• U.S.

The War: Showdown at Khe Sanh

6 minute read

Despite North Korea’s obvious attempt to win prestige through belligerence, many in the top echelons of U.S. government felt that the hijacking of the Pueblo had an ominous connection with the war in Viet Nam. As the London Economist observed: “The North Koreans are trying to divert American attention from what could be a decisive battle in Viet Nam.” That battle, shaping up around the U.S. Marine base of Khe Sanh in South Viet Nam’s northwest corner, could be the biggest of the war. The Communists would not only like to distract U.S. attention and resources from that battle but also combine the humiliation of the Pueblo’s seizure with a U.S. defeat, or at least a major bloodletting. Such a one-two punch, they might well hope, would destroy the U.S. will to continue the war.

Khe Sanh has been dug out of the red clay of a plateau that is ringed by high hills thick with trees and bamboo. Some 15 miles south of the DMZ and only ten miles east of the Laotian border, the Marine base lies directly athwart the easiest infiltration routes into South Viet Nam. To eliminate the roadblock, the North Vietnamese have ranged an estimated 20,000 men directly around Khe Sanh, have at least another 20,000 in reserve in Laos and immediately north of the DMZ, all located within 20 miles of the post. Together, they constitute the largest and best-equipped military force that North Viet Nam has ever concentrated on a single battleground.

Khe Sanh, moreover, lies within range of Hanoi’s big Russian-made 152-mm. howitzers emplaced in North Viet Nam and Laos. High-speed trails have been cut eastward from Laos into South Viet Nam to supply the Communist besiegers, who are heavily armed with portable howitzers and mortars. To ensure easier access to the new trails, the Communists last week overran the Royal Laotian border outpost of Ban Houei Sane and put its 2,000 defenders to flight.

Familiar Aim. To meet the threat to Khe Sanh, General William Westmoreland has built up the base’s garrison to more than 5,000 Marines in a hasty airlift of troops and equipment that suspended all civilian air traffic throughout Viet Nam. Other allied units shifted nearer the scene of the impending battle to be ready if needed, including a 1st Cavalry (airmobile) brigade helicoptered to Phu Bai, only 45 minutes’ flying time from Khe Sanh. For what looked more and more like the first classic conventional battle on a major scale of the Viet Nam war, Westmoreland has deployed some 45,000 men to meet the 40,000 North Vietnamese closing in on Khe Sanh.

Westmoreland has a worthy antagonist. Defense Minister Vo Nguyen Giap, victor over the French at Dienbienphu, is reliably reported to be personally directing the campaign against Khe Sanh. The Communist planning so far has all the earmarks of Giap’s generalship: a combination of caution, feinting, meticulous preparation, and enormous concentrations of firepower and manpower. Giap’s precise strategic aim at Khe Sanh is less clear. A North Vietnamese lieutenant who defected reported that Hanoi’s goal was to wipe out U.S. forces in Viet Nam’s northern provinces in order to provide a bargaining advantage in negotiations. But the U.S. command believes that Giap’s aim is less ambitious, if more familiar: to surround the base camp at Khe Sanh and chew it to pieces, killing and capturing most of its American defenders while other Communist units hold U.S. reinforcements at bay.

The Rockpile Replies. Khe Sanh bears some topographical resemblance to Dienbienphu, sitting at the bottom of its bowl of hills, vulnerable to artillery and machine-gun fire from the heights both at the camp and its 4,000-ft. airstrip. Some of the hills are controlled by Marines. But others, like Hill 881 North, which the Marines took with such blood last May, were abandoned during the quiet months since and have been repossessed by the North Vietnamese. One Communist-held hill, numbered 950 (all are named after their height in meters), runs parallel to Khe Sanh’s runway only three miles away and commands a view of the entire camp. The North Vietnamese have dug antiaircraft and machine guns into it and have already succeeded in shooting down three U.S. fighter-bombers and three helicopters over the airstrip. Every plane that lands at Khe Sanh now expects to do so under fire, and more and more equipment is being parachuted in. Khe Sanh’s weather this time of year may also aid the Communists. Fog rolls in at night and sometimes does not burn off until midday or later, making air support all but impossible.

The Marines expect the attack to come this week or next, at the end of the Tet (lunar new year) ceasefire. The truce began at the end of last week, after five days of intermittent shelling of Khe Sanh by Giap’s long guns from North Viet Nam and rockets, mortars and recoilless rifles fired at closer range. The giant U.S. 175-mm. artillery at Camp Carroll and the Rockpile, another Marine base, answered back. U.S. fighter-bombers, many diverted from hitting North Viet Nam, rained down the heaviest explosive loads of the war on the enemy around Khe Sanh in more than 1,500 sorties. Among their targets was the village of Khe Sanh, located some two miles from the Marine camp. After a battalion-sized Communist attack on the village, Khe Sanh Commander Colonel David E. Lownds concluded that it was not defensible and pulled its garrison back into the base. Nearly 1,000 of its villagers were evacuated by C-123s and helicopters to Danang. When the Communists moved large guns into the village, U.S. pilots had no choice but to level it to the ground.

The Morning Inspection. Inside the base, Marines waited shoulder to shoulder in their trenches, bunkers and fighting holes all around the half-mile-wide perimeter. Everything in Khe Sanh is dug in, even the trucks: when not rolling they are parked radiator-deep in inclines bulldozed into the red clay. A morning inspection of the rolls of concertina wire circling the camp is mandatory: one night a squad of North Vietnamese crept up, neatly cut a passage through for future use, and replaced it to look as though nothing had been disturbed. Each day, as they wait, the Marines dig in deeper, filling shiny grey sandbags and adding more layers atop their bunkers, preparing for the inevitable moment when Giap makes the ultimate test of Khe Sanh’s defenses.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com