In January of 1968, I landed in Vietnam as a Fleet Marine Navy Corpsman at a place called Phu Bai in northern South Vietnam. I was then helicoptered to Dong Ha, where I received my orders to report to Bravo Co. 3rd Recon Battalion, 3rd Marine Division, which at that time was stationed at a forward Marine Corps Air Base called Khe Sanh. I was handed an M-16 and was told, “Doc, from here on out you are a Marine first and a Corpsman second.” I would find out what that meant soon enough.
On the 21st of January, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) launched its first major artillery attack on the base. I would arrive a couple of days later on a Caribou transport plane with other replacement troops. When we landed, we were told to “Get the hell off my plane as fast as you can. We are not stopping. The NVA already have this area aimed in, and they start launching mortars every time we land.”
Well, we got off fast and were directed to trenches immediately. I would spend the next 75 days, along with my Bravo 3rd Recon brothers, about 6,000 Marines from the reinforced 26th Marine Regiment, some ARVNs, and a handful of Seabees and Air Force Air Controllers, in one of the fiercest battles of the Vietnam War.
We were essentially surrounded by two divisions of North Vietnamese Army Regulars, numbering some 20 thousand troops. They were well trained and well equipped. Their supply chains were along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos, which was about 4 miles west of Khe Sanh. Their big artillery was set up in caves in the mountains just inside the Laotian border.
When those guns fired, we could hear the pop of them leaving the tubes, then a brief silence, then a sound like a rushing roar, and then the massive explosions of the shells. When they had fired their missions, they simply retracted their guns into the caves again to avoid having them seen or destroyed by our fighter bombers.
The video below will give you a hint of what it was like for all of us during those days. You will see what we endured, but you will not hear, smell, taste, or feel what we experienced together there.
At one point, you will see some footage of a C-130 burning and a CH-53 helicopter downed just a bit ahead of it. Those two events happened nearby our 3rd Recon area. As a Corpsman, along with other Corpsmen and Marines, I rescued wounded Marines and recovered the bodies of those who were killed in both incidents. Those were just a couple of the events that I participated in personally.
We were hit regularly with NVA artillery, mortars, and rocket fire. On one day alone, we received some 1,500 rounds on the base. Our area was near the airstrip and not far from the Command Bunker. As a result, during the length of the siege, our area would take more hits on average than most. We began to say, “Home is where you dig it.”
We had gone underground, digging deep bunkers covered over with every conceivable kind of material we could find, several feet thick, in order to reduce the possibilities of being injured or killed by nearby explosions. They still were not enough against a direct hit. Several of our Recon brothers were killed and others badly wounded when their bunker took a direct hit early on in the siege. They were among the 19 KIAs and the 49 WIAs Bravo Co. 3rd Recon suffered during those 77 days of the siege.
Out of 110 men at the beginning of the siege, only 42 of us left that base on our feet. That gave us a casualty rate comparable to that of units at Gettysburg in the Civil War.
The base was attacked five times by battalion-sized NVA units during the siege, and the Marines repelled all five attempts. We were also defended by Air Force, Marine, and Navy pilots who dropped tons of munitions on the enemy, including B-52s dropping their 500- and 750-pound bombs on them, but they kept hitting us back with their own kind of terror too. They were a tough military force.
On April 7, 1968, Marines relief units finally were able to get through to the base, and the skies filled with hundreds of helicopters carrying Army Airborne Division forces into the fight to move the NVA out of that area. The siege was over.
Every year at this time, the names and faces of the 19 men we lost from Bravo Co. come back to me. Even 53 years later, the memories are sharp. The sharp edges of pain associated with those memories have been smoothed and rounded off a bit by time and long life, but they never go away.
I pay tribute to those men by remembering them with an article each year around this time. It helps me too. They were so young, and they remain so in our memories. They gave their lives, so that we, their brothers, could come home to live long and productive lives. But we never forget them. They are our heroes. We love them even more today than we did back then. They now guard the gates of heaven, and may they greet us when it is our turn. Semper Fi!