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US Marines in Vietnam: 1968 The Defining Year

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Phu Bai, freeing the 2d Battalion, 26th Marines to redeploy to Dong Ha. On 15 January, while the latter battalion moved into its new quarters at Dong Ha, Major General Tompkins became concerned about the increase in enemy probes against Khe Sanh. Deciding that Colonel Lownds "didn't have enough people," he sent a message to III MAF advising that he intended to reinforce Khe Sanh. General Cushman concurred and at 1730, the 3d Marine Division contacted the 2d Battalion, 26th Marines and notified the commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Francis J. Heath, Jr., that his destination was changed to Khe Sanh.48

At 0715 the following day. Heath's Marines began flying into Khe Sanh on board fixed-wing transport aircraft and for the first time since arriving in Vietnam, the 26th Marines was together as a regiment.49 While the rest of the battalion occupied an assembly area near the western edge of the airstrip, Company F marched three kilometers north to Hill 558. Overlooking the Song Rao Quan at a point where its valley opens toward the combat base, Hill 558 was a good position from which to control movement along the river. Company F reported that the hill was clear of the enemy and on 17 January, the rest of the battalion moved forward and established a three-infantry company strongpoint.

While the 2d Battalion was redeploying, General Cushman inspected the defenses of Khe Sanh. Following the visit, he told General Tompkins that he thought the combat base needed a better patrolling plan, more seismic intrusion detectors, and additional work on the fortifications. Of particular concern to General Cushman was the ammunition storage area which, he advised General Tompkins, needed "tidying up." A large quantity of the base's ammunition was stored outside the revetments, making it vulnerable to enemy fire. Within a week, this last warning would appear a prophecy.50*

The Marines at Khe Sanh were well aware of their vulnerabilities. What had been a one-battalion outpost in early December had now expanded to three battalions. With Route 9 closed, U.S. aircraft could keep the Marines supplied with adequate ammunition and rations, but could only bring in limited heavy equipment and fortification material. Lieutenant Colonel Frederick J. McEwan, the 26th Marines S-4, years later remembered that the artillery battalion's bulldozer "was one of the most valuable and overcommitted heavy equipment items." According to McEwan, "it dug gun emplacements, ammo revetments, other berms, . . . tank hull defilade positions, and was used extensively and dangerously maintaining the land sanitation fill."51

In an attempt to disperse the ammunition, Lieutenant Colonel McEwan provided for three storage areas. He placed the main ammunition dump on the east end of the combat base, just off the runway and dug in with revetments, but it was filled to capacity. Another ammunition dump was located on the western end of the airstrip near the artillery battalion, and a third closer to the central area of the combat base. As an expedient for further dispersion, he force fed as much ammunition as feasible to the combat units. Still, as Captain William J. O'Connor, commander of Battery C, 1st Battalion, 13rh Marines at Khe Sanh, recalled that he personally was "very concerned . . . that the ammo dump was located between my area and the air strip." It was obvious to him that its location would place his battery and the air strip "in jeopardy" and the target of enemy guns. O'Connor insisted that his men dig spider holes outside the gun emplacements and that they wear their helmets and flak jackets.52

On 18 January, the 26th Marines reported another sudden heavy increase in enemy sightings and activity. That afternoon, a reconnaissance team made contact with the enemy on Hill 881 North, suffering two casualties and immobilizing the team. The 3d Platoon of Company I, 3d Battalion, 26th Marines, moved out from a patrol base nearby and rescued the team without incident. The reconnaissance Marines, however, lost a radio and a manual encryption device** during the firefight.


*Army Lieutenant General Philip B. Davidson, the former MACV J-2, wrote that on 20 January 1968 he visited the Khe Sanh base with his counterpart on the III MAF staff to talk with Colonel Lownds about the enemy buildup. While there, he noted the "tents, fuel ammunition dumps, and command post-ail above ground and unprotected . . . ." In reporting his discussion and what he saw to General Westmoreland, the latter became agitated about the "description of the unprotected installations at Khe Sanh and the general lack of preparation to withstand heavy concentrations of artillery and mortar fire . . . ." Davidson recalled that Westmoreland turned to his deputy, General Creighton W. Abrams, and said, '"Abe, you're going to have to go up there and take over.'" According to Davidson, this was the prelude to the establishment of MACV (Forward). See Chapter 6 for further discussion relative to MACV (Forward). LtGen Philip B. Davidson, Vietnam at War, The History: 1946-1975 (Novato, CA; Presidio Press, 1988), pp. 554-56.

** Called a "shackle sheet" by the Marines, this was simply a small printed page containing letters and numbers arranged in random fashion with a key used to arrange them in a rudimentary code. It was used to encrypt certain information, such as friendly positions, for transmission over the radio.



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