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RVN:CAAR - Battles of Dak To, Hill 875 Assault

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APO San Francisco 96250

6 December 1967

Subject: Combat After Action Report - Battles of Dak To, Hill 875 Assault

Task Organization: Companies A, C, and D, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry, 173rd Airborne Brigade

Date of Operations: 19 November - 23 November 1967.

Location: YB796134, Map Series L7014, Sheet 6538 III, DAK TO District, KONTUM Province

Reporting Officer: Brigadier General Leo H. Schweiter.

Task Organization:
A/2/503d Infantry
1 Scout Dog Team, Medical Team, Artillery Forward Observer Team, 4.2 Mortar Forward Observer, Engineer Team

C/2/503d Infantry
1 Scout Dog Team, Medical Team, Artillery Forward Observer Team, 4.2 Mortar Forward Observer, Engineer Team

D/2/503d Infantry
1 Scout Dog Team, Medical Team, Artillery Forward Observer Team,4.2 Mortar Forward Observer, Engineer Team

OPCON Elements:
Engineer Platoon, 173d Engineer Company, 19 November - 20-1300 November.

MIKE Special Forces Company #26, 19 November - 20-1300 November.

MIKE Special Forces Company #23, 21-1500 November - 23-2400 November.

Companies A and D/1/12th Infantry, (4th Inf Div), 21-1500 November - 22-1000 November.

Supporting Forces:

3/319th Artillery (DS) 173d Abn Bde, 105mm Howitzers(6),Towed
C/6/l4th Artillery (GS) 8" 175mm Howitzer
A/5/16th Artillery (GS) 155mm How (SP)
B/5/16th Artillery (GS) 155mm How (SP)
D/5/16th Artillery (GS) 155mm/175mm Howitzer
A/3/l8th Artillery (GS) 8"/175mm Howitzer
B/2/19th Artillery (GS) 105mm Howitzer,Towed
C/2/19th Artillery (GS) 105mm Howitzer,Towed
A/4/42nd Artillery (GS) 105mm Howitzer,Towed
B/1/92nd Artillery (GS) 155mm Howitzer,Towed

Air Support:

Transportation: The Brigade Aviation Officer handled all of the 2/503d Infantry's requirements for troop and cargo transportation with the exception of DUSTOFF's. The resupply pilots and crews were particularly valorous in their support during the battle on Hill 875.

Dust Off's: All DUSTOFF's were handled through the Administration/Intelligence (S2) Net and performance was outstanding.

Air Strikes/FAC's: Supporting Air Strikes including Sky Spots and ARC Lights were coordinated through Brigade S3 Air.

Special Purpose Flights (Intelligence): The 2/503d Infantry received prompt and adequate support for SNOOPY, RED HAZE, VR and SLAR missions through the Brigade S2 Air.

Armor: B/1/69th Armor gave excellent cooperation and support throughout the contact.

Chemical: The 2/503d Infantry had three defoliation missions flown during November on which they received excellent cooperation and prompt action by the Brigade Chemical Officer.

Engineer: The 173d Engineer Company provided excellent support especially in clearing operations. They were indispensable in clearing thick bamboo clumps and in removing large trees.

Intelligence: The Intelligence Annex to OPORD 25-67 Operation MACARTHUR. Headquarters. 173d Airborne Brigade (Separate) dated 0900 05 November 1967 gave the most current enemy locations available for use by friendly forces prior to conduct of Operation MACARTHUR. These enemy locations were general in nature and there were no confirmed enemy locations within the Battalion area of operation at the beginning of the operation.

Mission: The 2/503d Infantry had been alerted to assault Hill 875 after the 26th MIKE Special Forces Company (OPCON to the 2/503d Infantry) had made contact with a large NVA force on its slopes the previous day of 18 November 1967.

Concept of Operation: The attack was to be made with 2 Companies abreast, D Company on the left and C Company on the right, with the trail running up the mountain acting as the boundary between the attacking Companies. The Companies were to attack with two Platoons forward and one Platoon in reserve. A Company, was to be held in reserve and was to ensure security of the rear flank of the other two Companies and secure the area at the bottom of the hill.

Execution: At 0730 hrs 19 November, the ambush elements from A, C and D Companies closed their unit's night laager site vicinity YB 798138. CPT Harold J. Kaufman, Senior Company Commanding Officer issued the battle order while Artillery and Air preparation was being fired on Hill 875. The 26th MIKE Special Forces Company reached its blocking position at YB 797127 at 0822 hrs. At 0943 hrs the Air Strikes were complete and the three Companies began moving.

The assault was made with two Companies abreast D Company on the left and C Company on the right, with the trail running up the mountain acting as a boundary between the attacking companies. The Companies were to assault with two Platoons forward and one Platoon held in reserve. D Company had its 3rd Platoon on the left, 2nd Platoon on the right, CP behind the 2nd Platoon and the 1st and Weapons Platoon following in reserve. C Company had its 3rd Platoon on the left 2nd Platoon on the right, CP behind the 3rd Platoon and the 1st Platoon following in reserve. A Company was to be in reserve and to secure the rear.

The weather was clear and warm and the ridge slope gradual, approximately 100 meters wide, dropping off sharply to the east and more gradually to the west. The vegetation was fairly thick with bamboo, scrub brush and tall trees growing up the hill.

C and D Companies started out in two columns each. As they reached the base of the hill they deployed into two Platoons abreast with two Squad files in each Platoon. They advanced slowly through the tangled and gnarled vegetation which had been mashed down by the bomb strikes. In the centermost file of the two Companies was the 2nd Squad, 2nd Platoon of D Company, SP4 Kenneth Jacobson was the point man. SP4 Charlie Hinton about 5 meters behind him and SGT Frederick Shipman, the Squad leader, behind Hinton. As they approached the military crest of the hill, Jacobson received 3 small arms rounds and was killed instantly. The time was 1030 hrs. SP4 Hinton and SGT Shipman moved up closer to Jacobson and called for a Medic. As the Medic, SP4 Farley, came up he was hit by small arms fire and died a few minutes later. SP4 Hinton and SGT Shipman still did not know where the fire was coming from. It wasn't until the NVA started throwing grenades that SGT Shipman and his men could identify where the initial fire had come from. After the initial bursts of fire, rucksacks were dropped and the Platoons began closing up and deploying on line. As they approached SGT Shipman's squad, which had been slightly forward, enemy fire increased rapidly with recoilless rifle, automatic weapons fire and rifle grenades coming from the NVA positions. Over on the right flank as C Company's 2nd Platoon closed up and moved forward, one of their point men, SP4 Quinn, was hit by small arms fire. As the Medic, SP4 Haggerty moved up to assist he was killed by small arms fire. As the enemy fire lulled, they moved forward 5-6 meters on line, then the enemy fire exploded again. After returning fire and pausing for indirect fires to be brought in, the 2nd Platoon moved forward approximately 20-30 meters using fire and movement. During the next two hours they took most their casualties from frag wounds, the exploding recoilless rifle rounds and hand grenades. Meanwhile, the 3rd Platoon of C Company, which was near the trail dropped their rucksacks and moved forward alongside of D Company, receiving mostly sniper fire along the way. As they reached D Company's location, they too came under heavy recoilless rifle and B-40 rocket fire. At this time, C and D Companies marked their positions with smoke as FAC's adusted in Artillery and Air Strikes. The Paratroopers returned fire on enemy positions, after approximately 30 mins the Companies began moving again utilizing fire and movement.

Just five meters in front of SGT Shipman's position was a bunker from which the contact had originated. 1SGT Deebs, SSG Page and others from D Company took the first bunkers throwing 4-5 hand grenades through the port. SSG Johnson's, 1st Squad 2nd Platoon of D Company came across a dead NVA in a V-trench to the left of the bunkers. The 2nd Platoon advanced past the bunker and the trench, only to have an NVA throw several grenades at them from the bunker they had just blown, the bunker apparently had a tunnel leading to it from higher on the hill. The 2nd Platoon reported killing several NVA in the position and still they continued to receive resistance from the bunker. The Platoons advanced slowly for 15-20 meters not knowing exactly where to fire since the enemy had its positions well concealed in the thick broken bamboo and brush. Heavy recoilless rifle fire, grenades and small arms fire brought the assault to a stand-still in some places. Over on the left side, D Company reported advancing to within l5-20 meters of what appeared to be the main bunker system. Over on the right-hand side they were only able to close to within 15-20 meters. During this assault, LT Smith 3rd Platoon Leader of C Company was cut down by automatic weapons fire and later died. Also a couple of artillery rounds fell short on D Company on the left, injuring PSG E6 James Beam, SP4 Frank Carmody and one or two others. It was about this time that A Company got hit from the rear.

Captain Kaufman seeing that the assault was bogging down and realizing that the rear was being attacked, ordered his men back and formed a perimeter. They did so over about 30 meters of the ground they had just covered, drawing their wounded with them. SP4 Witold Leszuzynski was WIA as he covered LT Peter Lantz who brought LT Smith back into the perimeter before he died. Over on the left hand side, 3rd Platoon of D Company also got the word to withdraw and did so. The 2nd Platoon however didn't get the word and continued fighting, before long they realized that there was no one on their flanks. D Company's 3rd Platoon had pulled back approximately 30 meters when they received word that the 2nd Platoon was pinned down. They moved back up the hill to help with the 1st Platoon covering. D Company began a rapid and broken withdrawal, but many of the men were not quite sure of the situation. Captain Kaufman, C Company Commander, drew and fired his pistol in the air several times to regain control. Captain Kaufman only had his men pull back into the perimeter rather than withdraw, as he didn't want to lose the high ground that they had gained. The front edge of the perimeter was only 20 meters from the NVA bunker and trench where the battle started. The men began to dig in with knives, steel pots or anything else they could work with.

A Company had left the laager site that morning (right on the heels of C and D Companies) in the march order of 2nd, 3rd, CP, Weapons and 1st Platoon. They moved approximately 500 meters in 45 minutes. As they moved up the hill the 2nd Platoon broke off to the right keeping in sight of C Company and the 3rd Platoon went off to the left keeping D Company in sight. The CP, Weapons and the lst Platoon remained in the middle. When the contact with C and D Companies occurred, A Company halted. As the action developed, Captain Kiley ordered the Weapons Platoon to start constructing an LZ, at a point approximately 100 meters from where C and D Companies were engaged. The 1st Platoon secured the LZ from the rear by putting OP's out 30-50 meters to the flanks and rear and by positioning the remainder of the men on line 15 meters back. The 2nd and 3rd Platoons secured the flanks. As C and D Companies slowly advanced, the two A Company Platoons moved with them as best they could. The LZ construction was going slowly, an LZ kit was requested at 1300 hrs and dropped in at 1400 hrs. Shortly afterwards, the LZ received several mortar rounds.

The rear OP was located 30-40 meters back along the trail that the Companies had moved down earlier. It was manned by SP4 James Kelley the Team Leader who was armed with an M-16, SP4 John Steer, a rifleman, PFC Carlos Lazada a machine-gunner and PFC Anthony Romano the assistant machine-gunner. A little after l400 hrs SP4 Kelley was sitting on the right side of the trail behind a tree with PFC Romano, SP4 Steer and PFC Lazada, smoking and waiting. Romano mentioned not to fire at the first enemy that approached but to let them get close. SP4 Kelley, began to hear twigs breaking in front of him so he leaned around the tree and aimed uphill. Suddenly as firing broke out on the left (possibly mortar fire), PFC Lazada yelled "Here they come Kelley" and began to fire in long sweeping bursts down the hill into a group of about 15 advancing NVA. Lazada'a initial bursts into the advancing NVA caught them by complete surprise and at such a close range that the M-60 machine gun tore the column to pieces. The NVA were caught by complete surprise and were unaware of the presence of the rear Observation Point. Diagram #1

As soon as the firing broke out members of the 1st Platoon, SGT Jeffery Hilleshiem, PFC James Howard (RTO), PFC James Spellers and SP4 Eugene Bookman, dashed forward to aid the OP's who were rapidly being pinned down by the advancing NVA. SGT Hilleshiem was hit while running forward and PFC Romano, assistant machine gunner ran to help him, bringing him back to the LZ. PFC Lazada knelt behind a log and continued firing long sweeping bursts into the advancing NVA while SP4 Kelley and SP4 Steer fired their M-16's from the right side of the trail.
The sudden heavy fire from the rear had momentarily slowed the NVA attack and alerted the rest of the Company. SP4 Kelley called for Lazada to fall back. Lazada responded by running across the trail firing and getting behind a log on the right side of the trail and continuing to fire into the onrushing NVA with steady streams of fire. Kelley continued to yell as he fell back and just after he shot a well camouflaged NVA at 10 meters, his weapon jammed, (Note, The NVA's face was blackened and his weapon was wrapped in burlap) While Kelley worked on his weapon, Lazada jumped into the trail and began firing from the hip at the charging NVA as he walked slowly backwards up the trail.

SP4 Steer, started dropping back, Kelley fixed his weapon and started firing again. Lazada's machine gun jammed (or he ran out of ammunition), as he ran to catch up, the NVA fire hit him in the head knocking him onto Steer. Steer became confused, so Kelley ran back down the hill and got Steer on the trail moving back up hill. In the meantime the others who came to help the OP's, Bookman and Howard were wounded and Speller killed by the heavy NVA fire. McGill and Coleski assisted the wounded men and they all moved rapidly up the hill using fire and movement with other men in the Platoon. Kelley dropped M-26 frag grenades behind him as he moved up the trail.

Back on the LZ after the first mortar rounds hit, the Weapons Platoon ran for their gear and formed a perimeter. As the action and mortar fire increased, SP4 Jack Shoop and PFC Martin Bergman ran back onto the LZ and attempted to initiate counter mortar fire. While in the process, Shoop was hit and killed by small arms fire.

Captain Kiley instructed his 2nd and 3rd Platoons who had been carrying wounded down to the LZ to move down and reinforce the 1st Platoon. This was his last transmission. There were approximately 8-10 WIA's on the LZ when the rear attack broke out. LT Thomas Remington immediately started moving his 2nd Platoon back down from the right hand side of the ridge, they never made it.

The NVA were approaching on a large well traveled trail that was very well constructed, including steps cut into the side of the hill. They smashed into the west flank of the 2nd Platoon near the front, cutting them off from the rest of their Company around the LZ. SGT Aron Hervas was leading the 2nd Platoon when the NVA opened up with a heavy volumne of fire, he spun firing, hitting several NVA before he was felled with a bullet through the head, SP4 Frank Stokes and PVT Ernesto Villereal were killed in action. SP4 Benzene and PFC Sexton were pinned down, SP4 Orendorf and some others moved down and got Sexton out, however SP4 Benzene after killing 5-10 NVA from behind a tree was himself killed. LT Remington was hit in both arms and both legs, PSG Smith (SSG E6) and several others were wounded in the fire fight. The 2nd Platoon consolidated as best they could and pulled back up the hill to C and D Companies perimeter. The 3rd Platoon was on the eastern edge of the ridge met lesser resistance and was able to link up with the LZ. They did receive effective fire from the west and sustained several casualties, as the NVA had smashed through to the main trail.

The NVA were evidently well prepared for the battle. The rear attack, attack from the left flank and mortar attack all came within minutes of each other. Both of the attacking forces were estimated to be company size. Several of the NVA were well camouflaged. It was noticed that several of the NVA had strange grins on their faces. One trooper reported seeing an NVA charge into a tree, bounce off and continue his charge. When the hill was finally taken, it was noticed that many of the enemy casualties and equipment had been policed from the battlefield indicating that the enemy had avenues of withdrawal that could have been utilized at any time.

A Company's CP group was hit by one of the initial mortar rounds, wounding Captain Kiley, LT Busenlehner, SGT Lyons, SGT Stacey and others. The CP group was then caught in the midst of an NVA attack from the west. A C Company Medic who had been one of the wounded at the LZ, said that the NVA came "swarming" up the side of the ridge. The CP group killed several of the NVA force before succumbing. There were six (6) in the CP group, Captain Kiley, SP5 Taylor (Senior Medic who had been treating Captain Kiley and the others), SP4 Young (RTO) and three others, all died fighting. One of the group was shot in the legs and the C Company Medic could not carry him and had to abandon him to scramble back up to the perimeter. LT Busenlehner, SGT Stacey and SGT Lyons had moved down to the Weapons Platoon near the LZ and instructed them to withdraw since the CP had been knocked out. The Weapons Platoon took their one good radio and as many of the wounded as they could carry and moved back up towards the C and D Company perimeter.

In 10-15 mins, the NVA pushed A Company up the hill towards C and D Companies perimeter, PSG Siggers posted men on the trail to hold it open for the withdrawing Paratroopers. As fast as the "Sky Soldiers" fired, the faster the NVA kept coming. Survivors of A Company described themselves as being literally swamped by a hoard of charging NVA soldiers. At 1500 hrs C Company reported to Battalion Headquarters that an estimated 200-300 NVA were all around them. The entire perimeter had come under mortar attack and now recoiless rifle, small arms and B-4O rocket fire pounded the perimeter as the NVA had followed A Company right up to the perimeter.

Where the perimeter was established the slope was rather gradual, pitching off to either side. C Company had from 12 to 5 o'clock on the perimeter, D Company from 7 to 10 o'clock and A Company mingled from 4 to 10 o'clock. The Company CP's were located together where the wounded were consolidated. The Paratroopers beat off the NVA attack, but continued to receive sporadic but effective sniper and mortar fire. At 1550 hrs C Company reported receiving B-40 rocket fire. At 1640 hrs an LOC ship dropped in an ammunition resupply but it landed approximately 15 meters outside the perimeter on the forward slope between the NVA and the US positions. LT Lantz and LT McDonough organized recovery teams and moved out to recover it, the operation was going fairly smoothly when a sniper hit LT Lantz, killing him instantly. The recovery party withdrew immediately. The 335th Assault Helicopter Company continued to attempt to resupply the Companies, however heavy hostile fire drove them away. A total of six(6) ships were grounded from automatic weapons and small arms fire. At 1750 hrs two pallets were successfully dropped in.

Throughout this period a heavy barrage of TAC Air and Artillery was adjusted in on the enemy. Sky Raiders, F-100's and Helicopter Gunships delivered their payloads, making their passes on a SW to NW tangent on the perimeter. At 1858 hrs just after dark a jet fighter approached Hill 875 from a NE to SW direction passed directly over the heads of the Sky Soldiers. One or two of its bombs fell short landing directly in the middle of the C Company CP where the leaders and wounded had been congregated. There were at least 42 killed and 45 wounded (either by the bomb or after having been wounded prior). LT Bart O'Leary, D Company Commanding Officer, though suffering from serious wounds stayed on the Battalion net throughout the night maintaining communications. At first there was mass confusion and some panic. Most of the leaders had been either hit or killed including the Chaplain, Father Watters, the entire C Company CP group, and leaders from each of the Platoons. Diagram #2

The Paratroopers quickly recovered however, with leaders emerging from the ranks. The wounded were gotten off their feet and quieted down. PSG Peter Krawtzow took charge of C Company and reorganized their sector of the perimeter. LT McDonough from D Company and LT Sheridan from A Company had only minor wounds and were instrumental in re-establishing control. A Company's artillery RTO was the only one with contact to the Battalion Fire Direction Net. He adjusted the first Artillery defensive concentration walloping it in towards the perimeter. As he was adjusting his second defensive concentration in front of a different sector of the perimeter, he gave an adjustment that would have brought the round too close to the perimeter. During this period, PSG Krawtzow had gotten ahold of a radio and began turning the frequencies to get any friendly station. He happened to land on the Battalion Fire Direction Net and monitored the errant adjustment. At this point he intervened and he and SSG Moultrie called in and adjusted the defensive concentrations for the rest of the night. Shortly after the bomb hit, at 1930 hrs, one round of Artillery hit in D Company's sector of the perimeter, killing one and injuring 3-4 others, two PRC-25 radios were also knocked out.

The NVA continued to probe during the night, SGT Williams from C Company and others in his foxhole heard movement to their front so they threw a couple of frag grenades. They heard hollering and then the NVA started yelling "Chieu Hoi". The "Sky Soldiers" responded by throwing a couple more grenades. They didn't fire their weapons for fear of revealing their positions. The next morning they found numerous NVA bodies to the front of their position (note, they estimated 25-50 although some felt that this was the result of the second bomb which landed just outside of the perimeter). One of the bodies was within 10 meters of their position with a sack of grenades beside him. The three Companies laagered for the night at YB 797136, three-quarters of the way up Hill 875.

On the early morning of 20 Nov at 0540 hrs, C Company heard movement, then shortly afterwards received several rifle grenades. Fifteen minutes later D Company heard heavy movement higher up on the hill and called in Artillery fire. The first priority for the Companies was to establish and secure an LZ to evacuate the wounded. At 0818 hrs a LOC ship was hit trying to kick off an LZ kit and one man was injured. Bomb strikes were conducted on the hill while the men of the Companies attempted to hack out an LZ.

The Battalion TAC CP organized a command group consisting of the Battalion XO, Major William Kelley and the XO's of A and C Companies whose mission was to go in and reorganize their elements, expedite the evacuation of the wounded and if possible exploit the tactical situation. Their attempts to get in were frustrated by hostile ground fire in spite of heavy TAC Air, Artillery, Gunship and Infantry ground fire. At approximately 1400 hrs, D Company sent a clearing patrol up Hill 875 in an attempt to locate some of the tree snipers who were driving the helicopters away. The first 4 men in the patrol had barely left the perimeter when a captured M-60 machine gun cut them down killing one and wounding three. The fire came from the vicinity of the bunker which had caused so much trouble before. At 1800 hrs a DUSTOFF helicopter finally made it in bringing Major Kelley and the Command Group and out extracting five (5) of the critically wounded, it was the only ship able to make it in before dark.

Leaving FSB 16 at 0730 hrs 20 Nov, the 4th Battalion reinforcements marched overland, B/4/503d Infantry closing on the 2nd Battalion Companies at 1700 hrs. A/4/503d Infantry closed at 2000 hrs and C/4/503d Infantry at 2045 hrs. B/4/503d Infantry reported two incoming B-4O rockets and at 2045 hrs 7-8 60mm mortar rounds landed within the perimeter injuring at least one.

On 20 Nov, 2/503d Infantry started its extraction from AO HAWK, their area of operations, by extracting their Battalion Headquarters and the 4.2 Mortar Platoon minus the the CP group.
On 21 Nov, together with the 4/503d Infantry, the 2/503d Inf Paratroopers constructed a new LZ and extracted the wounded. The critical water and food resupply was completed. LAWs and Flame throwers were brought in to assist on the assault of the hill. The two Battalions were hit by three mortar attacks, 0655, 0845 and 1420 hrs, both Battalions took several casualties.

On 22 Nov, Companies A, C and D, 2/503d Inf, besides securing the perimeter, undertook the task of identifying and extracting the KIA's, they also consolidated and extracted their extra weapons and equipment. They received only one mortar attack but it resulted in the wounding and subsequent extraction of the Battalion Surgeon.

At 1100 hrs 23 Nov, the 4/503d Infantry assaulted and took Hill 875, completing the assault in less than one hour after meeting a minimum of resistance. Elements of the 1/12th Infantry (4th Infantry Division) arrived from the south slope 30 mins later. Just after the start of the assault, all elements on Hill 875 including the 2/503d Infantry received a mortar attack. The 2/503d Inf's casualties were; A Company 4 WIA, D Company 1 KIA and 1 WIA.

Between 1630 and 1730 hrs, the three 2nd Battalion Companies were helicoptered to FSB 12, completing a costly but victorious five days of fighting. The 2/503d Infantry's total approximate casualties minus attachments for the period 19-23 Nov 1967 were: A' 28 KIA, 45 WIA; C' 32 KIA, 43 WIA, 3 MIA; D' 19 KIA 33 WIA; HHC' 7 KIA, 9 WIA. Later estimates and sweeps of the battlefield credited the 2/503d Infantry with 255 NVA KIA (BC).
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