Battle of Khe Sanh

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Battle of Khe Sanh
ConflictVietnam War
DateJanuary 21, 1968 - April 8, 1968
PlaceKhe Sanh, Vietnam
ResultAmerican victory
United States North Vietnam
William Westmoreland
Vo Nguyen Giap
5,000 20,000 - 40,000
205 killed, 443 wounded, 2 MIA 15,000+ killed/wounded

Khe Sanh was a United States Marines military base in the Republic of Vietnam ("the south") constructed near the border with Laos and just south of the border with North Vietnam which became the scene of a large offensive operation by the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN, also known to many English speakers as the North Vietnamese Army or NVA) and US Marines in 1968. The defense of the base was codenamed Operation Scotland.

U.S. commanders provoked the battle hoping the PAVN would attempt to repeat their famous victory at Dien Bien Phu. The overwhelming power of US air support and vastly increased airlift capacity made this impossible. After heavy casualties on both sides the PAVN claimed the battle to be a diversionary tactic and abandoned the campaign in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive.



The origin of the Khe Sanh Combat Base was an airstrip constructed in September 1962 outside the town of Khe Sanh, about 7 miles from the Laotian border. The airfield saw little use until a Special Forces team constructed a base next to it in 1965. This base became the scene of the battle. Over the next few years the base was used as a staging ground for a number of attacks on troop movements down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and was permanently manned by Marines starting in 1967. A smaller Special Forces base, known as Lang Vei, was later constructed down the road to the Laotian border and was in the process of being moved about a kilometer further west when the battle began.

In 1968 General William Westmoreland decided to use Khe Sanh in an attempt to bring the PAVN into direct confrontation. He sent a massive re-enforcement force to the base, planning to launch major operations from it against the Ho Chi Minh Trail, hoping to effectively cut off PAVN operations further south. This would force the PAVN to attack Khe Sanh in order to re-open the trail, resulting in a set-piece battle of the sort the French had hoped to fight at Dien Bien Phu a decade earlier. Westmoreland believed that if his plan was successful the war would be soon over.

During the American build-up, North Vietnamese forces developed excellent defensive positions on nearby hills that had caves and former mines that were impervious to ground and tactical air attack. Over a period of just over a week three full divisions of about 25,000 men were moved into the area, well supported from the nearby trail. From these positions they launched mortar and rocket attacks on the base, camouflaged to a great degree by continuing bad weather.

The Battle

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During the battle, the US Air Force delivered massive quantities of supply to the besieged base

The main assaults on the base started on January 21, 1968. A number of massive attacks on Khe Sanh took place over the week, but eventually it became clear the Marines positions were well developed. The buildup nevertheless continued on both sides, and while the US troops were eventually prepared to launch small offensives against the PAVN forces pouring into the area, they were unable to do so due to the heavily forested areas in the valleys between themselves and the fortified hills.

After this the tempo slowed and the battle became more of a siege, with the almost continual artillery duels soon turning the base into a huge trench system looking more like the trench warfare of World War I than Vietnam. The US turned to air power as a way out of the stalemate, and called in huge bombardments on the hills by B-52's flown from Okinawa. Soldiers on both sides still express awe to this day when talking about them; the attacks gave absolutely no warning, and suddenly an entire hill would be completely covered with exploding bombs. Meanwhile U.S. losses from artillery fire were made up by continuous resupply. Attempts by the PAVN to shut down the runway were never entirely successful and pointless due to the massive number of helicopters the US could have deployed in such an emergency.

The PAVN soon attempted to reopen the battle using the tactics that had been successful at Dien Bien Phu, starting the construction of a major trenchwork/tunnel system in an attempt to enter the base under cover. However the airpower available to the US was of an entirely different nature than that of the French forces a decade earlier and whenever a trench system was detected a B-52 strike would turn the area into a moonscape, completely erasing the engineering efforts.

Two further major assaults followed on March 17-18th and the 29th. Both were repulsed, the second one with ease, and it was now clear that the base would not fall to PAVN attacks. At this point the PAVN divisions were recalled and the battle slowly ended. The Americans held Khe Sanh throughout the siege, and were eventually officially relieved by the 2nd Cavalry on April 6th, 1968, and all fighting was over two days later.

Results and Analysis

As a military action Khe Sanh was a tactical failure but is viewed by some as a strategic or at least psychological victory. It is estimated 8,000 PAVN died and considerably more were wounded. It is likely that the overwhelming majority of the forces sent to the area were rendered disorganised and useless. This was particularly striking given the similarities to Dien Bien Phu.

On a strategic level it drew attention away from PAVN buildups elsewhere, although this appears to be true of both sides. As the leadup to the battle took place over late 1967 and into January 1968, the American military focussed on winning the battle. Intelligence suggesting that the PAVN was planning a large scale offensive throughout South Vietnam was largely ignored. This may have been a part of the Khe Sanh plan, distracting the anti-communist forces prior to the surprise Tet offensive. That too would end in military failure, but is believed by some to have weakened support for the war. However, considering the fact that only two Marine regiments were tied down at Khe Sahn compared to several NVA divisions, it may indeed have been a plan to emulate Dien Bien Phu. General Abrams, MACV leader from mid-1968, has suggested that it would have taken longer to dislodge the Communists at Hue if the NVA committed to Khe Sahn had joined them.

The significance of the battle in terms of its impact on American public opinion continues to be debated. Nearly a quarter of all television news was devoted to covering the battle, and was even higher for others. CBS would devote half of their show to the siege. The intensely televised coverage was one of the hallmarks of Vietnam conflict in general and is a subject of study as a psychological and social phenomenon.

In the end, the battle was a critical part of the war, highlighting the need on both sides for development of new military tactics. Khe Sanh itself was abandoned on June 23, 1968 since it no longer had any military value. Consequently, many wondered if it ever did.

Although few, if any, Australian Army personnel were involved in the battle, the Australian rock band Cold Chisel chose the battle for the title of its song, "Khe Sanh", about an Australian Vietnam veteran.

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