(WDVM) — Army Private First Class Gary “Buzz” Cox had to beg his company commander to let him take off his cook’s apron, pick up his rifle and join fellow Sky Soldiers who helicoptered into Dak To, a deadly battleground in the Central Highlands during the Vietnam War.
Sky Soldiers from 2nd Battalion, 173rd Airborne Infantry Brigade were being slaughtered on Hill 875 in the Central Highlands during the Vietnam War and Cox couldn’t sit by and watch them die. He had to get in the fight, even it cost him his life.
“For the first time in my life, I knew real fear,” said Cox, “because I knew my chances [of survival] were very slim.”
Cox joined the Army after graduating from high school, rather than be drafted. At the urging of a buddy in the brigade, Cox raised his hand when the First Sergeant asked for volunteers to cook for the brigade, even though Cox acknowledged he couldn’t cook, and had never even boiled water. But Cox told me he couldn’t stand by and watch his buddies die on Hill 875 during the bloody Battle of Dak To without trying to help them survive.
PFC Cox crawled up Hill 875 for the first time on November 19, 1967 which happened to be his 20th birthday. “The North Vietnamese threw a party for me,” laughed Cox as he sat in the tack room of the horse farm that he and his wife operate outside of Winchester, Virginia.
Days of artillery and aerial bombardment had left craters and shattered trees on Hill 875, but Cox said, “They were dug in too deep to be injured or killed.”
“We got within 100 meters of the top when all hellacious fire broke out. The noise was so loud, you couldn’t think. You couldn’t talk. I’ve never hear anything like it,” said Cox as he described everything going off at once; rifles, machine guns, grenades and bangalore torpedoes.
Second battalion tried several times to drive North Vietnamese troops from reinforced bunkers, but had to pull back into a tight perimeter for the night of the 19th.
Hill 875 had a smell of death in the air. Casualties were high on both sides. More than 1,600 American GIs were killed and another 8,400 wounded during the battle. Similar losses were suffered by the North Vietnamese. Second battalion lost 87 Sky Soldiers.
More than 40 of them died when the commander of a Marine Skyhawk Squadron from Chu Lai was told to drop his bombs on parachute flares that the battalion had fired over top of enemy positions on Hill 875.
“The flares may have burst over the top of the hill,” said Cox, “but the breeze was blowing them down over us, and he dropped his bombs where the flares were burning.”
A pair of 250 pound bombs hit dead center in the battalion command post; killing most of the officers and senior enlisted soldiers, devastating Buzz and his buddies; three of whom died in the blast.
One was Major Charles Watters, the battalion chaplain, who would be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for earlier risking his life to rescue wounded soldiers on Hill 875.
Private First Class Gary Cox was awarded a Silver Star, the nation’s third highest award for valor, the following day.