Memories of the Hill Battles
By James Epps, Lt. 1/26

As we draw near the 30th anniversary of the major operations in Khe Sanh, my memory is of my first operation as a brand new Second Lieutenant in Vietnam...the Hill Fights in the Spring of 1967.

Because of the potential danger of the siege and its high media profile, the battles of the previous Spring have not yet received their due recognition. Being an eyewitness to the final phases of the battle and its aftermath, I have known that ever since. Just as the Vietnam Veterans built their own monument, now is the time to illuminate this battle, for us to tell our own story.

The official Marine Corps history, as recounted in "Marines in Vietnam 1967," describes the battle as "...First Battle of Khe Sanh, one of the bloodiest battles and hardest fought battles of the Vietnam War." Lt. Gen. Victor H. Krulak, USMC (Ret.), speaks of the initial engagement: "The results were the bitterest fighting of the entire war for the Marines."

First, the hills. These are ancient hills, formed by volcano, rounded by time, overgrown by triple canopy jungle, overspread by vast acerage of dense elephant grass, stands of bamboo scattered at random. Here and there are footpaths made by generations of Montagnards that wind over ridges and valleys, only wide enough for small people in single file. In some areas, the terrain is impassible; in other areas, the terrain and the vegetation deny passage.

Now my story. When I arrived in country, I was assigned to 1/26 which had been located at Hill 55 for some months. From the time I joined, there were rumors that we were due to be rotated and would be moving. About 10 days after I joined Charlie Co., we recieved move-out orders, wound up in Phu Bai, and were being briefed to move to the rim of the Ashau Valley as escort for 175s (Howitzers). The operation was to be called CUMBERLAND.

Without any prior warning, we received a warning order to move out and were sent to the air strip. After hanging out in the blazzing sun, C130s showed up; and we loaded up where we were going. When we landed, the piolet reversed the thrust of his engines and braked so hard that it threw us around the cargo bay. As the high-pitched whine if the motor lowered the ramp, the first thing that greeted us was the air full of artillery smoke and the turn-out at the west end of the strip was lined up with litters.

While we were milling around, my second squad leader recognized someone on one of the litters; and that is how we found out there was a tremondous battle going on in the hills, and the casualties were terrible. Shortly, we were assigned the western sector of the base to defend, the area that became known as the Ponderosa. The original road to the base from Highway 9 entered there, and young Montagnard boys were selling crossbows and bracelets. On the other side of the road, the jungle began.

For the next few days, we ran patrols during the day and were base security at night. On Charlie Company's second day in Khe Sanh, the third platoon was detailed to escourt an artillery battery with an added section of 155s (Howitzers) about two kilometers outside the base to a location near what became known as the Rock Quarry. The 105s were nearly at maximum range firing out beyond 881N; displacing the battery allowed better coverage.

The first night we were just kind of set in a loose perimeter around the battery with hasty fighting holes. It was that night that is remembered by everyone in the Hill Fights as the night of the rainstorm. I was new to Vietnam, and this was my first thunderstorm; and, naturally, it overwhelmed me. It also made a lasting impression on seasoned grunts. My hasty fighting hole was three feet deep and the rain filled it up in less than ten minutes. Water poured out of the sky.

For the next 5 days we patrolled all around Khe Sanh Combat Base. There were times, during lulls in the battle, between helicopter flights or resupply and medevac, between prolonged barrages by the artillery, in the quiet, away from the Combat Base, that the beauty of the Khe Sanh Valley emerged to touch us -- a lush tropical paradise with birds and monkeys...and swirling cones of circling buzzards. From a distance, the hills look smooth as California foothills: fields of grass scattered with clumps of trees and interspersed with stands of forest.

On the 10th of May the artillery battery struck its position, and we returned to the Combat Base. Rumors flew. We were broken down into helo teams and dropped off on the ridgeline to the east of the crest of Hill 881N. The hilltop was confusion, as there was a reinforced battalion lifting off after patrolling and pursuing the enemy after the fall of Hill 881N five days earlier. We were replacing them.

The next impression, after all the milling around, was the smell of death. Everywhere Overpowering everything. Everything was shredded. Big trees had been splintered by big bombs. The ground was pulverized. Big trees had been splintered by big bombs. The foliage was finely sliced by all the shrapnel of a big battle. There seemed to be a fine powdery dust scattered over everything.

While we were checking out the LZ, which really was a rounded ridgeline across a draw from 881N, I ran into two classmates from the Basic School. We had graduated just 3 months before. They told me their story of the Hill Fights.

A fellow classmate had tripped off the battle some 3 weeks earlier when he had climbed Hill 861 from the backside, up the ridgeline that went across Hill 861-Alpha. He and I had been to recon school at Camp Pendleton just before leaving the States and had learned not to use the easy route of approach to any terrain feature.

Apparently, his little FO team had scaled Hill 861 turned into a ridgeline that ran west to 881N&S. He had caught them by surprise, and they reacted with fury. His Marines had pulled him back severly wounded. There were Marines missing. This became characteristic of the phases of the Hill Fights. Units who took over from the initial assults units were charged with recovering the missing.

My basic-school classmates continued to tell me their story. They took 861. Then fought their way along the backbone ridge that runs from 861 to 881N&S. The crest of the ridge runs in a line from east to west. Sloping away from the backbone are intersecting ridgelines that are steep up and down and broad on their tops. Some were forrested. The main ridgeline was so steep and thickly overgrown that it was impassible; therefore, any route of approach from east to west had to follow the military crest of the ridgeline, across the secondary ridges that ran perpendicular to it. The Lieutenants told of taking these ridge lines one by one, only to have to back off each one in turn so artillery and air could bombard the next ridge. There were five of these secondary ridgelines. It took days.

The conversations I am recounting took only a few minutes and for 30 years has stayed clearly in my mind. My fellow Lieutenants told me about how the NVA they fought were much bigger than the South Vietnamese and how some of the dead did not look like Vietnamese -- maybe Cubans. They talked about snipers tying themselves in trees and fighting to the death. And how some of them appeared to be drugged on something because, in the final counter-attack, they charged out of their bunkers at the attacking Marines in a agitated delerium, seeming to foam at the mouth, with their weapons at high port. They had excellent weapons, good uniforms and web gear and even some wore steel helmets.

For the last 5 days, they had been patrolling to the west and northwest -- out to the Laotion border -- and had occasional,but serious contacts. The NVA had not completely quit the field of battle; they had only changed the tempo of their operations.

Then it was their turn to take the CH-46s. The reinforced battalion was gone. A rifle company, C/1/26, was alone on 881N. We left the LZ and marched single file to the actual hilltop of 881N and set in for the night among the jumble of trees blown off at knee level by one and two thousand pound bombs during the taking of the Hill. We were on our own. Here and there, some intact NVA bunkers offered protection. We also used fighting holes vacated by the assault companies.

During our assumption of the battlefield, and for weeks after, details emerged which illuminated the nature and disposition of the fighting units and the ferocity of the battle, not just giant trees strewn around like matchsticks, not just the dirt and lesser vegetation shredded but the detritus and debris of big military units in a desperate battle; ammunition wrapping, cardboard rocket and mortal shipping tubes, piles of spent brass mixed with machine gun links, ragged battle dressings, food garbage, dead batteries, ragged web gear and shards of uniforms, tattered ponchos, a NVA bush hat in the low branches of a denuded tree, burned out smoke gernades, loose rounds, charging clips, empty wooden ammo boxes.

As the companies of 1/26 replaced the assault companies, we patrolled and swept and searched the entire area around the hilltops and much of their slopes. This process commenced immediately and continued for months. During this time, we continued to make contact with the NVA, at first regularly and seriously, then more sporadically as time continued. This was one of our missions, as well as occupying the hilltops, denying easy access and maneuver to the NVA and continuing to search the battlefield because, a number of times during the Hill Fights, dead Marines had to be left behind while assaulting units regrouped. There were missing. Any time we discovered previously uncharted remains, we shut down the patrol, set up security, and Graves Registration people choppered out from Khe Sanh in CH-34s to inspect and remove the bones.

This description of our mission commenced during the consolidation phase of the attack on the Hills. In our narrative, C/1/26 is in its first 24 hrs. on Hill 881N. The next morning, during resupply, a CH-34 lost power on lift off and crashed. While two platoons of C Company climbed off 881N to 881S, the Third Platoon was detailed to guard the 34. This was on the intermediate crest of 881N, just to the south of the geographical grest. On the terrain maps, it looked like a starfish with a rounded body from which four or five ridges emanated like the legs of a starfish. They sloped away into ravines. This had been the scene of the NVA counterattack just before the final assult of 881N. It was to figure promently in the opening battles of the seige. It was a natural stepping stone from 881S to the north and from any approach from the east.

The ridgelines that runs from 861 to 881N&S does not lift up gradually to those hilltops. It ends in almost a "T," and the ground falls off steeply to a large low area at the base of Hill 881N&S terrian complex. There is a low saddle that runs over to the starfish hilltop. It is in the vicinity of the cross bar of the "T" of the east-west ridge where we had landed the day before. We had walked across the saddle to the starfish before turning north to go up Hill 881N. The acctual crest of 881 was too heavily forrested to land a helicopter. Now we are guarding a helicopter in a ravine of the starfish-shaped hillock, one platoon where there had been three companies. A long night.

We waited all next day for a CH-53 to lift out the CH-34. We ran local security around the hilltop. We discovered that whereever there weren't bomb craters, there were bunkers. The night the NVA had counterattacked the assault companies, they had reoccupied some of these very bunkers and had rooted out again in an 8-hr fight. Many of them were filled with dead (now putrefact) NVA and their gear. This area was still littered.

Huge areas of all the surrounding terrain had been burned off by napalm and white phosphorus. By 1915 the chopper was lifted out, and we received water and chow resupply. We thought we were going to spend another night there, but the company on 881S radioed over to us; and we had to secure chow call, saddle up, and hump the 5-gallon water cans that had just been delivered. It was now dusk.

When we got to the bottom of the steep ravine that separates 881N&S, we were nearly overpowered by the stench of death. This must have been why the NVA had been burying their dead during the initial assault of Hill 881S. It took an hour and a half in the deepening dusk to reach the friendly positions on 881S. We stayed inside the lines of the company on 881S. Their CP group occupied some of the NVA bunkers. Marine fighting holes and bunkers tend to be ragged holes torn in the earth. These were dug plumb and straight, linned with matting, and deep. By this time, almost all of the log and dirt roofs had been blown off by engineers as the mop-up continued

The next day, we walked to 861 with the assaulting units which had been occupying 881S since its fall on May 1st, 1967. A/1/26 on 881S and C/1/26 on 861 then settled into a week's long program of occupying our hills and daily patrolling the terrain complex of hilltops, denying to the NVA the reoccupation of the hilltops and sweeping the area for fresh activity and still looking for residual material from the battles, especially for any trace of the missing.

C/1/26 began to clean up, then fortify Hill 861. The entire top was buried in loose soil -- the air campaign had blown over 20 feet of the crest, and that soil was strewn all over. The entire topographical crest was pocked with craters from big bombs. Some of those craters were big enough to hold a 2-story building. As we dug in, monsoon rains began to wash away all the loose dirt; and NVA remains began to appear. Digging fighting holes often resulted in unearthing the bones of dead NVA and their gear.

Our routine in the weeks following was to run a company minus patrol every day out to 881N. On a 3-platoon rotation, that meant two days out and one day in. These were day patrols; we returned to our hilltop each night. We walked the original axis of attack over and over for weeks. Everytime we varied our route, we found new bunkers and more debris. Slowly, we were able to reconstruct the original fights, including the rally and chow points, medavac landing zones, and firing positions of crew-served weapons. We went over and around the 5 ridges that were perpendicular to our route. We even found at least two rusty M-16s that had been thrown away. One still had a cleaning rod in it.

Over the weeks, it became apparent how well the NVA had prepared the battlefield and how merciless the Hill Fights had been. Had the NVA not been discovered prematurely, it would have taken untold men and casualties to take those hills.

Jim Epps

Anyone wanting to contact James Epps can E-mail me, Jim Wodecki; and I will give him the message.

This is an account of after the Hill Battles. I will continue with events as they happened on Hills 881N, 881S, and 861 in other accounts from small units and individuals as they happened.

A sad note. Most of the original 861 Marines are either dead or missing. I have tracked down a few and will get their stories at the 30th Reunion of the Hill Battles on July 9, 1997, in St. Louis.

Jim Wodecki USMC
Khe Sanh Combat Base
Oct. '66 until June '67

Copyright © 1997 By James Epps, All Rights Reserved