Khe Sanh: Attack on Hill 861A

By Eric Hammel - Originally Published February 1989

The high ground dominating the Khe Sanh Combat Base was to the west, northwest, and north-northwest. At the onset of the siege-undertaken by two North Vietnamese Army (NVA) divisions-Company I, 3d Battalion, 26th Marines (3/26) and most of Company M, 3/26, were on Hill 881 South (881S) to the west; Company K, 3/26, was on Hill 861 to the northwest; and three companies and headquarters of 2d Battalion, 26th Marines (2/26) occupied Hill 558, east of Hill 861.

On 20 January 1968, Company I, 3/26, apparently broke up enemy preparations to attack Hill 881S during an aggressive company-size patrol that stumbled into an NVA regimental assault staging area on neighboring Hill 881N. Nevertheless, rigidly adhering to its battle plan, another NVA regiment assaulted Company K, 3/26, on Hill 861 on the night of 20-21 January. Facing the first NVA offensive action of the siege, Company K successfully defended its position.

Capt Earle Breeding
Company E, 2/26

The NVA couldn't take Khe Sanh Combat Base without first taking Hill 861, and once we got there, Hill 861A. If the NVA had owned those two hills, they would have been looking down on the combat base and on 2/26, which was on Hill 558. It was very important to hold 861 and 861A.

PFC Mike DeLaney
Company E, 2/26

After landing at Khe Sanh [on 17 January], Echo Company kept moving around. I don't know if they couldn't make up their minds or if we were supposed to be moving, but we kept going during the day and spent each night on high ground, then we moved again. It didn't feel like we had a purpose. We stopped moving around when we went up on Hill 861 A.

There was nothing but double- and triple-canopy jungle on the hill when we got there. It was heavy, heavy growth, and we saw a lot of wildlife on the way up the hill. It was very pretty, very picturesque.

It was super hot. It was like a smothering heat. Very little wind. The vegetation held the heat close to the ground. It was also humid, constantly humid. The fog would roll up from the valley. Sometimes it was like looking down on the clouds. That was scary because we couldn't see anything below us.

Nobody had any idea what to expect Until we got to Hill 861A, our unit had been running daytime patrols and nighttime ambushes, working out of villages and through rice paddies and small jungle areas [near the coast]. Then, all of a sudden, we're working in the middle of a huge jungle. There were no people, just other Marines.

We had very little communication about what was going on. The only events we knew about were those we could see-fighting on Hill 881S, for example. We knew that something was going on around us. It didn't seem to be super heavy, but it was going on.

Tension was rising, the mood was changing, the people in charge of the company were getting very serious. When we first got to the hill, we just laid around. Then we started getting organized, digging in. The captain walked around, talked with the lieutenants, said, "I don't want a gun here, I want it there," getting ready for something. It was typical of the military; none of us seemed to know what we were doing. Capt Breeding seemed to know what he was doing. He was very squared away.

PFC Mike DeLaney
Company E, 2/26

28 January 1968

Hi Mom and Dad,

Mom, it is bad here, but I don't want you to worry. If you want to know, I'll tell you a little about how I've been living. For the last two days, we went without water and food. Then a chopper came in and we got a couple of meals and about a glass of water for two days. We don't wash or shave. I've got a full beard and no change of clothes. I sleep on the ground, and we get some of our water from the bamboo plants, and eat the roots. We try to catch rain water and the dew with our ponchos. They try to make it better, but the NVA shoot down the choppers. We get bombarded every day, and at night we get sniper fire. The company on the hill next to us [Company K, on Hill 861] loses a man or more a day. Our company had not lost anyone yet. I have lost about 15 pounds. We work all day in the hot sun and get so little to eat and drink. But I'm in real good health. I'm fine, and watch everything I do, so don't worry.

We had been catching some hell by then. It wasn't a lot, but it was enough to catch our interest.

1 February 1968

Hello Mom and Dad,

I'm okay. I just want some water and food. Boy, I stink. I need a bath. NO water to wash with-not much even to drink. People in the States don't know how lucky they are. At least a bum can drink all the water he wants and doesn't have to live in the ground like a rat. It's hot during the day, and it's cool at night. We dig holes all day and build bunkers. They are really pushing us to dig more trenches. We're always working. Not time to do anything, like writing. That's why I'm writing at night.

Capt Earle Breeding
Company E, 2/26

I was not a commander who believed the troops should not shoot, so it was policy in Echo Company that anyone could fire his weapons anytime he wanted to unless he was on an ambush. But the troops knew that if a gun went bang there had better be something dead at the other end of its trajectory. Some battalions had a policy that permission to return fire had to be granted by the operations officer.

One night, shortly after we got to Hill 861A, the troops on the west side of the company perimeter called the command post to tell me they had movement in the saddle between us and Hill 861. When I went out there, they told me they had heard movement and shouted a challenge. When the response came back in English, they assumed that Kilo Company was running a patrol down there. I knew that Kilo Company wouldn't run a patrol without telling us, but I called Kilo anyway. Sure enough, they didn't have any patrols out. As soon as I heard that, I got every weapon that could bear firing into the draw. I don't know if we got anyone, but I made sure I told my troops to shoot anything that moved outside our wire. They sure as hell weren't running a patrol of English-speakers for the hell of it. We were being targeted.

MajGen Rathvon McC. Tompkins
3d Marine Division Commanding General

Sometime around mid-January we received a message at 3d Marine Division Headquarters, in Dong Ha, that set forth the format for "Spotlight" reports. We had no idea what this was all about, but within the next few days we were told that sensor acoustical devices would be dropped by planes in the areas to the northwest of Khe Sanh Combat Base and west along National Route 9.

Maj Jerry Hudson
26th Marines Intelligence Officer

Approximately 18 January, a team from MACV Headquarters in Saigon visited Khe Sanh and offered the use of some electronic devices, which would give indications of enemy presence. [These were later] called sensors. Within 48 hours we began receiving reports that the devices were being implanted in likely avenues of approach to the combat base. Approximately the same time, we also began receiving reports that the devices were indicating enemy activity. (Everything in the area was considered enemy.) These reports increased in volume to over 100 per day.

Lt Barney Walsh, USN
Observation Squadron 67

We were stationed at Nakhon Phanom in northeast Thailand, a Navy outfit on an Air Force air commando base. We were committed to support the "electronic barrier" that Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara thought would keep the North Vietnamese from infiltrating down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Our particular job was to use our old Navy antisubmarine warfare patrol planes, flying at 180 knots, to lay a string of sonobuoys along the trails to listen to troop and truck noises. Once the enemy was identified, air strikes would be called in on the trail adjacent to the listening devices.

We laid numerous strings of sonobuoys north and northwest of Khe Sanh. We dropped sonobuoys that hung in the trees and others that dug into the ground and transmitted seismic information. After we dropped, EC-121 aircraft were in constant orbit at altitude, relaying information back to Nakhon Phanom. Each sonobuoy had a unique frequency so the noise could be pinpointed and enemy progress through the area could be followed.

Around Khe Sanh there weren't any trails that I could see, so I figured they just wanted a wall of buoys to give warning of infiltration. We had a sister Air Force squadron flying A-1 Skyraiders. They dropped "gravel" around the sonobuoys to protect them. The gravel was an explosive shaped like a Vietnamese leaf that was carried in the container along with a freon solution. When released, it scattered over the ground like tree leaves, and when it warmed up, it could blow the tire off a jeep or a leg off a man. The A-1 squadron was trained to fly with us and drop the gravel around the buoys to discourage the enemy from picking them up. However, we didn't fly too many missions together because we were quite a gaggle, flying in big, slow aircraft at ,180 or so knots with 3 or 4 A-1s on either wing-sitting ducks for antiaircraft weapons.

Maj Jerry Hudson
26th Marines Intelligence Officer

The information from the Infiltration Service Center (ISC) at Nakhon Phanom was passed directly to the intelligence officer of the 26th Marines over a dedicated, clear-voice radio circuit. A covered teletype circuit also existed. We talked to Nakhon Phanom many times a night attempting to "learn to swim."

For the first days, the reports were received with some anxiety as their meaning was not clear. However, after exchange of numerous messages with various commands involved in implanting, read-out, and interpretation of the information, definite patterns could be detected and were targeted.

Prior to the advent of sensors, it was command doctrine to shoot numerous H&I artillery missions each night These missions were usually based on map inspection, suspect areas, and yesterday's intelligence. The sensors provided [nearly] real-time information, and the words [harassment-and-interdiction] were virtually removed from the 3d Marine Division vocabulary in favor of "moving-target fire."

 


 

Khe Sanh: An Overview
Concerned that its strategy of attrition would ruin it before American will collapsed, North Vietnam decided to attempt a dramatic politico-military victory in 1968 by hurling its own regulars and all the VC [Viet Cong] it could muster against South Vietnam's major cities, military installations, and symbolic targets like the American Embassy in Saigon. Although Hanoi's leadership knew that 1968 was an American presidential election year, its main target was not American public opinion but the morale of the GVN [Government of Vietnam] and ARVN [Army of the Republic of Vietnam] and their urban supporters.

As the monsoon rains pelted the Marine combat base at Khe Sanh, American intelligence in late 1967 identified two NVA [North Vietnamese Army] divisions closing upon the exposed and undermanned base. The 26th Marines headquarters had already outposted the critical hills north of the base, but the Khe Sanh perimeter-which encircled an airfield, supply dumps, and artillery positions-stretched beyond the capacity of its ground defenders . . . . By January 1968 the 26th Marines had added an ARVN ranger battalion, a tank platoon, and five artillery batteries, in all about 6,000 men. The rain and the enemy had closed Route 9 to the base, but the Marine generals were not overly worried about resupply; the base defense force would probably require 185 tons a day, which could be air-delivered even under fire. Helicopter resupply of the hill outposts, which absorbed half of Khe Sanh's infantry, might be somewhat more difficult. As for fire support, Khe Sanh had ample help from Air Force and Marine air and Army long-range artillery positioned at Ca Lu.

From III MAF's perspective the basic question was not whether Khe Sanh could be held but whether it should be. Any attack down Route 9 could be stopped more efficiently at Ca Lu, and [Gen Rathvon McC.] Tompkins suspected that a Khe Sanh attack might be only a diversion preceding another drive at Con Thien and Gio Linh. [Gen Robert E.] Cushman shared Tompkins' concern but, at MACV's insistence, promised to hold Khe Sanh because [Gen William] Westmoreland had concluded that he had a superb chance to destroy two NVA divisions and win his own psychological victory. Both he and the Marine generals were astounded to learn that [President] Johnson so feared a defeat that he required the JCS [Joint Chiefs of Staff] to pledge personally that Khe Sanh would not fall. Such acts and a media thirst for dramatic news gave the battle undeserved importance.

The siege of Khe Sanh (January 21-March 30, 1968) ended in an overwhelming American victory, brought about by the sturdy defense of the base and outposts by Marine infantry and massive air and artillery support. Although the NVA pounded the base with as many as a thousand shells and rockets a day, its infantry attacks on the hill posts and the perimeter itself did no lasting damage to the position . . . . The most worrisome aspect of the siege became the coordination of American fire support. Using target information gathered from both ground and airborne sensors and photographs, American air pulverized NVA positions with 100,000 tons of bombs. Artillery and mortar expenditures may have gone as high as 200,000 rounds. On the ground, Marines and ARVN rangers beat back all assaults on the perimeter and outposts despite some sharp night fighting. In fact, the only small American defeat occurred when tank-supported NVA overran the Lang Vei Special Forces camp, which should have been abandoned earlier. Although the NVA attack was real enough, Khe Sanh came no closer to being a Dien Bien Phu than Iwo Jima was to a Wake Island. The relative casualties spoke volumes: 205 defenders dead and about 800 seriously wounded, as against probably 10,000 NVA killed in action.

-Allan R. Millett, from Semper Fidelis, The Free Press, 1980

 


 

MajGen Rathvon McC. Tompkins
3d Marine Division Commanding General

For the first few weeks, we used the sensors as a targeting method, which was in accordance with instructions we were given by the MACV briefing officers. The results were better than H&I fires, but that is saying very little. We then began using the sensors as an intelligence-gathering medium. The trouble with using sensors as a targeting device was that we didn't know exactly where the sensors were located. The reports from [Nakhon Phanom] took some time to get to Khe Sanh Combat Base, and the sensors frequently reported our own fires.

Sensors as an intelligence-gathering medium were highly successful. At night and at times of low visibility, they were our only means of obtaining information on enemy movement and activity. When sensor reports could be checked by aerial observation, following an air/artillery strike, the system came into its highest development.

Capt Mirza Baig
26th Marines Target Information Officer

During the nights of 3-4 and 4-5 February "Mussel Shoals" sensors reported numerous heavy movements from the northwest of Hill 881S. At a distance of 4,000 meters, the movements turned south and later turned east The intruders were last reported south of [Hill 881S]. Sensors to the southeast of the hill did not sound an alarm. The total count of enemy troops, reported by the sensors, added to a possible 1,500 to 2,000 men in the course of those 2 nights. During the first night [3-4 February], my interpretation lay in the direction of resupply convoys, and the fire support coordination center reacted by attacking each sensor target as it appeared. During the second night, I veered toward the thought of an enemy regiment and a probable attack. Majs Coolidge [Division Intelligence representative] and Hudson tended to agree.

We concluded that an attack in the thick mist was imminent Enemy doctrine calls for an attacking force to move to its assault position in echelons, make a last-minute reconnaissance, and attack in waves. If this was indeed a regiment, then the force would probably be disposed in regimental columns, battalions in line one behind the other. As time passed without activation of the easterly sensors, we three became convinced. A target clock, 1,000 by 3,000 meters, was described on the map south of Hill 881S at about a point where a large force, moving at 2 kilometers per hour (NVA rate of march in darkness and mist-more doctrine) would have reached in the time interval since the activation of the last sensor. At each end of the block, a gently curving 1,000-meter line was drawn, extending toward and about the southwestern and southeastern slope of Hill 881S.

MaJ Jerry Hudson
26th Marines Intelligence Officer

[The enemy was getting ready to assault Hill 881S or Hill 861A, or both together.] A decision had to be made which one to interdict. The choice was in favor of 881S as the artillery there could be employed in support of 861A if required.

Capt Mirza Baig
26th Marines Target Information Officer

Col [David] Lownds [26th Marines Commanding Officer], having accepted the reasoning . . . gave permission to fire. For about 30 minutes, commencing approximately 0300, 5 February, the 5 batteries of 1/13 within KSCB [Khe Sanh Combat Base] and 4 batteries of [U.S. Army] 175mm guns from outside the base poured continuous fire into various places of the block and along the 2 circumscribing lines at each end. Later [sensor monitors at] Nakhom Phanom Center told me that acoustic sensors in the area to the south of Hill 881S recorded the voices of hundreds of men running in panic, through the darkness and heavy fog, in a southerly direction. The seismic sensors went wild.

Maj Jerry Hudson
26 Marines Intelligence Officer

We felt we had preempted the attack on 881S.

Capt Mirza Baig
26th Marines Target Information Officer

It never occurred to me that night that the enemy's intent was and always had been to attack Hills 881S and 861 simultaneously. I had forgotten the NVA battle plan. There were no sensors near Hills 861 and 861A So, when the latter was attacked two hours later, I, the target information officer and alleged expert on NVA doctrine, was caught flatfooted.

PFC Mike DeLaney
Company E, 2/26

In the early morning hours of 5 February, I stood gun watch in the 60mm mortar pit and wrote a letter home. After I got off gun watch, I was lying in my sleeping hole, on my back. It was completely dark, pitch black. I couldn't see my hand in front of my face. As I was falling off to sleep, I had the sensation that my heart and lungs had stopped. It woke me up. I couldn't breathe. I thought, what the hell is happening? It was teargas!

Capt Earle Breeding
Company E, 2/26

Marines on the point of the 1st Platoon sector passed the word, "They're coming through the wire." That news spread up the trenchline to the right and left. AU the way along the trenchline and up the chain of command, Echo Company was hearing, "They're coming through the wire." Nobody said which part of the wire, and nobody could see anything. The average Marine thought the NVA were coming through the wire in front of him because he had heard it from the guy next to him. So, all of a sudden, within seconds of one another, I got the word from all three of my platoon commanders. It sounded to me like they were coming through the wire all around the hill. I thought I was getting hit from all sides at once. I had the troops throw gas grenades, and I called for all the artillery support the combat base could give me.

The gas probably did us more harm than it did the NVA. It started filtering into the low-lying areasour fighting holes and trenches.

PFC Mike DeLaney
Company E, 2/26

The gas-it must have been theirs-got everyone up and moving in the open, disoriented. When you're running around grabbing your chest and having the sensation that you can't breathe, you're not thinking about manning a weapon.

Then I started to hear gunfire. I could hear guns popping. It sounded like a little pop followed by small arms fire, and then another little pop. As I bolted out of my hole, it finally dawned on me that I was breathing gas. I got back down in my hole and ran my hand over everything, looking for my gas mask. I found it, climbed out of my hole, and started running around while I put it on and adjusted it.

Capt Earle Breeding
Company E, 2/26

They had zeroed their mortars in on us the night before, but I hadn't realized what they had done. They had fired one round, not the normal group of three at maximum range. If it was us, we'd have fired round after round after round and adjusted the fire. They fired just one mortar round from fairly close in. They made their adjustment on that one round and held their fire until the attack started. When their 82mm mortars hit us, I believe they expected to catch our people fleeing toward and off the south side of the hill.

PFC Mike DeLaney
Company E, 2/26

The whole skyline to my left-the 1st Platoon area-was starting to light up. There was yellow and orange color coming off the horizon. There were things going off-the 60mm mortar over there, the Chicom [Chinese Communist] grenades, machineguns-and I could hear people talking and yelling. People were screaming. People were running, scrambling. People were looking for their gas masks. All kinds of stuff was hitting the fan. We were very disorganized at that point. Whatever the NVA had in mind, it worked. They definitely caught us by surprise.

Capt Earle Breeding
Company E, 2/26

They came up the northern slope, the only approach they had. I knew they would; they weren't going to come around the other side of the hill in the face of direct artillery fire from the combat base and 106mm recoilless rifles from the 2/26 position on Hill 558. As it was, they had all the cover in the world between the dark of night and all that high elephant grass.

The company perimeter was much longer than it was wide, and there was a salient in the west side. We tried to round it off the best way we could on the northern point, which was held by 1stLt Don Shanley's 1st Platoon. That was a slight disadvantage for us because we could bring less fire to bear, but it was also a disadvantage to the NVA because they could not see how many troops I had set in on the rest of the hill. It is possible-reasonable-that they thought we were a platoon outpost from Company K, which was on the adjacent hill. Without illumination, no one on the hill could see a white handkerchief in front of his face. It was absolutely pitch black.

PFC Mike DeLaney
Company E, 2/26

They hit the 1st Platoon because it was stretched across a finger that was lower than the rest of the hilltop, easier to get to. The 60mm mortar and M60 machinegun with 1st Platoon got it right off the bat. The best anyone could figure out was that the NVA had watched us shoot H&I fire for days and had marked the gun positions. Since the crew-served weapons were dug in, we never moved them. The positions were permanent from the time the company lines were established. The NVA knew where all the crew-served weapons were before they started the attack.

Capt Earle Breeding
Company E, 2/26

When the NVA broke through Lt Shanley's 1st Platoon, they had nowhere to go. They were faced with a steep climb to the top of the hill. In fact, they didn't break through Shanley as much as they absorbed through him. There were 1st Platoon Marines down there manning their positions right through the fight.

PFC Mike DeLaney
Company E, 2/26

I had a stinging sensation down my nose and throat, but there was so much going on, so much adrenaline, that I overcame it. But my eyes were watering. It was night, and I was trying to see through the gas-mask lenses with my eyes watering. It was a mess.

It was the first time ground forces had tried to enter our wire. We had been mortared before, but now they were in our wire. This was it! Everything I ever thought war could be was happening, right now. I wasn't scared like I had been when the mortars hit. There was so much going on that my mind couldn't comprehend it. We had the gas, there were people running, people screaming, stuff exploding. I knew I had a job to do. I had to go look for my 60mm mortar. It was only yards away from me-the whole squad was in bunkers we had built right around the gun pit.

The only members of my 60mm mortar squad in the pit were the gunner and the assistant gunner. Four of us, ammo humpers, were on the outside, opening crates of ammo and passing rounds in like a nurse would pass a scalpel to a doctor. When the round went out, boomp, one of us slapped another round into the assistant gunner's hand, whatever he called for-illum, high explosive, whatever. We tore off powder increments as we handed each round over, whatever charge the gunner called for.

When we started firing, the mortar was tilted slightly toward the north, toward the 1st Platoon sector. People were calling fire to us-"Bring it up the hill" or "Bring it down the point." They were calling the fire by screaming; no calls came in by radio. We were alternating illum and high explosive as fast as we could get rounds down the tube. It was obvious that the rounds were going too high, so we started firing the rounds with the base charge. When we got to the point where the NVA had crossed the 1st Platoon wire, most of our rounds were fired almost straight up because we really didn't want any distance on them. When the NVA penetrated the 1st Platoon bunkers and broke through, we fired straight up. We knew the consequence, but we had no choice. The only way to keep them off of us was to throw around as much shrapnel as possible. We had flak gear on, and we were laying in among the sandbags, passing rounds into the gun pit, so we thought we would be okay. The NVA were all in the open, running past us.

Capt Earle Breeding
Company E, 2/26

I kept thinking, what am I going to do if they shoot off my radio antennas? When it was all over, I had no radio antennas up. They were all down. The only reason I was able to communicate with outside headquarters was because of our elevation.

My command post was about halfway back along the hill from the 1st Platoon area and a little to the east of the military crest. There was a big tree right at the top of the hill, and since I wanted to leave as much of the natural vegetation in place as possible, I tucked the command post in under its branches, mainly to protect the radiomen. Also, my company sickbay was in a huge bomb crater, also protected by the tree.

I had to keep the NVA away from the sickbay bomb crater, which was filled with men who couldn't fight back. Also, my command post was filling up with Marines who had been temporarily blinded by gas, flash burns, or grenades and mortar rounds going off at close range. So, as soon as things settled down enough for me to make sense of what was going on, I began feeding fire teams forward from the rear platoons in order to build up a line across the top of the hill. I truncated the company position with anybody I could get, more or less cutting off the 1st Platoon's nose and sealing off most of the NVA who had filtered through the 1st Platoon. The new line was made up mostly of 1st Platoon people, but anyone else who wanted to be part of it was welcome.

It sounds more organized in the telling than it really was. There was too much loud noise for me to shout direct orders; my desire seeped through the company, and individual Marines reacted on their own. I had to rely on training and instinct. But, from the time we got the new line built up, I wasn't concerned. I knew we were going to hold. Nevertheless, there was a moment in which I would have liked to get out of there, but I knew there was really no way. I wasn't about to retreat, and besides, there was no way to leave the hill. That was scary. There was no way to leave that hill at night, and certainly there was no way to do it without leaving our dead and wounded behind.

PFC Mike DeLaney
Company E, 2/26

People were shooting at each other with hand guns. We were throwing fragmentation grenades at point-blank range; I'd throw a frag, turn my back to it, and hunch up my neck and shoulders, hoping I wouldn't catch chunks large enough to take me out. We did whatever we thought would work.

While the 1st Platoon guys were fighting hand-tohand-using entrenching tools, whatever-the NVA were running through the perimeter, doing as much damage as they could. They were throwing satchel charges and grenades at the crew-served weapons. They were everywhere. They blew up the 60mm mortar near 1st Platoon, killing four of the Marines in and around the pit. It was such chaos from that point on that whenever I brought up my M16, I had to glance at whoever was going by to make sure he was NVA and not a Marine. We had illum, but it moved around overhead and made shifting shadows. The illum made it seem like everything was moving. It was just very scary.

Capt Earle Breeding
Company E, 2/26

It was uncontrolled pandemonium. I'd like to say that I was about to win this one fight, and the Marine I was fighting would like to say he was about to win too. Luckily, a flare went off before we killed one another.

Capt Earle Breeding
Company E, 2/26

The way the teargas didn't affect the NVA at all leads me to believe they were hopped up on drugs. The gas was an irritant, and they should have been bothered. We were bothered. During the first lull, I found one NVA soldier with his AK-47 slung over his shoulder. He and others were going through our living hooches, more interested in reading Playboy magazines than in fighting the war. That's when we counterattacked.

It would be nice to say that everybody stood there, did a dress right dress, and fixed bayonets while I shouted, "Port arms, forward march!" But it just didn't work out that way. It was a matter of individual Marines saying to their buddies, "Hey, come on. Let's go kick 'em outta here." All the troop leaders could do was lead the way.

Capt Mirza Baig
26th Marines Target Information Officer

The artillery and air response to the enemy's assault may be divided into three phases, all of which occurred simultaneously. 1/13 loosed the protective fires on the slopes of Hill 861A with [nine 105mm and two 155mm howitzers]. [Six 105mm howitzers) concentrated in the area where the enemy movement was the thickest and then rolled down the slope to prevent the enemy from retiring or from being reinforced. This was the first phase.

The second phase began with the four batteries of 175mm guns from Camp Carroll and the Rock Pile delivering their ordnance along two arms of a broad V, which embraced the base of the hill from the northeast. The objective of the guns was to saturate the area where the enemy reserve battalion was thought to be. Slowly, the V crept up the slopes until it reached a point 200 meters from the wire. Within this space, the fourth [105mm] battery from Khe Sanh Combat Base rolled to and fro, covering the area from which the attackers had come and into which Capt Breeding was energetically heaving them. Meanwhile, the remaining batteries continued their protective missions or were adjusted in accordance with the garrison's desires.

The third phase involved the rapidly assembling aircraft. AN/TPQ-10 radar-directed air strikes, in the form of 200- and 300-meter ripples, were dropped outboard of, and parallel to, the V to avoid checkfires. Bombs fell on known mortar clusters, possible assembly areas, and throughout the area to the far rear of the assault battalion.

Capt Earle Breeding
Company E, 2/26

We were drawing fire support from five separate locations: our own 60mm mortars; the [two] 81mm mortars and [three] 105mm howitzers on Hill 881S; the 2/26 106mm recoilless rifles on Hill 558; the 105mm [and 155mm] howitzers from the combat base, and the 175mm howitzers at the Rock Pile and Camp Carroll. But I couldn't adjust anyone's fire because I didn't know friendly from hostile incoming. Not only were our surviving mortars firing on the hill, we were under a constant NVA mortar barrage. In addition, I was later told, the friendly howitzers were dumping variable-time rounds on us-airbursts. Getting hit or not getting hit was a matter of luck, for us and the NVA

Hill 881S was farther from Hill 861A than the maximum range of the 81mm mortar rounds they were firing. Firing the maximum charge at maximum range was barely enough, but the rounds reached us because we were 20 meters lower. They were barely accurate, but they did enough. The Marines on Hill 881S used up just about all their 81mm ammo to help us.

Capt Mirza Baig
26th Marines Target Information Officer

Enemy attack doctrine frequently positions the reserve battalion directly behind the assault unit. At all costs, the fire support coordination center was determined to prevent their juncture. Hence the multiple bands of fire. The reserve battalion never materialized. A second attack, at 0610, was made by the survivors of the first assault. These unfortunate remnants could neither retire through the rolling ban age nor be reinforced by the reserve, which in turn had been caught between the 175mm artillery and the air strikes.

PFC Mike DeLaney
Company E, 2/26

Finally it slowed up, and they backed off. I looked around at all the powder increments I had ripped off 60mm rounds, at all the grenade canisters, LAAW tubes, and piles of empty brass. Stuck in a sandbag only a foot or so from where I was handing rounds into the gun pit was an NVA rifle grenade that never went off.

When they first started to pull away, there was very heavy fog. It was clear when we started, but it was very thickly overcast when it petered out. I have no idea when the fog rolled in. It was just there.

There were bodies everywhere. Their bodies were in full uniform. That scared me. Until then, I thought we were fighting Viet Cong guerrillas. We had been fighting VC before we got to Khe Sanh; I didn't know they had NVA soldiers up there until I saw them dead on the ground inside our perimeter. It scared me; it really drove it home that we were fighting a uniformed army, not a bunch of people who were farmers by day and who ran around as VC at night. These people were well armed.

Capt Breeding grabbed me in the morning and ordered me to help get a body count. I went around to each position on the hill, asking Marines if they knew where any NVA bodies were, counting them up. After the count was completed, they were stacked up.

I had never seen young dead people. The only dead people I had ever seen were old. In my mind, old people are supposed to die, but not young people. I had sat around the day before smoking cigarettes and sharing C-rations with some of the dead young people on that hill. Their skin was gray and rubbery; they didn't look human anymore. Picking them up gave me a funny feeling. It never stopped bothering me, the feel of the bodies. I had never felt a dead body before. And now I was being asked to carry them around-and pick up body parts. That upset me, picking up an arm or a leg-from people I knew, from my own squad, from the 60mm mortar crew and the M60 machinegun crew that had been with the 1st Platoon.

Quite a few of the NVA we killed inside our wire were bandaged-that night. It was obvious that they had sent their wounded back up to fight the battle. That scared me to the point that I could not believe that people who had already been wounded and messed up still wanted to fight. I figured they had a lot more drive than I had. Those people were scary, like they were almost superhuman. We found drugs-syringes and chemicals.

Capt Early Breeding
Company E, 2/26

I don't think they would have gotten through us if we had the gear we needed. We had been up there only a short while, and we had not had an opportunity to build our position up. We didn't have enough wire. We didn't even have sledgehammers to pound in the engineering stakes to secure the wire.

After it was over, my top priorities were getting the wounded out and getting replacement people and crew-served weapons in. We were given top priority in all of I Corps. They gave us everything we needed-everything we had needed before the attack.

LCpl William Maves
2/25 Tactical Air Control Party

After the second NVA effort toward morning failed to take Hill 861A, I started to take a count of casualties and move them into position near the landing zone for medevac.

At dawn, we were fogged in solid, which was common up there. It usually didn't burn off until 1000 or 1100. This forced upon me the biggest decision of my life. If Da Nang sent the fleet of medevacs I had requested for 35 wounded and they couldn't get through the fog, it would be hours before they could come back again after refueling. What to do? I had emergency medevacs waiting in the landing zone who would not live another hour if I waited. If they couldn't get in, more would die with the longer wait.

I looked at the men lying there and told Da Nang to send the birds. When they got there, I stood in the middle of the landing zone with a red star cluster in my had, staring up through the fog, listening to the rotors circling overhead. One pilot said he would circle lower and lower until I could get a visual. I seemed like forever until I finally saw the bottom of that bird go over in the fog. I shot the red star cluster up at him, and down he came through the fog, onto the landing zone.

The rest was easy. He left straight up and another bird was circling, ready to drop down in the spot where the first one came out. As it turned out, the fog didn't lift that day until about noon. Sunshine filled the valley and everything looked scenic again. I could only wonder if last night had been a bad dream.