Khê Sanh Campaign

by Richard Dieterle

APRIL 5, 1968 — After the disasterous firefight of March 25 (q. v.), there was not much left of our platoon. Going into the fight, Alcala commanded the guns and Thomas was one of his gunners. The other gunner was "Gangster" (from Chicago). Thomas had come down with malaria on the helicopter pad, and Gunsalaus asked me to take over his gun. Ganster was wounded, as was Alcala, who was sliced down his leg with B-40 shrapnel. The guns had taken other casualties as well, and even though he was relatively new, "Soul King" Holcolmbe ended up being one of the temporary gunners. For awhile I carried the other gun. I have to say, it was a lot heavier than I thought, and I found it difficult to hump. A new guy, Martini was my assistant gunner. We spent the next few days tramping around the Quảng Trị area. Only one incident sticks in my memory. As we were trudging along bearing our great loads, an ARA appeared to our left and slightly behind us. Everyone else was aware of its presence, it seems, but Martini and I were too absorbed in our portage to have noticed. All of a sudden it opened up with rockets at a target some ways off  to our right. Martini and I went jumping off the elevated path like a couple of kangaroos. After seeing what B-40 rockets could do, we were predisposed at a similar sound to dive for cover. We stood there like a couple of fools looking up at the ARA while everyone else laughed. I have to admit, I even laughed myself, imagining what it must have looked like when two men suddenly went off the diving board for no good reason.

Nevertheless, on the whole, I had made a sufficiently good impression, in addition to my seniority, that I was made acting squad leader for the Weapons Squad, rather than being sent back to a rifle squad. As I put it in a letter home,

I am now “1.4” (“one-four”) – that is squad leader for the 11 man weapon’s squad (2 mg’s) the largest in the platoon.  The rank in the platoon goes 1.6 (platoon leader [lieutenant]), 1.5 (platoon sgt.), then me.  I’ve been put in for Sgt. on special orders. 

This was normally an E-6 position, but that rank was usually reserved for lifers. As we were licking our wounds in Quảng Trị, it came down that we were going to be involved in an important operation to relieve the Marines at Khê Sanh.

The Marines had gotten themselves into a fix at Khê Sanh, not too far from the DMZ. The North Vietnamese had brought it under intense artillery fire from very large guns situated in the mountain side of the Co Roc ridge in Laos, just across the Perfume River. They were called the "Guns of Navarone" after a recent movie in which the Germans had super-guns on tracks in concrete caverns tunneled into the mountains. The guns of Co Roc were of a similar character. It had been feared that they could cover an enemy advance, and that the Marines would be overrun in another Điện Biên Phủ. Since simple retreat would have had much the same propaganda effect, it was decided that something had to be done to defeat the enemy before the Marines could be pulled out of their vulnerable position. The generals decided to send the Cav to seize the adjacent hills to the south and west, and to send the ARVNs on a much publicized campaign into Laos to knock out the guns of Co Roc (if necessary).

This was a risky proposition for us. We were told that when we went in that we had to set up and dig in in a hurry, since we could expect fire from the guns on the Laotian ridge, guns at least of an 8 inch caliber. The next morning we saddled up and several flights of Hueys came in to pick us up. We came up on the south side of the ridge that we were to occupy. It had steep slopes and an actual landing was impossible. The choppers hovered momentarily off the hill while we scrambled out. I, as the sergeant, was seated in the middle of the chopper, and chose to jump out the right side, toward the higher ground. The last guy jumped out the left side as the chopper was moving away. The hill was so steep that he fell quite a distance, and when he landed, he broke his ankle. We were supposed to scramble to our positions, then dig in. I rapidly moved the guns into a good position while coördinating with the squads on my right and left. However, no sooner did we start to dig than the platoon sergeant came by and said they had to adjust the lines. So we all picked up and moved. But this was not stable either — we soon moved again, and finally, it was decided to move the guns out on to "spits" projecting out of the ridge so that they had maximum effect. By then, quite some time had passed, perhaps as much as 45 minutes. Fortunately, no artillery came in. The 1/12 had landed on the adjacent ridge just to the north and east. Even though I was on the southwestern side, the ridge sloped down enough that I could see most of their ridge. The sound of artillery could be heard, which we took to be our own making a plot of prepositioned firing. However, I could see one of the men of the 1/12 running for his foxhole and yelling "incoming!" Quite a barrage ensued, but it all landed off to the north, missing the positions of the 1/12. It later became clear that the Guns of Co Roc could be wheeled only so far out of their caverns, and that while they had a clear shot at Khê Sanh, their barrels hit the sides of the concrete retainer walls before coming into perfect alignment with our positions to the south. Consequently, all their rounds landed too far north, and from that point on we had no further worry about artillery.

From the other side of the ridge we had a good view of Khê Sanh and the surrounding area. I have never seen anything like it. The terrain bore no resemblance to anything on earth, and the only thing to which I could compare it was the surface of the moon. It was not merely cratered, with craters inside craters, and craters overlapping craters, but so thoroughly was it shattered and dug up that no a living things remained. I do not mean to suggest that foliage was scattered about the ground — there was not a trace of it. It had been vaporized as if struck by meteorites for centuries. Such was the terrain for miles around Khê Sanh, forming a giant circle of total devastation. No enemy in any shape or form could advance on Khê Sanh without being as visible as if they were in a desert. Indeed it was a desert, a desert of mud, dirt and stone. It was clear that we had one thing they lacked at Điện Biên Phủ: overwhelming air support, enough to annihilate the very landscape.

Before sunset we had quite an interesting show. Flying almost directly over us was a squadron of B-52 bombers. I can't say how many, but there were enough to cover the entire sky. They were not flying particularly high either. They turned and flew lengthwise (to the north) over the Co Roc Ridge, which they plastered with tons of bombs. Despite the distance to the ridge, we could feel the earth shake in a steady tremor as the bombs fell. This never failed to have an impressive effect, and we figured that the guns had been dealt a blow.

The next day, if I remember correctly, brought another B-52 strike. That was the day (if it was not the same day that we landed) that the ARVNs flew nearly overhead in a vast armada of American Hueys towards Laos. I could not help but think of how rickety and antique the helicopters seemed, and how they might so impress future generations with their primitive flimsiness; yet it must be said that 40 years later they have not changed much at all.

The ridge we were on was covered with relatively short green grass. The spit on which the gun was situated was devoid of vegetation altogether. We considered that there was some chance that the enemy might attack in force, and we contemplated how we might handle such an attack. However, we had heard that elsewhere not too long ago, a company of the 1/5 had set up on one of these ridges, and during the night the enemy moved in on the ridge facing it. They were armed with 144 mm Soviet rockets, and fired them at almost point blank range on the 1/5. The result was astronomical casualties, I believe something like 50 men in the company were killed. Consequently, we were concerned that the enemy might move on to the opposite ridge and repeat this performance on us. A ground attack, though, seemed the least likely alternative of the two. This never materialized, as we had caught the enemy by surprise, and he appeared to have scattered.

The hill that we air assaulted and established ourselves on, eventually came to be known as "LZ Snapper." The First Brigade Headquarters were set up there, at least temporarily. We remained there only for a couple more days, before we headed out to sweep the nearby hills.

Operational Report – Lessons Learned
Headquarters, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile)
Period Ending 30 April 1968 (U)
By Col. Conrad L. Stansberry, Chief of Staff

§I, 1. Operations, B. 1st Brigade, ¶2. "On 5 April, two battalions air assaulted (one from vic. Quang Tri and one from LZ Stud to which it had been airlifted during the assault of the first battalion) into the PEGASUS/LAM Son 207A AO. The Brigade CP was established southwest of Khe Sanh at LZ Snapper and the battalions conducted immediate and aggressive combat operations against  moderate enemy resistance.

§B Pegasus (1-15 April), ¶2 Initial Assault. On 5 April (D+4), the 1st Brigade air assaulted one battalion and airlifted a second battalion into LZ Snapper (XD 844347).

LZ Snapper — shown on the following map: Khê Sanh Area.

LZ Stud — shown on the map, LZ Stud.