The Battle of the Slopes
The Battle of the Slopes was the site of an engagement between elements of the 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate), nicknamed "Westmoreland's Fire Brigade" and NVA units, as part of Operation Greeley.
The 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate) was among the first U.S. formations deployed to Vietnam, and was intended as an elite, rapid-reaction force meant to counter NVA infiltration into the Central Highlands.
The battle occured around Đắk Tô Base Camp, part of MACV-SOG operations intended to surveillance and gather intelligence on the Ho Chi Minh Trail on supplies flowing into South Vietnam. In 1967 mortar units begun shelling the Dak To Base Camp, intending to draw US Forces to assault NVA/PAVN positions within the Central Highlands Western Kon Tum was covered by double and triple-canopy rainforests, and the only open areas were filled in by bamboo groves whose stalks sometimes reached eight inches in diameter.
On 20 June, Company C, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment discovered the bodies of a Special Forces CIDG unit that had been missing for four days on Hill 1338 (
), the dominant hill mass south of Dak To. With mortar fire and ambushes ongoing around the Dak To base camp, the 173rd Airborne Brigade, a highly-mobile team intended to rapidly deploy across the Central Highlands, was quickly alerted to respond.
Two companies of the 2nd Battalion were airlifted onto a steep hill near Hill 1338 on June 21st. The two companies had set up camp for the night, intending to assault the top of the hill later in the day. During this time, a scout sent out on night reconnaissance was shot and killed, while one US sentry accidentally killed a GI whom momentarily stepped out of the perimeter to relieve himself.
At 06:58 the following morning, Company A began gradually moving up a ridge finger. Apatrol from Company A had stumbled upon an NVA squad, opening fire before withdrawing. Within minutes an ambush was triggered by a platoon-sized group of the 6th Battalion of the 24th PAVN Regiment and AK-47 fire came from all directions in a "grab-by-the-belt" scenario. Under attack, Company A immediately radioed for aerial and artillery support, radioing that "be advised that these people [the North Vietnamese] all got black berets on, they got AK-47s, every one of them, and they got so damn much ammunition."  The thick-canopy jungle had blocked the view of aerial reconnaissance units. Gradually, the PAVN units mounted three assaults, closing in each-time on Company A's position.
Around noon, Company C was ordered to move in to reinforce Company A. However, North Vietnamese forces later redeployed and entrenched alongside both sides of Company C's position while the heavy vegetation and difficult terrain made movement extremely difficult. Artillery support was continually rendered ineffective, while US forces failed to spot enemy positions. Company C became badly mauled thereafter by NVA forces as well until night-time when PAVN shooting died down. The night of June 22nd, PAVN forces went around and shot wounded US forces. Company A managed to survive repeated attacks throughout the day and night, but the cost was heavy. Of the 137 men that comprised the unit, 76 had been killed and another 23 wounded. A search of the battlefield revealed just 9 or 10 PAVN dead
Initial actions at Dak To intending to luring US forces to deploy and attack NVA positions was a hall-mark of PAVN strategy. Similar to the Plei Me campaign, initial mortaring or actions were conducted to lure in a bigger attack or rapid reaction force, with a subsequent ambush conducted to destroy US forces attacking. Following further deployment of larger US forces for reinforcement, PAVN/NVA forces would melt away.
Regarded as a more elite, rapid-reaction force, the 173rd Airborne Brigade had lost an entire company to a well-placed ambush by a platoon-level NVA force. Lack of overwhelming aerial support, artillery support and fire-power had rendered these two forces more or less on equal footing, with the advantage shifting to NVA entrenchment and small-unit tactics.
A search for PAVN dead, to make a body count after the battle to justify US soldiers killed, was a disappointment. The search revealed just 9-10 PAVN dead in shallow graves. General William Westmoreland would later inflate this number to 475 PAVN dead, declaring "too late it's already been sent out" when questioned about the authenticity of the number.
This engagement would later prompt further deployments of the brigade at the Battle of Dak To, using a similar approach of heightening activities and contacts to draw in large US forces. These two battles would exact a heavy toll on the 173rd Airborne Brigade, which was rendered combat-ineffective and withdrawn from Vietnam for the entirety of 1968.
- Murphy, Edward (2008-12-24). Dak To: America's Sky Soldiers in South Vietnam's Central Highlands. Random House Publishing Group. pp. 56–62. ISBN 9780307518767. Search this book on
- Ward, Geoffrey C.; Burns, Ken (2017-09-05). The Vietnam War: An Intimate History. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. pp. 198–202. ISBN 9781524733100. Search this book on
- Ward, Geoffrey C.; Burns, Ken (5 September 2017). "The Vietnam War: An Intimate History". Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group – via Google Books.
- Neil Sheehan (26 May 2017). "David and Goliath in Vietnam". New York Times.
- "Airborne Operations", in The Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military History, Spencer C. Tucker, ed. (ABC-CLIO, 2011) p96-100
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