This article was also published in Vietnam Magazine
This piece is a great introduction to the story of the 1969 Siege at Dak To and well worth a read. It gives some context to my film and widens the lens a bit.
Siege of Dak To: May thru July, 1969
By Ed Murphy
The buzz of the incoming rockets caught the men of the 299th Engineer Battalion (Combat) in their noon chow lines. One second they were standing around joking with one another, the next they were frantically scrambling for cover as panicked voices yelled “INCOMING! INCOMING!”
For nearly thirty minutes the engineers huddled in bunkers as twelve 122mm rockets and eighteen 81mm mortar rounds ripped into their camp at Dak To. Then, as suddenly as it began, the barrage ended.
Amazingly, no one was hurt by the blasts. The engineers pulled themselves from cover, dusted off their fatigues and looked around. What the hell was that all about? they wondered. They had no idea that their little corner of the war was about to heat up.
Dak To sits in the middle of one of the most hotly contested regions of South Vietnam. Deep in the rugged, jungle-clad mountains of the Central Highlands, the hamlet is a mere twenty kilometers from the border where Laos, Cambodia, and South Vietnam come together. A spur of the Ho Chi Minh Trail crossed the border here and paralleled Route 512 east through Ben Het, Dak To, and Tan Cahn. From there it was a straight shot south down Route 14 to Kontum, Pleiku, and then east to the coast. It was axiomatic to the Americans that if North Vietnamese forces controlled the Central Highlands, South Vietnam would fall.
To prevent that from happening, the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, beginning in 1964, had established a chain of Special Forces camps along the border, including one at Dak To. From Duc Co in the south to Kham Duc in the north, the Green Berets and their indigenous troops patrolled the unforgiving terrain in search of the enemy. And they frequently found the North Vietnamese Army forces. Bloody clashes were common. Sometimes it was more than the unconventional forces could handle and regular infantry units were called in.
In the fall of 1965 the 1st Cavalry Division’s 7th Cavalry was mauled at LZ X-Ray in the Ia Drang Valley. In the summer of 1966 the 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division had its turn. After one of its companies was nearly overrun the paratroopers were pulled out. In the fall of that year two brigades of the newly arrived 4th Infantry Division were handed responsibility for the two major provinces of the Highlands: Kontum and Pleiku.
Fierce combat raged throughout those provinces over the next year. The action reached a climax with the Fall 1967 Border Battles that engulfed two brigades of the 4th Infantry Division and the 173rd Airborne Brigade. The fighting was so brutal a battalion of the 173rd was trapped on Hill 875 for two days before a relief force could get to them.
In thirty days of fighting, the American units suffered nearly 1,800 casualties, of which 376 were killed in action. A relative calm descended on Dak To after the North Vietnamese suffered heavily in their January-March 1968 Tet Offensive. To secure the region, MACV placed the 1st Brigade, 4th Infantry Division at Dak To. Fifteen kilometers west a Special Forces team with a force of native soldiers held Ben Het. The Army of the Republic of Vietnam’s 42d Infantry held Tan Canh.
Into this arena stepped the 299th Engineer Battalion (Combat). The 299th arrived in South Vietnam in October 1965. In the summer of 1966 it relocated from Tuy Hua to Pleiku. The battalion remained there, attached to the 4th Infantry Division, but assigned to the 18th Engineer Brigade, for two years before it moved to Dak To.
The 299th’s mission was to provide the infantry units with engineering support and to keep the roads to Ben Het and Tan Canh open. Minesweep patrols headed out in each direction daily. As weather permitted, the engineers were paving Route 512 between Dak To and Ben Het. Not only would this ease the passage of the frequent truck convoys, but it would also hamper the NVA’s mine-laying activities.
When Lieut. Col. Newman Howard took command of the battalion in January 1969 his companies were scattered throughout the hills surrounding Dak To. “The Fourth’s infantrymen held the fire support base and air strip at Dak To,” Howard recalled. “My men were spread all around the area.”
Shortly after Howard arrived, the United States implemented its new policy of “Vietnamization” which transferred increasingly greater combat responsibilities to the ARVN. Giving the ARVN responsibility for the much fought-over Dak To area would clearly demonstrate the confidence MACV’s new commander, Gen. Creighton Abrams, had in them to fulfill their mission.
Unfortunately, about that same time, the NVA reassembled its forces in the region. In late January 1969, intelligence sources reported two NVA infantry and one artillery regiments operating south of Route 512. A prime target was Ben Het. In early February 1969 the NVA’s 40th Artillery Regiment began blasting the camp.
Specialist 4 Jay Gearhart, of the 299th’s 15th Engineer Company (Light Equipment), had just arrived in Ben Het a few days earlier. “About twenty of us were detailed to go to Ben Het,” Gearhart recalls. “The monsoons were coming and Route 512 was the only overland supply route to Ben Het. We were going to upgrade the road before the rains came.”
All went well for the first week. Then the enemy shells came down. “There was only sporadic incoming for the first few days and we worked right through it,” Gearhart said. “After about a week, though, they started pouring over a hundred rounds a day into that little camp. “We ended up being pinned down in a trench right near their little airstrip. We spent nearly two months like that. I counted over twenty-seven hundred rounds inside the wire in twenty-three days. And Ben Het was small!” The daily artillery barrages at Ben Het were but a preview of what Gearhart would experience at Dak To.
Meanwhile, Colonel Howard prepared his battalion for Vietnamization. After the 4th Infantry Division’s troops were pulled out, two of Howard’s companies, B and C, were relocated. Howard then brought his remaining three companies in from their outlying sites. “Our final mission was to prepare Dak To for the 42d ARVN,” Howard said.
Specialist 4 David G. Swanson, a motor pool dispatcher in Headquarters Company, remembers the move. “We’d been on one of the hills overlooking the airstrip since I’d joined the battalion in October,” Swanson said. “When the infantry left we were brought down and told to clean up the area. We were supposed to remove all the debris, empty ration cans, used artillery canisters, garbage--you name it. There was so much crap we had to use front-end loaders to dump it outside the wire.
“When we’d finished with that we were supposed to load up all of our equipment and join our other two companies near Qui Nhon.” That was what Colonel Howard understood, too. Once the base was squared away it would be turned over to the ARVN. The rest of the 299th would then be on its way. But things changed.
“One day a chopper came in,” Howard recalls. “On board were Maj. Gen. Donn R. Pepke, the CG of the 4th, and Pepke’s boss, Lieut. Gen. Julian J. Ewell, CG of the II Field Force. Pepke started with, ‘What are you doing?’
“Once we’re done here I’ve got orders to convoy to Kontum. We’ll overnight there, then move to Qui Nhon, sir,” Howard responded.
“You have to stay here.”
“I’ve got orders to move out.”
“Sorry, you’ve got to stay. The ARVN aren’t coming. You have to hold the base.”
“But I don’t have enough people,” Howard protested.
“You have to. And if you don’t believe what these two stars are telling you, I’ve got three more right there,” Pepke said, gesturing to Ewell.
“Yes, sir,” Howard replied. Howard immediately gave new orders to his troops. They were staying. They were to dig-in and prepare to hold the base against any attackers.
Specialist 4 Rick Noyes, Company A’s operations NCO, like most of the enlisted men, did not know what was going on. “I’d heard that some ARVN’s were going to relieve us, but then we were told to move into the infantry’s bunkers. It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time. Just typical army,” he said.
Howard ordered his men to reinforce existing bunkers and build new ones. Rocket stand-off screens were constructed around the primary bunkers. The engineers strung concertina wire along the perimeter. Fougasse barrels were stuffed with used truck parts and spotted along the perimeter. Fighting holes were dug throughout the camp. And, most of this work had to be done in the monsoon rains, adding to the engineer’s misery.
Colonel Howard made the work a little easier when he cut the original perimeter in half. “I used to watch a lot of John Wayne movies,” Howard explained. “Whenever his wagon train was attacked, Wayne formed a smaller, easier-to-defend perimeter. That’s what I did.”
A movable barbed wire fence was strung across the runway. When an aircraft needed to land the fence could be swung out of the way. Howard placed a .50 caliber machine gun at one end of the runway. If the NVA came, that gunner had a clear field of fire.
Because they had no infantry support, the engineers had to man the perimeter bunkers themselves. About 300 men were required for this nightly guard duty. So, in addition to their regular daytime duties, more than half of the 299th’s enlisted men manned bunkers every night. And their regular duties continued unabated.
The minesweeps went out every day, rain or shine; road damage had to be repaired; the paving of Route 512 continued; and, vehicles and equipment needed maintenance. Daily life seemed very routine. Few of the engineers expected any major problems.
Then, on 9 May, the rocketing began. Once it was determined no one had been wounded by the barrage, the engineers examined the craters. Specialist 4 Glen Hickey, Company D, was amazed at the reaction of some of his fellow engineers. “One of the rockets had not exploded. It had buried itself five to six feet in the ground. Some of the guys were poking it with sticks. Others wanted to pull it out with a bulldozer. Finally, a smarter NCO said, ‘No way.’ We blew it up where it was.” Hickey avoided the mess tent and its dangerous lines from that day on. He scavenged some LRRP rations and ate those in an abandoned bunker.
More rockets, recoilless rifle fire, mortars, and small arms fire fell on the camp the next day. The engineers fired back with what weapons they had, but they could not pinpoint the enemy’s positions.
On the evening of 11 May Specialist Gearhart, back from Ben Het, was on perimeter guard with two buddies, Donovan R. Fluharty and Terry Eutzy. Soon after dark the first of some seventy-five B-40 rockets and 60mm mortar rounds hit the camp. Small arms fire from enemy positions to the west and south raked the perimeter.
Suddenly, a frantic cry erupted: “Sappers! Sappers!” Six NVA sappers had breached the camp’s west defenses. In an instant, they were racing through the area, tossing grenades and satchel charges left and right.
“They got my squad tent!” Gearhart said. “Thank God we were on guard duty or we’d have all been killed.” Hotly pursued by angry engineers, the six sappers sought refuge in the 15th Engineer Company’s mess tent. At a shouted command from an NCO at least six engineers tossed grenades into the tent. After the explosions the men dragged out the remains of the six sappers. The mess tent was a total loss. The men of the 15th took their meals at Company A’s or Company D’s mess tent from then on, or ate C-rations.
The 92d Artillery moved a 155m howitzer battery to Dak To on 4 May. From this new FSB-1 they could fire support for the Ben Het combat base. The artillery, however, soon became a target for the NVA.
At 1750 hours on 13 May, the first of nineteen 122mm rockets impacted inside the 299th’s perimeter. Several struck one of the 92d’s gun positions. Four artillerymen died and eleven were wounded.
Specialist Swanson was on perimeter duty about fifty yards forward of the howitzers when the rockets hit. ”That was a horrible night,” Swanson recalled. “The rockets came out of nowhere and blew that gun up.”
The next night NVA infantry probed all around the perimeter. At 1935 hours nervous engineers in bunkers reported noises outside the wire. The soldiers tossed grenades and fired M79 grenade launchers at the sounds. A flurry of return small arms fire peppered two friendly bunkers. Fortunately, no engineers were hit. The probing continued until 0700 the next morning. Weary engineers fired back whenever they could. Their intrepid actions undoubtedly convinced the sappers to try again on another night. Which they did. Nearly every day some enemy activity was reported and casualties taken.
On the evening of 20 May, Specialist Gearhart, his buddy Donny Fluharty, and some other squad mates were reading their mail outside their bunker. A sergeant first class suddenly came up and ordered them to join a sandbagging detail. “We were tired and wanted a little rest before we took up our night guard positions,” Gearhart said. “Besides, we hated this NCO. He was an alcoholic who stole our beer rations. But, we stood up to do what we had to do. Except Donny.
He said, "The heck with him. I’m finishing my mail" and sat back down. The rest of us headed out.” and sat back down. The rest of us headed out.” Ten minutes later a 122mm rocket exploded near Donny Fluharty. Before medics could reach him Fluharty bled to death from his wounds. “Man, I felt awful,” Gearhart said. “I was never the same after that. I just felt numb and didn’t give a crap anymore.”
Eight days later Gearhart was in the 15th Engineer’s command-and-control bunker as part of the evening’s QRF. “Us being engineers we knew how to build a bunker,” Gearhart said. “This one was a beaut. It was heavily sand-bagged and a good twenty feet below ground.”
At 1728 the night’s first 122 mm rocket struck the base. In the next eleven minutes eleven more rockets exploded. One of these hit between the blast wall and the entrance to the 15th’s bunker.
“I was sitting there and the next thing I knew I’m in a heap with a bunch of other guys,” Gearhart said. “Can’t hear. Can’t see. Can’t breathe. Along with the others that were still alive I began scrambled toward the light. As I clawed my way out over the debris I saw the entrance was completely gone. There were bodies everywhere.
“I can still see our CO, Lieutenant Franklin L. Koch, laying there like he was asleep. Our brand new first sergeant, James D. Benefiel,was identified by his stateside boots. And the NCO who had detailed us to fill sandbags on the 20th was horribly burned. He died a few days later.”
In all, nine engineers died and nineteen were wounded in the blast. The 15th’s command structure and its communication capabilities were all but destroyed. Despite this carnage the indefatigable engineers continued to perform their duties.
“We never gave up on our main mission,” Colonel Howard said. “There were a few days when we didn’t get out because of so many NVA in the area, but there weren’t many of those. There were more days when we didn’t make it but a few hundred meters before enemy fire drove us back. On other days we’d make it all the way to Ben Het and Tan Canh. You just never knew.”
The increased enemy activity around Dak To did not escape the attention of the brass, or the press. The only problem was, they were all under the impression Dak To’s defenders were ARVN. “We had all kinds of high ranking visitors,” Howard said. “They all came up there expecting to congratulate the ARVN. Instead, they found a bunch of battered engineers.”
On 30 May, General Abrams himself helicoptered in with an entourage of aides and staff. When Abrams stepped out of the aircraft he was surprised there were no ARVN. “Everyone with him was expecting to see ARVN,” Howard said.
During the staff briefing Abrams asked Howard what his withdrawal plan was. “I don’t have one, sir,” Howard responded. “We’re thirty klicks from the nearest friendlies. If we get overrun we’ll just share the place with the NVA until one of us decides to quit.” Abrams had no follow-up questions.
Even more galling than the brass believing the ARVN controlled Dak To were stories in the press praising the South Vietnamese defenders. Stars and Stripes on 6 June 1969 headlined an article with “Viet Troops ‘Go It Alone’ at Dak To.” The article praised the ARVN for killing “945 North Vietnamese soldiers in three weeks of heavy fighting.” The article said the action was “…a test of whether South Vietnamese ground forces can go it alone in the rugged border area….with only artillery and engineer support.” No one knew the engineers and artillerymen were the ones actually doing the fighting.
Larry Burrows, the famed LIFE Magazine photographer, showed up on 6 June to get some pictures of Dak To’s heroic ARVN defenders. He, too, was surprised to find just a small force of American engineers holding the base. Without a story Burrows made arrangements to depart the next day.
At 0700 7 June, a nine-man team from Company D departed the base for its daily sweep of Route 512 toward Ben Het. To the surprise of the engineers a squad of ARVN awaited them by the main gate. Usually, the assigned ARVN security forces were either late, or never showed up. The combined force slowly worked their way west.
About an hour later the NVA struck. The sharp crack of AK47s and the woosh of B40 rockets erupted from the foliage lining the road. Two engineers fell dead. Others writhed in pain from gunshot wounds. The survivors hit the dirt waiting for the ARVN to fire back. Instead, the stunned engineers watched in anger as the ARVN security forces retreated to the safety of a culvert that defiladed them from the enemy’s fire. Despite the trapped engineers cries and pleas the ARVN refused to fight back.
Several of the wounded engineers crawled into a ditch where they thought they would be safe. Instead, they found themselves overrun by NVA. Only by feigning death did the Americans survive. Still, the enemy soldiers looted the casualties, even stealing one engineer’s wedding ring.
The surviving engineers fought back with their old M14s as best they could. Still, the ARVN, with their American-provided superior M16s, refused to fight, by this time, the sound of the firing and frantic radio calls had alerted the base to the ambush. Company D’s quick reaction force mounted up in jeeps and trucks and headed out.
Specialist Hickey, the company commander’s jeep driver, was approached by Larry Burrows. “Got room for one more?” the lanky photographer asked.
Hickey raced to catch up with the rest of the QRF. As the little convoy neared the ambush site the NVA turned their fire on it. Several men fell wounded. Hickey and his CO leaped from the jeep, seeking cover. Burrows bailed out, too, snapping pictures.
One of the minesweep engineers had crawled to the ARVN and snatched an M16 away from a cowering South Vietnamese. Burrows photographed him firing back at the NVA. Burrows took other pictures of the South Vietnamese huddled in the ditch.
In the meantime, the engineers battled the NVA. Outnumbered, the enemy gradually pulled back. Minutes later it was over. The engineers gathered up their dead and wounded and hurried back to Dak To to await the medevacs. Three men died in the ambush and seven were wounded.
The engineers were furious with the ARVN. Hickey recalled, “We were really pissed at the ARVN for just laying there in the ditch.” Some of the men talked about shooting their allies, but the NCOs restrained them.
Although the U.S. Army tried to suppress the story, Burrow’s dramatic account of that morning appeared in the September 19, 1969, issue of LIFE. Under the title, “A Case of Cowardice Under Fire,” Burrows proclaimed that Vietnamization was not working but that the army brass would not admit it. The men of the 299th knew the truth.
In mid-June the engineers at Dak To were given a new patch. Locally made, it bore the battalion’s motto “Proven Pioneers” and proclaimed the wearer to be a “Dak To Defender.” The men proudly wore it along with their 18th Engineer Brigade patch.
For the remainder of June and into July the men of the 299th continued to take casualties. Nearly every day the base was hit by rockets and mortars; sappers probed almost every night. The minesweep teams continually ran into ambushes. Company D’s team was particularly hard hit again on 23 June east of Ben Het near FSB 13. Again, the ARVN security force fled. A QRF force from Dak To was sent out but it, too, was ambushed. A second QRF and air support had to be called in before the enemy pulled out. Three engineers died and twenty-one were wounded in the day’s fighting.
Then, suddenly, enemy activity died down. One morning in early July, Colonel Howard remarked to his executive officer, “It’s been too quiet the last few days. Send a patrol to Ben Het. Let’s see what happens.” To everyone’s great relief the patrol made it all the way without incident. To confirm that, Howard piled into a jeep and drove to Ben Het. Again, there was no enemy contact. The NVA were gone.
“All I could figure,” Howard said, “was that the NVA thought our battalion was the bait in a trap. They could not have believed the Americans were so stupid as to just leave one small engineer unit to defend such a vital position. But we were.”
After 6 July, enemy activity around Dak To all but ceased. But it had been a brutal three months for the 299th. In that brief time the four companies defending Dak To suffered 45% casualties.
On 16 July, Lieutenant Colonel Howard’s six months of command time ended. He transferred to a staff position with the 18th Engineer Brigade. Lieutenant Colonel Robert L. Ackerson assumed command of the 299th. Two days later the battalion received orders to depart Dak To.
Specialist Noyes remembered, “A big sense of relief leaving Dak To. A lot of us felt we’d been left alone, hung out.” Specialist Hickey said, “Everyone pitched in to load up their personal gear, bunks, documents, filing cabinets, desks, equipment, everything. We didn’t want to leave anything for the ARVN.”
On 19 July, in a driving rain storm, the battle-weary, surviving Defenders of Dak To headed east on Route 512, then turned south on Route 14. Companies A and D ended up at An Khe, battalion headquarters went to Qui Nhon, andthe 15th Engineers settled in at Phu Tai, near Qui Nhon.
Colonel Howard was awarded a Silver Star for his heroism during the siege. On 8 April 1970, the four companies of the 299th that had been left behind at Dak To were awarded the Valorous Unit Award, the equivalent of a Silver Star to each man.
Soon after the 299th relocated, its members who had been at Dak To began to be harassed by rear echelon NCOs for wearing their Dak To Defenders patch. “It’s unauthorized. Remove it,” the sergeants barked. At first, some of the engineers defied the order. Eventually, though, they were forced to remove the patch. Today, it is a revered souvenir of the 299th’s long forgotten gallant stand.