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03-02-04, 08:40 AM #1
With Bayonets Fixed: Khe Sanh—30 March 1968
With Bayonets Fixed: Khe Sanh—30 March 1968
by LtCol Kenneth Pipes, USMC(Ret)
One of the most sobering experiences in life is the responsibility of leading young Marines into the teeth of the enemy knowing that some of them will not come out of it alive. It takes courage, faith, an indomitable spirit, and an unfailing trust in the capabilities of the men entrusted to your care. Fighting at Khe Sahn, Republic of Vietnam in 1967–68 was an ongoing, brutal fight to the death between Marines and soldiers of the North Vietnamese Army. This entry in the ‘Sting of Battle’ series takes us through a particularly poignant episode of combat as seen through the eyes of a young Marine rifle company commander.
On 30 March 1968, Company B, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines (B/1/26) proceeded from the perimeter of the Khe Sanh Combat Base to their predesignated line of departure located near forward units of the North Vietnamese Army’s (NVA’s) 8th Battalion, 66th Regiment, 304th (Hanoi) Iron Division. Poised against each other in the coming attack were lineal descendants of one of the most famous divisions involved in the siege against the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and elements of the 26th Marines—one of three Marine regiments of the 5th Marine Division that led the assault against Japan’s island fortress of Iwo Jima in February-March 1945.
The attack—scheduled for first light—was delayed by heavy ground fog that obscured the entire objective area. As the blinding fog began to lift, our Marines, with bayonets fixed, crossed the line of departure outside the wire of the Khe Sanh Combat Base.
Immediately upon commencing the assault, the two lead platoons came under extremely heavy mortar, rocket propelled grenade, automatic weapons, and small arms fire from the 8th NVA Battalion who occupied extensive, well-constructed, mutually supporting bunkers and trench systems.
Under the umbrella of withering fire from nine batteries of Marine and Army artillery that pummeled the flanks of the objective area and created a rolling barrage 50 to 70 meters in front of the two attack platoons, the Marines began breaching the NVA positions. The fight for fire superiority hung in the balance until the attached flame section and combat engineer detachment entered the fray. As their predecessors did on Iwo Jima, these units, covered and assisted by Marine riflemen, began to blind, blast, and burn their way into the NVA fortifications.
For the next 4 hours the Marines of Company B—some of whom had undergone 70-plus days and nights of continuing, killing bombardment by NVA heavy artillery, rocket, mortar, and concentrated sniper fire—gained some measure of retribution as they routed the NVA soldiers from their fiercely defended positions. Within the breached positions our Marine riflemen were literally walking over the dead and dying NVA defenders.
From the moment of close contact until some 4 hours later when we received the order to withdraw back into the combat base, the fight was hand to hand, bayonet to bayonet, knife to knife, grenade against grenade, and rifleman against rifleman, with the trump card as always—Marines using flamethrowers and combat engineers employing demolitions!
It may seem to some readers that this was just another example of a typical seasoned Marine combat unit doing its job—just another typical day at the office. It wasn’t. A significant point must be made here! The rifle company that attacked the NVA that Saturday morning was not the same company that had moved from Hill 881 South 3 months earlier to participate in a battalion sweep toward the Laotian border, and then moved into the perimeter of the Khe Sanh Combat Base. The continuous enemy bombardment while we were in the combat base had hurt B/1/26 more than any other similarly sized defending unit and was exacerbated by the tragic loss of most of an entire platoon on 25 February resulting from an ambush by a reinforced company from the 8th NVA Battalion.
Most of the Marines in Company B on 30 March had joined during the siege as replacements after the siege had begun. These young men had traveled a hard road including boot camp, skills training at the Infantry Training Regiment, Staging Battalion at Camp Pendleton, a flight to Vietnam, reporting in to the 26th Marines, exiting the aircraft at the Khe Sanh Combat Base under fire, reporting for assignment to 1st Battalion, and finally—still under fire—joining Company B. To a rifleman, they had no combat experience at the fire team, squad, platoon, or company level.
As it has always been in combat, if it had not been for the leveling skills of a handful of short-timer leaders—privates first class and corporals—led by an experienced company executive officer, company gunnery sergeant, and outstanding platoon commanders—the execution of this company-sized raid on 30 March 1968 would never have moved beyond our frontline trenches.
As noted by the commanding officer of 1/26 and the S–3 (operations officer) who planned the company raid, “The members of Co B performed individually and collectively in a manner normally expected only of seasoned and combat experienced Marines.” I believe that their brilliant feat can only be attributed to their deep and overriding desire to avenge the prior loss of Marines of their company—most of whom they never knew or met! To them and them alone goes the credit for executing arguably the first successful company-sized offensive assault outside the wire since the ambush of their mates on 25 February—and for making it such a success!
These Marines totally decimated the 8th NVA Battalion, including the enemy battalion commander and his staff. In so doing, the Marines of Company B killed at least 115 NVA officers and soldiers and wounded an untold number of their survivors, according to information later passed to the company that had been intercepted from monitored enemy radio traffic!
Still later, Marines from B/1/26—none above the rank of corporal—who had participated in the raid, were awarded two Navy Crosses, nine Silver Stars, eight Bronze Stars, and two Navy Commendation Medals with Combat “V” for valor for individual acts of courage, gallantry, and heroism! Additionally, over 100 Purple Hearts were presented, with several of these Marines earning their awards for receiving a second and third wound.
Just like their predecessors from Iwo Jima—to a man—the Marines of Company B remain intensely proud of their 26th Marines heritage! We will always feel that we who were privileged to serve with Bravo’s young, inexperienced, Marine infantrymen that fateful Saturday morning were truly in the company of men who were, are, and will always be “The Immortals”!
Subsequent to the fighting on 30 March 1968, the company was the recipient of the following from the commanding general of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam:
Officers and men of B/1/26 USMC deserve highest praise for aggressive patrol action north of Khe Sanh on 30 March. Heavy casualties inflicted on bunkers and entrenched enemy forces indicate typical Marine esprit de corps and professionalism. Well done!
Gen William Westmoreland
And further remarks from our 26th Marines regimental commander:
I add my congratulations to the above well earned commendatory remarks. Col David Lownds sends.
>LtCol Pipes retired in 1982 and lives in Fallbrook, CA.
IN LOVING MEMORY OF MY LATE HUSBAND, SSgt Roger A. Alfano, USMC
ONE PROUD MARINE
Once a Marine...Always a Marine
03-27-12, 10:38 PM #2
Thank you LtCol Pipes for writing this article. I was one of those inexperienced PFC B/1/26 replacements that was there on March 30th, 44 years ago.
03-28-12, 07:50 AM #3
"Never have so Few been so Foul too so Many" The 26th.Marine Regt. Vietnam.Semper Fidelis
03-28-12, 08:03 AM #4
They took the 3/26 out of the 3rd. Div. and assigned us to the 1st, so we could straighten out Quang Nam for the Corps.
03-28-12, 07:21 PM #5
03-29-12, 02:19 PM #6
03-29-12, 04:38 PM #7
Fry them Bastards Extra Crispy
Maybe tha USMC could come up with a New Version of tha FLAMETHROWER...using Rocket Fuel...But since America is in a New Era of P.C.Ville...Burning tha RAGHEADS and turning them into Crispy Critters,would be too much for tha New Corps to handle
03-30-12, 01:50 PM #8
Instead of a flamethrower, maybe they could do 3 on a match instead.
04-01-12, 12:45 PM #9
LOL...I hear yah...I've got a Match for tha Camel F**kers My Azz and their FACE Go Easy My Man...Sempers
04-27-12, 09:21 AM #10
I had a close friend killed at Khe Sanh.Artilleryman ,Don't know what unit, LCpl Bob Hanson.Did any of you guys know him,or what happened.At the time I was state side and we lost touch.Didn't know he was there until I got a letter from my sister.
04-27-12, 11:41 PM #11
The isn’t much, but is a little more info. about your friend’s KIA event.
During that time frame, the 304th and 308th NVA divisions were operating in the Khe Sanh area. Marine Battery H&I fire was severly restricted, since ammunition outgoing was running at 3X the ammunition supply rate. The NVA would (on a daily basis) lob in 30-50 122mm rounds a couple of times a day. Or more often, when targets of opportunity were present.
On June 1st 1968, betweem 10 and 10:30 in the morning, the 1st Bn, 11th Marines Battery positions at Khe Sanh received about 40 rounds of NVA 122mm artillery. The Marine battery positions were pretty much “dialed in” by the NVA during that time; and received sporadic and well adjusted incoming (daily). It was NOT a fun place to be.
That morning, the incoming came from NVA Batteries in Co Roc (in Laos, S/W of Khe Sanh). The 11th Marines - Battery T (155mm) location received the brunt of the rounds. L/Cpl. Bob Hanson was KIA and 4 other Marines were WIA at that time. Other details have long been forgotten. RIP, my brother – a young Marine that has not been forgotten.
Khe Sanh during those days, was very similar to Con Thien during the May/June 1967 (and thereafter) timeframe. Anyone that was ACTUALLY there (either at Khe Sanh or Con Thien) remembers “racing” for cover – on a daily basis. The “Cannon Cockers” stood by there guns and gave back, in kind, like true Marines. A lot of bad times, as well as some “DMFD” (good) times.
Due to the location/terrain of Khe Sanh, the NVA could easily “sneak up” on the Marine Battery positions. As an example, during the evening of June 1, 68 (the same day Bob Hanson was KIA), an NVA soldier walked up to “T” Battery and physically entered the gun crews quarters. He turned over his AK and a bunch of loaded magazines to the gun crew – thus becoming a POW.
I can imagine what the gun crew was thinking, but they just turned him over to the 1st Marines S2. Personally, I would have done things a little differently, but I was not there that evening.
04-28-12, 03:32 AM #12
Thanks a lot for shedding some light on the past.The last time I saw Bob I had a few months before I went to P.I. He was in his dress greens, on leave from Geiger with orders for 29 Palms. He was filling me in on what to expect and he laughed "If there's anyone you don't like tell him and He'd send him a big box of cookies". As you know anything like that and the Pvt. who got it was in a world of Sh.. t.One thing he did leave me was that little red book we all received.He thought it would give me a head start.It had all his notes in his young hand writing (he was 18).I still have it.I'm sure I threw mine away,regrettably, in Okinawa with a lot of other stuff on the way home.When I found his 40 some years later it just about brought me to tears.The last letter I got from him was from 29 Palms. At the time I was a "Boot" on the fast track to God knows where.I thought of leaving it at "The Wall" last year at my Units reunion in May. I just could'n't.Too many people it didn't seem like a place of reverence.
Thanks Marine for some sense of closure
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