The Hill Fights – The First Battle of Khe Sanh, Edward F. Murphy
Considering he also authored Semper Fi, – Vietnam, and is/was probably a fairly gung-ho man, Murphy does a surprisingly workmanlike job depicting what actually led up to the Khe Sanh bloodbath, why became a bloodbath, and where the responsibility for it having become a bloodbath clearly rested. All without pointing fingers of blame. He just describes events as reported by the people involved in them. For instance:
“Fourteen of the eighteen patrols Wilder sent out early in July found NVA, several within mere minutes of being inserted into their patrol areas. He learned from other intelligence sources that the North Vietnamese 324B Division had moved south of the Ben Hai River with the mission of conquering Qang Tri Province. When Wilder dutifully reported this to higher headquarters, he unwittingly stepped into the fray raging between General Westmoreland and General Walt.
“Within days General Walt, General Kyle, and Major General Louis B. Robertshaw, commander of the 1st Marine Air Wing, arrived at Wilder’s headquarters at dong Ha for a personal briefing from Wilder. As soon as Wilder mentioned the presence of the NVA 324B Divbision, Robertshaw rudely interrupted him. “You’re a liar,” Robertshaw accused Wilder.
If any single incident could sum up what happened to the unfortunate grunts getting themselves blown apart at Khe Sanh over the next couple of years, that probably does it. What happened to the US lower-grade officers and enlisted men throughout the Vietnam experience, for that matter.
It echoes and it rhymes. The M16, newly issued and fired for familiarization before being taken into combat. Jams. Jams. Jams. So the cover story becomes, “You’ve got to keep it CLEAN! If you don’t keep it clean, it jams. Your own fault, marine!”
A few weeks later squads, platoons were being slaughtered by the NVA at Khe Sanh. Found afterward with jammed M16s, unable to return fire against the enemy. Marines complained, the high command accused them of lying. Of not cleaning their weapons. The slaughter continued until a letter home from a dead marine ended up being read on the floor of the US Congress and an investigation began.
The M16 was designed around a cartridge containing a particular propellent. But a major military contractor with the right connections offered a cheaper cartridge because it contained a different, more inexpensive powder. Millions of rounds purchased, all defective. Probably hundreds, maybe thousands of US servicemen lost their lives because they were provided weapons incapable of returning fire without jamming.
Friendly fire? Khe Sanh began with a US air strike dropping napalm several miles off target on the friendly village of Khe Sanh, killing 250 villagers and injuring hundreds more. Following that it was helicopter gunships, fighter aircraft and artillery strikes opening up on ground troops by mistake.
Air forces all over the world from early during WWII provided their planes with IFF [Identify Friend/Foe] radio transponders. Somehow the concept never seeped down to include ground troops being protected from friendly fire. As late as Gulf War 1 it continued to happen. And at Khe Sanh it happened a lot.
Then there were the commanders who just made lousy choices for whatever reasons other than the well-being of the troops they commanded. “You guys aren’t likely to find anything up there. Take off your flak jackets and leave them down here.” Twice. Two separate occasions. Two bloodbaths.
There was no overall strategy for US troop involvement in Vietnam. The curse of the undeclared, presidential wars from WWII onward. The US high command couldn’t agree among themselves what the roles of the troops under their commands should be and how they should perform those roles.
Despite all this, The Hill Fights – The First Battle of Khe Sanh, Edward F. Murphy doesn’t dwell on this side of things. He simply provides a detailed history, day-to-day of one of the countless debacles of the 20th Century quickly forgotten when another president needed some other injection of excitement to keep the voters going to the poles, the flags waving, and the patriots pounding their fists on their chests.
[Incidently, there's a good photo section in the book. I was surprised to see my old friend, Mel King as a young marine standing unidentified next to a Company Commander who'd just gotten a few of his men out alive and unhurt. Mel must have gotten his injuries later.]
A Marine at Khe Sanh, by John Corbett. A young marine just out of basic training arrives in country at Khe Sanh and spends the next 77 days living in a foxhole, almost constantly under mortar, artillery and rocket attack. This is his diary.
Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon never got around to hanging their heads in shame for the young men the dead and crippled as by-products their Vietnam presidential military adventures. But then, I don’t suppose any of the other, later ones have, either, for theirs.
After all, a lot of the right people made one hell of a lot of money from those wars. You can’t make an omlette without breaking some eggs.