Note: An edited version of
this article with the title "The Joint Effort that Broke the Khe Sanh
Siege," was published in Army, Vol. 47, No. 5, April 1997, pp.
In 1993 a monument was dedicated in Arlington National
Cemetery to the Marines who fought at Khe Sanh, arguably the longest and most
bitterly contested battle of the Vietnam War. This formally acknowledged the
enduring relationship between Khe Sanh and the Marine Corps. However, it was
not only Marines who faced the North Vietnamese Army. The defense of Khe Sanh
was very much both a joint and combined effort by various American and South
The combination of air support and firepower provided
the key to the defense of Khe Sanh. Before the siege was over, over 100,000
tons of bombs were dropped by aircraft of the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marines,
as well as planes of the South Vietnamese Air Force. To the forces on the
ground, however, air support meant more than the massive numbers of B-52 and
tactical bomber sorties. Aerial supply was crucial to the defense of Khe Sanh.
This article details how the U.S. Army 109th Quartermaster Company (Air Delivery)
played a vital role in the defense of the Khe Sanh Combat Base.
The mission of the 109th QM was to provide parachute
packing, storage, and rigging of supplies for drop by aircraft of all services
as well as assisting in the loading and ejecting of these supplies. In 1955
personnel of the 109th QM participated in the development of a new air delivery
technique. This low-altitude parachute extraction system (LAPES) required
cargo planes to fly a few feet above ground level. A parachute was released,
pulling the palletized cargo out of the aircraft and onto the drop zone. A
related system was the ground proximity extraction system (GPES) in which
the cargo was yanked from the aircraft by a hook which snagged a cable traversing
In 1965 the 109th QM was stationed at Fort Campbell,
Kentucky, under the operational control of the 101st Airborne Division. LAPES/GPES
training continued. In June 1966 the 109th QM received overseas movement orders.
On July 23, the unit embarked onboard the USNS General John N. Pope at Tacoma,
Washington. The main body arrived at Cam Ranh Bay, South Vietnam, on August
12 1966. By November the establishment of its operational area was complete.
The summer and fall of 1966 saw the buildup of large
North Vietnamese Army (NVA) units in the area along the Demilitarized Zone
(DMZ). In response, the commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, General William
C. Westmoreland, ordered Marine units northward to meet this threat. Positions
were established just south of the DMZ to act as blocking forces to impede
NVA infiltration. Khe Sanh was the western anchor of this defensive line.
General Westmoreland stated, "There is no more
important airfield in Vietnam from a tactical standpoint than Khe Sanh."
Navy Seabees were ordered to undertake a crash program to upgrade the
base's airstrip. Still, Khe Sanh was proving difficult to resupply. During
December and January there were only six days when the weather was good enough
for aerial resupply. Rations and fuel occasionally were reduced to less than
one day's needs. Rain made road travel almost impossible. April 1967 saw bitter
fighting around Khe Sanh between the Marines and North Vietnamese Army (NVA)
forces, illustrating the seriousness with which both sides viewed the area.
By the end of 1967 American intelligence sources learned
that large numbers of NVA forces were deploying in the area around Khe Sanh.
General Westmoreland estimated its size at between fifteen and twenty thousand
men. This buildup caused the U.S. command to conclude that reinforcing Khe
Sanh was the only feasible alternative to abandoning it. Westmoreland ruled
out abandonment because a presence at Khe Sanh blocked the ability of the
North Vietnamese to circumvent the DMZ barrier and bring the war into the
populated coastal plain.
In fact, General Westmoreland wanted to fight the North
Vietnamese. The area around Khe Sanh was relatively unpopulated by civilians.
This would allow unrestricted use of U.S. firepower and further the U.S. strategy
of attrition by killing large numbers of enemy soldiers. By January the allied
force at Khe Sanh totaled about 6,000 men. On January 21 1968, the siege of
Khe Sanh began.
At approximately 0530 hours that morning Communist gunners
scored a hit on the main ammunition dump. 98 percent of the dump's contents,
1,500 tons, was destroyed in the ensuing explosions. This caused an immediate
request for emergency air supply. Available U.S. aircraft included C-130's
plus smaller C-123's and C-7A's. The
C-130's were the logical choice to quickly replenish ammunition stocks. However,
the fact that shrapnel from the ammunition dump explosion covered half the
runway precluded their use. C-123's delivered 130 tons of supplies in the
next 36 hours, even flying and unloading at night by the light of Marine artillery
flares. By January 23 the runway was cleared of debris, permitting the return
of the C- 130's.
Through February 10, seven Air Force C-130's were hit
by gunfire or shrapnel. Air Force commanders felt these airplanes, at $2.5
million each, were too valuable to risk unnecessarily. C-123's and C-7A's
were used instead, but proved unable to deliver a sufficient volume of supplies.
Enemy gunners and bad weather simply would not permit a sufficient number
of landings of these aircraft. In order to survive, the Marines would have
to be supplied in the same manner as the French at Dien Bien Phu -- by parachute.
Initially, bulk cargo such as ammunition, rations, and
fuel was delivered using the container delivery system. A C-130 could transport
14 to 16 of these loads. At a height of 600 feet over the drop zone the restraints
holding the loads were cut. The pilot raised the nose of the plane and applied
power to the engines. The cargo moved rearward on floor rollers and then out
of the plane. A large cargo parachute carried the one-ton bundle to the ground.
Riggers of the 109th QM often flew with the cargo planes to ensure proper
delivery. Several personnel landed at Khe Sanh in order to retrieve parachutes
for future use. The majority of C-130 flights originated at Cam Ranh Bay,
headquarters of the 109th QM.
The riggers of the 109th QM geared up to meet the challenge
posed by events at Khe Sanh. Initially, riggers at Cam Ranh Bay worked three
days and two nights continuously without rest. This was followed by shifts
consisting of 24 hours on duty followed by a six hours rest break.
These loads were not dropped within the main base perimeter.
To do so would necessitate the complete closing of the airstrip during drops.
The area chosen for the drop zone (DZ) was a small area beyond the end of
the runway. Supplies were parachuted into this DZ with good accuracy. Still,
some drops missed the DZ and drifted into enemy territory. These loads were
destroyed by airstrikes or Marine artillery to prevent their utilization by
The constant enemy shelling forced the Marines to dig
underground for protection. To further this move, the Marines requested an
emergency supply of large timbers for bunker construction. Because of the
size and handling difficulties involved, low level extraction was chosen over
airland or container delivery.
On February 16 a C-130 loaded with timbers flew down
the long axis of the Khe Sanh runway. The pilot maintained an airspeed of
130 knots at an altitude of five feet. A parachute, constrained to a 48' diameter,
was attached to the load and projected out the rear of the cargo door. Upon
reaching a precisely calculated point, a crew member fired a device that allowed
the parachute to open to a diameter of 28 feet. This sudden force broke the
restraints attaching the timber load to the floor of the aircraft. The plane
continued, essentially flying out from underneath the palletized timbers,
which coasted to a stop close to the proposed bunker construction sites. This
was the first of 52 LAPES missions as perfected by the 109th QM.
Larger scale use of LAPES was not possible due to the
lack of sufficient LAPES components as well as concern over damage to the
runway by the heavy LAPES pallets. Logistics specialists then turned to the
ground proximity extraction system.
On March 30 a C-130 began rolling down the runway at
Khe Sanh. Attached to the cargo pallet was a boom with a hook at the free
end. The rear cargo door was open. The airplane rolled across the arresting
cable which traversed the runway and was moored to the ground at each end.
The cable rose, engaged the hook, and yanked the cargo out of the plane. The
pilot applied power and took off. In all, 15 loads of cargo, mostly construction
materials, were delivered to Khe Sanh using the GPES.
American logistics personnel showed impressive ingenuity
and versatility in accomplishing the airlift to Khe Sanh. The combination
of airland, container drop, parachute and ground extraction delivery techniques
meant the garrison could hold out indefinitely. Large-scale Communist infantry
movements were constantly disrupted by allied air and artillery firepower.
During the period from January 21 until April 8, 1968,
Air Force C-130's made 273 landings at Khe Sanh, 496 container drops, 52 LAPES
and 15 GPES deliveries. These accounted for over 90 percent of the 12,430
tons of supplies delivered by the Air Force.
Over 8,000 tons of the total amount were delivered by parachuting,
As early as March 15 the number of supply drops into Khe Sanh exceeded the
total for all of Vietnam up to that time.
On April 1, Army airmobile units working in concert
with Marine infantry and engineers began Operation PEGASUS to reestablish
the overland supply link to Khe Sanh. This force linked up with the base on
April 6. The Marine logistics support area was allowed to deteriorate. By
July 1968 the base has dismantled and abandoned.
Army riggers continued supporting U.S. military operations
in Vietnam. The Da Nang platoon of the 109th QM rigged 350 tons of fuel, rations,
and ammunition for the 1971 invasion of Laos. Another air delivery unit, the
383rd Quartermaster Company, formed earlier from the 109th QM, aided in dropping
4,853 tons of supplies in 369 sorties into An Loc during the 1972 Easter Offensive.
Like Khe Sanh before it, the defenders at An Loc held their ground.
In general, the Army favored delivery by helicopter
over delivery by parachute. But Khe Sanh was a special case. The advent of
cheap surface-to-air missiles means the situation would not repeat itself.
Before 1968 the Communists had never concentrated their forces to the degree
they did at Khe Sanh. The base garrisoned a large number of U.S. personnel.
The siege lasted eleven weeks. It would have been impossible to resupply the
base solely by using slow-moving helicopters. Once encircled by the North
Vietnamese, there was nothing the Marines could do except dig in and fight.
Certainly there was no quick way out: the overland supply was cut again in
Supply levels at Khe Sanh are better described as adequate
for survival rather than abundant. The Marines sometimes went weeks without
hot meals. Rations were frequently limited to two meals per man per day; some
Marines ate one meal per day for several days at a time. Artillery firing
patterns were also affected. Initially, the Marines tried to prevent NVA forces
from getting too close to the base. Overwhelming volumes of artillery could
have blocked them. It was not possible to air deliver this volume of artillery
shells. Consequently, the enemy was allowed to move in close to the base in
order to provide more concentrated targets for the shells available to Marine
It would not have been possible to evacuate the American
garrison overland. A single reinforced Marine regiment cannot fight its way
on foot through two or three NVA divisions when the latter have the initiative,
superior numbers, and every terrain advantage. Emergency evacuation by air
would have resulted in a sacrifice of half the garrison. It was the flexibility,
technical expertise, and untiring efforts of aircrews and logistics personnel
such as the 109th Quartermaster Company (Air Delivery) that enabled the Marines
to successfully resist the Communists' best efforts: the ongoing attacks against
the Khe Sanh Combat Base during the Tet Offensive of 1968.
Note: Ray Anderson, who served
with the 109th Quartermaster Company in Vietnam, provided valuable historical
materials on the 109th QM to author Peter Brush, who was with a Marine heavy
mortar battery on the ground at Khe Sanh during the siege. Back
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