Thursday, April 25, 2013

BATTLE OF KHE SANH: THEN AND NOW

Old runway of Khe Sanh Base today, once held by US Marines
A long abandoned runway stretches across the rugged landscape before me. This airstrip isn’t black or grey, like any runway you would find at any normal airport.

This one is red.

The bare earth of this old rutted runway is the color of the reddish clay that makes up the surrounding hills. This runway once had a lighter colored surface when it was in use, but red is a more fitting color. The blood of thousands was spilled in the fight to control this runway, and the hills that surround it.

A nearby sign in Vietnamese calls this place: “Ta Con Airfield Relic”. Ta Con was the North Vietnamese Army's (NVA) name for this remote place. The American name for this base was taken from a village just south of here on Highway 9. It’s name: “Khe Sanh”.

Sitting in the farthest northwestern corner of the what was South Vietnam, this base was the scene of the bloodiest siege of the entire Vietnam War. Begun as a small Special Forces outpost, Khe Sanh expanded as the war heated up to become a major base. As the number of US Marines here grew, this dusty red runway was built to enable access by plane.

When fighting escalated in January 1968, massive numbers of NVA regulars infiltrated the surrounding hills. They cut access by road on Highway 9, the route I took to travel here. Totally surrounded, the Marines were left under siege, and this dusty runway became their only hope for resupply and reinforcements. At the peak of the battle, there were 6,000 US Marines in this small place, surrounded by 20,000 - 30,000 NVA troops.

Smoke rises from artillery attack on Khe Sanh during 1968 siege. (Photo:USMC)

I look around at hills surrounding this former base, and they look green and peaceful now. Some of these nearby hills, such as Hill 861 and Hill 881 S, saw the worst of the fighting. Today it’s overcast, and here in the highlands, fog is common. Low visibility from the fog gave cover to the NVA who watched from the hills. Their guns placed there often stopped the desperately needed cargo planes from landing here on the base’s airstrip.

Not far from the runway today, sit two intact American made helicopters, a Huey and a Chinook. Although most resupply flights here that saved the Marines were from cargo planes, there were also countless flights here by helicopter. My veteran buddy Jay once had had a close call here during the siege, while piloting a Huey.


Chinook helicopter on display in Khe Sanh today
"We were coming in, and my Warrant Officer yells, ‘Dammit!’. He’d been shot in the toe,” Jay told me. A bullet fired from a Kalashnikov had pierced the plexiglass of the helicopter’s nose, and went right through his co-pilot’s boot!

Normally, Jay sat on that side of the chopper, so it should have been him that got hit. But for some reason, he had switched sides that morning. He later found the bullet in the chopper. “It went through his boot, hit the ceiling, went between us and landed in the back,” he said. “I found it sitting back there.”

By chance, Jay ran into that same pilot months later, after he had returned from surgery in the US. Jay approached him and said, “I’ve got something for you.” He had had the bullet mounted on a keychain, and gave it to him. “That’s the bullet with your name on it,” Jay told him, “you’ll never get shot again.”


The Chinook and Huey helicopter displayed here were brought back only in recent years. Unlike other old US bases I’ve seen, Khe Sanh is one of the few former bases that they’ve turned into a
Helicopter and plane wreckage in Khe Sanh
proper looking memorial. Nearby is a pile of plane wreckage, along with a helicopter's tail section. The caption reads, “Some fragmentations of the wreckage of some planes were used by the US at Highway No. 9 – Khe Sanh area.” So this wreckage was brought here from elsewhere. Although several US aircraft were destroyed on Khe Sanh’s runway, that wreckage is long gone.

As I walk around the old base, I hear the buzz of insects. A monkey screeches nearby. It’s good to hear the sounds of nature here, in a place where so many unnatural things happened. Scattered about are old bomb craters left behind from NVA artillery. In some of them the grass still isn’t growing, revealing dark red soil underneath. There is a small quonset hut, a cylindrical shaped shelter that Marines used to sleep and shelter in. A rusty M – 41 tank sits vacant nearby, gutted and stripped for scrap.

I follow a trench, leading to the entrance of a bunker. I step down into the dark enclosure; it feels like a basement. The bunker is mostly made of sandbags, with a flat roof. Metal grates known as pierced steel planking line the walls. A few old artillery shell casings lie on the floor. The Marines spent most of their time hunkered down in deep bunkers like this, due to constant artillery attacks. Khe Sanh is only six miles from the Laotian border, which put them well within the range of heavy Soviet made artillery hidden beyond the frontier. On some occasions more than 1,000 artillery shells a day were fired onto this base. On those days the Marines hardly left their bunkers at all.


Bunker and trench in Khe Sanh today
Due to the siege, Marines had to sleep in these cramped bunkers for more than two months, and conditions were extreme. In addition to the near constant shelling, they endured filthy living conditions, rats, sleep deprivation, scant food, and the constant fear of attack. A plaque on a memorial describes Khe Sanh base during the siege as ‘hell on earth’, words that the survivors would agree on.

Surrounding the Marines from the hills, the NVA generals were hoping to attack and overwhelm Khe Sanh’s outnumbered defenders, much as they had done to the French 14 years earlier at Dien Bien Phu. But the massive ordnance dropped onto the NVA from Air Force B-52 bombers foiled that attack from ever materializing. As difficult as it was for the Marines here, it was even more dangerous for the NVA troops in the hills. Besides the harsh conditions, they were on the receiving end of devastating air attacks.

The bunker and the trench I've walked through look impressive, but the fact is, they aren’t authentic. The reason I know this, is because the canvas on some of the sandbags has worn away, revealing their contents. They are filled not with sand or dirt, but concrete!


US made helmets and flak jackets in the museum
After the heaviest fighting in Khe Sanh subsided in 1968, the US military decided to abandon Khe Sanh, and moved the Marines out to more easily defended bases away from the border. It was the only time during the Vietnam War that the US military abandoned a major base due to enemy pressure. Before leaving, they dismantled, removed or destroyed everything that could be used by the enemy. They even dynamited the heavy bunkers. Khe Sanh was reopened briefly in 1971 to support an ARVN campaign in Laos, but then it was abandoned again.

The bunker and quonset hut here now weren’t the work of the Marines. These were rebuilt when the government recently turned Khe Sanh into a memorial. This is one of the few sections of the old base where all the landmines and unexploded ordinance have been removed, creating a safe refuge for visitors. In this enclosure by the runway the grass is neatly mowed, and sidewalks are bordered by manicured bushes. There's even a small museum.

Preparing myself for more propaganda, I enter. Inside is a selection of US made helmets, boots, and weapons. It’s impossible to tell if these were captured from ARVN troops, or from US Marines who were missing
Old artillery shell casings in Khe Sanh bunker today
in action in Khe Sanh. Like other museums, most photos are from western sources but some are blatantly mislabeled. One photo's caption reads, “The American troops are in their panic at Ta Con base.” In the photo, seven Marines are calmly digging with shovels, putting out a small fire. How did they interpret ‘panic’ from this?

Propaganda is another weapon of war, and there was a great deal of it on both sides regarding Khe Sanh's body count. The US military claimed only 230 Americans were killed or missing from the battle, but a more
accurate count would be around 500. They also claimed as many as 15,000 NVA were killed around Khe Sanh. For the communists, after the war they admitted to having lost 5,550 NVA soldiers in the battle, but their numbers were also higher. Both sides lost more men here than they will admit.

Who really won at Khe Sanh is still disputed today. The US military based their victories in Vietnam by body counts. As more NVA were killed in Khe Sanh than Americans, they claimed victory. The NVA on the other hand, raised their flag over Khe Sanh the day after the Marines abandoned it. Since they had possession of the base they also claimed victory, even though they were unable to capture the Marines that had stubbornly opposed them.

After the war, Khe Sanh was left to the growing weeds. Some local farm houses dot the landscape, since most of the former base is now agricultural land used for coffee farming. Much of the land surrounding the base is too dangerous to farm, still littered with landmines and unexploded shells. Strangely, grass has still not grown back onto the old red runway.

In the end, the US military had come to a remote, faraway place and established a presence. They fought bravely, held their ground, and killed far more of the enemy than they lost. When it was decided that the cost of remaining there was too high, they left, and the North Vietnamese Army later took over.

In a way, the story of Khe Sanh is a metaphor for the entire Vietnam War.


#2659272 / gettyimages.com  Wrecked US aircraft was hit by mortar fire in Khe Sanh- 1968

6 comments:

  1. "Metal grates known as prefabricated steel plating line the walls." You're probably referring to PSP, that is Pierced Steel Planking.

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  2. Hi, thanks for your comment. I heard a couple different explanations from different veterans on what the PSP acronym meant. I've edited the post to update the PSP acronym.

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  3. My Army job was Combat Engineer. In the Navy they are called Sea Bees. That's an alliteration of CB which stands for Construction Battalion. Military jobs or Military Occupational Specialties (MOS) have alphanumeric codes. Mine was designated 12B4SW7 with 12B designating Combat Engineer. Don't know what that would be these days, but PSP was a regular part of our supply chain and was widely used for a variety of purposes including runways. To verify my memory was correct after forty years, I checked for "Pierced Steel Planking" online. Yup!

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  4. Thanks, I also looked it up online. One of my other sources who gave me a different explanation, was a former helicopter pilot. I imagine you worked with PSP much more than he did. Best regards.

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  5. a C-130 and several other pieces of equipment has been added to the display as well as items in the Museum,
    The runway was actually a aluminum planks, built by the Seabees starting in 1966 rebuilt and extended in 1967, again by Seabees
    The Seabees actually 32 stayed during the Siege to maintain the runway including Power and Communication lines
    I just returned from a trip there in 3/2015, I am also one of the Seabees who worked on that runway 10/67-5/68

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  6. That's impressive that you worked there in 1968, that was such a dangerous time. Looking at Khe Sanh now, with all the trees and it being so quiet, it's hard to imagine what it used to look like back during the siege.

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