War correspondent Michael Herr, in his book Dispatches, wrote, “The Marines at Khe Sanh saw the Lang Vei survivors come in. They saw them and heard about them up in their Special Forces compound, holding off all visitors at rifle point, saw their faces and their unfocused stares, and they talked quietly among themselves about it. Jesus, they had tanks. Tanks!…..”
Why did Giap commit 13 tanks and a regiment to take Lang Vei? Lang Vei was key terrain. It was strategically located along Highway 9, a major egress of the Ho Chi Minh trail and on the line of communication to Khe Sanh. Giap had to destroy Lang Vei for two reasons:
It was an observation post along the Laotian border preventing unhindered infiltration of NVA units from Laos
Lang Vei’s garrison provided flank security for Khe Sanh and could maneuver against an NVA attack on the Marine base.
But the defenders of Lang Vei destroyed over half of the NVA armor force. NVA troop losses were much larger than expected, preventing them from concentrating an attack against the U.S. Marine combat base at Khe Sanh. The attrition of NVA units at Lang Vei caused a strategic shift in NVA troop deployments. Heavily attritted NVA units, which were engaged in combat at Lang Vei and around Khe Sanh, were later committed to Hue with little effect.
The defenders of Lang Vei were successful in interdicting and attritting the attacking NVA ground forces because of the camp’s combat power, i.e. maneuver, firepower, protection, and leadership.
Maneuver plays a limited role in a defending force’s combat power. However, the mutually supporting positions at Lang Vei forced the enemy to split his forces and to maneuver at a disadvantage.
484 men defended Lang Vei. They were heavily equipped with crew served automatic and indirect fire weapons including two 106mm and four 57mm recoilless rifles, two .50 caliber heavy machineguns, and 4.2 inch, 81mm and 60mm mortars. The artillery and close air support for the camp was well planned and emphasized likely avenues of approach and suspected enemy staging areas. Willoughby called in the fire support while his NCOs manned the crew served weapons. This firepower, specifically Holt’s 106mm recoilless, substantially attritted the attacking force. Absent during the attack was LT Bailey, the designated operator of the other 106mm recoilless. A replacement wasn’t assigned during his absence. This reduced the camp’s anti-tank firepower. LAW malfunctions degraded the effectiveness of the anti-tank teams.
The camp’s defenses, built around the ‘fighting camp’ concept, contributed to enemy losses. The chain link fence and triple strand of concertina with Claymores slowed the NVA infantry. Mutually supporting bunkers with overhead cover and good fields of fire contributed to survivability, complementing the camp’s firepower. The protection afforded by the TOC bunker allowed survivors to hold out for nearly twelve hours until they could escape and evade capture.
Lang Vei was fortunate in having LTC Schungel present to organize the anti-tank teams. Special Forces NCOs rallied indigenous troops and led them in the defense and counterattack of Lang Vei. CPT Willoughby ably coordinated the camp’s defense.
THREE OF THE PRINCIPLES OF WAR
Surprise, Security, and Unity of Command in regard to Combat Power at Lang Vei. [reference US Army Field Manual 100-5]
The NVA surprise attack significantly reduced the combat power of the CIDG camp. “Surprise can decisively shift the balance of combat power.” Although the defenders weren’t completely unaware of the tank threat to Lang Vei, the intelligence assessment came too late for more than hasty anti-tank preparations.
“Security is essential to the preservation of combat power.” The technique of prior infiltration by VC/NVA was common to almost every attack on CIDG camps. Good security measures (especially after the NVA POW walked into the camp) and the vigilance of the Mike Force prevented the possibility of an interior attack by infiltrators. The Mike Force aggressively patrolled the camp’s perimeter and gathered field intelligence. Because of the Mike Force’s daily enemy contact and their discovery of the tank park Willoughby requested an airlift of LAWs and prepared for an assault.
Unity of Command
“The decisive application of full combat power requires unity of command.” Unity of command did not exist between Lang Vei and Khe Sanh. The Marines did not execute the contingency plan for the relief of Lang Vei. This was a contributing factor for replacement of Marines at Khe Sanh with US Army personnel.
US Weapons and Ammunition at Lang Vei
Weapon Quantity Rounds Available
4.2 Mort 2 800 HE and Illumination
81mm Mort 4 2000 assorted
60mm Mort 16 3000 HE
106mm RR 2 20+ HE
57mm RR 4 3000(total) 2,800 AP
M72 LAW 75 NA
.50cal HMG 2 17,000
.30cal MG unknown 275,000
BAR 39 200,000
M60 MG 2 5,000
Grenades 1000 (Fragmentation)
M18 AP mine 390 (Claymore)
M1/M2 Carbine 1 (per CIDG)
Casualties at Lang Vei*
UNIT KIA/MIA WIA POW/ MIA
USSF 4 16 9
LLDB 5 3 –
CIDG 165 29 –
MIKE FORCE 34 32 –
NVA 250-500 (estimated) – –
*7 PT-76s confirmed destroyed and 2 possible
All of the KIAs were initially carried as MIA. Two of those listed as MIA, SFC Eugene Ashley , Jr. and SFC Earle F. Burke, were listed as MIA. SFC Ashley and Burke, were later confirmed as KIA when their remains were recovered. Burke was last seen manning the only remaining 106mm recoilless rifle still in action as SFC Holt went for more ammunition. SFC Kenneth Hanna and SFC Charles W. Lindewald, Jr. — Hanna was wounded in the head, shoulder, and left arm. He was last seen at the mobile strike force outpost (as it was being overrun) treating Lindewald who was severely wounded by automatic weapons fire in the chest and abdomen. Lindewald reportedly died as the NVA swarmed over the hill. Hanna was probably KIA after an NVA tank fired directly into the bunker in which he and Lindewald sought cover. SP4 James L. Moreland, lying in the command bunker with a head wound, was listed as MIA but presumed KIA. SFC Harvey G. Brande, SSG Dennis L. Thompson, and SP4 William G. McMurry were captured and later repatriated in 1972. SP5 Daniel R. Phillips (last seen attempting to escape and evade through the wire while under direct fire from a tank) and SFC James W. Holt were the only two considered “MIA – possibly captured” after the final accounting.
- Camp Lang Vei strength on 6 Feb 1968 totaled 24 Special Forces, 14 LLDB, 161 Mobile Strike Force, 282 CIDG (mixed Bru and Vietnamese), 6 interpreters and 520 Laotian tribal soldiers, not including civilians.
- The SFOD-A 102 Camp at A Shau was overrun by human wave assaults by the 95th Regiment on 9/10 Mar 66. The 141st CIDG company defected en masse to the NVA. Aircraft crewmen and Special Forces soldiers opened fire on able-bodied CIDG to prevent the medevac helicopters from being overloaded. Later when helicopters attempted to rescue other survivors from an escape column trudging through the jungle, the SF and Nungs were forced to club CIDG with rifle butts to restore order. “On 12 March 1966 a final lift-out was summoned, and another panicked CIDG rush on the descending Marine helicopters ensued. This time the CIDG started shooting each other… ” (Stanton 142)
- “Following the battle of Lang Vei, eighteen M72 LAWs were test-fired by Detachment A-109 at Thuong Duc. Six failed to fire: Three of these six failures were due to malfunctions within the firing mechanism. A second check of all firing pins and safeties was conducted, after which a second attempt was made to fire the weapon. They again failed to fire. The tube was collapsed and extended back to the firing position, and a third attempt was made to fire the weapon with negative results. The remaining three M72 LAWs ignited, but the rocket failed to leave the launcher tube. Of the twelve rockets that did fire properly, one failed to detonate upon impact.”