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Hunkering Down in a Place Called Khe Sanh

By Mike D. Shepherd
7/11/2017 • Vietnam Magazine

Few had ever heard of the embattled combat base when an Air Force reporter flew in on January 23, 1968, but by the time he left two days later, he’d helped introduce it to the world.

I had been standing down from active journalism for a while, just editing news tapes from other field correspondents in my Air Force radio news unit in Saigon, when Sergeant Joe Olexa, head of the unit, informed me in late January 1968 that I’d be going to Khe Sanh to conduct “hometowners”—interviews with Air Force personnel for their local radio stations back home—with a special emphasis on the effectiveness of our resupply missions. “Where?” I asked.

“Khe Sanh,” he repeated. “It’s in the northwest corner of South Vietnam, 18 miles south of the DMZ and eight miles east of Laos. It’s under siege, but some C-130s are getting past the anti-aircraft fire. You’ll be on one.”

While I was in junior college in 1966, Uncle Sam had sent me a greeting card saying “I want you…”—for the infantry, I assumed, so I joined the Air Force hoping to avoid Vietnam. But after graduating from the Army’s Armed Forces Journalism School, I was the only one in my class of 50 who received orders for Vietnam.Assigned to the Seventh Air Force Radio News Unit at Tan Son Nhut, I was to interview Air Force personnel for distribution worldwide on Armed Forces Radio. I’d also be expected to go into combat zones to solicit comments from grunts regarding the effectiveness of air support in order to promote the role of the Air Force in the war.

Now I was headed for a place called Khe Sanh. From Tan Son Nhut, I flew to Da Nang on January 23, and from there I boarded a C-130. Sergeant Olexa told me that the Khe Sanh base had been established to monitor and interdict enemy movement along nearby Route 9, a main artery that carried North Vietnam Army (NVA) troops and war materiel into South Vietnam through Laos. It had first been created as an Army Special Forces base in 1962, next to a small airstrip eight miles from the Laotian border. Over several years the base became a staging area for attacks on troop movements down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. When NVA infiltration grew in 1966, General William Westmoreland had the airstrip extended. In 1967 he sent in two battalions from the 3rd and 26th Marine regiments (reinforced) when intelligence indicated that the North Vietnamese were planning a large-scale invasion of the South, with Khe Sanh as the key target. In addition to continuing the Route 9 interdictions from the base, Westmoreland wanted to use it to launch clandestine operations into Laos or for a major invasion. It was to be defended at all costs.

This would not be my first time in a combat zone. My baptism of fire had come three months earlier when I was sent to Loc Ninh, a French rubber plantation near Cambodia, a few miles northwest of Saigon. After weeks of doing rather laid-back interviews with the likes of clerks, cooks, loadmasters, mechanics and pilots, on Halloween night 1967 I found myself out in the field hunkering down in a foxhole praying we wouldn’t be overrun. Around midnight the VC had launched a human-wave assault out of the rubber trees, and the 25th Infantry Division’s artillery, which had established a perimeter outside their 155mm and 175mm howitzers emplaced to defend the plantation, lowered the barrels of their guns and fired beehive rounds (nail-like ammo with barbs) at point-blank range into the onslaught. The infantry engaged those who miraculously made it through the barrage. Air Force F-100 fighter-bombers pounded the skirmish line in a dazzling display of close-air support. A soldier I interviewed said it seemed as if he could reach up and touch the planes as they roared above at less than 500 feet.

I recalled that experience as the hulking prop-driven cargo plane loaded with medical supplies, ammo and a few Marines climbed to 15,000 feet above the cloud-covered mountains of north-central and northwest South Vietnam. Looking down through holes in the clouds, I saw deep green jungle and a silvery stream cascading over boulders before it tumbled into a waterfall. Once in a while I noticed huge red flowers glowing like rubies on the jungle floor.

In about half an hour the pilot came on the intercom. “Khe Sanh below, buckle up,”he commanded,“and hang on, we’ll be dropping in fast.”

I looked out the window at the base. The soil was Georgia red, but there sure as hell weren’t any pines, or any trees for that matter—just trenches and sandbag bunkers surrounded by artillery emplacements. Suddenly, the plane seemed to drop from beneath me as we descended rapidly. We landed and roared down the runway, the airplane’s engines reversed to help it slow down. I saw a continuous pile of crumpled aircraft, mostly C-130s, apparently shot up by groundfire while landing. I wondered if ours would be next.

When the C-130 slowed to about 20 mph on the airstrip, pallets of cargo began to slide out the back, and the crew chief shouted: “Hit the deck runnin’ boys, we’re under fire! Get to a bunker fast! Let’s go, hurry up, we’ll be taking off again right away!”

I ran down the ramp and out into the open, where I found myself completely exposed to incoming mortar fire. I dashed for the nearest bunker, and lo and behold, the first Marine I ran past, going in the opposite direction, was Gary Lomprez, a former high school classmate of mine! He immediately recognized me.“Mike Shepherd!” he shouted in passing.“Meet me over there after the attack.” He pointed to the bunker he was running toward. I was already committed to taking cover in another bunker. In it was a Marine combat photographer. I asked him if he would take a photo of Lomprez and me later for the newspapers and radio stations back in Springfield, Ill. Who would ever believe that I’d be doing a hometowner with someone from my own hometown?

After the attack, the photographer and I emerged from our bunker and went to see Lomprez.

“What in the hell are you doing here, Mike?”he said.“I’ve got an excuse, I’m a damn jarhead, but what’s yours, with those upside-down stripes and all? I should have known you’d be in the Air Force, pretty boy.”

But it was Lomprez who was the good-looking one. The girls at school loved him: dark, with shiny black hair, smile full of perfect white teeth, hazel eyes, muscular build.

“Hey, what’s with the tape recorder and microphone?” Lomprez asked.“You some kind of reporter or something?”

“I’m here to do hometowners, man. It’ll be one for both of us since we’re both from Springfield.”

“Hometowner? What the hell is that?”he wanted to know.

“An interview for the radio stations back home.It’ll give you a chance to say hello to your mom and dad and sister.The photographer here will take a picture of us for the newspapers.”

“OK, let’s do it,” said Lomprez.

I turned on the recorder and began asking questions as the photographer snapped a few pictures of us.Suddenly we heard a pop overhead, but it didn’t sound like a mortar. We looked up and saw a parachute drifting away from a fighter-bomber that had been dropping napalm beyond Khe Sanh’s perimeter. The Marine A-4E Skyhawk, whose engines had gone silent, tumbled into the inferno it had just left behind as the pilot parachuted away from the base.A chopper was scrambled for a rescue. I cut Gary’s interview short, intending to pick it up later, and ran for the perimeter to get a better look. I stood on a bunker and watched the pilot come down about a hundred yards out in enemy territory, surrounded by the NVA.

As soon as he hit the ground, a chopper swooped in and snatched him up before the enemy could get to him. The helicopter deposited him inside the perimeter, and he came walking down the road with his parachute dragging behind. Blood streamed down his face, but he was smiling broadly. I walked up to him and conducted an“actuality”—an interview about something that just happened—about his ordeal.

“Sir, is this the first time you’ve been shot down?”I asked.

“Yes,”he answered.“I’ve seen other guys eject….It always happened to the other guy.”

“I noticed that when you ejected, Marine helicopters were hovering in the area immediately. How long were you on the ground?”

“Before they got to me? About 15 seconds,”he said.“I was on the ground a total of maybe a minute, a minute and a half.”

“What do you think about that quick reaction by the Marine choppers hovering in your area?”

“I thought,‘Damn, that’s the best thing I’ve seen all day.’”

He was Major William F. Loftus of VMA-311, from Chicago. This was breaking news, so I rushed to get the tape out on the next plane to Da Nang to be edited and released. I found out later it was aired on 1,500 radio stations worldwide, and it won me a certificate for outstanding reporting at Khe Sanh from Time/Life Publications. After Loftus’ actuality, I managed to hook up with Lomprez again.

I was given permission to interview the base commander in the underground command post, and he informed me that the hills surrounding Khe Sanh were hotly contested, particularly 881 and 861A. The previous day, an enemy buildup had been detected around Hill 881, and the Marines expected an all-out assault there, but a buildup around 861A had gone undetected, and the enemy attacked there instead. Initially it looked like the Marines would be thrown off that hill. Yet their commander rallied his men, and for nearly an hour they engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the NVA, managing to hold on to 861A.

“But we’re still surrounded by an estimated 25,000 to 40,000 enemy, compared to 6,000 of our own,” the commander said. He didn’t need any prodding to comment on how important the Air Force resupply mission was: “When you’re under siege like we have been, it’s critical to get medical supplies, ammunition and food in on these planes. Some have been shot up, but that hasn’t stopped them from flying in. I salute my friends in the Air Force.”

As I emerged from the command post, all hell broke loose as incoming artillery scored a direct hit on the ammo dump. It looked and sounded like the grand finale of a July 4th fireworks show, with bullets and shrapnel zinging all around. I scrambled for cover in a shallow ditch and soon realized I had left my flak jacket in the command post. I felt naked without it and lay as flat as I could, trying to keep my rear end below ground, out of the way of the enemy’s artillery barrage.

An ambulance stopped nearby and the driver bailed out, running over to me.

“You OK, buddy?” he asked.

“Yeah, I’m OK.”

“Then get your ass inside of that goddamn bunker over there!”he shouted.“You’re dead meat out here. And grab one of those used flak jackets that are piled up by the bunker.You might need one.”

I ran for the bunker and picked through the pile of discarded flak jackets, trying to find one that was in relatively good shape. Most were bloody, torn and swarming with flies. I forced my way inside the bunker, which was jammed with at least a dozen Marines who I could tell hadn’t showered for a while, but neither had I. When we emerged after the fireworks, a corpsman was running from one wounded man to the next. A few had messy shrapnel wounds, some suffered cleaner bullet wounds, indicating they were victims of the explosion, and others had sustained wounds from the shelling.

The corpsman hollered for me and others to help with the wounded. We carried them on stretchers to the underground MASH, which had quickly filled up, so we put them down outside on the ground. One of the men I helped carry, whose left leg was badly wounded, thrashed about in pain even though he had received a shot of morphine. I tried my best to comfort him; he was so scared that I lay on top of him to shield him as much as I could from the incoming fire and noise. To stop the profuse bleeding, the corpsman applied a tourniquet. His leg was as good as gone, I could tell.

Around dusk, a thick blanket of fog settled over us, muffling the cries of the wounded and obscuring the damage the base had sustained.

“Thanks for helping out,”the corpsman said as he looked at the upside-down stripes on my sleeve.

“Air Force, eh?”he said.“That’s OK. When you’re here it’s all the same. My name’s Red.”

Even in the fog I could see why. His kinky hair was bright orange like a carrot.

“Listen,”he said,“we’ve got to dust some of these guys off, or they won’t make it till morning. They’ve lost a lot of blood, which is something we don’t have very much of around here, except on the ground. But I’m afraid with that heavy soup that’s hangin’ over us now, we’ll have a hard time convincing any medevac choppers to come in, and I sure as hell wouldn’t blame them, but we’ve got to try.”

Red grabbed a phone and called for a chopper, but one after another said they couldn’t get in because of the fog— all but one, that is.

“Alright, I’ll give it a try,” the pilot said. “But be warned, when you send up the flares you’ll be giving them a target.”

“That’s a chance we’ll just have to take, sir,” Red barked. “We’ve got to get these guys to hospitals soon. Over.”

“Roger. I’ll be there in about 30 minutes with a Chinook.”

“That’s a roger,”Red said.“Over and out. OK boys, let’s get ’em lined up and ready to go.”

By the time we finished positioning the wounded along the edge of the tarmac, the visibility didn’t extend much farther than the end of our noses. But I could see the tip of the cigar Red drew on. The glow of it made his face look gaunt and his eyes hollow, and it highlighted the stubble of the reddish whiskers around his mouth and chin.

“Had anything to eat lately, flyboy?” Red asked.

“Not since I left Da Nang yesterday morning.”

“Well then, here,” I remember him saying. “It ain’t gourmet, but it’ll do for now.”

He handed out small boxes of C rations to me and two other Marines. Mine contained cans of chopped beef with eggs and peaches, along with a chunk of pound cake, and some cigarettes. Since I didn’t smoke, I traded the cigarettes for another helping of pound cake. After eating, the four us sat around on our helmets waiting for the chopper. It was eerie sitting there in the silence, save for an occasional groan from the wounded, not being able to see beyond where we sat. Sometimes it’s what you don’t see that causes the most fear. I envisioned the enemy sneaking up on us in the fog, knives poised to slit our throats from behind.

“Shhh, listen,”Red said, jumping up.“It’s the chopper.”The faint sound of its engines, muffled by the fog, could be heard in the distance. Red fired a flare, which would give our position away to the NVA, but he had no choice. It glowed sallow like the moon through a cloud. The four of us felt for the stretchers that we had placed nearby, and we positioned ourselves at the head and feet of the first two we’d pick up.

The sound of the chopper gradually grew louder. The blades of its front and rear turbojet engines swishing in the soup sounded like machetes cutting through grass. It soon became faintly visible with its flashing running lights and dim yellow light inside. The Chinook settled down in a whirlwind of dust as the cargo door opened at the back, illuminating a pocket in the fog that enabled us to see well enough to lift the stretchers and shuffle them into the chopper one after another as fast as we could, all the while expecting to be shelled.

The last of the wounded to be loaded was the one I had tried to comfort during the artillery barrage. Eyes glazed from the morphine, he looked up at me and managed a smile. “Thanks,”he said.“So long.”Just then mortars started coming in, the first one hitting some distance away, but each successive one closing in on us. Red shouted at the pilot to take off.

After the dustoff, we groped our way to the nearest bunker and hunkered down for the night. I took the opportunity to do a hometowner with Red. Red Scott was from Topeka, Kan., and said that though he had wanted a career in medicine, he had become a corpsman purely by accident—literally. During college he was partying with some guys in the mountains above Boulder, Colo. They were drinking, of course, smoking a little dope and shooting some pool, when one of the guys got real excited about making a difficult shot and fell backward through a sliding glass door. A sliver of the glass severed his femoral artery, and Red dove in with a little bullshit sewing kit they had up there, and he was able to stop the bleeding. They were 50 miles from town, and the guy would have bled to death by the time they got him to a hospital, so Red really saved his life. “After that I switched my major to pre-med, but I didn’t get very far,” Red said.“Flunked chemistry. Hell, I was afraid to mix anything more volatile than milk and Rice Krispies. So what happens? I get drafted and end up over here where all’s I hear is snap, crackle and pop.”

Red stared at the lantern. He squinted from the smoke of the cigar he clenched between his teeth. Tobacco juice dripped over his lower lip. He pulled the wet, tattered stub from his mouth and spit.

“But I know exactly where to place the body parts on a stretcher,” he said. “So when the docs get ’em, they have an idea that they’re human beings, or a facsimile thereof.”

Soon everyone bedded down on air mattresses and went to sleep.When I awoke in the morning, they had already gone to their respective assignments for the day.

I stepped outside the bunker, stretched and looked around. I had seen enough of Khe Sanh—and the bloodshed. I needed to get the rest of the hometowner interviews back to Saigon to be processed for release. I arranged for a ride on a Chinook going to Da Nang. While I wasn’t the only passenger, I was the only one still breathing. A detail of Marines loaded the chopper with black body bags, containing their dead comrades.

Suddenly, on Jan. 31, 1968, the raging battle for Khe Sanh was overshadowed by the launch of the countrywide Tet Offensive. But after the offensive faltered, Khe Sanh once again grabbed the headlines on February 8, when the NVA attacked again. Although the enemy was able at one point to overrun sections of the base, American fighter-bombers and tanks repelled the assault. B-52s dropped their bombs as close as 300 feet from the perimeter, and more than 100 million pounds of napalm were dropped around Khe Sanh to fend off the attackers.

Then, on February 20, the weather took a turn for the worse. Supply aircraft were finding it impossible to land, and helicopters became easy prey to anti-aircraft fire. When the fog finally lifted, the Marines were amazed that the enemy had managed to construct an elaborate tunnel and bunker system almost completely around Khe Sanh.

The Marines sent out patrols, but they were continually ambushed and casualties were high.A more effective weapon against the NVA were the Marine snipers. On March 18 an entire NVA battalion staged yet another attack. The combat was fierce, but after more than two hours of close fighting the Marines were victorious.

And then, on April 7, after nearly three weeks of repulsing enemy probes, the Marines were relieved by elements of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), who entered Khe Sanh, bringing the 77-day siege to an end.

As I look back 45 years to my Khe Sanh experience, it seems like a dream—sometimes a nightmare—in which I was an observer on the outside looking in.

Whether the bitterly contested battle was worth the cost in Marine lives is questionable, because in 1973, when the United States pulled out of the war entirely, the North Vietnamese took over the base. Khe Sanh would become a major staging area for the North Vietnamese Army’s invasion of South Vietnam.

I’ll never forget one of the Marines at Khe Sanh telling me, “I just want to get home in one piece and watch football on TV with my dad.”

It was a reasonable request that tragically went unfulfilled; after getting back from Khe Sanh, I saw the Marine listed in Stars and Stripes as KIA, though time has erased the memory of his name.

 

After his discharge from the Air Force in 1970, Mike D. Shepherd attended Southern Illinois University on the GI Bill, and then became a public information officer and speechwriter for the State of Illinois. Now retired, he is a writer of historic fiction, primarily about Southeast Asia. His latest book, From Ban Xon to Wardak, is slated to be published this year.

Originally published in the August 2013 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.

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