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On the ridges of what would be called Hamburger Hill for the way troops were ground up in the fighting there, U.S. helicopters mistakenly hit a 101st Airborne unit on the verge of winning its battle against rough mountain terrain, dense rain forest and a well-entrenched enemy.

 IN ONE OF THE WAR’S BLOODIEST BATTLES, troops from the 101st Airborne Division and 400 soldiers from South Vietnam’s 1st Division, part of a large operation to destroy North Vietnamese forces in the A Shau Valley, fought their way up Ap Bia Mountain in May 1969. Their mission: Dislodge the 7th and 8th battalions of the enemy’s 29th Regiment, “The Pride of Ho Chi Minh,” ensconced in heavily fortified positions on the mountain, designated Hill 937 on military maps. When the battle was over, 72 Americans had been killed and 372 wounded—a casualty count that earned it the sobriquet Hamburger Hill and caused a firestorm of criticism from American politicians and a war-weary public.

The 101st Airborne’s 3rd Brigade, deploying troops from the 3rd Battalion of the 187th Infantry Regiment, made first contact with the North Vietnamese Army on May 11 at 1630 hours. After several days of intense fighting, the 3rd Battalion, commanded by Lt. Col. Weldon Honeycutt, still had not made much headway in the rugged mountain jungle. On May 15, the battalion’s Bravo Company was ordered to renew the assault on the middle ridge, flanked to its north by a badly battered Delta Company and to its south by Alpha Company, which had replaced the shattered remnants of Charlie Company the previous night. The long, narrow ridge—only a meter wide near the summit—and its steep, heavily forested flanks made maneuver nearly impossible. Bravo’s 3rd Platoon, led by Master Sgt. Luis Garza, began the assault, backed up by the 1st Lt. Marshall Eward’s 2nd Platoon. The 1st Platoon, under 1st Lt. Frank Boccia, was charged with securing the ridge from 2nd Platoon’s rear down to a helicopter landing zone, about 550 to 600 meters from the summit. In between 2nd Platoon and the landing zone was the company command post and a lower-level night defensive position.

Just as the 3rd Platoon entered a clearing, some 75 meters from the summit, a Huey helicopter mistook Bravo for the enemy, hitting it with four 2.75-inch rockets and shredding the command post. Boccia was 10 meters from the company commander, Captain Charles Littnan, when everything was washed out in a glare of white. In an excerpt from his book, The Crouching Beast: A United States Army Lieutenant’s Account of the Battle for Hamburger Hill, May 1969, Boccia tells what happened next.

There was a harsh, flat crack, not at all loud, and an acrid smell of smoke and scorched, white-hot metal and an impression, just below the level of consciousness, of bright red lines of fire streaking through the air past me. Yells and screams tore through the air. I whirled to find a scene of carnage: Bodies lay everywhere. Littnan was down. So were Conzoner, Price, Peters and Crenshaw, who lay with his right leg twisted underneath him.…My mouth went dry, and all I could do was stare for a long moment.

Snyder was one of the men I had moved up; he was still in the CP area but had escaped unhurt. Schoch apparently was unscathed also, because I saw him move quickly to Littnan’s side, pause briefly and then turn to Crenshaw. He yelled something to Snyder, who grabbed one of the radios. I looked up and down the trail; from where I stood, I could see almost no security around us. Jorgenson and Sweet, who had been securing the area immediately around the command post itself, were both down.

I looked over my shoulder; Helms, who was standing several feet away, having already started to move down toward the LZ ahead of me, was unhurt. “Tell Wright to bring a squad up here, now,” I yelled.

When I turned back, I saw Snyder holding out the radio; it was the battalion net. I ran forward and took it from him.

“Black Jack, this is Bravo One Six, over.” I kept my voice flat and low pitched.

“This is Black Jack. What have you got down there?”

“One Six. We just took a round, maybe two. I don’t know what it was; it didn’t sound like RPGs, over.”

“This is Black Jack. It wasn’t RPG. It was that goddamned ARA. You just took four 2.75s in your column.”

“Roger.” I was too stunned to be angry. “Bravo Six is down. So’s Bravo Five. And a lot more.”

“Roger. How’s your Three Six element doing?” Black Jack asked.

“They were OK, the last time I heard, a couple of minutes ago.”

“Tell ’em to keep up the pressure. I want those objectives secured,” he said.


“You got any FOs down there?”

“Crenshaw’s down. So’s his RTO. I just got mine, over.”

“Keep Three Six moving up. We’ll lift the mortar and arty.”

“Roger,” I replied. “I’m going to check on Three Six now.”

“Roger. Out.”

Lieutenant Eward was running down the ridge to the command post. He dropped to his knees beside me.

“You just finish talking to Black Jack?” Eward asked.

“Yeah. Marsh, we got a mess.”

“I was just getting ready to get on the horn myself when I heard you pick it up. Where’s Littnan?”

“He’s over there. I don’t know how bad it is, but he’s not moving,” I said. “Look, Black Jack says keep pushing. How about you move back up and take care of things there, and I’ll try to get things straightened out down here? We need a casualty report and I guess we’ll have to open up that LZ.”

“Yeah. Hey, what the hell hit us?”

“ARA. 2.75s.”

“Bastards.” Eward stood up, shook his head and began running back up the ridge toward Three Six and the clearing.

Six bodies lay scattered around the radio I was using. One of them was Price. He was unquestionably dead, with half his head torn off by shrapnel; the ground under him was red with his blood. Conzoner was sitting up, with his right hand pressed to his chest. His face was white, and he seemed not to see me, but he was breathing normally, so I judged that his lungs weren’t perforated. Crenshaw and his RTO, Peters, lay side by side, next to their radio. Crenshaw’s leg was split open, from thigh to knee; his face was twisted in agony, but he remained silent. Peters lay with eyes open, a trickle of blood seeping from his mouth. Jorgenson was off the trail, his head hidden by a bush; he wasn’t moving.

Littnan, his arm and shoulder drenched in blood, lay next to Price’s body. I saw him struggle to get up, and I quickly moved to his side.

“Don’t move, captain,” I said, gently pushing him back to the ground. His face was white, his eyes dull. He stared at me without recognition for a moment, then nodded and rested his head back against the dark earth.

“How bad…is it?” he said, wincing. Littnan was asking about the company, not himself, but I deliberately misunderstood him.

“Bad enough. You’ve been hit in the arm. You hurt any place else?”

Littnan shook his head slowly. “Arm is…numb. What… hit us?”

I gritted my teeth. “ARA.”

Anger and disbelief flashed through his eyes. “Christ!” It was the strongest swear word I’d heard Littnan use. He closed his eyes, mouth white and tight-lipped.

Medics were frantically working on Peters. One medic, Hudson, was wrapping bandages around Crenshaw’s leg. As fast as he wrapped, the bandage turned red. I turned my attention back to Littnan and asked if he wanted water. He said no. I told him Garza was continuing the attack and Eward also was up there.

“How many…hit?”

I hesitated, but decided Littnan had a right to know. “Ten, 12.”


“Everyone in the CP’s hit, sir.”

He grunted softly. “Top?”

“Him too,” I replied.

“Got…the whole…crew, huh?”

“Yes, sir.”

“OK. You’re in charge. Take care of ’em.”

“Yes, sir. Just lie back,” I told Littnan. “I’m getting you a medic.”

“No. Others…first. I’m…not bad.”

The firefight, which had been steady up to that moment, suddenly erupted in a heavy wave of sound. I realized that most of it was NVA. I called Eward.

“Two Six, this is One Six. What’s going on, over?” There was nothing, at first, just more and more intense fire from above. And then, behind me, I heard a few shots coming from down the trail. I looked around; there was no one now between the CP group—which now consisted of the casualties and medics working on them, no one else—and the trail below us, leading to the LZ. I made a rapid calculation in my head: There was no way to secure the entire ridge anymore, not with Garza near the summit and Eward just below it in a clearing that had become a killing ground. There was simply too much space for us to cover.

Eward’s voice on the radio interrupted my thoughts. “One, this is Two. Go.”

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“Damn if I know. Something’s got these little mothers all stirred up. They’re all over the place, all of a sudden. Sons of bitches must think there’s a war going on.”

“Roger. I’m hearing fire from my right rear. Anything off to your flanks?”

“Affirm. All over the compass,” Eward replied.

“Do you and Three Six have a way out?”

“Affirm. For now. But if they pinch off that knoll there, between me and Garza, he’ll be in a world of shit.”

I looked around. Helms was standing behind me, having returned from delivering my message to Wright. He had his radio tuned to the company net, so I dropped the receiver and took his. Just then Garvey, a trooper from Eward’s platoon, walked by; he was one of a pair who had brought back a wounded man from Garza’s platoon. I grabbed his arm and pointed to the battalion net radio lying at my feet.

“Put that on,” I yelled.

He looked at me slack jawed. “I ain’t no RTO,” he said.

“You are now. Put it on.”

As Garvey reluctantly put the radio on, I held the receiver to my ear with one hand and its cord up in the air with the other to keep it from getting tangled up as the man struggled with the harness. Black Jack was already on the horn, wanting to know what was going on.

“This is Bravo One Six,” I replied. “Two Six and Three Six are taking heavy incoming, from all sides. I’ve also got fire coming from my right rear, along that south slope.”

“Roger. How bad is that?”

“Don’t know. Just started up. I’ve got Two Six on the line, and he’s telling me he’s still got a way out, but it may be closing, over.”

“Roger. Delta and Alpha are getting heavy fire too, Black Jack said. “Are you up at FEBA?”

“Negative. I’m on my way up, soon as I find out what’s happening behind me, over.”

“Roger. Don’t take all day at it. Is your LZ secure?”

“That’s what I have to find out. I sent word down to secure it just before the ARA hit, over.”

“Well, you’re gonna need the son of a bitch, so make sure it’s secure,” Black Jack said. “I got a new Six and a new Three Six on the way to you, when you can secure the LZ. And you’ll have to bring the wounded out. You got a count yet?”

I told him I had a partial list: two killed and 10 wounded at the CP, and an additional four wounded from Garza’s platoon.

“Can Three Six keep up his attack?” Black Jack asked.

“Wait one.” I thumbed the switch on the other receiver to call Eward. “Two Six, this is One Six. How are things now?”

Eward’s voice was barely audible. The level of fire around him had ratcheted up enormously in the past minute. “This is Two Six. We’re catching some real shit up here. Are you on your way up?”

“Roger, in a moment.” I wasn’t panicked, but I was deeply worried. I still had no idea what was going on behind me, and I had no one near me I could send to find out, except for Helms. I looked down; Conzoner’s radio, the one tuned to the company net, the same as Helms’ radio, lay on the other side of Price’s body. I made a quick decision. “Wait one,” I called to Eward.

I stepped over Price, reached down and picked up the receiver, handing the other one back to Helms. I shouted in his ear: “Call One Five: Find out what’s happening down there. ASAP.”

He nodded and put the mic to his lips.

“Black Jack, this is One Six.” I said. “I’m moving up now. Three Six and Two Six are still heavily engaged. I’ve got someone checking on the LZ right now.”

“Roger. Are you up there yet?”


I had to push Garvey forward; he wasn’t so much afraid as confused. I nodded at Helms, who blew out his cheeks and nodded back. We had made about 50 meters or so when Helms tapped me on the shoulder.

“Two Six is on the line. He needs to talk to you. And Sergeant Wright says they’re getting harassing fire from the south. He’s not sure how many of ’em.”

I nodded and took the line from Helms. I was walking almost crablike, with one radio cord stretched out in front and the other behind me. I thumbed the receiver to talk to Eward.

“Roger, Two Six. What’s happening?”

“They got snipers all over the place. Watch yourself. Wait one….Bo, things are bad. We’re taking heavy fire, and now some of it’s coming from behind us, from where Delta’s ridge is.”

I blinked. That was very worrisome. Up to now, we’d received fire only from the east—the knolls and clearing— and the south. Now Eward was getting it from the north. I looked up the trail ahead of me but could see little; this part of the ridge was the very narrow, steep razorback just before the clearing.

Before I could reply to Eward, Wright broke in. Simultaneously, I heard a burst of heavy fire from below. “One Six, this is One Five. We are taking heavy incoming, from our south and west. They are probin’ us pretty good, over.”

My mouth went dry. That completed the circle. We were surrounded.

“Bravo One Six, this is Black Jack.”

“Roger. This is One Six.”

“Alpha may have to withdraw. What’s your sitrep?”

“This is One Six. We’re in trouble. Two Six is reporting very heavy fire from his east, north and south, and my One Five down at the LZ says he’s got enemy units to his south and west.”

“Roger. Delta’s taking heavy casualties,” Black Jack said. “Bring them back down, now. And stay on this damn radio.”

“Roger.” I shifted to the other radio and called Eward. “Two Six, can you withdraw? You and Three?”

“Roger. If we hurry. Three will have to clear, and then we can move down.”

My mind raced. Things were as bad as they could be. “Roger. Look, let’s do this. I gotta move back to the NDP and the LZ. I’m worried about that. You take charge up here, and bring everyone down ASAP: We’ll consolidate around the NDP and the LZ.”

I shouted to Helms and Garvey to follow me.

When I got to the NDP, things were even worse than I had feared. Snyder and the other two with him had left the trail and moved back down to rejoin 1st Platoon at the LZ. Only a few 2nd Platoon troopers, those who had brought down the wounded, were anywhere near the NDP. Leaderless, they had at least secured the immediate area.

Between them and my 1st Platoon was a gap of about 100 meters. But I couldn’t move the CP group—the medics and wounded—so I had to bring at least a squad up to secure the trail. Once Eward brought back the other two platoons, we could cover everything, but in the meantime we were vulnerable. I bent over to yell into Schoch’s ear; he was now working on Littnan. I wanted him to know what we were doing, but he barely nodded. He was concentrating on his job.

Moving down the trail toward the LZ at a run, I could hear the fire in front of me; it was getting heavier, but at the moment it seemed to be M16 and M60. Snyder and two or three others were kneeling along the trail just above the LZ, facing south. Beyond them was the LZ itself. I covered the last 30 or 40 meters in a crouching sprint. I could hear the heavy thumping of Helms’ boots behind me and hoped Garvey was behind him. I didn’t have time to turn around to look.

Hyde was the first one to see me. I ran over to him. “Nate: Take your squad, move it up the ridge to the NDP. We got a gap between us and the NDP right now. You copy?”

He nodded and moved off immediately, gathering his men. I saw Wright kneeling by his radio at the edge of the LZ.

“Top: I’m sending Hyde up to secure the trail. We’re bringing everyone back down from the clearing. Alpha and Delta are getting hit too. Soon as Eward’s back, we’ll consolidate around the NDP and the LZ.”

“Yes, sir. We got ammo on the way?”

“Not now. But we have a couple of crates back up there.”

“OK, sir. They’re movin’ in behind us, along that trail leadin’ back to the battalion.”

“Yeah, I know. Eward says he’s taking fire from the north.”

Wright nodded. “We’ll hold ’em here.”

I began running back up the hill. I knew Helms would keep up. Garvey would just have to suck it up.

I found Hyde setting his men up along the trail. The last man in his line, farthest up the ridge, was Carlton, looking scared and wide eyed; he was covering the area between himself and the NDP, a gap of about 15 meters, with his M79. Meanwhile, Logan, with his M60, was set up in the middle of the squad, facing southwest along a partially clear draw that led up to the trail. I got back on the radio with Eward.

“Two Six, this is One Six. How’re you coming?”

“Three Six just cleared; Garza’s gonna set up along the east side of the NDP. I’m on my way.”

I never responded. All hell let out for lunch.

The NVA had infiltrated down the ravines to our south and up from the Laotian border to the west and launched an all-out assault on us in that moment. One minute—no more—after Hyde’s squad plugged the gap, they hit us. If they had been 65 seconds sooner….

“Bravo One Six, this is Black Jack. Is your new Six in place, over?”

I blinked in astonishment. Couldn’t he see? Then I realized he probably couldn’t; Black Jack was probably over at Delta right now.

“Negative,” I said. “The LZ is not secure. We’re under attack from three sides right now.”

“Roger. I have mortars if you need ’em.”

“I got Two Six and Three Six still moving. When we consolidate, I’ll let you know, over.”

“Roger. Stay in touch with me. Out.”

The AK rounds were snapping leaves and twigs from the trees overhead; I still hadn’t heard the sound I feared most, however. There was no RPG fire. I decided that I would wear Helms and Garvey to a frazzle if I had them follow me up and down the ridge, so I tapped Helms on the helmet. “Stay here. Switch radios with this guy here. I want you to monitor the battalion net. I won’t be far.”

He nodded, wide eyed himself. In all the time he had been my RTO, I had never seen Helms flinch, and he didn’t now, but I could see the fear deep in his eyes.

I ran crouching past Hyde’s squad, to where Dickerson’s squad lay stretched out. The incoming fire there was more intense, but at the moment the NVA seemed content to pour in small-arms fire. But on my way back up, I heard shouts and a sudden burst from Logan’s gun: They were coming up that small draw to his front. I ran past him, with just a pause to look down the draw; I could see movement but nothing else. Logan was sighting carefully, loosing bursts of 10 or 15 rounds, not indiscriminately but in measured fire.

I called Eward again. “Two Six, this is One Six. We’re under assault. Watch yourself, over.”

“I’m back down where you are. I can see you. Garza says he’s taking fire from directly above us, and they’re moving up that ravine to his south. I’ve filled in around the NDP.”

“Roger.” I picked up the other receiver. “Black Jack, One Six, over.”

Black Jack’s RTO answered: “Black Jack’s on the other net, One Six.”

“Roger. Tell him we’re being attacked from south and east, and we’re receiving fire from all directions, over.”

“Roger. Delta’s getting hit too,” the RTO said.

The next few minutes were simply chaotic. Fire was coming in from everywhere, and shouts and yells indicated where first one and then another position reported NVA moving in their front. I ran up the ridge in a crouch and almost ran into Eward coming the other way. Our eyes locked. Neither of us said anything. We both straightened up. No more scuttling like a crab. Call it pride or duty or the sobering understanding of what fear could do; we stood together in the middle of the trail and looked at each other grimly.

“They’re coming up from the ravine and down from the clearing,” Eward said.

“Yeah. They’re trying to break through the middle of the trail, cutting off the LZ.”

“That’s what I thought. How are we for ammo?”

“OK,” I said. “It’s all up here with you, at the NDP.”

“Good. I’ll stay up top, keep an eye on things up there.”

I continued to move up and down the ridge where my men were. I stopped by Logan’s position and knelt down alongside the machine gunner. The men around him were yelling that the NVA were coming up the hill.

For a moment, I saw nothing, and then, for the only time in all that period of combat, I saw the live enemy: Five of them were running up the slope. They were assaulting Dickerson’s positions just above the LZ. Logan’s shoulders tensed as he brought the muzzle of the machine gun around, and then the gun bellowed, and the five went down, one after another, in quick succession.

I stood up and walked down toward the LZ. I carried my rifle, but afterward found that I had not even loaded it; the magazine was locked, but I’d never chambered the round. It didn’t matter. I wasn’t supposed to be a rifleman.

The LZ was holding. The enemy had tried to move across the lower saddle, at the trail junction, but had been repulsed by machine gun and rifle fire. Farther up, Snyder and his team had used grenades to clear the area in front of them. The next 10 minutes were just a repetition, a sort of boring but necessary ostinato. Move up the ridge, look, move back down. Get on the radio, talk, put it down. And move up or down the ridge again.

It ended, finally. The enemy broke off the attack, up and down the ridge. Almost at once, the firing slackened and petered out. A few calls rang out, mostly in question; I heard someone cry for a medic. Eward and I met again, in the NDP. There was no exultation on our faces. And no relief. A file clerk, putting away the last piece of correspondence, might have felt as much.

I had no emotion, but I understood this: The troopers of Bravo Company, in dire circumstances, had withstood a serious and determined enemy counterattack. Exhausted, at half-strength and battered as they were, they held. That screaming eagle on the 101st Airborne shoulder patch means something.

Five days later, on May 20, the 3rd Battalion—assisted by the 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry, and the South Vietnamese 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment, 1st Division—reached the summit of Hill 937. The 3rd Battalion’s casualties totaled 39 killed and 290 wounded. Bravo Company had a casualty rate of slightly over 50 percent: 10 killed, 62 wounded. More than 600 enemy bodies were found on the hill, and an unknown number of dead and wounded had been removed.


Frank Boccia is the author of The Crouching Beast, a memoir of the battle for Hamburger Hill. He lives in North Carolina.

Excerpted from The Crouching Beast: A United States Army Lieutenant’s Account of the Battle for Hamburger Hill, May 1969, copyright 2013, by Frank Boccia and reprinted by permission of McFarland & Co. Inc., Box 611, Jefferson, NC 28640.

Originally published in the October 2014 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.