My team and I were dispirited and anxious. We knew the region-wide North Vietnamese offensive would be launched sometime between 30 October and 4 November even if General Peers didn’t believe it. Then on 1 November, a B-57 airstrike near Dak To produced large secondary explosions. General Peers sent the headquarters of his 1st Brigade to reconnoiter near the Dak To Special Forces Camp. On 3 November, the U.S. 3rd Battalion, 12th Infantry, landed on Hill 978, six kilometers south of Dak To, and encountered a large North Vietnamese army force. The battalion was all but destroyed. The same day, the 3rd Battalion, 8th Infantry, touched down on nearby Hill 882 and drew heavy enemy fire. The battle for Dak To had begun.
It was one of the biggest engagements in the war, and one of the conflict’s few pitched battles. The standard North Vietnamese strategy throughout the war was to attack, create as many casualties as possible, then withdraw before U.S. forces could retaliate. But this time they stood their ground. They had established defensive positions on several hills, forcing the American and South Vietnamese forces to fight uphill, culminating in a horrifically bloody engagement at Hill 875, from 19 to 23 November.
By the end of the battle of Dak To, nine American battalions from the 4th Infantry Division and the 173rd Airborne Brigade—some 16,000 men—had been committed. American bombers flew more than 2,000 sorties. The Americans eventually won, but at great cost to both sides: More than 2,100 North Vietnamese were killed, as were 376 Americans and 61 South Vietnamese soldiers.
Couriers delivering intercept from close support units described orderly stacks of American bodies on the Dak To airstrip. The close support units were hit, too; the traffic we worked was sometimes bloodstained.
Meanwhile, the North Vietnamese also mounted attacks throughout the highlands at same time, just as we had forecast.
The end result: no territory changed hands.