The buzz of 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 30 minutes the engineers huddled in bunkers as a dozen 122mm rockets and 18 81mm mortar rounds ripped into their camp at Dak To. Then, as abruptly as it had begun, the barrage ended.
Amazingly, no one was hurt by the blasts. The engineers pulled themselves from cover, dusted off their fatigues and looked around, wondering, “What the hell was that all about?” They had no idea in early May 1969 that their little corner of the war was about to heat up.
Dak To sat in the middle of one of the most hotly contested regions of South Vietnam. Deep in the rugged, mountainous jungle of the Central Highlands, the hamlet of Dak To was just 20 kilometers from the border where Laos, Cambodia and South Vietnam came 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 and Pleiku, then east to the coast.
The Americans feared that if North Vietnamese forces controlled the Central Highlands, South Vietnam would fall. To prevent that from happening, beginning in 1964, the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), 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, which they frequently found. Bloody clashes with the North Vietnamese Army 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 7th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) was mauled at landing zones X-Ray and Albany 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 that a battalion of the 173rd was trapped on Hill 875 for two days before a relief force could reach it. In 30 days of fighting, the American units suffered nearly 1,800 casualties, of which 376 were killed in action.
After the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong suffered heavily in their January-March 1968 Tet Offensive, a relative calm descended on Dak To, and MACV placed the 1st Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, there to secure the region. Fifteen kilometers west, a Special Forces team with a force of South Vietnamese army (ARVN) soldiers held Ben Het. The ARVN’s 42nd Infantry Regiment held Tan Canh.
The U.S. Army 299th Engineer Battalion had arrived in South Vietnam in October 1965, and in the summer of 1966 it relocated from Tuy Hua to Pleiku. The battalion remained there for two years—attached to the 4th Infantry Division but assigned to the 18th Engineer Brigade—before it moved to Dak To.
The battalion’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 paved Route 512 between Dak To and Ben Het, to ease the passage of the frequent truck convoys and to hamper the NVA’s mine-laying activities.
When Lt. Col. Newman Howard took command of the battalion in January 1969, his companies were scattered throughout the hills surrounding Dak To. “The 4th’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 initiated its new policy of Vietnamization, which transferred increasingly greater combat responsibilities to the South Vietnamese. Giving them responsibility for the much-contested Dak To area would demonstrate the confidence MACV’s new commander, General Creighton Abrams, had in them.
Unfortunately, about that same time, the NVA reassembled its forces in the region. In late January, intelligence sources reported one artillery and two NVA infantry regiments operating south of Route 512. A prime target was Ben Het. In early February, 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 before the attack began. “About twenty of us were detailed to go to Ben Het,” Gearhart recalled. “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—and 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 100 rounds a day into that little camp. We ended up being pinned down in a trench right near the little airstrip. We spent nearly two months like that. I counted over 2,700 rounds inside the wire in 23 days. And Ben Het was small.”
The daily artillery barrages at Ben Het were just a preview of what Gearhart would experience at Dak To. Meanwhile, Colonel Howard prepared his battalion for Vietnamization. After the 4th Division’s troops were pulled out, Howard’s B and C companies relocated. Howard then brought his remaining three companies in from their outlying sites. “Our final mission was to prepare Dak To for the 42nd ARVN,” he 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 recalled. “On board were Major General Donn R. Pepke, [commanding general] of the 4th, and Pepke’s boss, Lieutenant General Julian J. Ewell, [commanding general] 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,” Colonel Howard replied. “We’ll overnight there, then move to Qui Nhon, sir.”
“You have to stay here,” Pepke said.
“I’ve got orders to move out,” said Howard
“Sorry,” said Pepke, “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 to stay put, dig in and prepare to hold the base.
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 ARVNs 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. The engineers constructed rocket stand-off screens around the primary bunkers and strung concertina wire along the perimeter. They stuffed petroleum barrels with used truck parts and spotted them along the perimeter. They also dug fighting holes throughout the camp. Adding to the engineers’misery, most of this work had to be done in the monsoon rains.
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-todefend perimeter. That’s what I did.”
A movable barbed wire fence was strung across the runway. When an aircraft had 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 nightly guard duty. So, in addition to their regular daytime duties, more than half of the 299th’s enlisted men manned bunkers every night. Meanwhile, their regular activities continued unabated. The minesweeps went out every day, rain or shine. Vehicles and equipment needed maintenance, road damage had to be repaired and the paving of Route 512 continued. Daily life, while busy, seemed very routine. Few of the engineers expected any major problems.
Then, around lunchtime on May 9, the rocketing began. Once the engineers determined that no one had been wounded by the barrage, they 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 noncommissioned officer 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.
The next day more rockets, recoilless rifle fire, mortars and small-arms fire fell on the camp. The engineers fired back with what weapons they had, but they could not pinpoint the enemy’s positions.
On the evening of May 11, Spc. 4 Gearhart, back from Ben Het, was on perimeter guard with two buddies, Spc. 4 Donovan R. Fluharty and Spc. 5 Terry Eutzy. Soon after dark, the first of some 75 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 west defenses. Suddenly they were racing through the camp, 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 92nd Artillery had moved a 155mm howitzer battery to Dak To on May 4. From this new Fire Support Base 1, the gunners could cover the Ben Het combat base. The artillery, however, soon became a target for the NVA.
At 1750 hours on May 13, the first of 19 122mm rockets struck inside the 299th’s perimeter. Several hit one of the 92nd’s gun positions. Four artillerymen died and 11 were wounded. Specialist Swanson was on perimeter duty about 50 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. Nervous engineers in bunkers reported noises outside the wire at 1935. The soldiers tossed hand grenades and fired M-79 grenade launchers at the sounds, and in return, a flurry of small-arms fire peppered two bunkers. Fortunately, no engineers were hit. The probing continued until 0700 the next morning, and the weary engineers fired back whenever they could.
Nearly every day, enemy activity caused some casualties. On the evening of May 20, Gearhart, his buddy Donny Fluharty and some other squad mates were reading their mail outside of 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, ‘F___ him. I’m finishing my mail,’and sat back down. The rest of us headed out.”
Ten minutes later, a 122mm rocket exploded near Fluharty. Before medics could reach him, he bled to death. “Man, I felt awful,” Gearhart said. “I was never the same after that. I just felt numb and didn’t give a shit anymore.”
Eight days later, Gearhart was in the 15th Engineer’s command-and-control bunker as part of the evening’s quick reaction force. “Being engineers, we knew how to build a bunker,” Gearhart said. “This one was a beaut. It was heavily sandbagged and a good 20 feet below ground.”
The night’s first 122 mm rocket struck the base at 1728, and 11 more exploded in the next 11 minutes. One 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 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 19 were wounded in the blast. The 15th’s command structure and its communication capabilities were all but destroyed. Despite this carnage, the 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 that 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 May 30, 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 30 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. The Stars and Stripes newspaper on June 6, 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 that the engineers and artillerymen were the ones actually doing the fighting.
Larry Burrows, the famed Life magazine photographer, showed up on June 6 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 on June 7, 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 either arrived late or never showed up. The combined force slowly worked its way west.
About an hour later the NVA struck. The sharp crack of AK47s and the whoosh of B-40 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 troops retreated to the safety of a culvert that shielded 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. The enemy soldiers looted the casualties, even stealing one engineer’s wedding ring, and the surviving engineers fought back with their M-14s as best they could. Still, the ARVN, with their American-provided M-16s, 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 boarded jeeps and trucks and headed out. Specialist Hickey, the commander’s jeep driver, was approached by Burrows.
“Got room for one more?” the lanky photographer asked.
Hickey raced to catch up with the rest of the quick reaction force. As the little convoy neared the ambush site, the North Vietnamese turned their fire on it. Several men fell wounded. Hickey and his commanding officer 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 M-16 away from a cowering South Vietnamese. Burrows photographed him firing back at the North Vietnamese, and also took pictures of the South Vietnamese huddled in the ditch as 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. 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 received wide press coverage later that year, in the September 19, 1969, issue of Life magazine. 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.
Meanwhile, in midJune the engineers at Dak To received a new patch. Locally made, it bore the battalion’s motto “Proven Pioneers,” proclaiming the wearer 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 June 23 east of Ben Het near Fire Support Base 13. Again, the ARVN security force fled. A quick reaction force was sent out from Dak To, but it, too, was ambushed. A second team and air support had to be called in before the enemy pulled out. Three engineers died and 21 were wounded in the day’s fighting.
Then, suddenly, enemy activity died down. Colonel Howard remarked to his executive officer one morning in early July: “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.”
Enemy activity around Dak To all but ceased after July 6. But it had been a brutal three months for the 299th. In that brief time, the four companies defending Dak To suffered 45 percent casualties. On July 16, Lt. Col. Howard’s six months of command time ended. He transferred to a staff position with the 18th Engineer Brigade, and Lt. Col. 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 July 19, battle-weary and in a driving rainstorm, the 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 and the 15th Engineers settled in at Phu Tai, near Qui Nhon.
Colonel Howard was awarded a Silver Star for his heroism during the siege. On April 8, 1970, the four companies of the 299th that had been left behind at Dak To were awarded the Valorous Unit Citation, the unit equivalent of the Silver Star.
Soon after the 299th relocated, those of 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,” the sergeants barked. “Remove it.” 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.
Edward F. Murphy served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam period and has written a number of military history books. For additional reading, see Murphy’s Dak To: America’s Sky Soldiers in South Vietnam’s Central Highlands; and The Long Journey Home From Dak To: The Story of an Airborne Infantry Officer Fighting in the Central Highlands Republic of Vietnam 1967-1968, by Warren M. Denny.
Originally published in the December 2007 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.