Fifty years ago, in a place far away, 6,000 Marines, Corpsmen, doctors and nurses and a handful of Seabees and Airmen found themselves in one of those life-shaping experiences. That far away place was called Khe Sanh and it was not just far away in physical distance, but it was as far away as anything could be from what we Vietnam veterans euphemistically called “The World” as we had known it.
The picture accompanying this article is an areal view of the base at Khe Sanh. It was taken a little over a year after the 77-day-long siege had ended in April 1968. In it you can see the beautiful landscape of that part of Vietnam. The jungle covered mountains look serene, even peaceful from the distance.
The beauty of nature seems to fill the photographic limits of this photo taken by a Recon Marine from a helicopter flying over the base on his way to another patrol assignment in the area. The war, after all was still going on in and around the area in May 1969.
The immensity and the beauty of the scene in this photo belies what happened there a year earlier. The landscape is so striking that you might miss the subject at the center of the photograph. Look closely and you will see the remains of the airstrip and areas around it that made up the Khe Sanh Combat Base. It is almost lost in the grandeur of that beauty, but there it is, and seeing it brings back a thousand memories.
Fifty years ago, that landscape was alive with 50,000 NVA enemy soldiers. The NVA units that were there surrounding that base and its 6,000 defenders were among the best, the most elite of General Giap’s army, and they were intent on turning that siege into another Dien Bien Phu. In the end, they were unable to accomplish their objective. Instead, they faced and fought some dedicated and hard-headed Marines who were not about to give any ground.
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Those beautiful mountains and hills and that serene valley those fifty years ago were filled with the sounds and smells of war. The thump of big artillery shells leaving their tubes four miles away just inside Laos, followed by the scream of those shells coming in at us became ever present to us. The sudden explosions of mortars and the crack of sniper fire, all of these things, along with their destructive and injurious fury, became a nightmarish kind of norm for us. Living above ground on the base became impossible. We dug deep into the red soil of that place and covered over our holes with airstrip matting, 50-gallon drums filled with earth, sandbags, anything that we could get or scrounge, in a desperate attempt to get out of the killing zone of those shells.
The green terrain all around us and the deep drop to the river below that base became the target of the most intense aerial bombing missions since WWII. Fighter jets of every description supported us and helped keep the NVA troops at a distance on a daily basis. B-52s carpeted the terrain with thousands of tons of bombs. Their missions were called arc-lights and the power and destruction they unleashed on the enemy below must have been frightening beyond the speaking of it for those NVA troops underneath them.
I can’t imagine the psychological effect that must have had on those troops. It must have been a hell for them too. Toward the end, those arc-lights were being dropped so close to us that the concussion waves would hit us on the base with an unbelievable physicality.
We were both giving each other everything we had and the result was bloody hell for both sides.
Those eternal hills survived the human madness that went on there 50 years ago and have once again become a place of serenity and beauty. But the war is still there. Large efforts have been undertaken by NGO’s, non-governmental organizations, like Peace Trees for Vietnam, over the last two decades to help find and dispose of the vast numbers of unexploded ordinances that still remain in the areas around Khe Sanh. But the base has been turned into a coffee plantation, a museum and now, a Peace Garden that tourists can visit in serenity. In other words, today, it is like a national park to be enjoyed for both its natural beauty and for the history of war that it represents.
The war and that place truly have become a part of history now. Our two nations have formed economic ties and even military ties in more recent times. We are no longer enemies, but have become tentative friends. This is a good thing, of course.
May it continue.
Those of us who were there at the ages of 18 to 21 for the most part came home as very different people than the youthful teenagers and early twenty-somethings we went over there as. We had dealt death up close and personal, and we had been stalked by death in the jungles and on that combat base in turn. We had known the face and the dark soul of war and it changed us. The changes were hard on many of us and the growth that came from those changes came often at a heavy cost.
But we, like those combat veterans who came before us and those who are being shaped by their wartime experiences today, took them on and made them into some of our greatest strengths. For the most part, while some of us struggled to reengage with normal life, most of us brought our courage, our tested metal and our determination to live intensely into our daily lives. We have contributed to our families, our work lives and our country since our return. We are proud of our service, even though we were rejected often by our peers on our return. We would not be defeated by that either.
This picture in this article was posted by a brother Recon Marine, Vietnam veteran. Though it is full of war time memories, I am glad to think of that place now as a place of peace and gentle farming. Its beauty has returned. May it last a thousand years.
The Veterans Site expresses its thanks to all who served in Vietnam. To those Marines and Corpsmen who fought side by side those five decades ago, we say, OoRah! We remain Fratres Aeterni and Semper Fi till the day we die.
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.