Screaming Eagles Through Time


1 June 1966 - 21 June 1966 

In the Central Highlands the month of June meant the monsoon rains and under its cover came a major enemy offensive. That is why the 101st's Odyssey included the fateful stop at Dak To and Operation Hawthorne, now famous as a classic spoiling attack which blunted the NVA monsoon offensive in Kontum Province.

As the troopers unloaded from the reliable C-130 aircraft on the airstrip next to the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) Camp at Dak To, the found themselves in the beautiful green jungles of the cool Highlands. But as they looked to the left and the right, then quickly to the front and rear they noticed one very strange aspect of their new operational area - a ring of mountains, surrounded by even taller, heavily overgrown mountains. "I've never seen Dien Bien Phu, said one trooper, "but this sure looks like the description," he concluded. Neither he nor his comrades could then know that nine days later a very similar battle would erupt, except in reverse.

The first mission of Operation Hawthorne was to relieve the beleaguered mountain outpost of Toumorong. The 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry, teamed up with elements of the 24th Tactical Zone Command (42d ARVN Regiment and 21st Ranger Battalion) to accomplish this phase of the operation. The intelligence reports received at Brigade Headquarters indicated a major enemy drive were under way to overrun the Central Highlands - first Toumorong on the high ground overlooking the Dak Tan Kan Valley, next Dak To, and finally Kontum itself. Toumorong was the focal point in the initial enemy offensive to capture the North Central Highlands.

At 2:30 in the morning of June 7th an estimated North Vietnamese Army battalion of the 24th NVA Regiment savagely attacked an artillery-infantry-engineer position in the valley west of Toumorong. This was the beginning of two weeks of the most violent fighting in the war in Vietnam.

The position was manned by "B" Battery, 2nd Howitzer Battalion, 320th Artillery; Company "A" 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry; and elements of "A" Company, 326th Engineer Battalion. The charging enemy was able to penetrate the artillery's perimeter where one of the small dramas of the war took place.

Gun number six came under extremely heavy attack, wherein a small war ensued over the ownership of the howitzer position. Twice the enemy took the position, twice the gun crew, turned infantry, took it back. The battle that had the winner take all climax saw the valiant Americans secure their weapon and fire point-blank into the still charging NVA ranks. As dawn brought light to the exhausted warriors, 86 enemy bodies were counted, 13 of them inside the artillery position.

After relieving the Toumorong outpost, the 1st Battalion, 327th Inf. struck north to attack the blood-stained enemy. Another bitter battle erupted, this time engaging all three of the battalion's infantry companies at one time, each in separate fire fights. It was to last for six bloody days. As the battle raged the 1/327ths elite Tiger Force was hard hit and almost overrun by an estimated two companies of heavily armed, well-trained NVA regulars. The battle for the valley and Kontum Province was on and the enemy prayed for one thing, the monsoon with its accompanying clouds, mist, and rain. The 2d Battalion, 502nd Inf. was helilifted into a blocking position where they would begin a sweep south to link up with their heavily engaged sister battalion.

They too were hit and hit hard. The enemy had heavy machine guns and automatic weapons dug in all along the valley wall. He had been there a long time preparing for this battle. Now all the infantry companies of both paratrooper battalions were heavily engaged. It was then that one of the most heroic actions of the war took place. Captain William S. Carpenter, Commander of Co. "C", 2d Battalion, 502d Inf. found his unit surrounded and being overrun by what was later estimated to be an NVA battalion. As he spoke to his battalion commander the voices of the screaming, charging enemy could be heard over the radio. The Company Commander called an air strike on his own position - "Theyre all around us and in us - lets take them with us - put it right on top of us." The only thing in the air at the time was napalm but the enemy attack was broken and the company was saved. However, it was still surrounded until "A" Company pressed through the thicket of bamboo and heavy enemy fire to relieve the pressure on "C" Company.

Still another drama was to take place. A provisional company of troopers of the 2/502d was quickly organized from men at the Phan Rang base camp. There was tangible evidence of the esprit de corps, courage, and fighting heart of the Screaming Eagles. These volunteers were either on orders to go home, recuperating from previous wounds, or about to go on "R&R" out of the country. This company would take the high ground above Companies "A" and "C" and hold the landing zone to permit helicopter extraction of their dead and wounded. The enemy strength was fixed as a well-trained NVA regular Regt., probably reinforced. Their heavy weapons were strategically placed in sturdy bunkers which were spread out along the fingers and draws of the mountainside. As the battered but courageous 2d Bn., 502d Inf. companies regrouped on Ncoc Run Ridge and the 1st Bn., 327th Inf., continued their relentless attack from the south, a decision was made - bring in the big ones - let the B-52 bombers batter Dak Tan Kan Valley before the Brigade moved in for the final kill. By now the battle was seven full days old and the whole world knew of the fight. The artillery had pounded the enemy, the air strikes had constantly pelted him and now B-52 bombers would set the stage for the final destruction of the 24th NVA Regiment.

On Monday morning, June 13th, while the mountain mist was slowly rising from the valley, 24 waves of bombers created a maze of craters below. As the 1/327 and the 2/502 swept into the hills to clean up what was left, they found a systematic series of tunnels, some going as deep as 50 feet, but they also found among the dead and dying, several score who fought on. The final of Operation Hawthorne was ferreting out and killing or capturing the diehards.

Maj. Gen. Stanley R. Larsen, Commanding General, I Field Force Vietnam, then on a trip to the United States, publicly stated that the 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Div., was "the best fighting unit in Vietnam." When he addressed the troops at Dak To, Gen. W. C. Westmoreland, COMUSMACV, first saluted the men of the brigade, then in stirring words praised their gallantry and heroism. Following Captain Carpenters heroic action in the battle, the White House Press Secretary said, "The President finds it an inspiring chapter in the Vietnam story."

Highlights - As a result of its fierce determination and extraordinary heroism on the field of battle, the 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, succeeded in accomplishing its mission to find, fix, and destroy North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces in the Dak To, Tan Canh, and Toumorong area. In a brilliant scheme of maneuver, two battalions executed a double envelopment against an entrenched NVA Regiment, the 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry, attacking north, and the 2d Battalion, 502d Infantry, attacking south with both battalions supported by a massive expenditure of firepower, including 27,000 rounds of artillery and bombs from 473 sorties. This equaled 1.6 KTs of ordnance. During the hours of darkness and periods of reduced visibility resulting from the southwest monsoons, around-the-clock close air support was provided by 160 radar-controlled air strikes.

During the operation the equivalent of nearly 15,000 troops were airlifted in 33 separate airmobile operations evidencing the speed and mobility of the Brigades operation in maintaining heavy pressure on the enemy during 16 days and nights of continuous contact. The Brigade successfully exploited a massive B-52 strike employed in a close support role with an airmobile assault into the center of the target area 30 minutes after the strike.

Operation Hawthorne was one of the most viciously contested battles of the Vietnam war. Once the battle was joined, the fighting was continuous. Day and night the battle raged, moving from bunkers to trench line, to spider hole, to bamboo thicket, to stream bed, and finally - to victory.

At the conclusion of Operation Hawthorne, the 24th NVA North Vietnamese Army Regiment was rendered ineffective as a fighting unit., suffering over 1200 casualties by body count. By comparison, friendly casualties were 48 dead and 239 wounded. The ratio of enemy to friendly dead was 10 to 1 and the capture of 86 individual and 24 crew-served weapons resulted in a body count to weapons ratio of 4.3 to 1. Most significantly, a major North Vietnamese offensive to seize the North Central Highlands was blunted with a classic spoiling attack.

Excerpt from: Vietnam Odyssey: The story of the 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, in Vietnam. Copyright 1967 by the 101st Airborne Division Association.
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Page last updated: 3 June 03