When Mike Archer joined the Marine Corps on a whim in 1967, he had little idea that less than a year later he'd be in a remote South Vietnamese village fighting for his life against much-larger enemy forces.
"It mystifies me to this day that they didn't overrun the village," Archer said. "Everybody who was there that day feels like it was almost a miracle."
Archer, 57, an attaché with the Senate Finance Committee at the Nevada Legislature, is the author of "A Patch of Ground," a memoir of his war experiences.
Khe Sahn village was what he calls one of the tiny pieces of Vietnamese land fought over by both sides that became meaningless when it was left behind.
"'A Patch of Ground' is from 'Hamlet,'" Archer said. "Something like, 'We go to gain a little patch of ground that has no profit but for its name.' Essentially, Khe Sahn and all the fighting in Vietnam was just fighting over little patches of ground."
In his first book, Archer recalls his time in the Marines, from boot camp in San Diego, his radio training, and finally the week in Okinawa, when he and his buddy Steve Orr, now a lieutenant with the Douglas County Sheriff's Office and to whom "A Patch of Ground" is dedicated, received their orders to report to Khe Sahn.
"The clerk who gave us the news took his pencil and very dramatically swept it to the farthest northwest corner of South Vietnam right under the demilitarized zone and stopped it there," Archer said. "It was a very remote- looking place on the map."
Archer was a radio operator for the headquarters and service company of the 26th Marine Corps Regiment, stationed at Khe Sahn.
"One of these reasons I wanted to write this story was I had the opportunity be so close up in the fighting and as a radio operator in the command bunker among the people making the decisions."
Inside Khe Sahn on Jan. 21, 1968, were about 30 American troops and approximately 150 tribal Vietnamese, called the Montagnards. Surrounding village was a North Vietnamese battalion of up to 600 troops. About two miles to the north was Khe Sahn Base, home to the 26th Marine Corps regiment.
As the new guy, Archer had been sent to the village as the radio man. At about 5:30 a.m. on Jan. 21, NVA forces began a rocket launch on the tiny village. Those inside held out for more than a day, losing about 40 or their people. Archer and others were evacuated the next day by helicopter to the base.
The battle then came to the base. Within weeks, an entire platoon was killed just outside the perimeter, and Khe Sahn was under full siege. Reports released much later indicated more than 30,000 NVA forces in the area. The base was abandoned in early April.
"Khe Sahn was supposed to be like the Armageddon of Vietnam," Archer said. "What happened was, Gen. (William) Westmoreland guessed wrong. He felt like he could draw 30,000 NVA out into the open and decimate them with air power. Only air power isn't that great when the NVA is spread out on the ground."
Archer's book, one of the few written on Khe Sahn, is available at online bookstores and should be in retail stores as early as next week.
"I tired to humanize being under siege for 77 days and living day-to-day life with the constant threat over our bunkers. It just depended where the military shells would land."
n Contact reporter Maggie O'Neill at firstname.lastname@example.org or 881-1219.
Memories of 'Nam
What: "A Patch of Ground," written by Khe Sahn Vietnam veteran Michael Archer
Available: At online bookstores and in retail stores the end of next week.
More information or to purchase the book: See hellgatepress.com.