Class of 1962
Two days before Thanksgiving in 1967, three companies of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, about 300 men, moved cautiously forward up the hill known only as Hill 875. It was tough going. The riflemen could only see 10 feet in any direction because of the dense jungle cover.
Charlie and Delta companies were within a couple of hundred yards of the summit. Alpha Company hung back to hack an LZ (landing zone) out of the dense jungle so that choppers could resupply and carry out the wounded, if necessary.
Hill 875 is in Dakto Province, Republic of Vietnam. Dakto was the main exit route for the Ho Chi Minh Trail; just a few miles away was the Cambodian border. It was on this day, in this place, that I, a 22 year-old paratrooper and combat medic from Plainville, Connecticut would forever change the way I think about Thanksgiving Day.
As the two forward infantry companies moved up Hill 875, sniper fire rang out; then mortar fire crashed through the trees. The paratroopers immediately hit the ground for cover and looked forward to return the enemy fire, men were falling in all directions, but there were no enemy targets. That would soon change.
Near the half finished landing zone, Pfc. Carlos Lozada, a young trooper from New York, was the first to make contact with the enemy as he covered his Alpha Companyâ€™s move uphill and away from the LZ.
Alpha company was trying to join up with Charlie and Delta companies further up the hill but were pinned down by brutally intense enemy fire.
Lozada stayed behind and fought off more than 50 advancing North Vietnamese soldiers. He was last seen on his knees, covered with his own blood, still firing his M-60 machine gun from the hip until he ran out of ammunition. On that day Lozada earned the Medal of Honor for his bravery but lost his life in the process.
The battle for Hill 875 was now under way and, for the next 50 or so hours, the tide of the battle would turn again and again. There was little water and no food, but the men hung in there, the living fighting for their lives next to the growing number of dead.
Then the worst possible thing happened. An American Marine Sky Raider missed its target, dropping a 500-pound bomb that crashed through the trees. Instantly 20 paratroopers were killed, including our beloved brigade chaplain, Maj. Charles Watters.
Chaplain Watters didnâ€™t have to be in the jungle, on top of the hill, but he always insisted on being up front where his men needed him most. He died comforting and praying over wounded and dying paratroopers. Chaplain Watters was posthumously awarded the Metal of Honor for bravery under fire.
Giving Thanks Atop Hill 875
The North Vietnamese commanders sent wave after wave of fresh troops firing downhill at the paratroopers. The noise was deafening. The intense fire never let up and it was taking its toll.
Most of the officers were now dead or wounded and almost all of the medics were dead.
Reinforcements finally arrived from the 173rd base camp a few miles away; air strikes and artillery kept the enemy off guard and in their bunkers, but the continuous pounding had little effect on the 10-foot-thick bunker covers constructed by the North Vietnamese.
Like every God forsaken enemy-held hill in Vietnam, Hill 875 could only be taken one way and that was one bunker line at a time; this would eventually require men to face off against men. Before this battle was over many more brave men would suffer and die.
The troopers, now into their second night on Hill 875, continued to hold their ground. No one slept that night; the silence was occasionally broken by the wounded crying out in pain.
There is something gut-wrenching about severely wounded men that I will never forget, and that is almost all become delirious and almost always cry out for their mothers. The scores of wounded could not be evacuated because of the heavy enemy fire. They would have to stay on the hill for the night; many died in the cold night air from their unattended wounds.
On Thanksgiving Day morning, the order came down to move up and take Hill 875. At one point, the firing was so heavy it took almost four hours to move 50 meters.
Hill 875 was finally taken. With the hill secured, the battalion commander ordered hot turkey dinners brought up by chopper from our base camp a few miles away. After all it was Thanksgiving Day .The troopers sat quietly, filthy and exhausted from not having slept in two and a half days.
As the sun set on the now barren hill, atop the bunkers that had been occupied by enemy soldiers just hours before, we sat and ate our Thanksgiving dinner in silence. Some men were just too shaken to eat; others couldnâ€™t keep the food down in spite of their hunger.
When I look back, it wasnâ€™t much of a holiday; 110 brave young paratroopers died taking Hill 875, and about 200 hundred more were wounded.
Giving Thanks Atop Hill 875
On Thanksgiving Day I enjoy my dinner and my family, but I will forever think of men like Lozada , medics Rigsby and Hester, and many others less fortunate than myself who gave their lives on Hill 875.
If you have trouble finding something to be thankful for this Thanksgiving holiday, be thankful that you were not on Hill 875 Thanksgiving Day in 1967.
Airborne All the way!
Earle â€œDocâ€ Jackson
Combat medic in Vietnam with the 173rd Airborne Brigade, 1967-68
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