providing accurate information on enemy unit locations and activities.44*
Tet Mau Chanh, by far the most significant and celebrated holiday season in Vietnamese culture, approached. During some previous holiday periods, both sides had agreed to temporary cease-fires which were observed more often in the breach. In 1968, the Tet cease-fire was scheduled for the period from 1800, 29 January until 0600, 31 January. At 1100, 29 January the command post of the 37th ARVN Ranger Battalion received a radio message in a "northern accent" stating that the NVA had an ARVN Ranger patrol in sight, but would not fire because of Tet. The voice advised the Rangers to recall their patrols until after the holidays. The ARVN unit changed radio frequencies.45 Later that day, the 3d Marine Division notified Khe Sanh that the Tet truce was canceled. One unit history recorded that "as if to signal that they also heard the news the NVA dropped six 60mm mortar rounds into the Combat Base at precisely 311800 January "46**
With the truce cancellation, the massive air campaign under Operation Niagara continued unabated. On 30 January, B-52s carried out the biggest strike of the war to that date against targets in the Khe Sanh area, dropping 1,125 tons of bombs.47***
The troop and logistics buildup at Khe Sanh, as well as the massive
air support effort, indicated the resolve of U.S. forces to defend the
base. Commanders and officials at every level, including the President,
expressed concern for the situation in northwest Quang Tri Province.
President Johnson, in particular, was sometimes depicted as having had
a fixation with Khe Sanh. Indeed, an enduring legend of the campaign
concerns an incident in which the President supposedly asked the Joint
Chiefs of Staff to sign a letter to the effect that they believed Khe
Sanh could be defended. In truth, President Johnson asked for General
Westmoreland's personal assessment of the situation, which was then
circulated among the Service chiefs for comment. The Joint Chiefs of
Staff unanimously endorsed Westmoreland's conclusion that Khe Sanh could
and should be held.48
Perhaps the most dramatic indication of the President's concern was his question to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Earle G. Wheeler, about the feasibility of using tactical nuclear weapons to resolve the battle on favorable terms. Westmoreland established a "small secret study group" to examine the consequences of what was nicknamed Operation "Fracture Jaw." The group reported that "because the region around Khe Sanh was virtually uninhabited, civilian casualties would be minimal." Although planning never proceeded beyond this stage, the President's interest in the possibility of such a drastic step underscored his perception of the seriousness of the situation at Khe Sanh.49
Bru refugees streamed into Khe Sanh seeking evacuation from the war-ravaged
area. They told the Marines that the North Vietnamese claimed they would
"liberate the Khe Sanh airstrip" by 5 February. Indeed, on the night
of 3-4 February, sensors northwest of Hill 881 South detected the movement
of 1,500 to 2,000 people. Captain Mirza "Harry" M. Baig, Colonel Lownds'
Target Intelligence Officer, initially believed the movement to be a
North Vietnamese resupply effort and passed the information to fire
support units for their attack. On the following night, however, the
massed movement continued and further study caused Baig to change his
opinion. He now thought the sensors had detected a North Vietnamese
regiment in attack formation.50
The 1st Battalion, 13th Marines, joined by four batteries of Army 175mm guns to the east, pounded the area indicated by Baig with volley after volley of artillery fire. The dreadful hammering had a telling effect. The sensors transmitted the rumble
* This limitation on patrolling did not apply to all of the forces
at Khe Sanh. The members of FOB-3, the Studies and Observation Group
(SOG), with their attached Montagnards continued to run their clandestine
operations. Navy Captain Bernard D. Cole, who served in the 26th Marines
FSCC, recalled that Colonel Lownds "had a small map room separate from
the main FSCC Hq. When he took proposed B-52 strikes for approval, a
Special Forces captain there plotted the progress of long-range patrols
into Laos." Cole Comments. Former Marine Sergeant John A. Balance who
served with CAP O-2 at FOB-3 recalled: "Black helicopters would land
with no markings on them and take men dressed in civilian clothes away."
He mentioned that Captain Clarke and the mixed group with him also patrolled
and the CAP Oscar Marines occasionally joined them. Balance, "Abandoned,"
pp. 185-91. Colonel Mitchell stated that he did not adhere to the 500-meter
limit either and that "1/9 patrolled every day of the week" north, south,
and west of his positions, "up to 1,200 meters or more." He mentioned
that he and FOB-3 were the only commands that patrolled daily and that
he and the FOB-3 commander "devised a coordinated plan for patrolling
and intelligence gathering." It was his opinion "that you must have
maneuverability to complement fire power and to keep your enemy having
doubts about your intentions." Mitchell Comments.
** Both the North Vietnamese and the allied forces at Khe Sanh routinely
monitored each others' radio nets- Colonel Mitchell with the 1st Battalion,
9th Marines commented that by monitoring the enemy nets, it was apparent
that the North Vietnamese had "complete knowledge of the . . . T/O and
T/E of the Marine units at Khe Sanh," including the "names of key commanders."
*** For further discussion of Operation Niagara see Chapter 23.