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 is 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 two months later 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.
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, the division plans officer and a previous contact from my days in Sandhoffen, Germany) 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 them. The forces were available, and 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.
About 5-6 days after the initial assault began a link up had occurred at the combat base with reposibility for its defense being transferred to a brigade of the 1st Cavalry Division, the Marines had attacked north-west out of the combat base. Also the ARVN Airborne Brigade had been inserted into the battle to the west of the combat base and a brigade of the 1st Cav had secured the old Lang Vei Special Forces Camp. The relief operation was ending.
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, butduring almost 3 months 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 about fighting and winning battles and wars.