Back in the 1980s, Mt. Lebanon High School, south of Pittsburgh, had a great mound of landfill in the rear we called “The Rockpile.”
It was flattened on top into a rectangle and used as a practice field. During track season, discus, shotput, and javelin throwers did their thing up there.
One day, during practice, a classmate with older brothers tapped me with back of his hand and pointed up at the throwers.
“The Rockpile was named after a place in Vietnam,” he said. “My brother told me that.”
The reference was lost on my 15-year-old self in the 1980s, but in the 1960s, when the stadium was built and the landfill mound created, everyone would have understood it.
The Rockpile entered the nation’s vocabulary in the fall of 1966, when news outlets began reporting on the extraordinary battle between the Marines and the NVA for this lone Gibraltar of the jungle just 10 miles south of the DMZ.
Rising almost 800 feet straight up from the rainforest floor, it was a limestone karst, like those in Halong Bay. But this one was positioned perfectly for reconnaissance. From the peak, you could see five river valleys, as well as the East Vietnam Sea, Laos, and into North Vietnam.
The Marines fought ferociously in July 1966 for this perch, then, when the perimeter was secure, established Camp Elliott there.
Atop The Rockpile sat electronic surveillance equipment and small crew. Once the Army tried setting a gun there. There wasn’t much room for anything on the peak, which measured 40 feet by 17 feet at its widest. It had to be supplied by helicopter, which could only hover, not land, when the weather was clear enough.
Helicopter resupply of The Rockpile
Time magazine ran an article about The Rockpile in the fall 1966. Life also published photos. The extreme, even freakish conditions of life atop The Rockpile left an impression on readers.
They also made their mark on those who served near the DMZ along the Route 9 corridor, which ran and still runs from Dong Ha in the east to the Laotian border in the west. For these servicemembers, The Rockpile was a towering landmark, instantly recognizable and useful for orienting yourself on the valley floor.
We stopped on Route 9 at The Rockpile to take photos and talk about the effort made and the lives lost in its conquest and defense.
There’s a Vietnamese flag flying atop the peak, as if to say, “All for naught.”
The tiny village of Khe Sanh is only a 15 miles south west of The Rockpile. It sits at the base of another promontory, where the Marine Corps occupied and enlarged a combat base in 1966.
Three-miles square and almost 2,000 feet above sea level, the Marine base at Khe Sanh occupied a less strategic location than The Rockpile. But it could accommodate more troops. Most historians now believe the 6,000 Marines placed at Khe Sanh were there as bait.
The head of the US Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV), General William Westmoreland, figured the NVA would not resist the opportunity to lay siege to so many Marines, so isolated and so far from reliable resupply.
He was right.
The NVA staged three divisions around the plateau–22,000 men–and attacked on January 21, 1968. For the next 77 days, they rocketed the combat base while trying to infiltrate from the surrounding jungle forests.
The NVA cut Route 9. All resupply had to be done by air.
Life inside the Khe Sanh perimeter descended into World War I-like conditions. Trenches and sandbags shielded Marines from some of the rockets, but supplies on the plateau ran low. Wounded Marines died from blood loss before they could be evacuated. Water had to be rationed.
Meanwhile, the US diverted air power to Khe Sanh to bomb enemy positions. Over 100,000 tons of bombs were dropped by American aircraft and 158,000 artillery rounds fired in defense of the base.
In April, the NVA seemed mostly to vanish. In July, the Marines evacuated the area. Both sides claimed victory.
Touring Khe Sanh is always a highlight, though its impact is subtle and dependent, in some ways, on the knowledge of what unfolded here in 1968. One of our travelers said it was like visiting Flanders Fields in Belgium and France. Looking at the beautiful scenery, you’d never guess what happened there unless you knew the names Ypres and Passchendaele.
At Khe Sanh, the trenches are gone, and so are the sandbags. But the Vietnamese have carted up abandoned US military vehicles and equipment, including a C-130, for display.
In truth, the former Khe Sanh Combat Base is a serene oasis of tropical rainforest, flanked by coffee fields and speckled with roaming chickens.
Former Vietnam Veteran and artillery commander Bob Anckaitis spots his 155mm gun in the photo at the Khe Sanh Museum.
There’s another old museum, developed in the 1980s, with wonderful artifacts, great photos, and crazy propaganda.
One of the delights of visiting Khe Sanh is the journey there and back. Laos is a stone’s throw away, and up in the mountains the dominant ethnic group is the Bru people, not the Vietnamese. Their wooden stilt homes stand out, as does their affinity for Americans.
As we rode up to tour a portion of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, this Bru farmer escorting his water buffalo signaled to us. I’m so grateful Valerie Brendel caught a photo!