- THE VIETNAM CENTER AND ARCHIVE
- Texas Tech University
Background and Beginning of the Battle
The village of Khe Sanh in Quang Tri Province was located seven miles from the Laotian border along Route 9, approximately fifteen miles south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). US Army Special Forces first built an airfield outside of the village on the site of an old French fort for the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) in 1962. The CIDG, which consisted primarily of Bru Montagnards from the area who were trained and supervised by US Special Forces, moved to a smaller camp at Lang Vei in 1966, approximately four miles west of the Khe Sanh Combat Base while elements of the 3rd Marines took responsibility for the Khe Sanh base.
In 1967, the NVA initiated a series of attacks along the DMZ, including the Khe Sanh area. From 24 April to 13 May 1967, in a battle known as the "Hill Fights," the 2nd and 3rd Battalions, 3rd Marines drove the NVA 325th Division from Hills 861, 881 North, and 881 South, which were situated just northwest of the Khe Sanh base. It was a costly encounter, however, as the Marines suffered 155 killed and another 425 wounded during the battle. The North Vietnamese lost an estimated 940 men.
Following the Hill Fights, the 1st and 3rd Battalions of the 26th Marines arrived to replace the two battalions from the 3rd Marines. Incidents in the area were to foreshadow the turmoil that lay ahead as was demonstrated on 2 January 1968, when a squad of Marines killed five NVA officers near the western end of the airstrip. This skirmish persuaded Lt. Gen. Robert Cushman, commander of the III Marine Amphibious Force, to send the 2nd Battalion, 26th Marines to join the rest of the 26th Marines at Khe Sanh.
On 20 January an NVA defector confirmed that an attack was imminent. This prepared the Marines as they fought off an assault that evening by 300 NVA troops on Hill 861. At the same time, the NVA launched a heavy barrage of artillery against the main Khe Sanh base which lasted into the following day, hitting the primary ammunition dump and heavily damaging much of the above-ground structures at the base.