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The Battle for Dong Ap Bia
Hamburger Hill
May 10 through May 20, 1969

On May 9th, 1969, the 3/187th was staged at FSB Blaze, only a few kilometers east of the A Shau valley. They were not alone: Blaze was a huge fire base, but it was filled. The 1/506th, 2/506th, 2/501st and two ARVN battalions, 2/1st and 4/1st were also gathered there, along with armored elements and hundreds of Hueys, Chinooks and Cranes. What lay ahead was a massive incursion into the A Shau to disrupt the flow of men and supplies along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, to find and destroy enemy supply depots and, primarily, to find and destroy the enemy himself.

This would not be the Rakkasan's first experience in the valley. Less than two weeks earlier, elements of the battalion, brought to the aid of the 2/17th Cav, fought a fierce battle on and around Hill 1485, a shoulder of the massive Dong Ngai on the east side of the valley. That shoulder became FSB Airborne, which would play a role in the coming battle.

The Huey crews flew all day, lifting five battalions squad by squad to their assigned areas in the A Shau. The Rakkasans were picked up at midmorning and taken to LZ2, on a broad, flat treeless ridge not far from the Laotian border. Lt Col Weldon Honeycutt --Black Jack-- ordered Alpha Company to RIF to the west, in the direction of the Rao Lac, the stream that formed the border between Laos and Vietnam. Delta Company was sent to the northeast, while Charlie Company secured the LZ and the battalion TOC. Bravo Company was the Task Force reserve and remained at FSB Blaze.

Bravo was finally released at 1600 hrs and arrived at the LZ at 1630 hrs; they were sent immediately to the east, in the general direction of a hill mass designated Hill 937 --Dong Ap Bia. However, Bravo's lead element had not even reached the base of the ridge across the shallow valley to the east before they were ambushed, suffering several casualties. By the time the enemy had been driven off by air strikes, it was dark and the battalion settled in, with all four companies within a thousand meters or less of the LZ.

The next morning, the 11th, Bravo ascended the ridge from which the ambush had been sprung, finding several bodies killed by the air strikes and documents showing that they were facing the 29th Regiment, "The Pride of Ho Chi Minh." Bravo reached the top of the ridge and turned south, to follow it all the way to the base of Dong Ap Bia.

In the meantime Alpha Company took over the duty of securing the LZ and TOC; Charlie Company Riffed to the south and Delta began moving to the northeast, to position themselves for an advance towards the summit from the northwest side of the hill. It was during this period that a gunship entered the air space without authorization and fired on the battalion CP group, wounding 35 men, some of them seriously. Lt Col Honeycutt himself was wounded, although lightly. This was the first of what would be a number of such incidents.

Bravo reached the base of a long, narrow ridge which led directly up to the summit of Hill 937, in a generally southeast direction. At 1630 hours, Bravo's Fourth Platoon entered a clearing some 75 meters from the summit. It was then that the enemy, in well-concealed bunkers and spider holes, and using claymore mines and RPGs, attacked the lead element of the platoon, wiping it out. Further casualties were suffered as attempts were made to retrieve the dead and wounded. The topography of the ridge --narrow, steep-sided, heavily vegetated-- made it almost impossible to deploy troops in adequate numbers. Finally, at approximately 1730 hours, Bravo was able to disengage, bringing their dead and wounded with them, and established a long, oval NDP some four hundred meters below the clearing, at 325981. Artillery was called in, and the troops dug in as best they could in the tough, root-covered ridge top.

May 12th brought more hard times. Bravo sent First Platoon to probe the clearing, to see how large the enemy presence was. Charlie Company was ordered to move from the vicinity of the LZ to a ridge south of the one Bravo occupied, and set up a CP at 318977. Delta began their advance along their ridge, north of Bravo Company. Unlike Bravo's ridge, Delta's featured a series of extremely steep climbs and descents. Their lead element reached a deep ravine, at 326993, and began to climb the opposite side, It was here that the NVA struck, and initial casualties were heavy. Delta was in a bad position, at the bottom of the ravine with enemy soldiers on the opposite slope firing down on them. Worse, a medevac arrived on the scene, despite Captain Luther Sanders' explicit warning than it was too dangerous. There was no possible LZ on the ravine floor. They began to extract the wounded by baskets, hovering some forty feet above. The enemy fired on the Huey, although it was plainly marked, and sent it crashing down on the wounded men gathered below. Eight were killed and many more wounded. So problematic had Delta's situation become that a platoon from Alpha Company was dispatched to help with the extraction of the wounded, who had to be carried up the steep slopes by hand. It was well past dark when they were done.

The enemy wasn't finished. Across the valley, on FSB Airborne, the men of Alpha Company of the 2/501st sat in their bunkers, unaware than the quiet night would soon be shattered by dozens of explosions; the 6th NVA launched a combined sapper/infantry attack on the unprepared company, and the result was 26 American KIA and dozens wounded.

May 13th began with a three-pronged attack on the mountain; Delta Company returned to the offensive an battled their way up the ridge to a point some 500 meters from Bravo. Bravo began an assault but had to hold in place because Charlie Company ran into some serious resistance on their ridge and in addition were counterattacked from the ravines south of their positions. F4s were called in to support Charlie and one of them dropped an errant 250 pound bomb near Bravo, killing one and wounding one. The attack stalled. That night the companies dug in more deeply, alerted that the NVA was not content to simply wait in place for our attacks but was moving along the ravines and positioning themselves for attacks against our weak spots.

The following morning Delta resumed their assault and this time reached a point well up the ridge, from where they threatened the enemy flank. Bravo too entered the clearing in force for the first time and was applying pressure. But Charlie Company, moving into the two clearings just below the summit, were stopped by heavy enemy fire and then, strung out along the ridge, lost cohesiveness and were attacked in detail, suffering very heavy casualties. Bravo's attack was stopped and a platoon sent to Charlie's ridge, almost a thousand meters to the south, to help Charlie withdraw. Late that evening, at 1730 hours, Bravo One and the remnants of Charlie began a long and difficult trek back to Bravo Company's position, most of it in pitch dark. The men were greatly overloaded, hauling back as much ammo and weaponry as possible. Delta, although they had made progress, had to break off their attack and retreat to their NDP at 325989.

During the night, Alpha Company left the LZ and took up positions on Charlie Company's ridge, finding even more equipment that hadn't been burned or hauled back. Charlie spent the night alongside Bravo and then returned to the TOC in the morning, to take up security duty.

Throughout all this time thousands of rounds of artillery were poured on the enemy positions; sortie after sortie of F4s dropped everything from napalm to 2000 lb bunker busters, and the sky was often filled with Cobras, gun ships and even Snoopy. It was hard to believe that anyone could live through all this ordnance, yet each time we went up the hill we were met by fierce enemy resistance.

May 15th dawned cloudy and damp. Bravo and Delta took up their accustomed positions, but this time a fresh company, unblooded, had taken the place of the decimated Charlie Company. The summit was prepped by a massive artillery barrage, and then the three companies began to advance. Bravo, as usual, did not encounter any resistance until they reached the clearing, but Alpha and Delta met with small arms fire and RPGs from the beginning. Still, they advance steadily. Bravo's 2nd and 3rd platoons reached the clearing and, for the first time, breached it, even capturing one of the two knolls that dominated the approach. Many of the officers and men noted that the noise reached unprecedented levels. Alpha cleared the first line of bunkers and was within 75 meters from the summit, as was Bravo's 3rd platoon. And then, at the height of the advance, errant ARA struck again with the most serious friendly fire incident to date: 4 2.75 rockets landed in the Bravo CP, wiping it out. Three were killed; the CO, First Sergeant and artillery FO were seriously wounded. In all, 12 men were killed or wounded.

One moment the Rakkasans seemed poised for victory; the next, they were in jeopardy. As mentioned, both 2nd and 3rd platoons from Bravo were engaged at the clearing, leaving an under strength 1st platoon to secure almost 500 linear meters, including the NDP and the now much-needed LZ. The enemy, coincidentally or not, chose that moment to strike and Bravo found themselves in danger of being overrun. First 2nd platoon and then 3rd had to disengage and rush back to fill in the large gaps in the Bravo perimeter. This forced Alpha to pull back also, since the defenders around the clearing were quickly shifted to their ridge. Delta had to follow suit. The battle around the Bravo perimeter was desperate but the troopers held. But a golden opportunity was lost because of yet another unauthorized attack helicopter in the battalion air space.

Bravo's CO was replaced by 1300 hours, and they tried once more to assault the clearing, but the fire from the knolls and slopes above the clearing, and the claymores in it, proved too intense. By this time Bravo was reduced to 50% of their May 10th strength. Lt Col Honeycutt ordered them to disengage and return to the LZ to take up security duty. Delta Company, augmented by a platoon from Charlie, took their place.

The 16th and 17th saw no change in the 3/187th's alignment, but the 1/506th began to advance toward Hill 900, more than a kilometer south of Hill 937. It was slow going for the Currahees. Aside from Hill 900, their objective was a ridge to the just to the south of Alpha Company, from which they could support their attack.

On May 18th, Lt Col Honeycutt changed his tactics: Alpha Company moved up their ridge as before but the north ridges were abandoned and Delta Company, supported by elements of Charlie Company, attacked along the ridge previously occupied by Bravo. Both companies were further supported by as intense a barrage of artillery and mortar fire as had been seen to date. At first things seemed to go well. Alpha quickly neutralized the first two lines of bunkers and was making good progress. Delta also seemed to moving up the ridge with ease; they reached the dreaded clearing, breached it and apart of a platoon occupied the left (north) knoll. A final breakthrough seemed imminent.

But all that changed quickly, just as it had on the 15th. Then, the precipitating event was the annihilation of Bravo Company's CP group by friendly fire. On the 18th it was three events: First came an NVA counterattack from above against the small group of men --no more than squad strength-- which literally wiped them out; eight were killed outright and the others wounded. Then Captain Luther Sanders, Delta's CO, was seriously wounded. Delta now had no surviving officers. Alpha Company, advancing past the first two lines of bunkers, began receiving significant fire from their right flank --from the ridge that the 1/506th supposedly occupied. Lt Col Honeycutt personally flew over the area and discovered that the ridge was instead held by NVA. The Currahees were still 500 meters short of their objective. And finally came the deluge.

At that time of year, rain storms were frequent in the valley; they normally developed in the afternoon and were often violent, but of brief duration. But the storm on the 18th surpassed all previous ones in its intensity. The effects were worsened because the constant bombing had stripped much of the vegetation from the hill, leaving bare earth. There was nothing to hold the tons of water that fell and the hillside became a slurry, washing soldiers down the slopes. They were helpless; there was nothing to hold on to and the ground beneath them was a mudslide. Much of the ground they had gained at the cost of blood was lost in those first ten minutes of the storm. Soon after that, even before the storm ended, Lt Col Honeycutt reluctantly ordered the companies back from the hill. Not long after that, a platoon from Charlie Company, bringing ammo to Alpha Company, fell prey to yet another US gunship, wounded several. A furious Honeycutt ordered all aircraft of any sort out of his air space.

That night, the decision was made by Division to withdraw the Rakkasans; the casualties now were over 50%. The following morning, the 2/506th was airborne, and on their way to the LZ. Lt Col Gene Sharron, the battalion CO, landed at the TOC and told an astonished Honeycutt that they were not reinforcing the Rakkasans, as Honeycutt thought, but replacing them. In a tense meeting with General Zais, Honeycutt convinced the commanding general that the 3/187th could and would finish the fight. The general also agreed to the colonel's request for a company to support the Rakkasans, and Alpha Company, 2/506th, was placed under Honeycutt's operational control.

The battle plan for the 20th was similar to the earlier assaults, but with an important difference: This time the battalion would not be alone. The 2/3rd ARVN was attacking from the east, climbing the difficult slopes on that side of the mountain. The 2/501st attacked from the north east, and the 1/506th continued to inch closer to their objective. Charlie Company, with Delta in reserve, moved up the center ridge --Bravo's ridge-- and Alpha advanced up the south ridge. Alpha 2/506th was told to move up the northwest ridge, where Delta had come very close to breaking through, despite the difficult terrain.

The battle was fierce and sustained; the enemy was still full of fight. But the pressure of so many battalions advancing at once finally became too much to resist. Even so, US casualties continued to mount. Alpha was doing well before their CO, Captain Gerald Harkins, was shot in the ear and neck, temporarily knocking him out of the fight. The attack bogged down until one man, in the Third Platoon, changed all that. Johnny Jackson, an M60 gunner, was pinned down by enemy fire, along with the rest of the platoon. Tired of crouching behind a small berm, he rushed forward and quickly took out two bunkers, killing or seriously wounding all inside. Then he moved to a third, killing two more NVA in a spider hole along the way. An astonished Dan Bresnahan, his platoon leader, watched, speechless, until he saw Jackson attack the third bunker, and at that point stood up and screamed to his platoon to get up and follow Jackson up the slope. A few minutes later, Spec 4 Johnny Jackson stood on the summit of Hill 937, the barrel of his M60 smoking from the rounds he had fired. His platoon, and subsequently all of Alpha, joined him and they began to sweep north, toward the ridge Charlie Company was assaulting. At almost the same time, the 2/3rd ARVN broke through on the east. The battle was won.

It was won, but it wasn't over. The NVA began a general retreat, and many of them ran into the 1/506th, particularly Alpha and Bravo. That sparked some of the most intense fighting of the battle, since it was often face-to-face. Other NVA tried escaping to the north, encountering both Alpha 2/506th and elements of the 501st. Artillery began pouring in to cut off the escape routes down the ravines, and by the late afternoon the battle at last was over.

The 3/187th bore the brunt of the battle. As a battalion, they suffered 60% casualties. Two line companies, Charlie and Delta, lost 80% of their original men. Bravo lost just over 50% and Alpha 35%. But there were many casualties also in the headquarters company, and support elements: engineers, medics, pilots and crew of the Hueys and medevacs, artillery FOs, and others. For their unrelenting effort over ten brutal days, the battalion was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation, to go with the Valorous Unit Award for Dong Ngai, marking the first time any unit had been awarded two such honors in so short a time --three weeks. The Rakkasans are now the most decorated battalion in the army, winning more citations in Iraq and Afghanistan.