Editor’s note: Today’s feature is the final of three dedicated to the Battle of Hamburger Hill 50 years ago in South Vietnam.
As Arthur Wiknik and the rest of Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division worked to gain position on the steep slopes of Dong Ap Bia, all the men could think about was the assault that was coming the next morning.
It was 50 years ago in Vietnam that Wiknik was part of one of the war’s most famous battles, one that would come to be known as the Battle for Hamburger Hill.
“They knew where we were and we knew where they were,” remembered Wiknik. “It was kind of spooky. They weren’t afraid of making noise. They were just waiting for us.”
Hundreds of men from the 101st Airborne Division were charged with taking Dong Ap Bia with the sole objective of pushing the North Vietnamese regulars off the hill, which was a short trek from Laos and the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
The North Vietnamese Army had used the A Shau Valley and adjacent trail as a corridor and launching point for assaults southward.
“About 8 the next morning, all the area firebases started their (artillery) bombardment (of the hill),” said Wiknik. “It went on for over an hour. They were to soften up positions, destroy any enemy on the hill.
“Once that ended we were told to move out and attack.”
Troopers began their ascent as soon as they found an open area, they saw what they were up against — the terrain, and a determined enemy.
“There was very little to hide behind,” said Wiknik, who was a “shake-and-bake” sergeant at the time. “There were a few logs, some bomb craters and stumps. Guys took off, laying down suppressive fire. I decided I’m not going to shoot. I didn’t see any targets. I just went along.”
That’s when Wiknik noticed the ground below him “bubbling.”
“I realized bullets were firing into the ground at my feet,” he said. “I realized I’m the only dope walking around. I crawled into a bomb crater alongside another guy.”
Finding the entrenched enemy was tough. The North Vietnamese had the high ground and their positions were well disguised, and well underground.
“I’d see puffs of smoke and think ‘That’s the enemy,’” he said. “We’d fire off 10 or 15 rounds, then he got shot in the leg.”
As the medic made his way over to the crater, Wiknik realized with three, it was easy pickings for the enemy. He left the safety of the crater.
“I did see one enemy soldier running over the hill,” said Wiknik. “I saw some more puffs of smoke and I’d pop up and fire off some rounds. The third time I popped up, something hit me and knocked me back.”
Temporarily blinded, Wiknik didn’t know what had hit him or how bad a shape he was in.
“I’m laying there thinking this is the end... I’m going to die here. As I laid there, the pain became more intense. Then for a few moments I could see. It was just dirt in my eyes, but my chest was on fire. I beat out the flames.”
He then realized he’d been shot, but he’d been lucky.
“He shot right at my face, but he fired too low. He blasted dirt in my eye. The second shot, a tracer, caught my bandoliers on fire.”
Wiknik reground and saw a nearby ridgeline that had some cover — boulders and some brush. He looked over to his guys and motioned for them to follow him.
“I ran over enemy positions, abandoned positions and some discarded equipment,” he said. “I looked around and didn’t see anyone. No one followed me. I was there for about 15 minutes by myself.”
The enemy was close. Wiknik could hear them. He was tired from the assault up the mountain. The heat of the day had zapped him as well. Plus, he’d been wounded.
“I sat behind a stump,” he said. “Fifteen minutes later the shooting died down. My guys started coming up the hill.”
Wiknik was atop Hamburger Hill. He was one of the first to make it there.
“My guys got up and said, ‘Sgt. Wiknik, what happened to you?’” he remembered. “My face looked like a raccoon from all the tears. Plus, I had a hole burned in my chest.”
The mission then became a “mop-up” operation. The NVA were gone, but there were hundreds of enemy bodies on the hill.
“Hundreds of our guys swarmed that hill, it was like ants,” said Wiknik.
Soon he saw one of the more infamous scenes from the Vietnam War.
“The bottom of a C-ration box was stuck to a tree with a bayonet,” he said. “Someone had written ‘Hamburger Hill’ on it with marker. Someone had went over with a little white piece of paper and stuck it on there.”
That message read, “Was it Worth It?”
“It was only up there a few moments before an officer ripped it down,” said Wiknik. “He said, ‘We’re not going to be asking questions like this.’ I thought, ‘Why not?’”
Over 70 Americans were killed, another nearly 400 wounded.
In the days following the assault, Wiknik and his men learned the hill had been abandoned. It wasn’t until mail from home started trickling in that they realized how much news coverage the battle had received stateside.
“A week or two had gone by and as I got more newspapers, one of the articles talked about Edward Kennedy,” said Wiknik. “He called (the battle) senseless and irresponsible.”
It caused Wiknik to think.
“Maybe it was,” he said. “We won a hard-fought victory. In military terms, we killed 600 or 700 enemy soldiers. It should have been a victory to be acknowledged. Instead it was used for political purposes.”
Fallout from the battle was so intense that the 101st Airborne Division instituted a media blackout on operations in the area, which included another hilltop-area battle, the Battle of Firebase Ripcord, which proved to be the war’s longest.
“The American public was getting tire of the war anyhow and then a battle like this came on. It was bad enough we lost so many guys, but within days we abandoned the hill.”
A movie, “Hamburger Hill” was released in 1987. It starred Don Cheadle, Dylan McDermott, Courtney Vance and Steven Weber, but received little attention at the time due to another Vietnam-era release, “Full Metal Jacket.”
“The movie was good overall,” said Wiknik. “I obviously have a bias. That was my battle.”
Chris Brady is managing editor at The Standard-Journal and author of three Vietnam-based books, “Remembering Firebase Ripcord,” “A War We Can’t Forget” and the novel, “We Answered the Call.” He can be reached at email@example.com.