showering great numbers of grenades on the Marines. One survivor later
recounted, ". . .they continued throwing 25 or 30 grenades every 4 or
5 minutes. It was unbelievable how many . . . grenades they had actually
transported into battle."67
At 0740, the commanding officer of Company A, Captain Henry J. M. Radcliffe, gathered up his 2d Platoon and went to the rescue of the outpost. The relief force fought its way to the base of the hill in 25 minutes. There, Radcliffe directed an air strike on the North Vietnamese, then led his Marines in a frontal assault which forced the enemy off the hill and directly into the fire of the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines. Companies B and D joined the 106mm recoilless rifles and a tank in cutting down the retreating enemy troops. By 1100, the battle was over and the charred and blasted remains of the outpost were again in Marine hands.68*
Alpha 1 Marines had paid a high price. Worse than the utter destruction
of their position, casualties numbered 24 dead and 27 wounded. Over
150 North Vietnamese bodies littered the hill and many more may have
died. Additionally, the Marines captured much enemy equipment, including
13 machine guns, an indication that the North Vietnamese fled the battlefield
Although the hill was once more under friendly control and evidence suggested that the Communist forces had suffered a defeat, Colonel Lownds ordered the outpost abandoned. Captain Radcliffe and his men withdrew to the battalion perimeter.
In the four days from 5 February through 8 February, the North Vietnamese
launched three major assaults on positions in the Khe Sanh complex,
succeeding only at Lang Vei. The battles for Hill 861A and the Alpha
1 outpost, though desperate and bloody for the Marines, had ended as
stinging defeats for the Communist forces. The second round was over.
Apparently still smarting from heavy casualties suffered in their assaults on the outlying positions, the Communist forces tried a new approach. They stopped attempting to seize the outposts and increased their attentions to the combat base itself.
North Vietnamese trenches reached toward the eastern end of the airstrip,
growing at the astonishing speed of several hundred meters in a single
night.70 One Marine recorded that, "we watched with some fascination
and no small apprehension, day by day, as the trenches crept closer
and closer to our perimeter."71 Some of the enemy trenchlines stretched
2,000 meters from assembly areas to within 35 meters of the Marines'
The Marines tried a number of tactics to discourage the enemy's digging. Aircraft attacked the trenches with rockets, 2,000-pound bombs, and "napalm baths," a scheme in which they dropped a number of unfused napalm tanks on the target which were then ignited by rocket or cannon fire from following planes. Despite the Marines' best efforts, however, the digging continued apace.73** At the same time, North Vietnamese gunners kept up their program of daily firing on the base, especially during periods when fog or clouds reduced visibility and hampered U.S. air operations, thereby helping to conceal the enemy guns.74
Throughout the siege, the base remained totally dependent upon air-delivered supplies, which fact the North Vietnamese were obviously aware. Enemy antiaircraft guns appeared in the hills surrounding the airstrip, forcing cargo aircraft to run a gauntlet of fire both on their approach to and their retirement from Khe Sanh. Aircraft attempting to land prompted an avalanche of incoming fire seemingly from every weapon, of every caliber, which the North Vietnamese could bring to bear on the airstrip. The destruction on 10 February of a Marine KC-130 dramatized on television the vulnerability of the air link to Khe Sanh.***
The incredible firepower the Marines marshalled to defend Khe Sanh scarred the countryside so that it looked, in General Tompkins words, "like pictures of the surface of the moon, in that it was cratered and pocked and blasted."75 Aircraft and howitzers pounded the surrounding countryside with unrelenting ferocity, treating the NVA to a steady diet of attacks. A diverse and highly developed targeting system supported this process, using input from air observers, sensors, signal intelligence, agents, prisoners, ralliers, refugees, and
* Colonel Mitchell, the battalion commander, stated that he had wanted to launch the relief mission earlier, but did not receive permission until 0730. Mitchell also explained that he had one tank attached to his battalion, but would move the tank every night. This way the enemy would know "1/9 had a tank capability, but he wouldn't know how many." Mitchell Comments.
** Colonel Mitchell, nevertheless, claimed that his 1st Battalion, 9th Marines attained some success against the enemy's digging efforts. He stated that he ordered his Company D commander to send out units from fire team to platoon, before the fog lifted, to destroy or collapse the enemy tunnels. He also stepped up patrols to 400 meters "to ensure the beginning of tunnel activity." According to Mitchell, his intelligence officer who monitored the NVA radio nets, heard "discontinue tunneling activities in the 1/9 sector as it is non-productive." Mitchell Comments,
*** See Chapter 23 for the detailed account relative to the air supply
of the Marine base.