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Remembering The Vietnam War’s Battle Of Khe Sanh

On our way to Memorial Day, a deep look at the deadly Vietnam War battle of Khe Sanh, and those who fought.

In this May 13, 2014 file photo, a U.S. Army honor guard stands at the grave site of Army Pvt. William Christman, the first military burial at the cemetery, marking the beginning of commemorations of the 150th anniversary of Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va.  (AP)

In this May 13, 2014 file photo, a U.S. Army honor guard stands at the grave site of Army Pvt. William Christman, the first military burial at the cemetery, marking the beginning of commemorations of the 150th anniversary of Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va. (AP)

As controversial as America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have often been, when American soldiers came home from those wars, they’ve been widely met with respect and thanks.  For the now-aging veterans of the Vietnam War, it was different.  Even when they came home from terrible and terrifying battles.  The Vietnam War battle at Khe Sanh was great and terrible.  A big, remote base nearly overrun.  Months of terrible fighting.  Hundreds of American dead.  A brutally ambiguous end.  This hour On Point:  for this Memorial Day weekend, remembering Khe Sanh.

– Tom Ashbrook

Guests

Gregg Jones, long time foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Burma, Indonesia, India and the Philippines. Author of the new book “Last Stand at Khe Sanh: The U.S. Marines’ Finest Hour in Vietnam.” Also author of “Honor in the Dust.” (@gjonesasia)

From Tom’s Reading List

Dallas Morning News: History review: ‘Last Stand at Khe Sanh: The U.S. Marines’ Finest Hour in Vietnam,’ by Gregg Jones — “The author likewise shows how the Marines threw everything they had right back, including knives and rocks when they ran out of ammunition. Though helicopter gunships, carrier-based fighter-bombers and B-52 heavy bombers blasted the attackers, transport planes and helicopters still drew fire as they delivered supplies and fresh troops and picked up casualties at Khe Sanh’s dangerous runway.”

AP: Many Events to Mark Arlington Cemetery Anniversary– “Arlington National Cemetery has planned a series of events to commemorate its 150th anniversary in May and June. The first military burial occurred May 13, 1864, for Union Pvt. William Henry Christman of the 67th Pennsylvania Infantry. It was officially designated as a military cemetery on June 15, 1864.”

CNN: Hallowed ground, Arlington Cemetery marks 150 years — “More than 600 acres now, Arlington is mostly known for dignified rows of white marble headstones that sweep down an expansive, rolling tree-lined slope where the hallowed ground almost touches the Potomac River. The cemetery is also a year-round tourist attraction with 250,000 visitors each month. Many flock to the most well-known grave — that of President John F. Kennedy. It is marked by the flickering ‘eternal flame.’”

Read An Excerpt From “Last Stand at Khe Sanh: The U.S. Marines’ Finest Hour in Vietnam” By Gregg Jones

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  • Yar

    During that same time period and most likely related was the Battle of Kham Duc, I lost my father-in-law in that battle, long before I ever married. It changed the course of history in my life, both good and bad, I have three wonderful children and an ex-wife. Some war wounds carry forward for generations. 9-11 was a difficult time for my wife, it found triggers related back to 1968. We are changed forever by events of the past. My ex-wife’s father knew military history and in tapes he sent back home he said that the war was lost due to politics, our leaders didn’t want to let the people on the ground fight to win. A fine man, I only wish I had the chance to meet him. To all who serve, Thank you.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Kham_Duc

    • James Patrick Dwyer Jr.

      Your ex-father in law was right. I asked my C.O. on more that one occasion why do we not have troops in north Vietnam. It made no sense to me.

      • northeaster17

        This is the question I have about whether we won or lost in Vietnam. What was there to win? Losing so many and lets say we took out Ho Chi Mihn. Whats the point? I was 16 in 75 when it was over.

        • Michael

          There’s a long history as to why we were there. It started in 1945 when the great powers divvied up the world, and split a number of countries up — Korea, Germany to name a few.

      • Michael

        Politically, fear of provoking the Chinese to put boots in country, or for stroking nuclear war fears with Russia are the biggest reasons why we didn’t send troops north. Militarily, we didn’t have enough troops on the ground.

        • James Patrick Dwyer Jr.

          I agree with you. I wanted my commanding officer to say it, but he never would. We were always taught that you cannot win a defensive war, and that was exactly what we were involved with. “What the hell are we doing” was on my mind often.

  • http://hlb-engineering.us/ HLB

    Arlington better get a head start on moving graves if warnings about sea level rise due to Global Heating are to be believed. And I think they are. Rivers in the greater Washington, D.C. area could join and form new waterways no one is currently anticipating. Congress is certainly not expressing any concern about it – the Great Flood or the cemetery.

    The ultimate shame to the way veterans are treated in this country would be capstoned by having remains wash away in the great negligence fostered by our typical House and Senate malefactors. {pols}

  • James Patrick Dwyer Jr.

    I am a Vietnam vet, some of us were spit on, I was accused of being a baby killer. Around 1985 I was attending an adult Sunday school class and one member announced that “Jane Fonda” was right. That was the last church function I ever attended.

    • Jill122

      I don’t go to church and I haven’t for years, but not because anyone insulted me. Mine is a well-thought out philosophical decision. I just want to point out that each of us can and do live through what we later realize are defining moments. It’s how we react that makes the difference. Not what is said or even what is done. It’s how we react. If you are a believer, I urge you to try that community once again.

      Believe me I’m not proselytizing for anything other than the world isn’t black and white. One person’s support for Jane does not a church service make.

      • James Patrick Dwyer Jr.

        I was attending for social reasons, trying to find a girl friend. I recently finished reading “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins and just started “The Fundamentals of Extremism The Christian Right in America.. Excellent books. During Vietnam, a group supposedly representing some church wanted me to defect and go to Canada and years later this church dude was talking up Jane Fonda. Amazing!!

    • Grigalem

      None of you was spit on. AND YOU KNOW IT.

      You WERE baby killers. What did you expect to be called?

      One putz in one class (not even a church official) says something you don’t like and you gave up on ALL religion for ALL TIME? You are some sharp thinker.

    • Margo Warner

      Thank you for both your service and sacrifice. My father is Ken Warner (mentioned in the broadcast) and I know first hand that the experience was not limited to his physical time in Vietnam, as for many other men and women.

      And to those who seem to want to pretend that the vets returned home with open arms and weren’t ever ridiculed/spit on/called murderers, shame on you all. The return home was terrible for many vets, which may be linked to both the severity and number of instances of PTSD. While research is still being done on this, you need to look no further than the men and women who were there and have experienced this first hand. Were there riots on the streets whenever a vet stepped foot outside? No. But to imply that there weren’t any instances of hostility towards the returning vets is not only insulting, but foolish and naive as well.

      Rather than trying to sweep everything that went wrong with the Vietnam War, from the media to the weapons and everything in between, under the rug, it would be far more beneficial to try and fix and prevent these problems from happening in the future. Also, acknowledge and give those that served the support and assistance they need. Everyone’s experience was and is different, just as everyone’s reaction to what happened is. When we can finally understand that, collectively, we might finally be able to begin the healing process from what was, inevitably, a terrible tragedy.

      • James Patrick Dwyer Jr.

        I dreamed crazy dreams about the military until about two years ago. For some of us Vietnam did not end years ago. Thank you for what you said Margo.

        • Margo Warner

          You’re very welcome! But really, we should all be thanking you and all of our other service members. I hope you have a happy Memorial Day and know that there are people out there that care and are forever indebted to all of you.

      • Michael

        You are right on most points, Margo, except one: no one here is saying veterans were welcomed with open arms.

        I’m calling out the “spitting on” and “baby killer” lines getting framed as common place, they weren’t. On the other hand, I would say for myself being a baby killer was something that was both true and deeply felt guilt. But, there is a profound difference between feeling it and projecting on others an accusation that didn’t exist.

        I would say the worst I got was a broadcasted sense of wariness once a stranger found out I was a vet.

        • Margo Warner

          You’re right in the sense that I don’t believe it was common place for that to happen. However, James stated earlier that he was accused of being a baby killer and I personally spoke with a Vietnam vet yesterday about this thread who gave me a very detailed account (time, place, names, what was said) of being spit on and told “How could you have done such a thing?” So, while these instances are probably unusual when looking across service members as a whole, that does not negate the times that they DID happen, nor does it take away the impact that it had on those that received such treatment.

          Not everyone decided to go to the media or report every act of hostility towards them. This is pure speculation from my own experience and observations, but I’d imagine most didn’t want to stop and dwell on it and bring more attention to themselves in a time when there was already such negativity. Either way, within a few hours of reading this I heard two accounts of this happening so I think that while, yes, it wasn’t common for every vet, it was certainly more common than people are willing to admit and that is what is such a shame.

    • Jonnie

      America was a very savage place in the 1960s, with African Americans still treated like slaves in the South and abused in the North, women were oppressed, and gay people fearful of the police at every turn. Therefore, it’s not surprising you were duped by the military-industrial complex into serving in an illegal, immoral, and unnecessary was of aggression against a country thousands of miles away and of no consequence to American national security.

      In this war, you, and your fellows, certainly did kill millions of vietnamese children and adults and for that you are morally responsible. If you were drafted, it was something for which you had little control over but you are still responsible for your actions.

  • Steve__T

    I was young then, but wondered why would anyone name a base after what we carried our dead on? “caisson” I didn’t want near the place. Didn’t find out the spelling until later.

    • anne sweeney

      Khe-Sahn, it was a Vietnamese name, not Caisson.

      • Steve__T

        What part of, I did not find out the spelling until later. You did not understand?

        Are you thinking that I would know the spelling from a radio or B/W TV report?

        • Michael

          ???

  • olderworker

    Although I feel sorry for the losses of all the military personnel, I remember thinking that everyone should’ve resisted the draft. This may sound unsympathetic, but the War in Vietnam was clearly a mistake by the early 60′s. Additionally, there were a lot of atrocities committed by the U.S. troops, that were televised and otherwise publicized in the press.
    If all the draftees had refused (fled to Canada, gotten conscientious objector status, whatever) it would’ve ended the war much sooner. THAT is why the returning soldiers were greeted with such animosity.

    • NrthOfTheBorder

      Yes. The war was wrong – a fact discernible and well-documented from the early sixties. But we assumed we could prevail, and more we committed lives and treasure the more divided we became until it was all too painful to continue. We lost. But the reality is we should not have been there in the first place.

      What’s always baffled me is the American public’s failure to empathize with the Vietnamese struggle as nothing less than a desire for independence – to be free from the clutches of a colonial power. Sound familiar folks?

  • anne sweeney

    I remember when my friend Scotty, fought during the 72/73 offensive, at that time America was losing, but Sargent Scotty still had to fight and later went to study at a military school, Norwich University.

  • anne sweeney

    We should have the draft today, inclusive of all our people. Then we would not go to war unless declared or we must, out of necessity, defense of our own terrain.

    • James Patrick Dwyer Jr.

      I totally agree with you. Draft everyone, the only exceptions would be physical, and age, every one else is in. No military operations of any kind would be tolerated, no drones, nothing.

      • Michael

        Spot on. Total commitment is a prerequisite for ANY war. Otherwise there is no good reason to do it.

    • Stanley_Krute

      Some of us did not then, nor do now, believe in killing strangers because a group of politicians thinks it’s a good idea. In most cases it turns out it’s not. Per this particular story; after the courageous sacrifices of the Khe Sanh defenders, we unceremoniously just gave up the place a few months later. Drafting everyone into a killing machine is insane, frankly.

    • NrthOfTheBorder

      I agree totally, & I’ll add: War must be actually declared by Congress. Second, a special tax must be raised to pay for it. This latter provision will stop all but the most necessary military intervention.

  • http://hlb-engineering.us/ HLB

    American exceptionalism. The US hasn’t won a war since 1945. Leadership starts at the top. With Congress and the presidency, our country has been badly “served.”
    Signed.. Vietnam-era Draftee/Veteran

  • Sinclair2

    Air Force C-130 pilots and crews played a courageous role during this battle by keeping the Marines supplied. The planes would fly onto the runway and continue at landing speed while discharging cargo out the back door. Never actually landing to stop, they would takeoff, reload and return. We lost several planes and their brave crews to ground fire and explosions.

    • Peter Charak

      brave invaders of another country? what an absurd notion. is that what you would look at a home invasion?

  • Art Toegemann

    The only appropriate response to the US war with Vietnam, now, is a class action federal tort claim for being misled into that war, as admitted in the Robert S. McNamara productions. False honors, false thanks (Vietnam was never a threat) will not cover up, will not heal this injury.
    Any woman running for the presidency of the United States should be compelled by federal law to register for the Selective Service. That last draft made an impression.

  • Steve__T

    Some of were spit on, sneered at. On leave I refused to wear my uniform home. Some guys off my ship got into fights over crap and we had’nt even gone over yet,. If you have no knowledge of, or may think that there maybe just a few incidences, Yeah, maybe a few, but to me 1 is too many. Stallone movie my azz.

    • Michael

      The spitting business has actually been researched:
      http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/press_box/2000/05/drooling_on_the_vietnam_vets.html

      Reference:
      Plait, Phil (2013-07-19). “Drooling on the Vietnam Vets – Slate Magazine”. Slate.com. Retrieved 2013-07-24.

      An excerpt:

      John Rambo, played by Sylvester Stallone, gives a speech about getting spat upon. Rambo says:

      It wasn’t my war. You asked me, I didn’t ask you. And I did what I had to do to win. But somebody wouldn’t let us win. Then I come back to the world and I see all those maggots at the airport. Protesting me. Spitting. Calling me baby killer. … Who are they to protest me? Huh?

      • Steve__T

        Your argument is kinda dumb. You keep putting up this Rambo stuff that was, what 7,8 years after the war was over.
        So that means it never happen to anyone but Silvester Stalone in a movie, about a Vet that that was in Vietnam recalling coming home. Got it..

  • olderworker

    absolutely.

  • olderworker

    In fact, send the Congresspeople themselves, if they are not too old or unfit.

  • Michael

    Nonsense. Benghazi hadn’t happened yet.

    • NrthOfTheBorder

      Wow!

  • X Y & Z

    God bless all of America’s veterans. Thank you for your service to our country.

    • NrthOfTheBorder

      As always, yes,

    • Peter Charak

      service to our country? conscripted to become cannon fodder and murdering invaders. like all aggressors to sovereign countries, america deserves all the retribution it gets. npr, stop glorifying these war crimes.

      • X Y & Z

        When did I ask you for opinion?

        I didn’t.

        I don’t care what you think about this issue, I don’t care what you think about anything.

  • NrthOfTheBorder

    hrcastimore – are you a vet? A Vietnam veteran perhaps?

  • Steve__T

    Michael, think about this. You didn’t ever get called a baby killer, you just were, and so were we all.
    I hope you get it now.

  • Tim

    “Members of the military join voluntarily….”

    Maybe take American history 101 and learn that conscription was the norm through the Vietnam War and during every previous major war.

    • ranndino

      Aside from that inaccuracy in regards to the Vietnam war the rest if 100% correct. The cult of the military in this country is ridiculous. Since it’s become a voluntary force most enlist for financial reasons so are no better than mercenaries.

      They’re also very far from being the best of the best. Mostly urban and rural poor who get misled by military recruiters who use every used car salesman trick to get them to sign up.

      It’s also a fact well known around the world that the U.S. marines movie image is a fantasy. When faced with odds that are even remotely fair they’re not particularly good warriors. The only way they win battles is by using the overwhelming technological advantage the trillions of our insane military budget can buy.

    • Jonnie

      Yes, of course I meant those who have joined since the end of conscription. However, the point of having a separate medical system for those who have served in the military, whether drafted or volunteer, after their service (or even during their service but outside of a wartime/conflict situation) is still a question that should be discussed.

  • ranndino

    People who think we wouldn’t won the Vietnam war are delusional. Unfortunately, some of them were in charge at the time which is why it lasted so long.

  • ranndino

    Yes, they, like many other nations consist of real warriors. We win battles by using our overwhelming technological advantage. Any battle in which the American forces are faced with anything remotely close to fair odds we typically don’t do very well. We’re only tough in movies.

  • Jonnie

    Where anywhere in my posts did I evidence any “hate” towards veterans? If someone has the opinion that veterans are the same as their their fellow Americans, who all go about their business working, raising families, engaging in civic activities, and that there is no reason to worship them as war heroes, well then I guess that’s hate in your book. At least with the draft, one could make a credible argument that soldiers deserved some special consideration because they were forced to serve. However, all the post-draft enlistees are just doing a job like all the rest if us. I don t fault them for it. If I was young and had few skills it would be an attractive job choice. The pay is good and the benefits are superb; and there is the possibility of seeing a little bit of the world as well. I just don’t like it when politicians are forced to always say they do it to “serve” the country. The fact that veterans have higher unemployment rates post service than those who never served just shows they had few skills when they went in and are the same coming out. I mean, there isn’t much demant for an M1 Abrams tank driver or gunner in the civilian world now is there.

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