The Battle of Hill 881 was a battle during the Vietnam War between the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN, or in US sources "North Vietnamese Army" or NVA) and United States Marines. Conducted in the I Corps Tactical Zone it became known as "the Hill Fights", involving Hill 881 North (16°41′26.5″N 106°39′34.5″E / 16.690694°N 106.659583°E / 16.690694; 106.659583), Hill 881 South (16°40′18″N 106°39′45.2″E / 16.67167°N 106.662556°E / 16.67167; 106.662556), and Hill 861 (16°40′36″N 106°41′13″E / 16.67667°N 106.68694°E / 16.67667; 106.68694)..The Hill designation in this case actually refers to a "hill mass" or a collection of ridges and saddles, the numbers to the elevation the highest point of the hill masses in meters.
The first contact made with the NVA occurred on Hill 861 when 5 American Marine forward observers were ambushed in a bamboo, 4 of which were killed by gunfire.
After this contact, two companies of Marines advanced on the hill 861, encountering heavy fire from entrenched NVA positions, constant mortar barrages on potential landing zones prevented evacuation of wounded and fog cut off most air support. Separated, burdened with wounded and dead (it is American Marine Corps tradition never to leave corpses behind)both companies set up hedgehog positions until relieved by other marine companies.
Even after skinning the hill with napalm, white phosphorus, 500 pound bombs and Huey runs, NVA snipers and machine guns would cut down advancing marines. Entrenched NVA troops would wait until the marines were 20-30 yards from their positions firing on them, bombarding them with 82mm mortars hidden on the reverse sides of ridges and then pursuing them through the burnt trees.
After a constant day and night bombardment, Marine forces managed to take hill 861, the closest hill mass to Khe Sanh. Dug into the hill they found 400 foxholes and 25 bunkers. The bunkers were often fortified with up to 6ft of earth and logs making them all but impervious to the 250-500 pound bombs of Marine aircraft.
Having taken hill 861 the marine forces advanced against hill 881 South covered, as they found later, with 10 times as many foxholes and bunkers than 861. Despite the discovery of the well entrenched bunkers on hill 861; Marine aircraft used 500 pound bombs in the bombardment of hill 881 south for fear of hitting themselves with shrapnel when they flew low over their targets to avoid monsoon cloud.
With hill 881 South insufficiently bombarded, Marine infantry found the going even harder than the previous hill often taking fire from bunkers they had passed effectively being surrounded on hills and ridges that their own artillery and airplanes had cleared of cover.
After the marines had suffered heavy losses on hill 881 South, a new commander ordered the marine air force to break with tradition and use 750, 1000 and 2000 pound bombs on the heavily entrenched NVA forces.
With the hills properly bombarded, American forces managed to take Hill 881 North and South in the same day. After beating off a fierce NVA counterattack on Hill 881 North, the Marines could finally claim victory in what had become the bloodiest battle of the Vietnam war so far.
The high ground dominating the Khe Sanh Combat Base was to the west, northwest, and north-northwest. At the onset of the siege-undertaken by two North Vietnamese Army (NVA) divisions-Company I, 3d Battalion, 26th Marines (3/26) and most of Company M, 3/26, were on Hill 881 South (881S) to the west; Company K, 3/26, was on Hill 861 to the northwest; and three companies and headquarters of 2d Battalion, 26th Marines (2/26) occupied Hill 558, east of Hill 861.
On 20 January 1968, Company I, 3/26, apparently broke up enemy preparations to attack Hill 881S during an aggressive company-size patrol that stumbled into an NVA regimental assault staging area on neighboring Hill 881N. Nevertheless, rigidly adhering to its battle plan, another NVA regiment assaulted Company K, 3/26, on Hill 861 on the night of 20-21 January. Facing the first NVA offensive action of the siege, Company K successfully defended its position.
Capt Earle Breeding
Company E, 2/26
The NVA couldn't take Khe Sanh Combat Base without first taking Hill 861, and once we got there, Hill 861A. If the NVA had owned those two hills, they would have been looking down on the combat base and on 2/26, which was on Hill 558. It was very important to hold 861 and 861A.
PFC Mike DeLaney
Company E, 2/26
After landing at Khe Sanh [on 17 January], Echo Company kept moving around. I don't know if they couldn't make up their minds or if we were supposed to be moving, but we kept going during the day and spent each night on high ground, then we moved again. It didn't feel like we had a purpose. We stopped moving around when we went up on Hill 861 A.
There was nothing but double- and triple-canopy jungle on the hill when we got there. It was heavy, heavy growth, and we saw a lot of wildlife on the way up the hill. It was very pretty, very picturesque.
It was super hot. It was like a smothering heat. Very little wind. The vegetation held the heat close to the ground. It was also humid, constantly humid. The fog would roll up from the valley. Sometimes it was like looking down on the clouds. That was scary because we couldn't see anything below us.
Nobody had any idea what to expect Until we got to Hill 861A, our unit had been running daytime patrols and nighttime ambushes, working out of villages and through rice paddies and small jungle areas [near the coast]. Then, all of a sudden, we're working in the middle of a huge jungle. There were no people, just other Marines.
We had very little communication about what was going on. The only events we knew about were those we could see-fighting on Hill 881S, for example. We knew that something was going on around us. It didn't seem to be super heavy, but it was going on.
Tension was rising, the mood was changing, the people in charge of the company were getting very serious. When we first got to the hill, we just laid around. Then we started getting organized, digging in. The captain walked around, talked with the lieutenants, said, "I don't want a gun here, I want it there," getting ready for something. It was typical of the military; none of us seemed to know what we were doing. Capt Breeding seemed to know what he was doing. He was very squared away.
PFC Mike DeLaney
Company E, 2/26