Our Stories (continued)
Forged in Fire: The Siege of Khe Sanh
Months before LZ Margo, most of us had helped defend the strategic base at Khe Sanh during the Tet Offensive.
Khe Sanh, tucked away in the far northwest corner of South Vietnam, was close to the hidden jungle routes used by the North Vietnamese to infiltrate soldiers and supplies to staging areas in the South. Its proximity to vital routes and geographical distance from other American bases made it a tempting target for their commander, General Võ Nguyên Giáp, who had led their army to victory over the French at Điện Biên Phủ.
The Siege of Khe Sanh was the pivotal battle of a long war, in which American air power helped four battalions of Marines -- including 2/26 -- withstand the constant artillery, mortar, rocket and infantry assaults of a much larger North Vietnamese force.
Marines from Echo Company, 2/26, engage a distant target from Hill 861-A during the Siege of Khe Sanh. Photo by David Douglas Duncan.
On an average day in early 1968, the aerial umbrella protecting the Marines at Khe Sanh employed constant sorties of cargo planes and helicopters watched by 30 reconnaissance aircraft and protected by 350 tactical fighter-bombers and 60 B-52 heavy bombers. The skies were crowded.
Historians describe it as the most concentrated application of aerial firepower in the history of warfare.
Marines at the Khe Sanh combat base watch a C-130 cargo plane explode as it is struck by enemy fire delivering vital supplies. Photo by David Douglas Duncan.
All of that protection was needed. Without it, the outnumbered Marines at the main combat base or in the surrounding hills were in constant danger of being overrun.
A Marine from Echo Company, 2/26, during the Siege of Khe Sanh walks between the bodies of enemy soldiers killed the previous night in hand-to-hand fighting. Photo by David Douglas Duncan.
After three months of constant air bombardment, the cratered landscape around the Marine positions resembled the pockmarked surface of the moon and the surrounding enemy divisions had been shredded, unable to mass their forces for a final assault. American intelligence estimated that 10,000 to 15,000 NVA troops had been killed, with Marine losses in the low hundreds.
After the siege was lifted, we operated near the Demilitarized Zone for five months against units of the North Vietnamese Army that we would meet again on LZ Margo.