because he did not have the resources to care for them and because
he feared that the crowd might conceal enemy infiltrators. But neither
could he allow them to remain outside the wire for fear that the enemy
might use them to shield an attack on the perimeter.
On the afternoon of 7 February, General Tompkins issued guidance for
dealing with the refugees in the event the NVA attempted to use them
to screen an attack. First, the Marines were to use CS gas in an attempt
to disperse the crowd. If that failed, they would fire over their heads.
If the North Vietnamese continued to push the refugees in front of an
attack, Tompkins authorized the garrison to shoot into the crowd.64
To preclude such a disastrous occurrence, Lownds arranged to move the
refugees about two kilometers from the perimeter for the night. Some
were eventually processed and flown out, but most simply walked away,
down Route 9 to the east.*
The Intensifying Battle
Fresh from their first major success of the Khe Sanh campaign, the
Communist forces moved quickly against their next objective. During
the night following the Lang Vei battle, three companies of the 101D
Regiment moved into attack positions near the 1st Battalion, 9th
About 500 meters west of the battalion's perimeter, Second Lieutenant
Terence R. Roach, Jr., and Company A's 1st Platoon, occupied "Alpha
1," named after the platoon's designation. With added machine gun teams,
forward observers, and corpsmen, Lieutenant Roach's reinforced platoon
numbered 66 men. The outpost provided an extra measure of security for
the battalion through its ability to detect and report enemy activity
well forward of the lines.
The Alpha 1 outpost was a well-prepared defensive position. The hill
itself was quite steep on all but the northwest slope. It was ringed
by multiple layers of barbed wire on the slopes and, at the crest, a
trench network which included a number of sandbagged bunkers.65
At 0415 8 February, in heavy fog and near-total darkness, the North Vietnamese struck the outpost, laying down a heavy and accurate mortar barrage that covered the hilltop for three to four minutes. Enemy infantry followed close on the heels of the mortar fire, attacking from the northwest.
The North Vietnamese assault troops threw canvas over the outpost's
protective barbed wire and rolled over it. Almost immediately, enemy
soldiers swarmed into the inner perimeter. Lieutenant Roach tried to
stem the breakthrough almost singlehandedly, killing several of the
enemy with his rifle and attempting to rally the troops on the perimeter.
While able to pull one of the badly wounded Marines to relative safety,
he died in a hail of automatic weapons fire. The enemy had successfully
captured half of the hilltop, while the remnants of the platoon attempted
to regroup, especially in the southeastern portion of the outpost.66
While the defenders of the Alpha 1 outpost fought desperate hand-to-hand
encounters in the trenchlines, sometimes swinging entrenching tools
or five-gallon water cans, the rest of the battalion endured persistent
and heavy shelling, apparently intended by the NVA to prevent the dispatch
of reinforcements. Nonetheless, the battalion's mortar crews braved
the incoming rounds to fire in support of Alpha 1.
On the hill, about 30 Marine survivors gathered in the southern portion of the trench network and used sandbags to wall off their part of the trench from the enemy. Some of their weapons were damaged or destroyed, ammunition was scarce, and many of the men were wounded. The North Vietnamese did not rush them, but instead contented themselves with
* The situation with the refugees especially with the Bru exacerbated
the already strained relationships between the Army Special Force troops
and the Marine command at Khe Sanh. The Special Force units believed
that the Bru who had served with them faithfully and well were being
misused. Colonel Ladd stated in an interview several years later that
when the Bru arrived at the Khe Sanh base they were stripped of their
weapons and turned back. According to Ladd, the Marines at the base
said, "they couldn't trust any gooks in their damn camp." Ladd Intvw.
Both Army Colonel Bruce B. G. Clarke, who had been at Khe Sanh Village
and later brought his forces to FOB-3 and former Marine Sergeant John
J. Balance CAP 0-2 also at FOB-3 wrote of the suspicion that they received.
As a CAP Marine, Balance identified very closely with the Bru with whom
he served and stated that he felt very isolated after the CAPs were
"not allowed on the base with our fighting Bru!" While at FOB-3, he
noticed that the Marine tanks at Khe Sanh had their guns trained on
FOB-3. Balance, "Abandoned," pp. 185-91. Colonel Clarke noted that at
FOB-3, "We often took more fire from behind than from the NVA to our
front." Clarke observed that the basic difficulty at Khe Sanh was "that
there was no unity of command in the AO [Area of Operations], a lack
of communication and coordination and misunderstanding of the interrelated
destiny that would be ours." Clarke Comments. In relationship to unity
of command. Colonel Lownds was in a difficult situation. As one Marine
officer, Colonel William H. Dabney, who at the time commanded Company
I, 3d Battalion, 26th Marines on Hill 881S, observed the Special Forces
had their own command channels separare from the Marines and were not
under Colonel Lownds' operational control. From the Marine perspective,
the Special Forces including the FOB-3 troops, "were so secretive and
so independent that they were impossible to coordinate as part of a
larger battle. . . . Special units do not belong near a pitched battle.
They only inhibit fire support and get in the way." Dabney Comments.