History of the 173d Airborne Brigade
The 173rd Airborne Brigade arrived from Okinawa on May 7, 1965 and departed Vietnam on August 25, 1971.
- BG Ellis W. Williamson May 65
- BG Paul F. Smith Feb 66
- BG John R. Deane, Jr. Dec 66
- BG Leo H. Schweiter Aug 67
- BG Richard J. Allen Apr 68
- BG John W. Barnes Dec 68
- BG Hubert S. Cunningham Aug 69
- BG Elmer R. Ochs Aug 70
- BG Jack MacFarlane Jan 71
History of the 173d Airborne Brigade
Craig Thompson email --- [email protected]
March 26, 1963 — On the island of Okinawa, the only separate Airborne Brigade to exist in the history of the US Army was activated. This was the 173d Airborne Brigade (Separate).
Formed to be what would be called in today’s jargon a quick-reaction force for the protection of American interests in Asia, the Brigade underwent extensive jungle training on Okinawa and Irimote. This was followed by parachute jumps in the Philippines; Thailand and Taiwan.
During the Taiwan exercises, the locals gave the paratroops of the 173d the nickname “Tien Bing” (Chinese for Sky Soldier). “The Sky Soldiers” became the official nickname of the Brigade and was commonly used in Brigade newsletters and press releases. A more popular nickname is one that originated from some anonymous pundit in the ranks – “The Herd.”
On May 5, 1965, the Brigade deployed to South Viet Nam as the first US Army ground combat unit in that war.
Upon arrival, one battalion of the Royal Australian Army and a battery from New Zealand were attached to the Brigade — making the 173d Airborne the only multi-national combat unit in the war.
Initially headquartered in Bien Hoa, the Brigade operated in the four provinces around Saigon. (Xuan Loc, Long Khanh, Phuoc Long & Phuoc Tuy), but (in its roll as a “Fire Brigade”) also went to the Central Highlands (Pleiku / Kontum) to fight Viet Cong. The 173d also conducted constant operations against the southern stronghold of the VC Main Force in the legendary Iron Triangle in War Zone D.
At 0900 Hours, February 22, 1967 (during Operation Junction City) over 800 paratroopers jumped into the rice paddies at Katum in War Zone C. The same unit (plus attached combat engineers and artillerymen) that had made the famous jump on the Island of Corrugators (2/503d) during WW2, made the first and only full-sized combat jump by an American unit (there were Vietnamese jumps of course and some small unit jumps by USMC’s Force Recon as well).
Once on the ground, the paratroopers joined the Brigade in cutting off VC units fleeing a massive sweep by the 1st, 4th, and 25th Infantry Divisions, and the 11th Armored Cavalry regiment.
In the summer of 1967, the Brigade saw extensive and bloody action in the Central Highlands near Kontum, Pleiku, Dak To.
In mid-November of 1967, the 2d Battalion of the 503d Airborne Infantry pushed units of the 1st and 10th North Vietnamese Army Divisions towards the Cambodian/Laotian borders. To cover their retreat into these sanctuaries the elite NVA 174th Infantry Regiment was deeply entrenched in a complex of fortified bunkers on Hill 875, near Dak To. On November 6th, two companies from 4th battalion encountered elements of the NVA 66th Regiment south of Ben Het and in a fierce firefight lost 7 men. On November 11th (Veteran’s Day), Charlie Company and two platoons from Delta Company 1/503 were ambushed with 20 killed and 154 wounded. PFC John Barnes received the CMH for his actions during this ambush.
On November 19th, 1967, the 2d Battalion of the 503d Airborne Infantry was ordered to clear Hill 875. Resistance by the communists was intense and the 4th Battalion of the 503d joined 2nd battalion in its efforts.
Four days later, on Thanksgiving Day, after some of the bloodiest fighting of the war, the survivors of the 2d and 4th Battalions finally reached the summit. Chaplain Watters and PFC Carlos Lozada received the CMH for their heroism on Hill 875. The 2nd battalion lost 107 men killed and 282 wounded and 10 MIA.
In 1968 the majority of the Brigade was stationed in the province of Binh Dinh. Operations were also conducted in the Central Highlands and near Ban Me Thout.
For the next four years the Brigade conducted operations against VC/NVA forces. Not as frequently noted as it should be, the Herd also provided security for medical teams involved in MEDCAP; training of indigenous forces for self-defense; and other programs designed to undermine the VC infrastructure in the rich rice-growing lands of the Coastal Plain. Emphasis was on small unit patrols and combined operations with ARVN/MSF/RF-PF units.
The 173d Airborne Brigade took part in 14 designated campaigns in RVN. It remained in combat longer than any other American military unit since the Revolutionary War. It earned four unit citations, had 12 Medal of Honor winners, 1601 Sky Soldiers were killed in action and another 8,435 were wounded in action.
The 10,041 casualties incurred by the Brigade were five times greater than those suffered by the 187th Airborne Regiment in Korea, four times greater than those suffered by the 11th Airborne Division in the Pacific during World War II, more than twice those suffered by the 101st Airborne Division in Europe in World War II, and two-thirds of those suffered by the entire 82nd Airborne Division in WW2.
In September 1971 the Brigade was redeployed to Fort Campbell, Kentucky and subsequently on January, 14, 1972 was deactivated.
I believe that the 503d Infantry Regiment has been reactivated as a non-Airborne unit and is part of the 2nd Division in Korea.
1. Opord 5- 17-65 7 May – 9 July 1965 Bien Hoa Area
Initially, the 173rd was assigned to defend the Bien Hoa Air Base. The brigade routinely conducted sweeps up to 15 kilometers around the base, with company size operations often being the norm.
2. Frag Order 1- 11-65 7 June 1965- 2 August 1965 Bien Hoa Area
On 27 June, the brigade participated in the first joint U.S.-ARVN operation of the war. Nine battalions were involved in this mission which penetrated deep into the Western part of the Tan Uyen area of War Zone “D”. Over 400 VC casualties resulted from this combined operation. This was the first major engagement between the VC and the 173rd. The brigade destroyed a hard-core VC battalion.
3. PLEIKU 10 August 1965 – 5 September 1965 Pleiku- Kontum
The brigade loaded its men on C-130s and C-123s to relieve the siege of the Special Forces CIDG Camp at Du Co, about four kilometers from Cambodia. The 173rd provided security in the Thanh Binh Pass by conducting many platoon and company size sweeps of the area. Early September, the 1/503rd were ordered to Kontum. During this operation VC activity decreased to an 18 month low.
4. BIG RED 7 September 1965- 8 October 1965 Ben Cat, Puoc Ving, Di An, Phu Loc
Following a airmobile assault, the 1/503rd destroyed two VC hospitals, a signal school, and several training camps. As a result of the combat operations, 17 village chiefs, some of whom had not been to their villages in over a year, returned. Elections and religious ceremonies were also held.
5. IRON TRIANGLE 8-14 October 1965 Ben Cat
A lightning strike by helicopters following the first B-52 air strike in support of ground troops resulted in 106 VC killed.
6. NEW HOPE 21-27 October 1965 Di An, Phu Loi
The 2/503rd and B/3/319th cleared the area in preparation for the establishment of the 1st Infantry Division in that area.
7. HUMP 5-9 November 1965 War Zone “D”
The 1/503rd encountered a large enemy force. Moving on line, the brigade found itself locked in a battle with a main line VC regiment. The VC left their trenches and charged into a furious barrage of fire from the brigade. They were mauled by the 173rd leaving 403 Killed on the battlefield.
8. NEW LIFE 21 November – 17 December 1965 La Nga River Valley
The 173rd moved three infantry battalions, four artillery batteries, the Calvary troop and the command section by air to Vo Dat. The brigade’s mission was to prevent the rice harvest in the area from falling into the hands of the VC. For the first time, the brigade used the Long Range Patrols (LRPs), these small patrols would usually be infiltrated by helicopter deep into the enemy rear where they would operate independently for weeks at a time.
9. SMASH 17-23 December 1965 Phuoc Tuy
Operating approximately 50 kilometers southeast of Bien Hoa on the Courtenay Rubber Plantation, the 1st and 2nd of the 503rd along with the 1st/RAR began saturation patrolling. On the morning of December 18th the recon platoon of the 2/503rd encountered a defended VC trench system supported by numerous machine guns. B Company smashed into the enemy from a different direction and overran the enemy position resulting in 62 VC killed.
10. MARAUDER 1-8 January 1966 Hua Nghia Province
The New year began with the 1/503rd and the 1/RAR being airlifted into adjacent positions along the Oriental River in the Plain of Reed area of the Mekong Delta. The next morning , the 2/503rd fought through a series of fortified enemy positions using air, artillery and tear gas to rout the VC. 326 VC suspects were rounded up along with large numbers killed in the actions decimating the VC 267th battalion.
11. CRIMP 8-14 January 1966 Binh Buong, West of Hobo Woods
The Australians made contact first, and after heavy fighting, the RAR and the 173rd unmasked an extensive set of underground tunnels, captured several 12.7mm antiaircraft guns, killing over 128 VC and capturing another 91 while detaining 509 suspects.
12. ON GUARD 17-21 January 1966 Di An, Phu Loi
13. PHOENIX 26 February – 22 March 1966 Binh Duong & Bien Hoa Province
14. SILVER CITY 9-22 March 1966 Long Khanh Province
The 173D Airborne Brigade (SEP), including elements of the 1st Royal Australian Regiment, conducted a hellebore assault near the Song Be River in War Zone “D” to initiate Operation Silver City. The first few days of the operations consisted of thorough screening of the area, leading to the discovery of vast quantities of food, munitions, bunkers, tunnel systems documents, and several large VC base camps.
The seventh day of Operation Silver City will long be remembered by the troopers of the 173D, for on this day the 2/503rd Infantry Task Force was attacked from all directions by the 501st VC Battalion. The troopers held their perimeter while inflicting heavy losses on the guerrillas. Resupply of needy ammunition was effected during the battle by helicopter at no small risk to equipment and crews. Numerous tactical air strikes were initiated with great effectiveness. The VC had to resort to chaining their machine gunners to the tripods of their weapons, but even these measures could not stop the crack troopers of the 173D.
The 1st Battalion, 503d Infantry was directed to reinforce the 2nd Battalion during the battle. The VC element was nearly annihilated by this time and chose to break contact rather than tackle two battalions of SKY SOLDIERS. Four hours after initial contact, all VC were routed or destroyed.
The after-action mop-up patrols counted a total of 302 VC bodies with only seven US losses, the highest kill ratio to date. Throughout the rest of the operation it was indicated that an estimated 150 additional VC dead had been dragged away.
15. DENVER 10-25 April 1966 Song Be, Phuoc Long Province
The brigade task force discovered over 34 tons of rice and 2,167 documents during patrols and Eagle flights with no major elements of VC encountered.
16. DEXTER 4-6 May 1966 Tan Uyen
The brigade initiated the three day operation in the northwest portion of Bien Hoa province.
17. HARDIHOOD 16 May- 8 June 1966 Phuoc Tuy Province
On 19 May the 1/503d Infantry became engaged with an estimated fifty VC. The firefight that ensued resulted in twenty VC killed with minimal friendly casualties.
18. HOLLANDIA 9-17 June 1966 Phuoc Tuy Province
The brigade deployed to the Lon Hai Peninsula, east of Vung Tau, to search for elements of the 274th and 275th VC regiments and their controlling headquarters. Two deserted base camps revealed sizeable quantities of rice and miscellaneous equipment.
19. YORKTOWN 23 June – 8 July 1966 Long Khanh Province
Approximately 37 miles east of Bien Hoa in Xuan Loc Province three platoons of A/2/503d Infantry engaged an enemy force between 75-100 enemy strong employing 50 caliber machine guns and grenade launchers.
20. AURORA I 9-17 July 1966 Long Khanh Province
Conducting search and destroy operations in northern Long Khanh Province and eliminating VC tax collecting in the province.
21. AURORA II 17 July – 3 August 1966 Long Khanh, Binh Tuy Lam Duong Province
Similar to Aurora I, the brigade deployed 80 kilometers northeast of Bien Hoa. 25 Sampans were sighted and subsequently destroyed by gunship, tactical air and artillery fire.
22. TOLEDO 10 August – 7 September 1966 Phuoc Tuy & Binh Tuy Provinces
The Sky Soldiers uncovered over 125,000 rounds of small arms ammunition, over 50 tons of rice, 10 base camps, 75 huts and 5 tunnel systems in the May Tao Secret Zone.
23. ATLANTIC CITY 13-22 September 1966 Dau Ting Airfield
The 4th Battalion and B Battery/ 319th Artillery provided airport security.
24. SIOUX CITY 26 September – 9 October 1966 Xom Cat
The 1st and 2nd Battalions along with artillery support deployed 23 kilometers northeast of Bien Hoa. They discovered numerous food, weapons and vehicular maintenance caches.
25. ROBIN 10-17 October 1966 Phu My to Bear Cat
Elements of the brigade provided highway security from Phu My north to Bear Cat along Highway 15 for the newly arrived 3d Brigade, 4th Infantry Division.
26. ATTLEBORO 7-20 November 1966 Minh Thanh
The 2/503d Infantry and A/3/319th Artillery boarded planes for Minh Thanh in Tay Ninh Province. They encountered several base camps, bivouac and training sites.
27. WACO 25 November – 2 December 1966 Bien Hoa Area
The brigade reassumes responsibility for the Tactical Area of Responsibility for the area surrounding Bien Hoa.
28. WINCHESTER 8 October – 4 December 1966
The 4/503d Infantry’s mission was to relieve the 2d Battalion of the 26th Marine Division and to occupy and maintain control of an assigned sector of the Da Nang TAOR.
Throughout the 58 day period the paratroopers conducted numerous day and night patrols in addition to providing security for the daily convoys of troops and supplies moving through I Corps.
29. CANARY/ DUCK 7 December 1966 – 5 January 1967 Phu My to Bear Cat
The 173rd conducted a two phase highway security operation along Highway 15 from Phu My to Long Binh and from Phu My to Bear Cat for elements of the 199th Light Infantry Brigade and the 9th Infantry Division.
30. NIAGARA/ CEDAR FALLS 5-25 January 1967 Cau Dinh Jungle & Iron Triangle
With most of the other units occupying blocking positions, the 173rd’s three infantry battalions swept and cleared the Iron Triangle- locating and destroying small troop concentrations and tunnel systems. The 51st Chemical Detachment, 173d Engineer Company, as well as infantry volunteer “tunnel rat” teams, fearlessly explored the VC tunnels, bringing out large caches of weapons and supplies and VC captives. The combined effort resulted in over 1,000 tons of rice and 200 crew-served and individual weapons captured. Sixty-five enemy were taken prisoner of war; many were routed out of the extensive tunnel and bunker systems. The Brigade left 85 enemy dead in the rice paddies and jungle of the Triangle-“E” Troop of the 17th Cavalry alone accounted for 73 VC killed in action.
31. BIG SPRINGS 30 January – 16 February 1967 War Zone “D”
Twenty-six base camps were discovered in “D” Zone, and enemy troops were often encountered during the search of these camps. Brigade elements located and destroyed over 1,000 bunkers, 78 huts, more than 24 tons of rice and 24 weapons. Brigade ground units with air support accounted for 79 Viet Cong dead.
32. JUNCTION CITY 22 February – 15 March 1967 Tay Ninh Province
At 0900 Hours the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry along with A Battery, 319th Artillery led by Brigadier General John R. Deane, Jr. made the only combat parachute jump of the war in War Zone “C”.
The overall operation employed a large contingent of forces: The 1st and 25th Divisions, the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, the 196th Light Infantry Brigade, elements of the 4th and 9th Infantry Divisions, South Vietnamese units and the 173rd Airborne Brigade.
Operation Junction City’s objective was to locate and destroy the Central Office South Vietnam (COSVN), the supreme headquarters of the Viet Cong in the Republic of Vietnam. The accomplishments of Phase I were significant: 266 VC killed, 4 captured. The complete destruction of the COSVN Public Information Office for Psychological Propaganda and a COSVN Signal site dealt a heavy blow to the enemy propaganda effort.
33. JUNCTION CITY II 20 March- 13 April 1967 Minh Thanh
Phase two began with the establishment of fire support bases along Route 13 from Lai Khe to Quan Loi (east of An Loc). A Troop, 3rd Squadron, 5th Cavalry came under attack north of the village of Bau Bang. Massed troops of the VC 273rd Regiment erupted out of the rubber plantation, swarming over the ACAVs and tanks on the southeastern perimeter. Calling in artillery support from A/3/319th the VC were destroyed leaving behind 227 killed while the Americans only suffered 3 casualties.
34. NEWARK 18-30 April 1967 War Zone “D”
35. FORT WAYNE 1-4 May 1967 War Zone “D”
36. DAYTON 5-17 May 1967 Phuoc Tay Province
37. CINCINNATI 17-23 May 1967 Bien Hoa/ Long Binh Area
38. WINCHESTER 23-31 May 1967 Pleiku
39. FRANCIS MARION 1-18 June 1967 Pleiku
40. STILWELL 18-22 June 1967 Dak To / Kontum
The Battle of the Slopes began as a routine search and destroy mission involving the 2/503rd. A company began leaving its night auger when its point squad ran into several NVA’s. An intense firefight occurred preventing 2nd platoon from linking up with its point squad. A company perimeter came under attack by the NVA cutting off the 2nd and 3rd platoons. The 1st and 2nd platoons were down to fifteen effective men when radio contact was lost. The 2nd platoon withdrew his remaining men to the Company Command Post, which then moved back up the ridge to a more defensible position. Two more enemy assaults were made on A company’s CP before C company would hook up with them.
The NVA’s 24th Regiment was well dug in and prevented C company from linking up with the lost platoon. That night, while anticipating an all out attack, the men heard shots punctuated by screams as the NVA executed the wounded. 43 out of 76 slain Sky Soldiers had fatal wounds in the back of their heads.
41. GREELEY 18 June – 14 October 1967 Dak To / Kontum
The 4/503rd was rapidly deployed to the Central Highlands after the Battle of the Slopes. On 10 July, moving up Hill 830, A company came under intense fire from the NVA. On 12 July, after taking the hill, D Company discovered a single network consisting of 60 bunkers with supporting foxholes. In short order, two more bunker complexes were discovered.
42. BOLLING 19 September 1967 – 31 January 1968 Tuy Hoa / Phu Hiep
The 2/503rd along with A/3/319th returned to the coastal area to regroup and refit its units with men and equipment while conducting patrols in their TAO.
43. MACARTHUR 1 November – 14 December 1967 Dak To / Kontum
On November 6th two companies from the 4th Battalion, 503d Infantry encountered elements of the NVA 66th Regiment on the Ngok Kom Leat chain of hills south of Ben Het. Seven Sky Soldiers fell from enemy bullets. On Veteran’s Day Task Force Black made up of elements of C/1/503 and two platoons of from D/1/503 were ambushed. American losses from the ambush were 20 killed, 154 wounded and 2 missing. PFC Barnes was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor because of this action.
On November 19, the 2/503d Infantry began climbing Hill 875. Companies C and D were hit with automatic weapons fire as they reached the first of two ridges. As the men moved up and spread out on line they came under fire by recoilless rifle fire and rifle grenades. A Company secured the rear when it came under intense attack by the NVA. PFC Carlos Lozada received the Congressional Medal of Honor for holding off the enemy while the remainder of the company made its way up the hill to join the rest of the battalion.
The enemy had prepared the battlefield extremely well. Hill 875 was no less than a fortress, with bunkers and trenches connected by tunnels. The underground bunkers had as much as two meters of overhead cover to protect their occupants from bombing and artillery, and slit gun ports opened onto excellent fields of fire. When the NVA infantry went on the attack, the soldiers were camouflaged and had prepared avenues of entry and withdrawal from the battlefield.
Chaplain Charles Watters was moving among the wounded men administering last rites when a jet fighter diving at over 300 miles per hour dropped a 500-pound bomb on the embattled battalion killing 42 troopers. He was also awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for this engagement.
On Thanksgiving Day the 4th Battalion assaulted up the hill with the remainder of the 2nd Battalion, taking the peak at 1122. The capture of the Hill 875 marked the climax of the battle of Dak To. The 2nd battalion lost 107 men killed and 282 wounded and 10 MIA.
44. WALKER 16 January 1968 – 31 January 1969 An Khe
45. COCHISE 30 March 1968 – 31 January 1969 Bong Son
46. DARBY CREST 1 February – 15 April 1969 The Crescent of Hoai An District
47. DARBY TRAIL 1 – 16 February 1969 Bong Son
48. DARBY MARCH 1 February – 6 March 1969 Tuy Hoa
49. STING RAY 6 – 10 March 1969 An Khe
50. DARBY PUNCH II 10 March – 24 May 1969 An Khe
51. WASHINGTON GREEN 15 April 1969 – 1 January 1971 Binh Dinh Province
52. GREENE LIGHTNING 1 January 1971 – 21 April 1971 Binh Dinh Province
53. GREENE STORM 5 February – 15 March 1971 Binh Dinh Province
54. GREENE SURE 17 March – 21 April 1971 Binh Dinh Province