The massive artillery bombardment was constant.
The Marine garrison in Khe Sanh was bombed daily – 67 days and counting. It was February, 1968, and the People’s Army of North Vietnam (PAVN) were intent on destroying the garrison.
Vernon Baxter and his Marine comrades turned back wave after wave of determined Viet Cong and PAVN soldiers. It was Vernon’s birthday – February 12th . He was twenty years-old and was having strong doubts he was going to make it to twenty-one.
He never imagined the savagery of hand-to-hand combat where every move could be your last. He wasn’t sure how many men he’d killed. All the days were morphing into one endless nightmare with no end in sight.
He heard Sgt. Borgalack’s voice and sighed with relief. He was a great squad leader, even if he was an alcoholic. He was going from bunker, to bunker, checking up on his men. He suddenly slipped into his sand-bagged firing position.
Vernon and Adam Butiskowski both looked at him, hoping to hear a word of good news.
“How’s your ammo holding up?” he casually asked, while pulling out a pack of Kools and offering them it to them. Both automatically accepted. There was a loll in the bombing – fifteen minutes now – and the remaining Marines were sneaking snacks and lighting up their cigarettes.
The 6,000 weary marines were facing two infantry divisions, two artillery regiments and an armored regiment. Counting support troops, the North Vietnamese had 25,000 men.
It’d be dark soon and the bombardment would resume. Marine casualties were piling up. At 0330 hours, soldiers of the NVA 6th Battalion, 2nd Regiment, 325C Division, attacked the Marines on Hill 861.
Adam was killed almost instantly – bullets peppering his body like angry blood bees as a NVA soldier burst over the barrier with fixed bayonet. In a mystic moment they both ran out of ammo.
Vernon barely had time to draw his K-Bar from its sheath when the bayonet plunged into his right shoulder! The pure pain gave him the strength to stab his enemy in the chest.
The NVA soldier, Nyung Van Tron, let go of his AK-47 and rolled to the other side of the firing line away from Vernon. Pulling out the bayonet almost made Vernon faint. He was so weak and exhausted he could barely move.
Nyung was holding his hand over the wound trying to stop the massive bleeding. Flares were going off all around the perimeter and the two men could see each other by the reddish light.
The two enemies stared at each other. Both waiting for the other to make a move. When Nyung starting coughing up blood he knew a lung was punctured. He also knew he was going to die.
Vernon saw a funny look in the other man’s eye and watched him pull a grenade off his belt. Then a surprising thing happened. Nyung reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a 3×5 notebook.
His photo was inside. It was just two wrinkled pages crudely stapled together. The second page had a photo of a woman holding a baby. Both had writing in them. With a great effort he tossed the notebook towards Vernon.
Then he pointed over the sandbags, urging him to leave. Vernon instantly realized he was being granted his life. Summoning up all of his waning strength he picked it up, put it in his front pocket, and crawled to the exit.
Just before going over the top he looked back once and saw tears in the young man’s eyes. The explosion rained sand and blood on him.
The siege ended after 76 days with a reported casualty count of 205 American KIA (this turned out to be a false count – there were more like a 1,000 American casualties), and 10-15,000 dead NVA. It turned out to be the bloodiest battle in the entire war.
September 10, 2017.
Vernon is married with two children; a boy, and a girl. They are grown-up now and they each have a child. Grandpa Vernon and his wife of 45-years, Susie, are retired and living in a small town in Idaho.
In the last few years Vernon and his wife have spent countless hours on the internet researching the 3×5 notebook that Nyung had given him. Then one day Vernon got a break.
He read an article in National Geographic about a small Vietnamese village that was struggling in Ta Con, which use to be the Khe Sanh airfield, and featured a man named Hieu Nyung.
In the 3X5 notebook the photo of the woman and the baby was captioned, Hoa and Hieu Nyung. Vernon knew what he had to do next. A week later Vernon and Susie went to Vietnam.
They found Hieu, but his mother Hoa was dead. When they gave him the notebook he broke down and cried. He was desperate and his extended family were starving. Local officials had imposed harsh new taxes.
It took a week before Vernon was able to relocate them to another province. Then he set Hieu up with a bank account of $20,000 to build a business that could support his family.
It was a big chunk of their savings, but Susie never questioned it because Vernon was finally able to “come home.”
As It Stands, as a Vietnam veteran (1970), I longed to see more compassion among my comrades, who were scared and angry young men like me. Now, over a half century later, I’m finding Vietnam veterans who learned compassion in their old age.