Dak To: One Hell Of A Fight
There were real flash points during the war, where battle was virtually certain. Grunts remember them only too well. At some places, the Viet Cong would react like angry wasps when American troops came near. These existed throughout South Vietnam: the U Minh Forest, the Rung Sat Swamp, Cu Chi, the Iron Triangle, the Ho Bo Woods, Binh Dinh, Bong Son, the Batangan Peninsula, the A Shau Valley. Others were points the North Vietnamese or VC were more than likely to attack: the DMZ, Lang Vei, Khe Sanh, and Dak To.
Dak To was among the worst. Nestled in the Central Highlands northwest of Kontum, the Dak To Special Forces camp guarded the approaches to an important provincial capital. Established in the summer of 1962, abandoned, then recreated in August 1965, Dak To was threatened, besieged, or attacked repeatedly—notably in 1966, 1969, 1971, and 1972. The 1966 and 1972 battles were particularly fierce.
But ask GIs about Dak To and usually it’s 1967 that they remember. Not just any moment of that year—for it is possible to say that a “campaign” took place around Dak To from the spring to the fall—but one specific series of battles that November. The veterans of Dak To participated in an incredible epic of courage, privation, and frustration.
A Battle Waiting To Happen
The Kontum area lay across from the tri-border region—the intersection of Cambodia, Laos, and South Vietnam. Hanoi had established its Base Area 609 there, one of its nerve centers in the war. By 1967, the Ho Chi Minh Trail allowed easy communication with this area, which enhanced enemy capabilities. That spring the 1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division had engaged the North Vietnamese in a brief but sharp fight, which led MACV Commanding Gen. William C. Westmoreland to lay on a full-scale riposte, Operation Greeley, which began in June and lasted through October.
Greeley featured some tough engagements, especially the late-June scrape that pitted the 2nd Battalion of the 503rd Airborne Infantry against the North Vietnamese 24th Regiment. That engagement took place no more than five kilometers from Dak To. There was also an enemy attack on the nearby Tan Canh Special Forces Camp.
During these events the whole of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, the parent unit of the 2/503, and the 1st Brigade of the 1st Cavalry Division were pulled into the melee. Infantry sweeps, harassment and interdiction fire, and B-52 strikes continued throughout the summer. But Base Area 609 still loomed across the border where it could not be touched—at least by American troops on the ground. Meanwhile, a full division of first-line NVA regulars gathered there. In a way, Dak To was a battle waiting to happen.
Lt. Gen. William R. Rosson took command of MACV’s regional command for this area, I Field Force, in early August. Rosson knew of both Greeley and the companion Operation Paul Revere in Pleiku province. He had worked for a long time with Westmoreland and was an old hand in Indochina, having been part of the original U.S. military aid group in the mid-1950s. He was an excellent choice to lead the U.S. forces in South Vietnam’s Central Highlands. The senior field commander, Maj. Gen. William R. (“Ray”) Peers of the 4th Infantry Division, was an officer commissioned from the ranks with experience in jungle warfare stretching all the way back to Burma in World War II, where he had learned guerrilla tactics from the other side—as an American guerrilla fighting the Japanese. If Dak To was waiting to happen, Rosson and Peers were well equipped to deal with it.
Neither they nor Westmoreland knew about Hanoi’s decision to mount an offensive during Tet 1968. That plan, finalized in late July, called for a series of engagements along South Vietnam’s borders that were designed to draw out MACV and Saigon forces.
Hanoi also planned a battle in Kontum province, around Dak To. This was the sector of the North Vietnamese B-3 Front led by Maj. Gen. Hoang Minh Thao, a veteran of Dien Bien Phu, and political officer Col. Tran The Mon. Thao’s forces, built around the North Vietnamese 1st Division, included five infantry regiments and the 40th Artillery. Despite Operation Greeley, his bo doi, or soldiers, had had ample time to prepare the battlefield. Attacking GIs would encounter complete defensive systems layered one upon another and separated by intervals of a kilometer or two. The clear intent was to oblige the Americans to fight their way through successive defense lines. Gen. Thao set the stage carefully.