Sei sulla pagina 1di 145

and terrorize many areas of the coun-

tryside." The enemy also could mass


troops, as he had in 1967 just south
of the demilitarized zone, in numbers
that were "formidable in a local sense."
These concentrations were by no means
decisive, and they offered opportuni-
ties for "careful exploitation of the
enemy's vulnerability and application
of our superior firepower and mobil-
ity." So declared the official Military
Assistance Command year-end review
of the war, which predicted that "our
gains in 1967 in South Vietnam" ought
to be increased many-fold in 1968." 2

The Battleground
The North Vietnamese buildup de-
tected by U .S. intelligence seemed
directed at the Khe Sanh combat base
located roughly halfway between the
16th and 17th parallels, north latitude,
in northwestern South Vietnam. (See
Map, p. 6). The base lay within
striking distance of not one but two
enemy sanctuaries-or partial sanc-
tuaries since American bombs had Vei, Khe Sanh, and Cam Lo to meet
fallen on both-Laos, just 16 kilo- Highway 1, South Vietnam's main
meters* due west, and the demilitarized north-south artery, near the town of
zone, within 25 kilometers to the north Dong Ha at the conflux of the Cua
at its nearest point. Geographically, Viet and Quang Tri Rivers. Khe Sanh
Khe Sanh lay in Quang Tri, northern- was one of several major bases along
most of South Vietnam's provinces. Highway 9 south of the demilitarized
Militarily and administratively, it was zone. Two of the others; the Rock
within I Corps which encompassed the Pile-named for a jagged hill nearby
five northern provinces of Quang Tri, -and Camp Carroll, lay to the north-
Thua Thien, Quang Nam, Quang Tin, east, some 20 to 25 kilometers from
and Quang Ngai.3 the combat base at Khe Sanh, and
figured in its defense. North of the
The Khe Sanh combat base, some village of Lang Vei, which lay astride
450 meters above sea level, stood on a Highway 9 roughly half the road dis-
plateau due north of a village that tance from Khe Sanh to the Laotian
bore the same name. A road linked frontier, U.S. Army Special Forces had
the base to Highway 9 which extended established a camp for a Civilian Ir-
eastward from beyond the Laotian regular Defense Group composed
border through the villages of Lang mainly of mountain tribesmen native
to the region. The highway, however,
followed a circuitous route that for a
long stretch paralleled the border, so
that straight line distances were about
3.3 kilometers from Lang Vei to the

~
Laotian boundary and 8 kilometers
from Lang Vei to Khe Sanh.
u.s. Marines patrol a hill near the Rock
North of Khe Sanh flowed the Pile (in background), November 1966
Rao Quan River, a tributary of the
Quang Tri, which provided water for
the base but was scarcely a defensive
barrier. South of this stream and west
It was to impede this infiltration
of the plateau on which the combat
that U .S. troops first moved into the
base stood were five important hills. Khe Sanh area. In 1962, Army Special
Identified by their height in meters, Forces, the Green Berets, began using
they were from east to west Hills 558,
the plateau between the Rao Quan and
861A, 861, 881 North, and 881 South.
Highway 9 as a camp for a Civilian
Across the river and directly north of
Irregular Defense Group. Khe Sanh
the base loomed Hills 950 and 1015.* was one of a network of border camps
Beyond them was a succession of hills that served primarily to gather intelli-
and valleys that were forested or cov- gence for operations in the remote
ered by dense undergrowth and which areas of South Vietnam. For some 50
offered excellent concealment for North months, Khe Sanh remained a preserve
Vietnamese troops and supply convoys of the Green Berets whose activities
moving into South Vietnam by way of sufficiently annoyed the enemy to gring
either Laos or the demilitarized zone. down a 120-mm mortar barrage in
January 1966. Some 9 months later, in
October 1966, a Marine battalion dug
* For detailed map, see page 24.
in on the plateau; in January 1967 the

s
placements that would require a mini- the runway seemed responsible, chan-
mum of lumber-which had to be neling warm moist air from the low-
delivered by air-for shoring. The lands onto the plateau where it en-
consistency of the earth proved an countered cooler air, became chilled,
advantage to the Leathernecks, even and created fog.8
though it also would simplify North
Vietnamese efforts at tunneling, a fav-
orite enemy technique in previous
Principal Commands and
sieges. Conditions within the main
Commanders
perimeter were not duplicated on the
nearby hills which had shallow layers
Such was the Khe Sanh battle-
of a more porous soil.7
field upon which tens of thousands of
Before long, the runway was again Americans, South Vietnamese, and
able to accommodate C-123's and C- North Vietnamese were destined to
130's, but nevertheless pilots bound fight. Operational control of the Amer-
for Khe Sanh frequently found the ican forces committed there, and of all
field unusable, primarily because of United States forces engaged in the
bad weather. During the early months Vietnam war, originated with Presi-
of the year, clouds and fog were preva- dent Lyndon B. Johnson, Commander
lent throughout the northwestern cor- in Chief of the nation's armed forces.
ner of Quang Tri province. The air- He exercised his authority through
field, however, seemed particularly Secretary of Defense Robert S. Mc-
bedeviled by fog. On many a morning Namara, Gen. Earle G. Wheeler, USA,
when visibility was excellent from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,
hilltops surrounding the base, the run- Adm. U. S. Grant Sharp, Commander
way remained shrouded in mist until in Chief, Pacific Command, and Gen-
sun and breeze combined to disperse eral Westmoreland, head of the Military
it. A deep ravine at the east end of Assistance Command in Vietnam.

President Johnson and Secretary McNamara were briefed on Khe Sanh, 29 January
1968, by General Wheeler (standing). Also present (I. to r.): Gen. H. K. Johnson, USAj
Adm. i. H. Moorer, USN; Gen. J. P. McConnell, USAF; and Gen. L. F. Chapman,
USMC
In January 1968 the individual Vietnam, eliminate the threat to gov-
members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff ernmental stability posed by Viet Cong
were Gen. Harold K. Johnson, Army guerrillas and North Vietnamese
Chief of Staff, Adm. Thomas H. regulars, and prepare South Vietna-
Moorer, Chief of Naval Operations, mese forces to assume the burden of
Gen. Leonard F. Chapman, Jr., com- their own national defense.
mandant of the Marine Corps, and
Gen. John P. McConnell, Air Force In carrying out his responsibilities,
Chief of Staff. Admiral Sharp worked through his
service component commanders and
As the principal commander in subordinate unified commanders. The
the Pacific at the time of the siege former were: Gen. John D. Ryan,
of Khe Sanh, Admiral Sharp was re- Commander in Chief, Pacific Air
sponsible for the planning and execu- Forces; Gen. Dwight E. Beach, Com-
tion of operations in sppport of the mander in Chief, U.S. Army Forces,
Republic of Vietnam. His responsibility Pacific; and Adm. John J. Hyland,
encompassed selective attacks against Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet.
targets in North Vietnam as well as General Westmoreland headed the uni-
operations against hostile forces in the fied, or multiservice, command in
South. The ultimate American goals South Vietnam, which functioned as
were to protect the people of South an operational headquarters despite the
word " Assistance" in its title.o

Besides serving as the senior


American commander in Vietnam,
Westmore1and had to work closely with
the head of the American diplomatic
mission in Saigon. That is, military
decisions could not be made without
taking into account U.S political,
economic, and social progr .tms, which

10
were under the aegis of the U.S. Am-
bassador. Because of the close rela-
tionship of civil and military matters,
frequent consultation between soldier
and diplomat was essential. "That this Admiral Hyland (I.) was Commander in
Chief, Pacific Fleet. General Beach (r.)
arrangement worked smoothly" was, in commanded U.S. Army Forces, Pacific
Westmoreland's opinion, "a tribute to
the succession of prominent and tal-
ented ambassadors" appointed to the
post. During 1968 the incumbent was responsibility. "We are," wrote Gen-
Ellsworth Bunker .10 eral Westmoreland, "now organized to
pursue a 'one war' strategy ." 11
Initially, the embassy had been
directly responsible for American sup- The U .S. Military Assistance
port of Saigon's pacification campaign Command embraced several subordi-
to extend its authority throughout nate organizations, among them Sev-
South Vietnam. General Westmoreland enth Air Force, Westmoreland's Air
was given increasing authority over Force component command. Gen.
this aspect of the war until, in May William W. Momyer headed the Sev-
1967, the embassy's pacification office enth Air Force and also served as
and the equivalent section of West- Westmoreland's Deputy for Air Oper-
morel and's staff combined to form a ations. From his headquarters at Tan
single agency within the assistance Son Nhut Air Base near Saigon, Mom-
command. Robert W. Komer, a former yer directed Air Force operations over
member of President Johnson's staff, the southernmost portion of North
assumed the rank of Ambassador and Vietnam and all of South Vietnam, in
became Westmoreland's Deputy for accordance with Westmoreland's di-
Civil Operations and Revolutionary De- rectives. Targets deeper in North Viet-
velopment Support. The American nam were attacked by Air Force planes
contribution to the pacification effort based in Thailand or Navy aircraft
thus became an exclusively military assigned to carriers of Task Force 77.

11
cally, the C-130 squadrons returned to
their home bases to be replaced by
other aircraft on temporary assign-
ment.
General Westmoreland (I.) and Ambassa-
dor Ellsworth Bunker (r.) greet General There were several reasons for this
Wheeler at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, upon
his arrival in February 1968 policy. Bases in Vietnam were crowded
and could not easily accommodate the
C-130 ground crews, administrators,
and equipment that would have been
part of a permanent change of sta-
Operational control of the Air Force tion. Since the C-130's flew missions
fighter-bombers in Thailand was throughout the western Pacific, Air
vested in Momyer, who employed Force planners preferred to adjust the
them as directed by Admiral Sharp number of aircraft in Southeast Asia
through General Ryan's headquarters according to existing needs rather than
in Hawaii. Admiral Sharp directed risk the possibility that planes per-
Task Force 77's strikes against the manently assigned there might be idle
North, operating through his Navy at a time when other C-130's were
component commander, Admiral Hy- being overworked in, for example,
land.12 South Korea. Another possible motive
for temporary assignment was to avoid
A component of Seventh Air
having to transfer housekeeping units
Force of vital importance to Khe
to an area where a troop ceiling was in
Sanh's defenders was the 834th Air
effect.13
Division, commanded by Brig. Gen.
Burl W. McLaughlin. When he as- Among the Vietnam war's dead-
sumed command of the air division in liest weapons was the Boeing B-52
N ovember 1967, he found himself con- Stratofortress, a massive 8-engine jet
fronted by one of those organizational designed originally for dropping nuclear
peculiarities so common to the war in bombs from high altitudes. Assigned to
Southeast Asia. Although the C-7 and the 3d Air Division with headquarters
C-123 squadrons serving in South at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam,
Vietnam were assigned to the 834th the planes operated from that island,
Air Division, the C-130's that did from U Tapao Air Base in Thailand,
most of the heavy hauling were on and occasionally from Kadena Air Base
temporary duty from the 315th Air on Okinawa. Maj. Gen. Selmon W.
Division and based in the Philippines, Wells commanded the air division dur-
Okinawa, Taiwan, or Japan. Periodi- ing the siege of Khe Sanh.

12
The Strategic Air Command was
responsible for providing B-52 strikes
as requested by General Westmoreland. Generals Ryan (I.) and Momyer are shown
Besides the bombers themselves, B-52 in a C-130 airborne battlefield command
operations required the deployment of and control center, monitoring a 1967
Hoeing KC-135 aerial tankers and tactical strike. Momyer pinned on his
fourth star at year's end.
ground radio relay stations. The com-
mand also assigned liaison officers to
Seventh Air Force headquarters to
coordinate the bombings with other
operations. "During the Khe Sahn Khe Sanh campaign was Vo Nguyen
emergency," reported General West- Giap, a one-time school teacher in
moreland, "1 slept in my headquarters Hanoi. Beginning in 1944 with 34
next to the combat operations center" men, two revolvers, 17 modern rifles,
and, after consulting intelligence and 14 flintlocks, and a machine gun, he
operations officers, "personally decided built the Viet Minh army and a dec-
where the B-52's would strike" 14
ade later led it to victory over the
Despite an influx of Army units French at Dien Bien Phu. Whether
into I Corps during 1967, operational Giap was physically present and ac-
responsibility rested with Lieutenant tively in command of North vietna-
General Cushman, commander of the mese forces at Khe Sanh is unknown.
III Marine Amphibious Force. The Some U .S. officials, General Momyer
equivalent of a corps commander uil- among them, believed he had entrusted
der General Westmoreland, he had at the attack to a subordinate. Whichever
his disposal the Ist and 3d Marine the case, as Defense Minister in the
Divisions and the I st Marine Aircraft Hanoi government, Giap exercised the
Wing. Maj. Gen. Rathvon McCall ultimate authority over North Viet-
Tompkins commanded the 3d Marine namese operations at Khe Sanh and
Division and provided the reinforced elsewhere.1G
regiment, the 26th Marines led by CoI.
David E. Lownds, that defended Khe The Enemy Masses
Sanh. All three officers had fought the
Japanese in the Pacific in World War General Westmoreland believed
the North Vietnamese would attack
II, and Lownds had also seen action in
Khe Sanh. Its nearness to enemy sanc-
Korea.15
tuaries and infiltration routes made it
The North Vietnamese general be- an inviting target, and American in-
lieved to be in personal charge of the te1ligence was able to verify a hostile

13
mounted 90-mm guns, 10 Ontos anti- The burden of keeping the Presi-
tank vehicles--each consisting of six dent informed about what the enemy
106-mm recoilless rifles mounted on a could do was carried by W. W. Rostow,
tracked chassis-and four "dusters" Mr. Johnson's Special Assistant for
mounting either two 40-mm cannon or National Security Affairs. To accom-
four .50-caliber machine guns. These plish this, Dr. Rostow, a well-known
last, designed almost a generation be- economic historian, set up an informal
fore as antiaircraft weapons, were intelligence evaluation section consisting
prized for their murderous effect of himself, an Air Force general, and
against ground troops.27 two civilians. The officer was Brig. Gen.
Robert N. Ginsburgh, a World War II
President Johnson Takes a Hand Army artillery officer and Harvard
Ph.D. who had transferred to the Air
The mounting threat to Khe Sanh Force in 1949 and was serving as
caught the eye of President Johnson. liaison agent between the Joint Chiefs
As early as mid-December 1967, he of Staff and the White House. One of
had become aware that an enemy of- the civilians was Art McCafferty, chief
fensive was in the making and that of the White House situation room;
a likely objective was Khe Sanh. There- the other was a secretary, Mary Lee
after, he took a personal interest in Chaternuck, who screened the avail-
the adequacy of American measures to able translations of captured docu-
protect the endangered base.28 ments.

~
Massing his forces against Khe Sanh,
General Giap (r.) tried unsuccessfully to
repeat his Dien Bien Phu victory

The Viet Minh buildup was com-


pleted by 13 March 1954, when Gen-
eral Giap inaugurated the siege with a
sudden and devastating artillery bar-
rage. After 2 days, the Viet Minh held
both outposts that were to have pro-
tected the airfield.
French headquarters at Hanoi
responded by scraping together as Comparison with Khe Sanh
many transports as it could-including The decision to defend Khe Sanh
twin-engine Fairchild Flying Boxcars
was made with Dien Bien Phu in mind
flown by American civilians-and
and the defenses of the Marine base
trying to parachute supplies, equipment, were strengthened accordingly. com-
and reinforcements* to sustain the gar-
parisons of the status of the Marines
rison. Air strikes, however, failed to at Khe Sanh and the plight of the
suppress murderous fire from Com-
French at Dien Bien Phu revealed that
munist antiaircraft guns that were ap-
the Americans enjoyed a marked super-
pearing all around the besieged valley.
iority in two essential r:ategories-fire-
These weapons prevented the trans-
power and logistic support.
ports from flying straight, level, and
low to parachute their loads into the To augment the firepower of the
gradually contracting drop zone. The Dien Bien Phu garrison, the French
French fought valiantly but the Viet were able to muster fewer than 200
Minh tightened the noose around the planes on a daily basis. These included
garrison. On 7 May 1954, having ex- such diverse types as Morane 500
pended their last ammunition, the light observation planes, compact
French were overrun by the enemy Grumman F8F fighters, and 4-engine
force. Incomplete records indicate that Consolidated Privateer patrol craft
French casualties during the battle that had evolved from the wartime
totaled about 5,000 dead, with some Liberator bomber .
10,000 troops, half of them wounded,
taken prisoner. Giap's losses were an In defense of Khe Sanh, the
Americans could draw upon a South-
estimated 23,000.
east Asia armada of 2,000 planes and
3,300 helicopters. These aircraft,
* A cumulative total of 16,500 de- moreover, benefited from reliable com-
fenders served at Dien Bien Phu during munications, and many of them had
the siege. the ability to destroy a target con-

19
cealed by fog or darkness using in-
ternal equipment-as in the case of the
Marine and Navy Grumman A-6's-
or by relying on radar direction pro-
Ab",.""m,"f21USAFC4J',fi"w"
vided by control facilities on the t, Nh, T,,"g A;";,ld m D"Omb', '952
ground. The ability of Army gunners t, b"""' F,,",h '"'"t ,p",",",

at the Rock Pile and Camp Carroll to Aft" th, f,'1 ,t D"" B"" Ph". ,;,
support the Marines with 175-mm t,",", V;ot Mmh t",p,~,,'mp'""d
b, F,,",h ,ffi""-",,, th, D'"m"
barrages promised the Khe Sanh garri- B"dg. mt, H,",; (b"'w ,)
son a source of assistance that could
not be affected by bombardments of the
Marine base itself.

The Marine advantage in logisti-


cal matters was even more striking
than the difference in firepower. Radar
parison, in 1954 the French flew a
enabled transports to parachute cargo
small number of Fairchild Packets,
accurately in any weather, a kind of
twin-engine transports with a 7-ton
versatility unknown at Dien Bien Phu.
maximum payload. They had relied
Cargo extraction equipment developed
primarily, however, upon old Douglas
by the U .S. Air Force also permitted
C-47's originally designed to carry 3
the delivery of items too bulky to drop
tons, the same maximum load as the
by parachute. In addition, the trans-
smallest and least used of the Air
ports flying to Khe Sanh in 1968 were
Force transports available to the Khe
vastly improved over those of 14 years
Sanh garrison.
earlier. The most efficient of the Air
Force transports was the C-130, These advantages seemed to out-
credited with a maximum payload in weigh by far the problems the Amer-
excess of 20 tons, which actually de- icans could expect to encounter. Like
livered an average of some 13 tons the French, they would have difficulty
per sortie during the battle. Also avail- silencing the cleverly camouflaged
able were Fairchild C-123's, considered antiaircraft guns certain to be encoun-
capable of carrying almost 8 tons, and tered at Khe Sanh. These weapons
de Havilland C- 7A's built to deliver could take a heavy toll of transports
3 tons of cargo. Like the C-130, both making deliveries to the Marine base.
of these types operated at about 60 In addition, the weather would de-
percent of rated capacity. By com- finitely be a handicap.5

20
Why Khe Sanh? to isolate a portion of I Corps-but
they were certain that Giap, whether
Khe Sanh was a valuable base directing operations from Hanoi or
for allied ground operations against actually in command on the battlefield,
infiltration routes entering South Viet- fully intended to repeat along Highway
nam and, as events would prove, for 9 the kind of triumph he won 14 years
attacks on North Vietnamese supply before in the wilderness far to the
dumps located across the Loatian north.6
border. By January 1968, the base
Yet the possibility existed that by
had evolved into a well organized
massing troops against Khe Sanh,
defensive position with a runway
General Giap or his field commander
that could accommodate the largest
might be putting a pistol to his head.
American tactical transports. More-
Ever since 1966, General Westmore-
over, the base had become a symbol
land had been fighting what amounted
of U.S. determination to see the war
to a war of attrition. He used his re-
through. Intelligence officers were con-
markably mobile forces to strike sud-
vinced that the enemy, aware of this
denly, attempting to engage the enemy
symbolism, would lay siege to the base
so that America's awesome firepower,
and attempt to overwhelm its defend-
everything from M-16 rifles to 8-52
ers in the same way he had crushed
bombers, could be brought to bear.
the French and their auxiliaries at
His objective was not to capture
Dien Bien Phu. Westmoreland's staff
hill or ridge line, but to destroy
recognized that an attack on Khe Sanh
enemy soldiers and hostile units.7
might be part of some even more
ambitious scheme-combined perhaps Since Giap would have to concen-
with a thrust from Laos through the A trate large numbers of troops in north-
Shau Valley toward Hue or Da Nang western South Vietnam, where there
were comparatively few civilians to agreement that had ended the war be-
inhibit the use of American air and tween the French and Viet Minh, and
artillery, Westmoreland felt free to finally "to limit the flow or substan-
make unstinting use of bombs and tially increase the cost of infiltrating
shells. Once this firepower had shat- men and supplies into South Vietnam."
tered the North Vietnamese divisions
the highly mobile U.S. ground troops The goal of the United States in
could exploit the situation. The Amer- fighting in the South, bombing the
icans, it seemed, might well be able to N orth, and pursuing other military
do at Khe Sanh what the French had measures was the negotiation of an
tried and failed to do at Dien Bien honorable peace that would enable the
Phu.8 nations of Southeast Asia to concen-
The war in South Vietnam, where trate upon economic and social needs.
intensive firepower was used against The President believed that successful
enemy forces, was but one part of a military operations in Southeast Asia
U.S. strategy that included bombing of would convince Ho Chi Minh, the
selected targets in North Vietnam. In leader of North Vietnam, that peace
March 1967, in a speech before the was preferable to fighting. Mr. Johnson
Tennessee legislature, President John- also maintained that American success
son listed three objectives of the bomb- would serve as "a concrete demonstra-
ing campaign. They were "to back our tion that aggression across intema-
fighting men by denying the enemy a tional frontiers or demarcation lines
sanctuary," to "exact a penalty" for is no longer an acceptable means of
North Vietnam's violations of the 1954 political change." 9

Ho Chi Minh, North


Vietnamese leader

22
(Above) Fuel dump hit by one of numerous North Vietnamese mortar attacks on Khe Sanh

(Below) Refugees being evacuated from Khe Sanh


Can Tho, one of many cities struck by In the old city, Vietnamese forces
the Viet Cong during the Tet offensive did most of the fighting, though a
Marine battalion assisted for a time. On
24 February, the flag of the Republic
of Vietnam was raised over the bat-
tered Citadel. Mopping up-killing or
the Perfume River--except for the capturing the North Vietnamese troops
South Vietnamese 1st Division's head- who held out among the rubble-
quarters. South of the river, the advis- lasted until 2 March.
ory compound of the U.S. Military
Assistance Command held out as did Recapturing Hue required 13 Viet-
a few other pockets of resistance. namese and three Marine battalions.
Five U.S. Army battalions assisted by
Help soon arrived: Elements of disrupting the enemy's routes of supply
two U.S. Marine battalions reached and reinforcement. Clouds and rain
the city on the 31st, punched through prevented air power from being of
to the assistance command compound, much assistance during the fighting.16
and crossed the river, only to fall back
when they could not breach the Cita- The extent of the enemy's Tet of-
del's massive walls. The Americans, fensive-that it was carried out on so
reinforced to regimental strength, con- vast a scale-had not been anticipated.
centrated on clearing the area south of According to General Ginsburgh, who
the river. In carrying out this task, was working with Dr. Rostow in the
which they completed on 9 February, White House situation room, "We
the Marines sought to minimize civil- probably did not pay sufficient cre-
ian casualties and destruction of prop- dence to. ..the element of their
erty by using tear gas and employing campaign which talked about an up-
direct fire weapons that could be aimed rising in the cities. We paid less atten-
precisely. The fighting south of the tion ...than we should have probably
river, the Marines reported, resulted because it didn't look like such a cam-
in 1,053 enemy dead. paign would be effective."17

29
Precisely what the enemy had in republic's cities, reporter Robert Shap-
mind as the goal of the Tet offensive len found destruction and despair
was not clear. The general uprising in worse than he had encountered during
which the North Vietnamese seem to World War II or the Korean conflict.
have placed their hopes, proved more Nearly 4,000 civilians had perished in
myth than reality. However, the no- the fighting there, 2,800 of them exe-
tion that a society or social class can cuted by the North Vietnamese and
be maneuvered into a situation where Viet Cong, and 90,000 persons re-
revolution is inevitable has been com- quired food or shelter. The Commun-
mon to both European and Asian ists, moreover, had looted the city
Communism. After their successful treasury, sabotaged public utilities, and
revolution in 1917, the victorious Bol- made away with important records.
sheviks had also expected a spontanf';- "Not only is Hue's spirit broken,"
ous and successful uprising of the Shaplen wrote, .'it is a bureaucratic
German proletariat. Similarly, the Viet- mess."
namese Communists may have really
believed the South Vietnamese people The administrative tangle was soon
were on the verge of revolt.18 unsnarled, however, and the destitute

Whatever Hanoi's actual hopes and


beliefs. the Tet Offensive failed to trig-
ger a general uprising. It did, however,
Aerial view of Hue shows the six"square-
disrupt South Vietnamese society, de- ki lometer Citadel surrounded by three-
stroying thousands of homes, and meter-thick walls. Shiny aluminum roofs
creating 470,000 frightened refugees show where dwellings were repaired or
whose needs for food and shelter replaced after the Tet offensive
threatened to inundate the Saigon gov-
ernment. At Hue, hardest hit of the

~
continue to patrol the Laos-South viet-
nam border.24

Actually patrols were few during


the late months of 1967. Reports of
extensive infiltration across the Xe
Pone River, which here separates Laos
from South Vietnam, convinced Capt.
Frank C. Willoughby, commander of
the Lang Vei Special Forces detach-
ment, that first priority should go to
improving the camp's defenses. The
wisdom of this decision was confirmed
when refugees from the Laotian bat-
talion driven from Ban Houaysan came
straggling into Lang Vei.

At the beginning of February, the


camp boasted excellent defenses against
infantry attack and some protection
against armor, which the enemy had
used at Ban Houaysan. The camp con-
sisted of five mutually supporting posi-
Lt. Cot. H. M. Dallman, USAF, landed at tions, each protected by barbed wire,
Khe Sanh with a load of ammunition
while the base was under enemy fire
trip flares, and claymore mines-the
last being electrically fired weapons,
mounted on standards, which spewed
fragments horizontally when triggered
by the defenders. The camp had its
own 4.2-inch, 81-mm, and 60-mm
Maj. Gerold 0. Johnson, set a course mortars and could call for fire support
for Da Nang where the plane landed from Marine batteries at Khe Sanh
safely.23 and from Army artillery farther to the
east. Antitank defenses consisted of
Although the shelling of Khe Sanh
two 106-mm recoilless rifles, four 57-
and its outposts continued, 3 days
mm recoilless weapons which were of
elapsed before the enemy again probed little value against stoutly armored ve-
Marine defenses. During the interim,
hicles, and 100 M-72 light antitank
he struck for a second time at the Lang
assault weapons-disposable, preloaded
Vei Special Forces camp. Some 10
rocket launchers that in effect were
months earlier, in May 1967, enemy
I-shot bazookas-which proved less
soldiers disguised as South vietnam-
than reliable in combat.
ese irregulars had managed to enter
the camp. Though they failed to cap- During the enemy buildup that
ture it. the episode did persuade the preceded the siege of Khe Sanh, Gen-
Green Berets that the existing camp- eral Westmoreland's headquarters
site was ill chosen. To obtain better asked III Marine Amphibious Force
fields of observation and fire, Special and the 5th Special Forces Group to
Forces headquarters at Da Nang de- review their plans for both fire support
cided to rebuild the camp on Highway and reinforcement of Lang Vei. At
9 about 1,000 meters west of the old Khe Sanh Colonel Lownds ke'pt two
site. From this new location, South rifle companies in readiness to move
Vietnamese and Montagnards could westward to the Special Forces camp

32.
A Nayy A-1 Skyraider is positioned for made a normal landing, but before
launch from the attack carrier USS Coral worried onlookers could relax, the roll-
Sea to fly combat missions oyer Vietnam
ing Lockheed burst into flame and
veered from the runway. Pilot and co-
pilot escaped through an overhead
hatch, suffering only minor burns, and
some 500 meters west of the battalion's firefighters rescued at least six passen-
main position. Despite inroads by gers or crewmen who were more seri-
North Vietnamese foot soldiers, the ously hurt. Six others burned to
Marines clung to part of the outpost, death.32
and a counterattack after sunrise on 9
February routed the enemy. In this This was the most spectacular and
action, the last major ground attack deadliest in a series of incidents in
for some 2 week:;, the Marines lost 21 which transports, either landing or un-
killed but claimed at least 124 North loading, were hit by gunfire or shell
Vietnamese dead.31 fragments, Through 10 February, seven
Air Force C-130's had thus been
Besides continuing to pummel Khe damaged, though none were de-
Sanh's ground forces with mortars,
stroyed.3:1
rockets, and artillery, the enemy made
life exceedingly dangerous for the The first of the two Hercules
crews of cargo planes bringing in transports hit on 11 February was im-
supplies. On 11 February, a Marine mobilized but escaped destruction be-
KC-130F, loaded with flexible blad- cause of the bravery and skill displayed
ders containing jet fuel for use in by the pilot, Capt. Edwin Jenks, his
turbine-powered Marine helicopters, crew, a detachment of airmen sta-
was hit by enemy fire as it approached tioned at Khe Sanh, and a mechanic
the runway. Fuel appeared to be flown to the Marine base from Da
streaming from the plane as the pilot Nang. Captain Jenks' aircraft came

35
under fire as soon as it had begun Jenks realized that he could not wait
unloading. Shell fragments severed a for a second hydraulic component to be
hydraulic line in the tail section, and shipped to Khe Sanh, since each hour
the leaking fluid caught fire. Captain spent on the ground multiplied the
Jenks and his crewmen escaped from chances that the $2.5 million aircraft
the crippled plane and, acting on the would be destroyed. The pilot there-
instructions of Lt. Col. William R. fore decided to try flying the C-130 to
Smith, senior Air Force officer at the Da N ang, after the mechanic had
base, took cover from the shells that made emergency repairs using tools
continued to fall within the Marine and materials available at Khe Sanh.
perimeter .
The flight to Da Nang would be a
SSgt. Robert Mahaffy, a member dangerous task since a loss of fluid
of Lieutenant Colonel Smith's Air Force from the patched hydraulic system at a
detachment, aided by another airman, critical moment could mean death for
used a fire extinguisher .to put out the all on board. Near noon on 13 Feb-
flames. However, the airman holding ruary the repairs were finished. Jenks
the nozzle was overcome by the chemi- and his crew boarded the plane for a
cal fumes and let it slip from his grasp. takeoff attempt. They succeeded in
The hose flopped about, spraying coaxing the craft into the air, taking
chemicals in the sergeant's face and advantage of wretched w~ather--a 50-
blinding him. Smith led Mahaffy to foot ceiling and horizontal visibility
the nearby Marine aid station where a limited to 1,000 feet-to frustrate
member of the Navy medical corps enemy gun crews. When the C-130 was
washed out his eyes. Neither of the two safely on the ground at Da Nang,
men suffered permanent injury. mechanics counted 242 holes in the
battered transport.34
Once the flames were out and the
injured cared for, Lieutenant Colonel By this time General Momyer
Smith moved Captain Jenks and the had become concerned about the dan-
others from the C-130 to an under- ger to which the C-130's were being
ground bunker where he distributed exposed in landing at Khe Sanh. The
among them the detachment's last few rugged, powerful Lockheeds were, as
cans of beer. he later termed them, a "make or break
resource" too valuable to risk unneces-
Next, Smith radioed Da Nang for
sarily. From 12 February through the
an experienced mechanic and a "rud-
end of March, Air Force C-130's
der package" to replace the damaged
landed at the Marine base on only four
portion of the transport's hydraulic
days, though they continued to deliver
system. The mechanic arrived but the
cargo by parachute or by means of
parts somehow went astray. Captain extraction systems. Fairchild C-123K's,

Lt. Col. w. R. Smith,


USAF, in front of
Khe Sanh's base
operations and
control tower
mentators to compare, somewhat be- Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., historian
latedly, the situation at Khe Sanh with and onetime member of President John
conditions at Dien Bien Phu. Life F. Kennedy's staff, wrote an open let-
magazine, for example, listed three ter urging that: "Whatever we do, we
events that had "cast doubt on the use- must not re-enact Dien Bien Phu." Mr.
fulness of our military might as an
instrument of our Asian policies. " Schlesinger's letter, printed in the
Washington Post on 22 March, dis-
They were North Korea's capture of missed as folly the notion that an
the U.S. intelligence ship Pueblo on 23 American-held Khe S!'oh could have
January 1968, the Tet offensive, and any effect on infiltration as long as the
the "looming bloodbath at Khe Marines were immobilized there. After
Sanb." ~o
noting that air power had thus far

View of Khe Sanh from the cockpit of a C-130 transport delivering supplies to U.S.
Marines
feet, or skimmed low over the airstrip Landing under Fire
to use a cargo extraction system.
Enemy gunners would even fire through When the fight for Khe Sanh be-
smokescreens into the flight path they gan, Air Force transports and Marine
thought an approaching cargo craft aerial tankers were able to land to
might follow. American strike aircraft unload their passengers and cargo. For
helped reduce the volume and accur- a short time after destruction of the
acy of flak but could not silence the ammunition dump on 21 January, dam-
guns completely. One C-130 navigator, age to the runway closed the field to
who served for more than a year in planes larger than C-123's, but the C-
l30's soon were back on the job. As
South Vietnam, stated that the "ground-
the tempo of combat picked up, land-
to-air fire was. ..heavier and closer
to the aircraft during a landing ap- ings became increasingly hazardous
proach at Khe Sanh than at any other until the Marines were calling the
time and place" during his tour.4 transports "mortar magnets" and
"rocket bait" because they unfailingly
Even before the North Vietnam- attracted hostile fire as they taxied to
ese encirclement, landing a C-130 at the unloading area.6
Khe Sanh was no easy task. In good
Even after the aircraft had landed
weather pilots sometimes found it dif-
ficult to judge distance when their final safely, men and planes remained vul-
nerable to small arms and shell fire.
approach carried them over the deep
Crews of C-123K's enjoyed a slight
ravine at the east end of the runway.
In bad weather, Khe Sanh became sur- advantage over those who flew the
larger C-130's. The lighter Fairchild
prisingly hard to locate. As late as
could lose enough momentum within
December 1967, airborne radar had
1,400 feet of touching down near the
picked up a fairly good return from
eastern threshold of the runway to per-
structures built on the surface of the
mit a 90-degree turn. Seldom did one
plateau, but as the likelihood of a
of these planes miss the first of two
prolonged b~ttle increased, the Ma-
turnoffs that led to the unloading area,
rines burrowed into the soil, and the
echo became progressively poorer.5

Fortunately, pilots could rely for


assistance on a ground controlled ape
proach radar installed at Khe Sanh,
operated by a MariQe air traffic control
unit. Another Marine radar, a TPQ-IO
set, was available in case of emergency.
An air support radar team normally
used the TPQ-10 to direct air strikes.

General McLaughlin, commander, 834th


Air Division. He won his second star in
August 1968

43
a narrow metal-surfaced lane parallel tained a locking system that held the
to the main runway and located near its loads firmly in place. The C-123's had
western terminus. no such locking device; its pallets were
secured by chains.
The Lockheeds, however, required
a roll of almost 2,000 feet which After a transport landed, the
meant that these Hercules transports load master could attach the metal run-
frequently screeched past both turn- ners and lower the ramp as the pilot
otIs, had to continue to the west end taxied toward the unloading area. At
of the runway, risk hits from enemy Khe Sanh, however, the procedure was
small arms while turning around, and different. Usually a member of the Air
taxi back to one of the exits. Thus, the Force detachment at the base selected
enemy had repeated opportunities to a pair of runners stored beside the
destroy the C-130's.7 taxiway and attached them to the plane.
This was necessary because the run-
The transport crews used a tech-
ners were in short supply and might
nique called "speed otIloading" to re-
not be carried by every transport land-
duce the time they spent on the ground
ing at the base.
at Khe Sanh. The key piece of equip-
ment was a pair of 7-foot metal run- In the unloading area. the load-
ners fitted to the ramp at the rear of master unlocked the pallets or released
the cargo compartment. Within that the chains so that the forward motion
compartment, the individually bundled of the aircraft-aided if necessary by
loads were attached to pallets, measur- a vigorous shove-sent the pallets to
ing 108 by 88 inches, which rested the rear of the cargo compartment out
upon metal rollers built into the floor. the open hatch, and down the ramp to
Two parallel guide rails kept the plat- the ground. Unloading a transport with
forms centered and, on C-130's, con- forklifts could take between 5 and 10

44
Being struck by a bullet or shell
fragment was not the only hazard
awaiting aircraft landing at Khe Sanh.
Shells bursting on the runway left
shards from their casings and jagged
chunks of metal planking that could
pierce the tires of taxiing planes.
Among the most important work done
by Air Force personnel at Khe Sanh
was changing tires, often at consider-
able risk, so that the transports could
get back into the air before shells or
rockets converted them to junk. Some
minutes; speed offloading could be indication of the rigors of landing at
finished in as little as half a minute. the base may be gleaned from the fact
that during the 10-week siege the life
Both C-123's and C-130's used the expectancy of C-130 tires in use
same pallets, made of aluminum and throughout Vietnam declined from 30
plywood for a standard cargo handling sorties to 18}0
system. The cargo hold in the C-123
The dangers encountered on the
was too narrow to accommodate the
108-inch width of the pauel. Since the ground by the C-130's, the newest and
plane could handle a width of 88 largest Air Force tactical transports,
inches, the platforms were simply persuaded General Momyer to forbid
landing the valuable planes at Khe
turned and loaded sideways.8
Sanh, a ban that remained in force
Khe Sanh Marines found the light from 12 through 25 February. During
and sturdy platforms ideal for use in this period, 58 C-123K sorties landed
roofing bunkers. Because incoming almost 300 tons of cargo, and C- 7 A's
planes seldom had time to reclaim the landed eight times to deliver 13 tons.
empty pallets, a large number of the On 25 February, the C-130's resumed
expensive platforms, worth roughly landing, but only until the end of the
$350 each, accumulated near the taxi- month. This 4-day burst of activity
way. The Air Force contingent at the consisted of 14 C-130 landings which
base tried, with the help of Marine deposited slightly more than 160 tons
guards, to prevent their loss but the in the Khe Sanh unloading area. Dur-
prevailing fog made this extremely dif- ing March, C-123K's were the only
ficult. Visibility often was so limited cargo craft to touch down at the Ma-
that individuals could spirit away the rine base. The C-130's, however, con-
platforms with practically no likelihood tinued to deliver cargo either by para-
of being detected.9 chute or using an extraction system.11

45
loads extracted from the C-130's. Lt.
Col. William R. Smith, USAF, mis-
sion commander at this time, went to
the heart of the matter when he asked :
Why save the runway and lose Khe
Sanh? The defenders agreed to use The Air Force employed a low altitude
the extraction system and, as they parachute extraction system (above) and
a ground proximity extraction system
had feared, within 4 weeks the heavily-
(lower r.) to resupply Khe Sanh
loaded pallets were playing havoc with
the runway. Nearly every load gouged
out portions of the surface planking
and bent the surviving metal so badly
that it could not be straightened. The
damage was confined, however, to a
single 700-foot section at the far west- To supplement or, if necessary, re-
ern end of the runway and did not place the parachute extraction system,
pose a threat to the use of the air- General McLaughlin and his advisers
strip.32 recommended the ground proximity ex-
Low altitude parachute extractions traction system, in which cargo was
continued throughout the siege, with yanked from a rolling aircraft when
the last two sorties being flown on 2 a hook extending from the cargo com-
April. By that time, however, the 834th partment engaged an arrester cable
Air Division had introduced a sup- rigged across the runway .34
plementary method of cargo extrac- In 1966, the Air Force and Army
tion. The change was necessary be- had retired an experimental ground
cause of a lack of equipment for low proximity extraction system and or-
altitude parachute extractions. The elec- dered replacement equipment that had
trical gear used to fire the squib that been redesigned to eliminate the defects
released the reefing line was critically that had appeared during testing. Be-
scarce and there was a less acute short- cause the low altitude parachute extrac-
age of the special steel pallets.3:1 tion system seemed more versatile, the

S2
new gear was never used. Fortunately, of the plane. As soon as the pallet was
10 sets were located, including one in gone, the pilot accelerated and took
the hands of the manufacturer, and Off.37
flown to the western Pacific.35

The Army logistic specialists who However, an unexpected problem


would rig the loads to be extracted arose on this first mission. The Ma-
were less than enthusiastic about the rines who installed the arrester mecha-
assignment. No manuals existed on how nism had drawn fire and were driven
the system should function but the to cover before finishing the job. As a
Army agreed to do what it could using result, the load-though probably
standard pallets and following what- weighing less than the usual 25,000
ever rigging procedures might emanate pounds-uprooted the moorings that
from General McLaughlin's headquar- held the cable in place. Luckily, the
ters. A message from the Office of the extraction equipment did its job prior
Commanding General. U.S. Army. to being itself extracted.38
Vietnam, warned the 834th Air Di-
vision that "the U .S. Army cannot In a congested area like the main
assume/share responsibility for the per- base, the ground proximity extraction
formance of the system to include dam- system had definite advantages over
age to aircraft, ground personnel and low altitude parachute extraction. With
the hook and cable arrangement, the
facilities, or delivered materiel."36
load was always under control. The pal-
After a brief training session at let could not escape from the cargo
Naha Air Base, Okinawa, the C-130 compartment unless the hook was en-
crews were ready to try the extraction gaged, and once the load was on the
equipment just installed at Khe Sanh. ground the arrester equipment checked
On 30 March, a C-130 approached the its movement. This method, then, was
airstrip, touched down, and rolled safer than parachute extraction because
swiftly along the runway. A boom, to there was no way to release the pallet
which a hook was attached, extended too late or too soon, and no parachute
from a loaded pallet through the open- to malfunction. Also, the cargo came
ing at the rear of the cargo compart- to rest each time in almost the same
ment. The huge transport rolled across place, thus eliminating even the remote
an arresting cable which then rose to possibility of widespread damage to
engage the hook and pull the load out the runway surface.39

~
An airman of the
combat control
team at Khe Sanh
catches 40 winks
between duties
at the beleaguered
outpost

units had gathered supplies dumped platforms used in the container de-
along the beach and moved them to livery system. Marine helicopters then
storage areas. The airmen, who were flew the parachutes out of Khe Sanh,
commanded by an officer, were mem- but until space was available in out-
bers of an aerial port mobility team bound transports, the platforms had
consisting of 7 to 14 enlisted men. to be stored near the taxiway. Accord-
The mobility team helped plan out- ing to an Air Force officer, these ply-
bound loads, prepared manifests for wood pallets were fairly safe from the
cargo and passengers departing from larcenous impulses of Khe Sanh's de-
Khe Sanh, and assisted in unloading fenders. Like the platforms used with
and recovering cargo.44 parachute extraction gear, they were
awkward to carry Off.46
On 11 March, North Vietnamese
forward observers began directing fire Even though they were not re-
into the drop zone whenever Marine sponsible for clearing the drop zone,
retrieval teams moved onto it. Lieu- airmen frequently ventured into it in
tenant Colonel Davis, who assumed the quest of what Lieutenant Colonel Davis
post of mission commander shortly called "supplemental rations or 'good-
ies' " that were attached to bundles
after the enemy adopted these tactics,
declared that the drop zone had be- delivered by parachute. If no airman
come "probably the most hazardous was present to remove these packages,
area at Khe Sanh." 45 the contents went to the Marines in-
stead of to the intended recipients.
Nevertheless, members of Com- Rather than have his men continue to
pany A, 3d Shore Party Battalion, did risk death or injury in the drop zone,
most of their work on that dangerous he recommended that luxuries of this
ground. These Marines employed fork- kind be delivered by the C-123K's that
lifts and mechanical mules to recover landed atop the plateau and were un-
supplies that landed in the drop zone. loaded by the aerial port mobility
They also retrieved the parachutes and team.47

55
2-seat trainer version of the Skyhawk, the helicopter gunships stood ready to
was in charge. He checked the weather rescue the crew of any that might
around Khe Sanh and reported if the fall victim to enemy fire. Seldom was
ceiling permitted effective flak sup- this necessary. for adequate escort dras-
pression. If the report was favorable, tically reduced CH-46 losses.52
a dozen A-4's took off from Chu Lai,
while 12 to 16 twin-rotor CH-46 heli- At times. the weather had com-
copters and their escort of UH-l gun- pletely isolated the outposts. Early in
ships left Quang Tri City for Dong Ha February. Marines on Hill 881S went
where the larger helicopters loaded without food for 3 days until the fog
the cargo destined for the outposts. dissipated. Similarly Hill 950 was
swathed in clouds for 9 days during
The helicopters left Dortg Ha on which no helicopter could land. The
a schedule that would bring them over men exhausted their supply of water
their destination just about the time and a patrol had to probe the enemy-
the A-4 's had hit known and suspected infested wilderness to fill canteens at a
antiaircraft emplacements with bombs, stream. Fortunately. the weather be-
napalm, and tear gas. Two A-4's laid a gan improving as the Super Gaggle
smoke screen to conceal the final ap- commenced operating.53
proach of the helicopters, during which
four other Skyhawks again battered the
North Vietnamese with cannon, bombs,
and rockets. As the CH-46's, their loads
A Marine helicopter heads for outposts
stowed in nets that swayed beneath on a resupply mission
the fuselage, approached and departed,
Although they made their greatest
contribution to the supply effort in Tour of duty over, U.S. Marines prepare
sustaining the outposts, Marine heli- to board an Air Force C-130 at Khe Sanh
copter pilots flew in and out of Khe
Sanh throughout the battle. They
brought in reinfofcements during the
buildup, delivered fragile items that
could not be parachuted, and carried The men who planned and exe-
away the wounded, sometimes flying cuted this impressive effort paid a price
them to a hospital ship off the coast.54 both in lives and in planes destroyed.
Forty-four passengers and an Air Force
The Task Completed crew of four perished in the 6 March
crash of the C-123 hit by ground fire
The magnitude of the Khe Sanh
as it neared Khe Sanh. Two other
airlift was staggering. The number of
C-123's fell victim to mortar fire
supply drops made there by 15 March
while on the ground at the combat
exceeded the total for all of Vietnam
base, and eight planes of this type
before that time. Between 21 January
sustained varying degrees of battle
and 8 April. 8.120 tons of cargo were
damage during supply missions. There
parachuted to the defenders in 601 in-
was, however, no further loss of life
dividual sorties by C-123's and C-130's.
among C-123 crews or passengers.
Lockheed C-130's landed 273 times,
None of the jealously-hoarded C-130's
C-123's 179 times, and C-7's eight
was destroyed, but at least 18 incurred
times to unload a grand total of 4,310
danlage and two passengers were killed
tons of cargo and 2,676 passengers.
as they left their plane. The few C- 7's
Flown out of the base were 1,574 per-
that participated emerged unscathed as
sons, at least 306 of them wounded.
did their crews.56
Air Force C-130's took part in 15
ground proximity extractions and 52 During the action, Marine helicop-
low altitude parachute extractions.55 ters transported 14,562 passengers and

58
4,661 tons of cargo to the main base the lO February crash of a KC-13O
and its satellite outposts. Losses among which killed six men.57
helicopters bound for the outpost line These statistics, fragmentary
numbered as many as three in a single though they are, support two conclu-
day until a deadlier escort was pro- sions. First, Air Force cargo planes
vided. After the introduction of the sustained the main base until troops
Super Gaggle, only two cargo-carrying were available to open Highway 9.
helicopters succumbed to hostile gun- Second, Khe Sanh's outposts could not
ners. The most serious accident suffered have survived except for Marine heli-
by Marine aviation at Khe Sanh was copters.

59

~
inland. Unfortunately, the weather was
T-28 (above) and Marine Corps A-6 (be- so bad that visual strikes were possible
low) strike aircraft joined the fight at only on an average of 3 days per
Khe Sanh month during the first 3 months of the
year. Of the three, February was the
most dismal, offering weather that Ad-
miral Sharp characterized as the worst
since systematic bombing of North viet-
riant. But the Leatherneck system had nam began back in 1965.6
two main advantages: it engaged the Naval aviators managed, however,
plane after a comparatively short roll, to conduct successfulstrikes during Feb-
thus reducing the chance of skidding ruary. One target was a radio and radar
off the wet pavement; and it could be installation that controlled the Russian-
reset in half a minute, rather than the built interceptors defending Haiphong
10 minutes it was taking to disengage and Hanoi. Carrier-based Grumman
one aircraft and ready the Air Force A-6's, with all-weather bombing equip-
equipment to receive another. The M- ment, shattered this link in the ene-
21, therefore, was much better suited my's defenses.7
to handling formations of F-4's when
the planes had to land in rapid suc- Despite attacks such as this one,
cession.5 the storms that shrouded the North
forced a reduction in the number of
The Navy's air contribution at Navy sorties dispatched there and re-
Khe Sanh reflected developments in leased planes and munitions for use in
North Vietnam. In January 1968 car- defense of Khe Sanh. As a result, dur-
rier planes and Air. Force fighter- ing February Task Force 77 was able
bombers were engaged in a campaign to divert some 2,800 of its 3,672
to isolate the port of Haiphong by sev- planned sorties-about 77 percent-
ering the transportation lines leading against enemy targets in northern South
Khe Sanh in any but the worst If an escort was both necessary
weather.16 and available, forward air controllers
took positions on each side of the
In preparing to escort a supply
transport. Their job was to locate pre-
mission into Khe Sanh, planners first
viously uncharted gun positions, direct
drew on their maps a line indicating
fighter-bombers against them, and also
the ground track of a cargo plane fro1t1
to prevent the fighter escort from ac-
the time that it dropped below 3,500
cidentally bombing the Marines. The
feet above ground level until it regained
fighters, which flew a racetrack pattern
that altitude after takeoff. On the ba-
around the cargo craft, responded to
sis of this line, they then calculated
instructions radioed from the two for-
the potential danger area, the terrain
ward air controllers and also attacked
from which a 37-mm gun could hit a
known antiaircraft sites within range
plane performing a particular mission-
of the transport's flightpath. These
either landing, parachuting cargo, or
strikes, made with 20-mm cannon and
using an extraction system.
fragmentation bombs, usually began
A typical escort mission began when the plane being escorted was
when the transpprt made rendezvous about 1,500 feet above the ground}7
with fighters and observation craft some If neither fog nor clouds offered
18 miles from Khe Sanh. All the planes
concealment, two fighters put down
checked in with an Air Force airborne
smokescreens on both sides of the in-
command and control center which is-
coming transport thrQughout the last
sued last-minute instructions. In theory,
3 miles of its approach. Flying at 480
transports could proceed unescorted knots no more than 300 feet above the
only when clouds or fog denied the ene- earth, each fighter carried four smoke
my visual observation Qf the approaches dispensers. This number provided a
to the airfield. If visibility was good, margin in case of malfunction, since
they were to receive an escort even
three dispensers would create an ade-
though it was necessary to wait for quate screeri.18
fighter protection. In actual practice,
however, the senior Air Force officer on The approach of a transport was
the ground at Khe Sanh and the pilot not the only occasion when antiaircraft
of the incoming plane evaluated the sites came under attack. During the
probable intensity of hostile fire and siege of Khe Sanh, every identified 37-
decided whether or not to await an mm emplacement was repeatedly hit
escort if none was on hand. Seldom until intelligence showed the gun to
did the cargo planes postpone their be destroyed or abandoned. Weapons
approach. of lesser size were attacked whenever

An A-4 Skyhawk
aboard the
USS Coral Sea

63
A USAF F-4 Phantom
enroute to target

they posed a threat to American air- namese MiG's by bombing those air-
craft. In all, more than 300 antiaircraft fields that the short range enemy fight-
positions were reported destroyed.19 ers would have had to use.21
The introduction of radar-directed
surface-to-air missiles could have great- The Falconers
ly complicated the task of defending Air Force forward air controllers
Khe Sanh, but none of these weapons
-tactical air controllers ( airborne) in
appeared in the immediate vicinity of Marine parlance-played a role simi-
the base.In mid-January, four such mis- lar to that of the medieval huntsman
siles proved ineffectual against B-52's who sighted his prey, removed the hood
flying over the demilitarized zone. There from his trained falcon, and launched
were no similar incidents around Khe it to make the kill. These controllers
Sanh, and no further missiles were
were essential to the successful defense
spotted near the demarcation line until of Khe Sanh. In general, tactical air-
late in May.20 craft sent to assist the Marines re-
Enemy fighters might have inter- ported initially to the airborne battle-
vened with deadly effect against the field command and control center
vital but vulnerable transports, a pos- which then assigned them to forward
sibility that American commanders kept air controllers on station over the base.
always in mind. When considered nec- Although more than one controller was
essary, cannon-equipped Air Force usually on hand, the volume of aerial
F-4's that had bombed targets near traffic WIlS such that flights of fighters
Khe Sanh remained in the area to often had to wait their turn to attack.
provide combat air patrol against any In these circumstances, the planes en-
incursion from the North. A fighter tered a holding pattern-which on oc-
unit commander, who took part in these casion could extend as high as 35,000
missions, claimed that the F-4's burned feet-and gradually descendedas plane
so much fuel prior to dropping their after plane dropped its bombs.22
ordnance that only one flight in seven When the fight fQr Khe Sanh be-
could furnish effective fighter cover. gan, four Air Force light observation
The practice of designating a combat planes, were operating from the base
air patrol, with no bombing assign- airfield. One was a Cessna 0-1, a sin-
ment, was preferable. Carrier planes gle-engine, high-wing monoplane used
helped meet the threat of North Viet- by both the Air Force and M,arine

64
Corps. The others were 0-2A's, also troops, and from which direction at-
high-wing monoplanes but constructed tacking aircraft should make their runs.
with twin booms extending rearward He then used a white phosphorous
from the wings to the horizontal sta- rocket or perhaps a smoke grenade to
bilizer. This planform, vaguely remi- mark the target, and the strike com-
niscent of the World War II Lockheed menced.24
P-38, permitted the mounting of two
engines, tractor and pusher, fore and In addition to bad weather and
aft of a stubby fuselage. All four hostile fire, forward air controllers also
planes sustained damage during the had to worry about friendly artillery.
initial bombardment but were flown Careful coordination was necessary to
to safety. Despite the departure of the avoid straying into the path of shells
light aircraft, two Air Force officers, fired from Camp Carroll, the Rockpile,
Majors Milton Hartenbower and Rich- or the Marine base itself.25
ard Keskinen, remained behind to
serve as air liaison officers in Colonel Because of the Tet offensive and
Lownds' headquarters.23 the siege of Khe Sanh, air operations
beyond South Vietnam's borders de-
In the best of weather, the for- clined in relative importance. Pilots
ward air controller's job was difficult who had been flying interdiction mis-
and dangerous. Flying through the sions outside the country were diverted
clouds which had prevailed during the to attack targets only a short distance
flight at Lang Vei, the controller had from friendly positions.26
to penetrate the overcast, which might
be concealing a hilltop or ridge line, When all went well, an air strike
identify a target that could well be directed by a forward air controller
shooting at him, climb above the cloud could achieve spectacular destruction.
cover, and lead the waiting fighters One controller reported the existence
downward through the murk. west of Khe Sanh of what appeared
to be an ammuniti~n supply point for
Beneath the overcast, the control- enemy artillery. He summoned fight-
ler radioed instructions to the attack- ers beneath an over~astto strafe, launch
ing planes. He told them what the tar- rockets, and drop napalm. and was
get was-a bunker, perhaps, or rewarded by the sight of hundreds of
trenches-whether it was defended, secondary explosions as crate4 rounds
where it lay in relation to friendly detonated.21

Soviet-built
37-mm anti.
aircraft
gun used
against
tactical air-
craft at
Khe Sanh
On the morning of 8 February, situation dictated ap attack to prevent
a forward air controller was responsible the movement of supplies.28
for stopping a proposed bombardment
that would surely have killed innocent
civilians. Word had reached Khe Sanh Radar Control
that several hundred people were mov- Two types of radar were used to
ing westward along Highway 9 from control strikes in defense of Khe Sanh:
the vicinity of the Marine base toward the Ma(ine TPQ-10 located at the base,
the ruins of the Special Forces camp and the Air Force Combat Skyspot sys-
at Lang Vei. The fact that they were tem for which there were several sta-
bucking the normal tide of refugees tions in Southeast Asia. The Marine
aroused suspicion and gave rise to talk radar operated 20 hours per day. Major
of shelling the column. Luckily, Air Hartenbower, an Air Force Liaison
Force Captain Charles Rushforth "went officer at Khe Sanh, was generous in his
down and made a good low pass to see praise of the Marine operators who rou-
who they were." Skimming just above tinely directed strikes as close as 500
the treetops, he determined that these meters from friendly troops. These
were actual refugees, "mostly old men skilled specialists, he believed, could
and women and children," who evi- bring the strikes to within 50 meters
dently "figured they could go back to of Marine positions in an emergency.
Lang Vei village or maybe even back The major maintained that without this
into Laos." radar, close-in strikes would have been
impossible in bad weather.29
Unfortunately, the enemy used
war victims such as these for his own The other radar was the Air Force
purposes, so that a forward air con- MSQ-77 Combat Skyspot which had
troller might find himself in a situation been operating in Southeast Asia for
where his best instincts had to yield almost 2 years. Back in 1966, the Viet
to military necessity. Such was the case Cong had taken advantage of impos-
on 10 February when a second column sible flying weather to overrun a Spe-
of refugees appeared on Highway 9. cial Forces camp in the A Shau Valley.
Aerial reconnaissance revealed North During the fight for the important pa-
Vietnamese soldiers among the non- trol base, the only assistance available
combatants forcing them to act as sup- to fighter-bomber pilots was that pro-
ply porters. The immediate military vided by forward air controllers flying
0-1's. A ceiling of 300 to 500 feet the computer furnished the heading, al-
complicated the controllers' task of titude, and airspeed that the plane
guiding strike aircraft to worthwhile should maintain. As the craft ap-
targets and also restricted the jets to proached that point in the sky at which
shallow approaches in which the pilots its bombs would have to be released
could not bomb with the required ac- in order to hit the target, the operator
curacy. The failure of tactical aviation on the ground began a countdown.
in this action led to the adoption of Course corrections and the actual sig-
Combat Skyspot as a means of putting nal to release bombs were broadcast
bombs on target regardless of the wea- from the Skyspot van.3o
ther.
In the defense of Khe Sanh, Com-
Progenitor of Combat Skyspot was bat Skyspot provided remote control
a radar bomb scoring unit used by the for attack planes, fighter-bombers, and
Strategic Air Command to test the B-52's. Because of the complexity in
proficiency of bomber crews in mock operating a large number of planes in
raids staged against cities in the United the immediate vicinity of the base, de-
States. Even before the A Shau defeat, lays and some confusion were inevit-
tests conducted in Texas had sho~n able. On 24 February, for example, an
that the scoring unit could also con- F-4 flight commander realized just in
trol strikes by fighters or bombers. A time that he was being directed into an
van-mounted computer accepted such area where Skyspot-controlled B-52's
factors as altitude, wind velocity and were dropping their bombs from high
direction, aircraft speed, temperature, altitude. Other incidents had less poten-
and ballistic traits of the ordnance car- tial for disaster, but the Skyspot system
ried. On the basis of this information, did at times acquire control of more
aircraft than it could handle. A pilot
might be directed to a succession of
holding points only to end up, after
burning a great deal of fuel, exactly
where he had started and with his full
load of ordnance st~ll on board. Some-
The 0-1 (I.) was used by Forward Air
Control!ers to mark targets. Below is a times. an aviator Tan low on fuel before
Combat Skyspot facility, used to direct his. turn came and had to jettison his
strike aircraft to targets in Vietnam bombs and return to base. These fail-
ings, however, were outweighed a
thousandfold by the successful strikes
that Combat Skyspot made possible.31
Lt. Gen. R. E. Cushman commanded the
III Marine Amphibious Force from his
headquarters at Da Nang

with foreboding. Lt. Gen. Keith B. Mc-


Cutcheon, USMC, a onetime director
of Marine aviation who later com-
manded III Marine Amphibious Force
in Vietnam, stated that opposition to the
appointment of an Air Force general as
a single manager for tactical combat
aviation was based to a great extent
on concern that "it would recreate the
Korean War situation." Whereas Gen-
eral Momyer endorsed the command
relationship set up in Korea, Marine
destroying the integrity of the Marine leaders remembered it as depriving the
air-ground team. The Marines believed, I st Marine Division, only Marine
however, that the close relationship be- ground force in actual combat, of con-
tween air and ground could not exist trol over the aviation units organized,
unless the unified team was controlled equipped, and trained to support it.
by Marines. The Air Force sought
efficiency by bringi.lg Marine squad- Some Marines saw unified man-
rons under centralized direction; the agement as a threat to the future as
Marine Corps worked for the same goal well as a retreat into an unsatisfactory
by avoiding centralization under Air past. They feared that any shift of
Force control. General Westmoreland, operational control for the Vietnam
it appeared, was trying to reconcile the war could serve as a precedent for
irreconcilable.4 breaking up the air-ground team. Since
Leatherneck ground commanders relied
The extent to which the Marine upon Marine aviation much as they did
Corps and Air Force differed on cen- upon artillery, loss of the air arm would
tralized control was reflected in their require extensive changes in tactics,
contrasting attitudes toward the exer- organization, and armament. Further-
cise of command during the Korean more, a breakup of the air-ground team
War. In Korea, the Fifth Air Force had would definitely affect the mission of
exercised operational control over Ma- the Marine Corps.6
rine air units. To General Momyer this
arrangement seemed logical and desir- On 18 January, Admiral Sharp
able. "If the battle for Khe Sanh de- received word of General Westmore-
velops," he dectared, "it may be the land's intention to meet the emergency
event to get the air responsibilities in I Corps by imposing closer control
straightened out as we had them in over Marine air power. The admiral
Korea and WWIl." 5 replied almost immediately, cautioning
the general against any change that
Centralized operational control might violate existing doctrine and trig-
was a prospect that Marines viewed ger an interservice debate over roles

69
and missions. He declined to approve a governed Marine-Air Force relations
radical alteration in the status of Ma- throughout most of the Khe Sanh
rine aviation in Vietnam and suggested battle. In essence,the conferees agreed
further discussion with General Cush- to link the Seventh Air Force and Ma-
man and his staff. He did not, however, rine control networks, using an Air
rule out future consideration of a for- Force airborne battlefield command
mal proposal affecting operational con- and control center to achieve coordina-
trol of the Ist Marine Aircraft Wing.7 tion.
This airborne battlefield command
The 22 January Agreement
and control center consisted of a C-
Rather than insist on an immedi- 130 whose cargo compartment had
ate transfer of operational control, been fitted with an air conditioned cap-
General Westmoreland went ahead with sule containing electronic equipment
an arrangement designed to improve capable of storing information, display-
cordination between Seventh Air Force ing data for controllers, and furnishing
and the Marine wing. On 22 January, reliable communication with ground
representatives of General Momyer's stations and other aircraft. The gear
headquarters conferred with General crammed into the airborne command
Cushman and his staff and fashioned and control center constituted a "cen-
an agreement that, whatever its failings, tral nervous system providing data for
on-the-spot decisions in fluid tactical
situations." 8

The Air Force conferees had


maintained that this control center, be-
Interior of a C-130 airborne battlefield sides ensuring the orderly and effective
command and control center
application of air power, could also
coordinate aerial attacks with artillery
bombardment and make certain that
Maj Gen. No J. Anderson commanded the
1st Marine Aircraft Wing during the de-
fense of Khe Sanh

friendly bombs did not endanger the


Marines below. To do all these jobs,
however, the airborne command and
control center would have to be in-
corporated in the control network that
originated in the Khe Sanh fire support
coordination center .9
The fire support coordination cen-
ter, which resembled in purpose the Anderson, commander of the Ist Ma-
installation housed in the converted rine Aircraft Wing during the defense
C-130's operating above the base, was of Khe Sanh, later described the com-
headed by Lieutenant Colonel Hen- pact as an acknowledgement that "close
nelly of the 1stBattalion, 13th Marines. air support of Marine ground forces
Located within the fire support co- was a job to be accomplished by the
ordination center were the fire direction specialized members of the Marine air-
center, which with the aid of a com- ground team, while other air resources
puter converted requests for artillery took on more distant targets.'. The
support into fire commands, and a di- location of the target did playa role
rect air support center through which in the 22 January agreement, with the
requests for air strikes reached the 1st Marines insisting on concentrating their
Marine Aircraft Wing's tactical air di- aerial firepower against the targets
rection center. Planes from this wing closest to Khe Sanh, but geography
normally flew the missions requested was not the only concern in assigning
by Marine units in the field. But when targets}l
it was fully committed, liaison teams
Another key consideration was
at the direct air support center could
control. The agreement represented a
call upon Air Force or Navy aircraft to
plan, however imperfect in practice, to
deliver the necessary attacks. The de-
exert the firmest control in those areas
mands of Operation Niagara were such
where the danger of accidentally bomb-
that before the battle ended, the Khe
Sanh direct air support center, in con-
ing friendly units was greatest. For this
reason, all strikes in the sector closest
junction with the airborne battlefield
to Marine positions were to be cleared
command and control center, had ob-
through the Khe Sanh fire support co-
tained the assistance of planes from all
ordination center and directed by
services, Army aviation included.l°
either a Marine airborne tactical air
The 22 Ianuary agreement also controller or an Air Force forward air
established rules for the coordination controller. Procedures also required
of air strikes. Maj. Gen. Norman I. that the fire support cordination center

73
similar interservice organization was General Momyer, Seventh Air Force com-
established at General Rosson's corps. mander, was appointed single com-
The Marine divisions retained their mander for tactical combat aviation in
direct air support centers as did the re- all of South Vietnam. Above he is being
checked out in the cockpit of an A-37
inforced regiment holding Khe Sanh. at Tan Son Nhut
Planning for scheduled air strikes
began at rifle battalion headquarters and
moved up the chain of command, with
consolidated target lists being prepared
at regiment and division. Rosson's head-
quarters submitted to III Marine Am- longer merely advised the Seventh Air
phibious Force a consolidated request Force tactical air control center of any
covering its assigned Army and Marine excess sorties. It now reported its total
units, and Cushman's staff combined capacity calculated on the basis of one
this list with ones prepared by units sortie per day by each jet aircraft. Da
under the direct control of the Da Nang Nang forwarded this data to Tan Son
headquarters. The combined requests Nhut along with the compilation of re-
then went to Tan Son Nhut for ap- quests for air sUpport.22
proval by the tactical air support ele-
ment, which now included Marines in Single management had to provide
its operations and intelligence sections. for immediate strikes to meet battle-
FiQal stop for the combined I Corps field emergencies (see Chart p. 79).
target list was the Seventh Air Force When a division or one of its compo-
tactical air control center, where Marine nents needed air support in an emerg-
representatives also were stationed. This ency, its can for help went to a Marine
agency matched available units and ord- or Air Force direct air support cen-
nance with selected targets and issued ter which could divert any air-
craft under orders to hit a target
appropriate operation orders, called
"frag orders" because a rigid format within the division zone of action. If
permitted very sparse or fragmentary nothing was available, division turned
wording with no loss of meaning.21 to corps which had similar authority in
its area of operation. Should nothing be
The lst Marine Aircraft Wing no available in the five provinces that

78
COMUSMACV for Air should con- The Air Force and Marine Corps
stitute a precedent for centralized con- had differed over the issue of unified
trol of air operations under other com- management but, when General West-
bat conditions, or need pose a threat moreland imposed his solution, they
to the integrity of the Marine air/ cooperated in carrying out his wishes.
ground team." He observed that unique "The system worked," declared General
circumstances had spawned unified McCutcheon. "Both the Air Force and
management and declared that General the Marines saw to that. But the way it
Westmoreland should .'revert to nor- was made to work evolved over a
mal command arrangements for III period of time, and a lot of it was due
MAP when the tactical situation per- to gentlemen's agreements between on-
mits." 28 the-scene commanders." 30

Once the future of their air-ground


team seemed secure, some Marines
tended to modify the harsh initial judg-
ment of centralized management that
had been based upon operations at
Khe Sanh. Writing in 1970, General
McCutcheon conceded that "when
three Army divisions were assigned to
I Corps and interspersed between the
two Marine divisions, a higher order Khe Sanh radar equipment and the
of coordination and cooperation was control tower played a vital role during
the battle for Khe Sanh
required than before." Single manage-
ment provided this and, in his opinion,
was ,can overall improvement as far as
MACV as a whole was concerned.'. 29
Lt. Gen. Selmon W. Wells, USAF, com-
mander of 3d Air Division based on
Guam

Close Support
A routine B-52 mission flown
from U Tapao, Thailand, on 12 No-
vember 1967 contributed quite by acci-
dent to an important tactical innova-
tion. Nine B-52's took off from U
cells, The interval could be an hour, Tapao to hit troop concentrations and
90 minutes, or 2 hours.,4 rocket batteries in the vicinity of Con
Thien, but one of the planes failed to
The arrival by 7 February of 26 observe the 3-kilometer safety zone
additional B-52's-a detachment sent established to keep bombs from falling
to the far Pacific in reaction to North
accidentally among friendly troops.
Korea's capture of the intelligence ship This particular plane-there is doubt
Pueblo off Wonsan harbor-simplified as to which one-dropped i,ts explo-
the task of providing a grand total of sives within the safety zone about 1.4
48 sorties per day. Fifteen of the bomb- kilometers from Marine lines.
ers landed at Kadena Air Base, Oki-
nawa and brought to three-Guam, Neither the men defending Con
Thailand, and Okinawa-the areas Thien nor their fortifications suffered
from which Stratofortress strikes might harm from this error. Indeed, the re-
originate. On 12 February, the Joint sults from the misdirected bomb load
Chiefs of Staff advised Admiral Sharp verged on the astonishing, as secondary
that bombing missions against targets explosions blossomed near the defen-
in Southeast Asia could originate at sive perimeter. The enemy was clearly
Kadena,5 taking advantage of the safety zone
imposed on the Stratofortresses, a fact
After only a day's Bugle Note that lent greater urgency to an idea
operation, General Wells' headquart- discussedthe previous summer, the use
ers proposed a major change, to pro- of B-52's in what amounted to close
vide six B-52's every 3 hours rather air support.7
than three every 90 minutes, Adoption
of this proposal would permit even The successful, though accidental,
more devastating target coverage. Also, close-in bombing at Con Thien served
fewer 'launches would mean greater as an example of what the B-52's could
ease in scheduling maintenance, a less do in defense of a combat base such
hectic pace for mechanics, and a better as Khe Sanh. As early as 8 January
oppol'tunity to photograph and analyze 1968, the topic arose during a meeting
bombing results, The change went into of representatives of the Strategic Air
effect on 25 February.6 Command's advance echelon in Viet-

83
nam and officers from III Marine
Amphibious Force. Air Force conferees
were reluctant to encourage B-52
strikes within the customary safety
zone except in emergencies. The Ma-
rines then suggested a series of tests that,
if successful, would gradually bring the
B-52 salvos to a distance of only 1,000
meters from friendly forces. To reduce
to a minimum the risks involved, Gen-
eral Cushman's headquarters urged the
installation of new radar beacons at
both Con Thien and Khe Sanh to help
guide the planes to targets within the
3-kilometer safety zone surrounding
the latter base.8

The 3d Air Division for a time


endorsed the installation of this equip-
ment as a further aid to B-52 accur-
acy. Additional study, however, led
General Wells to reverse his stand. The

Intensive 8-52 bombardment of enemy


forces at Khe Sanh is seen in this aerial
shot. White dots indicate where bombs
fell (white areas on right show cloud
cover). The heavy saturation of Hill 881
North (enemy-held) and the sparse pock
marks on Hill 881 South (occupied by
U.S. Marines) show the remarkable ac-
curacy of the 8-52. This montage was
pieced together from reconnaissance
photos.

84
Two kinds of planes were available
to drop the sensors. One was the
Navy's Lockheed OP-2E, a conven-
tionally powered patrol craft that had
been fitted with auxiliary jet engines.
The other was the Air Force's Sikorsky
CH-3, a turbine-engine helicopter. Dur-
ing sensor drops, both types were
shepherded by forward air con.trollers
who could call for flak suppression
strikes if ground fire menaced their
charges. Because they were very vul-
nerable to antiaircraft fire, the Lock-
heeds were later retired in favor of
F-4's.9

The helicopters had originally


been fitted with launchers designed to
shoot into the ground a special seismic
device called a helosid-contraction
for helicopter delivered seismic intru-
sion detector-thus enabling the craft
to hover above the sensor, plot its
exact location, and obtain radio verifi-
cation from Dutch Mill that the device
was actually broadcasting. During tests,
crews of the CH-3's seldom received
this verification, for the shock of
smashing into the earth was more than
the sensor could endure. The squadron
commander continued experimenting,
however, but soon gave up entirely on
using the helosids. He proposed in-
stead to position a crewman in the
door holding an acoustic device which
curred early in the fight. On 2 Feb-
he would toss overboard as the heli-
ruary, a 122-mm rocket plunged
copter hovered over the desired loca-
through the entrance of a bunker being
tion. This method, as effective as it was
used by an Army signal detachment.
simple, proved invaluable in meeting
The blast killed four and wounded one,
General Tompkin's deadline.1°
but communication was quickly re-
stored. The tragedy caused the 37th
Using Sensor Data Signal Battalion to insist on blast walls
and other protective features in bunkers
Completion of the Khe Sanh sen- occupied by its men,11
sor field was just a beginning. Success-
ful use of the data it generated would Making intelligent use of the so-
depend on reliable communication and called "spotlight reports"-map co-
a full understanding of how sensor in- ordinates radioed from Dutch Mill-
formation should be interpreted to was difficult. Despite instructions to
prQvide targets for artillery and air. the contrary, many officers, Air Force
as well as Marine, tended to think of
A break in communication oc- the grid coord,inates as a target to be

92
craters left by the nighttime firing, and ment into areas covered by sensors and
an alert aerial observer located among would also make enough noise to acti-
these shell holes several freshly dug pits vate acoustic devices.
about 10 feet square. After sunset, the
signals resumed, and shells once again In actual practice, however, gravel
was little more than a nuisance to the
burst along the highway. Another early
North Vietnamese massing before Khe
morning reconnaissance flight dis-
Sanh. The enemy found that by using
covered six 37-mm antiaircraft guns,
oxen pulling logs he could easily clear a
some of them shorn of camouflage by
gravel minefield, though at some cost in
the latest shelling. A mini-Arc Light
soon burst upon the area, and the oxen if he was dealing with the casualty-
newly dug emplacements were aban- producing kind. The mines, moreover,
doned before the guns had fired a tended to become inert after a short
shot.16 time.17

Gravel Munitions Gravel unfortunately could not dis-


tinguish friend from foe. Those plan-
Task Force Alpha had planned to ning the minefields had to avoid imped-
use a special kind of ordnance in con- ing patrols or sorties either by troops at
junction with the sensors. This was Khe Sanh or by a relief column advanc-
gravel, a tiny explosive mine that could ing toward the base. Also, pilots whose
be sown by the thousands from low- propeller-driven A-lE Skyraiders were
flying aircraft. Gravel came in two dropping gravel had to be careful of
types, one a mere noisemaker and an- hitting friendly units. This kind of acci-
other powerful enough to wound a man dent happened only once, on 10 Febru-
or puncture a truck tire. The designers ary, when gravel fell on the forward
of the anti-infiltration system believed slope of a position manned by Colonel
that gravel would channel enemy move- Wilkinson's lst Battalion, 26th Marines.

94
One Marine suffered wounds serious apply sensor data. "Prior to the coming
enough to require his evacuation by of sensors," he recalled, "it was com-
air.18 mand doctrine to shoot numerous ha-
rassment and interdiction artillery mis-
Summing Up the sions each night. ..usually based on
map inspection, suspect areas, and yes-
Sensor Operation
terday's intelligence." Once the Marines
Despite this misdirected load of learned how to put sensor information
gravel munitions and the initial con- to work, "the words harassment and
fusion in using sensor data, the Marines interdiction"-again according to Major
were delighted with the work of Task Hudson-"were removed from the 3d
Marine Division vocabulary." 19
Force Alpha. By Marine estimate, 40
percent of the raw intelligence available
At Khe Sanh, both seismic sensors
to the Khe Sanh fire support coordina- -other than the too fragile helosids-
tion center came from the sensors by and the acoustic type demonstrated their
way of Dutch Mill. worth to air and ground commanders.
Maj. Jerry E. Hudson, intelligence These devices had so dramatic an im-
officer of the 26th Marines, illustrated pact that the value of other sources of
the importance of sensors by contrasting intelligence has sometimes been for-
how artillery performed at night before gotten. Yet the usefulness of data ob-
and after the Marines learned to tained electronically depended to a
large degree on other information.
Aerial photography, in particular,
enabled the Marines to locate the net-
work of trails and trenches, the bunkers,
the supply points and assembly areas
A helicopter crewman (I.) prepares to upon which the enemy relied. With this
drop a seismic sensor. CH-3's (below)
were used to sow sensor fields sort of intelligence and a knowledge of
how the North Vietnamese had con-
ducted previous sieges, Khe Sanh's de-
fenders were able to make effective use
of the information sent them from
Nakhon Phanom.2o
Marines would attack along the high- Logistic support of Operation Pega-
way in conjunction with aerial assaults sus was a cooperative venture coordi-
by General Tolson's airmobile division nated by General Cushman's head-
and an advance by a South Vietnamese quarters and involving the Naval
task force. The oral agreement was con- Support Activity at Da Nang as well as
firmed by a Cushman message that re- the recently organized U .S. Army Sup-
quested General Rosson to continue port Command. All items not unique to
preparing for a 1 April attack. "Such the Marine Corps were provided
preparations," the message continued, through the Ca Lu forward support
"should include construction on a C- facility, where enough supplies had
7A/C-123 strip at Ca Lu and the open- been stockpiled to see the Pegasus force
ing of Route 9 to Ca Lu." 3 through 5 days' operation. The Force
Logistics Command, which sent both
Selection of Ca Lu as a supply
men and cargo handling equipment to
base for the relief of Khe Sanh was the
Ca Lu, remained responsible for articles
most recent in a series of actions under-
used exclusively by Marines.5
taken to ensure a steady flow of supplies
to Army units in the five northern prov- Highway 9 was the main supply
inces. When the first Army troops, men artery for Pegasus. Because of the possi-
of Task Force Oregon which became bility of interdiction by hostile artillery,
the Americal Division, entered I Corps, an airfield was built at Ca Lu capable of
the U.S. Army Support Command at accommodating C-7A's and C-123's.
Qui Nhon supervised their logistical Experience at Khe Sanh had convinced
support, working through the 80th Gen- General Cushman that preparations
eral Support Group and 34th Supply
and Service Battalion, both at Da Nang.
Late in February 1968, a U .S. Army
Support Command began functioning at
Da N ang, taking over the two logistical
units already there. A third such unit, AC-47 gunships flew night missions over
the 26th General Support Group from Khe Sanh to suppress enemy shelling
Cam Ranh Bay, moved to Da Nang
and became a component of the newly-
activated support command.4
should be made to set up at Ca Lu the launched operations preliminary to
kind of radar that would enable Air Pegasus itself. Helicopters of the lst
Force transports to parachute cargo Cavalry Division darted low over the
regardless of the weather. A lack of bomb-scarred terrain to locate enemy
enemy resistance, however, made this weapon emplacements and defensive
precaution unnecessary .6 strongpoints. The weather abetted this
reconnaissance, for rain seldom con-
Marine engineers and engineers tinued after dawn, and cloud cover
from the Ist Cavalry Division cooper- tended to break up by noon.8
ated with a detachment from Naval
Mobile Construction Battalion 5 to On the morning of 30 March, the
complete the Ca Lu airstrip in time for 26th Marines struck a final blow before
Pegasus. To build the required 2,600- American forces in northwestern I
foot runway, the Seabees had to level Corps went over to the offensive. Com-
two hills and gouge away part of a pany B of that regiment's Ist Battalion
mountainside. Despite the enormity of took advantage of fog and carefully
the job, which began on 16 March, the coordinated artillery barrages and air
field was open to C- 7 A 's on 29 March strikes to raid a North Vietnam position.
and to the larger C-123's on 7 April. The bursting shells and bombs cleared
Called Landing Zone Stud by the air the way for the advancing Marines but
cavalry, this field was the principal base failed to alert the enemy, who occupied
for Army helicopters taking part in an area that had frequently been bat-
tered in similar fashion. The assault
Pegasus.7
force erupted from the rising fog and
stormed the works with flame throwers,
The Attack Westward
satchel charges, grenades, rifles, and
As the logistic preparations neared machine guns. The North Vietnamese,
completion, both General Tolson's air caught by surprise, took refuge in their
cavalry and Colonel Lownds' garrison bunkers, but the Marines methodically
destroyed these structures, killing an
estimated 150 of the enemy. Resistance
was largely ineffectual except for the
lone mortar round that scored a direct
hit on the company command post,
killed three, and wounded Capt. Ken-
neth Pipes, USMC, the company com-
mander.9

98
Colonel Lownds (center), commander As the relief force knifed forward,
26th Marines, Chaplain J. W. McElroy intelligence verified that only the 304th
{I.), and Lt. Gen. V. J. Krulak, Command. North Vietnamese Division remained in
ing General, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific
(r.), discuss situation at Khe Sanh the area. Some of the prisoners taken
along Highway 9 were members of the
325C Division, but interrogation re-
vealed that they had remained behind
as replacements for casualties suffered
by the 304th.12

This raid coincided with a diver- The Khe Sanh Marines also took
sionary push in the northeastern corner the offensive on 1 April. Lt. Col. John
of Quang Tri province. Soldiers and J. H. Cahill, who had just assumed
Marines, along with South Vietnamese command of the 1st Battalion, 9th Ma-
troops, launched sweeps through the rines, attacked hostile positions some
region bounded by Highway I, the 2,500 meters south of the Khe Sanh air-
demilitarized zone, the Cua Viet river, strip. The objective was a hill, 471 met-
and the seacoast. On the following day, ers high, that dominated a stretch of
operation control of Colonel Lownds' Highway 9. A thunderous bombardment
reinforced regiment passed to General killed or demoralized many of the
Tolson. All was now in readiness for North Vietnamese defenders, and oppo-
sition was characterized as light. Un-
Pegasus.l0
fortunately, enemy mortars scored the
On 1 April, General Tolson set his same sort of deadly hit that had
troops in motion toward Khe Sanh. Two wounded Captain Pipes a short time
Marine battalions advanced along High- before. A shell burst among the com-
way 9, screening a group of engineers mand group of Company A, killing
who repaired the cratered roadway as two and wounding three. One of the
they moved westward. Acting in con- wounded was the new battalion com-
cert with this column, air cavalry units mander, but his injuries were not serious
seized landing zones selected during the enough to force him to relinquesli com-
earlier reconnaissance, flew in artillery, mand. Later in the day, an enemy coun-
and set up fire bases to support the terattack collapsed on the battalion's
continuing advance.1l defenses}3

99
Precisely w,hen the siege ended is 1,304, with 21 taken prisoner. Equip-
open to interpretation. An air cavalry ment left behind by the retreating
battalion relieved Lieutenant Colonel enemy included 557 rifles, 206 crew-
Cahill's men on the morning of 6 April, served weapons, 4 trucks, 1 anti-aircraft
and later in the day South Vietnamese gun, 1 tank, 1 large artillery piece,
troops arrived at Khe Sanh by helicop- and 1 armored personnel carrier }5
ter to relieve the Ranger battalion that
had manned the eastern part of the After the Siege
main perimeter. The official relief took
place 2 days later when 2d Battalion, Once the combat base was securely
7th Cavalry, reached the Marine base in American hands, the work of salvage
and the 3d Brigade of General Tolson's began, as the Air Force mission com-
division assumed responsibility for its mander supervised the retrieval of such
defense.14 equipment as ground proximity extrac-
tion gear, parachutes, and other sal-
The relief of Khe Sanh did not vageable articles used in the supply
mark the end of Operation Pegasus. It effort.
continued until 15 April, by which time
the Americans and their Sou,th Viet-
namese allies had regained control of
northwestern Quang Tri province. The
road to Khe Sanh had been reopened
and the site of the Lang Vei Special
Forces camp recaptured. The price of
these accomplishments was 41 soldiers,
51 Marines, and 33 South Vietnamese
killed, 207 soldiers, 459 Marines, and
187 South Vietnamese wounded, and
5 Army men missing in action. No
Air Force casualties were attributed to
this operation. North Vietnamese
deaths during Pegasus were placed at
The siege broken, the Marines were re. wreckage. They were Lt. Col. Zane G.
lieved by 1st Cavalry Division troops, Brewer, Staff Sergeants Kenneth G.
shown taking up positions along the
trench lines of one of the outposts
Berg and Joe Hogan, Sergeants J. P.
Sink and G. A. Kargis, and AlC S. R.
Brown. Working together they rescued
five military passengers,none of them
hurt in the crash, and one civilian
whose injuries proved fatal. The crew
came through unscathed and escaped
unaided from the plane.
Though the siege was broken,
danger continued to stalk the Khe The big Lockheed was a total loss.
Sanh plateau. On 13 April, for instance, In an attempt to discover what had
an Air Force C-130 swerved off the caused the accident, propellers number
runway, rolled over some extraction 3 and 4 were salvaged for examination
equipment, and in dizzying succession by an investigation team. The props
smashed into six recently extracted pal- were placed in a cargo sling suspended
lets still loaded with cargo, a truck, beneath a Marine helicopter for ship-
and a forklift, before grinding to a ment to Dong Ha, first stop on their
stop and bursting into flame. The dead- journey to Tan Son Nhut. Unfortun-
ly blaze was just beginning to consume ately, the load began oscillating wildly
the transport when six members of shortly after takeoff, and the crew had
the Air Force detachment reached the to cut loose the sling in order to save

101