The Village Fight
Khe Sanh Village with the District Headquarters in the bottom center—west end of the village
On 20 January CPT Nhi, the District Chief, CPT Clarke and SFC King set out on a reconnaissance patrol of the area south west of the District Headquarters. We wet about five kilometers and set up a small patrol base with small teams patrolling in clover leaf patterns around the patrol base. Not much after we had gotten established, CPT Clarke received a radio call from the Special Forces at Lang Vei. He was told that the small force needed to get out of the area immediately. He argued that the whole mission had been coordinated with the Marines at the Khe Sanh Combat Base, but was told in no uncertain terms to move out. He understood the message when it was repeated by CPT Willoughby form the Lang Vei Special Forces Camp—a voice that he recognized. After recalling our patrols the small force returned to the District Headquarters without incident. An hour later a B-52 bombing mission could be heard coming from the general area where they had been.[i]
That evening CPT Clarke took a hot shower, not realizing that it was the last one that he was going to get for several months.
At 0500 on the morning of 21 January 1968 the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) attacked the Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB) with 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
Note the red arrow indicating the critical seam between the two parts of the District Headquarters defense
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 pre-planned 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. (He did in fact call artillery fire on the compound and has subsequently admitted it.)
The trail just outside the compound that ran behind the pagoda was like the bocage area of Normandy where the travel had created a wall and subsequent trench. It was in here that the NVA staged for their attack and where the artillery pre-planned fires were able to inflict significant casualties.
The Marines in the compound became the fire brigade. SGT Balanco, after conferring with CPT Clarke, moved Marines around to meet the largest threats. The presence of Marines bolstered the morale of the RFs in the back compound who who had borne the brunt of the attack. The ground attacks came in several waves, each of which was stopped. The key threat was at the area against the 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.
[i]CPT Clarke later learned that the mission was aimed at a North Vietnamese Army Regiment in that area. They were lucky that they did not “find” them as the small District force would not have stood much of a chance against that sized force.