On Jan. 21, 1968, elements of 3rd Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment, came under heavy mortar, rocket and artillery fire at the Khe Sanh Combat Base in Quang Tri province, Republic of South Vietnam. In the initial volley, both of the base ammunition dumps were hit by incoming artillery destroying most of the Marines’ ordnance supply. The bombardment was constant, making resupply life-risking. The Marines had 77 arduous days of hell ahead of them.
In order to keep Marines fighting, Col. David E. Lownds, the base commander, estimated by mid-January that 60 tons of supplies per day were needed. This figure was later raised to 185 tons after reinforcements arrived. Delivery of supplies was inhibited by impassible of nearby major roads and winter monsoon weather. Aircraft were subjected to anti-aircraft fire on approach and take-off, as well as North Vietnamese army mortar and artillery fire after landing. Despite the tremendous challenges, Marines found a solution with the “super gaggle,” massing 12 A-4 Skyhawk fighter-bombers to provide suppression and 12-16 helicopters to bring in supplies.
In response to the events at Khe Sanh, the U.S. Seventh Air Force initiated Operation Niagara, Jan. 22, 1968, an extensive bombing campaign where Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy pilots flew more than 24,000 combat missions, dropping 103,000 tons of explosives on NVA positions surrounding the base. One type of air strike, known as an arc light, utilized B-52F Stratofortress bombers and their 30-ton ordnance capacity to blanket the enemy in pure destruction.
“We had around nine arc lights a day, along with 200 to 300 sorties,” said retired Col. Richard D. Camp Jr., company commander of Company L, 3rd Bn., 26th Marines, who was a captain at the time. “It felt like there was hardly a daylight moment where there wasn’t an aircraft flying around.”
Various strategic hills and villages around the base were also hit hard by North Vietnamese troops, causing a high number of casualties. The village of Lang Vei, where a Special Forces camp was located, was overrun by NVA troops and tanks.
“The worst of Khe Sanh was at the village of Lang Vei,” said former Marine Lawrence W. Hale, a Khe Sanh veteran. “The whole village, children and all, were killed. I listened and relayed their messages asking for help. The sounds of their desperation still echo in my ears, as if I still had my headset on.”
Throughout the siege, Marines enhanced their defenses daily patrols, halting enemy probes and effectively holding off NVA forces, in conjunction with air and indirect fire support.
Operation Pegasus, a plan to send a relief force of Army, Marine and South Vietnamese army units, began in April 1, 1968. At 8 a.m., April 8, elements of the Army’s 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, entered the Khe Sanh Combat Base, officially relieving the Marines.
“We were able to wash the red dirt of Khe Sanh from our bodies,” said Hale. “However, the memories will always be with us. Memories of all who fought – many gave away all of their tomorrows. Some came home with scars deep in their hearts.”