One Veteran Shares What It Was Like to Be Surrounded by the North Vietnamese for 77 Dreadful Days
Recon teams from Bravo Company, 3rd Recon Battalion at Khe Sanh had been reporting large enemy movements long before the siege started. Many had experienced contact with elements of the NVA for some time, but the higher-ups seemed to be in denial about the size and intent of the enemy. By the end of December, Khe Sanh was observing blackout orders at night.
On January 21, 1968 at 5:00 a.m. the base was hit with its first heavy bombardment from NVA artillery and mortar batteries. 50,000 well-trained, well-equipped NVA had surrounded the base and had begun a siege that would go on for the next 77 days.
Hitting the Ground Running
I arrived at Khe Sanh as a 20-year-old, fresh-in-country Corpsman assigned to Bravo, 3rd Recon. When myself and another new Corpsman were flown into Khe Sanh on a Caribou cargo plane, we were told that the plane was not going to stop to unload, that it would taxi in to the loading area and we were to run off the back ramp as it kept rolling and into bunkers beside the airstrip. That’s what we did and then watched while it continued back out to the runway to take off as fast as it could to avoid being hit by incoming mortars.
That was my introduction to the war. Little did I know what lay ahead. The NVA would begin firing their mortars as planes landed. They would hit a big C-130 during the siege, and one large 53 Seaking medivac helicopter, killing several Marines and wounding many more.
From the 21st of January to the 9th of April, the Marines at Khe Sanh would endure daily artillery and mortar barrages. The NVA would also probe for weaknesses along our perimeters and would even try to tunnel under the base. Corpsmen from Bravo Company would often be called upon to take their stethoscopes and listen to metal stakes pounded into the ground to see if we could hear any sounds that would imply tunneling beneath the base. There were about 5,000 Marines and Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) troops on the base when the siege began.
“One of the men, thinking that others may not yet have assembled, suggested that we wait for the others. We were told that we were it.”
Bravo, 3rd Recon had 110 men on January 21st. On April 9th when the siege had been lifted, our Company Commander gathered us together for a photo for historical purposes. We were issued new, clean fatigues to put on. We had not showered or bathed fully in 77 days. We had lived underground in bunkers of our own making in the red earth of that part of Vietnam. Everything we wore was covered with that red dust. The letters I wrote home during the siege still have that red dirt smudged into them.
We put those newly issued fatigues on over our dirty bodies and began to gather together for that photo. Our CO began to read off all of the names of those who were present. There were 42 gathered together there. One of the men, thinking that others may not yet have assembled, suggested that we wait for the others. We were told that we were it.
At the end of the siege only 42 of the original 110 were able to walk onto the one helicopter that would take us away from that place where we had struggled, fought, and survived together for so long. Nineteen of our men had been KIA as a result of the constant and accurate artillery and mortar fire. 49 had been wounded and evacuated either to the rear or to hospitals in Japan, the Philippines, or the U.S.
No Rest for the Weary
We were supposed to be taken back to Quang Tri to be reunited with the full battalion, but for some reason, we were flown to Phu Bai. We would not be able to get further transportation to Quang Tri until the next day. It was late in the day, we were exhausted, dirty, and benumbed. But we were not alone. Our 1st Recon brothers at Phu Bai gave us soap and towels and opened their facilities to us so that we could take our first showers in months. They fired up the ovens in the mess tent and cooked us our first real meal since January 21st. We had been living on C-rations and Kool-Aid alone during the siege.
That part of the war was over for us. We were told when we got to Quang Tri that we would be given a month to get back into condition, and re-equip ourselves before we would be going back out on the recon patrol missions that we had been trained to do, to become once again the “eyes and ears” of the 3rd Marine Division. That would not be the case, of course. We were back at it within a week.
At 20 years of age these kinds of experiences have a way of tattooing themselves into the memory. You are no longer 20 years old, you are 40. You face your own mortality in ways that are not normal, that are intense, immediate, and certain. Your dependence on your brothers for mere survival is complete. When you endure something like that you form a brotherhood like no other. Being with the men that I went through these things with again this past week has been one of the most moving experiences I have had in a long time.
We are old men now in our 60s and 70s. Some of us are struggling with the health issues that come with age. Many have died and our numbers are growing smaller every year. We are all slower, grayer, heavier than we were back then, but when we get together we are young men again, enjoying our shared memories, laughing about the crazy things we did, and mourning those who died, and who we remember as they were back then.
I am, of course, thankful that I came home, that I was able to marry a woman who has loved me for over 40 years now, to have been given the gift of two beautiful daughters and three wonderful grandchildren. I was able to enjoy a meaningful and purposeful career and to build a good life. I am thankful for those men who gathered in Sparks, Nevada this past week to spend time together again, to enjoy the camaraderie of that singular brotherhood again. I am glad, too, that we were able to remember those who died. The experiences of war never leave us. We endured our struggles with PTSD to recover from our wounds and our memories. We overcame to varying degrees, and we got on with our lives. But we never forget.
Thank you to all my brothers in Bravo Company and to all our brothers from who fought with 3rd Recon Battalion, 3rd Marine Division in that war long ago. Thanks to all who have served in all of our wars. We did our duty, and we did it with honor. Our honor and respect goes out to all those who died and to their families. Semper Fi!
You were all good Marines.