It is a rare thing to be a part of a major moment in history.
Fifty years ago, on the 21st of January, 1968, the Marine forward air base at Khe Sanh came under siege at around 5:30 in the morning and for the next 77 days the base was surrounded and attacked repeatedly by a force of 20,000 North Vietnam Army Regulars (NVA). The NVA began coordinated attacks on the Marines defending the hills around the base at the same time: Hill 881, 861a and 861b, as well as the village of Khe Sanh.
The NVA were supported by another 20,000 men in the immediate area. There were 6,000 Marines and Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) allies defending the base.
I was there. I was a Fleet Marine Force Navy Hospital Corpsman fresh in country having arrived on the 15th of January in Phu Bai.
From there I was flown to Dong Ha where I was assigned to Bravo Co. 3rd Recon Bn, 3rd Mar. Div. When I got my orders to Bravo Co. 3rd Recon from a Marine Corps captain, he handed me an M-16 and told me, “Doc, from here on you are a Marine first and a Corpsman second.”
I was to find out what that meant very soon.
At that time, Bravo Co., 3rd Recon was deployed at Khe Sanh as the reconnaissance element for the Reinforced Regiment of the 26th Marines who defended the base. But we must not forget that the hill fights were a major part of this siege as well.
On the first day the base was hit with an extremely heavy barrage of artillery, rocket and mortar fire from the NVA forces. It was a powerful and devastating attack which included a direct hit on one of the ammo dumps on the base. The explosions from the ammo dump added to the furor and destruction going on around us, exponentially.
On that day, the Marines began to dig deep into the red clay of Khe Sanh, quickly moving all living, cooking, and command spaces underground to try to survive the constant onslaught of the NVA heavy artillery. That digging would evolve into a daily routine and within days, we not only had underground bunkers built for everything, but we had excavated 8-foot-deep trenches that laced each of the Bravo, 3rd Recon bunkers together.
We literally lived each day below ground.
In addition to being bombarded most days by the NVA artillery and mortars, the base was attacked by battalion sized NVA units on five different occasions. All the while we were supported by Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force fighter planes and supply planes. This video will give you a sense of how important that aerial support was for us.
This was our world for 77 days.
At the end of the siege on April 9, 1968 the Marines at Khe Sanh had suffered 205 Killed in Action (KIA) casualties and around 800 wounded in action (WIA). Bravo Co. 3rd Recon had begun the siege with a full compliment of 110 men.
During those 77 days we had lost 19 KIA and 49 WIA. All were good men, and young. Of the KIA, 17 were Marines and 2 were Navy Hospital Corpsman. I had come to know many of those young men as friends. I had taken care of some of them personally when they were hit. In the end, only 42 of us were able to walk onto the helicopters that would take us to Quang Tri, where the rest of 3rd Recon Bn. was deployed at that time.
This video will give you a sense of what that momentous battle in Marine Corps history was like.
The Veterans Site wishes to send its respect to all those 26th Marines, 9th Marines, Seabees and Air Force personnel who served at Khe Sanh and in the Hill Fights around Khe Sanh during those searing and challenging days of early 1968. Your heroism will not be forgotten.
This writer sends his love to all of his Bravo 3rd Recon brothers who fought and survived that siege together. We and our fellow Khe Sanh Veterans are truly a band of brothers like no other. Semper Fi, Marines and fellow Corpsmen.
Interested in more war history? Click the button below to see what it’s like to “fast rope” out of a CH-46, just like the Marines did in Vietnam.
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Dan Doyle is a husband, father, grandfather, Vietnam veteran, and retired professor of Humanities at Seattle University. He taught 13 years at the high school level and 22 years at the university level. He spends his time now babysitting his granddaughter. He is a poet and a blogger as well. Dan holds an AA degree in English Literature, a BA in Comparative Literature, and an MA in Theology, and writes regularly for The Veterans Site Blog.