Excerpt from “The Atlantic” ongoing series looking back at 1968
The Battle of Khe Sanh began 50 years ago when roughly 20,000 North Vietnamese troops surrounded an isolated combat base held by roughly 5,500 Marines. The marines could not be reinforced or resupplied except by air, and the enemy had attacked during monsoon season, when the weather would limit flights. General William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, ordered them to fight to hold the base rather than evacuate.The North Vietnamese hoped to repeat the sort of victory won years earlier at Dien Bien Phu, when similarly besieged French forces were overrun and slaughtered.
President Johnson followed the 77- day ordeal with a scale model of the battlefield in the Oval Office.
The public read about the besieged marines in newspapers as the fighting unfolded: the Marines bombarded by artillery and reliant on resupply from aircraft that came under heavy fire on approach and departure.
The Marines ultimately held the base at a cost of 274 killed. 2,500 were wounded. Thousands of Vietnamese fighters were killed.