FAMOUS BATTLES IN VIETNAM
Famous battles in the Vietnam War included Khe Sanh, Pleiku, Hamburger Hill and Drang Valley. The biggest and most important battle of all was the Tet Offensive in 1968, with a large battle in Vietnamese imperial capital of Hue. Many regard the North-Vietnam-launched Tet Offensive as the "turning point" of the war. Even though the North Vietnamese were ultimately defeated they scored a decisive psychological victory—enough of one to forced the U.S. to make getting out of the war their top priority.
The battle at Ap Bac in January 1963 has been called "the turning point of the early stages of the war" because it showed the Viet Cong were intent on winning the war and the South Vietnamese army was weak and more concerned about saving its ass than keeping Diem in power and fighting. At Ap Bac, for the first time, the Viet Cong fought at battalion strength and won a decisive victory against Vietnamese troops supported by American helicopters, armored vehicles, and artillery. Two Viet Cong soldiers received North Vietnam’s highest military-exploit medal for winning this battle. One was the commander of the Communist forces. The other was Pham Xuan An (See Spies), who devised the winning strategy.
In 1966, 1967 and 1968 there were a number battles in the area of the DMZ. During 1966 there were eighteen major operations, the most successful of these being Operation White Wing (Masher). During this operation, the 1st Cavalry Division, Korean units, and ARVN forces cleared the northern half of Binh Dinh Province on the central coast. In the process they decimated a division, later designated the North Vietnamese 3d Division. The U.S. 3d Marine Division was moved into the area of the two northern provinces and in concert with South Vietnamese Army and other Marine Corps units, conducted Operation Hastings against enemy infiltrators across the DMZ. The largest sweep of 1966 took place northwest of Saigon in Operation Attleboro, involving 22,000 American and South Vietnamese troops pitted against the VC 9th Division and a NVA regiment. The Allies defeated the enemy and, in what became a frequent occurrence, forced him back to his havens in Cambodia or Laos.
See Separate Article on the Tet Offensive.
In February 1965, the North Vietnamese attacked a U.S. military instillation in Pleiku, killing eight and wounding more than a 100. A few days later at Qui Nhon 23 Americans were killed and 21 were wounded. In response U.S. President Lyndon Johnson launched Operation Rolling Thunder and ordered bombing of North Vietnamese barracks and staging areas. The attacks, Johnson said, were "carefully limited military areas" and was "appropriate and fitting" because "we seek no wider war." A couple weeks later 3,500 U.S. Marines arrived at Danang. A few months after that the United States scored its first major victory at Chu Lai, where more than 5,000 U.S. troops defeated an estimated 2,000 Viet Kong.
According to History.com: February 10, 1965: "Viet Cong guerrillas blow up the U.S. barracks at Qui Nhon, 75 miles east of Pleiku on the central coast, with a 100-pound explosive charge under the building. A total of 23 U.S. personnel were killed, as well as two Viet Cong. In response to the attack, President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered a retaliatory air strike operation on North Vietnam called Flaming Dart II. This was the second in a series of retaliations launched because of communist attacks on U.S. installations in South Vietnam. Just 48 hours before, the Viet Cong struck Camp Holloway and the adjacent Pleiku airfield in the Central Highlands. This attack killed eight U.S. servicemen, wounded 109, and destroyed or damaged 20 aircraft. [Source: History.com **]
"With his advisors advocating a strong response, President Johnson gave the order to launch Operation Flaming Dart, retaliatory air raids on a barracks and staging areas at Dong Hoi, a guerrilla training camp 40 miles north of the 17th parallel in North Vietnam. Johnson hoped that quick and effective retaliation would persuade the North Vietnamese to cease their attacks in South Vietnam. Unfortunately, Operation Flaming Dart did not have the desired effect. The attack on Qui Nhon was only the latest in a series of communist attacks on U.S. installations, and Flaming Dart II had very little effect. **
After the Pleiku attack, McGeorge Bundy, one of Lyndon Johnson’s top advisors, wrote a a report that included a recommendation that the U.S. develop a "sustained reprisal policy" using air and naval forces against North Vietnam. According to Bundy, the situation in South Vietnam was: " deteriorating, and without new U.S. action, defeat appears inevitable-probably not in a matter of weeks or perhaps even months, but within the next year or so. There is still time to turn it around, but not much." [Source: eHistory archive, OSU Department of History]
According to eHistory; " just prior to the VC attack on Qui Nhon, General Westmoreland offered his appraisal of the war. He recalled that in the past he had considered requesting American combat troops to provide for close-in security of the U. S. bases in Vietnam. This course of action had been rejected for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that the presence of American forces might cause the South Vietnamese to lose interest and relax. The general was now of the opinion that the attack on Pleiku marked a new phase of the war. With direct Communist attacks on American personnel and facilities, MACV could no longer ignore the question of protecting these troops. Westmoreland believed that this would require at least a division declaring: "These are numbers of a new order of magnitude, but we must face the stark fact that the war has escalated." [Source: eHistory archive, OSU Department of History]
Impact of Pleiku
In "Lyndon B. Johnson and the Vietnam War," David Coleman and Marc Selverstone wrote: "Bundy’s presence in Vietnam at the time of the Communist raids on Camp Holloway and Pleiku in early February—which resulted in the death of nine Americans—provided additional justification for the more engaged policy the administration had been preparing. Within days of the Pleiku/Holloway attacks, as well as the subsequent assault on Qui Nhon, LBJ signed off on a program of sustained bombing of North Vietnam that, except for a handful of pauses, would last for the remainder of his presidency. While senior military and civilian officials differed on what they regarded as the benefits of this program—code-named Operation Rolling Thunder—all of them hoped that the bombing, which began on 2 March 1965, would have a salutary effect on the North Vietnamese leadership, leading Hanoi to end its support of the insurgency in South Vietnam. [Source: Lyndon B. Johnson and the Vietnam War, David Coleman, Associate Professor and Chair of the Presidential Recordings Program, Miller Center of Public Affairs; Marc Selverstone, Assistant Director for Presidential Studies and Associate Professor with the Presidential Recordings Program, Miller Center of Public Affairs <>]
While the attacks on Pleiku and Qui Nhon led the administration to escalate its air war against the North, they also highlighted the vulnerability of the bases that American planes would be using for the bombing campaign. In an effort to provide greater security for these installations, Johnson sanctioned the dispatch of two Marine battalions to Danang in early March. The troops arrived on 8 March, though Johnson endorsed the deployment prior to the first strikes themselves. Like other major decisions he made during the escalatory process, it was not one Johnson came to without a great deal of anxiety. As he expressed to longtime confidant Senator Richard Russell (D-Georgia), LBJ understood the symbolism of "sending the Marines" and their likely impact on the combat role the United States was coming to play, both in reality and in the minds of the American public. <>
The bombing, however, was failing to move Hanoi or the Viet Cong in any significant way. By mid-March, therefore, Johnson began to consider additional proposals for expanding the American combat presence in South Vietnam. By 1 April, he had agreed to augment the 8 March deployment with two more Marine battalions; he also changed their role from that of static base security to active defense, and soon allowed preparatory work to go forward on plans for stationing many more troops in Vietnam. In an effort to achieve consensus about security requirements for those troops, key personnel undertook a review in Honolulu on 20 April. Out of that process came Johnson’s decision to expand the number of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam to eighty-two thousand. <>
According to eHistory archive: "Following the Qui Nhon attack, on 11 February the Joints Chiefs of Staff forwarded to the Secretary of Defense a program of reprisal actions to be taken against Communist provocations. The chiefs observed that the retaliatory air raids against North Vietnam had not achieved the intended effect. They recommended in its place a "sustained pressure" campaign to include continuing air strikes against selected targets in North Vietnam, naval bombardment, covert operations, intelligence patrols and cross-border operations in Laos, and the landing of American troops in South Vietnam. On 13 February, President Johnson approved a "limited and measured" air campaign against North Vietnam, which took the code name ROLLING THUNDER. The ROLLING THUNDER campaign was delayed until 2 March because of a combination of bad weather and the instability of the South Vietnamese political situation. [Source: eHistory archive, OSU Department of History]
In mid-February, the South Vietnamese were in the midst of another power struggle. Confronted with both a deteriorating political and military situation, General Westmoreland directed his deputy, Lieutenant General John L. Throck-morton, USA, to determine what American ground forces were needed for base security. After completing his survey, Throckmorton recommended the deployment of a three-battalion Marine expeditionary brigade to Da Nang because of the vital importance of the base for any air campaign against the north and "the questionable capability of the Vietnamese to protect the base." General Westmoreland several years later recalled: "While sharing Throckmorton's sense of urgency, I nevertheless hoped to keep the number of U.S. ground troops to a minimum and recommended instead landing only two battalions and holding the third aboard ship off shore. "
Battle of Ia Drang Valley
In November 1965, the Americans won a series of battles fought in the Drang Valley against a regiment-size North Vietnamese force. The battles marked the first time the North Vietnamese mounted a conventional-style attack rather than relying on guerilla tactics. In the battle the 1st Cavalry Division forced the North Vietnamese to lift their seige of Plei Mi, the site of a CIDG (Civilian Irregular Defense Group) camp. The great hero of the battle was Lt. Col. Bruce Crandall, whose exploits were depicted in the film We Were Soldiers .
Battle of Ia Drang was the first major battle between regulars of the United States Army and regulars of the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN / NVA) of North Vietnam during the Vietnam War. The two-part battle took place between November 14 and November 18, 1965, at two landing zones (LZs) northwest of Plei Me in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam (approximately 35 miles south-west of Pleiku) as part of the U.S. airmobile offensive codenamed Operation Silver Bayonet. The battle derives its name from the Drang River which runs through the valley northwest of Plei Me, in which the engagement took place. Ia means "river" in the local Montagnard language. [Source: Wikipedia +]
Representing the American forces were elements of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division: the 1st Battalion and 2nd Battalion of the 7th Cavalry Regiment, and the 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment of the United States Army, facing elements of the B3 Front of the PAVN (including the 304 Division) and Viet Cong. The battle involved close air support by U.S. aircraft and a strategic bombing strike by the B-52s. The initial Vietnamese assault against the landing 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry at LZ X-Ray was repulsed after two days and nights of heavy fighting on November 14-16. However, the follow-up surprise attack on November 17 that overran the marching column of 7th Cavalry 2nd Battalion near the LZ Albany was the deadliest ambush of a U.S. unit during the course of the entire war. About half of some 300 American deaths in the 35-day Operation Silver Bayonet happened in just this one fight that lasted 16 hours. +
The battle was documented in the CBS special report Battle of Ia Drang Valley by Morley Safer and the critically acclaimed book We Were Soldiers Once... And Young by Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway. In 2002, Randall Wallace depicted the first part of the battle in the film We Were Soldiers starring Mel Gibson and Barry Pepper as Moore and Galloway, respectively. +
Fighting During the Battle of Ia Drang Valley
"The first afternoon of the three-day battle was a running firefight - a run for survival - with helicopters coming in under fire trying to get the wounded out. There was a hell of a fight the next morning and night, and I realized we were in an historic battle," Then-LTC Harold G. Moore, the commander of the American forces at the battle told Heike Hasenauer of Soldiers Magazine: " The first man on the ground with his troops, Moore jumped out of the chopper and looked up at the mountain and knew the enemy was there, he said. "It was ominously quiet." He learned later that three battalions of fresh North Vietnamese Army troops had come down the Ho Chi Minh Trail and were waiting. [Source: Heike Hasenauer, Adapted from Soldiers Magazine ////]
"When the fight began, it was furious. The NVA troops came out intent on killing us all," Moore said. About 50 percent of his men were killed or seriously wounded. The men were some 20 miles in the middle of enemy territory, surrounded by a force seven times larger than their own. The three-day battle, Nov. 14 to 16, left 79 infantrymen and one Air Force pilot dead and another 130 men wounded, some of them horribly, Galloway said. It happened in a space no bigger than a football field. ////
It was followed a day later, 14 miles away, by the battle at LZ Albany, during which 154 American troops were killed in an ambush. The two battles were part of the 34-day Pleiku Campaign, which lasted from Oct. 23 to Nov. 26, 1965. Counting the skirmishes before and after the two major battles, 305 Americans died - more than in the entire first Gulf War, Galloway said. ///
Lt. Col. Bruce Crandall and the Battle at Ia Drang Valley
In 2007 when Lt. Col, Bruce Crandall was awarded Medal of Honor, the U.S.’s highest award for military valor, Larry Shaughnessy of CNN reported: More than 40 years after Crandall repeatedly risked his life to rescue American soldiers fighting one of the toughest battles of the Vietnam War, the U.S. military officially recognized his heroism when he was awarded the Medal of Honor. "For the soldiers rescued, for the men who came home, for the children they had and the lives they made, America is in debt to Bruce Crandall," President Bush said during the awards ceremony. "It's a debt our nation can never really fully repay." The citation read at the White House ceremony said in part that Crandall's "bravery and daring courage to land under the most extreme hostile fire instilled in the other pilots the will and spirit to continue." [Source: Larry Shaughnessy, CNN, February 27, 2007]
Crandall's story goes back to the early days of the Vietnam War. On November 15, 1965, a battalion of soldiers was ordered to attack North Vietnamese troops in the Ia Drang Valley in the central highlands of South Vietnam. It would be the first major battle between the U.S. and North Vietnamese armies and one of the first uses of helicopters to insert troops into battle quickly. Crandall flew the lead helicopter into the attack at Landing Zone X-Ray. The 450 American soldiers soon were surrounded by a much larger force of experienced North Vietnamese troops. During one landing, three men on Crandall's helicopter were killed and three others were wounded.
"As we came in, across the trees, the enemy was there and in the landing zone. I had my crew chief shot through the throat," Crandall said recently. "I could see the people shooting at me from, just off the left of my rotor blades." But he couldn't shoot back because his helicopter didn't have the M60 machine guns that later would become standard equipment on the UH-1 "Huey" that Crandall flew.In spite of the danger, Crandall flew into X-Ray more than 18 times to bring in ammunition and bring out the wounded. "It was the longest day I ever experienced in any aircraft," Crandall said.
He had to switch helicopters several times because of damage from enemy fire. "When an aircraft got hit in those times, we would use duct tape to cover the holes, and the purpose of covering the holes was so you knew what was a new hole and what was an old one that had been inspected," he said. Crandall and his wingman, Ed "Too Tall" Freeman, saved 70 wounded soldiers that day.
The battle and the pilots' deeds were described in the book "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young" by Gen. Harold Moore, commander of the battalion on the ground, and Joseph Galloway, the only war correspondent there for the entire battle. It later was made into the 2002 movie "We Were Soldiers," starring Mel Gibson as Moore and Greg Kinnear as Crandall. Crandall, a major at the time of the battle, was a consultant on the movie set.
The ceremony represented the third Medal of Honor awarded from that battle. Freeman received the Medal of Honor in 2001. Crandall said Freeman defines the word "hero." "Freeman didn't have to volunteer," Crandall said. "I have to go, I am the commander, so Freeman stepped up and went. I really didn't want him to. We'd been friends for 10 years." Walter "Joe" Marm, then a second lieutenant in the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), received the Medal of Honor in 1966 for his gallantry during the battle in the Ia Drang Valley. Over a 14 hour period on November 14, 1965 he piloted 22 flights. He said leaving the scene was "never a consideration, They were my people down there, and they trusted in me to come and get them."
Story of Lt. Col. Bruce Crandall and the Battle Ia Drang Valley
Heike Hasenauer wrote in Soldiers Magazine: "Crandall commanded 16 helicopter crews of the 1st Cavalry Division's Company A, 229th AHB that lifted troops on a search-and-destroy mission from Plei Me to Landing Zone X-Ray in what would become the most vicious fight of the Vietnam War to that date."I had very experienced pilots," said Crandall, who served as a flight mission commander and was an Army engineer. Three of the four company commanders in the 229th [Assault Helicopter Battalion] were engineers. We were bush pilots, who had flown in areas of the world that hadn't yet been mapped." [Source: Heike Hasenauer, Adapted from Soldiers Magazine ////]
"Then-LTC Harold G. Moore, commander of the 1st Cav. Div.'s 1st Bn., 7th Cav. Regiment depended on then-MAJ Crandall's helicopters to insert his Soldiers of the 1st Bn. into the LZ. On the fifth and final troop lift, which involved eight helicopters, the LZ was under horrific enemy fire by small arms, automatic weapons, mortars and rockets. As Crandall's helicopter landed and Soldiers exited, three Soldiers were wounded and three killed. Remaining helicopters waiting to land were ordered to abort and return to base. ////
"When Crandall returned to the base, he learned that all medevac assistance had been cut off to the men of the 1/7 "due to the policy of the time," Crandall said. "The medevac pilots were all great pilots, but they weren't allowed to land on a landing zone until it was 'green' for a period of five minutes," meaning it wasn't being relentlessly attacked. Crandall made the decision - without anyone requesting that he do so - to fly the medevac missions. When he asked for volunteers, his former colleague in Vietnam, Maj. (ret.) Ed Freeman, who had been his friend for 10 years before they deployed together to Vietnam, immediately stepped forward. ////
"Crandall's helicopter led the two, and he supervised the loading of seriously wounded Soldiers over the course of 14 landings under intense enemy fire. He and Freeman saved the lives of some 70 wounded Soldiers. "One of the principal reasons my company survived one of the largest and fiercest battles of the Vietnam War was the critical support provided by the aviators of Co. A, 229th Avn. Bn.," said Col. (ret.) John D. Herren, who commanded the 1st Bn.'s Co. B during the battle. ////
"These helicopter crews were our lifeline, as they brought battalion units into the LZ," he said. "They evacuated our wounded and brought in water and ammunition, despite intense enemy fire," Herren said. "I was an eyewitness to one of Crandall's flights," Herren continued. "I was pinned down by intense enemy machine-gun and rifle fire that killed my radio operator and severely wounded the Co. D. commander, Capt. Ray Lefebvre. Crandall's helicopter landed and evacuated Lefebvre and others. The act of bravery "was extraordinary and inspirational," Herren said. "It demonstrated to me and other Soldiers that our casualties were going to be taken care of and that they would not have to wait for a break in the fighting to be evacuated," Herren added. "The sheer volume of casualties was heavy. My own company suffered 46 casualties out of a company strength of 122 during the first two days of the fighting." Additionally, one of Herren's platoons was cut off for 24 hours and suffered 20 casualties. Every one of the 12 who were wounded survived because Crandall and Freeman evacuated them. ////
"Of 31 helicopter loads of ammunition and supplies brought into the LZ after it was closed, Crandall's helicopter flight brought in 28. And of the approximately 78 wounded in action who were evacuated, Crandall's flight took out 70. According to the Medal of Honor citation: "Major Crandall's bravery and daring courage to land under the most extreme hostile fire instilled ...in the ground forces, the realization that friendly wounded would be promptly evacuated. This greatly enhanced morale and the will to fight at a critical time." The citation further reads: "He completed fourteen landings on medical and re-supply missions under intense enemy fire and retired from the battlefield only after all possible service had been rendered to the infantry troops." ////
In January 1968 North Vietnamese troops launched a major attack at Khe Sanh, an American base located on the desolate Khe Sanh plateau near Laos and the DMZ (the contested border between North and South Vietnam). The single largest battle of the war, and arguably the bloodiest too, it was launched as a massive diversion to draw attention away from the Tet Offensive. Originally set up by the Green Berets to recruit tribes people, the base the site of deadly "hill fights" between U.S. and North Vietnamese soldiers and a siege that lasted for 76 days.
In late 1967, thousands of seasoned North Vietnamese troops began moving into the Khe Sanh area. Westmoreland was convinced the enemy were trying to stage another Dien Bien Phu and gave orders they Khe Sanh must be held no matter what the cost and ordered in reinforcements and positioned 5,000 airplanes and helicopters in the area. Johnson also was worried and demanded, "I don’t want any damn Dien Bien Phu" and told his generals to promise him the garrison would not be overun.
In 1967 and 1968 there were a number battles in the area of the DMZ. For the Americans Khe Sanh was part of an effort to shut down the flow of supplies on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. For the North Vietnamese it was part a diversion for an even bigger offensive that was yet to come, Tet. For both sides it was a helluva fight. "There is no feeling in the world as good as being airborne out of Khe Sanh," wrote Michael Herr in Dispatches.
Today, tourists can visit Khe Sanh Combat Base. It's one of several abandoned combat bases, including Con Thien, Camp Carroll and the Rockpile, that you can visit as part of a day trip, provided you have a good four-wheel drive. Buy a travel permit for ten dollars at the Quang Tri Province Tourist Office in Dong Ha and follow National Highway 9, which parallels the old DMZ, west out of Dong Ha toward Laos. Turn northwest at the triangular intersection just before you reach Khe Sanh Town. The base is on the right-hand side of the road, two and a half kilometers from the intersection.
Fighting at Khe Sanh
During an ultimately unsuccessful 76-day siege, which lasted from January 21 to April 7, 1968, approximately 40,000 North Vietnamese troops tried to capture a garrison held by 5,000 U.S. Marines. Remarkably only 205 American were killed and 852 were injured despite heavy firefight and continuous shelling by the North Vietnamese. Life , Newsweek and American television gave the battle extensive coverage.
The North Vietnamese managed cut Route 9, the main supply line for the garrison, and close down the air strip with mortar fire and artillery bombardment. Supplies were delivered in parachute drops. American force rained down 100,000 tons of bombs (equivalent in force to five Hiroshima-size atomic bombs) and 158,000 large-caliber shells on the hills surrounding the base, killing an estimated 15,000 Communist soldiers. The battle ended when the 1st Cavalry Division lifted the siege by reopening Route 9 and left.
Two months after the siege was held back, American commanders decided that the base at Khe Sanh was not worth fighting for again. They ordered the Marines to abandon the base and destroy everything there: the building, bunkers, supply depots, airport and fortifications. So many unexploded bombs were left behind at Khe Sanh and other nearby battlefields that local hospitals took in wounded from these weapons at a rate of one a day long after the war was over.
Glenn Earl Prentice—Sergeant, Marines, Charlie Battery 1/13, India Company 3/26—was at Khe Sanh from November 2 - November 20, 1967 and December 7, 1967 - May 15, 1968. He told NPR: "There are just too many experiences to write about. It lasted 77 days. Each day was a lifetime. Some days were better than others. I can tell about the base, but the maps tell the story. There was a single runway (metal) used mainly by C-130 airplanes at first. Then it closed because of the losses -- three 105s and one 155. There was a drop zone outside the wire -- a dirty, red clay, rat infested place of death. [Source: NPR, pbs.org/battlefieldvietnam *=*]
"What stands out are the deaths and horrors we suffered: 1) The fall of Long Vie. 2) The Russian tanks. 3) When we turned away 20,000 Bru and Laos people that were mostly killed after we turned them away. 4) The lost patrol the we were not allowed to save! 5) Westmoreland's lack of vision and planning (worst ever war-time general)! 6) Action. A firefight that only a few of us made it out of on January 20, 1968. Hand-to-hand combat, mortars, rockets, artillery -- you name it, we were in it! 7) The final day was uneventful. The Army pissed me off. They never saved us. It was just PR for Westmoreland. Stupid mistake. We should have stayed there and kicked the NVA out. Attacked the Ho Chi Minh Trail." *=*
Khe Sanh Eyewitness Report
Bruce M. Geiger— First Lieutenant, 1st Battalion, 44th Artillery, 108th Artillery Group, 1st Field Force, U.S. Army Attached to the 3rd Marine Division— led a column of Dusters and Quad 50s out of Khe Sanh at the end of a 75-day siege. Describing events at Khe Sanh between February 22 and April 14, 1968, he told NPR: "I led a column of Dusters and Quad 50s out of Khe Sanh at the end of a 75-day siege... I was a platoon leader responsible for up to eight "Dusters" -- M42A1 self-propelled light tanks (M41 Walker Bulldog) with a twin 40mm anti-aircraft gun system mounted in an open turret. Each "Duster" was manned by a crew of 4-6 men including the driver, and fired 40mm point detonating explosive rounds up to 4,000 meters at a rate of 240 rounds per minute. This was devastating firepower used against enemy personnel and hard targets. I rarely had more than two "Duster" crews at any location, but at Khe Sanh, I commanded two "Dusters" and two "Quad 50's" (four 50 caliber machine guns on an electric powered turret, mounted in the bed of a 2-1/2 ton truck firing at a rate of 1,000-1,500 rounds per minute). Our mission at Khe Sanh was to defend the northern perimeter (blue sector), which ran parallel to the airstrip (approx. 3/4 mile), and was manned by one company of Marines (C 1/26), one Marine "Ontos" crew and ourselves. Other duties included direct fire support for Marine infantry operations, minesweep, supply, and tactical convoy escort along contested highways to break up ambushes, and defensive perimeter security at forward firebases throughout "Leatherneck Square" along the DMZ. [Source: NPR, pbs.org/battlefieldvietnam *=*]
"My route to Khe Sanh was a circuitous one that started in a Nike Hercules fire control center and led to a Duster turret. My military career began during the summer of 1966 when I received my commission at the U.S. Army ROTC training facility in Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania, after I graduated from Rutgers University. I embarked on active duty in October 1966 as a second lieutenant at the U.S. Army Air Defense Artillery School, Fort Bliss, Texas. Upon completion of the Officers Basic Course I was assigned to the Air Defense Artillery School Battalion as a battery commander and served for about six months while eagerly awaiting orders to a Nike Hercules unit at some exotic destination in Europe. In July 1967, after a Pentagon advisor assured me that I would remain in my current duty assignment for the duration of my two-year active duty commitment, I received my orders to Vietnam. Five weeks later after completing a thirty-day crash course in ADA automatic weapons, I was still in shock. I took a 30 day leave to visit with my family before reporting to Fort Lewis, Washington, in early October 1967 for debarkation to Vietnam. *=*
"In mid-February 1968, I was ordered to Khe Sanh with three enlisted men, Private First Class Arthur Mortman from my platoon and two others from the attached Quad 50s (Golf Battery, 65th Artillery), to relieve the commanding officer of the Duster and Quad 50 sections. He and several of his men had received shrapnel wounds and had been medevaced before we arrived. By this time Khe Sanh had been under siege for several weeks, and Route 9, the only road access to the besieged base, had been completely cut off. Resupply and medevac aircraft were coming under heavy fire, and only volunteer medevac missions were being flown into the Khe Sanh combat base. *=*
"First Lieutenant Lynn Grace had commanded the Duster and Quad 50 sections from late October through early December 1967. After the war, he would describe Khe Sanh to me as a "quiet, uneventful place viewed by ADA personnel as a welcome respite from the grueling barrages at Con Thien and Gio Linh, and the daily routine of mine sweeps and convoy escorts." When the intense battles of the infamous "Hill Fights" ended in early May 1967, Khe Sanh was regarded as the closest thing to an in-country R&R center on the DMZ. At Lieutenant Grace's request, the Marine command ordered additional fortification of the northern perimeter, since only one company of Marines, two Ontos crews and our Duster/Quad 50 sections defended the entire mile-long stretch of the perimeter. *=*
Arriving at Khe Sanh
First Lieutenant Bruce M. Geiger told NPR: "After trying unsuccessfully for two days to get a flight from Dong Ha to Khe Sanh, my men and I flew by chopper to Phu Bai, just south of Hue, where we stood a better chance of getting aboard a flight into Khe Sanh. We spent three days waiting on the sweltering runway at Phu Bai before finally getting aboard a Marine CH-53 Sea Stallion flying a volunteer medevac mission to Khe Sanh. The pilot, a Marine major, and the crew chief briefed us along with nearly a dozen grunts who had boarded the chopper. [Source: NPR, pbs.org/battlefieldvietnam *=*]
"Khe Sanh was a very bad place then, but the airstrip there was the worst place in the world. It was what Khe Sanh had instead of a V-ring, the exact, predictable object of the mortars and rockets hidden in the surrounding hills, the sure target of the big Russian and Chinese guns lodged in the side of CoRoc Ridge, eleven kilometers away across the Laotian border. There was nothing random about the shelling there, and no one wanted anything to do with it. If the wind was right, you could hear the NVA .50-calibers starting far up the valley whenever a plane made its approach to the strip, and the first incoming artillery would precede the landings by seconds. If you were waiting there to be taken out, there was nothing you could do but curl up in the trench and try to make yourself small, and if you were coming in on the plane, there was nothing you could do, nothing at all. *=*
"Incoming mortars and artillery rounds exploded all around the landing area. The pilot didn't even land the chopper. The crew chief lowered the tailgate to the ground as the chopper hovered and we were dumped out like a heap of garbage from the rear of a sanitation truck. We scattered like rats for the nearest trenchline or bunker and waited in sheer terror for what seemed like an endless barrage to be over. The chopper disappeared into the clouds without retrieving any of the casualties it had come for, and the incoming rounds finally ceased. We huddled for at least another twenty minutes before mustering the courage to crawl out from the relative safety of the trenches, and we made our way across the airfield. We found our gun positions along the northern perimeter of the runway and settled in with our beleaguered comrades to rest and be briefed about the situation at hand. *=*
"During my first few days at Khe Sanh, I surveyed our positions and met briefly with Colonel Lownds, commander of the 26th Marine Regiment and its attached units. In my only conversation with him during my seven-week stay, I assured him that our automatic weapons crews had the experience and the firepower to accomplish the mission of defending the northern perimeter of the combat base. There would be several occasions over the next few weeks when I would feel less confident than I did at that proud moment. *=*
Dug In at Khe Sanh
First Lieutenant Bruce M. Geiger told NPR: "Our two Duster positions were well located at opposite ends of the runway with the Quad 50s placed in between but not more than one hundred meters away from a Duster. All weapons had excellent fields of fire, commanding all avenues of approach to the northern perimeter of the base. The northeast gun positions overlooked a wide open, grassy plateau, and could easily maneuver to defend the east end of the runway which sat above the edge of a steep ravine. My command post bunker was situated near the runway's east end, behind the Quad 50 position and our ammunition trailer. The base ammo dump and 105mm howitzers were across the runway about one hundred and fifty meters behind us. On the northwest end, the Duster and Quad 50 squads guarded a more concealed approach through trees and heavy brush. Our bunkers and gun revetments were well constructed and sandbagged, considering that two months earlier, the Marines at Khe Sanh were hardly dug in. Most structures had been built above ground with few trenches, and only inadequate, interrupted strands of barbed wire strung in front of the perimeter defensive positions. [Source: NPR, pbs.org/battlefieldvietnam *=*]
"When the siege began on January 21, 1968, the Marines were ill prepared for a static defense of the base, and engineers hurriedly began to dig trenches and lay additional rows of concertina wire around the perimeter. Trenching machines were flown in to cut into the rock-hard surface before the attacks reached a peak in late January through mid-March 1968. I remember moving cautiously through the trenchline one clear morning when a careless young Marine stood up and walked across an open stretch of ground between unconnected trenches. In an instant he was struck in the side of his face by a sniper round. Fortunately the round went through his cheek and out of his mouth, knocking out a few teeth, but otherwise leaving him in relatively good condition. After some dental work and a few stitches, he'd be back on line and good as new. The incident reinforced my resolve to crawl or "scurry on all fours" when moving across open ground in clear weather. *=*
"Although we did our best to keep our bunkers clean, we fought an endless battle against the infestation of rats. As any Vietnam veteran will tell you, these were not ordinary rats. They often grew as big as large rabbits and were extremely cunning. After weeks of setting traps to no avail, I finally got fed up and decided one night to take serious steps to annihilate one particularly persistent pest. I climbed into my upper rack, and tucked a flashlight and a loaded 45-caliber pistol under my sleeping bag. After my section chief had gone to sleep, I lay awake waiting for the telltale scratching sounds of our nightly intruder, and I was not disappointed. I followed the sound of his movement to the baited traps on the floor across from my bunk. I silently lined up my pistol and flashlight in the direction of the sound and waited for the complacent invader to begin chowing down. At the moment of truth I simultaneously switched on the flashlight beam and emptied an entire clip of 45-caliber rounds in the direction of the monster rat. My section chief bolted from the sleeping rack below, certain we were under attack. I quickly quieted him and assured him that all was okay, pointing confidently toward the array of triggered rat traps in front of us. The rat's carcass, however, was nowhere to be found, and the sergeant was not amused. *=*
"We never did get rid of those critters. When the B-52 strikes left large numbers of NVA dead around the base perimeter, the rats began feeding on the decaying corpses. A major panic took place when the doctors at Charlie Med identified rats infected with bubonic plague and began giving booster shots to large numbers of Marines. Most of my men and I braved the hazardous trek across the runway to get our booster injections. *=*
Daily Life While Under Siege at Khe Sanh
Ronald E. Smith—Lance Corporal, Marines, communications platoon, H&S Company, 3/26 (at combat base); India Company, 3/26 (Hill 881S)—was at Khe Sanh from December 13, 1967 - April 18, 1968. He told NPR: "On Hill 881S, I was a radio operator for the Forward Air Controller, helping to keep radio contact with airborne air controllers. I also worked in the Combat Operations Center (COC) sending and receiving messages to and from the Combat Base. When 3/26 first arrived at Khe Sanh, daily life was a routine of settling in: digging bunkers, filling sand bags, extending the perimeter to accommodate the battalion. During the siege, we spent a great deal of time underground during rocket, artillery, and mortar attacks. In between the incoming rounds, there was a frenzy of activity as we scurried about, improving our defenses, patching up damage to the air strip, and collecting our supplies. "Bod of the Month" provided a bright point. [Source: NPR, pbs.org/battlefieldvietnam *=*]
Life up on 881S was very similar, except on a smaller scale. I went up to 881S in mid-February, well after India Company had taken control of the Hill. I was lucky enough to join three Marines who had a bunker. Most of the Marines on the Hill lived in what we called "bunny holes," which were carved into the interior wall of the trench that ringed the Hill. Some of the bunny holes, however, were somewhat elaborate, with floors made from ammo boxes, and walls and ceilings covered with parachute silk. *=*
Several days stand out in my memory. One is when the ammo dump was hit. Rounds were cooking off with tremendous explosions and tear gas was drifting across the base. For a while, I thought all of the explosions were part of the NVA barrage that had set the ammo dump off, and I was certain that the big attack we were expecting had begun. Another memorable day, a night really, was when Kilo Company was nearly overrun on Hill 861. I was on the Battalion radio net when the attack began, and I fielded most of the communication coming off of the Hill. A friend of mine named Gieger (if I ever knew his first name, I cannot recall it; we knew each other by nicknames and last names only) had just gone up to the Hill to serve as the company radio operator. In between requests for air and artillery support, Gieger provided a running commentary (a play by play of the action) on who was wounded, who was dead, and how far the NVA had advanced into the perimeter. *=*
Another day I will never forget is the day I helped put Corporal Terry Smith on a medevac helicopter. I had never seen a person so devoid of color before, and I knew instinctively that he would not survive the short flight to Charlie Med at the Combat Base. I had been on 881 for about a week, and Terry had been training me to help his replacement with the Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) while Terry was on R&R. He was the first KIA I had seen. *=*
When we left Khe Sanh, I had difficulty moving too far from a trench line. After more than two months of life in the trenches of the Combat Base and Hill 881S, I was not used to being above ground for such a long period of time. It was like some macabre version of musical chairs. None of us wanted to be too far from safety when the incoming started. When we arrived at our new location, Dong Ha, field showers had been set up, and we discarded the filthy, rotten clothing we had been wearing. On my way to collect some freshly laundered utilities, I was overcome by the stench drifting off of the pile of discarded clothes. I said to a friend, "God, we stunk!" He replied, "You think we would have noticed that before now, wouldn't you?" *=*
North Vietnamese Attacks on Planes Landing at Khe Sanh
First Lieutenant Bruce M. Geiger told NPR: "All aircraft attempting to land at Khe Sanh received heavy ground fire, including .50-caliber machine gun, mortar, and artillery rounds. The crew chief had us lay our gear bags on the floor beneath us to shield our bodies from ground fire that might penetrate the underside of the chopper. Needless to say, we were all very nervous and "puckered" at the thought of .50-caliber rounds ripping through the thin underbelly of the chopper beneath us! We would circle down through a heavy cloud cover and have only a few seconds with the tailgate on the ground to disembark with all of our gear. As we began our descent, we saw tracer rounds streaking past the windows through the thick clouds. The crew chief shouted that we would have less than ten seconds on the deck, and we had better be off the ramp or know how to fly! [Source: NPR, pbs.org/battlefieldvietnam *=*]
"NVA gunners had the airstrip zeroed in, and few fixed-wing aircraft were able to land without being hit or destroyed. My bunker was only a few yards off the edge of the runway, and every landing and takeoff was a nerve-wracking adventure. One quiet morning, I had my 35mm camera in hand as a C-130 Hercules landed and rolled toward the turnaround ramp at the west end of the runway. As I watched in horror, incoming rounds slammed into the runway and apparently struck the C-130's left main landing gear, causing the aircraft to swerve and smash into a forklift waiting nearby to unload the cargo. The wing tanks burst into flame that quickly engulfed the aircraft, as the courageous fire crew unsuccessfully fought to extinguish the flames. I ran down the runway toward the aircraft, capturing much of the action on film. Runway personnel had rescued the crew, who escaped with only minor injuries, but the aircraft and its cargo were totally destroyed. *=*
"Incoming rounds slammed into the runway and apparently struck the C-130's left main landing gear, causing the aircraft to swerve and smash into a forklift. With landing and takeoff of fixed-wing transports becoming too dangerous, the Air Force attempted delivery procedures known as LAPES and GPES. Under LAPES (Low Altitude Parachute Extraction System) the aircraft made a low-level approach and a parachute dragged the cargo across rollers and out the rear doors. Under GPES (Ground Parachute Extraction System), the aircraft came in low to snag an arresting cable, which in turn yanked the cargo out of the rear. Both procedures were highly risky for the aircraft and ground personnel and were finally discontinued when runaway cargo pallets crashed through bunkers at the west end of the runway, killing several Marines. Thereafter, most resupply was made by parachute drop from C-123 or C-130 transports over the northwest perimeter of the combat base. *=*
American Bombing of North Vietnamese in the Hills Around Khe Sanh
First Lieutenant Bruce M. Geiger told NPR: "During good weather, tactical aircraft flew extensive missions, dropping napalm and high explosives on enemy positions across the hills and the plateau in front of our northern perimeter. Some strikes were so close to our positions that the intense heat from the napalm was enough to singe our eyebrows. In March, under cover of fog and darkness, enemy troops dug a network of tunnels and zig-zag trenches within a few meters of the perimeter wire on the east end of the runway. They went undetected until the weather broke the following morning, when F-4 Phantoms resumed tactical operations and spotted them from the air. The NVA had evidently hoped that they could tunnel under the wire and the runway to plant mines or explosives that would destroy inbound aircraft and/or the runway surface. Had penetration of the perimeter from this unlikely approach succeeded, our gun positions on the east end would have been the primary weapons responsible for repelling the enemy assault. [Source: NPR, pbs.org/battlefieldvietnam *=*]
"The F-4 Phantoms immediately launched heavy air strikes with napalm and high explosive ordnance to destroy the trenches. F-4 Phantoms and "Puff the Magic Dragon," a DC-3 with machine guns and a Vulcan cannon in the doorway, made multiple sorties. Poor visibility, however, often limited tactical air strikes, leaving the air support to the B-52 Stratofortresses. Under the code name "Niagara," General William Westmoreland personally directed the activities of the Strategic Air Command, which flew numerous sorties around the clock, dropping unprecedented tonnages of explosives in defense of the base. The area around Khe Sanh would soon have the unenviable distinction of being "the most bombed place on earth." *=*
"Five-hundred pound bombs fall on NVA trenches at the northeast end of the Khe Sanh runway. We would often be alerted by coded radio message to shore up our bunkers and take cover at a predetermined time. The B-52s would on these occasions be targeting dangerously close to our perimeter, and in a few instances, within the allowable minimum safety range. Despite the eerie sounds of the bombs whistling overhead and the thunderous concussions as they rained down on the target areas, it was very reassuring to know that the B-52s were there. The intense carpet-bombing took an incredible toll on the large NVA force surrounding Khe Sanh, and in hindsight can probably be credited with preventing the base from being overrun by the enemy. *=*
"Duster and Quad 50 crews were restricted from routine H&I fire missions to avoid being targeted by the surrounding NVA artillery pieces dug into the hills. Although we had more than a normal supply of ammunition for all of our weapons, our tenuous circumstance dictated that we conserve ammunition in the event resupply became impossible. We relied heavily on the big 175mm guns at Camp Carroll and the Rockpile to lay in their fire missions at predetermined coordinates and suspected NVA positions. Our guns fired only at identified targets of opportunity, or in support of friendly operations around the perimeter. *=*
Ground Fighting at Khe Sanh
First Lieutenant Bruce M. Geiger told NPR: "Bad weather in February and early March often left the combat base shrouded in fog for hours or even days at a time. With the fog providing cover from NVA snipers and artillery spotters, we seized the opportunity to drive the Quad 50 trucks or the Dusters for water, ammunition and C-rations. Most other days were spent holed up in our bunkers since NVA snipers and artillery made movement above ground extremely treacherous. My survival instincts and physical senses had reached a peak, having been sharpened for months under the routine bombardment at Con Thien and A3. I was able to hear mortar, artillery and rocket rounds leaving their tubes, and could often identify the type of weapon that was fired from the sound it made. I never ignored or second-guessed my own instincts or those of others. I would hit the ground in an instant if I thought I had heard a suspicious sound or had seen a muzzle flash. At Khe Sanh, my fatigues were always dirty from diving to the ground, and my men would jokingly ask if I had been playing in the mud or dirt again. [Source: NPR, pbs.org/battlefieldvietnam *=*]
"On one sunny morning around mid-March, Duster squad leader Sergeant James "Smitty" Smith and I were scanning the plateau with our binoculars when we spotted movement at the edge of the ravine about a mile in front of our Duster position. We watched and waited to confirm what had appeared to be an NVA soldier's pith helmet moving back and forth just beyond the drop-off to the Rao Quan River ravine. The soldier, who evidently thought he was hidden from view, presented an inviting target, and we knew there had to be a concentration of NVA troops at that spot. *=*
"I made a decision to engage the target before they had a chance to disperse. Sergeant Smith and I quietly alerted two crewmembers, and we slipped aboard the Duster to man the twin 40mm guns. We carefully traversed the turret and elevated the guns to engage the last known position of the target. When the helmet reappeared we fired and laid approximately eighty to one hundred rounds directly on the target area, obliterating everything within a 100-meter radius. The dry brush burned for several hours reminding us that at least one of our enemies from the north would not be zeroing in on us ever again! *=*
North Vietnam Artillery Barrages at Khe Sanh
First Lieutenant Bruce M. Geiger told NPR: "Throughout late February and March, the NVA answered the air bombardment with daily barrages from artillery dug into the hills surrounding the combat base. On some days the base would receive a thousand rounds or more, with an average of two thousand five hundred rounds per week. Morale remained miraculously high, however, considering the circumstances. My men and I were always nervous about the inevitable necessity of manning our exposed gun turrets during one of these barrages should the base come under ground assault. In addition, we faced the prospect of defending against the Soviet PT-76 tanks that had been deployed to overrun the nearby Special Forces camp at Lang Vei in early February. [Source: NPR, pbs.org/battlefieldvietnam *=*]
My worst experience came on the evening of March 22, 1968. It had been rumored for weeks that the NVA would launch a ground assault against the base to coincide with the anniversary of the March 1954 assault on the French stronghold at Dien Bien Phu. At about 2100 hours the NVA began an intense artillery, rocket and mortar barrage. The concentration of incoming artillery and mortar rounds was the heaviest I had ever experienced, and we feared that the NVA would launch a ground assault under the cover of this barrage. *=*
The sergeant and I were pinned down in our bunker by incoming rounds. For a short time we maintained landline communications with our gun positions, but the landline was broken shortly thereafter. The barrage continued, and I decided to try to make a dash for the trenchline about 25 meters in front of us to check out the gun positions. I crouched in the doorway of the bunker, frozen in fear as the rounds exploded all around us. It seemed like an eternity as I waited for a lull in order to make my move. *=*
"Finally I couldn't wait any longer and took off for the Quad 50 position with the sergeant right at my heels. When we got to the bunker, we found the crew huddled inside unable to make contact by landline or radio with the other gun positions. It was critical that we coordinate our fire missions in the event of a ground assault on our sector of the perimeter. After alerting the crew of the Quad 50 to standby to man their guns, I decided to send the sergeant to the nearby Duster position with similar orders. I then began to make my way along the trenchline in the opposite direction to the distant Duster and Quad 50 positions at the other end of the runway. *=*
Getting Hit by a North Vietnam Artillery Barrage at Khe Sanh
First Lieutenant Bruce M. Geiger told NPR: "I got no more than a few meters when a rocket crashed into the Charlie Company, 1/26 Marines, command post bunker about 50 meters in front of me. I raced to the bunker where I found several Marines frantically digging in the burning debris to pull out their comrades trapped inside. They had retrieved a few men, but several others were buried inside the collapsed bunker. [Source: NPR, pbs.org/battlefieldvietnam *=*]
"We called for a corpsmen to treat the survivors who were badly burned and wounded, but none heard us amidst the incoming and the confusion. Without medical intervention these men would certainly die, so I made the decision to run across the runway to retrieve medical help from "Charlie Med." I climbed out of the trenchline and ran for the runway. In the darkness I tripped and fell several times as rounds shook the ground around me. I finally made it to the runway and across in the direction of "Charlie Med." As I got closer I screamed for a corpsmen, and a young Navy corpsmen ran toward me from his bunker. He and another Marine followed me back across the runway to the burning bunker where they began administering aid to the wounded. *=*
"Leaving the demolished bunker, I made my way down the trenchline to the Quad 50 and Duster positions, where I found my squad leader, Sergeant Manuel Floyd Martinez, and both crews safe and ready to man their guns. We traced the landline back to a break in the wire that we quickly repaired so we could regain communications with all of our other gun positions. Shortly after midnight and some 1,109 rounds after the NVA barrage had begun, it was over. This would be recorded as the second heaviest saturation of enemy rounds in a single day during the siege, and the heaviest for the month of March. It took a very heavy toll on Charlie Company, 1/26 Marines, with whom my men and I lived and shared the defense of our sector. I later found out that five Marines died in the command post bunker that night. *=*
Breaking of the Siege at Khe Sanh
First Lieutenant Bruce M. Geiger told NPR: "The NVA had apparently gotten wind of Operation Pegasus, the counter offensive launched to lift the siege of Khe Sanh, and decided to cut their losses by moving the bulk of their troops out of the area. By the time the forward elements of the 1st Air Cavalry and 3rd Marine Divisions reached the combat base, the NVA resistance had become light, and the main forces had no major difficulty routing the remaining elements from the surrounding hills. The base bustled with activity during the first days of April as a crack ARVN Ranger battalion moved onto the base with support aircraft and equipment. This was the first time since I arrived that helicopters, which had been unable to operate over Khe Sanh because of the intense antiaircraft fire, landed and parked in the bays alongside the runway. [Source: NPR, pbs.org/battlefieldvietnam *=*]
"For a few days the ARVN troops shared our bunkers during the evening hours before moving out with several Marine units to "break out" and link up with the approaching elements moving up Route 9 from the east. It was quite a show, and my men and I took the opportunity to get a well-earned rest after we prepared our equipment for departure. All but one of our vehicles were up and running by the time our replacements arrived from Camp Carroll on April 14th. Charlie Company, 1-26 Marines, had pulled out before dawn, and we were the only personnel remaining in the sector when my battery commander, Captain James Bonds arrived around mid morning. We wasted no time hooking up the disabled "deuce-and-a-half" truck to a tow bar, and anxiously rolled out the gate onto the approach road to Route 9. *=*
"This was my first trip on Route 9 east of Cam Lo village. The grueling 40-45 mile adventure to Dong Ha took over five hours along the winding, rebuilt roads and makeshift pontoon bridges. The devastation caused by the continual carpet-bombing was never more evident than it was along the first five miles of winding roadway to the Marine outpost at Ca Lu. The once dense foliage was burned out or blown away for miles around the roadway, and the ground was pockmarked with huge bomb craters for as far as the eye could see. Despite this carnage, it was an exhilarating experience for my men and I, who were ecstatic to finally be out of Khe Sanh and on our way back to Dong Ha. My friend Sergeant Joseph Belardo and Charlie Battery 1-44th Artillery, Duster/Quad section relieved us at Khe Sanh after the siege was lifted. *=*
Platoon Point Man at Khe San
Joe Amodeo—PFC, Marines, 2nd Platoon, Hotel Company, 2/26—was at Khe Sanh from January to May 1968. He told NPR: "I was the pointman in my Platoon., When we arrived at Khe Sanh, it was mass confusion. We slept the first night on the ground without any cover. I'm glad the NVA wasn't ready to play with us the first night. We would have suffered serious casualties. The next morning, the battalion headed for Hill 558, which was approximately one-half mile north of the combat base. We immediately started to knock down the elephant grass to set up fields of fire. This grass was razor sharp, and I dare say that all of us experienced cuts that could be compared to severe paper cuts. We also started to run day patrols in the area and bushwhacks at night. Barbed wire was choppered in with empty sandbags, and we started to dig. [Source: NPR, pbs.org/battlefieldvietnam *=*]
"One day, on a patrol after a rain, I encountered the tracks of a huge tiger. Its paws were the diameter of my head. It was ahead of us in the grass, and I wanted to get a shot at him. I could never do that today to such a magnificent animal. But I never did catch up with the tiger. Once we dug in, set fields of fire, strung the wire and placed mines, it really looked like fortified position. *=*
"At the end of January, I was sent back to the main base by chopper with a shopping list for the platoon, I was only to be there a day or two at the most. I ended up staying until the end of February. The shelling started the same day and choppers could not come in. Every morning at about 0500-0530, I would take care of bodily functions near our 155 artillery battery. At approximately 0600-0630, the NVA would start shelling us. On one morning, those no goods started early, and I had to dive head first into the nearest hole, which also happened to be where the waste was dumped. To this day I can close my eyes and still smell Khe Sanh. *=*
It's really amazing that I made it out of that place. I was always pushing the envelope. Hotel 2/26 suffered the fewest casualities of all the companies there. We just didn't see the evil that others experienced. My listening post was being probed one night (could have been that damned tiger). We withdrew and ended up running into our own bushwhack that someone had sent behind us. We thought we were surrounded and threw a grenade, and wounded five of our own. I felt bad about that for weeks. Then one of the guys returned from the hospital and thanked me for getting him his Purple Heart. All of them thanked me. Towards the end of the siege we were choppered to Hill 881S. That was the most evil place I have ever been. I only spent two weeks there, and I'm sure there are other veterans who spent more time there who could expound on the definition of evil better than I. But it was evil. Just plain evil. *=*
Abia Mountain, better known as Hamburger Hill, was the setting for another blood and guts battle in May 1969. A total of 242 Americans died, including one marine who had half his face blown off by a rocket-propelled grenade. A battalion from the 101st Airbone Division sustained heavy casualties seizing a hill from the North Vietnamese and then were ordered to abandon it. One of the objectives of capturing the hill was to gain control of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Time magazine reported: "Ap Bia Mountain anchors the northwest corner of South Viet Nam's A Shau Valley, since 1966 a major infiltration route for Communist forces from the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos to the coastal cities of northern I Corps. It is a mountain much like any other in that part of the Highlands, green, triple-canopied and spiked with thick stands of bamboo. On military maps it is listed as Hill 937, the number representing its height in meters. Last week it acquired another name: Hamburger Hill. It was a grisly but all too appropriate description, for the battle in and around Ap Bia took the lives of 84 G.I.s and wounded 480 more. Such engagements were familiar enough in Viet Nam up until a year ago. But coming at this stage of the war and the peace talks, the battle for Hamburger Hill set off tremors of controversy that carried all the way to Capitol Hill. [Source: Time, May 30, 1969 \\//]
"The battle for Hill 937 began uneventfully enough. On May 10, nine battalions of American and Vietnamese troops were helilifted into landing zones between the A Shau Valley and the Laotian border to disrupt possible North Vietnamese attacks toward the coast and to cut off Communist escape routes. There was little contact at first, but the next day, conditions changed for Lieut. Colonel Weldon F. Honeycutt's 3rd Battalion, 187th Regiment, of the 101st Airborne Division. Wheeling away from the border and eastward toward Hill 937, Honeycutt's troops surprised a North Vietnamese trail-watching squad and wiped it out. Estimating that a company of North Vietnamese occupied the hill (it turned out to be part of two regiments), Honeycutt sent his men up Ap Bia on May 12. The troopers quickly ran, as Specialist Four Jimmy Speers recalled, "into garbage": rocket grenades, fire from automatic weapons, lethal Claymore mines dangling from bushes and trees. The American attackers were forced to pull back. An assault by two companies on May 13 was also repulsed by the North Vietnamese. Honeycutt, a hard-nosed commander who often walks the point (the exposed forward position in a formation) with his battalion, did not give up. On May 14 the battalion, trying again, nearly made the top of the hill. But while Honeycutt, whose radio code name is "Black Jack," radioed, "Get up off your butts, get moving," the commander of the lead company was wounded and the attack petered out. \\//
After so many costly failures to gain Ap Bia's summit, some U.S. soldiers were dispirited. "There were lots of people in Bravo company [which had borne the brunt of the casualties] who were going to refuse to go up again," one soldier said. "There'd been low morale, but never before so low—because we felt it was all so senseless." Two other battalions from the 101st and a battalion from the Vietnamese 1st Division were brought up as reinforcements. On May 18, two battalions—all of their men loaded down with 40 magazines of rifle ammunition—tried again, and were thrown back just short of the crest in a blinding rainstorm and a shower of Communist grenades. One company commander stilled growing discontent among his men by telling them that "we are soldiers, and we have to do our job." He was scared, he said. "Everybody was scared. But we had to go back up." \\//
"Two days later, on May 20, after more than 20,000 artillery rounds and 155 air strikes had virtually denuded the top of 937, the assault force finally took the hill. The U.S. command claimed that 622 North Vietnamese had been killed, though only 182 weapons were found, indicating that the dead might actually be considerably fewer. Specialist Speers, who had begun the battle as a squad leader, came down as a platoon commander —such were the U.S. casualties. No Orders. The reaction in Washington came quickly. Mindful of similar assaults in the past—when hills were taken at high cost and then quickly abandoned—Senator Edward Kennedy charged that it was "both senseless and irresponsible to continue to send our young men to their deaths to capture hills and positions that have no relation to this conflict." After initial hesitation, the Army fought back, describing the battle as a "tremendous, gallant victory." Major General Melvin Zais, commander of the 101st, observed that "the only significance of Hill 937 was the fact that there were North Vietnamese on it. My mission was to destroy enemy forces and installations. We found the enemy on Hill 937, and that is where we fought him." Bypassing the hill would have made no military sense, he explained, because it would have given the Communists control of the high ground. "It's a myth that if we don't do anything, nothing will happen to us. It's not true. If we did pull back and were quiet, they'd kill us in the night." Zais said that he had received no orders to keep casualties* down. Could he not have ordered B-52 strikes against the hill, rather than committing his paratroopers? The general said "absolutely not"—air power could not possibly have done the job. \\//
"In strictly military terms, Zais' explanation made eminent sense, particularly since U.S. units are still operating under orders, first issued at the time of the bombing halt, to exert "maximum pressure" on their foe—part of the U.S. version of "fight and talk." Nixon, like Lyndon Johnson before him, probably feels that lack of such pressure could erode the allied negotiating position in Paris. But the war and domestic reaction to it have gone far beyond purely military considerations now, and the battle of Ap Bia raises the question of whether or not the U.S. should try to scale down the fighting by rescinding the maximum-pressure order. The Communists might follow suit and U.S. casualties might be reduced. All of that mattered little on Hill 937. When the battle was over—while helicopters flew out stacks of holed American helmets and bloody flak jackets—TIME Correspondent John Wilhelm found a piece of cardboard and a black 101st neckerchief pinned by a G.I. knife to a blackened tree trunk. "Hamburger Hill," a soldier had scrawled on the cardboard, and someone else had added the words, "Was it worth it?" \\//
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2014