Khe Sanh: Winning a Battle, Losing a War

Filed in Archive, Blog by on August 21, 2015 4 Comments

Khe Sanh US Marines Base

Pouring sweat in Da Nang, Vietnam. Standing in a four-storey war museum loaded with historic photos, old machine-guns, tanks and fighter jets but no air-con. And not a single fan working. No other tourists here today. Obviously smarter than me. Two bored female soldiers are guarding the entrance and exit on the ground floor. This wasn’t how the brochure read. The saving grace, however, is that I’m finally learning why Don Walker titled his classic Australian song Khe Sanh.

What happened at Khe Sanh in 1968 symbolised the tortured path of the entire Vietnam War from 1945 to 1975.

The US Marines had built a combat base around a huge airstrip located near the inland village of Khe Sanh, just south of the former border with North Vietnam. This strategic outpost was considered by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) as the gateway to the South.

The US Marines had never lost a battle, so the 5,000 stationed at their Khe Sanh base weren’t about to be broken by the well-planned assault of 20,000 NVA troops. But winning the battle came at such a cost it broke the political will of America to win the war.

The siege of Khe Sanh was the largest single battle of the Vietnam War. The savage fighting lasted 77 days from 21 January 1968. (The widespread Tet Offensive by the Viet Cong began later and finished earlier.) The siege included relentless artillery duels, vicious hand-to-hand combat, and carpet bombing by B-52s of NVA trenches to within 1200 yards of the base’s perimeter. The NVA never again attempted to defeat the Americans in a full-scale battle – guerrilla tactics and tunnels were far more effective.

But a week before the Marines broke the siege of Khe Sanh, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced he would not seek re-election. The American public no longer believed the Vietnam War was winnable and protest marches reached a new peak. America’s strategy soon switched from trying to win the war, to trying to disengage and leave the South Vietnamese Army to do its own fighting.

There was so much international TV coverage of the battle for Khe Sanh that the Australian public also became aware of its significance, even though Australian forces played only a minor role, with limited air support flown by a few Canberra bombers (not choppers, as flown by the character in the song).

Khe Sanh was therefore a more universal and historic – not particularly Australian – reference to set the tone for Don Walker’s song, especially when you consider the whole of the first line: “I left my heart to the sappers round Khe Sanh.”

“Sappers” could suggest soldier-engineers on either side, but the word more likely refers to North Vietnamese Army commandos. These were elite troops, specifically called sappers, who led the assault on Khe Sanh then later led the takeover of the base, when the Americans destroyed and abandoned it only two months after breaking the siege. “Victories” don’t come much hollower.

What heart-rending irony and what an indelible way for Don Walker to begin evoking the twisted emotions and trauma so many Vietnam veterans suffered, regardless of nationality.

When I returned from Vietnam in July and saw TV news stories of small groups of so-called Australian nationalists playing Cold Chisel’s version of Khe Sanh as their theme song, while involved in street brawls with anti-racism protestors, I was reminded of another hook from a classic song: “War! What is it good for? Absolutely nothin’ – yeah!”

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  1. Alex says:

    Mate, Sappers in this context refers to the US Combat Engineers as they were the ones who had to rebuild, often on a daily basis, the protective earthworks and barbed wire fences that the US Marines relied up to defend then from the Human Wave attacks and artillery bombardments. The work was highly dangerous as it had to be undertaken in view of the NVA and VC forces and usually done at night.

    • Euan Mitchell says:

      Hi Alex

      That was also my assumption until I dug a little deeper (pardon the pun). The French military originally used the term “sapeur” (“sapper” in English) for soldiers who undermined their enemy’s defensive position by digging trenches or tunnels. The verb “saper” in French means to undermine. So when laying siege you sap the strength of your enemy’s fortifications.

      With reference to this background, the Americans called the NVA/Viet Cong elite commandos “sappers”. But a more literal translation of the relevant Vietnamese term, đặc công, would have been “special task” units.

      There were also sappers in the US regular Army, but I didn’t find that the US Marines used this term for their own combat engineers. That said, the US regular Army did eventually fight its way down Route 9 to relieve the Marines at Khe Sanh, hence I mentioned sappers could potentially refer to soldier-engineers on both sides.

      However, in the war museum at Da Nang there were photos of NVA “sappers” at Khe Sanh and other battlegrounds. They showed elite commandos who dug trenches towards American bases and tunnelled holes into hills to conceal artillery. (Tactics that worked so effectively for General Giap when defeating the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.) So I watched documentaries and read books about Khe Sanh to confirm whether sappers were US or NVA.

      I won’t bore you with all the details, but here is a sample of one of many quotes I found about NVA sappers. This one is taken from a well-regarded book titled Last Stand at Khe Sanh: The US Marines’ Finest Hour in Vietnam, by Gregg Jones (p. 25):

      “Sometime after 9:00 pm, Captain Jasper ordered Kilo’s artillery forward observer, Dennis Mannion, down to the northern perimeter to see if he could put artillery on the NVA sappers. Mannion and his radio operator, Dave Kron, found the mood tense among the Marines. The enemy sappers were now thirty or forty yards away, so close that the Americans could hear the high-pitched, singsong tones of spoken Vietnamese. The sappers seemed nonchalant, chatting, even laughing.”

      Out of interest, Wikipedia’s page on sappers has a link to a detailed organisational chart of a sapper raiding party from the PAVN (People’s Army of Vietnam, which, during the second stage of the Vietnam War, was comprised of the NVA and southern Viet Cong): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sapper#/media/File:Sapperorg.jpg

  2. General Westmoreland’s planned relief effort infuriated the Marines, who had not wanted to hold Khe Sanh in the first place and who had been roundly criticized for not defending it well.

    • Euan Mitchell says:

      Yes, the Marines didn’t like the appearance of being relieved by the regular US Army. Yet they must have been grateful to the Air Force. But which frontline base or bases do you believe the Marines wanted to hold instead of Khe Sanh?

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