The Unexploited Vulnerability Of The Marines At Khe Sanh
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  1. #1

    Cool The Unexploited Vulnerability Of The Marines At Khe Sanh

    2000 by Peter Brush

    Like Ia Drang before it, both the North Vietnamese and the Americans declared victory at the battle of Khe Sanh in 1968. These dual claims of victory are not inappropriate in a tactical situation where the adversaries have different goals. At Khe Sanh, US commander General William C. Westmoreland was certain the Communists' primary goal was another Dien Bien Phu; namely, to isolate and capture the Marine combat base. The Communists, on the other hand, claimed that Khe Sanh was merely a diversion to draw US forces away from the populated areas of South Vietnam in order to maximize the effects of the Communists' efforts during the great Tet Offensive of 1968.

    But the Communists were not completely rigid in their tactical thinking. Their diversionary claims notwithstanding, they would have captured the base at Khe Sanh had they been able.[1] The North Vietnamese, however, were unable to seize the base due to superior American firepower. They could have forced the Americans out of Khe Sanh, but they never realized the means by which this could have been done.

    Both sides had compelling military reasons for their interest in the region around Khe Sanh. The geography of Indochina made Khe Sanh militarily significant. General Westmoreland felt the critical importance of Khe Sanh was clearly apparent. It would serve as a patrol base for the interdiction of enemy personnel and supplies coming down the Ho Chi Minh Trail from Laos into northern South Vietnam, a base for covert operations to harass the Communists along the Trail, the location of an airstrip for aerial reconnaissance of the Trail, the western anchor for the defensive line along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating North and South Vietnam, and a jumping-off point for a land invasion of Laos to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail. According to Westmoreland, abandoning the US military presence at Khe Sanh would allow the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN, the North Vietnamese Army or NVA) the ability to carry the fight into the populated coastal regions of Northern South Vietnam. For the Communists the region around Khe Sanh was the avenue for their entry into northern South Vietnam. From a strategic standpoint, it would clearly be in the best interests of the PAVN to end the American presence at Khe Sanh.[2]

    Khe Sanh was located on Route 9 which ran from near the South China Sea at Dong Ha westerly to Savannaket, a market town in Laos along the Mekong River. This old French highway ran just south of and mostly parallel to the Demilitarized Zone. In August, 1967, Communist forces destroyed many of the bridges on Route 9, blocked the passes, and mined the highway. Khe Sanh was effectively isolated from overland resupply and would remain so for the next nine months. The Marine garrison at the Khe Sanh Combat Base could only be provisioned by air.

    In October, 1967, General Giap ordered men and material sent down the Ho Chi Minh Trail and infiltrated across the Laotian-South Vietnam border in the vicinity of Khe Sanh. In response, General Westmoreland ordered the reinforcement of the Marine garrison there. Westmoreland wanted a large Marine force at Khe Sanh in order to entice PAVN troops into a killing zone where massive firepower would destroy them in large numbers. The limiting factor was that this force had to be small enough to be supplied by air. The result was a reinforced Marine regiment of about 6,600 men. On January 21, 1968, the PAVN began rocket, artillery, and mortar attacks on the Khe Sanh Combat Base. US air and artillery assets prevented the enemy from massing his forces in sufficient number to launch effective ground attacks on the base and surrounding hilltop positions. As long as Khe Sanh could be adequately supplied with ammunition, POL (petroleum, oil, lubricants) and food, the Marines could maintain their positions.

    Concerns over the ability of the US to successfully defend Khe Sanh were manifest at the highest levels of government. President Lyndon B. Johnson, his national security advisor, the advisor's military assistant, and the National Security Council staff representative for Vietnam were all kept abreast of the developing situation around Khe Sanh. President Johnson summed up his feelings regarding Khe Sanh while the fighting was in progress: "I don't want any damn Dinbinphoo."[3] Both General Earl G. Wheeler, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and General Westmoreland assured the president that preparations for the defense of Khe Sanh were adequate and that the base would be successfully supplied.[4] Support for the defense of Khe Sanh received priority over all other operations in Vietnam.[5]

    The job of supplying the Marine base at Khe Sanh fell to various Marine Corps and US Air Force aviation units. This airlift would have been a massive operation even under ideal circumstances. The purely logistical problems were compounded by poor visibility that fell below minimum requirements for airfield operations 40 percent of the time. The PAVN added to the difficulty by directing a heavy volume of antiaircraft and artillery fire at incoming aircraft.[6]

    The resupply process suffered a sharp setback on February 10 when PAVN gunners shot up a Marine C-130, fully laden with fuel bladders, while it was attempting a landing at the Khe Sanh airstrip. As a result of this incident and fire damage sustained by other aircraft already on the ground, C-130 landings were temporarily suspended during February. At the beginning of March this suspension was made permanent. Consequently, during these periods, the Marines were denied the use of the best heavy-lift aviation assets in their inventory. Most supplies thereafter were delivered by parachute. According to the official Marine Corps history of the battle of Khe Sanh, these parachute drops ". . . were sufficient for bulk commodities such as rations and ammunition."[7] Certain supplies, such as replacement troops, medical evacuations and medical supplies, could only be delivered by aircraft that made actual landings on the runway at Khe Sanh.

    In the opinion of this writer, who was present during the siege, this official assessment of the success of US supply capabilities regarding rations was overly optimistic. A hot meal was defined as heated C-rations; the Marines at Khe Sanh sometimes went weeks without hot meals. Rations were routinely limited to two meals per man per day. One Marine reported that he went several days with only one C-ration meal per day.[8] A company commander on Hill 861, located about two miles northwest of the combat base, reported his men were forced to go for days without water.[9] Another reported that his water ration was one-half canteen cup of water per day, which had to suffice for drinking, shaving, and brushing teeth.[10]

    Water is an extremely difficult commodity to deliver to a besieged garrison. It is heavy, it must be handled in special containers that cannot be used for the delivery of other liquids, and water containers are vulnerable to incoming artillery attacks. One helicopter crew attempting to deliver water to Hill 861 was rattled by PAVN fire, panicked, and released its cargo from a height of two hundred feet. The parched Marines watched the water containers burst apart in mid-air.[11]

    Had the Communists realized the vulnerability of the Marine water supply, they could have forced the abandonment of the combat base. The Marines occupied various hilltop positions surrounding Khe Sanh. These positions, initially supplied from the combat base itself, were later provisioned by helicopters flying from the 3d Marine Division Forward base at Dong Ha. Water for the combat base came from the small Rao Quan River which flowed through hills to the north occupied by the PAVN.

    Even though the combat base was not dependent on air-lifted water as the hill positions were, it was, nevertheless, often a scarce commodity. The water point itself was located about 150 meters outside the northern sector of the base perimeter. There was a small hill and tall grass that obscured visual contact with the water point. The water was lifted ninety feet over an 800-foot span by pumps. A dirt dam twenty-five meters wide caused the formation of a reservoir six feet deep. During the extensive rains of September and October, 1967, the dam broke. US Navy EO1 (Equipment Operator First Class) Rulon V. Rees led a detail to repair the dam in the fall of 1967 using old scrapped Marston matting from the airstrip. This detail blasted a crater in the river bed about thirty feet in front of the dam to act as a reservoir in case the river level fell. Marston matting was placed on the face of the dam.

    No patrols went out to get the water. It was pumped inside the perimeter and went to a large black rubber water tower container. This reservoir was frequently punctured during the siege, causing temporary lack of water on the base.[12]

    Had the PAVN realized how vulnerable the Marines' water supply was, they could have interdicted it by diverting the Rao Quan River or contaminating it, thereby forcing the Marines to attempt a breakout.[13] However, General Giap, who achieved victory at Dien Bien Phu in part due to his meticulous battlefield planning, seems to have not realized the vulnerability of the Marines' water supply. Nor did the local PAVN commander. General Westmoreland did not become aware of the magnitude of the potential water problem until the base was surrounded by the North Vietnamese. By that time, a successful evacuation was not possible.

    The concept of an overland evacuation of a reinforced regiment, fighting its way through two or three PAVN divisions that held every tactical advantage, presented a problem of such magnitude that Westmoreland was reluctant to consider it. The Joint Chiefs refused to consider it.


    Vietnam 1968/69
    Once a Marine...Always a Marine

  2. #2
    Had the PAVN succeeded in interdicting the combat base's water supply, 3rd Marine Division commander General R. M. Tompkins is quoted in one source as saying that it would have been impossible to provision Khe Sanh with water in addition to its other resupply requirements.[14] However, in a letter to General Davidson, General Tompkins stated that water could have been added to the provisions already being supplied to support the base. By examining the supply requirements and the logistical capabilities of the Americans it is possible to determine which of these contradictory statements is correct.

    III Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF) headquarters established the official supply requirement for Khe Sanh at 235 tons per day. The Americans were hard pressed to meet these requirements. The airstrip was completely closed on various occasions due to the weather or damage sustained from enemy fire. During the month of February alone, the combat base had a deficit of 1,037 tons of supplies actually delivered compared to scheduled deliveries. The air delivery problems were compounded when the use of the large C-130 cargo planes was curtailed due to hostile fire. Passenger requirements were met by the use of C-123 aircraft. The smaller capacity of the C-123's necessitated a five-fold increase in landings. More landings meant more targets; one aircraft upon returning to Da Nang was found to contain 242 holes before the maintenance personnel gave up counting. In the first month of the siege four major aircraft were lost to hostile fire.[15]

    Helicopters were widely used as resupply vehicles. Only helicopters could reach the hilltop positions, whose supply requirements were 32,000 pounds per day. Helicopters were stationed at the combat base at the beginning of the fighting. These aircraft became so vulnerable to hostile fire that they had to be kept constantly in the air whether they had missions to perform or not. Eventually losses became so great that this unit was deployed away from Khe Sanh, as helicopters were being lost at a rate faster than they could be replaced. No less than thirty-three helicopters were destroyed or permanently disabled between the beginning of the siege and the end of March, 1968.[16]

    These losses were sustained without the implementation of an additional requirement for water delivery. According to the relevant US Army field manual, the water supply requirement for drinking, personal hygiene, food preparation, laundry, and medical treatment is six pounds of water per man per day. These levels provide enough water to support continuous combat operations for extended periods.[17] The implementation of this requirement would have added 158 tons per day, an additional load of 67% over the supply requirement without water. Unlike ammunition and food rations, which could be palletized and delivered by parachute without the need for special containers, water was difficult to stockpile during the periods when resupply was possible, for use when landings were not permitted due to weather or hostile fire. The official optimism of US commanders regarding resupply at Khe Sanh notwithstanding, the Americans would not have been able to provide the base with water under the existing tactical conditions.

    By March the PAVN began withdrawing from the Khe Sanh area, and in April the Marine regiment was replaced, allowing it to withdraw via the newly reopened Route 9. The primary goal of the American forces at Khe Sanh was to destroy large numbers of North Vietnamese soldiers. In this they were successful. Although the official body count of enemy soldiers killed at Khe Sanh was 1,602, the US command placed the total number of North Vietnamese at between 10,000 and 15,000 killed in action. American deaths sustained in the siege itself, plus mobile operations in the Khe Sanh tactical area after the siege, totaled approximately 1,000 KIA.[18] In a war that focused on kill ratios and body counts as a measure of success, Khe Sanh was placed in the win column by the American military.

    As with the Americans at Khe Sanh, the French garrisoned Dien Bien Phu as "bait" for the Vietnamese Communist forces. An American observer there reported that the French base could "withstand any kind of attack the Viet Minh are capable of launching."[19] When the Viet Minh knocked out the airfield at Dien Bien Phu, resupply became impossible and the French became isolated and vulnerable. On May 7, 1954, after sustaining heavy losses, the French were forced to surrender. The very next day the Indochina phase of the Geneva Conference began. France's loss at Dien Bien Phu led directly to their withdrawal from Indochina.

    Victory in combat, however defined, often hangs by a tenuous thread. Even with the claim of victory by the US at Khe Sanh and during the Tet 1968 fighting in general, the psychological victory of the Vietnamese Communists during this period led to the beginning of the end for the United States in Vietnam. It was during the 1968 Tet Offensive that opposition in the US to the war in Vietnam, in terms of regarding involvement as a mistake, first rose above 50 percent and exceed the level of support. Approximately one fourth of all the television film reports on the evening news programs in the US during February and March, 1968, were devoted to portraying the situation of the Marines at Khe Sanh.[20] Had the North Vietnamese simply interdicted the water supply of the Marines at the Khe Sanh Combat Base in 1968, thereby forcing the Marines to evacuate and inflicting heavy casualties upon them in the process, the United States could have easily have met a fate similar to that of the French.

    Could General Giap's NVA forces have won the siege by cutting off Khe Sanh's water supply?


    [1] I am indebted to Professor Cecil B. Currey, Professor of Military History at the University of South Florida and Chaplain (Colonel), USAR (Ret.), for this interpretation. Colonel Currey has interviewed and corresponded with Vietnamese Senior General Vo Nguyen Giap. According to Currey, Giap planned Khe Sanh primarily as a diversion but also thought the fighting there could have resulted in a second Dien Bien Phu. Personal communication from Colonel Currey to the author dated 11 April, 1994.

    [2] General William C. Westmoreland, A Soldier Reports, (Garden City, N.Y.: 1976), p. 336.

    [3] Time magazine, February 9, 1968, p. 16.

    [4] John Prados and Ray W. Stubbe, Valley of Decision, (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1991), pp. 289-290.

    [5] Captain Moyers S. Shore II, The Battle for Khe Sanh, (Washington, D.C.: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1969), p. 93.

    [6] Shore, p. 74.

    [7] Shore, p. 79.

    [8] Prados and Stubbe, p. 282.

    [9] Robert Pisor, The End of the Line, (N.Y.: Ballantine Books, 1982), p. 188, 199, and personal recollection of the author.

    [10] Prados and Stubbe, p. 306.

    [11] Shore, p. 199.

    [12] I am indebted to Ray W. Stubbe, Lutheran chaplain of the 1st Battalion, 26th Marines at Khe Sanh, for this description of the water source. It was taken from Stubbe's diary written during the siege. Personal correspondence from Stubbe to the author dated March 21, 1994.

    [13] Westmoreland's intelligence chief, General Phillip B. Davidson, USA (Ret.) notes that it was not benevolence on the part of the PAVN that kept them from poisoning the water supply. According to the Geneva Protocol of 1925, which the North Vietnamese ratified in 1957, the chemical pollution of a stream is permitted as long as the stream is only used by military personnel. The Rao Quan served no civilians and legally could have been poisoned. Vietnam at War, (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1988), pp. 568-569.

    [14] Prados and Stubbe, p. 364. Pisor, p. 202. Pisor's quotation from General Thompkins is taken from an official Marine Corps Oral History collection published in 1973. General Davidson notes that Thompkins felt at the time he wrote to Davidson and at the time of the siege that the base could have been provisioned with water by airlift. These contradictory claims remain inexplicable to this writer. Davidson, p. 569.

    [15] Prados and Stubbe, p. 373, 374, 375, 390. Peter C. Rollins, "Television's Vietnam: The Visual Language of Television News," Journal of American Culture, 4 (1981), p. 123.

    [16] Prados and Stubbe, p. 381, 382, 391.

    [17] FM 101-10-1-1/2, Staff Officers' Field Manual Organizational, Technical, and Logistical Data Planning Factors (Vol. 2), (Washington, D.C.: Headquarters, Dept. of the Army, 1987), p. 2-8 & 2-9.

    [18] Pisor, p. 237; Prados and Stubbe, p. 451, 454.

    [19] Report of Special U.S. Mission to Indochina, February 5, 1954, Eisenhower Papers, "Cleanup" File, Box 16, quoted in George C. Herring and Richard H. Immerman, "Eisenhower, Dulles, and Dienbienphu: 'The Day We Didn't Go to War' Revisited," in Journal of American History, Vol. 71, No. 2, Sept 1984, p. 345.

    [20] Leslie H. Gelb and Richard K. Betts, The Irony of Vietnam: The System Worked, (Washington, D.C.: Brookings, 1979), p. 160. Don Oberdorfer, Tet!, (N.Y.: Avon, 1971), p. 258.



    Vietnam 1968/69
    Once a Marine...Always a Marine

  3. #3
    To answer the bottom line question...NO!! And to add my (HO).....NO WAY!!

    Will explain if needed.Let all of us know.
    Mike, D/1/26

  4. #4

    Hell, Marine! Ya left us hangin' here!

    Sound off and let us know what ya figure about it.

    I was too young to be there, so I've only read about it. Seems to me we had all the material and resources to keep bringing water in no matter what the NVA did or wanted to do.

  5. #5
    Have been gone a long time..Sorry,Will explaine later...No-way the PAVN would have ever taken the base.Water was an issue,but not that a big of deal.Our main goal was to support the hill Outposts.If the base had to sacrifice water,than that was a given.The water point was indeed an issue,but not a weak point.The availably of local water was never a consideration as to the outcome of the total defence of the base.We got by with 1/2 canteen/per man/per day/ just fine. That what Marines do .In the long run,KSCB would never have caved in even if the siege had gone on for six months.Moral was high and the ESPRIT de CORPS was commonplace. We lost a lot of guys that spring....God rest thier souls.Rest in Peace my brothers,for we will join you in that final billet.

    Mike..Delta 1/26

  6. #6
    Glad to see ya DELTA2ALPHA. Hope all's well with you and yours, Marine.

  7. #7
    THANX ,

    Every thing is SEMPER FI......

  8. #8
    Hey.. did the ribbon checker ever get the glitches ironed out??
    Do not need to know...Just wondering.

  9. #9
    I never bothered with it, Marine. We'll have to wait fer someone else to answer that one.

  10. #10

    Here's someone else's look at that particular fight

  11. #11
    Nice read Bones.Air power at that time was indeed awe inspiring.Yes,they did make B-52 runs inside 1km of our lines.The sound of 500 pound bombs dropping thru the air was the most frightining sound I ever heard while at Khe Sanh.Can not imagine being an NVA soldier under such a barrage.I spent almost my whole overseas deployment in Jungleland at Khe Sanh. It went from Vacation paradise to total Moonscape in less than a year.The total denuding of the landscape was near complete.When the 26 Marines left Khe Sanh,because of Army eviction,we found laundry,mail,and support bases indicating that the NVA were in area to stay. They thourghly intended to take the Base and stay in the area for good.Why MACV and the MC came to the conclusion that KSCB should be abandoned is beyond me.......
    The Gnawing question...Did I Kill>>>Yes Do I feel bad>>>> NO>>> I'm here and they are not>>>End of question!!!!
    Sq. Ldr. of Marines

    P.s. Water was never an issue...EVER

  12. #12
    Khe Sanh was mostly deserted during my tour in 70, then one day in early '71, we flew over the hiway running out of Danang & it was full of trucks going out. A couple days later, we learned the old airfield & base @ Khe Sahn had been re-opened & we used it for a couple of months as a resupply & refueling point to fly into Laos as part of LamSon719. Of course, we'd already heard a lot of stories about the siege of Khe Sahn, and the battle for the hills, so it was kinda eerie to be flying into what had already become a famous name in Marine Corps history.

  13. #13

    Memories of the Hill Battles
    By James Epps, Lt. 1/26


    As we draw near the 30th anniversary of the major operations in Khe Sanh, my memory is of my first operation as a brand new Second Lieutenant in Vietnam...the Hill Fights in the Spring of 1967.
    Because of the potential danger of the siege and its high media profile, the battles of the previous Spring have not yet received their due recognition. Being an eyewitness to the final phases of the battle and its aftermath, I have known that ever since. Just as the Vietnam Veterans built their own monument, now is the time to illuminate this battle, for us to tell our own story.

    The official Marine Corps history, as recounted in "Marines in Vietnam 1967," describes the battle as "...First Battle of Khe Sanh, one of the bloodiest battles and hardest fought battles of the Vietnam War." Lt. Gen. Victor H. Krulak, USMC (Ret.), speaks of the initial engagement: "The results were the bitterest fighting of the entire war for the Marines."

    First, the hills. These are ancient hills, formed by volcano, rounded by time, overgrown by triple canopy jungle, overspread by vast acerage of dense elephant grass, stands of bamboo scattered at random. Here and there are footpaths made by generations of Montagnards that wind over ridges and valleys, only wide enough for small people in single file. In some areas, the terrain is impassible; in other areas, the terrain and the vegetation deny passage.

    Now my story. When I arrived in country, I was assigned to 1/26 which had been located at Hill 55 for some months. From the time I joined, there were rumors that we were due to be rotated and would be moving. About 10 days after I joined Charlie Co., we recieved move-out orders, wound up in Phu Bai, and were being briefed to move to the rim of the Ashau Valley as escort for 175s (Howitzers). The operation was to be called CUMBERLAND.

    Without any prior warning, we received a warning order to move out and were sent to the air strip. After hanging out in the blazzing sun, C130s showed up; and we loaded up where we were going. When we landed, the piolet reversed the thrust of his engines and braked so hard that it threw us around the cargo bay. As the high-pitched whine if the motor lowered the ramp, the first thing that greeted us was the air full of artillery smoke and the turn-out at the west end of the strip was lined up with litters.

    While we were milling around, my second squad leader recognized someone on one of the litters; and that is how we found out there was a tremondous battle going on in the hills, and the casualties were terrible. Shortly, we were assigned the western sector of the base to defend, the area that became known as the Ponderosa. The original road to the base from Highway 9 entered there, and young Montagnard boys were selling crossbows and bracelets. On the other side of the road, the jungle began.

    For the next few days, we ran patrols during the day and were base security at night. On Charlie Company's second day in Khe Sanh, the third platoon was detailed to escourt an artillery battery with an added section of 155s (Howitzers) about two kilometers outside the base to a location near what became known as the Rock Quarry. The 105s were nearly at maximum range firing out beyond 881N; displacing the battery allowed better coverage.

    The first night we were just kind of set in a loose perimeter around the battery with hasty fighting holes. It was that night that is remembered by everyone in the Hill Fights as the night of the rainstorm. I was new to Vietnam, and this was my first thunderstorm; and, naturally, it overwhelmed me. It also made a lasting impression on seasoned grunts. My hasty fighting hole was three feet deep and the rain filled it up in less than ten minutes. Water poured out of the sky.

    For the next 5 days we patrolled all around Khe Sanh Combat Base. There were times, during lulls in the battle, between helicopter flights or resupply and medevac, between prolonged barrages by the artillery, in the quiet, away from the Combat Base, that the beauty of the Khe Sanh Valley emerged to touch us -- a lush tropical paradise with birds and monkeys...and swirling cones of circling buzzards. From a distance, the hills look smooth as California foothills: fields of grass scattered with clumps of trees and interspersed with stands of forest.

    On the 10th of May the artillery battery struck its position, and we returned to the Combat Base. Rumors flew. We were broken down into helo teams and dropped off on the ridgeline to the east of the crest of Hill 881N. The hilltop was confusion, as there was a reinforced battalion lifting off after patrolling and pursuing the enemy after the fall of Hill 881N five days earlier. We were replacing them.

    The next impression, after all the milling around, was the smell of death. Everywhere Overpowering everything. Everything was shredded. Big trees had been splintered by big bombs. The ground was pulverized. Big trees had been splintered by big bombs. The foliage was finely sliced by all the shrapnel of a big battle. There seemed to be a fine powdery dust scattered over everything.

    While we were checking out the LZ, which really was a rounded ridgeline across a draw from 881N, I ran into two classmates from the Basic School. We had graduated just 3 months before. They told me their story of the Hill Fights.

    A fellow classmate had tripped off the battle some 3 weeks earlier when he had climbed Hill 861 from the backside, up the ridgeline that went across Hill 861-Alpha. He and I had been to recon school at Camp Pendleton just before leaving the States and had learned not to use the easy route of approach to any terrain feature.

    Apparently, his little FO team had scaled Hill 861 turned into a ridgeline that ran west to 881N&S. He had caught them by surprise, and they reacted with fury. His Marines had pulled him back severly wounded. There were Marines missing. This became characteristic of the phases of the Hill Fights. Units who took over from the initial assults units were charged with recovering the missing.


  14. #14
    My basic-school classmates continued to tell me their story. They took 861. Then fought their way along the backbone ridge that runs from 861 to 881N&S. The crest of the ridge runs in a line from east to west. Sloping away from the backbone are intersecting ridgelines that are steep up and down and broad on their tops. Some were forrested. The main ridgeline was so steep and thickly overgrown that it was impassible; therefore, any route of approach from east to west had to follow the military crest of the ridgeline, across the secondary ridges that ran perpendicular to it. The Lieutenants told of taking these ridge lines one by one, only to have to back off each one in turn so artillery and air could bombard the next ridge. There were five of these secondary ridgelines. It took days.

    The conversations I am recounting took only a few minutes and for 30 years has stayed clearly in my mind. My fellow Lieutenants told me about how the NVA they fought were much bigger than the South Vietnamese and how some of the dead did not look like Vietnamese -- maybe Cubans. They talked about snipers tying themselves in trees and fighting to the death. And how some of them appeared to be drugged on something because, in the final counter-attack, they charged out of their bunkers at the attacking Marines in a agitated delerium, seeming to foam at the mouth, with their weapons at high port. They had excellent weapons, good uniforms and web gear and even some wore steel helmets.

    For the last 5 days, they had been patrolling to the west and northwest -- out to the Laotion border -- and had occasional,but serious contacts. The NVA had not completely quit the field of battle; they had only changed the tempo of their operations.

    Then it was their turn to take the CH-46s. The reinforced battalion was gone. A rifle company, C/1/26, was alone on 881N. We left the LZ and marched single file to the actual hilltop of 881N and set in for the night among the jumble of trees blown off at knee level by one and two thousand pound bombs during the taking of the Hill. We were on our own. Here and there, some intact NVA bunkers offered protection. We also used fighting holes vacated by the assault companies.

    During our assumption of the battlefield, and for weeks after, details emerged which illuminated the nature and disposition of the fighting units and the ferocity of the battle, not just giant trees strewn around like matchsticks, not just the dirt and lesser vegetation shredded but the detritus and debris of big military units in a desperate battle; ammunition wrapping, cardboard rocket and mortal shipping tubes, piles of spent brass mixed with machine gun links, ragged battle dressings, food garbage, dead batteries, ragged web gear and shards of uniforms, tattered ponchos, a NVA bush hat in the low branches of a denuded tree, burned out smoke gernades, loose rounds, charging clips, empty wooden ammo boxes.

    As the companies of 1/26 replaced the assault companies, we patrolled and swept and searched the entire area around the hilltops and much of their slopes. This process commenced immediately and continued for months. During this time, we continued to make contact with the NVA, at first regularly and seriously, then more sporadically as time continued. This was one of our missions, as well as occupying the hilltops, denying easy access and maneuver to the NVA and continuing to search the battlefield because, a number of times during the Hill Fights, dead Marines had to be left behind while assaulting units regrouped. There were missing. Any time we discovered previously uncharted remains, we shut down the patrol, set up security, and Graves Registration people choppered out from Khe Sanh in CH-34s to inspect and remove the bones.

    This description of our mission commenced during the consolidation phase of the attack on the Hills. In our narrative, C/1/26 is in its first 24 hrs. on Hill 881N. The next morning, during resupply, a CH-34 lost power on lift off and crashed. While two platoons of C Company climbed off 881N to 881S, the Third Platoon was detailed to guard the 34. This was on the intermediate crest of 881N, just to the south of the geographical grest. On the terrain maps, it looked like a starfish with a rounded body from which four or five ridges emanated like the legs of a starfish. They sloped away into ravines. This had been the scene of the NVA counterattack just before the final assult of 881N. It was to figure promently in the opening battles of the seige. It was a natural stepping stone from 881S to the north and from any approach from the east.

    The ridgelines that runs from 861 to 881N&S does not lift up gradually to those hilltops. It ends in almost a "T," and the ground falls off steeply to a large low area at the base of Hill 881N&S terrian complex. There is a low saddle that runs over to the starfish hilltop. It is in the vicinity of the cross bar of the "T" of the east-west ridge where we had landed the day before. We had walked across the saddle to the starfish before turning north to go up Hill 881N. The acctual crest of 881 was too heavily forrested to land a helicopter. Now we are guarding a helicopter in a ravine of the starfish-shaped hillock, one platoon where there had been three companies. A long night.

    We waited all next day for a CH-53 to lift out the CH-34. We ran local security around the hilltop. We discovered that whereever there weren't bomb craters, there were bunkers. The night the NVA had counterattacked the assault companies, they had reoccupied some of these very bunkers and had rooted out again in an 8-hr fight. Many of them were filled with dead (now putrefact) NVA and their gear. This area was still littered.

    Huge areas of all the surrounding terrain had been burned off by napalm and white phosphorus. By 1915 the chopper was lifted out, and we received water and chow resupply. We thought we were going to spend another night there, but the company on 881S radioed over to us; and we had to secure chow call, saddle up, and hump the 5-gallon water cans that had just been delivered. It was now dusk.

    When we got to the bottom of the steep ravine that separates 881N&S, we were nearly overpowered by the stench of death. This must have been why the NVA had been burying their dead during the initial assault of Hill 881S. It took an hour and a half in the deepening dusk to reach the friendly positions on 881S. We stayed inside the lines of the company on 881S. Their CP group occupied some of the NVA bunkers. Marine fighting holes and bunkers tend to be ragged holes torn in the earth. These were dug plumb and straight, linned with matting, and deep. By this time, almost all of the log and dirt roofs had been blown off by engineers as the mop-up continued

    The next day, we walked to 861 with the assaulting units which had been occupying 881S since its fall on May 1st, 1967. A/1/26 on 881S and C/1/26 on 861 then settled into a week's long program of occupying our hills and daily patrolling the terrain complex of hilltops, denying to the NVA the reoccupation of the hilltops and sweeping the area for fresh activity and still looking for residual material from the battles, especially for any trace of the missing.

    C/1/26 began to clean up, then fortify Hill 861. The entire top was buried in loose soil -- the air campaign had blown over 20 feet of the crest, and that soil was strewn all over. The entire topographical crest was pocked with craters from big bombs. Some of those craters were big enough to hold a 2-story building. As we dug in, monsoon rains began to wash away all the loose dirt; and NVA remains began to appear. Digging fighting holes often resulted in unearthing the bones of dead NVA and their gear.

    Our routine in the weeks following was to run a company minus patrol every day out to 881N. On a 3-platoon rotation, that meant two days out and one day in. These were day patrols; we returned to our hilltop each night. We walked the original axis of attack over and over for weeks. Everytime we varied our route, we found new bunkers and more debris. Slowly, we were able to reconstruct the original fights, including the rally and chow points, medavac landing zones, and firing positions of crew-served weapons. We went over and around the 5 ridges that were perpendicular to our route. We even found at least two rusty M-16s that had been thrown away. One still had a cleaning rod in it.

    Over the weeks, it became apparent how well the NVA had prepared the battlefield and how merciless the Hill Fights had been. Had the NVA not been discovered prematurely, it would have taken untold men and casualties to take those hills.

    Jim Epps

  15. #15
    We told them three months ahead of time it was going to happin--They did not want to beleive us. We held and saved thier bacon.We kicked ass,and they took the credit. We got a PUC and over 400 Marines lost thier lives. I am glad that the Marines held,but I still mourn the loss of My Brothers every day of every year to this day. Rest in eternal peace Brother Marines--Semper Fi

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