Document created: 27 August 04
Air University Review, November-December 1970

Khe Sanh

William H. Greenhalgh, Jr.

One of the startling phenomena of the war in Vietnam is the tremendous impact of news coverage, particularly that of the TV news services, on the conduct of the war and the reactions of the American people. The news media exaggerated both the significance and the seriousness of the threat to the U.S. Marine Corps base at Khe Sanh. While it is true that Khe Sanh was a strategically important outpost, it is also true that the Marines were never besieged and never in any real danger of being overwhelmed. Despite rantings of the less responsible segment of the press and demands of politicians that the Marines be withdrawn before they could be annihilated in a second Dien Bien Phu, the defense of Khe Sanh was carefully considered and well planned to stop a major enemy drive into northern South Vietnam.

Many will ask why Khe Sanh was chosen for such a stand. The Marine base with its small but newly rebuilt airstrip was a few hundred meters from the tiny village of Khe Sanh, both astride the famous Route 9, mostly a dirt highway between Laos and the coastal plain. The terrain is rugged and heavily forested, with surrounding mountains that rise almost 3000 feet above the valley floor. Weather in the area during the first three months of the year is unbelievably bad, influenced by the northeast monsoon. Low clouds and persistent fog, rain that varies from a drizzle to a downpour, and winds that switch direction and change velocity without warning—all make air support in the region difficult at best during this period. The ground fighting also is hindered by the fog and rain and by the difficulty of movement. Despite or perhaps because of all this, the North Vietnamese chose to move against Khe Sanh early in 1968. As part of their winter-spring campaign, they chose to attack the westernmost of the string of strong points roughly paralleling the southern edge of the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Vietnams.

The concept upon which Marine Corps organization and tactical doctrine are based eschews passive defense of a fixed camp, yet there were not sufficient forces available to carry out the mobile type of campaign for which the Marines are so renowned. The monsoon weather further restricted the use of air power in a mobile combat environment, since even the helicopter must have some ceiling and visibility in order to operate effectively with troops in the field. Enemy demolition of bridges and monsoon washouts had closed Route 9 east of Khe Sanh, forcing the garrison to rely on air support until the engineers could reopen the road. Under different political or military conditions, these factors might well have induced the commander to withdraw from the Khe Sanh area to a position where his lines of communication were secure and he could have greater flexibility of operation.

Withdrawal, on the other hand, also presented the commander with problems. Ground withdrawal was difficult because of the closed road, and extraction by air would have been extremely hazardous. As the garrison became smaller, its vulnerability to the surrounding enemy forces would have increased, with the possibility of being overwhelmed by sheer weight of numbers. With Khe Sanh in the hands of the enemy, the route would have been open for unrestricted infiltration of large numbers of enemy troops into the northern provinces of South Vietnam, where they could have tied down considerably larger friendly forces at a crucial time and might well have had a decisive effect upon the later Tet offensive. Psychologically, the enemy would have been able to exploit a withdrawal as a “victory” in his propaganda campaign against American involvement and the existing government of South Vietnam. The apparent determination of the North Vietnamese to take Khe Sanh meant that our defense of it would probably tie down large numbers of enemy troops in a concentration susceptible to air attack. With the assurance that air power could support the garrison at Khe Sanh, it was decided to reinforce and defend that Marine base. The stage was set for another Marine Corps epic battle.

The decision, once made, was subjected to a withering barrage of criticism from a variety of sources, a barrage that grew in volume as the news services expanded their coverage of Khe Sanh. Reporters and TV photographers commuted between Saigon and Khe Sanh, and each sensational new film tended to give the impression that the beleaguered Marines had been irrevocably committed to another Dien Bien Phu. Important political voices demanded the withdrawal of the Marine garrison in the face of the numerically superior enemy forces surrounding them. Advocates and opponents of air power debated publicly whether Khe Sanh could be supplied and defended by air power alone. Public opinion became aroused, and controversy raged over whether the Khe Sanh base should be defended or abandoned. The fate of the Marines was variously assayed, the predominant opinion of the press apparently being that they would be doomed if they were not immediately withdrawn from this modern Dien Bien Phu.

Nothing could have been further from the truth. The confident and competent Marines, never confined to their base, conducted regular patrols at considerable distances from the perimeter. Further, air power had come of age since Dien Bien Phu. The stage was set, and the Marines were ready.

The Battle for Khe Sanh tells the story of the Marine stand in great detail that will delight the military historian.*The author, a Marine aviator with an M.A. in history from Texas Christian University, served in the area during that operation and is thus intimately familiar with the terrain so important to his narrative.

The narrative begins with the arrival of the Marines, the first U.S. ground combat units committed in South Vietnam, and develops the subsequent events in a manner that is useful in understanding the Khe Sanh situation. Of particular interest is the detailed account of the Hill Battles in the Khe Sanh area in April 1967, during which the Marines drove a reinforced regiment of North Vietnamese troops from several key hills nearby.

The real story of Khe Sanh, however, begins in December 1967, when it became obvious that something big was developing. Large numbers of North Vietnamese regular troops were moving into the Khe Sanh area and staying, and large supply caches were being assembled. The confrontation intensified in January 1968 as enemy strength increased, and the Marine garrison was reinforced. The battle was joined, yet there was no single large assault, no all-out attack on the base, nothing that could really be called a battle. As for the ground fighting, Khe Sanh was primarily a series of short, sharp probing fights, during which the defenders of the base and its outlying hilltop strong points took a heavy toll of the enemy, and the enemy continued to bombard the camp by mortar, rocket, and artillery.

Without air power, Khe Sanh probably would never have happened, and without effective air power, Khe Sanh could not have survived. Although the author discusses air power at Khe Sanh, his sources are unfortunately almost totally Marine Corps records. Although this is a Marine Corps story, the inclusion of a fuller treatment of the contribution of air power would not have detracted from the magnificent stand by the ground Marines or the outstanding work of the Marine air. The failure of the author to use the readily available Air Force and Army sources is inexplicable.

Certainly Marine air was outstanding—each element did an exceptional job—but even the casual reader will be struck by the obvious inference that other air support was merely incidental.1 Great emphasis is justifiably placed upon the Marine helicopters that supplied and supported the isolated hilltop outposts, purely a Marine operation. Faced with growing helicopter losses in this task, the Marines developed the “Super Gaggle,” in which coordinated action by large numbers of tactical fighter aircraft, cargo helicopters, and helicopter gunships replaced single-helicopter tactics. The success of the new method, proved by decreased helicopter losses, demonstrated the adaptability of the Marine airmen. Their willingness to learn from the successes of others was attested to by their development of the Mini-Arc Light and the Micro-Arc Light, wherein artillery and tactical aircraft were coordinated for instantaneous and concentrated application of firepower on a small target area, like the B-52 missions (Arc Light) but on a smaller scale. Despite their unaccustomed defense of a fixed position, the Marines retained their tactical flexibility and their ability to adapt to unusual situations.

A new application of a proved weapon system that became highly effective at Khe Sanh was the use of the B-52 in close support. Originally restricted to drops at some distance from friendly lines, the B-52 crews felt that they could deliver their bomb loads with great accuracy much closer to the lines. The enemy, aware of the restrictive bombline, had moved his forces close to friendly lines for protection from air attack. The B-52 proposal appeared worth a try. After a single B-52 had demonstrated its accuracy of delivery under control of a ground radar station, the bombline was moved to less than one-third the former distance from the Marine perimeter. The first few B-52 strikes close to the line proved devastating to the massed enemy forces. The Marine defenders were particularly enthusiastic, and subsequent B-52 strikes were used largely in this role.

Tactical air contributed more firepower and greater flexibility to the Khe Sanh battle than any other single source of support, yet its effectiveness and value were denigrated through misunderstanding and serious coordination problems. Operation NIAGARA, the Air Force portion of the Khe Sanh operation, called for Airborne Battlefield Command and Control Center (ABCCC) direction of all aircraft other than Marine tactical aircraft in direct support of the Khe Sanh perimeter. The Marines, with their own control agency at Khe Sanh, scheduled all their air resources to close support, thus precluding any overall coordination of the total air effort. Because of difficulties arising from the presence of two control agencies, Marine and Air Force, an informal agreement between the ABCCC and the Marine control agency attempted to delineate control areas on a temporary basis. Throughout the engagement, Marine interpretation of plans and operations orders did not agree with Air Force interpretation, leading inevitably to increasing confusion and inefficient application of available resources.

The author somewhat incorrectly states that Marine Corps support within the Khe Sanh tactical area of responsibility resulted from negotiations between the Commanding General, III Marine Amphibious Force, and the U.S. Seventh Air Force. General William W. Momyer, Commander of the Seventh Air Force, was also Deputy Commander for Air, U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, and in that capacity he was responsible for coordinating all air effort in the Khe Sanh area. The author further indicates that General Momyer was given responsibility for the overall NIAGARA effort during the 22 January-13 February period, whereas in reality Seventh Air Force had that responsibility continuously. The Marine commander at Khe Sanh had control of the area out to the range of his 155mm artillery, but even within this zone the ABCCC was supposed to have a degree of traffic control. The absence of centralized control of air operations from the very start created a situation wherein two separate organizations were carrying out air operations independently in a very small block of airspace that was also being used by numbers of B-52s and Navy aircraft.

Eventually, General Momyer was given full responsibility and authority for management of all Marine and USAF tactical aircraft in South Vietnam, which greatly reduced coordination problems and clarified the manner in which air power was to be applied. Had a single manager for all air been clearly defined at the very start of the operation, all the misunderstandings could have been avoided. Despite these problems and the wasted effort, tactical aircraft of all the participating services gave the Marine garrison at Khe Sanh a concentration of air support that probably exceeded any previous similar effort.

The obvious purpose of Captain Shore’s book is to relate the story of the Marine Corps ground forces at Khe Sanh, and it does this exceptionally well. Although it is difficult to prepare a comprehensive history so soon after the event, particularly if its impact on subsequent developments is to be evaluated, the author has done a well-researched and thorough job. He presents a fine record of the activities of the Marine helicopter units, but his treatment of the other aspects of air power in the battle is of lesser value. Nevertheless, the book is well worth reading if its limitations are clearly understood. Controversy over Khe Sanh will probably continue well into the future, and the Shore monograph will undoubtedly contribute to the controversy.

*Moyers S. Shore II, The Battle for Khe Sanh (Washington: Historical Branch, G-3 Division, U.S. Marine Corps, 1969, $1.75), 203 pp.

Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama

Note

1. For an account of the role of air at Khe Sanh, see Burl W. McLaughlin, Major General, USAF, “Khe Sanh: Keeping an Outpost Alive,” Air University Review XX, I (November-December 1968), 57-77.


Contributor

Lieutenant Colonel William H. Greenhalgh, Jr., USAF (Ret), (M.S., George Washington University), is a historian with the Historical Research Division of Aerospace Studies Institute, Air University. He served in the China-Burma-India Theater during World War II and later as intelligence officer in Alaska and Okinawa and at Hq Air Defense Command. His last assignments before retirement in 1969 were as Deputy Director of Targets, Seventh Air Force, Vietnam, and with Project Corona Harvest.

Disclaimer

The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.


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