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The agony of Khe Sanh--46 years later

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Continuing in the discussion of how veterans have earned their pensions and other benefits I turn to my personal experience.

I argue in my book Expendable Warriors that the US won the battle of Khe Sanh and lost the war at the very same time.

There was a battle fought in Khe Sanh village on 21 and 22 January 1968 that very few people know about. Every military historian knows of the artillery barrages and the trenches that were the siege of the Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB), but what has been called the biggest ground battle of Khe Sanh took place when at 5 AM on 21 January 1968 the 66th Regiment, 304th North Vietnamese Army (NVA) Division launched an attack against the Huong Hoa District Headquarters in Khe Sanh Village (about 4km south of the Khe Sanh Combat Base).

The ensuing fight pitted a mixed force of five different groups (175 men) inside the compound against 2000 men of the NVA force—the little band of warriors included:
• The District Staff of Vietnamese officers and men led by Captain Tinh A-Nhi
• An understrength Vietnamese Regional Force Company
• Two Montagnard manned Popular Force platoons
• The Marines of a Combined Action Platoon (CAP) led by SGT John Balanco and the company headquarters led by LT Tom Stamper
• The four man Army advisory team led by Captain Bruce Clarke

The attack was from three directions with the main effort coming from the southwest against the RF Company. The weather was extremely poor with very heavy fog. The initial enemy assault was beaten off by the courageous efforts of the RF Company and by almost constant barrages of artillery using variable time fused rounds fired at least danger close. After the initial assault was broken, the enemy simply backed off and using the positions he had already prepared, attempted to destroy the key bunkers by recoilless rifle and rocket propelled grenade fire.

Simultaneously it moved into Khe Sanh village and setup mortars with which they attempted to shell the compound. At this time the police station was still communicating with the District Headquarters and that made it possible to put effective fire on the enemy moving into the village. For the next four hours there were constant attacks or probes against the compound which were beaten off by the valiant efforts of Bru (Montagnard) PFs and the Vietnamese RFs working as a coordinated team and reinforced by the CAP Marines, which SGT Balanco moved to meet the threat.

At about 1130 the fog burned off, during the next five hours there were three attempts to resupply the beleaguered garrison, which was in dire straits for ammunition. All during the afternoon CPT Ward Britt, an Air Force FAC, working out of Quang Tri put in numerous air strikes on the massed NVA who were trying to reorganize. On one of these airstrikes he put in two fighters on 100 NVA in the open and after it was over he could not see any movement, just bodies.

The night of 21 January the NVA were unable to make an attack and only sniped throughout the night. Captains Nhi and Clarke collaborated continually and estimated where the NVA would withdraw to. A B-52 strike was requested and it was later learned that the strike had hit the Regiment,

The next morning the evacuation of District Headquarters was ordered after Colonel David Lownds, the commander of the 26th Marine Regiment, ordered the evacuation of the Marines from the garrison and denied further artillery support—over 1200 rounds had been fired in the last 24 hours in support of the District Headquarters defense. The Marines and the wounded were evacuated by air. CPT Clarke and SFC King, two of the advisors, accompanied the District Forces who, using an unknown route, successfully escaped from the District Headquarters.

That afternoon CPT Clarke accompanied a Special Forces strike team that conducted a heliborne raid back into the District Headquarters to destroy everything that the District Forces had left behind and to evacuate the over 150 weapons that the District Forces had captured.

The District government, forces, and advisors spent the next two and a half months in exile at the Khe Sanh Combat Base where they dodged artillery rounds, took part in the defense of the Combat Base, and operated an intelligence net.

The siege of KSCB lasted for 76 more days. During that time the ”agony of Khe Sanh” played on the front pages and news reports on Main Street thought out the country. The result was that while the battle of Khe Sanh was won (two NVA divisions were rendered combat ineffective) but the public relations battle and thus the war was lost.

This short story illustrates the bravery of both American, Vietnamese and Montagnard warriors in the battle of Khe Sanh.

For this some of the American survivors to this day draw disability pay. More recent veterans were the target of the recent legislation. Their stories are at least as gripping as mine and I hope that by reporting them that we can gain some momentum to change the collective congressional minds.

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