Dak To was a small Green Beret outpost nestling in a river valley near the junction of the Cambodian-Laotian border with Vietnam. Strategically the base sat across Highway 14, the main north-south road in the Central Highlands and Route 512 which served as a major Viet Cong and NVA (North Vietnamese Army) infiltration line into the region. Late in October 1967 American Intelligence began receiving fragmentary reports indicating that the NVA High Command was moving the reinforced 1st NVA Division towards the town.
To counter the enemy’s suspected movements the 4th US Infantry Division mounted Operation MacArthur, deploying in the vicinity of Dak To and almost immediately received confirmation of the enemy’s plans when an NVA sergeant defected with detailed plans of the enemies intentions. Although initially sceptical the US Intelligence officers were soon able to confirm the soldier’s story, which proved to be remarkably accurate. The NVA plan called for two regiments, the 32nd and 66th, to attack Dak To from the south and southeast, while another, the 24th, would assault the town from the north east. The remaining regiment, the 174th would remain in reserve.
To counter the NVA plan the 4th Infantry moved a number of battalions, including one from the 173rd Airborne Brigade, into blocking positions around Dak To and, once these units were in position, they began probing the surrounding hills in search of the enemy. Almost immediately a battalion in the south ran into very heavy enemy resistance which required the assistance of massive air strikes, including B-52s, and artillery fire to suppress. More US battalions were airlifted in to join the vicious and bloody battle which see-sawed back and forth until, in mid November, the NVA commander finally accepted that his exhausted troops could no longer resist against the American troops with their supporting fire. In an attempt to extricate his shattered regiments the NVA Commander committed his reserve regiment to cover the retreat towards the southwest (where they ran into additional US forces hastily air lifted into blocking positions.
The covering 174th NVA regiment chose to make a stand on Hill 875 (so named for its height above sea level), building in a short time a series of deep interconnecting bunkers upon the steep, wooded slopes. These positions were discovered by a patrol from a battalion of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. Backed up supporting fire on the bunker complex the Airborne battalion began advancing up the rugged slope but were was hit with such intense and accurate defensive fire that it was soon pinned down with very heavy casualties. Another battalion was brought in by helicopter in an attempt to relieve the first, but fierce ground fire drove them off, until with a combination of air and artillery support that suppressed the ground fire it was able to achieve a link up with their sister unit. For four days these two battalions from the 173rd, later joined by another battalion from the 4th Infantry Division fought a desperate battle with the 174th for control of the rocky outcrop. At times the combat was so close that no supporting fire could be delivered. Finally the NVA regiment could no longer hold out and the weary US troops took the hilltop on Thanksgiving Day.
During the battle around Dak To the four NVA regiments lost over 1,600 men killed plus a large number who were seriously wounded. Nearly 300 American soldiers also perished in the bitter fighting, but the enemy drive to seize control of this vital area had been thwarted. Even as this battle reached its conclusion more reinforcements were already flowing into Vietnam from the USA, including the deployment of the famous 101st “Screaming Eagles” Airborne Division. This brought the overall US troop strength to over 485,000 men (A number greater than that employed in the Korean War). Such reinforcements arrived just in time- The enemy were about to launch their massive Tet offensive that would ultimately have a profound effect on the future course of the war.