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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,
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.
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.
In recent weeks we have posted an entire series of articles on the events leading up to the siege of the Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB). If one sews the articles together he will have much of the story leading up to the siege. This article provides a road map for those who want to catch up on what happened 50 years ago January 21, 1968.
Visit the 29 minute video of Nhi and I talking about Khe Sanh.
Was America Duped at Khe Sanh—debunks an article in the New York Times about North Vietnamese strategy leading up to Khe Sanh
General Westmoreland and the Vietnam War Strategy—continues the discussion of the false items in the previously mentioned New York Times article. It presents the dueling strategies of the two sides.
Limited War and Rules of Engagement—presents a discussion of the problems with limited war concepts and how they related to Rules of Engagement.
Khe Sanh—the intelligence build up—explains the origins of the title Expendable Warriors.
Command and Control in the Khe Sanh Area of Operations (AO)—explains the quagmire that was the local command and control situation. Lack of unity of command lead to a lack of unity of effort.
The march towards the opening of the siege of the Khe Sanh Combat Base—explains the North Vietnamese Army approach towards the village of Khe Sanh.
1968 Advisory Team 4 Newsletter—how the battle around the village was originally explained in a newsletter published by Advisory Team 4 headquarters in Quang Tri.
The village fight 2—further explains what happened during the defense of the District Headquarters
Air Support for Khe Sanh Village—explains the various forms of air support that were used to support the defenders of the District Headquarters and how they were coordinated for.
The Battle of Khe Sanh Village is Over—the Advisory Team the district forces withdraw after the Marines are withdrawn and further artillery support is denied.
Each of these articles can be found on https://brucebgclarke.com/
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 on them 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 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 evacuate the District Headquarters as it would be the first governmental headquarters ever surrendered. In the end the order was given to evacuate.
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 advisers that armed Vietnamese and montagnard soldiers could not enter their compound.)
The route to KSCB stayed in the valleys and away from terrain that might have been occupied by the NVA.
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 last 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.
Helicopters landed in the old French mine field
The weapons were loaded and hauled off and then the helicopters returned for the raiding force. CPT Clarke remembers lying on the floor of the UH-1 helicopter and emptying his 30 round magazine at an NVA patrol that was approaching the village from the west as they were leaving.
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 Adviser’s store room.
The battle of Khe Sanh village had ended. Just over 50 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.
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.
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.
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.
Khe Sanh Area of Operations
As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Siege of the Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB) it will be useful for the reader to understand the very confused and dysfunctional command and control relationships that existed in the Khe Sanh AOO. There were at least 5 different higher headquarters.
The advisory team of 5 soldiers responded to the Province advisory team in Quang Tri. The District Chief Captain Tinh-A-Nhi responded to the Province Commander who was a full Colonel in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). He was located in Quang Tri.
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 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 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 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 Marines at KSCB reported to the 3rd Marine Division headquartered in Dong Ha many miles to the east.
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 whol 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.