The Rockpile, Khe Sanh Combat Base, Lang Vei Special Forces Camp, and Lao Bao: 11 and 12 March 2013

Today we viewed The Rockpile and visited the site of the Khe Sanh Combat Base; we also visited a monument commemorating the Battle at Lang Vei. I tracked the route using a GPS receiver and the tracked route is superimposed on the below Google Terrain Map.

The Rockpile can be seen on this map. The Rockpile is located where the route makes a 90 degree turn and starts heading south. The mountain at the turn, standing in the clear, is the Rockpile. It was used by the Marines as an observation post to find and track North Vietnamese troops infiltrating into South Vietnam through the DMZ. The observed infiltration information was sent via radio communication to the Marine Air Base in Dong Ha, to be analyzed and acted upon.

The Khe Sanh Combat Base site is located where our route leaves Highway Nine, travels northwest a short distance, and then stops. That is the site of the Khe Sanh Combat Base.

Lang Vei Special Forces Camp was situated adjacent to Highway Nine, approximately 4 miles west of Khe Sanh and about 5 miles east of Lao Bao on the Vietnamese/Laotian border. On 6 February 1968, it had within its perimeter 24 American Green Beret soldiers, plus approximately 500 Montagnard and South Vietnamese irregular civilian troops, and 350 Laotian soldiers. Early in the morning of 6 February the camp was attacked by a force of heavily armed North Vietnamese infantrymen, plus 12 Soviet built PT-76 amphibious tanks.This was the first time the North Vietnamese used tanks in South Vietnam. It was a short bloody battle that ended within hours; the camp was overrun and captured by the North Vietnamese. The Montagnard and South Vietnamese suffered 309 killed, 64 wounded and 122 captured. Of the 24 Americans at Lang Vei, seven were killed in action, 11 were wounded and three were captured. An unknown number of Laotian troops and North Vietnamese troops were killed or wounded.

We are leaving Dong Ha and heading west on Highway Nine.

On Highway Nine, heading west.

This is a panoramic photo of the Rockpile, taken from Highway Nine, and looking north. The elevation of the Rockpile is approximately 790 feet above sea level, and about 690 feet above the surrounding terrain. Scroll to the right to see the complete panoramic image.

Stars and Strips

Rockpile Marines don't take many hikes

November 13, 1966, By Ray Mahon

THE ROCKPILE, Vietnam — It's a freak of nature, a jagged piece of rock shaped like Gibraltar that rises 750 feet in the air.

In other wars it could have been called Bunker Hill, Heartbreak Ridge or Pork Chop Hill. Here, it's the Rockpile.

Some experts will argue its value. They say it's not what it has been built up to be, the north Vietnamese really don't want it, etc.

But ask the Marines who died for it. Ask the Marines who are ready to die for it.

The Rockpile was recognized for its strategic importance as early as May, 1966. Located at the junction of five major valleys about seven miles south of the DMZ, it holds a commanding view over five valleys, all infiltration routes from north Vietnam

It is one of three control points the Marines want in the area. The others are Route 9 and the Dong Ha airfield complex.

Marines first came during Operation Hastings last July when an observation team landed on top of the Rockpile. The north Vietnamese immediately attempted to oust the Marines from their roost. Repeated attempts at scaling the Rockpile and pumping mortar rounds into its sides proved fruitless.

With the start of Operation Prairie, the enemy soon found they had other things to worry about. Waves of Marines stormed in and succeeded in wrestling hill after hill away from enemy hands.

Anytime the communists moved, recon patrols, aerial observers and observers on the Rockpile blew the whistle. Infiltration routes through the Cam Lo-Dong Ha area were scaled off, pushing the enemy west and forcing them to use trails through higher and more rugged terrain beyond the Rockpile.

Today, the Rockpile is considered relatively secure. But the Marines who live here are not as conservative in their views. "This place is ideal for the guy who has about one month left to go in Vietnam," said a member of a three-man recon team. "He can put his month in up here feeling pretty sure he will make it back to the States in one piece."

The top of the Rockpile is about 40 feet long and 17 feet at its widest point.

An enemy force attempting to climb it might reach the top in five hours, exhausted, cut and bleeding from the sharp, coral-like rocks. Even then, they would be reduced to single file squads.

There is just one reasonable access and this is by helicopter, which at times also proves unreasonable. Frequently resupply choppers are unable to get in because of rain, fog and the ever-present winds which often reach 50 m.p.h.

Many times a pilot will risk it when supplies are low. The helicopter, however, will not land. but hover about six or seven feet off the ground while supplies are dropped. Woe be to the replacement who chooses this time to come to the Rockpile.

The LZ is a pallet-like, wooden platform about. 6 feet wide. There are 8-inch gaps between the planks so that landing can become a thing of delicacy. The positioning of one's feet when landing is vital.

Those who make it are proud, those who don't are sore. An S&S reporter who made the trip was one of the latter. It was a one-point landing, but fortunately on the padded end of his anatomy.

Life on the Rockpile is peaceful and uncomplicated. Throughout the day and night there's the business-like whispers of the radio operators receiving and relaying messages from one unit to another. Few stray from their poncho tents except to stretch their legs or survey the area with the powerful ship's binoculars mounted on the LZ.

There is one tent where the crackling of a radio isn't heard. It's where the sniper team lives. Lance Cpl. Steve Perlewitz, a 19-year-old from Green Bay, Wis., is one of the men.

Perlewitz doesn't get too much action here although he used to when he was assigned to ground units.

"We've been trained to hit a guy in the head at 1,000 meters," he said. "There's been a time when one of our snipers fired six shots but killed a Viet Cong at 1,300 meters. Up to 1,500 meters there is always a chance."

The enemy apparently realizes this and they stay welt beyond the range of his rifle with its powerful telescopic sights.

The Rockpile. Tours here range from seven days to two months. It offers pros and cons. Some extend their tours here, others are glad to see the chopper land and take them off.

Entertainment is nil unless you want to read a book, chat with a buddy or watch the night air and artillery strikes on hills nearby.

The Rockpile is best described by the people who live here.

"We'll be here for two weeks or so. After that, we could probably get another team to relieve us, but it's so much trouble to get set up here, that we might as well stay a little longer," said 2d Lt. Gus Donnelly of Ashville, North Carolina, a forward artillery observer.

His companion, PFC Ken Polki, of Milwaukee, says, "One nice thing about it is there's no mud, but I hate to see the choppers come in, even though it's our supplies, because they blow down our tents."

"Five to seven days is enough here," said Lance Cpl. Merle Capps of Richmond, California "Most people can't move around much and you really can't get comfortable on these rocks."

Then, there are guys like Lance Cpls. Mark Choquette of Salix, Iowa, and Jacob Correll of Newark, Delaware, who sleep on cases of mortar shells.

"We've been here more than a month now and we don't mind staying for another while. Yon really can save money here," Correll said.

The Rockpile. There's a good chance nobody will want it when this war is over. But it will be remembered.

Stars and Strips - South Vietnam, October 29, 1966: A U.S. Marine enjoys a little shelter from the elements in a poncho tent as he maintains radio communications atop The Rockpile, a 750-foot hill located at the junction of five valleys seven miles south of the DMZ. The Marines manned the exposed 40-by-17-foot summit outpost for weeks at a time.

Stars and Strips - South Vietnam, October 29, 1966: Marine Corporal Steve Perlewitz atop The Rockpile.

As I was gathering information for this web posting, I came upon the sad news that Marine Corporal Steven Owen Perlewitz was killed in battle in Phu Bai Valley, on 26 February 1967, 4 months after the above photograph, and the Stars and Strips story were published. His name is on Panel 15E, Row 99 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Rest in Peace.

A helicopter about to land on, or hover over, the wooden helicopter platform constructed on the summit of the Rockpile. US Marine Corps photograph. Circa1966

The location on Highway Nine of a destroyed bridge crossing the Da Krong River.

The present day bridge crossing the Da Krong River.

A map of the Vietnamese DMZ, Route Nine and a number of US Military outposts: Khe Sanh, the Rockpile, Con Thien, Camp Carroll, Dong Ha, Gio Linh, Ca Lu and Lang Vei.

Khe Sanh Combat Base and Lang Vei Special Forces Camp.

Detailed map of the Khe Sanh Combat Base.

Khe Sanh Combat Base as seen from the air. Circa: 1967-1968.

Khe Sanh Combat Base as seen from a helicopter during a medical evacuation mission. February, 1968.

Stars and Strips

Road to Khe Sanh is no Shangri-la

March 22, 1971, By Dan Evans

KHE SANH, Vietnam - Every day the drivers rev up their two-and-a-half-ton M49C tank trucks loaded with aviation fuel at Fire Support Base Vandegrift and roar out onto the road to Khe Sanh that has already claimed 13 of their vehicles.

The twisting road with its narrow bridges is usually slick with mud. Long stretches run along the edges of deep ravines. There are no guard rails. If it is not raining, Route 9 is likely to be a ribbon of choking, blinding dust. The men argue about which is worse, the mud or the dust, but it is certain that they will drive in one or the other ó and sometimes both.

Enemy soldiers regularly ambush convoys on the road. Eight of the unit's 13 lost vehicles were the targets of Red gunners. Route 9 is littered with vehicles burnt out and shot up or overturned in ravines along the road. Cases of artillery ammunition are scattered where they have fallen from bouncing, sliding trucks.

Elephant grass and brush line the road along most of its length and often there is high ground on both sides. Every section of the route is susceptible to ambush. The unit has been lucky. Their commander said they had not lost a man since the unit was formed at the start of the operation. GIs came to the company from 23 units in Vietnam, he said.

Until about a week ago the drivers made a run to Khe Sanh every day and night, they said. They have since made just one round trip a day. One of the last night runs was ambushed about three miles east of Khe Sanh.

Pfc. Thomas A. Love was driving, about midway in the convoy as it moved slowly up the hill toward Khe Sanh when the shooting started. "The first thing I saw was Red tracers," Love said. The enemy soldiers were on both sides of the road. The tanker ahead of his was hit in the side with a rocket propelled .grenade, and then an AK47 round came through Love's windshield and grazed his head.

"It felt like getting a knuckle sandwich from King Kong, and it bounced me this high off the seat," Love said, holding one hand about two feet off the floor. He displayed his Boonie hat Dick Tracy style, a finger through each bullet hole.

Love drove around the burning truck and stopped to pick up its driver. The GI jumped on the running board and Love sped from the area. "They had an awfully big kill zone," he said.

When the men are not on the road they still have to contend with enemy troops around Vandegrift. The fire base has been taking rockets daily, the GIs reported.

This is the Khe Sanh Combat Base museum. It was closed when we arrived at Khe Sanh.

UH-1 helicopter, as seen at the site of the Khe Sanh Combat Base.

CH-47 Chinook helicopter, as seen at the site of the Khe Sanh Combat Base.


An M48 Tank and a M113 Armored Personnel Carrier, as seen at the site of the Khe Sanh Combat Base.

M48 Patton Tank.

M113 Armored Personnel Carrier.

C-130 military transport, as seen at the site of the Khe Sanh Combat Base.

The C-130 military transport, and M8A1 steel landing mat. As seen at the site of the Khe Sanh Combat Base.

Another view of the C-130 military transport aircraft.

The location of the former Khe Sanh Combat Base air strip. It is interesting to note that parts of the site of the former air strip are now under cultivation, and coffee beans are amongst the crops being harvested.

Khe Sanh bunker (recreated), as seen at the site of the Khe Sanh Combat Base.

Khe Sanh Command Post (recreated), as seen at the site of the Khe Sanh Combat Base.

Bunker (recreated), as seen at the site of the Khe Sanh Combat Base.

Destroyed American tank, as seen at the site of the Khe Sanh Combat Base.

An example of the barbed wire fence that surrounded the Khe Sanh Combat base. The North Vietnamese troops were able to infiltrate through the barbed wire by using Bangalore torpedoes. As seen at the site of the Khe Sanh Combat Base.

Khe Sanh combat detritus. This appears to be a Huey UH1 helicopter. As seen at the site of the Khe Sanh Combat Base.

Khe Sanh detritus. This also appears to be a helicopter. As seen at the site of the Khe Sanh Combat Base.

A monument to the battle of Khe Sanh located in the village of Khe Sanh. The monument is at the intersection of Highway 9 and the secondary road going north to the site of the American Khe Sanh Combat base.

For additional information about the Battle of Khe Sanh, it is suggested that you review the following articles:

1.The Battle of Khe Sanh, 1968
2.Vietnam War: Battle of Khe Sanh
3.The Siege of Khe Sanh Begins
4.Battle of Khe Sanh: Recounting the Battle's Causalities
5.Battle of Khe Sanh

A map of the Lang Vei Special Forces Camp location.

Lang Vei Special Forces Camp Detail.

Soviet PT-76 Amphibious Tank located at the site of the Lang Vei Special Forces Camp. The North Vietnamese used 12 PT-76 tanks and approximately 500 troops to break into the Lang Vei Special Forces Camp. At the time of the attack, the Lang Vei Special Forces Camp had 24 American Green Beret troops, approximately 500 Montagnard and South Vietnamese irregular civilian troops, plus 350 Laotian soldiers.

A machine gun mounted on the Soviet PT-76 Tank.

Vietnamese / Laotian border crossing as seen from Lao Bao, Vietnam.

A Montagnard woman in Lao Bao. 12 March.

Lao Bao. 12 March.

Lao Bao. 12 March.

Lao Bao. 12 March.

Lao Bao. 12 March.

Raining in Lao Bao. This was the only rain I encountered during the entire trip. The rain lasted no more than one hour. 12 March.

Vietnam March 2013 Trip Home Page: Go Here

Vietnam War Medal of Honor Citations: Go Here

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Neil Mishalov

Copyright © Neil Mishalov; posted 29 April 2013