The Battle of Khe Sanh
The Battle of Khe Sanh was one of the bloodiest conflicts of the Cold War. Elements of the U.S. III Marine Amphibious Force and the South Vietnamese Army of the Republic of Vietnam fought with an estimated three divisions of the Peoples Republic of Vietnam forces. The battle lasted a total of 77 days, and during this time the Marine base was under constant fire. PAVN general Giap moved large forces into the Quang Tri area to disrupt U.S. operations and better supply his southern comrades. The U.S. viewed this aggression as an attack across the DMZ, and moved men and materiel in place to repel it.
Khe Sanh is a village, located in the Quang Tri province just south of the DMZ. The area was heavily foliated, and provided North Vietnamese forces with a good enviroment to move men and materiel. U.S. Army Special forces initially dug in at Khe Sanh to establish and airfield from which to survey and conduct reconnaissance on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The Ho Chi Minh trail was a vital supply line protected by the borders of Loas and Cambodia. U.S. top brass desperately wanted to cut off this supply route and cripple the north. As early as the winter of 1964, Khe Sanh was used as a forward operating base or FOB from which patrols could be launched. The tactical position of the base was very important to U.S. officials, and the Military Assistance Command and Vietnam Studies and Observations Group (SOG) had elements stationed there. General William Westmoreland stated that “Khe Sanh could serve as a patrol base blocking enemy infiltration from Laos; a base for operations to harass the enemy in Laos; and an airstrip for reconnaissance and support.” Possesing Khe Sanh was a major tactical advantage to the Marines, and from there they were able to “explore and gather intelligence on the People Republic Army of Vietnam(PAVN) logistical system known as the Ho Chi Minh trail.”
The major battle of Khe Sanh took place in 1968, but lots of important skirmishes occured leading up to it. The PAVN and Viet Cong had levied a series of small attacks in border areas of South Vietnam in 1967. However, unlike usual tactics, these attacks were carried out by regimental sized PAVN elements and were unexpectedly brutal.In April 1967, an attempt was made by the PAVN to take Khe Sanh. This unsuccsesful artillery barrage and ground unit attack was the first in a series of fights in the area. In October, the PAVN increased their attacks to includebattalion sized elements that pushed forward and harrassed U.S. Marines for days at a time. Several major battles led to “the big one” at Khe Sanh, which started on January 21 and ended on July 9. On October 27, 1967, a regiment of PAVN attactked a Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) battalion sized element in the Phouc Long Province. Later, in the central highlands of Dak To and Kontum, divsions of PAVN engaged in fierce fighinting with the U.S. 4th infantry division. This battle lasted 22 days and “rendered 3 dvisions combat innefective.” It also signified an increase in PAVN force.
On January 21, 1968, U.S. Marines and their South Vietnamese counterparts came under massive rocket and artillery bombardment at Khe Sanh. In the first few hours, the ammunition supply area on the base was hit, making ammunition scarce. Artillery fire was literally constant for 77 days, making any attempt to re-supply the troops or evacuate wounded incredibly dangerous. The air strip on base was zeroed as a target and planes were in danger taking off, landing, and re -supllying. Despite these challenges, the Marine, Air Force, and Army Pilots flew round the clock sorties to bomb the enemy and provide support as part of Operation Niagra. Operation Niagra was the air effort during the battle, and a total of 24,000 missions were flown, with 103,000tons of munitions dropped. Slightly north of Khe Sanh was the village of Lang Vei, and U.S. Special Forces their were overrun by PAVN tanks and men. Throughought the conflict, Marines intensified area patrols, and eventually halted the PAVN advance with the help of indirect fire support (artillery, air support, etc) and a regiment of the U.S. 7th Army Infantry. This last set of reinforcements was known as Operation Pegasus, and it was a succsessful attempt to move men over land and establish contact with the Marines to end the seige.