Khe Sanh, a plateau in the northwest corner of South Vietnam, was a U. S. Marine Corps base and airstrip. Located where North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and Laos came together, the Khe Sanh base was important for American forces, as it enabled troops to gather information about the traffic on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. However, the Communists also admired the region around Khe Sanh, since it could act as an avenue into Southern Vietnam.
General Westmoreland, who would come to play a major role in the future battles, immediately felt this “crucial importance” (Brush) of Khe Sanh when he first arrived there.
Although General Westmoreland’s initial innuendo was ultimately true, Khe Sanh didn’t become important until the spring of 1967, nearly five years after Americans first arrived there.
It was Khe Sanh’s natural worth that made it a tempting target for communist Ho Chi Minh; by seizing the area, he could secure the Ho Chi Minh Trail and push east towards the coast, cutting South Vietnam of its northernmost provinces, draw American forces away from the cities, weakening their defense, and establish the makings of another Dien Bien Phu, which was a Vietnamese victory under Vo Nguyen Giap over the French and a battle that “marked the end of France in Indochina” (Bowman).
Many, in addition to Westmoreland, were aware of this area’s importance, and thus became suspicious when, in early spring, Special Operation Forces observed increases in traffic on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Shortly after, in April 1967, a Marine Corps Patrol was ambfoldushed near one of Khe Sanh’s surrounding hills. From then on until May 12, 1967, the Marines performed several major assaults and a bombing campaign on three hills surrounding Khe Sanh that were occupied by the communist North Vietnamese Army.
The assaults “produced fierce hand-to-hand fighting that left 160 marines dead and 700 wounded” (American History), but the Americans successfully defeated one People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) regiment and a large artillery emplacement. This success convinced General Westmoreland that U. S. outposts could survive even when outnumbered, so long as they had enough supplies, and so he set out to maintain and enlarge such outposts, especially that of Khe Sanh.
General Westmoreland’s plan, however, had unprecedented consequences: the following winter, NVA forces would strike again—this time more powerful. On January 20, 1968, American intelligence reports noted an enemy buildup of two North Vietnamese Army (NVA) divisions and the 304th division, which had been the assault unit at the battle at Dien Bien Phu. Two artillery regiments were also reported to be “across the border in ‘neutral’ Laos” (Marrin).
Ho Chi Minh’s ideal of the siege of Khe Sanh, making it another Dien Bien Phu, wasn’t far off—the sieges were, in fact, very similar, and making them so strongly similar was his effort to break the Americans’ morale. He was successful in achieving this goal for the first two months of the second siege, where the NAV launched a series of vicious attacks against the Americans, and the Americans were having difficulty being resupplied due to a NVA rocket and artillery attack hitting the marines’ ammunition dump and destroying it on only the second day of the battle, January 21.
But this devastating blow, which had made the situation at Khe Sanh a “cornerstone of most evening news casts” (Brush), didn’t weaken the mindset of the American troops. Keeping in mind the well-known French defeat, American General Westmoreland was inspired to stay strong and vow that Khe Sanh wouldn’t be another Dien Bien Phu. According to Philip Caputo, Westmoreland told his men, “We are not, repeat not, going to be defeated at Khe Sanh.
I will tolerate no talking or even thinking to the contrary”. Operation Niagara was now in play. Operation Niagara resupplied the marines as Khe Sanh via aerial means. Carrying out the operation wasn’t easy; the aircrafts of the operation fought through bad weather and heavy defenses by the NVA, so heavy that they “could no longer land on the airstrip” and had to “discharge their cargo in low-flying parachute drops” (Caputo).
Though the operation had good intentions, a part of it showed how badly the morale of most US leaders became—on January 23, one of the resupply planes unloaded four large crates addressed to ‘Fifth Graves Registration Team, Khe Sanh’ and inside which were 4,000 pounds of body bags. It was evident that the American leaders and troops needed a boost in morale. Commander William H. Dabney, who commanded an outpost during the siege, realized this, and so he and his men decided to raise the American flag as an act of defiance against the enemy.
Caputo writes that Commander Dabney recalled: “So daily, at eight o’clock, precisely at eight o’clock, [the enemy] targeted us [with mortar and artillery fire], and we would raise the flag. We had good, deep holes right beside the flagpole, and it took about twenty-five seconds [to raise the flag] because we knew the time of flight for the [artillery] round was about twenty-five seconds… We had a bugler, a lieutenant by the name of Matthews, who could do a fair rendition of the colors, albeit with speed… The bugle had a way of getting shrapnel in it.
It didn’t sound right but it didn’t matter…It was a gesture of defiance…. ” Though this act helped the soldiers’ spirits, regular PAVN rocket attacks continued; between January 21 and February 5, the enemy mounted several small attacks on several new Marine Corps positions around Khe Sanh, killing seven marines. Despite the marines retaking the position and staying strong, the defenders “were completely overrun” (American History) by mid-February—twenty one marines were killed and twenty six were injured in those skirmishes.
On March 6, 1968, the communists began to withdrawal from Khe Sanh. The final siege of Khe Sanh, known as Operation Scotland, ended on April 1 of that year and officially lifted the battle, and U. S. forces abandoned the Khe Sanh base on June 26, 1968. It’s still up for debate whether the United States or the North Vietnamese won the second battle of Khe Sanh. In fact, it is still unclear what the intentions of the NVA were; was their attack just a means of diversion?
Or were they really intending to take Khe Sanh? Both Caputo and American History note that General Vo Nguyen Giap, a NVA leader, claimed that the battle was a victory for his PAVN forces, that the sole purpose of the attack was to take American forces from other regions and divert them. However, facts seem to lean otherwise: nearly two North Vietnamese Army divisions were destroyed during the siege, and had it been only a diversion, it was thus a costly one. Whatever the case, numbers never lie.
The official casualty count, according to Brush, was 205 killed, 1,668 wounded, and 1 missing for the Americans—a total of not even two thousand—yet an astonishing estimate of ten thousand to fifteen thousand total casualties for the North Vietnamese. It all is a matter of point of view, though; General Giap was content with the battle, as he felt that he had won, but for the Americans, U. S. forces had achieved one of their “most satisfying victories” (American History).
* “Battles of Khe Sanh.” American History. ABC-CLIO, 2013. Web. 8 Feb. 2013. * Bowman, John S. “Vietnam War.” Facts About American Wars. 1998: 608-664 * Brush, Peter. “THE BATTLE OF KHE SANH, 1968.” Jean and Alexander Heard Library. Vanderbilt, n.d. Web. 13 Feb. 2013.
* Caputo, Philip. “The Siege of Khe Sanh.” 10,000 Days of Thunder. New York: Byron Press Visual Publications, Inc. 2005: 70-73
* Marrin, Albert. America and Vietnam. New York: Penguin Group 1992 * PBS.PBS, n.d. Web. 08 Feb. 2013
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