In the Central Highlands the month of June meant the monsoon rains and under its cover came a major enemy offensive. That
is why the 101st's Odyssey included the fateful stop at Dak To and Operation Hawthorne, now famous as a classic
spoiling attack which blunted the NVA monsoon offensive in Kontum Province.
As the troopers unloaded from the reliable C-130 aircraft on the airstrip next to the Civilian Irregular Defense Group
(CIDG) Camp at Dak To, the found themselves in the beautiful green jungles of the cool Highlands. But as they looked to the
left and the right, then quickly to the front and rear they noticed one very strange aspect of their new operational area
- a ring of mountains, surrounded by even taller, heavily overgrown mountains. "I've never seen Dien Bien Phu, said one trooper,
"but this sure looks like the description," he concluded. Neither he nor his comrades could then know that nine days later
a very similar battle would erupt, except in reverse.
The first mission of Operation Hawthorne was to relieve the beleaguered mountain outpost
of Toumorong. The 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry, teamed up with elements of the 24th Tactical Zone Command (42d ARVN Regiment
and 21st Ranger Battalion) to accomplish this phase of the operation. The intelligence reports received at Brigade Headquarters
indicated a major enemy drive were under way to overrun the Central Highlands - first Toumorong on the high ground overlooking
the Dak Tan Kan Valley, next Dak To, and finally Kontum itself. Toumorong was the focal point in the initial enemy offensive
to capture the North Central Highlands.
At 2:30 in the morning of June 7th an estimated North Vietnamese Army battalion of the 24th NVA Regiment savagely attacked
an artillery-infantry-engineer position in the valley west of Toumorong. This was the beginning of two weeks of the most violent
fighting in the war in Vietnam.
The position was manned by "B" Battery, 2nd Howitzer Battalion, 320th Artillery; Company "A" 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry;
and elements of "A" Company, 326th Engineer Battalion. The charging enemy was able to penetrate the artillery's perimeter
where one of the small dramas of the war took place.
Gun number six came under extremely heavy attack, wherein a small war ensued over the ownership of the howitzer position.
Twice the enemy took the position, twice the gun crew, turned infantry, took it back. The battle that had the winner take
all climax saw the valiant Americans secure their weapon and fire point-blank into the still charging NVA ranks. As dawn brought
light to the exhausted warriors, 86 enemy bodies were counted, 13 of them inside the artillery position.
After relieving the Toumorong outpost, the 1st Battalion, 327th Inf. struck north to attack the blood-stained enemy. Another
bitter battle erupted, this time engaging all three of the battalion's infantry companies at one time, each in separate fire
fights. It was to last for six bloody days. As the battle raged the 1/327ths elite Tiger Force was hard hit and almost overrun
by an estimated two companies of heavily armed, well-trained NVA regulars. The battle for the valley and Kontum Province was
on and the enemy prayed for one thing, the monsoon with its accompanying clouds, mist, and rain. The 2d Battalion, 502nd Inf.
was helilifted into a blocking position where they would begin a sweep south to link up with their heavily engaged sister
They too were hit and hit hard. The enemy had heavy machine guns and automatic weapons dug in all along the valley wall.
He had been there a long time preparing for this battle. Now all the infantry companies of both paratrooper battalions were
heavily engaged. It was then that one of the most heroic actions of the war took place. Captain William S. Carpenter, Commander
of Co. "C", 2d Battalion, 502d Inf. found his unit surrounded and being overrun by what was later estimated to be an NVA battalion.
As he spoke to his battalion commander the voices of the screaming, charging enemy could be heard over the radio. The Company
Commander called an air strike on his own position - "Theyre all around us and in us - lets take them with us - put it right
on top of us." The only thing in the air at the time was napalm but the enemy attack was broken and the company was saved.
However, it was still surrounded until "A" Company pressed through the thicket of bamboo and heavy enemy fire to relieve the
pressure on "C" Company.
Still another drama was to take place. A provisional company of troopers of the 2/502d was quickly organized from men at
the Phan Rang base camp. There was tangible evidence of the esprit de corps, courage, and fighting heart of the Screaming
Eagles. These volunteers were either on orders to go home, recuperating from previous wounds, or about to go on "R&R"
out of the country. This company would take the high ground above Companies "A" and "C" and hold the landing zone to permit
helicopter extraction of their dead and wounded. The enemy strength was fixed as a well-trained NVA regular Regt., probably
reinforced. Their heavy weapons were strategically placed in sturdy bunkers which were spread out along the fingers and draws
of the mountainside. As the battered but courageous 2d Bn., 502d Inf. companies regrouped on Ncoc Run Ridge and the 1st Bn.,
327th Inf., continued their relentless attack from the south, a decision was made - bring in the big ones - let the B-52 bombers
batter Dak Tan Kan Valley before the Brigade moved in for the final kill. By now the battle was seven full days old and the
whole world knew of the fight. The artillery had pounded the enemy, the air strikes had constantly pelted him and now B-52
bombers would set the stage for the final destruction of the 24th NVA Regiment.
On Monday morning, June 13th, while the mountain mist was slowly rising from the valley, 24 waves of bombers created a
maze of craters below. As the 1/327 and the 2/502 swept into the hills to clean up what was left, they found a systematic
series of tunnels, some going as deep as 50 feet, but they also found among the dead and dying, several score who fought on.
The final of Operation Hawthorne was ferreting out and killing or capturing the diehards.
Maj. Gen. Stanley R. Larsen, Commanding General, I Field Force Vietnam, then on a trip to the United States, publicly stated
that the 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Div., was "the best fighting unit in Vietnam." When he addressed the troops at Dak To,
Gen. W. C. Westmoreland, COMUSMACV, first saluted the men of the brigade, then in stirring words praised their gallantry and
heroism. Following Captain Carpenters heroic action in the battle, the White House Press Secretary said, "The President finds
it an inspiring chapter in the Vietnam story."
Highlights - As a result of its fierce determination and extraordinary heroism on the field of battle, the 1st Brigade,
101st Airborne Division, succeeded in accomplishing its mission to find, fix, and destroy North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces
in the Dak To, Tan Canh, and Toumorong area. In a brilliant scheme of maneuver, two battalions executed a double envelopment
against an entrenched NVA Regiment, the 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry, attacking north, and the 2d Battalion, 502d Infantry,
attacking south with both battalions supported by a massive expenditure of firepower, including 27,000 rounds of artillery
and bombs from 473 sorties. This equaled 1.6 KTs of ordnance. During the hours of darkness and periods of reduced visibility
resulting from the southwest monsoons, around-the-clock close air support was provided by 160 radar-controlled air strikes.
During the operation the equivalent of nearly 15,000 troops were airlifted in 33 separate airmobile operations evidencing
the speed and mobility of the Brigades operation in maintaining heavy pressure on the enemy during 16 days and nights of continuous
contact. The Brigade successfully exploited a massive B-52 strike employed in a close support role with an airmobile assault
into the center of the target area 30 minutes after the strike.
Operation Hawthorne was one of the most viciously contested battles of the Vietnam war. Once the battle was joined, the
fighting was continuous. Day and night the battle raged, moving from bunkers to trench line, to spider hole, to bamboo thicket,
to stream bed, and finally - to victory.
At the conclusion of Operation Hawthorne, the 24th NVA North Vietnamese Army Regiment was rendered ineffective as a fighting
unit., suffering over 1200 casualties by body count. By comparison, friendly casualties were 48 dead and 239 wounded. The
ratio of enemy to friendly dead was 10 to 1 and the capture of 86 individual and 24 crew-served weapons resulted in a body
count to weapons ratio of 4.3 to 1. Most significantly, a major North Vietnamese offensive to seize the North Central Highlands
was blunted with a classic spoiling attack.
Excerpt from: Vietnam Odyssey: The story of the 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne
Division, in Vietnam. Copyright 1967 by the 101st Airborne Division Association.