January 21, 1968 marked the commencement of the NVA's all out assault on the Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB). The Marines at Khe Sanh suffered an intense three month battle for survival to avoid being overrun by numerically superior regular North Vietnamese troops. Cut off by land and reinforced solely by air, the desperate struggle continued until a relief convoy of Marines arrived.
The Battle of Khe Sanh had several interesting compoentns. A vociferous disagreement between the Commander in Chief, Westmoreland, who was an Army general, and the Marines who never wanted to be at Khe Sanh in the first place, and then were incensed when criticized for not properly defending the base. More interesting, however, is what has become the "Riddle of Khe Sanh". WHY did the North Vietnamese really attack that place, at that time. Although they suffered horrendous casualties and placed extraordinary strain on the American forces, there are certain legitimate questions as to whether it was really designed to overrun the base at all, or rather whether it was designed to distract the Americans from teh Tet Offensive, which would be launched two weeks later. The motives and reasoning of General Giap will never be known until North Vietnam opens its archives on the issue.
Background and Buildup
KSCB was the ultimate result of what had begun as a special forces base in the northeast corner of Southern Vietnam, strategically positioned only a few miles East of the Loatian border (and the Ho Chi Minh Trail) and Northern Vietnam itself. From KSCB, so called SOG (Special Observations Group) teams were airlifted into Laos to observe and impede enemy movements.
(by the way, if you are interested in this stuff, great books by former SOG, John Plaster:
By 1968, however, the special operations units had moved even closer to the Laotian border, at Camp Lang Vei. KSCB was instead primarily manned by the marines. SOG would use KSCB to coordinate with headquarters, as KSCB had an airstrip.
In the late summer and fall of 1967, the North Vietnamese launches a series of especially intense, but seemingly disconnected assaults all along the South Vietnamese border. While in no case actually successfully, and while always taking disproportionately higher casaulties, American units saw their combat efficiency greatly decline and some units were knocked out of action altogether as a result of these assaults.
By January, 1968, American intelligence had learned that a full NVA division was in the region of Khe Sanh, with two additional divisions available in support. These considerable forces had substantial logistical support from the nearby Ho Chi Minh trail. Westmoreland and the other commanders were forced to choose between committing additional forces to defend the base, or abandoning it. Over the strident objections of most of the Marine commanders, Westmoreland decided to reinforce the base.
On January 20, a NVA Lieutenant defected, and revealed secret plans for an all out attack. The attack commenced on January 21, 1968. The assault penetrated portions of the base's outer defensive network of surrounding hills, and long range bombardment set off explosions in the base's main ammunition dump.
As North Vietnamese units maneuvered to surround the base, additional American forces were drawn into the growing fray. Meanwhile, the most focused bombardment in the history of warfare began on the Ho Chi Minh trail. On an average day, 350 tactical fighter/bombers and 60 B-52 heavy bombers operated in the air above Khe Sanh. Army and Air Force elements were involved, as well as Navy units pulled from Operation Rolling Thunder strikes against North Vietnam. Intense interservice rivalry disputes were created about command of the air forces employed.
Separately, an airlift was required to supply the troops. Starting at 60 tons per day of support, the airlift required 180 tons per day to supply the troops when all 5 batallions were engaged. As spring approached, low-lying cloud cover (sometimes only 2,000 feet) as well as NVA anti-aircraft efforts made resupply missions extremely hazardous. As a result, airdrops were often utilized.
As American commanders focused efforts on the threatened base, the Tet Offensive was about to begin.
Lang Vei was overrun almost instantly, as American troops were shocked to see at least 12 Soviet-built amphibious tanks involved in the operation.
By mid-March, American intelligence detected that NVA troops were leaving the Khe Sanh region. The battle was not yet over, however, as over 1,000 shells landed on the base on March 22, and the ammo dump was once again targetted.
On April 1, Operation Pegasus was launched to relieve the base. By April 8, however, all hostilities had ceased.
Allied casualties were 205 killed, almost 2,000 wounded, and about 60 missing and presumed killed, excluding special forces, aircraft crews, and troops arriving or leave from the base aboard aircraft. The NVA was estimated by Americans to have suffered 10-15,000 dead, but there is absolutely no way to have any certainty about these numbers. 1,602 NVA bodies were physically observed.
RIDDLE OF KHE SANH
One of the more interesting questions regarding the Battle of Khe Sanh is what was the strategic thinking behind launching the assault. Some have speculated that the NVA sought a second Dien Bien Phu, a decisive engagement to win the war. Westmoreland certainly thought so, and committed extensive reinforcements to win the battle. In his opinion, the concentration of enemy forces at a fixed point was a good thing.
Another theory is the so-called Option Plan. That Khe Sanh would be launched nearly simultaneously with the Tet Offensive, and resources redirected to whichever one seemed most likely to succeed.
Finally, and perhaps most likely, is that Khe Sanh was a diversion to distract American forces from the Tet Offensive, which was the real move to win war. At the time of the NVA build up around Khe Sanh, they had at least a full division in place whiel the Marines had only a single brigade at KSCB. A quick rush would likely have overwhelmed the marines. Instead, the slow build up to 3 full divisions. Second, the sole water source of the base was a stream 500 meters outside the main camp, and the NVA forces never sought to cut the Americans off from that critical supply. Neither were the telephonic land lines ever cut, even though the Vietnamese had invested the base.
By the end of January, in response to the assault, the Americans had moved over 50 battalions to the Khe Sanh region, significantly affecting its ability to resist the Tet Offensive that was launched at that time.