Following his lecture at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum the night before, Retired U.S. Marine Colonel Richard Camp presented a lecture entitled “Ringed by Fire: Siege of Khe Sanh 1968” covering his experience serving in the Vietnam War at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library on January 31, 2018. Camp provided details regarding the three months he spent dodging artillery, mortar, and rocket rounds while preparing for an expected North Vietnamese assault known as the Tet Offensive starting January 21, 1968.
Camp started the lecture briefly describing his transition as a 27-year-old Marine Captain working in a “ceremonial” Washington D.C. post to placement in the middle of the Vietnam War stating, “ I traded in my white trousers, blue blouse, and sword for a .45 caliber pistol and jungle utilities.” Camp said leaving his wife and 3 year old daughter in Indianapolis for Vietnam was the “hardest thing I have had to do in my life” as he wondered whether he would ever make it back from Vietnam.
After completing brief air artillery and reconnaissance training, Camp said he remembered landing in Vietnam and the starch on his utilities immediately melting due to the humidity. After checking in to the 3rd battalion 26th Marine regiment, Camp learned that his predecessor was killed in action, which he described as a “real eye-opener” in moving from the “theoretical experience” to the “gut level” reality of war.
Expecting more instruction in his first meeting with his regiment Colonel, Camp recalled his commanding officer simply asking him his name and if he had any questions (to which he had none) and replying “Okay, go get’em!” Camp discussed being dropped by helicopter on a hill in Khe Sanh and meeting his battle-hardened platoon as the fresh “new guy” and then seeing his first action in Vietnam with his platoon. Camp’s lecture included a number of stories and photos about his time in Khe Sanh, starting with being fired upon by North Vietnamese in a listening post. Camp shared a photo of five dead North Vietnamese from the incident.
Camp then turned to the first day of the Tet Offensive noting that he lost two troops that day. Camp then shared pictures and details of a map of Khe Sanh Plateau, with Marine tent barracks taking artillery and mortar fire from North Vietnamese noting that “being under incoming is absolutely terrifying” because “it feels like every round that comes, it will hit you in the back.” Camp also included photos of an overhead view of the combat base, three Marines taking cover in a bunker trench taking incoming fire, a Marine with the quote “Caution: Being a Marine in Khe Sanh may be hazardous to your health,” and an air photo of Khe Sanh.
Camp explained that the daily routine of a Marine in Khe Sanh required digging trenches and filling sand bags, and he insisted that even as an officer he dug his own trench. He provided more details of his daily experience by sharing photos of a Marine shaving in a trench, an above ground bunk before and after the Tet Offensive, a direct hit of an ammo dump, a C-130 airplane piloted by Henry Wildfang shot down by North Vietnamese anti-aircraft artillery and covered in black smoke, a C-130 dropping supplies via parachute, a large mound of empty 105 millimeter artillery rounds, a C-130 dropping napalm, and Navy doctors and corpsman conducting an emergency operation on the wounded.
Camp indicated that he had to wait for a wounded soldier to board a medevac flight out of Khe Sanh on his last day. Camp concluded the lecture with a photo on Khe Sanh Hill 881 South saying that a lieutenant would play “To the Colors” at a different location every day and immediately drop because within 45 seconds the North Vietnamese would immediately fire on their position.
Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library Deputy Director Joel Westphal introduced Richard Camp and noted that the lecture is the second part of a four-part series on Vietnam. The National Archives and Records Administration, Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation and the Armed Forces Thanksgiving contributed to the program. Westphal recognized and thanked all the Vietnam veterans in the audience. Camp closed by answering questions from the audience.