The Siege of Khe Sanh Begins
This Friday I took a few minutes out of my day to wish my friend Glenn Prentice a very happy birthday. Now I will be the very first to admit that I am TERRIBLE at remembering birthdays, but his always sticks in my mind….On 20 January 1968, he was serving with the India Company, 3d Battalion, 26th Marines on Hill 881S. He celebrated his 19th birthday while on a reconnaissance-in-force up Hill 881N. Said Prentice, “44 years ago we went up Hill 881N engaged the NVA---what a day! The start of Tet---I turned 19--thought I would never see my 20th Birthday---it was that bad…”
Sgt Glenn Prentice, at Khe Sanh Combat Base. (Photo courtesy of Glenn Prentice)
I have spoken several times on the siege of Khe Sanh Combat Base and the hill outposts. One of the questions I am most frequently asked is, “How did it all begin?”
The village of Khe Sanh was composed of nine separate hamlets that sat astride Route 9 in the northwest corner of South Vietnam. This was the nexus of movement from Laos into northern Quang Tri Province. Marines had initially carried out two battalion-sized operations near Khe Sanh in 1966.
By February 1967, elements of the 9th Marines moved into the area around Khe Sanh, to protect a detachment of Seabees whose mission was to extend and improve the airfield. Increased contact led to reinforcement of Khe Sanh with a second company. By April, the Marines had encounter strong North Vietnamese Army forces in fortified positions. Two battalions of the 3d Marines were committed to the area. In some of the bloodiest fighting of the war, which came to be known as “the Hill Fights,” the Marines gained control of the commanding terrain overlooking the combat base.
By October, the North Vietnamese 325C Division had once again moved into the area. Operation Scotland, the mission of defending Khe Sanh Combat Base, and using it as a base for offensive operations against NVA forces, became the responsibility of the 26th Marines. Said Col David E. Lownds, commanding the 26th Marines, “All indications are that we are going to get hit. How bad, I can’t say.”
In early December 1967, the 3d Battalion, 26th Marines moved to Khe Sanh and were briefed that the NVA was building up forces in the area. Ordered to sweep the area south and west of the base, the battalion moved from Lang Vei north and west to within 2 kilometers of the Laotian border. The Marines then swept northward, finally arriving back at Khe Sanh shortly before Christmas 1967. They made no contact with the NVA nor did they find any evidence of recent enemy presence in that area.
At this time, India Company, 3/26 was under the command of Captain Bill Dabney, a Canadian-born mustang who happened to be the son-in-law of Chesty Puller. Given the mission of occupying and defending 881S, Dabney’s Marines made an overland march from Khe Sanh to the hill. From 27 December through 17 January, India Company patrolled the area aggressively, sometimes to the limit of the range of the attached 81mm mortars (about 4000 meters).
Captain William Dabney (Photograph courtesy of David Powell)
In addition to these company-sized patrols in the area, recon teams were also patrolling. On 18 January, the Commanding officer of 3/26 informed India that recon team Dockleaf had been ambushed and had too many casualties to break contact and move to an LZ. India was ordered to send a force up 881N to locate Dockleaf and guide in the helos. India’s 3d platoon, led by 2dLt Thomas Brindley, was patrolling in the area so the mission was his. It was already mid-afternoon and Dockleaf had to be located before nightfall. Brindley and his men left flaks jackets and packs behind and made a forced march, almost a run, in an effort to find team the embattled recon team. The platoon was successful. Dockleaf was evacuated and Brindley’s platoon returned to 881S.
That night, however, India was informed that the recon team, while under very heavy enemy fire and subsequent evacuation, had lost a radio and some encoding sheets during the ambush. India was ordered to send another force north to recover them.
India Company’s position on Hill 881S, during the siege. To the right of center is Hill 881N, where NVA rocket, mortar and anti-aircraft sites were located. (Courtesy of David Powell)
At first light on the morning of 19 January, 1st Platoon, commanded by 2dLt Harry Fromme, left 881S, headed northward. About halfway to the crest of 881N, Fromme’s platoon made contact with a large NVA force moving south. Two Marines were wounded and another, machine gunner PFC Leonard Newton, was killed in the ensuing firefight. 2dLt Chuck Schneider later wrote to his parents and described the events. In this letter, although written almost a month later, the details of the action are riveting.
“We made point-to-point contact with an NVA patrol. Our patrol was moving in column (the thick vegetation made it the best for travel), the elephant grass was head high and therefore, since they were on the higher ground, they were able to see us before we saw them There was a sudden burst of automatic fire and two of our men fell wounded. We returned fire as best we could, but the rear of the column could not fire because of our own men in front. For the minute the enemy had fire superiority and while they had us pinned down, they began to move people off to our left flank. One of our machine gunners ran to the front to try and cover a withdrawal. The grass was so tall you couldn’t see to fire unless you stood up, so he got to his feet and began to fire his M60 from the shoulder. The enemy fire slackened and we began to pull back, dragging the wounded. Again the fire picked up and again he stood and fired from the shoulder. The fifth time he did this, a sniper shot him through the right eye. It was just about then that we started receiving heavy fire from our left flank. We were in a bad spot because they could see us from above, but the heavy grass prevented us from seeing them. The crossfire grew intense, but miraculously no one else was injured. Then my rounds arrived, 105mm artillery from Khe Sanh. I began to pound the enemy to our north. Grabbing another radio, I called an 81mm mortar mission to our left. We still couldn’t move since the rounds were falling so close that fragments from our own artillery and mortars were zinging over our heads.”
PFC Leonard Newton, left, with PFC Cecil Rogers. (Photo courtesy of Cecil Rogers)
The platoon was not strong enough to continue the mission alone and was ordered to return to base. Throughout the night, artillery and mortars were fired, to prevent the enemy force from continuing south toward India’s position
Said, Captain Dabney, “I requested from battalion, permission to have a reconnaissance-in-force to 881N with India Company….I asked them to send up a platoon from Mike Company, 3/26, which was then at the Khe Sanh Combat base perimeter, to help man the 881S line while we were gone.” As the mission was being planned India received word that the regiment wanted to insert recon Team Barkwood onto 881N.
The Marines of recon Team Barkwood. (Photo courtesy of Lionel Guerra)
The plan was simple. The Marines were to move out north toward 881N in two mutually supporting columns. India Company’s 1st and 2d platoons were positioned on the left, 3d platoon was on the right augmented by Team Barkwood. Captain Dabney thought contact with the enemy was likely….The plan was simple; the reality of combat is much more chaotic.
The Marines jumped off the following morning, 20 January 1968 at 0500. Corpsman Mike Ray said, “We moved silently down the hill. We slipped down through the waist high elephant grass…through the fog cover. As we went deeper, the bright sun turned into a faint glow. The fog must have been several hundred feet thick.”
Thomas Brindley’s 3d Platoon, photographed through the fog. (Photograph courtesy of Dick Dworsky)
As the fog lifted, Brindley’s 3d Platoon, operating to the right on the eastern ridge, was poised to take a small hill. As the Marines move forward they were hit by RPG and automatic weapons fire. Three Marines were seriously wounded. Captain Dabney ordered Brindley to break off the attack and evacuate the wounded. Brindley reported to India Company’s XO, Lt Richard Foley that he was confident he could take the hill. He was ordered to do so after heavy preparatory fire from mortars and artillery. Cpl Charles Bryan realized that 3d Platoon was understrength and volunteered Team Barkwood as an additional assault element. My dear friend PJ Pagano, then a corporal, was a member of Team Barkwood. He later said,
“It was decided that we would get on line with the infantry and assault the immediate objective. We were on the right and the infantry was on the left. The lieutenant said ‘fix bayonets!’ and we all looked at him at the same time. Recon guys usually don’t have bayonets…but the real reason we looked is because, at least for me, I thought this is it; the real thing! Recon guys usually don’t do walking assaults!”
Corporal PJ Pagano (Photograph courtesy of Bill Messner)
Concurrently, Captain Dabney decided to advance with 1st and 2d Platoons on the western ridge. If they could seize their objective, a small hill, they could provide covering fire for 3d Platoon. Said one Marine,
“We moved out on line and began to climb the hill. About 3/4 of the way up, the enemy waited. When we were 50 meters from them, they pulled out the stopper. We were hit by .50 caliber machine gun fire, AK-47s and RPGs. They were well dug in with two men to a hole. One would fire while the other reloaded and intermittently tossed grenades. We took 15 casualties in the first ten seconds. We kept on moving but then were hit from the right rear by 2 .50 caliber machine guns. We couldn’t move any further and had to fall back. I watched one corpsman dash out 7 times under heavy fire to pull wounded to safety.”
All but two men were wounded. Fromme consolidated his position and directed mortar fire to the front but did not have sufficient strength to hold the position and evacuate the wounded. 2d Platoon, under 2dLt Mike Thomas, set up a landing zone. The NVA were everywhere. A CH-46 helicopter from HMM-262 attempted to land, was shot down, crashed to the west of the LZ, rolled and burst into flames. Marines from both platoons, led by Lt. Mike Thomas, rushed to the crash site and rescued the crew, all of them wounded, some severely.
(According to HMM-262’s command chronology, “while resupplying Hill 881 near Khe Sanh, Capt Ropelewski took a 50 cal hit through the main fuel line. Capt Ropelewski crash landed the burning CH-46 in a nearby zone.” I spoke with the squadron historian, Kreig Loftin, who stated, “Beth - I remember this incident. Curtis Larson was the crew chief. As the burning aircraft approached the crash zone, he and his gunner had to jump out while the aircraft was still 30-40 feet in the air. They both suffered broken ankles, legs and such. Larson showed me his flak jacket afterward. The back panel was completely melted.”)
In the midst of the chaos on the western ridge, Captain Dabney ordered 3d Platoon to renew the attack on the right. The chaos grew. The Marines of 3d Platoon surged up the 30 degree slope behind Brindley. The NVA brought everything they had to bear on the advancing platoon. Wrote Lt Schneider,
“Tom Brindley, the 3d platoon commander, drew his .45 pistol from his holster and, like something out of the movies, began to move his people on the line and move up the hill. It was nothing short of magnificent. They just kept moving- men falling as they went, but everyone else just kept walking shooting from the hip and tossing grenades as they came over the top. By that time, a platoon sergeant and all three squad leaders were casualties. As they stepped over the crest of the hill a sniper shot Tom through the heart.”
Lt Tomas Brindley, right, with Lt Michael Bonacci (Photograph courtesy of the Brindley family)
Brindley’s last words were “Keep low, keep going, stay on line.” Captain Dabney later said that Tom Brindley led his men over the crest of that hill by the sheer force of his example. He added, “the platoon found itself holding the piece of high ground with depleted ammunition stocks and…a lance corporal in command.”
The recon team was in no better position than 3d Platoon. Pagano recalled,
“Almost as soon as we started out a hole opened between us and the infantry on the left. I shouted to Cpl Bryan that I was moving forward to plug the hole. The terrain and elephant grass soon caused us to lose contact with the infantry and each other. We all continued up the hill. We stopped for a moment and an 81mm mortar landed right in front of us. I was hit a second later and (another recon Marine) Lionel Guerra was hit a second after that. We were taking fire from the Marines at the bottom of the hill as well as from the NVA whom we were amongst. I was hit by a Marine bullet. I got on the air without much ceremony and said “Check fire, Check fire. You’re cutting us to pieces up here.” A second later Cpl Bryan called to me to stop the mortar and rifle fire from the friendlies. I told him I had done so and that I was hit…He crawled over and while I was on the radio (now working choppers) he got up on his elbows to rip open a battle dressing for my wound. An NVA no further than six feet away cranked a round at us that passed my left ear, over my chest, and into Bryan’s armpit. I stopped transmitting after a while because my hands and face fell asleep and I became very tired. I had tied a tourniquet but I’d lost a great deal of blood and was still losing some.”
Corporal Charles Bryan
Brindley and Bryan were both killed, along with several others. The platoon had too many casualties to hold the hill and evacuate the dead and wounded. And 3d Platoon reported that Team Barkwood had become separated from the platoon, and was no longer in radio contact.
2d Platoon, which by now had succeeded in evacuating 1st Platoon’s wounded on the western ridge was ordered to the right flank of 3d Platoon to reinforce and to repel counterattacks, to evacuate 3d Platoon’s casualties and to locate the missing recon team. Said Pagano,
“Some new choppers came on station and I heard them talking about Team Barkwood in the past tense. I realized that because I had been off the air for a while they thought I had died. Using the weight of my head to key the set I transmitted, “All stations this net be advised. This station is still up.”
(In the confusion of battle Team Barkwood had lost physical contact with 3d Platoon and actually found themselves -8 Marines- assaulting an NVA company.)
2d Platoon’s Lt Mike Thomas did not survive the afternoon. Thomas had located 5 of the missing Marines. One at a time he hoisted them onto his back and carried them to safety. He found a 6th missing Marines and while carrying him was wounded in the face. He refused medical attention. Aware of the fact that there are still two Marines missing he made an attempt to reach them and was fatally shot.
Lt Mike Thomas (Photograph courtesy of Dick Dworsky)
Brindley, Bryan and Thomas were all awarded Navy Crosses posthumously. Steve Thomas, brother of Mike later said,
“Mike was one of those few people who walked through this world and left large footprints. He touched so many people in his few years. He joined the Marine Corps on this own accord, because there was a job to be done. He told our father, that someone had to do it, so it might as well be him. MIKE HAD PURPOSE IN HIS LIFE!”
India Company now held both ridgelines but with very high casualties. There were 42 casualties including 7 killed in action. Captain Dabney asked for reinforcements but the request was denied. At the time, Captain Dabney was unaware of an extraordinary event that was occurred a world away from India Company. In the early afternoon of 20 January, a white flag appeared at the eastern edge of the airstrip at Khe Sanh Combat Base. La Thanh Tonc, a lieutenant in the North Vietnamese Army surrendered. Immediately interrogated, the disgruntled Tonc reported that all outlying positions around the base would be attacked that night. India was ordered to return to 881S.
Gunnery Sergeant Max Friedlander, who was part of the interrogation-translation team recorded the following:
“Hill881N is presently surrounded. There is a company of sappers deployed in the general area of 881N. This sapper company will be the company used against Hill 861. Once Jill 861 has fallen, the general attack against the Khe Sanh Combat Base will begin.”
That night the enemy hit Khe Sanh and all the outlying outposts EXCEPT 881S. It’s likely the reconnaissance in force mauled the NVA so badly they couldn’t attack that night. Chuck Schneider wrote,
“It’s my opinion, and that of most of the officers here, that our attack that day made them rush their plans for an attack on Hill 861 and Khe Sanh. That next morning at 0430 Khe Sanh took 300 rounds of incoming mortar, rockets and artillery. Hill 861 was assaulted by several hundred NVA. We fired 1400 rounds of 81mm mortar ammo and nearly a thousand rounds of 105mm artillery in their defense…. When the sun rose that morning the hillside was strewn with bodies….All day long I shot artillery at enemy rocket, mortar and anti-aircraft guns in our area. The order of business ever since the 21st has been to keep your head down to keep it from getting shot away.”
Marines on 881S take cover from incoming enemy fire. (Photograph courtesy of David Powell)
Glenn Prentice was right. He was very lucky to see his 20th birthday.
The Marines at Khe Sanh and on the outlying hills were forced to dig in and endure a siege that lasted from 21 January until 17 April. Forty two Marines and corpsmen died on or near the hill, and another 200 were wounded. (Those numbers do not include aviation casualties.) Those who survived endured a 77-day siege that tested them to the limit of their endurance. Said Colonel William Dabney, “By enduring, they triumphed. They were magnificent!”
Marines raise the American flag over Hill 881S. (Photograph courtesy of David Powell)