Hank Melanson remembers his friend’s face on that January day a half century ago, outside Khe Sanh in what was then part of South Vietnam.
Three bullets had just ripped through the throat and heart of Ed Heifner, an 18-year-old Marine like Melanson, as the two young men pushed up a hill near the site of a 77-day siege by communist forces.
“He had no expression on his face. Just blue-eyed, football player. Young guy. Just no expression on his face at all,” Melanson, now 68, said from his home in north central Spokane last week.
The battle that day in the hills near the border with North Vietnam was just the second time Melanson, who had arrived in the southeast Asian country just a few weeks earlier, had been under enemy fire. Before the end of the attacks, which lasted nearly six months, hundreds of American servicemen lost their lives. The battle for Khe Sanh served as a precursor to what came to be known as the Tet Offensive. Named for the lunar new year observed in the country, the North Vietnamese attacked on all fronts in an attempt to demoralize American and South Vietnam forces.
The push became a crucial turning point in the war that helped topple an American presidency and divided public sentiment in the Inland Northwest and throughout the country.
For Melanson, an 18-year-old Marine Corps private from Massachusetts by way of Canada, the larger geopolitical implications of the attack were lost in the daily struggle to stay alive as mortar shells rained without pause. He was a member of the 2nd Battalion of the 26th Marines, which was moved to Khe Sanh in the middle of January.
“It was day and night. The whole first three months I didn’t sleep. You were just too damned afraid,” he said.
Melanson has accumulated books, maps and photographs of the war in his home, and he recently signed a South Vietnamese flag owned by a fellow Marine, Larry Lutz, that has the autograph of servicemen who fought near Khe Sanh. Among Melanson’s mementos is a black-and-white printout of Heifner, in his Parma, Ohio, high school football uniform.
An album full of color photographs, some taken during the rare moments of down time during the war’s tumultuous turn in 1968, are also among Melanson’s mementos. In one, a grinning, shirtless young Melanson smiles broadly into the camera, his sandaled-feet touching each other cross-legged on a beach. In another, he stares down the sights of an M79 grenade launcher.
Holding the combat base near the village of Khe Sanh became an obsession for the American military brass, even as thousands of North Vietnamese regular soldiers and the Viet Cong, armed Communist sympathizers from the south, sought to overrun major cities such as Saigon, Hue and Da Nang. Six thousand Marines, including Melanson, took up positions at Khe Sanh against enemy forces that outnumbered them nearly 7-to-1.
After nine days of fighting at Khe Sanh, the North Vietnamese launched the offensive on Jan. 30. They first attacked the coastal city of Nha Trang, a military headquarters for the U.S. forces. Battles in the cities of Saigon, Hue and dozens of district capitals quickly followed.
Violent images of the Tet Offensive’s aftermath in South Vietnam were broadcast into homes throughout the United States, slowly turning what had been perceived up until that time as a successful military campaign into growing discord, said Robert Dean, an associate history professor at Eastern Washington University.
“What happened after Tet, was a lot of the people who had been fairly committed supporters of the war in Vietnam simply decided that, under the conditions that existed, the war could not be won,” said Dean, who has examined the causes of American escalation in the Vietnam War.
President Lyndon Johnson began an escalation of ground troops in Vietnam in 1965. A Gallup poll taken in September of that year showed 24 percent of Americans believed committing troops was a mistake. By the time of the Tet Offensive, that number had nearly doubled to 46 percent. By the end of 1969, it was near 60 percent.
The cultural upheaval seen across the United States also was felt in the Inland Northwest. In 1965, hundreds of Washington State University students rallied not against the war, but to collect blood donations for American service members overseas, according to an Oct. 19 issue of The Spokesman-Review.
David Rose, then a senior at the university, told the newspaper the drive was inspired by student protests around the country, which he said were “not representative of most college students.”
But just three years later, in April 1968, hundreds of students again assembled, this time to call for peace. In October 1969, Gonzaga University canceled classes to observe a national day calling for a moratorium to the conflict.
Peace protesters in Spokane were twice pelted by eggs and tomatoes during demonstrations held in 1967. An April march prompted an unnamed woman to fling the items at marchers and accuse them of “giving aid and comfort to the enemy by their propaganda,” according to an account in the April 15 edition of the Spokane Chronicle.
Then, in October, a 17-year-old Montana woman was arrested for heaving eggs and tomatoes at peace marchers outside of the downtown Spokane federal courthouse. Sheila D. McIntyre told police her act of disorderly conduct was fueled by her husband’s service overseas.
David Carlson was a 19-year-old Navy storekeeper when he returned to his hometown of Spokane in August 1967 during a 30-day leave from his post at Camp Tien Sha, an outpost just southwest of Da Nang. Carlson, now 70, recalled a coldness in the eyes of some people when they realized he was serving in the war.
“There were lots of people against it,” Carlson said. “I didn’t see any protests, because I was trying to get my 30 days in and get the most out of it.”
Carlson returned to Da Nang after his brief visit home. That city, too, became a target of the Viet Cong in the offensive. For Carlson, a member of the Navy’s combat engineers known as the Seabees, the ramp up of the war was seen only in the additional bustle at the city’s airport and volume of classified mail that needed to be delivered.
“I think it was all building up, you know?” said Carlson, who was part of the first graduating class at Ferris High School.
Carlson’s tour ended in March of 1968, just as the first push of the Tet Offensive was ending. But before leaving the country, his routine trip into town to pick up the mail included a brief and stark reminder of the escalating violence that had begun to shock the folks back home, including his mother.
A pile of the dead had been stacked near a bridge into town. A photograph of the grisly scene wound up in Time magazine, Carlson said, which his mother saw and asked him about when he returned.
“You learn, pretty quickly and no matter what your age, if there’s a lot of bad stuff going on and you see it, you don’t want to tell anyone about it at home,” he said.
Melanson returned home and found himself unable to talk to his friends who hadn’t been overseas about his experience.
“People that I knew, really didn’t understand what had happened,” he said. “The young guys that I knew, and hung out with, they’d ask, ‘How many people did you kill?’ Really, no clue about what was going on.”
After the war, Melanson worked for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, repairing aircraft used to patrol the border for drug trafficking, crossing paths with pilots who flew in Vietnam and subsequent American conflicts. He also ran ultra-marathons for two decades, completing more than 150 of the long-distance races.
Melanson’s photo albums include pictures of return trips to Vietnam in the years since the conflict ended. They show rivers crisscrossing the valleys where his friend died, and of grinning villagers living in stilted huts, beaming with their arms wrapped around friends and family.
There’s also a photo, taken just before he finished his tour of duty, of the Marines who would replace him in the thick of the fighting. They’re squatting or seated on their backpacks, new green fatigues covering their young shoulders as they turn to the man with the camera.
“These were new guys, they were fresh,” he said. “I had to take a picture. I didn’t feel good for them. They had no idea.”
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