Fifty years ago, troops from the 101st Airborne were prepping to assault a hill known simply as Hill 937 in the A Shau Valley region of northern South Vietnam. Little did they know they’d make history.
The Battle of Hamburger Hill (Hill 937), or Dong Ap Bia (Mountain of the Crouching Beast) as the Vietnamese called it, is arguably the most recognized battle of the Vietnam War due in part to the media coverage it received in May 1969. Nightly updates showing mounting casualties from the battle further soured the American public’s perception of the war. The 101st sustained over 370 casualties over the course of the 10-day battle (Mat 10-20) and 72 soldiers were killed.
Controversy erupted when the hill was abandoned on June 5, just days after the 101st secured the hill. Americans could not understand why the military would abandon territory taken at such great cost of human life.
Bob Harkins was in the midst of his second tour in Vietnam by May 1969. During his first tour, he was a platoon leader with the 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division. When he returned stateside, he was assigned to the Rangers at Fort Benning, then stationed at Fort Bragg. He returned to Vietnam, where he was given command of Alpha Company, 3rd Battallion/187th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division.
The battalion, already familiar with life in the A Shau, soon learned it would be part of Operation Apache Snow.
The mission was meant to sweep the North Vietnamese regulars from the rugged, mountainous terrain that was the A Shau Valley, an area the NVA used as a staging ground for attacks, including the infamous Tet Offensive of 1968. Hill 937 (its height in meters) was about a mile from Laos and in close proximity to the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Harkins’ company was tasked with blocking any thoughts the NVA had of retreating into the safety of Laos — off limits to US troops.
“We cut off any reinforcements,” said Harkins, who was in the midst of his second tour and had commanded his company through engagements dating back to January. “My company had a lot of confidence, a lot of proficient soldiers.”
Americans confused by the decision to abandon the hill did not understand the mission, said Harkins.
“We would take and hold a hill if it meant something,” said Harkins. “There were thousands of NVA on that hill. Once we knocked them off, our job was done. It (the mission) had nothing to do with that terrain.”
Fighting at Dong Ap Bia was brutal, and the terrain made it tough for troops attempting to scale the face of the 3,000-plus-foot mountain. Entrenched NVA troops pinned the Americans down at times.
The North Vietnamese had typically engaged in “hit-and-run” tactics, rarely engaging the Americans for extended periods of time. The Battle at Hamburger Hill changed that.
“They stayed,” remembered Harkins. “We wondered, ‘What was so important that they are staying and fighting?’”
Arthur Wiknik was a sergeant with the 2nd Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, which was called to support the 3rd/187th days into the battle.
“We had gone on standdown at Eagle Beach,” remembered Wiknik, who authored the book “Namm-Sense” and will be featured in depth in next week’s edition. “While we were there, the 3rd of the 187th was running into problems at Dong Ap Bia. While we were having picnics and eating hot dogs, they were out there getting the crap kicked out of them on the hill.”
Wiknik still remembers the men of the 3rd/187th as he and his men ascended the hill.
“These guys looked like they had seen the gates of hell,” said Wiknik. “The distant stares... they were filthy. They just had this look about them. I’ll never forget one of them said, ‘Sgt. stripes? Take them off.’ I thought, ‘Take them off?’ He said they made me a target. I didn’t know how to take these guys.’
“Then he said, ‘Yeah, we still got buddies up there. We can’t get them. We’re still getting shot and more are getting killed. He had a very serious look about him. He started to cry. I thought he must have seen some terrible, terrible things.”
Combat is never easy. It’s never pleasant. Harkins remembered the sentiment then toward the American soldiers, and as he looks back on his time in Vietnam, and having been part of a battle so well known, sees the effect it has had to this day.
“The American public didn’t support the troops in general during or after Vietnam,” said Harkins. “Soldiers are put there by politicians. We did what leadership asked us to do. Now, the support you’ve seen during the 17-18 years in Afghanistan and Iraq... you don’t hear frustrations with soldiers. You hear it with politicians.”
Harkins is among a group of nearly 70 veterans of the battle expected to arrive May 14 in Clarksville, Tenn., and Fort Campbell, home to the 101st Airborne Division.
“We have reunions every May,” said Harkins. “We have about 67 veterans that are going to be there. We’ve been getting together for about 20 years.”
Harkins retired as a colonel. After Vietnam he earned a master’s degree from Auburn University and went on to serve as a tactical officer at West Point, N.Y. He was then stationed at NATO headquarters in Ismir, Turkey, for two years. Other stops included the War College in Carlisle, Pa. and Fort Benning again, where he led the Light Infantry Task Force.
As a colonel, he commanded the Dragon Brigade, the XVIII Airborne Corps Headquarters Command during Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
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.