"Home Is Where You Dig It"1:
(Observations on Life at the Khe Sanh Combat Base)
Men who received orders to Vietnam had certain expectations of the place, based on their general life experiences and their training. We expected to work hard, to be bored, to experience excitement and danger. It was reasonable to anticipate the tropical climate, periods of thirst and dreary food, being dirty and tired and other aspects of a year-long camping trip. Everyone who participated in the siege of Khe Sanh likely had these expectations. I don't think these Marines expected that their problems would include dealing with rats, yet virtually everyone who wrote about Khe Sanh included descriptions of them.
In 1962, the Special Forces were the first at Khe Sanh, arriving by truck. Weapons specialist Frank Fowler made an observation about the place that would be repeated by others when he mentioned the rats. Noting the numbers present, he said,
Fowler was not to be envied his task of separating his live rat from the trap. A cornered rat will fight like a "cornered rat," and will attack its attacker.3
The Marines joined up with the Special Forces and their rats in 1966. Colonel Tom Horne presided over the transformation of the Army position into the Marine Corps Khe Sanh Combat Base. He recalled, "My memory of that place is waking up with fifteen or twenty rats on the bed with me!"3 In 1967, when the buildup of forces on both sides began in earnest, the Roman Catholic chaplain of 3/26 ran into the furry Khe Sanh Welcome Wagon on his first night when a rat lost its footing on the dirt ledge of his bunker, fell on his chest, and bounced to the floor with a squeal.4
Initially the US strategy for winning the war in Vietnam was merely one of attrition. In 1967, critics pointed out that attrition was an indication that the US was losing the initiative in Vietnam, and not a strategy in itself. Consequently, when the NVA began moving large numbers of troops into I Corps in the summer of 1967, General Westmoreland made plans to engage them in large numbers, to apply massive firepower in a decisive engagement, to allow the U.S. to finally bask in the warm light at the end of the tunnel.
Khe Sanh seemed like the place. Between twenty and forty thousand NVA surrounded five thousand Marines.6 Khe Sanh was in the mountainous area where North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and Laos came together. It was far from the heavily populated coastal plain and the South Vietnamese government was not particularly active. This would minimize coordination problems with the ARVN and allow the application of air and artillery assets with the least possible number of civilian casualties. Most important of all was the fact that the NVA seemed willing to fight at Khe Sanh.
In a sense both sides besieged each other. The Marines could only be supplied by air and could not have evacuated the base without sustaining unacceptable casualties. The NVA were trapped by their military and political goals (whatever they might have been) and by the greatest application of air power in history.
Even as late as December, 1967, Khe Sanh was considered relatively good duty, as those things went in Viet Nam. I requested transfer there from a nearby fire base because Khe Sanh's had a reputation for great physical beauty, few rocket and mortar attacks and relatively comfortable living conditions. Aesthetically, Khe Sanh had it all --mountains, valleys, streams, triple canopy jungle in several shades of green, elephants and tigers. The local population were mostly tribal Bru Montagnards rather than ethnic Vietnamese.
This good duty was more apparent than real, and at about 5:00 a.m. on the morning of 21 January, 1968, a reconnaissance team radioed that a flight of rockets had been launched from a nearby hill and would land on the combat base. This initial attack was small by later standards, consisting of about one hundred 82 mm mortar shells and sixty 122 mm rockets.7 But fifteen minutes after the attack began one rocket landed in the midst of the main ammunition storage area, with devastating results.
This dump contained eleven thousand units of ordnance that immediately began burning.8 Red-hot artillery and recoilless rifle rounds were hurled into nearby trenches. CS tear gas was ignited and filled the entire area with gas as thick as fog. About 10:00 a.m. the fire set off a large quantity of C-4 plastic explosive and other explosives. At the airstrip all the navigational aids were destroyed, several helicopters were damaged or destroyed, living quarters for the Marine air group were destroyed, the control tower was rendered inoperative, and the runway was cratered. All this on the first day of incoming rocket, artillery, and mortar attacks that would continue for the next 76 days.
The mess halls were immediately secured. In the atmosphere of flying metal it would not do for two hundred Marines to congregate in one place. C-rations were issued and the men took their meals in their bunkers. The rat population began to take off and Khe Sanh took on the look of "a shanty slum on the outskirts of Manila."9 Continuous aerial bombardment, shelling and digging and bulldozing of positions filled the air with red dust. Smoke filled the air, smoke from incoming, from diesel generators, from burning latrines, from burning ordnance, from trash fires. Water was restricted and few were able to bathe regularly. The monsoon rain served to drive the rats inside the bunkers, where they "ran across the dirt floors, gnawing at shelves and boots and fingers, chittering in fear when the big guns fired and sometimes scratching faces as they raced across sleeping Marines in the dark bunkers."10
Time magazine reported that the
Ernest Spencer described the rats at Khe Sanh in Welcome to Vietnam, Macho Man:
The floors of our bunkers were constructed of wooden pallets over dirt, and invariably food fell between the pallet slats, providing feed for the rats. Trash cans were emptied into drums placed in each unit area, to be collected and hauled to the base dump. As the supply of food at the dump increased so too did the rat population, which then moved back into the base area.
Initially there were only mouse traps at Khe Sanh, but they served more to irritate than kill the rats. Rat traps were requisitioned from supply and given a priority after ammunition, C-rations, mail, and personnel.
As the incoming continued the men were restricted to their underground quarters unless they had reason to be above ground. At night the rats would climb into trash cans to eat scraps from the C-rations. With smooth metal sides these containers served as rat traps of sorts and in the morning the Marines would bludgeon them to death with tent poles, then throw them back in the trash.
Ray Stubbe notes in Valley of Decision:
Eventually rat traps became available and were issued to each unit. My battery was allocated seven traps, which were baited with C-ration cheese or peanut butter. Morning after morning each trap yielded its victim, always seven full traps. After a few weeks we quit bothering with the traps, feeling that no progress was being made.
The NVA constructed trenches ever closer to the perimeter of Khe Sanh, eventually putting them in a position to snipe at the garbage detail carrying trash to the dump. This resulted in cessation of the garbage detail. Trash began to pile up throughout the base, spreading food for the rats everywhere. The rat problem in the bunkers got worse. At first the rats seemed content to remain beneath the pallets. With time they became bolder and ventured around the bunker whenever the lights were put out. Finally we were forced to leave the lights on continually in an attempt to keep the rats off our cots and stretchers.
Life at Khe Sanh settled into a routine. One night in March my roommate and I were lying in our small bunker, reading by candle light. About 10:00 p.m. Corporal Hawker put the candle out and settled into a casualty bag on top of his cot. Immediately he heard noises in front of him at ground level. Slowly, stealthily, Hawker grabbed a flashlight in one hand and an assault knife in the other. While he was getting into position to attack, the rat had silently climbed onto the cot, inches from Hawker's face. When the light snapped on, Hawker slashed empty air and the startled rat ran across his face. Terrified, Hawker zipped the casualty bag up completely, then began thrashing to get back out, afraid he had trapped the rat inside the bag. The rat escaped and I chuckled myself to sleep.
As the NVA battered the base supply problems became evident. Three C-ration meals per day were reduced to two. With only twelve different meals to chose from, meal time turned from a pleasant break in the daily routine into just another ordeal. Many of us quit bothering to heat our rations, concluding that the grease from roast beef and potatoes didn't taste worse than the gravy it would become if heated, only different. As stomachs shrank with the reduced rations it took more will power than many could muster to consume even two meals per day. Uneaten rations went into the trash, further increasing the rat population.
NVA incoming was not steady at Khe Sanh; some days saw less than two hundred rounds fired at the base while the daily record was 1,307.14
The humid environment was corrosive to ammunition, and regularly directives were received to turn in old small arms ammo for replacement with fresh stock. As the old bullets would be dumped at sea, some Marines loaded their M-16 magazines exclusively with tracers, venturing down to the trash dump to shoot rats. In the gloom of the monsoon it looked like laser beams emitting from the rifle barrels as the Marines honed their marksmanship skills.
One Recon Marine, David Doehrman, liberated several steaks from a locked freezer in the mess hall. He and his friends cooked them on camp stoves, gorging themselves, then settled down to sleep in their bunks. Doehrman's hand "dangled over the metal tray containing the remaining steaks, and he was bitten by a rat during the night." This incident caused Doehrman to be placed on medical hold to receive a series of rabies shots.15
Doehrman's incident perhaps explains the origin of a story that circulated at Khe Sanh, which claimed that some Marines were putting peanut butter on their toes and sticking their feet between the pallets, hoping to get bit. The rationale being a rat bite would cause one to be evacuated from the base to receive shots for rabies.
Knives, traps, and tent poles weren't the only weapons the Marines used against rats. Stubbe relates an incident when one gunnery sergeant became so incensed at a rat that kept paying him a visit that "one night he pulled out his .45-caliber pistol and shot the thing as it scurried above a poncho the gunny had hung across the ceiling. He killed the rat, but the hole in the poncho became a drain for rainwater...."16
One night, just as I was about to put out my lantern, I noticed a cat-sized rat nonchalantly wandering into my bunker, sniffing the ground. Amazed at the boldness of this rodent I grabbed the only weapon I could find close by. Cocking my arm, the I launched a jungle boot at the rat, hoping to knock him out of the bunker. Instead, the panicked rat ran right toward me, only turning when he realized that safety lay in exactly opposite direction.
Always the rats were big. Gustav Hasford describes them in The Phantom Blooper:
If true, Hasford would be describing a serious rat problem. But rats cannot take on a two-and-one-half ton truck, are not as large as cats, and do not have large heads. The average cat weighs eleven pounds, while even a large Norway rat weighs less than two pounds.18
How many rats were there at Khe Sanh? Even though the Marines never attempted a census, estimates using certain assumptions can be made.
The lesser bandicoot (Bandicota bengalensis) is one species of rat common to southern Asia. Each female can produce a litter per month, with seven pups per litter, for a daily rate of increase of over eleven percent.19
The rats at Khe Sanh may or may not have been reproducing at their biological maximum (i.e., rats were being killed by Marines, but it is also likely they were also being driven into the base from without by aerial bombardment). There are approximately as many rats in the world as people, unevenly distributed.20 If the rat population equaled the human population at Khe Sanh, and assuming the above optimum rate of increase, theoretically there could have been one hundred thousand rats by day 27 of the siege, one-half million rats on day 43, and over one million by day 50. Whatever their number, the rats at Khe Sanh were like the rain and the shrapnel--always irritating, always present, always threatening.
But Westmoreland's plan for a Dien Bien Phu in reverse never happened. Various NVA regimental-sized attempts to mass for an attack on the base were broken up by artillery and aerial bombardment. Battalion and company-sized probes against the Marines' perimeter were beaten off. By March 9, Saigon reported that NVA strength around Khe Sanh had been reduced to 6,000 to 8,000 men.21 On April 9, for the first time in weeks, not one enemy shell crashed into the combat base.22
The NVA departed from Khe Sanh; by April 15 the U.S. Command announced that the operation for the relief of the base had been concluded and all objectives had been secured. The siege was over. Westmoreland claimed the NVA lost between 10,000 and 15,000 men and hailed the confrontation as a great US victory.23
Army units entered the base, the first to arrive by land in months. They stared at us in disbelief; some of the Marines wore beards, all needed haircuts, all were exhausted. Our clothes were filthy and we were unwashed. The 1st Cavalry had the attitude that they had "relieved" us, that they had "broken" the NVA siege. We largely ignored them.
The largest convoy I have ever seen in Vietnam formed up and we drove to Camp Carroll, the nearby firebase from which I had been sent to Khe Sanh five months previously. Khe Sanh was no longer a Garden of Eden. The aerial bombardment had turned the countryside into moonscape, everything had been destroyed. Not a tree was left standing. There were no shades of green.
NVA General Vo Nguyen Giap claimed that Khe Sanh was never very important to the NVA, only serving as a feint to draw US forces away from the populated areas during Tet. Giap considered Khe Sanh an NVA victory.24
In June, 1968, it was announced that Khe Sanh was being abandoned. The Marines proceeded to dismantle the base, slashing sandbags, blowing up their fortified positions, filling in trenchlines with bulldozers, hauling away everything of possible use to the enemy. The last Marines left on July 6.25
In their leaving, both sides turned the base over to the rats, whose population likely expanded still further now that the monsoon had ended, air and artillery strikes had ceased, and there was no human population to harass them. The rats were free to police the remaining ration scraps within the base and the huge quantity of body parts that must have lain without. And when this food supply was consumed they too would depart Khe Sanh.
1 A homemade sign with these words on it was attached to a bunker at Khe Sanh during the siege.
2 John Prados and Ray W. Stubbe, Valley of Decision: The Siege of Khe Sanh (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.), 1991: 15.
3 Thomas Y. Canby, "The Rat: Lapdog of the Devil," National Geographic (July, 1977): 87.
4 Prados and Stubbe, loc. cit.: 54-55.
5 Ibid.: 148.
6 Robert Pisor, The End of the Line: The Siege of Khe Sanh (New York: Ballantine Books), 1982): 10, gives a figure of 20,000 NVA. Michael Herr, Dispatches (New York: Avon Books): 113, mentions 40,000 NVA. The figure of 5,000 Marines is from Pisor, ibid.: 9.
7 Prados, loc. cit.: 251.
8 Ibid.:. 255.
9 Pisor, loc. cit.:. 181.
10 Ibid.: 181.
11 Time, February 16, 1968: 38.
12 Ernest Spencer, Welcome to Vietnam, Macho Man (Corps Press) 1987: 110.
13 Prados, loc. cit.: 7.
14 Captain Moyers S. Shore II, USMC, The Battle for Khe Sanh (Washington, D. C., Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps) 1969: 121-122.
15 Prados, loc. cit.: 235.
16 Ibid.: 6.
17 Gustav Hasford, The Phantom Blooper (New York: Bantam Books), 1990: 12.
18 Canby, loc. cit.: 87.
19 Ibid.: 68.
20 The Rat Explosion, Atlas, September, 1978: 58
21 Pisor, loc. cit.: 211.
23 Ibid.: 237.
24 Oriana Fallaci, Nothing and So Be It (Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday & Co.) 1972: 85-86, quoted in Pisor, loc. cit.: 241.
25 Prados, loc. cit.: 448.
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