Modern History/Vietnam War/Battle of Khe Sanh

From Wikibooks, open books for an open world
< Modern History‎ | Vietnam War
Jump to navigation Jump to search

The Battle of Khe Sanh[edit]

The Khe Sanh base was established in 1964 as a small Special Forces camp near the border between North and South Vietnam. It was tucked away in a remote corner about eight miles from the border of Laos and near Route 9, the major road in that region. The reason the base was located here was to protect the area from North Vietnamese coming from Laos or North Vietnam to attack. This was a strategic location; Khe Sanh was the "gateway" into South Vietnam. Khe Sanh could also serve as an air base for operations into Laos, a supply base for overland units, and a wall against enemy infiltration, which it would soon become.

In mid-1966, a battalion of Marines was dispatched to the base to provide the Special Forces team reinforcement after numerous short battles with the North Vietnamese. The Marines stayed at Khe Sanh and continued to fight the North Vietnamese until 13 December 1967. On this date, they were ordered to relocate their combat base to a safer location. The new Khe Sanh Combat Base was located approximately two miles south of the old base, which had been just outside the town of Khe Sanh. Three weeks later, on 2 January 1968, six high ranking North Vietnamese officers were gunned down at the base perimeter of the new base. The reason that the north Vietnamese Army sent out six of their high ranking officers was to show that Khe Sanh was a priority target in their plan to enter South Vietnam. The actions of the North Vietnamese were quickly passed to the head of the operation and the American position was fortified.

To fortify Khe Sanh, the Marines dug trenches, some of which were over six feet deep; the perimeter was reinforced with land mines, barbed wire, German razor tape, and trip flares. The same reinforcement was done around the tactically crucial hills. Several hills were located around the base and became sub-bases with artillery and Marines stationed on each. This gave the Americans a strategic advantage in the area.

On 20 January 1968, a company of marines was investigating the site of a previous ambush when North Vietnamese soldiers attacked them. At first, this was a devastating loss by the Americans until shells from 155mm howitzers pulverized enemy positions. That same day, the Americans captured a North Vietnamese soldier near the airstrip. This soldier informed them that at midnight that night the North Vietnamese would storm the base. Trusting this information as truth, the American troops prepared for the surprise attack. That night at midnight, the North Vietnamese Army launched their attack on Khe Sanh, but was repelled by the Americans in the base. Extensive damage was sustained though, with the airstrip damaged, the munitions dump destroyed, the communications center down, and the control base bombed. A reason that the traitorous North Vietnamese soldier gave the information freely could have been because he was a conscripted soldier who wanted the war to end. Many soldiers in the North Vietnamese Army had been drafted to make such a large army possible.

Following the surprise attack on Khe Sanh on 20 January 1968, reinforcements were sent to join the troops already stationed there. This brought the total number of defenders to 6000 against the estimated 40,000 North Vietnamese soldiers attacking the base. Since the airstrip had been damaged during the surprise attack and Route 9 was cut off by the enemy, supplies could not be sent to Khe Sanh easily which is the reason that more soldiers were not sent as reinforcements.

At this time, another question arose for the president in Washington; should the base be held or evacuated? President Lyndon Johnson and his military advisor, General Maxwell Taylor, both suggested that a withdrawal should be considered. The advantages of a withdrawal would have been numerous, including saving lives, diverting the enemy, and avoiding the problems caused by the base's isolated location. The enemy struck the rest of South Vietnam before Johnson could decide, however, and the decision was made to hold the base at all costs. The reason for this decision was that the government had built up the Khe Sanh situation in the eyes of the public and it would have been difficult to explain that the battle of Khe Sanh was unimportant. For this reason, the battle continued at Khe Sanh for many more months.

Several quick, insignificant skirmishes took place over the next few weeks, but nothing serious occurred until the attack on Lang Vei, a Special Forces camp about four miles southwest of Khe Sanh. During the night of 7 February 1968, eleven tanks passed through the wire around Lang Vei's perimeter and bombarded the entire base. By morning, Lang Vei had been completely destroyed. The soldiers that had not escaped had been killed during the attack. The attack on Lang Vei was only a diversionary battle involving 400 North Vietnamese soldiers to lure soldiers away from Khe Sanh before a major battle there.

The major assault on Khe Sanh never occurred, though. By early April, all North Vietnamese soldiers had left the area unexpectedly. Perhaps North Vietnamese commanders believed that Khe Sanh was not worth the losses sustained by the North Vietnamese Army. Over 120,000 tons of bombs had been dropped on North Vietnamese positions during the battle for Khe Sanh. The loss for the North Vietnamese had been both physical and psychological. The Americans defending Khe Sanh withdrew shortly after the North Vietnamese withdrawal, to be replaced by fresh battalions.


  • Hal Dareff, From Vietnam to Cambodia, Prents' Magazine Press, New York, 1971.
  • Day By Day: The Vietnam War, The Mallard Press, 1989.
  • Clark Dougan and Stephen Weiss, Nineteen Sixty-Eight, Boston Publishing Co, 1983.
  • George Kahin and John Lewis, The United States in Vietnam, The Dial Press, New York, 1969.
  • Nguyen Cao Ky, Twenty Years and Twenty Days, Stein and Day Publishers, New York, 1976.
  • Gen. Bruce Palmer, The 25-Year War, The University Press of Kentucky, Kentucky, 1984.
  • Ronald Spector, After Tet, The Free Press, New York, 1993.
  • Truong Nhu Tang, A vietcong Memoir, Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich Publishers, New York, 1985.


Dr. C. J. Stumph, D.D.