In the early hours of January 21, 1968, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) began an attack on an isolated marine base at Khe Sanh. In what would later be known as the Battle of Khe Sanh, the devastating assault lasted for 77 days, one of the longest and deadliest of the war. A guided DMZ tour or doing your own reading in advance will greatly enhance your visit to this site.
Located just 20 kilometres from the Lao border and situated on a plateau, remote Khe Sanh Marine Base was surrounded by nothing but it was esteemed to have great strategic importance to American forces as it gave them control of Highway 9, a position to sever the Ho Chi Minh Trail and stop the NVA from entering from their bases in Laos.
The site is now a big, bare field except for a small museum, a metal surfaced airstrip and military hardware on display including spent ordinance, a bunker, two American helicopters and a plane – these were all brought in from south Vietnam and were not remnants of Khe Sanh. The museum has an effective display of photos and artefacts from combatants on both sides. For us, one of the most memorable items is a roughly sketched plan for an attack on fire bases. To see how the fates of many were destined in a few circles and arrows is unsettling.
The photos and captions emphasise how the Americans left in a desperate panic under fire, but you can read between the lines. At the end of the day, as you look at dog tags imprinted with names, look at the faces of young men staring back at you from ID cards, you can only contemplate who was the real enemy and how meaningless words like “victory” are.
The siege began on January 21, 1968, with an attack on Hill 881 and 861 followed by a massive artillery bombardment of the base that included a direct hit on a main ammunition store which instantly killed 18 soldiers, wounded 40 and blew up 90% of the base’s artillery and mortar rounds. It was the beginning of one of the longest battles of the war, drawing intense, gripping coverage by the media and obsessive attention by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Khe Sanh had eerie similarities to the battle of Dien Bien Phu – which saw the French defeated – and so Khe Sanh was to be defended and held at any cost in what was called Operation Scotland.
Some 20,000 NVA forces surrounded and lay siege to 5,000 marines and 1,000 South Vietnam soldiers, who could only be resupplied by air which NVA anti-aircraft prevented. The situation became desperate fast, with constant shellfire, skirmishes of hand-to-hand combat, rations depleted, underground barracks deep in mud and filth and casualties unable to be evacuated, all with the knowledge that at any moment they would be overrun – the NVA were building miles of bunkers and trenches leading to the base. The battle ended when B-52s carpet bombed the trenches and they were able to retake Highway 9.
Although the Americans could call it a victory, 205 Marines were killed in action and more than 1,600 were wounded; this does not include the casualties of other supporting operations during the siege, which would greatly increase the numbers. The NVA suffered tremendously. The official number is around 1,600 but it is more likely that up to 15,000 died fighting. Overall the battle was a diversionary tactic. Its start 10 days before the surprise Tet Offensive was no coincidence. It managed to draw attention and resources away from the south, while the Tet Offensive strained the ability to defend Khe Sanh.
Though considered a military victory, the riveting global news coverage of the battle (including the cover of Newsweek) and the shock of the Tet Offensive had public opinion turn sharply against the war and in June 1968, mere months after the bloody battle, General Westmoreland ordered the base to be deserted and destroyed.
Five things you didn’t know about Khe Sanh.
A three-minute video of a marine medic’s first hand account with some archival footage.
A retrospective including an aerial map of the base.
Summary of the Battle of Khe Sanh.
How to get there
The base is located close to Khe Sanh town. From Dong Ha travel west on QL9 for 60 kilometres in the direction of Lao Bao (the Lao border). At the town roundabout/monument, turn right and head north on Ho Chi Minh Highway West for 2.6 kilometres. There’s a sign marking the entrance - it's also called "san bay Ta Con" (Ta Con airfield) and "bao tang Khe Sanh" (Khe Sanh museum).
By Cindy Fan
Last updated on 13th March, 2016.