By Gordon L. Rottman
On the morning of January 24, the 33d Royal Laotian Battalion (BV33) astride QL9 at Ban Houaysan just inside Laos was attacked and overrun by NVA infantry and PT-76 tanks. (BV33 was funded by the CIA under Project “Elephant” and cooperated to some degree with US forces). The battalion fled and arrived at Lang Vei Special Forces Camp with 500 troops and 2,200 dependents and refugees. The USSF positioned them in Old Lang Vei and arranged for food and supplies. Seven tanks were detected by aircraft and one destroyed. This was the first warning that NVA tanks were present. On the same day a Marine patrol one kilometer north of Hill 558 was engaged in a bitter fight, but was able to extract itself.
At the request of Westmoreland for participation by an ARVN unit, LtGen Hoang Xuam Lam, I CTZ commander, contributed the 37th Ranger Battalion. Arriving on January 27, the battalion occupied partly prepared positions on the east end of the perimeter to provide more depth to the defense. The Rangers had to deepen the 2ft wide, 3ft deep trenches and build bunkers and covered trench sections. Through the last week of the month evidence was still being found of NVA preparations for attacks in the way of cut wire and reversed Claymores. The Marines listened for the sounds of tunneling, but this activity never occurred. Air-delivered, unattended ground sensors dropped in surrounding areas monitored enemy movements, and resulted in some success for targeting artillery and air strikes. The scope of NVA activity around the base was becoming apparent. The 3d MarDiv ordered Col Lownds to limit patrolling to within 500m, although 1/9 Marines continued to patrol out 1,200m and FOB-3 continued its classified operations locally and inside Laos. The seven-day Tet ceasefire was canceled owing to repeated NVA violations.
On the night of January 30/31, 1968, the Tet Offensive ripped loose through South Vietnam. On the 30th the first B-52 strike in support of Khe Sanh delivered 1,125 tons of bombs. President Johnson’s concerns for the base’s survival went to the point of discussing the feasibility of using nuclear weapons. While planning never went beyond discussion, it did highlight the president’s fears.
On February 5, E/2/26 occupied 861A 400m northeast of 861, as it prevented direct line of sight, and therefore mutual support, between 881 and 558. E/2/26 was then attached to 3/26. That night remote sensors indicated large troop movements west of 881S and Marine and Army artillery saturated the area. At 0300 hours on the 6th, 200 NVA, possibly survivors of the force plastered earlier, attacked 861A supported by mortars. Partly overrun in their incomplete positions, the Marine company counterattacked, resulting in hand-to-hand fighting. The NVA made a weak response and were sent reeling from the hill leaving over 100 dead. The Marines lost seven KIA and 35 WIA.
Scores of NVA 60mm and 82mm mortars ringed the base within 2–3,000m. While the 122mm rocket was accurate in regards to deflection (launcher-to-target line), its range was somewhat erratic. To accommodate this it was preferred to position the launched fire down the long axis of the target. Launch positions east of KSCB would be within range of US 175mm guns at Camp Carroll, and also meant a longer supply line from Laos skirting KSCB. Hills 881S and 861 to the west would have been ideal, but were occupied by Marines. The only alternative was 881N 8km distant, 2km within the rocket’s maximum range. NVA 130mm and 152mm guns were dug in and well camouflaged on Co Roc Mountain just inside Laos and 13km southwest of KSCB. Another position was Hill 305 10km west-northwest of 881S.
Rockets launched from 881N passed over 861, while artillery came over 881S. Even though vegetation, fog, and perpetual dust from air strikes often prevented flash-detection, the rounds were heard and a radio warning flashed to KSCB, “Arty, Arty, Co Roc!” The operator monitoring the warning net activated a truck horn mounted in a tree and men had 5–18 seconds to dive for cover. The operator would understatedly report back to 881S, “Roger India, Splash,” indicating the rounds had indeed landed on schedule.
The close-in B-52 bombardments were “number one on the hit parade” for the Marines. They climbed out of their bunkers to watch the rolling wave of detonations, which were sometimes within a kilometer of the base. Some officers feared the shock waves would collapse bunkers. One Marine described pouring sugar and powdered creamer into a canteen cup of coffee and letting the blast vibrations mix it. An NVA soldier held another view: “B-52 explosions are so strong that our lungs hurt.”
FALL OF LANG VEI
Old Lang Vei Special Forces Camp was located on QL9 9km southwest of KSCB and was moved to a new site half a mile to the west in September 1967. While still incompletely constructed, the camp was well bunkered, with established perimeter fighting bunkers. It was manned by 24 USSF, 14 Vietnamese Special Forces, and 443 CIDG including an attached Mobile Strike (MIKE) Force company. Detachment A-101 was under the command of Capt Frank C. Willoughby, but the senior officer present was LtCol Daniel F. Schungel. The camp was well armed with one 4.2in, seven 81mm and 16 60mm mortars; two 106mm and four 57mm recoilless rifles; two .50-cal and 39 .30-cal machine guns, plus 100 LAWs. However, there was little antitank ammunition for the recoilless rifles and no antitank mines.
With BV33 routed and now at Old Lang Vei, four USSF were placed there to aid them. Field grade USSF officers were rotated through the camp as the BV33 commander, LtCol Soulang, would not take orders from a junior USSF officer. On January 30 a USSF NCO accompanying a Laotian patrol was captured by the NVA near Khe Sanh village. On the 31st a CIDG patrol engaged an NVA battalion outside Khe Sanh village, killing 54.
NVA units assigned to take Lang Vei received their orders late and were forced to organize on the approach march. The tanks were swam some 10km down the Xe Pon River, on the Vietnam/Laos border, to a point southwest of Lang Vei.
On the evening of February 6, 50 rounds of 152mm from Co Roc struck the camp. At 0050 hours on the 7th the defenders discovered tanks in the wire. The main attack was from the south into the central position by 3 Battalion, 101C Regiment, 325C Division, plus two sapper companies, and 9 Company, 198 Tank Battalion. In addition, 5 Battalion, 24 Regiment, 304 Division and 3 Company, 198 Tank Battalion launched a secondary attack from the west along QL9, with 4 Battalion, 24 Regiment conducting a supporting attack from the northeast. A 152mm battalion of 675 Artillery Regiment and elements of the 7 Engineer Regiment provided further support. The 8 Battalion, 66 Regiment, 304 Division attacked BV33 at Old Lang Vei.
The first penetration was in the southeast compound by five tanks approaching from the south. A USSF NCO destroyed two outside the wire with a 106mm. Four more came down QL9 from the west and two on QL9 from the east. The USSF called KSCB for artillery, arguing with the Marines that they were indeed under tank attack. What the Green Berets did not know was that the artillery on KSCB was being hammered by artillery fire from Co Roc to keep it from firing. Air strikes were also called for. The USSF organized antitank teams, but most of the LAWs either misfired or were duds. One tank was destroyed, but others were crushing fighting positions and NVA sappers blasted bunkers with satchel charges and flamethrowers. Another tank’s turret was blown off when its ammunition exploded after it was hit by an LAW beside the command bunker. Some of the defenders were trapped in the command bunker while the NVA made repeated attempts to flush them out with flamethrowers, satchel charges, and tear gas. Finally, the indigenous personnel surrendered and were executed upon exiting. The Americans continued to hold out. USSF and CIDG were still holding out in other parts of the camp. The three USSF with BV33 convinced some Laotians to counterattack. They continued to direct air strikes and led five counterattacks until two of the USSF were killed. Some USSF and CIDG managed to exfiltrate from the overrun camp. The Marines would not send a relief force as they suspected an ambush awaited them. An FOB-3 reaction force under Maj George Quamo was helicoptered into Old Lang Vei at 1715 hours to aid in the recovery of survivors. With the USSF survivors flown out, some of the recovery force fought their way on foot back to FOB-3. CIDG and Laotian survivors making it to Khe Sanh were disarmed by the Marines and held in a secure area until identified as friendly by USSF. Some 3,000 Montagnard and Laotian civilians and military were flown out on February 8.
Fourteen USSF made it out with only one unwounded. Ten were missing, two of whom were captured. In total 244 CIDG were recovered (61 wounded) and nine Vietnamese Special Forces survived (three wounded). The CIDG was credited with resolutely defending the camp with at least half of those killed dying in their positions. NVA losses were estimated at 250 dead and seven tanks knocked out. All Americans were decorated. Sgt 1st Class Eugene Ashley, Jr. was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his repeated counterattacks from the old camp.
The Marines awarded USSF Detachment A-101 the Presidential Unit Citation (Navy).
The QL9 corridor was now unprotected, making 1/9’s position at the Rock Quarry even more important. While the Marines’ decision not to send a ground relief force to the camp was undoubtedly wise, the decision did nothing to improve USSF/Marine relations. As an aside, in January a Marine company had practiced a relief effort moving crosscountry to Lang Vei rather than on QL9 to avoid ambushes. The operation had required 19 hours in the dense vegetation and rough terrain. A night helicopter relief would probably have been disastrous.
Excerpted from Khe Sanh 1967-68: Marines battle for Vietnam’s vital hilltop base (Campaign) by Gordon L. Rottman, illustrated by Peter Dennis and H. Gerrard.
Reprinted with permission from Osprey Publishing.
GORDON L. ROTTMAN entered the US Army in 1967, volunteered for Special Forces and completed training as a weapons specialist. He served in the 5th Special Forces Group in Vietnam in 1969–70 and subsequently in airborne infantry, long-range patrol and intelligence assignments until retiring after 26 years. He was a Special Operations Forces scenario writer at the Joint Readiness Training Center for 12 years and is now a freelance writer. He is the author of a number of books, including Khe Sanh 1967-68: Marines battle for Vietnam’s vital hilltop base and M3 Medium Tank vs Panzer III: Kasserine Pass, 1943.