The Battle of Dak To was a series of major engagements of the Vietnam War that took place between 3 November and 22 November 1967, in Kontum Province, in the Central Highlands of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). The action at Dak To was one of a series of People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) offensive initiatives that began during the second half of the year. North Vietnamese attacks at Loc Ninh (in Binh Long Province), Song Be (in Phuoc Long Province), and at Con Thien and Khe Sanh, (in Quang Tri Province), were other actions which, combined with Dak To, became known as "the border battles."
During the summer of 1967, heavy contact with PAVN forces in the area prompted the launching of Operation Greeley, a combined search and destroy effort by elements of the U.S. 4th Infantry Division, the U.S. 173rd Airborne Brigade, and Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) 42nd Infantry Regiment and Airborne units. The fighting was intense and lasted into the fall, when the North Vietnamese seemingly withdrew.
By late October, however, U.S. intelligence indicated that local communist units had been reinforced and combined into the 1st PAVN Division, which was tasked with the capture of Dak To and the destruction of a brigade-size U.S. unit. Information provided by a PAVN defector provided the allies a good indication of the locations and intentions of North Vietnamese forces. This intelligence prompted the launching of Operation MacArthur, and brought the units back to the area along with more reinforcements from the ARVN Airborne Division. The battles that erupted on the hill masses south and southeast of Dak To became some of the most hard-fought and bloody battles of the Vietnam War.
Dak To lies on a flat valley floor, surrounded by waves of ridgelines that rise into peaks (some as high as 4,000 feet) that stretch westward and southwestward towards the tri-border region where South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia meet. Western Kontum Province is covered by double and triple-canopy rainforests, and the only open areas were filled in by bamboo groves whose stalks sometimes reached eight inches in diameter. Landing Zones (LZs) large enough for helicopters were few and far between, which meant that most troop movements could only be carried out on foot. Temperatures in the highlands could reach 95 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and could drop to as low as 55 degrees in the evenings.
Throughout the middle of 1967, however, western Kontum Province became a magnet for several PAVN spoiling attacks and it appeared that the North Vietnamese were paying an increasing amount of attention to the area. Immediately after taking command, Peers instituted guidelines for his units in order to prevent them from being isolated and overrun in the rugged terrain, which also did much to negate the U.S. superiority in firepower. Battalions were to act as single units instead of breaking down into individual companies in order to search for their enemy. If rifle companies had to act independently, they were not to operate more than one kilometer or one hour's march from one another. If contact with the enemy was made, the unit was to be immediately reinforced. These measures went far in reducing the 4th Infantry's casualties.
These heavy enemy contacts prompted Peers to request reinforcement and, as a result, on 17 June, two battalions of Brigadier General John R. Deane's 173rd Airborne Brigade were moved into the Dak To area to begin sweeping the jungle-covered mountains in Operation Greeley. The 173rd had been operating near Bien Hoa Air Base outside Saigon and had been in combat only against NLF guerillas. Prior to its deployment to the highlands, Peer's operations officer, Colonel William J. Livsey, attempted to warn the Airborne officers of the hazards of campaigning in the highlands. He also advised them that PAVN regulars were a much better equipped and motivated force than the NLF. These warnings, however, made little impression on the paratroopers, who were about to become victims of their own overconfidence.
On 20 June, Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 503rd Airborne Infantry (C/1/503) discovered the bodies of a Special Forces CIDG unit that had been missing for four days on Hill 1338, the dominant hill mass south of Dak To. Supported by Alpha Company, the Americans moved up the hill and set up for the night. At 06:58 the following morning, Alpha Company began moving alone up a ridge finger and triggered an ambush by the 6th Battalion of the 24th PAVN Regiment. Charlie Company was ordered to go to support, but heavy vegetation and difficult terrain made movement extremely difficult. Artillery support was rendered ineffective by the limited range of visibility and the "belt-grabbing" tactics of the North Vietnamese. Close air support was impossible for the same reasons. Alpha Company managed to survive repeated attacks throughout the day and night, but the cost was heavy. Of the 137 men that comprised the unit, 76 had been killed and another 23 wounded. A search of the battlefield revealed only 15 dead North Vietnamese.
U.S. headquarters press releases (made four days after the conclusion of what came to be called "the Battle of the Slopes") claimed that 475 North Vietnamese had been killed while the 173rd's combat after action report claimed 513 enemy dead. The men of Alpha Company estimated that only 50-75 PAVN troops had been killed during the entire action. Such losses among American troops could not go unpunished. The operations officer of the 4th Infantry went so far as to recommend that General Deane be relieved of command. Such a drastic measure, however, would only provide more grist for what was becoming a public relations fiasco. In the end, the commander and junior officers of Charlie Company (whose only crime was that of caution) were transferred to other units.
In response to the destruction of Alpha Company, MACV ordered additional forces into the area. On 23 June, the 1st Battalion, 1st Brigade, 1st Air Cavalry Division arrived to bolster the 173rd. The following day, the elite ARVN 1st Airborne Task Force (the 5th and 8th Battalions) and the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Air Cavalry Division arrived to conduct search and destroy operations north and northeast of Kontum. General Deane sent his forces 20 kilometers west and southwest of Dak To to search for the 24th PAVN Regiment.
After establishing Fire Support Base 4 on Hill 664, approximately 11 kilometers southwest of Dak To, the 4th Battalion, 503rd Airborne Infantry found the North Vietnamese K-101D Battalion of the Doc Lap Regiment on 10 July. As the four companies of the battalion neared the crest of Hill 830 they were struck by a wall of small arms and machine gun fire and blasted by B-40 rocket-propelled grenades and mortar fire. Any advance was impossible, so the paratroopers remained in place for the night. The following morning, the North Vietnamese were gone. 4/503 suffered 22 dead and 62 wounded. The bodies of three PAVN soldiers were found on the site.
North Vietnamese pressure against CIDG outposts at Dak Seang and Dak Pek, 20 and 45 kilometers north of Dak To respectively, was the impetus for dispatching the 42nd ARVN Infantry Regiment into the area while the ARVN Airborne battalion moved to Dak Seang. On 4 August the 1/42 encountered the North Vietnamese on a hilltop west of Dak Seang, setting off a three-day battle that drew in the South Vietnamese paratroopers. The 8th Airborne Battalion alone withstood six separate ground attacks, but casualties among all the South Vietnamese units were heavy.
By mid-August contact with communist forces decreased, leading the Americans to conclude that the North Vietnamese had withdrawn across the border. The bulk of the ARVN Airborne units were then returned to their bases around Saigon for rest and refitting. On 23 August General Deane turned over command of the 173rd to Brigadier General Leo H. Schweiter. On 17 September two battlaions of the 173rd departed the area to protect the rice harvest in Phu Yen Province. 2/503 remained at Dak To along with the 3rd ARVN Airborne Battalion to carry out a sweep of the Toumarong Valley north of Dak To and the suspected location of a PAVN regimental headquarters. After three weeks of fruitless searching, however, the operation was halted on 11 October. Operation Greeley was over.
By early October, U.S. intelligence reported that the North Vietnamese were withdrawing regiments from the Pleiku area to join those in Kontum Province, thereby dramatically increasing the strength of local forces to that of a full division. In response, the 4th Infantry began moving the 3rd Battalion, 12th Infantry and the 3rd Battalion, 8th Infantry into Dak To to launch Operation MacArthur. On 29 October, the 4/503 of the 173rd Airborne Brigade was returned to the area as a reinforcement. The battalion was moved west of Dak To to the CIDG camp at Ben Het to protect the construction of Fire Support Base 12 on 2 November.
On 3 November, Sergeant Vu Hong, an artillery specialist with the 6th PAVN Regiment, defected to the South Vietnamese and was able to provide U.S. forces with detailed information on the disposition of PAVN forces and their objectives, both at Dak To and at Ben Het, 18 kilometers to the west. The North Vietnamese had fed approximately 6,000 troops into the area, most of which made up the 1st PAVN Division. The 66th PAVN Regiment was southwest of Dak To preparing to launch the main attack while the 32nd PAVN Regiment was moved south to prevent any counterattacks against the 66th. The independent 24th PAVN Regiment held positions northeast of Dak To to prevent reinforcement of the base from that direction. The 174th PAVN Regiment was northwest of Dak To, acting as a reserve or an offensive force as the situation dictated. In addition, the 1st PAVN Division was supported by the 40th PAVN Artillery Regiment. The goal of these units was the taking of Dak To and the destruction of a brigade-size American unit.
The communist actions around Dak To were part of an overall strategy devised by the Hanoi leadership, primarily that of General Nguyen Chi Thanh. The goal of operations in the area, according to a captured document from the B-3 Front Command, was "to annihilate a major U.S. element in order to force the enemy to deploy as many additional troops to the western highlands as possible. As the Americans quickly discovered, the area had been well prepared by the North Vietnamese. The number and elaborateness of defensive preparations found by U.S. and ARVN troops indicated that some had been prepared as much as six months in advance. As General Peers noted:
Nearly every key terrain feature was heavily fortified with elaborate bunker and trench complexes. He had moved quantities of supplies and ammunition into the area. He was prepared to stay.
After contact with the PAVN forces on the 4th and 5th of the month, General Schweiter received orders to move the rest of his brigade back to Dak To. The immediate goal of the paratroopers was first to establish a base of operations and bolster the defenses at Ben Het. They would then begin to search for the headquarters of the 66th PAVN Regiment, which U.S. intelligence believed to be in the valley stretching south of FSB 12. Simultaneously, most of the remaining elements of the 4th Infantry Division moved into the area around Dak To. They were joined by two First Air Cavalry battalions (the 1/12 and 2/8th Cavalry) and ARVN forces consisting of the four battalions of the 42nd Regiment and the 2nd and 3rd Airborne Battalions. By this time, the village and airstrip had become a major logistical base, supporting an entire U.S. division and airborne brigade and six ARVN battalions. The stage was set for a major pitched battle.
To expand the coverage of supporting artillery fires, the 4th Battalion of the 173rd was ordered to occupy Hill 823, south of Ben Het, for the construction of Fire Support Base 15. Since the rest of the battalion's companies were already deployed elsewhere, the 120 men of Bravo Company would combat assault onto the hilltop by helicopter alone. After several attempts to denude the hilltop with airstrikes and artillery fire, Bravo company landed unopposed that afternoon, but the hill was not unoccupied. 15 minutes later, contact was made with the North Vietnamese. The battle that ensued raged at close quarters until early the following morning when elements of the 66th PAVN Regiment withdrew, leaving behind more than 100 bodies. Nine Americans of Bravo Company, 4/503 also lay dead and another 28 were wounded.
The following morning Bravo Company was relieved by Lieutenant Colonel David J. Schumacher's 1/503, which (against the admonitions of Colonel Livsey) was divided into two small Task Forces. Task Force Black consisted of Charlie Company supported by two platoons of Dog Company and Task Force Blue which was composed of Alpha Company and the remaining platoon of Dog. Task Force Black left Hill 823 to find the North Vietnamese who had attacked B/4/403. At 08:28 on 11 November, after leaving their overnight laager and following a PAVN communications wire, the force was ambushed by the 8th and 9th Battalions of the 66th PAVN Regiment and had to fight for its life. Task Force Blue and Charlie Company 4/503 drew the job of going to the relief of the beleaguered task force. They encountered fire from all sides during the relief attempt, but they made it, reaching the trapped men at 15:37. U.S. losses were 20 killed, 154 wounded, and two missing.
The commanding officer of Task Force Black, Captain Thomas McElwain, reported an enemy body count of 80 but was commanded by Schumacher (whose conduct of the action later came under severe criticism) to go out and count again. He then reported back that 175 PAVN soldiers had been killed. He later stated that "If you lost so many people killed and wounded, you had to have something to show for it. McElwain and Schumacher later clashed over McElwain's recommendation for a decoration for Private First Class John Andrew Barnes, III, who had leapt on a grenade and sacrificed his life to save wounded comrades during the action. Schumacher refused to endorse the recommendation, stating that he did not think medals were for "men who committed suicide. Barnes was later awarded the Medal of Honor.
Simultaneous with this action was a North Vietnamese attack on the three companies of the 3/8th Infantry of the 4th Infantry Division on Hill 724. Beginning at 13:07 and lasting for thirty minutes, a mortar barrage rained onto the battalion's laager site. North Vietnamese troops then charged out of the jungle to the attack. By the time the action ended at 19:03, 18 Americans were dead and another 118 were wounded. The 4th Infantry claimed that 92 North Vietnamese had died in the clash.
On the night of 12 November the North Vietnamese launched the first of many rocket attacks against the airstrip at Dak To, firing 44 missiles. On the night of 15 November, a PAVN mortar barrage landed squarely upon the airfield, destroying two C-130 Hercules transport aircraft, and then walked on to the ammunition and fuel storage areas. Both detonated simultaneously, sending a fireball and mushroom cloud high above the valley. Engineer Lieutenant Fred Dyerson thought "it looked like Charlie had gotten hold of some nuclear weapons. Although more than 1,100 tons of ordnance were destroyed during the blast and fires, this was as close as the North Vietnamese would get to taking Dak To. The rapid deployment of allied forces had upset the North Vietnamese offensive and had thrown them onto the defensive. Previous actions had battered the 66th and 33rd PAVN Regiments, and they began a southwesterly retreat, covered by the 174th Regiment. The Americans and the ARVN then began to run into tenacious rearguard actions.
To prevent a repetition of the artillery attack against its base camp, the 4th Division's 3rd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment was ordered to take Hill 1338, which had an excellent overview of Dak To, only six kilometers away. For two days the Americans fought their way up the steep slope of the hill and into the most elaborate bunker complex yet discovered, all of the fortifications of which were connected by field telephones.
After scouring the area of the North Vietnamese who attacked Task Force Black, the three companies of 1/503 moved southwest to occupy Hill 882. The force was accompanied by approximately a dozen civilian news correspondents. On the morning of 15 November the lead company crested the hill and discovered bunkers connected by telephone wire. They were then attacked, and the rest of the Americans rushed to the hilltop to take defensive positions. PAVN troops poured small arms, machine gun, and mortar fire on the Americans and launched several ground attacks. The U.S. commander requested helicopter evacuation for the most seriously wounded, but this request was denied by Colonel Schumacher, who demanded that the civilians be evacuated first. When the fighting ceased on 19 November the U.S. battalion had suffered seven killed and 34 wounded. The North Vietnamese 66th Regiment left behind 51 dead.
While the action on Hill 882 was underway, tragedy struck Dog Company, 4/503. The unit was conducting road clearing operations around Ben Het while being accompanied by a CIDG Mike Force. While calling in an artillery fire mission, an error caused two rounds to fall on the company's position. Six Americans and three CIDG were killed outright and 15 paratroopers and 13 CIDG troops were wounded in the friendly fire incident.
South Vietnamese units had also found plenty of action in the Dak To area. On 18 November, on Hill 1416 northeast of Tan Canh, the ARVN 3/42nd Infantry found the PAVN 24th Infantry Regiment in well-fortified defensive positions. The elite, all-volunteer ARVN 3rd and 9th Airborne Battalions joined the action, attacking the hill from another direction. The ARVN forces took the hill on 20 November after vicious close-quarters fighting that claimed 66 South Vietnamese dead and another 290 wounded. The North Vietnamese left behind 248 of their own.
U.S intelligence indicated that the fresh 174th PAVN Regiment had slipped westward past Ben Het and had taken up positions on a 875 meter-high hill just six kilometers from the border. The 174th had done so in order to cover the withdrawal of the 66th and 32nd Regiments, which were moving toward their sanctuaries across the Cambodian frontier. On 19 November, General Schweiter was informed that a Special Forces Mobile Strike Force company had run into heavy resistance while reconning the area. He then ordered his 2nd Battalion to take the hill.
At 10:30, as the Americans moved to within 300 meters of the crest, PAVN machine gunners opened fire on the advancing paratroopers. Then B-40 rockets and 57mm recoiless rifle fire were unleashed upon them. The paratroopers attempted to continue the advance, but the North Vietnamese, well concealed in interconnected bunkers and trenches, opened fire with small arms and grenades. The American advance was halted and the men went to ground, finding whatever cover they could. At 14:30 PAVN troops hidden at the bottom of the hill launched a massed assault on Alpha Company. Unknown to the Americans, they had walked into a carefully prepared ambush by the 2nd Battalion of the 174th PAVN Regiment.
The men of Alpha Company retreated up the slope, lest they be cut off from their comrades and annihilated. They were closely followed by the North Vietnamese. All that prevented the company-strength North Vietnamese onslaught from overrunning the entire battalion was the heroic efforts of American paratroopers who stood their ground and died to buy time for their comrades. Soon, U.S. air strikes and artillery fire were being called in, but they had little effect on the battle because of the dense foliage on the hillside. Resupply became a necessity because of high ammunition expenditures and lack of water, but it was also an impossibility. Six UH-1 helicopters were shot down or badly damaged that afternoon trying to get to 2/503.
At 18:58 one of the worst friendly-fire incidents of the Vietnam Conflict occurred when a Marine Corps fighter-bomber dropped two 500-pound bombs into 2/503's perimeter. One of the bombs exploded in the center of the position, where the command group, the wounded, and the medics were all located. It killed 42 men outright and wounded 45 more, including the last two company commanders (Alpha company's commander had been killed in the retreat up the slope).
The next morning the three companies of 4/503 were chosen to set out and relieve the men on Hill 875. Because of intense PAVN sniper and mortar fire (and the terrain) it took until nightfall for the relief force to reach the beleaguered battalion. On the afternoon of 21 November both battalions moved out to take the crest. During fierce, close-quarters fighting, some of the paratroopers made it into the PAVN trenchline but were ordered to pull back as darkness fell. At approximately 23:00 the 4th Division's 1/12th Infantry was ordered to witdraw from an offensive operations in the southern Central Highlands and redeploy to Dak To. In an almost flawless night-time air redeployment, the entire battalion redeployed and took up positions around the main fire support base at Dak To in less than 12 hours.
The following day was spent in launching airstrikes and a heavy artillery bombardment against the hilltop, totally denuding it of cover. On 23 November, the 2nd and 4th Battalions of the 503rd were ordered to renew their assault while the 1st Battalion of the 12th Infantry assaulted 875 from the south. This time the Americans gained the crest, but the North Vietnamese had already abandoned their positions, leaving only a few dozen charred bodies and weapons.
The battle of Hill 875 had cost 2/503 87 killed, 130 wounded, and three missing. 4/503 suffered 28 killed 123 wounded, and four missing. Combined with noncombatant losses, this represented one-fifth of the 173rd Airborne Brigade's total strength. For its combined actions during operations around Dak To, the 173rd Airborne Brigade was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation.
In his memoirs, General William C. Westmoreland, U.S. commander in Vietnam, mentioned only 1,400 North Vietnamese casualties, while Major General William B. Rossen, the MACV deputy commander, estimated that the North Vietnamese lost only 1,000 men. Not all American commanders were happy with the friendly to enemy loss ratio. U.S. Marine Corps General John Chaisson questioned "Is it a victory when you lose 362 friendlies in three weeks and by your own spurious body count you only get 1,200?
Three of the four North Vietnamese regiments that participated in the fighting had been so battered that they played no part in the next phase of their winter-spring offensive. Only the 24th PAVN Regiment took the field during the Tet Offensive of January 1968. The 173rd Airborne Brigade and two battalions of the 4th Infantry Division, however, were in no better shape. General Westmoreland claimed that "we had soundly defeated the enemy without unduly sacrificing operations in other areas. The enemy's return was nil. But Westmoreland's claim may have missed the point. The border battles fought that fall and winter had indeed cost the North Vietnamese dearly, but they had achieved their objective. By January 1968, one-half of all U.S. maneuver battalions in South Vietnam had been drawn away from the cities and lowlands and into the border areas.
Several members of Westmoreland's staff began to see an eerie resemblance to the Viet Minh campaign of 1953, when seemingly peripheral actions had led up to the climactic Battle of Dien Bien Phu. General Giap even laid claim to such a strategy in an announcement in September, but, to the Americans, it all seemed a bit too contrived. Yet, no understandable analysis seemed to explain Hanoi's almost suicidal military actions. They could only be explained if a situation akin to Dien Bien Phu came into being. Then, almost overnight, one emerged. In the western corner of Quang Tri Province, an isolated Marine outpost at Khe Sanh came under siege by PAVN forces that would eventually number three divisions.