAVN attacks against the Marine outposts in the vicinity of Khe Sanh ceased at the same time as nuclear weapons were being considered for use in the area.

It seems that Davidson has over‑emphasized the importance of the nuclear weapons issue at Khe Sanh.  If it is correct to assume that the North Vietnamese believed Khe Sanh was not worth the risk of a general nuclear war between the superpowers, then the same logic must hold for the United States. President Johnson was unwilling to mine North Vietnamese ports, strike at lines of communication near the Vietnam‑China border, or bomb North Vietnamese civilian population centers for fear of risking a confrontation with the USSR or China.  Certainly the use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam would be viewed as a greater provocation by the Russians and Chinese than the other actions which President Johnson was unwilling to implement.34

Davidson feels that due to lack of sufficient information it is impossible to explain some of the reasoning behind North Vietnamese tactics at Khe Sanh.  Surely, current evidence strongly suggests that on or about February 10, the Communists decided not to overrun Khe Sanh.  Yet, on February 23, the base received 1,307 rounds of incoming rockets, artillery, and mortar rounds‑-a record amount of incoming fire for one day.35  It seems to me that the best explanation for this heavy shelling incident is one of logistics.  PAVN forces had gone to considerable efforts to stockpile these munitions in the Khe Sanh area.  By February 23, the diversion had been accomplished and attempts to seize the base had proved unsuccessful.  Rather than move this ammunition back into Laos under the constant threat of U.S. airstrikes, the Communists chose to fire it at the Marine positions.

The regimental‑sized attack of February 29 is also inexplicable to Davidson.  The attacking force was not sufficiently large to have any possibility of success and was launched after the North Vietnamese had been withdrawing from the region.  Again, its purpose may have been to exploit media coverage of the battle; it occurred two days after CBS reporter Walter Cronkite prophesied the fall of Khe Sanh to the American public.36

Thomas L. Cubbage II, a former U.S. Army intelligence analyst during the Vietnam War, claims that the attack on Khe Sanh was an attempt to achieve a decisive victory in the war.  According to Cubbage, Hanoi's Tet offensive failed because the attack on Khe Sanh failed.  Khe Sanh was meant to be another Dien Bien Phu and was unsuccessful because the Dien Bien Phu model was out of date.  That is to say that the new technologies of warfare represented by overwhelming American firepower was something the Communists were unable to overcome.  The capture of Khe Sanh was a major component of Hanoi's General Offensive‑General Uprising.  The attack was launched ten days before the attacks on the cities with the purpose of clearing the way for PAVN forces to move from the border areas to the coastal plain.  Success at Khe Sanh would have allowed the PAVN to seal Hue's fate and put Danang in grave danger. According to Cubbage, Khe Sanh was not an attempt to bait the Americans.  It was a serious attempt to create another Dien Bien Phu.

Cubbage says that Westmoreland knew about the intentions of the Communists due to good intelligence information.  When the attack on Khe Sanh failed, Hanoi's whole Tet Offensive was weakened and eventually failed in a military sense.  Cubbage feels that Khe Sanh was of such overwhelming strategic importance that its capture could have allowed Hanoi to achieve its military goals during the Tet Offensive and caused an earlier end to the U.S. involvement in Vietnam.37

In fact, a decisive victory, which Cubbage feels was the true goal of the PAVN at Khe Sanh, was possible; they could have forced the Americans out of Khe Sanh, but they never realized the means by which this could have been achieved. 

Concerns over the ability of the US to successfully defend Khe Sanh were manifest at the highest levels of government.  President Johnson, his national security advisor, the advisor's military assistant, and the National Security Council staff representative for Vietnam were all kept abreast of the developing situation around Khe Sanh.  The President summed up his feelings regarding Khe Sanh while the fighting was in progress; "I don't want any damn Dinbinphoo."38  Both General Earl G. Wheeler, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and General Westmoreland assured the President that preparations for the defense of Khe Sanh were adequate and that the base would be successfully supplied.39  Indeed, support for the defense of Khe Sanh received priority over all other operations in Vietnam.40

The job of supplying the Marine base at Khe Sanh fell to various Marine Corps and US Air Force aviation units.  This airlift would have been a massive operation even under ideal circumstances.  The purely logistical problems were compounded by poor visibility that fell below minimum requirements for airfield operations 40 percent of the time.  The PAVN added to the difficulty by directing a heavy volume of antiaircraft and artillery fire at incoming aircraft.41

The resupply process suffered a sharp setback on February 10 when PAVN gunners shot up a Marine C‑130, fully laden with fuel bladders, while it was attempting a landing at the Khe Sanh airstrip.  As a result of this incident and fire damage sustained by other aircraft already on the ground, C‑130 landings were temporarily suspended during February.  At the beginning of March this suspension was made permanent.  Consequently, during these periods, the Marines were denied the use of the best heavy‑lift aviation assets in their inventory.  Most supplies thereafter were delivered by parachute. According to the official Marine Corps history of the battle of Khe Sanh, these parachute drops "... were sufficient for bulk commodities such as rations and ammunition."42  However, certain supplies, such as replacement troops, medical evacuations and medical supplies, could only be delivered by aircraft that made actual landings on the runway at Khe Sanh.

This official assessment of the success of U.S. supply capabilities regarding rations was overly optimistic.  A hot meal was defined as heated C‑rations; the Marines at Khe Sanh sometimes went weeks without hot meals. Rations were routinely limited to two meals per man per day.  One Marine reported that he went several days with only one C‑ration meal per day.43  A company commander on Hill 861, located about two miles northwest of the combat base, reported his men were forced to go for days without water.44  Another reported that his water ration was one­ half canteen cup of water per day, which had to suffice for drinking, shaving, and brushing teeth.45

Water is an extremely difficult commodity to deliver to a besieged garrison.  It is heavy, it must be handled in special containers that cannot be used for the delivery of other liquids, and water containers are vulnerable to incoming artillery attacks.  One helicopter crew attempting to deliver water to Hill 861 was rattled by PAVN fire, panicked, and released its cargo from a height of two hundred feet.  The parched Marines watched the water containers burst apart in mid‑air.46

Had the Communists realized the vulnerability of the Marine water supply, they might well have been able to force the Marines to abandon their combat base high above Khe Sanh.  The Marines occupied various hilltop positions surrounding Khe Sanh.  These positions, initially supplied from the combat base itself, were later provisioned by helicopters flying from the 3d Marine Division Forward base at Dong Ha.  Water for the combat base came from the small Rao Quan River which flowed through hills to the north occupied by the PAVN.

Even though the combat base was not dependent on air‑lifted water as the hill positions were, water was, nevertheless, often a scarce commodity.  The water point itself was located about 150 meters outside the northern sector of the base perimeter.  There was a small hill and tall grass that obscured visual contact with the water point.  The water was lifted ninety feet over an 800‑foot span by pumps.  A dirt dam twenty‑five meters wide caused the formation of a reservoir six feet deep.  During the extensive rains of September and October, 1967, the dam broke.  U.S. Navy E01 (Equipment Operator First Class) Rulon V. Rees led a detail to repair the dam in the fall of 1967 using old scrapped Marston matting from the airstrip.  This detail blasted a crater in the river bed about thirty feet in front of the dam to act as a reservoir in case the river level fell and Marston matting was placed on the face of the dam.

No patrols went out to get the water.  It was pumped inside the perimeter and went to a large black rubber water tower container.  This reservoir was frequently punctured during the siege, causing temporary lack of water on the base.47

Had the PAVN realized how vulnerable the Marines' water supply was, they could have interdicted it by diverting the Rao Quan River or contaminating it, thereby forcing the Marines to attempt a breakout.48  However, General Giap, who achieved victory at Dien Bien Phu in part due to his meticulous battlefield planning, seems to have not realized the vulnerability of the Marines' water supply.  Nor did the local PAVN commander.  General Westmoreland did not become aware of the magnitude of the potential water problem until the base was surrounded by the North Vietnamese.  By that time, a successful evacuation was not possible.49

The concept of an overland evacuation of a reinforced regiment, fighting its way through two or three PAVN divisions that held every tactical advantage, presented a problem of such magnitude that Westmoreland was reluctant to consider it.  The Joint Chiefs refused to consider it.

General Tompkins, commander of the 3rd Marine Division, latter asserted that had the PAVN succeeded in interdicting the combat base's water supply, that it would have been impossible to provision Khe Sanh with water in addition to its other resupply requirements.50  However, at the time, in a letter to General Davidson, General Tompkins stated that water could have been added to the provisions already being supplied to support the base.  By examining the supply requirements and the logistical capabilities of the Americans it is possible to determine which of these contradictory statements is correct.

The III Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF) headquarters established the official supply requirement for Khe Sanh at 235 tons per day.  The Americans were hard pressed to meet these requirements.  The airstrip was completely closed on various occasions due to the weather or damage sustained from enemy fire.  During the month of February alone, the combat base had a deficit of 1,037 tons of supplies actually delivered compared to scheduled deliveries. The air delivery problems were compounded when the use of the large C‑130 cargo planes was curtailed due to hostile fire.  Passenger requirements were met by the use of C‑123 aircraft.  The smaller capacity of the C‑123's necessitated a five‑fold increase in landings.  More landings meant more targets.  Maintenance personnel of one aircraft upon its return to Da Nang found 242 holes before they gave up counting.  In the first month of the siege four major aircraft were lost to hostile fire.  The most serious loss occurred on March 6 when a C-123 transport was attempting to land at Khe Sanh.  Forty-eight U.S. military personnel were killed when the plane crashed after being hit by PAVN anti-aircraft fire.51

Helicopters were widely used as resupply vehicles.  Only helicopters could reach the hilltop positions, whose supply requirements were 32,000 tons per day.  Helicopters were stationed at the combat base at the beginning of the fighting.  These aircraft became so vulnerable to hostile fire that they had to be kept constantly in the air whether they had missions to perform or not.  Indeed, at the height of the siege U.S. helicopters were being lost at a rate faster than they could be replaced.  Thus, eventually losses became so great that this unit was deployed away from Khe Sanh.  No less than thirty­three helicopters were destroyed or permanently disabled between the beginning of the siege and the end of March 1968.52

These losses were sustained without the implementation of an additional requirement for water delivery.  According to the relevant U.S. Army field manual, the water supply requirement for drinking, personal hygiene, food preparation, laundry, and medical treatment is six pounds of water per man per day.  These levels provide enough water to support continuous combat operations for extended periods.53  The implementation of this requirement would have added 158 tons per day, an additional load of 67 percent over the supply requirement without water.  Unlike ammunition and food rations, which could be palletized and delivered by parachute without the need for special containers, water was difficult to stockpile during the periods when resupply was possible, for use when landings were not permitted due to weather or hostile fire.  The official optimism of U.S. commanders regarding resupply at Khe Sanh notwithstanding, the Americans would not have been able to provide the base with water under the existing tactical conditions.

By March the PAVN began withdrawing from the Khe Sanh area, and in April the Marine regiment was replaced, allowing it to withdraw via the recently reopened Route 9.  The primary goal of the American forces at Khe Sanh was to destroy large numbers of North Vietnamese soldiers.  In this they were successful.  Although the official body count of enemy soldiers killed at Khe Sanh was 1,602, the U.S. command placed the total number of North Vietnamese at between 10,000 and 15,000 killed in action.  American deaths sustained in the siege itself, plus mobile operations in the Khe Sanh tactical area after the siege, totaled approximately 1,000 KIA.54  In a war that focused on kill ratios and body counts as a measure of success, Khe Sanh was placed in the win column by the American military.

As with the Americans at Khe Sanh, the French garrisoned Dien Bien Phu as "bait" for the Vietnamese Communist forces.  An American observer there reported that the French base could "withstand any kind of attack the Viet Minh are capable of launching."55

The commander of French forces in Indochina, General Henri Navarre, believed that French forces would carry the day due to their superiority in ground and air firepower.  When the Viet Minh knocked out the airfield at Dien Bien Phu, resupply became impossible and the French became isolated and vulnerable.  On May 7, 1954, after sustaining heavy losses, the French were forced to surrender.  The very next day the Indochina phase of the Geneva Conference began.  France's loss at Dien Bien Phu led directly to their withdrawal from Indochina.56

Victory in combat, however defined, often hangs by a tenuous thread. Even with the claim of victory by the U.S. at Khe Sanh and during the Tet 1968 fighting in general, the psychological victory of the Vietnamese Communists during this period led to the beginning of the end for the United States in Vietnam.  It was during the 1968 Tet Offensive that opposition in the U.S. to the war in Vietnam, in terms of regarding involvement as a mistake, first rose above 50 percent and exceed the level of support.  Approximately one fourth of all the television film reports on the evening news programs in the U.S. during February and March, 1968, were devoted to portraying the situation of the Marines at Khe Sanh.57  Had the North Vietnamese simply interdicted the water supply of the Marines at the Khe Sanh Combat Base in 1968, thereby forcing the Marines to evacuate and inflicting heavy casualties upon them in the process, the United States could have easily have met a fate similar to that of the French.

In February 1969, General Giap was specifically asked if the fighting at Khe Sanh was meant to achieve another Dien Bien Phu for the Communists.  Giap replied that Khe Sanh was not meant to be, nor could it have been, a replay of the earlier Communist victory.  The evidence shows, however, that too many of the tactics employed by the Communists at Khe Sanh were inconsistent with this simplistic explanation, on the part of General Giap.58

 

 

CONCLUSION

 

Neither the diversionary model alone nor the notion that Khe Sanh was only meant to be another Dien Bien Phu adequately explain the events that transpired there. It is necessary to ignore much evidence to make either of those explanations fit the facts.

The conclusion that the primary motive of the North Vietnamese was to overrun the base, and that a diversion was only secondary, is refuted by the fact that when the Communists began to deploy their forces to Khe Sanh there were insufficient U.S. forces there to make the effort of an assault worthwhile.  If Giap's priority had been to capture the base, he would not have needed the 22,000 men he deployed to Khe Sanh in the fall of 1967.  He could have overwhelmed the few hundred American defenders with only a fraction of that number of troops.

Giap, if he had access to sufficient intelligence information, could very well have concluded that the Americans would be likely to reinforce the base in response to a massive deployment of PAVN forces, pulling men from other areas in Vietnam to do so.  What he may not have known is that there was a disagreement between the Army and the Marines regarding the value of sending large numbers of reinforcements to Khe Sanh.  If Giap did have intelligence regarding this, he had no way of knowing what the outcome of the conflict between the two services would be.  Had the Marine position against sending reinforcements and advocating abandonment of the base prevailed, Khe Sanh would have been but lightly garrisoned or abandoned when Giap's units arrived, and his strategy would have been for naught.  His army, instead of creating a diversion, would have diverted nothing, since the Americans would not have deployed troops to a base they had decided to abandon.

The best explanation is that Giap's primary motivation at Khe Sanh was to divert large numbers of U.S. forces away from the heavily‑populated coastal areas.  In this he was successful.  But the desire to achieve a victory over the Marines there must have been a major consideration.  Giap's forces stayed on the battlefield too long, fought too hard, and sustained too many casualties to justify the explanation that the creation of a diversion was the only concern.

Even with the claim of victory by the U.S. at Khe Sanh and during the Tet 1968 fighting in general, the psychological victory of the Vietnamese Communists during this period led to the beginning of the end for the United States in Vietnam.  It was during the 1968 Tet Offensive that opposition in the U.S. to the war in Vietnam, in terms of regarding involvement as a mistake, first rose above 50 percent and exceeded the level of support. Approximately one fourth of all the television film reports on the evening news programs in the U.S. during February and March, 1968, were devoted to describing the situation of the Marines at Khe Sanh.59  Having achieved his diversion, Giap had little to lose by seeking a victory for the North Vietnamese.  While the fighting at Khe Sanh was still in progress, U.S. President Johnson remarked, "The eyes of the nation and the eyes of the entire world ‑ the eyes of all of history itself ‑ are on that little brave band of defenders who hold the pass at Khe Sanh."60  Giap knew this, and an agonizing defeat for the U.S. at Khe Sanh could have forced history to repeat itself. Giap had successfully achieved his diversion and had nothing to lose by continuing the fight with the intent of overrunning the Khe Sanh Combat Base.

In April 1968, the Marine regiment at Khe Sanh was relieved and its units were assigned elsewhere throughout I Corps.  In June the U.S. command in Vietnam decided to abandon the base at Khe Sanh.  The Marine positions were bulldozed flat, the airstrip was removed, and the bunkers were destroyed.  No physical presence remained due to fear that the Communists would take propaganda pictures of the combat base.  In July the last Marine departed Khe Sanh.  Although both sides claimed victory, Khe Sanh provided neither clear victory nor definite defeat for either adversary.  Both sides withdrew and Khe Sanh once again became merely unimportant.

No understanding of the significance of the battle at Khe Sanh is possible if the fighting there is considered in isolation.  Khe Sanh was a part of the Tet Offensive, which itself was part of the target year long Communist Winter‑Spring Offensive.  For the Americans Khe Sanh was meant to be the best opportunity to implement the strategy of attrition, to destroy Communist military forces at a rate above which they could be replaced.

At Khe Sanh the U.S. achieved its most satisfying body counts and kill ratios of American deaths to enemy deaths.  At the end of the campaign, the total enemy body count stood at 1,602.  However, General Tompkins, upon hearing that only 117 individual and 39 crew-served weapons had been captured in the fighting around Khe Sanh, termed the official body count "false."61              Even so, Colonel Lownds, the Marine commander at Khe Sanh, was convinced that the U.S. destroyed two entire North Vietnamese army divisions.  Westmoreland's staff estimated that between 10,000 and 15,000 PAVN soldiers were lost (considering recent evidence a dubious number).62

The official casualty figures for U.S. forces was place at 205 KIA, 1,668 WIA, and one MIA.  These official figures are both erroneous and misleading, and reflect only U.S. casualties sustained at the combat base and hill positions.  Ray Stubbe, a Navy Chaplain attached to the Marine forces at Khe Sanh, put the total U.S. military personnel killed in the fighting around Khe Sanh at 476.  This still does not account for allied troops deaths which included:  219 killed at Lang Vei, about 25 killed at Khe Sanh village, 125 killed in the relief of Khe Sanh called Operation Pegasus, and 52 killed in plane crashes, ambushes, etc.  All totalled, the allied casualty toll for fighting at Khe Sanh, the relief operation and operations immediately after the siege were approximately 1,000 KIAs and 4,500 WIAs.63

No matter what the number of enemy casualties, the Marines and their allies delivered massive volumes of firepower against the Communist forces.  The artillery battalion at the base camp alone fired 158,891 rounds in direct support of Marine forces, thus living up to the Fire Support Coordination Center's motto--"Be Generous."64  In addition, 7th Air Force fighter-bombers flew 9,691 sorties, dropping 14,223 tons of bombs and rockets.  Marine aircraft added 7,078 sorties and 17,015 tons of ordnance, while Navy aviators flew 5,337 sorties and dropped 7,491 of bombs.  Moreover, Air Force B-52s flew 2,548 sorties and unleashed a staggering 59,542 tons of munitions around Khe Sanh.  These B-52 ARCLIGHT raids delivered the equivalent of a 1.3 kiloton nuclear device every day of the siege.  Putting PAVN force estimates at around 30,000, the U.S. expended over five tons of artillery and aerial munitions for every NVA soldier at Khe Sanh.65

But, in the larger scheme of things, these impressive ordnance tonnages and body counts, even if close to reality, made little difference.  The Vietnamese Communists were willing to absorb losses of this magnitude in order to continue, and win, their struggle.

If the siege of Khe Sanh was meant to be only a Communist ruse then it was a successful one.  Large amounts of U.S. military assets were diverted to this isolated area of South Vietnam.  Nevertheless, in a strictly military sense, this diversion had little effect on the outcome of the fighting during Tet 1968 The goals of the Communists, as presented before the fighting began, remained largely elusive.  The huge psychological victory of the Communists was largely unintentional and represented an unexpectedly positive consequence of the fighting.  If Khe Sanh was meant to be another Dien Bien Phu, it was a strategic failure on the Communist side.  All in all, Khe Sanh had little impact on the outcome of the Vietnam War.  Seen in this context, and given the intentions of the participants at the beginning, Khe Sanh was an overall failure for both sides.

One final point must be made regarding the intentions of the Communist forces at Khe Sanh.  Today, at the site of the former Marine combat base, there is a masonry monument erected by the Vietnamese.  The text on the monument explicitly refers to the fighting at Khe Sanh as another Dien Bien Phu.  Thus, the Communists appear to regard the battle of Khe Sanh as the victory that enabled them to win the war in Indochina, or at least prefer to have it remembered that way.66

In 1994, journalist Malcom W. Browne of the New York Times visited the former Khe Sanh Combat Base.  Browne noted that there are 72 graveyards for Communist troops in Quang Tri Province alone.  An official of the local People's Committee near Khe Sanh village looked across a vast field of grave markers and remarked, "We paid dearly for this land."67  Of that there can be no doubt.

 

NOTES

 

1.  The fighting in Vietnam continued from the beginning of Vietnam's war for independence from France in 1946 until after 1975 when Vietnam was unified by the Vietnamese Communists.  The fighting between the Vietnamese and the French is referred to as the First Indochina War.  The Vietnamese war with the Americans is termed the Second Indochina War, and the fighting between Vietnam and its neighbors after 1975 is known as the Third Indochina War.

2.  For the early history of the U.S. involvement at Khe Sanh, see John Prados and Ray W. Stubbe, Valley of Decision (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1991), pp. 13‑24, [hereafter Valley].

3.  General William C. Westmoreland, A Soldier Reports (Garden City, NY: 1976), p. 336, [hereafter A Soldier].

4.  Giap made these remarks in a series of articles published in September 1967, in North Vietnam's armed forces newspaper, Quang Doi Nhan Dan, quoted in Edwin H. Simmons, "Marine Corps Operations in Vietnam, 1967," The Marines in Vietnam, 1954‑1973 (Washington, DC: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1985), p. 97.

5.  General Willard Pearson, The War in the Northern Provinces 1966‑1968 (Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 1975), p. 6.

6.  Captain Moyers S. Shore II, The Battle for Khe Sanh (Washington, D.C.: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1969), p. 6, [hereafter Battle].

7.  Ibid., pp. 5‑6.

8.  Ibid., p. 11.

9   Prados & Stubbe, Valley, pp. 270‑271.

10. Peter McDonald, Giap:  The Victor in Vietnam (New York:  W.W. Norton, 1993), p. 279, [hereafter Giap].

11. Robert Pisor, The End of the Line:  The Siege of Khe Sanh (NY: Ballantine Books, 1982), p. 112, [hereafter End of the Line].

12. The number of maneuver battalions was a measure of U.S. tactical offensive capability in Vietnam.  A maneuver battalion is a combat battalion that can be maneuvered, such as infantry, mechanized infantry, and armor.  It is contrasted with support battalions such as artillery, engineering, and aviation units.  See Westmoreland, A Soldier, p. 128n, for this distinction.

13. New York Times, The Pentagon Papers (NY: Bantam Books, 1971), pp. 616‑617.

14. Personal recollection of the author from late December 1967.

15. Shore, Battle, pp. 33-42.

16. Ibid., pp. 42-45; Prados & Stubbe, Valley, 251-255.

17. New York Times, January 24, 1968, pp. 1, 3.

18. Westmoreland, A Soldier, p. 316.

19. Lt. Gen. Philip B. Davidson, Vietnam at War, (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1988), pp. 552‑553, [hereafter Vietnam at War].

20. Westmoreland, A Soldier, p. 102.

21. Davidson, Vietnam at War, p. 553.  This assertion effectively ignores the Bru tribesmen who lived in the area around Khe Sanh.  In a pamphlet published on Memorial Day, 1985, by the Khe Sanh Veterans, Inc., the author, Chaplain Ray W. Stubbe, noted that there were 8,930 Bru Montagnards in the area according to a census taken in July, 1967.  "ln addition, there were reports from many sources that many more migrated into the Khe Sanh area from just inside Laos when the conflict began.  There were also 500 Laotians plus their dependents when the 33rd Laotian Elephant Battalion was overrun and took refuge in Lang Vei village.  Only approximately 5,000 Montagnards made it safely to the Cam Lo refugee village.  It is therefore a very conservative estimate that over 5,000 Bru Montagnards were killed during the siege.  See also Pisor, End of The Line, pp. 235-236.

22. Pisor, End of the Line, p. 86.

23.  Ibid., pp. 72, 78.

24.  Don Oberdorfer, Tet! (NY: Avon Books, 1971), pp. 126‑127, [hereafter Tet!].

25. The CIA officer, Robert Brewer, remained unconvinced as to the legitimacy of Tonc's information, apparently because the PAVN conducted some attacks in the Khe Sanh area that Tonc never mentioned.  For details on Lt. Tonc, see Prados & Stubbe, Valley, pp. 231‑233.

26. Davidson, Vietnam at War, p. 562.

27. Paul Dickson, The Electronic Battlefield (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University, 1976), p. 74.

28. I am indebted to Professor Cecil B. Currey, Professor of Military History at the University of South Florida and Chaplain (Colonel), USAR (Ret.), for this interpretation.  Colonel Currey has interviewed and corresponded with Vietnamese Senior General Vo Nguyen Giap.  According to Currey, Giap planned Khe Sanh primarily as a diversion but also thought the fighting there could have resulted in a second Dien Bien Phu.  Personal communication from Colonel Currey to the author dated April 11, 1994.

29. Davidson, Vietnam at War, p. 563; McDonald, Giap, p. 282; Robert J. O'Neill, General Giap (North Melbourne, Australia:  Cassell, 1969), pp. 195-196.

30. D. Gareth Porter, "The 1968 'Hue Massacre'" in Indochina Chronicle, Vol. 3, (June 24, 1974), p. 8.

31. Davidson, Vietnam at War, pp. 567‑569 describes this attack as "useless." The only explanation he can offer is that the attack was meant to cover the withdrawal of PAVN forces from the vicinity of Khe Sanh, and claims there was no sound tactical reason for it.

32. Prados & Stubbe, Valley, p. 397.

33. Davidson, Vietnam at War, pp. 564‑565.  For a more detailed discussion regarding the uses of tactical nuclear weapons at Khe Sanh, see Prados & Stubbe, Valley, pp. 291‑293.  Westmoreland's quote is from Ibid., p. 291.  See Pisor, End of the Line, pp. 261‑262, for detail on the widespread discussion in the press of the use of nuclear weapons at Khe Sanh.

34. Leslie H. Gelb and Richard K. Betts, The Irony of Vietnam: The System Worked (Washington, DC: Brookings, 1979), pp. 264‑265.

35. Next to the Marine positions at the Khe Sanh Combat Base was FOB‑3, a Special Forces position.  A FOB‑3 officer maintained that if the shells hitting their positions that day were included, the total for February 23 would be over 1,700.  The figure of 1,307 is the official tally.  See Prados & Stubbe, Valley, p. 399.

36. Davidson, Vietnam at War, p. 567.  Cronkite is quoted in Oberdorfer, Tet!, pp. 268-269.

37. Thomas L. Cubbage II, review of The Tet Offensive: Intelligence Failure in War, in Conflict Quarterly, Vol. XIII, No. 3 (Summer 1993), pp. 78‑79.

38. Time Magazine, February 9, 1968, p. 16.

39. Prados & Stubbe, Valley, pp. 289‑290.

40. Shore, Battle, p. 93.

41. Ibid., p. 74.

42. Ibid., p. 79.

43. Prados & Stubbe, Valley, p. 282.

44. Pisor, End of the Line, pp. 188, 199, and personal recollection of the author.

45. Prados & Stubbe, Valley, p. 306.

46. Shore, Battle, p. 199.

47. I am indebted to Ray W. Stubbe, Lutheran chaplain of the 1st Battalion, 26th Marines at Khe Sanh, for this description of the water source.  It was taken from Stubbe's diary written during the siege.  Personal correspondence from Stubbe to the author dated March 21, 1994.

48. Westmoreland's intelligence chief, General Philip B. Davidson, Jr., USA (Ret.) notes that it was not benevolence on the part of the PAVN that kept them from poisoning the water supply.  According to the Geneva Protocol of 1925, which the North Vietnamese ratified in 1957, the chemical pollution of a stream is permitted as long as the stream is only used by military personnel.  The Rao Quan served no civilians and legally could have been poisoned.  See Davidson, Vietnam at War, pp. 568‑569.

49. Davidson, Vietnam at War, p. 570.

50. Prados & Stubbe, Valley, p. 364; Pisor, End of the Line, p. 202.  Pisor's quotation from General Thompkins is taken from an official Marine Corps Oral History collection published in 1973.  General Davidson notes that Thompkins felt at the time he wrote to Davidson and at the time of the siege that the base could have been provisioned with water by airlift.  These contradictory claims remain inexplicable to this writer.  See Davidson, Vietnam at War,

p. 569.

51. Prados & Stubbe, Valley, pp. 373, 374, 375, 390.

52. Ibid., pp. 381, 382, 391.

53. FM 1O1‑10‑1‑1/2, Staff Officers' Field Manual Organizational, Technical, and Logistical Data Planning Factors, Vol. 2, (Washington, DC: Headquarters, Dept. of the Army, 1987), pp. 2‑8 & 2‑9.

54. Pisor, End of the Line, p. 237; Prados & Stubbe, Valley, pp. 451, 454.

55. Report of Special U.S. Mission to Indochina, February 5, 1954, Eisenhower Papers, "Cleanup" File, Box 16, quoted in George C. Herring, America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950‑1975, (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972),

p. 28.

56. Bernard Fall, Hell in A Very Small Place (Philadelphia:  Lippincott, 1967), p. 50.

57. Leslie H. Gelb and Richard K. Betts, The Irony of Vietnam: The System Worked, (Washington, DC: Brookings, 1979), p. 160; Oberdorfer, Tet!, p. 258.

58. Oriana Fallaci, Interview With History, (NY: Liveright, 1976), pp. 85‑86.

59. See Note 57.

60. Quoted in Pisor, End of the Line, p. 207.

61. Ibid., p. 237.

62. Ibid., pp. 233, 237.

63. Prados & Stubbe, Valley, pp. 453-454.

64. Shore, Battle, p. 107.

65. Prados & Stubbe, Valley, p. 297.

66. I visited the site of the Khe Sanh Combat Base in 1993.  The English translation of the Vietnamese text on the monument reads:  "LIBERATED BASE MONUMENT THE AREA OF TACON PONT [sic] BASE BUILT BY U.S. AND SAI GON PUPPET.

BUILT 1967.  AIR FIELD AND WELL CONSTRUCTED DEFENSE SYSTEM. CO LUONG [town] DONG HA [county] QUANG TRI [province].  U.S. AND ARMY PUPPETS USED TO MONITOR THE MOVEMENT AND TRIED TO STOP ASSISTANCE FROM THE NORTH INTO THE BATTLE OF INDO CHINA (3 COUNTRIES).  AFTER 170 DAYS AND NIGHTS OF ATTACK BY THE SURROUNDING LIBERATION ARMY, TACON (KHE SANH) WAS COMPLETELY LIBERATED.  THE LIBERATION ARMY DESTROYED THE DEFENSE SYSTEM FOR THE BATTLE OF INDO CHINA.  112,000 U.S. AND PUPPET TROOPS KILLED AND CAPTURED.  197 AIRPLANES SHOT DOWN.

MUCH WAR MATERIAL WAS CAPTURED AND DESTROYED.  KHE SANH ALSO ANOTHER DIEN BIEN PHU FOR THE U.S."

67. Malcolm W. Browne, "Battlefields of Khe Sanh: Still One Casualty a Day." New York Times, May 13, 1994, pp. A1, A6.

 

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