Khe Sanh Combat Base at DMZ, Quang Tri province, Vietnam was located on a plateau with 10 kilometers of each side. It’s a capital of Huong Hoa district along highway 9 and 20 kilometers far from Vietnam – Laos’s border.
When replacing the French in Indochina war, immense vegetation covers and fertile basaltic land in Khe Sanh attracted American capitalists. When the revolution movement strongly developed in the South, the American armed circles had realized the importance of Khe Sanh because it lied on highway 9 – a strategic route in the northernmost of the South of Vietnam, connecting Laos and mysterious Ho Chi Minh trail.
Khe Sanh Combat Base Map – Photo by Vietnam Drive
General Westmoreland, chief commander of the American army in the South of Vietnam, the “impresario” of all American military activities in Vietnam had strongly argued on the necessity of the dominance of Khe Sanh Combat Base. Firstly, it’s because of its geographical location. This place could stop infiltration from forest and mountain down to the plateau and coastal areas. Secondly, this would be “a war winning the heart and mind” of Ta Co and Van Kieu – the ethnic minority groups living in Huong Hoa. Even though they accounted for only 40 or 50 thousands above 18 millions of people living in the South of Vietnam, it would have a big impact.
In June of 1966, highway 9 front is decided to open in the north of Quang Tri (B5). In general offensive and uprising attack in Tet Mau Than (1968), highway 9 – Khe Sanh front was chosen to fire first to attract the enemy to highway 9. It was decided to take this battle as a main attacking direction where the liberation regular forces could grind down the enemy’s strength. Meantime, it could pull a big number of American troops here and get them bogged down in Khe Sanh so that the general offensive attack could take place in the whole South of Vietnam. This was a new and difficult task.
The opening of Highway 9 front had quickly attracted a big American expeditionary corps to this front. The American commanders in the field in Vietnam invasion war quickly agreed upon and recognized the strategic importance of Khe Sanh Combat Base.
In 1964, when coming to the South of Vietnam in a post of commander in chief of American forces, General Westmoreland decided to make a field tour to Khe Sanh and said that this was an ideal place to stop the infiltration of North Vietnamese army from the north to the South and from Laos through highway 9. He saw Khe Sanh Combat Base as an “anchor” in the west of the defensive system in the south of demilitarized zone and as a springboard for all ground operations to cut the strategic supply route of Ho Chi Minh trail in Truong Son Mountain.
Ta Con at Khe Sanh Combat Base – Photo Vietnam Drive
Leaving Khe Sanh meant to drop all rare advantages and subsequently by accident could open the way that the opponent could extend the war to coastal and plain regions of Quang Tri and Thua Thien provinces, and further control the way of assault along the coastal line to the South.
In the end of 1966, when receiving the message “Northern side of Quang Tri was under threat”, Westmoreland ordered commanding headquarter of the marines III (III MAF) groups in Da Nang to move two Regiments 1 & 3 (Division 3 of US marines) which were on duty in a “search & destroy” operation of regular forces in Quang Tin, four battalions of reserved troops of South Vietnamese army in Sai Gon and two American artillery and armour regiments to highway 9 – North of Quang Tri (from Ka Lu to Huoi San).
In the end of 1967, American commanding headquarter always maintained from 45,000 to 60,000 troops (more than half were American), accounted for one-seventh of expeditionary forces in the south of Vietnam, of which one third expeditionary forces in the south of Vietnam, of which one third were crack units (end of 1967). At the same time, the American built lots of strongholds in Ai Tu, Dong Ha, Cam Lo, Tan Lam, Khe Sanh, Lang Vay, and Ta Con. In the north of highway 9, Ta Con base complex was built with a dense entrenchment and a big airstrip. Around Ta Con, they set up solid positions on the heights of 698, 682, 845, 881, 832, and 1009 (Dong Tri).
Khe Sanh Base and Lang Vay base were along highway 9. About 6000 American troops of 4 marine battalions, artillery and armor units, technical mechanics, and logistics were present at Khe Sanh. Other bases like Dong Ha, 241m height, were always ready to support Khe Sanh with human and artillery fires, air force and even B52 when it was attacked. From a desolate mountain, Khe Sanh turned into a big combat base of American: an important stronghold; a patrol base to stop infiltration of the opponent from Laos along highway 9, and a pedal for ranger’s activities to disturb the opponents along Viet-Laos boundary.
The airstrip here was built for American reconnoiters planes taking off to examine Ho Chi Minh trails. This was an anchor in the west of defensive system of American in the south of demilitarized zone a springboard for their ground operations to search and destroy regular forces of the North of Vietnam, to assault and cut the strategic supply route of Truong Son – Ho Chi Minh trails. In addition, although not speaking out, American commanders thought that if they could have attracted North Vietnamese army to a ready-made battlefield chosen by them in Khe Sanh, the North Vietnamese army would have been destroyed by a storm of air and artillery fires.
Comparing with Dien Bien Phu (under the French occupation), Khe Sanh Base had much more advantages, therefore Westmoreland believed “Khe Sanh Combat Base will be strongly stood in the history as a classical example of a challenge to defeat much more crowded siege forces by using concerted fires”. To guarantee the exactness of fires, before Khe Sanh attack, he ordered to move all electronic detectors scattered along defensive Mc. Namara line to Laos and redeployed around Khe Sanh American seismic units were mobilized to Khe Sanh to detect underground seism to find “whether North Vietnamese army dug trenches to approach Khe Sanh as they did in Dien Bien Phu or not”.
After carefully studied all options and taken into account possible risks, Westmoreland declared in a joint general staff meeting that: “we will never be defeated in Khe Sanh. I never forgive whoever to speak and think in an opposite way”. Thus he determined to stay in Khe Sanh with the ambition to “grind regular divisions of North Vietnamese army” like General Nava in the past who bragged to grind regular forces of Viet Minh in Dien Bien Phu”.
Khe Sanh Combat Base was always maintained with a big number of American forces with modern equipment, and it was strongly defended by a strongholds system and in the uninterrupted base complex. Besides, it was surrounded by electronic detectors, which could find exactly the targets and then call for air and artillery fires strikes. With a defensive system, it was hard to believe anyone could infiltrate into Khe Sanh for a single disturbance, not for the imagination of launching a big scale assault with thousands of soldiers. Therefore, Westmoreland decided to stay in Khe Sanh was not any basis. (Quang Tri Management Board of relics and high interest sights)