The Battle of Khe Sanh was a battle that took place in Quang Tri Province, Republic of Vietnam located in South Vietnam, between January 21st and July 9th 1968 during the Vietnam War. The Battle of Khe Sanh was the longest, deadliest and most controversial battle of the Vietnam War, pitting the U.S. Marines and their allies against the North Vietnamese Army. In a war with unclear enemies and unconventional battle lines, body count and statistics became the tell-tale signs of victory.
The battle was fought at the Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB), formally a French outpost, was being used by the U.S. as a staging area for forward patrols and was a potential launch point for contemplated future operations to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. This Base was threatened when General Vo Nguyen Giap deployed the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) to overrun the village of Khe Sanh and opened fire on the base itself, hitting its main ammunition dump and detonating 1,500 tons of explosives. As a result, U.S. Marine Corps helicopter units, under the command of General William Westmoreland, were deployed around Khe Sanh to support operations by U.S. Special Forces and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) in a campaign known as Operation Niagara. The Battle of Khe Sanh had begun.
During the battle that lasted 77 days, the KSCB and the hilltop outposts around it were under constant North Vietnamese ground, artillery, mortar, and rocket attacks; because of the incessant barrage Khe Sanh’s Marine defenders pinned down in their trenches and bunkers. During the 66-day siege, U.S. planes, dropping 5,000 bombs daily, exploded the equivalent of five Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs in the area. The relief of Khe Sanh, known as Operation Pegasus, began in early April as U.S. Airmobile and a South Vietnamese battalion approached the base from the east and south, while the Marines pushed westward to re-open Route 9.
Almost simultaneously in Lang Vei, the Tet Offensive was being launched prematurely in other areas, but General Westmoreland would not let this distract form the siege of Khe Sanh, believing that General Giap was trying to shift is focus away from the task at hand. It came as a shock to U.S. troops when 12 tanks attacked their camp at Lang Vei on February 7, 1968. The ground troops had been specially equipped for the attack with satchel charges, tear gas, and flame throwers and although the camp’s main defenses were overrun in only 13 minutes, the fighting lasted several hours. The Marines at Khe Sanh had a plan in place for providing a ground relief force in place for such a situation, but Colonel Lownds fearing an ambush from PAVN forces, refused to implement it. Lownds also rejected a proposal to launch a helicopter extraction of the survivors. Finally, relief efforts were sent, but by then 10 of the 24 Americans at the camp were dead, with 11 of them injured. The Vietcong were disarmed and forced to sit, under armed guard, in bomb craters. Without food or water, many of the Laotians turned around and walked back down Route 9 toward Laos.
The precise nature of Giap’s strategic goal at Khe Sanh is regarded as one of the most intriguing unanswered questions of the Vietnam War. This perplexing problem, known among historians as the “Riddle of Khe Sanh” has been summed up by John Prados and Ray Stubbe: “Either the Tet offensive was a diversion intended to facilitate PAVN/NLF preparations for a war-winning battle at Khe Sanh, or Khe Sanh was a diversion to mesmerize Westmoreland in the days before Tet.” More perceptive observers than Westmoreland believed that the siege served a wider communist strategy; it diverted 30,000 US troops away from the cities that were the main targets of the Tet Offensive.
There has been much controversy over the battle at Khe Sanh, as both sides claimed victory. The North Vietnamese, although they failed to take the base, claimed that they had tied down a lot of U.S. combat assets that could have been used elsewhere in South Vietnam. This is true, but the North Vietnamese failed to achieve the decisive victory at Khe Sanh that they had won against the French. For their part, the Americans claimed victory because they had held the base against the North Vietnamese onslaught. It was a costly battle for both sides. The official casualty count for the Battle of Khe Sanh was 205 Marines killed in action and over 1,600 wounded (this figure did not include the American and South Vietnamese soldiers killed in other battles in the region). The U.S. military headquarters in Saigon estimated that the North Vietnamese lost between 10,000 and 15,000 men in the fighting at Khe Sanh.
There was no clear winner to the Battle of Khe Sanh, as both sides have claimed for years to be the victor. All that is known is that both sides suffered great loss of human life, while showing the strategic strength of both Generals.
Works Cited Page
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