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Khe Sahn Dposition Our Dusters and Quad 50s had excellent fields of fire, commanding all avenues of approach to the northern perimeter of the base. Our two Duster positions were well located at opposite ends of the runway with the Quad 50s placed in between but not more than one hundred meters away from a Duster. All weapons had excellent fields of fire, commanding all avenues of approach to the northern perimeter of the base. The northeast gun positions overlooked a wide open, grassy plateau, and could easily maneuver to defend the east end of the runway which sat above the edge of a steep ravine. My command post bunker was situated near the runway's east end, behind the Quad 50 position and our ammunition trailer. The base ammo dump and 105mm howitzers were across the runway about one hundred and fifty meters behind us. On the northwest end, the Duster and Quad 50 squads guarded a more concealed approach through trees and heavy brush. Our bunkers and gun revetments were well constructed and sandbagged, considering that two months earlier, the Marines at Khe Sanh were hardly dug in. Most structures had been built above ground with few trenches, and only inadequate, interrupted strands of barbed wire strung in front of the perimeter defensive positions.

First Lieutenant Lynn Grace had commanded the Duster and Quad 50 sections from late October through early December 1967. After the war, he would describe Khe Sanh to me as a "...quiet, uneventful place viewed by ADA personnel as a welcome respite from the grueling barrages at Con Thien and Gio Linh, and the daily routine of mine sweeps and convoy escorts." When the intense battles of the infamous "Hill Fights" ended in early May 1967, Khe Sanh was regarded as the closest thing to an in-country R&R center on the DMZ. At Lieutenant Grace's request, the Marine command ordered additional fortification of the northern perimeter, since only one company of Marines, two Ontos crews and our Duster/Quad 50 sections defended the entire mile-long stretch of the perimeter.

When the siege began on January 21,1968, the Marines were ill prepared for a static defense of the base, and engineers hurriedly began to dig trenches and lay additional rows of concertina wire around the perimeter. Trenching machines were flown in to cut into the rock-hard surface before the attacks reached a peak in late January through mid-March 1968.

During my first few days at Khe Sanh, I surveyed our positions and met briefly with Colonel Lownds, commander of the 26th Marine Regiment and its attached units. In my only conversation with him during my seven-week stay, I assured him that our automatic weapons crews had the experience and the firepower to accomplish the mission of defending the northern perimeter of the combat base. There would be several occasions over the next few weeks when I would feel less confident than I did at that proud moment.

Bad weather in February and early March often left the combat base shrouded in fog for hours or even days at a time. With the fog providing cover from NVA snipers and artillery spotters, we seized the opportunity to drive the Quad 50 trucks or the Dusters for water, ammunition and C-Rations. Most other days were spent holed up in our bunkers since NVA snipers and artillery made movement above ground extremely treacherous. My survival instincts and physical senses had reached a peak, having been sharpened for months under the routine bombardment at Con Thien and A3. I was able to hear mortar, artillery and rocket rounds leaving their tubes, and could often identify the type of weapon that was fired from the sound it made. I never ignored or second-guessed my own instincts or those of others. I would hit the ground in an instant if I thought I had heard a suspicious sound or had seen a muzzle flash. At Khe Sanh, my fatigues were always dirty from diving to the ground, and my men would jokingly ask if I had been playing in the mud or dirt again.

I remember moving cautiously through the trenchline one clear morning when a careless young Marine stood up and walked across an open stretch of ground between unconnected trenches. In an instant he was struck in the side of his face by a sniper round. Fortunately the round went through his cheek and out of his mouth, knocking out a few teeth, but otherwise leaving him in relatively good condition. After some dental work and a few stitches, he'd be back on line and good as new. The incident reinforced my resolve to crawl or scurry on all fours when moving across open ground in clear weather.

Although we did our best to keep our bunkers clean, we fought an endless battle against the infestation of rats. As any Vietnam veteran will tell you, these were not ordinary rats. They often grew as big as large rabbits and were extremely cunning. After weeks of setting traps to no avail, I finally got fed up and decided one night to take serious steps to annihilate one particularly persistent pest. I climbed into my upper rack, and tucked a flashlight and a loaded 45-caliber pistol under my sleeping bag. After my section chief had gone to sleep, I lay awake waiting for the telltale scratching sounds of our nightly intruder, and I was not disappointed. I followed the sound of his movement to the baited traps on the floor across from my bunk. I silently lined up my pistol and flashlight in the direction of the sound and waited for the complacent invader to begin chowing down. At the moment of truth I simultaneously switched on the flashlight beam and emptied an entire clip of 45-caliber rounds in the direction of the monster rat. My section chief bolted from the sleeping rack below, certain we were under attack. I quickly quieted him and assured him that all was okay, pointing confidently toward the array of triggered rat traps in front of us. The rat's carcass, however, was nowhere to be found, and the sergeant was not amused.

We never did get rid of those critters. When the B-52 strikes left large numbers of NVA dead around the base perimeter, the rats began feeding on the decaying corpses. A major panic took place when the doctors at Charlie Med identified rats infected with bubonic plague and began giving booster shots to large numbers of Marines. Most of my men and I braved the hazardous trek across the runway to get our booster injections.


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