Some time ago one of my readers asked that I write about how the rules of engagement (ROE) severely restricted US forces freedom of action and thus played a significant role in the resultant “loss” in Vietnam. In this case ROE were linked to limited war. What is limited war you ask?
Limited war is where one side in a conflict decides to limit its application of military force for a whole series of reasons. The Vietnam War really had two phases:
- The pre-1 April 1968 phase where the US was fighting to win though with significant limits on the application of force, and
- The post 1 April 1968 date where the goal was to achieve a negotiated agreement. Initially this phase had even more restricted ROE, but after Nixon’s perception of North Vietnamese intransigence there was a significant loosening of the ROE—decreasing the limits on the use of military force. But the goal was still a negotiated agreement.
The above raises several questions:
- What were the initial limits and why were they imposed?
- What is so significant about 31 March 1968? What were the limits in the ROE?
- What was Nixon’s relaxation of limits?
When the US began its escalation of the use of force in Vietnam in 1964/5 there were significant limits placed upon the forces. Cambodia and Laos were off limits to conventional forces, as was North Vietnam. The bombing of North Vietnam was severely limited as to the targets that could be engaged. The whole theory of limited war was meeting a test. A test that it failed, but more about that later.
These limits were imposed on US forces because of a fear that any expansion of the war would cause the Chinese to intervene. The memory of Korea was still keen in strategists’ minds. There was also fear of a confrontation with the Soviet Union. For these reasons there were severe limits placed upon US forces.
In late 1967 the North Vietnamese tested these limits with the extreme shelling and limited attacks across the DMZ in the vicinity of Cam Lo. Unbeknownst to the Americans this was a test—a test to see if it would abide by its limits and not invade North Vietnam. When the US did not invade the North Vietnamese were free to move several divisions west to come down the Ho Chi Minh trail and attack Khe Sanh. Which they did.
What is so significant about 31 March 1968? The evening of 31 March President Johnson announced his partial bombing halt as a means to entice the North Vietnamese into negotiations to end the war. It was at this point that the war was “lost.” As recounted elsewhere (Expendable Warriors) a proposed offensive military action into Laos was deemed to be politically unacceptable. The war had been won on the ground in Vietnam but lost politically. The US was unwilling to lift its limits and win the war on the ground and the North was not fighting with any limits. Instead, increased limits were imposed on US forces.
North Vietnamese intransigence and an attempt to disengage US forces while not increasing the degree of loss lead to the Nixon Administration strategy of Vietnamization. This was coupled with several expansions of the war—relaxation of the limits imposed on US forces. First was the invasion of Cambodia as an attempt to destroy North Vietnamese Army (NVA) sanctuaries and to buy time for Vietnamization to take hold.
The second expansion was Lam Son 719A—the invasion of Laos in 1971 to cut the Ho Chi Minh trail. For several reasons this Vietnamese attack with US support was a miserable failure. The main reason probably being the loss of surprise—the NVA were waiting and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) got mauled.
The final escalation was the use of B-52s over Hanoi and Haiphong. Previous bombing restraints/limits were relaxed and a massive bombing finally caused the North Vietnamese to agree to a settlement. In hiding the overall loss Nixon/Kissinger called it “Peace with Honor”. The POWs came home.
In Vietnam we relearned the lessons of Korea. When one side is fighting a limited war—limited in ways and means and the other side is fighting an unlimited war—applying all of the ways and means at its disposable to win the outcome is at best a draw. Does or should the MacArthur dictum: “there is no substitute for victory” apply? In the Gulf War we saw the limits replaced by the Powell Doctrine of “Over-whelming Force.” However, there were limits in that conflict such that after several years the second Bush administration felt that it had to fight another war against Iraq—in short to do what the first Gulf War had prevented –the over throw of Saddam Hussein.
The first real example of limited war was Korea. The border between China and North Korea and of course nuclear weapons were the limits in that “police action.” MacArthur challenged both of those limits. He pursued the North Koreans almost to the Yalu river (the border) and he threatened to seed the border with cobalt or other radioactive material so that the Chinese couldn’t cross the seeded areas. MacArthur waws relieved, the US was forced back to virtually the initial DMZ and a stalemate occurred. The idea of winning a “limited” war was severely challenged, but the lessons of Korea were not learned in Vietnam.
In Afghanistan the limits were different, but they were there. In order to not engage civilains with drone strikes military lawyers had to approve the strikes. Osama bin Laden was in the cross hairs at Bora Bora, but escaped due to lawyers taking too much time. So much for the efficacy of those limits.
To return to the original issue of ROEs and limited war it should be clear that at no time except when there is a nuclear threat will the United States not fight a “limited war.” But the extent of those limitations will clearly have a potential impact on the outcome of the conflict. Politicians and military strategists must decide before the conflict begins as to whether any limits being considered will prevent the achievement of the military objectives that have flowed from the political objectives of a conflict.
Given a potential confrontation over the Ukraine with Russia will both sides treat this confrontation as “limited”? Will they both abide by the limits, especially if they are losing? Some time ago I wrote about the Russians arguing that limited nuclear wars were possible and that escalation from a theater nuclear war to a global one is not necessarily automatic. We have no historical examples to support the concept of limited nuclear war, which was first suggested 60+ years ago when the US had a near nuclear monopoly. Of course this is no longer the case.
In short, do the ROE/limits on the conduct of military operations hinder/impede/prevent the achievement of the military and political objectives of the use of force? Maybe the consideration of such limits will serve as a deterrent to conflict at all—if you can’t / won’t win why start? One can only hope!
Returning to John Mason Glen’s opinion piece in the New York Times (“Was America Duped at Khe Sanh?”) We must also set the record straight about General Westmoreland and the strategy in Vietnam War. Again Mr. Glen displays his lack of historical perspective by attributing the strategy of attrition in the Vietnam War to General Westmoreland’s analysis of the battle of the Ira Drang Valley. (The basis of the book and movie We Were Soldiers Once, Young and Brave.)
Glen correctly paints General Westmoreland as the perfect image of a soldier—World War II leader, Airborne Infantry leader, former Superintendent of West Point—with a very stiff soldierly look. Westy, as he was called by cadets at West Point and soldiers in the field in Vietnam, was all that Glen describes. One must also remember at this point in history the Airborne Mafia, as it was called, ruled the Army. There was admiration for the Airborne coming out of World War II. President Kennedy was enamored with the Special Forces (Green Berets) all of whom were airborne qualified. Glen attributes Westmoreland’s strategy to this background and does not attribute the country’s experience and successes to the strategy in Vietnam.
When Westy was superintendent at West Point I was a cadet there studying military tactics and history. Much of our studies revealed that the US military strategy grew out of Grant’s defeat of Lee in the Civil War. The battles of the Wilderness in late 1864 and 1865 were battles of attrition. The North had the wherewithal in terms of men and equipment to fight a war of attrition against the South. This strategy succeeded. The lesson learned was that attrition warfare was a way to win.
The world wars in Europe and Asia were also wars of attrition where superior resources were able to win the day, over time. When one couples the US military experience of success through attrition warfare with Robert McNamara’s “bean counting” revolution in the Pentagon one can understand how body count became the measure of success for the war in Vietnam. If more bad guys were killed in an engagement than good guys then the good guys “won”. This became the approach in Vietnam.
Given this view that attrition / body count would cause the enemy to stop fighting one can clearly understand the desire for a set piece firepower intensive battle to crush the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). Khe Sanh offered this opportunity. The hope was that the NVA would go for the bait that was the Khe Sanh Combat Base and provide a large number of targets to be attacked by superior fire power and destroyed. For this strategy to succeed the bait could not be compromised by the NVA learning of the plan. The close-holding of the intelligence that the NVA was going to attack Khe Sanh lead to my advisory team in Khe Sanh village being “expendable”. We were part of the bait and could not be allowed to leak to our Vietnamese counterparts what was coming for fear that they in turn would leak it to the NVA. The solution was to just not tell us what was about to occur.
Some of the readers of Expendable Warriors have commented on how critical we deal with General Westmoreland. One former Chief of Staff of the Army refused to endorse the book because of this perspective. I must admit that the after taste of being “expendable” may have colored my perspective. However, I have learned the bigger lesson—strategic leaders must make strategic decisions based upon the bigger picture. In this regard the small advisory team and mixed force of Vietnamese, Bru Montagnards and Marines may have truly been expendable. Though we will probably never admit it.
The soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines did not lose the war in Vietnam the politicians and strategists did. In April/May of 1968 the strategy had succeeded. The NVA and Viet Cong had been defeated by all body count measures, but the political will to win was gone. The concept of political will had not been considered by the strategists of the day. It was not until Colonel Harry Summers published his book On Strategy; a Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War that Clausewitz’s dictums on political will were brought again into consideration by strategic thinkers. Colonel Summers was part of the US Vietnam negotiating team and his discussion with a North Vietnamese counterpart is often quoted. He told his counterpart: “we won every battle.” To which the North Vietnamese officer replied “But you lost the war.”
If one reads my writings on conflict termination, he will see Colonel Summers’ views used as a basis for defining what it means to win. Body count is also dismissed as the failed measure of success that it is.
Many have been asking me to write something on the Ukraine. I have been holding off because I am of mixed minds on the Ukraine.
The globalist in me wants to deter aggression on the international stage. This means that the US should not only talk a good tough game but should act in consonance with what it says. In other words, talk tough and carry a big stick. This suggests the need to deploy forces for deterrent purposes. However, should deterrence fail we would have no alternative but to then conduct military operations.
Unfortunately, the rest of the world sees our president as weak, indecisive and as a bully who will bluster and threaten, but in the end probably do nothing. This perception increases the probability of deterrence failing and US troops then being caught up in a war that we don’t need.
The other problem is that much of the US deterrence credibility has also been undermined by its energy policy. It has made itself dependent on Russian oil and encouraged the Russians to finish a pipeline to western Europe so that it could be more dependent on Russian energy. (And one wonders why the Germans are dragging their feet in supporting the Ukraine.) Today’s communiques from Berlin indicate that Germany has accepted the US position of holding the unfinished pipeline hostage as a means of deterring Russia. After agreeing to the Nord Stream II pipeline, it is difficult to believe today’s announcement. We will see.
As a strategist I see us being drawn into the wrong fight at the wrong place and at the wrong time. No matter what we do we will have limited credibility as many will see US actions on the Ukraine as a ‘wag the dog” activity to try and bolster the president’s standing. In short, he is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t with respect to Ukraine. However, if he were to pivot, and admit that this isn’t our fight. It is a European fight. And focus on China and work to prevent a Chinese – Russian alliance while reversing his position on China and energy, he could come out of this with the US in a much stronger position.
The Biden administration, inadvertently, has caused many of the European countries to take action in terms of military aid to the Ukraine and the forward repositioning of forces to at least prevent a conflict over the Ukraine to expand to NATO member states. Given that one of Putin’s goals is to destroy NATO his actions have to date had the opposite effect. With the energy policy reversal noted above Germany might feel less dependent upon Russia to survive the European winter and thus more willing to contribute to the alliance efforts in eastern Europe. This is of course what Trump was seeking 4 years ago, but since it was a Trump position Biden’s political base, to the extent that there is one, will find such actions as impossible to accept—Trump policies on energy, China and for increased European efforts in support of European stability and peace—ugh!
This is why I am torn. The right policy is politically impossible for the Biden administration. It has blocked itself into what for me is the wrong policy at the wrong time. So, given this undesirable situation what should the administration do? Demanding that Europe carry the weight in reinforcing Ukraine with logistics and war fighting units is a first step. It is also critical that the US maintain nuclear deterrence in Europe as this is the biggest genie out there. To do this will require forward deploying nuclear capable forces that can strike back at Russia. if necessary. What “if necessary” means must remain vague and ambiguous enough that the Russians will not consider the first use of battlefield nuclear weapons.
The Russian demands of not allowing Ukraine to enter NATO and to withdraw support from the Baltic states and Poland are totally unacceptable and there is no ground for negotiation. Negotiating another arms control limitation agreement for Europe might be possible, but will probably take years to negotiate. The Intermediate Range weapons treaty took years,
To my friends who asked me to write about this instead of Khe Sanh I now ask them: what does it mean to win in this situation? This is the ultimate question that no one is writing about. Let me posit some outcomes that might define winning:
- NATO remains united and acts as a coherent whole to deter Russian aggression
- Russia decides that its goal of repelling the US from Europe is presently unattainable through present means.
- Ground conflict is avoided or minimized around the borders of Ukraine
- European dependence on Russian energy is at least tempered and is always at risk so that Russia has to rethink its ability to hold the heating of European homes at risk.
- The US begins the needed rethinking of its strategic priorities and related policies—this may require a new administration.
These are win criteria that should have been thought of initially, but unfortunately NATO and the US gave the Russians the initiative many years ago in the Crimea and have never regained it.
Ukraine is not a winning situation in the short term so unfortunately the best we can hope for is a stalemate—not a war.
(I have refrained from talking about President Biden’s talk last night with the Ukrainian president. Some have characterized it a s a disaster, but who can believe CNN.)
Khe Sanh remains an item of historical interest, Article continue to be written about the battle. With the 54th anniversary the siege of the Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB) we may anticipate a plethora of articles about the battle that decided the Vietnam War. A year ago there was an important such article in the New York Times (“Was America Duped at Khe Sanh?”). The article by John Mason Glen is spectacular in its attention grabbing title but weak on strategic analysis. Having lived through the battle and written about it in Expendable Warriors: the battle of Khe Sanh and the Vietnam War, I feel uniquely qualified to rebut Glen’s argument.
The main theme of the article is that the attack on Khe Sanh was a diversion to draw American forces away from the populated areas in anticipation of the Tet Offensive which started 9 days after the beginning of the siege of the KSCB. This argument is inaccurate for many different reasons:
- The attack on Khe Sanh had been anticipated for 3 months. Elements of 2 Army Divisions had been moved north in vicinity of Hue and Quang Tri. It was these forces that blunted part of the attacks on those two province headquarters.
- Khe Sanh was reinforced by 4 battalions of Marines with most of the reinforcements arriving after the North Vietnamese Army launched its missile and artillery barrage on 21 January 1968. (More on the multiple implications of this attack in subsequent articles.) 4 battalions of Marines in the bigger scheme of things was not consequential to stopping the Tet attacks.
- The diversion of air assets to support the defense of Khe Sanh was not as significant as Glen would have one believe. Much of the air support used was B-52 carpet bombing not pin point close air support. Such bombing approaches were inappropriate for populated areas.
- Glen mentions the internal opinion divisions within the North Vietnamese leadership. One faction was focused on the Tet offensive and the other on Khe Sanh. He correctly points out that one faction focused on the general uprising goal while General Giap was seeking to break the American public support for the war by the attack on Khe Sanh. He wanted to repeat his success at Dien Bien Phu where the French public support for the Indochinese war was destroyed. To people like Glen it was one or the other. Why couldn’t they have been reinforcing? Glen does not examine this point.
- The agony of Khe Sanh played out for 77 days on the screens and in the newspapers of main street America. This is where the war was lost! Certainly Tet contributed to the loss but it was Khe Sanh that was the deciding factor.
- It should be noted that in the Burns PBS documentary which has been critiqued on these pages the siege of the KSCB is barely mentioned—another of its fatal flaws as has been recounted on these pages.
- In fact both Khe Sanh and Tet were significant failures militarily for the North Vietnamese. They lost both battles. The war was there to be won, but the political will to do so had been lost. Giap had been right. (There is a unique event highlighted in my book that makes this point explicitly.)
But the bottom line is that the battle of Khe Sanh was won and the war lost at the same time.
In my next response to the Glen’s article I will respond to his critique of General Westmoreland. Stay tuned!
As we wrap up this year’s relook at Khe Sanh those who wonder why I am devoting so much time to this effort every year will hopefully come to realize that there is much to be learned about winning conflicts and what it takes to win. I have been asked to relook the Ukraine, which I will do, but I ask my readers to think about winning and what Khe Sanh has taught us.
On the 1st of April 1968 the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) launched Operation Pegasus. Many newly interested authors focus on the battle for the old French fort. What they don’t realize that just as the operation was beginning the war was being officially lost.
As the senior advisor in Khe Sanh before the beginning of the “agony of Khe Sanh” on 21 January 1968 I was seconded to the 1st Cavalry Division to assist in the planning for Operation Pegasus. (For a complete discussion of the siege of Khe Sanh see: www. Expendablewarriors.com or my recent postings here.)
It was strange to fly over what had once been the area along route 9 and see rice paddies where there had never been paddies before. In actuality what I was seeing was bomb craters that were filled with rain water. (I flew into Khe Sanh with Major General John Tolson (commander of the 1st Cavalry Division) several times,
During the planning process units from the 1st Cav, the 101st Airborne Division and the 3rd Marines were conducting operations along the DMZ as a diversion to the relief operation. The engineers were busy building a short runway and underground bunkers for the command and control of Operation Pegasus near Calu. The new facility was to be named LZ Stud.
For Operation Pegasus the 1st Cav had an extensive set of capabilities
- The 1st Cavalry Division with its 400+ helicopters
- A Marine BDE with augmenting engineers and artillery
- An Army of Vietnam (ARVN) airborne brigade
- 26th Marine Regiment +–the whole force defending the Combat Base (5000 strong)
- Massive air support
This was the equivalent of a small Corps.
LZ Stud was located in the sharp westerly turn of route 9 shown on the above map
The attack began the morning of the April 1st with the Marine Brigade attacking along route 9. Its mission was to open Route 9 from LZ Stud to the combat base. This required the repair of numerous road by passes that had been destroyed by the NVA and neglected for more than a year. The air assault was delayed until 1 PM due to fog in the Khe Sanh area. The initial air assault was into areas where the vegetation had been flattened by use a bomb called a Daisy Cutter (a 20,000 pound bomb that was dropped from a C130 aircraft and detonated when the long pipe that was its detonator struck the ground—thus creating standoff and blowing things down without creating a crater). The Infantry and engineers followed to secure the area and move the blowdown so that howitzers, crews and ammunition could be lifted in. As a result, a firebase was created.
With fire support for support of the infantry and to support the next hop forward closer to Khe Sanh the next unit could be inserted and the leap frog towards the combat base and the enemy could continue.
It was on this day 1 April 1968 when the war was lost. Major Paul Schwartz and I had to brief General Tolson on the proposed concept for the Division’s next mission—clearing the NVA out of the A Shau Valley (about 40-50 kilometers south of Khe Sanh. There were 4 people present at the briefing—General Tolson, his Chief of Staff, Major Schwartz and myself. We proposed attacking through Khe Sanh to the Vietnam-Laos border. Going into Laos, cleaning up the Ho Chi Minh Trail and then turning south to enter the A Shau Valley from the west—not the traditional route which was from the east. There were 90 days of supplies at Khe Sanh to draw upon and thus not have to back haul. Most importantly such an approach would have caught the NVA by surprise and had war winning effects.
After about 4 minutes of briefing General Tolson said” “Obviously you didn’t hear the President last night! What you are proposing is politically impossible.” Lyndon Johnson had just announced a partial bombing halt in an effort to enter negotiations with North Vietnam.
3 years later the US was to support ARVN forces in Lam Son 719A which was an attack into Laos where the ARVN got clobbered. The NVA had used the 3 years to recover. A year or so later President Nixon was to start the B-52 bombing missions over Hanoi and Haiphong. These would result in a peace agreement.
President Johnson’s bombing halt decision was when the US decided to not try and win the war on the battlefield—just as the NVA were on the throes of collapse. The war was winnable after the eventual Khe Sanh and Tet victories, but the political climate in the US had so turned against the war there was no political will to try and win on the battlefield.
In coming articles, we will talk about the bigger lessons learned from Khe Sanh and other conflicts. It is my hope that someday some wanna be strategists will read these articles and learn something from them.
We just passed the 54th anniversary of the Siege of the Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB). The reader, to appreciate what has and is being presented, needs to understand the very confused and dysfunctional command and control relationships that existed in the Khe Sanh Area of Operations (AOO). There were at least 5 different higher headquarters issuing orders and taking actions that affected what happened.
The advisory team of 5 soldiers responded to the Province advisory team (Advisory Team 4) in Quang Tri. The District Chief Captain Tinh-A-Nhi responded to Province Commander who was a full Colonel in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN).
The Special Forces (Special Forces Detachment A-101) at Lang Vei along the border with Laos reported to a C Team headquartered in Hue Phu Bai, which in return reported to the 5th Special Forces Group in Danang.
In the village headquarters was the headquarters of a Combined Action Company (CAC-O) and one Combined Action Platoon (CAP O-1) of 10 Marines and about 25 Montagnards. The CAC reported to Colonel David Lounds the KSCB Commander but also had a battalion headquarters in Danang.
Located as an appendage on the western edge of the KSCB there was a special forces Forward Operating Base (FOB-3). The men of FOB-3 with their Montagnard soldiers (mostly Nungs) conducted reconnaissance and raids in North Vietnam and Laos. They reported to a Battalion commander in Hue Phu Bai and Military Assistance Command Vietnam Studies and Observation Group (MACVSOG or SOG) in Saigon.
Finally there was a two man intelligence team located in the village headquarters that reported to a headquarters in Danang.
Colonel David Lounds as the senior American officer in the Khe Sanh Area of Operations (AO) exercised very loose operational control over the units in the area. All the units would go to the Marines at the combat base for support, but when that support was not forthcoming they would go to their parent units. This was especially true for the Special Forces and Advisory team.
The relations between the Army units—special forces and advisory team—and the Marines were so bad that they had developed their own code terms and frequencies to coordinate with each other so the Marines could not listen in.
Additionally each of the units mentioned had very different missions and therefore different objectives. So the lack of unity of command resulted in a loss of unity of effort, which is what the whole concept of unity of command is all about. Unity of effort is supposed to flow from unity of command. All of the units would be working towards a common goal. The Marines goal was to kill NVA. The Advisory Team and District Government’s goal was to provide political leadership for the people of the area and to provide them security from small enemy forces. A-101’s mission was border surveillance and to block the major avenue of approach into the area—route 9. The SOG team at FOB-3 only staged in Khe Sanh for out of area operations in Laos and North Vietnam. Thus no unity of effort.
This spaghetti bowl of relationships was the situation that existed when the battle of Khe Sanh began on 21 January 1968.
In the last several articles we have discussed the bravery of the defenders on the ground in Khe Sanh village. In this article we shall discuss the use of air support to provide a critical ingredient in the successful defense of the District Headquarters and the rendering combat ineffective of a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regiment.
The dense fog of January 21 finally burned off in late morning. A Marine Forward Air Controller (FAC) put in a flight of 2 F-4s to attack targets to the south of the District Headquarters. One of the F-4s was shot down. Following this the FAC advised that: “That’s all I can do!”
Fortunately, part of the preparations of the defense of the District Headquarters was to establish an alternate form of communication with the Province Advisory Team in Quang Tri. Radio contact with Quang Tri was always spotty at best, in spite of numerous efforts at antennae construction and acquisition of more powerful radios. The Special Forces had established a radio relay site on a high hill north (hill 950) of the Khe Sanh Combat Base. The Special Forces were able to talk to Quang Tri and thus relay messages. CPT Clarke kept Quang Tri informed as to the status of the defense and when the Marine FAC could not provide additional air support he requested it form Quang Tri.
CPT Ward Britt (one of the advisory team’s FACs) flew his light observation aircraft through the valleys under the low clouds and fog to reach Khe Sanh and to coordinate for air support. He requested air support from air craft attacking targets along the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos. The pilots flew below the clouds to the village. Every time he coordinated for bombs on a target and he blew away the trees to the south he found more targets.
CPT Nhi was listening to one of the NVA tactical radio nets and heard a request for additional stretcher and bearers to carry off wounded soldiers. This was passed to CPT Britt who found the force of about 100 enemy and after another air strike he could not see any movement. This became the norm as CPT Nhi provided target locations to CPT Clarke who then vectored CPT Britt to the target.
In the middle of this CPT Britt landed at KSCB and refueled under fire. He remained on station until the approach of dusk. At that point he had to return to Quang Tri. For his bravery he was awarded the Silver Star.
CPT Clarke and CPT Nhi tried to guess where the enemy would go to regroup. Based upon their analysis a B-52 strike was requested. They provided a rectangle 3 kilometers long and 1 kilometer wide that was centered on the hilly area about 6-7 kilometers south of the District Headquarters. The Province Advisory team coordinated with the Air Force and the mission was flown. Several days later a NVA soldier deserted and was picked up by the Special Forces at Lang Vei. He told them that his unit had been hit by the B-52 strike.
Before the B-52 strike a gun ship (Spooky—a C-47 plane that carried flares and several mini-guns) patrolled the area and engaged every target that it saw. It was a quiet night except for some snipers.
The combination of artillery, air support and the bravery of the Bru, Vietnamese, Marine and army soldiers inside the headquarters combined to render a regiment combat ineffective
The morning of 22 January 1968 dawned bright and quiet. The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) forces were gone. There was a sense of exhilaration in the District Headquarters—the attack had been stopped!
Patrols were launched to determine the damage and collect information on the enemy. There were numerous blood trails and bodies found. Over 150 weapons and 3 Rocket Propelled Launcher 7s (the first seen in South Vietnam) were recovered. Many of the weapons still had cosmoline (a substance obtained from petroleum that is similar to petroleum jelly that is applied to machinery, especially vehicles or weapons, in order to prevent rust on them while in shipment or storage) as they must have just been issued.
As the Marines and District Forces were conducting their limited patrols LT Stamper (Combined Action Company Commander) was boarding and flying by helicopter to the Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB). He was not to be seen again. He radioed back to the Marines to pack their stuff as they were being evacuated.
Colonel Lownds (KSCB commander) sent a radio message to the Advisory team that he could no longer provide artillery support to the District forces. Both CPTs Nhi and Clarke reported this to their superiors in Quang Tri. Bob Brewer, the Province Senior Advisor, said that there was a long meeting. No one wanted to evacuate the District Headquarters as it would be the first governmental headquarters ever surrendered. In the end the order was given to evacuate.
All of the Marines, SFC Perry, with all of the wounded, and SFC Kaspar were evacuated by helicopter. SFC King and CPT Clarke worked with CPT Nhi to organize the withdrawal from the village. The small force of about 140 men followed a little-known trail to reach KSCB. Throughout the trek CPT Clarke was coordinating with the Special Forces in FOB-3 for mortar coverage along the route and a reception when they got to KSCB. (The Marines had told the advisors that armed Vietnamese and montagnard soldiers could not enter their compound.)
The small force reached FOB-3 and were assigned defensive areas on the it’s perimeter to prepare fighting positions. Little did they know that this was going to be home for over 77 days.
CPT Clarke reported all of the weapons that had been left behind. The Special Forces quickly organized a raid to get back into the District Headquarters to recover the NVA weapons and destroy anything else of worth that was there. CPT Clarke was the second in command of this raid and led the Special Forces into the compound after they were landed in the wrong spot.
The weapons were loaded and hauled off. The warehouse full of bulgur wheat and vegetable oil was rigged for destruction. After evacuating the weapons, the helicopters returned for the raiding force. As they were leaving, CPT Clarke remembers lying on the floor of the last UH-1 helicopter out and emptying his 30-round magazine at an NVA patrol that was approaching the village from the west.
Later the charges set in the food warehouse exploded as did the grenades that CPT Clarke had used to booby trap the food in the Advisor’s store room.
The battle of Khe Sanh village had ended. Just over 54 years ago, but sometimes it seems like yesterday.
Post Scripts: The Special Forces at Land Vei offered what was called a Mike Force to re-secure the village, but this request was never acted upon. When the 37th Army of Vietnam Ranger Battalion was sent to Khe Sanh the original intent was for it to be used to re-secure the village, but the Marines would not support such an attack.
The grand plan was to draw the NVA into a fixed, firepower intensive battle. The village of Khe Sanh, its inhabitants and defenders were expendable in this grand strategy. The political loss of a seat of government was of little consequence to the attrition strategists.
Khe Sanh Village with the District Headquarters in the bottom center
At 0500 the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) attacked the Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB) rockets and artillery. The sound of the barrage woke up the District Advisory Team and the defenders of the District Headquarters (a mixture of Bru Montagnards, Vietnamese Regional Forces, Marines from Combined Action Company O (CAC-O) and the small 4 man advisory team.
At 0530 the ground attack against the District Headquarters began. NVA after action reports suggest that the attack was 30 minutes late in being launched. The attacking force from the 66th NVA Regiment had been slowed down by the B-52 strike of the previous day—all of the downed trees etc. that it caused.
The weather on the morning of 21 January 1968 was extremely foggy with visibility down to no more than 5-10 yards. Fortunately some of the improvements made due to the observed activity at the KSCB included the emplacement of trip flares along the entire outer perimeter.
Another improvement that CPT Nhi had made was to place a 3-man element on the roof of the warehouse. These brave Montagnards were equipped with a case of grenades to drop on any one trying to conceal themselves behind the warehouse. Both of these improvements were to prove critical to the defense of the District Headquarters.
The District Headquarters to include the Regional Force Compound
to the south bordering the Landing Zone
The attack included artillery and mortar rounds impacting throughout the area. One bunker was directly hit and collapsed on the occupants. SFC Perry dug the survivors out and treated them in a makeshift aid station. The enemy sought to penetrate the compound in the seam between the Regional Force Compound and the District Headquarters which was defended by Bru montagnards and Marines under the command of SGT John Balanco.
The initial ground assault was announced by trip flares being set off. The Bru knew where to shoot when certain trip flares were set off. Thus they could engage the enemy that they could not see. The same was true for Regional Force (RFs) in their old French fort made of pierced steel planking with about 12-18 inches of Khe Sanh red clay filling the space in between. It stood up well to the enemy attack. The Khe Sanh red clay was like concrete.
CPTs Nhi and Clarke were in the command bunker in the center of the compound. CPT Clarke was to request and adjust over 1100 rounds of artillery during the next 30 hours. The advisory team had 4 preplanned concentrations that were shaped like an L and located basically at each corner of the compound. By moving those concentrations East and West and North and South one could cover the whole compound with steel. The only rounds fired were fuse variable time (VT) a round that detonates in the air and throw shrapnel down to hit everyone who was not in a bunker with over- head cover.
CPT Clarke never claimed it, but it was reported that he adjusted the artillery so that it landed on the defensive wire and above the bunkers that were defending that wire. This artillery fire is documented in the book Expendable Warriors.
The Marines in the compound became the fire brigade. SGT Balanco moved Marines around to meet the largest threats. The presence Of Marines bolstered the morale of the RFs who had borne the brunt of the attack. The ground attacks came in several waves, each of which was stopped. The key spot was the two bunkers on each side of the seam between the two parts of the headquarters. The NVA seemed to be on something. As an example, when CPT Clarke shot with a grenade round an NVA sapper, who was trying to take out the north western bunker in the RF compound, the two parts of his body, though separated continued to move towards the bunker with his pole charge. (A charge on the end of a pole to place the charge into an aperture of the bunker and detonate it so as to create a gap in the defense.) SFC Perry also thought that the NVA were on something.
In the late morning the fog burned off and the defenders were able to get some air support. This will be the discussion in our next article.
Story of the Village Fight
As written in April 1968
The scene of the action—Khe Sanh village and the District Headquarters in the bottom center of the map
These place names will be referred to extensively over the next few articles.
The District Headquarters –note the red arrow for the location of the NVA main effort—at the seam between the District Headquarters and the Regional Force Company compound. Also note how tight everything is. From the Pagoda to the wire is less than 10 yards.
1968 Advisory Team 4 Newsletter
There was a battle fought in Khe Sanh on 21 and 22 January 1968 that very few people know about. Everyone knows of the artillery barrages and the trenches, but one of the big battles took place when at 05:00 hours 21 January 1968 the 66th Regiment, 304th NVA Division launched an attack against the Huong Hoa District Headquarters in Khe Sanh Village (about 4km south of the Khe Sanh Combat Base). The District Headquarters was defended by an understrength Regional Force (RF) Company, elements of 2 (Popular Force) PF platoons and Combined Action Company O (CAC-O) Headquarters and one Combined Action Platoon (CAP) with 10 or more Marines.
The attack was from three directions with the main effort coming from the southwest against the RF Company. The weather was extremely poor with very heavy fog. The initial enemy assault was beaten off by the courageous efforts of the RF Company and by almost constant barrages of Variable Time (VT) fused artillery fire.. Alter the initial assault was broken, the enemy simply backed off and using the positions he had already prepared, attempted to destroy the key bunkers by recoilless rifle and B-40 fire. Simultaneously they moved into Khe Sanh village and setup mortars with which they attempted to shell the compound. At this time the police station was still communicating with the District Headquarters and made it possible to put effective fire on the enemy moving into the village. For the next four hours there were constant attacks or probes against the compound which were beaten off by the valiant efforts of Bru (Montagnard) PFs and the Vietnamese RFs working with the Marines who SGT John Balanco moved to critical areas of the fight, as needed. These various types of soldiers fought as a coordinated team. The four advisors were constantly moving through the compound, reassuring, reorganizing and helping the compounds’ defenders.
At about 1130 the fog burned off. During the next five hours there were three attempts to resupply the beleaguered garrison, which was in dire straits for ammunition. The third attempt included a 46 man RF reaction force that was badly mauled. LTC Joe Seymoe, the Deputy Senior Province Advisor, lost his life in this effort. All during the afternoon CPT Ward Britt, an Air Force FAC, working out of Quang Tri put in numerous air strikes on the massed NVA who were trying to reorganize. On one of these airstrikes he put in two fighters on 100 NVA in the open and after it was over he could not see any movement, just bodies.
The night of 21 January the NVA were unable to make an attack and only sniped throughout the night.
The next morning the evacuation of District Headquarters was ordered after Colonel Lownds, CO, 26th Marine Regiment,ordered the evacuation of the Marines from the garrison. The marines and the wounded were evacuated by air. CPT Clarke and SFC King, two of the advisors, accompanied the District Forces who, using an unknown route, successfully escaped from the District Headquarters.