MCAS Cherry Point News


Looking back: Marine aviation vital to victory at Khe Sahn

1 Dec 2011 | Lance Cpl. Scott L. Tomaszycki

Every Marine that passes through recruit training learns the Siege of Khe Sahn lasted 77 days. During that time, the 26th Marine Regiment, surrounded by two North Vietnamese Army divisions, was cut off from all land based resupply routes. In this historic battle, Marine aviation provided the supplies and air support vital to keeping the Marines on the ground alive.

“The part I got to play in operation 368 was what came to be known as the ‘Super Gaggle,’” said retired Lt. Col. Bill Egen, a veteran A-4 Skyhawk pilot who flew in the battle. “It was to resupply the outposts on the hills. The issue came about because they could not get helicopters in to them without getting shot down. They came up with a concept that Marine tactical aircraft would escort CH-46’s from the Dong Ha support base to the mountain tops and supply the Marines that were up there.”

Before the Super Gaggle, the resupply helicopters would take anti-aircraft and artillery fire from enemy positions whenever they did a resupply mission. Troops on the ground coordinating the resupply and the helicopters would often face attacks resulting in casualties that required more helicopters to evacuate them. Often, these aircraft would be attacked as well. According to retired Col. William H. Dabney, a Marine who fought there and has written on the subject, Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 364 invented the Super Gaggle to fix the problem.

A Super Gaggle consisted of 12 A-4’s and eight to 10 CH-46’s, according to Egen. The A-4’s were the strike aircraft of choice because they were the only aircraft capable of carrying the required smoke canisters to blind enemy artillery positions as the helicopters flew in.

“The Marines on the hilltops would mark the threat areas with white phosphorous and then the first A-4’s would lay down suppressive fire with snake-eye weapons and cluster bombs, followed by more A-4’s with smoke tanks, which would make a corridor,” said Egen. “Then there would be suppressive rockets and napalm as the 46’s flew in down the corridor. At the time the helicopters would unload their supplies, there would be more smoke and more suppressive fire. This would all take place inside of 10 minutes.”

Dabney cited the change in tactics as being very effective. In the first four weeks of the battle before the Super Gaggle, six helicopters were downed with more than 100 Marines on the outpost killed or wounded during resupply operations. For seven weeks after the Super Gaggle was implemented, no helicopters were shot down, there were about 20 wounded Marines and no Marines killed. According to Egen, Super Gaggles often ran four times daily.

During the battle, Khe Sahn’s main supply dump was detonated more than once by enemy fire, making resupply a critical need. Marine and Air Force fliers delivered the much needed support. Throughout the battle, 96 percent of ordnance delivered to resupply the bases was brought in by aircraft.

“It was just a perfect picture and perfect orchestration of what Marine Air could do as a supporting arm in support of the troops on the ground,” Egen said. “The command authority decided we were not going to lose Khe Sahn, and we didn’t lose it, but that was because the Marines on the ground held it. Tactical aircraft, meaning Navy, Marines and the Air Force, did as much as they could to help them do that. The Marines were the ones truly integrated with the ground forces.”

Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point