As inconceivable as it seems, this event that profoundly shaped this writer’s life is now 55 years in my past. At the age of 20, I arrived in Vietnam in mid-January of 1968. I was a Fleet Marine Force (FMF) Navy Hosptial Corpsman, and on my arrival in the country, I was attached to Bravo Co., 3rd Recon Bn., 3rd Marine Division, which at that time was stationed as the reconnaissance unit with the 26th Marines at a place called Khe Sanh.
On January 21, 1968, the Marine forward air base at Khe Sanh was struck by a massive artillery barrage launched by elements of two North Vietnamese divisions that had surrounded the base and the hills around the base in the weeks leading up to that moment. The attack started at about 0500 in the morning, and the major ammunition dumps on the base were hit. That resulted in massive ongoing explosions for hours, which destroyed massive amounts of the base’s ammunition supplies. This was about a week before the beginning of the major offensive by the North Vietnamese that would become known as the TET Offensive. And it was the beginning of what would become a 77-day-long siege of Khe Sanh.
The video you will see here is about the military operation that was put together involving the Marines, Air Force, Army, and Navy forces to relieve the siege. It was called “Operation Pegasus.” The operation was launched on April 1, 1968, with multiple Marine units, including the 2nd Bn. 1st Marine Regiment, the 2nd Bn. 3rd Marine Regiment, the 4th Marine Regiment, and the 9th Marine Regiment, along with the Army’s 1st Air Cavalry Division, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps pilots flying fighters, B-52s, and every imaginable kind of helicopter. Operation Pegasus combined these units in multiple coordinated efforts on the ground and in the air to drive the North Vietnamese out of the area and to end the siege.
The Marine units were engaged in efforts to open up Highway 9, which was the main route running east to west from the coast into Khe Sanh and beyond to the Laotian border. They encountered stiff resistance but pushed the NVA back, repairing the road and rebuilding bridges as they went. The Army was also involved in driving the enemy away from the hills that Marines had been defending over the 77 days of the siege. During the siege, those hills were attacked ferociously, and the Khe Sanh base itself was attacked on five separate occasions by battalion-sized enemy forces. Those attacks were repelled decisively every time.
Operation Pegasus combined Marine units and the Army’s 1st Air Cavalry Division in coordinated efforts to bring the long siege to an end. We Marines who had endured the hell of daily artillery, mortar, and rocket fire, as well as the several assaults by battalion-sized forces, were eager to take the fight to the enemy. After Operation Pegasus began, we started seeing the skies fill with every conceivable kind of helicopter we could imagine. The 1st Air Cav was flying everything they had into the areas surrounding the base. The 6,000 Marines who had endured and fought with great courage and effectiveness against forces that were three times greater in number resented some comments that were made by Army leadership suggesting that the Air Cav. had saved us at that time. No, it would be more accurate to say that we were pissed at such a suggestion.
The Air Force and Marine and Navy pilots involved in Operation Pegasus would launch their own operation at this time called “Operation Niagara.” They would drop some 150,000 tons of bombs on the enemy, and combined Marine and Army artillery gunners would unload 158,000 rounds of artillery on the NVA positions over the course of the operation.
On April 5th, the 26th Marines, who had defended that base with undaunted courage, finally got their chance to break out of the base and take the offensive against the enemy that had besieged them over the last two and a half months. They did so with a vengeance.
Those of us who fought at Khe Sanh share a pride born from the hell of that place for what we did and endured there together. We witnessed uncommon valor daily. The cost was great and very personal. My unit, Bravo Co. 3rd Recon, alone suffered a 60% casualty rate, 19 KIA and 49 WIA out of 110 men. We dug our homes into the red clay-like earth and made trenches connecting every bunker. With Marine Corps gallows humor, we said of these accommodations, “Home is where you dig it.” We ate nothing but C-rations and Kool-Aid-flavored water because the water was nasty without the flavoring. We wore the same clothes for weeks, unable to bathe with anything more than a helmet full of water. Those 77 days have etched themselves into our memories. Though we have grown old, the faces of our friends who fell there remain eternally young in our imaginations.
As I write these words, it is the 55th anniversary of Operation Pegasus and the end of the Battle of Khe Sanh, the bloodiest and longest battle of the Vietnam War. That God has given me and my fellow surviving Khe Sanh Marines the generous graces of a long life well lived overwhelms us. Over the 55 years since those dark days, our lives have taken on more meaning. Though we have contributed to society in small and often great ways through our long professional lives, have had the privilege and pleasure of raising families, and are now proud grandparents, our experiences at Khe Sanh remain a profound part of us and always will. To my fellow Khe Sanh Survivors I say, Welcome Home. We remain Semper Fidelis until the last man stands. Bravo Zulu! OooRah!Whizzco