January 20, 2013

Maine Marines mark 45 years since Khe Sanh siege

Henry R. Gagne, Ralph Sargent and Bill Witt recall 77-day battle at base near North Vietnam border

By Keith Edwards kedwards@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA -- The last time Ralph Sargent and Bill Witt saw each other, 45 years ago, they were inside the U.S. Marine garrison at Khe Sanh, South Vietnam, with about 6,000 other U.S. troops, under siege by some 30,000 of the North Vietnamese Army's best fighters.

click image to enlarge

Marine Corps veterans Henry R. Gagne, left, Ralph Sargent and Bill Witt speak on Thursday about their service during the siege of Khe Sahn, during an interview in Augusta.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

click image to enlarge

Ralph Sargent, left, smiles as Bill Witt punches his arm while telling the story of how Sargent sent him home after being wounded a third time, while they were in the Marine Corps in battle of Khe Sanh, during an interview on Thursday.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

Additional Photos Below

Witt's job as part of what they called the pin cushion squad, keeping the base's wire communication system up and running, often left him exposed and unprotected from enemy fire. He had just been wounded for the third time.

Sargent, now of Augusta, gave a direct order to Witt, now of Harmony, to go home. Troops wounded three times were to be sent home, Sargent said.

Witt, who said his third wound was a "minuscule" injury to his hand from debris from enemy rocket fire, didn't want to go. He wanted to stay and keep fighting with the buddies he had bonded with on the battlefield.

It was not a pleasant conversation, and Witt left angry.

When the two men were reunited recently, to discuss Monday's 45th anniversary of the start of the siege of Khe Sanh, one of the bloodiest and longest battles of the Vietnam War, they looked each other squarely in the eyes and exchanged a firm handshake.

"It's been a long time," Witt said to the man who ordered him out of Vietnam.

Later in the conversation, after fellow Khe Sanh veteran Henry Gagne, of Port Clyde, speculated that he had survived his time patrolling the surrounding jungle and hills of Khe Sanh because he was "just a lucky friggin' guy; I don't know why I'm still here," Witt spoke up about why he figures he survived the war.

"The only reason I'm still here is this guy kicked me out," he said of Sargent.

U.S. troops held off near-constant artillery and other attacks during the 77-day siege of the inland base just south of the North Vietnamese border. Other than inconsistent air support, they were stranded.

The seige officially started Jan. 21, 1968, and ended April 8 when U.S. and South Vietnamese forces re-established an overland connection to Khe Sanh.

The number of casualties suffered by both sides at Khe Sanh has long been disputed. The official casualty figures released by the Marines include 205 deaths and 1,668 wounded. However, the Khe Sanh Veterans Association, founded by Vietnam historian Ray W. Stubbe, a Navy chaplain at Khe Sanh and founder of Khe Sanh Veterans Association, estimates 730 Americans killed in action in Khe Sanh. More than 2,500 were injured, according to multiple accounts.

After the battle for Khe Sanh, U.S. troops abandoned the base and leveled it in July 1968.

"That was a slap in the face," Witt said of giving up the base he and others had fought so hard to protect. "It was an exercise in futility. That's the way I look at it today. The loss of all those guys was a waste of humanity."

Gagne, an Augusta native, was in Khe Sanh from May 1967 to March 1968. He's still got shrapnel in his chest from an enemy mortar or grenade.

The point man and leader of a fire team, he spent much of his time outside the base, on patrol in the jungle -- so much so that the jungle, and the tall elephant grass he often had to plow through, rotted his clothes. Lacking supplies, he tied vines to his pant legs to keep them from falling apart.

The troops also lacked supplies, sometimes getting only one meal a day, sometimes two. Water was scarce as well, so much so that some would leave coats out overnight, hoping to catch dew to drink.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Marine Corps veterans Ralph Sargent, left, and Bill Witt speak on Thursdayabout their service during the siege of Khe Sahn, in an interview in Augusta.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

click image to enlarge

Marine Corps veteran Bill Witt speaks on Thursday about the siege of Khe Sahn, during an interview in Augusta.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

 


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