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Note: The following article is excerpted from the book KHE SANH: Siege in the Clouds, Tet 1968 by Eric Hammel. The book is currently available in a $32.95 trade paperback edition published by Pacifica Military History. It is also available in an Kindle edition.


by Eric Hammel

Copyright 1989 © by Eric Hammel


February 23, 1968

Bravo Battery, 1/13 ———————————————————————

The sound of incoming is like no other in the world. We had ample opportunities to hear it, learn it, adjust to it, and finally to live with it. From descriptions of battles during World War II and Korea, we at Khe Sanh got an inkling of what our fathers experienced. It was a constant reminder, that even though we were in a very picturesque mountain valley, somebody did not want us there. There were a lot of men who had fears of dying. And there were plenty of chances. Like the day and night the base took over 1,300 rounds of incoming.

26th Marines Regimental Aid Station ————————————————

Another corpsman and I were topside at the entrance to our bunker, talking with a couple of guys across the road, when we heard boomp. We went below and soon we heard the round hit close. The two guys we had been talking to took a direct hit. All that was left was pieces of two bodies.

Bravo Company, 1/26 ——————————————————————

Lieutenant Kim Johnson was our 1st Battalion supply officer. He was handsome, even with glasses, tall, articulate, a practicing Mormon married to a former Miss Arizona who was going to school in Hawaii while she awaited his return. He had the option of running the supply end of things at Phu Bai—the battalion “rear”—but he sent his gunnery sergeant there instead so he could remain with his men. The guys at battalion supply noticed the “funny” underwear he wore—lower-body armor. He referred to it as “anti-mortar and -rocket skivvies.” He would have quiet religious discussions with his men from time to time. They loved him.

The last week of February was the “peak” of the siege. On February 23, we absorbed the record for the whole siege—[1,307] rockets and artillery rounds in a twenty-four-hour period. That afternoon, during the scariest barrage of rockets imaginable, LCpl James Jesse and I were in our house, hugging the sandbags, quietly acknowledging the absolute fear in each other’s eyes. The explosions were constant as they mounted to a head-splitting crescendo of head-splitting, knee-knocking sound. I can’t adequately describe the terror I felt that afternoon. We should have been used to this, right?

Lieutenant Johnson was in his bunker, not far from mine, along with the battalion motor-transport officer. An explosion that knocked Jesse and me off our butts was a direct hit on the lieutenants’ hooch. I looked out and saw the battalion supplymen scrambling out of their holes, so, over Jesse’s protests, I ran across the road to help. The supplymen all yelled at me, “Get back. We’ll handle it. Go on!” There were four or five guys there already, throwing boards and sandbags aside like madmen, machines, so I went back. During the next lull, one of the supplymen came over to our hooch. He was the picture of dejection and despair. He told us that Lieutenant Johnson was dead from a broken back. There were no other visible wounds. The motor-transport officer had been carried to the aid station; his legs looked so bad that everyone thought he’d lose them.

When the supplyman left, I just sat there staring. Something inside me had snapped. Jesse said, “Smitty, you’re pale and you’re shaking. Have a Salem.” Right there, I started up a four-pack-a-day habit. The incoming did not stop, but it became a little more irregular. I was still sitting and staring when my eyes went to a little leather-bound Bible I kept on a shelf. On an impulse, I flipped it open with my right index finger. I was numbly looking at the 91st Psalm, verse five. Then verses six and seven. I was not feeling any comfort. All I could think was, “Why the lieutenant? Why him?”

They had told us in boot camp not to make friends with anyone we went into combat with, because if he was wasted you ran the risk of coming unglued and losing your battle effectiveness. Good advice, but impossible to follow. We depended on each other too much not to become friends.

26th Marines Assistant Logistics Officer ———————————————

One of the incoming rounds hit the ammo dump and created a low-order explosion that set the dump on fire. The fire kept getting hotter and hotter and, finally, the dump blew. I saw all that stuff going up in the air. It was one of the most amazing sights I had seen in my life, all those mortar rounds, hand grenades—you name it—just going up into the sky. I stood there and watched, totally amazed. Then it suddenly occurred to me that all that stuff was going to come back down. As a matter of fact, it had already started back down. I was about twenty or thirty yards from a bunker. I took off running and just barely got in there when I started hearing all that stuff hitting the ground. It blew mortar rounds a mile from the dump. A helicopter pilot who happened to be flying near Hill 881S at the time told me that he thought it was an atomic blast, because there was a 1,400-foot fireball.

26th Marines Command Chronology ————————————————

Enemy incoming caused a fire in ASP-1. Fire equipment responded, but at 1705, the ammo began to cook off. The fire destroyed 1,000 rounds of 90mm high explosive, 500 rounds of 106mm Beehive, and 120 rounds of 90mm canister ammunition.

26th Marines Assistant Logistics Officer ———————————————

We had to have EOD people come up from Danang and clean the whole thing up. It was quite a mess. It made my job a little tougher, too, because I had to get all that stuff inventoried and reordered.

106mm Platoon, 3/26 ——————————————————————

The rounds just kept coming in, kept coming in. There was such a concentration of artillery hitting us! Usually, when artillery came in, we just sat in our living bunker and played cards. We just played chicken with the regular incoming, sitting in the living bunker. When it got real heavy, we would usually jump into the trenchline, which was a smaller target. But that particular day, it was coming in so heavy that three of us hid out in the machine-gun bunker, which was tiny. We were just hugging the ground, afraid. I had never smoked in my life, but that day I did. I did a lot of praying, too. Every once in a while, one of us had to stand up and look out to make sure Charlie wasn’t coming. We knew this was Dienbienphu. This was the day. One time, when I was looking out of the hole, a round came in real close. Dirt and rocks and stuff pounded me right in the face. I thought I was hit. I felt my face and thought aloud, “Oh, God, I’m hit.” One of my buddies thought it was comical. “Damn,” he said, “you ain’t hit.”

26th Marines Regimental Aid Station ————————————————

Two Marines escorted a gunnery sergeant into the regimental aid station. He came in shaking, wouldn’t talk, had both hands holding his helmet down on his head, and every time a round hit he would shake. He was, of course, suffering from shell shock, but it surprised me, because here was this tough Marine gunnery sergeant—been through all kinds of shit—and this makes him crack. I realized then that shell shock can happen to anybody.

1/26 Battalion Chaplain ——————————————————————

[Diary Entry] Went by the new operating-room bunker, visiting all the wounded who kept coming in during the afternoon. One had a blast wound on his foot. He was in bad pain, even with morphine. Another said his legs hurt no matter where he put them. He was also in intense pain and was given an injection of morphine, but it still hurt him. The doctor said it was broken and would continue to hurt.

More and more incoming.

The 106mm recoilless rifle bunker near us, where I had slept on February 7, took a direct hit, and in the trench adjacent to it, injuring one and killing four. I ran down there, through the internal barbed wire, with the Catholic chaplain. There were pieces of arms and bodies. One had no head; we couldn’t find it. There were small pieces of flesh all over the place. I knew them all intimately. . . . I took this very hard, but couldn’t cry. Parts of one man’s body hung out as I held him in my arms carrying him into the ambulance. A hand, an arm, a stringy piece of flesh intertwined with cloth and caked with mud. The 106mm recoilless rifle was completely untouched.

Returned to my bunker. The west wall, by my rack, was protruding in like it would collapse on my rack. Things inside had shifted. We had taken in the following incoming today: 476 rounds of artillery, 42 rounds of 60mm, 372 rounds of 82mm, 4 rounds of 120mm, 437 rounds of 122mm, and 5 rounds of recoilless rifle. Total, 1336. But Lieutenant Colonel Wilkinson reported (from the regimental briefing) a total of 1,407 rounds. Major Smith, CO of FOB-3, told me we had received 1,700 rounds of incoming, counting those that landed in his area.

Bravo Battery, 1/13 ———————————————————————

It was fortunate that the NVA gunners were short of fuses, because many rounds would have done considerably more damage if they had exploded. The rounds that were not fused were particularly eerie. They whistled. We knew they would not explode, but when they hit, they were like wrecking balls. No shrapnel damage, but what a hole! As it was, they dug up a lot of dirt and nothing more. When EOD dug them up, they found the lift lugs still in the rounds.

3/26 Assistant Operations Officer —————————————————

By sunset, I was physically and emotionally drained. All I wanted to do was go to sleep. The adrenalin had been going through me for hours and I was about to fall over.

At last, the bombardment died way, and I walked outside, through the remains of the trees that had once shielded the battalion CP from view. I meandered through the trees, looking at the stars and feeling life return to a landscape that resembled the surface of the moon. Then I went back inside and drew two cups of coffee from the perpetual urn. As I was handing one cup to Maj Matt Caulfield, I heard an observer up on Hill 881S announce on the battalion net, “Arty! Arty! Arty! Co Roc.” I instinctively hunched my head into my shoulders and wondered half-aloud, “So where’s this one going to hit?”

The next thing I knew, there was a tremendous explosion and all the lights went out. The bunker instantly was filled with dust and there was an immediate dead silence.

I think I was the first to speak—one of those dumb questions: “Is everybody okay?” It was dead dark in there, so I was immensely relieved to hear people say “Yeah, I’m okay,” and “I’m fine,” and “No sweat.” Everyone had had his brains rattled, but no one had been hurt.

There was just the one round. Until someone got our generator going again, there was nothing doing inside, so we all went out to see what had hit us. The round had come in on an angle, right between the trees, right through the tent we had erected to camouflage the bunker. It had hit the one-inch plywood outer shell and detonated—just the way we had hoped. There were six feet of earth, wood, rocks, and metal between us and the explosion, but the blast had blown off two feet of all those materials and had taken down the three-ply blast walls we had erected around the bunker.

Two Marines who had been exiting a tent just across the way were saved by the blast walls, which directed the full force of the blast outward in another direction. We found them flopping around on the ground, stunned but unscathed except for a a few tiny shrapnel wounds, hardly more than scratches.

We had taken a direct hit from a 152mm or 130mm round, but no one was permanently injured. It was a miracle of foresight and faith in our two main gods, Dirt and More Dirt.


Bravo Battery, 1/13 ———————————————————————

Bravo Battery pumped out over 1,250 rounds in reply. Bravo was really a battery and a half. That is, we controlled six 105mm howitzers of our own and three from Charlie Battery. So we combined our assets and created a nine-gun battery. During that very busy day and night, I had, at various times, five separate and distinct fire missions going simultaneously. To the everlasting credit of the Marine gunners on the line, they never missed a command or fired the wrong missions. In fact, Colonel Lownds personally came to our position the next day and thanked every Marine in the position for the superb fire support his regiment had received.


One of my more gruesome duties was identifying and tagging bodies to be sent back home. I kept thinking to myself, “This could be me.” I was thankful it wasn’t, but I felt bad, because I knew this was someone who had a family or friend who would grieve over him, someone who had a girlfriend or wife back home. All I could do, though, was zip up the bag and try to make it through without ending up like that.