Khe Sanh Hill Fights of ‘67
Compiled by Ray Stubbe
All Rights Reserved by the Author
The following text was scanned from the Khe Sanh Veterans Newsletter; Special Issue: 30th Anniversary of the Hill Battles at Khe Sanh. Ray Stubbe compiled the text from official records and personal narratives of those involved.
The importance of Khe Sanh relates to an opening in the rugged mountain chain that forms a natural boundary between Laos and South Vietnam known as the D'Ai Lao. Two other passes to the north, Mu Gia (WE 8153) and Ban Karai (XE 262117) provided access to NVA units moving south relatively unimpeded along what came to be known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The D'Ai Lao (the pass through which Route 9 passes to and from Laos) had been an ancient invasion route, used in 1282 when the warrior Chams in Vietnam moved westward. (Note: the tactical maps show KSCB as "Xom Cham," or "village of Chams"), in 1666, when Vietnamese extended their influence into Laos, in 1827 by Siamese moving east, pushing the Vietnamese to Cam Lo. Road construction beginning in 1904 under Capt. Odend'Hall made it into Route 9.
As development of the Ho Chi Minh trail progressed, the Laotian town of Tchepone on Route 9 was overrun in May, 1961, and, being concerned over a "porous border," the Americans placed a Special Forces "A" team in Khe Sanh ville on 8 July 1962, lest penetrating NVA troops and supplies have free access into Vietnam. The Bru tribe, covering both sides of the border, became a natural source of information for Americans on what was happening on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, as did the local French coffee plantation owners who traveled westward on Route 9 to Savannakhet in Laos. An airstrip (later KSCB) was developed by ARVN engineers in Nov-Dec of '62.
Then came 1964
On 26 Mar, Capt. Floyd Thompson (CO of the Khe Sanh "A" team) was captured and became the longest-held POW of the war. On 20 Apr, Eugene Poilane, who had established a coffee plantation at Khe Sanh in 1918 and fathered 10 children, 5 of whom were born after he was 60, was assassinated on Route 9. In late '64, the USSF relocated to the airstrip and began construction of several bunkers (which Marines later assumed were "old French bunkers").
On 22 Dec '65, the Special Forces at Khe Sanh made a chance contact in a dense fog with a large NVA patrol and annihilated them. The NVA retaliated on 03 Jan '66 by shelling the new camp with 120mm mortars, the first use of these larger caliber weapons in the war.
By now, Khe Sanh now was important not as a plug in a hole to stop NVA from moving into South Vietnam, but rather as a launch site for American intelligence-gathering operations into Laos. The pass made it possible to move in and out clandestinely by foot. A whole host of such activities soon flourished: in 1964 Signal Engineer Survey Unit commanded by Maj. Alfred M. Gray, Jr., conducted operations from Tiger Tooth Mt (Hill 1739, XD 832543). Special Forces established agent nets, as did the National Police in Khe Sanh ville. The Air Force started TIGERHOUND-small prop aircraft to do VR. The CIA (or, in Vietnam, CAS) established JTAD station #14 (Joint Technical Advisory Detachment) at Khe Sanh, using former NVA who had been "turned around" for deep, unsupervised patrols. The SOG's FOB-I at Phu Bai used Khe Sanh as a Launch Site by 1966.
Results of these activities prompted Gen. Westmoreland to coax III MAF to upgrade the Khe Sanh airstrip and emplace BN 1/3 there in Oct '66. Project DELTA, operating just under the DMZ and east of the border, sustained 3 MIA in Dec '66. The USSF relocated to Lang Vei 19-25 Dec '66.
NVA presence in the Khe Sanh area increased; Khe Sanh was the nest from which the hornets stung them in Laos. (Gen. Giap was always interested in the area. He had been imprisoned at the prison at the D'Ai Lao, known as Lao Bao, 19301932 along with his brother Nho, a prison so harsh that prisoners rarely returned from it.)
Contacts became more frequent. On 18 Jan '67, Cpl Michael John Scanlon of the 3d Force Recon Co Det became the first USMC KIA at Khe Sanh. As a result of a contact 26-27 Jan, 4 USMC helicopters were lost. BN 1/9 arrived at Khe Sanh on 6 Feb '67 and made contact 25 Feb just 1500 meters west of the airstrip. Force Recon patrols reported significant NVA presence. On 16 Mar, the newly arrived E/219 made contact in which 18 Marines were KIA. USAF pilots of TIGERHOUND reported: "an alarming buildup of fortifications and NVA activity on the hills overlooking the base."
Yet, the base commander was convinced there was little or no NVA presence or activity. One of the SOG team leaders training indigenous for patrols into Laos conducted training patrols for his indigenous at Khe Sanh, including Hills 881-North and South and 861. During a brief of the Khe Sanh commander, he reported numerous bunkers, lots of enemy, and recommended the hills be subject to "..Many, many hours of prepping with air-strikes. Then I would form my artillery and I would lay a barrage and walk my troops up with a barrage of artillery in front of us. This Marine officer looked around and said, 'Bullshit!' And the Captain looked at me and said, 'Well, Sergeant, our briefing is completed.' We turned around and walked out of there. And it was about a week, the Marines sent a Company up on that hill."