© 1998 Peter Brush
In 1993 a monument was dedicated in Arlington National Cemetery to the Marines who fought at Khe Sanh in 1968, arguably the longest and most bitterly contested battle of the Vietnam War. It was not only Marines who faced the NVA at Khe Sanh, however. The defense of the embattled outpost was very much a combined effort.
The first American troops at Khe Sanh wore the green berets of the Army Special Forces. The first Marine unit of significant size was the 1st Battalion, Ist Marines, arriving in April 1966. That summer, members of Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 10 (Seabees) improved the existing airstrip with aluminum matting. By January 1968 Khe Sanh combat base was the home of the 26th Marine Regiment (Reinforced). Detachments of four Seabee battalions maintained the airstrip. Besides elements of the 5th Special Forces Group, various Army units provided artillery and communications support. U.S. Air Force detachments operated the aerial port and provided other combat support services. The last infantry battalion to arrive before the Tet Offensive of 1968 was the ARVN 37th Ranger Battalion.
After the NVA struck the base on January 21, 1968, a combination of air support and firepower proved key to the defense of Khe Sanh. Before the siege was officially declared over 77 days later, nearly 90,000 tons of bombs had been dropped by U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine aircraft, as well as the VNAE To the forces on the ground, air support meant more than the massive number of Boeing B-52 and tactical bomber sorties. Aerial supply was crucial to the defense of Khe Sanh, and the U.S. Army 109th Quartermaster Company (Air Delivery) played a vital role.
The 109th Quartermaster Company had its beginnings in 1914, when its predecessor was organized as a unit of the Regular Army. After serving in New Guinea in World War II, the unit was deactivated on Okinawa in 1946, reactivated during the Korean War, and finally, in 1955, assumed the Air Delivery designation and was assigned to Fort Lee, Va., during the Vietnam War era. Practically all the men of the 109th at that time were either jump qualified or completing the jump qualification course at Fort Bragg, N.C. Many of the NCOs were veterans of airborne combat operations in World War II and Korea. The unit's first sergeant, Master Sgt. Thurman L. Weaks, was involved in parachute operations from the very beginning. In 1941 Weaks was one of 41 men selected by the Army to test the viability of parachuting soldiers into battle zones. Later, some veterans of the 109th participated in the delivery of supplies to French forces in the Plain of Jars during the First Indochina War. During the Cuban missile crisis the unit moved from Fort Lee to Opa Locka, Fla.
The 109th's mission was to provide parachute packing, temporary storage and rigging of supplies and equipment for aerial drop by aircraft of all the services. In addition, the 109th was to render technical assistance in the recovery and evacuation of airdrop equipment. At full strength the unit would be capable of preparing 200 tons of material per day for delivery by free, high velocity or low-velocity drop techniques.
During the early part of 1965 about one dozen personnel of the 109th were sent on temporary duty to Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, where they assisted Air Force personnel developing an air delivery technique called the low-altitude parachute extraction system (LAPES). Using this system, while a cargo plane flew a few feet above ground level, a drogue parachute would be released, pulling palletized cargo out of the aircraft and onto the drop zone. An alternative method was the ground proximity extraction system (GPES), in which cargo was yanked from the aircraft by a hook that snagged a cable traversing the runway.
In September 1965 the 109th was stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky., under the operational control of the 101st Airborne Division. The company did not participate in regular exercises or maneuvers-their primary mission was supporting U.S. Air Force crew training and consisted of rigging heavy drop loads, assisting in loading materials onto Lockheed C-130 aircraft, providing personnel to fly with the aircraft, and recovering loads and equipment from the drop zones. LAPES/GPES training continued during the night. Looking back on the night training, one former 109th officer feels missions were flown in darkness due to the secret nature of the LAPES system, but another believes it was done that way because LAPES was still an unauthorized system; they had to avoid public disclosure. During the first six months of 1966, the 109th completed nearly 600 training missions. These exercises ceased in June 1966, when the 109th received overseas movement orders.
In July 1966 the main body of the 109th embarked on General John N. Pope, headed for Vietnam. A 20man detachment flew to Cam Ranh Bay to begin advance preparations for the unit. The main body arrived at Cam Ranh Bay on August 12, setting up on the Cam Ranh Peninsula about four miles north of the airfield. The 109th was responsible for the maintenance and storage of approximately 5,000 cargo parachutes to be used in support of a variety of contingency plans. Additionally, the unit had adopted materials from the Air Force to support LAPES-type missions.
The summer and fall of 1966 saw the buildup of large NVA units in the area along the DMZ. In response, the commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, General William C. Westmoreland, ordered Marine units northward to meet that threat. Positions were established just south of the DMZ to block NVA infiltration. Khe Sanh was the western anchor of this defensive line, and Westmoreland was determined to hold the base. The original airstrip was a 1,500-foot runway built by the French, and it was later extended and improved by engineers who installed World War II-era steel matting. Navy Seabees undertook a crash program to upgrade the base's airstrip. The mission of the first large Marine unit at Khe Sanh was directly linked to the airfield, and the work of the Seabees was delayed by the arrival of this Marine security force. In October 1966 Seabees closed the airstrip and installed 1,385 bundles of aluminum runway matting.
In November, with the 109th fully operational, airdrops in support of combat operations were made that included more than 100 tons of aircraft fuel and nearly 20 tons of combat rations. These were heavy drop missions in a variety of locations throughout Vietnam. During one emergency resupply mission in December more than 40 tons of supplies was delivered, and two men of the 109th parachuted in with the supplies to act as recovery supervisors. In February 1967 the 109th parachuted supplies to the Light Infantry Brigade and 173rd Airborne Brigade during Operation Junction City. Again, 109th personnel parachuted in to assist in recovering loads. During 1967, having trained ARVN personnel in rigging and air delivery, several men from the 109th received authorization to wear the ARVN parachute badge on their uniforms.
Khe Sanh was proving difficult to resupply. Commanders endeavored to keep a 15-day stock of all kinds of supplies on hand, but during December and January one senior Marine officer reported there were only six days when the weather was good enough for aerial resupply missions. Rations and fuel were occasionally reduced to less than one day's supply.
Rain made road travel almost impossible, and in April 1967 NVA sappers cut the only highway to Khe Sanh from the east to prevent overland reinforcements. An enemy regiment moved onto Hills 861 and 881, northwest of the base, and built fortified positions. The NVA planned to launch a regiment-sized ground assault from the west and seize the airfield, but Marine attacks on April 28 drove the enemy from their hill positions before they could launch an offensive. In the bitter fighting that followed, the Marines lost 155 killed and 425 wounded. NVA losses were 940 confirmed killed.
The 109th began experiencing problems because of Westmoreland's policy of limiting tours of duty for Army personnel in Vietnam to 12 months. In July 1967 Major Albert B. Lanier assumed command. Within one month the 109th lost more than 75 percent of its men through rotations, including all its experienced warrant officers. Nevertheless, the unit continued to function.
In August 1967 LAPES test drops were conducted, even though the system was still considered to be experimental. Major Lanier instituted changes that improved the LAPES technique. With this new capability, the fortunes of the 109th and the Marines at Khe Sanh were about to converge.
The airfield at Khe Sanh was still in poor condition despite the Seabees' efforts. Lockheed C-130 cargo planes had a landing weight of almost 60 tons. Rainfall had saturated the ground, and when a heavily laden C-130 landed, water was forced up from the soggy ground, causing the runway to collapse in a number of places. On August 17, 1967, the runway was closed for repairs. Seabees removed the metal surface, laid down a base of crushed rock, coated it with asphalt and replanked the surface. Since Khe Sanh was dependent on aerial supply because of its isolated location, it was essential that the airstrip be returned to operational status quickly. In early September the 109th used LAPES techniques to carry out the emergency resupply of more than 550 tons of construction materials for the Marines at Khe Sanh. Army riggers were assisted by the Marine Corps Air Delivery Platoon, a 33-man unit whose members were graduates of the Army parachute school at Fort Benning, Ga., and the parachute rigging school at Fort Lee. The Marines used an M-48 tank to drag the seven-ton LAPES loads from the extraction zone to where they were needed.
The 109th delivered supplies using LAPES and container delivery system (CDS) techniques on 27 of 30 days from the end of September to the end of October. The 109th also dropped supplies to the nearby Special Forces camp at Lang Vei as well as a 1st Cavalry Division position on Hill 63 near An Truong.
On September 3, 1967, the unit dispatched 53 riggers with LAPES and CDS equipment to the air base at Da Nang to provide direct support for the Marines at Khe Sanh. A small number of Marines at Da Nang provided manpower for the labor-intensive air-delivery missions, loading supplies by hand into containers and palletizing supplies so that Army riggers, who did the bulk of the work, could prepare the loads for aerial delivery.
On October 15 the 109th lost one of its members when a C-130 crashed at Khe Sanh, killing Spc. 4 Charles L. Baney. He had been on board the aircraft as an inspector, to ensure the load was properly rigged.
By the end of 1967, American intelligence had learned that large numbers of NVA forces were deploying in the area around Khe Sanh. One unit was the NVA 304th Division, which had been involved in defeating the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, and which included infantry, artillery and tanks. General Westmoreland estimated the division's size at between 15,000 and 20,000 men.
This buildup of enemy forces caused the U.S. command to conclude that reinforcing Khe Sanh was the only feasible option. Westmoreland ruled out abandoning the area because to do so would serve the NVA plan to seize the two northern provinces of South Vietnam. Additionally, the fortified allied positions along the DMZ and a presence at Khe Sanh would block the NVA from bringing the war into the populated coastal plain. Most of Westmoreland's advisers concurred with his decision to reinforce Khe Sanh. Those who did not were primarily French officers who had been at Dien Bien Phu when their outpost was overrun.
In fact, Westmoreland wanted to fight the NVA. The area around Khe Sanh was relatively unpopulated by civilians, a situation that would allow unrestricted use of U.S. firepower. Khe Sanh would be reinforced on a limited basis, because gradual reinforcement would not scare off the NVA, and only as many Marines would be brought in as could be resupplied by air. By January 1968 the allied force at Khe Sanh totaled about 6,000 men. On January 21 the siege of Khe Sanh began.
At approximately 0530 hours on the 21st, NVA gunners scored a hit on the main ammunition dump. Ninety-eight percent of the dump's contents-1,500 tons of munitions-was destroyed in the ensuing explosions. This resulted in an immediate request for "tactical emergency air supply."
Available U.S. aircraft included C-130s (each with a 20-ton payload), Fairchild C-123s (8-ton payload) and de Havilland C-7As (3-ton payload). The C-130s were the logical choice to quickly replenish ammunition stocks, but shrapnel from the ammunition dump explosion, which covered half the runway, precluded their use. C-123s, with shorter takeoff and landing requirements, delivered 130 tons of supplies in the next 36 hours, flying and unloading even at night by the light of Marine artillery flares. By January 23 the runway was cleared of debris, permitting the return of the C-130s. In a single day, January 27, Air Force C-130s delivered 310 tons of cargo. Both sides then began to settle in for a fight of indeterminable duration.
NVA gunners continued to fire rockets, mortars and artillery into the base. The Marines on the ground and the air transport crews both faced great danger. On February 11 a Marine KC-130 was hit by enemy fire during its approach. The pilot managed to land the aircraft, but it burst into flames, and six men burned to death. Additionally, through February 10, seven Air Force C-130s were hit by gunfire or shrapnel. A C-130 struck by enemy fire on February 11 was stuck for two days on the runway before it could be flown out. Mechanics at Da Nang later counted 242 holes in the aircraft.
Air Force commanders felt that the C- 130s, at $2.5 million each, were too valuable to risk unnecessarily. C-123s and C-7As lost enough speed upon landing to allow them to make a 90-degree turn to the unloading area. C-130s required a longer roll after landing, forcing them to proceed to the end of the runway and turn around before going to the unloading area. This situation gave NVA gunners a considerable amount of time in which to target them. Consequently, the use of C- 130s was severely restricted. Between February 12 and the end of March, Air Force C-130s landed at the Marine base on only four days.
The smaller C-123s and C-7As proved unable to deliver an adequate volume of supplies. A combination of NVA gunners and bad weather did 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 had been at Dien Bien Phu-by parachute. C-123 and C-7A landings would continue because some cargo could be delivered by no other means. This cargo included incoming passengers, medical supplies and special munitions. Landings were also necessary in order to evacuate casualties.
Bulk cargo such as ammunition, rations and fuel were delivered using the CDS method. In this system, tractor-trailer drivers received loads from the supply depot, then delivered them to the rigger line. Forklifts then transported the loads into rigger line tents. Energy absorption material was placed on pallets, which were placed on a platform, positioned on conveyor rollers. A layer of plywood went on the prepared pallet, topped off by the supplies. Netting secured the cargo to the pallet, and a parachute was attached to the finished load. The line moved quite quickly-each rigger had to be ready to accomplish his particular task as the load rolled into his area. Prepared loads went back onto trucks, were hauled to the runway area, then loaded onto waiting aircraft. Ammunition had to be rigged within the confines of the ammunition supply point.
A C-130 could transport 14 to 16 of those loads. Six hundred feet above the drop zone, the restraints holding the loads were cut. The pilot raised the nose of the plane and gunned the engines. The cargo moved rearward on floor rollers and then out of the plane. A small parachute was attached to the aircraft's anchor line cable. This cable deployed the large cargo parachute that carried the bundle to the ground. Riggers of the 109th often flew with the cargo planes to ensure proper delivery.
The normal source of supplies for the Marines at Khe Sanh was Da Nang. As the situation worsened, however, it became clear that Da Nang alone lacked the rigging and dropping capabilities necessary to sustain the beleaguered base. Resupply missions also originated at Tan Son Nhut, Cam Ranh Bay, Tuy Hoa and Nha Trang. Most C-130 flights originated at Cam Ranh Bay, headquarters of the 109th.
The riggers of the 109th geared up to meet the challenge of Khe Sanh. Initially, riggers at Cam Ranh Bay worked three days and two nights continuously without rest. This was followed by shifts of 24 hours on duty followed by a six-hour rest break. It was exhausting work at the point of origin. Sometimes it was also dangerous at the point of delivery. Aircraft were fired upon as they made their approaches and departures. Transports sitting on the ground were shelled in attempts to destroy them. Men unloading and retrieving supplies were harassed by shelling and by recoilless-rifle fire. Each morning the Marines swept the drop zone for enemy mines and snipers.
Occasionally pallets landed in nearby trees or minefields. On February 21 a LAPES-loaded C-130 inadvertently hit the ground. Its load broke apart, killing one man and injuring another. Three weeks later, as a load platform deplaned, the parachute was cut free prematurely and the load crashed into a bunker, killing one man. One week later a container drop landed in a bunker area, causing five casualties. The LAPES loads were dropped outside the main base perimeter. Had the loads been dropped within the perimeter, the airstrip would need to have been closed during drops because personnel and equipment could have been injured by falling loads. The drop zone (DZ) was a 300-square-yard area 1,000 yards beyond the end of the runway.
The security of the DZ was a critical concern of the Marines. Because it was situated beyond the base perimeter, it was unguarded each night, and engineers had to sweep the area each morning for enemy mines. Bundles could not be left in the drop area overnight for fear the NVA would booby-trap them. Supplies were usually parachuted into this DZ accurately, but some drops drifted into enemy territory. Loads that landed in the wrong spot were destroyed by airstrikes or Marine artillery to prevent the enemy from using them.
The constant enemy shelling forced the Marines to dig for protection, and they requested an emergency supply of large timbers for bunker construction. Because of the size and handling difficulties involved in delivering the timbers, low-level extraction was used.
On February 16 a C-130 loaded with timbers flew down the Khe Sanh runway. The pilot maintained an airspeed of 130 knots at an altitude of five feet. A parachute, constrained to a 48-inch diameter, was attached to the load and projected out the rear of the cargo door. At a predetermined point, a crew member activated an electrical 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 remained airborne, essentially flying out from underneath the palletized timbers, which coasted to a stop close to the proposed bunker construction sites. It was one of 52 LAPES deliveries made during the siege of Khe Sanh.
LAPES was a good solution to the problems posed by the precision delivery of bulky cargo loads. Use of this system on a larger scale, however, was not possible due to the lack of sufficient LAPES components in the airlift supply system. Marine commanders also expressed concern about damage to the runway from the heavy LAPES pallets. The pallets gouged the planking, and some of the metal sections were so bent that they could not be repaired. LAPES deliveries continued until April 2, 1968, though they became less frequent. The shortage of components such as electrical firing devices for the parachutes and special steel pallets caused logistics specialists to turn to GPES.
During the mid-1960s, GPES was considered inferior to LAPES because it required heavy ground equipment at the point of delivery. It was deemed suitable for the particular situation at Khe Sanh, however, because the loads came to rest in a precise spot, with no danger of runaway pallets. While GPES gear was rushed from the United States, aircrews practiced the delivery technique at Naha Air Base in Okinawa.
In all, 15 loads of cargo, mostly construction materials, were delivered to Khe Sanh using GPES. A C-130 would land and roll down the runway, the plane's cargo pallet attached to a boom with a hook at the free end. The rear cargo door would be open. The airplane rolled across an arresting cable that traversed the runway and was moored to the ground at each end. The cable engaged the hook and yanked the cargo out of the plane. The pilot then applied power and took off. Aircrews appreciated the safety of the cable-extraction system: the cargo could not be released too late or too soon, there was no parachute to malfunction, and the loads were easier to recover quickly. A single set per flight of GPES hooks, bands and clevises could be easily retrieved and placed aboard the next plane that landed. LAPES parachutes, on the other hand, had to be stripped from the individual cargo loads, bundled up and placed on the next aircraft-a process that was more time-consuming.
American logistics personnel showed impressive ingenuity during the airlift. The combination of container drop, parachute and ground extraction delivery techniques meant the garrison could hold out indefinitely. Large-scale NVA infantry movements near the base were constantly disrupted by allied air and artillery firepower.
From January 21 to April 8, Air Force C-130s made 273 landings at Khe Sanh, 496 container drops, 52 LAPES and 15 GPES deliveries. These accounted for more than 90 percent of the 12,430 tons of supplies delivered by the Air Force. More than 8,000 tons was delivered by parachute. As early as March 15 the number of supply drops into Khe Sanh exceeded the total for all of Vietnam until then.
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 8. The men began salvage work, including retrieval of ground proximity extraction gear and parachutes. The Marine logistics support area was allowed to deteriorate. By July the base at Khe Sanh had been dismantled and abandoned.
The Marines who had been at Khe Sanh went on operations elsewhere. Mobile Army assets created for Pegasus gave the U.S. command the opportunity to venture into the A Shau Valley. In nine days the combination of Air Force C-130s and riggers of the 109th delivered 2,300 tons of supplies in 165 drops. On April 30 they dropped 380 tons, exceeding the March 18 maximum single-day airdrop at Khe Sanh.
The Army riggers continued to provide invaluable service throughout the conflict in Southeast Asia. The Da Nang platoon of the 109th rigged 350 tons of fuel, rations and ammunition for the 1971 invasion of Laos. Another air delivery unit aided in dropping 4,853 tons of supplies in 369 sorties into An Loc during the 1972 Easter Offensive, enabling the defenders at An Loc to hold their ground.
Air Force and Army leaders never embraced extraction delivery methods with much enthusiasm. It was Westmoreland who ensured that the delivery systems were available for use in Vietnam.
Except in special circumstances, airdrop delivery was considered superior to extraction. Problems associated with airdrop included loads damaged or lost and the need to recover and return parachutes. When practical, delivery by helicopter was favored over delivery by parachute. But Khe Sanh was a special case. It would have been impossible to resupply the base by using slow-moving helicopters. Once encircled by the NVA, there was nothing the Marines could do in that remote outpost except dig in and fight. Certainly there was no quick way out. The lifeline was aerial resupply. The flexibility, technical expertise and untiring efforts of aircrews and logistics personnel such as the 109th Quartermaster Company (Air Delivery) enabled the Marines to successfully resist the NVA's best efforts from January through April 1968. *
A Marine veteran of the Khe Sanh siege, Peter Brush is a frequent contributor to Vietnam Magazine. Suggestions for further reading: Valley of Decision, by John Prados and Ray W Stubbe (Houghton-Mifflin); and The End of the Line, by Robert Pisor (Norton).