Vietnam War: Battle of Dak To

Battle of Dak To
173rd Airborne during the Battle of Dak To, November 1967. US Army

Battle of Dak To - Conflict & Dates:

The Battle of Dak To was a major engagement of the Vietnam War and was fought from November 3 to 22, 1967.

Armies & Commanders:

US & Republic of Vietnam

  • Major General William R. Peers
  • 16,000 men

North Vietnam & Viet Cong

  • General Hoang Minh Thao
  • Tran The Mon
  • 6,000 men

Battle of Dak To - Background:

In the summer of 1967, the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) initiated a series of attacks in western Kontum Province.

To counter these, Major General William R. Peers commenced Operation Greeley using elements of the 4th Infantry Division and the 173rd Airborne Brigade. This was designed to sweep PAVN forces from the jungle-covered mountains of the region. After a series of sharp engagements, contact with PAVN forces diminished in August leading the Americans to believe that they had withdrawn back across the border into Cambodia and Laos.

After a quiet September, US intelligence reported that PAVN forces around Pleiku were moving into Kontum in early October. This shift increased PAVN strength in the area to around division level. The PAVN plan was to utilize the the 6,000 men of the 24th, 32nd, 66th, and 174th regiments to isolate and destroy a brigade-sized American force near Dak To. Largely devised by General Nguyen Chi Thanh, the goal of this plan was to force the further deployment of American troops to the border regions which would leave South Vietnam's cities and lowlands vulnerable.

To deal with this build up of PAVN forces, Peers directed the 3rd Battalion of the 12th Infantry and the 3rd Battalion of the 8th Infantry to launch Operation MacArthur on November 3.

Battle of Dak To - Fighting Begins:

Peer's understanding of the enemy's intentions and strategy was greatly enhanced on November 3, following the defection of Sergeant Vu Hong who provided key information regarding PAVN unit locations and intentions.

Alerted to each PAVN unit's location and objective, Peers' men began engaging the enemy the same day, disrupting the North Vietnamese plans for attacking Dak To. As elements of the 4th Infantry, 173rd Airborne, and the 1st Brigade of the 1st Air Cavalry went into action they found that the North Vietnamese had prepared elaborate defensive positions on the hills and ridges around Dak To.

Over the ensuing three weeks, American forces developed a methodical approach to reducing PAVN positions. Once the enemy was located, massive amounts of firepower (both artillery and air strikes) were applied, followed by an infantry assault to secure to objective. To support this approach, Bravo Company, 4th Battalion, 173rd Airborne established Fire Support Base 15 on Hill 823 early in the campaign. In most instances, PAVN forces fought tenaciously, bloodying the Americans, before vanishing into the jungle. Key firefights in the campaign occurred on Hills 724 and 882. As these fights were taking place around Dak To, the airstrip became a target for PAVN artillery and rocket attacks.

Battle of Dak To - Final Engagements:

The worst of these took place on November 12, when rockets and shellfire destroyed several C-130 Hercules transports as well as detonated the base's ammunition and fuel depots.

This resulted in the loss of 1,100 tons of ordnance. In addition to the American forces, Army of Vietnam (ARVN) units also took part in the battle, seeing action around Hill 1416. The last major engagement of the Battle of Dak To began on November 19, when the 2nd Battalion of the 503rd Airborne attempted to take Hill 875. After meeting initial success, the 2/503 found itself caught in an elaborate ambush. Surrounded, it endured a severe friendly fire incident and was not relieved until the next day.

Resupplied and reinforced, the 503rd attacked the crest of Hill 875 on November 21. After savage, close-quarters fighting, the airborne troopers neared the top of the hill, but were forced to halt due to darkness. The following day was spent hammering the crest with artillery and air strikes, completely removing all cover.

Moving out on the 23rd, the Americans took the top of the hill after finding that the North Vietnamese had already departed. By the end of November, the PAVN forces around Dak To were so battered that they were withdrawn back across the border ending the battle.

Battle of Dak To - Aftermath:

A victory for the Americans and South Vietnamese, the Battle of Dak To cost 376 US killed, 1,441 US wounded, and 79 ARVN killed. In the course of the fighting, Allied forces fired 151,000 artillery rounds, flew 2,096 tactical air sorties, and conducted 257 B-52 Stratofortress strikes. Initial US estimates placed enemy losses above 1,600, but these were quickly questioned and PAVN casualties were later estimated to be between 1,000 and 1,445 killed.

The Battle of Dak To saw US forces drive the North Vietnamese from the Kontum Province and decimated the regiments of the 1st PAVN Division. As a result, three of the four would be unable to participate the Tet Offensive in January 1968. One of the "border battles" of late 1967, the Battle of Dak To did accomplish a key PAVN objective as US forces began to move out from cities and lowlands. By January 1968, half of all US combat units were operating away from these key areas. This led to some concern among those on General William Westmoreland's staff as they saw parallels with the events that led to French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.  These concerns would be realized with the beginning of the Battle of Khe Sanh in January 1968.

Selected Sources