1st Reporter There Sees Dak Pek Hanging In
EDITOR'S NOTE: Stars and Stripes correspondent Seth Lipsky was the first American correspondent on the ground at the Dak Pek Special Forces camp, and he spent Wednesday night there. This is his report.
By SPEC. 4 SETH LIPSKY
S & S Staff Correspondent
DAK PEK, Vietnam -- In a bunker atop the American hill at this embattled camp Wednesday afternoon, a U.S. Special Forces sergeant dropped an 81 mm shell into a mortar tube sighted on an enemy mortar and hollered, "Hanging one round."
Since Dak Pek, 75 miles southwest of Da Nang and seven miles from Laos, was ferociously attacked early Sunday, mortars were not all the defenders needed to hang in against the enemy. Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) troops were hanging in machine-gun fire and hand grenades. At night, planes were overhead spraying in red blazes of bullets. And when the hills shook in the afternoon, jets were hanging in 750-pound bombs.
But despite bombs, bullets and mortars, the Reds were still hitting with everything from 122 mm rockets and machine-gun fire to AK47, recoilless rifle and CS gas. According to the camp commander, an average of 200 assorted rounds have been coming in each day.
Even so, Wednesday's tense exchanges, which carried all through the blazing night, were only the anticlimax of a battle which saw one major hill taken by the North Vietnamese Army for 2+1/2 days before it was recaptured and a highly fortified U.S. Special Forces bunker complex almost completely destroyed by swarms of Communist sappers.
The U.S., or American, hill, as it is called here, is one of a dozen hills at Dak Pek and was hit by the enemy at 2 a.m. Sunday.
The story was told Wednesday by the Vietnamese camp commander of Civilian Irregular Defense Group troops and American Special Forces advisors here, most of them bearded, patched and weary.
The sappers came up through the wire from the northeast. Almost before any warning was sounded they were blowing bunkers with powerful satchel charges.
The charges caved in the main U.S. bunker to a flaming pile of concrete, the advisors said. At least one U.S. advisor was temporarily trapped inside. A guard, a CIDG soldier and the soldier's wife were killed. Escaping through bunker tunnels, U.S. Green Berets for 30 minutes held only one circular mortar pit. "They had us the first night," a Green Beret said, "and they blew it."
They blew it, partly, within 10 minutes after the 30-odd sappers hit the hill. The symbolic climax came when one of the enemy stood and hauled the Viet Cong flag halfway up a pole. Sgt. 1.C. Thomas Weeks stood up from a bunker and shot the Red down.
On the hill during the battle there was in-fighting amid flaming trenches. During the battle allied troops had to put on gas masks because of enemy CS.
At one point Weeks was in the mortar pit when a VC came in flinging a satchel charge that blew him back into a tunnel. Weeks came out fighting, as did the rest of the defenders.
Then CIDG security leader Dang Can Ban led his group up the back side of the American hill, and together with the CIDGs and Americans routed the sappers, killing 30. The hill was held.
Across the camp, Hill 203 was not held. At Hill 203 officers here said, the Communists "had inside help." According to camp commander 1st Lt. Nguyen Quy Dinh, he knew something was wrong on Hill 203 when he couldn't raise his commander on the radio. Later, he said, they discovered the "VC tied up the company commander, cut off his head, and killed his wife and children."
The enemy also struck and burned villages surrounding the camp. The civilians made for a district compound south of the camp.
Then Sunday morning, air-strikes were called in on Hill 203 and on villages that could be cleared by bombing. At one point during the air-strikes, describers of the battle said, 750-pounders were called in only 50 to 150 yards from friendly forces.
And Sunday afternoon, following a decision by the camp commander, preparations were made to assault Hill 203 and get it back.
What followed during the next three days, as described by participants, were as many as five direct assaults across a saddle and up the steep face of the hill squarely into the face of enemy fire. Said one officer: "It was trench warfare."
In Sunday's assault, CIDG troops, mobile strike force reinforcement and U.S. and Vietnamese Special Forces were unable to take the hill back completely.
The CIDG forces, according to a source here, "were really spooked." They are trained as jungle fighters, it was explained, and direct assaulting of a hill was new to them. But when the final charges were made up the hill Tuesday, it was a short, stocky CIDG fighter named A Jong who emerged as the camp hero.
Monday, airstrikes with bombs and napalm had been called in on the hill. Despite that, Monday night the enemy also gained an outpost near the hill, a source here said. And when allied forces went in to retake the hill Tuesday they still had direct fire from the hill and the outpost to contend with.
To gain the hill, the forces -- American, CIDG, mobile strike and Vietnamese -- had to get through two wire gates under enemy fire.
It took three rushes to finally gain the whole hill and outpost. And when they gained the hill they had to go methodically from bunker to bunker lobbing hand grenades and hitting the ground to escape the blast.
When the hill was gained, 31 enemy dead, eight AK47s four B40 rockets and many satchel charges and bangalore torpedos were found at the top.
With the retaking of Hill 203 and its neighboring outpost, the camp's integrity was restored. But the sniping and fire fights and probes and incoming rounds continue here from an estimated two enemy battalions in the high ridges and low valleys around Dak Pek.
The American Special Forces troops who have fought here and elsewhere in Vietnam on this and earlier tours, the camp remains in the words of one soldier, "one of the most difficult in II corps."