Page 652

Page 652 (1968: An Overview )


1968: An Overview

The year 1968 had been a momentous one

in the Vietnam War, possibly the defining year, for the U.S. effort in that

conflict, including the Marine Corps role. As the year began, III MAF, the

Marine Corps command in Vietnam, had one of its two Marine divisions, the 3d,

strung out along the eastern DMZ in largely fixed positions tied to the strong

point obstacle system (SPOS) or barrier. While pressing the 3d Marine Division

forces in eastern Quang Tri, the North Vietnamese succeeded in isolating the

Marine regiment, the 26th Marines, at Khe Sanh in northwestern I CTZ, near the

Laotian border. The enemy had cut Route 9, the main east-west land artery, and

forced the Marines to rely entirely upon air for resupply. Even in southern I

Corps, there were portents of growing enemy strength. The newly formed U.S. Army

23d or Americal Division continued to engage NVA and VC forces. Furthermore,

U.S. commanders obtained intelligence that the 2 d NVA Division planned attacks

aimed at both the fire support bases of the 3d Brigade, 1st Air Cavalry Division

in the Que Son Valley and the 1st Marine Division positions in the Da Nang


As with most aspects of the Vietnam

War, the message was mixed. Together with the intelligence about the expansion

of the war, there were continuing rumors about new peace initiatives by the

North Vietnamese. Earlier, MACV published intelligence estimates that claimed

enemy total strength had declined. Moreover, General William C. Westmoreland,

the MACV commander, in November 1967, had proclaimed that the end of the war was

in sight and issued directives calling for a full offensive by allied forces on

all fronts. According to American pacification measurements, more and more

villages were supposedly under allied control. In I Corps, for example, at the

end of December, III MAF reported about 5 5 percent of the population living in

so-called secure areas.*

Yet as January progressed, MACV and III

MAF focused more and more upon the north. The buildup of enemy forces around Khe

Sanh could no longer be denied. Originally planning deep penetration operations

into enemy base areas in the Do Xa and A Shau areas in I Corps, General

Westmoreland decided instead to reinforce the Marine forces in the north with

two more Army divisions, the 1st Air Cavalry and 101st Airborne. The MACV

commander expected the enemy major thrust either to be directly across the DMZ,

or more likely at Khe Sanh, while launching diversionary attacks throughout

South Vietnam.

III MAF also prepared for the

onslaught, with its focus also on the north. Beginning in December 1967,

Lieutenant General Robert E. Cushman, the MAF commander, directed the 1st Marine

Division at Da Nang to take over the 3d Marine Division area of operations in

Thua Thien Province. In a massive relocation of units between the two Marine

Divisions during December and January, appropriately called Operation Checkers,

the 1st Marine Division assumed responsibility for the Phu Loc area and

established its Task Force X-Ray at Phu Bai, as well. The increasing enemy

strength around Khe Sanh in mid-January forced the 3d Marine Division to

reinforce the garrison with yet another battalion. With the arrival of the 1st

Air Cavalry Division in northern I Corps and the establishment of its base area

at Camp Evans, about the same time, made the original Checkers plans obsolete.

All eyes were now on Khe Sanh.

As General Westmoreland prepared for

what he thought would be the decisive battle of the war, his relationship with

the Marine command had grown rather tenuous. From the beginning of the

commitment of Marine forces to Vietnam, there had been differences between the

MACV approach and that of the Marine. From the start, the Marines emphasized

pacification and population control while the MACV commander had stressed the

large unit war against the VC and NVA regular units. The commitment of large

Marine forces to the barrier project along the DMZ also had placed a strain upon

the relationship. Although irreverently referred to as the 'McNamara Wall,'

Westmoreland fully backed the venture and believed the Marines to be dragging

their feet. Finally there was the subject of Khe Sanh, itself. Only under MACV

pressure did III MAF garrison the isolated outpost in the first place and

Westmoreland was concerned that the Marines tended to underestimate the threat

to the base. Given these circumstances and what he considered Marine

inflexibility about control of its own avia-

*See Chapter l.

Page 652 (1968: An Overview )