The 77 Day Siege at Khe Sanh This is a study of the tactical and political importance of the 77 day battle at Khe Sanh during the Vietnam conflict.

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The Siege at Khe Sanh was a culmination of political and tactical ingredients. Both

sides wanted this small plateau in the Northwest corner of the Quang Tri province. It

was the Northwestern most outpost south of the I Corps Tactical Zone. American

Marines, Army Artillery/Special Forces, Air Force Bombers and Fighters, and Naval

Fighters all played serious roles in the eventual victory at Khe Sanh in April of 1968.

South Vietnamese regular and irregular forces also played vital roles in the defense of

Khe Sanh. The real question is why did the American Forces led by General William

Westmoreland, find it necessary to hold that plateau in an almost wholly uninhabited

area? Why were the North Vietnamese, led by General Vo Ngyen Giap so determined to

occupy this piece of land? Why were they (NVA) unsuccessful, and why were we

victorious in the end? Within the limitations of ink and paper, I will probe and expose

answers to these questions, and attempt to paint a picture that is informative and realistic

into the seventy-seven day siege, that was won by a combined effort, and the discipline

and toughness of the men who fought and died there.

The Battle of Khe Sanh was not a "surprise" to either side. Both sides had set their

sights on the plateau for sometime before the siege of 1968. Gen.Westmoreland

described Khe Sanh's possibilities in 1964, "Khe Sanh could serve as a patrol base

blocking enemy infiltration from LAOS, a base for SOP (Special Operations) operations

to harass the enemy in LAOS, an airstrip for reconnaissance to survey the Ho Chi Minh

Trail: a Western anchor for the defenses south of the DMZ; and an eventual jumping-off

point for ground operations to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail."(1) In April of 1967,

Westmoreland requested President Johnson's permission to enter LAOS and was denied.

There is no doubt that Khe Sanh was his ideal "thrust Point" to enter LAOS. Even

having been denied permission, he continued to build up the airbase at Khe Sanh so that

it could serve in the aforementioned capacity. The North Vietnamese suspected this, and

therefore knew that they had to take this land.

Although Westmoreland never gave up on the hopes of an invasion into LAOS, the

airbase had become a defensive strongpoint rather that a staging point in a matter of

months. This came due to the implementation of "the strong point obstacle system" A

DMZ barrier system devised by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. Khe Sanh had

become the westernmost obstacle in this series of obstacles in the I-Corps Tactical Zone.

General Westmoreland knew that Khe Sanh was not only a defensive perimeter, and a

screen for NVA and Communist infiltration; but also served as a place where the enemy

could be fixed with Close Air Support, Indirect and Direct Fire, and Direct Fire from

machine guns. He could do this because the plateau was virtually uninhabited which

eased restrictions of fires for the area surrounding the Khe Sanh Airbase. He describes

this in his own works as, "Our defense of the area wound tie down large numbers of

North Vietnamese troops which otherwise could move against the vulnerable populated

area whose security was the heart of the Vietnamese Pacification Program. Our decision

to deny also held the prospect of causing the enemy to concentrate his force and thereby

provide us a singular opportunity to bring our firepower to bear on the enemy with

minimum restrictions. Had we withdrawn to fight the enemy's force of over two

divisions in the heavily populated coastal areas, the use of our firepower would have been

severely restricted because of our precautionary measure to avoid civilian casualties and

minimum damage to civilian property."(2) Early in the quote, General Westmoreland

alluded to "the Vietnamese Pacification Process". This was a constant theme to General

Westmoreland and always on his mind. This was also on the Communist's mind as well.

General Westmoreland felt strongly that this was the case and knew that Khe Sanh was

the gateway for the NVA to pour into I Corps, a gateway which led to some of the most

populated areas in the country. General Westmoreland clearly states, "It's seizure would

have created a serious threat to our forces defending the northern area and would have

cleared the way for the enemy's advance to Quang Tri City and the heavily populated

coastal area".(3)

General Giap knew that Khe Sanh was a key landmark for his tactical purposes, and

for his landmark for his tactical purposes, and for his government's political arms. With

the Khe Sanh, he could infiltrate South Vietnam unimpeded, taking away American

overwatch. With this avenue of approach, his people (communists) hoped to turn the

general civilian population against the Americans. Knowing that the Americans might be

planning on entering LAOS through the Khe Sanh, Giap ordered a Winter/Spring

campaign in the II and III Corps tactical zones. These served two purposes. First, to test

how the American's reaction to NVA infiltration and second, to serve as a diversion for

the actual infiltration of the Quang Tri province in the I Corps. This was the blueprint for

the TET Offensive.

The 3rd Marines arrived at the Khe Sanh on April 25 and 26, 1967. On April 27,

second artillery battery was dispatched there as well. Immediately upon arrival, the

Marines moved out to establish a perimeter on the outlying hills of the airbase. On May

3, 1967, the 3rd Marines had rid the three hills (861, 881N, 8881S) of all NVA. Shortly

thereafter, on May 11, 1967, the 1/26 Marines relieved the 3rd Marines (both battalions).

3/26 Marines arrived at the Khe Sanh on June 13, 1967, but were again moved to Con

Thien shortly afterwards only to eventually return in December. U.S. Army Special

Forces also set up a Forward Operating Base at Khe Sanh on Highway 9.

On January 20, 1968, the NVA began the siege of Khe Sanh. The first element in

contact was moving from Hill 881S to 881N about three miles Northwest of Khe Sanh

Combat Base (KSCB). 3rd PLT India Company came into heavy contact, the Company

Commander, Bill Dabney, remembered, "Lt. Brindley was killed as he reached the crest

(of the NVA held knoll), and with numerous other casualties, the 3rd Plt found itself

holding the piece of high ground with depleted ammunition stocks and ? a Lance

Corporal in command? an enemy skirmish line then charged up the rear slope to retake

the hill but was annihilated by a napalm drop so close to the marines that several had

their eyebrows singed."(4) This is a precursor to what the NVA would be repeatedly

subjected to in unprecedented amounts.

According to a captured NVA Lieutenant, the North Vietnamese plan of action was

revealed to his interrogators in depth, and in startling detail. What the members of 3rd

Plt. India Company had apparently encountered was a security perimrter on the

southeastern side of Hill 881N. The enemy's plan of attack according to Lieutenant Tonc

was as follows:

"Hill 881N is presently surrounded. There is a company of sappers deployed in the

general area of 881N. This sapper company will be used against Hill 861 (SE of 881N).

Once 881N has fallen, the general attack against the Khe Sanh Combat Base will

begin. This will consist of a reinforced regimental-sized force from direction of Lang

Hoal Tap by way of Hill 861, where they will link up with the occupying force there.

Once linked up, Khe Sanh Combat Base will begin receiving heavy artillery fire and

rockets from unknown positions, but from Northwesterly direction. When this occurs,

the first regiment will move to assault positions under cover of fire. One mortar platoon

on Northeast side of Hill 1015 will cover the Marine heavy weapons on Hill 950. One

mortar platoon will begin 82 mm mortar barrageon parked helicopters and airstrip. Each

of the Mortar Platoons has one 12.7 mm antiaircraft gun platoon in their adjacent areas to

cover them from counter air attack. If the first and second regiments are forced to

withdraw, they will lind up with the third regiment (position unknown) and commence

another attack on the Khe Sanh Combat Base. This will occur before TET."(5)

This is the blueprint of the NVA's plan to seize control of the plateau. Major General

Tommy Tompkins took Tonc's information as truth and later said of the intel, "I decided

that we would accept Tonc's information as valid since we had nothing to lose, and much

to gain."(6)

During these first days of siege, the City of Khe Sanh was overrun by the NVA. This

was a clear political target for the Communist regime. The siege was as much political as

it was tactical. As the capture Lieutenant alluded to in his interrogation, this was to go

down before TET. The result being, Khe Sanh becoming the ground headquarters for the

thrust Southward, and a deathblow comparable to that given to the French at Dien Bien

Phu. This was not to be.

In now disclosed Top Secret Documents written by General Westmoreland to

ADM Sharp (CINCPAC), he made it clear that he would support the Marines at Khe

Sanh in every was possible. As he stated on January 21, "I intend to do all possible to

bring to bear in the most efficient and coordinated way, all weapons that can support our

fight during the important period at hand."(7) He goes on in this document to outline his

plan for air assets and the delegation of air power within his scope of command.

This outlined immediately evolved into Operation Niagra, an air-strike counter-

offensive that virtually carpeted the entire Khe Sanh area. Photos of the landscape during

Operation Niagra show am almost completely surrounded airbase with nothing but

blackened landscape surrounding to aistrip for two miles, save the outposts around the


Operation Niagra kicked off on January 21 and ended on March 31, 1968. This was

for all intents and purposes, "the life support system" of the Khe Sanh without the air

support, the area would have undoubtedly fallen to the North Vietnamese. The United

States Headquarter Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) reported in the

official summary of the siege as:

Friendly Positions -

Area ? 4.8 km

Enemy delivered fires ? 99.25 tons

Friendly Forces ? 6085

Enemy Positions ?

Area ? 564 km

Friendly Delivered Fires ? 99,600 tons

Enemy Forces ?

15 Jan 68 ? 20,000

31 Mar 68 ? 9,100

Avg. ?15,100 (8)

The losses inflicted on the enemy were estimated by Headquarter of MACV as

being, "between 49% and 65% of the personnel committed to the Khe Sanh Operation

including replacements." (9)

This estimate is indicative to the effectiveness of all support assets that were

committed to place direct and indirect fires to the areas surrounding the airbase and it's


Another "all-important" asset that forces defending Khe Sanh had, that many

units in the midst of TET did not, was an undying and overwhelming supply line.

Supplies were dropped for the Marines that sustained them through the course of the

siege. Eric Hammell, author of Khe Sanh, Siege in the Clouds wrote, "There would be no

"set-piece" strategy ? without one of the biggest aerial re-supply efforts in history. The

effort was enormous."(10) The importance of the KSCB, and the logistical effort to

support it, is reiterated by Major Tom Cook 26th Marines Assistant Logistics Officer,

"Every day around 1800, I called Dong Ha on the land line and reported a long, long list

of numbers?when the report was received in Dong Ha, it was immediately forwarded to

Saigon, to MACV Headquarters. From there, it was dispatched directly to the White

House so that President Johnson and his staff could look at it, to make sure that Khe Sanh

was not going to fall."(11) This is evidence to the complete and total commitment to the

mission at Khe Sanh.

The siege at Khe Sanh ended in April 1968 after the marines made link up with

elements of the 7th Calvary Division during Operation PEGASUS. Although the KSCB

was ordered to be abandoned shortly afterwards, on June 12, 1968,it remains one of the

most efficient and concerted efforts during the Vietnam War. final victory was American

at the end of the siege. The Communist effort was heavy in manpower, and the NVA

determination was persistant, but even with smaller numbers the airial assets, and

unending barrages of direct and indirect fires proved too much for the demoralized

enemy. The NVA would not realize another Dien Bien Phu repeated at Khe Sanh.

Works Cited

Shore Moyer S. The Battle for Khe Sanh. Prologue by L.F. Chapman, Forward by W.C, Westmoreland, Preface by R.E. Cushman. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1968.

(2) p.vii, (3) p. vi

Hammel, Eric. Khe Sanh, Siege in the Clouds, An Oral History. New York, NY: Crown, 1989.

(4) p.52, (5) pp.57-58, (6) p.58, (10) p.261, (11) pp.261-252

Westmoreland, W.C. to ADM Sharp. Declassified Documents. 21 January, 1968.

(7) p.1

Headquarters, Military Assistance Command, Vietnam. An Analysis of the Khe Sanh Battle. 5 April 1968.

(8) p.2, (9) p.3

Marino, James L. "Strategic Crossroads at Khe Sanh". Taken from Vietnam (1999)

(1) p.1