The bloody battle of Khe Sanh: 77 days under siege
By MATTHEW M. BURKE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 17, 2014
Marine Cpl. Steve Wiese watched in horror from a shell crater as several North Vietnamese Army regulars walked toward him, callously executing his wounded brothers in arms.
Wiese’s squad had been one of two from 3rd platoon that was decimated while on patrol a short distance from the base at Khe Sanh on Feb. 25, 1968. The patrol was looking for an enemy mortar position when they were drawn into a perfectly orchestrated crescent-shaped ambush.
As the NVA drew closer, Wiese pulled the body of a fellow Marine over his chest and played dead. Something distracted the enemy and they turned around and went in the opposite direction.
Wiese retreated meticulously back to the besieged American base. It took the entire day to trek back about 400 yards.
The engagement would be one of the deadliest days at Khe Sanh for the men of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment, with 27 killed, one taken prisoner and 19 wounded, according to survivors and official reports. Only eight of the wounded, including Wiese, were fit enough to return to duty.
While most have heard of the Battle for Khe Sanh, an 11-week siege in early 1968 that pitted three NVA divisions — about 20,000 troops — against a single surrounded and cut-off U.S. Marine regiment of about 5,000 and their supporting forces, few have heard of the men of Bravo, the “ghost patrol” and subsequent Marine retaliation for the slaughter.
Marking the 50th anniversary of the start of the war, a new documentary made by Bravo Marine and Khe Sanh veteran Ken Rodgers and his wife, Betty, “Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor” offers a glimpse into some of the bloodiest fighting of the Vietnam War.
The film has also provided some much-needed catharsis to the survivors from Bravo, many of whom opened up for the first time.
“I don’t think anyone else could have [made the film],” Wiese, now 66, told Stars and Stripes from his California home. For years, he suppressed his experiences and was reluctant to tell his story. However, that changed when he sat across from the camera and Rodgers.
“I carry major survivor’s guilt,” he said. “I don’t understand why I’m alive and they aren’t. I don’t understand why I’m here.”
Securing Khe Sanh
Khe Sanh Combat Base was erected near the border with Laos in western Quang Tri province in 1962 by Green Berets. The base featured an airstrip and was atop a plateau “in the shadow of Dong Tri mountain,” overlooking a tributary of the Quang Tri River, according to official Marine Corps histories.
The surrounding area featured piedmont hills, uninhabited jungle with impenetrable undergrowth, mountain trails hidden by tree canopies at 60-70 feet above the floor, tall elephant grass and bamboo thickets. It was a natural infiltration route into the south and the densely populated cities on the eastern coast of Quang Tri.
United States Military Assistance Command Vietnam commander Army Gen. W.C. Westmoreland said that the base was strategically important.
The North Vietnamese hoped to establish a “liberation government” just south of the DMZ and they wanted to control the area to launch attacks into the south and sow unrest. If they wanted to push south from bases in Laos, Khe Sanh stood directly in their path.
In addition, by fighting in a generally unpopulated region, there would be few restrictions on tactics and weapons.
“Another factor favoring the decision to hold Khe Sanh was the enemy’s determination to take it,” Westmoreland wrote. “Our defense of the area would tie down large numbers of North Vietnamese troops which otherwise could move against the vulnerable populated areas whose security was the heart of the Vietnamese pacification program.”
The first substantial Marine units arrived at the base in spring 1966. The first attacks on the base happened a year later, and the NVA were repelled. During what would come to be known as the “Hill Fights,” the Marines secured three surrounding hills and built combat outposts. The base remained relatively quiet for the remainder of the year, according to Bravo skipper retired Lt. Col. Ken Pipes, then a captain. He arrived at Khe Sanh in September 1967.
‘Something was brewing’
All of the signs were there. The enemy was planning something big.
Patrols began making contact out in the hinterlands; Reconnaissance reported large groups were moving into the area and they were staying put, Pipes said. Recovered NVA documents and maps depicted all of the major approaches to the base. A disgruntled NVA first lieutenant who surrendered knew the entire plan and began talking.
“We did get intelligence,” Pipes said. “We knew something was brewing.”
NVA reconnaissance patrols turned into probes; sniper fire increased and ambushes picked up. The Marines stopped running patrols and improved their fortifications as reinforcements arrived.
On Jan. 21, 1968, “all hell broke loose” with hundreds of 82mm mortars, artillery shells and 122mm rockets slamming into the base. The Marines dove for cover in trenches and bunkers while a mess hall was flattened, the regimental commander’s quarters was hit, fuel storage areas were set ablaze and several helicopters and trucks were destroyed.
One of the first rounds hit the ammunition dump near the eastern end of the runway. It erupted in a series of blinding explosions. Mortars and artillery were sent into the air and exploded upon coming down, adding to the devastation. Tear gas was released.
“It was crazy,” Ken Rodgers recalled. “The Vietnamese were pounding us … Rounds were coming down on top of us; we were wearing masks, expecting an assault on the line.”
Navy Corpsman John “Doc” Cicala remembers someone calling for him. The 3rd class petty officer grabbed his rifle and left his hooch.
No sooner had he hit the trench line when he heard an explosion, he said. Next thing he knew, he was on his back looking up at the sky.
“I reached for my helmet and there was the tail fin of a mortar stuck in it,” he said. “I was out for a couple of minutes.”
He went on to the scene to find a Marine with his foot blown off, he said. He applied a tourniquet and brought him to the aid station.
“I kept quite busy,” he recalled. “It wasn’t a fun time.”
The artillery barrage would continue for 77 days and nights. The men tried to stay underground as much as possible.
“Anyone who says they weren’t scared is lying,” said Wiese. “We knew we were going to be overrun and the whole world was going to end — but that happened every night. People were wounded and killed every night.”
The leadership tried to keep everyone calm as they watched the NVA dig trenches around the base and begin tunneling toward it.
“You have to maintain and present a confidence,” said Pipes. “We were pretty well-trained too.”
Pipes made the rounds day and night, sometimes offering “a quick sniff” of Jack Daniel’s to the men. He made sure they had ammunition. His efforts earned him the devotion of his men.
Some days only a few rounds would hit the base; other days would bring more than 2,000, Pipes said.
On Feb. 25, the “ghost patrol” went outside the wire led by a fearless yet young and relatively inexperienced Lt. Donald Jacques. The patrol, which included Wiese and Cicala, reached two checkpoints before veering off course.
They saw three NVA soldiers walking down the road at 50 yards before jumping into the jungle. Against the advice of a defector turned scout, Jacques gave the order to pursue. Most of the men were cut down soon after.
“It was total chaos,” said Cicala. “Guys started dropping everywhere. All I could do was run around and try and take care of them.”
An NVA soldier popped out of a hole in front of Cicala as he rushed to aid a comrade. Cicala was shot two times in the chest. While he was down, a grenade landed between his legs. All he could do, he said, was curl up in the fetal position and wait for the end.
Cicala was too close to absorb the brunt of the blast, which went over him, he said. He dressed his own wounds.
Jacques ran up to the injured corpsman. “Get out of here, we’re all getting killed,” Cicala recalled him shouting. Jacques was hit in the femoral artery by machine gun fire less than 50 feet away, and he bled out.
Seeing no one alive, Cicala started crawling. The dead and wounded were left on the battlefield.
It took the rest of the day for Cicala to crawl back to base. When he arrived, he was in shock, repeating, “They’re all dead.” He left Khe Sanh and Vietnam after the battle.
His squad had been wiped out, so at 19, he found himself in charge of a new one.
The battle-hardened Wiese was supposed to leave Khe Sanh on March 28, so he waited while the barrage continued.
When his time came, he recalled going to the airstrip. A C-130 landed and loaded the dead and wounded. There was no room for him.
The next day, no plane came.
On March 30, he had two choices: wait at the airfield or go on patrol with his men. He went, not wanting to be viewed as a coward.
Pipes led the patrol, which was designed to recover the bodies of fallen comrades and get revenge on a battalion of NVA. The Marines were outnumbered four or five to one.
They went outside the wire with a slightly larger force of 186, this time through heavy fog. Survivors call it the “payback patrol.”
As Company B approached the NVA trenches and bunkers, Pipes got on the radio.
“Be advised, fix bayonets,” Wiese recalled. “I was like, ‘Oh crap, we’re talking hand-to-hand combat.’”
It didn’t take long for the NVA to pin down some of the Marines, including Wiese.
Lance Cpl. Wayne Moore charged a soldier holding a machine gun and was shot dead as Wiese and his men watched.
Lance Cpl. Author Smith jumped into the enemy trench line with a bayonet and died fighting.
Pfc. Ted Britt did the same.
“We all jumped up and started screaming and charged the line,” Wiese recalled. “All along the line, everybody was jumping up. We killed a lot of NVA.”
Pipes was hit with a mortar fragment that went through his arm and lodged in his chest just a few inches from his heart, yet he continued to coordinate the artillery and air support. A sniper’s bullet finally stopped the captain; he was shot in the head and knocked unconscious. The bullet penetrated the steel of his helmet but was stopped by his helmet liner.
Official reports estimate the number of NVA killed at 115. Those who weren’t stabbed or shot were blown out of their fortifications with grenades, satchel charges or flamethrowers.
The Marines sent the larger force running down the hill. There were nine Americans killed in the engagement, including Moore, Smith and Britt, according to official accounts.
Payback marked the end of Operation Scotland I and the beginning of Operation Pegasus, which would end the siege with Marine and Army elements and South Vietnamese counterparts.
Pipes insists they didn’t need relief.
From November 1967 to the end of the “payback patrol,” there were 205 killed from all services and more than 1,600 wounded.
The Marines confirmed the deaths of 1,602 NVA but the number is believed to be as high as 15,000. Counting is difficult because the enemy often carried away their dead.
Within months, the base at Khe Sanh was abandoned by the U.S., and the NVA raised their flag over the pockmarked plateau.
Cicala remembers reading in Stars and Stripes that it was “strategically unnecessary to hold” while he was in the hospital recovering from his wounds. He was so angry that he remembers what page the article was on.
He said that the sacrifices made defending the base only to give it up have made him bitter, a sentiment reiterated by the Bravo Marines interviewed by Stars and Stripes.
“We always felt betrayed that so many guys died and then they just left it,” Wiese said.
The men of Bravo Company were forced to process these feelings and the horrors they had witnessed while coming home to a country that wanted nothing to do with them. They banded together with yearly reunions and constant contact. For many, it has taken decades to get over what they saw and come to terms with the post-traumatic stress.
“I get angry when people talk about glory and honor,” Cicala said. “The only thing that counts is keeping your buddy alive.”
Their bond has lasted a lifetime. Now, they face a new enemy in cancer, diabetes and other ailments they say were caused by exposure to Agent Orange. Wiese is fighting both.
Ken and Betty Rodgers said several of the men in the film have died since their interviews.
The film, in the works for years, stands as a testament to the men of Bravo. It recounts the battle, complete with interviews with over a dozen survivors, never before heard audio that brings the battle to life, after-action reports and photos.
The film was completed over the summer with sound and film editing by Vietnam veteran John Nutt from “Apocalypse Now” and “Amadeus” and four-time Oscar winner Mark Berger, who mixed the sound.
The Rodgerses are working to secure screenings across the country and are looking for a home for the film on television.
To this day, Pipes can rattle off the names of the men he served with like it was yesterday — Lownds, Wilkinson, Rayburn, Pessoni, Norman, Morris, McCauley, Gaynor, Horton, Quigley, Scudder.
They are forever on his mind, he said, and the film serves as a way to keep their memory alive. He sees it as immortality for the warriors of Bravo.
“These were important men,” Pipes said, his voice wavering with emotion. “If we don’t talk about them I’m afraid they’ll be forgotten and that would hurt my heart.”