Saturday, May 18, 2024


The Secret History of a Vietnam War Airstrike Gone Terribly Wrong

A wounded soldier on Hill 875 during the Battle of Dak To.Credit...Al Chang/Associated Press

After making three dry runs over the battlefield, the Marine Corps A-4 attack jet descended to 1,000 feet above the jungle and released two bombs. It was just past dusk on Nov. 19, 1967. For the American troops below, a vicious weekslong fight that would eventually become known as the Battle of Dak To was about to take a horrible turn.

Soldiers of the 173rd Airborne Brigade were dug in on the steep southern slope of Hill 875, fighting beside napalm fires and exposed to the guns of North Vietnamese Army shooting from tunnels nearby. Among them was Specialist Jon Wambi Cook — one of his infantry company’s few surviving radio operators.

Barreling in on a shallow 10-degree angle at hundreds of miles per hour, the two bombs from the A-4 hit the ground near Cook. One was a dud. The other exploded in a huge orange fireball. Cook had seen many airstrikes before, but not like this. Instead of hitting his battalion’s North Vietnamese foes, the bomb struck the branches of a lone tree along the Americans’ perimeter, under which the battalion’s remaining officers and noncommissioned officers on the ground had set up a command post with their radio operators. It was also a casualty-collection point where the most badly wounded soldiers were being treated by medics while awaiting medevac helicopters to take them off the hill. The bomb killed at least 20 men and wounded 10 more, including most of the remaining senior leaders and medics.

Alongside the medics was Maj. Charles Watters, a 40-year-old Catholic priest who served as the battalion’s chaplain. Earlier in the battle, Watters had ventured out past the perimeter several times to rescue wounded soldiers, carrying or dragging them to safety, providing first aid and administering last rites to the dying — actions for which he was later awarded the Medal of Honor. The bomb blast killed him too.



Protected by a pile of broken tree trunks that absorbed deadly fragments, Cook emerged unscathed. His radio crackled with voices. At first he thought North Vietnamese soldiers had broken through the lines and planted a bomb at the command post. “I thought it couldn’t have been our guys,” he said in a recent interview, “until I heard someone on the radio say: ‘Stop. You’re killing us.’”

The tactics for close air support in the Vietnam War had jet pilots flying several hundred miles an hour trying to put unguided “dumb bombs” beside maneuver units in the jungle. Fratricidal mishaps were a tragic feature of this manner of waging war. The errant strike at Hill 875 was one of the deadliest mistakes of its type.

The New York Times recently obtained an unredacted copy of the Air Force’s investigation into the incident. Written in January 1968, it offers finely detailed insights into an agonizing error from which the remains of three American soldiers have never been found, even after a mission almost half a century later to retrieve them. The report demonstrates the dangerous gamble of supporting troops in intensive ground combat before the era of so-called smart bombs, when the United States moved to almost exclusively using laser and GPS-guided bombs that made airstrikes much more accurate.



The bombs that killed Americans on Hill 875 were 250-pound Mk-81s fitted with Snakeye fins, according to the report. Designed three years earlier by the Navy’s weapons center in China Lake, Calif., these fins popped out as the bomb fell away, decelerating the unguided bombs so that the low-flying aircraft that released them could pull far enough ahead to escape shrapnel and blast damage when the ordnance hit the ground.

At the Battle of Dak To, the sky was crowded overhead. In addition to the Marine A-4s, a pair of Air Force A-1 Skyraiders was dropping napalm — intending both to kill North Vietnamese troops and to create fires on the ground that the pilots in faster A-4s could use as reference points for follow-on bombing runs. B-52s were approaching with plans to carpet-bomb. An AC-47 gunship was circling. The job of coordinating all these varied options and attacks fell to Capt. James E. Wrenn of the Air Force, who was flying a small Cessna propeller plane.

Lt. Col. Richard Taber, the pilot who the report indicated dropped the bombs, had flown 90 hours in combat since arriving in Vietnam roughly three months before. Taber flew with the call sign Hellborne 526-1 and commanded a Marine Corps A-4 squadron in Chu Lai. He was supposed to drop his bombs directly onto one of the napalm fires, but his bombs fell about 650 feet short and to the right, a miss the investigator labeled “a short round.” It landed on Charlie Company, Cook’s sister unit, which he had fallen in with amid the chaos of the fighting.

How this mistake occurred remains unclear. The report said the A-4 may have approached the target area from a direction slightly off axis from what Wrenn directed, resulting in the bombs landing downslope from the intended target. But the investigation was ultimately inconclusive, declaring that “there is insufficient evidence to determine the exact cause of the short round” before blaming “improper release conditions.” The investigator recommended that pilots undergo remedial training and that the investigation be closed, as it had revealed “no gross personnel errors nor evidence of equipment malfunction.”



Today, Cook, who is now 72, lives in Azusa, Calif., and spends his days tending to his grandchildren nearby. Dak To, he said, is never far from his thoughts. “Not a day goes by that I don’t” think about it, Cook said. “I’ve always thought about it, but to actually share it with others, that took 35 or 37 years.” In March 2017, Cook returned to Hill 875 to help look for the remains of the three American soldiers who had never been recovered: Sgt. Donald Iandoli, Specialist Jack L. Croxdale II and Pfc. Benjamin David De Herrera. The mission did not find the missing men, and Cook surmises that their bodies were vaporized in the blast. But Cook’s participation in the search connected him with a military investigator who was also on the trip. “I mentioned that I wondered what the pilot felt, knowing that he was responsible,” Cook said. “It must have been hard for him to carry on.” The investigator’s answer surprised him. “If you read the report,” Cook recalled being told, “you might have a different opinion.”

Cook subsequently obtained a copy of the report in 2017, which, as far as he knew, had never been publicly released. A scholar who wrote about the fight for Hill 875 in the 1980s and an author who wrote a book about it in the 1990s both told The New York Times that they had never seen the report before, even after searching through files related to the battle in the National Archives. Upon reading it, Cook found that instead of taking responsibility, the Marine pilot’s statement to investigators criticized almost everyone but himself and his wingman. Taber blamed other pilots for being unprofessional over the radio, spoke of one pilot’s “imperious manner” and called out others for being sarcastic and impatient. He did, though, praise his own skills. “I have been dropping Snakeyes exclusively in my last 15 or 20 launches from the alert,” his statement reads. “I can recall no reported miss distance as great as 50 meters in range, and nothing approaching that in azimuth.”

Paratroopers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade filing past bodies of fellow soldiers killed in the Battle of Dak To.Credit...Al Chang/Associated Press

“Ordnance on target,” Taber added, “has almost always been reported as 100 percent.”

What the report did not show was the chaos on the ground, the horror the bomb had created for the very soldiers it was supposed to relieve. Cook can recall it all. As the initial shock of the explosion passed, he crawled in the dark to the smoking crater where the bomb hit. “That’s when you heard the moaning and the crying,” he said. “I got to the edge of the crater this bomb had made and realized it was where a lot of guys had congregated. This was where our C.P. — our command post — and all of our wounded from earlier in the day had been positioned.”



Overhead, Capt. Dick Goetze of the Air Force flew his AC-47 “Spooky” gunship in a slow circle 3,000 feet above the dead and wounded troops, while one of his crew members tossed parachute flares out the back of the plane to help survivors on the ground see in the darkness. Goetze, his co-pilot and his navigator had all watched the bomb hit. “It was obvious when the explosion went off that it was in the wrong place,” he said in a recent interview. “We all said, ‘Oops, we just got the friendlies.’”

Earlier in the same flight, before the A-4’s Snakeyes struck, Goetze was ordered to leave the area by a different officer than Wrenn who was controlling the airspace above Hill 875 as night fell. Goetze was told that a number of “Buffs” — giant B-52 Stratofortress bombers — were on their way to carpet-bomb the area and that he needed to clear out. Goetze, who later retired as a two-star general, disobeyed his orders. He had seen B-52 carpet-bombing missions before, and he knew they were the wrong planes for the circumstances at Hill 875. “They’d just wipe everybody out,” he said. “So we refused to get off the target for that reason. Their target area was right on top of those guys. I got my hand slapped for that.”

As a flare from Goetze’s gunship floated close to the ground, it threw enough light sideways for Cook to peer into the crater. “All you saw was parts and pieces,” he said. He found a soldier he knew. “He said, ‘Hey, can you come get me?’” Cook said. “And as the flare got closer, I could see that he had been cut off from below the thighs. There was nothing there.” As his friend bled to death, Cook came upon a medic. “He said something about his arm,” he said. “It was stuck under him. I felt for it, and his arm was shattered from his shoulder to his elbow. There was just sinew and connective tissue connecting them.” Cook crawled from soldier to soldier. The survivors had more than wounds to worry about. They assumed their Vietnamese adversaries would launch an attack to finish them off, so they stayed vigilant. “We expected an all-out assault,” Cook said. “We had our rear covered, but it was just a matter of when they were going to start coming over the berm.” But the North Vietnamese soldiers never came.

Today the investigative report has circulated among witnesses and survivors, including Stephen Greene, a former warrant officer who flew UH-1D Iroquois helicopters in the 173rd’s aviation platoon at the time of the Battle of Dak To. “The report could not show the desperation and extreme courage displayed in abundance,” he said in an interview. “And it certainly did not explain what each of the survivors must live with forever.”



Taber is now 89 and living in an assisted-care facility in North Carolina. In a telephone interview, he at first denied knowing anything about Dak To but eventually acknowledged that he flew over Hill 875 as Hellborne 526-1. Taber said that his air group commander, who was a friend of his from before that tour, grounded him after the attack. But two or three days later, he said, his commander ordered him back into the cockpit. “When I was restored to full flight duty, I took it as being absolved,” he said. Half a century after the battle, he says he does not take responsibility for what happened. “I have no way of knowing,” Taber said. “There were other aircraft on nearby targets.”

“I had prayed,” he said, “that it was someone else.”

A correction was made on 
Feb. 4, 2019

An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of one of the American soldiers who was never recovered. He was Pfc. Benjamin David De Herrera, not Hererra.

When we learn of a mistake, we acknowledge it with a correction. If you spot an error, please let us know at more

John Ismay is a staff writer who covers armed conflict for The New York Times Magazine. He is based in Washington.

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