The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

‘Take That Hill’

Posted on | May 21, 2013 | 6 Comments

My 14-year-old son stayed home from school today sick, and put the TV on the Military Channel where, among other shows, we watched a documentary about the Battle of Hill 875 in Vietnam.

To call this a battle is something of a misnomer: It was a horrible blunder, a senseless slaughter caused by poor strategy and bad tactics.

Hill 875 was the concluding action of a larger campaign known generally as the Battle of Dak To, named for a village in the Central Highlands near the Cambodian border that was the forward base of operations for U.S. and South Vietnamese forces engaged in efforts to interdict North Vietnamese traffic along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

After more than two weeks of combat in November 1967, in what was known by the Americans as “Operation MacArthur,” a U.S. Special Forces patrol encountered North Vietnamese troops on Hill 875. This was a full regiment (the 174th), that had occupied the hill less than 15 miles from the border to cover the withdrawal of two other NVA regiments from the vicinity of Dak To. The 174th NVA regiment was dug into the hill in a series of camouflaged bunker positions. Brig. Gen. Leo Schweiter of the 173rd Airborne Brigade ordered the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Regiment to take the hill.

From the moment the three companies of 2/503 moved forward at 9:43 a.m. until the moment they came under fire was barely 45 minutes, and they were basically doomed from the start.

The U.S. paratroopers were outnumbered by the NVA regiment, whose concealed positions on the heavily forested hillside were part of what proved to be a deadly ambush.

As the 2/503 moved up the hill, some of the U.S. troops sensed that they were in a bad situation. They got the creepy feeling that they were being observed. A sergeant in one of the lead platoons twice radioed back to Capt. Harold Kaufman, who was in tactical command, and asked for permission to conduct “reconnaisance by fire,” i.e., to open fire into the jungle and see if the enemy would fire back, thus revealing their positions. Twice the sergeant asked, and twice permission was refused.

Capt. Kaufman evidently thought he was sneaking up on Charlie.

Yeah. Guess again, Captain.

The NVA bunkers and trenches on Hill 875 had been dug months earlier, and were heavily covered with logs and earth. These positions were all but impervious to U.S. artillery or air strikes. So once the NVA opened fire, the two American companies in the advance were pinned down, and none of their supporting fire they called in against the enemy did much to solve the problem.

Meanwhile, downhill . . .

The battalion’s reserve company (A) was guarding the rear and trying to carve out a landing zone in the jungle so that helicopters could bring supplies and reinforcements and evacuate the growing number of wounded. While Company A was doing this, they deployed a four-man team as an observation outpost, just in case. Around 2:30 p.m., when the battle uphill had already been under way for about three hours, this outpost opened fire on advancing NVA troops — an entire company of them making a flank attack.

Needless to say, a four-man team could do little to stop a company of NVA regulars, but one of these four paratroopers — PFC Carlos Lozado — earned the Medal of Honor (posthumously) for his efforts to hold back the enemy onslaught with an M-60 machine gun.

This NVA flank attack quickly rendered Company A’s position untenable. The unfinished landing zone was abandoned and Company A, to avoid being cut off, moved uphill to make contact with the two advance companies, which were themselves nearly surrounded. Re-supplying the troops by helicopter drops was nearly impossible. The situation was very bad, and it was about to get much worse.

About 7 p.m., as the paratroopers were desperately fighting to maintain their position, they called in another air strike — and the pilot inadvertently dropped two bombs inside the battalion’s perimeter, killing 42 U.S. troops and wounding another 45 in what is believed to have been the worst friendly-fire incident of the entire Vietnam War.

Among those killed in that incident was Capt. Kaufman, who had twice refused the sergeant’s request for a “reconnaissance by fire,” perhaps the only chance to avoid the ambush that devastated his battalion. It took another two days, reinforcement by another battalion and repeated bombardments before the 173rd Brigade finally captured Hill 875.

The Second Battalion suffered 87 killed and 130 wounded in the three-day battle. The 4th Battalion, which came to their relief, lost 28 men killed and 123 wounded.

And having shed so much blood to capture Hill 875, of course, the Army immediately abandoned it.

There was no tactical advantage gained. The NVA, which had been retreating toward Cambodia, completed their retreat, minus whatever casualties they suffered — which became a matter of some dispute in the “body count” politics that defined Vietnam. The U.S. commander, Gen. William Westmoreland, called the three-week Battle of Dak To a victory, a claim that caused a Marine general to ask, “Is it a victory when you lose 362 friendlies in three weeks and by your own spurious body count you only get 1,200 [enemy killed]?”

Strategically, the Dak To campaign was also worthless. The North Vietnamese commander had successfully maneuvered U.S. forces away from the target he intended to attack next. About two months after the Battle of Hill 875, the NVA launched their assault on Khe Sanh, the opening move of the Tet Offensive.



6 Responses to “‘Take That Hill’”

  1. K-Bob
    May 21st, 2013 @ 8:31 pm

    I’ve never worn the uniform, but I’ve always thought it was wrong to make officers straight from college boys.

    No disrespect to fans of General Lee, but it seems to me the only officers worthy of the title would be ones who served as a grunt in a battalion under the tender mercies of a Sergeant.

    I’ll shut up and leave it to the vets to discuss, though.

  2. robertstacymccain
    May 21st, 2013 @ 11:45 pm

    Funny you mention General Lee. This battle reminded me very much of Second Manassas, where the Yankee General Pope — suffering under the delusion that he was in pursuit of a retreating Jackson — stumbled into a battle on ground chosen by Jackson. Pope ordered the second day’s attack without realizing that Longstreet’s corps had arrived on the field to Jackson’s right. Once Pope was fully engaged with Jackson, Longstreet unleashed an attack that rolled up Pope’s left and damned near wiped out two entire corps of the Union army. About nine months later, at Chancellorsville, of course, Joe Hooker committed a similar error, let himself get pinned down in the forest, and had his right flank crushed by Jackson.

    In both of those cases, the Union commanders went into battle with a faulty understanding of the Confederate numbers, position and intention — which is very much like what happened at Hill 875.

    The strength of the NVA force was unknown, and General Schweiter seemed to have the idea that, whatever the enemy numbers, they weren’t strong enough to stand up to a battalion. Neither did anyone in the 173rd, from Schweiter on down, have any knowledge of how heavily fortified the NVA trenches were on Hill 875. So they got into a firefight on the hill, against an enemy whose camouflaged positions the troops couldn’t even see, and against which air strikes and artillery were ineffective. And then the Americans got flanked by a reserve force of NVA troops whose existence they had not even imagined, and whose avenue of approach — by trails on the side of the hill — had not been previously reconnoitered.

    A horrible blunder, as I say, the primary cause of which was an impetuous and arrogant attitude at headquarters. Dak To was basically the patrol tactic of “search and destroy” except that instead of being done with squads or platoons, it was conducted with entire brigades: Figure out where Charlie’s at, send some troops to flush him out, and then call in the planes and artillery to smash him. But from start to finish of the Dak To campaign, the NVA suffered no more than 1,500 combat deaths, rather insignificant losses in view of the American advantages. Most importantly, there were few NVA taken prisoner. The U.S. troops never got an NVA unit pinned down and forced them to surrender en masse. Always during the battle of Dak To, whatever their casualties in terms of killed and wounded, NVA commanders were able to withdraw their surviving troops and live to fight another day.

  3. Adjoran
    May 22nd, 2013 @ 12:10 am

    Military history is by and large the story of blunders and miscalculations. For every major battle decided by brilliant strategy or tactics, a dozen were decided by unforced errors.

  4. K-Bob
    May 22nd, 2013 @ 3:25 am

    Seems like every major engagement features a screwup by one side. When both commanders are really smart, it’s like chess; where, in the early game, lots of moves happen with few pieces taken. Only the guy who screws up takes his men into a hell prepared just for him.

  5. viswa chandra
    May 22nd, 2013 @ 4:46 am

    Needless to say, a four-man team could do little to stop a company of
    NVA regulars, but one of these four paratroopers — PFC Carlos Lozado —
    earned the Medal of Honor (posthumously) for his efforts to hold back
    the enemy onslaught with an M-60 machine gun.

  6. Quartermaster
    May 22nd, 2013 @ 10:18 am

    The NVA knew they could not match us man for man, so , like the Confederates, they used maneuver and superior knowledge of their battlefields to be able to pull out without getting pinned down.

    The US has often pulled stupid stuff because of their arrogance or negligence. Vietnam was full of it, alas.