Meanwhile, at the base of the hill Kiley’s A Company was deployed in the shape of an elongated U with two platoons stretching upwards to provide flank protection for C and D Companies while the rest of the company covered the rear. A steady stream of wounded were making their way down the hill and at 13:00 Kiley, worried by the slow progress his weapons platoon was making in clearing sufficient trees for the medevac helicopters to get in, requested an LZ kit, consisting of chainsaws, lumber axes and a quantity of explosive. This arrived shortly after 13:00 and almost immediately the enemy launched attacks in overwhelming strength on the thinly-stretched A Company from the west and south. Those at the foot of the hill stood little or no chance. The wounded, waiting patiently for evacuation near the incomplete LZ, were butchered at once. The two flanking platoons received a frantic radio message from Kiley: ‘Get everyone you can down here! I need help – now!’ Then there was silence.
Lieutenant Thomas Remington’s 2nd Platoon was ambushed as it approached the command post. Several men were killed and others, including Remington, were wounded, although they also took a toll of their attackers. This may have cleared the way for Lieutenant Joseph Sheridan’s 3rd Platoon, which reached the command post hollow shortly after, only to find Kiley and five others lying dead. Both officers then concentrated on getting their survivors up the hill and into C and D Companies’ positions, where they dug in using knives, helmets and anything to hand.
It is probable that very few of those on the hill’s lower slopes would have survived had it not been for the self-sacrificial action of Private First Class Carlos Lozada. Many people considered that Lozada, a 21-year-old from a tough background in the Bronx area of New York, was a no-hoper. Those who knew him best thought otherwise and were proved right when, blazing away with his M60 machine gun at close quarters, he cut a swathe through the attacking North Vietnamese. Then, pausing to clear a jam, he moved slowly backwards up the spur’s central trail, firing his weapon from the hip as he covered his comrades’ withdrawal. It was inevitable, given the volume of fire directed at him, that he would be killed and at length he fell, shot through the head. His action was to earn him a posthumous Medal of Honor.
Kaufman, the senior officer on the hill, decided to tighten his perimeter, although this meant abandoning most of the hard-won gains. By 15:00 it was apparent that II/503rd was fighting for its life. After nearly five hours’ continuous fighting, ammunition was beginning to run short. Every helicopter which attempted to drop in fresh supplies ran into a curtain of automatic fire, until six of them had either been seriously damaged or shot down. Such ammunition as was dropped fell just outside the perimeter and cost casualties to bring in.
Schweiter was now aware of the situation. He gave the trapped battalion priority on air strikes and ordered Lieutenant-Colonel Johnson’s IV/503rd to march to its relief, realising that this could not be effected until the following morning. The artillery laid a girdle of bursting shells around Kaufman’s two companies, the sweating gunners pausing only when jets howled in to drop high explosive and napalm. Overhead, a C-47 gunship spewed out long jets of tracer at the enemy’s probable forming-up points, tearing apart everything they touched. What most survivors recalled of this period of their long nightmare pinned down among the shattered timbers was the sudden appearance of Chaplain Waiters wherever he was needed most, always with a little precious water for the sorely wounded and words of comfort and hope for the dying.
Despite the fact that the situation was far from promising, Captain Harold Kaufman, the senior officer present, still believed that it would be possible to complete the capture of the objective with an attack the following morning, and by 18:30 he had managed to assemble his platoon commanders and sergeants at his command post. Shortly after, a Marine Corps pilot entered the Forward Air Controller’s radio net, asking whether the latter had any use for two surplus 500-pound bombs. The answer was affirmative and the pilot was told to bomb into a napalm fire burning near the top of the hill. Unfortunately, he seems to have misunderstood the direction his bomb-run was to take and came in over the embattled II/503rd, with results that came close to ending the battle there and then.
His first bomb produced good results. It burst among an NVA platoon preparing to attack, killing an estimated 25 of them. The second bomb, however, sailed into the crowded interior of the perimeter and exploded in C Company’s command post. Altogether, it killed 42 Americans, including Kaufman and Waiters, and wounded 45 more. Severed limbs, heads, flesh and blood were blown everywhere; a naked torso hung grotesquely in the branches of a tree. Sights such as these, and the sound of prolonged, agonised screams following hard on the bomb’s impact, would never leave the minds of those who survived.
Almost immediately, another NVA attack closed in on the perimeter. After fifteen minutes’ hard fighting it faded away, leaving the Americans to reorganise themselves amid the carnage. Of the sixteen company officers present, eight were now dead and the rest wounded. Lieutenant O’Leary, blown into unconsciousness by the bomb, regained his senses to discover that he was now in command and turned over D Company to Lieutenant Bryan McDonough, the survivors of A and C Companies being led respectively by Lieutenant Sheridan and Sergeant Peter Krawtzow. A quick head-count revealed that the already under-strength II/503rd had sustained about 80 killed as a result of the fighting and the bomb blast, and that of the numerous wounded 48 were serious cases requiring immediate evacuation, which was clearly impossible. After checking that the perimeter was secure, O’Leary’s first task was to re-establish radio links with Major Steverson and the supporting artillery. This involved heaving aside bodies in the shambles that had been Kaufman’s orders group until a couple of sets in working order could be found. At O’Leary’s urgent request Steverson terminated all further air strikes and then, obviously shaken by what had befallen his battalion, communicated the news to Schweiter. O’Leary also arranged for the artillery to fire a box barrage around the perimeter, adjusting this outwards when a shell landed short, killing one man and wounding four more.
Just why the NVA did not press their advantage and overrun the stricken battalion during the night remains an unanswered question. One possible explanation is that they had absorbed far greater punishment than they allowed for; another is that they now regarded the trapped paratroopers simply as the bait with which to lure an even larger relief force into ambush. Whatever the truth, they contented themselves with isolated probes towards the perimeter and the Americans, anxious to avoid betraying their positions with muzzle flashes, responded with grenades until all sounds of movement had ceased. Throughout the hours of uneasy darkness the cratered hillside and its splintered trees, now still save for the stealthy movements of individual soldiers, remained bathed in the eerie light provided by a Spooky flareship.4
Meanwhile Schweiter, as concerned as Steverson for the safety of the trapped battalion, had been making arrangements for its relief. At 19:15, now fully aware of the terrible casualties inflicted by the stray bomb, he stressed the urgency of the situation to Lieutenant-Colonel Johnson of IV/503rd: ‘Jim, you’ve got to get your people to that hill. Get them there as fast as you can.’
Johnson made arrangements for his companies to be concentrated in succession at FSB 16, whence they would advance on Hill 875 indirectly and off the established trails to avoid ambush, and behind a rolling barrage. As the remnants of II/503rd would need resupplying, each rifleman would carry a double load, including no less than 600 rounds of ammunition, ten grenades, one 60mm mortar round and several spare canteens. Leonard’s B Company led off at about 09:30 on 20 November, followed at intervals by Muldoon’s A Company and Connolly’s C Company. Progress was slow but sustained and by 13:00 B Company was within a mile of the hill and moving along its final compass bearing. On the way it had come across a number of abandoned NVA camps, one containing several recently dead enemy soldiers, severed limbs and a pile of bloodied bandages. Ahead, the sound of sniping and enemy mortars confirmed that there were still Americans alive on Hill 875. At 14:20 Leonard made radio contact with O’Leary and told him that he anticipated arriving within two hours. To the latter’s men, dispirited by the inability of the casualty evacuation and supply helicopters to penetrate the enemy’s storm of fire, their food, water and pain-killing morphine now exhausted, the news re-ignited a spark of hope that, sooner or later, their ordeal would end. At about 16:00 Leonard’s point section reached the base of the hill and began climbing warily. The first body they came across was that of a young paratrooper sprawled across his M60 machine gun with spent cases scattered all around; it was Private First Class Carlos Lozada. Beyond were the intermingled bodies of Americans and North Vietnamese, then, higher still, more and more trees shattered by the sustained impact of bombs and shells. Of the enemy there was no immediate sign, but there was a real danger that any further unheralded movement would attract fire from the II/503rd. Halting, the point shouted their arrival and in response several heads appeared among the tangle. The rest of the company came in and took up positions, distributing food and water as they did so, while their medics at once went to work among the wounded. A Company came in at 21:00 and C Company 90 minutes later. None of the new arrivals had ever seen such destruction and carnage concentrated in so small an area, with bodies and parts of bodies lying everywhere amid the deep piles of splintered timber, broken weapons and discarded equipment. Over everything, too, hung a sickly, all pervading stench combining the odours of decomposition, blood, human waste and high explosive. Together, the sights and smells caused stomachs to rebel.
Even while the relief force was on its way, O’Leary had set some of his men to work clearing a small landing zone in dead ground. Once Leonard’s company had arrived Steverson sent in a command group, consisting of his executive officer, Major William Kelly, and two more officers, to take over the remnants of II/503rd. A similar attempt earlier in the day had failed when their helicopter had been driven off by anti-aircraft fire, but on this occasion the craft got in and held its position long enough for its passengers to jump into the primitive LZ.
The fact that IV/503rd had not had to fight their way into the perimeter suggested the enemy’s hold on Hill 875 was beginning to relax; the truth, however, was that while the North Vietnamese commander had loosened his grip on H/503rd, almost certainly because of the heavy losses, he had no intention of giving up the hill, which would be used to inflict further casualties on the Americans. His II/174th Regiment would continue to hold the bunkers at the summit for as long as his opponents wished to capture them. The I/174th, which had attacked into the rear of II/503rd’s A Company on the first day of the battle, had been withdrawn onto features west of Hill 875 where, with III/174th, it continued to put up such heavy anti-aircraft fire that the American helicopters were forced to keep their distance.
Schweiter was equally determined that, once the II/503rd had been relieved, Hill 875 would be captured, even if it was abandoned when the last of the defenders had been eliminated. For both sides, therefore, the struggle had become a fight to the death. Once the sources of the anti-aircraft fire had been identified, these were suppressed by the American artillery. This proved to be the key to the problem, for during the morning of 21 November helicopters were able to drop in flamethrowers and 66mm Light Anti-tank Weapons (LAWs) for use against the NVA bunkers when IV/503rd attacked the hilltop that afternoon, as well as additional ammunition and rubber water containers. At 14:30 more helicopters arrived at the LZ and began lifting out the wounded.
The summit had already been hit by artillery and air strikes for several hours when, at 15:05, the IV/503rd’s companies rose to attack. The flamethrowers had to be left behind as they had been dropped without their igniters and were therefore useless; again, as comparatively few men had been trained in the use of the LAW, their issue had to be restricted to officers and NCOs. The fallen tree trunks and tangle of broken branches served as a natural abatis, forcing the paratroopers into vulnerable upright positions as they strove to force their way forward. Worst of all, the volume of fire from the enemy bunkers – machine guns, AK 47s, rockets, mortar rounds and grenades – was undiminished. Nevertheless, the attack was pressed home with grim determination. In some places men came close enough to pitch a grenade into a narrow fireslit and a bunker would fall temporarily silent. Elsewhere, LAWs made no impact whatever on the stout log and earth constructions. At length, after almost three hours’ fierce close-quarter fighting the IV/503rd’s companies retired within their perimeter; all three had sustained severe losses.
At this point Schweiter decided that he would employ massive firepower to eliminate the defenders before another assault went in. The night remained comparatively quiet but throughout 22 November the bunker complex was battered not only by 173rd Airborne Brigade’s own organic 105mm field artillery, but also by the 8-inch, 155mm and 175mm guns and howitzers of heavy batteries made available specifically for the purpose. When the now-balding hilltop was not shuddering under the impact of shells it was being battered by flights of screaming jets with high explosive bombs and drenched with tons of blazing napalm. An additional battalion, Major Long’s I/12th Infantry, had been made available to Schweiter by 4th Division and during the afternoon this was airlifted onto the southern slopes of the hill. Simultaneously, the evacuation of wounded continued from a freshly cut LZ below IV/503rd’s position.
Schweiter’s plan for the 23rd involved further artillery and air preparation followed up with converging attacks on the summit by IV/503rd and I/12th. Among the former, some remembered that at home it was Thanksgiving Day, but the thoughts of many were concentrated on the fact that, once again, they would be going up the tangled, shell-torn slopes into a blizzard of flying steel. A goodly number, of all faiths, took Communion from the battalion’s Roman Catholic chaplain, Father Roy Peters.
The NVA, sensing what was taking place, combed the two battalions’ forming-up areas with their mortars but caused little damage. In IV/503rd, Leonard, Muldoon and Connolly gave the order for their companies to advance at 11:00. They did so behind a creeping barrage fired by their own 81mm mortars. Behind came the few unwounded survivors of II/503rd. The plan did not require their presence but they had asked to be included and there was general agreement that if anyone had earned the right to be present at the final capture of the hill, they had.
Overhead in his command helicopter, Johnson watched his battalion’s attack develop. At first the paratroopers moved warily in short, rapid rushes, using the tactics of fire and movement. Then, the tiny figures below seemed to be moving much faster. Reports from the company commanders indicated that, light mortaring apart, resistance was negligible. Suddenly the figures were among the bunkers, hurling grenades and satchel charges through the fireslits and shooting up communication trenches, moving steadily upwards. There were some casualties, five men being killed by a single mortar round. Leonard, shot clean through the leg by an enemy rifleman, refused assistance and hobbled on.
Twenty-two minutes after crossing the start line, the first of the Sky Soldiers reached the bare, scorched earth of the summit, giving vent to the American paratrooper’s triumphant yell of ‘Geronimo!!’ Minutes later, they were shaking hands with the infantrymen of the I/12th, who had climbed the southern slopes without encountering opposition. The celebration was cut short by the company commanders who, worried by the possibility of a counter-attack, deployed their men into defensive positions. This did not materialise and at length the complete absence of enemy activity confirmed that the NVA had finally accepted defeat on Hill 875.
Johnson landed and, after touring his battalion to congratulate the men on their success, he examined the enemy bunkers. They were marvels of construction and concealment, some having head cover no less than six feet deep, and many had survived the fearful punishment to which they had been subjected. There was evidence that they had been in existence since July. Schweiter dropped in briefly to add his congratulations and then Johnson gave orders that the traditional Thanksgiving Day turkey dinner should be flown out to the hill. It arrived at dusk, being thoroughly enjoyed by most, although a few found they had no appetite.
The cost of Hill 875 had been high. II/503rd’s casualties included 87 killed, 130 wounded and three missing; IV/503rd’s 28 killed, 123 wounded and four missing. It was never possible to establish the full extent of the NVA’s losses. Although several dozen bodies were found in and around the bunkers, it is clear that, with the exception of a small stay-behind party, II/174th Regiment had slipped away, taking with them as many of their dead and wounded as they could carry, in accordance with their usual custom. That a comparatively large number of bodies had to be left behind suggests in itself that the battalion had suffered severely. American patrols on the lower slopes and in the surrounding area discovered perhaps a hundred more bodies. In addition, nine prisoners were taken. The only certainties were that the 174th Regiment as a whole had been severely mauled and that it, together with the other units forming the NVA’s 1st Division, were crawling their painful way to the safety of the Cambodian border. Many of the Sky Soldiers wanted to pursue and finish them off, but that would have been politically unacceptable.
General Giap, the North Vietnamese commander-in-chief, had hoped that by committing a large body of regular troops to the Central Highlands he would divert American attention away from the preparations for his Tet Offensive, due to start at the end of January. In the event, the NVA 1st Division sustained crippling casualties and the foray had little bearing on the disastrous outcome of Tet, which underlined the fallacies inherent in some aspects of his philosophy of revolutionary warfare. He was disappointed, too, that operations in the Central Highlands had failed to entrap and destroy a major American unit. On the other hand, while callously indifferent to his own losses, he was well aware of the effect continued casualties were having on American public opinion, and those incurred in the battles around Dak To had been undeniably heavy. Giap, having no timescale in which to produce ultimate victory, could afford any number of battles such as that for Hill 875; conversely, the American public would only tolerate them for as long as it seemed they would produce decisive victory.
Nevertheless, the fight for Hill 875 would rank alongside that for Pork Chop Hill in the annals of the US Army; it had been a very bloody contest of wills in which neither side had sought quarter, and in the end the Americans had prevailed.5
- During its Second World War incarnation the 503rd Parachute Infantry had been responsible for the capture of Corregidor Island in Manila Bay, making an incredibly dangerous low-altitude drop in a strong cross wind onto tiny enemy-held drop zones bordered by cliffs that dropped vertically to the sea.
- Opinion regarding the Montagnard tribesmen varied, although their dislike of the communists was genuine enough. Some American officers thought highly of their fighting abilities, but others saw them as mercenaries who were inclined to disappear when they ran into serious trouble.
- A Douglas C-47 armed with three multibarrel 7.62mm machine guns capable of a total output of 18,000 rounds per minute, firing from the door and two windows of the port side of the passenger compartment. Because of the great belch of flame whenever the guns fired the aircraft was nicknamed Puff the Magic Dragon.
- Another version of the C-47 capable of producing intense illumination by dropping one million candlepower flares.
- Pork Chop Hill, an isolated outpost held by the US 7th Division, was used by the Chinese to test American resolve during the negotiations that ended the Korean War in 1953. After being almost overrun during heavy fighting, the hill was recaptured by an American counter-attack.