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Page 258(1968: The Definitive Year)previous pagenext page


howitzers, mortars, and small arms. Even so, Cushman declared that when aircraft became available, he intended to increase those stocks by another five days' supply.5

The rallier who surrendered to Captain Kenneth W. Pipes' Company B Marines on 20 January proved to be a gold mine of information.* Lieutenant La Thanh Tone answered questions freely, providing intelligence officers detailed information concerning the North Vietnamese plan for the attack and reduction of the Khe Sanh Combat Base. Tone claimed that the Khe Sanh campaign was the most important effort undertaken by the North Vietnamese since the U.S. became involved in the war. Their objective was to seize Quang Tri Province and force the U.S. out of South Vietnam by capturing every U.S. base between the Laotian border and Con Thien. According to La Thanh Tone, the effort was so important that the North Vietnamese Defense Ministry controlled it directly.6

The enemy plan called for a major offensive effort by the North Vietnamese 325C Division. The 5th Battalion of the division's 95C Regiment was to capture Hill 1015, the highest peak of Dong Tri Mountain, which would neutralize the Marine-manned nearby Hill 950. From this high ground overlooking the airfield and its approaches, Communist gunners could interdict aerial supplies and reinforcements. The 6th Battalion, 95C Regiment was to seize Hill 861. The 4th Battalion, 95C Regiment had orders to attack the western end of the airstrip, near where, on 2 January, the Marines had killed the North Vietnamese reconnaissance party. The l O l D Regiment was to attack the east end of the airstrip in coordination with the effort by the 4th Battalion, 95 C Regiment at the other side of the combat base. Lieutenant La Thanh Tone told the interrogators that the North Vietnamese 29th Regiment was in division reserve, its location unknown to him (it was, in fact, headed for Hue City and the savage battles of the Tet Offensive). The cooperative lieutenant was unable to provide specific information concerning the size, designation, location, or equipment of any NVA artillery units, but he was certain that heavy artillery and rockets would support the attacks. The offensive, he claimed would begin before Tet-only 10 days away.7

Opening Moves

Just after 2000 on 20 January, an eight-man Marine reconnaissance team, four kilometers west of Khe Sanh on Hill 689, reported that it was surrounded, under attack, and required artillery support. Lieutenant Colonel John A. Hennelly's 1st Battalion, 13th Marines responded. Through the night, Hennelly's gunners enclosed the reconnaissance team in a protective box of artillery fire, preventing the North Vietnamese from overrunning its position. In all, over 2,200 rounds of friendly artillery fire fell around the trapped Marines, sometimes within 20 meters of them. The technique was effective. Marines reported 25 North Vietnamese casualties, while the patrol sustained only two wounded.8**

Within a few hours, however, the fight on Hill 689 would become a sideshow. Shortly after midnight, two red star cluster signalling flares soared into the darkness above Hill 861, and immediately 300 North Vietnamese fell upon Company K's lines from the northwest. Striking from attack positions within 100 meters of the crest, the enemy blasted holes in the protective wire with bangalore torpedoes and quickly advanced, supported by mortars targeting Company K's bunkers and trenches. The NVA moved up the northwest slope, keeping the crest of the hill between the combat base and their attacking units, thus curtailing the Marines' use of artillery fire in the defense.?

Company K, commanded by Captain Norman J. Jasper, Jr., fought back hard as enemy rifle, machine gun, and mortar fire poured into Hill 861, but the North Vietnamese penetrated the 1st Platoon's defenses and overran the company's landing zone. Moving through his company area, directing the defense of the hill. Captain Jasper was wounded three times and unable to carry on. His executive officer, First Lieutenant Jerry N. Saulsbury, took command of Company K in the middle of the fight.

*The details concerning the actual capture of Lieutenant La Thanh Tone are contained in Chapter 4.

** Lieutenant Colonel Hennelly remembered that his artillery used eight 105mm howitzers "to keep literally a wall of fire" between the Marine patrol and the enemy. The plan had been to extract the men by helicopter, but this proved infeasible because in order to do so the artillery had to stop firing and the North Vietnamese . . . {would have) moved back in. By this time, the entire base was under attack and he recalled chat he had the three howitzers firing the east end of the box cease fire and passed the word to the reconnaissance team to move east to the base. Hennelly stated the team arrived safely back about dawn, which he believed was a miracle. LtCol John A. Hennelly, Comments on draft, dtd 300ct94 (Vietnam Comment File), hereafter Hennelly Comments.



Page 258(1968: The Definitive Year)previous pagenext page



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THESE ARE ARCHIVED PAGES OF THE OLD EHISTORY SITE
These pages are not actively maintained and may have errors in content and functionality