February 5, 2018 by oriskany
We’re back, Beasts of War, for Part Three in our series marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Tet Offensive. Considered the decisive turning point in the Vietnam War, the Tet Offensive saw communist forces launch a massive wave of surprise attacks all across South Vietnam, timed for the “Tet” New Year holiday.
So far, in Part One we took a quick look at the background of the Vietnam War and sketched out communist plans and objectives for the Tet Offensive. In Part Two we looked at the preliminary moves and some of the opening attacks (January 30th and 31st, 1968), specifically around the capital city of South Vietnam, Saigon.
So far, these attacks had been launched by the National Liberation Front (NLF, commonly known as the Viet Cong), primarily against targets defended by the US Army or South Vietnamese ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam). But there was another series of battles further north, near the border between South and North Vietnam.
This was the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), where most of the fighting took place between units of the United States Marine Corps and the PAVN (People’s Army of Vietnam), often called the NVA for short. These battles were dramatically different, and require a different approach on the tabletop.
These Tet Offensive battles are some of the most famous in the Vietnam War, including the siege of the Marine combat base at Khe Sanh (probably the longest single engagement of the war), and the intense urban street fight in Hue City, so vividly depicted in the Stanley Kubrick movie: Full Metal Jacket.
We’ll also take a look at the NVA attack on the Green Beret special forces base at Lang Vei, one of the more unusual battles in the Vietnam War in that it saw the NVA make concentrated use of tanks, the first time they’d done so in Vietnam.
The Siege Of Khe Sanh
The Marines’ Longest Hour
When the Tet Offensive struck, American commanders had actually been expecting something of a communist offensive. They were totally wrong about where the attack would come, however, and a big reason for this misjudgement was probably the pitched battle already in progress at a place called Khe Sanh.
Khe Sanh was one of a string of fortified “combat bases” built along the DMZ, manned primarily by US Marine Corps units, defending against NVA divisions across the border in North Vietnam. Far to the west along Route 9, Khe Sanh was particularly isolated because it was also stood close to where the Ho Chi Minh Trail passed through Laos.
The Marines at Khe Sanh had been fighting NVA units in the surrounding hills for months, and the base itself had been under full-scale attack for nine days. Accordingly, when intelligence clues hinted at a major communist offensive, Americans assumed it would be an NVA ground invasion, with Khe Sanh as a likely first target.
Of course, we now know that the Tet Offensive would strike practically everywhere in South Vietnam, with the Viet Cong putting special focus on population centres like Saigon. However, the NVA was launching major operations of its own, like an assault on nearby Hue City, the special forces camp at Lang Vei, and continued attacks at Khe Sanh.
For Vo Nguyen Giap (the general who’d beaten the French in 1954), Khe Sanh held special importance. He’d seen how surrounding and smashing an elite enemy force on the fortified ground had broken their nation’s will to fight. If it had worked with French paratroopers at Dien Bien Phu and therefore it might work with US Marines at Khe Sanh.
Giap enacted a similar strategy. Three full NVA divisions, upwards of 20,000 men and hundreds of pieces of artillery, surrounded the Marine combat base and 3000+ foot airstrip. Savage battles took place on the hills around Khe Sanh, both sides determined to hold the high ground that would give their artillery a massive advantage.
Soon, Route 9 was severed and Khe Sanh was cut off and then subjected to ceaseless artillery barrages. At the height of the siege, no fewer than 1300 high-calibre artillery shells hit Khe Sanh in a single day. A desperate and costly effort to reinforce and supply Khe Sanh by air was undertaken, involving hundreds of aircraft and great risk.
The American leadership and media became obsessed with the fate of Khe Sanh. By the time the seventy-seven-day siege finally ended, President Johnson had a scale model of the base built in his situation room. General Westmoreland, the US commander in Vietnam, would propose the use of chemical or even nuclear weapons to save the base.
For players looking to recreate the battle, Khe Sanh presents some unusual challenges. Although the NVA spent weeks digging trenches that crept ever closer to the Khe Sanh perimeter, the long-dreaded all-out infantry assault never came. However, intense battles were fought for the surrounding hilltops.
Long ranged (i.e., off-board) artillery played a huge role on both sides. The NVA used 130mm and even 152mm guns firing all the way from Laos. The Marines not only had their own immediate artillery at Khe Sanh but also fire support from other combat bases like the 175mm howitzers firing from Camp Carroll.
Another key element is air power – quite literally the heaviest, most concentrated use of tactical air support in the history of warfare. At their height, Marine and Navy airstrikes on NVA positions surrounding Khe Sanh reached 400 a day. This is on a field only a few miles wide, where a single fighter carried more tonnage than a World War II B-17.
Then there were the USAF B-52s. Based out of Thailand, Guam, and Okinawa, these “Arc Light” strikes were part of “Operation Niagara”, which had three bombers over Khe Sanh every ninety minutes. They flew so high that no one ever saw or heard the bombers, only acres of countryside abruptly vaporizing in hundreds of shattering explosions.
Despite all this, there were direct NVA attacks on some parts of the Khe Sanh perimeter. One came on February 8th, elements of the NVA 101D Regiment hit Outpost Alpha-1, sparking a furious infantry battle. Another came when the NVA 66th Regiment hit the 37th ARVN Ranger Battalion, South Vietnamese troops flown in to reinforce the Marines.
By March 1968, the NVA realized they weren’t taking Khe Sanh. In April, the US Army 1st AirCav division started clearing Route 9, soon reaching Khe Sanh, lifting the siege and ending the battle. The Marines losses amounted to 205 killed, 800+ wounded. The NVA losses at were at least 2500, although, with those Arc Light strikes, we’ll probably never know for sure.
Assault On Lang Vei
Tanks In The Wire!
Just a few miles from Khe Sanh, even closer to the Laotian border and the Ho Chi Minh Trail, was the small special forces base of Lang Vei. Soon after the Tet Offensive began, Lang Vei was also subjected to a direct NVA assault, prompting a battle very unusual for the Vietnam War, and perhaps very interesting for the table top.
Lang Vei was a much smaller base than Khe Sanh, garrisoned by twenty-six American Green Berets, (“C” Company, 5th Special Forces Group) and ARVN special forces, supported by about 400 “Montagnards.” These were local fighters of the Hre and Bru mountain tribes, trained by the Green Berets as guerrillas against the communist Vietnamese.
During the days leading up to Tet, these Green Berets and their allies detected unmistakable signs that the NVA was about to launch a major offensive. Among these were reports of tanks, both from an NVA deserter and actually finding tank tracks in the jungle. But the reports were dismissed by HQ, as the NVA had never used tanks before.
That all changed a little after midnight on 6th February, 1968, when the 198th Tank Battalion (203rd Armoured Regiment), hit the Lang Vei base from three sides. The tanks were backed up by infantry of the 24th Regiment / 304th Division (led by NVA Colonel Le Cong Phe, commanding the assault) and units of 101D Regiment / 325C Division.
The NVA tanks were Soviet-built PT-76s, light amphibious tanks that don’t seem very impressive when matched against Centurions, M48s, or Leopard Is of the period. But against light infantry armed only with small arms, the warning call that the enemy had “tanks in the [barbed] wire!” was nothing short of terrifying.
The Green Berets were also let down somewhat by their equipment. Fearing imminent attack by NVA armour, the Americans had brought in 100 of the new M72 LAW (Light Anti-tank Weapon). This was a one-shot, shoulder-fired, disposable antitank rocket. This would be one of the first times the new LAWs were being used.
But even against the thin armour of the PT-76, including hits on the flank, the LAW proved incapable of penetrating the NVA tanks. The Americans had better luck with a 106mm recoilless rifle which took out three NVA tanks before being overrun (this brave gunner was listed as MIA until his remains were finally identified in 2015).
The Montagnard tribesmen took the worst losses, often as they tried to break out of the imploding perimeter. Soon Lang Vei was completely overrun, with only a handful of Green Berets cut off in the underground tactical operations centre (TOC). Other Montagnard militia were persuaded to surrender, only to be immediately executed by the NVA.
The battle now became a question of getting those trapped Green Berets to freedom. Sergeant First Class Eugene Ashley put together a force of American survivors and troops from the Royal Laotian Army to try a rescue, but these attempts failed and Ashley was killed. He’d be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
Finally, Captain Frank Willoughby led the handful of American survivors in their own breakout, escaping under cover of air strikes mounted by Douglas A-1 Skyraiders. The planes were told to make three attacks with bombs and rockets, then fly dry runs to keep NVA head down long enough for the Americans to make their escape.
Exhausted and wounded, the Green Berets only made it because ARVN Lieutenant Quy drove a jeep through a hail of NVA fire to give them a ride to the LZ, where a CH-46 helicopter could take them to Khe Sanh and relative safety (remember that Khe Sanh itself was still under heavy artillery fire at the time).
War Across The DMZ
Meanwhile, the NVA was also making hard pushes at targets further east. One of the biggest of these was Hue City, the old Imperial capital of Vietnam. Seized by surprise NVA assault, the city now had to be retaken by USMC, ARVN, and US Army troops in one of the most brutal street battles of the Vietnam War.
Come back next week as we take a look at the Battle of Hue, one the key parts of the big American and South Vietnamese push-back to retake everything the Viet Cong and NVA had seized at the Tet Offensive’s outset.
Meanwhile, post your comments, questions, and input below. Whether larger battles like Khe Sanh or smaller skirmishes like Lang Vei, have you tried Vietnam-themed games, in Flames of War, Charlie Don’t Surf, or Force-on-Force?
What features do you bring to your games to give it a Vietnam element?
"These Tet Offensive battles are some of the most famous in the Vietnam War, including the siege of the Marine combat base at Khe Sanh..."
"...the warning call that the enemy had “tanks in the [barbed] wire!” was nothing short of terrifying"