This year the U.S. Marine Corps commemorates 55 years since the Battle of Khe Sanh, which lasted from January 21 to March 31, 1968.
In early 1968, Khe Sanh Combat Base gained world-wide attention as the roughly 6,000 Marines defending the base were encircled and besieged by three North Vietnamese Army regiments of about 20,000 troops. For 77 days, the Marines and their South Vietnamese counterparts, with support from an element of U.S. Army soldiers and U.S. Air Force bombers, would endure one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War.
Among the Marines defending the base was U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Ronald Echols, who was serving with Company M, 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines, 3rd Marine Division on Hill 881 South.
“We had Marines at Hill 661, and we had Marines at a radio relay tower, which was on Hill 950, and my company was on 881S,” said Echols. “There was two 881s, one 881 South and 881 North, we maintained those hills because we wanted to keep the high ground away from the North Vietnamese that overlooked Khe Sanh.”
North Vietnamese forces conducted a massive artillery bombardments on Khe Sanh, located just 10 miles from the Sepon River, which marked the border between Laos and South Vietnam.
“I remember that during dawn it would still be foggy and as soon as the fog burned up, they would start hitting us with mortars and artillery. If there was daylight, we would get hit,” Echols said.
Due to the constant attacks from the PAVN, Marines at Khe Sanh faced significant supply challenges, but their training helped them find ways to capture water and overcome the lack of supplies.
“For the first 30 days they couldn’t get us resupplied; seven helicopters got shot down bringing supplies into us,” said Echols. “We went nine days one time without anything to eat. Fortunately, with the thick fog, we were able to spread plastic down the hill and catch condensation. We needed to have about two 12 oz. cans of water to last until the next morning, but guys were still dehydrated, they weren’t getting enough to drink.”
“You get a bond with your fellow Marines that’s indescribable. I’ve got two brothers, but I’ve never had with them the bond I had with the guys I was in combat with. They were my brothers.” U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Ronald Echols, who was serving with Company M, 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines, 3rd Marine Division
During the siege, Marines created an air delivery method called a “super gaggle” to provide supplies to areas cut off from land supply routes after several aircraft were lost during resupply missions. The super gaggle method coordinated air and artillery strikes to occur simultaneously during resupply missions, providing a shield for aircraft delivering much needed ammunition, food, water and evacuating the wounded.
“The airwing came up with the idea they could come in and bring jets in and bomb, then come around the hill, put up a smoke screen, and then the helicopters would come in five-at-a-time with the resupplies; they looked like geese coming through there, so they called it the super gaggle, and that’s how they started getting us resupplied,” said Echols.
Echols added that helicopters often had just 20 seconds to land, and evacuate the wounded and get airborne before the mortar attacks resumed. Echols also remembers the air support provided by American bombers and how close they were to his positions on Hill 881S.
“We had a couple of North Vietnamese soldiers surrender. We asked them why they surrendered, and they just pointed up to the sky,” said Echols. “You can’t just imagine what these B-52s do. They called it an Arc Light, and they would just drop hundreds of bombs out of one plane, and there was three or four planes at one time. It was just devastating.”
By the end of the battle, U.S. Air Force assets had flown more than 9,000 sorties and dropped 14,223 tons of bombs on targets within the Khe Sanh area.
It would not be until April 14, 1968, that Marines from 3rd Marine Division, soldiers from the US Army 1st Cavalry Division and South Vietnamese soldiers would be able to break through and push back NVA forces from the area. Khe Sanh would continue to see combat until the end of July 1968, after which the base was destroyed and abandoned by American forces.
“On April 14 my company moved off of the hill, and they had showers set up outside for us,” said Echols. “You get a bond with your fellow Marines that’s indescribable. I’ve got two brothers, but I’ve never had with them the bond I had with the guys I was in combat with. They were my brothers.”
Echols received a battlefield commission and a Bronze Star for his actions during the Battle of Khe Sanh. According to his Bronze Star Medal citation, “on numerous occasions, Staff Sgt. Echols served as a platoon commander, a billet normally assigned to a commissioned officer, and repeatedly disregarded his own safety to maneuver his unit against the enemy. While his company was three deployed on Hill 881 South during the siege of Khe Sanh, he worked tirelessly to ensure the safety and welfare of his men despite constant North Vietnamese mortar and artillery fire.”
(1st Lt. Isaac Lamberth and MC1 Pedro Rodriguez contributed to this story)
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Author: Petty Officer 1st Class Pedro Rodriguez