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Khe Sanh: Building Up

The Battlefield-The Early
Days-Protecting the Investment-The Isolation of Khe Sanh The Decision
to Hold-The Stage is Set-Sortie to Hill 881 North-The Enemy Plan Unfolds

The Battlefield

The village of Khe Sanh, composed of nine hamlets
and also the capital of Huong Hoa District, once sat astride National
Route 9 in the extreme northwestern corner of South Vietnam. According
to a census, 10,195 civilians lived in the district, mostly clustered
within four miles of the village.* Khe Sanh controlled road movement
from nearby Laos into northern Quang Tri Province and was the terminus
of a number of trail networks which crossed the Laotian border further
to the north and wound their way through the valleys and along the rivers
to intersect the highway in the vicinity of the village. National Route
9 was actually little more than a wide trail in places, yet it was a
key feature of the area because it provided a means of movement between
nearby Laos and the coastal region. Between Khe Sanh and Dong Ha, Route
9 ran for 63 kilometers, crossing 36 crumbling old bridges along the
way. Most of them, relics of the French colonial era, could be bypassed
and often were, due to their deteriorated condition.1

The terrain of the Huong Hoa District is characterized
by steep, jungle-covered mountains separated by plunging valleys. Mountain
peaks tower over the hamlets along Route 9, rising from 200 meters to
600 meters above the elevation of the highway. Streams flow through
many of the valleys, emptying into one of two rivers. The Song Rao Quan
drains the region to the north, flowing southeast to join other rivers
which continue to the sea. West of Khe Sanh, the Xe Pon, or Tchepone,
flows east across the Laotian panhandle to a point 15 kilometers from
the village, where it turns south forming a part of the international
border between South Vietnam and Laos.

There are two types of rain forest in the area. The
primary growth is found at higher elevations where some trees reach
90 feet in height, forming a canopy beneath which other trees, some
up to 60 feet high, form a second canopy. The dense canopies reduce
the light at ground level to the point that growth there is limited
to seedlings, flowers, and climbing plants. Because of the sparse ground
cover, the jungle can be penetrated on foot with little difficulty.2

The secondary rain forest is located at lower elevations
where the ground has first been cleared, then later left for the jungle
to reclaim. Here, the trees are smaller, allowing more light to penetrate
to ground level. The resulting thick growth of bamboo, elephant grass,
and climbing plants limits foot travel considerably.3

The weather in the region varies through the course
of a year. It is warm in the summer, although cooler than at the lower
elevations near the coast, while in the winter, it is sometimes oppressively
cold and damp. Annual rainfall exceeding 80 inches, much of it occurring
during the winter monsoon, feeds the rain forests and contributes to
the discomfort caused by the cold temperatures. A thick, milk-colored
fog known in Indochina as crachin** occurs frequently in the
winter months, reducing visibility considerably.

During the war, a Montagnard tribe, the Bru, lived
near Khe Sanh, although the people in the village

* Former Navy chaplain Ray W. Stubbe, a noted authority
on Khe Sanh and its environs, observed that this census did nor include
the approximately 12,000 Montagnard tribesmen who lived in "some
half dozen villes" in the immediate Khe Sanh area. LCdr Ray W.
Stubbe, ChC, USN, Comments on draft chapter, dtd 23Oct94 (Vietnam Comment
File), hereafter Stubbe Comments.

**A weather condition which occurs in the highland
regions of Southeast Asia for periods of three to five days at a time
between October and April. It is described as: "A persistent low-level
stratus phenomenon accompanied by prolonged precipitations which greatly
affects military operations. Clouds are generally 3,000 to 5,000 feet
thick with ceiling under 1,000 feet and frequently below 500 feet. Visibility
is ... generally below 2 miles and frequently below 1/2 mile."
Asst Chief of Staff, G-2, memo to Asst Chief of Staff, G-3, dtd 4Jul67,
Subj: Planning Conference, in 3d MarDiv ComdC, Jul67. Colonel Frederic
S, Knight, who served as the 3d Marine Division G-2 or intelligence
officer in 1968, noted that the word comes from the French verb, cracher,
which means to spit: "A friend said the true meaning of the word
is best described as 'that which blows back into your face when you
spit into the wind.'" Col Frederic S. Knight, Comments on draft
chapter, dtd 10Jan95 (Vietnam Comment File), hereafter Knight Comments.

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