Secretary Ignatius, General Watson, Congressman Brooks, General Chapman, Colonel Lownds, Sergeant Major Smith, ladies and gentlemen:
It was 23 years ago that the 26th Marines took part in a mission that some people believed to be impossible--the capture of Iwo Jima, the most heavily fortified island in the world.
That mission was accomplished, and the 26th--after being awarded a Presidential Unit Citation for its part in that battle-passed from the active rolls of the Marine Corps on into history.
In January of 1966, the 26th was reborn as the first regiment of the reactivated 5th Marine Division. Again, the colors of the 26th Marines were carried into our fight for freedom in Asia.
Again they were assigned a task believed by many to be impossible.
Reinforced with a battalion from a sister regiment--the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines-and joined by a battalion of valiant South Vietnamese Rangers, the 26th was given the job of defending the vital combat base at Khe Sanh.
The 6,000 allied troops faced more than 20,000 determined North Vietnamese. Some say there are no North Vietnamese in that area.
But in the face of this threat, after most mature deliberation here, we asked General Westmoreland for his judgment about whether we should hold the position or remove our forces.
He was told to give no thought to the psychological or political repercussions of withdrawal in the United States.
The judgment of this battlefield general differed considerably from that of some here at home who then predicted that Khe Sanh would be another Dienbienphu.
General Westmoreland's decision was that the base should and could and would be held. That decision was confirmed by the Joint Chiefs and other officials here.
His faith in the 26th Marines was more than justified. For more than 70 days and nights they held despite massive and merciless attacks by the enemy.
The North Vietnamese mounted an assault identical to that which ended in their victory at Dienbienphu 14 years ago. But they had not counted on the most overwhelming, intelligent, and effective use of air power in the history of warfare; nor had they counted on the courage and the endurance-and the artillery--of the Marines at Khe Sanh. So unable to conquer, the enemy withdrew.
Some have asked what the gallantry of these Marines and airmen accomplished. Why did we choose to pay the price to defend those dreary hills?
The fortress at Khe Sanh straddled critical supply and infiltration routes that the North Vietnamese were using. Route 9, which it commanded, was to be a major avenue for the enemy into populated areas and into the cities of South Vietnam.
By pinning down--and by decimating-two North Vietnamese divisions, the few thousand Marines and their gallant South Vietnamese allies prevented those divisions from entering other major battles such as those for Hue and Quang Tri.
I believe that our initiative toward talks with North Vietnam was greatly strengthened by what these men did at Khe Sanh-for they vividly demonstrated to the enemy the utter futility of his attempts to win a military victory in the South.
All of us in America hope that the road to peace will lead through the talks in Paris.
But it is still not clear that Hanoi is ready for an early or an honorable peace.
The flow of infiltrators and of equipment from North Vietnam has never been greater than it is now. There is still very bitter fighting in many areas of South Vietnam.
There has been no visible lessening of Hanoi's aggressive efforts. In fact, Hanoi is today telling its forces in the South that they must continue their offensive to support their negotiators in Paris.
For our part, we shall seriously and soberly pursue negotiations toward an honorable and peaceful settlement of this war. But this should also be clear: We shall not be defeated on the battlefield while the talks go on. We shall not permit the enemy's mortars and rockets to go unanswered and to permit him to achieve a victory that would make a mockery of the negotiations.
We have faith that an honorable peace can be achieved in Vietnam. But if there must be more fighting before it comes, then we shall not be found wanting.
Brave men such as the 26th Marines will carry on the fight for freedom in Vietnam. Soon, God willing, they will come home. We would like nothing more than to see that day. But until they do, we shall express--at moments such as these--on behalf of all our American people our great gratitude for the protection they have given us and our great appreciation for their selfless bravery.
The Secretary of the Navy will now read the citation.
[Secretary of the Navy Paul R. Ignatius read the citation, the text of which follows.]
The President of the United States takes pleasure in presenting the Presidential Unit Citation to the
TWENTY-SIXTH MARINES (REINFORCED} THIRD MARINE
for service as set forth in the following
For extraordinary heroism in action against North Vietnamese Army forces during the battle for Khe Sanh in the Republic of Vietnam from 20 January to 1 April 1968. Throughout this period, the 26th Marines (Reinforced) was assigned the mission of holding the vital Khe Sanh Combat Base and positions on Hills 881, 861-A, 558 and 950, which dominated strategic enemy approach routes into Northern I Corps. The 26th Marines was opposed by numerically superior forces--two North Vietnamese Army divisions, strongly reinforced with artillery, tank, anti-aircraft artillery and rocket units. The enemy, deployed to take advantage of short lines of communications, rugged mountainous terrain, jungle, and adverse weather conditions, was determined to destroy the Khe Sanh Combat Base in conjunction with large scale offensive operations in the two northern provinces of the Republic of Vietnam. The 26th Marines, occupying a small but critical area, was daily subjected to hundreds of rounds of intensive artillery, mortar and rocket fire. In addition, fierce ground attacks were conducted by the enemy in an effort to penetrate the friendly positions. Despite overwhelming odds, the 26th Marines remained resolute and determined, maintaining the integrity of its positions and inflicting heavy losses on the enemy. When monsoon weather greatly reduced air support and compounded the problems of aerial resupply, the men of the 26th Marines stood defiantly firm, sustained by their own professional esprit and high sense of duty. Through their indomitable will, staunch endurance, and resolute courage, the 26th Marines and supporting units held the Khe Sanh Combat Base. The actions of the 26th Marines contributed substantially to the failure of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army winter/spring offensive. The enemy forces were denied the military and psychological victory they so desperately sought. By their gallant fighting spirit and their countless individual acts of heroism, the men of the 26th Marines (Reinforced) established a record of illustrious courage and determination in keeping with the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.
LYNDON B. JOHNSON