Week of January 21

Week of January 21

The besieged Marines at Khe Sanh were cut off by land, forcing them to rely on Marine, Navy, Army, and Air Force aircraft for air support, supplies, and casualty evacuations. In Operation NIAGRA, U.S. aircraft and artillery carried out a round-the-clock barrage of North Vietnamese positions, and helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft worked feverishly to keep the Marines supplied with ammunition, provisions, and medical aid. Over the course of the battle, U.S. aircraft flew between 300 and 500 sorties per day in support of the garrison.

Khe Sanh quickly became the subject of intense public focus in the United States. Many military leaders and others in the Johnson administration believed it was a precursor to an imminent North Vietnamese invasion of South Vietnam, and that Hà Nội hoped to destroy the base much as the Viet Minh had surrounded and destroyed the French garrison at Điện Biên Phủ at the conclusion of the First Indochina War in 1954. Some even believed Khe Sanh would be the site of the turning point of the war, and for a time President Lyndon Johnson followed the battle almost minute to minute. It turned out that the battle at Khe Sanh was not the precursor to a North Vietnamese invasion, but instead a diversionary attack before the sudden onset, at the end of January, of the Việt Cộng general offensive that became known as the Tet Offensive.

The siege and battle at Khe Sahn lasted until early April. The Marines there endured a near-constant pounding from enemy artillery, despite continuous attempts to beat them back by air, artillery, and small arms. Barrages of rockets, mortars, and other artillery; snipers; and frequent ground attacks by North Vietnamese infantry took a tremendous physical and psychological toll on Khe Sanh’s defenders. But they continued to hold their positions, and in early March, with the Tet Offensive nearly defeated, Communist forces began a protracted withdrawal from Khe Sanh into Laos. Finally, on April 8, 1968, a relief column including elements of the U.S. Army 1st Cavalry Division, the Marine Corps 3d Division, and South Vietnamese airborne and ranger units linked up with Khe Sanh’s defenders and lifted the siege.

A total of 205 Marines were killed in the battle, and hundreds more were killed in relief and related support operations—including as many as 1,500 allied Montagnard tribespeople. Over 1,600 Americans were wounded. North Vietnamese casualties were greater. Hà Nội government sources officially listed 2,270 soldiers killed in the Khe Sanh fighting, primarily as a result of American air and artillery strikes, but the true total was likely higher.

U.S. forces eventually abandoned the base at Khe Sanh in July 1968. Both sides claimed the months-long engagement as a victory. North Vietnam maintained that the siege had never been designed to overrun the combat base, but instead to draw allied troops and resources away from the planned Tet Offensive. Whether wholly true or not, that part of Hà Nội’s plan worked, at least to an extent. In the end however, U.S. Marines at Khe Sanh withstood attacks from forces that vastly outnumbered their own, and U.S. airpower and artillery likely decimated two enemy divisions. MACV strategists used this and the ultimate defeat of Tet to assert that U.S. troops had emerged from the fighting of Spring 1968 as the victors.1

1Jack Shulimson, et. al., U.S. Marines in Vietnam: The Defining Year, 1968 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Marine Corps History and Museums Division, 1997), 58, 61–65, 70–72, 255–58, 260, 269, 277, 282, 289–90; Graham A. Cosmas, United States Army in Vietnam: MACV: The Joint Command in the Years of Withdrawal, 1968–1973 (Washington D.C.: Center of Military History, 2006), 34–35, 37–41, 72–74, 84; George C. Herring, America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950–1975 (4th edition; New York and other cities: McGraw Hill, 2002), 227–28, 247; Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History (New York: Viking Press, 1983), 539–42; Spencer C. Tucker, ed., The Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military History (2nd edition; Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2011), 579–83.