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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.
Recently, when reading my VFW magazine I encountered an article entitled Tanks in the Wire”. It was a brief, but still not accurate, synopsis of the battle of Lang Vei Special Forces camp on 7 and 8 February 1968—50 years ago. (I would commend David Stockwell’s two books on the battle. First came Tanks in the Wire and just recently The Route 9 Problem) I was underground in my bunker at the Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB) but listened to much of the battle on the radio and the next morning was part of the planning for the relief effort for the beleaguered forces at Lang Vei.
To put the battle in perspective it actually started at the end of January when the 33rd Royal Laotian Battalion was overrun by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) in Laos using tanks. The Studies and Observation Group (SOG) Special Forces at Forward Operating Base 3, which was an appendage to the KSCB and where we had the local Vietnamese government in exile, had a close connection to the Laotians.
Lang Vei Special forces Camp was located on the Tcepone River and very close to the Laotian border. The scale shows that the distance from Lang Vei to KSCB was about 10 miles or at the limits of the range of the artillery from KSCB.
When the Laotians reported that they were overrun by tanks nobody believed them. The 33rd Battalion fled Laos and settled at Lang Vei in a camp near what was called the “new” Special Forces Camp. They were reinforced by Special Forces elements from Hue Phu Bai lead by LTC Schungel. So now there were two Special Forces camps at Lang Vei—the old camp with Laotians and Special Forces in it and the new camp with A 101 and its Vietnamese Civilian Irregular Defense Forces (CIDG). CPT Frank Willoughby, the commander of A 101 Special Forces detachment at Lang Vei requested anti-tank mines but his request was denied because the report of tanks being used was not believed by higher headquarters. The Special Forces did provide some Light Anti-Tank Weapons (LAWs).
Soviet built PT 76 Light Amphibious Tank–5 or 6 were used to attack the Lang Vei camp. Several were knocked out by the defenders and several more by air strikes. One ended up sitting on top of the command bunker. There is a monument at Lang Vie today celebrating the over-running of the camp which includes a PT 76.
The scene is now set with two camps near the Bru village of Lang Vei and track sound (moving tanks?) being heard on several evenings before the attacks. On the evening of 8 February the new camp was hit with artillery and mortar fire followed by an infantry attack led by PT 76 light amphibious tanks. The forces fought back and called artillery from the KSCB on the attacking NVA. Some of the LAWs failed to operate correctly and many of those that did were ineffective. Between LAWs and 106 mm recoilless rifles the defenders were able to destroy 6 tanks.
Eventually, the defenders of the new camp either secluded themselves in the deep underground command bunker or fled to the old camp. The fight continued all night long. CPT Willoughby requested reinforcement by the Marines from KSCB, but was turned down twice!
If one looks at the terrain he can easily understand how much of a tough slog it would have been to get form the upper right corner of the map to the lower left–multiple possible ambush sites. There are also reports that several of the PT 76s had been moved to cover possible landing zones. Still the Marines said NO! and left the soldiers at Lang Vei to their own devices.
Communications from the command bunker became difficult with the antennas knocked down but the single side band radio with its buried antennae continued to allow communications to the outside. At this point there was a PT 76 tank on top of the command bunker and the NVA were throwing tear gas down into the bunker. CPT Willoughby and his crew continued to communicate.
Forces from the old camp, supported by artillery and air strikes made up to five attempts to reach the bunker with no success. The 7 weak from wounds and dehydration survivors in the bunker made their plans to escape. CPT Willoughby told the aircraft overhead to make 3 hot strafing runs over the camp and then make runs without firing. During the “dry” runs the survivors would make a dash to the old camp. Actually it was to be more of a limp. The survivors met little opposition and with the help of a brave Vietnamese Lieutenant who drove a jeep to pick them up made it to the old camp.
The final saga of the battle was the evacuation. There are several versions who the fight for helicopters, but COL Ladd, the 5th Special Forces Commander in Danang was forced to go to General Westmoreland who was in a meeting with LTG Cushman (the Corps Commander) and could not be disturbed. COL Ladd turned to GEN Abrams who had established a MACV forward command in the northern part of the country. GEN Abrams ordered the Marines to release the helicopters to rescue the survivors of the battle. The relief operation was planned by the Special Forces at FOB 3 and lead by Major George Quomo. After reluctance of the Marine CH 46 helicopter pilots to land at the old camp was overcome the Americans and the wounded along with the Laotian Battalion leadership were evacuated by air to KSCB and then once medically treated were taken to Danang. The individual soldiers and the Bru civilians were left to fend for themselves. They walked the distance to the combat base where they were disarmed and turned away. (This was to create a political incident between the Laotian government and MACV.) I radioed Quang Tri thru my radio relay that the 1500 or so mixed group was on its way. The advisory team in Quang Tri prepared to house and care for these stragglers. The Laotians were evacuated through Saigon back to Laos.
Route 9 was now not impeded—the Lang Vei and District Headquarters impediments had now been removed. The route to the KSCB was now open and the noose had been tightened.
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.”