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Doug Drury  

Battle for Hill 875 Kontum Nov 1967

“One Dark Night at Dakto” CW2 D. M Drury

The battle for Dakto was one of the heaviest fought battles of the Vietnam War and one of the least known about except for the men involved. Several combat units were involved and the causality rate was high. The camp and airfield at Dakto is located in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam and close to the Cambodian and Laotian borders which made it an ideal location to launch reconnaissance teams from the highly classified U.S. Studies and Observation Group (SOG) commonly referred to as the special operations group (SOG) operated by the 5th Special Forces. Helicopters from various units were assigned to SOG on a rotational basis and would usually spend 30-45 days moving 5 and 7 man recon teams deep into Cambodia and Laos for 5 day missions. Most of these missions were ‘Top Secret’ because we were not supposed to be operating in Cambodia and Laos prior to 1970, it was in 1967-68 these missions were conducted.

Dakto lies on a flat valley floor, surrounded by waves of ridgelines that rise into peaks (some as high as 4,000 feet) that stretch westward and southwestward towards the tri-border region where South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia meet. Landing Zones (LZs) large enough for helicopters were few and far between, which meant that most troop movements could only be carried out on foot or from LZ’s cut and blown with detonation (det) explosive cord in the triple canopy. Temperatures in the highlands could reach 95° Fahrenheit (35° Celsius) during the day and could drop to as low as 55° Fahrenheit (12.78° Celsius) in the evenings.

Operations had been carried out from this airfield since 1965 and was resupplied by C-130’s as well as truck convoy from Plieku. Elements of the 4th Infantry’s 1st and 2nd Brigade from Camp Enari in Pleiku used this as a staging base as well as the 173rd Airborne which had moved up from the coast in June 67. In early November 1967 all hell was to break loose as elements of the 4th Infantry discovered preparations by highly trained and skilled NVA elements of the 24th PAVN (Peoples Army of Vietnam) were dug in on the surrounding ridgelines north and west of Dakto and poised to hit the airfield and camp. The NVA had managed to move over 6000 troops into the Dakto area with the primary mission of over running the camp at Dakto.

I was assigned as a ‘Huey’ aircraft commander with the 119th Assault helicopter company (callsign Alligators) out of Camp Holloway at Pleiku which was the base camp for the 52nd Aviation Battalion and supporting units such as the 170th AHC, 189th AHC, a Chinook company, 545th Maintenance support and a ‘Birdog’ L-19 recon outfit. We supported mainly the 4th Infantry Division and the 5th Special Forces plus any ARVN or support groups that needed helicopter support. During my first few months in Vietnam in 1967 flying assignments were mostly routine and very seldom did we receive enemy fire or operate in a ‘Hot’ LZ. We did so much hauling of rations, clean clothes, mail and ammo to various field units we nicknamed ourselves the “Alligator Trucking Company”.

The combat assaults we went on were routine and even during combat assaults ( CA’s), the LZ’s were usually cold as far as enemy fire. The month of Nov 67 was to change that attitude and put me on constant alert until I was rotated home the following April. Elements of the 1st and 2nd Brigade of the 4th infantry were working search and destroy missions in the Dakto area late in the summer of 67’. There had been intelligence regarding heavy troop infiltrations of NVA getting ready to hit the camp at Dakto. On the 6th of November we lifted one of the 4th Divisions companies into an LZ just north of Dakto and they immediately came into contact with a heavy force of NVA. For the rest of the month there was heavy contact throughout the various hills and terrain to the North and Northwest of Dakto. The US forces found NVA troops dug in on most of the hilltops in very heavily fortified bunkers and fortifications they must have been constructing for weeks. We were taking heavy losses and the NVA constantly ambushed the patrols and probes. We moved troops from one area to another in an attempt to block the NVA movements with little success all the while taking casualties and losing aircraft. The biggest battle and concentration of efforts came just before Thanksgiving on and around Hill 875 Northwest of Dakto. Our assault helicopter company (119th AHC) had been working out of the Dakto airstrip all week long. There were so many aircraft on the field we had staged just to the south of the strip in an open area that gave us more room to maneuver and kept us away from the mortar attacks that were aimed at the strip and ammo dump next to the airstrip. The NVA mortars finally found the ammo dump one day and a direct hit on the stores of C-4 set off all the ordnance with a thunderous explosion. Someone remarked “it sounded like the NVA had gotten a hold of a nuke”. The NVA had mortar emplacements all along the ridges to the north and periodically shelled the camp. The night in question came around the 21st-22nd of November. We received a mission to re-supply elements of the 173rd on hill 875 with hot chow and water around 1600 as soon as an LZ had been blown in the triple canopy on the west side of the hill by the engineers. The 173rd had been slogging up Hill 875 all day through thick timber and foliage. The mess hall at Dakto loaded 2 of our aircraft with hot chow in “mermite” cans. We waited and waited for the word to ‘crank up’ and head towards the hill. About an hour later they said to unload the chow as the company had come into heavy contact with Charlie and were now calling for ammo and water. The LZ hadn’t been cleared yet so the decision was made to re-supply by external cargo and drop it as best we could through the trees as close to the troops as we could. It was getting dark and we needed to expidite. The loads were 5-600 lbs of ammo crates and water in nets hooked externally. My co-pilot was WO1 Thybony. I lifted off from Dakto as a flight of 2 and headed for the hill. Darkness was falling fast. We located the forward elements and tried to find a place to drop the supplies. The troops had begun digging in for the night and were scattered over their defensive lines on the slope of the hill. The trick was to drop the supplies from as low an altitude above the ground as possible without hitting anyone and keep the ammo from rolling down the hill and out of reach. The canopy was triple meaning it was about 200-250’ high and thick plus it was getting dark and we couldn’t see the ground very well. The crew chief and the gunner were hanging out each side talking me into the best position they could determine and calling for the punch off. Unfortunately, one or two of the loads hit too close to some of the foxholes and troops were injured by falling cargo. We didn’t want to repeat that situation again and determined not to drop any more and wait until the LZ was cut. Hostile fire had calmed down due to constant artillery support on the south, East and North sides surrounding the defensive positions. We were approaching from the west. We returned to Dakto and shut down to wait for the LZ to be cut.

Around 0130, word came the LZ might just be big enough to get in. They had a lot of wounded and still needed supplies. Dustoff had been in several times but could only do hoist missions for the most seriously wounded. The artillery was shut down on the west corridor to give us a free fire route into the LZ. “Spooky”, the Air Force DC-3 gunship/flareship was on station dropping flares and lighting up the area which we really appreciated as there’s nothing as dark as a night in central Vietnam with no moon and miles and miles of dark hills covered with very tall trees.

As we came over the LZ we were being guided by a radioman on the ground with strobe lights. It soon became very apparent the LZ was tight at the top due to overhanging branches that had not been cleared when they blew the LZ or cut down the trees. This was the Central Highlands and the home of triple canopy forests where 200-300 ft teak and other species grew, especially on the hills. Everyone was tense and the crewchief and gunner craned their necks while hanging on the safety straps to watch the tail rotor and call out clearances. They always addressed me as “Mr. D” as my last name was hard to say. “Bring it right a little Mr D, a little left, now come down a bit and then back left”, We were literally picking our way through the tops of the overhanging branches and praying to God we didn’t nick one as it would have been fatal. Once we cleared the branches the LZ opened up and we were able to descend the rest of the way. We had to have the searchlight on to see what we were doing even though it would light us up like a big fat target to the NVA that surrounded the 173rd but we had no choice. I had to make a one skid landing on some of the logs cut down earlier and hold a hover with power while the supplies were unloaded and the wounded clambered aboard. While holding there I could see the KIA’s stacked and wrapped in poncho’s right under my chin bubble. The rotor wash made the poncho’s flutter and expose some of the faces of the KIA’s. I vividly remember seeing one young trooper laying face down with his left hand and arm exposed with little or no apparent wounds and looking like he was asleep. I saw his high school ring on his left hand and thought offhand that he had probably just graduated from high school the year before and now he was lying dead in Vietnam. I wondered where he was from and hoped his mother would be given his ring. We were in the LZ probably no more than a minute or two, it seemed like an eternity, while loading and unloading were accomplished. The noise of the helicopter and the light show I was putting on stirred up the enemy and they started shelling the area trying to walk the shells into the LZ. I had been talking to the radioman who was crouched at the base of a big tree on the perimeter of the LZ and had helped guide us in. When the first couple of shells hit he dived for cover and dropped the mike on the radio. I yelled at him “don’t leave, I need guidance out of the LZ”,over the radio but he probably couldn’t hear me. I pulled up to a hover and then saw him come back to the radio. He helped guide me as my gunner and crewchief had their hands full getting the last of the wounded in, calling clearances and manning their guns as we were starting to receive fire. I was worried about clearing the overhanging branches but needed to get clear. Throwing caution to the wind and relying on the Lord to help us I pulled pitch and hoped if we nicked a branch it would be a small one and we could blast through it. We popped out of the top of the trees without hitting anything which I couldn’t believe, turned East and skedaddled for Dakto. Since a fair amount of time had evolved since we left Dakto, our fuel was running low and the morning fog that always surrounded Dakto this time of year had rolled in. Great, we survived the LZ and now we were caught above the fog, couldn’t see the runway and didn’t have enough fuel to reach any other base. The tower had us on radar and guided us in, lining us up with the runway. I put Thybony on instruments since he had the full instrument panel on his side and kept up the airspeed as we approached. I told Thybony to take the ship if I lost it in the fog and couldn’t see the runway lights. We dropped into the fog and just as I was about to tell Thybony to take it, the runway lights popped into view and I decelerated to a hover. We hovered back to the MAST unit next to the runway and shutdown while the wounded were unloaded. It would be light in a couple of hours and we had been up since 0600 the day before and were exhausted but wound up so tight we couldn’t sleep. The hill was taken a couple days later and we finally got to fly in a hot Thanksgiving meal to the troopers that had finally made it to the top of 875.

Mr. D finished his tour after surviving further exploits during Tet 68’ and a stint with FOB -2 in support of Special Forces involved with Special Operation Group in Cambodia. He was later awarded a DFC for the rescue of a SOG team in Cambodia and returned to the US where he was an instructor pilot at Ft. Wolters Tx until discharged in 1970. He then spent the next 40 years in commercial aviation doing various flying assignments throughout the western US and Alaska. His co-pilot, WO1 Thybony survived Vietnam but was later killed in a helicopter crash while doing helicopter tours at the Grand Canyon.

Doug Drury <>
Vineyard, UT United States - Monday, September 28, 2020 at 21:57:17 (EDT)

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