Khe Sanh by Robert Ellison, 1968

Khe Sanh, 1968. For war critics and news correspondents, it was a miniature microcosm for the War in Vietnam itself: 6,000 US Marines forced to defend an isolated untenable location that the top brass believed to be indispensable, only to abandon it after hundreds of Americans were sacrificed in its defense.

Khe Sanh, a remote U.S. Marine outpost located near the border with Laos was a pivotal lynchpin on the defensive line on the northern border of South Vietnam and in southeast Laos. The six-month long siege there was often compared to Battle of Dien Bien Phu, not least by President Lyndon Johnson who feared a disastrous defeat. “I don’t want any damn Dien Bien Phu,” he remarked. General William Westmoreland, the supreme American commander in Vietnam, re-assured his commander in chief, but privately, he would harbor doubts, ordering his staff to study how the French had lost at Dien Bien Phu, and mused if tactical nuclear weapons would stave off a defeat.

The photo above was taken early in the siege on Feb. 25, 1968. The Marines dragged out the body of 2nd Lt. Donald Jacques, the 20-year-old platoon commander, from the underbrush. Jacques and his 40-man platoon were on patrol outside the base when they were ambushed. Twenty-four were killed and Jacques’s body was the only one that was immediately recovered.

The photographer was Robert Ellison, 23, who took other dramatic pictures of the fighting at Khe Sanh, including that of a shell-struck ammo dump exploding in front of U.S. Marines (below). Ellison then flew to Saigon to wire his photos to Newsweek. The magazine was so impressed that they noted they would run an eight-page spread of his photographs in an upcoming issue. Instead of heading off to Bangkok or China Beach to celebrate, Ellison flew back to Khe Sanh, on the afternoon of March 6, bartering some beer, Coke, and cigars for a seat on a C-123 flying back to the base from Da Nang to bring in more Marines and equipment.

At the east end of the airstrip at Khe Sanh was a deep drop to the Rao Quan River below. The North Vietnamese had set up anti-aircraft guns there which were deadly accurate in hitting planes approaching. Ellison’s plane, which carried more than 40 people, was hit as it approached Khe Sanh, killing everyone on board.

His photos made the cover of Newsweek posthumously, on March 18, in “The Agony of Khe Sanh,” and won him an Overseas Press Club (slideshow above). However, contrary to popular military lore, the phrase derived from the cigarette warnings, “Being a Marine in Khe Sanh may be hazardous to your health,” did not appear in Newsweek, but it didn’t prevent soldiers in Vietnam from later sporting flak jackets with that bogus quotation attributed to the magazine.

To this day, the precise nature of Hanoi’s goal at Khe Sanh remained unclear. Even the North Vietnamese official history of the war, Victory in Vietnam, was largely silent on the issue. Some considered it as a diversion of the Tet Offensive, and others considered the Tet as a diversion for Khe Sanh. Its impact was widely debated too. Neil Sheehan wrote, “No serious attempt to seize the Marine base ever occurred. The Vietnamese purpose was to distract Westmoreland’s attention from their preparations for the real Điện Biên Phủ of the American war, the surprise nationwide offensive at Tet, the Lunar New Year Holiday, in January 1968, which broke the will of the Johnson administration and the American public to continue to prosecute the conflict. The ruse succeeded completely.”

As for Time magazine, which wrote after the Marines had abandoned the base and destroyed the countryside surrounding it by dropping more than 100,000 tons of explosives (about one-sixth the total used during all of the Korean War): “The evidence on the battlefield was even more persuasive testimony of the extent of the U.S. victory. The North Vietnamese are normally an extremely frugal foe that never leaves even a rifle bullet behind. In their haste to get away from Khe Sanh, they left piles of valuable matériel… The idea that the North Vietnamese pulled out as a voluntary gesture of de-escalation is thus contradicted by all the facts. The biggest fact is that at Khe Sanh they were badly whipped by U.S. airpower.”

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11 thoughts on “Khe Sanh by Robert Ellison, 1968

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