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Battle Finally Won and the War Was Lost

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,

QuangTri Map

Route 9–the Road to Khe Sanh

Lz Stud was at the turn of the Route from North South to East-West

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.

Map Edition

LZ Stud–right before Route 9 turned west

It was located under the range fan of USMC artillery units north and east of here

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 neglect over 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 blow down 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 for 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 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.  There 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.

Air Support for Khe Sanh Village

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 a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regiment.

The dense fog 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!”

F-42

F-4 Phantom

Fortunately, part of the preparations of the defense 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 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.

FAC AC2

Forward Air Controller Aircraft

CPT Nhi was listening to one of the NVA tactical radio nets and heard a request foradditional stretchers 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.  The provided a rectangle 3kilometers 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.

 

B-52

B-52

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 village fight 2

khe Sanh Village

Khe Sanh Village with the District Headquarters in the bottom center

 t 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.

District HQs

The District Headquarters to include the Regional Force Compound

to the south bordering the Landing Zone

The attack with 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 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 planning with about 12-18 inches of Khe Sanh red clay filling the space in between.  It stood up well to the enemy attack.

CPT Nhi and CPT Clarke were in the command bunker in the center of the compound.  CPT Clarke was to request and adjust over 1100 rounds 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.

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 born 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 I shot an NVA sapper who was trying to take 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 was 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.

 

 

 

 

A

1968 Advisory Team 4 Newsletter

The following is a newsletter that I wrote after the siege of the Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB) was ended.  the purpose of this article was to tell the rest of the Quang Tri Province (MACV Advisory Team 4) Advisory Team know what the Huong Hoa (Khe Sanh) District portion of the team had been involved in.

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 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 straights 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 or 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.

 

The article does not highlight the bravery of all of the participants.  CPT Nhi (District Chief), SFC Perry (Advisory Team Medic), SGT Balanco (CAP-1 leader) and CPT Britt (Province Forward Air Controller) each deserve special note for their bravery and actions that made it possible for the small garrison in Khe Sanh village to render an NVA regiment combat ineffective.

More to follow on this unique batle that has received little notice in the history books but what Bob Brewer the Quang Tri Province Senior Adviser called the biggest battle of the siege of KSCB. Brewer said:

“…actually the big attack, and the biggest ground action in the whole siege of Khe Sanh took place at Khe Sanh Village, not on the base. And none of that appears in any of the literature. That’s the first seat of government that ever fell to the NVA. That’s what was so hard.”

The march towards the opening of the siege of the Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB)

Past articles have talked about limited war, General Westmoreland’s strategy and the intelligence leading up to the attack on the District Headquarters in Khe Sanh village and the siege of the KSCB.  In this article we will relate the events prior to the attack and the continual stress between secrecy and combat necessity.

On the morning of 20 January 1968 CPT Nhi and I with one other of my advisors SFC Henry King set off with about 50 Vietnamese soldiers on a routine reconnaissance patrol.  We were going about 8-10 KM southwest of the District headquarters to a hill top.  When we got there the goal was to set up a patrol base and then send out 4 10 man reconnaissance patrols to work in horse shoe pattern looking for signs of Viet Cong or other activity.  We had no knowledge of any activity in the area.

We had planned artillery targets along our route of march and to support the patrol base. These targets had been registered with the Operations Center at the KSCB.  The going getting to the patrol base was slow going because of all of the vines that had overgrown the selected route.  Also holes cut for Vietnamese soldiers to get through did not quite accommodate larger Americans –especially when you had a PRC 25 radio on your back with an antennae sticking up several feet.

Once we were established in the patrol base the Vietnamese had some cold food and then set out on their patrols.  The patrols had only been out for about 15 minutes when I got a call from the Special Forces at Lang Vei telling me to get out of the area.  At first I resisted.  They could not give me a reason to get out.  But after they said it enough times I got the message that there was some urgency to the request.

It took us some time to gather up all of the recon patrols and start our walk back.  We got back to the District Headquarters in midafternoon.  Not too long after we were back at the District Headquarters a B-52 strike went in very close to where we had been.  At the time I wondered what they were dropping the bombs on.  Later I learned that it was the 66th Regiment of the 304th Division of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA).

We were lucky that we didn’t run into them as our puny little force would not have stood much of a chance against such a formidable enemy. This episode highlights the tension between security and operational need.

The intelligence community has always been accused of being more interested in protecting their sources and methods (how they learned something) than the needs of the soldiers on the ground.  As we pointed out in a previous article (intelligence) the leadership at the KSCB knew that the NVA were coming and when.  They had not told the advisory team with the District Chief.  The intelligence gathered by the Advisory Team came from watching the preparations for combat at the KSCB.  Had that B-52 strike gone in with us still in the area the results could have been calamitous.  Thankfully someone finally told us to move.  But why hadn’t they told us not to go at all—knowing what the threat was?

The night of 2o January I got a good hot shower.  This was to be the last shower for months.  On the morning of 21 January the battle was joined.

Khe Sanh—the intelligence build up

Expendable Warriors was so named because General Westmoreland and Colonel Lounds at the Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB) knew that the North Vietnamese Army was going to attack Khe Sanh as much as 3 months before the attack began.  However, the Advisory Team in Khe Sanh village in the District Headquarters were not told.  We guess for fear that the intelligence would be leaked to our Vietnamese counterparts and then get back to the North Vietnamese.  What was the intelligence?

The intelligence that the NVA were going to attack Khe Sanh got its first visibility in November 1967 when Colonel Lounds (Commander of the KSCB) told some Marines that: “you will soon be in the American history books.”

Recently unclassified intelligence showed that in October 1967 an NVA Division began moving towards Khe Sanh.  There was also information from signal intercepts that a new headquarters had been formed to control a multi-division attack on Khe Sanh.

General Westmoreland’s intelligence brief of 12 January confirmed that the attack would begin on 21 January.  During the entire month of January Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) began preparations for the battle of Khe Sanh began preparations for the upcoming battle by:

  • Reinforcing the KSCB first on the 13 December with and additional Marie Infantry Battalion. The order sending the battalion to KSCB noted that reinforcements should not flow to KSCB too quickly so as to avoid the NVA knowing of General Westmoreland’s intentions.
  • An air campaign to target the NVA using B-52s as they approached Khe Sanh was begun on 5 January –Operation Niagara
  • Approval to use what was then a classified controlled fragmentation artillery munition (COFRAM—also known as fire cracker) was sought
  • An Air Support Radar Team was deployed to KSCB on 16 January to control radar guided air attacks.
  • On 17 January an additional Marine infantry battalion arrived at Khe Sanh bringing the force up to 3 battalions.
  • On 18 January sensors were diverted from the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos and deployed around the KSCB to monitor the movement of the NVA into the area.

During the period beginning in December 1967 the Marines at KSCB began improving their defensive positions by digging deeper putting up more sand bag reinforced bunkers.  Ammunition resupply by air began in earnest.  This Marine effort was intelligence to those of us on the Advisory Team in the District Headquarters.  We began to take similar actions by improving the defenses of our little compound.

Finally on 19 January an NVA officer was captured performing a reconnaissance of the wire surrounding the KSCB.  This office had the entire plan for the attack from the northern Division (NVA Division 325 C) that was to attack KSCB beginning on 21 January.

The information on the pending attack was known to the leadership at Khe Sanh and throughout the relevant portions of MACV, BUT not in the District Headquarters.  The scene was set for the events of the next almost 80 days.

Limited War and Rules of Engagement

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:

  1. The pre-1 April 1968 phase where the US was fighting to win though with significant limits on the application of force, and
  2. 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.

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 were 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 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.  T

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 a t 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 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.

To return to the original issue of ROEs and limited war it should be clear that at no time except 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.