In 1967, the General Secretary of the North Vietnamese Communist Party Le Duan, and the new commander of the Central Office of South Vietnam, Tran Van Tra, felt that South Vietnam was ripe for revolution, contrary to what both Gen Westmoreland, the American Commander of Military Assistance Command – Vietnam and Võ Nguyên Giáp, the commander of the People’s Army of North Vietnam were saying. Both Tran and Le Duan felt that a general offensive during the Tet holiday would lead to a general uprising among the South Vietnamese. However, Giap was politically neutralized over the summer, and could not prevent Tran and Le Duan’s from carrying out their plan.
The first phase of the “Tong-Tan-cong-Noi-day” or “General Offensive, General Uprising”, called for North Vietnamese attacks along the borders with Laos and Cambodia in order to lure American units out of the interior of South Vietnam. In the late summer of 1967, the North Vietnamese began a series of division level operations with the short term objective of destroying an American brigade, but with the ultimate objective of pulling American units away from their bases and Vietnamese population centers.
The first such battle was for the area around Dak To in the Kontum province of the Central Highlands of Vietnam. Four PAVN (People’s Army of [North] Vietnam) Regiments fortified the hills around Dak To in order to isolate and destroy the Special Forces base there. In October 1967, the American 173rd Airborne Brigade launched Operation Greeley to clear the PAVN troops from their fortifications among the jungle covered hills. The 173rd Airborne Brigade, elements of the 4th Infantry Division, the 1st Air Cavalry Division, the 42nd ARVN Regiment and various US and ARVN Special Forces were in close combat with the North Vietnamese regulars among the steep hills in what became known as “The Battle of the Slopes”. In late October, the North Vietnamese withdrew, but it was a ruse to lure the Americans into a deadly regimental sized ambush.
The hills around Dak To were honeycombed with tunnels, bunkers, and fortifications designed to withstand the heaviest American bombardments short of a direct hit from a B-52 strike. On 3 November 1967, the 173rd Airborne and supporting tough ARVN paratroopers launched Operation MacArthur specifically to seize the hills which dominated that stretch of the border with Cambodia, protect the vital Dak To airfield, and destroy the “fleeing” North Vietnamese. The 174th PAVN Regiment was waiting, dug deep into the hills.
By 19 November the 173rd and ARVN troops cleared most of the hills, but took heavy losses. The 173rd’s 1st Battalion 503rd Parachute Infantry (1/503rd) was wrecked nearly beyond repair, but the so were three PAVN regiments. That morning, 2/503rd moved overland to clear a hill where a CIDG company reported taking fire from bunkers the day before. The hill was 875 meters high.
Unbeknownst to the Sky Soldiers, the veterans of the 2nd Bn, 174th PAVN Infantry Regiment were watching from the steep slopes above. 2/503rd assaulted Hill 875 in a classic “two up – one back” formation since they could no longer put four rifle companies into the field. The assault was actually under tactical command of the senior infantry company commander on the ground, CPT Harold Kaufman, with the battalion commander circling above coordinating support. However, the “one back” company had to hold the landing zone so only two companies assaulted the heavily fortified hill held by an entire PAVN battalion. The initial attack met heavy resistance and only managed to get half way up the hill.
At 1400, the 174th sprung the trap. Its 1st and 3rd battalions surrounded and struck A Company who was securing the landing zone. Heavy machine gun fire, mortars, and B-40 rockets pounded the assaulting troops on the hill side. Kaufman immediately called off the assault and formed a perimeter, but he had about a hundred casualties, mostly dead or missing, of his original 300, and the North Vietnamese had overrun the landing zone. That evening six helicopters were shot down trying to deliver ammunition and take wounded off the bare slope. To make matters worse, a Marine A-1 Skyraider dropped two 500 lb bombs directly on the Americans, and caused 80 more casualties. It looked as if Tran and Le Duan would get their destroyed American unit.
The “friendly fire” decapitated the 2/503rd leadership on the ground. When the bomb hit, Kaufman and the two other company commanders and first sergeants were conversing on how to hold out for the night, until the relief column could get there in the morning. The errant airstrike killed or seriously wounded them all. Even worse, chaos broke out among the remaining troops who thought they were all going to die. Discipline broke down. The leadership of the battalion fell to the platoon leaders, with C Company commanded by a platoon sergeant, and they regained control of the men. For the rest of the night, one of the PLs called in artillery that ringed the small American perimeter like a palisade.
The next morning, the 173rd’s 4/503rd was still hours away. Desperate hand to hand fighting occurred all along the perimeter that morning, The 2nd Battalion men thought they were being sacrificed, but the North Vietnamese shot up so many American helicopters the day before that the 4th Battalion had trouble getting to an LZ near Hill 875. Also, the thick vegetation made the three km ruck difficult, and there was the threat of ambush every step of the way. The besieged 2nd Battalion men were outnumbered, out of water, out of medical supplies, and desperately low on ammunition.
The first relief wasn’t from the 4th Battalion though, but from a lone helicopter. Hovering 15ft off the ground, the 2nd Battalion’s executive officer, MAJ William Kelly, jumped out with the battalion surgeon and some of the the companies’ headquarters troops with ammunition and water. Shortly thereafter, the lead company of the 4th battalion fought its way over the dead bodies of the previous day’s battles, and through the attacking North Vietnamese. That night the rest of the relief battalion infiltrated into the perimeter. MAJ Kelly took command of the both battalions. The two battalion commanders circling overhead might have disagreed, but in reality they were just glorified fire support officers. Sometimes your men have to be able to look you in the eye.
The next day, the 4th Battalion assaulted the hill while the remnants of 2nd Battalion held the perimeter against the North Vietnamese at the base. The bunkers had to be cleared before any medical evacuation or resupply could be attempted for the cut off Americans. After fighting all day, the 4th Battalion managed to take the first line of trenches and bunkers, but it was enough for several helicopters to get in that night. On the 22nd the 173rd’s brigade commander forbade any further frontal assaults and ringed the perimeter with constant airstrikes and artillery. A battalion from the 4th Infantry Division was landed at the same landing zone that 4/503rd landed at two days before. A combined assault was scheduled to take the hill the next day.
On Thanksgiving morning, 1967, the North Vietnamese regimental commander decided that he had had enough. He mauled the Americans, but he had lost over a thousand men. Just before the American assault, he pulled his men off of Hill 875 through escape tunnels. Tran ordered the remaining PAVN troops around Dak To area back to Cambodia. Le Duan wouldn’t get his destroyed American brigade, though he came close.
The Battle of Dak To was some of the bitterest fighting of the Vietnam War. The Americans defeated the North Vietnamese, and badly, but the Battle of Dak To and those like it, such as the Siege of Khe Sahn, fulfilled Tran’s operational objective of pulling the Americans away from the population centers. More than half of American combat power in South Vietnam was along the borders of Laos and Cambodia when the North Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive three months later in January, 1968.