By Paul Schemm May 10, 2019
Congratulations to Jonas Thorsell on his mention in The Washington Post, Jonas is a long-time friend of mine through the group VietnamWarHistoryOrg (over 30 thousand members) founded by Dr. Erik B Villard here at Facebook.
My dear friend Marjorie T Hansen’s husband Ist LT. Frank Boccia is also mentioned in the article as he commanded Bravo Company Ist Platoon. I had spoken with Frank several times of His book “The Crouching Beast” and how that Beast never sleeps for those of us who were there at some point in the Battle for Hill 937.
The whole article is poignant as the photo seen here, one of my favorites, by Hugh Van Es, Associated Press, of medics, wounded soldier from Hamburger Hill in the rain and the soldier standing to the side with binoculars waiting for the inevitable and catching a glimpse of Bravery and Sacrifice of Our Soldier Heroes.
DONG AP BIA, Vietnam — Climbing Hamburger Hill 50 years after the Vietnam War’s brutal, haunting battle. We climbed the worn stairs heading steeply up the mountain into the heavy jungle. They looked like the way to some forgotten temple complex a thousand years old, but had actually been built just 10 years ago to ease the ascent to Dong Ap Bia, the Crouching Beast, Hill 937 — Hamburger Hill.
It is one of the most famous battles of the long Vietnam War. It inspired a movie and congressional hearings, symbolizing for some the incredible bravery of the American infantry in Vietnam and for others the futility and waste of the war.
We weren’t climbing those stairs to settle that question, though we had others. Where exactly on this hill had the battle been fought all those years ago? On May 10, 1969, the U.S. Army’s most decorated unit, the 3rd Battalion of the 187th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, known as the Rakkasans, spent 10 days taking this hill against a deeply entrenched enemy. Every year the veterans mark the anniversary of the battle in Fort Campbell, Ky., and this year it’s the 50th.
The approach from the east side of the hill was the easy way up. This terrain didn’t play much of a role in the battle; instead, accounts of the war describe most of the 10 days of brutal combat taking place on ridges, both to the north and west of the hill.
A view of the A Shau Valley from Hamburger Hill this year. (Paul Schemm/The Washington Post)
The stairs were still pretty arduous, but my companion Jonas Thorsell and I had been living in the high altitudes of Ethiopia for the past few years and powered up the slope, leaving behind our guide, Van Vu, as he stopped to suck down local cigarettes.
Thorsell, a 49-year-old Swedish entrepreneur, who is in the electric scooter business, used to live in Vietnam and became fascinated by the old bases and battlefields of the war. He began blogging about them on his website, giving tips to those interested in returning to visit. His work has increasingly put him in touch with veterans seeking news of their former haunts, and for the 50th anniversary, he was producing a video for the Rakkasans showing the actual location of their assaults up the hill for the first time.
“It is a rediscovery, it is a journey to remember our friends who did not come home,” wrote Mike Smith, 70, who was a private first class with Delta Company’s 2nd Platoon. “No one has been able to provide the time and dedication to understand the scope and conditions of the battle in which it was waged, then find it, without Jonas.”
I’d grown up in a military family myself and was raised on such 1980s films as “Platoon,” “Full Metal Jacket” and, embarrassingly, “Rambo,” so I had long wanted to climb the hill myself.
For the past 20 years, veterans have been coming back to Vietnam to rediscover the places where they lived and fought so long ago. Our guide Vu has gained an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the many bases in this area between Hue and the Laotian border
“For most vets, they are really emotional when revisiting the sites where they were stationed and operated,” he said, adding that some were still bitter about the war after all these years.
He said his country’s veterans are proud of their struggle, and suffering, too, but that most young Vietnamese aren’t particularly interested in hearing about their sacrifices. “They are looking forward to the future and making money.”
For all his knowledge, though, Vu was also unfamiliar with the actual site of the fighting on the hill and followed our rough maps cobbled together from satellite images, veteran memories and after-action reports.
The triple canopy jungle above us was peaceful as we trudged up the stairs. The air was filled with the chirping of birds and crickets, and snakes slithered out of our way as we walked past — a far cry from the wall of sound described by the veterans of the battle.
Near the summit is a memorial in Vietnamese and English erected around the same time as the steps. In the heavy, propaganda-rich language of Vietnamese officialdom, it describes the battle as a victory for the North Vietnamese in “the resistance war against America” and how this place became an “obsession” for U.S. forces.
The battle for Hill 937 was kind of a high-water mark of U.S. operations in Vietnam. At the time, there were more than 500,000 U.S. troops on the ground, and this was a rare moment when the North Vietnamese forces stood and fought. By the end of the year, President Richard Nixon began his drawdown of troops, and there was a shift in emphasis to getting South Vietnamese troops ready to bear the brunt of the fighting.
In this operation, however, some 2,000 U.S. troops sought to remove the infiltration routes of enemy troops and materiel from Laos into South Vietnam around the key city of Hue and the massive air base of Danang farther south.
The Tet Offensive the year before had been particularly hard-fought around Hue, and the North Vietnamese had moved their forces from Laos into Vietnam through the A Shau Valley. The Hamburger Hill battle, part of Operation Apache Snow, was designed to wrest the valley back from the North Vietnamese, who had held it ever since a Special Forces camp in the valley was overrun in 1966.
Most people stop at the memorial, but we kept going up to the summit, where the tall trees were replaced by six-foot-high, razor-sharp elephant grass, and the temperature soared as the sun beat down on us without the protection of the tree canopy.
From there, we worked our way back down the mountain, trying to figure the paths of the American assault in reverse.
We discovered trails that led off the summit onto ridges that plunged down the hill. This was where it happened 50 years ago. These were the routes the American soldiers charged up into the teeth of an entrenched enemy protected by layers of mines and massive log bunkers that were impervious to air strikes.
There’s little evidence left of that awful violence from half a century ago — a torn bit of fabric from an army poncho liner, holes dug around boulders that could have been fighting positions. Vu noted that in the lean years after the war, many Vietnamese dug through the old battle sites looking for scrap metal to sell. His toys growing up were old bits of war materiel.
In his granular recounting of the battle, a book titled “The Crouching Beast,” Lt. Frank Boccia, who commanded Bravo Company’s 1st Platoon, described how his company was sent up the hill on a routine reconnaissance patrol with a vague mission to look for supply dumps, then ran into an ambush in a clearing.
“Hollow booms — Claymores: two dull, flat slams — RPG. AK-47, like a stabbing icicle, the sounds registered. And then a vicious, mind-freezing deep thumping, a pounding, crushing sound I’d never heard before but recognized instantly: .51 caliber machine gun. . . . Then the screaming started. Yells for help, or a medic, and inarticulate screams of fear and agony.”
A wounded U.S. Paratrooper grimaces in pain as he awaits medical evacuation at a base camp in the A Shau Valley near the Laotian border in South Vietnam on May 19, 1969. (Hugh Van Es/AP)
The men of 4th Platoon were hit by the massed fire from several bunkers and cut to pieces. Meanwhile the men of Charlie and Delta companies, making their own way up the hill, also were thrown back — a strange moment for the Americans who weren’t used to the enemy standing and fighting.
“We began to wonder about what kind of place this was and why they were defending it,” recalled Dennis Helms, now 70, the radio man for the Bravo Company’s 1st platoon. “Over the course of the battle, we made a number of assaults up the hill, and we would come back down each time because we had limited space to move in, and it seemed as if all their weapons were trained on the clearing, and we just couldn’t seem to get past that,” he said in an audio recording of his recollections.
“Every assault was a somewhat different scene, but had the same outcome. It just depended on where they wanted to hit us when we first came into the clearing or got past the clearing,” Helms added. “The noise level was also so unbearable.”
Documents found on dead Vietnamese soldiers later revealed that the U.S. troops had stumbled upon North Vietnam’s 1,000-man 29th Regiment, known as the “Pride of Ho Chi Minh.”
For days they were sent back up that hill, each time thrown back — sometimes, by the Vietnamese heavy machine guns, sometimes by the mines that were buried into the slopes, and twice even by friendly fire; first, when a fighter jet dropped a bomb too close, and second, after an attack helicopter accidentally rocketed their company headquarters.
“That broke our back that day,” Helms said. “The battle was bad enough, but having our own gunship fire us up was a hard pill to swallow — it was very demoralizing.”
Over the course of the fight, the U.S. troops faced counterattacks, called in air strikes and tried to evacuate their wounded even as several of their helicopters were shot down. Through it all the enemy held their ground, even as nearly every bit of vegetation in the dense jungle on the summit was leveled.
U.S. Paratroopers rest atop the denuded crest of Hamburger Hill during the 10-day battle. (AP)
Then on the 18th, yet another assault was defeated, this time by heavy rain.
“It rained hard, hard, hard, and everything turned to sloshing mud. You’d take a step forward and slide down four feet,” recalled Robert Harkins, now 75, then a captain and leader of Alpha Company. “There wasn’t a lot to grab on to – most of the vegetation was now gone, and the weather also caused us to lose the support of our helicopters.”
On May 20, the much-mangled 3/187 Battalion, with help of other units, finally took the hill and mounted the summit. By this time, the scene was like standing on the moon.
About 70 U.S. soldiers died, and many more wounded; the 3/187 sustaining casualty rates of more than 50 percent in three of its four companies. Platoon leaders, the junior officers who charged into the fray alongside their men, were particularly hard hit. Only four of fourteen made it through relatively unscathed.
The U.S. troops didn’t stay long, abandoning the hill shortly thereafter, which became the focus of congressional hearings chaired by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who called the battle “senseless and irresponsible.”
The 1987 film “Hamburger Hill,” in particular, struck an antiwar note that has long bothered Viegtnam Veterans, who also pointed out the historical inaccuracies.
“Had we faced the terrain shown in the movie, we’d have won the first day,” Boccia remarked bitterly once to Thorsell. “You’d think they’d have gotten something right by accident.”
“No girls, no hot tubs, no trucks. The movie was crap and did not relate to a real 3/187th soldier in the A Shau Valley that I experienced,” Smith agreed in an email.
For those who fought in it, the battle wasn’t about holding ground but about taking back control of a supply route that had been in the hands of the enemy for years.
Lt. Col. Weldon Honeycutt yells orders to his company as it works its way up Dong Ap Bia, the 3,000-foot mountain dubbed “Hamburger Hill” by the men of the 101st Airborne. (Hugh Van Es/AP)
“I believe we did what we were sent to do. We were to open up the valley; we opened up the valley. We were to kill the NVA; we killed as many of the NVA as we could. The hill had no tactical or strategic purpose other than the NVA who were on the hill,” Harkins recalled. More than 600 North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldiers are estimated to have died in the fight.
‘Unselfish acts of bravery’
The central valley remained clear of North Vietnamese for several months afterward, that is, until the United States began drawing down its forces.
Smith, one of the veterans, said he recalls his time in Vietnam every day. For him, what made the battle such a definitive moment was “the unselfish acts of bravery exhibited by so many soldiers – not to earn awards, but to take care of one another, helping them survive, and to continue the battle. “
Thorsell, Vu and I finally made our way back up the steep trail to the same summit that took the Rakkasans 10 days to capture, and then, slowly made our way back down those worn steps, our legs rubbery from the long day of climbing.
As we entered our car, we noticed a small party of Montagnard tribesmen, the indigenous people of Vietnam’s Central Highlands, who came down the mountain behind us. Vu pointed out that they probably spent the day trapping small animals in the forest.
Fifty years after the battle, Hamburger Hill, now at peace, belonged to them.
To read more about Hamburger Hill as it looks like today, please visit another article on this website by Jonas Thorsell: https://cherrieswriter.com/2014/11/06/revisiting-vietnams-hamburger-hill/