5 February 2003, 1:14 p.m.

At this moment thirty-five years ago, we were policing bodies and restablishing our defenses on Hill 861-Alpha (Khe Sanh) as the '68 Tet Offensive jumped into high gear. The "Siege of Khe Sanh," which would last two months, had begun. 

It was 5 February 1968. I had just settled into the little cave in the side of the trench for some rest. Dennis (KIA later that year) and I shared this two-man fighting hole and were doing three-hour watch shifts overnight. I woke him at the end of my midnight–0300 watch. After making certain he was fully functional and in place, I caught a quick smoke while we small-talked. Yeah, I smoked back then, but ended eighteen months later.

After I crawled into the cave, I lit my lighter under the poncho liner to check the time on my watch. It was 0315. I closed my eyes. It seemed like a split second later that all hell broke loose. There were explosions (later found out they were bangalore torpedoes in the wire) and small arms fire, followed by mortars and grenades. 

I jumped up, grabbed my M16, threw on my flak jacket and helmet and was in the fighting hole facing downhill with Dennis. It seemed like I did it all in one movement.

Our mortars on the hill's crest were quick to respond with H.E. and flare rounds. It looked like daytime on an overcast day. The clouds were hovering a few hundred feet above the hill and the flares were coming through them, riding their little parachutes. It looked very creepy. 

It only took us a few minutes to realize the enemy had breached our perimeter. We heard the sounds of M16 fire above us at the crest of the hill near the Company command post. We also heard the unmistakable clack-clack-clack-clack of AK47s. 

Dennis and I looked at each other with eyes as wide as saucers. We spoke in unison: "Oh, shit!"

I immediately pivoted so he and I were back-to-back, with him facing downhill into the ravine and me facing uphill into the thick foliage. We realized that the breach was on another side of the hill. That wasn't comforting, however. 

In a few minutes, I heard the bushes behind me rustle as if someone was running through them toward us. I told Dennis to brace himself. We were still back-to-back. I had the safety off my M16 and took dead aim down the barrel at the sound coming our way. I was ready to pull the trigger at the shape that exploded out of the bushes toward me, when I saw the panicked face of the corporal who was (Company C.O.) Capt. Breeding's aide.

"Don't shoot! It's me!" he yelled. 

He explained that the breach was about thirty yards around the corner from us at 1st Platoon's position (we were 3rd herd). He told me to get my fire team and follow one of the teams from the squad located between the breach and us. We were going to do a flush through the trench clockwise around the hill as a group from 2nd Platoon went counter-clockwise toward us. Another group was going over the top between us. The counter-offensive began. All through this, artillery was raining in on the enemy from the batteries at Khe Sanh Base. 

The "flush" only took 15 minutes. The job was done for now. First Platoon took the biggest hitseven KIA with most of the rest WIA. There were about 150 confirmed enemy KIAs in the perimeter and down the hill. The enemy force was estimated to be a reinforced battalion. 

But the "siege" was just beginning. We were to lose more men in the next few months before we left. 

The breach where the lost platoon had been needed to be filled. It was the most vulnerable part of the hill, a long finger that sloped down the hill from that point. All units were stretched around the hill until they met and were relocated permanently in these positions. 

My squad got the breach.

      *       *
Don Johnson ("Bugle")
USMC: 1967–69 
RVN: 1967–68
Echo Co./2nd Battalion
26th Marines 

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