The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

March/April 2003

No Safe Place At Khe Sanh


The trenches at Khe Sanh mirror the gash of war in our souls. We want to avert our eyes but cannot. The trenches themselves, reddish dirt walls holding men with hands on heads, evoke memories of World War I; all fixed in a web from which they cannot extricate themselves. North Vietnamese soldiers (the same unit that overran Dien Bien Phu) unrelentingly dug a zigzag network.

At Khe Sanh, we dug ever deeper and deeper. Deadly incoming - up to 1,600 rounds a day - instantly leveled all above-ground structures and sculpted moonscape devastation. Marines dug. One wrote on a piece of cardboard outside his trench: "Home is where you dig it." We could stand in craters with our heads below the surrounding surface, craters that gazed their deep void into our souls. We all knew: There was no safe place at Khe Sanh.

We knew the location of every trench, ditch, bunker. Occasionally, a close incoming round collapsed a trench or bunker, suffocating those who sought refuge. The trench became their grave, dug six feet deep. Frantically, buddies dug with bleeding hands, canteen cups - whatever they had - to extricate and revive them with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

Bob Ellison, who took this picture of our life that will remain forever with those of us who were there, lived for several weeks in the trenches with the Marines of Bravo Company, First Battalion, 26th Marines. When he left Khe Sanh and delivered his rolls of films to his boss in the rear, he was warned not to return to Khe Sanh. He replied, "I don't want to leave there until those Marines do. I will march out with them."

So he returned to Khe Sanh on March 6, 1968. His aircraft was on its approach to the Khe Sanh airstrip when it was waved off to allow the landing of a small aircraft piloted by a Vietnamese who didn't have radio communications. As it circled, the American plane crashed into a nearby hill, killing all aboard - including 23-year-old Ellison. His father had been killed in World War II, also 23 years old.

Bob never saw the cover of Newsweek dated March 18, 1968, which carried one of his
photographs with the words, "The Agony of Khe Sanh."' It contained eight pages of striking photographs documenting the extent of the price paid and burden borne by its defenders. The price is their lives; the burden is haunting memories of unending night. Yet, in those trenches we gained a glimpse into a core of humanity, an enriching comradeship of having lived with the best we've ever known.

Those who died are not buried in the ground, but in our very being. As long as we live, they live in us.

  Photo: Robert Ellison  
  Robert Ellison, "Marines in a trench in Khe Sanh, 1968" ©Robert Ellison/Black Star  

Museum-quality prints of this photo and others in a series entitled "Under Fire: Images From Vietnam'" are available for purchase from This image is the fourth in a series initiated by combat journalist Catherine Leroy.  


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