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BY JOHN PRADOS
The 1968 battle for Khe Sanh, the biggest battle of the Vietnam War and its longest sustained siege, has been the subject of history, story-telling, and myth-making. But for all the books, articles, and buddies’ accounts of their experiences, one aspect has so far been little touched. That is the tale of the adversary, the North Vietnamese enemy who fought in the hills and villages around the combat base.

In our book, Valley of Decision, Khe Sanh chaplain Ray W. Stubbe and I worked hard to present something about the other side. We thought we had done well with the information available at the time. But since the book was published in 1992, much more has come out, including official histories of the NVA—officially know as the Vietnam People’s Army—and many of its units, as well as collections of Vietnam Workers Party documents, enough to make possible for the first time a more extensive treatment of the North Vietnamese side of the battle. What follows is a fresh look at that story.

There are many mysteries on Hanoi’s side. The first is what, exactly, was the People’s Army supposed to accomplish at Khe Sanh? In America we debate whether Hanoi intended Khe Sanh as a new Dien Bien Phu or if it was a diversion to draw Gen. William Westmoreland’s forces away from the main targets of the North Vietnamese Tet Offensive. New evidence sheds some light on this matter.

At the very beginning of 1968, Hanoi confirmed its final decision for the Tet Offensive at a party plenum. The speech given there by Central Military Party Committee chief Le Duan, one of the main overseers of the war in the South, made specific reference to “annihilating” significant American troop units. So did the resolution the plenum adopted, as well as Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap’s fall 1967 articles aimed at NVA political officers. The most obvious place to do that was at Khe Sanh. The People’s Army already was gathering strength around the combat base in preparation for a great battle.

On the other hand, Le Duan explicitly made Saigon and other South Vietnamese cities the priority targets for Tet. His overwhelming focus on a general uprising also led away from the idea of a decisive battle at Khe Sanh, where there were no large populations to mobilize. The idea of a diversion remained implicit in these materials.

Vietnamese official histories are more direct. That of the Tri-Thien-Hue military region, which encompassed the provinces of Quang Tri and Thua Thien, including both Hue and Khe Sanh, notes that the plan set a quota for allied forces to be eliminated but says the high command ordered the initial attacks around Khe Sanh for a week before Tet, “earlier than in other areas of South Vietnam in order to draw in the enemy.” It is especially revealing that the date for “Day-N”—the moment for the countrywide attacks of Tet—was not divulged to the troops in the Khe Sanh sector.

The NVA 304th Division history recounts that its mission was intended to “create conditions that would be favorable for an uprising in Tri-Thien and Hue,” and to “draw out and tie down American and puppet forces, the more the better.” The 325th Division history says much the same and adds, with respect to attacking the “enemy defense line on Highway 9,” that this should only be done “when conditions permit.” A monograph by the Vietnamese Military History Institute focusing specifically on the Khe Sanh-Route 9 campaign notes the primacy of the Saigon-Mekong objectives, then says, “Highway 9-Khe Sanh (particularly Khe Sanh) were the areas into which forces were to be drawn and tied down, eliminating the American mobile units…so that the General Offensive and Popular Uprising could take place in the other areas.”

To accomplish its goals, the People’s Army created a new headquarters on December 6, 1967—the Route 9 Front. It was commanded by Brigadier Gen. Tran Quy Hai with Brigadier Gen. Le Quang Dao as political officer. That Tran Quy Hai had previously served as deputy chief of the NVA General Staff, and his colleague as deputy chief of the General Political Department, is an indication of the extent to which Hanoi wanted to exercise an extra degree of control over these operations. Headquarters was established at Sat Lit Village.

A pair of delegates from Hanoi Hai’s successor as deputy chief of staff, Brigadier Le Trong Tan, and Col. Le Ngoc Hin, the director of operations made the rounds in the South, including a stop at the Route 9 Front, to bring Hanoi’s latest directives. The command group circulated its logistics plan on December 20 and met on the 28th to plan operations. The Khe Sanh effort was codenamed the “B5-T8” campaign. Meanwhile, the Tri-Thien-Hue regional party committee set final goals on New Year’s Eve. The next day, the party plenum in Hanoi adopted its Resolution 14, the final guidance for Tet. The Khe Sanh front received this document on January 10.

Things then developed quickly. During the last week of 1967, the 325-C Division under Col. Chu Phuong Doi moved to the vicinity of Ca Lu, about halfway along the mountainous segment of Route 9 that stretched to Khe Sanh, expecting to regroup for a period of two months. His political officer, Nguyen Cong Trang, and his chief of staff, Mai Xuan Tan, busied themselves with the myriad details that needed to be covered. The division was being sent to Gen. Hai’s sector. The 325th also received orders to detach one of its regiments to another Tri-Thien-Hue combat zone. Col. Doi assembled his troops and began moving out within 24 hours of receiving his orders. On January 12, he set up a new command post at a point close to the Laotian border. The troops were excited.

Col. Hoang Dan’s NVA 304th Division, recently re-equipped in North Vietnam, moved down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to the Khe Sanh front. As its history notes, “the entire division went into combat acting as a mobile main force unit of the high command.” Some units carried food for five days; some regiments for just four. Dan received his mission at the front command post on January 14, after which he had to hold a marathon nine-hour staff meeting to make his arrangements because of the acceleration of the offensive timetable. On January 19, the division received a new political officer, Nguyen Trong Hop, who happened to be in the area on his way to the Central Highlands.

The infantry was augmented by additional formations, including the 45th and 675th Artillery Regiments, the 7th Engineer Regiment, and some local guerrillas. The present-for-duty strength in these histories, 27,000 in January 1968, compares favorably to 22,000 made at the time by the CIA. More than 9,500 troops were in the front’s logistics, or “rear services,” units. Specialists began to survey artillery positions as early as October 1967. Some 900 tons of supplies were allotted to the operation.

Hanoi’s data indicate a total of just over 9,000 riflemen in all, with just over half armed with assault rifles, but more than 3,500 having older weapons, plus 360 soldiers armed with RPG rockets. Crewed weapons included more than 500 light and 100 heavy machine guns, about 40 recoilless rifles, and some 180 mortars.

Heavy support included a total of 212 weapons, among them eight 152mm guns, sixteen 130mm guns, thirty-six 122mm guns, eight 105mm howitzers, twelve 100mm guns, 120 rocket launchers, and assorted other pieces. South Vietnamese estimates of the antiaircraft threat proved more accurate than American ones because the ARVN credited the People’s Army with heavy antiaircraft artillery and the Americans did not. The enemy actually had forty-two 37mm AA guns and an additional dozen of 57mm caliber, along with their 130 antiaircraft machine guns.

This amounted to a substantial force, enough to mount a threat, but not a Dien Bien Phu. The defensive complex in the Khe Sanh sector, under Col. David E. Lownds of the 26th Marines, included Marines, ARVN Rangers, and MACSOG troops in the combat base and its hilltop satellite positions; a combined action company in Khe Sanh Village; a Special Forces garrison at Lang Vei Camp; and a Royal Laotian infantry battalion at Ban Houei Sane. In all, there were roughly 7,600 American, South Vietnamese, Montagnard, Nung, and Laotian troops in the area, supported much more lavishly than the French at Dien Bien Phu.

People’s Army operations got off to a rocky start. Gen. Westmoreland had already begun a massive aerial bombardment, Operation Niagara, that included many B-52 Arc Light strikes and hit points important to the NVA 325-C Division. Other regiments of the division probed some of the high hill positions around Khe Sanh to cover troop movements.

The American view of Khe Sanh has long been that the siege opened with firefights between Marine patrols and the People’s Army north of Hill 881S, and then an extended combat action atop 881N on January 20, when Capt. William H. Dabney led I Company of the 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines on a reconnaissance
in force after the patrol actions. The troops he encountered were 325-C men, of Ho Ngoc Trai’s 95C Regiment. Dabney relocated to the 881S strongpoint with the enemy in pursuit. The 6th Battalion of 95C, according to the Vietnamese, sustained 95 wounded and 15 dead.

That night the 325-C mounted a hasty attack on nearby Hill 861 with the 4th Battalion of the 95C Regiment. The attack never penetrated the wire and left 50 dead outside the wire by Marine count. The Vietnamese recorded 20 dead and 68 wounded. Their accounts hold that these actions, along with other attacks at Dong Tri Mountain and against American scout patrols, were strictly diversionary. The differences between what Gen. Hai’s forces actually did, and the version of NVA plans volunteered by People’s Army defector La Thanh Tonc, strongly suggests that Tonc’s account was disinformation given to mislead Col. Lownds and the Marines.

The true initial assault role had been allotted to Thai Dung Co’s 304th. With the 9th Regiment deployed to catch any reinforcements Lownds might dispatch, Co assigned a battalion of his 66th Regiment to capture Khe Sanh Village, while Le Cong Phe’s 24th Regiment was ordered to overrun the Laotians at Ban Houei Sane. The 7th Battalion of the 66th Regiment broke camp at noon on January 20. Suddenly, just ahead of it, the ground shook as an Arc Light strike plastered the region, felling trees and cratering the land. The bo dois, as the North Vietnamese called their soldiers, were swallowed up. Some columns became lost, others merely waylaid. The regiment leader was forced to delay the operation until shortly before dawn, breaking with People’s Army practice of attacking in the dead of night.

Meanwhile, NVA artillery opened up a deadly bombardment of the Khe Sanh combat base. Designed to cover the Khe Sanh Village attack and impede any reinforcements, this bombardment proved unexpectedly successful, igniting much of the combat base’s stockpile of 1,500 tons of ammunition. One Marine company had to displace its command post three times to escape the shower of smoldering shells raining on its position. Vietnamese histories credit this action to the 45th Artillery Regiment acting independently. The bombardment marked the first NVA use of the newly deployed long-barreled D74 model 122mm gun.

The village of Khe Sanh, seat of Huong Hoa District, lay about three kilometers south of the combat base. It was defended by the Marines’ Combined Action Company Oscar and two platoons of South Vietnamese Regional Forces Company 915—in all about 175 troops, including 15 Americans, most from CAC Oscar. The combined action soldiers had recently improved their defenses, though they had not pulled in the last platoon of the company, which was stationed in a hamlet about 200 meters from the main position. They also benefited from the Arc Light strike that almost caught Maj. Bruce Clark’s RF patrol, which had been warned to pull back in time.

Americans and South Vietnamese hunkered down that night, but nothing could prevent the attack. Nguyen Van Thieng flung his 7th Battalion, 66th Regiment at the allied positions. First light brought considerably increased air support for the Americans, and Maj. Clark had radio contact with forward air controllers calling the strikes. The Marines of CAC Oscar called for artillery from the combat base on their radio net. Marines could not use the Claymore mines they had placed inside their perimeter (to avoid mistakenly killing villagers) for fear of destroying their own wire barriers. Some RF troopers fled, but they dropped enough grenades to break the momentum of 7th Battalion.

Air power reduced the assault to a slugging match. Comrade Thieng fell in battle. One of his companies lost nearly all its command group. Political officer To Cong Kien, wounded and with a broken arm, led the assault. The People’s Army fought throughout the day, into the next night, and finally completed the capture of Khe Sanh Village at 9:30 a.m. on January 22.

It had been a bloody battle. The NVA suffered 154 killed and 486 wounded. Though some of these casualties came from units manning blocking positions, there can be little doubt the 7th Battalion was crippled by this engagement. Due to its losses and the dangers posed by American air power, the People’s Army waited until after dark to take over the village.

Col. Lownds sent out a small relief force, a single rifle platoon, but recalled it when the men reached a rise from where they could see bo dois deploying all around Khe Sanh Village. From remote Quang Tri, the province senior adviser had another RF company chopper in to help the defenders. They ran right into an ambush prepared by the 11th Company, 9th Battalion, 9th Regiment. A Vietnamese account states the 256th RF company was “immediately, completely wiped out.”

Company commander Lt. Nguyen Dinh Thiep was captured, American deputy senior province adviser LTC Joseph Seymoe killed. The remnants of Khe Sanh Village’s defenders escaped to the combat base. A SOG patrol that took advantage of the NVA delay to enter the village and destroy stores became the last allied troops to see the ville for months.

The other prong of the 304th Division’s effort aimed at the Laotian army camp at Ban Houei Sane. Clearing away this position opened the Route 9 Front’s supply lines from its rear services bases all the way to Khe Sanh. Division commander Thai Dung Ho gave this task to Le Cong Phe of the 24th Regiment.

Phe attacked from three directions, committing his 6th Battalion and Company 8 of his 3rd. The spearpoint of the assault was 7th Company, which came in from the northwest backed by eleven PT-76 tanks of the 198th Armored Battalion. Phan Van Nai, who led this tank company, had never worked with infantry before, and the bo dois had never operated together with tanks. Problems were almost guaranteed. The most that could be done ahead of time was for Nai to show how to ride on the tanks without falling. The infantry practiced climbing up and jumping off. That was it.
On its approach, the 7th Company was critically delayed. The armor had to cross several underwater bridges to close in on the Lao positions. Though Nai’s PT-76 tanks were designed to be amphibious, the banks of the streams in this area were so steep that only prepared approaches were suitable. On the third bridge the lead tank, number 555, bogged down. It was extricated with difficulty, after which 558 became stuck. During all this, the NVA troops were discovered. Early morning of January 24 had come before they could move up.

The other People’s Army formations had already started attacking Ban Houei Sane, which was organized in several platoon- and company-sized strongpoints and defended by about 700 troops under Laotian LTC Soulang. The Laotian troops put up a pretty good defense, despite the fact that U.S. B-57 bombers overhead could not support them because they were unable to find the NVA troops in the dark.

By 6:00 a.m., regiment commander Phe, frustrated with delays of the armor, ordered the others to press ahead. Then the planes arrived. But just then came the tanks with the 7th Company, surprising the defenders, who became confused. People’s Army engineers blew out the last obstacles and the spearhead entered the base, attacking the remaining Laotian positions from the interior of the camp. The Lao troops broke and fled toward Lang Vei Special Forces Camp. Inside of two hours it was all over. The 24th Regiment suffered losses of 29 dead and 54 wounded. It, too, pursued toward Lang Vei. When he reached safety, Laotian Col. Soulang told the Americans that the NVA had used tanks in the battle. They did not believe him.

At Khe Sanh combat base, after the battle for the ville, the Marines began a period of frantic buildup. Col. Lownds needed to replace the ammunition and supplies destroyed in the bombardment, and the high command sent him reinforcements. The last battalions to arrive, the 1/9 Marines and the ARVN 37th Rangers, came at this time. Lownds added another satellite strongpoint at Hill 861A to protect existing positions, and he put 1/9 in the valley at a low rise known as the Rock Quarry with its own outpost, Hill 64. Beginning on January 23, People’s Army antiaircraft fire posed a significant threat to American aerial resupply activities. Mortars and other bombardment weapons also struck the Khe Sanh airfield whenever transport planes touched down on it.

The Americans developed techniques to push supplies into the combat base and its satellite strongpoints while avoiding excessive losses. Meanwhile, the Americans played some cards of their own. Most notable was an Arc Light strike against Gen. Tran Quy Hai’s headquarters, identified by radio intelligence.

Vietnamese sources confirm that the strike disrupted Route 9 Front headquarters for three days, though it did not kill any of its top commanders.

When Tet came, nothing happened at Khe Sanh. The main fireworks came later. Some who have written about Khe Sanh say that Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap was at the front. This is simply not true. Vietnamese sources record that on February 2 NVA General Staff chief Van Tien Dung telephoned front commander Hai, demanding to know what obstacles prevented the Route 9 troops from attacking more forcefully to draw in the American enemies. This would have been completely unnecessary had Giap been on the scene. But the complaint spurred Gen. Hai to action.

Starting on February 3, one of the wonders of American technology, electronic sensors, were employed for the first time at Khe Sanh. They detected large-scale movements near Hill 881S. The next night the movement resumed, and an attack took place against Hill 861A. On both occasions American artillery and air power struck hard against the supposed enemy movements. The Vietnamese sources are largely silent on the attack that actually took place against Hill 861A on February 5, passing over these events in a phrase or two and providing no record of losses.

But Capt. Earle Breeding’s Marines on 861A are in no doubt that a tough fight took place that night. Five Marines received the Navy Cross, and between 109 and 150 Vietnamese dead lay on the ground the next morning.

What Hanoi’s histories make much of is the battle of Lang Vei on February 6-7. Two battalions of Le Cong Phe’s 24th Regiment plus the 3/101D/325-C made the assault a full regiment with the equivalent of a battalion of 122mm guns firing in direct support, plus ten tanks of the 3rd and 9th Companies, 198th Armored Battalion, and elements of the 4th and 40th Sapper Companies. Col. Phe lacked his 6th Battalion, which had been sent to reinforce the Tri-Thien-Hue front.

Contrary to the reconstruction later made by the South Vietnamese Joint General Staff (and recorded in Valley of Decision), the NVA 66th Regiment did not participate at all. The assault began late in the afternoon of February 6. Supporting artillery went to second-phase fire at 11:15 p.m. The wire on the western face of Lang Vei was breached at 11: 50 by sappers and troops of Dinh Xuan Nguyen’s 5th Battalion, 24th Regiment. To the northeast, Le Dac Cong’s 4th Battalion had trouble breaking through. Col. Phe sent his deputy chief of staff to Nguyen’s 5th Battalion command post to lead the exploitation. PT-76 tanks provided the hard edge, and American Green Berets and Montagnard strikers found their Light Antitank Weapons ineffective against the armor. On the south side of the camp, the 3rd Battalion, 101D Regiment eliminated two companies of Montagnard strikers in their redoubts. The Vietnamese claim they completed the conquest of Lang Vei at 10:00 a.m. on February 7. They report 90 killed and 220 wounded in the assault.

On February 8, the People’s Army hit again, close to the Khe Sanh combat base, against Hill 64 that was defended by the “Walking Dead” of the 1/9 Marines. Here, too, the Vietnamese sources are remarkably silent, even though this fight near the Rock Quarry was essentially the follow-up to Lang Vei. A battalion of the 101D Regiment of Chu Phuong Doi’s 325C Division triggered some of the most intense assault combat of the siege, in which the NVA actually broke into the Marine positions and fought from bunker to bunker. In the aftermath, Marines found 30 bodies atop the strongpoint and counted 150 enemy dead overall. The Vietnamese recorded 58 dead and 71 wounded.

Gen. Hai ordered the 304th Division to invest Khe Sanh more closely. The 9th Regiment began the intense entrenching that marked the high siege phase of the Khe Sanh battle. The Hill 64 fight marked the last major assault of the campaign. Much had changed. Before the end of February the NVA General Staff instructed Hai to send the 325C Division to the Central Highlands. It left behind one regiment until mid-March to stiffen the siege forces.

Thus the People’s Army at Khe Sanh actually had the 304th Division, less one battalion, reinforced by a regiment of 325C, for a total of eleven rifle battalions through most of the siege. This is an additional indicator that Hanoi did not intend a Dien Bien Phu at Khe Sanh. Vietnamese sources report more than 320 dead (fatalities for one regiment are not recorded) plus 982 wounded during this phase of operations.

Artillery bombardment remained a constant ordeal. Some days there were fewer shells, other times more. Marines developed a sense of the rhythm and dashed where they needed to go in the intervals. As the siege progressed, the Americans kept count of the artillery shells hitting their positions. By their count the heaviest shelling of the siege came on February 22, when 1,307 shells and rockets hit the allied positions. The average as late as March was still 150 rounds a day.

New evidence shows that the People’s Army prepared carefully for its fire campaign, placing four observation posts to spot the impact of shells on the Marines. The NVA, like the U.S. Air Force, seems to have had a predilection for reporting specific numbers of adversaries killed by these remote means even though there was never any way to know such casualty numbers. During the period until February 8, the artillery carried out 17 bombardments coordinated with ground operations and 29 independent ones. The high phase of the siege, we are told, brought orders from Gen. Hai specifically to aim at the Khe Sanh airfield. The People’s Army also detached four of its 122mm guns to confuse the Americans by moving around and firing from different locations. There were 243 fire missions during the high siege.

Among the lessons Hanoi learned was that coordination quickly became confused when artillery fired in support of ground attacks, so that commanders needed more precise information on the plans of the units they supported. The Vietnamese artillery history records expenditure of 9,423 rounds up until the allies began their Operation Pegasus relief effort. The majority were 82mm mortar shells (4,040), followed by 122mm gun rounds (3,781). Slightly more than 700 rockets were loosed at the Marines.

Of course, there was a huge American effort to destroy the NVA gun positions by counterbattery fire and air bombardment. Hanoi’s records show that the two artillery regiments involved suffered a total of 185 casualties, and antiaircraft gunners an additional 88. The People’s Army countered by dispersing its guns widely (some positions separated by as much as 800 meters, though 100-300 was more typical), keeping them away from the infantry being targeted by American air, having prepared emplacements to withdraw the guns, surrounding them with antiaircraft positions, and deploying them with extreme secrecy in the first place.

Marines looked at the Co Roc mountain massif, across the Laotian border and southwest of the combat base as the NVA firebase. Capt. William H. Dabney, who commanded the Hill 881S strongpoint, at much higher elevation than the combat base, was convinced Co Roc was a myth, that the more destructive fire came from west of his strongpoint. Vietnamese sources show that two battalions of the 675th Artillery were in fact at Co Roc, but that the regiment’s third battalion deployed to the west of 881S, as did the rocket units of the NVA 45th Artillery. Dabney’s observers did well with the rockets, usually giving the combat base ten seconds or more warning of incoming fire. The Khe Sanh Siege finally ended when Gen. Westmoreland began Pegasus, his corps-sized relief expedition.

Much of the story of Hanoi’s side of the Khe Sanh campaign modifies what we thought we knew about the battle, though there are aspects that correspond to previous understanding. The new evidence reinforces the judgment that Hanoi never intended to fight a decisive battle at Khe Sanh, unlike Gen. Westmoreland’s expectations.

The People’s Army instructions to its commands, its assignment to Khe Sanh of a smaller contingent than necessary to pursue a decisive battle strategy, and its diversion to other fronts of seven of the eighteen rifle battalions in even that smaller force, all indicate that a repeat of Dien Bien Phu was not the aim here. On the other hand, Hanoi’s orders to its Route 9 Front to eliminate large American units do show a purpose beyond merely masking the American position at Khe Sanh.

Vietnamese accounts of the battle suggest that it was by means of posing a significant threat that Hanoi hoped to divert the American command, and that such destruction of American forces as could be achieved at Khe Sanh would contribute even more to the impact of the Tet Offensive.

The new evidence also says something about the evolution of Hanoi’s purpose. Some time ago in Valley of Decision, Ray Stubbe and I argued that North Vietnam’s intentions had changed during the course of the battle. We said that Hanoi had sought the diversion prior to Tet, but around the time of Lang Vei had perhaps decided to pursue a decisive battle. The Vietnamese sources supply a crucial modifier for that view with news of Hanoi’s intervention with the front commander in early February, demanding why he was not attacking more forcefully. The days of most intensity, with the sequence of battles at Lang Vei-Hill 881S-Hill 861A-Hill 64, are now seen as Gen. Hai’s direct response to Hanoi’s prodding. For the first time we see a coherent progression in the People’s Army conduct of the campaign. It is also plain that Hanoi’s demands for action sought to foster the diversionary role of Khe Sanh within the larger fabric of Tet

Finally, accounts like these are important because they give form and substance to what had been a faceless enemy. There are corrections to be made in our understanding of the location of the enemy, what they did, and fresh information on a plethora of aspects. There are many more details in the new evidence, not only of the fighting but of the People’s Army campaign and its difficulties supplying and feeding the troops and treating the wounded. For example, of 1,436 wounded before mid-March, 484 bo dois had returned to their units while 396 had been sent back up the Ho Chi Minh Trail to hospitals in the North.

The author wishes to acknowledge the continuing efforts of Ray W. Stubbe and the Khe Sanh Veterans Association to document the history of their critical battle, which included compiling most of the histories used here, as well as the work of Sedgwick Tourison, Robert DeStatte, and Merle Pribbenow, who did the English translations of the histories and documents I used. Most of these histories may be found at the U.S. Army Center of Military History.

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