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"We were last in order to clear Rt. 9, but when the forward companies made contact with the NVA, we were ordered to be picked up by chopper to leapfrog ahead and become point element."
"Joegy," I recall my grandpa saying after he'd had a few beers, "Your two best friends are your rifle and your horse. And if you got just a little bit of water left in your canteen, give it to your horse first." Grandpa was a sergeant in the 1st Cavalry in 1917 and he was deployed along the Arizona border during Brigadier General John Pershing's Mexican Punitive Expedition against the revolutionary Pancho Villa. He knew the value of the horse and rifle to the cavalry soldier.
Fifty years after my Grandpa learned the lessons of mobility from atop his horse, I found myself an infantry lieutenant with the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), the "1st Air Cav," in Vietnam. It was a new concept for the Army, swift deployment of light infantry troops, their artillery fire support, supplies and equipment—primarily by helicopter. We had mobility and firepower that the other Army units simply did not have.
In the early spring of 1968, that mobility would come into play during one of the war's most prolonged encounters, one that struck fear in the heart of President Lyndon Johnson and gripped the attention of the nation. Leading the 2nd Platoon, D Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry, 3rd Brigade, 1st Air Cav, I was to be a part of the historic relief of the courageous Marines who held on for 77 days at Khe Sanh, and experience the effective use of the Air Cav's awesome agility in breaking the grip of an entrenched enemy and of opening the road to the besieged combat base.
The Marines' mission at Khe Sanh was to block the North Vietnamese infiltration across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and to establish a jumping-off point for a proposed but never authorized American advance into the panhandle of Laos to cut off the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Some 15 miles south of the DMZ and barely seven miles from the eastern frontier of Laos, the Khe Sanh Combat Base was almost completely surrounded by towering ridges in the center of four valley corridors leading through the mountains to the north and northwest of the base. To the south, Khe Sanh overlooked its namesake hamlet and Route 9, the only east-west road in the province of Quang Tri, linking Laos and the Vietnamese coastal regions. Built atop a plateau, the base covered an area approximately one mile long and one-half mile wide and had a 3,900-foot aluminum mat runway that could accommodate fixed-wing aircraft up to the size of C-130 transports.
By January 1968, the North Vietnamese had cut off Route 9 and built up their forces around the 6,000 Marines at Khe Sanh to 20,000 troops, unleashing a strike a week before starting their Tet Offensive that was waged across South Vietnam. President Johnson and his advisers feared the Khe Sanh siege would be the prelude to a full-scale assault comparable to General Vo Nguyen Giap's crushing 1954 Viet Minh victory over the French at a similar base at Dien Bien Phu. Obsessed over the fate of the firebase, LBJ had a table-top mockup of the Khe Sanh base set up inside the White House and told his advisers, "I don't want any damn 'Dinbinfoo.'"
The dire Khe Sanh situation, with the trapped Marines reduced to living underground, was dramatized in news reports as likely to be a "very rough business with heartbreaking American casualties." It was being framed as a major test of strength between North Vietnam and the United States, loaded with heavy political and psychological overtones. As LBJ personally sent off Marine reinforcements to I Corps from El Toro Marine Air Station, Calif., on February 17, he told them: "This is a decisive time in Vietnam. The eyes of the nation and the eyes of the entire world, the eyes of all of history itself, are on that little brave band of defenders who hold the pass at Khe Sanh…."
I had only arrived in Vietnam in January, and when my parents sent me newspaper clippings about the Marines at Khe Sanh, I thought that if there were a place on earth that was close to being hell—it had to be Khe Sanh. Little did I know that my platoon would soon be at the spearhead of the overland expedition to end the siege.
On February 7, the Special Forces camp at Lang Vei, just seven kilometers southwest of Khe Sanh, was overrun, heightening the alarm over the fate of the Marine base. Only massive bombing—some 110,000 tons dropped during the siege—kept a full assault at bay. American casualties at Khe Sanh were high, and the intense shelling hindered effective aerial resupply of the combat base.
On March 2, Maj. Gen. John J. Tolson, commander of the 1st Air Cav, got the green light for his plans for the relief of Khe Sanh, dubbed Operation Pegasus. The mission was: Destroy the enemy forces within the area; open Route 9 from Ca Lu to Khe Sanh; and relieve the Khe Sanh Combat Base. In this operation, the 1st Cavalry Division would be augmented by the 1st Marine Regiment, 26th Marine Regiment, 3rd Army of the Republic of Vietnam Airborne Task Force and the 37th ARVN Ranger Battalion.
The basic concept of Pegasus was for the 1st Marines to launch a ground attack west toward Khe Sanh with two battalions, while the 3rd Brigade would lead the 1st Cavalry air assault. On the first two days of the operation, all elements would continue to attack west toward Khe Sanh; and, on the following day, the 2nd Brigade of the Cavalry would land three battalions southeast of Khe Sanh and attack northwest. The 26th Marines, which was holding Khe Sanh, would then attack south to secure Hill 471. On D plus 4, the 1st Brigade would air assault just south of Khe Sanh and attack north. The following day, the 3rd ARVN Airborne Task Force would air assault southwest of Khe Sanh and attack toward Lang Vei Special Forces camp. Linkup was planned at the end of seven days. Some 20,000 U.S. and ARVN soldiers and U.S. Marines would take part in Pegasus.
D-day was to be April 1, and an airstrip in the vicinity of Ca Lu, Landing Zone (LZ) Stud, had to be ready well before. Also, Route 9 between the Rock Pile and Ca Lu had to be upgraded and bridges repaired to allow prestocking of supplies at LZ Stud.
Also key to the plan's success would be the closely integrated reconnaissance and fire support effort of the 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry, and air, artillery and B-52 Arc Light strikes. The 1/9 Cavalry, which was unique in that it had infantry and air assets combined, operated like the scouts of old out of LZ Stud, moving in gradually increasing concentric circles up to the Khe Sanh area, working all the time with air cover from the Seventh Air Force or the 1st Marine Air Wing. The 1/9 Cavalry was almost the only means available to pinpoint enemy locations, anti-aircraft positions and strong points that the division would try to avoid in the initial assaults. The squadron was also responsible for the selection of critical landing zones.
As Tet broke open at the end of January, my platoon was operating around Bong Son, or "VC Valley," along the coast. We were moving north to begin operating out of Camp Evans. It wasn't until late March that we began hearing that our battalion might be a part of Pegasus. In my diary entry of March 22, I wrote:
March 22, 1507 hours. It's hot. I'm sitting under poncho liner. Tonight to go out and set up a goat to catch any VC setting up mines. Rumor still is that we will go to Khe Sanh….
At 0700 hours on April 1, 1968, the attack phase of Operation Pegasus started as two battalions of the 1st Marines attacked west from Ca Lu along Route 9. At the same time, Chinooks and Hueys airlifted the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Cavalry into LZ Stud in preparation for an air assault farther west.
Weather delayed the attack until 1300, when the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry air assaulted into LZ Mike, located on prominent ground south of Route 9 and well forward of the Marine attack. The 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry also air assaulted into the same landing zone to expand and develop the position.
Monday, April 1, 0817. We are waiting to be picked up to go to LZ Ca Lu. From there we go to LZ Thor. Thor hasn't been decided definitely yet. The terrain there is thick and mountainous. We air assaulted to the top of this mountain. It is jungle and grassy. I jumped from the chopper and hurt my arm.
The 5th Battalion, 7th Cavalry air assaulted into an area north of Route 9, about opposite LZ Mike, within range of supporting artillery. Both landing zones were secured and no significant enemy resistance was encountered. A battery of 105mm howitzers was airlifted into each landing zone, and bad weather notwithstanding, everything was in place before dark. The bad weather of D-day was to haunt the 1st Air Cav throughout Operation Pegasus.
On April 2, the 1st Marines pushed along the axis of Route 9. Two Marine companies made limited air assaults to support the regiment's momentum. The 3rd Brigade air assaulted the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry into a new position farther to the west while the other two battalions improved their positions.
Tuesday, April 2, 1000. The sun is out. We're on a high mountain top surrounded by a river on three sides. Today, D Company is to air assault to a new location to set up there. We just got a log ship with food and water. It was nice sleeping last night.
We didn't carry our "butt packs," but our web gear, C rations, fragmentation and smoke grenades, ammunition, M-16s, M-60s, M-79s, LAWs (light anti-tank weapons), PRC-25 radios and a 90mm recoilless rifle weighed us down enough. Sometimes we wore our flak vests, but we avoided doing so whenever we could. My point man that day was a lanky guy with a peace symbol on his helmet we called "Hippy." He was an excellent point man—the first guy in order of movement as we moved through "Indian country." Hippy found the site where an enemy .50-cal. machine gun had been, and a North Vietnamese Army helmet and a bag of raw opium. The NVA used opium for medicinal purposes—and perhaps to prepare themselves for suicidal sapper attacks. I told Hippy to take the bag back to turn it in. I never checked to see if he did.
Tuesday, April 2, 1720. D Company led the air assault to where we are now. My platoon led a ground movement. We found a site for a .50-cal. anti-aircraft gun. Also some of my platoon found some ammo and grenades (NVA). Now we are waiting to see where we'll set up. We're hot and tired.
When the initial attacks met less enemy resistance than expected, General Tolson ordered an acceleration of the tempo. There were now six air cavalry battalions and supporting artillery deep in enemy territory. To get the 26th Marines out of their static defense position, on April 3 Tolson ordered its commander, Colonel David E. Lownds, to launch a battalion-size attack south from Khe Sanh to seize Hill 471, a strategic piece of terrain affording a commanding view of the base. Following heavy artillery preparation, the Marines seized the hill, killing 30 of the enemy. On the same day, the 2nd Brigade of the cavalry division assaulted one battalion into an old French fort south of Khe Sanh. Initial contact resulted in four enemy killed.
Our company was moving through very dense jungle, and 3rd platoon was the point platoon on this advance. Its men made contact with the NVA, and we could hear the firefight ahead of us. The massive bombing had upturned the soft, rich dirt, and the gigantic craters made great pre-dug foxholes we could climb into. A popular NCO in the 3rd Platoon was killed in the action.
Wednesday, April 3, 0953. We are sitting in the jungle right now. 3rd Platoon hit some NVA a little while ago. They got one of their men KIA. The S-3 carried him back on his shoulders and then three of my men took the KIA to the rear. We're waiting for artillery to come in. There are huge bomb craters all around. I can hear the choppers circling the area now. There are trees, high grass and ferns all around.
Later in the day, we set up a company-size perimeter on jungle-shrouded Hill 242, not far off Route 9. So we could get resupplied, we started clearing a landing zone by wrapping detonation cord around some of the smaller trees and blowing them in two, but there were too many and we were unsuccessful in the LZ construction. The NVA surrounded us but apparently did not have the force or will to attack us directly. One of the other units, using a small flat-bed utility vehicle to bring us supplies, a "mule," was ambushed as they moved down the road, resulting in some killed. We didn't get any food or water, except for rain water we gathered on our ponchos.
Wednesday, April 3, 1808. We moved to this Hill 242. NVA mortared us. We had 10 or 11 WIA. NVA have us surrounded now. One platoon from another company tried to bring us food and water but got pinned down. I hope we make it through the night.
At one point, the platoon sergeant and I were checking our section of the perimeter when we heard that distinctive clank of the bolt of an AK-47 being pulled back from outside our perimeter. I yelled, "Get down!" We hit the dirt just as the automatic weapons fire started chopping the leaves above us. He had a horrified look on his face, and I let out a nervous laugh. When that AK opened up, one of our machine gunners started pumping M-60 fire into the jungle in the area of the sound of the enemy fire, no doubt saving our lives.
My platoon had five PRC-25 radios. Some entire companies had only two, but I realized how critical communications was and I wanted my five authorized radios. Two radio telephone operators (RTOs) were near me constantly, and later that night I heard the company commander get on the radio and say that it appeared that artillery rounds had landed in our perimeter but did not explode. He said that they could be "duds"— or chemical agents. I stayed awake all night thinking I might die from a nerve agent, but it didn't happen. The next morning, we moved back to a position where the 105 howitzers had been brought in by Chinooks.
After a while, I got almost numb to the idea that I could be killed at any time. I had been scared before but always did my best to hide it. Although I saw dead and wounded around me, I could keep myself somewhat detached, but when I saw the 2nd Platoon leader of C Company killed, my sense of invincibility deteriorated.
Thursday, April 4, 1800. I have my platoon in position on the perimeter. As we came back today we picked up a couple of the dead and wounded who tried to get us supplies yesterday. When we got back here we saw more dead and wounded. The 2nd Platoon leader of C Company was killed. One medevac chopper was shot up. The NVA here are dangerous. I don't like this area. I hope we all get out alive.
On April 5, the 2nd Brigade continued its attack on the old French fort, meeting heavy enemy resistance. Enemy troops attacked the Marines on Hill 471, but the Marines repulsed the attack, killing 122 North Vietnamese. The fight was one of the heaviest during Pegasus, as units of the 1st Brigade entered the operation with the 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry, air assaulting into LZ Snapper about seven kilometers due south of Khe Sanh Combat Base and overlooking Route 9. The circle began to close around the enemy.
Friday, April 5, 1550. I got the word today that our battalion may walk to Khe Sanh tomorrow. This could be disastrous. We've incurred a lot of dead and wounded since we've been here. I hope to God we make it alive. I've had a lot of close calls and I'm getting scared again. Everyone is scared of this area. The NVA are numerous and good fighters. We're digging in again for tonight.
On April 6, the 1st Marines continued operations on the high ground north and south of Route 9, moving west toward Khe Sanh. The heaviest contact of the day occurred in the 3rd Brigade's area of operation as the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry continued its drive west on Highway 9. In a daylong battle, which ended when the enemy summarily abandoned his position and fled, the battalion had 83 NVA killed, one captured, and 121 individual and 10 crew-served weapons captured. Some troops of the 1st Air Cav were airlifted to Hill 471, relieving the Marines at this position. Two companies of troopers remained on the hill, while two other companies initiated an attack to the south toward the hamlet of Khe Sanh.
Using mortars, hand grenades and rocket launchers, an enemy force attacked 1st Cavalry forces at LZ Snapper. The attack was a disaster for the enemy, who lost 20 killed. At 1320 the 84th Company of the ARVN 8th Airborne Battalion was airlifted by 1st Cavalry Division aircraft inside the Khe Sanh Combat Base and linked up with elements of the ARVN 37th Ranger Battalion.
Although 1st Cavalry units had relieved Marines at Hill 471 and airlifted South Vietnamese airborne into the Khe Sanh Combat Base, Route 9 and the road leading into the Khe Sanh base remained to be cleared, and that was the task that lay ahead of us. It was common practice for commanders to rotate personnel or units as point elements, and on this day it was other units' turn to be ahead of D Company. We thought we'd caught a lucky break, as we were last in order of movement on this day. But when the forward companies made contact with the NVA, we were ordered to reverse our movement and go back to the road to be picked up by chopper to leapfrog over the two companies in contact to continue the mission to clear the highway. We were now point element again.
Saturday, April 6, 1400. Well, we tried to walk from this LZ to Khe Sanh, but we had to come back as the two forward companies received effective fire. Now our company is supposed to air assault to 500 meters east of Khe Sanh. This is a glory push to see who can be the first to walk into Khe Sanh. I hope we make it. We have many reporters with us.
On April 7, the ARVN 3rd Airborne Task Force air assaulted three battalions into positions north of the road and east of Khe Sanh to block NVA escape routes toward the Laotian border. Sporadic fights continued throughout the area as the enemy withdrew. American and South Vietnamese units began picking up significant quantities of abandoned weapons and equipment. The old French fort, which was the last known enemy strongpoint around Khe Sanh, was now completely secured.
We air assaulted near the top of a mountain that seemed to be solid rock. As we were moving toward the crest, bullets whistled overhead. There was no cover and the ground was just too hard to dig in if we had to. We just kept moving toward the crest. The point squad radioed that they saw bunkers as they approached, so I had the platoon get in a line formation so all firepower would be to the front. The lead squad got to the bunkers and said the NVA was gone. My platoon and the rest of the company occupied this area at a location near the intersection where Route 9 branches off toward Lang Vei. It had been a regimental size NVA complex with all kinds of weapons—mortars, machine guns, anti-aircraft guns, ZPU-4, AKs, RPDs, RPKs, RPGs and commo wire linking bunkers surrounding the whole area. The area was heavily pockmarked with bomb craters, and we found dead North Vietnamese in bunkers. It was here that one of my guys found an old French bugle and put parachute cord on it to make a tassel. I grabbed an AK-47 and an NVA bayonet and ammo pouch as souvenirs.
Sunday, April 7, 1045. We air assaulted to an open area on a mountain top and received light sniper fire. We found a complex (NVA) with rockets, mortars-tube and ammo-AK-47s, and all sorts of material. I have a sharp AK-47 which I hope to keep. We are to go to Khe Sanh.
We were now about two miles outside of Khe Sanh, and although the bunker complex was abandoned, the road to the base still had to be cleared. My platoon led the clearing action, straddling the road by 30 meters. We didn't know if NVA were still lurking in the area, and we had to avoid "toe popper" bomblets that had been dropped by the Air Force. We carefully searched each bunker all the way to the wire at Khe Sanh, but it seemed the NVA had vanished.
Sunday, April 7, 1700. We are at Khe Sanh camped outside the east entrance on Highway 9.
At 0800 on April 8, the relief of Khe Sanh was officially effected, following the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry's successful clearing of Route 9 and the road to the base. The 3rd Brigade airlifted its command post into Khe Sanh, and the 7th Cavalry assumed the mission of securing the area. The 3rd Brigade elements occupied high ground to the east and northeast of the base with no enemy contact.
Ours was the first platoon to walk into Khe Sanh, and as we did I blew the cavalry charge on the enemy bugle. A newspaper wire report dated April 8, 1968, described the scene:
SAIGON (UPI)—Blowing "Charge!" on a captured Communist Bugle, American ground forces linked up with the long-surrounded Marine fort of Khe Sanh and then fanned out and killed at least 103 North Vietnamese in the hills on South Vietnam's northern frontier, U.S. spokesmen said today….
At Khe Sanh, where round the clock Communist artillery fire had driven 6,000 Marine defenders underground, the Leathernecks Sunday whooped it up as Army 1st Lt. Joe Abodeely's unit walked the last two miles into the camp….Abodeely, 24, of Tucson, Arizona, and his platoon formed the 1st Air Cavalry spearhead of the 20,000-man Operation Pegasus drive that broke the Communist grip around Khe Sanh in a week-long drive that covered 12 miles of jungle, hills and minefields.
The lieutenant triumphantly blew on the bugle he found in a captured arms dump. Its notes echoed across the red dirt plateau. Abodeely's unit had landed by helicopter two miles from Khe Sanh and met no resistance the rest of the way. The helicopter leapfrog technique, plus a Marine road-clearing drive, formed the backbone of Pegasus….
While it was nice that the press saw fit to put a lieutenant's name as leading the operation, it was the Marines who defended Khe Sanh for 77 days and fought their way out of the base, and all of the 1st Air Cav troopers who engaged and drove the NVA away from Khe Sanh who were the true heroes of the epic fight.
In the end, the NVA suffered tens of thousands of casualties and was forced to withdraw. Their campaign against Khe Sanh was foiled by the unprecedented mobility of the Air Cav. As General Tolson later wrote: "It became increasingly evident, through lack of contact and the large amounts of new equipment being found indiscriminately abandoned on the battlefield, that the enemy had fled the area rather than face certain defeat. He was totally confused by the swift, bold, many-pronged attacks."
Yet, soon after, American tactics changed, and just three months later Khe Sanh Combat Base, where much American blood had been shed, was dismantled. But Khe Sanh, and the courage and determination of the men who fought there, will never be forgotten.
After Vietnam, Joseph Abodeely finished law school and became a Reserve JAG officer, his last assignment at the Military Police Operations Agency. A Maricopa County, Ariz., deputy county attorney from 1971 to 1985 before entering private practice, he has also been the CEO of the Arizona Military Museum since 1980. This article originally appeared in the October 2010 issue of Vietnam magazine.
Click the link to read an exclusive HistoryNet interview with Joseph Abodeely.
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