50 years ago, US troops bunkered down for the Vietnam War’s most infamous siege — here’s how the Battle of Khe Sanh unfolded

Khe Sanh Marine Snipers

January 21 marked the 50th anniversary of the start of the Battle of Khe Sanh. The battle started with around 20,000 men from the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) fighting against some 6,000 US Marines and South Vietnamese Army soldiers.

As the battle continued, up to 45,000 US soldiers, and up to 100,000 NVA troops would take part in the brutal 77-day fight. 24,000 airstrikes dropped more than 100,000 tons of bombs — roughly 5 tons for every one NVA soldier. The NVA fired over 10,000 rockets, mortars, and artillery rounds — 360 a day on average, and 1,300 during the heaviest bombardment.

Combat was so intense that the Khe Sanh Combat Base was completely surrounded and cut off, leaving the only way to resupply the base by air. 

There are still debates about the true number of casualties, but estimates range that 1,000 to 3,500 US soldiers died, and a secret report from the US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, estimated that only 5,500 NVA troops were killed.

Both sides claimed victory; the siege was eventually broken in April of 1968 and US forces continued operations in the area after the battle, but the Khe Sanh Combat Base was destroyed, the Americans withdrew, and the McNamara Line was terminated.

Here’s one of the largest and bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War unfolded over 77 days:

SEE ALSO: 73 years ago, the Allies beat back the Nazis’ last major western offensive — here are 16 photos from the Battle of the Bulge

Khe Sanh was just 8-10 miles from Laos, an extremely important part of the Ho Chi Minh trail, which made the Khe Sanh Combat Base an important outpost because it could disrupt the flow of NVA weapons, troops, and supplies into South Vietnam.

The Khe Sanh Combat Base was home to some 6,000 US Marines and a couple hundred Rangers from the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). It was the closest US base to the Laotian border in Quảng Trị Province, and the Westernmost American stronghold near the Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone.

The Khe Sanh Combat Base, seen here in the lower left, was just one of a number of US Military bases.

The other bases, Rock Pile, Camp Carroll, and Ca Lu were manned by American and ARVN personnel. They became essential as their artillery helped fend off NVA attacks.

The NVA battle plan called for the encirclement of the Khe Sanh Combat Base with artillery, cutting off of Route 9 to prevent American supplies and reinforcements, and mass infantry attacks on the base from all directions. NVA tanks were also to be used- something that was rare at this point in the war.

The artillery attacks continued for 77 days straight. The bombardment was so intense that the base’s main ammunition dump exploded.

“There was wreckage thrown everywhere,” 1st LT/ Paul Elkan later said. “Vehicles were smashed, windshields shattered, blown tires- tents were shredded, pieces of gear, and torn sandbags were everywhere. What had been a combat base looked like rubble.”

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