For Americans involved in ground operations during the Vietnam War, combat had many faces. Search-and-clear missions through jungles or rice paddies were typical, but troops also engaged in conventional battles—the largest of which was fought in 1968 at Khe Sanh.
In the rugged highlands of western Quang Tri Province, 6 miles from the border with Laos, the village lay just south of the demilitarized zone between Soviet- and Chinese-backed communist North Vietnam and the U.S.-backed republic of South Vietnam. The Ho Chi Minh Trail, the network of pathways along which North Vietnam transported supplies to its troops in the south, snaked through the Laotian mountains to the west. In late 1964 U.S. Special Forces troops established a rudimentary post on the site of an old French airstrip north of the village.
In 1965, General William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, sought to establish a combat base at Khe Sanh to disrupt the communist supply chain and provide a launching pad for a possible invasion of Laos. Other senior Americans countered that such a base could become dangerously isolated. Never far from the minds of U.S. leaders was the 1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu, in which Viet Minh forces had besieged an isolated garrison in the mountains of then French Indochina, forcing France to withdraw from the country after nearly a century of colonial rule.
Westmoreland prevailed. In late 1966 Navy Seabees improved fortifications and the existing airstrip carved into the red dirt on a plateau north of Khe Sanh village. A battalion of Marines reinforced the base in early 1967, soon wresting control of several hills north of the airstrip from the communists. By January 1968 the Khe Sanh Combat Base hosted 6,000 Marines.
As American forces consolidated at Khe Sanh, several North Vietnamese Army divisions filtered into the area, and fighting erupted on Jan. 20, 1968. Enemy gunners poured mortar and rocket fire onto the Marine positions, igniting the ammunition dump and severely hindering air operations. Communist troops also moved into Khe Sanh village and cut critical Route 9 to the east. The enemy surrounded the base, as folks back home watched anxiously on television.
The communists seemed to intent on a prolonged siege like Dien Bien Phu. Westmoreland instead planned to crush them in a decisive battle. He unleashed Operation Niagara—one of the most concentrated aerial bombing campaigns in history—to break the NVA. It was an election year, and President Lyndon Johnson understood the political implications of a defeat. “I don’t want any damn Dien Bien Phu!” he thundered.
But did North Vietnam have something else in mind? On January 30 the communists launched the Tet Offensive—a wave of attacks across South Vietnam. Most historians agree Khe Sanh was probably a feint to draw U.S. attention away from the main thrust of the Tet onslaught.
The Marines at Khe Sanh endured shelling and ground assaults for 77 days. Relief came in April, when elements of the 1st Marine Regiment and the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division pushed up Route 9, though the defiant Marines at Khe Sanh insisted they did not need to be rescued. U.S. forces had successfully held their ground against some 30,000 to 40,000 communist troops. Regardless, within months American commanders decided to abandon Khe Sanh.
Today thousands of Americans travel to Vietnam, many to wartime sites. To visit Khe Sanh, it’s best to engage a tour company or hire a driver. All car rentals come with a driver, and after experiencing the chaos of Vietnamese traffic, one will be happy to let someone else do the driving. Khe Sanh is a featured stop on the tours out of Dong Ha and Hue.
Farmers have long since filled in the bomb craters to grow coffee and bananas. On the grounds of the Khe Sanh Combat Base is a small museum devoted to the battle—of course, from the communist perspective. Among the exhibits are the rusted remnants of sensors U.S. aircraft dropped into nearby jungles to detect communist troop movements and an early-war U.S. M14 rifle a local communist guerrilla claimed to have used against the Marines.
Traces of the base remain. The airstrip is discernible, and one can imagine the harrowing experience of trying to take off or land under rocket and mortar fire. Curators have re-created several bunkers, and U.S. aircraft are on display, including a Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopter and a Lockheed C-130 Hercules cargo plane. To one side is a pile of bomb fragments—reminders of Operation Niagara.
A half-century has passed since the Battle of Khe Sanh. It was not another Dien Bien Phu, nor did it deliver the communists a fatal blow, but its ambiguous result should not obscure the skill and heart of those Americans who fought one of the toughest, most lopsided battles in U.S. history. MH