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KHE SANH 1968 (part 1)
(2/17/01 1:29:31 pm)
Reply KHE SANH 1968 (part 1)
Even when the mortar rounds would cease to fall and the aerial bombardment quit, the red dirt would
continue sifting into the dank confines of the underground bunker. Where the red piles of the granulated
soil would collect, they would look much like the tiny mounds that pile up around ant hills.
Great draping swoops and swirls of nylon fabric that had come from air-cargo or illumination-flare
parachutes, hung haphazardly from the square wooden ceiling beams. The discarded chutes were
fashioned and jury-rigged by the installers to catch some of the sifting dirt--- probably an attempt to protect
the communication equipment. The draping, multi-colored fabric, gave the spaces an appearance of a
large tent interior, perhaps like that of a Hollywood movie set.
Bare and unshaded light bulbs hung suspended from stiff black and white electrical wires, usually
providing inadequate lighting in the sub-terranean shelter. Each time there were incoming ordinance or
exploding bombs, the concussion caused the bulbs to dance crazily on the end of the wires. Near each of
the naked bulbs was a battery operated device called a ‘battle lantern’. Electrical power failure was
commom in this environment. When turned on the battle lanterns afforded even less illumination than the
electric bulbs. Lighted dials on the radios and the flash of cigarette lighters, or even the glow of the
cigarette butts themselves, offered light in the gloomy, cave-like surroundings.
Half a dozen wooden legged, canvas covered cots were scattered randomly about the spaces. Most
were now occuppied by weary, off watch personnel...a sergeant in the far corner, fully clothed and wearing
a flack jacket, sprawled in a spread eagle fashion on the olive drab canvas bunk---several feet away a full
‘Bird Colonel’, snored with open-mouthed abandon---- a second lieutenant, barely out of his teens, curled
up on his cot, making crying sounds as he slept and a young corporal wearing mud spattered camoflage
trousers and combat boots, huddled on the bare canvas bunk, in a fetal position, pretending to be asleep.
These were not favored people by any means---- to be protected in the underground shelter, but key
players in the whole scheme of things----they too had their stints outside in the deadly shell and bomb torn
Even though there was a cistern well and a water point north of the fire base perimeter, water was the
most scarce of necessities and the odor of unwashed bodies and stinking feet mingled with the tell-tale
stench of pure unadultrated fear. Water procurment was a life threatening chore and was, at all times,
completed under the cover of darkness. This kind of warfare had not been experienced since World War I
in the fields of France and Belgium---then it was called ‘trench warfare’----what a hellish way to fight a
war---as if there ever was a good way.
Partially used boxes of C-rations were spread around the spaces in a haphazard fashion while full
boxes of the individual meals served as seats where needed. Heavy cigarette smoke hung like London
fog in the unventilated confines. Breathing in that semi-solid scum called air could be hazardous to ones
health, however, no one complained--- at least they were still able to breathe---smoking was one of the
few luxuries, probably the only one, and it gave men comfort and satisfaction to be able to smoke---in fact,
cigarettes were packed inside the C-rations boxes for the troops.
The scratching static and squawk of the radio equipment permeated the cellar like surroundings----
then would come the crisp and clear voices over the radios reporting such and such manned positions
were standing by for fire missions----a 155 howitzer battery in Grey Sector giving ammunition status
reports, a transmission from the Red Sector of the perimeter requesting C-rations for the 81 mm mortar
crew, and finally the air craft control center asking for a time check.
The radio operator receiving that inquiry grinned widely and remarked to his fellow operator if the guy
had a date to make or a flight to catch....a grizzled Army Spec 4 nearby snapped brashly to ‘knock off the
chatter’. He too had to mask a grin behind the clipboard he was writing on---maybe the only humor of the
day---smile when you get a chance because Victor Charlie sure as hell could wipe it off your face with a
few well placed mortar rounds.
And the red earth of Khe Sanh continued to sift into the command bunker---to sift like sand through the
hourglass of time, building the tiny red ant mounds at this place in the world so horrible that ants could’nt
or would’nt want to dwell there.
On the order of an army major standing nearby, one of the radio operators read a message over an
open mike from a prepared note he had been handed---‘now hear this---now hear this---all users this net---
stand-down from offensive combat operations; cease-fire conditions are being observed in all contested
areas---all crew served weapons will be manned half-on half-off status--- all observation posts and
perimeter fighting positions will remain fully manned with weapons at the ready---individual weapons will
be locked and loaded until notified otherwise, flack jackets and helmets will be donned at all times---
cease fire conditions will be prudently observed.---Easter Sunday services and church call to be
Immediately following the cease fire announcement, radios commenced to squalk and fill the
airwaves---to acknowledge those orders from the far flung perimeters of the Khe Sanh Combat Base
including Hill 881 South ----‘Roger that 4.2 mortar tubes Red Sector---manned and ready’. ‘Roger
wilco--155 howitzer battery Blue Sector--manned as ordered and standing down’, came another curt
transmission, and on and on the military reporting continued, as crisp and responsive as if the young
warriors were reading from a script----- under real conditions now that could as well have been harmless
drills some of the young soliders had been trained for in the States just a few weeks earlier. These
warriors were new to Khe Sanh, others new to the country. A mix of the veteran and the replacement--the
torch had been passed---these untested fighting men were the new guys, the new defenders of this hellish
spot in the worlds battle arena.
A military relief column named ‘Operation Pegasus’ had arrived a week earlier--American Army
battalions of the 101st Airborne---to engage and break the North Vietnamese Armys (NVA) siege and
stranglehold of this valley of death; this horrible battlefield that could be easily set down in Los Angeles
Griffith Park with space left over. Some of that red soil sifting into that command bunker was soaked with
blood ----blood of American Marines, Navy Seabees and Hospital Corpsman---men who had paid the
ultimate price--- the supreme sacrifice ---less than one thousand of the Marine and Navy defenders
remained---they were being relieved over a period of liasion coordination with the army forces---they
would leave soon for other firebase duty---if they survived their remaining tour of duty at Khe Sanh.
For 77 days, commencing mid-January 1968 multiple battalions of the U.S. Marine 26th and the 13th
Regiments had defended and died in this ungodly place---from underground bunkers to sandbagged and
crew served weapons positions to individual fighting holes, those glorious Leathernecks and Seabees
had engaged and chewed to peices the best of two North Vietnamese Army (NVA) divisions---the enemys
cream-of-the-crop. Intelligence sources knew those elite enemy units as the 324th Bravo and the 325th
Charlie divisions and that they were in the area near the demilitarized zone (DMZ). They were reinforced
regulars, well trained and well equipped, with more than twenty thousand men in each division. . They
were ‘loaded for bear’ and ready to fight.
The assault on Khe Sanh commenced at the beginning of the so-called TET Offensive (Lunar New
Year) when the length and the breadth of that tiny nation reeled under the massive Communist juggernaut.
American, Korean, Australian and National forces suffered against overwhelming odds. Fire bases with
strange names such as Khe Sanh, Hue, Dong Ha, Phu Bia, and Quang Tri-- firebases that extended
across the upper half of the divided country--from the South China Sea to the Laotian border---named in
Washington, the McNamara Line, after the current Secretary of Defense. They were designed and
manned to interdict the Communist supply lines from the North down the HoChi Minh Trail into the soft
underbelly of the South.
None of these randomly positioned fire bases were left untouched--- all felt the brunt and tenacity of
the attacks, but none as vicious as Khe Sanh...It was almost as if the powerful generals in the North
wanted another Dien Bien Phu---the monumental defeat that the French forces had suffered more than a
decade earlier. The gallant American forces seemed to shout to that little ‘bandy-legged’ General Giap up
in Hiaiphong ‘NOT ON YOUR BEST DAY GENERAL’! and even something a little bit more G.I. like, I’LL
PISS DOWN THE TOP OF YOUR COMBAT BOOTS ANY DAY OF THE WEEK, GENERAL---SIR’!
On January 22, l968 constant and sustained artillery, heavy mortar, and rocket fire erupted from the
hills and vales surrounding the fire base at Khe Sanh and the high ground out to the south named for its
elevation---Hill 881 South.
In a few hours of the constant bombardment, the ammunition dump detonated, scattering ordinance
and bombs wide and wild---Marine Colonel. D.E. Lounds (commanding) immediately demanded
replacement ammunition so the offensive operations and of course defensive harrassing and interdiction
(H&I) fire could continue unabatted ---over a few days of concentrated air drops, thousands of tons of
replacement ammunition rained down to feed the hungry cannons. The defending Marines hunkered
down and rode out the conflagration. Shortly thereafter the Americans played their ‘ace-in-the-hole’ as
giant B-52’s bombers out of Thailand and Guam began the saturation, pin-point bombing runs.
The NVA positions surrounding Khe Sanh Combat Base sustained bombardment to a degree
unparalled in any war. The earth buckled and rumbled and shook, not unlike massive earthquakes---a
scarce thousand meters from the defenders positions, massive loads of five hundred pound, high
explosive bombs were sown like the fire brands of Mighty Thor, the God of War.
Air crews said the shock waves from the exploding bombs seemed to radiate out like ripples on water
to undefinable distances. Almost 10 miles away the Seabees at Camp Barnes said their wooden legged
canvas cots would dance across the plywood decks of their ‘hootches’ (living quarters) during the
ARC-LIGHTS (B-52 raids). In the days to follow, more than 2,500 Air Force sorties dumped onto that small
spot of the world, more ordinanace than all that was dropped onto Nazi Germany in 1943 and 1944.
General Westmoreland, the Supreme Force Commander, would be quoted later as saying that it was
the B-52 raids that broke the back of the TET Offensive. The U.S. Marines at Khe Sanh and Quang Tri,
on Hill 881, and Dong Ha, over at Cam Lo and the Rock Pile---they all had opinions of their own----it was
written in sweat and blood and the stuff they threatened to put down the top of General Giap’s combat
God never created or made any human being capable of sustaining that kind of punishment.....Only
God knows how many human lives were sacrificed in those red hills and vales surrounding Khe Sanh.
Innocent civilians such as the Montagnard tribesman and their refugee children as well as the enemy
troops lives, enemy but human lives no less..
The gentle, green rolling hills and the lush tree covered terrain looked like a lifeless Moonscape---great
smoking piles of the red earth dredged up by the high explosive detonations, to be undisturbed for a
moment, and then to be changed into another hellish configuration by more incoming ordinance. Such a
horrible scenario could never be imiagined. Lives were lost or forever changed--- sanity and reality
tested---limbs mangled and destroyed, humans one moment, vaporized or shredded nothings the next, as
the defenders tried to survive in whatever shelter they had.
The Americans bled in that red soil of Khe Sanh, but a greater amount of bleeding was done by the
troops of the North---the Norths most elite forces bled and died during those will testing days.
When that Marine Colonel commanding those stalwart defenders recorded his highest muster, it was a
minor percentage responding compared to the estimated enemy strength-- but respond to that muster they
did ---- they were as brave and valiant as those Marines who had come at other times and in those other
hallowed and remembered places---Iwo, Tarawa, the Canal, Verdun, Tripoli, Bellaue Woods------
There were logisitical and supply problems at Khe Sanh. Under constant bombardment the saying
became ‘beans and bullets in---bodies out’. Times were when things were so bad that supply functions
The enemy surrounding Khe Sanh had the air strip and helicopter landing zones zeroed-in and all
landing attempts come under withering and devastating fire. Scattered amongst and around the war torn
perimeter were helicopters, cargo planes, and vehicles of all types. The dead and wounded piled
up----the sweetish, sickening smell of death lingered and clung throughout the valley of death---body bag
supplies were exhausted and had to be substituted with flimsy poncho-liners Those liners did nothing to
contain the smell of human decomposition. Remains were stacked unceremoniously on wooden pallets
equipped with cables and hooking devices----when command decisions were made to attempt extraction
of the palletized remains, a ‘look-down’ twin-rotored Chinook helicopter would swoop in, hover and
discharge it’s troops and cargo if it were so loaded. The air-borne derbis and junk of war was stirred up
by the rotor blades plagueing the men on the ground as well as the choppers crew. In almost zero
visibility the ground crewman struggled on and around the pallet loads of human remains. The cable
hooks on the pallets would be attached to the underpinnings of the hovering craft as rapidly as possible.
When a radio signal was given to the pilot, things happened instantly--with the thunderous roar of the
massive crafts engines the powered-up monster would rise not more than a hundred feet into the derbis
filled air and seem to dart off to the South, heading for the Delta-Med facilities located at Dong Ha. A
Marine or a Sailor or a ‘grunt’ on his way home.
There were many times when the palletized loads would pass over the Dong Ha Seabee base and the
terrible smell would be driven downward from the helicopters rotors into the confines of Camp
Barnes---though every man knew and understood the ‘whats and whys’ of those missions, there were
times when meals would be ‘upchucked’ and maybe several meals to be missed later on. Events too long
remembered---memories that cannot be forgotten.....Let me tell you a story here and now --- more than 30
I attempted to write about it on Easter Sunday l998---exactly 30 years after those life threatening times,
but I never could get it right---maybe it still is’nt right but I feel compelled to relate to whoever wants to
read about the memories---it is much easier to write about than it is to tell someone...weeping seems
easier as one gets older....
14 April l968 Quang Tri Province Republic of Viet Nam.