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KEVIN LYLES
VIETNAM: US UNIFORMS IN COLOUR PHOTOGRAPHS

RIFLEMAN, US MARINES, KHE SANH

The so-called 'siege' of Khe Sanh was one of the most controversial battles of the war, and during the early months of 1968 the base and its Marine defenders were the focus of world attention. During the height of the battle President Johnson requested a written guarantee from the Joint Chiefs of Staff that Khe Sanh would not fall. Situated on a plateau just fifteen miles south of the DMZ, Khe Sanh sat directly astride Route 9, a major highway into Vietnam from Laos. It was recognized as an important tactical position early in the war, and by January 1968 the Marines were at the combat base in force. An old French airstrip was renovated and lengthened, and a network of bunkers and trenchlines became home for some 6,000 men.

The base was surrounded and under enemy pressure from late January to early April - mainly from North Vietnamese artillery and rocket bombardment, though a massed infantry attack was always expected. Life for the Marines inside the perimeter was akin to that of the inhabitants of World War 1 trenches. On some days over a thousand enemy rounds landed in the base, while living conditions worsened as a lack of water and an abundance of rats added to the Marines' misery. Marine artillery from Khe Sanh hit back at the NVA in the surrounding hills with 130mm and 152mm guns; airpower, too, was a major contributing factor in keeping the encircling enemy at a distance.

Though the combat base was certainly surrounded and had to be resupplied entirely by air, the Marine defenders never considered themselves under siege because of the massive supporting assets at their disposal. The Marines' initiative in controlling the surrounding hills was another reason why Khe Sanh never became a second Dien Bien Phu. In early April, Operation 'Pegasus' was mounted to finally clear the Khe Sanh area, though most of the NVA had already departed. The Marines lost a total of 199 men killed and a further 830 seriously wounded in the defence of the base; and when, in June, Khe Sanh was abandoned a public furore questioned the reasons for holding it in the first instance.

In late March the previously dank weather lifted and most Marines took the opportunity to strip off filthy utilities; flak vests and helmets, however, were worn at all times when moving above ground. The helmet cover is another World War 2 type of lightweight 'duck-hunter' pattern fabric. An integral sniper/mosquito net which encased the head and neck when in use was usually tucked up inside the helmet between shell and liner. Unlike some older types, these covers were non-reversible, and featured a permanently fixed cotton foliage band.

Trousers were often rolled above the boot to increase air circulation. The Marine Corps trouser belt was of 2 inch wide light khaki webbing with a simple open frame brass buckle. Worn on the trouser belt is the ubiquitous K-Bar utility/fighting knife in a dark brown leather sheath.

The M1955 body armor is of a type introduced in late 1967 which featured additional lower cargo pockets. These pockets were made of a heavy nylon fabric, though the vest itself was still cotton duck. Some later vests had the rope ridge on both shoulders, and were manufactured entirely in waterproof nylon.

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