Siege of Khe Sanh
By Peter Brush
Two months after withstanding the most ferocious siege of the Vietnam War, Khe Sanh was abandoned to the enemy.
On May 23, 1968, U.S. Marine Corps Colonel David E. Lownds was invited to the White House. There, President Lyndon Johnson awarded Lownds' 26th Marine Regiment the Presidential Unit Citation, the nation's highest unit decoration, for its bravery at Khe Sanh in 1968. The text noted that because of the unit's actions, 'enemy forces were denied the military and psychological victory they so desperately sought'. An editorial in the Washington Star took the Marines' accolades even further, claiming that 'One day, in fact, the victory over the siege may be judged a decisive turning point that finally convinced the enemy he could not win'.
Vietnamese Communists view Khe Sanh differently. For them, not only did the Americans not win a victory at Khe Sanh, they were forced to retreat in order to avoid destruction. The Communists claim Khe Sanh was a 'stinging defeat from both the military and political points of view.'"
The fighting at Khe Sanh during Tet 1968 was widely covered in the U.S. media. As the battle continued, American military commanders gave frequent explanations as to why the United States sought a confrontation with Communist forces.
Khe Sanh had been garrisoned by Americans since 1962. General William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, felt maintaining a presence at Khe Sanh was critically important. It served as a patrol base for interdiction of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, as the western terminus for the defensive line along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), and as a barrier to Communist efforts to carry the fighting into the populated coastal regions of South Vietnam. By early 1968, 6,000 Marines at Khe Sanh were surrounded by 20,000 North Vietnamese troops. The siege began on January 21, 1968. In a report dated February 18, the New York Times explained the importance of Khe Sanh, noting that this area in northwest South Vietnam provided a base for allied operations against the infiltration by the Communists of men and supplies into the south. After the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) surrounded the Marine position at Khe Sanh, allied forces were unable to inhibit this infiltration; it became too dangerous for the Marines to leave their base in sufficient numbers to greatly affect the movement of enemy forces. Although that situation may have reduced the strategic value of Khe Sanh in any conventional sense of the word, American military commanders believed the United States would suffer a heavy psychological blow if they retreated from Khe Sanh.
Unlike the Americans, the North Vietnamese were unable to hold fixed positions due to the efficacy of allied firepower. As a result, the Communists concentrated on harassing and disrupting allied forces. The American military command concluded that the only way to stop the disruption was to destroy enemy forces in sufficient numbers. The American commanders hoped that at Khe Sanh they would be able to kill enemy troops in a ratio of 10 to 1, 20 to 1, or even 30 to 1. The Americans clung to their belief in the value of a positive kill ratio in face of compelling evidence showing they were mostly unable to achieve it.
Despite the fact that Khe Sanh was encircled by enemy troops, the U.S. Defense Department claimed that the fortress blocked five avenues of infiltration from Laos into South Vietnam. According to the official view of the situation in February 1968, if Khe Sanh were abandoned, entire North Vietnamese divisions could 'pour down Route 9 [the major east-west highway below the DMZ] and four other natural approaches through the valleys and could overrun a chain of Marine positions; the Rockpile, Con Thien, Dong Ha, and Phu Bai to the east'. This would mean that the North Vietnamese could be in a good position to seize control of South Vietnam's two northernmost provinces, Quang Tri and Thua Thien, with grave political and psychological consequences.
This strategic rationale was secondary to the primary reason for holding onto Khe Sanh: Washington was unwilling to give its enemy a psychological victory by giving ground. One official source explained the basis for this reasoning by recalling the first Battle of Khe Sanh, fought in 1967. 'We had to put our foot down, and for psychological and political reasons, we wouldn't want to pull back," said the official. "What would the newspapers have written if we had given up Khe Sanh afterward?'
Another reason for holding Khe Sanh was its importance as the western anchor of the McNamara Line, a high-technology barrier designed to impede the flow of Communist troops and supplies into South Vietnam. The barrier was supposed to stretch from the South China Sea to the Laotian border. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara hoped the barrier would allow the Americans to reduce their reliance on the bombing of North Vietnam, thereby increasing Washington's flexibility in seeking a diplomatic settlement to the war.
On February 25, General Westmoreland expressed doubt that the North Vietnamese could stand a long war. Responding to a question during an interview in Saigon about whether his fundamental strategy had been changed by the Tet Offensive, Westmoreland replied, 'Basically, I see no requirement to change our strategy'.
The key to the defense of Khe Sanh was overwhelming air power. On March 27, senior Marine officers in Da Nang claimed that the effectiveness of allied airpower was so great that 'they have no plans for pulling the Marines out no matter how much the enemy might increase his shelling at Khe Sanh'. An Air Force spokesman said that since January 22, allied airmen had dropped 80,000 tons of ordnance around Khe Sanh. 'We plan to keep up the pace indefinitely', he added.
The same report noted that airpower had limited effectiveness. Even though 80,000 tons of ordnance amounted to more than the nonnuclear tonnage dropped on Japan throughout World War II, it had not stopped enemy movement around Khe Sanh. On March 25, a Marine patrol was halted by heavy enemy machine-gun and mortar fire after traveling only 100 to 200 yards past the camp's barbed wire perimeter. During the previous week, the enemy had managed to fire 1,500 rocket, artillery and mortar rounds at the Khe Sanh base.
Other examples illustrate that the protective aerial umbrella around Khe Sanh was less that 100 percent effective. On February 8, enemy gunners fired hundreds of mortar rounds into a Marine position on nearby Hill 64. The NVA assault that followed the mortar barrage resulted in 21 men killed, 26 wounded and four Marines missing in action. Only one Marine on Hill 64 was unscathed. Colonel Lownds, the base commander, however, later described the Marine casualties resulting from the fighting on Hill 64 as 'light'.
On February 25, a two-squad patrol, instructed not to venture farther than 1,000 meters from the base perimeter, vanished. Two weeks later, casualties of the so-called ghost patrol were established as nine dead, 25 wounded, and 19 missing. A company-size patrol on March 30 had as one of its missions the recovery of the bodies of the ghost patrol. This second patrol suffered three dead, 71 wounded and three missing before being ordered to pull back. Only two bodies from the ghost patrol were recovered at that time.
On April 5, the 76-day siege was officially declared ended. Since 7,000 North Vietnamese were still reported to be in the vicinity of Khe Sanh, however, the end of the siege was more official than real. The North Vietnamese had fired more than 40,000 artillery, rocket, and mortar rounds into the Marine positions during the siege.
By April, the situation had changed in the Khe Sanh area. The New York Times noted that the North Vietnamese had built several new roads into South Vietnam from Laos--apparently in an effort to improve their ability to move troops, heavy weapons and supplies into combat areas. Two of the new roads pushed across the South VietnamLaos border to the north and south of the Khe Sanh combat base. No longer would NVA troops have to endure protracted marches along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. They could be driven closer to the battlefield in trucks. Heavy weapons and ammunition could be transported to the front more quickly and in greater quantity.
These new logistics capabilities had profound implications for American military commanders. General Westmoreland had built up the Marine force at Khe Sanh to approximately 6,000 men, a figure that represented a balance between the number that could be effectively supplied and the force level necessary to ensure adequate defense of the combat base. Since at that time the Marine garrison could only be supplied by air, any increase in the Communists' ability to launch attacks against the Marine positions could tip the balance against the Marines.
According to a New York Times report dated May 24, both President Lyndon B. Johnson and General Westmoreland felt the decision to defend Khe Sanh was the proper one. They believed that the defense of the camp not only prevented the North Vietnamese from opening a major route into South Vietnam's populated areas, but also greatly strengthened the American initiative toward peace talks, 'for they [the Marine defenders] vividly demonstrated to the enemy the utter futility of his attempts to win a military victory in the South', according to the New York Times.
Although the level of fighting fell off in April, it was not over. On May 30, 600 NVA attacked Marines in their night defensive positions around Khe Sanh. The attack was supported by mortar, artillery and rocket fire. Marine losses were 13 killed and 44 wounded. Two days later another battle took place when a large NVA force attacked Marine positions two miles southeast of Khe Sanh. Two-hundred-thirty North Vietnamese were reported killed in that battle, in some of the heaviest fighting in South Vietnam at that time.
In a June report, New York Times reporter Douglas Robinson described Khe Sanh as 'still a fearsome place of exploding shells and death'. North Vietnamese artillerymen fired 130mm artillery shells from caves or dug-in positions on the Co Roc massif in Laos. These guns, out of the range of the largest U.S. artillery, had been firing on Khe Sanh for months. It was difficult to prepare adequate defenses against them, since even dud rounds penetrated four feet into the ground. The Americans were unable to destroy these guns. In early June, the North Vietnamese gunners at Co Roc were still able to fire more than 100 rounds in a single day into the base at Khe Sanh. Marine Brig. Gen. Carl W. Hoffman claimed, 'The North Vietnamese still want Khe Sanh and we are still trying to keep them from getting it'. The General described the enemy as being composed of 'fresh, well-equipped troops with new haircuts and good morale, proof we are facing not a rabble but well-trained force'.
In the six weeks preceding that June report, the Marines had killed about 1,300 North Vietnamese Army regulars within a four-mile radius of Khe Sanh. During that time, American dead and wounded had flowed in a steady stream to the Khe Sanh aid station, which was dug deep into the ground. General Hoffman conceded that the Communists had the ability to keep the Khe Sanh combat base under pressure for 'as long as they wished'.
Months earlier, the Marines had made an effort that, had it been successful, would have given them means to counter the threat posed by the NVA heavy artillery at Co Roc. In August 1967, a large supply convoy left Dong Ha for Khe Sanh, including several U.S. Army 175mm self-propelled guns. General Westmoreland had wanted to position the guns at Khe Sanh to deal with NVA artillery in Laos. When the convoy ran into an enemy ambush along Route 9, however, the decision was made to deploy the large guns at Camp Carroll rather than risk their destruction at the ambush site. (See "Expend Shells, Not Men" in the August 1997 issue of Vietnam.)
That incident caused a change in thinking about resupply for Khe Sanh. Route 9 was too risky; thereafter, during the period from August 1967 until Route 9 was reopened in April 1968, Khe Sanh would be resupplied by air. The reopening of the road was accomplished through Operation Pegasus, a combined Marine and Army sweep of Route 9 to the combat base.
With the arrival of the relief column, an Army colonel replaced Colonel Lownds as base commander. Army troops would replace the Marines, freeing them to go on the attack. Although ending the siege freed the beleaguered Marines for offensive operations, it also gave increased flexibility to the enemy forces. No longer would they have two divisions tied down at Khe Sanh. Even though a large portion of the NVA force withdrew into Laos near the DMZ, they could easily be shifted to other battlefields as needed. One American official claimed the North Vietnamese withdrawal had been prompted by the effectiveness of the American bombing campaign. The U.S. military command refused to say definitely whether it planned to keep American troops at Khe Sanh. However, since the purpose of the base had been to serve as a center for anti-infiltration activity before the siege, some senior officers hinted that a continued American presence at Khe Sanh was likely.
The reopening of Route 9 to convoy traffic did not mean that the supply problem had been solved. These convoys faced the same threats that they had in 1967. American units had to be stationed at every bridge and culvert to guard against ambushes. Steep cliffs lined the roadway, making it possible for the enemy almost to drop grenades into passing trucks. Supplies moving overland were threatened by almost nightly ambushes and firefights.
On June 16, Marines reported a North Vietnamese attack on Marine positions south of Khe Sanh, in which 168 Communist soldiers were killed. Although the fighting continued, the U.S. command felt significant changes had taken place around Khe Sanh. Friendly strength, mobility and firepower, had increased since the Army forces had arrived, but the extent of the enemy threat had increased due to a greater flow of replacements and a change in NVA tactics. Consequently, the base at Khe Sanh was to be abandoned.
Senior Marine commanders had long felt that maintaining a large force at Khe Sanh was more of a liability than an asset. They had only garrisoned the place because of pressure from General Westmoreland. In late 1967, an Army task force was formed to control activity in this critical sector of South Vietnam; Westmoreland felt the Marines were unable to adequately direct the battle. In March, Army Lt. Gen. William B. Rosson took command of the task force. Unknown to General Westmoreland, Rosson and his Marine counterpart, Lt. Gen. Robert E. Cushman, decided on their own in April to withdraw American forces from Khe Sanh.
Naval gunfire experts and Air Force liaison officers were sent to Khe Sanh to plan for the destruction of the Marine positions. Marines began packing their equipment and filling in foxholes. The base chaplain at Khe Sanh noted in his diary, 'The general attitude of people in the base is that it is wrong to abandon the base after fighting so long for it'.
When Westmoreland found out about Rosson and Cushman's plan, a Marine general on Westmoreland's staff in Saigon claimed that he 'never saw Westy so mad'. The Marines at Khe Sanh were notified that the base would not be abandoned. They began unpacking their personal gear and started digging in again.
Marines would continue to occupy Khe Sanh and various nearby hill positions and engage in search and destroy missions. Fresh Marine and Army units would replace the Marines who had spent the siege at Khe Sanh. More than 400 American troops would be killed and 2,300 wounded in the 10 weeks following the end of the siege. Those figures were more than two times the casualties sustained by the Marines in the siege during the period from late January to late March.
On June 11, 1968, General Westmoreland relinquished his command of U.S. forces in Vietnam. The Rosson-Cushman plan to abandon the base, previously rejected by Westmoreland, was to be implemented. This version of the plan was dated the day after Westmoreland turned control over to his successor, Army General Creighton W. Abrams. The Marines who had fought at Khe Sanh were furious, with one of the battalions 'almost in open revolt' over the decision.
There is speculation that the base closing was ordered by President Johnson, who wanted no more nonsense about defending exposed positions. According to some sources, Johnson told General Abrams to get out of Khe Sanh as soon as Westmoreland was gone from Vietnam and before he could become fully established as Army chief of staff in Washington.
It is clear that President Johnson took a great personal interest in the fighting. Earlier, the New York Times had noted that the ultimate command post for the battle of Khe Sanh was the White House in Washington, D.C. There, Johnson asked 'tense and urgent' questions of his commanders in the field, probing 'policy, tactics, preparations, morale', according to the Times. The responses these questions evoked 'adds up to the largest volume of messages and reports ever gathered by the White House for a tactical engagement in the war'.
General Abrams ordered the base closing to be kept secret for as long as possible. When it was finally made public, only a minimum amount of detail and explanation were provided. The decision was met with 'incredulity and bewilderment' when the news reached the United States. National Security Adviser Walt W. Rostow noted, 'I believe we have a serious problem--perhaps of substance, certainly of public relations'. Rostow pointed out that intelligence estimates on the enemy order of battle still placed about 40,000 NVA troops in the DMZ area. "'f it was good to pin down two divisions with 6,000 men, then why not now?' he asked. The Pentagon acknowledged the base closing announcement caused a 'difficult public relations task'.
The U.S. command in Saigon claimed the base closing was a result of a changed military situation around Khe Sanh. 'When the situation changes, you ought to change your tactics', explained an unnamed general on the Saigon command staff. The Marine presence at Khe Sanh had been established to inhibit infiltration. Explaining the logic of the decision, the unnamed general said that the construction of additional infiltration routes by the NVA into South Vietnam meant Khe Sanh had become less valuable as a means to check this infiltration. Khe Sanh had long served as a logistical center for the supply of the nearby hill positions. Now the general claimed that it did not make sense to maintain even a reduced garrison to defend Khe Sanh in order to use it as a supply base for servicing troops who would be conducting mobile operations in the area. 'Khe Sanh was in the way; it was tying us down', the general explained.
Displaying a flawed grasp of geography that paralleled his convoluted logic, the general claimed the supply function of Khe Sanh could be taken over by other installations in the area, such as Camp Stud. This base, 'unlike Khe Sanh, is beyond the 17-mile range of the enemy's artillery in the demilitarized zone at the border between North Vietnam and South Vietnam', said the nameless general. In reality, Stud was situated farther north than Khe Sanh, which puts it closer to the DMZ and not farther away. In any event, it was NVA artillery in South Vietnam and Laos that fired on the Marines at Khe Sanh, and not artillery from the DMZ.
An American colonel claimed he did not think 'we ever really planned to have a base there in the first place'. According to this view, the Marines came into the small Special Forces camp at Khe Sanh. When the NVA surrounded Khe Sanh, 'all of a sudden we had five to six thousand men there'. Responding to the question as to whether it was proper to defend the base at the height of the fighting there in February and March, the colonel rolled out the kill-ratio argument, saying: 'We killed many, many more of their troops than we lost ourselves'. The colonel claimed, 'We showed them that if we wanted to hold Khe Sanh we could do it'.
Although the vulnerability of Khe Sanh to enemy artillery was a reason given by the military for abandoning it, one high Army official stated it was unlikely that seven other bases within the range of enemy artillery in the DMZ would be abandoned. 'Khe Sanh was always different', he said. In reality, the major difference between Khe Sanh and other bases near the DMZ was simply that Khe Sanh was the only major American base to be abandoned.
The actual process of abandoning the Marine base was complicated and dangerous. Nine allied infantry battalions were operating in the vicinity of Khe Sanh when the decision to close was made. Those units had to be deployed elsewhere without advertising the move to the North Vietnamese. Allied forces would be extremely vulnerable to enemy attack while the base was being dismantled.
The U.S. command wanted to leave a 'completely clean piece of real estate' at Khe Sanh. Ruined aircraft were cut up and hauled away so they could not be used for propaganda purposes by the Communists. Nothing would be left to indicate that the Americans had been forced to withdraw. Eight hundred bunkers, miles of barbed wire, and acres of metal runway materials were buried, destroyed, or physically removed.
Communist gunners continued to fire on the Marine positions as the trench lines were filled in and sandbags were emptied.
On July 5, 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.
Fighting continued in the Khe Sanh area even after the base closing was complete. On July 9, Marines on Hill 689 near Khe Sanh 'vowed to hold the peak until the last attacking North Vietnamese had been killed'. The Americans claimed 350 North Vietnamese died in this round of fighting. Echoing the rationale that brought the Marines to Khe Sanh in the first place, and seemingly unaware of the change in policy, the 3rd Marine Division commander, Maj. Gen. Raymond Davis, said, 'We are going to move off this hill, but not until we have defeated the North Vietnamese'. That same day a Marine spokesman denied a Hanoi radio report claiming that a Viet Cong flag had been raised on the recently abandoned Khe Sanh combat base.
As predicted, North Vietnam was quick to exploit the propaganda benefits of Khe Sanh's abandonment. In the five-day period beginning on July 7, 1968, Hanoi radio devoted 70 percent of its broadcast time in all Asian languages to discussions of the 'American defeat' and the 'Communist victory' at Khe Sanh. Hanoi specifically mentioned previous American explanations regarding the vital contribution of Khe Sanh to its strategy in the Vietnam war. In a report from Hong Kong, the New York Times noted that Asians believed the North Vietnamese explanation for the base closing and mostly rejected the American version that it was due to a changed military situation.
A clear distinction can be made regarding the merits of closing Khe Sanh between American military and political leaders on the one hand, and Marines who participated in the defense of Khe Sanh on the other. Like no other Vietnam battle, Khe Sanh captured the attention of the media and the American public. Roughly 25 percent of all Vietnam film reports shown on evening television newscasts during February and March 1968 were devoted to the situation at Khe Sanh. In the case of CBS, the figure was 50 percent. By March, supporters of the war among the American public were outnumbered by those who opposed the war. Gallup polls indicate nearly one person in five switched from the hawk position to the dove position between early February and mid-March. The best way to keep Khe Sanh from causing a negative influence on support for the war in Vietnam was to close it.Official explanations for the closing are inadequate. As has been shown, the situation around Khe Sanh remained much the same before the siege as after. In May 1968, four North Vietnamese regiments supported by artillery were reported to be in the immediate vicinity of the base. According to the commanding general of the 3rd Marine Division, the situation at Khe Sanh at that time was the same as in late 1967, when Westmoreland had ordered Khe Sanh reinforced. As early as February 1968, the New York Times reported that civilian officials who studied Vietnamese history were unwilling to share the level of confidence of military men that Khe Sanh would prove to be an American victory. These civilians noted 'the North Vietnamese willingness to suffer overwhelming casualties for the sake of victories with political impact'."
General Westmoreland, always the driving force behind the continued American presence at Khe Sanh, was unable to grasp this willingness. In his biography, Westmoreland says of North Vietnamese Army commander General Vo Nguyen Giap, 'A Western commander absorbing losses on the scale of Giap's would hardly have lasted in command more than a few weeks'. Still espousing the value of a positive kill ratio, Westmoreland claimed Giap's casualties at Khe Sanh were far in excess of those incurred by the French at Dien Bien Phu. The Vietnamese Communists, who also compare the two battles, claim that Khe Sanh was "America's Dien Bien Phu."
The decision to abandon Khe Sanh is better described as a tactical withdrawal rather than a forced retreat. The Marines on the ground were willing to maintain their positions at Khe Sanh if ordered to do so. I was at Khe Sanh from December 1967, before the fighting began, until April 1968, when the siege was officially declared ended. There was no sense that we were a defeated force, and I had no idea the base was scheduled for closing. My Marine unit was told that we would remain at Khe Sanh until another mortar battery could replace us. When that happened we relocated to the east and continued operations against the North Vietnamese.
The aggressive spirit of the encircled Marine garrison at Khe Sanh is exemplified by a comment made by a Marine commander who found his unit in a similar position during the Korean War. Told his regiment was surrounded by Communist forces near the Chosin Reservoir on November 28, 1950, General (then colonel) 'Chesty' Puller said, 'that simplifies our problems of finding these people and killing them'. Intelligence personnel of the 26th Marine Regiment at Khe Sanh were well aware of Communist tactics at Dien Bien Phu. Initially, the Marines at Khe Sanh had tried to keep the North Vietnamese from getting too close to the base. Massed artillery fired could have accomplished this. With the overland route to Khe Sanh closed, it proved impossible to deliver sufficient massed artillery fires from a logistics standpoint--aerial resupply simply could not deliver the volume of artillery rounds needed. When that became evident, the Marines decided to let the North Vietnamese move in close to the base in order to simplify the problem of locating and destroying them. The Marines did just that until they were ordered elsewhere.
Since the Communists did not share the American belief in favorable kill ratios, it is necessary to use different criteria to determine who achieved a favorable outcome at Khe Sanh. In the long run, who had use of the combat base? In March 1973, American officials in Saigon reported that North Vietnamese troops had rebuilt the old airstrip at Khe Sanh and were using it for courier flights into the south. That was the first time North Vietnamese airplanes had flown into South Vietnam.
A New York Times story dated May 7, 1973, noted that several thousand North Vietnamese laborers had been sent south to construct roads and airfields. The single most ambitious project was construction of an all-weather road from Khe Sanh, through the A Shau Valley, to the outskirts of Da Nang. The same report indicated Khe Sanh was being developed into a major logistical center by the Communists. This represented a complete reversal of the supply path of the Marine Corps garrison at Khe Sanh, whose supplies frequently arrived from their logistical center at Da Nang. The NVA installed at least a dozen surface-to-air missiles sites around Khe Sanh in addition to anti-aircraft guns. Those facts cast further doubt on the explanation of American military commanders that Khe Sanh no longer had strategic value in the context of the war in Vietnam.
Although conventional war was what America fought best, Vietnam is known as a war without fronts. Consequently, search and destroy operations were the means by which America would try to win the war of attrition. Even though General Westmoreland acknowledged that a commander...wins no battles by sitting back waiting for the enemy to come to him', this is precisely the role he assigned to the Marines at Khe Sanh.
As a percentage of North Vietnam's prewar population, the number of NVA killed in the war against the Americans was equal to the percentages of those killed in several of the European nations laid waste during World War I. Westmoreland was unable to grasp why his adversaries found that rate tolerable. The answer is, of course, because the stakes were equivalent for the Europeans and the Vietnamese Communists. As military historian Ronald Spector has pointed out, during the first half of 1968 (the period of heavy fighting at Khe Sanh), the Marine casualty rate in Vietnam exceeded the rate of American casualties in either the European or Pacific theater of World War as well as during the Korean War. With nothing to be gained by the Marines at Khe Sanh beyond killing Communists, ordering their withdrawal and closing the base was a sensible political and military decision. Although many claim that the United States never lost a battle in Vietnam, it is impossible to reasonably put the fighting at Khe Sanh in the American 'win' column.
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