|Getting to the top of Hamburger Hill
Ban Me Thuot to the Chu Dreh Massacre and on to Pleiku
Interviewing General Vo Bam, the architect of the Ho Chi Minh Trail
Hue, the Tet Offensive and the embargo being lifted
Camp Holloway, Pleiku--Home of the 4th Infantry Division
Operation Buffalo and the Market Place Massacre
Rumors, Lies, Legends, Facts and Fiction
Hill 861 sits about 3 to 4 miles northwest of Khe Sanh as an arty round flies. (map) Along with nearby Hills 881North and South, Hill 558 and Hills 950 and 1015, Hill 861 figured prominently in the so-called Hill Fights between the Marines and the NVA in 1967. An excellent description of these battles is told in several books--. The Marine base at Khe Sanh was protected by these lonely outposts, each manned by a company or so of Marines. Hill 861 was a tough climb. By the time we got started from the road, it was very hot and humid. Today the hill is covered in a low grass right down to the road. It would be a hike in the blazing sun. We followed a small trail up the hill until we reached a saddle between one smaller hill to the north and 861 to our south. It was at this saddle that some Vietnamese living in a shack down the side of the hill shouted up to us. Our interpreter had an exchange with them. They told us that we should stay where we are until they hiked up to us. We took a break and checked the maps. When these young Vietnamese men reached us and found out that we wanted to continue up the hill they told us it was extremely dangerous with alot of unexploded ordnance lying around. They recounted that several water buffalo had been killed grazing on the upper reaches of the hill. I always take this type of information very seriously. When I'm near these battle sites I always stay on the "beaten" trail. It is not wise to step off this beaten path. From where we were standing and looking up to the top of 861 I couldn't see any real evidence that anyone had broken trail up there at all. I would have loved to get up there but these Vietnamese also said that the top of the hill is just littered with ordnance. We took our pictures and made our way down. Further up the road from 861 is the area where the Breaker Patrol was ambushed, see my Links page for a site that gives a good description of this battle. This is a definite spot to try and find on the next trip out.Back to Diary
Con Thien (map) must have been one forlorn duty outpost. It was the closest U.S. fixed position to the DMZ and was right in their face. When you stand at the site of the Khe Sanh Combat Base today with some maps you'll get a great understanding of how large that base was when compared to Con Thien. The difference is just amazing. Both bases took incredible and devastating NVA artillery poundings, but Con Thien is just tiny by comparison. It is just two tiny bumps of ground, not even hills. The area around Con Thien is now farmland with furrowed rows of crops all around the old base. There are scattered water buffalo grazing here and there tended by the usual "buffalo boy". A dirt road gets you fairly close to the base and you hike in the rest of the way but a fairly well beaten path used by the buffaloes, farmers and "treasure hunters". The treasure hunters are young Vietnamese men that you find at most of the easily accessible battle sites. These are guys that are looking for anything left from the war. The ordnance they dig up can be sold for the black powder and the metal casings. They also come across stuff left by the Americans and French. When you arrive at one of these sites you'll be approached by several of these guys with their trays of "souvenirs"--some real and most fake. Usually it's dog tags, bullets and casings, M-79 shells, pins, etc. However, they leave alot of stuff still lying around the site because they don't think it's worth anything. Back to the furrowed rows of crops now surrounding Con Thien. These rows are plowed by hand. During the height of the Con Thien siege, like Khe Sanh, this base was impacted with hundreds of rounds of mortar and arty. Every so often at the ends of one of these rows will sit one or two rounds waiting for pickup. It is real easy to spot these rounds as you walk to the two little mounds, actually three, that make up Con Thien. While the area around Con Thien is row crops, Con Thien itself is a tangle of overgrown foilage, brush and brambles. It is so thick in spots that I'm sure we were looking right at old bunkers but couldn't see them. We walked around the entire base. At one end there still exists above ground a very solid cement bunker. The main firing window looks north over the Ben Hai River. We climbed up on top of the bunker and with our maps and compass we were able to look out at the sight of Operation Buffalo and the Market Place massacre. This is the bunker back during the war.
On my first trip in 1994, Con Thien and the area immediately around it was clear of undergrowth. By the time of my last trip in 1996, it was very overgrown and surrounded by a dense thick that was easily ten feet high in some places. Definitely stay to the beaten path. I stopped and photographed an old guy digging for ordnance. He was in a good sized hole, about five feet. He was looking for anything that he could salvage and sell. Our interpreter told us that the year before when he came to Con Thien with another American they had stopped and watched another Vietnamese digging. They gave him some cigarettes and then continued to walk around the old firebase. When they were on the other side, they heard a low, muffled whump. The digger had just struck paydirt but sadly there wasn't enough of him left to collect a paycheck. Con Thien is an awesome site to visit. The more you can read up on its history, the more interesting will be you visit. Back to Diary
Khe Sanh.(map) On my first trip in 1994, I walked all over Khe Sanh--or as much as I was allowed since there was still quite a bit of unexploded ordnance lying around and underground. Apparently cows and buffalo are killed now and then around Khe Sanh and every so often a local farmer will stumble upon an old artillery round with adverse consequences. All that is left of Khe Sanh is the hard packed runway. Within the Old Khe Sanh combat base there are depressions where the major bunker complexes once stood against the incoming NVA artillery rounds. I found a wooden bunker support post with a rusted metal bracket laying on the ground. I did bring that home. I also found a French parachute medal. Also a piece of parachute cord from one of the many parachute airdrops during the siege of Khe Sanh.
Now, in 1994 Khe Sanh is in a transition phase. A coffee plantation has spouted up on the old airstrip and base. On my first trip in 1994, the area was still somewhat untouched and a lot of war debris littered the area. When you first arrive at the site and step out of your van, you are set upon by the souvenir salesmen. These are usually very young boys who more than likely have no idea of the history of the items they are trying to hawk. But now it is time to barter for some "original" Khe Sanh memorabilia or the very least very good fakes. The three best souvenirs I found at Khe Sanh were just lying on the ground, passed over time and time again by these guys. An additional one was something I had to leave behind for obvious reasons. It was the armored glass seat from a helicopter with a bullet hole shattering part of the armor. It must have weighed 60 pounds and there was no way I could get that home.
I did acquire from one of the "vendors" several dogtags. One dogtag was for "E. C. Rayburn USMC". It wouldn't be until early 2023 that I would remember that tag and research it. From that research I was able to determine that the tag most likely belonged to Edward Clay Rayburn. It turns out he was involved in the so-called Ghost Patrol from Khe Sanh on February 25, 1968. See this Ghost Patrol link. Apparently he was severely wounded in the battle with "his lower jaw blown off". He was medevaced out, recovered and left the Marines. However, he died in 1976 as a suicide. He was just 27. Both parents are dead and I have not found a way to reach any relatives. I reached out to a website that is about the Ghost patrol but as of March 1, 2023 I have yet to hear back.
I posted information about this on several other websites that I thought might yield some response. Several months later I received some information from (-----I haven't received permission yet to post his name) that gave me more insight into the fate of Rayburn. This individual had acquired the death certificate for Rayburn which confirmed his death as a suicide on January 23, 1976. In addition, he quoted some text from Gregg Jones book Last Stand at Khe Sanh which described the events of the ambush leading to Rayburn's grievous wounds. This excellent book goes into very good detail about this whole event. I have seen other accounts and they all more or less paint the same picture.
In Gregg Jones' book he describes that Marine LCPL Ken Claire was leading the squad (of which Rayburn was a member) in an ill-fated attempt to flank the ambushers. This is when Rayburn was wounded. LCPL Claire helped Rayburn into a trench. LCPL Claire would be mortally wounded minutes later. From there Rayburn was able to make it back to Khe Sanh after several days.
I did some research on LCPL Claire and as Paul Harvey would say, "Here is the rest of the story." Claire graduated high school in 1966. In 2016 the alumni were planning their 50th reunion gathering. They wanted to do a memorial to their classmate, LCPL Claire. During this time they received a letter from LCPL Claire's brother. He indicated that apparently, in 1970 Rayburn had visited the Claire family and told them how Claire was killed in the ambush. Here is the full text of that correspondence. I have added some clarification where needed with enclosed ( ).
". . . thank you for inquiring about my brother for the memorial you are going to put up for your 50th class reunion. I am nine years ahead of you. Ken was my “little brother” that is until my youngest brother Kevin was born when I was thirteen years old. I’m not quite sure what you’re interested in because there’s a lot of stories about Ken when he was in Vietnam so I thought I would start at the beginning and you can decide what you want to use. Below is what I know about Ken’s time in Vietnam.
Ken went into the Marine Corps very shortly after he graduated from Sequoia and I think was deployed to Vietnam in August of 1967. He was at Da Nang in the early part of his deployment and then went to Khe Sanh most likely in September of 1967. From his letters it sounds as if he was spending most of his time on patrols going up to the top of hill 861 and others that surrounded the base. There are small bunkers on the top of each of these hills and Ken would spend a week or more on their top and then came back down again. That is where Ken started getting a reputation.
When he and I were growing up we would spend our summers in the Sierras at a place called Silver Lake. We used to hike up to the top of Thunder Mountain which is right behind the lake and 9,800 feet high. There is a sheer cliff on the side of the mountain that looks down on Silver Lake. Ken would climb out on this rocky ledge 2, 300 feet above the lake and give out and enormous Tarzan yell. He did the same thing on the top of the hills he was on in Vietnam every morning and everyone in Khe Sanh’s base camp below could hear him. He became pretty much of a celebrity for just that but that wasn’t all.
He got a reputation at being very good at what he did. He also took charge whenever a crisis came up on a patrol and the officers liked him for that. Before Ken knew it he was promoted to a Lance Corporal and was put in charge of one of the 3 squads in his platoon. It wasn’t exactly quiet during this time period and he was on lots of patrols outside the base camp at Khe Sanh. However everything changed on January 21, 1968 when the siege of Khe Sanh’s started with a barrage of mortars, rockets and cannons shells fired by the NVA. It continued almost nonstop for 4 months and 18 days.
The first night of the barrage a Marine was coming back to the base perimeter from the listening post. He got entangled with the barb wire that was surrounding the base with mortar shells and rockets exploding all around him. Ken popped up from his covered position and ran across about 30m with shells exploding everywhere. He un-tangled the Marine and got him back to the trench line. He did a lot more things that night that are well documented in a book written by Ray Stubbe which I’ve mentioned below. Ken received the bronze star for what he did that night and soon after promoted to corporal.
The most infamous event of the Khe Sanh siege and one that Marine Corps has never forgotten was on February 25, 1968. There has been a lot written about what happened on that day and what has been called by the Marine Corps and news reports the “Ghost Patrol”. The most accurate account of what happened to my brother came from information given to us by Ken’s point man Ed Rayburn.
Almost a year and a half after Ken’s death I got a phone call from a nurse at the Veterans Menlo Park Hospital saying that one of the recovering veterans from Vietnam was at the hospital. He knew Ken had grown up in Redwood City and wanted to meet with our family. I told my mother and father about it and my dad went and picked Ed (Rayburn) up. Ed told us that he was one of 3 survivors from my brother’s 16 man squad. He had his lower jaw blown off in the battle and played dead until dark and then crawled away. It took him 2 days to crawl back to the base camp. He couldn’t talk so no one at headquarters actually knew exactly what happened on that day. He was airlifted out the very next day. He had to use a voice box microphone to describe what happened to my brother and below is what he told us.
The platoon was supposed to go out no more than 400m from the base perimeter but they were almost a full kilometer from the base when the ambush took place. They saw 3 NVA soldiers on what was called the Plantation Road. The lieutenant in charge of the platoon was very young and very inexperienced and decided to take off after them. Ken’s company commander said in an interview that the reason why he sent this lieutenant out was because of the fact that he sent the most experienced Sergeant and the most experienced squad leader (Ken) in his company with him to keep them out of trouble. Ken’s squad usually walked point and he told the lieutenant that he thought they were walking into a trap but was ignored. They did walk into a classic L-shaped ambush and were pinned down by an estimated 300 NVA in well-fortified trench lines. The lieutenant told Ken to take his squad and try to outflank the NVA troops that were in the trench line. Ken’s squad had moved parallel to the trench line and when he thought he had outflanked it moved his men across an open field. Unfortunately he turned too early and his squad was mowed down by machine gun fire. Ed (Rayburn) was one of the first ones to be hit. He (Rayburn) said Ken dragged him and three other wounded squad members into a trench and he put Ed right next to him. Ed said Ken fought for approximately an hour throwing grenades and firing his M-16 rifle. Ken then stood up in the trench to see what was happening and was hit but was still alive. He then started firing his M-16 again and throwing grenades when he was hit a second time and killed. Ed’s account of what happened that day is a little different from the official Marines account of the engagement but is most likely the most accurate explanation of what happened to Ken. I thought that would be the end of the story but I was very wrong.
Almost 20 years after Ken’s death I received a letter from the 1st battalion’s chaplain Ray Stubbe concerning Ken. He was in the process of writing a book about Khe Sanh and wanted me to provide as many details about Ken as I could. His first book was published in 1991 and its title is “Valley of Decisions-the Seage (sic Siege) of Khe Sanh”. He spoke about Ken in the number of different places in the book. He published his second book which he authored in 2005 titled “Battalion of Kings. He devoted almost 4 pages to Ken in that book. What I learned about Ken from Ray is that almost everyone in the battalion either knew Ken or had heard of him. In that the second book, which is really more of an oral history, one of the Marines in another platoon said that Ken was tough, fair and always took care of his men. That’s the brother I remember.
There is a lot more that I can go over including a trip to the 50th anniversary of the 3rd Marine Corps and the twenty-24th anniversary of the Khe Sanh veterans in San Diego. It was even more informative as to why Ken was so well thought of by the officers and enlisted men of his company. I think however I have given you too much already. I thought I had a picture of Ken in his Marine uniform but I do not. I will check with my brother and see what he has. I have attached the official post concerning the “Ghost Patrol” below. If you need anything else let me know.
By the way I want to thank you for asking for this information. While I was writing it and doing a little research I realized that I am the only living person in my family that knows the story. Kevin was a freshman in high school when Ken was killed and does not remember much. All of my other younger siblings are no longer alive. Because of you I decided it’s time for me to write the entire story of my brother so that my three children and seven grandchildren can understand what happened to him. Kevin does take his four grandchildren to the Presidio in San Francisco where Ken is buried every Memorial Day. His story has been published in the New York Times a number of times.
What an extraordinary insight into this battle. According to Gregg Jones' book when Rayburn made it back to Khe Sanh (it took 2 days) he could not speak. He was asked about the ambush and could not give details because he had no jaw. Finally when asked if anyone was still alive he nodded yes.
These are the stories that are never heard about the every day grunts in battle, whether it be Vietnam, Korea, WWII, WWI, Spanish American war and so on down the line.
There are a number of decent maps of the layout of the Combat Base in several books. If you ever travel to Khe Sanh you should definitely bring one of these maps. Stand in the middle of the airstrip and orientate your map. Then you can look around the base and get an idea of what duty must have been like during the seige. Off to the west and northwest you can see where the so called Hill Fights took place, Hills 861, 558, 881N and 881S. You should be able to see 558 and 861 from the base with a good map and compass. To the north are Hills 950 and 1015. I believe Hill 950 had one squad rotating on to it as an observation location. What a spectacular view it must be from up there.
A visit to Khe Sanh should be an all day event. Do some reading on the history of the seige. Familarize yourself with the layout of the base. Then spend some time just wandering around it in the quiet. Back to Diary
General Võ Bẩm (see picture)was a major in the North Vietnamese Army in 1959 when he was tasked personally by Ho Chi Minh to devise a method of getting men and materiel to the South. With a small detactment of men they hacked their way through the wilds of the Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian jungles to set up the rudimentary system. It was Vo Bam who devised the series of rest stops along the trail spaced some twenty klicks apart. Gerry Schooler of Viet Tour Expeditions had arranged for me to meet the General in Hanoi for a fee. I had no problem paying to meet the General, in fact Gerry went in on the fee as well. Compared to what Westmoreland and Schwartzkopf get for an evening speaking engagement, the tiny fee we afforded General Vo was minute in comparsion. Just before meeting the old General, we had all just come from the masoleum housing the preserved body of Ho Chi Minh. Oddly enough, General Vo Nguyen Giap lives in a house right next to Ho's masoleum. We could have met with Giap for a little bit more of a fee but he was out of the country. To meet the General Vo we drove to a residential section of Hanoi. We were ushered into a room to meet the General, his wife and his son. Apparently his son was now a Colonel in the Army but had served during the war in the area around Cu Chi. They received us very cordially and friendly. We were only allowed to take photographs, no video or sound recording was allowed. According to Gerry, he was fairly sure this had something to do with the recent broadcast on American TV that dealt with the Ia Drang fight. Apparently some Americans had returned to the site of the battle, accompanied by one of the news magazines. During the course of the piece the crew had interviewed the NVA commander during the battle and at some point this commander stated that the NVA were willing to "lose ten men to kill one American". Apparently this didn't go over well with the current government when they heard this, especially since the commander was interviewed without government clearance. Anyway, when we met with the General the government was still very sensitive about anything someone might say that could end up on national American TV. Our interview session ended up with us just informally asking questions which the General tirelessly answered. We spoke through interpreters. When interviewing someone in this manner always direct your voice to the person you are talking too, not the interpreter. The one memorable question I asked was . . . "General, was the war difficult?" The General's answer was priceless and quick, "Which war", he replied, "The war with the Japanese, the Chinese, the Americans, the Cambodians, the French? They were all difficult." It was a pleasant session to listen to the General recount his life. I wished that we could have stayed longer.
He died in 2008 at the age of 108.
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Hue, the Tet Offensive and the embargo being lifted all sort of came together on the same day in April 1994. I was about 4 miles north of Hue looking for the location of the NVA's command center for it's Tet 1968 attack on Hue City. The building is described on page 317 of Eric Hammel's Fire in the Streets , a great account of the Battle for Hue during Tet 1968. It was an American-built concrete structure about 3 stories tall. We stopped out van along Highway One which runs along next to the village. I estimated that the building was still about a mile back into the village. We couldn't drive back into the depths of the village so I set off walking with the interpreter. The villagers were extremely friendly and eager to help. When the building was described by me to the interpreter and then to a local villager they all seemed to understand and pointed back in a direction deeper into the village. I continued on. I didn't know it at the the time (this was April 1994) but the trade embargo had been lifted by Clinton. This accounted for the excitement of the villagers. To be continued. . .Back to Diary
Camp Holloway, Pleiku--Home of the 4th Infantry Division must have been an awesome site back during the war. I had read that this base had over 25,000 troops on it at it's high point. During the war I had only passed through the Pleiku airport. Now years later in 1994, I was coming up from the south along Highway 14 from Ban Me Thuot headed on into Pleiku. I told the driver that I wanted to stop at the Camp Holloway's location and if did he know where to turn off. He said he did. I figured that such a huge base was probably turned over to the South Vietnamese after the 4th left and then after the South fell, the NVA moved right in. It probably would still look the same, except for the sign out front. What a suprise I was in for when we reached the turnoff and the interpreter said, "Here we are". I was stunned for all that is left of this sprawling base is the cement island that must have been by the MP station at the entry gate. That's all that's left, just the cement island. Even the metal base that held the crossing arm is sawed off at the nub. When you look back into what was the base there is nothing but low, rolling scrub. What was there is gone without a trace. I took several pictures and that was about it. There is a large, single mountain just south of the Camp that pushes up from the surrounding countryside. I'm sure there was probably a base or observation outpost up there. We didn't have time to try to get up there but it's something I would like to research. After that we just drove on into Pleiku. Back to Diary
Operation Buffalo and the Market Place Massacre (see map) is described very well in the book, Operation Buffalo: USMC Fight for the DMZ by Keith William Nolan. Starting on July 2, 1967, a column of Marines of the 9th Marine Regiment is doing a sweep up a large trail or road about 1-1/2 miles northeast of Con Thien. The NVA lay in ambush positions and when they sprung the trap, a tremendous battle ensued which is described in Nolan's book. Upwards of 35 Marines are killed and when reinforcements are rushed in, the fighting escalates. By the end, this ambush costs the lives of 96 Marines with 211 wounded.
Today this same road intersection sits in the midst of a thriving village. I never knew anything of the particular battle until I read the book. It was an incredible fight. I've walked on our Civil War battlefields and there is a solemnity and magnitude to them. I get that same feeling when I walked around the battlefields of Vietnam in places like Khe Sanh, Hamburger Hill, Lang Vei, and so on. The map in the book is absolutely dead-on as to the location today. You can place yourself quite accurately at each key location. Sure it probably looked different back then as there were no civilians in the area and the foilage might have been more scarce. Nonetheless, it is sobering to stand at the road intersection where one marine machine gunner had set up an incredible base of fire, saving alot of his men. My brother, Steve, broke out his metal detector and we set about scouring for any signs left of the battle. It would be extremely rare that we would find something after over 25 years of monsoons rains and flooding. The site is now home to a village that spreads throughout the ambush area. As Steve swept the metal detector back and forth, he was surrounded and followed by up to 30 kids and adults watching our every move with extreme curiousity. I was relatively confident that any unexploded ordnance left over from the War was long gone as the villagers were everywhere and unafraid to walk wherever. However, when we were exploring an area that was probably where NVA gunners had set up with a good view of the Marines on the road we started taking some good blips on the metal detector. It was obvious that something fairly large was buried under the ground. It was also in an area where people wouldn't normally walk so I was a little cautious about digging. Using a plastic garden trowel I started to gingerly remove the dirt like Leakey in Oldavi Gorge. I'd dig a little bit, then let Steve blip it with the detector and then continue digging. This went on for several minutes. All the while we are surrounded by a large crowd of chattering Vietnamese. Suddenly out of the corner of my eye I see an object moving very fast and then thudding in front of me where I am digging. Some farmer has decided to lend a hand with his steel hoe driving it into the ground with a loud metallic clank as metal strikes metal. I jump out of my skin, thankful that it was not some unexploded ordnance. It turned out to be some unidentified metal. I thank the farmer for his help. Steve and I realize that the area is too crowded to do a proper search with the detector. If you ever get up to this site you should definitely read the book and become familiar with the battle. As you walk along the road and come to the locations of the various incidents described in the book it is very sobering. Wandering around this site and using the information from the book was as powerful as any trip I've made to a Civil War battlefield.
This is the site of a horrific battle.
Tragically, Keith William Nolan died too soon at age 44 in 2009. If you have not read any of his books please check him out.
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