Surprised By An Old Memory: Khe Sanh During The Siege Jan. 21 to April 12, 1968

When I sit down to write each day, it is my routine to do some searching on various news and historical sites as well as social media sites on the internet for subjects to write about. Today, I was shocked, suddenly knocked back to a moment in my own life some 53 years ago, with the sudden image of an old CBS News video taken in Vietnam at Khe Sanh during the siege of the Tet Offensive in 1968. 

I had forgotten about it, but there it was on my computer screen. There before me were the 19 and 20 year old faces and voices of some of my Bravo Co. 3rd Recon brothers. 

You could have knocked me over with a feather.  

Shells fall around Khe Sanh Combat Base, c. 1968.

Those 77 days under siege at that forward air base, surrounded by maybe 40,000 NVA, hurling heavy artillery, mortars and themselves at us day after day, were some of the worst days of our lives. They were some of the most painful, frustrating and, in some ways, the most monotonous days of our lives as well. It was not the kind of fighting Marines do. Marines are made for being on the attack, not sitting in bunkers and moving in trenches, constantly taking cover from the heavy barrages of artillery that would come at almost any time of day. But there we were and everything depended on our defending and keeping that base…and our lives. 

In the midst of this madness, we were aware of the fact there were some equally mad journalists that would come to the base during the siege, braving the anti-aircraft fire and the constant shelling to get the news of what was happening there back to “The World,” which is what we called home, because where we were and what we were in was not the world we were missing and praying about getting back to. It was not the “normal” reality of the world we had known only days, weeks, or months before we found ourselves under that siege.   

Supplies being dropped into the base during the siege of Khe Sanh.
Supplies being dropped into the base during the siege of Khe Sanh.

This video was taken in our Bravo, 3rd Recon area of the Khe Sanh base. You will hear the CBS correspondent describe this area as the “V” zone. That term essentially means that we were the main target zone for the NVA artillery from which they could then target other areas. It was said that our area of the base took more rounds per square foot than the rest of the base. The Bravo Reconners you will see here are sitting near and atop some of the bunkers and sand-bagged abutments we had built by this time in the siege. We were about a month into it when this video was taken.  Those bunkers and trenches and abutments would grow and become more intricate as the siege went on.

What really hit me was looking at those faces in the video was how young they were. At first they were just a group of anonymous faces under helmets and above flack jackets, but they gradually became more and more familiar. I heard myself saying, “Hey, I know them.”

Marine Air Traffic Control Unit (MATCU) 62 detachment area at Khe Sanh.
Marine Air Traffic Control Unit (MATCU) 62 detachment area at Khe Sanh.

I had lived with these Marines in those bunkers and trenches. I could put names on several of those faces, while others remain still unnamed. I have been going to the 3rd Recon, or the Khe Sanh Veterans reunions on occasion over the last six years or so and have been with these men in more the more convivial times of those reunions, all of us in our 70s now. They had been lost to me for the span of at least four decades. When we left Vietnam, we never saw each other again. 

I was “found” six years ago because of the efforts of a fellow Corpsman who had been looking for me for years. We had arrived in country the same day, were assigned to Bravo, 3rd Recon together, went through the siege, caring for our wounded and killed brothers, spent another seven months patrolling with our separate 6-8 man patrols, and were transferred in our last month or two to Charley Med, before being rotated back to The World.  

A Bell UH-1H-BF Iroquois helicopter (s/n 69-15883) at Khe Sanh combat base museum, Vietnam.
A Bell UH-1H-BF Iroquois helicopter (s/n 69-15883) at Khe Sanh combat base museum, Vietnam.

To see and suddenly recognize his young face and that of another dear friend who we have been able to see many times now at those reunions was a shock to my system. We were so young! One of the other faces I recognized was that of another of our fellow Corpsmen who, sadly, died at Khe Sanh toward the end of the siege.   

Memories! Funny how they can rush into the conscious mind with such force and with so much emotion attached. At the beginning of the Siege of Khe Sanh, Bravo Co. had 110 men. By the end of the siege, we had suffered 19 KIA and 49 WIA. That casualty rate was equal to that of the Battle of Gettysburg.  

Marines of the 3d Marine Division bow their heads in memory of other Marines and the soldiers of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam who sacrificed their lives during the battle for Khe Sanh.
Marines of the 3d Marine Division bow their heads in memory of other Marines and the soldiers of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam who sacrificed their lives during the battle for Khe Sanh.

That I am here and that I am still good friends with some of the men whose young faces you see in this video, is but a grace of God. We who survived and who have had the gift of long life and all of its ups and downs, trials and joys, will never forget those who fell there in the red earth of Khe Sanh. 

We are truly Fratres Aeterni (Brothers Forever) and we remain Semper Fidelis (Always Faithful)!  OooRah!

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