In 1967, I was in Vietnam’s western highlands supporting the U.S. 4th Infantry Division and 173rd Airborne Brigade with signals intelligence—the intercept and exploitation of the radio communications of North Vietnamese forces throughout South Vietnam. I and a team of army specialists I had trained myself monitored the communications of enemy units in the area, and we received the results of similar efforts throughout South Vietnam. Most important, we were supported by my employer, the National Security Agency, back in the states.
I won’t tell the full story of that battle here—you can read it in my article published in 2017 in the New York Times. It’s at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/03/opinion/vietnam-tet-offensive.html
My team and I, through intercept and analysis, followed the North Vietnamese B3 Front, its subordinate 1st Division, two independent regiments, the 24th and the 33rd, and several unidentified units. They were operating out of sight in the mountains to our west along the border with Cambodia and Laos. They wanted to control that area because it was the site of the Ho Chi Minh trail, the secret route that North Vietnam used to infiltrate troops into South Vietnam. From listening in on their communications, I knew they were planning to attack American forces.
The end result was one of the bloodiest battles in the Vietnam war. More than 2,100 North Vietnamese were killed, as were 376 Americans and 61 South Vietnamese soldiers. And in the long term, Americans abandoned the area, and the North Vietnamese again occupied it.
The battle of Dak To is meaningful to me for several reasons, but the most important is that men I cared about were killed by my side. I’ve written before in this blog about the bond that forms between men who fight side by side. We don’t call it love because men are not supposed to love one another. But love is what it is, the strongest love I’ve ever experienced. To this day I grieve over those who died next to me. They were kids, nineteen years old. And they died in ways so brutal that we were hard put to find enough of them left to put in a body bag.
Some wounds to the soul are never healed.