Editor: Michael Spilling and Consultant Editor: Chris McNab
Khe Sanh combat base, built on a hilltop located 10 km from the Laotian border, was the westernmost in a line of Allied defenses south of the DMZ designed to prevent communist infiltration into South Vietnam. By 1968, Khe Sanh combat base was occupied by 3000 US Marines of the 3rd Marine Division. While a further 3000 Marines were stationed on four nearby hilltop positions surrounding the base. These positions had been the subject of heavy fighting during 1967. That fighting had demonstrated a sizable enemy buildup in the area. It prompted Gen William Westmoreland to believe that Khe Sanh was tenable even in the face of a heavy enemy siege. This was especially important given that it housed a runway capable of landing C-130s.
North Vietnamese Forces Launch Their Attack
As part of their planning for the Tet Offensive, North Vietnamese forces began to stream into the area around Khe Sanh in November 1967. They eventually totaled as many as 40,000 troops. Most were from the 325th Division and 320th Division, cutting US ground contact with the Marines at Khe Sanh. Communist planners, led by Gen Vo Nguyen Giap, hoped by attacking Khe Sanh to draw American attention from the cities of South Vietnam. They felt these were the real targets of the coming Tet Offensive. On 21 January 1967, North Vietnamese forces simultaneously attacked two of the outlying US Marine hilltop positions. They launched a massive artillery strike on Khe Sanh combat base, opening the siege.
Fearing a defeat reminiscent of the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, President Lyndon Johnson kept a close eye on the fighting. He continued to receive hourly reports and even having a mock-up of Khe Sanh constructed in the basement of the White House. He hoped to drawn North Vietnamese forces into what might prove to be a climactic battle. Westmoreland ordered the US Marines to hold firm and launched Operation Niagara. This was a series of bombing strikes on the North Vietnamese troop concentrations around Khe Sanh.
Tactical bombers flew more than 16,000 sorties in defense of the US Marines. They delivered more than 31,000 tons of bombs. While B-52 Arc Light strikes delivered nearly 60,000 tons of bombs. This made Operation Niagara one of the heaviest bombing campaigns in the history of warfare.
The North Vietnamese close in on Khe Sanh
At the beginning of February 1968, as the Tet Offensive raged throughout South Vietnam, fighting around the combat base intensified.
On 7 February, a North Vietnamese assault involving 12 tanks overran the Special Forces camp at Lang Vei, west of Khe Sanh on Route 9. Bitter fighting also took place on the Marine hilltop outposts surrounding Khe Sanh, with Hill 861 being overrun by mid-February. By late February, the North Vietnamese artillery barrage on the combat base strengthened. On 29 February elements of the North Vietnamese 304th Division stormed the base, but were driven off with major losses. Under heavy pressure from the air, and with the failure of the wider Tet Offensive, North Vietnamese forces began to withdraw from the Khe Sanh area in early March.
By early April, US forces in Operation Pegasus reopened ground communication with Khe Sanh and the siege was at an end. During the fighting, the Marines lost 205 killed and 1600 wounded. Then a further 97 US and 33 South Vietnamese were killed in the relief efforts. The North Vietnamese lost as many as 15,000 casualties during the siege of Khe Sanh.
Dr. Chris McNab is the editor of AMERICAN BATTLES & CAMPAIGNS: A Chronicle, from 1622-Present and is an experienced specialist in wilderness and urban survival techniques. He has published over 20 books including: How to Survive Anything, Anywhere. An encyclopedia of military and civilian survival techniques for all environments. Special Forces Endurance Techniques, First Aid Survival Manual, and The Handbook of Urban Survival.