The main mission and reason to reoccupy Khe Sanh was to build a forward base capable of supplying the two ARVN Divisions who would cross into Laos and “cut” the Ho Chi Minh Trail. That meant a new C-130 capable airstrip. In the interim, supplies would be sent by chopper in to the existing and damaged strip that was parallel.
We started clearing the grasses and the surface immediately upon return from opening QL9 (the land route from Quang Tri) to the plateau. It was a joke to think that the small airmobile earth-moving equipment that I had could handle this size job – a great deal of cut and fill would be needed to make an air strip.) We would be reinforced by construction equipment from a real Army Corps Engineer Battalion (27th Engineers) that was brought in over QL9 – but as far as I understood they continued to work for, and were under the command of TF 326 (our 101st Abn Div engineer task force).
We supervised some work and my guys dug in the infantry and our own men on the perimeter. It was dicey as we kept encountering marine anti-tank mines. We would blow those in our way in place.
One of my most frightening exercises turned out to be trying to locate a water point. We wanted to try to limit sling loads coming in to us so, if we had a water point, we could cut that a bit. We noticed on the map what appeared to be a stream on the south side of our position. I sent a small dozer (M450) to cut a path through the high grass. Soon, my guys called that the operator had come on barbed wire with a mine warning sign (triangle). Only problem was that the sign pointed the wrong way – the dozer was in the mine field!
I went to the path the dozer had cut. Sure enough, we could see some mines that had been unearthed with time just off the track marks. I walked out to the dozer stepping on the track marks and climbed on. We called for a Medivac chopper to be in the area with a jungle penetrator (hoist to take us up) if things went wrong, and we started to back the dozer out –exactly as he had entered. We made it, but no water point.
We then went off the plateau a bit to the east and found a waterfall! We (me and two of my guys) decided to take a shower. As we soaped up, out of the jungle came some black clad Vietnamese. Turned out they were ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) Rangers – but I tightened up a bit as we were several feet from our weapons.
At the east end of the new airstrip, we encountered more mines and debris. I had the job to clear a path and we decided to use several boxes of bangalor torpedoes. These were pole-like charges linked together and pushed along the ground across a barrier. You probably remember them from the movie “The Longest Day” used to breach a barrier and get the troops and Robert Mitchum off the beach.
We set quite a few charges. About this time, a flag officer from 5th Mech landed about 200 meters from our site. We asked that they move the chopper, but they said it was clear of our work – and it was for the bangalors. So, we gave our warnings, popped red smoke, and set things off. Boy, did we ever! The explosion apparently included a lot of rounds left and buried by the Marines in 1968 in unmarked ammo storage. The blast looked like a nuclear bomb had gone off with a mushroom cloud and all. Choppers were veering left and right, and the general’s radios had been knocked out of the mounts in his chopper by the concussion. We slinked back into the high grass.
The work continued nonstop as the ARVN invasion (Lam Son 719) was to start with or without the base. We completed the dirt strip in four days, having compaction problems with the very moist laterite soil, as the monsoon had just begun to end. The Air Force brought in the first C-130.
It landed but at the end of the runway the soil turned plastic (permanently deformed) as the wheels sunk a bit. To get the aircraft off we had to turn it using dozers and cables. The AF was NOT HAPPY. It was clear we had to do a surface treatment to spread the load more evenly and the decision was made to use matting (MX-19) to stabilize the surface. It was trucked in along QL9 — all the aluminum matting in country, and it seemed that all of the available trucks were used to haul it. We got to lay it down.
We started at the center and had to precisely lay the first rows perfectly perpendicular to the center line of the strip (as any angle other than 90 degrees would take the extended matting as it was laid off the runway at the ends). We then worked towards the two ends. We had three platoons and other operators, so we made two teams and worked round the clock trying to beat each other to the end.
We did not complete before the ARVN invasion, so everything was initially brought in by helicopter – literally hundreds of Hooks and Cranes (large helicopters CH-47s and CH-54s). The ground dried a bit and the dust was unreal. I lost my goggles (used for airmobile operations) early on and essentially “sand blasted” my corneas. I still have effects.
The air cavalry was based at the old Marine strip. They came in with Cavalry hats and spurs and a lot of bravado. They were impressive. Lam Son 719 kicked off and the situation turned badly. We were told the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) had placed radar controlled .51 caliber guns in triangular positions. No matter how they were attacked, by Army gunships or AF jets, the attacker was broadside to a machine gun. The Cav took heavy casualties and the hats and spurs our cav guys initially sported disappeared. A more somber tone prevailed.
Our project got a firsthand look. We had finished almost half the matting when we got a call that an observation fixed wing pilot was pretty shot up and was going to try to land. His aircraft was a small piper cub type and he landed in a few hundred feet and taxied to us. The plane was full of holes and the tail section held together by no more than a wire. He was glad to see our partially completed strip and walked away!
(Let me add a word about my experience with the “American” press in country. I never saw an American. We did have TV film crews at Khe Sanh after a while. They were all Thai or Vietnamese, or some other Asian ethnic background. I asked a division officer about it. He said the US press guys usually stayed back in the cities at this time in the war where there were hotels and added their piece from a hotel garden of brush as if they were on the line. We did not seem to have the brave guys that were on the ground in 1967 like Galloway.)
During the initial invasion my platoon was sent one afternoon when we were resting from the construction job forward towards the old Special Forces camp at Lang Vei to put in an LZ (landing zone) fuel site to help alleviate the traffic at Khe Sanh. Lang Vei still had burned out hulls of old Soviet tanks from the battles in 1968. We created the LZ and storage areas for fuel – and set them up.
We were then directed to stand by to assist as necessary to cut out any downed pilots with an aero-rifle platoon from the 101st (infantry troops assigned to the cav unit) commanded by my classmate Harrison “H” Lobdell. Again, it was like old times. An ARVN Ranger platoon would go in, if the pilot went down in Laos. You see American troops were to stay on the Vietnam side of the border (except pilots and engineers, I guess). Never was sure where that border was. Anyway, we sat for a while at the LZ and then returned to Khe Sanh.
When the airfield was completed, the C-130s started to come in. My relief platoon arrived with them. We got to load up on a C-130 with our gear and flew out to Phu Bai. The whole thing lasted about three weeks for me. Lam Son 719 turned even more badly for the ARVN. They ended up losing most of two divisions (each had over 10,000 men), our guys ended up getting shelled at Khe Sanh from probably the same positions the NVA used in 1968. We did not stay.
My attitude towards the whole Army thing was a bit jaded by now. And the next incident reflects my belief I was getting out after five years (new class motto – Army No More in 74). When we got to Camp Eagle and our engineer Sea Bee camp, we got the first real showers in weeks. My fatigues could literally stand by themselves. I went last with my NCOs and as we soaped up the water was turned off. I was told my current CO had ordered it to conserve water and power – apparently, we had exceeded our time allotment. I was furious and stormed up the hill to his CP in soap and a towel. I asked why the showers had been turned off and he reiterated the “battalion policy.” I told him we had no idea. He told me that was our problem. I got rather heated and told him what I thought of it – and that if the water was not on in five minutes he and any other consummate REMF (Rear Echelon Mother F$#@%), might find out what real combat was like.
Someone intervened (the First Sergeant, I think) and the water was turned on. The CO gave me a benefit of the doubt this time and did not charge me with anything, but we never really clicked after that to say the least.