Before the Siege
The story behind the series of battles for Khe Sanh is a complex one involving people and events at high and low levels over a period of years, all of which contributed to the events which culminated in the firestorm that was Tet 1968.
Some background may be useful to help understand the "big picture."
As mentioned in the section on Khe Sanh's terrain, the mountains and heavy canopied jungle around Khe Sanh provided excellent cover for invading forces.
The peaks in the Khe Sanh area control the three main avenues of approach to Vietnam. The first is the D'Ai Lao, which runs along Hwy. 9, from the Laotian border through the village of Lang Vei to Khe Sanh. The southeast route crosses the Laotian border and runs along the streams of the Rao Quan River. The northwest approach is across a ridge that crosses the border, merging with Hills 881N, 881S, and 861.
As a result, the area had seen many armed incursions over the centuries, and the plateau around Khe Sanh was long known to the Vietnamese as "Cao Nguyen Do" - the "Red Plateau" - not just from the omnipresent red clay, but from the blood shed there over the centuries. In the then-current round of fighting of what the Vietnamese call "The American War" it had been a major infiltration route for years - one of several reasons the US wanted a garrison there.
An Army Special Forces detachment arrived in August 1962 to set up the first long-term American presence. They started a CIDG (Civilian Irregular Defense Group) camp at the airfield just northeast of the village of Khe Sanh. Their local recruits at Khe Sanh were, like ours, mainly Degar people from the local Bru tribe (called "montagnards" - mountaineers - by the French) in the region. These were essentially CIA-paid mercenaries recruited, trained, and led by the Special Forces.
Their mission included reconnaissance and surveillance, "black ops" (clandestine operations), and deterring infiltration of men and equipment by the North Vietnamese forces. In the latter, at least, despite their best efforts, they were largely unsuccessful. Intelligence reports in the late 1966 showed increased movement, primarily on the east-west trails from Laos.
III MAF later took operational command, and deployed 1/3 (1st Battalion, 3d Marines) under LTCOL Peter Wickwire to Khe Sanh on September 29th, 1966.
1/3 participated in Operation Prairie I, an attempt to deter infiltration and to provide security for the Navy's MCB 10 (Mobile Construction Battalion, aka "SeaBees" - the Navy's engineers) who were upgrading the airstrip.
They dug in on and around the airfield, and sent out patrols to about 6,000 meters. The assumption by the command was that the largest NVA weapons would be 120mm mortars with a maximum range of 5,700 meters. As we later learned, they had much more powerful weapons in their inventory.
1/3 then brought in their command post and a reserve company. Artillery support was provided by Bravo Battery, 1st Battalion, 13th Marines, reinforced with two 155 mm howitzers and two "4-Deuces" (4.2 inch mortars).
In October, 1966, more artillery support was added from Camp J. J. Carroll, 13 miles east of KSCB. The Army I75 mm guns there had the range to strike in and around the Khe Sanh area. Their normal missions were similar to the 155mm battery, and included H & I (harassment and interdiction) fire, and support of reconnaissance units and patrols.
3 Hueys (UH-34) helicopters were also assigned daily for med-evacs, resupply, troop movement, and reconnaissance. (Additional support was available on request.)
With adequate forces in position, the Marines then extended their patrols to 10,000 meters plus.
In December 1966 and January 1967, the Special Forces camp moved approximately 9,000 meters west to Lang Vei, near the Laotian border. (A detachment remained after FOB-3 (Forward Operating Base 3) was built at Khe Sanh Combat Base. The NVA later brought in light armor to over-run this detachment during Tet 1968.)
The first FOB was constructed in the area known as the "old French Fort" (actually they were fortifications constructed by the earlier American units), but this site proved unsatisfactory. It was later moved to just outside the Combat Base on the access road from Hwy. 9. (This was the FOB that Oscar company would later join during the Siege.)
Despite extensive patrolling, 1/3 had experienced no heavy contact. By the end of the operation in January 1967, they had only 15 confirmed enemy KIAs in four months.
III MAF cut the troops at Khe Sanh back at the end of Prairie I, deeming the area "secure." (It was definitely not.) 1/3 rotated to Okinawa on February 6th, 1967, leaving Bravo, 1st Bn 9th Marines (CPT Michael W. Sayers) remained, reinforced by a 45-man security platoon.
Supporting them was India Battery, 12th Marines (reinforced with two 155 mm howitzers and two 4.2 inch mortars). (India had replaced Bravo Battery,13th Marines on January 26th 1967.)
There was also a platoon-sized "Sparrowhawk" (emergency force) for 3d Reconnaissance Battalion teams that got into trouble.
The usual fog and bad weather hampered activities through February, though the contacts began to increase. Recon encountered heavy increases in enemy movement. (Five patrols required helo extraction under fire.)
In February, 1967, CAC Oscar was established. Despite the presence of the Marines at the Khe Sanh airfield and the establishment of our Combined Action Company, the area was far from secure.
On 25 February 1967, a squad from 2d Platoon, Bravo 1 / 9, led by Sergeant Donald E. Harper, Jr., was heavily engaged by the NVA on a hill 3,000 meters west of the airstrip. They immediately took one KIA and one WIA, and wisely pulled back to call in artillery.
After the artillery shelling, Harper’s squad moved out and made contact with about 50 North Vietnamese. Once more the Marines fell back and called in artillery.
CPT Sayers sent a second squad to reinforce them. They assaulted the position again, and they took the hill after a heavy fight. The Marines toll was 1 KIA and 11 WIA.
There were 9 NVA KIA, fire direction equipment (computation gear for directing supporting fire), one 82 mm mortar with 380 rounds, 3 mortar base plates, 2 personal weapons, clothing and 10 packs.
Things were relatively quiet after this, but on the evening of March 2nd, two USAF aircraft bombed the village by mistake, killing 112 civilians, wounding 213, and destroying 140 buildings.
The Marines sent helicopters and trucks to evacuate the casualties, and a specially equipped med-evac KC-130 (fixed wing transport aircraft) from 1st MAW (Marine Aircraft Wing) arrived at KS airfield, and flew out 53 people before the weather forced its closure.
The NVA then hit the base with approximately 90 82 mm mortar rounds, killing 2 Marines, wounding 17, and damaging two CH-46 and two UH-1E helicopters on the field.
On March 5th, the perimeter was probed from the north and west by approximately 14 NVA. The Marines drove them off with claymores (command detonated mines).
3d Marine Division then reinforced Khe Sanh with Echo Company, 2nd Bn., 9th Marines (CPT William B. Terrill) on 7 March 1967.
The Marines increased their patrols, especially on and around Hills 861 and 881 (Northwest of the base). Despite numerous reports of sightings by Marine recon and SF teams and air reconnaissance, the base commander and Marine upper command staff apparently believed there was little or no NVA presence or activity in the area. Little contact was made until 16 March, 1967.
At about 1000 on the 16th, 1st Platoon, Echo 2/9 was returning from a night ambush on Hill 861. The point squad (under SGT Donald Lord) came under heavy crossfire in a dense bamboo grove. The two remaining squads advanced to help the point element. After 15 minutes they drove the enemy away. The Marines then moved back up the hill about 100 meters to a suitable landing zone to evacuate their casualties, one killed and five wounded. Nearing the zone they came under heavy fire again; six more Marines died, four suffered wounds, and one was missing. Another firelight started and the Marines directed artillery fire against the enemy, but this time the NVA did not withdraw. Ultimately, Echo lost 18 KIA and many more WIA.
This was the precursor of the First Battle for Khe Sanh, aka the "Hill Fights" but even this failed to convince the Marine command of the presence and number of enemy troops in the area.
On April 24, 1967, a platoon from Bravo 1/9 encountered the NVA in the same area of Hill 861 as Echo's engagement.
However, by now it was finally realized that the NVA were operating in strength in the hills around Khe Sanh.
The order was given to reinforce Khe Sanh with the 2nd and 3rd battalions of the 3rd Marine Regiment (2/3 and 3/3), and Mike and Lima Companies, 3/9, to Khe Sanh, as well as E 2/9
This was the beginning of the battle for the hills surrounding the air strip, 861 and 881 North and South.
By the first part of May, 1967, the hills and area around Khe Sanh were believed to be have been secured. Events would soon show that although the NVA had evacuated the hills and immediate area, they were still very much a viable presence in the area.
The battle-weary troops were then relieved by the 26th Marines, who would still be there when Tet 1968 hit, and with it, the Siege. (Jan. 21st to Apr. 1st, 1968). Accounts of their later interactions with Oscar Company can be read in the CAP Oscar History and In Memoriam sections
The units who were being "relieved" were sent about 20 miles NE of Khe Sanh to begin Operation Hickory, a deep offensive into the DMZ, going all the way to the Ben Hai River, separating North and South Vietnam. After heavy fighting, they returned south.
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