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.
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.
Because of the lack of water, the troops couldn’t shower. Gagne said after he came out, after 77 days without a bath or shower, it took three showers to remove all the red clay and other dirt.
But some things you can’t wash away.
Gagne spent many nights during the siege talking with a member of his fire team from Tennessee who, like him, was just 18 years old. One night his friend told him he had a feeling he wasn’t going to make it home alive.
After Gagne took shrapnel in his abdomen, his team went out without him the next day. Gagne’s friend took point, which was normally Gagne’s position. The friend was killed on the patrol.
“I didn’t believe he’d really been killed,” Gagne said. “So I went to the morgue tent to see my buddy. His leg had been blown off, his fingers blown off … and this was the kid I had kind of kept an eye on.”
Some 30 years later, while he was at a Veterans Affairs hospital being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder, which had made him suicidal, Gagne and his wife went to visit the dead Marine’s family and went to the cemetery where he was buried.
“It had been 30 years, and I hadn’t cried once since I left ‘Nam,” Gagne said. “Seeing where he was buried, I cried like a baby. Khe Sanh is with me every day. You kind of take it a day at a time and do the best you can to keep our brothers’ memories alive.”
All three men said they’re glad to see the warm reception veterans of recent wars have been getting upon their return from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. All of them also said they got no such welcome, returning from Vietnam. Sargent said he was once called a baby killer after he’d returned to the United States.
Witt said he has undergone treatment for cancer, which he thinks he got from exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam.
They have each been recognized with various medals for their service, such as the Purple Heart and Silver Star.
Sargent was awarded the Bronze Star for his role in an attack, outside Khe Sanh, in which 35 Marines were killed while on patrol. He risked his own life to get wounded Marines to safety.
It was an award he didn’t want to accept.
“At first I refused to wear it,” Sargent said. “Now I wear it in honor of the 35 men killed that night.”
Each of the three Marines said they have no interest in ever returning to Khe Sanh.
Keith Edwards — 621-5647