The U.S. command in Saigon confirms that U.S. forces have begun to evacuate the military base at Khe Sanh, 14 miles below the Demilitarized Zone and six miles from the Laotian border. The command statement attributed the pullback to a change in the military situation. To cope with increased North Vietnamese infiltration and activity in the area, Allied forces were adopting a more “mobile posture,” thus making retention of the outpost at Khe Sanh unnecessary. The new western anchor of the U.S. base system in the northern region would be located 10 miles east of Khe Sanh.
The siege of Khe Sanh during the 1968 Tet Offensive had been one of the most publicized battles of the war because of the similarities it shared with the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, in which the communist Viet Minh forces had decisively defeated the French and forced them from the war. Many in the American media had portrayed the battle for Khe Sanh as potentially “another Dien Bien Phu.”
The battle began on January 22 with a brisk firefight involving the 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines and a North Vietnamese battalion entrenched between two hills northwest of the base. An incessant barrage kept Khe Sanh’s Marine defenders–which included three battalions from the 26th Marines, elements of the 9th Marine Regiment, and the South Vietnamese 37th Ranger Battalion–pinned down in their trenches and bunkers. During the 66-day siege, U.S. planes, dropping 5,000 bombs daily, exploded the equivalent of five Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs in the area. The relief of Khe Sanh, called Operation Pegasus, began in early April as the 1st Cavalry (Airmobile) and a South Vietnamese battalion approached the base from the east and south, while the Marines pushed westward to re-open Route 9.
The siege was finally lifted on April 6, when the cavalrymen linked up with the 9th Marines south of the Khe Sanh airstrip. In a final clash a week later, the 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines drove enemy forces from Hill 881 North. Gen. William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. Military Assistance Command Vietnam, contended that Khe Sanh played a vital blocking role at the western end of the Demilitarized Zone, and asserted that if the base had fallen, North Vietnamese forces could have outflanked Marine defenses along the buffer zone. Various statements in the North Vietnamese Communist Party newspaper suggested that Hanoi saw the battle as an opportunity to re-enact its famous victory at Dien Bien Phu.
There was much controversy over the battle at Khe Sanh, as both sides claimed victory. The North Vietnamese, although they failed to take the base, claimed that they had tied down a lot of U.S. combat assets that could have been used elsewhere in South Vietnam. This is true, but the North Vietnamese failed to achieve the decisive victory at Khe Sanh that they had won against the French at Dien Bien Phu. For their part, the Americans claimed victory because they had held the base against the North Vietnamese onslaught. It was a costly battle for both sides. The official casualty count for the Battle of Khe Sanh was 205 Marines killed in action and over 1,600 wounded (this figure did not include the American and South Vietnamese soldiers killed in other battles in the region). The U.S. military headquarters in Saigon estimated that the North Vietnamese lost between 10,000 and 15,000 men in the fighting at Khe Sanh.