Thomas J. Bleming, of Lusk, WY, who served as a LLRP (Long Range Recon Patrol), and assigned to the 52nd Airborne Pathfinders Detachment in and around DAK TO during his tour of duty in the Vietnam war. Mr. Bleming has made, so far, two trips back to DAK TO, BEN HET, and TAN CAHN. His first trip was in May of 2010.
These (15) pictures were taken at DAK TO, by Thomas J. Bleming, when he revisited DAK TO on his second trip on Nov 12, 2013.
May 2010, I returned to Dak To, Tan Cahn and heroic Ben Het. I wrote this story from Dak To.
Today (May 2010) marks the anniversary of the Battle of LZ (Landing Zone ) Yankee, where (during the Battle of Dak To, South Vietnam), my unit, the 52nd Airborne Pathfinders Detachment, made the very first victory by American forces against the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), that had Dak To under siege since May 6, 1969. Our successful assault allowed for US forces to open up offensive operations, from high ground, looking down into the valley and use LZ Yankee to position artillery fire down on the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. The Battle of Dak To lasted until sometime in July 1969. There was still much fighting ahead for all of us. This first American victory gave the men at Dak To a “Big” morale boost and showed the NVA that they were not “invincible.”
On this date, in 1969, at Dak To, South Vietnam, during a daylong lull in the fighting, Lieutenant Colonel Newman Howard, commander of the besieged US military base, located in the Central Highlands, delivers a grim announcement to the assembled defenders of Dak To, telling them that reinforcements are not coming and that they must do everything to insure that the base is not overrun by North Vietnamese forces. For most of the past three weeks, heavy monsoon rains along with thick cloud cover have greatly hampered the air force from bombing the NVA, who are based along Rocket Ridge, a mountain range just west of the base.
The weather has also greatly affected Dak To from being resupplied from the air. As of May 26, 1969, ammunition is being rationed to the defenders. LTC Howard tells the men that they only have enough ammunition to last for two more days. LTC Howard, a veteran of the Normandy invasion and the Korea War, tells the men that he will order a B-52 airstrike on Dak To, should enemy forces overrun their defenses. Meanwhile, just a few miles up the road at Ben Het, the American Green Beret’s and their Montagnard CIDG troops receive an airdrop of ammunition and food as fighting continues all around them. The battle of Dak To and Ben Het enters its fourth week.
Dak To, Socialist Republic of Vietnam --- “All glory is fleeting,” so goes an old Roman saying which holds true to this day. It came to mind as I casually walked around two historic battle grounds at Ben Het, where I fought in what was then called the Republic of South Vietnam in May and June of 1969. In the two battles, which at the time held the world’s attention for two months, American forces, greatly outnumbered, held their ground against a vastly superior force of North Vietnamese regulars who engaged us over a 56-day period. Our little base, manned by no more than 600 men, fought against an enemy 12 times our size. For 56 days and nights we were subjected to artillery, 122mm rockets, 120mm and 82mm mortars, B-40 rockets, enemy snipers and night time sapper attacks. Over 77,000 rounds of direct and indirect artillery fire fell on those defending the base, but Dak To held out against all odds. There would be no reinforcements for those of the 299th Engineer Battalion, whose mission was transformed overnight, once the battle started, from building roads to that of a front line infantry unit. To the west, nine miles from Dak To, was Ben Het, a Special Forces camp on what was then called the tri-border region because of its location and close proximity to neighboring Laos and Cambodia, which were a mere stone’s throw from the base’s barbed wire and sandbagged perimeter. Ben Het’s runway, at that time, was its only link to the outside world and it had been put out of commission early in the battle from intense North Vietnamese incoming artillery and 122mm rocket fire. Ammunition, food, and other supplies to keep the base from being overrun were delivered by US Air Force C-130’s and Caribou aircraft, which would fly low level over the camp, dropping their parachute containers while North Vietnamese gunners in nearby hills fired at these planes. On occasion the anti-aircraft fire was so intense that the air crews simply dropped their cargo from high altitudes rather than risk being shot out of the sky. On numerous occasions the precious cargos fell onto NVA and VC controlled territory. Several aircraft that serviced Ben Het were the victims of North Vietnamese gunners. Their skeletal remains littered the landscape all around the base’s perimeter. I was 23 years old, still for the most part innocent about life, full of patriotism and anti-communism, and a member of an elite group known as the Airborne Pathfinders. Ours was an all-volunteer unit, highly motivated and dedicated. Each one of us was a parachutist and above all, eager to engage an enemy who was determined, no matter the cost, to overrun these two strategic fire support bases in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. At 4 o’clock on the morning of May 6th, 1969, I along with other members of our Airborne Pathfinder team, stationed just outside of the Central Highlands city of Kontum, was awakened and told to grab what personal gear we had and get on waiting Huey UH-1 helicopters. Our destination was Ben Het. So began my transformation to that of a Dak To defender. Dak To was the scene of another bloody battle in 1967 in which elements of the US Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade fought North Vietnamese regulars on Hill 875. The Battle of Hill 875 was to be replayed, however, this time the US Army fire support base (FSB) at Dak To, just outside the sleepy South Vietnam hamlet of Tan Cahn would be the scene of what would become the second largest battle up to that time in the Vietnam War.
After 41 years to the day, when I fought North Vietnamese Army troops of the NVA’s 66th Regiment, on the ridgeline that overlooks Dak To (which we nicknamed “Rocket Ridge”), I have come back to see this place which has remained a part of my memory for over four decades. I have finally returned to this once heavily contested, blood-soaked piece of real estate in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. Of the 600 men who defended Dak To during those 56 days of grueling combat, over 45 percent were either killed or wounded. The estimated North Vietnamese losses were between 80-90 percent killed or wounded during this battle. My interpreter/guide from Kontum (a city about 35 miles from Dak To), leads me onto the runway, which is all but deserted except for a few Vietnamese farmers, who hardly pay us any attention as we get out of our vehicle. My guide tells me “Mr. Bleming, you are now here at Dak To.” “Yes, I am at Dak To. I have finally come back,” I replied. I begin to survey the runway, once it was the scene of carnage and death. All around me, I am (again) seeing the ghosts of the past, reliving what I had experienced firsthand, way back during that epic battle. As if I am in a sort of vacuum or vortex I am cascaded back in time. My mind travels to May 22, 1969, as I am about to board one of our 52nd Aviation Battalion’s “Huey” UH-1 helicopters, that are on Dak To’s runway, waiting for the order to head onto the top of Rocket Ridge on that afternoon in May 1969, to do battle with the enemy. I am a young warrior and I can actually feel myself youthful again as I go about the motions of getting on that imaginary Huey helicopter. My interpreter/guide looks on, as he has in the past, at the other old combat veterans that he has taken to Dak To and Ben Het, to live out their youthful days, when we were full of patriotic spirit and determination to do what each could to fight communism here in Southeast Asia. He says not a word, and if he had I would not have heard him, as my thoughts are back, many, many decades from the present. I don’t know how long of a time it is that I sit on the inside of the imaginary chopper on the old runway at Dak To. Somehow I snap out of my self-hypnotic trance and am back in the real world, on a deserted runway in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, under a blazing sun. I then make my way to the vehicle and retrieve an American flag that I flew at Dak To during the battle and after gently taking it out from a plastic bag, I then go over to a nearby tree which stands next to the runway and then tie each end to its small branches. A few minutes afterwards I remove the flag and hold it up to let the wind unfurl the colors, once again here on the sacred and hallowed ground. Later we make a tour of what was the fire base. It is now mostly jungle, as time and the elements have taken over. I locate a few spent bullets and gather up some dirt and place it into plastic bottles to take back with me to keep as a remembrance of my trip. In a few years, perhaps no more than five at the very most, both Ben Het as well as Dak To will be turned into either a housing development or become farm land. No trace of either base will be left for future generations to remember where history at a tremendous cost in human suffering and loss of life was made. As we who fought these battles become older, we too will pass away. It is important to those living, after we are long gone, to remember those who fought and died at such places as Dak To and Ben Het. Let the future of Vietnam be forever one of peace and tranquility between our two countries. I hope and pray that we shall never again lift arms to fight one another. I hope that the many people I have met with and spoken to while here in Vietnam helps with this reconciliation and healing process. I know that my trip back to Vietnam has been a very positive one for me and I hope that I can one day return.
Author’s note: More can be learned about the Battle of Dak To and Ben Het, Vietnam during May and June 1969 by searching the web ©Thomas J. Bleming. Permission given to reproduce and copy so long as author’s name is included with this story.