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The Aerial Resupply of Khe Sanh

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Mike Peeler
  • 58th Airlift Squadron commander
Editor's Note: This is the second part of a historical summary on the Battle of Khe Sanh, and looks into how strategic air power contributed to the defense of the Khe Sanh base Jan. 21 - July 9, 1968. The author references multiple resources including Tactical Airlift by Ray L. Bowers, Air Power and the Fight for the Khe Sanh by Bernard C. Nalty, Khe Sanh: Keeping an Outpost Alive by U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Burl W. McLaughlin, and Vietman War: Battle of Khe Sanh by Kennedy Hickman.

It was January 1968 and the Marine outpost at Khe Sanh was under attack; 6,000 U.S. Marines and South Vietnamese Rangers were surrounded by an enemy force of nearly 20,000 and cut off from all overland resupply. Ninety-eight percent of the base's ammunition (almost 1,500 tons) was destroyed, along with six parked helicopters and a significant portion of the runway.

The Marine commander responsible for this sector of South Vietnam, Lt. Gen. Robert E. Cushman Jr., decided against clearing the enemy from the high ground that dominated Highway 9 (the remote base's only link to the outside world) because progress would have been too slow and casualties too numerous. The monumental task of resupplying the garrison and keeping the men alive was assigned to aviation.

While Marine helicopters struggled to consolidate forces, and fighter-bombers swarmed the hillsides, the naval construction detachment went to work repairing the runway. General McLaughlin's 834th Air Division tackled the problem of landing enough ammunition to enable the Marines to fight on despite the destruction of their stockpile.
It was a truly formidable task assigned to the largest plane that could use the damaged runway, the C-123 Provider.

The garrison had repaired only 2,000 feet of the 3,900-foot runway. The lighting system for night landings no longer worked, and each transport had to run a gauntlet of North Vietnamese .30- and .50-caliber machine guns, concealed on the hills and ridges around the base. Once on the ground, the enemy directed its mortars against the planes as they were being unloaded beside the damaged runway.

Even before the North Vietnamese encirclement, landing a C-130 at the jungle outpost of Khe Sanh was no easy task. Now ground-to-air fire proved closer on landing approach "than at any other time and place." By early February 1968, the runway had been repaired and daring C-130 aircrews continued delivering supplies to the embattled base. Nicknamed "mortar magnets" and "rocket bait" by the men on the ground, these heavy transports needed to find more efficient ways of offloading cargo.

The first modification was a procedure called "speed offloading" where the loadmaster would unlock pallets and release chains while pilots pushed up the power to taxi out from under the cargo. Similar to today's combat offload, this cut download time from ten minutes to less than one. As C-130 casualties continued to rise, leadership eventually forbade the four-engine aircraft from landing at Khe Sanh.

Airdrop became the first alternative, utilizing the container delivery system for the less bulky items. Despite radar guidance, weather and drop accuracy continued to hamper mission success. For larger items, such as heavy timber needed to fortify the base, the aircrews relied on the relatively new low altitude parachute extraction system (LAPES) or the ground proximity extraction system (GPES). Using these methods, pilots would bring the C-130 down the runway at 5 feet and 130 knots while the loadmaster either released an extraction chute that pulled the cargo out, or enabled a hook to catch a cable on the ground that extracted the goods.

Through the 11-week siege of Khe Sanh, the Marines suffered some of the heaviest fighting of the war, but were never routed out. The Air Force saw to it that supplies never dipped to a critical level, often delivering more than required. C-123 and C-130 airdrops continued until April 8, and Highway 9 was reopened for overland convoy on April 11.

Aerial resupply accounted for more than 1,100 missions during those critical days, delivering 12,400 tons of support via C-130, C-123, and C-7A aircraft. Although transport crews knew the hazards of the Khe Sanh missions, flight refusals were non-existent. Those Air Force personnel on the ground at Khe Sanh, as well as the crews that landed during the siege were awarded the Navy Presidential Unit Citation.

Ultimately, the success of the Khe Sanh aerial resupply was a product of absolute professionalism, flexible ingenuity and dogged determination. The actions taken by the tactical aircrew during this siege built upon the air mobility foundation of previous wars and set the standards for how we operate today.