The 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate) was among the first U.S. formations deployed to Vietnam, and was intended as an elite, rapid-reaction force meant to counter NVA infiltration into the Central Highlands.
The battle occurred around Đắk Tô Base Camp, part of MACV-SOG operations intended to surveillance and gather intelligence on the Ho Chi Minh Trail on supplies flowing into South Vietnam. In 1967 mortar units begun shelling the Dak To Base Camp, intending to draw US Forces to assault NVA/PAVN positions within the Central Highlands. Western Kon Tum was covered by double and triple-canopy rainforests, and the only open areas were filled in by bamboo groves whose stalks sometimes reached eight inches in diameter.
On 20 June, Company C, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment discovered the bodies of a Special Forces CIDG unit that had been missing for four days on Hill 1338 ( ), the dominant hill mass south of Dak To. With mortar fire and ambushes ongoing around the Dak To base camp, the 173rd Airborne Brigade, a highly-mobile team intended to rapidly deploy across the Central Highlands, was quickly alerted to respond.
Two companies of the 2nd Battalion were airlifted onto a steep hill near Hill 1338 on June 21. The two companies had set up camp for the night, intending to assault the top of the hill later in the day. During this time, a scout sent out on night reconnaissance was shot and killed, while one US sentry accidentally killed a GI who had momentarily stepped out of the perimeter to relieve himself.
At 06:58 the following morning, Company A began gradually moving up a ridge finger. Apatrol from Company A had stumbled upon an NVA squad, opening fire before withdrawing. Within minutes an ambush was triggered by a platoon-sized group of the 6th Battalion of the 24th PAVN Regiment and AK-47 fire came from all directions in a "grab-by-the-belt" scenario. Under attack, Company A immediately radioed for aerial and artillery support, radioing that "be advised that these people [the North Vietnamese] all got black berets on, they got AK-47s, every one of them, and they got so damn much ammunition." The thick-canopy jungle had blocked the view of aerial reconnaissance units. Gradually, the PAVN units mounted three assaults, closing in each-time on Company A's position.
Around noon, Company C was ordered to move in to reinforce Company A. However, North Vietnamese forces later redeployed and entrenched alongside both sides of Company C's position while the heavy vegetation and difficult terrain made movement extremely difficult. Artillery support was continually rendered ineffective, while US forces failed to spot enemy positions. Company C became badly mauled thereafter by NVA forces as well until night-time when PAVN shooting died down. The night of June 22, PAVN forces went around and shot wounded US forces. Company A managed to survive repeated attacks throughout the day and night, but the cost was heavy. Of the 137 men that comprised the unit, 76 had been killed and another 23 wounded. A search of the battlefield revealed just 9 or 10 PAVN dead.
Initial actions at Dak To intending to lure US forces to deploy and attack NVA positions were a hall-mark of PAVN strategy. Similar to the Plei Me campaign, initial mortaring and skirmishing actions were conducted to lure in a bigger attack or rapid reaction force, with a subsequent ambush conducted to destroy the attacking US forces. Following further deployment of larger US forces for reinforcement, PAVN/NVA forces would melt away.
Regarded as a more elite, rapid-reaction force, the 173rd Airborne Brigade had lost an entire company to a well-placed ambush by a platoon-level NVA force. Lack of overwhelming aerial support, artillery support and fire-power had rendered these two forces more or less on equal footing, with the advantage shifting to NVA entrenchment and small-unit tactics.
A search for PAVN dead, made after the battle to justify US soldiers killed, was a disappointment. The search revealed just 9 to 10 PAVN dead in shallow graves. General William Westmoreland would later inflate this number to 475 PAVN dead, declaring "too late it's already been sent out" when questioned about the authenticity of the number. The battle was reported to Saigon press agencies as a victory, due to the secondary number being used. See discussion on body count.
This engagement was part of a spike of PAVN activity to draw US forces into the Central Highlands, with another battle, the Battle of Dak To resulting a few months later. These two battles would exact a heavy toll on the 173rd Airborne Brigade, which was rendered combat-ineffective and withdrawn from Vietnam for the entirety of 1968.
The Battle of Đắk Tô, also known as the Battle of Đắk Tô - Tân Cảnh (Vietnamese: Chiến dịch Đắk Tô - Tân Cảnh) in Vietnam, was a series of major engagements of the Vietnam War that took place between 3 and 23 November 1967, in Kon Tum Province, in the Central Highlands of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). The action at Đắk Tô was one of a series of People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) offensive initiatives that began during the second half of the year. PAVN attacks at Lộc Ninh (in Bình Long Province), Song Be (in Phước Long Province), and at Con Thien and Khe Sanh, (in Quảng Trị Province), were other actions which, combined with Đắk Tô, became known as "the border battles." The post hoc purported objective of the PAVN forces was to distract American and South Vietnamese forces away from cities towards the borders in preparation for the Tet Offensive.
During the summer of 1967, heavy contact with PAVN forces in the area prompted the launching of Operation Greeley, a combined search and destroy effort by elements of the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division and 173rd Airborne Brigade, along with the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN)'s 42nd Infantry Regiment and RVN airborne units. The fighting was intense and lasted into the fall, when the PAVN seemingly withdrew.
By late October, however, U.S. intelligence indicated that local communist units had been reinforced and combined into the PAVN 1st Division, which was tasked with the capture of Đắk Tô and the destruction of a brigade-size U.S. unit. Information provided by a PAVN defector provided the allies a good indication of the locations of PAVN forces. This intelligence prompted the launching of Operation MacArthur, and brought the units back to the area along with more reinforcements from the ARVN Airborne Division. The battles that erupted on the hill masses south and southeast of Đắk Tô became some of the hardest-fought and bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War.Vietnam War body count controversy
The Vietnam War body count controversy centers on the counting of enemy dead by the US forces during the Vietnam War with issues around killing and counting unarmed civilians as enemy combatants as well as inflating the number of actual enemy KIA. For search and destroy operations, as the objective was not to hold territory or secure populations, victory was assessed by having a higher enemy body count.
Easter Offensive (1972)
Post-Paris Peace Accords (1973–1974)