The War: Victory at Khe Sanh

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Then the Air Cav came in around Khe Sanh itself and immediately fanned out to clear the camp's perimeter of any remaining Communists, jumping into trenches built and stocked by the enemy during the eleven-week siege. A battalion of South Vietnamese rangers that had been landed inside Khe Sanh moved out to do the same, found enemy trench and bunker complexes extending right into their wire. After seizing the hills around the base, Pegasus and the men of Khe Sanh intended to try to roll the Communist forces back all the way to the Laotian border on the west and the Demilitarized Zone to the north, destroying as many as possible in the pursuit.

Communist sources in London tried to make propaganda out of the lack of resistance to Pegasus by claiming that Hanoi had voluntarily lifted the siege of Khe Sanh as a gesture of good will toward peace talks. U.S. intelligence had indeed noted that most of the enemy's 325C Division had withdrawn into Laos—but more than a week be fore President Johnson's offer to de-escalate. Parts of the 304th Division were also pulling away from Khe Sanh, leaving perhaps only 7,000 of the estimated 30,000 Communist troops that once encircled the base. But the U.S. command is convinced that North Viet Nam's General Vo Nguyen Giap, if he ever intended to attack Khe Sanh, was forced to abandon the idea and the siege because of his losses under relentless allied air bombardment.

Relief for Giap. The bombardment was the most intensive in the history of aerial warfare. Tactical fighter-bombers flew nearly 9,000 sorties in March alone. On a single day, giant B-52s made as many as 34 strikes with their 2,000-lb. bombs. All told, more than 110,000 tons of explosives rained down during the siege, breaking up formations, destroying supplies and setting off thousands of secondary explosions. The U.S. had good reason to believe that among the targets hit was the headquarters for the Communist campaign.

As a result of the bombing, said General William Westmoreland, the U.S. had won the battle of Khe Sanh. Spiraling in by helicopter for a quick visit to the base just before his trip to Washington, Westmoreland declared: "We took 220 killed at Khe Sanh and about 800 wounded and evacuated. The enemy by my count has suffered at least 15,000 dead in the area." General Giap may well have been glad to see the men of Pegasus approaching Khe Sanh. Pegasus not only relieved the Marines of Khe Sanh; it also relieved the Communists of a siege that they could no longer profitably maintain.

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