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3 deadliest days at Khe Sanh

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Vietnam’s longest and probably most controversial battle is one of the most written about of the war. Yet relatively little attention has been focused on the highest casualty-producing actions of the siege, those outside the perimeter.

Built on a 300-foot plateau 15 miles south of the DMZ (demilitarized zone) a Marine base overlooked the Rao Quan River and Route 9, which linked Laos to South Vietnamese coastal cities. Hilltop outposts provided protection. And this is where the deadliest clashes took place.

Some 6000 Marines defended Khe Sanh Combat Base, including the 5000 men 26th Marine Regiment. 2nd battalion, 9th Marines and 1st Battalion 13th Marines (artillery) reinforced it. South Vietnam’s 37th Ranger Battalion was sent in, too. The Americans faced off against perhaps 15,000 to 20,000 North Vietnamese troops at one time.

Hill 64 was 550 yards west of the 9th Marines’ position at the Rock Quarry and manned by 1st Platoon reinforced by Weapons Platoon (bringing the total to 66 men), A Co., 1st Battalion, 9th Marines. From its summit, the hill supposedly provided an extra measure of security.

On February 8, under cover of a thick fog, three NVA (North Vietnamese) companies attacked the Marines. Mortars saturated the hilltop, and enemy soldiers rolled over the concertina wire using canvas sheets. Platoon Commander 2nd Lt. Morgan was immediately gunned down, and soon the enemy drove the Leathernecks back, seizing a portion of the hill. “From sheer weight of numbers,” Alpha Company vet Williams later wrote in a book, “The north Vietnamese gradually pushed the Marines back until the enemy owned two-thirds of the outpost.” Williams continued, “PFC Michael Laird of the 1st squad was engaged in a furious hand grenade duel with the NVA soldiers, when a Chicom grenade hit him on top of the helmet and landed at his feet. “PFC Laird picked it up and drew back to throw it, but the grenade went off in his hand.”

Luckily, Laird was relatively unscathed when the projectile’s uneven frag pattern traveled down and away from his body and undoubtedly saved his hand. The fighting was unmerciful as the Leathernecks put up a desperate stand to hold the hill. Isolated pockets of infantrymen grabbed anything they could to defend themselves. Marines used entrenching tools and five-gallon water cans as weapons.

“I had the M-79 and was the grenadier (40MM single feed grenade launcher). I kept firing it straight up into the air because that’s how close they were to us. We kept moving constantly because every time I fired a round, I was getting grenade. The M-79 made a big flash. It was a dead giveaway,” said one PFC. As the enemy crept ever closer, the survivors withdrew to the southernmost area of the trench line and piled sandbags to afford themselves some protection. Although the riflemen braced themselves for the inevitable assault, it never came. Instead, the NVA chose to toss grenades at the Marines, causing additional casualties. Lance Cpl. Smith recalled “we ran short of grenades, but just to keep them on their toes and not to be tempted to charging, we would throw rocks. And when they wouldn’t go off, then the enemy would come in and rush us again, and that’s when we would throw the real grenades.

At dawn, Capt. Reedley, company commander, led the remainder of his unit to relieve the embattled Marines defending the hilltop. After fighting to the foot of the hill, Reedley called in an air strike. As the jets pounded the NVA, the infantrymen struck the enemy’s lines. The ferocity of the assault drove the NVA from the summit. As the communists scurried down the hill, several 106mm recoilless rifles and 9mm rounds from a tank cut them down. The Marines from the 1st and Weapons platoons had suffered grievously: 27 dead and another 23 wounded. The lifeless corpses of some 150 NVA soldiers were strewn about the area as well.

In an ironic twist, Col. Womble, commanding officer of the 26th Marines, ordered the remnants of Alpha Company back to the main base, and Hill 64 was abandoned. Jeff White, the surviving corpsman, said: “it is a story that deserves to be told. The few stories written provide only an incomplete picture and at worst distort the truth and dishonor the dead.”

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— Royal D. Goodman, U.S. Army/Vietnam,

1st Cav/9th Infantry


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