|Old runway of Khe Sanh Base today, once held by US Marines|
This one is red.
The bare earth of this old rutted runway is the color of the reddish clay that makes up the surrounding hills. This runway once had a lighter colored surface when it was in use, but red is a more fitting color. The blood of thousands was spilled in the fight to control this runway, and the hills that surround it.
A nearby sign in Vietnamese calls this place: “Ta Con Airfield Relic”. Ta Con was the North Vietnamese Army's (NVA) name for this remote place. The American name for this base was taken from a village just south of here on Highway 9. It’s name: “Khe Sanh”.
Sitting in the farthest northwestern corner of the what was South Vietnam, this base was the scene of the bloodiest siege of the entire Vietnam War. Begun as a small Special Forces outpost, Khe Sanh expanded as the war heated up to become a major base. As the number of US Marines here grew, this dusty red runway was built to enable access by plane.
When fighting escalated in January 1968, massive numbers of NVA regulars infiltrated the surrounding hills. They cut access by road on Highway 9, the route I took to travel here. Totally surrounded, the Marines were left under siege, and this dusty runway became their only hope for resupply and reinforcements. At the peak of the battle, there were 6,000 US Marines in this small place, surrounded by 20,000 - 30,000 NVA troops.
|Smoke rises from artillery attack on Khe Sanh during 1968 siege. (Photo:USMC)|
I look around at hills surrounding this former base, and they look green and peaceful now. Some of these nearby hills, such as Hill 861 and Hill 881 S, saw the worst of the fighting. Today it’s overcast, and here in the highlands, fog is common. Low visibility from the fog gave cover to the NVA who watched from the hills. Their guns placed there often stopped the desperately needed cargo planes from landing here on the base’s airstrip.
Not far from the runway today, sit two intact American made helicopters, a Huey and a Chinook. Although most resupply flights here that saved the Marines were from cargo planes, there were also countless flights here by helicopter. My veteran buddy Jay once had had a close call here during the siege, while piloting a Huey.
|Chinook helicopter on display in Khe Sanh today|
Normally, Jay sat on that side of the chopper, so it should have been him that got hit. But for some reason, he had switched sides that morning. He later found the bullet in the chopper. “It went through his boot, hit the ceiling, went between us and landed in the back,” he said. “I found it sitting back there.”
By chance, Jay ran into that same pilot months later, after he had returned from surgery in the US. Jay approached him and said, “I’ve got something for you.” He had had the bullet mounted on a keychain, and gave it to him. “That’s the bullet with your name on it,” Jay told him, “you’ll never get shot again.”
The Chinook and Huey helicopter displayed here were brought back only in recent years. Unlike other old US bases I’ve seen, Khe Sanh is one of the few former bases that they’ve turned into a
|Helicopter and plane wreckage in Khe Sanh|
As I walk around the old base, I hear the buzz of insects. A monkey screeches nearby. It’s good to hear the sounds of nature here, in a place where so many unnatural things happened. Scattered about are old bomb craters left behind from NVA artillery. In some of them the grass still isn’t growing, revealing dark red soil underneath. There is a small quonset hut, a cylindrical shaped shelter that Marines used to sleep and shelter in. A rusty M – 41 tank sits vacant nearby, gutted and stripped for scrap.
I follow a trench, leading to the entrance of a bunker. I step down into the dark enclosure; it feels like a basement. The bunker is mostly made of sandbags, with a flat roof. Metal grates known as pierced steel planking line the walls. A few old artillery shell casings lie on the floor. The Marines spent most of their time hunkered down in deep bunkers like this, due to constant artillery attacks. Khe Sanh is only six miles from the Laotian border, which put them well within the range of heavy Soviet made artillery hidden beyond the frontier. On some occasions more than 1,000 artillery shells a day were fired onto this base. On those days the Marines hardly left their bunkers at all.
|Bunker and trench in Khe Sanh today|
Surrounding the Marines from the hills, the NVA generals were hoping to attack and overwhelm Khe Sanh’s outnumbered defenders, much as they had done to the French 14 years earlier at Dien Bien Phu. But the massive ordnance dropped onto the NVA from Air Force B-52 bombers foiled that attack from ever materializing. As difficult as it was for the Marines here, it was even more dangerous for the NVA troops in the hills. Besides the harsh conditions, they were on the receiving end of devastating air attacks.
The bunker and the trench I've walked through look impressive, but the fact is, they aren’t authentic. The reason I know this, is because the canvas on some of the sandbags has worn away, revealing their contents. They are filled not with sand or dirt, but concrete!
|US made helmets and flak jackets in the museum|
The bunker and quonset hut here now weren’t the work of the Marines. These were rebuilt when the government recently turned Khe Sanh into a memorial. This is one of the few sections of the old base where all the landmines and unexploded ordinance have been removed, creating a safe refuge for visitors. In this enclosure by the runway the grass is neatly mowed, and sidewalks are bordered by manicured bushes. There's even a small museum.
Preparing myself for more propaganda, I enter. Inside is a selection of US made helmets, boots, and weapons. It’s impossible to tell if these were captured from ARVN troops, or from US Marines who were missing
|Old artillery shell casings in Khe Sanh bunker today|
Propaganda is another weapon of war, and there was a great deal of it on both sides regarding Khe Sanh's body count. The US military claimed only 230 Americans were killed or missing from the battle, but a more accurate count would be around 500. They also claimed as many as 15,000 NVA were killed around Khe Sanh. For the communists, after the war they admitted to having lost 5,550 NVA soldiers in the battle, but their numbers were also higher. Both sides lost more men here than they will admit.
Who really won at Khe Sanh is still disputed today. The US military based their victories in Vietnam by body counts. As more NVA were killed in Khe Sanh than Americans, they claimed victory. The NVA on the other hand, raised their flag over Khe Sanh the day after the Marines abandoned it. Since they had possession of the base they also claimed victory, even though they were unable to capture the Marines that had stubbornly opposed them.
After the war, Khe Sanh was left to the growing weeds. Some local farm houses dot the landscape, since most of the former base is now agricultural land used for coffee farming. Much of the land surrounding the base is too dangerous to farm, still littered with landmines and unexploded shells. Strangely, grass has still not grown back onto the old red runway.
In the end, the US military had come to a remote, faraway place and established a presence. They fought bravely, held their ground, and killed far more of the enemy than they lost. When it was decided that the cost of remaining there was too high, they left, and the North Vietnamese Army later took over.
In a way, the story of Khe Sanh is a metaphor for the entire Vietnam War.