Battle for Hill 875, 173 Airborne
The Battle on Hill 875
November 19th ~ 23rd, 1967 near Dak To, Vietnam
Day One - Sunday 19 November
While on a search and destroy mission during "Operation MacArthur" in Kontum Province Republic of South Vietnam the 2nd Battalion 503rd Airborne Infantry, 173rd Airborne Brigade while climbing along the ridges leading to Hill 875 came under intense enemy fire. As Company A and D spread out to form a line they came under recoilless rifle fire and rifle fired grenades. The NVA infantry then wave attacked the companies and the fighting became hand to hand at times. Pfc Carlos Lazada held off the enemy long enough for his company to join up with the rest of the 2nd Battalion already further up the hill. For his actions he received the Congressional Medal of Honor. The 2nd Battalion 503rd fought on by itself all of the first day and almost all of the second day, until reinforcements arrived from the 4th Battalion 503rd Infantry, another Battalion from the 173 Airborne brigade. Casualties where very high among the companies of the 2nd Battalion. But never the less they fought off the NVA assaults and even advanced up the slope toward the main NVA perimeter near the summit. They managed to do this despite being hid by a 500 pound bomb from a US Air Force fighter at approximately 2000 hrs on the 19th. I remember being only 25 or 30 meters from the NVA line of bunkers when we finally joined up with them on the 20th of November. That's how close they had fought their way to the main NVA force on the summit.
Day Two - Monday 20 November
While the 2nd Battalion 503rd Infantry remained under intense and close contact with the NVA held up on Hill 875. "A" Company 4th Battalion 503rd Infantry was at forward fire support base 16, which they were securing after their battle with the NVA 66th regiment on Hill 855, and had to close it down before they could get airborne and go to the support of the 2nd battalion. The irony of this was that we had taken over security of this base from the 2nd Battalion only two days earlier. We had to pull in the perimeter because we lacked the manpower to fill all the bunkers left behind by the 2nd Battalion. But now after reaching the vicinity of hill 875 "A" Company 4th Battalion 503rd Infantry, the company I was assigned to, we landed by slicks (helicopter troop transports) on the ridgeline at the northeastern end of the ridgeline leading to Hill 875 not far from FSB 12. We followed the ridgeline to make a link with the 2nd Battalion surrounding ourselves with a ring of artillery fire and close in air support. I recall finding NVA soldier after soldier along this ridgeline that had been killed by this artillery and close in air support. When we got closer to the 2nd Battalions location, and to the point were they had made their initial enemy contact. The trail became a mix of American and NVA killed from that fierce clash on the 19th. We joined up with the 2nd Battalion late that evening, approximately around 20:00 hrs. "B" Company 4th Battalion 503rd Infantry was set down in a clearing at the base of Hill 875 and climbed up the hill to reach the 2nd battalion. They where the first of the company's from the 4th Battalion to join up with the 2nd Battalion at around 16:00 hrs on the 20th. "C" Company reached the 2nd battalion 503rd Infantry lines sometime around 2030hrs.
Day Three - Tuesday 21 November
As the day breaks the NVA launch their daily mortar attack's on the American's at first light. Most of the morning was spent preparing to assault the NVA position atop the summit of Hill 875 by the 4th Battalion 503rd Infantry. The NVA had prepared their positions very well with earthen over head cover on their bunkers and interlocking trenches to connect each bunker. Some of the cover was as much as two meters deep. In addition the NVA had a very well developed interlocking firing line with slit firing holes. Some time around 13:30hrs the 4th Battalion began to encircle the NVA positions traversing the summit just below the NVA fortifications. A complete encirclement was never achieved due to intense enemy fire. On this day I had the point squad for "A" Company 4th Battalion. Our objective was to come around the eastern slope, advancing south, just below the summit and link with the point element of "C" Company 4th Battalion. Advancing south around the western slope was "C" Company 4th Battalion attempting to link with the point element of "A" Company. "B" Company was in the center of "A" and "C" Company's, on the northeastern slope. They advanced straightforward from the jump off point, which later that evening would become the assembly point for the remands of the 4th Battalion. As I advanced will never forget climbing over and around the fell and smoldering trees. The jungle floor was still on fire in places. And what was not afire was blackened and charred from having been on fire. The whole time we where running this gauntlet the NVA which where only 25 or 30 yards up hill from us, where throwing all the automatic small arms fire, machine gun fire and shoulder fired recoilless rockets they had down at us. Not to forget to mention about all the hand grenades they rolled down hill at us also. It was an experience I will never forget. The encirclement of the NVA tried to be concealed with the use artillery smoke rounds from a near by support base 12. I remember those 105mm artillery smoke rounds screaming in just feet above our heads hitting between us and the NVA and some on the NVA lines. When I close my eyes to this day and picture that hill in my mind eye I can only picture it in black and white and shades of gray. Never in color. That's how bad the devastation of the jungle and terrain was.
Once the Company's of the 4th Battalion were strung out and on line as far as they could advance, the up hill assault began. The fighting became intense with most troopers charging into the NVA lines with fixed bayonets on their M16 rifles. Even though there was some success in penetrating the NVA lines, in-groups of ones and two's the assault was stopped at dusk that same day. I was setting in a freshly liberated NVA bunker on the south west end of the hill, waiting for more of my squad to show up when I received that order. The Platoon Leader from the second platoon of "A" Company was there with me. He showed up shortly before my RTO (Radio transmitter operator) did. My RTO managed to stay right behind me until we started the uphill assault into the NVA bunkers. Then the intense enemy fire raining down on us separated us. That is probably also why the 2nd platoon leader had gotten so far separated from his platoon. The order of march for "A" Company on the 19th was 3 platoon in the lead, followed by 2nd platoon then 1st platoon. One of the things I have always regretted was having to run that same gauntlet twice in the same day. First going and then in trying to get back to friendly lines. I have always felt like the 4th Battalion could have overrun the NVA that day. The 2nd Battalion was securing and fighting off NVA attacks around the assembly area while the 4th Battalion was off doing their thing. Since I had managed to advance to the southern point of around the summit it also took some time to return to the assembly area. It was around 2000 hrs when I reached friendly lines and remember everybody being very somber. They were shaken by the events of the day and must have had the next time on their mind. I know I did.
Day Four - Wednesday 22 November
The morning begins with continued mortar and small arms fire from the NVA on and around hill 875. Sometime around mid day a decision was reached to withdraw down the ridgeline distance of 100 meters to the north east to form a new defensive perimeter. A safe enough distance from the summit to soften it with artillery and close in air tactical strikes on the NVA stronghold. Preparing it for the next day's assault by the American's. I will never forget the hill shaking like a large molded Jell-O. After that fighter planes came in low and slow dropping their payloads. Sortie after sortie. We would be warned to take cover before each air strike. Before we pulled back that 100 meter safe distance we where so close to the NVA lines at the assembly area I was able to get into a hand grenade throwing contest with one of them on the morning of the 22nd. To give you some idea about how close in most of the fighting in Vietnam was. The remainder of the 22nd was used to evacuate the wounded and refit with much needed supplies and ammunition. We had so much ammunition and other ordinance dropped into us that day, that when we moved our defensive perimeter to the summit after it's capture, it had to be destroyed in place by the combat engineers. The fire works from the ammunition and ordinance’s popping off lasted all that afternoon, that night and well into the next day.
Day Five - Thursday 23 November
The morning started with the usual mortar fire from NVA on a nearby hill. At 11 AM Company’s from both battalions, the 2nd and 4th start the final assault at the summit of Hill 875. The assault was broken into two waves. The second wave covering the rear of the first. I was in the second wave that day. The first wave over ran the NVA so fast we where cleaning up what they missed. During the short time of the final assault the NVA shelled their own positions with mortar and rocket fire from an adjacent hill. What a show that was with litter teams running back and forth picking up the wounded, and doing all this under enemy fire. These guy’s were great. However the soldiers of the 2nd and 4th Battalion captured the NVA stronghold by 11:30 AM. The entire final assault lasting less than 30 minutes. At approximately 14:30 hrs the 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry, 4th Infantry Division reached the friendly lines on the summit of Hill 875. They had been blocking the NVA from escaping around the base of the hill, while the battle for the summit raged above them. The advanced up the southwestern slope to reach the summit.
The clean up and transition of power
US Army Nurse's and American Red Cross worker's, which had flown in earlier that morning and even as the assault was under way via helicopter transports came atop the hill to help with the wounded. I remember one in particular who I attempted to worn about the carnage left from the battle. I will never forget the expression on her face as she stepped over a fell tree that concealed three American remains. I often wonder what is in her dreams.
By that afternoon the 2nd battalion started to withdraw from the battlefield along with some of the Company's of the 4th Battalion. On the 24th of November the remaining Company's from the 173rd Airborne withdrew leaving the 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry, 4th Infantry Division as the new managers of Hill 875. The 2nd and 4th Battalion's of the 503rd Infantry suffered 33 Missing in Action, 158 Killed in Action and 411 evacuated wounded, while fighting for Hill 875. During the 21 days of fighting around Dak To that November some 3000 NVA loses were estimated. During that same 21 days of fighting around the Dak TO area the 173rd Airborne Brigade suffered 272 Killed in Action, over 900 wounded and some 60 Missing in Action. Ending some of the bloodiest fighting of the Vietnam War.