Khe Sanh was a fierce front where spectacular fights took place in 1968, though the target of these fights is mystery for researchers and American scholars.

Khe Sanh valley, located in the remote mountainous area to the west of Quang Tri province, was considered a strategic area along the boundary line.

In 1966, from the south of 17 latitudes to Route 9 and Khe Sanh, the US constructed the McNamara Line, an invisible defensive barrier. At the “anchor” position of the border junction, Khe Sanh was considered one out of three magic eyes of the McNamara Line where the US built a strong group of fortresses of special forces camp at Vay Village, Huong Hoa military zone and Ta Con airbase.

With its expectation to block the penetration of the North Vietnam Army’s troops, the US considered this defensive area a launching pad to break the Ho Chi Minh trail.

An ammunition dump struck by a shell explodes in front of U.S. Marines

Turning the table

In early 1968, there were many reasons that make the Americans believe that the liberation army would be determined to fight a strategic battle as another “Dien Bien Phu Campaign” in Khe Sanh. First came to the similarities in terrain and strategic roles of Khe Sanh and Dien Bien Phu. Secondly, the US believed that when the North Vietnam troops abandoned their traditional plain areas, they would use the mountainous areas as their spring-board to attack the plain and urban areas. As a result, the perfect diversionary plan and the sudden strategic turn of the Vietnam People’s Army made the US surprised.

Late Lieutenant General Nguyen Dinh Uoc once asked Chief of the General Staff of Vietnam People’s Army, General Van Tien Dung:

“Could we fight in Khe Sanh as we did in Dien Bien Phu?”

“This battle was different from Dien Bien Phu. If we attacked Khe Sanh Combat Base, we would face big casualties as the US forces were mobile and had a great deal of ammunition. If they lost, they might rely on the tactic of nuclear bombs,” the Chief of the General Staff replied.

For the US, with its tense defensive system and strong fire-power, its Khe Sanh Combat Base was expected to be a magnetic pole that attracted the liberation army into an “inverted Dien Bien Phu battle”, as their conventional warfare scenarios.

“The name ‘Dien Bien Phu’ in the US thought, as reported by Vietnamese intelligence, was a suggestion for us to turn the table to conduct a ‘fake Dien Bien Phu Campaign’ to deceive the enemy and hold them in the mountainous areas so that we could take advantage to attack the plain and urban areas,” said Colonel Ho Khang.

“As a result, the US and the West later called Vietnam a master of diversionary tactics,” he added.

Khe Sanh - the green land

Khe Sanh - An epic of war and peace

Khe Sanh victory celebrated

Three houses of gratitude presented to policy beneficiaries

Warring land on the reunion day

By thinking that protecting Khe Sanh Combat Base was its honour, the US poured its troops into the area as expected.

According to Colonel Nguyen Van Tau (alias Tu Cang), in spy Pham Xuan An’s reports, from commanders to the US ambassador in the South of Vietnam at that time thought that the liberation army was not strong enough to attack the urban areas and plans to attack these areas were fake. The US strongly believed that the main battlefield would be in Khe Sanh.

“The Central Office for South of Vietnam deliberately leaked documents to make the US believe that Vietnam would focus its assaults in the boundary areas, especially in Khe Sanh,” said Tu Cang.

The US eye on Khe Sanh

On January 20th, 1968, before the time of the general offensive, the Khe Sanh diversionary campaign was kicked off by a fierce battle on the 881-South hill.

At 5.30, on January 21st, the Vietnamese artillery shelled Khe Sanh Combat Base synchronously. Till the second day of the campaign, the main arsenal of the enemy, with about 1,500 tonnes of ammunition, was completely destroyed.

Recalling 170 days of siege in Khe Sanh, Vietnam veteran John Scott Jones said: “We had to stay in small shelters under tense bombardments and artillery shells. Many were killed. It was a tough time. We seriously lacked water and food, and just tried to survive”.

Through his research, US journalist and historian Stanley Karnow said that President Lyndon Johnson and his government thought that Khe Sanh was another Dien Bien Phu. They even made a sand table of Khe Sanh in Washington and asked General Westmoreland, Commander of Military Assistance Command in the South of Vietnam, to sign a pledge not to lose Khe Sanh Combat Base as it was the US honour.

Accordingly, with its efforts to protect Khe Sanh Combat Base at any price, the US conducted Operation Niagara II, a carpet-bombing campaign of over 100,000 tons of bombs, devastating 32 square kilometers of the battlefield - an unprecedented level of destruction.

When the artillery attack reached its peak, the US troops waited for a mass assault of Vietnamese infantry into Khe Sanh Combat Base.

“We realized that the liberation forces had a plan to attack us so we waited for them to fight a determined battle,” said John Scott Jones.

However, the assault that the US troops were waiting for did not happen.

The Vietnamese troops focused their attacks to occupy Huong Hoa district, Huoi San and Vay Village and increase pressure on Ta Con airbase to tightly encircle the US troops. As Khe Sanh became a hotspot for the US attention, attacks in urban areas in the South of Vietnam synchronously took place. The Tet Offensive began.

Source: PL TPHCM

Translated by Ngoc Hung