The War: Showdown at Khe Sanh

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Westmoreland has a worthy antagonist. Defense Minister Vo Nguyen Giap, victor over the French at Dienbienphu, is reliably reported to be personally directing the campaign against Khe Sanh. The Communist planning so far has all the earmarks of Giap's generalship: a combination of caution, feinting, meticulous preparation, and enormous concentrations of firepower and manpower. Giap's precise strategic aim at Khe Sanh is less clear. A North Vietnamese lieutenant who defected reported that Hanoi's goal was to wipe out U.S. forces in Viet Nam's northern provinces in order to provide a bargaining advantage in negotiations. But the U.S. command believes that Giap's aim is less ambitious, if more familiar: to surround the base camp at Khe Sanh and chew it to pieces, killing and capturing most of its American defenders while other Communist units hold U.S. reinforcements at bay.

The Rockpile Replies. Khe Sanh bears some topographical resemblance to Dienbienphu, sitting at the bottom of its bowl of hills, vulnerable to artillery and machine-gun fire from the heights both at the camp and its 4,000-ft. airstrip. Some of the hills are controlled by Marines. But others, like Hill 881 North, which the Marines took with such blood last May, were abandoned during the quiet months since and have been repossessed by the North Vietnamese. One Communist-held hill, numbered 950 (all are named after their height in meters), runs parallel to Khe Sanh's runway only three miles away and commands a view of the entire camp. The North Vietnamese have dug antiaircraft and machine guns into it and have already succeeded in shooting down three U.S. fighter-bombers and three helicopters over the airstrip. Every plane that lands at Khe Sanh now expects to do so under fire, and more and more equipment is being parachuted in. Khe Sanh's weather this time of year may also aid the Communists. Fog rolls in at night and sometimes does not burn off until midday or later, making air support all but impossible.

The Marines expect the attack to come this week or next, at the end of the Tet (lunar new year) ceasefire. The truce began at the end of last week, after five days of intermittent shelling of Khe Sanh by Giap's long guns from North Viet Nam and rockets, mortars and recoilless rifles fired at closer range. The giant U.S. 175-mm. artillery at Camp Carroll and the Rockpile, another Marine base, answered back. U.S. fighter-bombers, many diverted from hitting North Viet Nam, rained down the heaviest explosive loads of the war on the enemy around Khe Sanh in more than 1,500 sorties. Among their targets was the village of Khe Sanh, located some two miles from the Marine camp. After a battalion-sized Communist attack on the village, Khe Sanh Commander Colonel David E. Lownds concluded that it was not defensible and pulled its garrison back into the base. Nearly 1,000 of its villagers were evacuated by C-123s and helicopters to Danang. When the Communists moved large guns into the village, U.S. pilots had no choice but to level it to the ground.

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