Recounting the Casualties at Khe Sanh©2006 Peter BrushThe 1968 Battle of Khe Sanh was the longest, deadliest, and most controversial battle of the Vietnam War. The fighting pitted the U.S. Marines and their allies against the Communist North Vietnamese Army (NVA). Both sides have published official military histories of the battle. These histories agree the fighting took place at Khe Sanh; they disagree on virtually every other aspect of the battle.
was an unconventional war, and absent conventional front lines, statistics became the measure of progress. The most controversial statistic was the number of killed (KIA) claimed by each side. If a battle resulted in a sufficiently favorable body count ratio, American commanders declared victory. This article examines Khe Sanh battle deaths. Vietnam
Khe Sanh was (and is) a village located near the Laotian border and just south the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) which separated North and
. In 1962, the U.S. Military Command, Vietnam (MACV), established an Army Special Forces camp near the village. The Americans wanted a military presence there to block infiltration of enemy forces from South Vietnam Laos, to provide a base to launch patrols into to monitor the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and a western anchor for defense along the DMZ. In 1966, the Marines built a base adjacent to the Army position. Marine combat activities were organized around named operations, and in April, Operation Virginia was launched. By early 1967 the Marine position was reinforced to regimental strength. On April 20, Operation Prairie IV began. Heavy fighting occurred in April and May 1967 between the Marines and NVA forces. The next operations were Crockett and Laos . Ardmore
Beginning in October 1967, the Communists greatly increased their forces in the Khe Sanh area, which included two infantry divisions, two artillery regiments, and an armored regiment. These forces, including support troops, totaled 20,000 to 30,000 men. The Marine garrison was also reinforced. Operation
began on November 1, 1967. The Marine Corps casualty reporting system was based on named operations and not geographical location. Consequently, and unknown at the time, this date became the starting point or beginning of the battle of Khe Sanh in terms of Marine casualty reporting.  By mid-January 1968, 6,000 Marines and army troops occupied the Khe Sanh Combat Base and surrounding positions.  Khe Sanh was situated on Route 9, the major east-west highway. Because the road was not usable due to washed out bridges and the heavy enemy presence, the only way for Americans to get to Khe Sanh was by helicopter or airplane. Khe Sanh was besieged. Scotland
During the night of January 20-21, 1968 the NVA launched a series of coordinated attacks against American positions. At 0330 hours, soldiers of the 6th Battalion, 2nd Regiment, 325C NVA Division attacked the Marines on Hill 861, killing 18 year old Marine PFC Curtis Bugger, and others. About two hours later, a NVA artillery barrage scored a hit on the main ammunition dump at Khe Sanh Combat Base. Killed was Marine LCpl Jerry Stenberg, and others. At approximately 0640 the NVA 7th Battalion, 66th Regiment, 304th Division attacked the Huong Hoa District Headquarters in the
. This fighting involved South Vietnamese militia as well as U.S. Army MACV advisors and Marines attached to a Combined Action Company platoon. Fighting was heavy. That afternoon a rescue force was dispatched to the village. Army LtCol Joseph Seymoe, and others, died when their helicopter was hit, probably by 57mm recoilless rifle fire. villageof Khe Sanh
The battle of Khe Sanh had begun. However, this January 21 starting date is essentially arbitrary in terms of casualty reporting: five Marines were killed by the enemy on January 19 and January 20 while on reconnaissance patrols  . Marines, soldiers, airmen and North Vietnamese continued to die at Khe Sanh during the following weeks and months. The USMC defense of Khe Sanh was named Operation Scotland, which officially ended on March 31. 
On April 6, a front page story in the New York Times declared that officially the siege of Khe Sanh had been lifted.  According to the official Marine Corps history of the battle, total friendly casualties for Operation Scotland were “205 friendly KIA.” The Marines claimed 1,602 NVA killed by actual body count, and estimated the total NVA dead at “between 10,000 and 15,000.”  Time magazine (April 12, 1968), in an article titled “Victory at Khe Sanh,” reported that General William Westmoreland, commander of
U.S.forces in , after spiraling into Khe Sanh by helicopter, declared: “We took 220 killed at Khe Sanh and about 800 wounded and evacuated. The enemy by my count suffered at least 15,000 in the area.” As journalist Robert Pisor pointed out, no other battle of the entire war produced a better body count or kill ratio than that claimed by the Americans at Khe Sanh. Westmoreland echoed this judgment in his memoirs, and, using exactly the same figures, concluded the North Vietnamese had suffered a most damaging and one-sided defeat.  Senior USMC General Victor Krulak agreed, on May 13 noting the Marines had defeated the North Vietnamese and “won the battle of Khesanh.”  Over time, these figures have become accepted by historians. They produced a body count ratio in the range of 50-1 to 75-1. By comparison, according to another Army general, a 10-1 ratio was considered average and 25-1 was considered very good.  Vietnam
Pisor also pointed out that “205 is a completely false number.”  One had to meet certain criteria before being officially considered KIA at Khe Sanh. It was not sufficient to simply be an American military person killed in the fighting there during the winter and spring of 1967-68.Only those KIA during Operation Scotland were included in the official body count.
Scotlandbegan on November 1, 1967 and ended on March 31, 1968. On January 14, Marines from Company B, 3rd Recon Battalion were moving up the north slope of Hill 881 North, a few miles northwest of Khe Sanh Combat Base. At approximately 1415, an enemy rocket propelled grenade (RPG) killed 2dLt Randall Yearly and Cpl Richard John.  Although these Marines died before the beginning of the siege, their deaths were included in the official statistics. The NVA used Hill 881 North to launch 122mm rockets at the Marines during the siege. On Easter Sunday, April 14, 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines (3/26) assaulted Hill 881 North in order to clear these enemy firing positions. Lima Company finally seized the hill after overcoming determined NVA resistance. Unlike the Marines who died in the very same place in January, the four Lima Marines who died in this attack on Hill 881 North were not included in the official statistics since Operation Scotland had ended.
Further west on Route 9, seven miles past Khe Sanh and about half-way to the Laotian border, was the U.S. Army Special Forces camp at Lang Vei. Khe Sanh had long been responsible for the defense of Lang Vei. Shortly after midnight on February 7, a large NVA force, reinforced with tanks, attacked the camp. Their mission was to destroy the Special Forces and their Vietnamese allies and ambush any reinforcements coming from Khe Sanh. The Marines, fearing an ambush, did not attempt to reinforce, and after heavy fighting the camp was overrun by the Communist forces. Ten American soldiers were killed. The remaining Americans managed to escape down Route 9 to the Khe Sanh. The deaths of these soldiers are not included in the official statistics. 
Khe Sanh was not just a Marine base. In fact, the American military presence there consisted of two adjacent positions: Khe Sanh Combat Base (Marine Corps) and FOB-3 (Forward Operating Base 3, U.S. Army). Many American casualties were caused by the 10,908 rounds of rockets, artillery, and mortars the North Vietnamese fired into the base and hill positions.  Army deaths at FOB-3 as a result of this incoming are not included in the official statistics.
The Operation Scotland tactical area of responsibility was limited to the area around Khe Sanh along Route 9 in western Quang Tri province. On March 6, two USAF C-123 cargo airplanes departed Da Nang Air Base en route to Khe Sanh. At 1530 hours the first C-123, with 44 passengers and a crew of five, began to land. Enemy artillery rounds slammed into the runway. The tower at Khe Sanh instructed the pilot to take evasive action and go around for another landing. While climbing, the C-123 was struck by several bursts of heavy machine gun and recoilless rifle fire. With one engine out, the pilot attempted to return to
on the remaining engine. The plane, piloted by LtCol Frederick Hampton, crashed a few miles east of Khe Sanh, resulting in a huge fireball. All aboard were killed. Since the Marines on board were not yet officially attached to the 26th Marine Regiment, their deaths are not included in the official Khe Sanh body count, nor were the few other deaths associated with aircraft crashes. Had the plane been shot down departing Khe Sanh, the casualties would have been counted in the official statistics. Da Nang
Beseiged, Khe Sanh could only be resupplied by air. Consequently, MACV initiated an operation to open Route 9 to vehicle traffic. This was Operation Pegasus, which began the day after
ended and lasted until April 15. The Pegasus force consisted of the Army 1st Cavalry Division plus the 1st Marine Regiment. Setting out from Ca Lu, ten miles east of Khe Sanh, Pegasus opened the highway, linked up with the Marines at Khe Sanh, and engaged NVA units in the surrounding area. American deaths were 59 Scotland Army KIA and 51 Marine Corps KIA.  These were not included in the official Khe Sanh body count. U.S.
On April 15, Operation Pegasus ended and Operation Scotland II began. The Marines at Khe Sanh Combat Base broke out of their perimeter and began attacking the North Vietnamese in the surrounding area. The Army 1st Air Cavalry Division, with over 400 helicopters  under its control, conducted airmobile operations deeper into enemy controlled areas. The fighting was heavy. An additional 413 Marines were killed during Scotland II through the end of June 1968.  Operation Scotland II lasted until the end of the year, resulting in the deaths of 72 additional Marines.  None of the deaths associated with Scotland II are included in the official body count. Historian Ronald Spector in After Tet : the Bloodiest Year in Vietnam notes that American casualties in the ten weeks after the beginning of Operation Pegasus were more than twice the casualties officially reported during the siege. 
The deaths of U.S. Air Force personnel, estimated between five and twenty, are not included. 
The official figure of 205 KIA only represents Marine deaths in the Operation Scotland TAOR; that is, Marines killed in proximity to the Khe Sanh Combat Base during the period November 1, 1967 until March 30, 1968.
was a 26th Marine Regiment operation, so only the deaths of Marines attached to the regiment (and attached supporting units) were counted.  This time period does not particularly coincide with the fighting; rather, it dates from before the siege began and terminates before the siege (and the fighting) ended. The distinctions between Operations Scotland, Pegasus, and Scotland II, while important from the command perspective, were not necessarily apparent to individual Marines involved in the fighting. For them, the battle started when the North Vietnamese attacks began in January. Fighting around Khe Sanh was continuous, and the battle ended when an individual Marine left Khe Sanh. For example, the author served with a Marine heavy mortar battery at Khe Sanh during the siege. But only by checking his service record while writing this article did it become evident he participated in all three operations. Scotland
Upon closer analysis, even the official figure does not accurately portray what it purports to represent. The Marines at Khe Sanh were members of the 26th Marine Regiment and other attached units. According to Ray Stubbe, then a U.S. Navy chaplain during the siege and since the most important historian of Khe Sanh, notes the 205 figure is taken from the records of the 26th Marine Regiment. Stubbe examined the Command Chronologies of the 1st and 2d Battalion, 26th Marines, plus the After Action Reports of the 3d Battalion, 26th Marines; 1st Battalion, 9th Marines; 1st Battalion, 13th Marines, plus over a dozen other units all present at Khe Sanh under 26th Marine command. These sources show a total of 354 KIA.  Unlike the official figures, those provided by Stubbe cannot be suspect: his database of Khe Sanh deaths includes names and date of death, and so are verifiable. Khe Sanh was a dangerous and chaotic place, and perfectly accurate casualty reporting was not possible.
On June 19, 1968, another operation began at Khe Sanh. This was Operation Charlie, the final evacuation and destruction of the Khe Sanh Combat Base. The Marines withdrew all salvageable material and destroyed everything else. The NVA continued shelling the base, and on July 1 launched a company-sized infantry attack against the base perimeter. Two Marines died in the attack. NVA casualties were over 200. The base was officially closed on July 5. Marines stayed in the area, conducting operations to recover the bodies of Marines killed previously. On July 10, PFC Robert Hernandez of Company A, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, was manning a M-60 machine gun position when it took a direct hit by NVA mortars. Hernandez was killed. 10 additional Marines and 89 NVA died during this period and were not included in the official body count. The following day the Marines finally left Khe Sanh.  By any measure, the battle for Khe Sanh was finally over; this is the end date from the North Vietnamese perspective. The 304 NVA Division history notes that on “9 July 1968, the liberation flag was waving from the flag pole at Ta Con [Khe Sanh] airfield.”  On July 13, 1968, Ho Chi Minh sent a message to the soldiers of the Route 9-Khe Sanh Front affirming “our victory at Khe Sanh.” 
From the North Vietnamese perspective, the Khe Sanh battlefield was considerably more extensive than the USMC view, both geographically and chronologically. Their battle headquarters was located at Sar Lit,
. Battlefield boundaries extended from eastern Laos Laoseastward along both sides of Route 9 in Quang Tri province, , to the coast.  Taking a larger but more realistic view of the Khe Sanh campaign gives a death toll of American military personnel that approaches 1,000.  Vietnam
The official, public estimate of 10,000 to 15,000 North Vietnamese KIA stands in contrast to another estimate made by the American military. On April 5, 1968, MACV prepared an “Analysis of the Khe Sanh Battle” for General Westmoreland. The report, classified SECRET, noted that intelligence from many sources indicated conclusively that the North Vietnamese had planned a massive ground attack against the base. The attack was to have been supported by armor and artillery. Losses inflicted on the enemy were of sufficient magnitude to cause the enemy to abandon his plan for a massive ground attack. The size of the losses indicate the enemy suffered a major defeat. These losses were estimated at 3,550 KIA inflicted by delivered fires (i.e., aerial and artillery bombardment) and 2,000 KIA from ground action, for a total of 5,550 estimated North Vietnamese KIA as of March 31. 
Ray Stubbe has published a translation of the North Vietnamese history of the siege at Khe Sanh. According to this history, originally classified SECRET, total NVA battle deaths for all the major NVA units participating in the entire Highway9/Khe Sanh Front from January 20 until July 20, 1968, were 2,469.  Given the North Vietnamese generous definition of the battlefield, both in terms of geography and duration, and the tremendous amount of ordnance the Americans spent trying to obliterate them, this is a remarkably low figure. It is, however, closer to the classified MACV estimate of NVA deaths than the public estimates.
Ho Chi Minh’s famous admonition to the French applied equally to the Americans: “You can kill ten of my men for every one I kill of yours, but even at those odds, you will lose and I will win.”  In conclusion, Ray Stubbe’s claim that approximately 1,000 Americans died on the Khe Sanh battlefield is especially compelling, given that Stubbe’s calculations are accompanied by names and dates of death. Since the official duration of the battle marks an ending point even earlier than the termination of the siege itself, a wider definition of the Khe Sanh battlefield that includes Operations Scotland, Pegasus, and Scotland II also seems reasonable. The official statistics yield a body count kill ratio of between 50 and 75 to 1 of North Vietnamese to
military deaths. The figures of 1,000 U.S. KIA and 5,500 NVA KIA yield a ratio of 5.5 to 1. This ratio that makes the claim of an American victory at Khe Sanh, based on solely body count, difficult to sustain. U.S.
In fact, neither side won a resounding victory. The NVA surrounded Khe Sanh in an attempt to force the Marines to break out of their fighting positions, which would make it easier to engage and destroy them. If that failed, and it did, they hoped to attack Americans reinforcements along Route 9 between Khe Sanh and
.  However, Pegasus forces were highly mobile and did not attack en mass down Route 9 far enough west of Khe Sanh for the NVA, by then disbursed, to implement their plan. Laos
The Marines knew withdrawing from Khe Sanh would present a propaganda victory for
. This proved correct; on June 28 a Communist spokesman claimed the Americans had been forced to retreat and Khe Sanh was the “gravest tactical and strategic defeat” for the Hanoi in the war.  It was the only occasion in which Americans abandoned a major combat base due to enemy pressure. US
Strategically the withdrawal meant little. The new anchor base was established at Ca Lu, a few miles down Route 9 to the east. Mobile combat operations continued against the North Vietnamese.
reconnaissance forces continued to monitor the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The Marines and their allies at Khe Sanh engaged tens of thousands, and killed thousands, of NVA over a period of many weeks. Had enemy forces not been at Khe Sanh they could have joined the NVA and VC who occupied U.S. , a much more important strategic target. The Marines fought long, hard, and well at Khe Sanh, and died in much larger numbers than was acknowledged. Hue
For further reading:
The best single volume is Valley of Decision : the Siege of Khe Sanh by John Prados and Ray W. Stubbe (Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 1991). The official USMC version is The Battle for Khe Sanh by
, II (Washington : History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1969). The official NVA version is B5-T8 in 48QXD, : the Secret Official History of the North Vietnamese Army of the Siege at Khe Sanh, Vietnam, Spring, 1968, translations by Sedgewick Tourison, edited by Ray Stubbe (Wauwatosa, WI: Khe Sanh Veterans, Inc., 2006). Moyers S. Shore
Jack Shulimson et al,
U.S.Marines in Vietnam, the Defining Year, 1968 ( : History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps), 1997, p. 326n. Washington, D.C.For basic background information on the base at Khe Sanh and troop levels, see entry for “Khe Sanh, Battles of” by William Head and Peter Brush in Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War : A Political, Social, & Military History, Spencer C. Tucker, ed. (NY: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 204-206.Ray W. Stubbe, Battalion of Kings ¨A Tribute to our Fallen Brothers who Died Because of the Battlefield of Khe Sanh, Vietnam(: : Khe Sanh Veterans, Inc.), 2005, pp. 107-122. Milwaukee, WI Moyers S. ShoreII, The Battlefor Khe Sanh ( Washington, D.C.: History and Museums Division, Marine Corps), 1969, p. 130. Headquarters, U.S.SIEGE OF KHESANH DECLARED LIFTED; TROOPS HUNT FOE. New York Times, : Apr 6, 1968. p. 1, 2. New York, N.Y.Shore, 130-131.William C. Westmoreland, A Soldier Reports ( : Doubleday), 1976, p. 335, 347. Garden City, NY“General Krulak Urges Marines to Resist Detractors in Army” by John W. Finney, New York Times, May 13, 1968, p. 1Julian J. Ewell and Ira A. Hunt, Jr., Sharpening the Combat Edge: the Use of Analysis to Reinforce Military Judgment ( : Department of the Army), 1974, p. 212. Washington, D.C.`Robert Pisor, The End of the Line : the siege of Khe Sanh (NY: Norton, 1982), p. 258.Stubbe, Battalion of Kings, p. 104.Pisor, p. 197.Shulimson, p. 283.Shulimson, p. 289, gives 92 as the official figure. Stubbe, Battalion of King, p. 299, lists 110 KIA.Shulimson, p. 516.Stubbe, Battalion of Kings. Stubbe provides no summary figure for Scotland II; the figure of 413 is my compilation of the names listed by Stubbe.Shulimson, p. 326.Ronald H. Spector, After Tet : the bloodiest year in (NY: Free Press), 1993, p. 128. VietnamJohn Prados and Ray W. Stubbe, Valleyof Decision: the Siege of Khe Sanh ( : Houghton Mifflin), 1991, p. 454. BostonShulimson, p. 326n.Stubbe, Battalion of Kings, p. 267.Shulimson, p. 326, Stubbe, Battalion of Kings, p. 370.B5-T8 in 48QXD, : the Secret Official History of the North Vietnamese Army of the Siege at Khe Sanh, Vietnam, Spring, 1968, translations by Sedgewick Tourison, edited by Ray Stubbe (Wauwatosa, WI: Khe Sanh Veterans, Inc., 2006), p. 87.Victory in Vietnam: The Official History of the People’s Army of , 1954-1975. Military History Institute of Vietnam Vietnam; translated by Merle L. Pribbenow. ( Lawrence, Kan.: University Press of , 2002), p. 230. KansasB5-T8 in 48QXD, p. 3.This figure includes those killed during the siege, at Lang Vei, in the C-123 airplane crash of March 6, Operation Pegasus, and Operation Scotland II.MACEVAL, “Analysis of the Khe Sanh Battle,” April 5, 1968, LBJ Library copy. As of 8/2006 the document was available online at http://www103.pair.com/adsd/khe-sanh/.