Sunday, May 12, 2024

3 New Threats in the Highlands

As October 1967 drew to a close, General Rosson’s most pressing concern in the Central Highlands was the ominous sign of an offensive buildup by elements of the B3 Front. The news was not unexpected. Every year since 1965, the B3 Front had launched a major attack at the beginning of the dry season somewhere in western II Corps. The questions in Rosson’s mind were not if, but where and when.4 The I Field Force commander believed that the most likely targets were the CIDG camps and other installations in western Kontum and Pleiku Provinces that were within easy reach of the enemy’s Cambodian base. Dak To stood at the top of the list. Long-range patrols from the 4th Infantry Division and I Field Force had detected enemy troops camped near the border. Helicopter2 First quote from Senior Ofcr Debriefing Rpt, Lt Gen William R. Peers, 23 Jun 69, p. 3. Second quote from Interv, 4th Inf Div Historian with Lt Col John A. Smith, 16 Sep 68, p. 7. MFR, MACV, 3 Dec 67, sub: MACV Commanders’ Conference, p. 4, Encl 4. All in Historians files, CMH. 3 Military History Institute of Vietnam, Victory in Vietnam, vol. 2, pp. 376–77, 380–81; Luc Loung Vu Nang Nhan Dan Tay Nguyen Nong Kong Chien Chong My Cuu Nouc [The People’s Armed Forces of the Western Highlands During the War of National Salvation Against the Americans] (Hanoi: People’s Army Publishing House, 1980), pp. 67–109 (hereafter cited as People’s Armed Forces of the Western Highlands); Periodic Intel Rpt no. 32, I FFV, 6–12 Aug 67, 12 Aug 67, Historians files, CMH. 4 MacGarrigle, Taking the Offensive, October 1966 to October 1967, pp. 67–76. 149 

Across the Central Highlands mounted sniffer devices had detected signs of smoke released by campfires, and OV–1 Mohawk aircraft from the 225th Surveillance Airplane Company had also picked up those unseen fires using their infrared sensors. More evidence came from I Field Force radio research units, which intercepted a series of transmissions coming from the 1st Division headquarters. Using sophisticated decoding and triangulation techniques, and employing aircraft crammed with detection gear, U.S. intelligence determined that the messages had gone to the 24th Regiment, somewhere north of Dak To, and to the 32d and 66th Regiments, somewhere to its west. There were also reports that the 174th Regiment had taken up station in Laos no more than a day’s march away.5 Rosson examined other possibilities, too. Recent information indicated that the 33d Regiment was “planning an adventure in northwestern and central Darlac,” news that had led General Peers to shift his 2d Brigade down to Ban Me Thuot for the time being. He also had to consider a new thrust toward Pleiku City. On 28 October, North Vietnamese gunners had bombarded the city with forty-six 122-mm. rockets, the first time such weapons had been used against the provincial capital. For Rosson, however, the weight of evidence pointed toward Dak To. Back in June, elements of the 1st PAVN Division had fought a series of bloody battles with the 173d Airborne Brigade in the hills south of Dak To, nearly overrunning a U.S. paratrooper company at one point. Now with dry weather settling in, 5 AAR, Battle of Dak To, 4th Inf Div, 3 Jan 68, pp. 1–2, Historians files, CMH; Cdr’s Analysis, Battle of Dak To, Maj Gen William R. Peers, 10 Nov 67, pp. 1–2, Historians files, CMH; Periodic Intel Rpt no. 42, I FFV, 15–21 Oct 67, 21 Oct 67, p. 14, box 1, Periodic Intel Rpts, Asst Ch of Staff, G–2, I FFV, USARV, RG 472, NACP. An OV–1B Mohawk surveillance aircraft equipped with a side-looking airborne radar pod Staying the Course 150 General Thao might be planning a similar operation but on a larger scale. “More than ever,” Rosson wrote, the enemy “needs a dramatic tactical victory to buoy the morale of his troops and to convince the man in the village of Communist invincibility.”6 The enemy had long regarded the northwestern part of Kontum Province as a key strategic area in his plans for winning the war. The Dak To Valley, which ran west-east from Laos into Kontum Province, offered a natural invasion route for enemy forces. Featuring an old colonial road named Route 512 that ran the length of the valley, the Dak To corridor was one of the few places in western I Corps or II Corps that offered easy cross-border movement. If the enemy won control of the Dak To Valley, he would have a high-speed invasion route that could feed troops, supplies, and vehicles into the Central Highlands from depots on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. On a more defensive note, North Vietnamese leaders wanted to prevent the allies from stockpiling enough supplies in the Dak To area to support a cross-border incursion, should General Westmoreland get the approval for such an operation. Finally, General Thao had specific orders from the North Vietnamese Ministry of Defense to wage a major battle in the Dak To area in the autumn of 1967 in order to wipe out one or more U.S. battalions, giving Hanoi a powerful propaganda victory that 6 Both quotes from Msg, Rosson NHT 1391 to Westmoreland, 9 Nov 1967, sub: Evaluation and Assessment of Situation in II CTZ October 1967, p. 1, Historians files, CMH. A map from a 4th Infantry Division after action report showing the layout of the Dak To II base in early November 1967 151 Across the Central Highlands could challenge Westmoreland’s claims of progress and strike a blow at American morale (see Map 14).7 Allied defenses in the Dak To area consisted of three military camps and half a dozen firebases that lined Route 512 on the northern side of the valley. The first of those military camps, Dak To I, was a battalion-size facility located just west of Tan Canh, itself garrisoned by a South Vietnamese battalion from the 42d Regiment. Dating back to the early 1960s, Dak To I had a small airstrip that could accommodate helicopters and observation aircraft. Three kilometers farther to the west was a newer and larger facility called Dak To II whose airfield could handle C–130 aircraft. Fourteen kilometers to the west was the Ben Het Special Forces camp, where U.S. engineers were building a new firebase that would soon house 175-mm. batteries from the 52d Artillery Group capable of hitting targets across the border. South of Route 512, a narrow horizontal plain led to a series of high mountain ridges and narrow valleys that generally ran from north to south. Some of those valleys wound their way to the Cambodian border, giving the enemy several routes to the Dak To battlefield.8 General Peers began strengthening the Dak To bases on 28 October 1967. He replaced the 2d Battalion, 8th Infantry (Mechanized), currently defending the valley, while troops from the 299th Engineer Battalion improved Route 512 between Tan Canh and Ben Het, with straight-leg infantry units from the 1st Brigade that were more capable of fighting in the hills. Lt. Col. John P. Vollmer’s 3d Battalion, 12th Infantry, arrived at Dak To airfield on a flight of C–130s. Another flight delivered the 3d Battalion, 8th Infantry, commanded by Lt. Col. Glen D. Belnap, the next day. The brigade commander, Col. Richard H. Johnson, likewise established a forward headquarters at Dak To. General Rosson further reinforced him with the 4th Battalion, 503d Infantry, from the 173d Airborne Brigade, airlifted from the Tuy Hoa airfield in Phu Yen Province. Johnson settled the paratroopers into Ben Het. A trio of batteries from the 6th Battalion, 29th Artillery, rounded out Johnson’s force.9 The Battle Begins, 2–6 November The allies gained an unexpected windfall on 2 November when Sgt. Vu Huong from the 66th Regiment turned himself in to a small government out7 Senior Gen Chu Huy Man, Thoi Soi Dong [Time of Upheaval] (Hanoi: People’s Army Publishing House, 2004), p. 464 (hereafter cited as Time of Upheaval). 8 AAR, Battle of Dak To, 4th Inf Div, pp. 4, 56, 65–67, Encl 2. The information on Ben Het is in Interv, George L. MacGarrigle with Lt Gen William B. Rosson, 13 Sep 77, Historians files, CMH. 9 AAR, Battle of Dak To, 4th Inf Div, p. 1, Encl 2; Periodic Intel Rpt no. 51, I FFV, 17–23 Dec 67, 23 Dec 67, an. C-3, box 1, Periodic Intel Rpts, Asst Ch of Staff , G–2, I FFV, USARV, RG 472, NACP; Interv, MacGarrigle with Rosson, 13 Sep 1977; Msg, Rosson NHT 1334 to Westmoreland, 28 Oct 67, Historians files, CMH; Hay, Tactical and Material Innovations, pp. 78–96; John A. Cash et al., Seven Firefights in Vietnam (Washington, D.C.: Office of the Chief of Military History, 1989), pp. 85–108. Staying the Course 152 post north of Dak To. Huong, a member of a reconnaissance team that had been scouting the terrain around Dak To, had overheard one of his officers saying that the 66th and 32d Regiments were spread out south and west of Dak To along with a battalion from the 40th Artillery Regiment. The remainder of the artillery unit and the 24th Regiment were apparently north of Dak To, as was the 174th Regiment. According to Huong, the attack was to have taken place on 28 October, timed to coincide with the rocket attack on Pleiku City, but the commander of the 1st Division, General An, had pushed back the date because his artillerymen at Dak To were not ready.10 Allied interrogators questioned his story. How, they wondered, could a mere sergeant know so much about the plans of the 1st Division? Was he part of a ploy to mislead the allies? However, the details he provided fit well with what the Americans already knew or suspected. Peers and Rosson decided that Huong was telling the truth: the B3 Front was preparing a division-size attack on Dak To, hoping to engage U.S. forces on rugged, forest-covered terrain that negated some of the Americans’ advantages in firepower and helicopter mobility.11 Hoping to preempt the artillery barrage that Huong had predicted, Peers ordered Colonel Johnson to send his infantry into action. The 1st Brigade commander directed Colonel Belnap and his 3d Battalion, 8th Infantry, to investigate the long series of peaks known as “Rocket Ridge,” a favorite North Vietnamese launching site, that lay to the south of Dak To I. Johnson instructed Colonel Vollmer and his 3d Battalion, 12th Infantry, to search a smaller cluster of peaks to the west of Rocket Ridge known as Ngok Dorlang. At I Field Force headquarters, General Rosson alerted the 173d Airborne Brigade headquarters in Phu Yen Province to be ready to join its 4th Battalion, 503d Infantry, at Ben Het. When those reinforcements arrived, the 173d Airborne Brigade would move into the Dak Klong Valley, south of Ben Het, where Sergeant Huong said that his own unit, the 66th Regiment, was located. General Vinh Loc agreed to place South Vietnamese troops to the north of Dak To in case the 24th Regiment made its appearance. U.S. Special Forces units and long-range reconnaissance patrols from I Field Force would screen the area west of Ben Het. Four squadrons of F–100 Super Sabre fighter-bombers, flying from Phu Cat airfield in the lowlands west of Qui Nhon, remained on call for tactical air support.12 Colonel Johnson’s infantry soon confirmed that enemy soldiers were on both principal ridgelines to the south of Dak To. On the morning of 3 November, helicopters flew two companies from the 3d Battalion, 12th Infantry, seven kilometers south to Rocket Ridge, landing them about 1,500 meters to the south of Hill 1338, an observation point that offered sweeping views of the Dak To Valley. As Colonel Vollmer’s men set out for the peak, 10 Periodic Intel Rpt no. 44, I FFV, 29 Oct–4 Nov 67, 4 Nov 67, an. C-1, pp. 1–2, box 1, Periodic Intel Rpts, Asst Ch of Staff, G–2, I FFV, USARV, RG 472, NACP. 11 Ibid.; Interv, MacGarrigle with Rosson, 20 Sep 77, Historians files, CMH. 12 This section is based on AAR, Battle of Dak To, 1st Bde, 4th Inf Div, 9 Dec 67, pp. 5, 7–8, 10, Encl 6 to AAR, Battle of Dak To, 4th Inf Div. 1 PAVN X X 66 PAVN III 32 PAVN III 174(-) PAVN III 24 PAVN III PAVN 40 31 I I 3 8 I I 3 12 I I 4 503 I I 1 4 X Dak Poko Dak Poko Dak Psi a D H k do ar i BEN HET DAK TO 2 DAK TO 1 TAN CANH Hill 1049 Hill 1338 Hill 823 Hill 875 512 512 512 511 511 613 613 14 14 Dak Ri Peng Polei Lang Lo Kram Dak Wang Kram Dien Binh Kon Hojao S O U T H V I E T N A M L A O S S O U T H V I E T N A M C A M B O D I A L A O S C A M B O D I A BAT TLE FOR DAK TO PHASE ONE 2–6 November 1967 Fireght Enemy Axis of Attack Ground Assault Air Assault Military Installation 0 0 5 Kilometers Miles 5 0 300 800 1400 and Above ELEVATION IN METERS Map 14 Staying the Course 154 scanning the area for rocket or mortar positions as they climbed, heavy fire erupted from camouflaged bunkers farther up the slope. The soldiers from the 3d Battalion had no way of maneuvering around the bunkers that blocked the trail ahead, and found them impossible to knock out with grenades. After losing four killed, Colonel Vollmer pulled his companies back so air and artillery strikes could go to work. The North Vietnamese defenders endured several hours of punishment, including a bombing sortie that hit them with twenty-four 1,000-pound bombs equipped with delayed-action fuses, before they finally withdrew from their bunkers. An examination of the partially destroyed bunkers showed Vollmer and his men why they had been so hard to knock out. Each fighting position was crowned on the top and sides by thick mahogany logs harvested from the surrounding forest, making them impervious to anything less than a direct hit from a bomb or artillery shell. It would have taken the North Vietnamese several days to build such bunkers, using only handsaws to carve through the iron-hard wood. The enemy had clearly come for a long fight. At the same time that Colonel Vollmer’s troops landed on Rocket Ridge, Colonel Belnap touched down on the eastern end of Ngok Dorlang with two companies from his 3d Battalion, 8th Infantry. Belnap’s plan was to sweep west across Hills 882, 843, and 785, before reaching his final objective, Hill 724, some three kilometers away. Meanwhile, a third company from his battalion traveled by helicopter from Dak To to a spur of Rocket Ridge, Hill 1001, four kilometers to the north of where Belnap was positioned. The site Men of the 3d Battalion, 12th Infantry, 4th Infantry Division, establish an outpost on Rocket Ridge. 155 Across the Central Highlands known as Firebase 6 became operational later that day when the howitzer battery attached to the 3d Battalion, 8th Infantry, flew to the site and readied its weapons to support the two infantry companies across the valley. As evening approached, Belnap’s men received intermittent sniper fire from the surrounding woods. Pushing west, the two companies flushed out and killed eight North Vietnamese soldiers. Four soldiers from the 3d Battalion, 8th Infantry, also lost their lives that day. The two companies made their night encampment on Hill 882, the tallest point on Ngok Dorlang, and some two kilometers west of Hill 724.13 The fighting on Rocket Ridge and Ngok Dorlang appeared to confirm Sergeant Huong’s story. On 4 November, Peers informed Rosson that the threat was credible enough to justify the deployment of additional troops from the 173d Airborne Brigade. The I Field Force commander agreed. The next day, Rosson made arrangements to fly the 1st and 2d Battalions from the 173d Airborne Brigade, most of its artillery and its brigade staff, from Phu Yen to Dak To. The brigade’s 3d Battalion, 503d Infantry, which had just arrived in South Vietnam, stayed behind to protect Phu Yen’s rice harvest. Rosson provided additional support through a steady apportionment of B–52 strikes. Soon the high-altitude bombers were hitting areas to the south and west of Dak To that Sergeant Huong said might contain staging areas for the 1st PAVN Division. Two days later, Brig. Gen. Leo H. Schweiter established his 173d Airborne Brigade command post at Ben Het, reporting to General Peers. Schweiter, who had seen action at Normandy and Bastogne during World War II and who had later fought in Korea, had gone on to command the 5th Special Forces Group before coming to Vietnam in August 1967 to lead the 173d Airborne Brigade. At the direction of General Peers, Schweiter ordered the commander of his 1st Battalion, 503d Infantry, Lt. Col. David J. Schumacher, to secure Ben Het, and the commander of the 2d Battalion, 503d Infantry, Maj. James R. Steverson, to take over the defenses at Dak To I and II. That allowed Colonel Johnson’s 1st Brigade to focus on Rocket Ridge and Ngok Dorlang, and permitted General Schweiter to use his remaining unit, the 4th Battalion, 503d Infantry, for a sweep of the Dak Klong Valley, which lay due south of Ben Het. Schweiter directed the commander of the 4th Battalion, 503d Infantry, Lt. Col. James H. Johnson, to march three of his companies south about seven kilometers to secure Hill 823 at the mouth of the Dak Klong Valley. There, near the outer range of the artillery batteries firing from Ben Het, helicopters would deliver Company B with tools and materials to build a new firebase, followed by a battery of 105-mm. howitzers, to support further advances into the valley. Colonel Johnson’s three companies set out that morning, marching along parallel routes to sweep the area between Ben Het and Hill 823. The colonel monitored his troops from a helicopter. Company D, consisting of three platoons plus a platoon of Montagnards from Ben Het, reached an intermediary hill called Ngok Kom Leat just before noon. When one of the soldiers spotted 13 AAR, Battle of Dak To, 4th Inf Div, p. 9. Staying the Course 156 communications wire snaking up the slope, Johnson instructed Company D to investigate. Cautiously, the soldiers and the accompanying platoon of Montagnards headed up Hill 823. Finding fresh footprints and human waste halfway up the hill, Company D formed a defensive circle in a small clearing. The squad of Americans who crept out to search the neighboring area ran into North Vietnamese soldiers almost immediately. Both sides opened fire; the patrol returned to the perimeter with the enemy hot on their heels. The skirmish turned into a full-blown firefight with North Vietnamese soldiers closing on the U.S. position from several directions. Colonel Johnson ordered Companies A and C to join the fight as soon as possible, while he called in air and artillery strikes to defend the beleaguered unit. With those supporting fires, Company D held the enemy at bay until Company A arrived several hours later. As it arrived, the North Vietnamese attackers melted away. The casualty roll in Company D totaled four killed and more than a dozen wounded. Company C, which had been delayed by enemy snipers, reached the hill the next morning. After searching the hill, finding twenty-eight enemy dead, the three companies from the 4th Battalion, 503d Infantry, resumed their march toward Hill 823 where Company B was fighting its own battle.14 The previous afternoon, Colonel Johnson had decided to land Company B on Hill 823 to establish a firebase that could help his other men on Ngok Kom Leat. Company B touched down on Hill 823 at around 1430, following a day-long bombardment that cleared away the dense foliage on its summit and killed any North Vietnamese hiding there. The soldiers from Company B found discarded rucksacks and newly smashed rifle stocks on the summit, but no bodies. After posting several two-man listening teams farther down the hill, the remaining soldiers began digging foxholes and hacking at undergrowth to improve their fields of fire.15 14 AAR, Battle of Dak To, 6 Nov 67, 173d Abn Bde, n.d., pp. 1–4, Historians files, CMH. For more on the 6 November battles, see Cash et al., Seven Firefights in Vietnam, pp. 85–108. 15 AAR, Battle of Dak To, 6 Nov 67, 173d Abn Bde, pp. 15–16; and AAR, Battle of Dak To, Inf action on 6–8 Nov 67, Co B, 4th Bn, 503d Inf, Encl 2; AAR, Battle of Dak To, 1st Bde, 4th Inf Div, pp. 8–10. General Schweiter (shown as a major general) 157 Across the Central Highlands The enemy appeared thirty minutes later, moving up the slope along a broad front while spraying the U.S. positions with AK47 assault rifles and RPD light machine guns. The initial burst of fire killed two Americans manning a listening post; five more of their comrades also died when they rushed down the hill to help their buddies. The remainder of Company B dove into foxholes and bomb craters around the summit and returned fire. Within minutes, howitzers from Ben Het began to pound the lower slopes, while a flight of fighter-bombers circled above, waiting for a chance to drop their ordnance. Colonel Johnson had no good way of reinforcing his soldiers before nightfall. The other companies from his 4th Battalion, 503d Infantry, were already committed to the fight at Ngok Kom Leat several kilometers to the north. Even if he had other troops, hostile fire would surely damage or destroy any helicopters that tried to land on the summit of Hill 823. Likewise, it was too risky to land troops onto the valley floor at the base of the hill without knowing the strength and disposition of the enemy. Company B had to hold the hill until morning. The fight raged throughout the afternoon and continued into the night. Enemy soldiers crawled close enough to the American foxholes to hurl grenades; the men from Company B threw some back before they exploded, as well as some of their own grenades. The single U.S. mortar crew on Hill 823 lobbed shells at the enemy from the bottom of a large crater, their 81-mm. tube pointing nearly straight up as they brought fire to within one hundred meters of the U.S. perimeter. An AC–47 fixed-wing gunship circled the hill Soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 503d Infantry, 173d Airborne Brigade, check their bearings during a search for enemy positions. Staying the Course 158 throughout the night, dropping illumination flares and firing its six-barreled machine guns at the enemy-held woods on the lower slope. North Vietnamese fire slackened and then ceased shortly before dawn on the seventh. The morning roll call for Company B revealed that sixteen of its soldiers had been killed and more than twice that number wounded. The enemy’s retreat from Hill 823 permitted Colonel Johnson to finally bring in more troops. Helicopters delivered a company from the 1st Battalion, 503d Infantry, which joined Company B from Johnson’s own 4th Battalion as it searched the bomb-scarred slopes. Patrols located eighty-nine enemy corpses and a large abandoned camp at the base of the hill. Documents recovered from the scene revealed that the dead belonged to the 66th Regiment, confirming the presence of 1st Division units in the Dak Klong Valley. With sizable North Vietnamese units also on Ngok Dorlang and Rocket Ridge to the east, the unfolding battle was shaping up to be the biggest clash in the highlands since the enemy had tried to overrun the Duc Co Special Forces camp in western Pleiku Province six months earlier.16 The Allied Counteroffensive, 7–15 November The quiet that returned in the Dak Klong Valley on the seventh gave General Peers an opportunity to move the headquarters and support elements of the 173d Airborne Brigade from Ben Het to the older Dak To airfield just west of Tan Canh. Despite being farther from the Dak Klong Valley, Dak To I was more spacious, had a larger stock of supplies, and was less vulnerable to attack or temporary road closures on Route 512 (Map 15).17 Using the intelligence his men had gathered during the last few days, Peers formally divided the battlefield south of Route 512 into two operational zones. The eastern zone belonging to Colonel Johnson’s 1st Brigade stretched from Highway 14 and the Dak Hodrai River, encompassing both Rocket Ridge and Ngok Dorlang, where the 3d Battalion, 8th Infantry, and the 3d Battalion, 12th Infantry, were currently looking for the 32d Regiment and the 31st Battalion of the 40th Artillery Regiment. The western zone between the Dak Hodrai River and the Cambodian border went to General Schweiter’s 173d Airborne Brigade, which continued its search for the 66th Regiment in the Dak Klong Valley. The 174th Regiment from General An’s 1st Division had yet to make an appearance.18 General Peers also had to consider the independent 24th Regiment, last reported somewhere to the north of Dak To. To prevent the North Vietnamese unit from disrupting the allied supply channel on Highway 1, 16 AAR, Battle of Dak To, 1st Bde, 4th Inf Div, 9 Dec 67, pp. 2, 7; AAR, Battle of Dak To, 4th Inf Div, p. 16; AAR, Battle of Dak To, 6 Nov 67, 173d Abn Bde, 10 Dec 67, p. 12. 17 AAR, Battle of Dak To, 4th Inf Div, pp. 9–10. 18 Cover Ltr, Maj Gen William R. Peers to AAR, Battle of Dak To, 4th Inf Div, and pp. 9–10; and Cdr’s Analysis, Battle of Dak To, Peers, 10 Nov 67, pp. 66–68. 1 PAVN X X 66 PAVN III 32 PAVN III 174(-) PAVN III 24 PAVN III PAVN 40 31 I I 3 8 I I 1 4 X 3 12 I I 4 503 I I 173 X 2 503 I I 1 503 I I ARVN 9 I I 1 8 I I Dak Poko Dak Poko Dak Psi a D k Hod ar i BEN HET DAK TO 2 DAK TO 1 TAN CANH Hill 1049 Hill 1338 Hill 823 Hill 875 512 512 512 511 511 613 613 14 14 Dak Ri Peng Polei Lang Lo Kram Dak Wang Kram Dien Binh Kon Hojao S O U T H V I E T N A M L A O S S O U T H V I E T N A M C A M B O D I A L A O S C A M B O D I A BAT TLE FOR DAK TO PHASE TWO 7–12 November 1967 Fireght Ground Assault Air Assault Military Installation 0 300 800 1400 and Above ELEVATION IN METERS 0 0 5 Kilometers Miles 5 Map 15 Staying the Course 160 General Loc borrowed the South Vietnamese 9th Airborne Battalion from the Joint General Reserve. U.S. aircraft flew the paratroopers from Saigon to Dak To, where they passed to the command of the South Vietnamese 24th Tactical Zone headquarters based at Kontum City. Arriving on the seventh, the paratroopers joined the South Vietnamese 1st Battalion, 42d Regiment, at Tan Canh for Operation Le Loi 45 in the hills northeast of Dak To.19 While the 173d Airborne Brigade and South Vietnamese forces completed their movements on 7 November, Col. Richard Johnson’s 1st Brigade continued to search the hills south of Dak To. On the ninth, Colonel Vollmer’s 3d Battalion, 12th Infantry, discovered an enemy bunker complex on the lower slopes of Hill 1338. Mindful of the costly battle his men had fought three days earlier, Vollmer waited several hours, while air and artillery softened the target. His men took the position as well as a second bunker line farther up the hill the next day. The engagements cost the North Vietnamese at least twenty-five dead and the Americans seven killed. Behind the second line of bunkers, Vollmer’s men found an abandoned mortar pit that was large enough to accommodate a 120-mm. mortar, a weapon with sufficient range to hit the Dak To bases.20 As three companies from the 3d Battalion, 12th Infantry, fought their way toward Hill 1338, Companies A and D from the 3d Battalion, 8th Infantry, continued their westward progress across Ngok Dorlang. As they headed toward Hill 724, Company B remained at Firebase 6 on Hill 1001, five kilometers to the northeast, to defend the battalion’s howitzer battery. Colonel Belnap’s two companies received intermittent sniper fire from the front and either side as they descended the western spur of Hill 843, a low ridge that pointed toward Hill 724 about 1,500 meters away. The column of platoons moved cautiously as squads to the front and the flanks searched the adjoining woods. Companies A and D stopped that afternoon at the base of the spur, 700 meters away from their objective. The Americans had just started to scratch out foxholes and fill sandbags when the enemy attacked. Mortar shells and rocket-propelled grenades exploded in the trees and on the ground as several hundred North Vietnamese attacked down the slope that led to Hill 843. Belnap’s men held their line, killing two flamethrower-equipped North Vietnamese soldiers before they could employ their weapons. Colonel Belnap called in artillery and air strikes, which relieved some of the pressure. After several hours of combat, the enemy withdrew at 2030. Eleven American soldiers had been killed and another thirty-eight wounded in the vicious assault. The enemy had also sustained heavy casualties, leaving behind 230 dead, 37 rifles, and 38 crew-served weapons. A wounded North Vietnamese soldier captured the next morning said that the attackers belonged to the 7th Battalion, 66th Regiment, which had been marching to a new location when it had spotted the Americans and decided to give battle.21 19 AAR, Battle of Dak To, 4th Inf Div, pp. 9–10. 20 AAR, Battle of Dak To, 1st Bde, 4th Inf Div, p. 10. 21 Ibid., p. 9; Periodic Intel Rpt no. 45, I FFV, 5–11 Nov 67, 11 Nov 67, p. 3, box 1, Periodic Intel Rpts, Asst Ch of Staff, G–2, I FFV, USARV, RG 472, NACP. 161 Across the Central Highlands Colonel Belnap kept his battered units in place the next day as helicopters flew out their casualties and delivered supplies. The following morning, 9 November, he moved Company A back to Firebase 6, and flew in Companies B and C from the 3d Battalion, 8th Infantry. The pair of companies stayed there on the western spur of Hill 843 with Company D, while air and artillery strikes pounded Hill 724, a bombardment that continued for the next two days. Meanwhile, General Peers airlifted the 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry, from Darlac Province to the Dak To II base where it could reinforce Belnap’s battalion, if necessary. On the morning of 11 November, Colonel Belnap sent his soldiers up the hill. The Americans encountered no resistance, finding only bomb craters and smashed trees at the top. Just as the final group of soldiers reached the summit, however, a mass of North Vietnamese troops emerged from the trees on the northern and western slopes of Hill 724. The enemy unleashed a torrent of bullets, killing several Americans who manned the outer listening screen. The surviving scouts ran up the hill, while their comrades at the summit laid down covering fire. North Vietnamese troops climbed to within twenty meters of the perimeter, a ragged arc of bomb craters, fallen logs, and broken stumps, before Belnap’s men stopped their advance. The fighting raged for the next eight hours as the North Vietnamese attempted to breach the U.S. line on the northwest slope. As the day wore on, however, the torrent of bombs, napalm canisters, and artillery shells that hit the enemy’s staging areas began to tell. The assaults became less frequent and intense, and finally stopped as darkness gathered. The men from the 3d

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