Westmoreland’s Big Unit War, Part III: Dak To

The series of battles that took place in the vicinity of Dak To in November 1967 followed a familiar Communist military pattern. The Vietcong and North Vietnamese initiated the majority of the battles or were found by Allied forces only when they wanted to be found. Communist units fought in close proximity to their base areas and sources of resupply and reinforcement in Cambodia and Laos.  And the Americans frequently discovered the enemy in difficult terrain, under jungle canopy, and dug-in behind fortifications.

What’s surprising about the battles around Dak To was that U.S. commanders knew that the Communists preferred to fight there. According to a MACV report, Communist leaders viewed the Central Highlands and remote western frontier of South Vietnam as a “killing zone” – a place to inflict high casualties on Allied units. MACV admitted, “The mountainous and jungled terrain favored VC operations in that the highlands were closer to the NVA buildup areas near the DMZ and to the secure base areas in Laos and Cambodia. These factors made the highlands a much more favorable battle area for the NVA/VC than for the FW [Free World] forces.”[1]

Almost a year earlier, General William C. Westmoreland acknowledged that a primary objective of North Vietnam’s top general, Nguyen Giap, was “…enticing US/FWMA forces into prepared positions where dug-in Communist forces may inflict heavy casualties upon them.”[2]

Yet, even with his understanding of Communist intentions, Westmoreland still decided to fight at Dak To, in the center of the Communist “killing zone.” He was also willing to repeatedly send U.S. troops against entrenched, heavily-armed North Vietnamese and Vietcong regulars, knowing that doing so would lead to high U.S. casualties.

Why did Westmoreland and his deputy, Creighton Abrams, decide to engage Communist forces in the rugged terrain surrounding Dak To? Put simply, the two commanders reasoned they had no other choice, they had to fight the Communists under unfavorable environmental and tactical conditions if they were going to rack-up a high enemy body count.

Since the major U.S. troop build-up of 1965, American ground units had struggled to find, fix, and kill the Vietcong and North Vietnamese in numbers sufficient to achieve the high body counts necessitated by Westmoreland’s attrition strategy. In the intervening years, statistical analysis done by the Department of Defense concluded that less than ten percent of all U.S. ground operations, from minor foot patrols to division-sized campaigns, actually made contact with Communist forces.  If the U.S. ever hoped to drain the Communist manpower pool, and coerce Hanoi to negotiate on U.S. terms, American troops had to do a better job of finding and killing the enemy; and they also needed to do it more quickly because U.S. homefront support was collapsing by the fall of 1967. At Dak To, Westmoreland reasoned that he had a chance to inflict grievous losses on the Communists; and he wasn’t going to let that opportunity pass, irrespective of how difficult it might be for his troops to accomplish that grisly task.

The Battle of Dak To began on November 4th, when a company of the 4th Infantry Division spotted an enemy bunker system a top a high ridge line southwest of the Special Forces camp. Following a series of airstrikes, the Americans stormed uphill to take the fortifications.  The North Vietnamese, camouflaged by brush, and protected from bombs, rockets and gunfire by well-built bunkers and deep trenches, easily repulsed the initial assault.  When U.S. troops finally did take the ridge line, they realized that the North Vietnamese had long anticipated an American ground attack. Communist engineers had not only built thick-timbered bunkers – resistant to all but a direct hit from a U.S. bomb –  they had ensured that the avenues of approach to their positions were covered with overlapping machine gun fire.[3]

In subsequent days, U.S. intelligence determined that four North Vietnamese regiments were operating in the Dak To area. Based on that information, Westmoreland withdrew U.S. forces from the coastal plain, where they had been assisting the South Vietnamese Army in pacification operations, and sent them to Dak To.

In the first and second week of November, Big C-130 “Hercules” cargo planes and UH-1 “Huey” helicopters flew in thousands of soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division and 173d Airborne Brigade to the Dak To airstrip. These troopers were then sent out into the fantastically rugged, unfamiliar mountains to kill the unseen enemy.

Throughout November, American units fought pitched battles against the North Vietnamese and Vietcong atop hills 1338, 1416, and the notorious Hill 875.  In each of these engagements, U.S. commanders ordered their men to charge up steep, timbered hills against dug-in Communist troops.  Not surprisingly, the Communists exacted a terrible toll for these suicide charges.

Company A, 3rd Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, lost over half its men in an attempt to take one of the hills. Its commander, 2nd Lt. Charles Perkins remarked, “We came up here [to Dak To] last week with 142 men…We have 60 men left now.” A survivor of Company A, likely suffering from shell shock, exclaimed, “I don’t know, I don’t know…All I remember is artillery and bodies all over. Oh God, I don’t know what’s happening anymore.”[4] A week into the Battle of Dak To, and while U.S. losses daily mounted, Westmoreland told the Saigon press corps, “I believe the Communists have suffered a severe setback in their plans for operating in the Dakto area.”[5]

Not all U.S. commanders agreed with Westmoreland’s upbeat assessment of the situation. Brig. Gen. Leo Schweiter, commander of the 173d Airborne Brigade, begrudgingly admitted that his paratroopers had a hard time dislodging the dug-in North Vietnamese. He said, “They [the North Vietnamese] fight pretty well in defensive positions….”[6]  What Schweiter did not publicly admit was that his elite paratroopers were being slaughtered en masse by the North Vietnamese.

Other officers, including Lt. General William B. Rosson, thought the U.S. Army, and Westmoreland in particular, were playing right into Communist hands. Specifically, the re-deployment of U.S. units from the coastal plain to Dak To allowed the Vietcong to acquire a portion of the rice harvest then underway. Furthermore, the U.S. withdrawal made it easier for the Vietcong to reassert control over previously contested villages and hamlets.  And once the Americans departed the coastal lowlands, the Vietcong were able to move unseen toward Allied bases, provincial capitals, and coastal cities in preparation for the upcoming Tet Offensive, scheduled for late January 1968.[7]

On December 1, the Battle of Dak To came to an end.  Westmoreland claimed that Dak To represented an American victory because the U.S. had not only dislodged the Communists from their hilltop strongholds, it had killed 1,400 enemy soldiers.

Others weren’t so sure that Dak To had been an unequivocable American victory.  General Rosson disputed Westmoreland’s casualty figures, arguing that the Communists lost less than 1,000 men during the entire campaign.  That Communist death toll came at a high cost in American lives. A total of 376 Americans died or went missing on the jungle-covered hills near Dak To.  Another 1,441 U.S. troops sustained wounds.  The 173d Airborne Brigade suffered the heaviest losses.  Of the approximately 3,200 members of that unit sent to Dak To, 853 of them became casualties.  The 173d Airborne’s rifle companies at Dak To lost 51% of their men.  Three battalions of the 173d Airborne Brigade were rendered combat ineffective in the fierce fighting.[8]

The seizure of hills 1416, 1338, and 875 meant little strategically.  Yes, in taking the hilltops, the Americans blunted the North Vietnamese drive on Kontum; however, Westmoreland could have established a less costly and more effective defense of Kontum north of the town along Route 14.  Had the Communists been forced to attack Kontum across the open flatlands outside Kontum, they would have exposed themselves to the full fury of American firepower.  And as if to prove the military insignificance of the hilltops to Kontum’s defense, the U.S. abandoned them soon after the battle.

From a political perspective the Battle of Dak To represented an American defeat.  In the Vietnam War, the rural peasants of South Vietnam were the ultimate prize, they were the center of gravity.  They fueled the insurgency by providing it with recruits and supplies.  Whichever side won the loyalty of the peasant masses would win the war.  When Westmoreland pulled his units out of the coastal plain to fight at Dak To, he allowed the Vietcong to reestablish itself among the peasants in former Allied territory.  As a result, the Vietcong were strengthened where it mattered, amongst the people of South Vietnam.

Finally, the Battle of Dak To diminished American homefront support for the war.  The suicide charges up the hills around Dak To convinced untold numbers of Americans that U.S. commanders were not only callous but stupid.  Then, after U.S. troops abandoned the hilltops, still more Americans wondered what all the sacrifice in lives had actually accomplished. Dak To contributed to a growing sense that the war was futile and that the United States should withdraw as soon as possible.  The American public were not alone in their dim assessment of the battle, top officials in the Johnson administration also began to seriously question Westmoreland’s leadership, his strategy, and the likelihood that America would achieve its objectives in South Vietnam.

[1] The Pentagon Papers: The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking on Vietnam, The Senator Gravel Edition, Volume IV, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1972), 305.

[2] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume V, Vietnam, 1967, “Document 2, Telegram From the Commander, Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (Westmoreland) to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Wheeler) and the Commander in Chief, Pacific Forces (Sharp), January 2, 1967, (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2002), 7.

[3] New York Times, “3 Clashes Flare in Highlands Area,” November 5, 1967.

[4] New York Times, “Weary G.I.’s Returning to Base, Tell of Bitter Fight Near Dak To,” Bernard Weinraub, November 10, 1967.

[5] New York Times, “G.I.’s Fight New Attacks,” November 10, 1967.

[6] New York Times, “Generals Ponder Foe’s Dak To Aims,” Tom Buckley, November 20, 1967.

[7] New York Times, “Generals Ponder Foe’s Dak To Aims,” Tom Buckley, November 20, 1967.

[8] Edward F. Murphy, Dak To: America’s Sky Soldiers in South Vietnam’s Central Highlands, (New York: Ballantine Books, 2007), 324-329.

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