The War: Victory at Khe Sanh

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Wincing in the unaccustomed sun light, U.S. Marines of the 6,000-man Khe Sanh garrison tumbled out of their bunkers into the open air. Amid shell craters and the wreckage of destroyed Jeeps, helicopters and buildings, they washed grimy clothes and gamboled in makeshift showers. Three Marines dug out baseball gloves and began playing catch. Everywhere along the camp's perimeter, the roofs of bunkers blossomed with Marines, who were not, for a change, either running or ducking. In stead, they passed binoculars from hand to hand, taking turns peering out into the jungled hills, so long alive with thousands of North Vietnamese soldiers.

Now there was no enemy to be seen, though an occasional artillery or mortar round still whistled in on the camp. What the Marines were watching was the approach of the vanguard of Operation Pegasus, a relief force of 30,000 Marines, Army troopers and South Vietnamese soldiers. The relief columns advanced down National Route 9 to ward Khe Sanh almost without opposition; they were accompanied by heliborne troopers, who were the first to reach the camp, landing on Khe Sanh's pocked runway. Thus, after 76 harrowing days, the siege of Khe Sanh last week came to an ironic end. What had loomed as the great set-piece battle, a la Dienbienphu, of the entire war—the ultimate test of Hanoi's military menace and the grand symbol of U.S. determination—dissolved at last almost without a shot being fired.

Slings of Artillery. Operation Pegasus had begun only four days previously under the command of Major General John J. Tolson, 53, commander of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) in Viet Nam. It was launched from Landing Zone Stud in the Khe Sui Soi river valley eleven miles northeast of Khe Sanh; its first task was to open Route 9, which had been in enemy hands since last August. Its overall goal: to create a ground supply line to Khe Sanh and to destroy the enemy around the Marine camp. To do the job, Tolson had 19,000 of his own Air Cavalrymen with their nearly 300 helicopters and 148 heliborne artillery pieces, plus 10,000 U.S. Marines and three battalions of the South Vietnamese army.

While the Air Cavalrymen leapfrogged ahead to seize high ground and set up artillery protection, the Marines marched on either side of Route 9 and straight down the potholed road itself, clearing mines and repairing bridges. Accompanied by M48 tanks and truckloads of ammunition, rations and bridge girders, they marched toward Khe Sanh. Overhead, five-string formations of Huey helicopters carried the Air Cavalrymen, giant Chinook choppers hauled slings of artillery, and flying cranes brought in bulldozers.

First Blood. When the lead units of Pegasus were within a mile of Khe Sanh's perimeter, they halted to let the Air Cav's rocket-firing helicopters pound away at North Vietnamese gunners still dug into surrounding hills. Once the guns were silenced, Air Cavalrymen were lifted in to seize the high ground around the base. But the Marines inside Khe Sanh drew first blood in that mission. Breaking out of their own perimeter for the first time since the siege began, they stormed and took Hill 471, two miles from their base.

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