HILL 875 - BATTLE OF DAK TO
At 09:43 on 19 November, the three companies (330 men) of 2/503rd moved into jumpoff positions from which to assault Hill 875 (14.579°N 107.595°E). Companies C and D moved up the slope followed by two platoons of Company A in the classic "two up one back" formation utilized since World War I. The Weapons Platoon of Company A remained behind at the bottom of the hill to cut out a landing zone. Instead of a frontal assault with massed troops, the unit would have been better served by advancing small teams to envelop possible PAVN positions and then calling in air and artillery support.
At 10:30, as the Americans moved to within 300 meters of the crest, PAVN machine gunners opened fire on the advancing paratroopers. Then B-40 rockets and 57mm recoilless rifle fire were unleashed upon them. The paratroopers attempted to continue the advance, but the PAVN, well concealed in interconnected bunkers and trenches, opened fire with small arms and grenades. The American advance was halted and the men went to ground, finding whatever cover they could. At 14:30 PAVN troops hidden at the bottom of the hill launched a massed assault on Company A. Unknown to the Americans, they had walked into a carefully prepared ambush by the 2nd Battalion of the 174th Regiment.
The men of Company A retreated up the slope, lest they be cut off from their comrades and annihilated. They were closely followed by the PAVN. Private First Class Carlos Lozada held the rear guard position for Company A with his M60 machine gun. As the PAVN advanced, Lozada mowed them down and refused to retreat until he was shot dead. For his actions that day, Lozada was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor. Soon, U.S. air strikes and artillery fire were being called in, but they had little effect on the battle because of the dense foliage on the hillside. Resupply became a necessity because of high ammunition expenditures and lack of water, but it was also an impossibility. Six UH-1 helicopters were shot down or badly damaged that afternoon trying to get to 2/503rd.
At 18:58 one of the worst friendly fire incidents of the Vietnam War occurred when a Marine Corps A-4 Skyhawk fighter-bomber, flown by LTC Richard Taber, the Commanding Officer of a Marine Air Group from Chu Lai Air Base, dropped two 500-pound Mark 81 Snakeye bombs into 2/503rd's perimeter. One of the bombs exploded, a tree burst above the center of the position, where the combined command groups, the wounded, and the medics were all located. It killed 42 men outright and wounded 45 more, including the overall on-scene commander, Captain Harold Kaufman. 1Lt. Bartholomew O'Leary, Company D Commander, was seriously wounded. (Company A's commander had been killed in the retreat up the slope). Chaplain (Major) Charles J. Watters, was killed in the blast while ministering to the wounded. For his gallantry in repeatedly exposing himself to enemy fire to retrieve the wounded on Hill 875, he was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor.
The next morning, the three companies of 4/503rd were chosen to set out and relieve the men on Hill 875. Because of intense PAVN sniper and mortar fire (and the terrain) it took until nightfall for the relief force to reach the beleaguered battalion. On the afternoon of 21 November, both battalions moved out to take the crest. During fierce, close-quarters fighting, some of the paratroopers made it into the PAVN trenchline but were ordered to pull back as darkness fell. At approximately 23:00, the 4th Division's 1/12th Infantry was ordered to withdraw from an offensive operations in the southern Central Highlands and redeploy to Đắk Tô. In a night-time air redeployment, the entire battalion redeployed and took up positions around the main fire support base at Đắk Tô in less than 12 hours.
The following day was spent in launching airstrikes and a heavy artillery bombardment against the hilltop, totally denuding it of cover. On 23 November, the 2nd and 4th Battalions of the 503rd were ordered to renew their assault while the 1/12th Infantry assaulted 875 from the south. This time the Americans gained the crest, but the PAVN had already abandoned their positions, leaving only a few dozen charred bodies and weapons.
The battle of Hill 875 had cost 2/503rd 87 killed, 130 wounded, and three missing. 4/503rd suffered 28 killed 123 wounded, and four missing. Combined with noncombatant losses, this represented one-fifth of the 173rd Airborne Brigade's total strength. For its combined actions during operations around Đắk Tô, the 173rd Airborne Brigade was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation.