Over the years, I have reflected on the performance of the Marines who defended Hill 881S during the Siege of Khe Sanh. There were many bad days, a few good ones and an occasional uneventful one, but the chief characteristic of the situation in which the Marines found themselves was its constancy.
There was never a climactic day or event. Rather, from 21 January through 17 April 1968, the threat to life and limb remained essentially unchanged. The dangers were greatest during helicopter operations because those offered the most lucrative targets to the enemy's gunners. The potential for catastrophe, however, was greatest at night or during the frequent foggy weather when we could not see to detect the enemy's approach or to bring our massive supporting fires to bear against him. That potential took a psychological as well as a physical toll. To stand in a trench for eight hours on a given night without relief, in total darkness, in a fog so thick that even a magnesium flare could not pierce it, all senses focused on detecting any sound, any smell, any hint of movement to the front, was trying in the extreme to the Marine required to do it. To require all hands do so nightly for three months was to stretch the limits of resolve. Early on, a Marine approached the company gunnery sergeant tentatively in the trenchline one ink-dark night. He was nervous and ill at ease, but said he felt a duty to speak out. The gunny assured him that he could speak freely, to which he replied that he was loathe to admit that he knew what it smelled like, but that he'd been smelling pot in the wind coming toward the trench line from the north, and that the smell was getting stronger. Relying on his instincts as to the location of the source, we fired over one thousand rounds of mortars and mixed-fuse artillery.. We were not assaulted. There was never thereafter any reticence to report observations or hunches.
We all knew that if the North Vietnamese assaulted there was no possibility of reinforcement or withdrawal. Aside from the preplanned supporting fires, we were entirely on our own. The Marines had daily opportunities to take the measure of their enemy. He was brave, he was disciplined, and he was not suicidal, so they knew that he would assault only when he was reasonably confident of success, and with adequate strength They were aware that both neighboring positions had been penetrated by assaults. They also knew that if wounded, they would be evacuated to a medical facility only when and if the weather broke and the helicopters could fly - that there was little their Corpsmen could provide save comfort and some morphine to ease their pain.
Every man has a psychological limit, and a few broke - a very few. Even those men tended when they broke to manifest it by aggression rather than by withdrawal; to charge out through the defensive wire armed to the teeth, determined to destroy the enemy single-handed, or to become fatalistic and take irrational risks. A few were weak in contrast to their comrades. Command intervention was rarely necessary in those cases, for their fellows Marines seemed to sense the solution appropriate to the individual; be it persuasion, example, or, in extreme cases, physical correction, and even the last was only as direct as was required.
The Uniform Code of Military Justice was useless in the circumstances. A company commander was limited to fining a Marine one week's pay or withholding two weeks', or to restricting him for two weeks. Since most men had not been paid in several months and all were surrounded by quintuple concertina wire and a North Vietnamese Army regiment, those penalties bordered on the absurd. Any meaningful punishment required that the offender be removed from the hill to appear before the battalion commander at Khe Sanh or, for the most serious offenses, before a court-martial convened at some remote rear area base. All hands knew that both Khe Sanh and the Da Nang brig were infinitely safer than the hill, and there were even two or three who actively sought courts-martial. To refer them for such and therefore to send them off the hill was exactly what they wanted so was not an option. It was also unnecessary. The staff non-commissioned officers were superb at correcting those few quickly and privately with traditional methods, and the offenses were never repeated. The troops were equally effective at correction, as when a replacement or returnee from treatment for wounds would bring marijuana or some other drug back with him. He quickly discovered that his fellows would not tolerate drugs on the hill. Their lives depended utterly on the alertness and acuity of their comrades, and their response to those who had or used them was immediate, violent and wholly effective.
Although the siege was contemporary to the peak of racial strife in America, there were no racial tensions on the hill. On the occasion of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination, a black NCO asked that the flag be flown at half-mast for a day. He was told that his sentiment was understood and shared, but that the flag was both critical for morale and a gesture of defiance to the enemy, and its lowering was therefore inappropriate. He agreed, withdrew his request, and volunteered for the flag raising detail the following morning. It did not take long on that hill for a man to determine the worth of his trench mate, and once he did, all other considerations became irrelevant. I have heard it said that no environment involving Americans can exist without racial tensions. I disagree.
Heroism was routine. The helicopter zones were always "hot", and given that the enemy's weapon of choice to attack them was the 120mm mortar, deadly. Most dangerous were the medical evacuation missions It took time to carry badly wounded men from cover to the helicopter and then return to cover, and the mortar rounds were often already announced as being "on the way". Yet there was no occasion when men had to be ordered to carry stretchers. To the contrary, it was often necessary to restrain too many men from lending a hand and exposing themselves unnecessarily. A Marine had his foot blown off, and by the time the Corpsman got to him, he had lost considerable blood. The Doc, exposed and under fire, was determined to save him, but because of weak pulse and low blood pressure, could not find a vein to start an I.V. The man had given up and was moaning weakly in self-pity. The Corpsman slapped his face violently and repeatedly, provoking such anger in the man that his adrenaline kicked in, whereupon the Corpsman found a vein and saved him.
There were moments of humor. A Marine manning an observation post had a spent rifle round ricochet up from the ground and hit the bottom button of his fly. The button happened to be resting against the head of his penis. The button absorbed the impact and there was no penetrating wound, but within an hour of his being hit, his penis had swelled to the size of a salami and his testicles to the size of tennis balls, both turning a deep purple. A radio conference with a physician down at Khe Sanh established that his wound was not life-threatening and therefore did not justify an emergency medical evacuation with the consequent risk to the helicopter. The physician stated that he could do little more than ease the pain, which the corpsmen on the hill could do as well, or amputate, which the Marine would probably not want, and he said that the swelling would eventually subside. For the next several days until we landed a helicopter for a more serious casualty and could get him out, the Marine wandered the trenches disconsolately in helmet, flack jacket and boots, walking like a drunken cowboy to avoid any contact with his injured parts. The jokes of his comrades - about his future prowess, his potential attractiveness on R & R, the fashion statement he was making - were hilarious, albeit unprintable.
There was also frustration. The lack of a secure means of communications between the hill and Khe Sanh meant that we and the base had to be guarded in what we said, since we had to assume that the enemy was listening. For us on the hill, that meant that although we could report enemy activity, we could not report our analysis of it, nor could we report the shortcomings of supply, support and communications that constrained our tactics. In several instances where the needs were critical and immediate we transmitted in Spanish, and sometimes even in song. The inability of the base to send secure messages to us was even more limiting. We were, after all, the regimental outpost, and we found ourselves, by the nature of the campaign, in the midst of the enemy. We rarely got any feedback either to our frequent reports of enemy activity or describing the successes that resulted from those reports. This was critical to us. The troops observed and reported at considerable risk to themselves, yet the most frequent question they asked was, "Hey, skipper, are we doing any good?" That lack of positive reinforcement was both frustrating to the officers and destructive of the troops' morale, irrespective of the tactical justification for it. One night in mid-February, sensors detected enemy units marshalling to attack the hill in overwhelming force. The regiment fired a massive and prolonged artillery barrage to break up the attack, but we were never even told the attack was coming because the very existence of the sensors was so highly classified. We were probably as ready as we could be to repel it in close, but we also had ample indirect fire weapons and ammunition to slow it at a distance had we been told it was imminent and from which direction it was coming, and we had a far more intimate knowledge of the terrain that the enemy had to negotiate than did the regiment. It was as though we had been sent to detached duty on another planet. We were ignorant of virtually everything that was happening beyond our own little world, and the troops felt that ignorance keenly.
The troops would occasionally capture NVA soldiers, either because they surrendered voluntarily or because they blundered into our lines inadvertently in the night or fog. Initially, we reported those captures immediately to the base, which promptly sent a helicopter up to get them. We assumed that the value of the POW justified the risk to the helicopter and to ourselves in getting him out. We also assumed that the captives were from the units surrounding us and therefore had information of immediate tactical value to us. After two or three instances of sending prisoners down and getting no feedback from their interrogation, we began delaying our reports of capture a few hours so we could interrogate them ourselves. Most talked willingly, and our two Marines who had been to Vietnamese language school could, although a long way from fluency, learn enough to help us with targeting and tactical dispositions.
I was well aware that sickness debilitated the French and colonial troops at Dien Bien Phu at least as much as did wounds. I had also read that throughout that siege those troops simply squatted in their trenches. We were determined not to have that happen on 881S, and our disposal methods, as they evolved over time, had that purpose. Capt. John T. "Tom" Esslinger and Capt. Harry Jenkins (COs Mike 3/26), 1stLt. Thomas C. H. "Tom" Biondo and 1stLt. Carlton B. Crenshaw (OICs Det C/1/13) and 1stLt. Richard "Rich" Foley (XO India 3/26) and all the SNCOs did among their finest work to that end. The Corpsmen deserve the greatest credit - they designed and maintained the system. But my officers and SNCOs deserve equal credit for enforcing it. I can honestly say I do not remember ever finding a pile of human feces anywhere inside the wire, and with 300-400 men over four months, that's a triumph! I doubt any CO under such circumstances was ever blessed with a better group of officers and SNCOs. Their resolve in this matter, though not glamorous, probably contributed as much to holding the hill as any tactical initiative. Bottom line? We never evacuated a man for sickness.
We did suffer occasionally from the failings of rear area troop leaders. We found that replacements sometimes had not "battle-zeroed" their rifles and we had to do it after they joined, requiring needless exposure to enemy fire. We also joined replacements who said they had never thrown a hand grenade, and again we had to train them on the hill under fire. The incident that stands out, though, is that of a Marine with a toothache. He complained to the corpsman, who tried aspirin to no avail. After a few days, his face swelled to the point where it was obvious the tooth was abscessed. While we were awaiting the helo to medevac him, the company gunnery sergeant asked him if he'd had his teeth checked before deploying to Vietnam, to which he replied that he didn't like dentists and had skipped his appointments. He was hit by a sniper on the way to the helo.
Personnel accountability was a nightmare. Turnover in the trenches approached ninety percent, which meant that many men were virtually unknown to their fellows, and the restrictions on movement imposed by the enemy's fires meant that the personal interactions normal in a unit were often impossible. Replacements would be dispatched from the rear, get hit while still on the inbound helicopter, remain aboard, and be evacuated to a medical facility. Our rear would insist we had them when we had never seen them. One Marine managed, through bad luck, a total of two day's service in Vietnam. Although we were careful to record every man who boarded a helicopter so that if it was downed we'd have an accurate manifest, we were sometimes thwarted. In one instance, a stretcher bearer from a platoon distant from the zone was hit in the helicopter as he put down his stretcher and was retained aboard by the crew chief. The helo immediately launched and flew directly to the hospital ship offshore. In the confusion typical of a zone under fire, exacerbated by the fact that the original casualties had resulted from hits in the same zone and that the chase bird had landed unbidden within a minute to pick them up before we had time to organize the zone, he had not been missed, and his name did not appear on the manifest. We carried him as missing-in-action for two weeks until a platoon buddy received a postcard from him, with a return address of St. Alban's Naval Hospital in New York, describing what had happened and asking him to secure his personal effects.
Forty-two Marines or Corpsmen died on or near the hill and nearly two hundred were wounded, not including aviation casualties whose numbers, being reported separately, were unknown to us. Seven helicopters were shot down, yet we never called for a medevac that didn't come, weather permitting. None of these losses occurred in a single pitched battle, but rather in discrete incidents scattered over the course of the siege. Incoming was constant, and although we learned to cope with it to a point, a lucky round in a trenchline or active medevac zone was just as deadly in April as in January. Through it all, the troops did their duty. They stood their watches, flew their aircraft or serviced helicopter zones, manned outposts, engaged the enemy and raised the flag as zealously at the end as at the beginning. They were never asked to stand back-to-back against the flagpole with fixed bayonets, but rather to endure. By enduring, they triumphed. They were magnificent!