In 1960, the U.S. Air Force began looking for a new weapons systems to use in Vietnam. Under the program Project Gunship I, a WW II Douglas C-47 Skytrain transport was converted into the first side-firing gunship. This new aircraft was designated AC-47D (Attack-Cargo). Following a successful combat test program, the 4th Air Commando Squadron (ACS) was formed and equipped with these gunships. From then until September 1969 53 AC-47 D gunships were built. Because it was so vulnerable to enemy ground fire, 28 percent or 15 aircraft were lost.
For most of its existence the American Military Assistance Command in Vietnam was haunted by the spectre of Dien Bien Phu, the battle which in 1954 had resulted in the destruction of the cream of the French strategic reserve in Indochina and led directly to the establishment of the communist regime in the north. With a vociferous anti-war lobby at home and a largely hostile media covering its conduct of the war, the one thing MACV dreaded most was the overrunning of a major American unit, the result of which would be to generate such intense political pressure in Washington that the United States’ withdrawal from Indochina would take place before the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) had been trained to a standard at which it could be expected to cope with its opponents.
In one respect, however, the approach of American commanders in the field differed radically from that of the French. They recognised from the outset that beyond the cities and towns the holding of ground for its own sake meant nothing and was therefore counter-productive; as far as warfare in the Vietnamese countryside was concerned the terms front, rear and flanks were meaningless. What mattered most was bringing the enemy to battle wherever he was encountered and killing him at a rate he found unacceptable. Fire support bases (FSBs) were established throughout the country, capable of supporting each other or infantry operations in the immediate area. Any contact would result in the communist guerrillas being shelled, attacked from the air and their retreat cut off by rapid response units airlifted into a blocking position by helicopters.
The US Army deployed two specialist airmobile formations to South Vietnam. The larger of these, the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), distinguished itself during a series of hard-fought battles in the la Drang valley, Pleiku Province, during October and November 1965. The second was the 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate), consisting of the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment,1 which retained and sometimes used its parachute capability, and supporting arms.
The brigade had already seen action in the Iron Triangle, to the north of Saigon, and in Operation Junction City when, in early November 1967, it began moving to Dak To in the Central Highlands to reinforce Major-General William R. Peers’ 4th Infantry Division, which was coming under increasing pressure from local Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) units. The terrain consisted of heavily forested hills up to 3,000 feet in height, separated by steep valleys containing free-flowing streams. To most of the Sky Soldiers, as the brigade’s men called themselves, the move was welcome. They had served there briefly in midsummer and been grateful to be released from the energy-sapping humidity of the plains. Even so, in November the noonday temperature in the Central Highlands could reach beyond 90°F, dropping to what felt a distinctly chilly 55°F during the night.
The intelligence picture at this period indicated the arrival in the area of the NVA’s regular 1st Division, consisting of four rifle regiments (the 24th, 32nd, 66th and 174th) with a total strength of between 4,500 and 6,000 men, and one artillery regiment equipped with heavy mortars. A deserter indicated that the division’s objectives were the Special Forces Camps at Dak To and Ben Het, which had long been a thorn in the communists’ side. After preliminary clashes between 4th Division troops and the 32nd Regiment, however, the NVA forces simply disappeared and it was concluded that, having taken note of the 173rd Airborne’s arrival, they had simply abandoned their attack on the camps and gone to ground. As far as it went, this conclusion was correct, although it failed to take into account that the NVA commander might well have alternative plans. Like the Americans, he considered the holding of ground to be pointless; in fact, such a concept ran quite contrary to his army’s theory of revolutionary warfare. On the other hand, he was also well aware of the American political sensitivity to heavy casualties and, knowing that his opponents would mount search and destroy operations against his troops, he decided to use these to entrap battalion-sized groups. A number of hilltops west of Dak To had already been fortified in depth. Mutually supporting bunkers protected by alternate layers of logs and earth several feet deep were linked by communication trenches and concealed by allowing the natural jungle cover to grow back over them. Aware that these hilltops were natural objectives for American search and destroy operations, the NVA commander visualised a situation in which the attackers would be pinned down in front of the defences, taken under additional fire by mortars on adjacent hills, then attacked from the rear by a manoeuvre force concealed nearby, and wiped out. This provided a reversal of the normal situation prevailing in Vietnam in that it was the communists who were seeking to bring the Americans to battle with the object of inflicting massive casualties.
To some extent they would be assisted by the 173rd Airborne’s own philosophy, a product of rigorous training that instilled aggression from the outset, which more often than not led to attacks being delivered ‘right up the middle.’ There were, in fact, many officers in the brigade who felt that, whatever the value of aggression, this approach was not suited to every situation in Vietnam and could lead to needless casualties, contrasting it with the tactics employed by line infantry, who would execute small scale probes until the extent of an enemy position had been established, then neutralise it with sustained artillery and air strikes before going in.
The first of these battles began on 2 November when Lieutenant-Colonel James H. Johnson’s IV/503rd Parachute Infantry was ordered to investigate a possible contact on a hill some four and a half miles south of Ben Het. The operation was not airmobile and the heavily laden company columns, each of which was accompanied by a Montagnard Civilian Irregular Defence Group (CIDG)2 section which acted as guides, moved cautiously along the jungle trails behind their points. In addition to their own personal weapons – M16 rifle, M60 light machine gun or M79 grenade launcher – each rifleman carried 500 rounds of rifle ammunition, a 200-round belt for the M60, four fragmentation and two smoke grenades, and one or more directional Claymore mines; the machine gunners were further burdened by 2,000 rounds of M60 ammunition, slung around their shoulders in belts. Basic equipment, including a change of clothing, several days’ rations and three full canteens of water, added another 50 pounds to the load.
While the battalion was still approaching its objective during the morning of 6 November, the brigade commander, Brigadier-General Leo Schweiter, had decided to move some of the supporting artillery forward by creating a new fire support base on a feature designated Hill 823, using air strikes and shellfire to fell the timber on the summit and create a landing zone into which the guns could be lifted by helicopter. Simultaneously, he instructed Johnson’s companies to converge on the feature and secure it.
At about 11:30 Captain Thomas H. Baird’s D Company came across a single strand of enemy field telephone cable and, nearby, a pith helmet, a sure sign of the presence of North Vietnamese regulars. After cutting the cable they followed it up a hill named Ngok Kom Leat, a mile to the north of Hill 823. In the lead was the company’s 2nd Platoon, commanded by First Lieutenant Michael D. Burton, a graduate of the Virginia Military Academy. Moving warily up the undulating trail that wound up the spur to the summit, Burton’s platoon clover-leafed at regular intervals into the jungle on either side to clear potential ambush sites. It was a slow, painstaking business but very necessary, and by now most of the older hands’ instincts were warning them that the enemy were somewhere in the trees and all round them.
Overhead in his command helicopter Lieutenant-Colonel Johnson had reached the conclusion that so slow was the progress of all his companies that none of them would reach Hill 823 that day. He therefore arranged for Captain George Baldridge’s B Company to be picked up and air-lifted into the embryonic landing zone, leaving A and C Companies to continue their march towards the hill while D Company completed its reconnaissance of Ngok Kom Leat.
At about 13:00 Burton’s point squad came across the spoor left by several bare feet, a roll of field telephone cable and some fresh faeces. The platoon continued upwards to a point where the spur broadened out onto the summit. A few men caught fleeting glimpses of North Vietnamese soldiers in green uniforms and then the entire company went to ground as it was struck by a murderous hail of concentrated AK 47 fire that clipped leaves and branches from above and shredded stands of bamboo.
Some casualties were incurred at once. Baird was hit three times in rapid succession, one round striking the stock of his rifle, another an ammunition pouch while the third shattered his wrist. A morphine injection reduced the pain somewhat, enabling him to concentrate his platoons into a perimeter defence. At about the same time his artillery Forward Observation Officer, Lieutenant Lawrence Clewly of B Battery HI/319th Artillery, was hit in the rump and incapacitated. His task was promptly taken over by his signaller, Specialist 4 Ernie Fulcher, who quickly began landing protective shells around Burton’s platoon, as did Specialist 4 James Duffy with the company mortars.
Such was the noise level that Baird could hardly distinguish the sound of his own men’s return fire from that of the enemy. The North Vietnamese were now pressing attacks to very close quarters and barely being contained. Baird spoke to Johnson on the radio, requesting an immediate air strike. The latter, unable to see through the jungle canopy and unaware of the scale of the enemy attack, declined on the grounds that his air priority was to continue clearing the LZ on Hill 823. Baird’s reply, urgent, angry and insubordinate, made it clear that unless it received immediate air support D Company would almost certainly be overrun.
Now fully aware of the situation, Johnson took decisive action. He called in several of the F-100 Super Sabres that were strafing Hill 823, requested further air strikes and close support from helicopter gunships and, while proceeding with B Company’s lift onto Hill 823, ordered A and C Companies to march to the sound of the guns on Ngok Kom Leat.
The enemy’s determination was not blunted by the F-100s’ first bomb run and they kept attacking Burton’s platoon until their strength was whittled away by a combination of shelling, air attacks, helicopter gun-ships and the defenders’ fire. Thereafter they engaged in periodic fire-fights interspersed with sniping from the treetops. The snipers were difficult to locate but the sight of one dangling head-down by a rope tied to his ankle was encouraging.
At about 15:00 the enemy began switching his attacks to the opposite end of the company perimeter, held by Lieutenant Robert Allen’s platoon, which had originally formed the rear of the company column. Allen had a feeling that a large number of North Vietnamese had also followed D Company up the spur and were just waiting for the right moment to launch their attack. He had, however, used the time available to put his men in good fire positions, so that when that attack came in it was beaten off without undue difficulty. After that, air and artillery support was adjusted to cover the threat.
Meanwhile, Captain James Muldoon, commanding A Company, had received Johnson’s order to go to C Company’s assistance at about 14:00. A Company was then located approximately one mile to the east of Ngok Kom Leat and its route would take it down a hillside, across a stream and then uphill towards Baird’s position. Muldoon ordered his CIDG guides to lead but, once within sound of the fighting, the latter used every excuse to slow down and stop. At length, losing patience, he put one of his own platoons into the lead and ordered his men to drop their rucksacks for the sake of speed. Just how great had been the delay caused by the CIDG was emphasised by the fact that Muldoon had instructed a detached rifle squad, consisting of Sergeant David Terrazas and six men, to make their own way independently to A Company’s position, and that they had worked their way into Allen’s sector of the perimeter by 15:30, fully an hour and a half before the rest of the company arrived.
Shortly after Terrazas’ squad came in, a jet howled directly over Allen’s position. Glancing up, Allen saw a napalm canister splintering its way through the branches towards him and ducked back into cover. It burst just outside the perimeter, the worst effects being masked by a large stand of bamboo. Even so, he was struck by a searing wave of heat and felt the breath being all but sucked out of his body. For the moment he was unaware of the effect it had had on the enemy, but a little later the charred bodies of fifteen NVA soldiers were found, their blackened weapons still in their hands. Clearly, his platoon would have been attacked from close quarters in strength had it not been for the providential, albeit dangerously misdirected, release of the missile.
With the arrival of A Company the enemy pressure eased. Muldoon’s weapons platoon cleared a landing zone and from 18:30 until 22:00 a succession of helicopters lifted out the more seriously wounded, including Baird. During the night the enemy occasionally fired into the perimeter but was kept at bay by the presence overhead of a C-47 gunship which shredded suspected forming-up areas with its terrible fire.3 By morning the NVA had gone, taking with them their wounded and such of their dead as they could reach. Even so, 28 bodies were left on the battlefield, together with a number of weapons, including six machine guns. Items collected from the dead indicated that they belonged to the II/66th Regiment. A Company sustained the loss of one killed and two wounded, D Company five killed and eighteen wounded.
Elsewhere, Captain William Connolly’s C Company had run into an enemy bunker complex while moving towards Ngok Kom Leat. By the time this had been dealt with night had fallen and the company went into leaguer for the night, joining Muldoon at noon the following day. Captain George Baldridge’s B Company had been successfully lifted onto Hill 823, later designated FSB 15. Having established a defensive perimeter on the summit, Baldridge sent out a two-man patrol to cover the enemy’s most likely line of approach. Hardly had this left the perimeter than both men were shot down, as were five more who went out to rescue them. The first of several North Vietnamese attacks followed at once, the enemy using AK 47s, machine guns, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades as they pressed to within yards of the defenders. The Americans beat off every assault, using their own mortars to deadly effect, and were able to call in artillery, air and gunship support. Their casualties, however, were heavy and included Baldridge, wounded. The enemy remained in close proximity during the night but withdrew shortly before dawn, leaving over 100 dead behind. Examination of the bodies confirmed that they, too, belonged to the 66th Regiment and that they were equipped with brand new weapons.
On their own, the battles for Ngok Kom Leat and Hill 823 did not set a sufficiently recognisable pattern for the Americans to recognise that the NVA was now pursuing a deliberate policy of defensive entrapment. For the communists, foiled in their attempt to wipe out D Company, the lesson was that once the American assault had been halted it was imperative that their own attack should delivered into the enemy rear at the earliest possible moment, before he had time to organise his defences and call in supporting arms.
By the middle of the month Brigadier-General Schweiter believed, quite correctly, that in its encounters with his brigade at Ngok Kom Leat and elsewhere the NVA’s 66th Regiment had been seriously mauled and was heading for the sanctuary of the Cambodian border. When, on 18 November, a Special Forces patrol reported a major contact in the area of Hill 875, situated just three miles west of the border and eight miles south of the point where South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia meet, he reached the conclusion that the enemy were the last remnants of the 66th and decided to eliminate them by despatching his nearest battalion, Major James Steverson’s II/503rd, to secure the feature. In fact, Hill 875 was held by the newly arrived and barely blooded 174th Regiment, which had its IInd Battalion on the hill and the other battalions concealed nearby.
II/503rd was operating with only A, C and D Companies, B Company having been withdrawn because of casualties sustained in earlier actions. The previous afternoon it had stumbled, quite by chance, on an abandoned enemy base camp in deep jungle, capable of housing up to 1,000 men. In addition to the bivouacs, bunkers had been dug into a hillside and caves put to use as dressing stations, their floors cluttered with blooded bandages and medical impedimenta. All the evidence suggested the camp had been evacuated very recently and, that being the case, there was obviously a substantial NVA presence in the area.
The battalion remained on the site overnight and patrolled the surrounding area next morning without coming into contact with the enemy. Major Steverson arrived during the afternoon to brief his company commanders for the assault on Hill 875, which would take place the following day. After an air strike had softened up the objective with high explosive and cluster bombs, supplemented by artillery fire, the battalion would attack up the northern spur of the hill with C Company (Captain Harold J. Kaufman) on the right and D Company (Lieutenant Bartholomew O’Leary) on the left. A Company (Captain Michael Kiley) would protect the rear, using two platoons to maintain a physical link with the assault companies while his weapons platoon prepared a landing zone. C and D Companies would each be deployed with two platoons forward and one back, each platoon moving uphill in two parallel columns. When the assault went in, it was envisaged that the NVA would attempt to escape down the southern slopes of the hill, where their retreat would be blocked by the same Special Forces unit that had established the enemy’s presence in the area. Steverson was not one of those who favoured the Airborne’s traditional ‘straight up the middle’ approach in these circumstances and he ordered his company commanders to pull back if they encountered heavy opposition, which would be eliminated by further air strikes. During the afternoon the battalion saddled up and moved to an overnight leaguer area approximately 800 yards north of Hill 875.
On the morning of 19 July, while the F-100s pounded the face of the hill and the sound of their fading jet engines was replaced by the crump of artillery shells bursting on the slopes, the II/503rd’s Roman Catholic chaplain, Father Charles Waiters, provided Communion for those who wanted it. At 09:00 the companies moved off, climbing slowly but steadily upwards through the trees, underbrush and bamboo while the jets delivered a final strike.
At about 10:30 the two assault companies reached the edge of a bomb-and shell-torn clearing some 400 yards wide, beyond which they could see the crest of the hill. Apart from the cratered earth and tangled trees nothing was visible, but as soon the first man entered the clearing he was shot down, as was a medic who went to his assistance. Suddenly the Americans were struck by a wild firestorm of AK 47 rounds, grenades, and RPG-7 antitank rockets. Pinned down, they were unable to locate more than a few of the enemy’s bunker fire slits but returned fire as best they could.
Kaufman reported the contact to Steverson, now hovering above the hill in his command helicopter, and was told to continue the advance. O’Leary, breaking into the net, reminded Steverson of his earlier instructions and was sharply rebuked for his trouble. The renewed assault gained only a few yards before it, too, was shot flat. Steverson laid on artillery support, some of which fell short before it began landing on the enemy bunkers. As the shelling lifted, the paratroopers attacked again, but succeeded in covering just 30 yards before they were compelled to seek cover. From 13:00 four F-100s bombed and strafed the summit for an hour. Once more, C and D Companies rose to the attack but now found themselves under fire from behind as well as in front as the enemy made use of his crawl tunnels to reoccupy bunkers the Americans believed they had suppressed.