Home is Where You Dig It

By Peter Brush


>From _Vietnam Generation_, Volume 4, Number 3-4, Summer-Fall,
1992, pp. 94-98. By Peter Brush


                      "Home Is Where You Dig It"1
             (Observations on Life at the Khe Sanh Combat Base)
          Men who received orders to Vietnam had certain expectations
     of the place, based on their general life experiences and their
     training. We expected to work hard, to be bored, to experience
     excitement and danger. It was reasonable to anticipate the
     tropical climate, periods of thirst and dreary food, being dirty
     and tired, and other aspects of a year-long camping trip. Everyone
     who participated in the siege of Khe Sanh likely had these
     expectations. I don't think these Marines expected that their
     problems would include dealing with rats, yet virtually everyone
     who wrote about Khe Sanh included descriptions of them.
          In 1962, the Special Forces were the first at Khe Sanh,
     arriving by truck.  Weapons specialist Frank Fowler made an
     observation about the place that would be repeated many times
     when he mentioned the rats. Noting the numbers present, he said,
               One time we went into the village and bought some
               metal rat traps because it was so bad. We were using
               mosquito nets on our bunks to keep the rats off. I
               remember one night there was a big metal rat trap
               with teeth on it. And I remember the first rat we got.
               When [the trap] snapped it woke me up. And then the
               rat started dragging the thing off!2
          Fowler was not to be envied his task of separating his live
     rat from the trap. A cornered rat will fight like a "cornered
     rat," and will attack its attacker.3
          The Marines joined up with the Special Forces and their rats
     in 1966. Colonel Tom Horne presided over the transformation of
     the Army position into the Marine Corps Khe Sanh Combat Base. He
     recalled, "My memory of that place is waking up with fifteen or
     twenty rats on the bed with me!"3 In 1967, when the buildup of
     forces on both sides began in earnest, the Roman Catholic
     chaplain of 3/26 ran into the furry Khe Sanh Welcome Wagon on his
     first night when a rat lost its footing on the dirt ledge of his
     bunker, fell on his chest, and bounced to the floor with a
           Initially the U.S. strategy for winning the war in Vietnam
     was merely one of attrition. In 1967, critics pointed out that
     attrition was an indication that the U.S. was losing the initiative
     in Vietnam, and not a strategy in itself. Consequently, when the
     NVA began moving large numbers of troops into I Corps in the
     summer of 1967, General Westmoreland made plans to engage them in
     large numbers, to apply massive firepower in a decisive
     engagement, to allow the U.S. to finally bask in the warm light
     at the end of the tunnel.
           Khe Sanh seemed like the place. Between twenty and forty
     thousand NVA surrounded five thousand Marines.6 Khe Sanh was in
     the mountainous area where North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and Laos
     came together. It was far from the heavily populated coastal
     plain, and the South Vietnamese government was not particularly
     active. This would minimize coordination problems with the ARVN
     and allow the application of air and artillery assets with the
     least possible number of civilian casualties. Most important of
     all was the fact that the NVA seemed willing to fight at Khe
          In a sense both sides besieged each other. The Marines
     could only be supplied by air and could not have evacuated the
     base without sustaining unacceptable casualties. The NVA were
     trapped by their military and political goals (whatever they
     might have been) and by the greatest application of air power in
          Even as late as December, 1967, Khe Sanh was considered
     relatively good duty, as those things went in Vietnam. I
     requested transfer there from a nearby fire base because Khe
     Sanh had a reputation for great physical beauty, few rocket and
     mortar attacks, and relatively comfortable living conditions.
     Aesthetically, Khe Sanh had it all - mountains, valleys, streams,
     triple canopy jungle in several shades of green, elephants and
     tigers. The local population were mostly tribal Bru Montagnards
     rather than ethnic Vietnamese.
          This good duty was more apparent than real, and at about
     5:00 a.m. on the morning of 21 January, 1968, a reconnaissance
     team radioed that a flight of rockets had been launched from a
     nearby hill and would land on the combat base. This initial
     attack was small by later standards, consisting of about one
     hundred 82 mm mortar shells and sixty 122 mm rockets.7 But
     fifteen minutes after the attack began, one rocket landed in the
     midst of the main ammunition storage area, with devastating
          This dump contained eleven thousand units of ordnance that
     immediately began burning.8 Red-hot artillery and recoilless
     rifle rounds were hurled into nearby trenches. CS tear gas was
     ignited and filled the entire area with gas as thick as fog.
     About 10:00 a.m. the fire set off a large quantity of C-4 plastic
     explosive and other explosives. At the airstrip all the
     navigational aids were destroyed, several helicopters were
     damaged or destroyed, living quarters for the Marine air group
     were destroyed, the control tower was rendered inoperative, and
     the runway was cratered. All this on the first day of incoming
     rocket, artillery, and mortar attacks that would continue for the
     next 76 days.
          The mess halls were immediately secured. In the atmosphere
     of flying metal it would not do for two hundred Marines to
     congregate in one place. C-rations were issued and the men took
     their meals in their bunkers. The rat population began to take
     off, and Khe Sanh took on the look of "a shanty slum on the
     outskirts of Manila."9 Continuous aerial bombardment, shelling
     and digging and bulldozing of positions filled the air with red
     dust. Smoke filled the air, smoke from incoming, from diesel
     generators, from burning latrines, from burning ordnance, from
     trash fires. Water was restricted, and few were able to bath
     regularly. The monsoon rain served to drive the rats inside the
     bunkers, where they "ran across the dirt floors, gnawing at
     shelves and boots and fingers, chittering in fear when the big
     guns fired, and sometimes scratching faces as they raced across
     sleeping Marines in the dark bunkers."10
          _Time_ magazine reported that the:
               rats became frantic under fire. When incoming starts,
               the rats race for the bunkers and wildly run up to the
               ceilings made of runway matting and logs.  One sergeant
               killed thirty-four rats, establishing a base record.11
          Ernest Spencer described the rats at Khe Sanh in
     _Welcome to Vietnam, Macho Man_:
               There were always rats at Khe Sanh. Not your
               stereotypical Asian variety of chopstick-using rat. Khe
               Sanh rats are snarling suckers with big heads. Having
               evolved in a jungle environment, those rats are capable
               of fighting anything.
               The rats began exerting themselves several breeding
               cycles into the siege. A rat jumps on my chest one
               night. On my back on my cot, I slap at him with my left
               hand while I try to shield my face with my right. He is
               grinning at me, I swear.
               Rats love the sandbag walls. Since the walls are
               several layers thick, the rats have a lot of room for
               their quarters. You can hear them in there screaming,
               eating, fucking, and kicking each others' asses. Rats
               are nasty - they are always fighting.
               Rats behave more logically during the siege than we
               do. They let their feelings out. You can hear them
               squeaking and going berserk during a barrage. Us macho
               men just sit there quietly and take it.12
          The floors of our bunkers were constructed of wooden
     pallets over dirt, and invariably food fell between the pallet
     slats, providing feed for the rats. Trash cans were emptied into
     drums placed in each unit area, to be collected and hauled to the
     base dump. As the supply of food at the dump increased, so, too, did
     the rat population, which then moved back into the base area.
          Initially there were only mouse traps at Khe Sanh, but they
     served more to irritate than kill the rats. Rat traps were
     requisitioned from supply and given a priority after ammunition,
     C-rations, mail, and personnel.
          As the incoming continued, the men were restricted to their
     underground quarters unless they had reason to be above ground.
     At night the rats would climb into trash cans to eat scraps from
     the C-rations. With smooth metal sides, these containers served as
     rat traps of sorts and in the morning the Marines would bludgeon
     them to death with tent poles, then throw them back in the trash.
          Ray Stubbe notes in _Valley of Decision_:
               Officially, base policy was to drown rats after
               killing them to kill the fleas which were infected with
               plague virus.  The animals couldn't be poisoned; local
               Bru children who helped fill sandbags and cleaned out
               the garbage dumps collected the rats, broke their legs,
               and put them in their pockets to take home. Later they
               would be eaten.13
          Eventually rat traps became available and were issued to
     each unit. My battery was allocated seven traps, which were
     baited with C-ration cheese or peanut butter. Morning after
     morning each trap yielded its victim, always seven full traps.
     After a few weeks we quit bothering with their traps, feeling
     that no progress was being made.
          The NVA constructed trenches ever closer to the perimeter of
     Khe Sanh, eventually putting them in a position to snipe at the
     garbage detail carrying trash to the dump. This resulted in
     cessation of the garbage detail. Trash began to pile up
     throughout the base, spreading food for the rats everywhere.
     The rat problem in the bunkers got worse. At first the rats
     seemed content to remain beneath the pallets. With time they
     became bolder and ventured around the bunker whenever the lights
     were put out. Finally we were forced to leave the lights on
     continually in an attempt to keep the rats off our cots and
          Life at Khe Sanh settled into a routine. One night in March
     my roommate and I were lying in their small bunker, reading by
     candlelight. About 10:00 p.m. Corporal Hawker put the candle out
     and settled into a casualty bag on top of his cot. Immediately
     he heard noises in front of him at ground level. Slowly,
     stealthily, Hawker grabbed a flashlight in one hand and an
     assault knife in the other. While he was getting into position to
     attack, the rat had silently climbed onto the cot, inches from
     Hawker's face. When the light snapped on, Hawker slashed empty
     air; and the startled rat ran across his face. Terrified, Hawker
     zipped the casualty bag up completely, then began thrashing to
     get back out, afraid he had trapped the rat inside the bag. The
     rat escaped, and I chuckled myself to sleep.
         As the NVA battered the base, supply problems became evident.
     Three C-ration meals per day were reduced to two. With only
     twelve different meals to chose from, meal time turned from a
     pleasant break in the daily routine into just another ordeal.
     Many of us quit bothering to heat our rations, concluding that
     the grease from roast beef and potatoes didn't taste worse
     than the gravy it would become if heated, only different. As
     stomachs shrunk with the reduced rations, it took more will power
     than many could muster to consume even two meals per day. Uneaten
     rations went into the trash, further increasing the rat
           NVA incoming was not steady at Khe Sanh; some days saw
     less than two hundred rounds fired at the base while the daily
     record was 1,307.14 The humid environment was corrosive to
     ammunition; and regularly, directives were received to turn in old
     small-arms ammo for replacement with fresh stock. As the old
     bullets would be dumped at sea, some Marines loaded their M-16
     magazines exclusively with tracers, venturing down to the trash
     dump to shoot rats. In the gloom of the monsoon, it looked like
     laser beams emitting from the rifle barrels as the Marines honed
     their marksmanship skills on the rats.
          One Recon Marine, David Doehrman, liberated several steaks
     from a locked freezer in the mess hall. He and his friends cooked
     them on camp stoves, gorging themselves, then settled down to
     sleep in their bunks. Doehrman's hand "dangled over the metal
     tray containing the remaining steaks, and he was bitten by a rat
     during the night." This incident caused Doehrman to be placed on
     medical hold to receive a series of rabies shots.15
          Doehrman's incident perhaps explains the origin of a story
     that circulated at Khe Sanh, which claimed that some Marines were
     putting peanut butter on their toes and sticking their feet
     between the pallets, hoping to get bit. The rationale being a rat
     bite would cause one to be evacuated from the base to receive
     shots for rabies.
          Knives, traps, and tent poles weren't the only weapons the
     Marines used against rats. Stubbe relates an incident when one
     gunnery sergeant became so incensed at a rat that kept paying
     him a visit that "one night he pulled out his .45-caliber pistol
     and shot the thing as it scurried above a poncho the gunny had
     hung across the ceiling. He killed the rat, but the hole in the
     poncho became a drain for rainwater . . ."16
          One night, just as I was about to put out my lantern, I
     noticed a cat-sized rat nonchalantly wandering into my bunker,
     sniffing the ground. Amazed at the boldness of this rodent, I
     grabbed the only weapon I could find close by. Cocking my arm,
     I launched a jungle boot at the rat, hoping to knock him out
     of the bunker. Instead, the panicked rat ran right toward me,
     only turning when he realized that safety lay in exactly the
     opposite direction.
          Always the rats were big. Gustav Hasford describes them
     in _The Phantom Blooper_:
               Every twenty meters, I stoop down and tug at the barbed
               wire with det cord crimps to see if the wire has been
               cut. The tugging scares up bunker rats big enough to
               stand flat-footed and butt-fuck a six-by.17
          If true, Hasford would be describing a serious rat problem.
     But rats cannot take on a two-and-one-half ton truck, are not as
     large as cats, and do not have large heads. The average cat
     weighs eleven pounds, while even a large Norway rat weighs less
     than two pounds.18
          How many rats were there at Khe Sanh? Even though the
     Marines never attempted a census, estimates using certain
     assumptions can be made.
          The lesser bandicoot (Bandicota bengalensis) is one species
     of rat common to southern Asia. Each female can produce a litter
     per month, with seven pups per litter, for a daily rate of
     increase of over eleven percent.19
          The rats at Khe Sanh may or may not have been reproducing at
     their biological maximum (i.e., rats were being killed by
     Marines, but it is also likely they were being driven into
     the base from without by aerial bombardment). There are
     approximately as many rats in the world as people, unevenly
     distributed.20 If the rat population equaled the human population
     at Khe Sanh, and assuming the above optimum rate of increase,
     theoretically there could have been one hundred thousand rats by
     day 27 of the siege, one-half million rats on day 43, and over
     one million by day 50. Whatever their number, the rats at Khe
     Sanh were like the rain and the shrapnel - always irritating,
     always present, always threatening.
          But Westmoreland's plan for a Dien Bien Phu in reverse never
     happened. Various NVA regimental-sized attempts to mass for an
     attack on the base were broken up by artillery and aerial
     bombardment. Battalion and company-sized probes against the
     Marines' perimeter were beaten off. By March 9, Saigon reported
     that NVA strength around Khe Sanh had been reduced to 6,000 to
     8,000 men.21 On April 9, for the first time in weeks, not one
     enemy shell crashed into the combat base.22
          The NVA departed from Khe Sanh; by April 15 the U.S.
     Command announced that the operation for the relief of the base
     had been concluded and all objectives had been secured. The siege
     was over. Westmoreland claimed the NVA lost between 10,000 and
     15,000 men and hailed the confrontation as a great U.S. victory.23
          Army units entered the base, the first to arrive by land in
     months. They stared at us in disbelief; some of the Marines wore
     beards, all needed haircuts, all were exhausted. Our clothes were
     filthy, and we were unwashed. The 1st Cavalry had this attitude
     that they had "relieved" us, that they had "broken" the NVA
     siege. We largely ignored them.
          The largest convoy I have ever seen in Vietnam formed up; and
     we drove to Camp Carroll, the nearby fire base from where I had
     been sent to Khe Sanh five months previously. Khe Sanh was no
     longer a Garden of Eden. The aerial bombardment had turned the
     countryside into moonscape; everything had been destroyed. Not a
     tree was left standing. There were no shades of green.
          NVA General Vo Nguyen Giap claimed that Khe Sanh was never
     very important to the NVA, only serving as a feint to draw U.S.
     forces away from the populated areas during Tet. Giap considered
     Khe Sanh an NVA victory.24
          In June, 1968, it was announced that Khe Sanh was being
     abandoned. The Marines proceeded to dismantle the base, slashing
     sandbags, blowing up their fortified positions, filling in
     trench lines with bulldozers, hauling away everything of possible
     use to the enemy. The last Marines left on July 6.25
         In their leaving, both sides turned the base over to the
     rats, whose population likely expanded still further now that the
     monsoon had ended, air and artillery strikes had ceased, and
     there was no human population to harass them. The rats were free
     to police the remaining ration scraps within the base and the
     huge quantity of body parts that must have lay without. And when
     this food supply was consumed, they, too, would depart Khe Sanh.
     1 A homemade sign with these words on it was attached to a bunker
     at Khe Sanh during the siege.
     2 John Prados and Ray W. Stubbe, _Valley of Decision - The Siege
     of Khe Sanh_, (Boston:  Houghton Mifflin Co.), 1991, p. 15.
     3 Thomas Y. Canby, "The Rat - Lapdog of the Devil," _National
     Geographic_, (July, 1977), p. 87.
     4 Prados and Stubbe, _loc. cit_., pp. 54-55.
     5 _Ibid_., p. 148.
     6 Robert Pisor, _The End of the Line - The Siege of Khe Sanh_,
     (New York: Ballantine Books), 1982, p. 10, gives a figure of
     20,000 NVA. Michael Herr, _Dispatches_, (New York: Avon Books),
     p. 113, mentions 40,000 NVA. The figure of 5,000 Marines is from
     Pisor, _ibid_., p. 9.
     7 Prados, _loc. cit_., p. 251.
     8 _Ibid_., p. 255.
     9 Pisor, _loc. cit_., p. 181.
     10 bid_., p. 181.
     11  _Time_, February 16, 1968, p. 38.
     12 Ernest Spencer, _Welcome to Vietnam, Macho Man_, (Corps
     Press), 1987, p. 110.
     13 Prados, _loc. cit_., p. 7.
     14 Captain Moyers S. Shore II, USMC, _The Battle for Khe Sanh_,
     (Washington, D. C., Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps), 1969, pp.
     15 Prados, _loc. cit_., p. 235.
     16 _Ibid_., p. 6.
     17 Gustav Hasford, _The Phantom Blooper_, (New York: Bantam
     Books), 1990, p. 12.
     18 Canby, _loc. cit_., p. 87.
     19 _Ibid_., p. 68.
     20 "The Rat Explosion," _Atlas_, September, 1978, p. 58
     21 Pisor, _loc. cit_., p. 211.
     22 _Ibid_.
     23 _Ibid_., p. 237.
     24 Oriana Fallaci, _Nothing and So Be It_, (Garben City, N. Y.:
     Doubleday & Co., 1972, pp. 85-86, quoted in Pisor, _loc. cit_.,
     p. 241.
     25 Prados, _loc. cit_., p. 448.