by Peter S. Griffin
In early June of 1966 two battalions of the 101st Airborne Division were engaged in one of the most highly contested battles of the entire Viet Nam War. It was a slugfest, toe-to-toe, bitter, bloody fight, from beginning to end. Named “Operation Hawthorne”, it unfolded in the triple canopy, jungle-mountains in the central highlands near Dak To. Our mission was to relieve the besieged Special Forces camp at Toumorong that was being threatened by the crack North Vietnamese Army’s 24th Infantry Regiment. Their mission was to draw in a U.S. brigade and annihilate it, on their own well, prepared turf and under their own terms.
Thirty-two years have passed since those awful, bloody days of carnage and devastation. As a young PFC, nearing the end of my tour, I had no idea of the effect this battle would have on the rest of my life. For two and a half decades I struggled to keep the events of that time tucked neatly away, in the recesses of my mind. It was a wasted effort, for every day my mind was invaded by intrusive thoughts and flashbacks. My nights were no better, filled with restless, sleepless hours or unwanted, dreaded nightmares.
During this twenty-five year period, I read nothing of the reports on this battle nor had I made contact with anyone who had fought there. I knew nothing of what had been documented or what had transpired in the lives of my fellow combatants. Then in 1989 I attended my first Army reunion. There I had the great honor and privilege to, once again, make contact with some very special people, the veterans of the 1st Brigade. This opened the door to several more reunions and of course, to many spirited and lively conversations. To my elation I found that all veterans, enlisted men, NCO’s, officers, and yes, even general officers were now interrelating, as if devoid of rank. It was and still is, a most thrilling and special occasion to talk to some people whom I used to (and still do) consider, next to God or at least God like. Over time I discovered that I was even capable of carrying on conversations with them, in a relaxed manner; instead of just replying, “Yes Sir or No Sir!”; while I snapped to Attention! Since 1989 I have enjoyed the company of these very special people, veterans of all ranks, at every available opportunity.
As my exposure to personal and written accounts of Dak To became more available, my curiosity and thirst for knowledge as to what actually happened there grew. I wanted to learn all I could about the battle. I wanted an overall view of the entire battle, not just the personal, narrow remembrances of my own limited experience. As a result I have read many old newspaper accounts, magazine articles and several books. I visited the National Archives, read and copied official Army documents including maps, daily journals, battle logs and lessons learned.
After digesting all this, I have come to believe that the battles of Dak To, as recorded, are nearly as confusing in print as experiencing it at ground level as a PFC. This should not come as a surprise to anyone simply because of the very nature of the operation. It was extremely intense and complex because so many small units were engaged simultaneously throughout the area of operation. One thing does stand out clear and precise… it was a chaotic melee of heavyweight bouts, clear and simple!
Some of the material that I have read has addressed the decision-making processes employed in this fierce and savage operation. Tactics and deployments have been questioned. I have even read where some people consider earned ” glory and recognition” went to the wrong units or individuals. They are entitled to their opinions and conclusions whether reasonable or not. My purpose is to relate feelings from the heart and soul, not to second-guess anyone or to be a “Monday Morning Quarterback”.
Perhaps the most controversial incident to occur during Operation Hawthorne was the napalm drop. I have talked to several troopers of “C” company who were there. Some feel it was an over-reaction, others feel that without it they wouldn’t be here to discuss their feelings and thoughts on the subject. The majority opinion seems to go with the later. For a fact, many of the major players involved have little doubt that “C” company would have certainly died on that ridge without it. I know, some will say that I wasn’t at “ground zero”, and because of that fact, my conclusion is faulty and open to criticism, but the proof is written at the “bottom line”. Yes, friendly as well as enemy casualties did result, but the drop did break off that enemy assault and allow time for “C” company to regroup and reorganize. The only credible, tangible evidence as to the success of this extraordinary decision is the results on that “bottom line”, i.e. SURVIVORS!
The other point of controversy I noted was that Company “A” of the 1/327th Infantry, while attempting to rescue “C” company of the O’deuce, was the real enemy target, and that they bore the brunt of the fighting; without proper credit or recognition in the press. To me, this, whether true or not is irrelevant and does not matter for I know these soldiers are highly respected by their peers. Press recognition is nice but is not the ultimate acclaim. The only fact that really matters is that all our units were heavily engaged in bitter fighting and performed admirably. Our overall military mission was to seek out and destroy the enemy and personally… to SURVIVE, not to worry about honorable mention. Some will ask, “How can I honestly and sincerely make this statement?” My answer is pure and simple, I, along with the rest of my weapons platoon was attached to that company and faced that enemy buzz saw along with those very brave troops. This fact has never been mentioned in declassified print before and remains irrelevant to the history of that illustrious sister company of gallant warriors.
After studying all these accounts and considering the various facts, opinions and views contained therein, I have reached some basic conclusions. Amazingly, they are from the perspectives I had all along, before I did any research. They are from my own personal observations at dirt level as a PFC.
First and foremost, there is no doubt in my mind that every individual soldier engaged in Operation Hawthorne gave the utmost of himself for the successful completion of the mission. That every individual, no matter what rank, made the best possible decisions under the disjointed and confusing circumstances presented. Many hard and serious decisions had to be made without time for second-guessing. I don’t think there is a combat veteran alive that wouldn’t admit that. We all have to live with our own decisions, made in combat that had an effect on the lives of others. Undoubtedly, command decisions bore the greatest risk and responsibility. I thank God that He provided the great commanders and NCO’s we had during those turbulent and deadly encounters.
I am still amazed by the extraordinary stamina displayed by our troops and cadre. To exhibit such strength and endurance under such terrible conditions and stress staggers the imagination. To fight so aggressively and bravely for such long periods of time without rest and basic sustenance is almost incomprehensible. Sleep deprivation seemed to have no negative effect on the ability of our soldiers or leaders. The heavy monsoon rains did not seem to dampen their spirits or abilities either. On the other hand… it certainly aided our enemies by providing cloud cover, which restricted our medivacs, artillery, airstrikes and re-supply of ammo and other much needed supplies. No doubt, they very cleverly took this into consideration before attempting to take on such a formidable opponent as the 1st Brigade.
Operation Hawthorne also offered me the opportunity to observe, first hand, other magnificent units in action. The artillerymen at Toumorong who put up such a tenacious fight have left an indelible respect in my mind that will last forever. I will never forget those beehive rounds tearing into the enemy as they viciously charged their emplacements. The combat engineers fought bravely as infantrymen protecting the defensive perimeter from many concentrated attacks. Later they cut out landing zones with chainsaws under deadly enemy fire to extract our dead and wounded, with little concern for their own safety. The many aviation units as they risked all above the triple canopy jungles, under intense enemy fire, to provide the many services needed in support of the beleaguered ground troops. The Recondos’ as they stealthily made their way through the dense bamboo, to provide much needed intelligence. The Tiger Force as they fearlessly took on an overwhelming superior enemy force at great risk and peril. All the units, all the men, God bless them all, “the long, the short and the tall”..
The troopers of these individual units took on this well equipped, numerically superior enemy force, on their terms, on the well-prepared ground of their choosing and under the protective cover of the monsoon season. Despite these many significant disadvantages they fought courageously and they prevailed. When it was all over the 24th NVA Regiment was rendered unfit as a fighting unit.
I have yet to meet a veteran of Dak To who has not been dramatically affected by what transpired there, all are humbled by the magnitude, dedication, unselfish efforts and sacrifices made there by our fellow soldiers. Many brave Screaming Eagles fell accomplishing this mission. Their efforts and sacrifices will never be forgotten. They are etched into the hearts, minds and souls of all who survived this ferocious battle.
Perhaps it truly is most fitting that the napalm drop be remembered as the single most significant event of Operation Hawthorne…. The explosive, searing, oxygen stealing, blasting inferno has long ago dissipated into oblivion, but in its’ wake it has left one brilliant incandescent legacy. This AFTERGLOW is the indomitable fighting airborne spirit of the soldiers of the 1st Brigade (separate), 101st Airborne Division, Vietnam, 1965-68. I am most proud to be counted within your ranks. It is a great honor to have served with you. God bless you all.