Second Battle of Khe Sanh Part II

In early March, General Westmoreland concluded that the NVA no longer planned to capture the Khe Sanh Combat Base, and he so informed President Johnson. But Westmoreland continued to plan for the relief of Khe Sanh, code-named Operation Pegasus.

The operation infuriated the Marine commanders. They had not wanted to be in Khe Sanh in the first place, then they had been roundly criticized for not defending it well. General Cushman angrily insisted to Westmoreland that he did not want an “implication of a rescue or breaking of the siege by outside forces.” Thus, Operation Pegasus was officially touted as a joint Army-Marine operation to reopen Route 9 between Ca Lu and Khe Sanh.

At 0700 on 1 April 1968, two battalions of the 1st Marines—2/1 and 2/3—headed down Route 9 from Ca Lu toward Khe Sanh while elements of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) began their leapfrog movements, air-assaulting onto key terrain features alongside Route 9. One week later the cavalrymen linked up with a patrol from the 26th Marines. The siege was over.

The Second Battle of Khe Sanh ended where it began. Three companies of 3/26—Kilo, Lima, and Mike—attacked Hill 881N on Easter Sunday, 14 April. The enemy-occupied hill had been a thorn in the Marines’ side for weeks; when the 3d Battalion, 26th Marines, finished, the hill would be free of enemy soldiers.

The pre-assault bombardment began at 0400. Dozens of howitzers blasted the hill with hundreds of rounds. Marine jets roared in to drop dozens of canisters of napalm. For nearly two hours, a frightening array of high explosives blanketed the hill.

At 0540 the infantry started their attack. A short time later the point elements encountered the first enemy outposts. Quick bursts of rifle fire killed the defenders. For the next six hours, the Marines fought and clawed their way up the side of Hill 881N. By noon they had reached the crest. The mop-ping up of stubborn pockets of resistance continued for several more hours. At 1430 the Marines declared Hill 881N theirs.

Marine casualties were surprisingly light: six dead and thirty-two wounded. One hundred six North Vietnamese had been killed. The next day 3/26 departed Hill 881N and left it free for the NVA to reclaim.

The 26th Marines departed Khe Sanh over the next several days as operational control of the TAOR passed to Col. Stanley S. Hughes’s 1st Marines. On 15 April 1968, Operation Pegasus officially ended and Operation Scotland II began. For the next two months, the four battalions of the 1st Marines—1/1, 2/1, 2/3, and 3/4—patrolled a large TAOR that extended north of Khe Sanh to the DMZ, west to the Laotion border, and south of Route 9. Contact with the enemy was frequent and deadly. The Marines suffered about 300 dead during Operation Scotland II as compared to an official casualty count of 205 dead during the original Operation Scotland.

Almost immediately upon the second capture of Hill 881N, III MAF began to petition MACV to abandon Khe Sanh. Westmoreland rejected the proposal. In his opinion, the base was too large a symbol of American resolve in the divisive war to close it so soon after the siege. General Cushman, however, persisted. Cushman pointed out that with improved mobility due to the increased use of helicopters, there was no need to maintain a combat base so far removed from reinforcement. He argued that the new base at Ca Lu, south of the Rockpile, continued the Marine presence in northwest Quang Tri Province and sat comfortably beyond the range of enemy artillery batteries in Laos. It was also easier to supply and was not susceptible to the crachin.

Westmoreland eventually agreed. He had one condition, though. The base could not be closed while he remained as the MACV.

General Westmoreland departed South Vietnam on 11 June 1968. His successor, Gen. Creighton Abrams, allowed a grace period of one week before he issued the order to commence Operation Charlie: the destruction and evacuation of the Khe Sanh Combat Base.

The plan called for the Marines to withdraw all salvage-able supplies and equipment and destroy everything else. Along Route 9, battalions of the 4th Marines occupied key terrain positions that would allow them to control the road and protect the many convoys that would move between Khe Sanh and Ca Lu. The 1st Marines guarded the base and garrisoned the surrounding hills. The 3d Battalion, 9th Marines, would provide the labor needed to dismantle the historic base.

The arrival of Kilo 3/9 at Khe Sanh on 19 June began with a near disaster. One of the troop-laden CH-46s whipped a discarded parachute into its rear rotor after it had been waved off from a landing. In an instant, the whirling blades disintegrated. Huge hunks of metal slashed through the aircraft’s thin aluminum skin. One piece sliced through the pilot’s right shoulder and leg as he futilely tried to keep the chopper from crashing. Fuel sprayed everywhere as the trapped Marines rushed to the exits. A few, such as nineteen-year-old LCpl. Jack M. McKenna, squeezed through a porthole. He became stuck in the little opening, but several of his buddies pulled him through. When he looked back at the burning wreckage, McKenna felt grateful to be alive.

The Marines of 3/9 were divided into working parties to tear down the base. It was hard, physically demanding work. The troops toiled eight to ten hours a day in the blazing sun as they destroyed bunkers, emptied sandbags, knocked down standing structures, tore up runway matting, and burned what could not be carried off. Captain Gary E. Todd, the CO of India 3/9, later said the effort required the “working parties to move around exposed and ‘non-tactical’ in what was still very much a tactical situation.”

Lance Corporal McKenna, a fourteen-month veteran of Kilo who had missed the Hill Fights a year earlier because he had been severely bitten by a rat on his first night there, could not have agreed more. “Every day we ripped open sandbags with machetes and poured the dirt into the bunkers or trenches,” he recalled. “We were all very concerned because we became more exposed as the trenches filled up. Sniper rounds and mortar shells came in as our cover disappeared. All we could do then was run to the nearest remaining bunker, which was often a good distance away.”

Some of the structures were too big to be torn down with entrenching tools. McKenna remembered, “We had this huge command bunker to destroy. We packed it with six hundred pounds of TNT. It blew up in a huge explosion. There was nothing left of the bunker. Nothing.”

The NVA rarely missed a chance to pound the base and the work parties with artillery shells. On some days as many as 150 enemy rounds fell on the base; most caused casualties. One round on 29 June wounded twelve Marines, six seriously enough to be evacuated.

Lethal danger also came from all the unexploded ordnance that littered the base and lay hidden in the bunkers. Nineteen-year-old Indiana Marine Pfc. John Bosley remembered what happened to another Mike 3/9 work party on 4 July: “One of the men swung his entrenching tool down to tear open a sandbag and hit a dud round buried in the wall. The explosion blew him up and wounded four others working with him. I was in the next bunker and the blast threw me ten feet.”

Other dangers presented themselves to the Marines, too. Private First Class Bosley remembered the hordes of rats. “We used our e-tools to rip apart the sandbags and our bayonets to kill the rats,” he said. “The rats were everywhere. Every bunker we went into seemed to be filled with them. And they were big, too. About half the size of a house cat. Some of the guys started keeping score of how many they’d kill. I can still see one guy marching around, two rats impaled on his bayonet, laughing hysterically.”

Although the Marine command tried to keep its intentions for Khe Sanh quiet, an overeager reporter broke the news. On 27 June 1968, John S. Carroll’s scoop on the closure ran in the Baltimore Sun. Besides costing Carroll his MACV press credentials, the story also allowed the North Vietnamese to claim a substantial victory. To lend credence to their claim, the local NVA commander struck several of 3/4’s rifle companies.

A particularly strong attack hit India 3/4 at its position three kilometers southeast of the base before dawn on 1 July. After a four-hour barrage of mortars and 130mm artillery, a full company of NVA charged the Marines. India held its position and easily drove them off. Later that morning, the Marines spotted the enemy swarming nearby and attacked them with the help of helicopter gunships and jets. The fight continued into the late afternoon before the enemy again fled, leaving two hundred of their comrades behind. Two Marines died in the fight.

Enemy ground activity persisted over the next several days. Incoming artillery and mortar shells hit the hill positions, and each night small groups of sappers probed Marine perimeters. Although none of these reached the intensity of the 1 July attack, the Marines on the hills outside the combat base suffered casualties. And despite the best efforts of the Marines, enemy artillery continued to pummel the base, even on its last day.

Captain Michael Joseph, the air liaison officer for 2/1, spent most of 5 July on his belly at the bottom of a shallow trench along the remnants of Khe Sanh’s airstrip. During breaks in the enemy artillery barrages, he would direct in helicopters to pick up some of the remaining materiel. This was not only dangerous work but tricky, because Joseph never knew when the enemy would unleash its cannon anew.

“One pilot radioed to ask if it was all clear,” Joseph remembered. “Since no shells had hit for several minutes I thought it would be safe. I responded, ‘Looks clear to me.’ The guy came in and no sooner did he touch down than a shell went off nearby. He pulled pitch and flew off, all the time demanding to know, ‘Who the hell told me it was clear down there?’ I never responded.”

Joseph had been at Khe Sanh for three weeks, his assignment a result of his desire to take a more active role in the war and some ill-chosen words. A highly skilled radar intercept officer, the twenty-six-year-old Stanford graduate had felt useless during his first five months in-country as he rode around in the backseat of an F-4 and called out altimeter and altitude readings to the pilot. He wanted to do more to help win the war. One night in early June, while he imbibed in the air-conditioned comfort of the Da Nang officers’ club, he loudly announced, “I’d rather be a FAC than a backseater in an F-4.” Someone heard him.

“Two days later I was jumping off a helicopter at Khe Sanh, carrying my sea bag in one hand and my rifle in the other as some guy’s yelling, ‘Get out! Get out! Incoming!’ I ran as fast as I could and rolled into a trench as shells started exploding all around me. I kept asking myself what the hell I’d gotten into.”

By the evening of 5 July 1968, Khe Sanh had been reduced to a flat plain. Nothing of value to the enemy remained. Along the once busy runway, the remaining 2/1 headquarters people, including Captain Joseph, waited in trenches, anxious for the order to go. They would walk out because it was too dangerous for helicopters to come in and get them. Not far away, the last trucks at the base maneuvered to form a final convoy. They took too long and gave an NVA forward observer in the hills too good a target to pass up.

Artillery shells dropped out of the evening sky and walked back and forth across the desolate base. Captain Joseph and the other headquarters personnel hunkered down as far as their holes allowed. Shells hit several of the trucks and sent cargo flying everywhere. The situation appeared to be out of hand until someone yelled for the trucks to just roll, the hell with organization. When the last truck disappeared down the road, the shelling stopped.

The remaining 2/1 Marines spent a nervous two hours as they waited for the darkness to deepen. Finally, they started out. They snuck down the runway toward a break in the wire at the eastern end of the base. As the point man reached the barrier, the black night exploded into day.

“A flare ship, off course and thoroughly confused, had dropped his ordnance and illuminated all of Khe Sanh,” Joseph remembered. “We were standing there as exposed as could be.”

Fortunately, the enemy did not take advantage of this golden opportunity. When the flares burned out, the column started to move again. It faced a brutal fifteen-kilometer hump over rocky terrain in pitch darkness to the pickup zone. The fifty-plus-pound packs carried by most of the Marines made the march even more difficult. Whenever the order to “take five” came down the line, most of the men collapsed where they stood, desperate for a few minutes of sleep. “The five-minute breaks stretched into twenty or thirty only because it took so long to wake everyone up. And we had to make sure we didn’t leave anyone behind,” Joseph said.

More than four hours after it started, the column reached the pickup zone. Utterly exhausted, the Marines managed several hours’ sleep before the choppers arrived to carry them away.

In a letter home, Captain Joseph paid tribute to all Khe Sanh veterans when he told his wife, “I think a lot of these troops. They are loaded with courage and pride. If anyone asks you where America’s best are, you tell them right here.”

At midnight on 6 July 1968, Operation Charlie ended. The Marine Corps was finally free of Khe Sanh.

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