A Clash in the Mountains

In the summer and fall of 1966, the Marines and the North Vietnamese had clashed in the mountains northwest of Dong Ha.  Soon afterwards, the Marine command placed a company of grunts at Khe Sanh to “monitor” the mountain infiltration routes into South Vietnam.  In the spring of the next year, these grunts attracted two regiments of NVA soldiers into the hills around the isolated outpost.  In April and May 1967, the grunts rushed in reinforcements and had attacked the entrenched enemy northwest of Khe Sanh.  After those brutal battles, commonly called “the hill fights,” the North Vietnamese had withdrawn and the grunts retained only a token force at the Khe Sanh outpost.

Khe Sanh 002The small airstrip had always been the lifeline to Khe Sanh.  In the fall of 1967, engineers had flown into the outpost and had spend almost three months laying crushed rock, asphalt, and steel Marston-matting on the airstrip.  When finally reopened in late October, the new 3,900 foot long runway could handle VFR and IFR landings by any aircraft up to the size of a C-130 turboprop.

The first new alarm signals began in the late fall of 1967.  Helicopters routinely dropped recon teams into the hills, and they began making some startling discoveries.  New trails crisscrossed the mountains and scores of NVA troops columns were spotted as they methodically converged on the plateau.  Often the recon teams accidently landed near these NVA units and had to call the helicopter pilots back for an emergency evacuation.  Looking down from above, pilots saw that new roads had been hacked out of the jungle.  The columns of enemy trucks and troops were all headed for Khe Sanh.

Khe Sanh 001In response to the massive enemy buildup, the grunts raced in reinforcements.  Soon, the entire 26th Marines would be airlifted to the small garrison, marking the first time since Iwo Jima in World War II that all of its battalions had deployed for combat together.  More helicopters flew in to bolster the garrison.  Huey gunships squatted between new protective revetments, and H-46’s stood ready to haul recon teams into or out of the surrounding hills.  Pilots and air crewmen spent their time digging deeper bunkers and waiting for the enemy onslaught that everyone predicted would come.

“Somewhere Out There, within artillery range of the Khe Sanh Combat Base … concealed and silent and ominous, lay five full divisions of North Vietnamese regulars.”  —Michael Herr (Dispatches)

Bonnie-Sue: A Marine Corps Helicopter Squadron in Vietnam

Marion F. Sturkey, U. S. Marine Corps