The Battle of Khe Sanh: A Closer Look at the Decisive Battle of the Vietnam War

Khe SanhIt was the end of January 1968 as the season of gifts and giving in most of the Western civilization was coming to a close. In the Southern Vietnam Province of Quang Tri there lay a small village called Khe Sanh. A battle of immense proportions was about to unfold in their sleepy little home. The Battle of Khe Sanh was viewed by our political and military leadership as a turning point during the Vietnam War. However recent documents have become available that show us that the battle never should have taken place at all.

Fourteen miles from the demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam was the Village of Khe Sanh which was nestled in a lush green valley surrounded by majestic mountain peaks. Khe Sanh had been home to a United States Marine Garrison since 1962 (Khe Sanh History Learning Site n.p.). This remote area had a meager population of coffee farmers and their plantations. The Marines base lay less than two miles from this sleepy little Vietnamese hamlet and was to be the site of one of the most historic battles of the Vietnam War.

Khe Sanh MapKhe Sanh was surrounded by thick dense jungles that restricted surveillance by air and during the rainy seasons was enveloped in a fog that was as thick as pea soup. This made the area well suited for the style of warfare the North Vietnamese Army employed. The preferred technique of combat the NVA utilized mainly consisted of guerilla style of hit and run tactics. This consisted of engaging their enemy in quick violent spurts and then retreating back into the jungles to lay in wait to engage in another ambush styled attack. The Khe Sanh plateau was not conducive to being occupied by the United States Military forces as it was hard to defend from this style of warfare. Lying at the bottom of what was essentially a bowl; Marine Base Khe Sanh was vulnerable from enemy attack from the surrounding mountain peaks and from all sides.

The area was mildly useful to the U.S. Marines as it allowed them to patrol the nearby Ho Chi Minh Trail. This trail was a large dirt road that was used a thoroughfare for travel and supplies that linked one end of the warzone to the other. According to an article written by Time magazine titled “Showdown At Khe Sanh” they reported that by 1968 there were 6000 Marines stationed at Khe Sanh doing patrol and reconnaissance missions. Both sides of the combatants utilized the Ho Chi Minh Trail for their own uses and many skirmishes were fought along its path.

GiapGeneral Giap, the leader of the North Vietnamese Army had placed a special importance upon Khe Sanh. It would allow the NVA to have a clear view of the activities of the US forces along the Southern end of Vietnam. Both the U.S. Military and the NVA felt this was an area of importance for both side of the war effort. General Giap began to amass his troops in the area to the amount of 20,000 men in the months leading up the battle.

As Richard Harris reported in his article, “Khe Sanh: American History Illustrated” General Lowell English was the Commander of the Marine Corps at the time of the siege against Khe Sanh. General English had previously complained to headquarters that Khe Sanh was too undermanned to hold this base should any attack occur. He stated that if Khe Sanh would come under siege that the base is too isolated and would be cut off from receiving any reinforcements or supplies. The only way in would be by air support and with the surrounding mountains and jungle terrain the incoming support aircraft would come under immense enemy fire upon their approach (Harris n.p.). These concerns were dismissed by the man in charge of the Vietnam War General William C. Westmoreland. Westmoreland felt that Colonel Lownds who was the officer in charge of the 26th Marine Regiment at Khe Sanh could handle anything that was thrown at them and troop strength would remain at garrison size.

It was the early morning hours of January 20th 1968 when First Lieutenant La Thanh Tonc began his walk towards the base waving his Russian made Ak-47 assault rifle with a white flag tied to its barrel. Tonc surrendered to the Marines at Khe Sanh because of his treatment during the war by his own commanders and the beating his fellow troops were taking at the hands of the American forces (Harris n.p.).  Lieutenant Tonc provided the Americans with explicit intelligence about an imminent attack that was about to befall the isolated Marine base. Many within the ranks were skeptical of the information Tonc gave to them. The Americans had to act as if the intelligence was genuine because Tonc had explained that at midnight the invasion of Khe Sanh would begin.

On January 21st 1968 at 1230hrs General Giap had given orders to his troops to take Khe Sanh. Giap threw everything they had at the small garrison stationed there. The hills around Khe Sanh lit up like Christmas tree lights as the bombardment began to pound the base. The NVA attacked with a vicious ferocity that had not been seen before by American forces during this war. In his article titled “Khe Sanh: From the Perspective of the North Vietnamese Communists” Ang Cheng Guan explained that General Giap was hopeful he could make Khe Sanh into an American loss much like his defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu. Dien Bien Phu was a battle that took place fourteen years earlier which ended with the French surrendering to the onslaught Giap provided. In true American fashion the Marines and held their own despite the overwhelming odds they faced and kept the enemy at bay.

Khe Sanh Under FireWith a precise missile strike at around 0500hrs the NVA targeted the Marines ammunition dump decimating the ammo they had in reserve and tossed armored vehicles and helicopters around like they were mere child’s toys (Harris n.p.). At the same time as the missile struck the ammo dump the NVA took out the runways that were the Marines only lifeline left to them. General Giap sent his ground troops against the Marines from every side which dangerously depleted the Marines on hand ammunition reserves. This forced the Marines to abandon the little Village of Khe Sanh to stay barricaded and safer inside the fortified walls of the base itself.

By mid-morning the NVA assault had toned down giving the Marines some small measure of breathing space. This was a short-lived respite as they had to contend with the immense fire of the ammo dump before it threatened to consume the entire base. Colonel Lownds was unable to send any troops to support the village and evacuated all Marine personnel and villagers alike. Within a couple of short hours from the beginning of the NVA invasion the Village of Khe Sanh was cleared of its inhabitants and military personnel. U.S. aircraft then leveled Khe Sanh to keep the enemy from using it as a forward position from whence to conduct their attacks. With the majority of the ammunitions set ablaze and the runways out of commission Colonel Lownds focused his efforts on confronting the hillside attacks. He engaged the enemy with a barrage of mortar fire and large-caliber shells in his attempt to keep the NVA from penetrating any further into his defenses.

WestmorelandGeneral Westmoreland intercepted communications providing useable intelligence leading to the location of the NVA headquarters that was responsible for coordinating the attack on Khe Sanh (Harris n.p.). Westmoreland bombarded the area obliterating portions of Laos and the signals were abruptly halted. Unfortunately this did not mean the end to the siege as the battle for Khe Sanh raged on until the NVA uprising was finally broken after almost four months of intense battles on July 9th 1968. The Americans and their allies lost more than five hundred soldiers while the NVA was devastated with losses of ten to fifteen thousand troops.

More than 150,000 projectiles and over 100,000 pounds of explosive ordinance were unleashed upon the surrounding hillsides of the once serene village of Khe Sanh (Harris n.p.).  The lush foliage will never return to the valley that encompassed Khe Sanh and the beauty that it once was is no more. The only things that remain are the skeletons of the aftermath and the ghosts of those memories that haunt the Marines that survived this battle. In an article written by Malcolm W. Browne titled, “Battlefields of Khe Sanh: Still One Casualty a Day” Browne states that even now in present day Vietnam there are civilian casualties from unexploded bombs and ammunition left over from this battle.

Back home in the United States the public was spoon fed by the Government that Khe Sanh was a decisive victory and a turning point in the Vietnam War. But documents that have since come to light show that Khe Sanh was nothing more than a couple of powerful men who wanted to leave a legacy behind them. President Johnson and General Westmoreland had ignored the advice from the commanders that Khe Sanh was not a strategic point in the American battle plans. Westmoreland’s commanders all agreed that the Marine base at Khe Sanh was not in a defensible area and should not have been set up there in the first place. The commanders felt that Westmoreland and President Johnson did not learn from the French’s surrender to the NVA at Dien Bien Phu. Marine base Khe Sanh was a similar situation in terrain and tactical disadvantages to the French’s defeat and it was only luck that won the day.

Westmoreland believed that the siege taking place at Saigon was only a diversion from the NVA’s true strategy which was to take Khe Sanh. This was in fact the exact opposite of General Giap’s strategy. Giap had used the onslaught of Khe Sanh to cover up his attack of the capital of Vietnam which would all but ensure his victory. This attack as history has shown was extremely effective and is now known as the infamous Tet Offensive.

When the siege was over Westmoreland had been named Chief of Staff and removed from South Vietnam. Westmoreland’s successor General Creighton W. Abrams was opposed to Khe Sanh from the very beginning of the war. President Johnson had decided not to run for re-election and there was no longer any pressure to remain in the Southern Vietnamese province of Quang Tri.

The Battle of Khe Sanh was proclaimed by the Johnson administration to the American public as the turning point in the Vietnam War for America and its allies. The ego of General Westmoreland was the reason that the battle went as far as it did. Westmoreland convinced President Johnson that Khe Sanh was of strategic importance to the war effort even though many of the Westmoreland’s Commanders said otherwise (Harris n.p.). According to an article from The History Learning Site UK titled “Khe Sanh” there were communiques between Westmoreland and President Johnson of using small yield tactical nuclear weapons to end the siege. This decision was ultimately rejected by President Johnson for fear of public backlash.

KheSanh ViewA village that was once a quiet coffee farming community was eventually razed to the ground and completely abandoned by American and Allied forces like it never existed. The loss of lives and land was because one man had decided he wanted to be a hero and go down in the history books for leading the mother of all battles in the Vietnam War.

If only Westmoreland had listened to his Commanders and understood that Khe Sanh was not of any real tactical advantage to America in this war. It was a well-played ruse by General Giap by attacking Khe Sanh to cover his final endgame and push the tide of the war in his favor. Vietnam had been the only war the Americans had been involved with that they essentially lost. The Battle of Khe Sanh was indeed a decisive victory, just not for America and should never have happened.

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About Kevin Powley

Creating chaos is the name of the game! Okay, maybe there is a little more to it than just chaos, like I'm a transplanted Canadian living in Wisconsin. Why the Cheesehead capital of the world you may ask? Okay, so you didn't but I'm going to tell you regardless. Love! Plain and simple, I'm here for love. What am I into? Well back in 2003... ish I bought my first guitar, now I own 7. I turned a spare bedroom into a little recording studio where I write and record my own music. Unfortunately I cannot read music. (Maybe a little to ADD to sit for lessons I guess?) But I love it, even though I don't set aside enough time to play much anymore. I'm a Gamer, an avid reader and I love to write. Every chance I get I take in the newest movie on the big screen. The bigger the blockbuster the bigger the screen to watch it upon! Currently I am enrolled in school and taking some courses to get a degree in nursing. I'm changing the path of my life once again, even though I am in my mid forties. Never to old to try something new I say! I live here in beautiful Wisconsin right smack dab in between Chicago and Milwaukee. Where we get to experience both worlds equally. I have been married to my gorgeous wife Susi for the past 12 years and have a furry family taking up my attention. My old Husky/Shepherd Buddy and our three cats Fletcher, Taiko and Felix. Who needs kids when you have all these guys to keep you busy? And busy they do keep us! :)
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