The Hill Fights: The First Battle of Khe Sanh - Edward F. Murphy EDITED 8/15/2011

In 1967, Marine patrols outside of Khe Sanh airbase came under increased pressure from NVA troops and they captured substantial amounts of weaponry. This was the First Battle for Khe Sanh, the costly battle for the hills. That they were there had an interesting story.

The Army and the Marines had very different views on the proper way to win the war. General Westmoreland, overall commander in Vietnam was convinced that the way was with more pitched battles, pitting the superior firepower and strength of the United States against the poorly supplied North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. Generals Walt and Krulak, Marine commanders who had to report to Westmoreland for operational deployment maintained that only by “winning the hearts and minds” of the people (how often have we heard that) and making the local population feel safe, could the U.S. hope to prevail.

Khe Sanh was ideally located between the two Vietnams and Laos to monitor North Vietnamese traffic going south. Westmoreland had received intelligence that the NVA were moving a large force with the (he feared) intent of taking Hue which would be a military and political disaster for the U.S. Walt had flatly replied that his long range patrols had found no evidence of such a movement. Nevertheless, Westmoreland sent Marines to Khe Sanh to watch for such activity. Surrounded by hills, virtually inaccessible by any road except highway 9 which was barely a dirt cart track, it might remind some of the debacle at A Shau where and American base was totally overrun with many casualties.

Westmoreland considered Khe Sanh to be of paramount importance. Despite evidence of large bodies of troops moving south through the area and the DMZ, the Marine commanders demurred thinking it was too isolated to be of any military value. Brigadier General English is reported to have said, “When you’re at Khe Sanh, you’re not really anywhere. It’s far away from everything. You could lose it and you haven’t really lost a damn thing.”In 1967, Marine patrols outside of Khe Sabh airbase came under increased pressure from NVA troops and they captured substantial amounts of weaponry. That they were there had an interesting story.

The Army and the Marines had very different views on the proper way to win the war. General Westmoreland, overall commander in Vietnam was convinced that the way was with more pitched battles, pitting the superior firepower and strength of the United States against the poorly supplied North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. Generals Walt and Krulak, Marine commanders who had to report to Westmoreland for operational deployment maintained that only by “winning the hearts and minds” of the people (how often have we heard that) and making the local population feel safe, could the U.S. hope to prevail.

Khe Sanh was ideally located between the two Vietnams and Laos to monitor North Vietnamese traffic going south. Westmoreland had received intelligence that the NVA were moving a large force with the (he feared) intent of taking Hue which would be a military and political disaster for the U.S. Walt had flatly replied that his long range patrols had found no evidence of such a movement. Nevertheless, Westmoreland sent Marines to Khe Sanh to watch for such activity. Surrounded by hills, virtually inaccessible by any road except highway 9 which was barely a dirt cart track, it might remind some of the debacle at A Shau where and American base was totally overrun with many casualties.

Westmoreland considered Khe Sanh to be of paramount importance. Despite evidence of large bodies of troops moving south through the area and the DMZ, the Marine commanders demurred thinking it was too isolated to be of any military value. Brigadier General English is reported to have said, “When you’re at Khe Sanh, you’re not really anywhere. It’s far away from everything. You could lose it and you haven’t really lost a damn thing.”
really lost a damn thing.”

Originally defended by a battalion, it was replaced by a rifle company until the commander pleaded for more troops after multiple enemy contacts. It was spooky. Soldiers would awake in the morning on patrol only to discover their claymore mines had been turned around to face in, instead of out. Grenades would be tossed in their midst, but no one could see where they came from. They would discover evidence of encampments. Reinforcements soon poured in only to meet extraordinarily effective resistance that began to decimate the Marines. One problem was that to meet the shortage of platoon officers (the casualty rate was terrifying) the Marine Corps gave temporary commissions as 2nd lieutenants to qualifying non-commissioned officers thus losing senior NCO ranks at a time when their years of combat experience was sorely needed.

In the midst of this chaos there was a weapons change, from the very reliable but heavy M-14, to the much lighter but very unreliable M-16. Sometimes units might have both weapons and ammunition was often delivered for the wrong gun since their ammunition was not interchangeable. Sometimes they would jam after one magazine. The troops were furious. One marine gave his M-16 to a wounded soldier to help another wounded. “I found the guy who had taken my rifle, but he seemed in a daze and didn’t remember what he’d done with it. I finally found a pile of discarded M16s. The first one I picked was jammed. So were the next three I looked at. Finally I found one that worked.” Numerous Marines were found next to jammed M-16s.

Other snafus included setting out Claymore mines that had no C-4 in them. The troops had removed it to heat their rations, so the Claymores were useless. The Americans had overwhelming artillery support. On April 27th alone as they were trying to take Hill 881 they hit the NVA with “more than 382,000 pounds of bombs, including a dozen 2,000 pounders and nearly 75,000 pounds of napalm.”

After being devastated in the fighting, and believing all living Marines to be off the hill, they sent a last patrol up to be certain. This next scene epitomizes the brotherhood and bravery of all of them: “When one of his men yelled, ‘Is anyone else up there?’ a sharp response of ‘Yes’ startled Giles. Seconds later, a helmet-less black Marine came out of the darkness, Draped across his shoulder was the body of a white Marine. When the man approached, Giles asked, ‘What are you doing.” ‘This is my squad leader,’ the Marine responded evenly. ‘I couldn't leave him up there.’ Then he continued on.”

The author weaves numerous personal stories together in a very coherent view of the first battle for Hill 881 and Khe Sanh in addition to providing a general overview from the command point of view. But it’s primarily a view of the fighting from the platoon level. Of course, in the end, Westmoreland was persuaded Khe Sanh had little military value and the attacks on it represented a feint by the NVA to camouflage their plans for the Tet Offensive. His replacement, General Abrams, decided to dismantle the base and pull out. The destruction of the base cost many Marine lives since they remained under fire from the hills which they would retake and then have to abandon over and over again in a Sisyphean microcosm of the entire war.

I recommend everyone read this declassified study commissioned by President Johnson (cited earlier in my review of In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam to understand the waste. Implications of an Unfavorable Outcome in Vietnam, 11 September 1967, Folder 127, Box 09, Central Intelligence Agency Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University. Accessed 15 Aug. 2011.