404th Radio Research Detachment (Airborne)

173d Airborne Brigade (Separate)

404th Radio Research Detachment (Airborne) Operations

    Every time the detachment moved, and it moved a lot, it left two men behind to recover equipment. At least a dozen men were scattered throughout the Central Highlands (An Khe, Ban Me Thout , Bien Hoa, Dak To, Kontum, Pleiku, and Tuy Hoa *16  ) with that job.

    Additionally, three PRD-1 radio direction finding sets were loaned to the Americal Division (Provisional) Radio Research Company. Another three PRD-1 sets were loaned to the 371st Radio Research Company in support of the 1st Cavalry Division. The 404th retained no PRD-1. The Americal Division was operating in the southern I CTZ and the 1st Cavalry Division operating adjacent to the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Vietnam. Two of the detachment’s 5 kW generators had been traded to an engineer unit in the 9th Division operating in the Delta area of Vietnam in exchange for a refrigerator. A deadlined truck was hand receipted to the Air Force on Tan Son Nhut Air Base located outside of Saigon in return for spare parts. And there was an AR 15-6 investigation for 512 missing classified documents. *17 

    In October, 1967, the 173rd Airborne Brigade with the 4th Infantry Division moved (Operations Greeley and MacArthur) to counter troop concentrations by the 1st and 10th North Vietnamese Army (NVA) Divisions near Kontum. This was a two month battle in which reportedly 170,000 artillery rounds were fired by US artillery and the Air Force flew 3,000 air support sorties of which 300 were B-52 bombing runs. Tragically, one 500 pound bomb was mistakenly dropped on a 173rd Brigade unit killing 42 paratroopers. One of the bloodiest battles of the war (Operation MacArthur) took place in the Central Highlands near Dak To, 03 to 22 November 1967. About 4,500 troops of the 173rd Airborne Brigade and the 4th Infantry Division faced 6,000 North Vietnamese troops of the well trained and experienced NVA 174th Infantry Regiment entrenched in a complex of fortified bunkers on Hill 875, near the Dak To and Ben Het Special Forces Camps.

 Memorial service on Hill 875.

(Photo at right is from Life Magazine - Memorial service with 98 pairs of boots, one pair for  
each man of the 2nd Battalion, 173rd Airborne Brigade who died on Hill 875.)

    On 19 November, the 2nd and 4th Battalions of the 503rd Infantry were ordered to  “move onto and clear Hill 875.”  They captured the summit on 23 November. The ferocity of the action is the subject of several books about the battle. Three Medals of Honor were awarded during the eight day battle and both battalions received the Presidential Unit Citation. The North Vietnamese were forced to withdraw across the Cambodian border reportedly with 1,500 to 2,000 dead and 3,000 wounded. US causalities numbered 285 killed and 985 wounded. The 404th RRD (Abn) and other Radio Research units were acknowledged for accurately pinpointing and assessing the commitment of the 1st NVA Division’s reserve 174th NVA regiment and its flanking maneuver well before the battle. The 174th end run was not a surprise to senior commanders.

    The 173rd Airborne Brigade fought in Dak To, Kontum, Pleiku, and Phu Bon Provinces in late October and throughout November. The 404th RRD (Abn) was with them. It was monsoon season during the November, 1967 battle for Dak To and the entire 173rd Airborne Brigade was buried in mud. The detachment’s equipment was submerged, the radio intercept operators often sat in mud inside the S-144 equipment shelters. Unit personnel stacked wooden pallet upon pallet inside the tents to prevent the equipment from sinking into oblivion.

    The only vehicles able to traverse the red mire were fully tracked engineering bulldozers needed to pull the detachment’s wheeled vehicles out of the mud onto corduroy roads and parking platforms. There was so much mud that unless an enemy mortar round scored a direct hit it did no damage, the mud absorbed the explosion.

    Fortunately, the detachment’s soldiers, mostly young privates on their first enlistment, found gallows humor in their predicament and pulled everything together.  404th convoy near Mang Yang Pass.

    Fourteen detachment trucks among hundreds of other vehicles drove in a convoy 150 miles east from Dak To to Tuy Hoa on Route 19. Route 19 bisected the treacherous Dak Pihao mountains including the Mang Yang and An Khe passes. The Man Yang Pass, a narrow slit in the mountains, was the ambush alley written about by the French journalist Bernard Fall in his classic book "The Street Without Joy". The Communists regularly ambushed military traffic on Highway 19 since 1953 when the French were fighting the Viet Minh. Every convoy passed the military cemetery at the top of the northern rim of the pass. The cemetery contains hundreds of graves from the ambush of the French Group Mobile 100 in June 1954. It was reported by Fall that the Viet Minh buried the French soldiers only to their waist, facing toward France, the upper portions of their bodies fully exposed before the French Army later conducted a proper burial. It was a story often repeated.

(Photo to the right is a 404th RRD (Abn) convoy in the vicinity of  
Mang Yang Pass, Route 19. Object lower center of screen is fabricated  
to cut garrote wires strung across roads by the enemy.)  

    Deadman's Curve, named so because of the many casualties that convoys suffered there is located a few kilometers west of the Mang Yang Pass. It is a sharp, 'S' curve that forces convoys to slow to 5 mph. Tall gray tree trunks denuded of all branches and leaves by daily bombing, napalming, defoliating, and shelling, as well as seemingly millions of rounds of small arms fire, stood like eerie sentinels. Despite the daily pounding, a steep thick jungle underbrush covered both sides of the highway creating the worst ambush site in Vietnam. South and immediately opposite the curve a forest covered mountain rising 1,000 feet over the road, offered the Viet Cong a perfect ambush site and they fired constantly on the 173rd convoy. Only one detachment vehicle completed the convoy without being towed. Most were hit by small arms fire or shrapnel from mortars and roadside explosive devices or mines planted every night and swept every day. Fortunately, there were no hits by B40 rockets.

 Destroyed truck from convoy.

  (Photo at left is of 173rd Airborne Brigade M35 truck destroyed by
    enemy improvised explosive device or mine, circa February, 1968)

    The most frequent cause of breakdown during the convoy was burned out brakes caused because most drivers were not trained as truck drivers (they were electronic equipment operators) to engine brake with lower gears when descending the mountains. Instead they laid on the brakes when carrying three times the authorized weight for both truck and trailer. The front wheels fell off several trucks because the wheel bearings had not been repacked for at least six months, since submerged in the mud at Dak To, and probably not since they left Fort Campbell in 1965. That no one lost their life or was seriously injured was providential.

    The 173rd Airborne Brigade incurred considerable combat losses during the battles in the Central Highlands. Losses were compounded by the exceptionally heavy monsoon rains that occurred at the same time. Combat support and service was overwhelmed. After the culminating battle for Dak To, in November and December 1967, the brigade was redeployed to Phu Hiep village near Tuy Hoa City on the coast of Vietnam. The chief purpose of the move was to allow the 173rd to recover, rehabilitate, and repair from the battle.

    It wasn’t only the 404th suffering from a lack of maintenance. It took the 173rd Brigade ten days to recover all of its vehicles strung out between the 200 miles from Kontum to Dak To to Tuy Hoa. During the operational difficulty at Dak To in which the brigade’s commanding general directly addressed the executive officer of the 313th RR Battalion, the general pointed out that the brigade was in as bad a condition as the 404th and that there was no assistance that he could render, but the general demanded better cryptologic support – in particular the general wanted more airborne radio direction finding intelligence and LLVI teams. Combat creates such paradoxes.

    Upon arrival at Tuy Hoa and with the seaside base camp barely established, a typhoon hit the area and destroyed most of the tentage and inundated the brigade’s equipment with salt water from the storm surge. The base camp sat in 6 to 12 inches of salt water for over a week. The logistics was so poor that the damaged tentage was used for another three months which explained the jerry rigged canvas, cardboard, and plywood shelters erected inside the medium general purpose squad tents. That same typhoon also hit the adjacent Air Force Base at Tuy Hoa. Detachment personnel scrounged the base garbage dump and recovered better tentage discarded by the Air Force than issued by the Army. With a little mending by Vietnamese sail makers the detachment got by.

    In late January 1968, about a month after the typhoon, with the brigade in the middle of refitting, the enemy launched their Tet Offensive. The enemy attacked the cities in Central Vietnam, Da Nang, Qui Nhon, and Tuy Hoa / Phu Hiep as well as cities in the central coastal and highland areas that lay within the Communist 5th Military Region. The other cities to the south, that included Saigon, were attacked 24 hours later early on 31 January.

    Radio Research and Military Intelligence units throughout Vietnam alerted their support combat commanders to pending local attacks, but MACV couldn’t put the nationwide offensive together into a strategic picture until it was obvious.

    Fortunately, the Tet Offensive lost its element of total surprise because the North Vietnamese changed calendars the previous August. North Vietnamese leaders ordered the offensive to be launched on the night of the first day of Tet and to take all objectives by total surprise on the first day. For an unknown reason, the North Vietnamese Army Supreme Command was not aware that there were different dates for Tet between North and South Vietnam. Most North Vietnamese Army units in the Communist 5th Military Region (adjacent to North Vietnam) used the North Vietnamese calendar and conducted their attacks on 30 January. But the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong units in the south attacked on 31 January.

    A week before what was later called the Nationwide Tet Offensive, the 404th RRD (Abn) accurately analyzed and predicted that portion the Tet Offensive against An Khe and Tuy Hoa cities. The 173rd was well prepared in defensive positions to counter the attacks. Several hundred Viet Cong were killed attacking the 173rd positions near Phu Hiep village and hundreds more were killed fighting the 173rd and especially Company D, 16th Armor, in bitter hand-to-hand fighting in Tuy Hoa city. The initial Tet attack was not a big event for the 173rd. What remained of the enemy gave up and went away.

    During Tet, 173rd Airborne Brigade task forces were also sent to relieve the Special Forces camps at Kontum and Dak To and then to the Pleiku-Ban Me Thout area. Two-man LLVI and ARDF relay teams from the 404th RRD (Abn) accompanied each brigade task force for weeks at a time. At one point the 404th base camp was the only 173rd Airborne Brigade unit left at Phu Hiep and fortunately tied into and provided very sanitized intelligence support to the 26th Republic of Korea (ROK) Infantry Regiment’s perimeter. The Commanding General of the 173rd explained, I can leave Company D, 16th Armor, but I don’t have any more troops; listen to this area (Phu Yen Province and Tuy Hoa city) and keep the Koreans out of trouble.”

    During Tet, Tuy Hoa was the single major city in Vietnam which enemy forces could not penetrate the defensive perimeter. The 404th was cited by the brigade’s commanding general for providing the early warning necessary to prevent an enemy success there. During the next several months, the enemy tried several times to capture Tuy Hoa city until his regimental sized unit was unequivocally destroyed. Remaining combat elements of the 5th NVA Division and its entrenched headquarters were annihilated during a single battle in April during which 200 NVA were killed and 17 taken prisoner. Not a single member of the regiment escaped. That victory was directly attributed to the 404th and earned an enlisted analyst assigned to the unit, the Legion of Merit Medal for Achievement. The medal was presented by the Commanding General, 173rd Airborne Brigade, after the Colonel commanding the 26th ROK Regiment thanked the commanding general for the 404th help.

    By late January, the brigade’s rear element previously at Bien Hoa moved to the main brigade base camp now established at Camp Radcliff, An Khe, and the 404th moved its base camp from Tuy Hoa also to An Khe.

    By February,1968, the173rd Airborne Brigade was located along the 100 miles of Route 14 from Kontum to Pleiku to Ban Me Thout and along 150 miles of Route 19 from Pleiku to An Khe to Qui Nhon as well as conducting operations to the west of Tuy Hoa. The 404th had elements located in Dak To, Ban Me Thout, Kontum, Pleiku, An Khe, and Tuy Hoa / Phu Hiep.

 Camp covered in red dust.

(Photo at right is a portion of the 173rd Airborne Brigade’s Camp Radcliff at An Khe (or the 4th ID's Camp Enari at Pleiku). The reddish tint is the result of red dust blown up by helicopters into everything.)

    During April, 1968, the 173rd Airborne Brigade was assigned expanded operational areas at Bong Son (LZ English), An Khe, Tuy Hoa and along Route 19 East. In addition to its airborne infantry battalions, an artillery and combat support battalion and other assigned and attached units of company and detachment size, the brigade included an armor battalion, a cavalry squadron, and an attached mechanized infantry battalion.

    The brigade’s personnel strength approached 6,000 men, half the size of an infantry division and frequently operated in a box-shaped area of responsibility 150 miles to a side (22,500 square miles – larger than ten states back home). The 404th supported the entire brigade and was spread so far that the mail runs took over a week and still missed many soldiers. At least twenty percent of the men assigned to the detachment had never met one another.

    Aside from supporting the brigade in its several head-to-head tactical operations against the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, the detachment also provided area coverage (general support) for Phu Yen Province, of an NVA division headquarters, a separate regiment, a Viet Cong main force battalion, and local Viet Cong infrastructure units. The large area of responsibility, constant relocation, and untenable transportation combined to make the detachment unlocatable by either the 313th RR Battalion or the 509th RR Group for weeks at a time. For that matter neither the 173rd Airborne Brigade headquarters nor the IFFV could locate battalion size units of the 173rd for several days during this period.

 Banana. Pup bought from a kid while we were in convoy.

    Fortunately the detachment was able to refurbish with new and repaired equipment at Bong Son (LZ English) in May 1968. The detachment reported Readiness Condition C2. The 404th Radio Research Detachment (Airborne) is now thought to be one of the most decorated company size units in the US Army. The 404th was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for Bien Hoa, six times awarded the Army Meritorious Unit Citation, and awarded fifteen campaign silver bands. When last seen, before ASA predictably lost it, the 404th Radio Research Detachment (Airborne) guidon staff was filled from top to bottom with silver citation and campaign bands. [ The lineage is passed to the 404th Military Intelligence Company activated in the Regular Army 16 June 2000 at Menwith Hill, England. ]

  (Photo at left is 404th RRD mascot – "Banana" circa April 1968)

    Brigadier General Leo H. Schweiter, Commanding General of the 173rd Airborne Brigade talked with 404th analysts practically every day. The general lauded the 404th RRD (Abn) for using COMINT and COMSEC operations to prevent a battalion of the 503rd Infantry from walking into a regimental size ambush and for its superb support during Dak To.

    Brigadier General Richard J. Allen commended the detachment for allowing the 173rd Airborne Brigade to constantly outmaneuver enemy forces and saving the lives of many Sky Troopers. Both Generals, Schweiter and Allen, approved SP4 Minnock’s Legion of Merit Medal following the destruction of the 5th North Vietnamese Division Headquarters. Infantry battalion and company commanders routinely visited the 404th detachment to express appreciation and thanks for critical support by the LLVI teams and ARDF. More info on Spec Minnock's award here - (http://www.fas.org/irp/agency/army/tradoc/usaic/mipb/1998-1/HOFfnl.htm)

    This report acknowledges the officers and NCOs of the 313th Radio Research Battalion for assistance rendered during the period of this report and also Captain John Moon, Military Intelligence, 173rd Airborne Brigade, for his consistent support to the 404th RRD (Abn) as well as his exceptional use of the detachment’s Special Intelligence. Generals Schweiter and Allen understood how to use the detachment to multiply combat power – they made the detachment’s excellence meaningful.

 Perimeter sign for the 404th.

404th RRD (Abn) Base Camp Perimeter Sign


16 - There is some indication there was a variation in the spelling here. It appears in some documents as Tua Hoa. It will appear here as the more common Tuy Hoa - the Provincial capital.

17 - Note: reportedly, it was determined years later that lacking sufficient storage containers for 3,400 classified documents, the missing 512 documents had been stored with another unit and subsequently certified destroyed. No one then in the unit recalled that transaction and there were no document receipts. That can’t be worse than another Radio Research unit that used classified documents for toilet paper in pit toilets.

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