(This chapter was cut down severely in the second draft of Yasutsune “Tony” Hirashiki’s “On the Frontlines of the Television War.” Here is the first draft.)
In early November of 1967, the US military command became aware of an enemy plan to launch a major assault in the Dak To region and sent over 16,000 troops from the Fourth Division, the 173rd Airborne Brigade, and the 1st Cavalry along with several South Vietnamese battalions. More Americans would die taking Hill 875 than any other specific piece of land in the entire war.
The bloodiest battle occurred from November 19th to the 23rd. Several hundred soldiers from the 2nd Battalion of the 503rd Airborne Infantry moved up the slopes of Hill 875. Just as the lead elements were hit with rockets, recoilless rifles, grenades, and small arms from the North Vietnamese who were hidden in well-built bunkers and trenches at the top of the hill, the company at the rear of the column was attacked by a battalion of the enemy—the American soldiers were caught in a trap. They retreated up the mountain with the enemy in close pursuit and, according to reports, only managed to avoid being overrun by soldiers who stayed behind and died holding off the North Vietnamese. They managed to link up but were still trapped on the mountain slopes with no water and no hope of resupply: six helicopters were shot down on the first afternoon as they tried to reach the beleaguered soldiers.
Air support was called in to bombard the top of Hill 875 but two bombs went astray and landed in the middle of the American position, right on the commanders, the wounded and the medics. The scene commander was killed along with 42 other soldiers. The next day, November 20th, three companies of the 4th Battalion of the 503rd were sent in to reinforce their comrades but it took most of the day for them to fight their way through heavy sniper and mortar fire from the North Vietnamese.
On the 21st, both battalions assaulted the crest of the hill but were forced to retreat with serious losses. At midnight, the 1st Battalion of the 4th Division redeployed to Dak To and on the 23rd of November, all three forces assaulted the mountain and took the crest, only to find that the enemy had abandoned the position. It was five days of horrific hand-to-hand combat, artillery, and air strikes. and in the end, the Vietnamese withdrew into Cambodia, leaving the Americans with almost 400 dead and over 1400 wounded. General William Westmoreland in Saigon declared the battle a victory but, if it was a victory, it was a certainly a bitter one for the soldiers on the front lines.
ABC News had gotten news of the battle late and so I flew with Dick Harris and correspondent Ed Needham into Dak To on the evening of the 24th. My competitive spirit made me hate arriving at a story late but sometimes it was simply beyond our control. On the day we arrived to cover the battle, there was already a large group of press standing not far from the runway of Dak To airfield near the special forces camp that was now a Press Center.
Once again, my soundman was Dick Harris but my correspondent was a new guy named Edward Needham, a veteran print reporter who had worked for several magazines but had only recently joined ABC. He was older and appeared to be a calm, gentle, and experienced reporter but it was the first time we had worked together. What we were told was that only Peter Arnett of Associated Press and two others had made it to the top of the hill and they had made it by winning seats in a chopper through a lottery. The military authorities thought it was still too dangerous to bring in the media. I could only comfort myself with the thought that the other two networks were stuck down in Dak To with me.
We were waiting for a helicopter which could take us to the top of Hill 875 when the soldiers began to come down from the battle. The Press Officer put up a rope along the edge of the path and told us not to badger the troops with questions. Some people think that the press is just a ruthless mob but that’s really not true, especially when the story is as tragic and serious as Hill 875. The network crews, reporters, and photographers all agreed to go along and we stood in a line along the rope. My camera was loaded with a full roll of film and I’d checked the microphone with Dick Harris.
When the first wave of helicopters landed about a hundred yards away, there was silence in the press corps as dozens of black plastic body bags were unloaded along with others who were only wrapped in their own green ponchos. As the choppers continued to shuttle between the hilltop and the base, we saw the wounded come in and then the first Airborne survivors. They were walking past only fifty feet away and no one in the press said a word. We all filmed and took pictures but after a look at their faces, the reporters were silent.
Their faces were filthy and unshaven, their uniforms stiff with a mixture of mud and blood and, in their eyes, you could see their anger and frustration. The walking wounded were covered with blood-soaked bandages that had turned a dark red that was almost brown. Their feet were dragging, and they walk past in complete silence. It was anything but a victory march by these brave, elite American soldiers.
When the second group came past, a reporter finally called out, “What happened at the front?” and another asked, “Tell us what happened on Hill 875.”
The soldiers just kept walking past without the slightest reaction and didn’t say a word. We were surprised when a few turned around and walked back to where we were standing. They faced the cameras and the massed microphones and began to tell us what had happened.
It was an eruption of anger, frustration, and sorrow at the hell they had gone through for the past days. In the beginning, the soldiers spoke one by one but soon they began to talk over each other, shouting and even weeping as the terrible memories poured out. I had covered these units before and I knew that they were some of the toughest troops the Americans had. It was a scene of raw emotion.
The military press officials tried to stop the men from speaking by pulling them away from the press but the soldiers ignored them and continued to tell us their stories of hell. We all stayed behind the rope but the soldiers came closer and their stories became more intimate. Everything they said was a testimony to the shocking, brutal, bitter and cruel nature of the fighting on that hill. They were so angry that curse words and slang came pouring out; i knew we couldn’t broadcast that sort of language back in those days but they were speaking from the heart and they were probably the only words that could begin to express their feeling. It was the reality of war being told in a truer way than I had seen in all the time I’d been in Vietnam.
It was not victory. Yes, they had taken the hill on Thanksgiving Day but, even with my imperfect English, I could understand how rough it had been up there. The tunnels and trenches that the North Vietnamese had built all across the battlefield had made a single, almost unbreakable fortress. The soldiers said that when they got close, the enemy set off smoke grenades that confused the Marine and Air Force bombers and led to the catastrophic bombing. If anything, they were angriest about the “friendly fire,” which had slammed high explosives and even napalm into the medics as they frantically worked to save the wounded.
This was going to be our first report and we had to ship it to Saigon as soon as possible. We knew that the next vital scenes would be from the wreckage on top of Hill 875. The other networks had two crews but ABC, as usual, only could send one so we decided to split up. Dick took one sound camera and went with Ed to finish the story at the bottom of the hill while I took my faithful Bell & Howell silent camera and followed the reinforcements from the 4th Infantry as they moved up to replace the battered remnants of the 503rd Airborne.
All three of us would then meet at the top of the hill when the press was allowed to be taken there. Although it would be a pretty serious march, I figured I could reach the top of the hill faster by following these replacements than by waiting what I was told would be hours for helicopters to be available.
While Ed was busy somewhere else, Dick told me to wait with the other crews—it was still too dangerous to climb through that hellish battlefield.
“I’ll be OK.” I answered, “Now, after you record the narration and ship the film, just make sure you guys get to the top to pick me up. I’ll wait there until you come. If you arrive before me, please wait for me.”
Of course, I actually was a little scared to go alone, but ABC was behind our competitors so we absolutely needed these pictures of the hill where all the action had taken place. As I’ve said before, I had a very competitive spirit.
We split up and I followed the reinforcements. These soldiers were fresh and strong so they moved at a fast pace. I was lucky I was carrying the small camera and not the heavy Auricon because it made it possible to keep up with them. The troops moved in a single column as we went up the mountain trails, but split up when we reached the edge of the fortifications at the top. Then they very slowly and carefully climbed towards the top of the hill. Just days ago, North Vietnamese soldiers had charged down on the struggling Airborne troops in a human wave attack and completely wiped out a whole platoon.
I filmed the soldiers but since they were trying to maintain silence, I worried that the sound of my camera was too loud. The soundproof case is what adds all the weight to the Auricon camera and the Bell & Howell didn’t have it so I tried to keep my filming to the minimum. As we got closer to the top, I could see the fierceness of the battle in the blasted and uprooted trees and the smoke that was still rising from those that had burned.
Once in a while, US Air Force jets passed overhead and each time, the men on the ground looked up nervously and swore at the pilot who had killed so many of the Airborne troops. In the end, the last yards to the top of the hill was bare earth from the constant bombardment: enormous pits in the red earth and all the trees and bushes torn away and burned.
When we finally reached the top, I could see the deep bunkers and sandbagged trenches that the enemy had built. Some of them were ten feet deep and had tunnels so soldiers could fire from one spot and reappear at another. While I was filming, an Airborne soldier who was standing next to me said emotionally, “When we took those bunkers, the US. Air Force jet dropped bombs. It was Napalm! Look how the bodies of American and Vietnamese soldiers are all together. They died in the same bunkers when the bombs hit.”
The view from the top of the hill was stunning. I could see for miles in all directions and picked out the low ground where Dak To stood. Militarily, I guess this view was the goal that to many soldiers fought and died to hole. For a hilltop base, 875 was quite spacious, about as big as two tennis courts. Helicopters were coming in and out with dead and wounded. In one corner of the base, there was a pile of canteens, knapsacks, helmets, boots and all the other personal items that had been collected from the slopes where so many had died. From the sheer size of the pile, you could guess how many had fallen.
It was about 3 pm when I reached the base after three hours of marching. I filmed all around the battered fortifications and was finished in about an hour. I was a bit concerned that a press helicopter hadn’t arrived because I really wasn’t all that interested in spending a night where so many night assaults had happened. Now, I know that the North Vietnamese, who had been badly hurt as well, were already across the border in Cambodia, but at the time, I had no idea if we’d simply be attacked again.
Just after 4, helicopters landed with a general and other command-level officers and, to my relief, Ed Needham and Dick Harris. There was going to be a memorial service for the soldiers who given their lives for this scrap of land. I was told that it would be a tradition.
The rifles of the dead soldiers had their bayonets attached and rammed point first into the ground and the men’s helmets placed on top. In front of each rifle, a pair of newly-shined boots were carefully placed. It struck me that the long line of rifles, helmets, and boots looked as lot as if the soldiers themselves were lined up at attention. w
Behind this sad formation, the surviving Airborne soldiers lined up to honor the fallen. There were no flowers, no candles, no photos, and no eulogies—it was a simple and short ceremony, but a very emotional one all the same. A chaplain gave a short prayer and a soldier played Taps on his trumpet. The sad tune of the trumpet echoed across the mountain and down to the valley below. The Airborne soldiers stood motionless but I could see tears flowing down their cheeks. I had trouble focusing because I was crying as well.
I didn’t know why I was crying, it wasn’t my war. These weren’t my people.
Perhaps Taps, which is played at the end of every day in an Army camp, was simply too sad.
Perhaps. But even I don’t believe that.
In A Companion to the Vietnam War (2008), Chester Pach described Ed’s report:
“ABC Correspondent Ed Needham’s wrap-up report after the North Vietnamese had abandoned Hill 875 was filled with “unhappy scenes,” since Dak To had claimed more US lives than any previous battle in the war. “It was a hard fight,” Needham concluded as the film showed a helmet on the ground with a hole ripped through it. “It hardly seems worth it.”