“Anyone Who Can Hold A Weapon Fights”: Fighting On Hill 889 With The 173rd Airborne

Ken Cox


Ken Cox was born in 1948, the middle child in a family with three brothers and one sister. He grew up in a very diverse working-class neighborhood in Worcester, Massachusetts. His father was a beer truck driver and his mother was a seamstress. His maternal grandmother served as an Army Nurse during WWII caring for amputees, and was a role model in Ken’s life. In an area that was predominately immigrant, parents emphasized the importance of getting a good education. High school was life-changing for Ken, who became more outgoing during those years. He worked for the Worcester Historical Society and enjoyed hearing the stories from the older women who also worked there. He was aware of the conflict in Vietnam from the nightly news, but had little understanding of it. After high school graduation, he did not know what he wanted to do, but a friend, Jimmy Gingarelli, convinced him to join the Army on the buddy plan, where they would train and serve together. Prior to signing the paperwork, Jimmy decided against joining the Army (he was later drafted) and Ken changed his contract to become a paratrooper. He had wanted to be airborne signal, but the recruiter told him he’d have to be infantry and he signed anyway. He describes how he told his dad that he joined the Army the day he shipped out, and left it to his father to tell his mother. He completed basic training at Ft. Dix, New Jersey, AIT at Ft. Gordon, Georgia, and Airborne School at Ft. Benning. At Ft. Dix, Drill Sergeant Davis challenged him consistently, but Ken was not going to let him (or the system) beat him. He enjoyed airborne school and after two weeks at home, he reported back to Ft. Dix in February 1967 to ship out. He reflects on Neil Ellsworth, who was his close friend through all of their training and deploying to Vietnam, and was killed in April 1967. Even though it was the middle of winter, those deploying were told to wear their short-sleeve khaki uniforms as they flew from New Jersey to Alaska and Japan before landing at Tan Son Nhut. When the plane door opened, he was greeted by the smell of the thick pungent air of Saigon. He processed through customs, where the MPs were asking Soldiers if they had brought a personal weapon to the combat zone, before signing in to the 173rd at Bien Hoa. He hopped a Huey to link up with C Company, and remembers the Commander admonishing a new NCO for saluting him in the field. He was assigned as the Forward Observer for 2nd Platoon, even though he had no training or experience to perform that mission. The Soldier who was supposed to teach him was shot in the hand shortly after Ken arrived at the Platoon and ran toward the helicopter yelling, “I’m going home,” leaving Ken with no mentor to provide instruction. Fortunately, SGT O’Day of the mortar section taught him how to call for and adjust fire. He describes the importance of following the platoon’s progress on a map, and highlights his fear of killing his own troops with mortars. During his tour, they fought mostly NVA who were well-armed and disciplined, although when they were in War Zone D, he engaged Viet Cong. He was wounded in October but returned to the platoon in early November. On November 8, 1967, during the Battle of Dak To, when one unit was engaged in a fierce battle on Hill 823, he volunteered, along with his Platoon Leader, Jerry Cecil, to help reinforce the unit engaged. On the 9th, they were pulled off Hill 823 proper and on the 10th they were sent to another area. On the 11th, the platoon sent a patrol out that ran into two Vietnamese. The patrol killed one, but the other got away. The Captain told LT Cecil to “be careful,” and the last thing Ken remembers before all hell broke loose was someone yelling “there they go!” Ken was amazed by the volume of fire that killed five Americans immediately and remembers LT Cecil walking around placing his troops in position. The fight lasted for 15 – 20 minutes and stopped, but it was only a 10-minute lull as the enemy regrouped. During that time, the captain told LT Cecil he was coming with the rest of the Company, but enroute they were ambushed. Ken recalls machine gunner Jerry Kelly, a tall good-looking guy, standing up with his gun exclaiming, “Jesus, they’re everywhere,” when he was mortally wounded. Eventually, B Company, 4th Battalion came to their relief. During the battle, Ken took cover behind a log. As he was lying on his back, he felt wood chips hitting him and realized that a North Vietnamese Soldier was shooting the log, trying to hit him. A medic rushed forward and was shot through both arms and in the stomach, falling forward on top of Ken, who was also hit in the right forearm. A few hours later, a grenade exploded between him and another Soldier and he was wounded in the face by shrapnel. He vowed to himself “nothing is taking you out of the fight.” Wounded were being collected in “the pit,” an area of dubious cover in a bit of low ground. Ken helped a wounded comrade to “the pit” and a medic asked him to hold a bottle of albumin (blood plasma) that he was administering. Seconds later, the bottle blew up in Ken’s hand and he received RPG shrapnel to the knee, and shortly after another grenade blew up near him and he took more shrapnel to the back. At this point, Ken yelled, “Stop shooting at me!” By this time, he had lost all awareness of time, and anyone who could still hold a weapon was on the line. When the company from 4th Battalion finally got into position, the remnants of C Company were able to begin moving up the hill and Ken assisted a Soldier named Madsen back to the laager site. LT Cecil asked Ken to carry a box of grenades with him. When they got to the laager site, they realized that the North Vietnamese had ransacked their rucksacks, and Ken noted that they had taken a Starlight Scope. By this time he was in an area of relative safety and he asked Doc “Worm” to give him a shot of morphine. When that shot wore off, he asked for another. It took the Battalion two days to evacuate everyone off the hill, and Ken was dusted off on the 12th. His first stop was the Dak To Airbase, and the next day he was flown to Pleiku, where he received the first of three operations on the 13th. He spent 10 days in Pleiku before being flown to Japan. Eventually, he flew to Andrews Air Force Base, arriving home around December 18, 1967. He had not communicated with home since he was wounded, and later reasoned that it was because he was afraid; he didn’t want his family to be hurt because he was hurt. Even so, a friend, Dave Lewis, had stopped by Ken’s house to tell his mother that he had been wounded. Arriving home, he began to drink heavily and get into fights, and after a few days, his mother told him to “knock it off,” and his grandmother intervened to help him get his mind right. In the years since leaving Vietnam, he has suffered from Post Traumatic Stress, which caused strife within his family, but he finds that counseling through the VA and attending reunions helps. Reflecting on his service, he has a love – hate relationship with his memories of the Vietnam War, stating, “It made me a different person, not a better person,” but he feels immense pride in the fact that he served his country when it wasn’t popular to do so.


conflicts Vietnam War
topics Leadership Teamwork Camaraderie Injuries Returning from War PTSD Military Techniques
interviewer David Siry
date 05 June 2024


name Ken Cox
service Infantry
unit C Company, 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry, 173rd Airborne Brigade
specialty Battle of Dak To
service dates 1966 1969