Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Battle of Khe Sanh January 21, 1968


Like all there is about the American War in Vietnam, facts are sketchy with regard to the strategic Battle of Khe Sanh

The 1968 Battle of Khe Sanh was the longest, deadliest and most controversial of the Vietnam War, pitting the U.S. Marines and their allies against the North Vietnamese Army. Both sides have published official histories of the battle, and while these histories agree the fighting took place at Khe Sanh, they disagree on virtually every other aspect of it.a

On the morning of January 21, 1968, the Battle of Khe Sanh was launched in Quang Tri Province in northwestern South Vietnam. The battle raged until 8 April 1968, although fighting continued straight into July of that same year. The question of "who won?" continues to be debated by military historians and veterans on both sides. One commenter responded to the question with "The American B-52s won the battle of Khe Sanh". And so it goes.

Fierce fighting had been ongoing in the area around the 17th parallel where, in 1954, the Geneva Accords had designated the dividing line between North and South Vietnam. It was an 
area of significant strategic importance. Neither side was willing to hand it over. Combat offensives by the PAVN (People's Army of Vietnam) in and around the area as early as 1967 were regarded by the Americans as minor activities in the border regions. This would change as hostilities increased.

The base at Khe Sanh contained an enormous munitions depot. And this was the main target of the PAVN forces. They struck with ferocity and demolished the huge cache, wiped out the runway and damaged some aircraft.

The American military command in South Vietnam nicknamed the defense of the base at Khe Sanh Operation Scotland. The combatants were elements of the 3rd Marine Amphibious Force (MAF), 1st Cavalry and 7th Air Force along with forces from the Army of South Vietnam (ARVN) and two to three division-size elements of the PAVN.

Loading bombs onto B-52 in Guam

A Brief Background on Khe Sanh 
Khe Sanh was a US garrison base in South Vietnam since 1962. Its importance was because of its geographical position. By 1968 there were 6,000 Marines based there. The base was located at the westernmost end of the DMZ (demilitarized zone) and allowed for unimpeded access to the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The PAVN placed great importance on capturing Khe Sanh and surrounded the base with a reported 20,000 men. Their advantage was that they had the base surrounded and had positioned large artillery guns in Laos, which were out of range of US artillery at Khe Sanh.

It was believed that the PAVN wanted to repeat their victory against the French in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu (link). American forces did, however, have the advantage insofar as being in control of the high ground (unlike the French). The Americans also had total air supremacy. The attacks on Khe Sanh were part of the North's plan to attract attention away from the enormous build up of PAVN troops amassing for the launch of the Tet Offensive. The Tet Offensive, arguably, was the final blow against allied forces in the war. (We will begin our coverage of Tet in upcoming posts).  The battle for Khe Sanh was just the beginning.

Khe Sanh and the military outposts around it were under constant mortar, artillery, ground and rocket attacks. During the battle, a massive aerial bombardment campaign nicknamed Operation Niagra was launched by the US Air Force. Over 100,000 tons of bombs and napalm were dropped  (equivalent in ferocity to 5 Hiroshima atomic bombs) by aircraft from the Air Force, Navy and Marines. In fact, Westmoreland, Commander (MACV) petitioned Lyndon Johnson for permission to use tactical nuclear weapons. He was refused. 

In March of 1968 (a month after the beginning of the Tet Offensive) an overland relief effort was launched. This effort was nicknamed Operation Pegasus. 

On June 19, 1968 another initiative was begun, the evacuation and destruction of the Khe Sanh base by the Americans- it was nicknamed Operation Charlie.

The history of the battles in and around the Khe Sanh valley are numerous. There is much to know about the area's strategic importance to both the Americans and the North Vietnamese. The Americans had a perfect position from which to monitor the North's activities such as the movement of troops, supplies and ammunition on the Ho Chi Minh trail right on the Laotian border. Much treasure was utilized and lost. Many, many lives were sacrificed and/or damaged in some way. There is much debate as to who was the victor, if there could be such a thing. But, the numbers we have found speak for themselves:

American Casualties
Americans Killed
Americans Wounded
Americans Missing
Americans Captured

These figures can and will be disputed ad infinitum. But they are accurate, according to our research. We are always open to comments, corrections and further material.

In Memory of all who fell
and all who suffer still

US Marines Battle of Khe Sanh January 1968 (click link)

Interactive Timeline View (PBS) (click link)

Khe Sanh Veterans Home Page (click link)

a from www.historynet.com

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