In early February 1954, French Union forces were drawn into the final, convulsive combat actions of the Indochina War. A closing act of that drama took place on 2 February when the Viet Minh launched simultaneous attacks in battalion strength that overwhelmed all French outposts northwest of Kontum City. By 7 February the French high command, realizing that its tenuous hold on Kontum Province had been broken, evacuated the provincial capital. The ejection of French forces from this key province in the Central Highlands marked a giant step in the march of Communist insurgency.
Thirteen years later, reconstituted Communist forces readied another major effort in Kontum Province. Although the stage was the same, the cast and scale of confrontation were somewhat different. This time regular units of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) prepared to strike a telling blow against South Vietnamese and U.S. Military Assistance Command forces. The North Vietnamese Army objective was not to reduce all Free World outposts in Kontum, but to chalk up a sorely needed victory by seizing just one- the Dak To complex-a few kilometers from a key French post of the same name that was overrun in 1954.
Dak To was one of a chain of Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) camps advised by U.S. Special Forces personnel. Situated in the west central part of Kontum Province, it could be reached from Pleiku City by following Route 14 north through Kontum City and then turning west on Route 512. North of Dak To, Route 14 rapidly deteriorated as it approached a CIDG camp at Dak Seang. Still farther to the north the road became so poor that another camp at Dak Pek had to rely solely on an aerial life line. (Map 10)
During 1967 each of the CIDG camps in western Kontum had been threatened by North Vietnamese forces on one or more occa-
sions. The ultimate security of these isolated garrisons was the responsibility of the U.S. 4th Infantry Division, whose area of operations was so extensive as to include most of Kontum and Pleiku Provinces and the northern part of Darlac Province. In early October 1967 the 4th Division was screening Kontum with one mechanized battalion.
Late in October gleanings from bits and pieces of intelligence gave solid indications that the W3 Front-control headquarters for
North Vietnamese Army operations in the Central Highlands-was moving the bulk of its regiments from bases along the Cambodian border and other remote areas of the highlands into Kontum Province under the control of the NVA 1st Division. Since most of the elements of that division operated in Pleiku Province and the southwestern panhandle of Kontum Province, their presence in central Kontum represented a shift of from sixty to a hundred kilometers to the north. Thus warned that the NVA 1st Division was preparing its battlefield, U.S. forces began swift counter preparations.
On 28 October the 4th Infantry Division replaced the mechanized battalion with the 3d Battalion, 12th Infantry. Pushing out long-range reconnaissance patrols, the 3d Battalion immediately detected enemy movement from the southwest toward Dak To. Agent reports corroborated this finding. The attention of the division and its senior headquarters, I Field Force, Vietnam, was now riveted on what appeared to be a developing storm. (See Map 1)
On 29 October the 4th Division moved its 1st Brigade headquarters to Dak To and on the following day strengthened its forces in the vicinity with the 3d Battalion, 8th Infantry. Intensified enemy patrolling, the findings of sensitive airborne personnel detectors, and the discovery of several recently established base camps and ammunition caches indicated a large enemy build-up. The NVA 1st Division, however, was apparently still unprepared to make its thrust.
Lt. Gen. William B. Rosson, commanding U.S. I Field Force, further strengthened his troops in Kontum when, on 1 November, he drew the 4th Battalion, 503d Infantry, from the operational control of the 173d Airborne Brigade and airlifted it from Phu Yen Province to Dak To. At that point three U.S. battalions were in position. It was the second foray into Kontum for men of the 173d Airborne Brigade. During the previous summer they had fought a series of bloody actions against regular North Vietnamese units south of Dak To.
Additional information about enemy strength, composition, and disposition continued to accumulate during the next twenty-four hours. On 2 November Sgt. Vu Hong slipped away from a reconnaissance party of the NVA 66th Regiment and surrendered at the village of Bak Ri near Route 512. His fifty-man group had been selecting firing positions for mortars and 122-mm. rocket launchers. He declared that his own regiment and four others he identified were converging on Dak To and a new CIDG camp under construction at Ben Het, eighteen kilometers west of Dak To.
Lt. Col. James H. Johnson, commander of the 4th Battalion, 503d Infantry, was ordered on 2 November to meet the enemy
threat west of Dak To. That afternoon he sent his Company C to Ben Het by road, and the next day he followed with the rest of his battalion. There, amid a clutter of engineer equipment being used to construct the CIDG camp, he began to establish a fire support base.
The two battalions of the 4th Division had meanwhile deployed to high ground south and southwest of Dak To. Elements of these battalions drew first blood in separate encounters with elements of the NVA 32d Regiment on 3 and 4 November. In each fight U.S. casualties were comparatively light because supporting fires played a major role. Artillery and air strikes blasted enemy forces who occupied strong defensive positions south of the Dak To Special Forces Camp.
Judging from these first encounters, the enemy had altered his plans in response to the rapid build-up of American forces and had retired to carefully prepared defensive positions. From these positions, intelligence analysts conjectured, the North Vietnamese intended to await an attack and then attempt to maul American and South Vietnamese forces. This hypothesis could soon be tested further, for the NVA 66th Regiment had already occupied the high ground southwest of Ben Het. Regardless of the risks involved in attacking the enemy on terrain of his choosing, the rare opportunity to catch the North Vietnamese in any concentration of forces could not be passed up.
Colonel Johnson believed that his battalion would first come to grips with the enemy in or near a small valley approximately seven kilometers southwest of the new fire support base at Ben Het. Holding back Company B to secure and help construct the base, he immediately pushed Companies A, C, and D on roughly parallel axes to the south and southwest. He told his company commanders that somewhere in front of them up to two North Vietnamese battalions were waiting.
The first day of the operation was without incident. It was apparent that for the moment Dak To was not menaced by ground attack from the west. The three companies at first pursued divergent paths so that their night positions were approximately 1,600 meters apart-Company D in the center, Company C to the west, and Company A to the east.
Unlike the others in this typical airborne battalion, Company D was a provisional force, created by taking men from various other units of the battalion. The company had only three officers and eighty-five men, organized in two instead of the usual four platoons. Lacking a weapons platoon, the company had six M60 ma-
LADEN SOLDIERS PUSHING THROUGH ELEPHANT GRASS NEAR DAK TO
chine gun crews, one with each rifle squad. Company D had no mortars or recoilless rifles.
For all the company's provisional nature and the men's status as paratroopers, on this mission the troops operated much as did any American infantrymen in Vietnam, even to the amount and variety of weapons and equipment they carried. Each man bore a rucksack that weighed up to fifty pounds. Strapped, lashed, or otherwise attached to his perspiring frame, a typical rifleman was laden with three days' rations, 500 rounds of M16 rifle ammunition (often carried in a discarded claymore bag), 4 fragmentation and 2 smoke grenades, 200 M60 machine gun rounds, and 3 canteens of water. In his hands he clutched his basic weapon, the fully automatic M16 rifle, ready for instant use.
Bronzed mountain men marched with the Americans: a platoon-size Civilian Irregular Defense Group force, based at the Dak To Special Forces Camp, was attached to each company. Master
Sergeant Ky, Vietnamese Special Forces, led the thirty-man Montagnard platoon attached to Company D. These small, wiry irregulars carried a hodgepodge of weapons-M1 rifles, carbines, Browning automatic rifles, and submachine guns-all of U.S. manufacture.
On 4 November the axes of the three companies reached their maximum divergence. Reacting to 4th Division intelligence that the headquarters of the NVA 40th Artillery Regiment was then located five kilometers southeast of Ben Het, Johnson ordered Capt. James J. Muldoon to change Company A's direction temporarily and search the suspected area. About 1300 Muldoon's men turned eastward and marched until 2000. That night the three companies were 1,800 to 2,200 meters apart. It had been another day without incident. Thus far the only enemy force threatening Dak To was engaged with the two battalions of the 4th Infantry Division, south and southwest of the camp.
On the morning of the 5th, still finding no trace of the enemy, Muldoon and Company A began moving back again toward the southwest. As the result of a discussion with Colonel Johnson, Muldoon was now to trail Company D instead of resuming his march on Company D's left flank. From such a position his force would be more readily available as a reserve. A hard march faced Muldoon's men as they labored to narrow the gap. They were not to encamp until 1600.
Company C came upon the trail of the North Vietnamese that day at 1130, five kilometers from the fire support base. The first of the three companies to ascend the higher ground of the Ngok Kom Leat mountain complex, Company C discovered some unoccupied enemy foxholes. Less than an hour later the company found another group of foxholes 500 meters to the south.
The distance between the companies and their Ben Het base was lengthening. Col. Richard H. Johnson, commanding the 1st Brigade, directed Lt. Col. James H. Johnson (the battalion commander) to establish a new fire support base closer to the anticipated area of combat. After making an aerial reconnaissance together, they selected Hill 823 because it dominated the terrain and would be mutually supporting with Ben Het. Relieved of the mission of providing security for Ben Het, Company B was to conduct an air assault onto the hill at 0900 on the following day, 6 November. Companies A, C, and D were directed to link up at the new base.
On 6 November the airborne soldiers' march to combat gathered momentum. For the men trudging through tangled Kontum forests, it was the fourth day on the trail.
Only Company A was slow to clear its night camp site. The pace of the previous day had been intense, and weary troopers had been forced to hack out a landing zone for the regular evening aerial resupply-an operation carried over to the next morning. When the men finally moved out in column around 0900, they made rapid progress in closing the gap between themselves and Company D. S. Sgt. David Terrazas and his squad remained at the camp site as a rear guard. An hour after the departure of the main body, they slipped away to rejoin the column.
Approximately 1,500 meters ahead of Company A, Capt. Thomas H. Baird's Company D was already well clear of its night position. The company moved south, down from high ground into a valley, then shifted toward the southwest and west, seeking greater ease of movement on the lower ridgelines of Ngok Kom Leat.
Spec. 4 Emory L. Jorgensen, the point man, spotted it first- communications wire, beckoning enticingly up a trail. It was 1130. A quick reconnaissance along 200 meters of the wire uncovered nothing more than an uncommunicative white pith helmet. The wire ran west, pointing toward the higher reaches of the ridge.
Captain Baird asked permission to divert his company from its mission long enough to follow the wire to its terminus. From a command helicopter overhead, Colonel Johnson granted the request. Baird settled his men into a perimeter, then, with artillery support, he sent two squads to conduct a cloverleaf sweep on each side of the trail. The searchers found no further sign of the enemy and at 1230 re-entered the company position.
The captain then moved his company up the trail, his four-man point
element followed by the 2d Platoon, the Montagnard irregulars and the 1st
Platoon. As time edged toward 1300, the point reported that the trail was
widening perceptibly as it ascended the ridgeline, approaching an intermediate
knoll 100 meters away.
A feeling of tense expectation that already permeated the column heightened as the men reached the knoll. Fresh prints of bare feet in the soft ground, a bamboo reel for wire, newly dropped human feces-all pointed to the nearness of the enemy. Baird first drew his force into a defensive perimeter, then began to advance by bounds, at each halt sending four squads out on cloverleaf sweeps in an effort to circumvent any possible enemy ambush. 1st Lt. Michael D. Burton, 2d Platoon, sent his two lead squads forward to conduct the initial sweep up the ridge. As S. Sgt. Jimmy R. Worley's 1st Squad began to move out of the 2d Platoon defensive position, the hair raising chatter of automatic weapons fire sounded from less than
fifty meters up the hill. In an instant, four days of dogged slogging in search of the enemy were forgotten in the shock of combat.
Lieutenant Burton pulled his 1st Squad back, then sent it around to the left flank and up the ridge again. From the right, the 2d Squad supported the move, attempting to suppress enemy fire with its M60 machine gun and M79 grenade launcher. As the 1st Squad moved up
the hill in an attempt to flank enemy gunners, it came upon a small clearing. There Spec. 4 Charles E. Moss spotted a green-uniformed North Vietnamese soldier carrying an AK47. When the man turned away, Moss cut him down with a short burst from his M16. A firefight ensued.
Baird then ordered Burton to pull his platoon back along the trail into a company perimeter. To disengage would not be an easy matter but it was preferable to the possible piecemeal destruction of a company strung out in column. While Worley's men fell back, the 2d and 3d Squads continued to lay down covering fire. As if on cue, intense automatic weapons fire from up the trail rained down on the 2d Squad and spilled over into the company position. Two assistant M60 gunners and a rifleman were wounded. Subsequent events crowded together with lightning rapidity.
Although the company for the moment still lacked its engaged 2d Platoon, other elements were forming a defensive position with Captain Baird. The platoon of Vietnamese irregulars, because of its central position in the column, at first occupied the forward edge and flanks of the perimeter, but as the tide of combat drew closer they drifted away from Sergeant Ky, back along the trail toward the rear of the perimeter. Baird moved his 1st Platoon up to cover the exposed flanks, while his first sergeant, Sfc. William Collins, began to reorganize the irregulars to cover the rear.
A little later additional assistance to stiffen the Montagnard troops would come from another source: Sergeant Terrazas and his squad from Company A were coming up on the rear of the perimeter. The men had unsuccessfully attempted to follow the trail of their parent unit. Now they homed in on the sounds of combat.
With his rear taken care of and his flanks secured by the 1st Platoon, Baird faced the pressing problem to his front. Although Sergeant Worley's squad successfully pulled back through the 2d and 3d Squads, Burton's entire platoon became locked in a tight firefight with what the men estimated to be a company of North Vietnamese. Burton's men needed assistance to disengage in order to close the short gap between platoon and company.
Baird called for a tactical air strike, but found all the fighters in his area momentarily unavailable. Helicopter gunships moved in to do what they could to relieve the pressure, and the 105-mm. howitzers of Battery B, 3d Battalion, 319th Artillery, lent their weight from the fire support base six kilometers away. With this help, the 2d Platoon broke away.
Lieutenant Burton with two men and a machine gun covered the withdrawal of the 2d and 3d Squads. After a quarter-hour separation,
SOLDIERS LAYING DOWN COVERING FIRE WITH M60
all the men successfully rejoined Company D and secured the front of the perimeter as the delayed air strike plastered a suspected enemy assembly area atop the hill. Captain Baird had so organized the position that its long axis was parallel to and slightly left of the trail. Burton's 2d Squad, occupying the right front, was able to cover the trail approach. The 3d Squad faced the left front, and the 1st Squad held down the left flank to the point where it tied in with the 1st Platoon. Seen from above, the company position was oval in shape, astride a knob on the ridge ascending the higher reaches of Ngok Kom Leat. Scrub interspersed with tall trees and clumps of bamboo varied the visibility for each rifleman.
When the 2d Platoon pulled back into the company perimeter, S. Sgts. Michael A. Plank and Edward J. Smith and Spec. 4 Leroy W. Rothwell established themselves in a three-man outpost position fifteen meters to the right front of the 2d Squad sector. From there they angled M16 and M79 fire across the trail and up the hill.
Although the expected assault did not come from up the trail, it did come swiftly.
Suddenly materializing from their jungle concealment, fifteen to twenty of the enemy, their AK47's firing full automatic, rushed at the 2d Squad. Two paratroopers were hit; then the squad leader, Spec. 4 James D. Shafer, took a fatal round. Sergeant Smith rallied the squad and kept the perimeter intact. It was the first bitter taste of things to come.
Minutes later a North Vietnamese force of the same size struck on the opposite side of the trail, near the left front of the 3d Squad. With flanking fire support from nearby 1st Squad riflemen, the second attack was also repelled. (Map 12)
At the outset of the battle two key figures were wounded. Baird was hit twice in the right wrist and in the upper part of the left arm, injuring the radial nerve but remained in effective command of his company. Capt. Lawrence L. Clewley, forward observer from the 3d Battalion, 3 19th Artillery, was wounded while directing artillery fire. The forward air controller, and, later, Clewley's radio operator, Spec. 4 Ernie L. Fulcher, directed artillery fire for the rest of the day.
At 1400 the sleek F-l00's of the 308th Tactical Fighter Squadron hit an area just outside the 2d Squad, 1st Platoon, sector with
250-pound bombs, napalm, and 20-mm. cannon shells. Crouching behind a log in front of the squad, Sergeant Smith and his companions in the outpost felt the concussion of the bombs roll over them. It was very close, almost too close for the sergeant. "That second air strike was right in there . . . ," Smith recalled later. "If we'd been on the other side of the log, we wouldn't be here now." A medic who had been crawling toward the outpost was wounded by metal fragments as he vainly shielded the lifeless body of a comrade. Baird and his men knew, however, that the air strikes thus far were instrumental-perhaps decisive in preventing a penetration of the perimeter.
Plank and Rothwell, who had been wounded in the preceding firefight, moved back from the outpost after the last bomb landed, leaving Smith, who was rapidly expending the last of his ammunition. Sergeant Smith was becoming a favorite target for enemy snipers concealed in tall trees. Spec. 4 Grady L. Madison dashed forward, bringing him badly needed M16 and M79 ammunition. Smith reloaded and fired into some trees to his right. A sniper who had lashed himself to a tree limb tumbled out of his perch; head down, his body swayed grotesquely.
Shortly before 1500, the wounded Rothwell snaked his way back to Smith. Minutes later, with AK47's stuttering, about fifteen North Vietnamese soldiers bolted from the jungle and charged the 2d Squad. "They came running right at us through the trees and scrub," Rothwell observed later, ". . . we started knocking them down with our fire, and the rest of the squad really poured it on them." Sergeant Smith added, "Those we didn't hit ran past us to the undergrowth on the right. After they swept past, we heard movement to the right and occasional fire." This wild stampede temporarily ended serious enemy probing in the 2d Platoon area.
At 1510 a reinforced squad of enemy soldiers moved through a stand of bamboo toward the right rear of the Company D perimeter in the 1st Platoon sector. Some Montagnards saw the enemy approaching and Sergeant Ky and several of his men engaged them and drove them off. In repelling this thrust Ky's men were effectively reinforced by Terrazas' squad from Company A. An enemy move against the left rear of the perimeter was halted when a canister of napalm dropped by an F-100 decimated a fifteen-man NVA platoon as it approached the position.
Another hour inched by while the enemy maintained a constant, constricting pressure on the men of Company D. A firing pass by a helicopter gunship wounded one U.S. soldier with inaccurately placed fire when smoke marking the company perimeter failed to rise and clear the high tree canopy. In fact, throughout the afternoon
close air support was difficult because marking smoke was frequently not visible to aircraft overhead.
As suddenly as it had begun, the fury of the enemy attack subsided. Although a continuous pattering of sniper fire kicked up spurts of dirt inside the tightly packed position, the perimeter held. A steady crunch of impacting artillery continued to chew up the top of the hill, discouraging any fresh attack in strength from that direction. Over three hours had passed since the fight began and a tenacious adversary still menaced the American position.
Approximately 1,400 meters south of embattled Company D, another scene in the day's drama was well under way. Released from the drudgery of securing one fire support base, the men of Company B at 1320 began to take up the same task again as they occupied the forward base, this time by air assault. During the morning five air strikes had failed to clear a landing zone on the selected height, Hill 823, large enough to accommodate even one UH-1D helicopter. When the original assault time of 0900 had long since slipped by, Colonel Johnson requested two or more strikes, and only then were trees and undergrowth sufficiently blasted away to enable one Huey after another, in turn, to hover a few feet off the ground while the occupants jumped into a tangle of shattered bamboo. (See Map 11)
As the choppers of the 335th Aviation Company disappeared to the east, fresh paratroopers, spared a grueling cross-country march, made their way up the slope. Atop Hill 823 lead men found several broken rifle stocks and half a dozen North Vietnamese Army rucksacks, evidence that the initial air strikes had caught an enemy force by surprise. This discovery belied an earlier estimate that the hill itself was not occupied by enemy troops.
It was a deserted hilltop now as Capt. George T. Baldridge, the company commander, surveyed his new domain. Hill 823 dominated the ground to nearly all points of the compass. A lush valley separated the hilltop from the ridge where Company D was hanging on. The west and northwest slopes would provide the enemy with comparatively easy approaches to the summit of Hill 823, but the southern slope was too steep for organized assault. Observation was clearest down the southeast slope-fifty meters. Movement on the hill would be hampered severely by broken tree limbs and piles of bamboo.
Captain Baldridge positioned his 1st Platoon where it could defend the northern and northwestern slopes. He disposed his 2d Platoon along the eastern and southern portions of his projected perimeter and in its rear he placed his mortar platoon.
Turning to Lt. Robert H. Darling, Baldridge directed him to move the men of his 3d Platoon up over the crest and a short distance
down the hill (about 150 meters from the landing zone), in order to secure the western portion of the perimeter. Darling was to establish a two-man observation post a hundred meters farther down the hill to provide early warning of an attack along that likely avenue of approach. When his platoon reached its assigned position, Darling sent Pfc. Clarence A. Miller and Spec. 4 Louis C. Miller (they were not related) down the slope to set up the observation post.
Ten minutes later the two Millers were dead.
Darling himself was supervising the distribution of his men along the perimeter when his two-man observation post was struck by a violent fusillade of small arms fire, delivered at close range. With his radio operator and three other hastily designated riflemen, he raced headlong down the slope toward the now silent post. An enemy ambush force of platoon size caught them from their right before they had covered half of the distance. (Map 13)
Captain Baldridge was on the other side of the hill with his 2d Platoon when he heard the distant outbreak of gunfire. His immediate attempt to reach Lieutenant Darling by radio was unsuccessful. Then a voice crackled through company radio receivers-" 'November' is hurt bad!" Radio operator Spec. 4 James Ellis was using Darling's code name. It was his last transmission. The lieutenant and all but one man in his impromptu rescue force were dead. Pfc. Robert J. Bickel, although seriously wounded, was able to crawl toward his platoon. His cries for assistance drew not only the attention of his comrades but also that of a small, green-clad enemy
173D AIRBORNE BRIGADE SOLDIERS UNDER FIRE ON HILL 823
soldier who emerged from behind a tree and shot him. His death was avenged when S. Sgt. Alfred McQuirter, covered by two men from his 1st Squad, managed to outflank the enemy rifleman and kill him.
Baldridge later recalled his actions as the attack developed: "I moved forward to the 3d Platoon.... At that point I could hear the gooks laughing and shouting down below. Lieutenant Darling and his men had been hit 30 or 40 meters down from the perimeter." Realizing that his western perimeter was in trouble, Baldridge radioed S. Sgt. Johnnie R. Riley for 60-mm. mortar fire at 100 meters and 81-mm. mortar fire at 250 meters in front of the 3d Platoon. Some mortar men were moved to positions left by members of the 2d Platoon who were being shifted to fill gaps in the 3d Platoon line. Artillery strengthened the developing cordon of fire in front of the beleaguered platoon.
Riley's mortars saved the lives of three men who had belatedly followed Lieutenant Darling's party down the hill. Having made its kill, the NVA ambush party turned its fire on these three soldiers,
wounding all of them. Taking cover in a bomb crater, the wounded men exchanged fire with the enemy until two of them ran out of ammunition and the third was about to expend his last magazine. As enemy soldiers closed in, 60-mm. mortar rounds erupted in front of the crater. While their would-be exterminators worried about their own survival, the Americans made it back to the company perimeter and were later evacuated.
Following their initial success, the North Vietnamese pressed the attack up the slope, the NVA tide cresting a few meters in front of the 3d Platoon, near its juncture with the 2d Platoon. Some fifteen determined enemy soldiers made it that far. One of them got near enough to shoot at close range a paratrooper struggling with a jammed M79. The Americans delivered continuous fire on their attackers for twenty minutes before the enemy survivors reeled back down the hill. For some reason, at least thirty North Vietnamese soldiers hiding in heavy, broken bamboo farther down the hill had failed to join in the assault.
During a lull that followed, Sfc. John L. Ponting moved from his position as platoon sergeant, 1st Platoon, to take command of the 3d Platoon. Other men throughout the company also shifted to fill gaps that had opened as a result of the first attack. Reorganization was accomplished swiftly, and fortunately so, for a second attack came at 1515. It was launched from the same direction as the first. Although the attack was quickly repulsed, four more men of the 3d Platoon were wounded.
From a bomb crater at the junction of the 1st and 3d Platoons, men manning a machine gun and a 90-mm. recoilless rifle slammed flanking fire into the second thrust. Reacting to the effectiveness of these fires, enemy soldiers moved in around the crater and harassed it with grenades during the rest of the day and into the night.
The worst of the fight was over in fifteen minutes, leaving Company B with seven men dead and thirteen wounded. In the next hour all wounded were evacuated by medical helicopters, but the North Vietnamese were still much in evidence in the vicinity of Hill 823, just as they continued to threaten the company over on the slopes of Ngok Kom Leat.
The Company A column, in the meantime, had again moved at a rapid pace that day. Captain Muldoon's men halted only twice during their march. At 1100 the platoon of Montagnards in the lead, supported by fire from the 60-mm. mortars, had an indecisive brush with an eight- to ten-man enemy column. An hour later Nikki, the scout dog, came to alert, but nothing resulted from the search that followed.
At the time when Company D had radioed its request for permission to follow an enemy communications wire, Captain Muldoon was monitoring the net. He was also in radio contact with Sergeant Terrazas when the latter first came up on the tail of Company D, and he had directed the sergeant to join Company D temporarily.
A few thousand meters to the west, the men of Capt. William J. Connolly's Company C also labored to close on Company D. At 1400 Colonel Johnson directed Connolly to clear the high ground above Captain Baird's embattled perimeter to relieve enemy pressure from the west.
A half hour later Johnson ordered Muldoon to reinforce Company D. At the time the captain was heading toward a selected night defensive position, but he turned and headed west toward the knoll where Baird's company was pinned down. From across the valley Terrazas kept his commander posted on what he could observe of enemy activity between the rear of Company D and the advancing Company A column.
Because the distant sound of automatic weapons, artillery, and air strikes appeared to have a retarding effect on the progress of the leading platoon of irregulars, Muldoon directed 1st Lt. Warren M. Denny to move his point fire team to the head of the column, following it with the balance of his platoon. The Montagnards moved to the side of the tortuous trail to allow the rest of the company passage and re-formed at the rear of the column.
As the company moved across the valley it became increasingly necessary for the four-man point to break trail, frequently by hacking a way through clumps of bamboo. Captain Muldoon ordered his men to drop their rucksacks in order to lighten their loads, planning to return for them once his men had reached Company D and eliminated the enemy threat. Coming up from the valley onto higher ground, the point was in line and the going was somewhat easier.
Two point men, Spec. 4 Herman L. Slaybaugh and Pfc. Dennis T. Ridders, were the first to spot three North Vietnamese soldiers walking in file. Their attempt to stalk the enemy was frustrated when Lieutenant Denny, who had tried without success to reach his point by radio, shouted to them. Startled, the North Vietnamese ran for cover and the point had to open fire, prematurely, hitting only one of the three enemy soldiers.
From up on the ridge Terrazas heard the shots. Taking a compass azimuth toward the sound, he provided his company with an approximate back azimuth to Company D. Shortly thereafter the
point discovered the same enemy communications wire that had led their comrades into a fight, and the pace quickened.
It was nearly 1700 as Company A began to close on Company D's perimeter. To the left of the trail, fires smoldered in a small clearing. Fifteen charred enemy bodies scattered around the burned out area gave mute testimony to the effectiveness of the napalm canister dropped two hours earlier.
Captain Muldoon at first established his company in a hasty perimeter defense just below Company D's position, but upon determining the condition of the other company, he deemed it essential that his own men fill gaps in the line. Bringing up his aidmen to minister to the wounded, he co-ordinated with Captain Baird and signaled the rest of his company forward. As the newcomers pulled dead and wounded from the perimeter, occasional automatic weapons fire from North Vietnamese soldiers higher up the hill peppered the area.
Even as the two companies linked, another air strike roared in. As before, the F-100's were accurate, dropping their ordnance close to the wisps of yellow smoke marking the perimeter; yet despite the bombing, every attempt to bring in helicopters to evacuate the wounded encountered heavy fire from automatic weapons.
As dusk drew near and a lull developed in the enemy small arms fire, Muldoon ordered Lieutenant Denny to move his platoon up the hill to find and knock out the enemy gunners. Yet hardly had the first men moved beyond the perimeter when three hidden machine guns rattled a challenge. In the first bursts Denny lost two men killed and three wounded. Not until full darkness descended were the survivors able to crawl back inside the perimeter.
Darkness also enabled helicopters at last to land and pick up the more seriously wounded. Rather than give the enemy further opportunity to pinpoint the defensive position, Captain Muldoon called off the evacuation at 2200.
The enemy continued to fire machine guns at the perimeter. When the
American gunners shifted their positions in order to fire more effectively
at the enemy's gun flashes, the North Vietnamese switched their own positions.
All through the long night enemy hand grenades, rifle grenades, and mortar
rounds harassed the two companies, though most of them landed in an open
area east of the perimeter. When observers determined that the mortar fire
appeared to be coming from the vicinity of a hill 1,200 meters to the southeast,
the Americans called down the fire of supporting howitzers. Soon after
the enemy tubes fell silent. Company A's lone
60-mm. mortar did not join in the counterfire lest the muzzle blast afford enemy observers a sound fix on the little perimeter.
Few troopers could drift off to sleep that night of 6 November, for their senses were keyed to the various stimuli of night combat. Spooky, a venerable Air Force AC-47, was on station, dropping flares and raking enemy machine gun positions on a neighboring ridge. Its miniguns-indeed its very presence, droning overhead- gave Spooky a place in every ground soldier's heart. The riflemen also heartened to the cramp of bursting artillery shells as Muldoon and Specialist Fulcher directed the fire of Battery B, 3d Battalion, 319th Artillery, whenever enemy mortars again opened fire, not against Companies A and D but in the direction of Company B on Hill 823.
Company C failed to reach the high ground above Muldoon that day. A 90-minute brush with an enemy blocking force terminated at twilight and Captain Connolly was forced to set up a night defensive position well short of his objective.
While these developments were occurring on the Ngok Kom Leat ridgeline, the North Vietnamese in mid-afternoon of 6 November had stepped up their attack against Company B's perimeter. Colonel Johnson, circling overhead in his helicopter at 1530, watched the company under mortar fire. One round burst near the command post, wounding Captain Baldridge, M. Sgt. Jerry Babb, and six others. Minutes later the battalion commander ordered his pilot to set the chopper down and drop off three of its occupants to provide the company with an interim command group. As Maj. Richard M. Scott, battalion executive officer, Capt. Shirley W. Draper, artillery liaison officer, and Sgt. Maj. Ted G. Arthurs dashed to one of two adjoining bomb craters, Colonel Johnson's helicopter rose in a hail of small arms fire and headed for Ben Het to refuel and evacuate several of the more seriously wounded men of Company B.
Even when the battalion's headquarters company commander, Capt. Ronald R. Leonard, arrived to assume Captain Baldridge's command, Scott and his group remained as a forward battalion command post. Together Scott and Leonard supervised reorganization of Company B's position, including an exchange of positions between the 1st Platoon and the hard-hit ad Platoon in order to strengthen the defense at the vulnerable western avenue of approach. Sniper fire and occasional hand grenades made the reorganization hazardous. Although observers called in mortar and artillery fire close to the perimeter, which suppressed some enemy activity, movement inside the perimeter continued to be risky. While Sergeant
SPOOKY MAKING A FIRING PASS OVER KONTUM JUNGLES
Major Arthurs and a recovery detail were trying to retrieve a soldier's body lying a few meters outside the perimeter, an enemy soldier sprang up and threw a grenade. Hitting the dirt to dodge the grenade, the Americans escaped a lethal spray from the soldier's AK47. Sgt. Larry K. Ohda in quick response threw two grenades and killed the enemy soldier.
As dusk approached, men in the crater facing a draw at the juncture of the 1st and 2d Platoons heard sounds of movement in a stand of bamboo in front of them. Cautiously poking his head over the crater rim, one man was startled to see an enemy soldier within five meters of him. Reacting swiftly, he blew the man's head away with a round of M79 canister. This incident presaged a nightlong grenade duel at close range around the perimeter.
Throughout the night, Hill 823 was subjected to a succession of individual and squad-size probes. The 3d Platoon sector on the north, comparatively quiet during daylight hours when the 1st Platoon had defended there, burst into activity after dark. Even though Spooky bathed the hilltop with flare illumination every fifteen
minutes, enemy grenades continued to land in front of the platoon. Small teams of North Vietnamese soldiers crept in close enough to cut activating wires for some of the claymore mines that protected Leonard's position. At 0330 from eight to ten North Vietnamese emerged from a gully which led to the point of contact between the 1st and 3d Platoons. Accompanied by a shower of grenades, their sudden assault was supported by RPG2 rocket fire from a nearby hill to the north. The attack nearly succeeded in penetrating the perimeter. It was a short, violent affair; some of the enemy soldiers fell to deadly defensive fire and the rest melted away into the darkness. The Americans lost one man killed, S. Sgt. Joaquine Cabrera, the 1st Platoon sergeant.
Apparently the North Vietnamese had a thorough knowledge of the terrain of Hill 823, but this advantage was somewhat offset by their lack of precise knowledge of the trace of Company B's perimeter. Much of the indirect fire that supported enemy probes went astray, although some rounds landed uncomfortably close to the command group.
The 3d Platoon area continued to be harassed as the night wore on. From foxhole reports Sergeant Panting estimated that up to two squads were moving to the right front. Sounds of movement also came from immediately in front of the platoon. Artillery fire, directed toward the sounds, effectively scattered any would-be attackers. One enemy survivor, after bandaging his partially blown off leg, continued to toss grenades at the Americans until he was killed.
As predawn light began to pierce the darkness, Company B marked its position with smoke, whereupon, like a swarm of angry hornets, helicopter gunships raked enemy positions. They were followed by Air Force F-100's, their explosive loads erupting within 200 meters of the watching paratroopers. It was a welcome sight for the defenders. Napalm plastered an area 300 meters down the ridge, while 20-mm. cannon fire slammed into the enemy threatening the 3d Platoon.
The North Vietnamese nevertheless failed to fade away with the night shadows. At first light, six enemy riflemen with an RPG2 rocket launcher jumped into the bomb crater on the northwest perimeter and attempted to scramble up the inside edge from which they could enfilade two American platoons. When the soldier with the launcher was killed his comrades lost heart and fled. The incident heralded a general exchange of fire along the western perimeter.
When a lull followed, 2d Lt. Hugh M. Proffitt's 2d Platoon began to move over through the 1st Platoon, west, along the southern
HILL 823 AFTER THE BATTLE
slope of the finger. Its mission was to pick up enemy weapons and make a body count. When a burst of small arms fire greeted the platoon, Sergeant Riley's mortars belched fifteen rounds to help the paratroopers silence the enemy riflemen. Resuming the sweep, Proffitt's platoon continued to move along the southern slope then north over the top of the finger. A hundred meters out they discovered foxholes and bunkers with overhead cover. Rucksacks and intrenching tools littered the site. Here was one reason for the enemy's tenacity-his unwillingness to abandon a carefully prepared position. Climbing up a rope ladder leading into the upper reaches of a tall tree, one man gained a clear view of the American fire support base, seven kilometers away.
Closer in, enemy bodies marked the high tide of the enemy's effort. Some of the still-living human debris that the tide had deposited remained along the west slope. It took several forays to ferret out wounded enemy soldiers who continued to fight. With one group of volunteer searchers went the scout dog and his handler. Despite a shower of white phosphorus hand grenades a North Vietnamese officer, still full of fight, lurched from a cave but was gunned down as he made his break.
Although occasional harassing fire reminded Company B's men that remnants of the North Vietnamese force remained around Hill 823, the fight for that promontory was at an end. The Americans had prevailed.
The enemy on Ngok Kom Leat had in the meantime disappeared with the coming of daylight on 7 November. Captain Muldoon's men spent most of the day searching the area, bringing in supplies, and moving wounded comrades to waiting helicopters. Muldoon's two companies linked up with Company C that morning as it came up from the west.
Although Colonel Johnson had intended to consolidate all companies of his battalion during the day on the new, hard-won fire support base, the crash of a resupply helicopter as it was leaving Ngok Kom Leat and the requirement to secure its radios, machine guns, and other equipment forced him to delay the move. But now reinforcements for Company B were available from another source. The commander of the 173d Airborne Brigade, newly arrived in Dak To, made another company available. At midday helicopters brought Company C, 1st Battalion, 503d Infantry, to Hill 823.
The next day, 8 November, Colonel Johnson at last got his entire 4th Battalion, 503d Infantry, together again on the hill. Although he intended pursuing the enemy toward the west, his superiors deemed it time the battalion had a short rest. That afternoon and the following day the 1st Battalion, 503d Infantry, phased in to replace Johnson's men.
The fights on the Ngok Kom Leat and Hill 823 were but opening rounds
in a battle that was to continue in the vicinity of Dak To for two and
a half weeks, but in those rounds the 4th Battalion, 503d Infantry, had
driven at least a portion of the North Vietnamese 66th Regiment back toward
the Cambodian border and materially lessened the threat to Dak To. The
cost to the Americans was 15 men killed and 48 wounded. The North Vietnamese
had lost at least 117 men killed, 1 prisoner, 44 individual weapons (mainly
AK47's), 7 machine guns, and 5 RPG2 rocket launchers.
page created 7 May 2001
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