Editor’s note: Today’s is the second of three features recognizing the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Hamburger Hill. The first appeared Saturday, May 4, and the series will conclude next Saturday.
Fifty years ago today, troops from the 101st Airborne Division were in their second day of assaulting a non-descript hill in the A Shau Valley. While brave American troops achieved their objective, the battle of “Hamburger Hill” would sour the American public’s view of the Vietnam War and even prompt a media blackout in the weeks and months to follow.
Dong Ap Bia, as the locals knew it, was simply Hill 937 to the Americans — named by the military for its height in meters.
It would be named “Hamburger Hill” by the troopers who gallantly marched up and kicked the North Vietnamese off in combat likened to a “meat grinder.”
Sgt. Arthur Wiknik, author of “Namm-Sense,” was a “shake-and-bake” sergeant with a support battalion — Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Regiment — sent to the hill in support of the 3rd Battalion, 187th Regiment.
“After seven or eight days of failed assault, they wanted to put more into this battle,” Wiknik remembered. “We wanted to help our sister battalion which had run into problems on the hill.”
Quick to credit those in his sister battalion, Wiknik said of the 3/187th, “They lost the most guys and participated in every attempt to take the hill. To me, they are the true heroes of the battle.”
Everyone knew this would be unlike anything they’d done prior.
“We knew this was a nest of NVA (North Vietnamese Army). These were trained soldiers. These guys weren’t (Viet Cong), they’d openly attack in large numbers in daylight.
Troops were told to double up on all ammunition and word was this was a really big operation.
“My thought was, ‘We’re the most powerful army on the planet.’” he said. “What kind of trouble could these guys be in?”
Prior to heading north, Wiknik had been engaged in the Phong Dien area, known for VC activity.
“We never saw much of the enemy,” he said. “Keeping the village somewhat safe was our mission. There were booby traps and occasional VC.”
The A Shau was a hotbed of activity, though, and known as a staging point for NVA to launch assaults southward. Hamburger Hill’s close proximity to Laos, where American troops were prohibited, made it an ideal spot for the NVA to set up shop. NVA troops were entrenched with ammo caches and even underground bunkers and hospitals in the A Shau.
Wiknik and the 506th choppered in May 18, several days after the 3/187th first launched the assault.
“You could not drive trucks there,” said Wiknik. “We loaded on a Chinook and the ride was kind of ominous. You’re looking at each other and thinking ‘This is it.’ Nobody said a world. We just went. You had to.”
Once the Chinook landed, troops were ushered out and in came the Hueys.
“There were 15 or 20 of them,” Wiknik remembered. “Once we got airborne in the smaller choppers, each took a turn dropping off men. We were flying in circles and each time we made a revolution, we could see this hill with no vegetation on it. We knew this was the location where all this activity was taking place.”
The hill had been bombarded by artillery strikes from surrounding firebases and aerial bombs from fighters overhead. The top of the hill was completely deforested, however the NVA was well entrenched, having utilized tunnels and bunkers for retreat.
“The artillery, all the bombardment had completely removed all the green vegetation,” said Wiknik. “It was reminiscent of a World War I battlefield.
“As our helicopter came in for us to disembark, the door gunner said we would not be landing, that we’d have to jump. We weren’t even at a landing zone. We were on the side of a hill. I was standing on the skid as they brought us lower and he kicked me on the butt. Out I went. I landed on my face — hit the ground pretty hard.”
The troopers gathered and set up for the evening as it was already late in the day. The next morning the men were ordered to carry nothing but their weapons, canteens and extra ammunition — no rucks, no food.”
“We were told to go in with fixed bayonets,” he said. “We were not taking any prisoners. This was a battle of attrition and there was a good possibility of hand-to-hand combat.”
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.