November 3-22, 1967
Bloody Battle Near Dak To
One of the bloodiest battles of the war takes place in the Central Highlands near Dak To. About 4,500 troops of the U. S. 4th Division and 173rd Airborne Brigade face off 6,000 North Vietnamese troops of the 174th regiment. The North Vietnamese are forced to withdraw, with 1,455 dead troops. U.S. casualities number 285 killed and 985 wounded.
Soldier Receiving a Blood Transfusion
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The Defenders of Dak To
U.S. soldiers destroying enemy bunkers after an assault on Hill 875.
The defense of Dak To was supposed to be a shining example of Vietnamization, but during an eight-week siege in 1969, the base was held by a lone—and unheralded—U.S. engineer battalion.
The buzz of incoming rockets caught the men of the 299th Engineer Battalion (Combat) in their noon chow lines. One second they were standing around joking with one another, the next they were frantically scrambling for cover as panicked voices yelled “Incoming! Incoming!”
For nearly 30 minutes the engineers huddled in bunkers as a dozen 122mm rockets and 18 81mm mortar rounds ripped into their camp at Dak To. Then, as abruptly as it had begun, the barrage ended.
Amazingly, no one was hurt by the blasts. The engineers pulled themselves from cover, dusted off their fatigues and looked around, wondering, “What the hell was that all about?” They had no idea in early May 1969 that their little corner of the war was about to heat up.
Dak To sat in the middle of one of the most hotly contested regions of South Vietnam. Deep in the rugged, mountainous jungle of the Central Highlands, the hamlet of Dak To was just 20 kilometers from the border where Laos, Cambodia and South Vietnam came together. A spur of the Ho Chi Minh Trail crossed the border here and paralleled Route 512 east through Ben Het, Dak To and Tan Cahn. From there it was a straight shot south down Route 14 to Kontum and Pleiku, then east to the coast.
The Americans feared that if North Vietnamese forces controlled the Central Highlands, South Vietnam would fall. To prevent that from happening, beginning in 1964, the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), established a chain of Special Forces camps along the border including one at Dak To. From Duc Co in the south to Kham Duc in the north, the Green Berets and their indigenous troops patrolled the unforgiving terrain in search of the enemy, which they frequently found. Bloody clashes with the North Vietnamese Army were common. Sometimes it was more than the unconventional forces could handle, and regular infantry units were called in.
In the fall of 1965, the 7th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) was mauled at landing zones X-Ray and Albany in the Ia Drang Valley. In the summer of 1966, the 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division had its turn. After one of its companies was nearly overrun, the paratroopers were pulled out. In the fall of that year, two brigades of the newly arrived 4th Infantry Division were handed responsibility for the two major provinces of the highlands: Kontum and Pleiku.
Fierce combat raged throughout those provinces over the next year. The action reached a climax with the fall 1967 border battles that engulfed two brigades of the 4th Infantry Division and the 173rd Airborne Brigade. The fighting was so brutal that a battalion of the 173rd was trapped on Hill 875 for two days before a relief force could reach it. In 30 days of fighting, the American units suffered nearly 1,800 casualties, of which 376 were killed in action.
After the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong suffered heavily in their January-March 1968 Tet Offensive, a relative calm descended on Dak To, and MACV placed the 1st Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, there to secure the region. Fifteen kilometers west, a Special Forces team with a force of South Vietnamese army (ARVN) soldiers held Ben Het. The ARVN’s 42nd Infantry Regiment held Tan Canh.
The U.S. Army 299th Engineer Battalion had arrived in South Vietnam in October 1965, and in the summer of 1966 it relocated from Tuy Hua to Pleiku. The battalion remained there for two years—attached to the 4th Infantry Division but assigned to the 18th Engineer Brigade—before it moved to Dak To.
The battalion’s mission was to provide the infantry units with engineering support and to keep the roads to Ben Het and Tan Canh open. Minesweep patrols headed out in each direction daily. As weather permitted, the engineers paved Route 512 between Dak To and Ben Het, to ease the passage of the frequent truck convoys and to hamper the NVA’s mine-laying activities.
When Lt. Col. Newman Howard took command of the battalion in January 1969, his companies were scattered throughout the hills surrounding Dak To. “The 4th’s infantrymen held the fire support base and air strip at Dak To,” Howard recalled. “My men were spread all around the area.”
Shortly after Howard arrived, the United States initiated its new policy of Vietnamization, which transferred increasingly greater combat responsibilities to the South Vietnamese. Giving them responsibility for the much-contested Dak To area would demonstrate the confidence MACV’s new commander, General Creighton Abrams, had in them.
Unfortunately, about that same time, the NVA reassembled its forces in the region. In late January, intelligence sources reported one artillery and two NVA infantry regiments operating south of Route 512. A prime target was Ben Het. In early February, the NVA’s 40th Artillery Regiment began blasting the camp.
Specialist 4 Jay Gearhart of the 299th’s 15th Engineer Company (Light Equipment) had just arrived in Ben Het a few days before the attack began. “About twenty of us were detailed to go to Ben Het,” Gearhart recalled. “The monsoons were coming and Route 512 was the only overland supply route to Ben Het. We were going to upgrade the road before the rains came.”
All went well for the first week—and then the enemy shells came down. “There was only sporadic incoming for the first few days and we worked right through it,” Gearhart said. “After about a week, though, they started pouring over 100 rounds a day into that little camp. We ended up being pinned down in a trench right near the little airstrip. We spent nearly two months like that. I counted over 2,700 rounds inside the wire in 23 days. And Ben Het was small.”
The daily artillery barrages at Ben Het were just a preview of what Gearhart would experience at Dak To. Meanwhile, Colonel Howard prepared his battalion for Vietnamization. After the 4th Division’s troops were pulled out, Howard’s B and C companies relocated. Howard then brought his remaining three companies in from their outlying sites. “Our final mission was to prepare Dak To for the 42nd ARVN,” he said.
Specialist 4 David G. Swanson, a motor pool dispatcher in Headquarters Company, remembers the move. “We’d been on one of the hills overlooking the airstrip since I’d joined the battalion in October,” Swanson said. “When the infantry left, we were brought down and told to clean up the area. We were supposed to remove all the debris, empty ration cans, used artillery canisters, garbage, you name it. There was so much crap we had to use front-end loaders to dump it outside the wire. When we’d finished with that we were supposed to load up all of our equipment and join our other two companies near Qui Nhon.”
That was what Colonel Howard understood, too: Once the base was squared away, it would be turned over to the ARVN. The rest of the 299th would then be on its way. But things changed.
“One day a chopper came in,” Howard recalled. “On board were Major General Donn R. Pepke, [commanding general] of the 4th, and Pepke’s boss, Lieutenant General Julian J. Ewell, [commanding general] of the II Field Force. Pepke started with, ‘What are you doing?’
“Once we’re done here I’ve got orders to convoy to Kontum,” Colonel Howard replied. “We’ll overnight there, then move to Qui Nhon, sir.”
“You have to stay here,” Pepke said.
“I’ve got orders to move out,” said Howard
“Sorry,” said Pepke, “you’ve got to stay. The ARVN aren’t coming. You have to hold the base.”
“But I don’t have enough people,” Howard protested.
“You have to. And if you don’t believe what these two stars are telling you, I’ve got three more right there,” Pepke said, gesturing to Ewell.
“Yes, sir!” Howard replied. Howard immediately gave new orders to his troops. They were to stay put, dig in and prepare to hold the base.
Specialist 4 Rick Noyes, Company A’s operations NCO, like most of the enlisted men, did not know what was going on. “I’d heard that some ARVNs were going to relieve us, but then we were told to move into the infantry’s bunkers. It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time. Just typical Army,” he said.
Howard ordered his men to reinforce existing bunkers and build new ones. The engineers constructed rocket stand-off screens around the primary bunkers and strung concertina wire along the perimeter. They stuffed petroleum barrels with used truck parts and spotted them along the perimeter. They also dug fighting holes throughout the camp. Adding to the engineers’misery, most of this work had to be done in the monsoon rains.
Colonel Howard made the work a little easier when he cut the original perimeter in half. “I used to watch a lot of John Wayne movies,” Howard explained. “Whenever his wagon train was attacked, Wayne formed a smaller, easier-todefend perimeter. That’s what I did.”
A movable barbed wire fence was strung across the runway. When an aircraft had to land, the fence could be swung out of the way. Howard placed a .50-caliber machine gun at one end of the runway. If the NVA came, that gunner had a clear field of fire.
Because they had no infantry support, the engineers had to man the perimeter bunkers themselves. About 300 men were required for nightly guard duty. So, in addition to their regular daytime duties, more than half of the 299th’s enlisted men manned bunkers every night. Meanwhile, their regular activities continued unabated. The minesweeps went out every day, rain or shine. Vehicles and equipment needed maintenance, road damage had to be repaired and the paving of Route 512 continued. Daily life, while busy, seemed very routine. Few of the engineers expected any major problems.
Then, around lunchtime on May 9, the rocketing began. Once the engineers determined that no one had been wounded by the barrage, they examined the craters. Specialist 4 Glen Hickey Company D was amazed at the reaction of some of his fellow engineers. “One of the rockets had not exploded. It had buried itself five to six feet in the ground. Some of the guys were poking it with sticks. Others wanted to pull it out with a bulldozer. Finally, a smarter noncommissioned officer said, ‘No way.’ We blew it up where it was.”
Hickey avoided the mess tent and its dangerous lines from that day on. He scavenged some LRRP rations and ate those in an abandoned bunker.
The next day more rockets, recoilless rifle fire, mortars and small-arms fire fell on the camp. The engineers fired back with what weapons they had, but they could not pinpoint the enemy’s positions.
On the evening of May 11, Spc. 4 Gearhart, back from Ben Het, was on perimeter guard with two buddies, Spc. 4 Donovan R. Fluharty and Spc. 5 Terry Eutzy. Soon after dark, the first of some 75 B-40 rockets and 60mm mortar rounds hit the camp. Small-arms fire from enemy positions to the west and south raked the perimeter. Suddenly, a frantic cry erupted: “Sappers! Sappers!”
Six NVA sappers had breached the west defenses. Suddenly they were racing through the camp, tossing grenades and satchel charges left and right. “They got my squad tent,” Gearhart said. “Thank God we were on guard duty or we’d have all been killed.”
Hotly pursued by angry engineers, the six sappers sought refuge in the 15th Engineer Company’s mess tent. At a shouted command from an NCO, at least six engineers tossed grenades into the tent. After the explosions, the men dragged out the remains of the six sappers. The mess tent was a total loss. The men of the 15th took their meals at Company A’s or Company D’s mess tent from then on, or ate C-rations.
The 92nd Artillery had moved a 155mm howitzer battery to Dak To on May 4. From this new Fire Support Base 1, the gunners could cover the Ben Het combat base. The artillery, however, soon became a target for the NVA.
At 1750 hours on May 13, the first of 19 122mm rockets struck inside the 299th’s perimeter. Several hit one of the 92nd’s gun positions. Four artillerymen died and 11 were wounded. Specialist Swanson was on perimeter duty about 50 yards forward of the howitzers when the rockets hit. “That was a horrible night,” Swanson recalled. “The rockets came out of nowhere and blew that gun up.”
The next night, NVA infantry probed all around the perimeter. Nervous engineers in bunkers reported noises outside the wire at 1935. The soldiers tossed hand grenades and fired M-79 grenade launchers at the sounds, and in return, a flurry of small-arms fire peppered two bunkers. Fortunately, no engineers were hit. The probing continued until 0700 the next morning, and the weary engineers fired back whenever they could.
Nearly every day, enemy activity caused some casualties. On the evening of May 20, Gearhart, his buddy Donny Fluharty and some other squad mates were reading their mail outside of their bunker. A sergeant first class suddenly came up and ordered them to join a sandbagging detail. “We were tired and wanted a little rest before we took up our night guard positions,” Gearhart said. “Besides, we hated this NCO. He was an alcoholic who stole our beer rations. But, we stood up to do what we had to do—except Donny. He said, ‘F___ him. I’m finishing my mail,’and sat back down. The rest of us headed out.”
Ten minutes later, a 122mm rocket exploded near Fluharty. Before medics could reach him, he bled to death. “Man, I felt awful,” Gearhart said. “I was never the same after that. I just felt numb and didn’t give a shit anymore.”
Eight days later, Gearhart was in the 15th Engineer’s command-and-control bunker as part of the evening’s quick reaction force. “Being engineers, we knew how to build a bunker,” Gearhart said. “This one was a beaut. It was heavily sandbagged and a good 20 feet below ground.”
The night’s first 122 mm rocket struck the base at 1728, and 11 more exploded in the next 11 minutes. One hit between the blast wall and the entrance to the 15th’s bunker.
“I was sitting there and the next thing I knew I’m in a heap with a bunch of other guys,” Gearhart said. “Can’t hear. Can’t see. Can’t breathe. Along with the others that were still alive, I scrambled toward the light. As I clawed my way out over the debris, I saw the entrance was completely gone. There were bodies everywhere. I can still see our CO, Lieutenant Franklin L. Koch, laying there like he was asleep. Our brand-new first sergeant, James D. Benefiel, was identified by his stateside boots. And the NCO who had detailed us to fill sandbags on the 20th was horribly burned. He died a few days later”
In all, nine engineers died and 19 were wounded in the blast. The 15th’s command structure and its communication capabilities were all but destroyed. Despite this carnage, the engineers continued to perform their duties.
“We never gave up on our main mission,” Colonel Howard said. “There were a few days when we didn’t get out because of so many NVA in the area, but there weren’t many of those. There were more days when we didn’t make it but a few hundred meters before enemy fire drove us back. On other days we’d make it all the way to Ben Het and Tan Canh. You just never knew.”
The increased enemy activity around Dak To did not escape the attention of the brass, or the press. The only problem was, they were all under the impression that Dak To’s defenders were ARVN.
“We had all kinds of high-ranking visitors,” Howard said. “They all came up there expecting to congratulate the ARVN. Instead, they found a bunch of battered engineers.”
On May 30, General Abrams himself helicoptered in with an entourage of aides and staff. When Abrams stepped out of the aircraft, he was surprised there were no ARVN. “Everyone with him was expecting to see ARVN,” Howard said.
During the staff briefing, Abrams asked Howard what his withdrawal plan was. “I don’t have one, sir,” Howard responded. “We’re 30 klicks from the nearest friendlies. If we get overrun we’ll just share the place with the NVA until one of us decides to quit.”Abrams had no follow-up questions.
Even more galling than the brass believing the ARVN controlled Dak To were stories in the press praising the South Vietnamese defenders. The Stars and Stripes newspaper on June 6, 1969, headlined an article with “Viet Troops ‘Go It Alone’ at Dak To.” The article praised the ARVN for killing “945 North Vietnamese soldiers in three weeks of heavy fighting.” The article said the action was “a test of whether South Vietnamese ground forces can go it alone in the rugged border area…with only artillery and engineer support.” No one knew that the engineers and artillerymen were the ones actually doing the fighting.
Larry Burrows, the famed Life magazine photographer, showed up on June 6 to get some pictures of Dak To’s heroic ARVN defenders. He, too, was surprised to find just a small force of American engineers holding the base. Without a story, Burrows made arrangements to depart the next day.
At 0700 on June 7, a nine-man team from Company D departed the base for its daily sweep of Route 512 toward Ben Het. To the surprise of the engineers, a squad of ARVN awaited them by the main gate. Usually, the assigned ARVN security forces either arrived late or never showed up. The combined force slowly worked its way west.
About an hour later the NVA struck. The sharp crack of AK47s and the whoosh of B-40 rockets erupted from the foliage lining the road. Two engineers fell dead. Others writhed in pain from gunshot wounds. The survivors hit the dirt waiting for the ARVN to fire back. Instead, the stunned engineers watched in anger as the ARVN security troops retreated to the safety of a culvert that shielded them from the enemy’s fire. Despite the trapped engineers’ cries and pleas, the ARVN refused to fight back.
Several of the wounded engineers crawled into a ditch where they thought they would be safe. Instead, they found themselves overrun by NVA. Only by feigning death did the Americans survive. The enemy soldiers looted the casualties, even stealing one engineer’s wedding ring, and the surviving engineers fought back with their M-14s as best they could. Still, the ARVN, with their American-provided M-16s, refused to fight.
By this time, the sound of the firing and frantic radio calls had alerted the base to the ambush. Company D’s quick reaction force boarded jeeps and trucks and headed out. Specialist Hickey, the commander’s jeep driver, was approached by Burrows.
“Got room for one more?” the lanky photographer asked.
Hickey raced to catch up with the rest of the quick reaction force. As the little convoy neared the ambush site, the North Vietnamese turned their fire on it. Several men fell wounded. Hickey and his commanding officer leaped from the jeep, seeking cover. Burrows bailed out, too, snapping pictures.
One of the minesweep engineers had crawled to the ARVN and snatched an M-16 away from a cowering South Vietnamese. Burrows photographed him firing back at the North Vietnamese, and also took pictures of the South Vietnamese huddled in the ditch as the engineers battled the NVA. Outnumbered, the enemy gradually pulled back. Minutes later it was over. The engineers gathered up their dead and wounded and hurried back to Dak To to await the medevacs. Three men died in the ambush and seven were wounded. Hickey recalled, “We were really pissed at the ARVN for just laying there in the ditch.” Some of the men talked about shooting their allies, but the NCOs restrained them.
Although the U.S. Army tried to suppress the story, Burrow’s dramatic account of that morning received wide press coverage later that year, in the September 19, 1969, issue of Life magazine. Under the title, “A case of cowardice under fire,” Burrows proclaimed that Vietnamization was not working but that the Army brass would not admit it. The men of the 299th knew the truth.
Meanwhile, in midJune the engineers at Dak To received a new patch. Locally made, it bore the battalion’s motto “Proven Pioneers,” proclaiming the wearer a “Dak To Defender.” The men proudly wore it along with their 18th Engineer Brigade patch.
For the remainder of June and into July, the men of the 299th continued to take casualties. Nearly every day the base was hit by rockets and mortars. Sappers probed almost every night. The minesweep teams continually ran into ambushes. Company D’s team was particularly hard hit again on June 23 east of Ben Het near Fire Support Base 13. Again, the ARVN security force fled. A quick reaction force was sent out from Dak To, but it, too, was ambushed. A second team and air support had to be called in before the enemy pulled out. Three engineers died and 21 were wounded in the day’s fighting.
Then, suddenly, enemy activity died down. Colonel Howard remarked to his executive officer one morning in early July: “It’s been too quiet the last few days. Send a patrol to Ben Het. Let’s see what happens.”
To everyone’s great relief, the patrol made it all the way without incident. To confirm that, Howard piled into a jeep and drove to Ben Het. Again, there was no enemy contact. The NVA were gone.
“All I could figure,” Howard said, “was that the NVA thought our battalion was the bait in a trap. They could not have believed the Americans were so stupid as to just leave one small engineer unit to defend such a vital position. But we were.”
Enemy activity around Dak To all but ceased after July 6. But it had been a brutal three months for the 299th. In that brief time, the four companies defending Dak To suffered 45 percent casualties. On July 16, Lt. Col. Howard’s six months of command time ended. He transferred to a staff position with the 18th Engineer Brigade, and Lt. Col. Robert L. Ackerson assumed command of the 299th. Two days later the battalion received orders to depart Dak To.
Specialist Noyes remembered “a big sense of relief leaving Dak To. A lot of us felt we’d been left alone, hung out.”
Specialist Hickey said, “Everyone pitched in to load up their personal gear, bunks, documents, filing cabinets, desks, equipment, everything. We didn’t want to leave anything for the ARVN.”
On July 19, battle-weary and in a driving rainstorm, the surviving defenders of Dak To headed east on Route 512, then turned south on Route 14. Companies A and D ended up at An Khe, battalion headquarters went to Qui Nhon and the 15th Engineers settled in at Phu Tai, near Qui Nhon.
Colonel Howard was awarded a Silver Star for his heroism during the siege. On April 8, 1970, the four companies of the 299th that had been left behind at Dak To were awarded the Valorous Unit Citation, the unit equivalent of the Silver Star.
Soon after the 299th relocated, those of its members who had been at Dak To began to be harassed by rear echelon NCOs for wearing their Dak To Defenders patch. “It’s unauthorized,” the sergeants barked. “Remove it.” At first, some of the engineers defied the order. Eventually, though, they were forced to remove the patch. Today, it is a revered souvenir of the 299th’s long-forgotten gallant stand.
Edward F. Murphy served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam period and has written a number of military history books. For additional reading, see Murphy’s Dak To: America’s Sky Soldiers in South Vietnam’s Central Highlands and The Long Journey Home From Dak To: The Story of an Airborne Infantry Officer Fighting in the Central Highlands Republic of Vietnam 1967-1968, by Warren M. Denny.
Originally published in the December 2007 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.
Bloody Battle Near Dak To - History
1st Bn 92d Field Artillery
Valorous Unit Citation
04 May 1969 June 1969
"As far as the 1st Battalion 92nd Artillery History is concerned, the Dak To, Ben Het, Dak Seang area is perhaps the most heavily fought over piece of terrain that the Battalion occupied."
The following is from the Operational Report of the 1st Battalion 92nd Artillery for period ending 31 July 1969, (Unclassified) I have tried to limit the information to the time that is documented in the Award of the Valorous Unit Citation.
Towards the end of April and the beginning of May 1969, intelligence indicators pointed to a build up of NVA Forces in the Dak To/ Ben Het Area. It was discovered that two NVA Infantry Regiments and major portions of an NVA Artillery Regiment were present to the south of Ben Het, FSB 6 and Dak To. The target appeared to be Dak To. On 24 May 1969, the 24th Special Tactical Zone established a Combined Tactical Operations Center at FSB 1 Dak To, in order to control the troops being inserted into the area to counter the NVA threat. The Commander of the 1st Battalion 92nd Artillery, LTC Nelson Thompson was designated the Fire Support Coordinator for the Dak To/ Ben Het area of operations. The Dak To Combined Fire Support Coordination Center under his command was to control the fires of not only US but also all ARVN artillery in the area. This would eventually evolve into the equivalent of one Battalion Group forty-one tubes of Field Artillery and six Air Defense Artillery twin 40mm M-42s. The Fire Support Coordination Center also coordinated all air fires, to include B-52 strikes, sky spots and helicopter gun ships. During the period 04 May to 08 July this force coordinated over 150,000 rounds of artillery, 1100 sorties of Forward Air Control directed Tactical Air Strikes, 533 combat sky spots and 142 B-52 strikes. Also in this period, the 24th Special Tactical Zone employed nineteen maneuver battalions, with as many as nine battalions committed at one time. This same period saw friendly element kill more than eighteen hundred NVA troops.
Due to the growing complexity of the organization and situation, a Battalion Group was established on 09 June 1969. The Forward Command Post remained at Dak To while the 6th Battalion, 14th Artillery established a Forward Command Post at Ben Het. The Commanding Officer of the 1st Battalion 92nd Artillery was designated the Battalion Group Commander. During the period of operations, both Command Posts were subjected to intense enemy fire, B-40 rockets, 75mm recoilless rifle and sapper attacks.
During the month of June 1969, Ben Het was surrounded by a large number of well-armed and well dug-in NVA. The NVA had the firing data for the airfield and for all established helicopter pads. When an aircraft attempted to land, it not only received small arms and automatic weapons fire, but also immediately upon landing was subjected to mortar and recoilless rifle fire. Large NVA Forces effectively cut the road to Ben Het, and aerial resupply was essential.
May-July 1969 the 1st Battalion 92nd Artillery Forward Observer Teams were assigned to the following Units: 3rd Cavalry Squadron, 1stSquadron 10th Cavalry, 1st and 4th Battalions 42nd Regiment, 2nd and 5th Mobile Strike Force, 2nd and 3rd Battalion 47th Regiment, 1st and 3rd Battalions 53rd Regiment, 11th, 22nd and 23rd Ranger Battalions ARVN. A Forward Observer Team was sent to Dak To District, to fire defensive targets for friendly villages. Two Aerial Observers were used on a daily basis using two C-1 Aircraft (headhunters).
On 14 May 1969, SP4 Eric J Greco, Headquarters Battery and member of one of the 1st Battalion 92nd Artillery Forward Observer Teams was killed in action. He was killed when his Forward Observer position was attacked by the NVA.
Radars were employed to assist the battalion in its operations. Two AN/MPQ-4 and one AN/PPS-4 counter mortar radars, one AN/MPQ-10 counter mortar, one AN/IPS-4 and one AN/PPS-5 was employed. These Units gave counter mortar and personnel movements respectively.
1/92nd Artillery Forward Command Post was located at FSB 1, Dak To at Grid ZB005217. While Battalion Headquarters and Service Batteries remained at Artillery Hill in Pleiku, with the mission of General Support Reinforcing (GSR) to the Battalion and the 52nd Artillery Group.
A Battery 1/92nd Artillery was located at the following locations: A Battery (-) was located at LZ Mary Lou (ZA223829), vicinity of Kontum with a mission of GSR. The 6th Battalion 14th Artillery. A Battery Platoon was at Ben Het, with the mission of GSR with priority of fires to Ben Het counter battery.
B Battery was located at FSB 6 (YA863265) 7 km southwest of Dak To. C Battery (-) was located at LZ Bass (ZA028935) 22 km west of Kontum and C Battery Platoon was located at FSB 12, Ben Het, 15 km northwest of Dak To.
On 04 May A Battery (-) moved to FSB 1, Dak To (ZB003215) with the mission of GSR 1/92nd Artillery. A Battery supported 24th Special Tactical Zone Operations in the Dak To/Ben Het area. On 09 May, FSB 1 began receiving daily incoming enemy fire. During the next month 703 rounds of incoming 122mm rockets were received at FSB 1. On 11 May 1969, PFC Ronald J. Carter of A Battery was killed in action when the firing bunker he was in received direct hits from both a B-40 rocket and mortars. Due to the daily aerial attacks by the NVA, some bunkers were built with an overhang. This one had an opening on top with two howitzers inside and aiming west. The bunker withstood the attack but shrapnel came through the opening on top, killing PFC Carter and wounding several other men. On 13 May, a 122mm rocket landed approximately five feet from a manned howitzer, resulting in four men killed in action, and eleven men wounded in action. The four men who were killed were: SP4 Thomas M. Connell, SP4 Thomas W. Davis, SSGT Donald R. Kraft and PFC Lynn J. Wieser.
As was true throughout the War, there was no shortage of brave men in the 1/92 Artillery. Thirteen men volunteered from Artillery Hill, Headquarters and Service Battery, to replace the dead and wounded. These men went in to harms way and airlifted into FSB 1 that evening. A Battery continued to heroically operate under fire, supporting the maneuver elements and returning accurate and effective counter battery fire whenever Dak To was attacked. In addition to a large number of 122mm rockets fired into the Dak To compound, recoilless rifle fire was received against the A Battery position. On 27 May, A Battery (-) was assigned the mission of GSR with priority of fires to the 2nd Ranger Group (ARVN), which was in continuous contact with the enemy.
The mission of A Battery Platoon continued to be GSR with priority of fires to Ben Het counter battery. On 28 May a CV-2 aircraft resupplying Ben Het by airdrop, accidentally dropped a 55-gallon drum of fuel oil, on one of A Batterys gun bunkers. No casualties resulted, but the flash wall on the right side of the bunker was destroyed. On 02 June, the mission of A Battery (-) was changed to GSR with priority of fires to the 4th Mobile Strike Force Battalion. On 04 June, the mission was also changed to GSR of A Battery Platoon to support 4th Mobile Strike Force Battalion. On this day, A Battery had two men killed in action, PFC William C. Burgess and PFC David R. Porter. Three men were wounded as a result of incoming 75mm recoilless rifle fire. During periods of incoming 122mm rocket fire, the NVA began to direct recoilless rifle fire against A Battery positions when the men manned the howitzers to fire counter battery fire. On 05 June, A Battery Platoon, 1/92nd Artillery, took a direct hit on a gun section bunker. No casualties resulted, but one bunker was destroyed and needed to be rebuilt while A Battery was under fire. On 06 June, A Battery Platoon received a direct hit on the powder bunker, resulting in the loss of 560 canisters of powder. On 07 June, a NVA B-40 Rocket hit A Batterys 3rd gun section bunker at Dak To and a flash wall was destroyed.
On 09 June, A Batterys mission was changed to GSR with priority of fires for one Platoon of 2nd Mobile Strike Force Battalion. From 08 June, to 12 June, one A Battery Platoon conducted a daily hipshoot, in order to be capable of firing counter battery while Dak To was receiving incoming enemy fire. On 08 June, the FDC at Ben Het received a direct hit resulting in only minor damage. On 09 June, A Battery Platoon had six men wounded in action, a result of incoming 75mm recoilless rifle fire. On 17 June, one man was wounded in action from mortar fragments. On 19 June, the mission of A Battery (-) became GSR with priority of fires for a Platoon of the 4th Mobile Strike Force Battalion. The other Platoon was assigned to the 5th Mobile Strike Force Battalion. On 19 June, the mission of A Battery (-) reverted to GSR. A Battery Platoon sustained three hits on gun bunkers on 22 and 23 June, resulting in only superficial damage. On 23 June, A Battery Platoons powder bunker sustained a direct hit, resulting in five men wounded in action. This resulted in a loss of 350 canisters of white bag powder and destruction of the bunker. On 26 June, the crews of A Battery Platoon exchanged positions with the crews of C Battery Platoon, 1/92nd Artillery Dak To. The howitzers remained in place. A Battery 1/92nd Artillery was once again together as a Battery. On 14 July, A Battery moved four howitzers to Artillery Hill to support the 3rd Battalion 6th Artillery. On 15 July, A Battery (-) was road marched to LZ Oasis, and from there to LZ Elaine where it had the mission of GSR with priority of fires to the 1st Squadron, 10th Cavalry. Throughout this period, A Battery 1/92nd Artillery was under daily attack. Each time the battery had a fire mission the NVA would attack the battery with all weapons at its disposal.
B Battery 1/92nd Artillery was located at FSB 6 (YA933188) throughout the reporting period. On 04 May, the 24th Special Tactical Zone Force began operations in the area. B Battery 1/92nd Artillery supported these operations throughout this reporting period. On 09 May, B Battery while engaged in a Battalion Time on Target (TOT) and massing of fires on an NVA position close to FSB 5 suffered an explosion of the breech end of a howitzer, killing one man PFC Arturo S. Sisneros.and wounding six others. The wounded men were medically evacuated. PFC Arturo S. Sisneros was Promoted Posthumously to Corporal. On 11 May, the damaged howitzer was replaced with one from C Battery 1/92nd Artillery. On 26 May, B Batterys mission changed to GSR with priority of fires to the 1/42nd Regiment. On 04 June, the mission was changed with one platoon direct support of 3/42nd Regiment. On 08 June, FSB 6 received 16 incoming 75mm recoilless rifle rounds. One round hit the mess hall and several hit an ammunition bunker. There were no casualties in this attack. A UH-1 helicopter was hit during the first attack and crashed into its landing area. Counter battery fire from Batteries A, B, and C, 1/92nd Artillery destroyed the NVAs positions. On 11 June, FSB 6 came under attack by an NVA Infantry company with sappers. The attack consisted of small arms fire, satchel charges, concussion grenades, B-40 rockets, 75mm recoilless rifle rounds, and mortar fire. Four satchel charges exploded near B Batterys 6th howitzer section. This did not deter the B Battery gun crew who continued to fire their howitzer throughout the attack. No B Battery men were wounded in this attack. Although, two men from the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) were wounded. Twenty-five NVA were killed in this attack and many weapons were captured. On 19 June, B Batterys mission became the GSR with priority of fires to the 2/47th Regiment.
On 01 May 1969, C Battery 1/92nd Artillery, moved by road from Artillery Hill to Plei Ring De (ZA218351). On 02 May, C Battery moved to the Asphalt Plant (ZA896118) with the mission of GSR. On 01 June, C Battery moved to FSB Mary Lou (ZA223829) with the mission of defense of Kontum. On 24 June, C Battery Platoon moved by road to Dak To (ZB004217) with the mission of GSR for the Dak To/Ben Het area. On 26 June, C Battery Platoons crew was airlifted into Ben Het to exchange places with the crew of A Batterys Platoon. On 07 July, C Battery (-) moved to LZ Bass to support the 4th Infantry Division.
Service Battery besides sending volunteers to replace the WIA and KIA kept the supplies flowing to A, B, and C, Batterys and fulfilled all requests by the 52nd Artillery group to bring supplies to other Units. The 1/92nd Artillery was the only airmobile 155mm howitzer towed unit in the 52nd Artillery Group.
Service Battery moved the following supplies by air, to the other batteries during this reporting period. A Battery under daily stand off attacks, were still able to receive 198 tons of supplies by helicopter. B Battery received 1740 tons of supplies by helicopter. C Battery received 703 tons of supplies by Helicopter. Supplies were also brought in for the other units by Service Battery, via air and road.
During this reporting period, the 1/92nd Artillerys, Battalion Surgeon not only took care of the sick and wounded of the Battalion, but also with personnel from Headquarters Battery made fourteen MEDCAP visits. Six hundred and sixty six villagers were also provided general medical care.
May 11-PFC Ronald J. Carter-KIA
May 11-PFC Smith-WIA
May 12-PFC Louis C. Bustamante-WIA
May 12-SSGT Donald Kraft-KIA (died on May13)
May 13-PFC Theodore Chmieloweic-WIA
May 13-SP4 Thomas M. Connell-KIA
May 13-PFC Thomas Davis-KIA
May 13-PFC William L. Gould-WIA
May 13-SP4 Hearld-WIA
May 13-PFC Leland K. Payne-WIA
May 13-PFC Roy C. Pharr-WIA
May 13-SGT. John S. Plonka-WIA
May 13-SP4 Pope-WIA
May 13-PFC Michael Shingleton-WIA
May 13-PFC Charles H. Webster-WIA
May 13-PFC Lynn J. Wieser-KIA
May 15-PFC Lawrence G. Howard-WIA
June 4-PFC William Burgess-KIA
ARTILLERY, PLANES BEAT OFF REDS ATTACKING DAK TO
*Stars and Stripes Tuesday June 3, 1969
SAIGON (AP)-- Fighting flared Sunday in Dak To, the central highlands district capital where Americans fought one of the Vietnam War's most vicious battles in 1967. In the latest fighting, North Vietnamese troops moving under cover of a mortar barrage, attacked the South Vietnamese district headquarters at Dak To, defended by about 125 militiamen. Bombs and artillery beat off the attackers after an hour. Initial reports said two South Vietnamese were killed. And four wounded and the headquarters sustained 50 percent damage. The NVA losses were not known. A South Vietnamese spokesman said one regiment and two Ranger Battalions, perhaps as many as 2,000 troops are sweeping the hills around Dak To as part of Operation Dan Quyen translated as "People Rights." The aim is to take growing pressure off Dak To, where field reports say the NVA are again masses their forces from bases in Cambodia. The spokesman said he had no cumulative casualties for the operation around Dak To, but in three days of fighting a week ago 216 NVA and 47 Government troops were killed. Another 117 Government troops were wounded Latest American Intelligence estimates that 45 NVA Battalions are in the Highlands. A total of 52,000 NVA and Viet Cong are against 89,000 Americans, Koreans and South Vietnamese.
B52s SATURATE BEN HET JUNGLES
*Stars and Stripes Thursday June 26, 1969
SAIGON (UPI)-- American B52 bombers unloaded hundreds of thousands of pounds on NVA Troops concentrations threatening the Allied Specials Forces camp at Ben Het, military spokesmen said Wednesday. The B52s struck in two raids Tuesday night and early Wednesday, dumping their bombs on targets in jungles about three miles south and two miles north of the Special forces camp, 285 miles Northeast of Saigon. Reverberations from at least 180 tons of bombs rolled over the beleaguered outpost, which sits near the South Vietnam's, Cambodian and Laotian borders. Tuesday, Military spokesman reported Allied troops at the Special Forces Camp were resupplied by truck convoy but remained under pressure from NVA gunners. They said there had been continuing battles with NVA troops in the jungle. Spokesman reported that at least 183 NVA soldiers were killed around the outpost in a series of firefights on Monday. A delayed report from a South Vietnamese spokesman said a government infantry battalion backed by U.S. air and artillery power killed 105 NVA troops Monday about three miles northeast of Ben Het. Most were killed by artillery. 12 U.S. Special Forces advisers, about 189 U. S. artillerymen and hundreds of South Vietnamese regulars and Civilian Defense Group (CIDG) forces occupied Ben Het. A U.S. convoy guarded by Allied troops resupplied Ben Het from Dak To, Eight miles to the east along Route 512. NVA troops destroyed one of 11 trucks in the convoy and wounded two U.S. Army Engineers and 19 Government Soldiers along the way, but the ammunition-laden trucks got through to Ben Het
BEN HET REINFORCEMENTS STALK REDS
*Stars and Stripes Friday June 27, 1969
SAIGON (UPI) -- Government troops Wednesday reinforced the Ben Het Special Forces Camp, pushing out into nearby jungles where NVA artillerymen have been firing at will on the outpost for nearly two months. The "MIKE STRIKE" force (MOBILE INFANTRY STRIKE FORCE) unit of about 400 men was flown in Tuesday from nearby Pleiku, and moved out Wednesday in a bid to take the pressure off Ben Het, 285 miles northeast of Saigon in the rugged central highlands. "The threat is not really serious to the camp" declared U.S. Special Forces Maj. William Wilson, 35 of Tucson, AZ. "They can't take it. We've got too much fire power on call. They're going to pay hell for anything they try to do to us." The sweep was launched about one mile south of the camp, situated eight miles east of the tri-border region with Laos and Cambodia. Only scattered contact was reported by nightfall Wednesday. Ben Het, manned by U.S. Green Beret troopers, American artillerymen and 400 CIDG troopers, has received an estimated 5,000 enemy shells since May 6 but no major ground assaults. But the Americans have been backed by an estimated 100 B52 bomber strikes, along with jet fighter-bomber, helicopter gun-ships and artillery support from a half-dozen nearby bases in Dak To valley. "The Mission of the Ben Het camp is to guard the tri-border area, protect the valley and interdict enemy supplies and communications," a U.S. Spokesman said. "I think things are cooling down," said Col. Alexander Weyand, 40 of El Paso, Tex., a West Point Graduate. "We may be through the heaviest part, we are starting to get convoys through on the road." On Tuesday, a nine-truck convoy fought its way into Ben Het. Two Americans died during the eight mile trip from Dak To, the last section of which has become know as the "SUICIDE MILE" because of the heavy fire from NVA forces in jungles along the road, known as Route 112. About 110 rounds of artillery and mortar shells hit Ben Het on Tuesday and more were reported on Wednesday.
* These articles have been edited
Photographs Provided by Jay Livesay, B btry 69-70
Battle of South Mountain
On September 14, 1862, the Battle of South Mountain, a struggle for mountain passes which led into western Maryland, was fought. The Union forces finally dislodged the Confederates, who retreated back into a region of farmland between South Mountain and the Potomac River.
At first it appeared to Union officers that the Battle of South Mountain might have been the big conflict they were anticipating. Only when they realized that Lee had been pushed back, but not defeated, that a much larger battle was yet to come.
Lee arranged his forces in the vicinity of Sharpsburg, a small Maryland farming village near the Antietam Creek.
On September 16 both armies took up positions near Sharpsburg and prepared for battle.
On the Union side, General McClellan had more than 80,000 men under his command. On the Confederate side, General Lee's army had been diminished by straggling and desertion on the Maryland campaign, and numbered approximately 50,000 men.
As the troops settled into their camps on the night of September 16, 1862, it seemed clear that a major battle would be fought the next day.
Bloody Battle Near Dak To - History
The Defenders of Dak To
When historians write about Dak To, most often it&rsquos about one of the war&rsquos biggest engagements: the weeks-long November 1967 Battle of Dak To that the Army&rsquos 4th Infantry Division and the 173rd Airborne Brigade fought against the North Vietnamese Army. But another significant engagement took place in the first half of 1969 at Dak To, a rugged, jungle-covered mountain in the Central Highlands northwest of Kontum near the Laos and Cambodian borders.
That long, tense, and bloody engagement is not well known, but has a special place in the annals of the war in Vietnam. How special? It likely was the most sustained combat in the Vietnam War that did not involve any large American infantry units. The fighting at Dak To, instead, was fought mainly by support troops: three companies of the 299th Combat Engineer Battalion and the 15th Light Equipment Company. Those men defended the big American base and air strip at Dak To against the North Vietnamese Army&rsquos 66th Infantry Regiment and 40th Artillery Regiment from January through July of 1969.
How did some six hundred bulldozer drivers, crane and front-end loader operators, mechanics, medics, cooks, clerks, truck drivers, and other non-infantrymen wind up defending the mountain against thousands of NVA troops? The answer has to do with the start of Vietnamization, the American high command&rsquos strategy of turning the war over to the South Vietnamese military.
One of the first moves in the Vietnamization process was the withdrawal of U.S. 4th Infantry Division troops from Dak To late in 1968. The 42nd Regiment of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam were to take the Ivy Division troops&rsquo place at Dak To. Or at least that was the plan, but the ARVN regiment never showed up.
&ldquoIt was probably the most unique situation of the Vietnam War,&rdquo former 299th medic Mike Zimmer said. &ldquoDak To was the first place for Vietnamization, and the 4th Infantry Division pulled out. But the 42nd ARVN refused to replace them like they were ordered to. And we couldn&rsquot leave. And there we were, surrounded by thousands of NVA.&rdquo
When they realized they were on their own, the men of the 299th used their engineering skills to try to protect themselves. They reinforced the base&rsquos bunkers and built new ones. They put up heavily meshed stand-off screens around the bigger bunkers. They set concertina wire out along the perimeter. They scattered homemade rudimentary mines filled with old truck parts outside the perimeter. They dug fighting holes around the compound. They pulled a lot of guard duty.
It rained a lot. And there were serious re-supply problems. &ldquoWhen we got ready to leave, every piece of equipment ran,&rdquo Johnnie Sanders, a Warrant Officer who served as the 299th Battalion maintenance officer, said. &ldquoThey didn&rsquot look good, but they ran. The men didn&rsquot look good, either. They wore flak jackets without shirts. They put duct tape on their boots.&rdquo
The combat engineers&rsquo mission at Dak To also included mounting minesweeping patrols to try to keep the roads open from Dak To to the nearby American outposts at Ben Het and Tan Canh. Nearly every day while they were under siege by the NVA, seven-man minesweeping patrols moved out onto the roads to Ben Het and to Tan Canh. Those were tense, dangerous missions. Additionally, these minesweeping patrols frequently came under fire. As did the men of the 299th who were sent out to work on paving the road between Dak To and Ben Het.
The only help from American combat arms units that the engineers received at Dak To came from elements of two Firing Batteries and the Headquarters and Service Batteries of the 1/92nd Artillery, along with several Americal Division dusters, the ubiquitous tank-like vehicles armed with 40mm guns. There also was a tiny Air Force detachment at Dak To that took care of runway operations at the air strip.
&ldquoThe American infantry was gone,&rdquo said Jay Gearhart, who was a 20-year-old bulldozer operator with the 299th&rsquos 15th Light Equipment Company at Dak To in 1969. &ldquoWe were the infantry.&rdquo
Because the men of the 299th were not infantrymen, they had not been issued the standard Vietnam War infantryman&rsquos weapon, the M-16. The engineers wound up doing their defending with M-14s. &ldquoThey told us, &lsquoYou&rsquore not infantry, you don&rsquot need M-16s,&rsquo &rdquo Zimmer said. &ldquoAs it turned out, we ran out of ammunition and had to take belts from the M-60s [machine guns] and use them&rdquo in the M-14 magazines.
To this day the men of the 299th Engineers refer to themselves as the Brotherhood of Dak To Defenders. The nickname reflects the camaraderie that they still feel, a camaraderie that developed while defending the mountain during the long, tense NVA onslaught. We caught up with many of the men of the 299th in July during their ninth annual reunion, where we spoke to Gearhart, Zimmer (the current president of the group), Sanders, and many others about the singular events that played out at Dak To during those six long months in 1969.
The Dak To veterans said that the first four months, from late January to early May, were relatively calm. During that time the NVA delivered light pressurethe occasional ambush, a mortar attack here and there, a couple of sapper missions.
&ldquoThe business really started on May 9,&rdquo Zimmer said. On that day the NVA stepped things up considerably, enveloping the Dak To Defenders in a tight siege that didn&rsquot end until the second week of July. During those two-plus months the NVA shelled the mountain virtually every day with 122mm rockets, 81mm mortar rounds, recoilless rifles, and B-40 rockets. Not to mention continued sapper attacks.
There were many direct hits there were many more hours of nervous anticipation, with the men on constant alert. A total of nineteen engineers lost their lives scores were wounded. Six artillerymen were killed in action, and twenty-five were wounded. Overall, the casualty rate was an astounding 45 percent.
At around 12:30 in the afternoon of May 9, the NVA launched a massive rocket, artillery, and mortar attack. Two days later, as night was falling, the NVA rained down dozens of B-40 rockets and mortar rounds on the engineers on the mountain, followed by small arms fire from two directions. Then six NVA sappers made it through the perimeter and started throwing hand grenades and satchel charges.
The sappers wound up in the 15th Engineer Company&rsquos mess tent. They did not survive the blasts from the grenades that engineers threw in after them.
For most of the next two months, the Defenders of Dak To endured almost non-stop artillery barrages. &ldquoThe worst of it was all the incoming,&rdquo Gearhart said. &ldquoIt was constant every single day. Tents were torn up. You slept on the ground.&rdquo
On May 20 Donovan Fluharty of Beaver, Pennsylvania, who was on guard duty that night on the perimeter with Gearhart and Terry Eutzy, was hit by a rocket and died five days before his 21st birthday. &ldquoI lost my best buddy,&rdquo Eutzy, a bulldozer operator from Lewistown, Pa., said. &ldquoHe took a direct hit. He had a five-month-old daughter he never got to see.&rdquo
Late in the afternoon of May 23, nineteen 122mm rockets flew into the 299th&rsquos compound. &ldquoThe 122s were big enough you could see them flying through the air,&rdquo Zimmer said. &ldquoThey looked like flying telephone poles.&rdquo Four artillerymen perished in that attack and eleven were wounded.
The deadliest single incident took place on May 28, 1969, a date seared into the memories of every Dak To Defender. That evening a 122mm NVA rocket came screaming directly into the 15th Light Equipment&rsquos headquarters bunker. The heavily sandbagged bunker, sunk some twenty feet in the ground, was crowded with engineers, including a thirty-man reaction force. Nine men, including Company Commander Franklin L. Koch and 1st Sgt. Dudley J. Benefiel, Jr., were killed, and nineteen were wounded.
Dan Heidrich, a cook from Linton, North Dakota, was manning a mortar tube on the perimeter when the first rockets hit. &ldquoWe were always watching for rockets,&rdquo he said. &ldquoWe saw one take off through our surveyor&rsquos instrument. I could almost touch it as it sailed right over my head. It hit right in the doorway of the bunker. I was one of the guys who helped remove bodies from the bunker.&rdquo
Jay Gearhart and Earl &ldquoBud&rdquo Baker, a crane operator from Folsom, California, were among those inside the bunker when the rocket hit. &ldquoWe got blown away,&rdquo Gearhart said. &ldquoThe next thing I know, I&rsquom in a heap with a bunch of other guys. We couldn&rsquot see. We couldn&rsquot breathe. Couldn&rsquot hear. Guys were scrambling to the light to get out of there. The entrance was gone and we had to claw our way out of there. There were bodies laying everywhere. Thank God for our medics, Ron Culpepper and Mike Zimmer. They did triage and tried to treat the more seriously wounded.&rdquo
&ldquoThe place went dark,&rdquo Baker added. &ldquoThe roof was gone. The First Sergeant was really bad off. My face was burned, but I thought I was okay until I passed out. I woke up in the hospital with shrapnel in my face.&rdquo
Two days later, on May 30, a helicopter carrying Battalion Commander Newman Howard landed in the compound. More than a few 299th men were shocked also to see Gen. Creighton Abrams, who succeeded Gen. William Westmoreland as MACV Commander in 1968, step out of the helicopter, along with his entourage. They were even more surprised when Gen. Abrams said that he had been told there were ARVN troops at Dak To.
Another memorable incident took place in the morning of June 7. Glen Hickey, a draftee from Jefferson City, Missouri, who was working as the 299th CO&rsquos jeep driver, described what happened in a letter he wrote later that day to his wife Gayle.
&ldquoToday was far from a regular day,&rdquo Hickey wrote. At around 1:00 a.m. the NVA began a barrage of small arms fire, along with the first of fifty-nine mortar rounds and fifteen B-40 rockets that hit Dak To that day. Five men were wounded. One enemy soldier was killed.
Later that morning, the daily minesweeping operation was ambushed on the road to Ben Het with rockets, small arms, and machine-gun fire. It didn&rsquot help morale that the ARVN troops responsible for the patrol&rsquos security fled as soon as the firing began. The South Vietnamese troops &ldquostarted running back down into the ditches,&rdquo Hickey wrote, &ldquoleaving the seven-man minesweep team.&rdquo
Soon after that, rockets killed two 299th men: Hickey&rsquos former squad leader, Sgt. Philip Burfoot, who took a direct hit, and 21-year-old PFC Joseph Mott of Buffalo, New York. Two wounded engineers barely escaped with their lives.
&ldquoThe NVA came charging over the bank, so [the wounded men] played dead,&rdquo Hickey said. &ldquoThe NVA took their weapons and gear right off of them. I&rsquom not sure why they didn&rsquot [kill them].&rdquo
The minesweeping team&rsquos truck driver radioed back to the compound for help. About twenty minutes later the two dusters, two five-ton truckloads of men, and a truck with four 50-caliber machine guns arrived on the scene. Hickey was with the group, driving the CO. Life photojournalist Larry Burrows hitched a ride with them.
&ldquoThere must have really been a lot of NVA dug in there,&rdquo Hickey wrote to his wife. &ldquoYou could hear AK47s cracking overhead. It was really scary. A chopper tried to land to pick up the wounded, but it got shot up and just barely made it the two miles back to the compound.&rdquo
With the ARVN refusing to fight, the 299th Engineers faced off against the NVA. Some used M-16s that they had taken from the ARVN. The fighting engineers drove off the NVA. Then they took the wounded back to the compound. A few hours later the minesweeping team was sent back out to the road.
&ldquoThey took a lot of ARVN and two dusters this time,&rdquo Hickey said. &ldquoWhen they got back to the ambush site, they got small arms fire again and the ARVNs&rdquo left the scene again. &ldquoBack to the rear they went. This time the minesweep came back in.&rdquo
Larry Burrows&rsquos photos of the ARVN troops in the ditch were prominently displayed in the September 19, 1969, issue of Life under the headline, &ldquoA Case of Cowardice Under Fire.&rdquo The Army brass were not happy with that, but the men of the 299th felt the article and photos perfectly summed up their situation.
A few weeks later the 299th Combat Engineers began sporting a new homemade unit patch. Above the battalion motto of &ldquoProven Pioneers&rdquo were the words, &ldquoDak To Defender.&rdquo That patch has been modified today to read: &ldquoDak To Defender, May-June 69. 299th Engrs.&rdquo
The enemy shelling and probing continued until July 6. &ldquoThen, all of a sudden, on July 7 it ended,&rdquo Hickey said. A little recon confirmed that the NVA had gone. On July 19 the last of the Dak To Defenders left. The survivors felt relief, pride, and not a small amount of bitterness.
&ldquoA lot of us believe that we were left as bait to draw the NVA out of the mountain,&rdquo Mike Zimmer said. &ldquoBut the worm didn&rsquot get bit. The North Vietnamese realized the government was setting a trap.&rdquo Meanwhile, &ldquowe took 45 percent casualties, every other man was hit. Every day there was incoming, incoming, incoming.&rdquo
&ldquoAs everything seemed to be falling apart around us, we hung tough,&rdquo Gearhart said. &ldquoWe would not let the NVA overrun us, no matter what. If it weren&rsquot for the 1st of the 92nd Artillery&rsquos counter battery fire and the dusters, none of us would be here.&rdquo
In 1970 the 299th and the 1/92 received the Valorous Unit Award, the equivalent of a Silver Star, for their actions at Dak To. The 299th also received the Republic of Vietnam&rsquos Cross of Gallantry unit citation.
Marc Leepson is the author of seven books, most recently, Lafayette: Lessons in Leadership from the Idealist General, a biography of the Marquis de Lafayette. He received the VVA Excellence in the Arts Award in August at the 2011 National Convention in Reno.
Published 1:18 pm Friday, January 15, 2021
Note: This article appeared in the Nov. 18 edition of the “Redstone Rocket.” This article was written by “Redstone Rocket” Editor Skip Vaughn and reprinted by permission. ([email protected])
HUNTSVILLE – Huntsville resident Homer Hickam joined the U.S. Army in January 1966 with a college option program that promised enrollment in Officer Candidate School.
A native of Coolwood, West Virgina, Hickam graduated from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University or Virginia Tech. Per his agreement, Hickam completed Basic Training and Advanced Individual Training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., followed by 23 weeks of Officer Candidate School at Fort Belvoir, Va.
“That was an interesting time,” Hickam said. “I got through it. Finally got my butter bar.”
The Ordnance officer spent 10 months at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah, before volunteering for Vietnam in 1967.
“I just thought I needed that experience. I felt like I wanted this, so they assigned me to go,” he said.
Hickam, then a 24-year-old First Lieutenant, served in Vietnam for one year with C Company, 704th Maintenance Battalion, 2nd Brigade. He was assigned to 2nd Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment, known as the Blackhawks.
During a year in the field, Hickam saw much combat. When he arrived, the bloody Battle of Dak To was underway.
“It was just awful. Helicopters going in and out with wounded soldiers,” Hickam said. “When you start seeing all these bodies stretched out with these camos over them, it’s profoundly affecting.”
“I mean it’s terrifying. You quickly recognize this is a real mess. The whop, whop, whop of the helicopters overhead,” he said. “Vietnam was like you’re either bored stiff or you’re about to die. It was one or the other.”
The 2/1 Cavalry, Blackhawks asked Hickam’s captain if he could be assigned to fire base to lead their mechanics. Hickam joined the Blackhawks, who were guarding the Mang Yang Pass when a major battle with the Viet Cong led to the Tet Offensive on Jan. 31, 1968.
Hickam became acting commander of C Company at Ban Me Thout, near the Cambodian border. In October 1968, Hickam called for air support against enemy insurgents with Cobra helicopters in a rocket barrage that “was an amazing fireworks display.”
Hickam received the Bronze Star and an Army Commendation Medal for his Vietnam service.
“Vietnam was a learning experience,” Hickam said, “on how people react under extreme pressure. I actually learned how good people can be under that kind of pressure. Men … never broke. I learned a renewed pride in America.”
Hickam left the Army as a Captain in 1970.
Hickam’s bestselling memoir, “Rocket Boys,” related his childhood in a small coal-mining community with fellow amateur rocketeers. This book launched the 1999 movie “October Sky.”
Hickam, 77, retired as a NASA engineer and lives in southeast Huntsville with wife Linda Terry Hickam.
“I would hope the American people would show gratitude to the men and women who served over there,” Hickam said. “In many cases, they gave their lives. People went because they thought it was the right thing to do. Honor the men and women willing to do that so many were not willing to.”
Bloody Battle Near Dak To - History
Siege of Dak To, May thru July of 1969
". it had been a brutal three months for the 299th.
In that brief time the four companies defending Dak To suffered 45% casualties."
by: Ed Murphy
as told to: Jay Gearhart
2nd Plt. 15th Engr. Co. (LE)
299th CBT Engr BT.
Siege of Dak To: May thru July, 1969
The buzz of the incoming rockets caught the men of the 299th Engineer Battalion (Combat) in their noon chow lines. One second they were standing around joking with one another, the next they were frantically scrambling for cover as panicked voices yelled &ldquoINCOMING! INCOMING!&rdquo
For nearly thirty minutes the engineers huddled in bunkers as twelve 122mm rockets and eighteen 81mm mortar rounds ripped into their camp at Dak To. Then, as suddenly as it began, the barrage ended.
Amazingly, no one was hurt by the blasts. The engineers pulled themselves from cover, dusted off their fatigues and looked around. What the hell was that all about? they wondered. They had no idea that their little corner of the war was about to heat up.
Dak To sits in the middle of one of the most hotly contested regions of South Vietnam. Deep in the rugged, jungle-clad mountains of the Central Highlands, the hamlet is a mere twenty kilometers from the border where Laos, Cambodia, and South Vietnam come together. A spur of the Ho Chi Minh Trail crossed the border here and paralleled Route 512 east through Ben Het, Dak To, and Tan Cahn. From there it was a straight shot south down Route 14 to Kontum, Pleiku, and then east to the coast. It was axiomatic to the Americans that if North Vietnamese forces controlled the Central Highlands, South Vietnam would fall.
To prevent that from happening, the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, beginning in 1964, had established a chain of Special Forces camps along the border, including one at Dak To. From Duc Co in the south to Kham Duc in the north, the Green Berets and their indigenous troops patrolled the unforgiving terrain in search of the enemy. And they frequently found the North Vietnamese Army forces. Bloody clashes were common. Sometimes it was more than the unconventional forces could handle and regular infantry units were called in.
In the fall of 1965 the 1st Cavalry Division&rsquos 7th Cavalry was mauled at LZ X-Ray in the Ia Drang Valley. In the summer of 1966 the 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division had its turn. After one of its companies was nearly overrun the paratroopers were pulled out. In the fall of that year two brigades of the newly arrived 4th Infantry Division were handed responsibility for the two major provinces of the Highlands: Kontum and Pleiku.
Fierce combat raged throughout those provinces over the next year. The action reached a climax with the Fall 1967 Border Battles that engulfed two brigades of the 4th Infantry Division and the 173rd Airborne Brigade. The fighting was so brutal a battalion of the 173rd was trapped on Hill 875 for two days before a relief force could get to them.
In thirty days of fighting, the American units suffered nearly 1,800 casualties, of which 376 were killed in action. A relative calm descended on Dak To after the North Vietnamese suffered heavily in their January-March 1968 Tet Offensive. To secure the region, MACV placed the 1st Brigade, 4th Infantry Division at Dak To. Fifteen kilometers west a Special Forces team with a force of native soldiers held Ben Het. The Army of the Republic of Vietnam&rsquos 42d Infantry held Tan Canh.
Into this arena stepped the 299th Engineer Battalion (Combat). The 299th arrived in South Vietnam in October 1965. In the summer of 1966 it relocated from Tuy Hua to Pleiku. The battalion remained there, attached to the 4th Infantry Division, but assigned to the 18th Engineer Brigade, for two years before it moved to Dak To.
The 299th&rsquos mission was to provide the infantry units with engineering support and to keep the roads to Ben Het and Tan Canh open. Minesweep patrols headed out in each direction daily. As weather permitted, the engineers were paving Route 512 between Dak To and Ben Het. Not only would this ease the passage of the frequent truck convoys, but it would also hamper the NVA&rsquos mine-laying activities.
When Lieut. Col. Newman Howard took command of the battalion in January 1969 his companies were scattered throughout the hills surrounding Dak To. &ldquoThe Fourth&rsquos infantrymen held the fire support base and air strip at Dak To,&rdquo Howard recalled. &ldquoMy men were spread all around the area.&rdquo
Shortly after Howard arrived, the United States implemented its new policy of &ldquoVietnamization&rdquo which transferred increasingly greater combat responsibilities to the ARVN. Giving the ARVN responsibility for the much fought-over Dak To area would clearly demonstrate the confidence MACV&rsquos new commander, Gen. Creighton Abrams, had in them to fulfill their mission.
Unfortunately, about that same time, the NVA reassembled its forces in the region. In late January 1969, intelligence sources reported two NVA infantry and one artillery regiments operating south of Route 512. A prime target was Ben Het. In early February 1969 the NVA&rsquos 40th Artillery Regiment began blasting the camp.
Specialist 4 Jay Gearhart, of the 299th&rsquos 15th Engineer Company (Light Equipment), had just arrived in Ben Het a few days earlier. &ldquoAbout twenty of us were detailed to go to Ben Het,&rdquo Gearhart recalls. &ldquoThe monsoons were coming and Route 512 was the only overland supply route to Ben Het. We were going to upgrade the road before the rains came.&rdquo
All went well for the first week. Then the enemy shells came down. &ldquoThere was only sporadic incoming for the first few days and we worked right through it,&rdquo Gearhart said. &ldquoAfter about a week, though, they started pouring over a hundred rounds a day into that little camp. &ldquoWe ended up being pinned down in a trench right near their little airstrip. We spent nearly two months like that. I counted over twenty-seven hundred rounds inside the wire in twenty-three days. And Ben Het was small!&rdquo The daily artillery barrages at Ben Het were but a preview of what Gearhart would experience at Dak To.
Meanwhile, Colonel Howard prepared his battalion for Vietnamization. After the 4th Infantry Division&rsquos troops were pulled out, two of Howard&rsquos companies, B and C, were relocated. Howard then brought his remaining three companies in from their outlying sites. &ldquoOur final mission was to prepare Dak To for the 42d ARVN,&rdquo Howard said.
Specialist 4 David G. Swanson, a motor pool dispatcher in Headquarters Company, remembers the move. &ldquoWe&rsquod been on one of the hills overlooking the airstrip since I&rsquod joined the battalion in October,&rdquo Swanson said. &ldquoWhen the infantry left we were brought down and told to clean up the area. We were supposed to remove all the debris, empty ration cans, used artillery canisters, garbage--you name it. There was so much crap we had to use front-end loaders to dump it outside the wire.
&ldquoWhen we&rsquod finished with that we were supposed to load up all of our equipment and join our other two companies near Qui Nhon.&rdquo That was what Colonel Howard understood, too. Once the base was squared away it would be turned over to the ARVN. The rest of the 299th would then be on its way. But things changed.
&ldquoOne day a chopper came in,&rdquo Howard recalls. &ldquoOn board were Maj. Gen. Donn R. Pepke, the CG of the 4th, and Pepke&rsquos boss, Lieut. Gen. Julian J. Ewell, CG of the II Field Force. Pepke started with, &lsquoWhat are you doing?&rsquo
&ldquoOnce we&rsquore done here I&rsquove got orders to convoy to Kontum. We&rsquoll overnight there, then move to Qui Nhon, sir,&rdquo Howard responded.
&ldquoYou have to stay here.&rdquo
&ldquoI&rsquove got orders to move out.&rdquo
&ldquoSorry, you&rsquove got to stay. The ARVN aren&rsquot coming. You have to hold the base.&rdquo
&ldquoBut I don&rsquot have enough people,&rdquo Howard protested.
&ldquoYou have to. And if you don&rsquot believe what these two stars are telling you, I&rsquove got three more right there,&rdquo Pepke said, gesturing to Ewell.
&ldquoYes, sir,&rdquo Howard replied. Howard immediately gave new orders to his troops. They were staying. They were to dig-in and prepare to hold the base against any attackers.
Specialist 4 Rick Noyes, Company A&rsquos operations NCO, like most of the enlisted men, did not know what was going on. &ldquoI&rsquod heard that some ARVN&rsquos were going to relieve us, but then we were told to move into the infantry&rsquos bunkers. It didn&rsquot seem like a big deal at the time. Just typical army,&rdquo he said.
Howard ordered his men to reinforce existing bunkers and build new ones. Rocket stand-off screens were constructed around the primary bunkers. The engineers strung concertina wire along the perimeter. Fougasse barrels were stuffed with used truck parts and spotted along the perimeter. Fighting holes were dug throughout the camp. And, most of this work had to be done in the monsoon rains, adding to the engineer&rsquos misery.
Colonel Howard made the work a little easier when he cut the original perimeter in half. &ldquoI used to watch a lot of John Wayne movies,&rdquo Howard explained. &ldquoWhenever his wagon train was attacked, Wayne formed a smaller, easier-to-defend perimeter. That&rsquos what I did.&rdquo
A movable barbed wire fence was strung across the runway. When an aircraft needed to land the fence could be swung out of the way. Howard placed a .50 caliber machine gun at one end of the runway. If the NVA came, that gunner had a clear field of fire.
Because they had no infantry support, the engineers had to man the perimeter bunkers themselves. About 300 men were required for this nightly guard duty. So, in addition to their regular daytime duties, more than half of the 299th&rsquos enlisted men manned bunkers every night. And their regular duties continued unabated.
The minesweeps went out every day, rain or shine road damage had to be repaired the paving of Route 512 continued and, vehicles and equipment needed maintenance. Daily life seemed very routine. Few of the engineers expected any major problems.
Then, on 9 May, the rocketing began. Once it was determined no one had been wounded by the barrage, the engineers examined the craters. Specialist 4 Glen Hickey, Company D, was amazed at the reaction of some of his fellow engineers. &ldquoOne of the rockets had not exploded. It had buried itself five to six feet in the ground. Some of the guys were poking it with sticks. Others wanted to pull it out with a bulldozer. Finally, a smarter NCO said, &lsquoNo way.&rsquo We blew it up where it was.&rdquo Hickey avoided the mess tent and its dangerous lines from that day on. He scavenged some LRRP rations and ate those in an abandoned bunker.
More rockets, recoilless rifle fire, mortars, and small arms fire fell on the camp the next day. The engineers fired back with what weapons they had, but they could not pinpoint the enemy&rsquos positions.
On the evening of 11 May Specialist Gearhart, back from Ben Het, was on perimeter guard with two buddies, Donovan R. Fluharty and Terry Eutzy. Soon after dark the first of some seventy-five B-40 rockets and 60mm mortar rounds hit the camp. Small arms fire from enemy positions to the west and south raked the perimeter.
Suddenly, a frantic cry erupted: &ldquoSappers! Sappers!&rdquo Six NVA sappers had breached the camp&rsquos west defenses. In an instant, they were racing through the area, tossing grenades and satchel charges left and right.
&ldquoThey got my squad tent!&rdquo Gearhart said. &ldquoThank God we were on guard duty or we&rsquod have all been killed.&rdquo Hotly pursued by angry engineers, the six sappers sought refuge in the 15th Engineer Company&rsquos mess tent. At a shouted command from an NCO at least six engineers tossed grenades into the tent. After the explosions the men dragged out the remains of the six sappers. The mess tent was a total loss. The men of the 15th took their meals at Company A&rsquos or Company D&rsquos mess tent from then on, or ate C-rations.
The 92d Artillery moved a 155m howitzer battery to Dak To on 4 May. From this new FSB-1 they could fire support for the Ben Het combat base. The artillery, however, soon became a target for the NVA.
At 1750 hours on 13 May, the first of nineteen 122mm rockets impacted inside the 299th&rsquos perimeter. Several struck one of the 92d&rsquos gun positions. Four artillerymen died and eleven were wounded.
Specialist Swanson was on perimeter duty about fifty yards forward of the howitzers when the rockets hit. &rdquoThat was a horrible night,&rdquo Swanson recalled. &ldquoThe rockets came out of nowhere and blew that gun up.&rdquo
The next night NVA infantry probed all around the perimeter. At 1935 hours nervous engineers in bunkers reported noises outside the wire. The soldiers tossed grenades and fired M79 grenade launchers at the sounds. A flurry of return small arms fire peppered two friendly bunkers. Fortunately, no engineers were hit. The probing continued until 0700 the next morning. Weary engineers fired back whenever they could. Their intrepid actions undoubtedly convinced the sappers to try again on another night. Which they did. Nearly every day some enemy activity was reported and casualties taken.
On the evening of 20 May, Specialist Gearhart, his buddy Donny Fluharty, and some other squad mates were reading their mail outside their bunker. A sergeant first class suddenly came up and ordered them to join a sandbagging detail. &ldquoWe were tired and wanted a little rest before we took up our night guard positions,&rdquo Gearhart said. &ldquoBesides, we hated this NCO. He was an alcoholic who stole our beer rations. But, we stood up to do what we had to do. Except Donny.
He said, "The heck with him. I&rsquom finishing my mail" and sat back down. The rest of us headed out.&rdquo and sat back down. The rest of us headed out.&rdquo Ten minutes later a 122mm rocket exploded near Donny Fluharty. Before medics could reach him Fluharty bled to death from his wounds. &ldquoMan, I felt awful,&rdquo Gearhart said. &ldquoI was never the same after that. I just felt numb and didn&rsquot give a crap anymore.&rdquo
Eight days later Gearhart was in the 15th Engineer&rsquos command-and-control bunker as part of the evening&rsquos QRF. &ldquoUs being engineers we knew how to build a bunker,&rdquo Gearhart said. &ldquoThis one was a beaut. It was heavily sand-bagged and a good twenty feet below ground.&rdquo
At 1728 the night&rsquos first 122 mm rocket struck the base. In the next eleven minutes eleven more rockets exploded. One of these hit between the blast wall and the entrance to the 15th&rsquos bunker.
&ldquoI was sitting there and the next thing I knew I&rsquom in a heap with a bunch of other guys,&rdquo Gearhart said. &ldquoCan&rsquot hear. Can&rsquot see. Can&rsquot breathe. Along with the others that were still alive I began scrambled toward the light. As I clawed my way out over the debris I saw the entrance was completely gone. There were bodies everywhere.
&ldquoI can still see our CO, Lieutenant Franklin L. Koch, laying there like he was asleep. Our brand new first sergeant, James D. Benefiel,was identified by his stateside boots. And the NCO who had detailed us to fill sandbags on the 20th was horribly burned. He died a few days later.&rdquo
In all, nine engineers died and nineteen were wounded in the blast. The 15th&rsquos command structure and its communication capabilities were all but destroyed. Despite this carnage the indefatigable engineers continued to perform their duties.
&ldquoWe never gave up on our main mission,&rdquo Colonel Howard said. &ldquoThere were a few days when we didn&rsquot get out because of so many NVA in the area, but there weren&rsquot many of those. There were more days when we didn&rsquot make it but a few hundred meters before enemy fire drove us back. On other days we&rsquod make it all the way to Ben Het and Tan Canh. You just never knew.&rdquo
2. Brusilov, 1916 (1.6 million casualties)
The Brusilov Offensive, which took place between June and August of 1916, was a major success for the Russians, who had until then mostly suffered large defeats at the hands of the German forces and their Central Power allies. When, in February of 1916, the French city of Verdun was sieged by the German forces, other Allied forces joined hands to divert the Germans towards other areas, allowing Verdun to recover. While the British set up their own offensive along the Somme River, the Russians proved extremely quick in action, and attacked the German forces at Lake Narocz. However, the Russians were highly unsuccessful in this attempt, which resulted in mass slaughtering of the Russian troops by the German forces. A subsequent offensive was planned near Vilna and, while this was put into action, General Alexei Brusilov, an experienced cavalryman and an efficient commander of the Southwestern Army, attempted to convince his superiors to let his forces launch an attack on the Germans. His wish was granted, and thusly Brusilov led his offensive attacks on the Austro-Hungarian 4th Army, defeating them completely. The attack was so severe with about 1.6 million casualties, that the German forces were forced to withdraw their own plans for future attacks, and instead had to rush to help their newly made Central Powers ally, the Austro-Hungarians. Finally, with Russian resources beginning to run out, the Brusilov Offensive came to a close on September 20th, 1916. When it was all said and done, it became the costliest battle in terms of human lives in modern history.
Sonoran Desert Digest
December on the central coast of the Republic of Vietnam is not the wettest nor is it the coolest month, but it’s close to being both. December humidity is a bit more than the normal eighty percent, and half the days of the month will be mostly rain, over eight inches during the month soaking the American, Korean, and Vietnamese soldiers to whom, like soldiers everywhere, it’s just “the way it is,” not often requiring comment or complaint.
Bong Son is a town that sits astride Song Gia Long (River Gia Long) near its mouth on the South China Sea, where it is crossed by QL1, National Highway 1, which runs from the Mekong Delta to -- at one time, and now again -- Hanoi in the north. The plain that stretches back from the beaches in this area is called the Bong Son Plain, or just Bong Son. For the Americans, the river has also taken on that name, so that to soldiers of the 1st Cavalry Division, whose 1st Brigade is responsible for this area in 1967 as its second year in Vietnam draws to a close, “Bong Son” is a plain, a river, and a town. Bong Son is most of all a place the enemy has controlled for decades, coming from his bases in the thickly forested ridges, deep river valleys, and mountains into which this plain rises to the west. This is the “rice bowl” for the North Vietnamese Army’s 3rd “Sao Vang” (Gold Star) Division, and with allied local force Viet Cong units, the enemy is determined that it remain in his control.
Beyond, adjoining the border with Cambodia, lie the Central Highlands, to which the Cavalry was first committed in 1965 and fought the already famous battles in the Ia Drang Valley before turning the mountains of Kontum Province around the city of Plieku over to the 4th Infantry Division the following year. The Cav had built its Division base at An Khe, about halfway between Laos and and the sea, so was able to easily deploy its highly mobile brigades across the breadth of the country and the length of the II Corps Tactical Zone, stretching from Binh Dinh Province in the north to the city of Phan Thiet in the south, and as history later established, much further than that. The Division wasn’t responsible for all that, but the world’s first airmobile division could relatively quickly be sent off in a new direction and to a new mission. So, in 1966, the Cav faced east, back toward the coast, penetrating the An Lao, Sui Ca, and Kim Son valleys that were the bases of the NVA’s 3rd “Sao Vang” Division(1), then conducting cordon and search(2) operations, raids, and search and destroy(3) sweeps, on the coastal plain to deny its use as the enemy’s “rice bowl.” Throughout 1966 and 1967, the NVA’s 22nd Regiment, which along with the 18th NVA and the 2nd Vietcong Main Force Regiment, made up the 3rd Division, was a principal adversary of the American Division and its Korean and Vietnamese allies. In January, 1966, the Cav’s 3rd Brigade fought a major battle with the 22nd at Cu Nghi, a few miles northwest of Bong Son. The 22nd attacked and overran LZ Bird(4) in the Kim Son Valley(5) at Christmas of the same year, and in July of 1967, the 22nd and the Cav’s 1st Brigade clashed near Tam Quan west of LZ Tom, base of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam’s (ARVN) 22nd Division.
So it was no surprise, then, that the early morning of December 6, 1967 was shrouded in fog, and that the Cav’s 1st Brigade was out looking for the 22nd Regiment of the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN). Morning fog occasionally obscured the plain and the low ridges that rose to the west of it. Bong Son’s checkerboard of rice paddies are mostly flooded in December, bounded by dikes rising 1-3 feet above the paddy floor. Sometimes, particularly near villages, and where paddies had for some time lain fallow, these dikes would be topped by thick hedge-like foliage, and always there were the “islands” among the paddies where villages dotted the otherwise flat expanse of the plain, recalling the bocage(6) of Normandy. And like the bocage, this maze-like terrain lent itself to fortification by a defender and was hellishly difficult and confusing for attacking infantry.
The 1st Cavalry’s Bong Son Area of Operations (AO), was held down by the 1st Brigade, minus the 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry(7), which had been sent back into the Central Highlands on October 8th to reinforce the 173rd Airborne Brigade(8) and elements of the 4th Division responding to an enemy threat to the Dak To Special Forces Camp(9). Intelligence believed that the NVA had withdrawn units from the area around Pleiku, increasing its forces in western Kontum Province to division strength. Enemy forces were believed to include the 1st Division (PAVN), along with assigned or attached 66th, 32nd, 24th, and 174th Infantry Regiments, and the 40th Artillery Regiment of the North Vietnamese Army. The 2nd Battalion, 8th Cavalry had also been at the time transferred to the operational control (OPCON) of the 4th Infantry Division but had since returned to Bong Son and control of the Cav’s 1st Brigade. In the absence of those battalions, 1st Brigade Commander Donald V. (Snapper) Rattan(10) had the 1st Battalion, 50th Infantry(11) (Mechanized), and had developed over the summer and fall a good working relationship with Brigadier General Nguyễn Văn Hiếu, Commander of the ARVN’s 22nd Division(12), with which the Cav shared the Bong Son AO.
The 1st of the 50th had only arrived in Vietnam that September, but was already an important part of the 1st Cavalry Division’s operations in Binh Dinh Provence. Major General John Tolson(13) commanded the division in 1967 and 68. “When I received the 1st Battalion, 50th Mechanized Infantry, I decided not to treat this battalion as an orphan child to be held in reserve for some particular contingency, but rather to totally integrate it into the 1st Cavalry Division and to train its troops completely in airmobile tactics,” he said. “We rounded out the battalion with a fourth rifle company from headquarters and supply units and placed their armored personnel carriers at a central position near landing zone UPLIFT. The companies would go out on airmobile operations just as other companies of the Division and if a mission appeared that needed a mechanized unit, we extracted the troops to landing zone UPLIFT and deployed them in their primary role. The 1st Battalion, 50th Mechanized Infantry proved to be a very valuable asset and, when we had lost our attached tanks (Company A, 1st Battalion, 69th Armor)(14) to their parent organization, we often employed the Armored Personnel Carriers with their .50 caliber guns in tank-like formations. In using the mechanized battalion in this manner, we felt we enjoyed the best of both worlds. We had the additional troops which were completely trained in air assault tactics and we had the mechanized capability when the terrain and situation demanded.(15)
PFC Mike Price woke up the morning of the 6th at Camp Radcliff(16), the Division’s big base near An Khe in the eastern Central Highlands. Price had arrived in Vietnam on November 20, and after in-processing and training at The First Team Academy(17), been assigned to B Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry(18). The 1/8th like all 1st Cavalry battalions, kept an administrative area at Camp Radcliffe, while its tactical headquarters was on a firebase in its combat area of operations. In December of 1967, Lieutenant Colonel Christian Dubia’s(19) 1/8th Cavalry Battalion Tactical Operations Center (TOC)(20) was on LZ English(21), also the forward home of Colonel Rattan’s 1st Brigade. B Company was scheduled to return to English for a 24-hour stand down(22) that afternoon, and that presented an easy opportunity for Price and other replacements to join the company. “Arrived on English midday,” remembered Price, “sat around most of the day. Sat around the S4 (battalion supply)(23) area, there were a couple of trash cans, with cold beer and soda there, it sure looked inviting, I didn’t touch it. (I was) Definitely an FNG(24). I remember some guy, I assumed at the time it was the S4 sergeant, which nickname was Pineapple, I think it was him, but I asked the guy, hey, how do I get one of those sodas or something. And he told me, ‘You ain’t earned it yet.’ Ok, that’s it, so sat around for most of the afternoon, (before the) company came in.”
Across Highway 1, A Troop, 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry(25), on LZ Dog(26), the brigade’s reconnaissance arm cranked up its helicopters as soon as the fog burned off enough to allow its H-13’s(27) to see anything. Then the little observation helicopters were off to find the enemy, and if successful to initiate the airmobile division’s highly successful “pile on” tactics. In classic military terms, the Squadron’s light observation helicopters (a White Team) would find the enemy, then develop the situation by inserting its organic infantry platoon (the Blue Team), supported by A Troop’s gunships (a Red Team). If the Blues had a bigger fish on the line than they could handle alone, one of the division’s airmobile infantry battalions would “fix” him in place by quickly flying a company into the fight. How much more “piling on” there would be depended on how big the fish was believed to be.
The Troops Blue team didn’t have to depend on the Cav’s aviation battalions for its air transportation (“lift”) capability, since it had its own Bell UH1D “Iroquois” helicopters(28). Known as “Slicks” when referring to the configuration that lifted infantry into battle, or “Hueys” when referring to the UH-1 in general, regardless of purpose.
Warrant Officer Jack Fischer, who served in A Troop in 1967 as both a gunship (also a UH-1 until the Cobra was introduced in 1968) and lift pilot, describes a typical day of combat assaults with A Troop, “I had been assigned to Alpha Troop, 1/9th Cav, and they hadn’t been back at base camp (Camp Radcliff at An Khe), since September 1966. I knew that the troop was a recon unit that was supposed to fly around and find the VC. They either took care of them themselves, or called on the Air Force if the enemy units were too big to handle.” (Actually, there were others they “called on,” including the Cav’s artillery, and airmobile infantry battalions.) "The troop’s missions were called search and destroy. If nothing else, this year was going to be different.
“I was assigned to the lift platoon known as the “Headhunters” and began flying as a copilot on 20 March. One of my first flights was along the coast of the South China Sea. I was impressed by the beauty of the blue sea, the white sand and all the tiny sampans sailing in the ocean.
“We spent the days flying out of LZ Dog. We would take the infantry team out into the boonies, set down at Dog, and wait to go back out and get them. Then we would take them somewhere else or bring them home. While we waited, there might be other missions, like administrative flights to other bases, or going out and picking up VC suspects the Blues had captured.
“We would leave Dog and fly the helicopters to a different place many nights to disperse them in case the enemy attacked or mortared Dog. Most [of those] nights I ended up sleeping in the helicopter after we had set down somewhere. It was better than sleeping on the ground. We never seemed to get enough sleep. We often started flying early and ended the day late. At night there were alerts or additional responsibilities to keep you awake when you should have been sleeping.
"On 6 December, 1967, I received a call from the Red Cross that my son had been born on 2 December. I told a friend if anything happened to me that day to please tell my wife know that I had received her letter, and how proud I was to be a father.
"A short time later, our troop commander was flying up on the Bong Son plains, about four miles north of Dog, when the door gunner spotted a radio wire, running down from a palm tree into a well-constructed bunker. Shortly thereafter, he began to get shot at by automatic weapons."(29)
A Troop had been given a mission to check out a suspected source of enemy radio traffic from the Radio Research Unit (RRU)(30) attached to the brigade. The location by triangulation of the source radio transmissions was developed in World War II, and used with limited success by the Allies to locate German U Boats in the North Atlantic, and by the Gestapo(31) in occupied Europe to track down spies from their radio reports to commanders in England. Now, in Vietnam, the allies were using the same techniques to find the enemy, whose larger units (often regiments, and only occasionally battalions) communicated via radio.
Just as in WWII, radio location was anything but precise. As Major Gordon Stone, Commander of A Troop(32), describes it, “This battle that started on the 6th of December, and the reason we were in that area is we had what they called as “radio intercepts.” Some guy back at Division was playing with intercepting on the radio and sometimes we’d get missions to go out and just search around. Most of them wouldn’t turn up much of anything. This one didn’t turn up anything, although they took a lot of credit for it, because it put scouts into an area, probably 4-5 kilometers away from where the actual stuff was.”
That afternoon Major Stone was returning from another mission when he joined his White Team, 1/9th Scouts that were working in the vicinity of Dia Dong, just east of Highway 1 a few kilometers south of LZ Tom. “What got me into the area was, I had been further south doing something and I was coming back up and I heard the scouts working and I always liked to sorta look over the shoulder of everybody, but stay out of their way best as I can.”
Major Stone meant what he said about “staying out of their way,” but he liked what he was doing, at least best you can in hot combat, “I’m also a scout by nature. I fly down at tree top, whatever it takes to go in as a single ship, not as a couple of ships. We try to keep two ships teams so they can support each other, (but as a single ship) I always had the option of picking up and leaving.” (An option a commander with widely dispersed resources and commitments, like the commander of A Troop, has to have.)
With Major Stone in A Troop’s gunship(33) C&C (Command and Control Helicopter) that day was his usual crew. His pilot (Stone flew as Aircraft Commander (AC), of course), Warrant Officer Michael Bond, his enlisted helicopter crew chief flew as the left door gunner, and Lt. Al Tyree, served as right side door gunner and also the Artillery Forward Observer. “Better to be a door gunner than have him just sit there,” reasoned Stone, “because I didn’t need the extra weight I had four loads of rockets and the mini guns and all that kind of stuff. We dropped that guy out (the right side door gunner) and just used Al as a forward observer and as a door gunner. He was a very, very good door gunner. He could flat take out something with a machine gun in a heartbeat.
"I had an excellent crew that was good at what they did. And Al was very good at getting artillery…
‘Al, get me some artillery in there!’ I’d say on the intercom.
‘Let me kill this guy!’ back from Al.
‘Get me some damn artillery in there!’ I’d yell, with all the authority I could muster as the Troop Commander and a Major in the United States Army.
“We’d go on and on like that, and end up getting artillery.”
Around 1530, while Major Stone was loitering “on the outer fringe, we were headed around the edge” of the area his scouts were working, B Company, 1st of the 8th was moving toward a pick-up zone (PZ) to be lifted into LZ English from hard days in the Bong Son AO. The company’s 2nd , 3rd and 4th platoons were in the air from BS 852092 near My Binh (2), 9 kilometers northwest of LZ English on two hooks(34) at 1612, followed by the 1st platoon and the company command group (CP, or Command Post), at 1615 the Company competed its transfer to English at 162234. A company on stand down wasn’t normally assigned other duties, so the guys were expecting to get a shower, clean clothes, a movie (outdoors, a kind of drive-in without cars), and a good night’s sleep. Perhaps some would sneak outside the base to take advantage of the thriving entertainment village that sprang up near all of these major U.S. Installations. Bars, girls, and rock music. Since no one could reasonably expect such enticements to be ignored by young men, still in or just out of their teens in a foreign land and just released from days and nights of the stress of combat, the Cavalry Division not only looked the other way, but policed these nearby environs.
Captain Tom Brett(35), commander of private Price’s company, remembers, “We had been in the boonies for our 4 or 5 day normal stint and we were coming in for one night on English, where the headquarters of 1/8 was. We probably got in at about 1600, the thing was, when we got on the firebase, the guys would go take a shower, they’d go to the mess hall and eat, some of them would allegedly go out (looking for other ‘entertainment’). And so forth.”
Regardless of being relieved of certain mundane duties, a company on stand down was usually designated as the Brigade’s Ready Reaction Force (RRF)(36), and one of its platoons as the Quick Reaction Force (QRF)36. The Battalion’s Daily Staff Journal notes at 1635:
“Bde: Info 1/9 Blues @ 897071 were inserted into 40th ARVN AO 1 of the CA birds received 1rd [round] the element was then put on grad [ground] it came under heavy SA’s [small arms] fire & grenades.” The entry continues, “B Co has been informed to be (16 QRF) on a stand-by basis for RRF.”( 37)
While Brett’s B Company was headed for the showers, Major Stone and his scouts were flying at tree-top level, poking around, looking for trouble. Stone continues, “So anyway, we were checking on that area where the scouts were, and I showed up to sort of provide overwatch and advisory. We were flying on the north edge of their search area, and that’s when , Al (Lieutenant Al Tyree) my right side door gunner (and FO) said,
‘Come right! I’ve got an antenna!’ And I swung right, and there was a long wire antenna, a wire tied off to insulators or something and attached up high then in the middle of it is another wire that comes down and leads--in this case--to a bunker.
"Everybody says ‘hut (or ‘hooch’), but most of the time it was in a bunker. There were very few huts in that area, because it actually had been abandoned. In fact that day the Province Chief and his American adviser were up high out in that area, and we of course made that contact, I called him. And they said, ‘this area has been abandoned, there are no friendlies in there whatsoever’. That’s what got it started.”
“We came around to investigate,” said Stone’s Pilot, Michael Bond, “and when Al dropped a hand grenade to recon by fire the hooch, we began receiving intense fire from the ground. We immediately returned fire and broke contact while climbing up from tree-top level. While Tyre called in an artillery fire mission, Maj. Stone called for our Blue platoon to be airlifted in to check out the contact.” Bond puts the time of Lt. Tyre’s sighting at about 1430, it appears it was more likely shortly after 1600 (4 PM). It appears that Maj. Stone’s gunship was the first to be fired on in the Battle of Tam Quan, at 1608 on 6 December, 1967(38)
Only a regiment or battalion would likely deploy an antenna of that kind, but as powerful as the 1st Cav was, you still couldn’t go chasing everything with overwhelming force, so it wasn’t time to turn this over to an infantry battalion. Major Stone’s A Troop would develop this further, and if there was enough there to “pile on,” then he’d “call in the cavalry.” Of course, he was already the cavalry, so more cavalry.
With an antenna, fire coming up at him from a bunker on the ground, and Lieutenant Tyre working up his call for artillery fire, Major Stone called for his own infantry platoon to check it out, which was in any case the next page in the Air Cavalry Troops tactical book.
End of excerpt Chapter 1 to be continued chapter end notes (not included here) numbered in parentheses and italic, to be superscript in final text.
The Battle of Tam Quan Project