In retrospect, U.S. Marines believe their successful 12-day operation of Hills 861 and 881 thwarted?
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Background: In retrospect, U.S. Marines believe their successful 12-day operation of Hills 861 and 881 thwarted what the North Vietnamese Army hoped would be a classic encirclement and subsequent destruction of large U.S. and South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) forces in the remove but important Khe Sanh valley near the Laotian border.
Marine ground forces, backed by well-coordinated marine air and artillery support, mauled two well-equipped North Vietnamese Army regiments of the 325th NVA Division in the action for control of the strategic points.
Official dispatches from the scene described the action as "one of the most critical to date in Vietnam." More than 550 enemy dead have been counted and probably more than 600 additional yet uncounted.
Action began in the high ground above Khe Sanh on April 24 when an enemy force struck a small unit of U.S. Marine riflemen and artillery observers on Hill 861 east of Hills 881 South and 881 North. Previous patrols in this area had encountered no significant enemy forces. However, once it was determined that the North Vietnamese forces were located in the high ground in strength, it became imperative for the Marines to drive them off these strategic points.
Khe Sanh has been an important outpost of U.S. Marines in this northwest corner of South Vietnam for some time because the Khe Sanh valley is believed to be an important infiltration route for the North Vietnamese Army units entering South Vietnam through the western portion of the DMZ, and around the DMZ through Laos.
Khe Sanh is isolated from other U.S. Marine position along the DMZ, and is situated in an area which favours the enemy because of the difficult terrain and because of the highland weather with frequent low visibility and sudden, gusty rain make air strikes difficult.
For these reasons, the Marines felt that the North Vietnamese Army forces were preparing strong defensive positions in the triangle of hills dominating the Khe Sanh valley to use as a base from which to strike the outpost at Khe Sanh,and then entrap the U.S. and ARVN forces.
But whatever the enemy plans, the U.S. Marines smashed them. During one of the fiercest days of battle - on May 1 - the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing flew more than 150 sorties in support of the rifle battalion fighting up the slopes of Hill 881N.
The operation built rapidly after the first contact on Hill 861 on April 24. Within hours, reinforcements from Khe Sanh joined the small force of riflemen and artillery observers. On the following day a command group from the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment of the 3rd Marine Division landed in Khe Sanh. On April 26, the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines, was airlifted into Khe Sanh by helicopters and C-130 transport aircraft.
On April 29 the Marines consolidated their positions on Hill 861 and hammered the two Hills 881 with artillery and air strikes. Early the following day, the two battalions launched a coordinated attack against Hills 881S and 881N. By nightfall elements of the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines held the high ground of the southern hill, but Marines of the 2nd Battalions, 3rd Marines still fought a series of dogged actions on the slopes of Hill 881N. Extensive air strikes and artillery firing continued throughout the night.
On May 1, Marines of the 2nd Battalion continued their battle toward the top of HILL 881N, against what was now estimated to be reinforced enemy regiment. The enemy fought from trenchlines, holes and timber-reinforced bunkers over which earth was piled, in some cases measuring three feet in depth. The battle for Hill 881N continued through the next four days.
By nightfall on May 3, Marines of the 2nd Battalion 3rd Marines had wrested control of Hill 881N from the enemy. For the next two days, however, mopping up operations continued on both hills. During his period the most significant action came on May 4 when Company E of the 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines--