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Siege of Dak To 1969

Dak To Firebase and Airstrip 

Winter /Spring 1969

Dak To - Those veterans who served in the area invariably remember the name with sadness since so many lost friends there. For not only did the 173rd Airborne and the 4th Infantry Division battle the NVA in 1967, but all during the war Dak To was a focal point of almost constant combat. Even when there was no open violence, the mines planted in the roads at night by the NVA and Viet Cong claimed their victims, mostly among local civilians.

Nevertheless, during the summer of 1969, after the 4th Infantry Division units had all been withdrawn further south as part of US President Nixon's policy of Vietnamization, Dak To suddenly jumped back in the headlines. With the rest of the country comparatively quiet, Dak To became the scene of some of the fiercest fighting in South Vietnam.

With the US 4th Infantry now gone, the veteran 42nd ARVN Regiment was charged with the area's defense. But for reasons still unexplained, three companies of the US 299th Engineer Battalion and the attached 15th Light Equipment Company were left behind as support to the ARVN regiment and to defend the strategic airstrip at Dak To. Assisting them was elements of Headquarters and Service Batteries plus A and B Firing Batteries of the 1/92nd Artillery and a small US Air Force detachment assigned to maintain runway operations. Opposing the 42nd ARVN and their American allies were Hanoi's 66th Infantry Regiment and the 40th Artillery Battery -- some of the same units that the 173rd Airborne had fought and defeated in November of 1967. Contact between the rival armies was frequent, with the 42nd ARVN Regiment engaging its enemies almost every day. In the early months of 1969, the US engineers suffered occasional ambushes and their compound at Dak To was the target of infrequent mortar attacks and sapper probes. As yet, American casualties remained comparatively small. But that was about to change.
Siege of Dak To

In May of 1969, the North Vietnamese launched a major campaign against the American base at Dak To. Cynics claimed that the engineers and gunners had been left behind as "bait" to draw the NVA from their hills, thus exposing them better to bombing strikes by B-52s flying from Guam and Thailand. The American military officially denied this, but the commander of the 42nd ARVN Regiment openly stated that it was indeed the reason. The subject is controversial even today.
During the ensuing siege of Dak To, from May through July 1969, the American base was defended by the 299th Engineer Battalion, A Battery of the 1/92nd Artillery, and a detachment of "dusters" from the Americal Division (highly mobile lightly armored vehicles mounting twin 40 mm guns). Total American troop strength at Dak To probably was not more than 600 men, while an estimated 5,000 NVA took part in the operations against the Americans and the ARVN infantry bases. During the battle the American engineers suffered an extremely high casualty rate of about 45%, though fortunately most were comparatively minor wounds. Still, at least 19 engineers died of their wounds. The artillery suffered 6 KIA and 25 WIA. It was a favorite target of the NVA because of the damage it was inflicting on enemy forces. Alpha Battery often exchanged direct fire with the NVA while providing fire support to ARVN forces. As a result, it took numerous direct hits from rockets, mortars, recoilless rifles, and B-40 rockets. Two of its howitzers at the Ben Het Special Forces Camp suffered equal damage.

Dak To was subjected to daily 122 mm rocket attacks, plus occasional artillery fire from a surprisingly accurate recoilless rifle. The usual time for the shelling was around noon, the NVA obviously hoping to catch the Americans dining in the mess hall. (The NVA did get lucky one day, when the 15th LE Company took a disastrous hit. A 122 mm rocket chanced to penetrate their headquarters bunker, killing the company commander, first sergeant, operations sergeant, company clerk, commo section on duty, and a reaction force which had taken cover there.) Nights were often punctuated by heavy mortar attacks, while sapper probes were frequent. (Several times NVA sappers were killed in their attempt to penetrate the perimeter and their bodies discovered the next morning.) The entire base at Dak To was kept on constant alert, with the men sleeping on the perimeter, ready to repel ground attacks or to take cover in foxholes and trenches when required. Fortunately, this was during the rainy season and the muddy ground absorbed many rockets and mortar rounds before they exploded, limiting the spread of the shrapnel. Otherwise, the American casualties might well have been much higher. The Dak To defenders were on the receiving end of NVA attacks for over 30 days without let up, which kept American nerves on edge. Dak To was cut off by ground and supplies had to be flown in from Pleiku. At one point, the engineers -- who were still equipped with the older 7.62 mm M-14 rifle -- had to pull apart belts from their M-60 machine guns (also 7.62 mm) to obtain ammunition for their rifle magazines.

Yet amazingly, despite the presence of the NVA regulars, the 299th Engineer Battalion continued its regular mine sweeps and attempted to support friendly units in the area. It was during an unsuccessful attempt to bring supplies to the besieged Special Forces camp at Ben Het that A Company, 299th suffered its heaviest casualties, losing its acting executive officer and his driver/radio operator and having several men wounded so seriously that they had to be flown to hospitals in Japan. D Company, 299th also lost men during several of its mine sweeps on that same road.
And then suddenly in late July 1969, having taken very heavy losses from the American artillery and the B-52 bombers, the North Vietnamese regulars retreated back into their hills and were seen no more. The siege of Dak To had ended as abruptly as it had begun.

Later, in both 1971 and 1972, the North Vietnamese swept through Dak To again. Because of the difficulty with the weather and the terrain, plus the absence of the Americans this time, the NVA largely maintained freedom of operations, as far as staging for and commencing battle.

For their outstanding performance in the 1969 defense of Dak To, both the 299th Engineer Battalion and the 1/92nd Artillery were awarded the Valorous Unit Award, the Army's second highest unit decoration. The 299th Engineer Battalion would also receive the Republic of Vietnam's Cross of Gallantry unit citation with Palm.

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