When writing home from a war zone, don’t tell them the truth
Ken is a disabled American combat veteran of the Vietnam War. He was awarded the Purple Heart medal and the Bronze Star with V device medal.
Upon landing in Vietnam in February 1967, new troops in-country were given specific instructions: When you write home, DO NOT tell them the truth! Make them think you are having fun. Talk about food, or music, or sports. Tell them what they want to hear, you’re safe.
For the most part, I think I was able to fake it pretty well. As I re-read some of the letters I sent home (my parents kept every one of them for me), I tried to convey a sense of safety to the people I wrote.
It didn’t always work! Some things you see or do, or experience just have to be let out… you can’t hold them solely to yourself. Reality gives you a stark reminder of the hazards of war. It slaps your face with death and destruction. You see the futility of trying to free a country that doesn’t want to be free.
Such was the case when I wrote the following letter home. My unit was smack dab in the middle of the Battle of Dak To, a fight that would last forever in the minds of those who engaged the enemy in what was some of the fiercest firefights of the entire war.
Some say this battle lasted from November 6th-23rd. My reality and recall are quite different. We encountered enemy fire every day from October 18th until finally mopping up the remaining resistance on November 25th, Thanksgiving Day.
Outnumbered 8–1, the 173rd Airborne Brigade was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation for our decisive victory over the elite 24th, 32nd, 66th, and 174 North Vietnamese Infantry Division, which was supported by the 40th Artillery Regiment of the 1st North Vietnamese Infantry Division.
Here is a copy of my letter home... Courtesy: Author
November 1967, Central Highlands, South Vietnam
Dear Mom, Dad, and All,
I’m sorry it took me so long to write, but I haven’t been given much free time lately.
I guess you’ve heard about the action we’ve been in recently, so I’ll give you the details of what has happened so far. But first, I’ll tell you that I’m fine and as healthy as can be.
We moved back to Dak To on October 18, and we have been engaging the enemy ever since. To understand what I am about to write, you must remember that I am in the 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry, 173rd Airborne Brigade. Don’t get me confused with the 4th Battalion, 2nd Battalion, 4th Infantry Division, or the 1st Cavalry.
When the 1st Battalion moved back up to Dak To, the 4th Battalion had already been there for about a week. The day before the 1st Battalion moved to Dak To, the 4th Battalion made heavy contact with the enemy, and heavy casualties were absorbed by both sides.
The 4th Battalion almost lost a company through wounded and killed men. I think they had 136 men killed and many more wounded. This action lasted two days, and it took place on hill 823.
Skirmishes on Hill 823
This is where the 1st Battalion enters the picture. We got instructions to send our C and D Companies to hill 823 to assist the company from the 4th Battalion. That was on November 5th. We sent both companies up there, and they made contact right off the bat. However, we didn’t have any casualties.
The night of November 1Oth, our companies received incoming mortar rounds for 6 straight hours. But, we only received 3 wounded, and four of them were evacuated. We were lucky, until that night.
On November 11th the Battalion commander was instructed to move all remaining elements up to Hill 823. So, we packed up and moved. When we got there, we started digging in, and B Company was assigned the task of securing the hill for the duration of time we were to be here. A, C and D Companies went to the southwest to check out the area.
I made a mistake! The company I’m in moved to hill 823 on the 5th, not the 11th. But, on the night of the fifth, we got mortared on hill 823. On the 11th, C Company made contact again, for the 5th straight day of action up here. This is one of the big days of contact. The rounds were way off target, and nobody was hurt. Besides, we were all way down in our foxholes.
The next day, C Company encountered at least a company of North Vietnamese Army, and D Company was sent to aid them. At the end of the day, the 2 companies had lost 19 men by deaths and had over 100 wounded. We had no idea what the enemy body count would be, but we knew it would be high. After 2 full days of counting, the total had soared to 142.
There were more wounded and killed. But during the night, the NVA returned to the battlefield and dragged most of them off. They do that to keep us from getting a good count.
They also took six of our men, and we have only found one of them so far.
The other five are still missing in action. But we know that they are dead because there were men who saw them get killed.
I was on radio watch with multiple radios when all this started, and I stayed on them for five straight hours, taking down notes. On the same night, we got mortared again, but we still didn’t have any casualties.
Then, on the 12th, a fire started in a bomb crater and wiped out everything in its path. Our artillery unit had been tossing the spent charges and shell casings into the bomb crater to keep the clutter from impeding their work.
Unknown to us, the NVA had targeted our Commanding Officer’s tent, located right next to the crater. At dusk, they started lobbing mortar rounds at us. Thankfully, we incurred no injuries.
However, they did land a mortar round in that crater, and it set fire to all those used charges. Simultaneously, they exploded. I was sheltered behind a tree at the time, and I saw the Colonel’s tent simply evaporate in a snap, catching fire to everything inside.
Luckily, Battalion Commander Lieutenant Colonel Schumacher was in the Command and Control bunker at the time, secure in a very large bunker, unaware his tent had been disintegrated. No one was hurt, but a lot of equipment was destroyed, and nobody had a shelter to sleep in, except me, because the fire hadn’t reached my hooch.
We were re-supplied the next morning, and everything was back in working order by the end of the day. On the night of the 13th, we were mortared again and had five men slightly wounded, but only one was taken to the hospital.
That is the extent of the action so far. Today is the 16th, and we have not had any major action for 3 days now. There were some photographers here yesterday, and they took some pictures and taped some action from the radio.
I think they took my picture and I’m sure they taped my voice, so, in case you should hear a recording on T.V., and see some pictures, you will know what it is. CBS is the station, and my voice is the one of Three Yankee. You might get this too late, but I hope you don’t.
This all took place during an airstrike. Remember to watch T.V. for the next week or so. That’s about all I can tell you now. Don’t show this to anyone, but, if they ask, you can tell them what actually happened. I’m talking about our friends and nobody else.
The U.S. Army’s unofficial “scoreboard” for enemy killed during the Battle of Dak To:
This letter of the 16th of November was very detailed. This was where we had incoming mortar rounds for six straight hours! This was a prelude to the other major battle that was fought on Hill 875 a week later by our 2nd and 4th Battalions.
This was where the enemy bodies were heaped one on top of another in a bomb crater left from a 500-pound bomb explosion. It was converted into a mass grave, and we slept next to them. This action was also where we finally got to see our aggressors, many of us for the first time.
Hand-to-hand combat was no longer something you’d see being re-enacted on TV. It was up close, it was real, and it was very personal.
For the longest time, it was nothing but noise! The mortar crews were lobbing rounds onto the enemy so fast, they had to continually shut down one gun at a time to let them cool off, so they could spew out more death.
The airstrikes were devastating. The ground reverberated each time a rocket landed, they were that close. We watched in total awe as the jets dropped the napalm in the valley. It spread its cloak of death frighteningly close to our outer perimeter. The stench of its wrath hovered in the valley, gagging us and
robbing us of whatever sense of innocence that remained inside us.
The body count soared well into the hundreds in this battle. We definitely had the upper hand in that regard. The NVA in one day alone lost 142 men. Make no mistake though, we were licking our wounds, too. “Charlie” had thrown his best punch, and it wobbled us. Our wounded total was substantially higher than we were accustomed to receiving.
It took everyone pulling together to assist in getting the wounded provided for, and the dead removed from the battlefield. The medivac dust off choppers came and came, again and again. We even called in chinooks to help out.
A part of every man died in this battle. I have recalled that scene a million times in my memory, trying to remember how I felt. All I come up with is emptiness. This whole experience left me feeling exhausted and totally empty. I wish I could come up with something more, and lay it to rest.
It was utter futility to pay such a high price for some nondescript hill in this hell-on-earth. I felt heavy grief for the guys I knew from A Company, too. I had spent damn near five months with this bunch and we’d been fortunate not to have lost anyone. Now, less than four months later, they were a skeleton force, at best.
Buddies I had spoken with just a few days ago were no longer alive. Nearly everyone had battle wounds of some sort. The more seriously wounded were dispatched to a nearby field hospital for treatment. Those of us with flesh wounds were bandaged and told to carry on.
In the above photo, Hill 875 can be seen billowing smoke from the artillery and napalm dropped by America’s Air Force. There is nothing special about this nondescript hill in the middle of nowhere, except for the hundreds of lives lost on both sides of this engagement. They are etched in my memory for all eternity!
Reconstructing the battle in the aftermath
At the end of every engagement with the enemy, after all the smoke cleared, there were always bodies to tend to, sorrow and anguish to deal with, and an accurate inventory of our remaining supplies, in case the NVA attacked again.
Words cannot adequately express the look of stunned, stupefied faces roaming around the base camp. Haggard and worn out from relentless firefights, mortars, and grenade attacks, facial expressions of terror were etched into this man's memory.
Although our forces were deemed to have won the battle of Dak To, there were no winners in this engagement. Significant losses were endured on both sides of the fight. The combined body count was staggering. We managed to stave off defeat on hill 823 and again on hill 875, but at a very, very heavy cost.
Thank you for reading this!
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Copies of each page from my letter written home during the Battle of Dak To are entered into the public domain.
The photo of the V C Scoreboard is taken from the after-action report on this battle and is also in the public domain.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Ken Kayse