Battle of Khe Sanh

The Battle of Khe Sanh was conducted in northwestern Quang Tri Province, Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), between 21 January and 9 July 1968 during the Vietnam War. The combatants were elements of the United States (U.S.) III Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF), elements of the South Vietnamese Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and two to three division-size elements of the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN - also referred to as the North Vietnamese Army (NVA)). The American command in South Vietnam gave the defense of the base the nickname Operation Scotland.

The American command in Saigon initially believed that combat operations around the Khe Sanh Combat Base during the summer of 1967 were just part of a series of minor North Vietnamese offensives in the border regions. That appraisal was altered when it was discovered that PAVN was moving major forces into the area during the fall and winter. A build-up of Marine forces took place and actions around Khe Sanh commenced when the Marine base was isolated. During a series of desperate actions that lasted 77 days, Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB) and the hilltop outposts around it were under constant North Vietnamese ground, artillery, mortar, and rocket attacks.

During the battle, a massive aerial bombardment campaign (Operation Niagara) was launched by the U.S. Air Force to support the Marine base. This campaign used the latest technological advances in order to locate PAVN forces for targeting. The logistical effort to support KSCB, once it was isolated overland, demanded the implementation of other tactical innovations in order to keep the Marines supplied.

In March 1968, an overland relief expedition (Operation Pegasus) was launched by a combined Marine–Army/South Vietnamese task force that eventually broke through to the Marines at Khe Sanh. Though presented as a victory for American and South Vietnamese forces, the PAVN did force a retreat of men and materiel from the combat base. Historians have observed that the Battle of Khe Sanh may have successfully distracted American and GVN attention from the buildup of Viet Cong forces in the south prior to the early 1968 Tet Offensive. Even at the height of the Tet Offensive, General Westmoreland maintained that the true intentions of the offensive was to distract forces from Khe Sanh.

It would be reasonable to support the claim of an overwhelming American victory at Khe Sanh based solely on the ratios derived from the official American casualty count. In fact, it is impossible to reasonably put the fighting at Khe Sanh in the American win column; neither side won a resounding victory. The PAVN surrounded Khe Sanh in an unsuccessful attempt to force the Marines to break out of their fighting positions, which would make it easier to engage and destroy them. The PAVN was unable to recreate the conditions they had achieved at Dien Bien Phu, so were forced to adopt an alternate strategy of attrition. The PAVN continued shelling the base, and on July 1 launched a company-sized infantry attack against its perimeter (although by this time the majority of the U.S. garrison had left the base). On July 9, 1968, National Liberation Front's flag was briefly set up at Ta Con airfield. On July 13, 1968, PAVN sent a message to the soldiers of the Route 9–Khe Sanh Front affirming "our victory at Khe Sanh". It was the first time Americans abandoned a major combat base because of enemy pressure. It was followed by a clear American defeat and disorderly retreat a few months later at the Battle of Kham Duc.

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