In early March 1967, U.S. Marines from the 11th Engineer Battalion undertook the arduous task of converting an ancient cart path that meandered from Ca Lu to Khe Sanh in the Republic of South Vietnam into a viable roadway for “Rough Rider” resupply convoys. That road to Khe Sanh officially was designated Route 9. Recognizing the vulnerability of that extended supply route, the North Vietnamese Army commenced ambushing convoys traveling Route 9 to Khe Sanh. By the end of August, no more convoys ventured beyond Ca Lu. Khe Sanh would have to be resupplied by air.
On 20 Jan. 1968, Fourth Marine Regiment moved its headquarters to Camp Carroll in South Vietnam’s Northern I Corps and assumed responsibility for the security of all Marine bases along Route 9 from Cam Lo to Ca Lu. As a welcome, North Vietnamese Army (NVA) gunners shelled Camp Carroll that night. That turned out to be the opening round of a concerted NVA effort to cut Route 9 and isolate Camp Carroll.
A routine artillery resupply “Rough Rider” convoy from Dong Ha was ambushed by a large NVA force on 24 Jan. when the trucks were about to turn on to the Camp Carroll access road from Route 9. A reaction force of two Marine tanks (one a flame tank) and two Army M42 Dusters loaded aboard a platoon of Marines from Company H, 2d Battalion, Ninth Marine Regiment (H/2/9) and headed out to the rescue.
Corporal Harry Christensen was the tank commander of the lead tank. Captain Daniel Kent, the commanding officer of “Bravo” Co, 3d Tank Bn, rode standing outside Christensen’s cupola with his pistol drawn. He also was the reaction-force commander.
The relief force halted 100 yards from the ambush site and opened fire at NVA positions alongside the road. A bullet ricocheted off the tank, striking Christensen above his right eye. He placed a dressing over the wound and stayed in the fight.
Christensen’s tank and a Duster then charged in closer to the ambush site. Just after Capt Kent shouted, “We’re taking fire from both sides of the road,” two bullets struck the captain in the back. Cpl Christensen grabbed Kent, struggling to drag him atop the turret and put him inside the tank, when two rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) hit, further wounding both Marines.
A recoilless-rifle round exploded on the turret, wounding Christensen again and blowing Capt Kent off the tank. That blast set off a fire inside the turret. The badly wounded tank commander ordered his crew to bail out. Another RPG then hit his tank, knocking him to the ground where he rolled into a ditch. As he raised his head, he could see Capt Kent’s lifeless body in the road.
When a second relief force from Dong Ha reached the chaotic scene, accompanied by two UH-1E helicopter gunships overhead, the NVA broke contact and hastily retreated, taking its dead and wounded with it.
Back at III Marine Amphibious Force headquarters, concern was mounting over the NVA’s ability to strike almost at will along Route 9 and potentially deny access to Camp Carroll, the Rockpile and other Marine bases in the Northern I Corps area. Lieutenant Colonel Lee R. Bendell’s 3d Bn, 4th Marines choppered in from the Trace area of Leatherneck Square to beef up security. The battalion’s mission was to secure Route 9 from the Khe Gia Bridge east to Cam Lo, a distance of 9 kilometers.
Mike Co, 3d Bn was situated on a little hill just north of Route 9 near the 24 Jan. ambush site. In the predawn hours of 27 Jan., the NVA attacked Mike’s Hill. India and Lima companies joined the fray. In a fierce daylong fight for Mike’s Hill, the NVA troops were driven off, and Route 9 was open once more to traffic. That attack cost the NVA 130 killed in action. Suffering the loss of 21 dead and 62 wounded, Marines of 3/4 paid a heavy price to secure the vital main supply route (MSR); however, intelligence sources warned that large numbers of NVA troops were continuing to move into the area.
Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year holiday, occurred the end of January in 1968. A Tet truce had been announced by the Viet Cong to last from 28 Jan. until 3 Feb., but that was an epic ruse. By 31 Jan., almost all major cities, provincial capitals and military installations throughout South Vietnam were being attacked by the NVA and Viet Cong.
Situated astride Route 9 was the Cam Lo District Headquarters compound. Alerted to expect trouble soon, U.S. Army advisory staff at the district headquarters requested Marine reinforcements. On 1 Feb., 1st Platoon (two squads) from D/1/4 was ordered to move inside the Cam Lo compound and dig in. A squad of Marines from E/2/9 had shown up unexpectedly that evening, and it took up positions alongside the D/1/4 Marines.
At 0215 on the morning of 2 Feb., the compound was hit by hundreds of rounds of recoilless-rifle, rocket and 82 mm mortar fire. One recoilless-rifle round smashed into the main command bunker, killing the district advisor and temporarily knocking out communications. The deputy district advisor, U.S. Army CPT Raymond McMaken, found the only radio still functioning and began coordinating artillery fire missions from Fire Support Base (FSB) C-3 and the Dong Ha Combat Base. A steady rain of artillery fire from multiple batteries blasted suspected enemy assembly areas, weapons positions and withdrawal routes.
At 0430, a Marine armor/infantry relief force from FSB C-3 charged cross-country toward the Cam Lo compound. The surviving NVA troops broke off their attack and hastily retreated north across the Cam Lo River, then west into the hills, leaving behind 156 of their dead for the Marines to bury.
The outnumbered defenders of Cam Lo had triumphed against seemingly impossible odds. Fewer than 50 Marines, plus a handful of Army advisors, had held off and defeated at least two NVA battalions and a sapper company. Army CPT McMaken said later, “The Marines just stacked them up on the wires. They were magnificent.”
Many of the soldiers and Marines officially were recognized for their valor at Cam Lo that night. Marine Cpl Larry L. Maxam was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously. Lance Corporal Lawrence M. Eades and Cpl Timothy W. Russell each were decorated with the Navy Cross.
Since mid-January 1968, the Marines at Khe Sanh Combat Base had been preparing for an enemy attack they knew was imminent. Were the Americans risking another Dien Bien Phu? General William C. Westmoreland, Commander Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), believed it was worth the risk because Khe Sanh would be a key asset in his planned invasion of Laos to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Also, relinquishing the base at that time would be a major enemy propaganda victory. Thus, all the players were in place for a major battle to commence.
On 20 Jan., the siege of Khe Sanh commenced with the NVA attacking several hill positions. A deluge of rockets, mortars and artillery continued to shell the besieged Marines and Army of the Republic of South Vietnam (ARVN) soldiers occupying the base. Khe Sanh Village fell to the NVA a few days later. The Special Forces Camp at Lang Vei was next, overwhelmed by a numerically superior NVA force supported by 10 PT-76 tanks. Throughout February and March, the siege of Khe Sanh continued. A major operation was necessary finally to break the siege.
Operation Pegasus (a U.S. Army, ARVN, and Marine Corps operation) commenced 1 April 1968, with the objective of lifting the siege of Khe Sanh and opening Route 9. Marine Corps engineers, supported by armor and infantry, performed admirably, removing mines and repairing bridges, culverts and bypasses. By 11 April, Route 9 was open the entire 10 miles from Ca Lu to Khe Sanh for the first time since September 1967.
Hardly a week after the end of Pegasus, the NVA ambushed another ammunition resupply convoy at bridge #28, halfway between Ca Lu and Khe Sanh. To thwart any future NVA plans to cut Route 9, Task Force Hotel was created, consisting of several Ontos and one tank platoon each from Bravo and Charlie companies, 3d Tank Bn. They commenced patrolling Route 9 to prevent enemy buildups along the MSR.
That tactic appeared to be working well until 14 May, when the NVA sprang another ambush between Ca Lu and Khe Sanh. Again, the Marines responded, and after a fight that lasted into the next day, the NVA retreated, leaving behind 74 dead. Marines from 2/3 lost 7 KIA and 36 wounded. The 14 May battle signaled the onset of increased enemy activity in the area.
On the morning of 19 May, Ho Chi Minh’s birthday, a minesweep team and a platoon from F/2/1 departed the gates at Khe Sanh, headed south along the former coffee plantation road. Two tanks from 1st Plt, Bravo Co went along as added security. Meanwhile, a convoy had formed up inside the compound, awaiting word from the minesweep team that the access road was clear.
About 300 meters from the road’s intersection with Route 9, the NVA triggered a massive ambush. Camouflaged NVA troops opened fire from 25 meters. RPGs, grenades and mortars rained down on the Marines diving for cover.
Cpl Fred Kellogg commanded one tank, Cpl Buzz Conklin the other. As Kellogg’s tank opened fire with its .30-caliber coaxial machine gun, an RPG struck the main gun shield, rocking the tank. Kellogg’s gunner yelled over the intercom that he could see the RPG team reloading. A high-explosive round was already in the main gun chamber. A second later, the RPG team vaporized as a tank round exploded at its feet.
The Marines were pinned down by NVA troops firing from numerous bomb craters. Kellogg maneuvered his tank so that he could lean out of his tank commander’s cupola to fire his M3A1 “grease gun” and throw hand grenades into the craters until his cache of 19 grenades was exhausted.
Seeing that Conklin’s tank was disabled by numerous RPG hits, Kellogg maneuvered his tank over to provide protection. Then, another RPG struck the turret of Kellogg’s tank, just behind the range-finder blister. Kellogg was standing directly in the path of the plasma jet that exploded through the armor, badly wounding him and his other two crewmen in the turret and setting the tank on fire. He was given last rites aboard a hospital ship offshore, but Kellogg would survive, barely.
The tank platoon leader, First Lieutenant Harris Himes, and a second Bravo Co tank were back at the combat base awaiting word to depart with the convoy for Ca Lu when the ambush was triggered. His two tanks, along with the remainder of Co F, raced to the aid of the beleaguered minesweep team. Even with G/2/1 assisting in the Marine assault, the NVA launched a determined counterattack. The COs of both infantry companies were killed and their command groups decimated in the fierce firefight.
Despite being wounded by an RPG, 1stLt Himes stayed in the fight, directing the fire of his two tanks as the infantry around them were engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the close-quarters enemy. Himes’ tank began smoking after taking 13 RPG hits. Some rounds penetrated the engine compartment, rendering the steering mechanism inoperable. All electrical power was gone.
Himes shouted to his crew, “We have two choices: stay in here and risk being burned alive, or abandon the tank and risk getting shot!”
The crew stayed put and donned gas masks. They manually fired their 90 mm main gun and .30-cal. machine gun, while furiously hand-cranking the powerless turret. First Lt Himes’ loader, Cpl Rene Cerda, bleeding profusely from numerous RPG shrapnel wounds, continued to load and fire his tank’s guns. He later would be awarded the Silver Star for his heroism. Towed back to the combat base after the battle, Himes’ tank was so damaged that it was stripped and buried in place.
Fixed-wing napalm strikes, some only 50 meters from the Marine positions, finally broke the enemy’s will to stand and fight. Eight Marines were killed and 34 wounded that day. The Marines reported killing 113 of the enemy and capturing three, one of whom stated that the enemy mission was to stop all movement along Route 9 to Khe Sanh.
Operation Charlie, the dismantling of Khe Sanh Combat Base, began on 19 June. On 5 July, the base officially closed. The following day, 1st Marines’ rolling stock departed for Ca Lu. As the last trucks rumbled over Route 9, engineers removed and recovered the tactical bridging equipment they had installed during Operation Pegasus in April.
The command decision to evacuate Khe Sanh so soon after the massive commitment of men and material to hold the base is difficult to understand. One likely explanation is that, with GEN Westmoreland being relieved by GEN Creighton Abrams, MACV no longer adhered to the belief that Khe Sanh was strategically important. That decision is debated to this day.
Editor’s note: James P. Coan also wrote “Con Thien: The Hill of Angels,” University of Alabama Press, 2004. His other most recent Leatherneck article on Vietnam is “Tet Attack at Cam Lo,” January 2010. Coan served in Vietnam as a platoon leader with the 3d Tank Bn, 3dMarDiv.