RT Breaker Patrol, the Hill Battles of Vietnam
March 1, 2006
Khe Sanh gains in strategic importance, the Marines arrive, 1965
In the previous section we described in general terms significant aircraft deployments to the RVN prior to this period and prior to the Tonkin Resolution. We highlighted how Marine aviation was there as well. The Danang AB, fairly close by jet to North Vietnam, was already in use by 1964 and was clearly going to grow in importance.
General Westmoreland therefore asked for two Marine infantry battalions to protect the Danang Air Base in the Quang Nam Province along the South China Sea coast in I Corps.
An aerial view of Danang Airfield looking toward the northeast. The city of Danang is to the right or east of the airfield. USMC Photo A70714, Courtesy of Maj Gary W. Parker. Presented by ehistory at The Ohio State University.
From a military standpoint, Danang was the obvious initial place from which to operate conventional forces in I Corps.
It was located in eastern-central Quang Nam Province, centrally located within I Corps. It had a harbor and an airfield, it was a very important trading center, and one of South Vietnam's largest cities. Following the French departure, South Vietnamese forces began using the airfield as a military base, and since their arrival, US special forces, the Marines, Air Force and Navy had been using it as well. Base facilities were growing.
The pictures showing the C-130's at Danang AB RVN were taken on the morning of July 1, 1965. They were all Blindbat flare ships, which flew amidst great secrecy, beginning with E Flight of the 21st TCS. Presented by Ralph Krach, SMSgt, USAF (Ret.), a "Flarebird."
On July 1, 1965, an enemy sapper (demolition) squad got through the perimeter wire onto the flight line at Danang. It destroyed three C-130 Blindbat flare aircraft and three F-102s fighters while damaging three more F-102s. The raiders came through the thickly populated area for which the South Vietnamese armed forces were responsible. Such actions happened many times.
Westmoreland's request for Marine ground forces came as no surprise to anyone "in the know." Operations Plan (OPLAN) 32 was developed in 1959 and called for a Marine deployment to Danang all along. As a result, there had been extensive planning, reconnaissance, and logistics preparation over the years.
In August 1964, following the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the JCS activated the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB), 3rd Marine Regiment (3rd Marines) of the 3rd Marine Division (MARDIV) to be the organization to deploy to Danang. The 9th MEB was commanded by Brigadier General Frederick J. Karch. He and his staff prepared 9th MED OPLAN 37D-65 for an amphibious landing of one Battalion Landing Team (BLT) and the airlift of another battalion from Okinawa to Danang. Krach conducted command post exercises in Okinawa to prepare for the command and control of these forces.
A Marine HAWK missile launcher is in position at the Danang Airfield. The HAWKS are designed to defend against low-flying enemy aircraft. USMC photo A184433. Presented by ehistory at The Ohio State University.
A Marine HAWK surface-to-air missile battery arrived at Danang in February 1965, to defend the base. Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron-163 also arrived in February 1965, we believe as part of the Shufly rotations.
Part of the Seventh Fleet's Amphibious Task Force, commanded by Rear Admiral Donald W. Wulzen, was designated to support the 9th MEB deployment and positioned off-shore Danang in February 1965. These ships were involved: The USS Henrico (APA 45), an attack transport; USS Mount McKinley, the flagship; USS Union (AKA 106, an attack cargo ship; and USS Vancouver, LPD-2, an amphibious transport dock.
The Battalion Landing Team (BLT) 3rd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment (3/9) was the first to land, wading ashore about 10 miles from Danang on March 8, 1965 at a place called "Red Beach."
Marines from BLT 3/9 came ashore on March 8, 1965 at RED Beach 2, northwest of Danang, The heavy surf delayed the landing an hour. USMC Photo A183676. Presented by ehistory at The Ohio State University.
Marines landing at Danang, 8 March 1965. The LPU 1476 landing tanks from USS Vancover. Presented by gruntonline.com
Then the BLT 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment (1/3 Marines) landed by C-130 transport from Okinawa later in the day on March 8. All together, the force numbered about 3,500. As a prelude to what was about to unfold, the first aircraft carrying the lead elements of the 1/3 received ground-based sniper fire but landed undamaged.
Marines from the 1st Battalion, 3d Marines disembark from U.S. Air Force C-130 transports at the Danang Airbase on March 8, 1965. The airlift of the battalion was held up for 24 hours shortly after these Marines arrived. Presented by ehistory at The Ohio State University.
These Marines were the first official US ground combat forces put on the ground in Vietnam. In theory, the troops that came before were advisors, and the air units were air units. The Marines were not sent to advise anyone. They were sent to fight, though their mission initially was to defend the base. That would not last long. Any one who knows the Marines knows they do not employ infantry to sit still in fixed defensive positions. They are an offensive force.
UH-34 from HMM-162 flying off-shore Danang, 1964. Photo presented by HMM-162.com
Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron-365 (HMM-365) arrived on March 9 embarked on the helicopter carrier USS Princeton (LPH-5). All of its 23 helicopters flew to Danang and were transferred to HMM-162. The Princeton then returned to Okinawa with all of HMM-365's people. HMM-162 had operated from Danang before, on and off since June 1964, as part of the Shufly rotation.
The remainder of the 1/3 arrived on March 10 and just about all of the 9th MEB was in place by March 12. A firefight broke out between VC and ARVN forces close to Red Beach on March 8-9. There was no Marine involvement, but "Welcome to Vietnam!"
Marine Observation Squadron-2 also came in to join up with the other units arriving as part of the 9th MEB deployment.
The 9th MEB, with these two infantry battalions, two helicopter squadrons, and other attendant units, some 5,000 Marines, were tasked to defend Danang AB against infiltration and attack. The 9th MEB's initial area of responsibility (AOR) involved only about eight square miles that included the airfield and the high ground to the west. The JCS restrictions were clear and operations would be limited. The 9th MEB Marines were not to engage in day-to-day actions against the VC, whatever that meant. Of course, we know that Marine helicopters had been ferrying ARVN and US Army special forces into battle and back for years, and saw plenty of combat The Pentagon was always careful what language it used.
South Vietnamese soldiers scramble out of their USMC UH-34D to join their comrades who were jumping out of other copters for an assault against Vietcong hidden along the tree line in the background. Photo credit: Larry Burrows, for Life magazine, April 16, 1965 edition.
On March 31, 1965, a force of 17 UH-34Ds from HMM-163, two Search and Rescue (SAR) UH-34Ds from HMM-162, and seven US Army UH-1 gunships lifted 465 troops of the ARVN 5th Airborne Battalion to a landing zone (LZ) about 25 miles from Danang. Intelligence said the area was a meeting point for VC coming down the Ho Chi Minh trail.
One Marine HMM-163 UH-34D, callsign Yankee Papa 3 (YP3), was shot down, its pilot 1Lt. Dale Eddy badly wounded but rescued.
LCpl Farley, HMM-163 gunner, was unable to leave his gun position until his bird, callsign Yankee Papa 13 (YP13), got out of enemy range. He stares in shock at YP3's copilot, Lieutenant Magel, on the floor. He would soon open a first-aid kit to apply to Magel's wound, to no avail. Magel died. Photo credit: Larry Burrows, for Life magazine, April 16, 1965 edition.
Eddy's co-pilot 1st Lt James Magel was badly wounded, made his way to a rescue bird, but died while LCpl James Farley, the gunner, tried to bandage him. HMM-163 went on to make three lifts to complete the landing. Nineteen of 35 Marine and Army helicopters sustained battle damage, and two Army helicopters were shot down along with the single Marine helo. Enemy opposition was described as heavy.
This was all featured in the April 1965 edition of Life magazine, and was a wake-up call to the American public.
Map of I Corps, RVN, with three major USMC bases during 1965 highlighted with red arrows, top to bottom, Phu Bai, Danang, and Chu Lai. Map posted by George Curtis on popasmoke. com
Well, so much for Washington, DC dictated restrictions. Following the arrival of these two 9th MEB infantry battalions, the Marines started moving in with more and more forces. In April 1965, the mission expanded even further as the 9th MEB was authorized to seek out and engage Viet Cong forces in its Tactical Area of Responsibility (TAOR). By the end of June 1965, the Marines had seven battalions in Quang Tri and were also in charge of a number and variety of Army units. Life for the Marines had quickly expanded way beyond base defense. The fight was on.
HMM-164 loading up Marines aboard a CH-46 at Phu Bai, April 1967. Photo presented by eljobes at webshots.com
Chu Lai Base, RVN, presented by lumpynord at webshots.com
While it is hard to reconstruct where Marine ground forces were on any given day, we'll simply point out that they established major bases at Phu Bai near Hue, 30 miles north of Danang, and at Chu Lai, 57 miles south, all on the RVN's eastern side.
Several major organizational moves were made.
The Army organized two field forces, subordinated them to MACV, and MACV made them responsible for the ground war throughout South Vietnam, with one exception: I Corps. I Corps was assigned to the III MAF, and III MAF controlled all ground forces in that corps. I Corps included five South Vietnamese provinces, north-to-south, Quang Tri, Thua Thien, Quang Nam, Quang Tin and Quang Ngai.
I Corps was Marine country, popularly called, "Marine land."
Camp Horn. HQ III MAF, Danang, RVN. Presented by H J Barnett, III MAF Security
III MAF split I Corps in two. The 3rd MARDIV and 1st MAW focused on the three northern provinces and the 1st MARDIV, operating out of Chu Lai, was responsible for the more populous two southern provinces.
Precious little was easy for the fighting man in this war. In addition to all the challenges he faced in the combat zone, our troops were confronted with stuff like this, and a lot more:
- Command arrangements were tough to follow, especially in the earlier days, and force disposition and assignments were often very fluid. Rules of engagement were constantly changing. On-again, off-again rules of engagement could be hard to follow during the heat of battle.
- There were undercurrents of, and sometimes wide-open, disagreement among the military and civilian leadership in Vietnam and Washington about how to fight. It should be noted for this report that there were considerable differences of opinion between General Westmoreland and Lt. General Walt.
- There was a succession of political crises in South Vietnam resulting in the assassination of President Diem in 1963 and coup after coup until 1965, when Air Force General Nguyen Cao Ky took charge as prime minister and Army General Nguyen Van Thieu became president.
- And, of course, there were the protesters back home, who exacerbated the realities presented by the other issues. These protests came down hard on the military man, unfair as these men and women were doing their jobs and executing their sworn oaths. The GIs accommodated themselves to this. For example, they would call in artillery by radio, adding things like this to their instructions: "Hippies on the ridge."
All that notwithstanding, in 1965, the Marines were in charge of all ground operations in I Corps. Their missions were to defend and secure their bases, conduct search and destroy missions against the VC in their area and against distant enemy bases, conduct clearing operations in contiguous areas, and execute any contingency plan tasked by MACV, a far cry from base defense at Danang. The point to be made here is these men, regardless of all the history thus far presented and regardless of the issues raised above, continued to accomplish their missions with indescribable professionalism. Far too many Americans have failed to understand this. When protesters spit on Americans in uniform back then, they were spitting on the wrong people; they chose the wrong targets.
On March 5, 1965, President Johnson ordered a sustained aerial bombardment campaign against North Vietnam, named Rolling Thunder. In addition, US air forces were also ordered to conduct intensive air interdiction campaigns against the Ho Chi Minh Trail, code-named Steel Tiger and Tiger Hound. Employment of air power against the North Vietnamese now became a major part of the war.
Northern Quang Tri province showing the locations of outposts and cities near the DMZ. Presented by Khe Sanh Veterans Home Page.
Khe Sanh grew in importance by leaps and bounds, and, of course, it was in Marine country. General Westmoreland saw it as a key sector from which to find out what was going on with NVA operations in and from nearby Laos, and also saw it as a key location for defense of the western section of the DMZ. He also saw it as a future staging point for an idea he had to invade Laos on the ground and shut down the logistics movements over the trail.
In addition, the Marines at Khe Sanh were to continue preventing NVA from entering the South and causing trouble along Route 9. Khe Sanh continued as a launching point from which to send American intelligence gatherers by foot into Laos. This job, in the main, continued to be an Army special forces task, but we have seen references by Marine vets that they would get in there once in a while as well, either by mistake or to gain advantage.
President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky (left) of the Republic of Vietnam, February 8, 1966 at the Honolulu Conference on the Vietnam War. Photo credit: Yoichi R. Okamoto. Presented by the LBJ Library imagery archives, search for keyword "Vietnam"
In 1966, I Corps was struck by a Vietnamese political disaster that impacted Marine land in a big way. Lt. General Nguyen Chanh Thi, the ARVN commander of I Corps, a devout Buddhist, and in the eyes of General Walt, an exceptional military leader who commanded great respect among ARVN soldiers, came to be viewed in Saigon and by some in Washington as too soft on communism. Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky, feeling uplifted by the prestige associated with meeting with President Johnson in Honolulu in February 1966, lashed out at General Thi, and removed him from command of I Corps. The truth was that General Thi was more popular than Ky, and was also Ky's main opponent in the government.
General Thi held the view that Saigon should negotiate with Hanoi, but more important, he felt strongly that the Saigon government had no regard for its people. You will remember that Buddhists made up 70 percent of the population and that many Buddhist religious leaders had for many years been urging the government to reform democratically, cease religious persecution, and take better care of the people, a view, by the way, thematically shared by General Walt.
General Walt, like General Thi, would fight anyone anywhere, But General Walt, like Thi, wanted to win the hearts and minds of the local people. He saw that as crucial to the war effort.
Walt aggressively advocated a program called the Combined Action Program or CAP for short, which evolved from earlier Marine pacification programs in Latin America and in the Philippines. The Marines set up a CAP school at Danang.
Tim "CAPVet" Duffie, editor of the CAP Web Site, with Little Hue, Lai Phuoc Hamlet, Trieu Ai Village, Quang Tri Province, Vietnam, 1967. Presented by US Marines Combined Action Platoons
The CAP program placed a squad of Marines and one Navy Corpsman in villages deep within I Corps to the DMZ from 1965 to 1971. It was a "hearts and minds," civic action program designed to help local villagers improve their lot. You can see the parallel between this kind of thinking and that of General Thi. The program merits your further study. It debunks the myth that the Vietnamese people hated Americans and is an offset to the many images on TV of US troops torching villages.
General Walt believed that his Marines needed to spend more time in the villages caring for the people, protecting them, and helping them improve their lives. General Westmoreland was not enamored with that philosophy, one of several sources of friction between the two.
Well, General Thi was fired, by a Catholic premier, and the predominantly Buddhist population of Quang Tri province, plus many of the ARVN troops he commanded, revolted. This is called The Buddhist Crisis of 1966, though you will recall from our earlier discussions that the problem was serious as early as 1963.
You will also recall the acts of self-immolation taken by Buddhist monks, acts which had a great negative impact on American views of the war back home. This continued.
The action in 1966 to fire their lead general provided the pretext for a widespread Buddhist revolt against the Saigon government. The revolt started in Danang, headquarters for III MAF and a major Marine staging base.
In reaction, Saigon declared Danang City to be in communist hands and sent three Vietnamese Marine battalions there aboard US aircraft to retake control of the city. Danang was shut down by a general strike, and the revolt spread. By March 16 the revolt reached Saigon. The rebels burned the USIS library in Hue to the ground, thinking the US supplied military arms to the Saigon forces to annihilate the Buddhists.
The Marines were in a real bind. They were for a time confined to base, told to stay out of the revolt. Port operations bringing in needed supplies virtually ceased. On several occasions, the US Marines came within a centimeter of ground and air combat against the rebelling ARVN forces. Worse yet, the US Marines almost came to blows with ARVN and VNAF forces loyal to Saigon. Premier Ky noted in his memoirs that at one point he had issued orders to destroy the Danang base if required. General Walt himself was forced to mediate between leaders of ARVN forces fighting against each other. The contest ran out of steam by June 1966.
This entire series of events merits further detailed study. We recommend the book, The Lotus Unleashed, by Robert J. Topmiller to start such a study. The politics were ugly, US political involvement was even more ugly, the war effort was badly hurt, and the idea that the US wanted democracy in Vietnam was soon seen as a myth, especially given previous events to ignore the 1954 Geneva Accord requirement to hold country-wide elections in 1956. Our Marines now had yet another negative challenge confronting them as they worked to do their duty.
Worst of all, while the revolt might have lost steam, all this chaos in Quang Tri Province did not elude the North Vietnamese high command. Indeed the NVA sent even more infiltrators to the province to fan the flames of the Buddhist revolt. The North saw terrific opportunity here.
In early 1966, General Giap, the NVA commander, transferred South Vietnam’s two northern provinces, Quang Tri and Thua Thien from its command in the central highlands to its command in southern North Vietnam along the DMZ. The North intended to take Quang Tri and Thua Thien and annex them into North Vietnam. Hue, the traditional and historic capital of Vietnam, was in these provinces and taking it would have enormous political, cultural and religious significance.
General Walt sent out many recon patrols into the DMZ area; for example, patrols led by Lt. T. J. Terrabonne, Jr. On one patrol into the DMZ, his men spotted a 12-man NVA patrol and killed all 12. On another patrol into the DMZ, his men found camouflaged firing positions, trench lines, mortar pits and foxholes. Between Marine patrols like this and similar ones conducted by the ARVN, there was no doubt about it: the NVA 324B Division was preparing to invade Quang Tri Province. General Walt would comment:
"General Giap and Ho Chi Minh have decided to slug it out with us."
The NVA 314B Division invaded Quang Tri Province with about 10,000 - 12,500 troops in July 1966, as marked by the yellow arrows, and the III MAF responded as shown by the red arrows, in an effort named "Operation Hastings." Map extracted from "Invasion Repelled," by Donald Wharton, a superb description of the battle. Some Marine veterans of this battle argue that this map is not exactly correct, but it's good enough for our purposes. We will point out, however, that former Pfc Arthur Jackson says three companies of the 1/1 Marines were dropped to the west of the Rockpile, worked their way to the Rockpile, and were ambushed there by the NVA on July 23, 1966. That reflects engagements to the west of what this map expresses.
Estimates we have seen are that the 324B started entering the DMZ in May 1966. Finally, setting all speculation aside, in July 1966, the North Vietnamese invaded Quang Tri from the north and the west with large numbers of regular forces. There now was no question about it. The North intended to grab up Quang Tri. Estimates were the North had assembled in the neighborhood of 10,000 - 12,500 regulars for the task.
Out of the swampy lowlands, Marines of G Company, 4th Marine Regiment, clamber up a steep hillside to attack NVA positions near the DMZ during Operation Hastings. Photo and text extracted from "Invasion Repelled," by Donald Wharton, a superb description of the battle.
General Walt had about 8,000 Marines and 3,000 South Vietnamese, along with 7th Fleet fire support, USAF B-52s, and a host of attack helicopters and fighter aircraft. Together they launched Operation Hastings against this invasion force. It was successful, and forced the major elements of the North Vietnamese troops back across the DMZ. This was one of many defeats for the NVA in this area, but, as you will see, they just kept coming.
B Company, 1/3 Marines during Operation Hastings. Presented by 1/3 Marines.
This was by no means an easy fight. For example, Marine veterans of this battle call the Song Ngan Valley, "Helicopter Valley," after a number of helicopters were shot down or crashed there.
You looking west over the course of "Helicopter Valley,” highlighted by the red arrow. Mutter Ridge is at the top. Photo credit HMM-163, 1967. Presented by popasmoke.com.
We recommend "Invasion Repelled," by Donald Wharton for a superb description of the battle. It is worth noting from the Operation Hastings map that the NVA chose to come through the more mountainous and rugged terrain of the western half of the province. This would mark a growing trend on their part, moving the battle space more and more to the west.
That said, do not misunderstand. The NVA was attacking across the breadth of the DMZ and a great deal of fighting occurred along that entire line. It should be said that the distance from Khe Sanh on the west and Quang Tri City on the east was only about 40 miles, but the terrain to the west was far more rugged.
Several realities became clear to General Walt. First, he determined that the 1st MARDIV could not be used to defend the DMZ. It had its hands full with operations in the southern sectors of I Corps. Second, he decided he had to move closer to the DMZ, closer to the enemy. He moved his headquarters from Danang to Phu Bai near Hue and told the 1st MARDIV it would have to handle just about everything else south of Thua Tien Province. The 1st MARDIV formally established its headquarters at Chu Lai in March 1966, commanded by Major General Lewis J. Fields.
Northern I Corps, presented by 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines, "Hell in a helmet," Photo Gallery
Fighting men know what many Americans do not. Once a "battle is won," it does not mean the enemy just fades away not to be heard from again. Indeed, while the NVA had to withdraw, this attack marked the beginning of its efforts to move in strength directly through the DMZ.
The NVA's planned invasion of Quang Tri did not work, but that attempt was only the beginning of fighting in the DMZ. This photo was taken September 1966, and these two Marine rocket team partners are surging toward NVA bunkers south of the DMZ. Photo and text extracted from "Invasion Repelled," by Donald Wharton, a superb description of the battle.
In August 1966, the NVA returned to Quang Tri and dug in throughout the western sectors, near Khe Sanh. It is hard to get a good head count on the numbers of NVA returning, but we believe we are talking in terms of divisions. The Marines throughout the northern Quang Tri Province were vastly outnumbered on the ground, but, of course, had access to an incredible amount of airpower and were, of course, US Marines.
The Marines kept moving closer and closer to the DMZ, seeking out the enemy and engaging him. Fighting was almost always heavy, often very heavy. We'll come back to this point later, but it is important to understand this: the Marines believed in moving, not sitting still guarding fixed targets.
In September 1966 came a big move for the Marines. General Walt sent the first ground combat contingent of Marines to the SFOD-A 101 base at Khe Sanh, the 1/3 Marines, commanded by Lt. Col. Peter Wickwire.
There had been small Marine units at Khe Sanh since April 1964, including the Marine 1st Radio Company collecting signals intelligence against enemy forces in Laos and both Vietnams, a small company of infantry from Company G, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines for force protection, and an 81 mm mortar section. But now a full battalion was moving in, and Khe Sanh and the III MAF would never be the same.
Let's take a look at a map and a few photos.
Map shows many important markers. Note Route 9, Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB) on the north side of Route 9. Note how close it is to the Laotian border, perhaps 15 kms. Note the hills marked with triangles and numbered. Hills 881N, 881S, and 861 will be major markers as time passes. Note the Old and New Lang Vei Camps, there distance from KSCB, and their distance to the Laotian border. Finally, take note of the Rao Quan River (hard to read), straddling the northeast side of the base. Presented by gruntonline.com, its section on Special Forces, "Lang Vei: Tanks in the wire," by Robb Krott.
The text on the first map is easier to read than this one. But this is a nice map because it gives you a little better feel for the terrain contour. you can see KSCB situated on the plateau above the Rao Quan River, you can see the Khe Sanh Gap clearly, and then the rising terrain to the northeast and northwest. Presented by Department of Army Canter for Military History, “The War in the Northern Provinces, 1966-1968." , by Lieutenant General Willard Pearson, 1975
The terrain throughout this area is rugged and mountainous, with many hills and ridges. Recall that we had said earlier there is a "Khe Sanh Gap" running along Route 9 into Laos all the way to Tchepone, Laos.
The Khe Sanh Valley seen from Laos. Photo credit: James Wodecki, from "Remembrances of Khe Sanh."
Here's a different perspective of the Khe Sanh area. This is the view from a helicopter before landing there. We have read many accounts of fighting in the hills in very dense fog. Photo credit: Fred Herrin, CBMU301. Presented by popasmoke.
As noted earlier, the combat base itself sat on a plateau above the Rao Quan River, but was surrounded by hill top peaks and the Khe Sanh Gap-Route 9. As a reminder, Route 9 goes eastward nearly to the coast; just short of the coast, it meets up with the north-south Route 1 that takes the traveler to Hue and Danang and major points south.
This was taken around September 1966, just as the Marines were preparing to deploy there. Two Air Force Search and Rescue (SAR) helicopters are parked at the edge of the Special Forces compound. Smoke from an airstrike is showing in the background. Presented by popasmoke.com
Khe Sanh 1966, as the Marines moved in and before they built up the base. Submitted by D.J. Leighton, presented by popasmoke.com
Lieutenant General Willard Pearson, in his superb study presented by the Department of the Army in 1975 entitled “The War in the Northern Provinces, 1966-1968," described the terrain this way:
"The rugged mountainous countryside provided a natural infiltration route. Most of the mountain trails were hidden by three canopies of jungle up to 60 feet high, dense elephant grass, and bamboo thickets. Concealment from reconnaissance aircraft was good, and the heavy jungle undergrowth limited ground observation to five meters in most places. The most conspicuous terrain feature is Dong Tri Mountain, at 1,015 meters (Hill 1015) the highest peak in the region. Four smaller hills, Hill 881 North, Hill 861, Hill 558, and Hill 881 South, dominated the main avenues of approach to the base. It was on and around these smaller hills that most of the significant battles were fought during the first phase of what was to become the long and stubborn struggle for Khe Sanh.”
There were three avenues of approach to Khe Sanh: the D'Ai Lao or Khe Sanh Gap running along Route 9 to Laos; there is another approach heading to the base along the streams of the Rao Quan River from the north-northwest; and then the third comes from the northwest across a ridge that crosses the Laotian border merging with Hills 881N, 881S, and 861, all marked on the map above.
The 1/3 Marines were tasked to upgrade the runway and air facilities, driven primarily by Westmoreland's plan to invade Laos from here. The 1/3 also conducted patrols out to about 6,000 meters, later extended to 10,000 meters. The Air Force also assigned Tigerhound small propeller driven aircraft to do visual reconnaissance. The CIA moved in a group known as the Joint Technical Advisory Detachment (JTAD) Station #1; they used former NVA to conduct deep penetrations of Laos.
In December 1966, SFOD-A 101 moved westward down Route 9, closer to Laos, to a place called Lang Vei, today referred to as Old Lang Vei Camp. The camp was only 1.5 kms from Laos and 35 kms from the DMZ. The camp commander was Captain Frank C. Willoughby. He had four understrength rifle companies of Bru Montagnards and local Vietnamese, three combat reconnaissance platoons, a South Vietnamese Special Forces team, known as “strikers,” and his own 13 men, totaling about 480 men.
Additional Army combat support units came into what now was known as the northern I Corps Tactical Zone.
B Battery, 2nd Battalion, 94th Artillery 175 mm gun at Camp Carroll, nicknamed "Baby Huey." Photo credit: Michael Stoffers. Presented by Will Pete.
The Army brought 175-mm guns from, we believe, the 94th Artillery, and 105-mm self propelled howitzers from, we believe, the 40th Artillery, to provide long range fire into and across the DMZ, and direct fire for troops engaged. Most of these guns were deployed along and above Route 9 across the breadth of northern Quang Tri.
General Walt knew he had his hands full. In the summer of 1966, the enemy was estimated to have 23 main force battalions in Quang Tri; the estimate rose to 52 by year’s end.
This is a good place for us to end this section, and go on to the next. It is December 1966, and the estimate is that there are 52 enemy main force battalions in Quang Tri Province. We are next going to cover the period January through May 10, 1967, the latter being the date RT Breaker Patrol had its day on Hill 665 near Khe Sanh.
RT Breaker Patrol does its job, "The Hill Battles" of 1967