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.