The 77-day Siege of Khe Sanh - ow-watch

The 77-day Siege of Khe Sanh

The 77-day Siege of Khe Sanh

 Sgt Jerry Wayne Hinkle, Lima Battery, 4th Battalion, 12th Marines, 1968.

 

On 9th September 1967 Sergeant Jerry Wayne Hinkle stepped off a C-130 supply aircraft into the stifling heat of the Khe Sanh valley, close to the Laotian border. Checking the Ollech & Wajs wristwatch he’d just picked up at the Dong Ha base exchange, he saw that it was not even midday.

Beyond the hustle and bustle of the airfield was the most breathtaking landscape Sgt Hinkle had ever seen. Out of a vast and seemingly endless jungle canopy rose hills so huge that the tops disappeared into the clouds. He could not have guessed it then, but he and his new watch would soon be fighting for survival in the most brutal and deadliest battle of the entire Vietnam conflict, the 77-day siege of Khe Sanh. 

50 years on, as a tribute to his late father, Jeffrey Taylor Hinkle set out on his own mission: to find the exact same Ollech & Wajs watch that had served his father so well all those years ago.

 
Listen to audio story below
  

 

The Khe Sanh combat base was situated in the remote far northwest corner of South Vietnam. Isolated by miles of triple-canopy jungle, it was virtually inaccessible except by air. From above, the landing strip looked like a little bald patch shaved into the undulating green landscape. Its proximity to Route 9 and the Ho Chi Minh trail – the two main supply routes into the south – made the base valuable real estate to both sides. It provided US Army General William Westmorland and the military planners in Saigon a base from which to monitor and disrupt the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong (VC) troop movements across the border. Just how highly prized it was by the enemy became clear to Washington when intel reports revealed that two divisions of 20,000 highly trained and well-equipped NVA troops were heading for the area, with the intention of capturing the base.

President Lyndon B Johnson was concerned that the 5,000 Marines, at the base and dug into the surrounding hills, were horribly outnumbered and faced impossible odds. Westmorland, whose Marines had already repelled several attempts by the NVA to take the surrounding hills, considered the base too great an asset to concede. The decision was made. Despite the overwhelming numerical disadvantage, the Marines would stay to defend it, and an additional 1,000 troops were ordered in to bolster those already there. This brought the total at Khe Sanh to around 6,000 – the maximum that could realistically be supplied with the 60 tons of food, water, ammunition and medical equipment needed per day for the base to function. Sgt Hinkle was amongst the first of those reinforcements to arrive. He was assigned to Lima Battery, 4th Battalion, 12th Marines, with responsibility for one of the 155 mm Howitzers that pointed out of the base.

The next few months were spent preparing and fortifying the base for whatever lay ahead. As the days passed, the sights, sounds and smells of Khe Sanh soon became familiar to Sgt Hinkle and the other new members of the garrison. All around, soldiers were busy unloading crates of supplies as well as digging bunkers, endlessly filling sandbags with the pervasive red dirt of the area. A fine film of red dust covered everything; Hinkle could not even tell the time on his watch without first wiping the crystal. The pigment stained fatigues and even penetrated skin, giving the Marines a distinctive red hue.

Hinkle knew the redness was caused by the high concentration of iron ore in the soil. Before dropping out of college to join the Marine Corps, he had been a biology major, and he remembered reading all about laterite rock common to hot, wet tropical and subtropical areas. He decided to keep this fact to himself – he didn’t want to mark himself out as a smart ass.

The only reading matter to be found at Khe Sanh were the few well-thumbed copies of Sports Illustrated that got passed around the base. Once the daily gun checks and maintenance were completed, Hinkle and his section would while away the hours playing cards or listening to music. They were far too isolated to pick up armed forces radio, so the latest Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan or Johnny Cash cassettes became valuable currency. Much to the scorn of the older grunts, Hinkle and the other ‘new boots’ still fresh from Paris Island kept up a daily fitness regime, doing endless push-ups and sit-ups.

There was no shortage of C-rations, at least not to begin with, and the Marines spent a lot of time dreaming up increasingly inventive culinary creations. Specialities included the ‘Khe Sanh Casserole’, a combination of beef and chicken, and ‘Mulligan’s Stew’, which consisted of three meats beefed up with hot sauce. For the really bold there was ‘Hippies’ Delight’, which was everything thrown in the pot together. The only thing that was strictly off the menu was the universally detested ham and lima beans. Given a choice, even the rats at Khe Sanh would avoid that C-ration.

For the most part, things had been relatively quiet inside the combat base. There were intermittent harassing attacks, mostly at night, and Marines would regularly encounter firefights while patrolling outside of the base. But there was nothing yet to suggest the  grave and imminent danger that awaited.

Sgt Hinkle would scan the landscape for hours through M16 field binoculars, searching for any signs of the sizeable numbers of enemy troops that were reportedly out there. Like many others, he began to wonder how reliable the intel reports were, or if the enemy had simply lost their appetite for confrontation and decided to disperse back over the border into Laos. Aside from the occasional pot shot from an enemy sniper, Hinkle felt reasonably safe behind the wall of sandbags around the gun pit. But things were about to change dramatically.

At around 05.00 hours on Sunday 21st January, several streaks of white light came hurtling through the pre-dawn gloom toward the base. Sgt Hinkle instinctively threw himself to the ground, a split second before the rockets impacted. They tore into the newly laid runway, and the shockwaves blew sleeping Marines clean out of their fox holes. Moments after the first salvo of rockets exploded, the entire jungle erupted with mortar and artillery fire, choreographed like a 4th July firework display. The mess hall took a direct hit, as did the main ammunition dump, which was stocked to capacity with more than 1,500 tons of shells. Now the Marines had to contend not only with the shells and rockets raining down on them from outside the base, but also those flying horizontally from within. The raging inferno in the middle of the base began firing shrapnel in all directions and throwing unexploded burning ordnance amongst the Marines’ fighting positions. The NVA had opened up with everything they had, and the situation fast became truly terrifying. Few Marines inside the base had experienced an artillery attack of this ferocity and intensity. And for the relatively inexperienced soldiers like Sgt Hinkle, who made up the majority, it was simply beyond comprehension.

 Even though every natural instinct in his body was telling him to stay where he was, on the ground curled up as small as he could make himself, Hinkle knew that he and his section had to get the gun working. They did exactly what they had been trained to do, methodically loading shells then firing them back in the general direction of the enemy positions. These were not well-aimed shots – the barrage of incoming fire was too intense for precision, and there were far too many enemy positions to be selective. To make matters worse, the burning ammunition store had held several thousand CS gas canisters, which by now had exploded and rendered most Marines in the base struggling to breathe and virtually blind. Hinkle and his team had to load and fire the Howitzer by feel, unable to see through the caustic haze. They knew it was imperative to maintain a steady and continuous rate of defensive fire, and that’s exactly what they did non-stop for the entire day and night, returning hundreds of shells. It was a very delicate balance, working the gun as hard as they dared without overheating it. A shell exploding inside the red-hot barrel would have ended the entire section’s tour instantly.

It wasn’t until 24 hours after the shelling had begun that Hinkle took his first sip of water. Exhausted and blackened by the acrid smoke that immersed the base, he slumped against the sandbags, kicking away empty shell cases to make enough room to sit down. For the first time he was now able to take in the magnitude of the devastation all around him. Virtually everything above ground was either on fire or had been reduced to a smouldering wreck. The enemy shelling had eased a little, but the biggest threat now was from inside the perimeter, as the ordnance from the ammunition dump continued to cook off without warning. As severe as the initial attack had been, it was light compared with what was yet to come. Hinkle looked at his watch, surprised to see that it was still working, showing the time as 06.00 on 02 January. The date wheel would rotate all the way around another two and a half times before the ordeal was over.

A combination of deteriorating weather and the presence of so many anti-aircraft guns soon made it too perilous to attempt any more flights into the base. One C-130 full of Marines had already been shot down and destroyed on its approach. The only way to resupply the troops from this point on would be by high-altitude airdrop.

The Marines were now on their own.

Back in the Unites States, Khe Sanh had become headline news. Across the country, the public were gripped by the plight of the stranded Marines. Arguments raged about the rights and wrongs of trying to hold the base and what seemed to some like a disproportionate risk to American lives. President Johnson had ordered round-the-clock reports on the situation and had even had a scale model of Khe Sanh constructed in the basement at the Whitehouse, so that he could better understand the daily briefings from the Pentagon. 

 

President Lyndon B. Johnson studies a scale a model of the Khe Sanh area, 15 February 1968

President Lyndon B. Johnson studies a scale a model of the Khe Sanh area, 15 February 1968

   

The Marines had prepared well for an attack, but they hadn’t anticipated the sustained bombardment under which they now found themselves.  Every lull in the shelling was an opportunity to dig in further. They didn’t need the order – they just dug for their lives, with anything they could lay their hands on, even with their bare hands if necessary. An inch deeper was an inch safer. They utilised whatever debris they could salvage to reinforce the bunkers – wooden pallets, pieces of runway matting, logs, empty shell cases, fuselage from burnt-out helicopters. They scurried between bunkers and fox holes in a half-run, half-crouch that became known as the ‘Khe Sanh shuffle’. This was not only a precaution against shrapnel from incoming artillery, but it also lessened the chances of being shot by one of the many snipers that were now well within range of the base.

The now infamous headline in the March edition of Newsweek – and possibly the biggest understatement in the history of the publication – read: ‘Caution, being a Marine in Khe Sanh may be hazardous to your health’.

 

Newsweek front cover, March 1968 (©Newsweek)

Newsweek front cover, March 1968 (©Newsweek)

   

The incoming shells intensified with each passing week, reaching a peak on 23rd February, when 1,300 shells landed within the perimeter on a single day. The once aggressive and arrogant rats, which had terrorised the Marines for months, now desperately took refuge in the bunkers alongside them. A sort of reluctant truce was established between man and beast.

  

Under attack. The Marines take cover from incoming mortar fire.

Under attack. The Marines take cover from incoming mortar fire.

 

The Marines learnt to expect incoming at any time of the day and night, as well as routine daily barrages at 10.00 each morning, again at noon and then at midnight. Sgt Hinkle kept a close eye on his watch, aware that the Howitzer, perched on its octagonal-shaped concrete base inside a large circular gun pit, was a conspicuous target. An NVA gunner who took out a US artillery position would undoubtedly be in line for a medal, and Hinkle didn’t want a posthumous mention in the accompanying citation.

 Aside from helping him to keep track of the time, Hinkle’s watch had an even more vital purpose in the field: to time the flight of incoming shells. The trick was to spot the muzzle flash of the enemy artillery, with the flash occurring a second or two before the blast could be heard. By counting the seconds from flash to impact, Hinkle could calculate the distance of the enemy gun position and, if adjustments could be made fast enough, return fire to the exact spot whence it came.

 

One of the 155m Howitzer gun emplacements on the west side of the Khe Sanh combat base. (©Jim Griffin)

One of the 155m Howitzer gun emplacements on the west side of the Khe Sanh combat base. (©Jim Griffin)  

 

The survival of the base and those within it depended on whether the Marines on the surrounding hills could hold onto them. If the NVA managed to get its artillery onto the top of one of the hills, they would be able to pour direct fire down onto the base, which would effectively be game over. The Marines on the hills were equally reliant on the artillery in the base to suppress the advancing NVA intent on overrunning their positions. Timing would also play a critical role in Sgt Hinkle’s ability to direct the artillery accurately onto these targets. The Marines used a simple system, whereby the artillery would send a shell onto a coordinate and time its flight to impact. The observing Marines on the hill radioed any adjustments back to fire command, who in turn shouted up to Sgt Hinkle, who was then able to lay the gun accordingly. It was an interdependency that relied on perfect calculations, as rounds were often called in ‘danger close’ when the enemy was within a few metres of friendly positions. 

 

An OW ref:105 similar to the one worn by Sgt. Hinkle at Khe Sanh

An OW ref:105 similar to the one worn by Sgt. Hinkle at Khe Sanh

  

Although only in his early 20s, Sgt Hinkle displayed maturity beyond his years, always calm – verging on nonchalant – under fire. Lieutenant Digby H Willard, a fire chief with Lima battery who fought alongside him, recalled: ’Hinkle rarely got too excited or showed emotion. He was an exceptional young NCO and very good with the younger enlisted Marines. They respected him, which made life easier for him and them.’

Sgt Hinkle’s Navy citation also concurred with Lt Willard’s appraisal ‘As a result of his diligence and seemingly unlimited resourcefulness, he gained the respect and admiration of all who observed him and contributed significantly to the accomplishment of his unit's mission.’ It also mentioned his stoicism in extreme adversity: ‘outstanding professional ability, untiring determination and steadfast devotion to duty’.

The deafening roar of the Howitzers was a comforting sound for Marines in the base. As long as they could hear their own artillery sending fire down range, they felt a degree of security and, with the help of a cigarette filter in each ear, had no problem sleeping. It was the distant thuds of the enemy artillery that woke them up with a jolt.

The only thing more reassuring to troops on the ground than the sound of 105 mm and 155 mm guns was the earth-shaking thunder of bombs that rained down from US B52s onto enemy trenches a few hundred metres from the base. So violent were the aftershocks from the B52 bombing runs that the Marines took advantage of them to make ‘Khe Sanh Coffee’. So the story goes, just before B52s began their sorties, the Marines would put instant coffee, powdered cream and sugar into a cup of boiling water. Then they would set the cup down and wait for the vibrations from the B52 bombs to mix the contents together. 

Despite these small moments of levity, the Marines were acutely aware of how dire their situation was becoming. The air strikes were effective to a point, but the enemy was now dug in closer than ever and all around them. They were even digging in beneath them. By listening with stethoscopes at the walls of their bunkers, the Marines could hear the VC just metres away, furiously tunnelling toward them. They were burrowing their way into the base, and it was only a matter of time before they would start to emerge from the ground within the perimeter.

 

The pervasive red dirt of Khe Sanh stained fatigues and even penetrated skin, giving the Marines a distinctive red hue.

The pervasive red dirt of Khe Sanh stained fatigues and even penetrated skin, giving the Marines a distinctive red hue.

 

Despite careful rationing, food and water supplies were now close to being exhausted, and ammo was also running dangerously low. On 22nd March over 1,000 North Vietnamese rounds fell on the base, and once again, the dwindling ammunition dump was detonated. It had all the hallmarks of the final ‘softening-up’ before an all-out assault. 

The Marines were physically and mentally exhausted. Their numbers had been depleted and many were badly wounded, but they were determined not to lose this bleak, hitherto anonymous patch of land. Since the outset of the battle it had gained a new emotional value – too many Marines had spilt blood or sacrificed their lives to allow it to fall into enemy hands now. The Marines would not allow the base to be overrun, even if that meant fighting hand to hand, and they felt sure the final surge would come that night. They watched and waited. There was the usual sporadic gunfire and the occasional mortar, but it was a comparatively quiet night. The dreaded order to fix bayonets did not come, nor did the anticipated attempt to charge their positions.

By first light, intelligence reports began to filter through that NVA had inexplicably started pulling out of the Khe Sanh in droves. Even the sounds of the tunnelling deep underground had ceased. Later that day, the shelling had abated enough for the 1st Cavalry Infantry to move into the base and begin relieving their beleaguered colleagues. As suddenly as it had begun, and even more unexpectedly, the siege of Khe Sanh was over.

During those 77 days, US combined forces flew 26,658 sorties over Khe Sanh, dropping an estimated 98,721 tons of munitions. This, in addition to the several hundred thousand artillery and mortar rounds fired by the Marines, and the considerably larger number expended by the NVA, gave Khe Sanh the unenviable distinction of being the most bombed place on earth.

 Khe Sanh is still the topic of argument, amongst military historians, who debate whether it was a strategically important objective, as Washington claimed at the time. Many have theorised that US troops were placed there to draw the enemy out and keep them engaged in the area, or that the NVA were simply using it as a diversionary tactic in the lead-up to the real objective: the Tet Offensive. The battle has inspired many Hollywood movies over the years and even songs, the most famous being Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’, which mentions Khe Sanh in its lyrics.

For Sgt Hinkle and the other Marines who were there, the whys and wherefores of the siege were of little importance. They just had to do their jobs and try their best to survive. 

  

Band of Brothers. Sgt Hinkle (centre left) and fellow members of Lima Battery after the siege, June 1968.

Band of Brothers. Sgt Hinkle (centre left) and fellow members of Lima Battery after the siege, June 1968.

 

Two months later, Hinkle climbed aboard a chopper, with his M16 rifle and kit bag, for his ride out of Khe Sanh. As the Huey climbed and banked around in the valley, he looked down at the landscape. Now an apocalyptic wasteland of pulverised red soil, scorched and cratered, it looked very different from seven months earlier. The once lush jungle had been reduced to stubble and was littered with the carcasses of burnt-out vehicles and tanks. The base had been successfully held, but that it had cost the lives of so many was hard to reconcile. Hinkle was glad to be leaving this place, though he knew a part of him would remain there forever.

 

(Fifty years later)

 

One weekend in March 2019, Jeffrey Taylor (JT) Hinkle was painting the deck of his new house in Rogersville, Tennessee, when he received a text message from his brother Josh: ’JT, Check out this photo of Dad I found in Mom’s attic’.

 

The photo of Sgt. Jerry Hinkle which had remained hidden for decades in a dusty old slide carousel.

The photo of Sgt. Jerry Hinkle which had remained hidden for decades in a dusty old slide carousel. 

 

JT had never seen a photo of his father in Vietnam. He had seen old college yearbook photos and even a Marine Corps graduation portrait, but in this photo his father looked very different, lacking all signs of youthful innocence. There was an intensity in his eyes that JT recognised straight away – an intensity that had stayed with his father for the rest of his life. 

JT wondered what horrors the young man in the photo must have witnessed and experienced. His father had rarely spoken about Vietnam, and JT had instinctively known not to ask. That chapter of his father’s life had remained a mystery right up until he passed away in 2013. 

JT would have liked to have learnt more about his father’s time in Vietnam. It was only now that he realised how much the things he experienced there had gone on to make him the way he was.

Though his father had lacked academic application prior to Vietnam, on his return he obtained a master’s degree in biology before embarking on a career in education. Alongside his job as a teacher, he continued to serve his country, spending 20 years training recruits with the Tennessee National Guard. He went from Sergeant Hinkle to Principal Hinkle, to Coach Hinkle, and back again to Sergeant. He was a disciplined man and a disciplinarian, and he tried to instil a sense of perseverance and resolve in all who came under his tutelage.

In this photograph, which had remained hidden for decades in a dusty old slide carousel, he did not have the appearance of a man ready to dedicate his life to nurturing and developing young Americans. Bare-chested and dirty, he wasn't so much staring into the camera as through it. JT stared back at his father – ten years his junior in the picture – and couldn’t help noticing the watch he was wearing. It didn’t look like standard military issue. JT zoomed in as far as he could – it was some sort of dive watch. He could make out large contrasting indices on a black dial and other increments marked on the bezel. It wasn’t a watch that he had ever seen his father wear before. The image was too grainy to tell what make it was, but JT knew a way to find out. He posted the grainy close-up on a few military watch forums, and sent it to a couple of vintage watch specialists, who he was confident would be able to help. The answer came back quickly and consistently: ‘Ollech & Wajs’. 

Several people had suggested the same specific model number, the ‘Ref: 105’ Precision Skin Diver. JT Googled the watch and found a few images. It had the no-nonsense, utilitarian characteristics of a tool designed specifically for measuring things – simple, oversized-baton hour indices; and three large, triangular markers, at 12, 6 and 9. He could see exactly why his father would have chosen that particular watch. JT had heard of the name Ollech & Wajs, but the more he discovered about the company and its historical connection with the US military, the more certain he became of one thing: he had to find that watch. 

The actual watch in the photo was long gone. It is doubtful it ever came back from Vietnam, at least not on the wrist of Sergeant Jerry Wayne Hinkle. It was quite common for soldiers who were completing their tours to pass on working watches to other members of the platoon, and JT believes this is most likely what happened with his father’s O&W.

The challenge now would be finding one just like it. The 105 was amongst O&W’s first dive watches and was only produced for a brief period – between 1959 and the mid-1960s. Consequently, they are extremely rare, and finding one in all-original, serviceable condition is no easy task.

For the next seven months, JT searched online forums, auction sites, vintage watch retailers and private listing sites for an OW105. The quest became all-consuming, and more than once he found himself lying in bed in the middle of the night with his finger hovering over ‘increase bid’, for a watch that happened to be located on the other side of the world. It's what habitual collectors of vintage watches call  ‘The Hunt’, and JT’s quarry was proving elusive. Finally, in September 2020, the search concluded when he found exactly what he had been looking for just a few hundred miles away, in Ringwood, New York. That the watch was on home soil was serendipitous for JT – it increased the likelihood of it having a military history of its own. It may even have been worn in Vietnam. For a second, JT even considered the possibility that maybe – just maybe – it could even be … ? No, he decided – that would be far too great a coincidence. Besides, the anonymity of the online auction would ensure he could never find out.

When the 55-year-old watch arrived by post, it was obviously in desperate need of a restorative service. Finding a watchmaker willing to take on the job was a challenge in of itself. But find one he did, and a month later the watch was proudly on his wrist, ticking as smoothly as the day it left the O&W workshop in Zurich.

In this watch and in the process of finding it, JT had also found a kind of closure. Not only had it helped ease the pain of losing a parent, it had also helped create a connection with his father that had been missing. The old photo his brother had sent him had inspired JT to search for the watch, and also to discover more about one of the most important battles of the Vietnam conflict and the role his father had played in it. In doing so, he found the answers to some of the questions that he never felt able to ask while his father was still around. 

Whenever JT looks at the watch, he is humbled to know that his father looked upon that same distinctive watch face during the most defining year of his life. It also helps JT to keep everything in his own life in perspective and reminds him that there are very few things that cannot be overcome.  

JT is sure his father would be proud that he took the trouble to find the watch. For that reason alone, it’s mission accomplished. 

 

JT Hinkle and the OW Dive watch that he wears as a tribute to his late father, Jerry Wayne Hinkle.

 JT Hinkle and the OW Dive watch that he wears as a tribute to his late father, Jerry Wayne Hinkle.

 

 

I had a brother at Khe Sanh
Fighting off the Viet Cong
They're still there, he's all gone
– Bruce Springsteen, ‘Born in the USA’, 1984