The Hill Fights
Things remained quiet in the Khe Sanh area through 1966.
Even so, General Westmoreland insisted that it not only be occupied by the Marines, but that it be reinforced. He was vociferously opposed by General Lewis W. Walt, the Marine commander of I Corps. Walt argued heatedly that the real target of the American effort should be the pacification and protection of the population, not chasing PAVN and the NLF in the hinterlands. Westmoreland won out, however, and the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment (1/3) was dispatched to occupy the camp and airstrip on 29 September. By late January 1967, 1/3 was relieved by Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines. A single company was replacing an entire battalion. One of the mysteries surrounding the Battle of Khe Sanh was why, after running roughshod over the Marines concerning the defense of the base at Khe Sanh, Westmoreland allowed the drawdown.
On 24 April 1967, a patrol from Bravo Company became engaged with a PAVN force of unknown size north of Hill 861. This action prematurely triggered a North Vietnamese offensive aimed at taking Khe Sanh. The PAVN forces were in the process of gaining elevated terrain before the launching of the main attack. The 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the 3rd Marine Regiment, under the command of Colonel John P. Lanigan, reinforced KSCB (Khe Sanh Combat Base) and were given the task of pushing the North Vietnamese off of Hills 861, 881 North, and 881 South. North Vietnamese forces were driven out of the area around Khe Sanh after suffering 940 casualties. The Marines suffered 155 killed in action and 425 wounded. In order to prevent PAVN observation of the main base at the airfield (and their possible use as firebases), the hills of the surrounding Khe Sanh Valley had to be continuously occupied and defended by separate Marine elements, thereby spreading out the defense.
In the wake of the hill fights there was a lull in PAVN activity around Khe Sanh. By the end of May, Marine forces were again drawn down from two battalions to one, the 1st Battalion 26th Marines. Lieutenant General Robert E. Cushman, Jr. relieved General Walt as commander of III MAF in June. On 14 August, Colonel David E. Lownds took over as commander of the 26th Marine Regiment. There were sporadic actions in the vicinity during the late summer and early fall, the most serious of which was the ambush of a supply convoy on Route 9. This proved to be the last overland attempt at resupply for Khe Sanh until the following March. During December and early January there were numerous sightings of PAVN troops and activities in the Khe Sanh area, but the sector remained relatively quiet.
The first objective began with the Hill Battles of 1967, which we will soon describe, and extended through the 1968 Siege of Khe Sanh. General Giap did not achieve his first objective. He did not destroy the Marines at Khe Sanh, though his troopers gave the Marines one helluva fight, a cause celeb among many journalists. But the Marines, supported by the rest of the US military, defeated the NVA and VC endeavor.