Khe Sanh Combat Base
Khe Sanh Combat Base

Battle of Khe Sanh, Quang Tri

The battle of Khe Sanh which took place from 21 January to 8 April 1968 commanded wide attention from the world media. For 77 days, Khe Sanh was under constant ground and artillery attacks by the People's Army of Vietnam. Khe Sanh since has also been the focus of many controversies and has remained a mystery among historians and political analysts as to the meaning of the attacks by the People's Army of Vietnam...

Khe Sanh is a valley in Huong Hoa District of Quang Tri Province, 63km west of Dong Ha Town and 16 km from the Laotian border. In 1962, US Special Forces constructed an airfield and turned Khe Sanh into a launch site for special operations to gather intelligence information on the movements and logistical information of the People's Army of Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh Trails as well as to curb their infiltrations into the South.

A former US Helicopter at Khe Sanh
A former US Helicopter at Khe Sanh

In 1967 the US also started building a barrier line nicknamed “McNamara Line” starting from the coast running parallel and south of the division line between North and South Vietnam, extending into Laos' territory. The barrier line employed the most sophisticated technology, such as remote acoustic and chemical sensors, button bomblets (tiny mines making noise when stepped on to alert the acoustic sensors), gravel mines which are not detectable by standard mine detectors, and the plastic pellets (fired into the body of the victim and invisible to X-rays). The line also included the man power of the elite Marine Forces with myriads fire support bases and camps.

By the summer of 1967, Khe Sanh was the target of series of offensives committed by The People's Army of Vietnam. At first, the US military commanders thought there was no special meaning behind the attacks at Khe Sanh as there were many others in different border regions of South Vietnam at the time. But their appraisal was changed when it was discovered that major forces of the People's Army of Vietnam were moving into the area during the autumn and winter of 1967. The US thought the People's Army of Vietnam was trying to recreate another Dien Bien Phu Victory at Khe Sanh. Further Marines consolidation took place.

Wreckage of a US airplane shot down at Khe Sanh during the battle
Wreckage of a US airplane shot down at Khe Sanh during the battle

The People's Army of Vietnam gradually took the high points around Khe Sanh and isolated the base, it was then the battle started. During the battle, Khe Sanh was subjected to intense ground and artillery attacks by the People's Army of Vietnam. Massive aerial bombardments (Operation Niagara) were launched by the US Air Force to support the base and latest technology was used in locating a target for launching attacks; there were tactical innovations in logistical support to keep the isolated base supplied. With the successful relief (Operation Pegasus), the Battle of Khe Sanh was terminated on April 8th, 1968 when the relief force entered Khe Sanh Combat Base. But for unknown reasons,  the U.S. military commander in Vietnam ordered the base to be closed in July 1968.

The question behind the Battle of Khe Sanh was why the People's Army of Vietnam attacked Khe Sanh with the big divisions? Was Khe Sanh meant for diverting the US attention from cities to the border regions, so that the main points of attack were cities and urban areas which Tet offensives were all about? Also the US military commanders had convinced the US public and Congress that Khe Sanh be kept and reinforced before the battle only to close the base right after the besiege in July 1968 remained an unanswered question...

Traveling to Khe Sanh nowadays, you'll tour the former Ta Con Airfield with a simple museum in the middle of the valley. The whole area has been fully covered with the evergreen coffee plantations...