Appalled by the loss of American life on “Hamburger Hill,” a remote mountain near the Laotian border in northern South Vietnam, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts took the floor of the U.S. Senate in May 1969 to condemn the 101st Airborne Division’s bloody 10-day battle. Kennedy was apparently unaware that elements of the 101st, nicknamed the “Screaming Eagles,” were already embroiled in another costly—and now nearly forgotten—battle 100 miles south near Tam Ky, the capital of Quang Tin province.
The fierce fight there and the pivotal role of the division’s 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, are the subject of retired Army Lt. Col. Ed Sherwood’s new book, Courage Under Fire: The 101st Airborne’s Hidden Battle at Tam Ky.
Responding to enemy pressure around Tam Ky, Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, ordered the 101st to reinforce the hard-pressed 23rd Infantry Division (Americal). Maj. Gen. Melvin Zais, commander of the 101st, immediately selected the 1st Brigade, which had been operating in Thua Thien province, to conduct Operation Lamar Plain.
Composed of the 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry; the 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry; and a battalion from Americal’s 196th Light Infantry Brigade, the 1st Brigade was told to find and destroy North Vietnamese forces threatening Tam Ky and the American firebase Landing Zone Professional.
Hurriedly boarding C-130 transport planes, the 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry, arrived at Tam Ky on May 15. The following day, after a short artillery preparation, three companies were inserted north of LZ Professional and instructed to push south toward the firebase. Sherwood, a relatively new platoon leader in Delta Company, observed that enemy resistance stiffened as the troops approached the Song Bong Mieu River.
On the afternoon of May 21, the three companies, attacking across an open rice paddy, became entangled in an enemy bunker complex at an abandoned hamlet. “The noise is deafening and disorienting,” writes Sherwood of the vicious combat. “Rounds are whizzing by in both directions with supersonic speed, cutting vegetation, hitting the ground and trees with heavy, forceful thwacks and thuds.”
Eventually, the embattled paratroopers pulled back and requested air and artillery support. The daylong fight resulted in 12 killed and 49 wounded, further weakening the already undermanned battalion.
While much of the narrative focuses on the combat actions of Sherwood’s battalion, particularly those involving Delta Company, Courage Under Fire also recounts the human cost of the operation.
“At company and below,” Sherwood notes, “the men killed are often well known. They are not numbers on a board. Memories of them last a lifetime.” He includes a day-by-day list of every soldier killed in action at the end of each chapter.
In June, the 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry, was dispatched to rescue a surrounded platoon from the airborne division’s 2nd Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment, on Hill 376 southwest of Tam Ky. What began as a rescue mission soon devolved into a grinding war of attrition against a battalion of entrenched North Vietnamese Army regulars. Fighting for the better part of a week to secure the hill, the Americans battled bunkers, searing heat and torrential downpours before a devastating artillery barrage shattered the enemy formation. Nearly 200 enemy graves were later discovered on the hill. The Screaming Eagles suffered an additional 23 killed and 56 wounded.
The fight on Hill 376 ended the threat to Tam Ky and greatly reduced enemy activity for the remainder of Lamar Plain. However, when the operation concluded in August 1969, little was made of its successes or the heroism of the 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry.
Many veterans have often wondered why. “A quick answer is the operation was never covered by U.S. media in Vietnam and therefore, never reported to the American public,” Sherwood explains. “But this is not the full story. Keeping the battle out of the public eye was the work of the top U.S. military command in Vietnam.” He argues that the military withheld information about the battle in part to quell domestic dissent.
Courage Under Fire ably addresses a long-neglected gap in the storied history of the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam. V
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This article appeared in Vietnam magazine. For more stories from Vietnam magazine, subscribe and visit us on Facebook: