The caption under this photo reads, "Ninety eight pairs of empty combat boots bear silent witness to the 173rd Airborne's casualties from the Battle for Hill 875"
Seeing the photo and reading the caption was an absolute kick in the gut. It was not the way I wanted to start my morning. As I sat on my deck drinking my coffee I knew I wanted to post the photo as a very small way to honor those ninety eight Fallen Heroes and as a way to respect their fellow brothers in arms who survived.
In 1967 when the Battle for Hill 875 (also know as the Battle of Dak To) occurred I was nine years old. I remember seeing news about the war in Vietnam, each night as my parents watched, but at that time I had no clue what was really going on. I remember that my second grade class wrote letters and drew pictures to send to the Soldiers in Vietnam. I remember that our mothers saved coffee cans that we filled with one roll of toilet paper, pens and pencils in the middle of the roll then filled the can with hard candies. I remember our mothers baking angel food cakes and packing them with popcorn to keep them as "fresh" as possible until they got to Vietnam. Even though I distinctly remember doing all of that the reality of the war never struck home with me at that age.
By the time I was old enough to understand war we had entered the Cold War era with the Soviet bloc and the realities of war were distant if not completely unknown to me. I do remember my mother talking about a high school classmate of hers who was taken as a prisoner of war (for 7 years) in Vietnam and I vaguely remember the day he and the other prisoners were freed. While those events, at the time, carried very little emotion for me, today they wear heavy on my heart.
Fast forward almost forty years through a winding series of events related to troop support (1st Gulf War, Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom) until the good Lord dropped a Battalion of paratroopers and their families into my life and changed me forever. That Battalion of paratroopers is the 173rd, 2-503d. The modern day brothers in arms of the men who fought and the men who perished in 1967 at the Battle for Hill 875 (Dak To).
It is through these modern day Soldiers that I have had the honor and privilege of meeting some of their Vietnam War brothers in arms and their wives - another absolute blessing in my life. Yet, as I got to know more of the Vietnam Veterans, it became shamefully clear to me that I knew little about their war and their sacrifice.
Today I ask (almost to the point of begging) that you take a few minutes and continue reading below about the Battle of Hill 875 (Dak To) and that you say a prayer for those who gave their last full measure on that day. I also ask that you say a prayer for those who survived and who may be carrying much grief with them. It is the least we can do.
At 09:43 on 19 November, the three companies (330 men) of 2/503 moved into jumpoff positions from which to assault Hill 875. Charlie and Delta companies moved up the slope followed by two platoons of Alpha Company in the classic "two up one back" formation utilized since World War I. The Weapons Platoon of Alpha remained behind at the bottom of the hill to cut out a landing zone. Instead of a frontal assault with massed troops, the unit would have been better served by advancing small teams to develop possible North Vietnamese positions and then calling in air and artillery support
At 10:30, as the Americans moved to within 300 meters of the crest, PAVN machine gunners opened fire on the advancing paratroopers. Then B-40 rockets and 57mm recoilless rifle fire were unleashed upon them. The paratroopers attempted to continue the advance, but the North Vietnamese, well concealed in interconnected bunkers and trenches, opened fire with small arms and grenades. The American advance was halted and the men went to ground, finding whatever cover they could. At 14:30 PAVN troops hidden at the bottom of the hill launched a massed assault on Alpha Company. Unknown to the Americans, they had walked into a carefully prepared ambush by the 2nd Battalion of the 174th PAVN Regiment.
The men of Alpha Company retreated up the slope, lest they be cut off from their comrades and annihilated. They were closely followed by the North Vietnamese. All that prevented the company-strength North Vietnamese onslaught from overrunning the entire battalion was the heroic efforts of American paratroopers who stood their ground and died to buy time for their comrades. Soon, U.S. air strikes and artillery fire were being called in, but they had little effect on the battle because of the dense foliage on the hillside. Resupply became a necessity because of high ammunition expenditures and lack of water, but it was also an impossibility. Six UH-1 helicopters were shot down or badly damaged that afternoon trying to get to 2/503.
At 18:58 one of the worst friendly fire incidents of the Vietnam War occurred when a Marine Corps fighter-bomber dropped two 500-pound bombs into 2/503's perimeter. One of the bombs exploded, a tree burst above the center of the position, where the combined command groups, the wounded, and the medics were all located. It killed 42 men outright and wounded 45 more, including the overall on-scene commander, Captain Harold Kaufman. 1Lt. Bartholomew O'Leary, Delta Company Commander, was seriously wounded. (Alpha company's commander had been killed in the retreat up the slope).
The next morning, the three companies of 4/503 were chosen to set out and relieve the men on Hill 875. Because of intense PAVN sniper and mortar fire (and the terrain) it took until nightfall for the relief force to reach the beleaguered battalion. On the afternoon of 21 November, both battalions moved out to take the crest. During fierce, close-quarters fighting, some of the paratroopers made it into the PAVN trenchline but were ordered to pull back as darkness fell. At approximately 23:00, the 4th Division's 1/12th Infantry was ordered to withdraw from an offensive operations in the southern Central Highlands and redeploy to Đắk Tô. In an almost flawless night-time air redeployment, the entire battalion redeployed and took up positions around the main fire support base at Đắk Tô in less than 12 hours.
The following day was spent in launching airstrikes and a heavy artillery bombardment against the hilltop, totally denuding it of cover. On 23 November, the 2nd and 4th Battalions of the 503rd were ordered to renew their assault while the 1st Battalion of the 12th Infantry assaulted 875 from the south. This time the Americans gained the crest, but the North Vietnamese had already abandoned their positions, leaving only a few dozen charred bodies and weapons.
The battle of Hill 875 had cost 2/503 87 killed, 130 wounded, and three missing. 4/503 suffered 28 killed 123 wounded, and four missing. Combined with noncombatant losses, this represented one-fifth of the 173rd Airborne Brigade's total strength. For its combined actions during operations around Đắk Tô, the 173rd Airborne Brigade was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation.