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  After those brutal battles, commonly called “the hill fights,” the North Vietnamese had withdrawn and the grunts retained only a token force at the Khe Sanh outpost.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

18 thoughts on “A Clash in the Mountains”

  1. “Five full divisions …” Hard to imagine what was going through the minds of those Marines. It makes you proud of them. It makes you proud to know that these kinds of Marines still exist. I may have to look for that book, “Bonnie-Sue.” Thanks for the tip.

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  2. I was in and out of Khe Sanh at least 50 times during early 1968 in an Army UH1D Huey. We were attached to the 1st Signal Brigade carrying equipment and manpower. To this day, I still can’t believe that we were never shot down. What a Hell Hole! God bless the Marines that were stationed there! If they didn’t have nerves of steel when they got there, they surely had them when they left!

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  3. It is incredible to read that this was the first full deployment since Iwo Jima for the US Marine Corps 26th regiment. They similarly ended up on a small bit of real estate and simply did their job. I wish more of the American public today would realize the price your Marine Corps paid. As “Old Man Jack” said a few times to me, “We (white caps) would pick fights with the Marines ‘cuz they thought they were better than us…but there was nobody else we’d rather have protecting our sorry asses on those stinkin’ (WWII) islands when it came time.”

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    1. Both the Navy and Marine Corps make up the naval service and, as with any large family, there are some interesting arguments—especially after too much booze, alligator mouths, and canary assholes. One of my good friends comments here from time to time, a former petty officer, U. S. Navy … and I cannot imagine better people to serve along side than he and a few others who we Marines called “Doc.”

      I appreciate your comments, Koji … I hope you will stop back again. I usually post here on Fridays, and Mon-Wed-Fri at my other blog.

      Semper Fi

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    1. Most Marines know what it is like being at sea; most, however, do not know what it is like being at sea on a DD or DE. It can be rough in a storm. When I think of the valor our Navy displayed during World War II at sea against the Japanese, when I think of the flight deck of any US aircraft carrier (the mot dangerous place on the planet during flight operations), and whenever I think of the raw courage to perform as a field hospital corpsman under fire, I am in awe of my Navy brothers and sisters. To each of them I say, “Well done thou good and faithful servant.”

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    2. “Well done thou good and faithful servant.” Tongue in cheek? Well, perhaps it isn’t and just praise but I can see you and Old Man Jack “tussling” on those godforsaken sands during WWII.

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    3. It is genuine respect for the jobs they do under difficult circumstances, like the USS Roberts (FFG 58) that found itself in a minefield in 1988. It took true grit to deal with that problem, and those exceptional men overcame their circumstances. For another example of naval heroism, read about the USS Roberts (DE 413) during World War II.

      A friend of mine, a Navy Officer, once told me that sailors aren’t “troops” in the way of front line soldiers and Marines. They are an amazing combination of technicians with unbelievable skill sets —without whom no ship could be deployed. But the men who fight the ship are not the sailors, but the line officers and senior petty officers responsible for tactical deployment and surface combat maneuvering. I’m not sure that the engine man who found himself in the water with other crewmen, trying to survive the onslaught of shark attacks for several days, would agree.

      But no … my praise for the U. S. Navy is sincere.

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  4. Le militaire américain sont si courageux. Il est facile de les respecter tous, et oui je pense qu’il est également facile de vouloir être dans leurs légions.

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    1. Yes, very courageous Louis. And courage takes many different forms. Thank you for continuing to read this blog, and for commenting.

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  5. Khe Sanh was tough ground. I had a friend in the battle there, he only spoke of it once, and then never again. The Marines there did one hell of a job. Joshua Chamberlain called such men giants, and I agree.

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    1. In the end, I think General Giap decided that it would cost too many lives to take that position; in the end, I think General Giap knew that the U. S. Marines were not going to give it up without one hell of a fight. He knew that the forces there were led by the Lion of Khe Sanh … David E. Lownds (1920-2011). Thank you for stopping by, William.

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