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VFW Magazine November 2017 : Page 26

“THE ENORMOUS AMOUNTS OF ORDNANCE EXPENDED BY BOTH FORCES HAD TURNED THE ONCE-LUSH TROPICAL JUNGLE INTO A SCARRED AND TORN LANDSCAPE.” —EDWARD F. MURPHY, DAK TO: AMERICAÕS SKY SOLDIERS IN SOUTH VIETNAMÕS CENTRAL HIGHLANDS Artillery from A Bty., 3rd Bn., 319th Artillery Regt., and air strikes started ravaging the hilltop. Meanwhile, NVA soldiers began a ferocious attack on A Company at the bottom of the hill. Pfc. Carlos Lozada, after receiving orders to retreat back up the hill, provided covering fire, at times walking backward up the hill spraying M­60 machine­gun fire into the brush on either side of the trail. When his weapon jammed, an NVA bullet ripped into his head. Lozada’s actions garnered him a posthumous Medal of Honor. The surviving paratroopers of A Company hustled up the slope and into a perimeter formed by the beleaguered C and D companies. “By 3 p.m.,” Terrence Maitland and Peter McInerney wrote in A Contagion of War , “the C Company commander report­ ed they were surrounded by 200 to 300 NVA and under attack by mortars, auto­ matic weapons and B­40 rockets.” Six helicopters from the 335th Aviation Company attempting to resupply the pinned­down troopers were shot down during the day. U.S. aircraft hit enemy posi­ tions as close as 50 meters from the perim­ eter as GIs dug in for an NVA night attack. ‘SLEPT WITH CORPSES’ Tragically, one air strike hit too close to the paratroopers. At 6:58 p.m., a Marine Corps fighter­bomber mistakenly drop­ p ed two 500­pound bombs on the U.S. position. One hit outside the perimeter, killing 25 NVA troops. The other hit C Company’s command post and aid station. Some 42 Americans (many of them already wounded) were killed and 45 wounded in the war’s worst “friendly fire” incident. “[There were] heaps of dead after that bomb,” a survivor remembered. “You didn’t know where to go, you did not know where to hide. You slept with corpses. I slept with Joe. He was dead, but he kept me warm.” One soldier who didn’t survive the blast was chaplain Maj. Charles Watters. During the battle, Father Watters had ventured outside the perimeter at least five times, carrying wounded troops back to the aid station. According to survivors, he was on his knees giving last rites to a dying paratrooper when the bombs hit, killing him instantly. Watters received a posthumous Medal of Honor. The next morning, Nov. 20, 4th Bn., 503rd Inf., set out to relieve the 2nd Battalion paratroopers. NVA snipers made the going slow, but B Company finally reached the perim­ eter by dusk. Two more companies arrived after dark and provided much­ needed food and water to the exhausted troopers. “Dawn on Tuesday, Nov. 21, revealed a scene on Hill 875 no survivor of that bat­ tle could ever forget,” Edward F. Murphy wrote in Dak To: America’s Sky Soldiers in South Vietnam’s Central High lands. “The enormous amounts of ordnance expended by both forces had turned the once­lush tropical jungle into a scarred and torn landscape.” Abandoned weapons, helmets, ruck­ sacks, clothing, canteens and empty ration containers littered the battlefield. “The acrid odor of decaying and rot­ ting flesh combined with the smells of vomit, feces, urine, blood, gunpowder and napalm etched itself permanently into the memories of those who were on Hill 875,” Murphy wrote. have diminished the importance of their sacrifices,” Murphy concluded. “The paratroopers’ esprit de corps , elitism and personal pride would not permit that.” Though they were severely bloodied, the paratroopers inflicted even heavi­ er losses on the NVA. So heavy, in fact, that the NVA’s 32nd, 66th and 174th reg­ iments were unable to participate in the 1968 Tet Offensive. Despite reportedly higher enemy body counts, Maj. Gen. William B. Rosson, ear­ lier commander of Task Force Oregon, estimated 1,000 NVA were killed. For the bravery and sacrifices of its paratroopers around Dak To, the 173rd earned the Presidential Unit Citation. LETHAL FIRE: ENEMY AND ‘FRIENDLY’ According to the after­action report, GIs sustained 242 KIA and 876 WIA in the battles between Nov. 2 and Dec. 1, 1967. But Murphy says that during the actions around Dak To, 376 Americans were killed and 1,441 wounded. Of the 3,200 paratroopers from the 173rd deployed to Dak To, 27 percent were either killed (208) or wounded (645). The 173rd’s rifle companies sus­ tained some 90 percent of the unit’s casualties. “The rifle companies suffered 51 per­ cent losses in just one month,” Murphy wrote. “And about 60 of the dead para­ troopers — 29 percent — were killed by friendly fire.” The single deadliest day of Dak To was Nov. 19, when 83 Americans were killed and 110 wounded. Tragically, 50 percent of the deaths were due to “friendly fire.” Enemy fire claimed 41 GIs’ lives that day. For the medics in the mix, casualties represented far more than statistics. The anguished cries of the wounded are what they remember most. “There is something gut­wrenching about severely wounded men that I will never forget,” recalled Earle Jackson, a 173rd medic who served on Hill 875. “It is that most become delirious and almost always cry out for their mothers.” J EMAIL ENEMY LOSES TOO MANY Throughout the day, U.S. airstrikes and artillery continued to pound the top of the hill, as the NVA lobbed mortars at the U.S. perimeter. The 4th Battalion launched an unsuccessful attack at around 3 p.m., and pulled back to defensive positions after dark. The battalion lost 12 KIA. On Nov. 23, the 4th Battalion from the north slope coordinated a final assault on the hilltop with the 1st Bn., 12th Inf., 4th Inf. Div., charging up the south slope. Neither battalion faced heavy resistance as the NVA had decamped during the night, denying the Ameri cans a chance at some revenge. But the GIs had fulfilled their objective. “To walk away from Hill 875 would 26 • VFW  • NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2017

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