commander of the attacking NVA unit ask for reinforcements. But it
was too late for that. Company K hit the enemy with a final blast of
fire, driving them off the hill.13
The battle for Hill 861 left 4 Company K Marines dead and 11 wounded.
At daybreak, elements of the company swept the area outside their wire,
finding 47 dead North Vietnamese and capturing 3 wounded. One of the
prisoners claimed to belong to the 4th Battalion, 95C Regiment,
a slight conflict with Lieutenant La Thanh Tone's revelation of the
previous afternoon, but, nonetheless, close enough to lend further credibility
to his information.
No sooner had the North Vietnamese abandoned their attempt to take Hill 861 than they struck the Khe Sanh combat base itself. At 0530, enemy artillery, mortar, and rocket fire smothered the airstrip and its surrounding bunkers and trenches. The first round landed in the 1st Battalion, 13th Marines area, scoring a direct hit on the generator which powered its digital fire control computer, bur the battalion continued to fight back with the fire direction center computing firing data manually.14
Within minutes of the opening salvo, enemy shells hit the base's ammunition supply point known as "ASP Number l". More than 1,500 tons of ammunition began exploding, throwing fragments and unexploded rounds, some of them on fire, through the air to land in and around the Marines' fighting positions. Captain Pipes, the commanding officer of Company B, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines, moved his command post three rimes because the explosions continued showering his position with smoldering mortar and artillery projectiles which threatened to detonate at any moment.15*
Incoming rounds smashed into the airstrip, ripping apart the steel plates and damaging helicopters. A direct hit destroyed the 1st Battalion, 26th Marines mess hall and another struck the tiny post exchange. Company D, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines lost all of its personnel records to enemy shell fire. Riot control grenades burned in the infemo at ASP Number l, sending choking clouds of "CS" gas rolling through the trenches and bunkers to add to the Marines' misery. Some did not have gas masks and could only cover their faces with wet towels.16
Lieutenant Colonel Hennelly's artillerymen remained at their howitzers,
providing counterbattery fire. In Battery C's position, near the ASP,
scores of hot, smoking shells thrown skyward by explosions, fell once
more to earth. Captain William J. O'Connor, First Lieutenant William
L. Eberhardtt, and Sergeant Ronnie D. Whiteknight, all of Battery C,
picked up between 75 and 100 of these dangerously hot projectiles and
moved them away from the gun pits. Captain O'Connor recalled that one
Marine driver abandoned his truck loaded with ammunition "sitting in
the middle of my Battery area." At chat point. Sergeant Whiteknight
"rushed out of a bunker and drove the truck away from the guns and into
a less dangerous area." When CS gas rolled over the gun line. Lieutenant
Eberhardtt and Sergeant Whiteknight brought gas masks to the cannoneers
so that Battery C might continue its duel with the North Vietnamese
At 1000, a large quantity of C-4*** and other explosives went up with
a tremendous blast, rocking the entire combat base. A shock wave rolled
through Khe Sanh, cracking the timbers holding up the roof of the 1st
Battalion, 26th Marines command post. The battalion staff fell to the
ground but the roof, after settling about one foot, held fast.18
As the enemy shells continued to fall and ASP Number l continued to
bum, each new explosion took its toll on the Marines' ammunition supply.19
Ammunition technicians from Force Logistic Support Group-B fought the
flames with fire extinguishers and shovels, but by afternoon the garrison
was dangerously low on many types of ammunition. General Cushman's warning
of the previous week to "tidy up" ASP Number 1 was driven home. Worse,
the logistical air effort to build up ammunition stocks would have to
begin again, meaning that other types of supplies would wait even longer
for delivery while the priority for space on board planes continued
to go to ammunition.
* Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth W. Pipes, the commander of Company B in
1968, remembered that one of the first Marines killed was his radio
operator: "I found him slumped over rhe entrance to our bunker, as I
exited to search for him." LtCol Kenneth W. Pipes, Comments on draft,
dtd 10Mar95 (Vietnam Comment File), hereafter Pipes Comments, 1995.
** William O'Connor, the Battery' C commander, recalled that when
he cook over the battery, the troops had a dog mascot with the mange.
O'Connor related, "despite my orders the dog was not destroyed but was
cleaned up. He was smart enough to hide from me, but when we got hit
... [on 21 January) CS rolled into the area from the exploding dump
and l found myself sharing my gas mask with the dog. That dog later
left tor the States with one ot our rotating troops and did make it
back safe and sound." O'Connor Comments.
*** A plastic explosive.