The War: Showdown at Khe Sanh

  • Share
  • Read Later

Despite North Korea's obvious attempt to win prestige through belligerence, many in the top echelons of U.S. government felt that the hijacking of the Pueblo had an ominous connection with the war in Viet Nam. As the London Economist observed: "The North Koreans are trying to divert American attention from what could be a decisive battle in Viet Nam." That battle, shaping up around the U.S. Marine base of Khe Sanh in South Viet Nam's northwest corner, could be the biggest of the war. The Communists would not only like to distract U.S. attention and resources from that battle but also combine the humiliation of the Pueblo's seizure with a U.S. defeat, or at least a major bloodletting. Such a one-two punch, they might well hope, would destroy the U.S. will to continue the war.

Khe Sanh has been dug out of the red clay of a plateau that is ringed by high hills thick with trees and bamboo. Some 15 miles south of the DMZ and only ten miles east of the Laotian border, the Marine base lies directly athwart the easiest infiltration routes into South Viet Nam. To eliminate the roadblock, the North Vietnamese have ranged an estimated 20,000 men directly around Khe Sanh, have at least another 20,000 in reserve in Laos and immediately north of the DMZ, all located within 20 miles of the post. Together, they constitute the largest and best-equipped military force that North Viet Nam has ever concentrated on a single battleground.

Khe Sanh, moreover, lies within range of Hanoi's big Russian-made 152-mm. howitzers emplaced in North Viet Nam and Laos. High-speed trails have been cut eastward from Laos into South Viet Nam to supply the Communist besiegers, who are heavily armed with portable howitzers and mortars. To ensure easier access to the new trails, the Communists last week overran the Royal Laotian border outpost of Ban Houei Sane and put its 2,000 defenders to flight.

Familiar Aim. To meet the threat to Khe Sanh, General William Westmoreland has built up the base's garrison to more than 5,000 Marines in a hasty airlift of troops and equipment that suspended all civilian air traffic throughout Viet Nam. Other allied units shifted nearer the scene of the impending battle to be ready if needed, including a 1st Cavalry (airmobile) brigade helicoptered to Phu Bai, only 45 minutes' flying time from Khe Sanh. For what looked more and more like the first classic conventional battle on a major scale of the Viet Nam war, Westmoreland has deployed some 45,000 men to meet the 40,000 North Vietnamese closing in on Khe Sanh.

  1. Previous Page
  2. 1
  3. 2
  4. 3