Thursday, July 19, 2007

South Vietnam, The American Waterloo: Remote Viet Outpost Is A Sea Of Mud

November 6, 1966

Khe Sanh, South Viet Nam--Nearly everyone has heard the expression, "you can stand in mud there up to your knees and the wind will blow sand in your eyes."

The guy who said that must have just returned from a visit to Khe Sanh.

This outpost, only a few miles from the Laos border and the demilitarized zone, is the most remote of all the American military installations in Viet Nam. And the possibility of Khe Sanh becoming a major trouble spot looms larger every day.

Khe Sanh overlooks a network of major infiltration routes from North Viet Nam and Laos. Until recently, the only military protection in the area was provided by a small band of Army Special Services advisers. (Special Forces)

But now, the 1st Battalion of the 3d Marine Regiment of the 3d Division has moved into the area to defend the 3,900-foot airstrip which a Navy Construction Battalion carved out of a mountain top, and to keep a close watch on the infiltration routes.

The airfield is of prime importance to the Marines and Special Forces units. Air resupply is the only way they can get their supplies. And at this time of year, the monsoon season, bad weather keeps planes from landing for several days at a time.

The area around the airfield is a sea of mud, and the hilltop is constantly raked by high winds.

S/Sgt. James E. Tate, 27, Indianapolis, was the first person I met after landing at Khe Sanh on a resupply flight in a light rain. He invited me into his tent and dragged out some C-ration cartons for seats.

In a few moments, Tate began heating water for coffee by burning a chunk of C-4 plastic explosive on a semi-dry patch of ground inside his tent.

Tate has been a Marine eight and a half years, and up till now, he's liked his duty. He stirred his coffee thoughtfully, then tossed the plastic spoon into a flowing stream of red mud outside the tent.

"I'm getting out just as soon as this hitch is up. This place did it," Tate said. "I don't argue with our reason for being here...I'd sure rather fight Communism here than back in Indiana. But just look around this place...It's terrible."

All around us, Marines were hacking out clearings in elephant grass more than 10 feet high so they could pitch their tents and dig foxholes and shelters. They labored in a foggy mist and rain that was growing heavier. The holes filled with rain nearly as fast as they were dug.

One youngster was trying to pull a large root out of the ground in the area he'd cleared to pitch his tent. He lost his grip and fell down. He got so mad he jumped straight up in the air and fell, seat first, in his water-filled fox hole.

Tate laughed and said, "I've seen guys get so disgusted out here that they'll just sit down in a mud puddle for the hell of it."

After a few sips of coffee he said, "You know, I'd sure like to get all those demonstrators back in the states over here for a while. I'd like them to see how these Vietnamese people live. They should see what living under tyranny does to people."

"They live here, day by day," Tate said. "Their pride has been beaten out of them. They've been fighting so long they're tired of fighting. I think that is why a lot of them run in battle. They aren't cowards. They're just tired of fighting," Tate said.

Tate moved into Khe Sanh with his outfit Sept. 28. He's been in Viet Nam since May 4. He took another drink of coffee, looked outside at the heavy rain and mud and then around at the soggy tent and muddy floor then said, "Let me tell you that this is nothing like being assigned to the Presidential guard in Washington."

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