HAMBURGER HILL REVISITED
by Greg Taylor
In the three return trips I made back to Vietnam in 1994, 1995, and 1996, I wanted to visit as many of the landmarks sites of our war as possible. The ultimate goal was always Dong Ap Bia, a.k.a. Hamburger Hill a.k.a. Hill 937. Through the excellent efforts of my tour provider, Gerry Schooler (www.sampan.com), I was able to get into the Ashau Valley on each of those trips. On two of the trips I was able to get up to Hamburger Hill. The following accounts are of my experiences in the Ashau Valley and Hamburger Hill. I have now seen many places in Vietnam. The Ashau Valley remains my favorite area. It is majestic and awesome and at times somber. But it is a place of extreme beauty that masks the terrible battles that have occurred up and down the valleys and mountains
Hamburger Hill, 1994.
It is February 2, 1994. I awake early in my hotel in Hue. I have been in Vietnam almost two weeks on this trip traveling up from Saigon by car, crisscrossing all of the former South Vietnam. Today, from Hue, we are going to travel up to Dong Ha then west down Highway 9 toward Khe Sanh. Just before Khe Sanh we will turn south over the Dak Krong River and head down into the Ashau Valley. Hopefully, we will arrive at the village of Aloui in the late afternoon. Aloui sits about five miles east of Dong Ap Bia or Hill 937, and is best known as Hamburger Hill. If all the proper "red tape" has been cleared then we hope to hike up to the Hill first thing tomorrow morning.
We load our gear into the Toyota van set off up Highway One. The
countryside flashes by although and it seems that the further we travel north the
more faint evidence I see of any war damage. Houses built along the Highway show
pock marks from shrapnel. PSP matting is stacked for sale in roadside stalls. As
we pull into Dong Ha, the beautiful sights of Hue are still fresh in my mind's eye.
That makes the bleakness of Dong Ha even more apparent. It seems to be just a grimy
little town. A transit point for trucks and buses hauling all sorts of cargo both
north and south as well as west into Laos. The turnoff for Route 9 is easily marked
by a rusting old tank. I'm no tank expert but I assume it belonged to the South Vietnamese.
If you are interested in the history of our war in Vietnam then Highway 9 is probably
one of the most interesting routes to travel in all of Vietnam. There are many familiar
names along this stretch to the Laotian border. Names familiar to all Vietnam Vets
but especially to U.S. Marines. Places like Cam Lo, Camp Carroll, Mutter's Ridge,
The Rockpile, Con Thien, Khe Sanh, and finally Lang Vei right near the Laotian border.
see map We don't stop
in Dong Ha because we will explore this area on the return once we have seen the
Ashau. Soon Dong Ha fades in the distance as we head west. This is my first of three
return trips back to Vietnam. I was never up in this part of Vietnam during the war
but after three trips back I think that Highway 9 from Dong Ha to Lao Bao at the
Laotian border is probably my favorite part of Vietnam.
The drive is pleasant and uneventful. The highway parallels the river and we soon pass the spot where the famous rescue of BAT 21 occurred by Navy SEAL Lt. Tom Norris during the 1972 Easter Offensive. Actually Norris rescued two pilots during that period and probably would have rescued a third downed pilot except that the pilot was captured and executed before he could be reached. These actions earned Lt. Norris the Medal of Honor in what is truly an amazing and heroic story. I explored this location further in my return trip in 1996. Soon we pass the turn off to what was Camp Carroll and the Marine outpost C2. But we don't have time to stop and push on. A little while later I was not looking out the window as I worked on my video camera and when I looked up we came around a corner and looming in front of us was The Rockpile. It is a truly a tremendous sight, It sits about one klick north of the highway. This 700 foot karst dominates the surrounding area for miles. It is to the Marines what the Black Virgin Mountain was to grunts of the 25th Infantry out of Cu Chi in the south. The Marines seized upon this mountain as an excellent observation point and continually had an element located on a portion of the summit. They were supplied by helicopter. As we drive by you can immediately you can see the view the small Marine outpost on top commanded of the valleys and hills all around it. In my 1996 trip, we would hike completely around the base of the Rockpile looking for a way up. We stop for several minutes to take pictures of this incredible sight. To the northwest of the Rockpile is another magnificent, craggy range called The Razorback. We push on.
About 13 klicks this side of Khe Sanh is the Dak Krong bridge. Apparently the bridge was built by Cuban engineers in the late 1970's. Across the bridge, the road disappears down into the Ashau Valley. Jungled mountains appear in the distance. This is the northern end of the Ashau Valley. The village of Aloui is about 90 kilometers south. The Cubans also paved this road down the center of the valley to Aloui and then on down to the village of Ashau. The village of Aloui sits about in the middle of the Ashau Valley. We drive cross the bridge and enter the Ashau.
This is the land of the Bru and Pacoh ethnic minority. Ethnic minority is the politically correct term used by the present Vietnamese government. There are many tribal minorities in Vietnam. We lumped them under one name, Montagnards. By the mid-1960s, the Pacoh in this area were reduced to just about twenty-five people when they straggled into one of the Special Forces camps in the valley at that time. The rest of the Pacoh had been killed or had fled the fighting raging in the Valley. According to my research, a Special Forces camp was located at Ashau and then a smaller FOB for that camp was located at Aloui. The camp at Ashau village was overrun while the FOB at Aloui was closed down and destroyed by Special Forces personnel in December 1965. There was also a camp located at Ta Bat. In my next trip in 1995 I was able to get down to the site of the old Ashau Special Forces camp and it is detailed below. As we travel down the road, we are told that it is only until recently that the Pacoh openly carried AKs left over from the war.
Back in early 1969, I accompanied a Special Forces Intel officer from Nha Trang up to Detachment C1 of the 5th Group in Danang over by the beach. We also had to do something in the NVA POW camp just south of C1. My memory is foggy about what we were doing there but we did go to the NVA POW camp "next door" and interviewed some captured NVA officer. Anyway, the point is that I was never anywhere near the Ashau Valley when I was in Vietnam during the War, but I remember what a foreboding image just the words, "Ashau" conjured up. While I was at C1 word came in that an entire SF recon team was lost, to a man, in the Ashau. It seemed so forlorn and scary. At that time there was a MACV-SOG CCN compound, FOB 4, located just next to the POW camp. Possibly those lost men were out of that camp. FOB 4 was the site of "the most devastating loss of Special Forces lives during the Vietnam conflict. . .when an enemy suicide element, called 'Sappers', with the aid of inside help, slipped into the camp during the early hours and attacked as the men slept. More than a dozen Special Forces died and many were wounded." (Harve Saal, SOG: Volume II: LOCATIONS). Later in this same trip back to Vietnam, Gerry Schooler and I found what remains of FOB 4. While kicking through the sand and debris, Gerry uncovered a rusted bayonet.
Now, over twenty-five years later I was heading into the Ashau by car. The drive is spectacular. The road is almost two lanes of half-decent black top, broken up in spots and caved in at others. The scenery is incredible with the jungled mountains above, the river below and the road winding down the center of the valley. In most places, the jungle grows right down to the shoulder of the road. We travel through several villages that straddle the roadway. The basic building design is thatched long houses up on stilts. When the children see us coming , they make a bee line to watch us pass by. Looking out the back window I see some of the boys picking up stones and flinging them after us. Now and then I hear them yell, "lien so" or "Russian" as we approached as they mistook for their recent foreign invaders. Then the rocks fly.
During a later trip down this same road, we entered the valley early in the morning and along the way the fog would roll in thick. This was an incredible experience. As we drove down the road I could look ahead and see the fog building toward us. I would have the driver stop while we were still in clear view. We'd wait several minutes and then the fog would envelope us, swirling up the river gorge. It was amazing how fast the fog would surround us and then you couldn't see twenty feet in front of you. We continued down the road toward Aloui. But today it is near noon time. and the sun is hot. No chance for fog. Finally we arrive in Aloui.
We are told that the Cubans also built the only hotel in Aloui to house them while they worked on the road. It is a decent hotel but decent is a relative term in the outback of Vietnam. This hotel is two stories tall and has quite a few rooms. The furniture of each room is locally made. There are mosquito nets on the beds to use. Apparently the hotel had been spruced up prior to the arrival of the MIA team that was going to begin searches in the Ashau. There are showers and toilets on the first floor. The showers don't work and crap was backed up in each of the toilets with the smell being. . .well, you can imagine the smell. So our shower became a hose bib outside behind the hotel. As for a urinal, at least in the pitch black of night, it is right over the second floor balcony--look out below!
Electricity in the village of Aloui is provided, after 6 p.m., by a generator. This gives a small amount of electricity to the local inhabitants within range of the hotel. I don't know where the generator was located but it must have been government provided because as soon as the generator went on so did the loudspeakers attached to several light poles scattered within 100 yards of the hotel. The blaring message was propaganda, from 6 p.m. to about midnight. After several hours it just became background noise to us. You quickly tuned it out. The locals simply cranked up the volume on their radios to music and that was that. This was the only place in all of Vietnam that I saw the loudspeakers being used. I saw them on light poles in some of the coastal towns but they never came on.
A visit to Vietnam would not be complete without a stay at the Aluoi Hotel. Each of the three times that I have spent nights there I arrived late in the afternoon as the sun was going down. Once the luggage was stowed in the room I set off on a walk. Two things to remember here is that there is no lock on your room door. If you are nervous about leaving your stuff behind be sure to bring a cable lock with you to secure the door. The other thing is to take a flashlight when setting out on a late afternoon walk as there is no ambient lights at all once the sun goes down. Even though the generator fires up around dark, only extremely essential lighting is on. On each afternoon stroll of the first evening in Aluoi, I went in the direction of Hamburger Hill, Every time I've done this afternoon walk it has been a terrific experience.
Once we settled in at the Hotel I grabbed my map and compass I set off in the direction of the Hill to get a fix on where we would be hiking the next day. The interpreter stayed behind to crash. Gerry waved me on my way while he stayed behind to make sure things were in order for the next day. My walk led me through the local village down paths that ran by bamboo and thatch huts. People were extremely friendly and came out to "talk" to me, although I couldn't understand a word. Eventually I could go no farther as the trail was washed out by a river. I recall standing on that river's edge looking off toward Hamburger Hill as the sun set, hoping that the next day I would get to the top. From where I was standing I could only see a jungled range of indistinct mountains of which the Hill is a part. The Hill is not a solitary peak towering about the rest, but more of a part of a ridgeline. Muddled into part of a mountain range that blends together, Picking out the Hill is impossible from my location. I decide to head back to the hotel.
It is a pleasant stroll back. People are moving about and getting ready for the evening meal. I look over my should back toward the Hill and see a man peddling a bicycle toward me. I step aside to give him room to pass. Looking down at his bike I see the barrel of a gun strapped to the carrier on the back. I call out for him to stop. Did I shout "Dung Lai"--I can't remember. He is good enough to pull over. I trot up to him and point at the gun barrel asking him in English to see it. Of course, he doesn't understand my words but understands my gestures. He removes a rag covering the gun barrel and reveals the complete but rusted barrel and action of an M-6o machine gun. I'm am dumbfounded. I'm able to communicate my question "Where did you find this??!!" and he just points back in the direction of the Hill. I stand there amazed as he pedals down the road and onto Aloui.
Back at the hotel, Gerry and I meet with our guide for the next day. He says that they will attempt to get us as close to the Hill as possible. Gerry tries to explain to them that "as possible" is not in our vocabulary. By this time I have absolute confidence in Gerry's uncanny ability to get me into the places I want to see without problem. I have no idea what sort of red tape and problems he has to deal with on his end as he keeps that grief--if there is any-- pretty much to himself. We say our good nights and walk out across the road and into a local bar. It is simply a dirt floor shack with rough furniture and no lights except for lanterns. A couple of local men at an adjoining table are the only other patrons. They talk in low whispers with lots of hand gestures. After the long but exciting day, a couple of beers in this remote part of Vietnam taste pretty good. Soon the generator must have kicked on as we can hear the blaring of loudspeakers. It is obviously propaganda speak and the voice machine guns the night air. I'd love to know what the rap is about. Within several minutes, the barkeep turns up his radio and the propaganda is drown out by Vietnamese music. By the time we leave the bar it is good and dark. The loudspeakers are still blaring the propaganda. Back at the hotel, I settle the mosquito net around me and drift off to sleep with the white noise of those loudspeakers.
Dawn cracks early for us the next day. After a simple breakfast we climb aboard the van. Our Hue guide, Dich, says that we must wait for the local Aloui guide to arrive and lead us on the first part of our journey. Soon this local guide and another villager arrive and board the van. We take off back up the main road in the direction we had come the day before. Within less than a mile we turn left and head west on a dirt path. Within minutes we come to a stream that the van can't cross. Everyone gets out wades across the stream. This would happen almost a dozen times more as we slogged across these knee deep creeks. I can't tell if it is the same stream zigzagging back and forth or there really are that many separate streams in our path. We are headed to the local Pacoh village in whose territory the Hill exists. There we will pick up another guide. There are several prominent landmarks easily visible around us. Navigating with a map and compass is fairly easy when these landmarks can remain in sight. Gerry says that the use of several guides is not so much that the terrain is hard to navigate but more that along each step someone needs their "payoff". It is not something to get offended by, just the way they do business. This is borne out shortly when we make our first stop but it is not at the village. It is with the border guards. As I have said, Gerry Schooler has succeeded magnificently in getting me this far. As we approach this tiny little outpost, Gerry comments that the unknown in his formula to get me to Hamburger Hill would be the attitude of the border guards. Hamburger Hill is less than a mile from Laos. Apparently the foot path we will travel up to the Hill continues on into Laos. Anyone using this trail must check in with the border guard outpost which sits about 4 miles east of the border. Finally we round a bend and arrive at the border outpost. A simple building with a nearby garden.
Our Hue interpreter, Dich, goes inside the guard shack to make
the arrangements. Gerry and I stand in the road with the Aloui guides. Traveling
in Vietnam, especially in sensitive areas is always risky. There is the risk of being
thought of as a Russian. The retaliation will be anything from a verbal harangue
to rocks coming your way. I was told that a Russian was shot the year before (1993).
Standing there with my European looks didn't comfort me. It must be maddening to
run a tour business into Vietnam especially when you are promising adventurous VietVets
a chance to visit remote and sometimes sensitive areas. As a tour provider you must
coordinate and provide bribes to the proper officials several months in advance.
These bribes then trickle down to the other officials you will meet along the way.
I never ask Gerry how he does his business and gets this service done. He has been
amazing in greasing the skids so far.
After several minutes the head border guard came out. He is smartly dressed in his uniform. We had given our guide several packs of Marlboros to use as "ice breakers" in dealings with any government officials we should encounter. As the guard approached us he was already puffing a Marlboro. From what I could understand, the border guard was a lieutenant. With just several soldiers under his command, they controlled this remote border region. The Lieutenant continued to converse in a low, monotone with our guide. They appeared to be discussing the protocol of where we were heading. I fired off a few Polaroid's of the lieutenant to further break the ice. Dich, our Hue guide, explains the magic of the developing Polaroid to the Lieutenant. Dich has developed his habit of explaining the Polaroid process to everyone we shoot pictures of all the while holding the Polaroid and waving it in the air to "hasten the develop". The Lieutenant is mildly impressed with these pictures.
After smoking a complete Marlboro down to the filter the Lieutenant
starts to warm up to us. He tells our guide that we are cleared to hike to the top
of Hamburger Hill. However, the lieutenant will come along with us. He is packing
a pistol. Dich, our Hue guide, says the pistol would be very helpful should we encounter
any cobras or tigers. Great, thanks for the tip. Still given the scarcity of tigers
in this part of the world, I feel if the Lieutenant has to put rounds down range
it will probably be into a cobra, or one of us if he's a lousy shot.
The Lieutenant tosses down his butt and declares that we can start. He doesn't return to his hooch for a canteen or a pack or nothing. We just start off. He's dressed in his clean uniform which consists of a clean white military shirt with tie and jacket, pants and sandals. I make him pause to shoot a couple more Polaroid's of him. As he watches the magic of the SX-70 development I know that he is definitely on our side. I gather from the guide that the Lieutenant has cleared us but we must still hike to the Pacoh village and obtain permission from the tribal chief to continue our hike.
The trek up to the Hill is not extremely difficult if you are in shape. I'm glad I was in fairly decent shape. You are hiking in weather anywhere from 95° to 115° with easily 90%+ humidity. In some places, especially if it has rained you will experience the slippery mud. This is especially tough on inclines and you will fall down. You need to be in decent shape as it is about a 5 or 6 hour hike as you travel through hot, steamy jungle and then open, sweltering elephant grass. Soon I'm drenched in sweat. Of course, our Vietnamese and Montagnard fellow travelers haven't even broken a sweat. And also they don't carry canteens.
This first part of the hike takes us past rice fields and vegetable patches. Both the guide and our Lieutenant point out what they say are B-52 craters. There are lots of them. Some are filled with run off water and are used as duckponds. These craters, if they are in fact from B-52s, are about 30' in diameter and upwards of 15' deep. I don't have any reason to doubt that these large holes weren't dug in some fashion by the United States military. I attempt a little humor as we stop by one large crater 10 feet from a thatch hooch The owner comes out to greet us. I try to have the interpreter ask the man if the bomb that made the huge hole next to his hooch had awakened him when it hit. Dry humor is just about impossible to convey through an interpreter that barely understands English. I give up before the wording gets too screwed up and move on.
While we were waiting around for the Lieutenant to okay our journey, several local kids were attracted to the sight of a couple of white guys in the middle of no where. By the time we set off, about five or six kids had gathered around us. As approach the village not only have these initial kids tagged along but the group has grown larger. By the time we near the outskirts of the village we have acquired several dozen kids and about six adults. They straggle along with us chattering among themselves. Occasionally I hear them exclaim "Me! Me!" (American! American!) to newcomers joining our procession. This reassures me as it is better to hear that than "Lein So" or Russian.
Finally we arrive at the village square. This consists of a couple of buildings built perpendicular to each other. They were obviously built long after the war and are of typical single story construction. In a nearby tree hangs a brake drum which must serve as a gong to assemble the village. Thankfully, we have been perceived as not that much of a threat to require the gong. As we approach the buildings there must be 75 men, women and children tagging along with us. We wait below the raised porch of one building. The Lieutenant, our Hue guide and our Aloui guide disappear inside a room. Standing around, Gerry and I decide it is time for Polaroids. We've drawn quite a sizable crowd and some of the villagers don't look all that impressed with us. I'm beginning to get the hang of using the Polaroid as an icebreaker. However, I still haven't realized that the Polaroid is totally unheard of in this part of the world. I fire off a couple of Polaroid's at the most menacing looking villagers to soften them up. They glare as I take there picture but then look puzzled as I hand them the developing SX-70. I tell them to look at the picture. Soon their image begins to appears. They excitedly exclaim loudly in their language and the crowd surges closer. Not the smartest thing I could have done. I now have seventy some-odd villagers clamoring for their instant picture. You gotta pick your moment with the Polaroid. Before the scene gets out of hand we are rescued when our guide comes onto the porch and summons us inside.
Gerry is convinced that the deal has already been struck as to whether we can proceed or not. However, bringing us in will allow the tribal chief to meet us face to face and decide our fate. Gerry has brought an assortment of medicine, cigarettes and candy to smooth our passage. He tells me he will hold them and present them at the right moment. Inside the dark building we strain to adjust our eyes. The tribal chief and many of the village elders are gathered around. They are all stern faced. It is evident even to me that they are totally unsure of our motives. Why do we want to hike so close to the Laotian border? Forget Hamburger Hill--most Vietnamese and even Montagnards don't get why Americans want to visit old battlesites. It doesn't compute. What they are more afraid of is that we might create some kind of incident (read "stink") that would make the government come down to their village and create unholy hell for them. Is it worth it to them? Gerry senses this air of distrust and takes the bull by the horns. The time has come and he pulls out the gifts. Gerry describes each of the gifts as the interpreter holds them aloft and translates. The medicines that Gerry has brought are items no stronger than aspirin for headaches, etc. He is careful to explain the dosage as best as he can. Quickly the stern faces melt into smiles and happy chatter. Apparently the deal is sealed. There is a bit more chatter between our guides and the villagers. Then we are cleared to set off.
Outside I notice that our Aloui guide is leaving. Neither Gerry or I can get any information on what's up. However, as we start hiking up the trail we notice that the village chief and another local villager are going with us. In what little translation we get from our Hue guide, Dich, the same theme keeps coming through--that it is dangerous hiking up toward the Hill. We are told the main danger is from unexploded ordnance and tigers. I've put my trust into Gerry in dealing with this type of information. My thought is that if we stay on well beaten paths, then we shouldn't set off any ordnance. As for tigers, I know that the United Nations has claimed that only about 1,200 Bengal tigers are left to roam the area from northeastern India up through southern China. As far as I'm concerned the chances of meeting a tiger are pretty slim. Better odds are on the one, two, and three step vipers or cobras.
Gerry says that there might be another reason for all the talk of danger. They may be setting us up for a simple hike up the mountain for a couple of miles. They'll stop and then claim they can't go farther because of the great danger. They've done their part and that's that. Pay us. I appreciate the info from Gerry. It will help later to make an important decision. Gerry has heard that other Vets have been up this way with the intent of getting up to the Hill. Their guides simply hiked them out to a nearby hill and said, "Here we are-Hamburger Hill". Then they all hiked back to Aloui. Well, I had topo maps and a compass and told Gerry that that wasn't going to happen. If I can see a couple of landmarks and plot our course on the way up then I'll know our position. The village chief and the other villager fall in with us. Once again, these newcomers to our trek don't stop to pick up a canteen or anything. Just a walk in the park for them.
The drizzle that had started in the early morning has stopped. The gray skies start to burn off and now it is burning and hot. The trail is muddy as we trek higher up through the mountain. Eventually, the mud turns to a slippery goo. Now this goo is just like grease. My modus operandi for hiking is to have my Minolta 35mm slung around my neck while I carry my video camera in one hand. The Minolta soon gets covered and slick with my own sweat. While hiking along we come to a slight hill to climb, maybe 50 feet on the path. The path is slick with mud. I decide to try and sidestep my way up the hill. I get about 20 feet up, slip and both feet go out from under me. I slide all the way back down to the bottom. Even though I arrive at the bottom covered in mud I'm lucky to keep the video camera somewhat clean. I only need to learn this lesson once and then pack the video camera away every time we come to an incline. Now I can attack each small slope with both feet and two hands. I pull my way up using every weed and bush as a handhold. It is hot, humid and I'm covered in mud and sweat. We are not too far forward from what I understand was a LZ used to insert troops in the beginning of the buildup prior to the battle. I think I'm on the same trail our guys must have used to advance. What an absolute bitch that must have been loaded down with equipment, weapons and rounds flying overhead.
We grapple along like this for a couple of hours. I take a few more good tumbles. I recall one time struggling up a steep incline, grabbing on to every piece of vegetation for help. As I'm about 5' from the top I stand upon the slope. Sitting in the clearing ahead I can see all the Vietnamese and Pacoh guides waiting for me. I casually acknowledge them and take a step. ZOOM! I disappear from their sight and slide rapidly back down the trail. It's like sledding in snow. I can hear the laughter above me as I bounce to the bottom. I start up again. I can struggle all day up this terrain with them chuckling at me. I cannot imagine struggling up this type of terrain with Charlie shooting at you.
I finally struggle into a clearing where they are all lounging around taking a break. We are in some type of level area about 20 feet by 30 feet. Jungle, elephant grass and some decent size trees surround this little clearing. I'm told that we are at a trail intersection. We seem to be on top of a ridgeline. The trail continues onto the west, down the hill and disappears into the jungle. Laos is less than a mile away. Everyone is sitting around taking it easy. A few are starting to break out whatever food they have brought. Soon, the guide announces that we have arrived. We are at the top of Hamburger Hill. I glance knowingly over to Gerry. I appreciate his forewarning because I can tell that we are simply on a small ridge or finger running off the top of Dong Ap Bia. In fact, I can peer South through the thick jungle surrounding our clearing and see that the terrain elevates at least several hundred feet higher than where we stand.
From the clearing I have a good view of a couple of prominent landmarks I have noted on our way up. One is the Domg So ridge line to the north. I can even see back to the mountains above Aloui to the East. I pull out the map and shoot a couple of bearings. This activity brings excited chatter from everyone in our group. They are standing all around me as I bend over the map and plot our location. I draw the intersection of these bearings and it shows that we are indeed on a small ridge about 500 meters northeast of the top of Hamburger Hill. I continue to walk along the trail towards Laos. It crests the ridge and I see that it descends down into Laos. This crest is about 50 meters from the clearing. The tangled jungle and elephant grass creates a hallway of vegetation. I turn and walk back toward the clearing. I notice a hole in the vegetation on the south side of the trail. It's a small hole but I can see a faint trail on the other side going up a ridge line to the south, toward the Hill. I step through the hole and realize this is a side trail heading in exactly the direction we want to go. This trail is definitely not as well beaten as the one we have come up on. I come back to our group in the clearing and point out this hidden trail. I tell Gerry that I want to follow this trail and try to reach Hamburger Hill. He conveys this request to our guide who then translates the request to our group from the village. What follows is a lot of head shaking and grumbling. Through our interpreter we are told that they are afraid. That is a dangerous area filled with all types of ordnance and tigers. From this discussion yet a new danger surfaces. We learn that not only is the danger from the tigers themselves but also from the tiger traps that have been set by hunters. Tigers are rare and killing one would secure a mighty fortune. According to the guides, there are many tiger hunters in the area. One way to capture a tiger is to create a tiger trap. They are afraid that there are many tiger traps in the path we want to take and that they would not be able to identify them until it was too late. A tiger trap will work on a man as well as a tiger. Also, there is not a standard tiger trap design and each hunter crafts his own trap and disguises it carefully. He needs to hide it from the tiger as well as rival hunters.
I tell Gerry that we have to get them to travel up the hidden trail. What can I do to motivate them. He gives me a look that says, "Haven't you been in this country long enough"? I immediately get it--yeah, money. While I'm discussing this with Gerry, the guides are chattering among themselves. Out of the corner of my eye I see a lone, grizzled old Pacoh man slowly trudge into our clearing. I'm guessing he is about 50 years old. The conversation shifts and there is some interchange with this wiry old guy. I'm told that he is a tiger hunter on his way into Laos to check on his traps. I seize on this event and start my barter. I ask that if they won't take me then possibly I can hire this old hunter to guide us to the top. Surely he can spot the traps. They counter with the fact that he only knows what his traps look like and not other hunters. Hmmmm... A stalemate. Gerry offers more money. Ten dollars to our Hue guide and ten dollars more to the village chief. There is chatter back and forth. I add to the mix the comment that if I can't go up to the top of the Hill then let me accompany this hunter down into Laos to check his tiger traps. That causes even more discussion and an unpleasant look from the border guard lieutenant. Suddenly, amidst all the chattering and without warning the village chief boldly charges through the hole in the jungle and breaks trail up the ridgeline. The Hue guide follows but I can tell he is very nervous. Dumbfounded, Gerry and I follow suit albeit at a distance. They have accepted the extra money. The border guard and the rest remain behind.
For the next hundred meters they are continually turning around and pointing out places for us to step around. They point at spots in the trail and describe them as tiger traps, much like a covered pungi pit. I don't see anything but piles of dead leaves but I take their advice without question. From what I can understand, tiger traps are either camouflaged pungi pits or a branch that is tied back, studded with pungi stakes that is tripped by the tiger when he steps into the killing zone. I remember these as something called Malayan Gates. On one of the very few patrols I was part of during the war, one of the sergeants was checking our dense jungle perimeter after dark and sprung a Malayan gate. It laid open his thigh just below his nuts. He was saved from bleeding to death by medevacs willing to come out in the dark. Anyway, with that thought in my mind I took heed of whatever our guides said to avoid a similar fate. We wouldn't have the benefit of a dustoff. Better safe than sorry. If you get seriously injured out here, the chances of getting to decent medical care is days away by foot and car.
We continue to pick our way through the terrain. After a good half hour of this, Dich pats his pants pocket and lets out a yelp. We ask him the problem. He says he had forgotten to borrow the gun from the Lieutenant. That's OK, I tell Dich. I continue to have him walk in front of me. At times the jungle closes in on the trail and at other times the trail opens to sparse undergrowth and single canopy. I assume that we are in an area that was blown off by the battle and we are walking in the regrowth. Now and then we come across the carcass of a huge, dead tree. This gives us some idea of the how immerse the jungle must have been back before the battle. We pick our way through this area. At one point the guide points to a wall of jungle tangle and through the interpreter we are told it is a tiger trap. I see nothing. They are either BS'ing us or telling the truth. They do have very serious looks on their faces. I continue to opt for safety and don't go exploring. Try to walk where those ahead have walked, only stay back about 20 yards. We climb atop a slight rise and from this slight vantage point I can see that the faint trail winds down the hill into something of a saddle and then up the front side of another hill. I plot our position and feel that I'm very accurate in stating that we are standing near the top of Hamburger Hill--Dong Ap Bia--Hill 937. I believe we are looking down the trail and into the saddle that separates 937 and Hill 900. On closer map reading I feel that we are still some what off the true summit of the Hill.
Around us the jungle is thickly overgrown with small trees, foliage and lots of vines. Sitting in the stillness, the wind blows through the tops of the trees and I can hear birds calling. The stillness is starkly different from how it must have been in those days during the battle. We poke around this area a bit more. The closeness of the jungle prevents any real solid understanding of the terrain and a true fix on our exact position. I still think we need to move a little more ahead. The guides cannot be persuaded to move further. The jungle is thicker here than anyplace we've come across and the trail is faint if not at all. They are nervous about the ordnance. They tell us that this faint trail exists only because of the occasional hunter. Further back toward the village they tell us that now and then their livestock will disturb an old shell to tragic consequences. We stay in this area a little longer and begin to gently explore four or five feet on either side of the faint trail. The jungle floor is covered in new and rotting vegetation and it is difficult to see what is underneath. I can see into the jungle about twenty feet and notice an odd sight. Running down from the summit and disappearing into the jungle is a bamboo picket fence. It's about 4' high, with thin bamboo pickets about every two or three feet strung together with vines. The Pacoh guide explains that this is a tiger fence. As the tiger prowls through the jungle he will come upon the fence. He doesn't understand this structure and instead of charging through it he will simply walk in one direction or the other alongside the fence. The fence will become his path into a tiger trap.
Gerry was a grunt with the Wolfhounds of the 25th Infantry Division. He has dug his fair share of foxholes. After a few minutes of exploration he begins to find some old positions. We don't know which side owned them. He carefully explores around the bottom of one foxhole explaining to me that when they vacated a position they would bury their trash at the bottom. The hole looks big enough for two men. Sure enough after several minutes of careful digging he unearths some old, empty C-Rat tins. Probably Americans positions, he says. Could have been NVA holes that were taken over by our troops after the battle. We can see several other holes and they form the beginning of a perimeter defense just below the horizon line of the hill.
Gerry and I begin to probe and dig around. The Vietnamese quietly talk among themselves. They are curious as to why we have even wanted to come up here. I can only offer that having been in the war, returning to Vietnam is just something that seemed right to do. I tell them that I never was in this part of Vietnam during the war but that I find the Ashau to be the most interesting. We have made it this far without problem. I look at our Hue guide, Dich. He is still fairly spotless in his white shirt, slacks and sandals. Quite the outfit for trekking in the jungle. Me, however, with my hiking boots, pants and jungle shirt are a muddy mess. Whenever I handle one of my cameras I make it a habit to wipe my hands off on my pants. By now there is no longer any clean surfaces left on my clothes. One of my goals was to take dirt samples from the hill back to the States. I will forget to fill up film containers with dirt before I leave the Hill. However, I later find enough clotted dirt on my clothes and in the C-Rat tins to fill up two film containers.
After the 101st ABN soldiers took the Hill it was devastated and almost bald. Americans dug in defensive positions which they occupied for several weeks after the battle. APCs were even brought up. They can be seen in the photo taken by Colonel Honeycutt, the 101st commander, as he flew over the battle site. The APCs broke a trail up to the top of the Hill. It would be this trail that the APCs used that I would use in 1996 to hike up again to the top of Hamburger Hill. That account is described below. After several weeks the APCs and the soldiers were all pulled out. The entire area was continually bombed. I don't know if the NVA ever reoccupied the summit area. I can't imagine that they could have as there wasn't even decent cover from aerial sightings when I was on top almost 25 years later. In my reading about the battle, 101st troopers discovered a 40 bed NVA hospital in a cave and tunnel complex. In the short time we explored the top on my trips I had no real time to look for any caves. I asked our guides, especially the local Pacoh guide, if they knew of any cave complexes in the immediate area. They pointed from our position toward Hill 900 and said that a good size cave had been in that area but was destroyed. It would be extremely interesting and highly dangerous to explore the mountainside for these caves. The large mountain range to the north of Hamburger Hill called Dong So was nicknamed the "Warehouse Area" during the war because of the number of supply caves peppered throughout that mountain range. That area also seems ripe for exploration. This type of exploration could only work with the explicit cooperation of the local tribes in the area. Cooperation elicited with money. I'm convinced that local wood cutters and hunters who spend great amounts of time in these areas would be the best source of information on these caves or former NVA basecamps.
As we continue to explore this small section of the Hill, our guides get caught up in the "treasure hunt" for artifacts. Soon they find part of an Army entrenching tool. The handle is missing. Many C-Rat cans and a few beer cans are found. Prior to the battle this must have been an extraordinary supply area for the NVA. I can glimpse the landscape of Laos to the west through the jungle. Here are a few items that were found.
It is now very quiet on the Hill. Only the sounds of the wind and occasional birds. A huge contrast to what the sounds of the battle must have been like. Besides Vietnam the only other battle sites I have visited are Civil War battlefields like Bull Run and Gettysburg. These are large battlefields where thousands of men fought and died. The hell of Hamburger Hill didn't involve those numbers nor come close in the size of the battle. However, standing on this American battlefield, thousands of miles from America I get the same emotional feelings as I've had on those now quiet places in Virginia and Pennsylvania. Here on Hamburger Hill the crowds are not flocking to explore this battle field.
I ask the guides if any other Americans have come to visit Hamburger Hill. In an unusual admission our guides say that indeed other Americans have come and hired them to get to the top of Hamburger Hill. They admit that they had simply taken these tourists to a jungle rise a mile or so back down the trail and told them that they were on Hamburger Hill. Gerry and I were the only ones so far with maps and compass who couldn't be fooled in that way. Our guides tell us that as far as they know we are the first Americans to come this close to the summit of the Hill. If true, it is a bittersweet accomplishment. Looking through the trees to the northeast I can see areas that would have served as LZs to ferry troops and supplies into the buildup and eventually the battle. On a return trip it would great to explore those areas as well as the NVA escape routes down the west backside of the Hill into Laos.
We continue to poke around on the Hill. The battle officially lasted from May 10 through May 20, 1969. Official causalities are listed as 56 American KIAs and 597 NVA KIA. However, our guides repeatedly mention that 240 Americans were killed in the battle. This false statistic on their part has an interesting history. This horrific battle was a major story during those days in May 1969. Finally, the battle was won and after several weeks of occupation the troops left. This created a public outcry within the States. Coincidentally within this time frame, LIFE magazine published the faces of a week's dead GIs. The week chosen happened saw 240 American KIAs for the entire combat zone. I'm sure even some Americans were confused into thinking that these deaths were the result of Hamburger Hill. That coupled with the pull back shortly after the battle was won helped stir a public outcry and debate. To the Vietnamese, the LIFE magazine cover story depicts the Americans killed only in the Battle of Hamburger Hill. An interesting oddity of the war. With the limited language skills of our Hue guide, I decide it is pointless to try and right this error.
The fact that we are probably the first Americans to get this close to Hamburger Hill since the battle is a sobering thought. Once the 101st pulled out they may have sent recon teams back into the area to monitor any buildup. It would be an interesting bit of follow-up research to determine if that was done. In any event, based on what our local guides have told us about taking visitors to Hamburger Hill and the past ruses they have used, I feel confident that we are the first to get this close to the Hill. I wish the area was more accessible to returning vets. As I have said, standing on Hamburger Hill I find no difference in my reverence than if I was standing at any number of Civil War battle sites I have visited. I'm extremely glad I came. As a note to any future VietVets willing to try and reach Hamburger Hill, I can only say that you must be in shape, bring a map and compass, and above all bring not just water but powdered hydration additives for the water. I will describe below, an almost tragic visit to Hamburger Hill I made two years later. If this narrative of my treks to Hamburger Hill and other areas seem long winded please bear with me. I'm trying to be as detailed as possible to give as much information for those vets thinking of visiting Vietnam as well as giving a taste of the experience for those vets who couldn't possibly make a trip back. In the end, I feel satisfaction in visiting one of the most famous battlesites of the Vietnam War.
All too soon, it is time to begin our return trek. It probably would have been possible to have spent the night on the Hill had we been properly equipped and discussed this ahead of time with our border lieutenant and village chief. As we leave this forward most point on our trek to Hamburger Hill, I turn for one last look. What incredibly terrible days those must have been for the soldiers involved, NVA and American. This foliage holds so many sounds and stories. Zaffiri's book, Hamburger Hill, is very informative but it is the individual story that makes visiting a place like this so much more interesting.
We make our way out exactly the same way we came in. The same questionable spots on the trail are pointed out all over again. This time the guide points out a bit of steel sticking out from the ground. It could be an artillery round. Gerry isn't sure what it is and we give it a wide berth. The trail heads north down a ridgeline of Hill 937--Hamburger Hill. What must this have looked like during the battle, NVA bunkers and bodies from both sides, I suppose.
Finally we break back through into the small clearing where the others are waiting. The border lieutenant greets our return. Dich makes a joke about forgetting to take the Lieutenant's gun. Apparently this clearing is the place where past Veterans had been brought and told was Hamburger Hill. We shuck our gear for lunch and shortly several bamboo cutters hike into our little clearing. They settle in around us. They are filled in by our guides as to who Gerry and I are. They stick around for lunch.
Our Hue guide, Dich, breaks out canned pork and bread for lunch. I should mention that he has been carrying this right along in a plastic sack. There is enough to go around for the little group. The Lieutenant joins in by using a machete to fashion chopsticks from the abundant bamboo. He is and amazing sight. He is still smartly dressed with his tie still in place. I feel I'm looking at what would have been an NVA officer twenty-five years ago. Gerry and I lunch on granola bars while the group eats and smokes, Gerry and I take the opportunity to walk a bit down the trail that leads into Laos. The tiger hunter we had met earlier had disappeared down this trail. I now realize that Laos is only about a half mile away. We can see it through breaks in the jungle. We can hear the sounds of wood cutters in the distance. Shortly, we come across a huge tree which was blown over during the battle and now serves as an archway on the trail. We can walk under it without bending. It demonstrates how dense and old this jungle was prior to the battle.
Gerry and I return to the clearing as everyone is finishing up. They are anxious to return to the village. The bamboo cutters have stayed all though lunch wondering about these strange visitors. Before we head down, Dich removes his sandals and pulls up his pants leg to reveal several leeches clinging to his skin. They are fat and full of blood and fall off easily at the slightest prodding. The wounds begin to seep blood and I'm glad for the first aid kit I have packed along. A little antiseptic and some bandages and he is ready to go. Everyone else does a quick leech check but Dich is the only victim.
We start back down the trail to Aloui. I make constant visual and map reference to the Hill and often stop to photograph it as we descend back to Aloui. The Hill looms there mutely. It is neither an impressive, single peak nor even forbidding even as the fog rolls in on the ridgeline. It is an insignificant part of a series of ridges and mountains. The craggy Dong So range to the north is far more impressive as a mountain range. I'm glad for Dong So, as it has been very useful as a bearing point in using the compass to locate our position. Hamburger Hill is almost indiscernible in the hike up. It is more of a ridgeline and the further we get away from it the harder it is to pick it out. Even still, at a distance the Hill still holds a quiet power for the part it played in the War. Each time I stop to photograph our guides are patient with this delay and simply squat down at each stop and smoke cigarettes.
We continue on and soon arrive in the Pacoh village. I tell our guide that I would like to buy or trade for a pipe that the local women seem to favor. Just about every Pacoh woman we have encountered is puffing on a very beautiful handmade pipe. What they're smoking, I don't ask. But if I had to hump firewood or bamboo or rice all day, I don't think tobacco would cut it in my pipe. A request to buy a pipe or any local item can backfire. Expressing an interest in a local item could possibly create a cottage industry to mass produce those items for the next groups of tourists. Gerry reminds me of this from an earlier incident on our tour. We had been driving to visit the village made famous by the movie, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places. We were driving down the dirt road to the village when we rounded a bend and confronted an amazing sight. A woman was writhing on the ground in a pile of buffalo dung. Several local villagers were crowded around watching but not doing anything. We stopped the car and had our guide find out what was going on. Apparently this woman's husband had died several years before and she had no family to take care of her. She was homeless. They said her current activity was because she was crazy with hunger. We had our guide talk to the woman and gave her $5 to buy food. That is a good amount of money to a Vietnamese. Our kind gesture could well backfire. The villagers standing around this crazy woman see two Americans show up and give her $5 for her performance. After we leave we wondered how many villagers would be writhing in buffalo dung when the next tourist car comes down the trail.
In the Pacoh village, I am able to buy a pipe from a local woman and use up my last Polaroids on her. I also haggle for a beautiful necklace. The total cost is about $11. We bid our farewells to the villagers and head back toward Aloui with a first stop at the border guards hootch. We ford the same waist deep streams of the morning. After Dich's experiences with the leeches in the clearing above, I'm wary and can't wait to check for them later. I've bloused my pant legs with my hiking boots so I feel confident I haven't picked any up. We reach the border hootch and it is only then that we realize that the Hill is visible from the front door. Spotting it that morning from his hootch would have been way out of my map reading and compass skills. While standing and saying our thank you's and good byes, a last glance at the Hill reveals that the fog has rolled in and completely obscured the view. We move on to meet the van.
At the last water crossing, I turn and photograph the sun setting over the distant, fog shrouded Hill. It is a beautiful and peaceful sight. The van is there to meet us and take us back to Aloui. I decide that I would rather walk on back to Aloui and I'm left alone to do just that. As the van disappears, I amble down the trail moving between the occasional thatch hut. Now and then I hear someone call out, "Hello" and even "How are you?". I'm again thankful that they know I'm an American and not a Russian. Villagers emerge, smiling and waving as I past by their huts. Everyone is extremely friendly. It would not be until later that I find out that the news has reached Vietnam that Clinton has lifted the trade embargo and the local people have heard about this through their radios. The people in this flat area outside Aloui are a mixture of Vietnamese and Pacoh. A young Pacoh man stands in front of his hut and calls out to me, "Hello!". I approach him and he makes the pantomime of taking a photograph. I realize that the magic of the Polaroid has preceded me. I have no more Polaroid's and try to convey that to him without making him think I am lying. He so wanted a shot of him and his family. Finally, he invites me into his hut. Several other villagers join us inside. The crude but clean hut is well maintained by a woman he points out to be his wife. She appears to be 14 or 15 years old. It is a large one room hut with a cooking fire to one side. Chickens peck at the floor. The villagers gather around and we try to communicate. His wife brings cool tea and cups. This is something even the poorest peasant will do as a sign of friendship to a visiting guest. It is poured all around. I take several sips. I figure it was boiled at one point today.
We continue to communicate in sign language and laughter. I'm wearing a ball cap that says "Canada". He points at it, nodding and laughing. I remove the cap and offer it to him. He looks at the other villagers and smiles sheepishly. He takes the cap and puts it on. The villagers laugh and chatter their approval. We talk several more minutes. I begin to realize that my host has been drinking something stronger than tea all day. He is fairly ripped in a friendly sort of way. After a bit he spies the cheap watch I'm wearing. I see another trade coming. He calls out to his young wife. In hand gestures he points at my watch and then to his young wife, and then back and forth. I get the picture but decide to act really stupid on this one. He repeats the gesture but after several attempts gives up thinking I'm as dumb as a brick. I get up to leave and he indicates he will drive me back to Aloui on his motorcycle. Why not, I figure.
I climb on behind him, sinking the back wheel down into the mud but he guns the engine and we bounce off down the dirt path. I figure being this low to the ground with a drunken moped driver--how badly can I get hurt? Soon the dirt trail comes to the intersection of the main road leading into Aloui. He makes the turn and guns down the highway toward the hotel. Within seconds someone in a uniform is flagging us down to stop. My driver pulls over. I don't know if the guy who stopped us is a soldier or policeman. But soon he engages my driver in stern conversation. I can tell that my driver is trying to explain his case with the "cop" but doesn't seem to be getting anywhere. The cop yells at me in Vietnamese but I shrug my shoulders to let him know I don't understand what he is saying. He points at a nearby building. We walk over and he leads me to a room. All the way, the driver is tagging along and pleading his case. I haven't a clue as to what is up. The cop makes it clear that he wants me to stay in this room. He and the driver argue a little more. Soon they seem to come to an agreement. I'm left standing in the room as the cop jumps on the back of the moped and with my driver they take off back down the dirt trail to toward the driver's hootch. I stand their and cool my heels. I can see the Aloui hotel only about 300 yards away. No one else seems to be around and I'm not guarded. I should just walk back to the hotel and let them sort it out later. But I decide I don't want to cause an incident. I haven't a clue as to where they have gone. I sit down and wait.
About thirty minutes later as I'm about to make a break for it, the cop and the driver roar into the yard on the moped. They are all smiles and laughing. The cop motions for me to leave with the driver. I jump aboard the moped and he takes me back to the hotel. What was that all about? I can only think that the driver persuaded the cop to come back to his hootch for some rice wine and maybe, his wife? Whatever I'm glad to be back to the hotel. It has been a long but very eventful day. I look forward to dinner, a few beers and a good night's sleep. Now I discover that I have forgotten to take dirt from the Hill. Ahhh, my clothes are covered.
Tomorrow we are off to Khe Sanh and the Lang Vei Special Forces camp on the Laotian border.
Hamburger Hill, 1995.
My return trip to Vietnam in 1995 is a quick one. I was really unhappy with my job and my first trip back had just whet my appetite for Vietnam. I phoned Gerry to shoot the breeze about my last trip. He said that he was organizing a trip for two vets in the next couple of months. They wanted to spend their time up in I Corps. That sounded great to me. In a couple more conversations we worked it out that I could tag along on their tour. My 1995 trip exposed me to another great set of experiences and memories. Some of those are recounted in this web site. The following chronicles my next exposure to Hamburger Hill.
The two vets I was tagging along with had completely different experiences with the war. John had been involved in the Judge Advocate's office and I believe worked as a military lawyer and never left Saigon. He was still a lawyer and lived in Las Vegas. His long time friend, Jim, had been a Marine and had spent all his time in I Corps. He now lived in the Philippines. They got together every now and then and Vietnam seemed like a good place for one of their annual reunions Because it was their tour, I was just going to go along with the flow. Although we would travel into the Ashau, there wasn't going to be time to travel up to Hamburger Hill. We traveled the same route I had taken the year before. Hue to Dong Ha to Da Krong and the road into Aloui. The drive in was filled with familiar beautiful sights. The road is a little more beat up and there are some pretty good washouts but we manage to get around them.
I had once again brought my SX-70 Polaroid. It is a tremendous ice breaker when you encounter wary and shy villagers. I had also brought a couple of new things I wanted to try out. When I travel around in the remote regions of Vietnam, I am drawn to things of their everyday life like their tools, clothing, pipes, handmade jewelry and so on. In the previous trip I had bargained for these items and paid with cash. This trip I wanted to try something different and try the barter method. In Los Angeles, I had bought beads of all colors and especially colors I knew they used, like red and black. To be honest, the minute I broke out the beads to trade with I felt a little foolish. Maybe the era of that type of commerce had passed. Cash now seems so much more simpler. What I did discover is that it was mainly the old women that were interested in dealing with the beads. Also, they stuck with the colored beads that had familiar colors--the reds and blacks. So I did accomplish a few trades with the beads for a tool or a pipe but in the end cash--greenbacks--were far more desirable.
Travelling down the Ashau this time, we stopped at several villages along the way to Aluoi. This was something we didn't do on my trip in 1994--we drove straight through from the Dak Krong bridge to Aloui. For this 1995 trip I had brought something new to try with any villagers we might meet, especially the children. This item was the soap bubbles in a plastic bottle with the little wand. This is the kind you dunk the wand into the bottle and then blow on the wand creating a trail of bubbles. Sounds innocent enough. In hindsight, imagine this scene from a villagers point of view. Even by 1995, the people inhabiting the Ashau don't see very many Westerners traveling along the road. So here we come barreling down the road in a white van. We slide to a stop in a cloud of dust. Immediately the villagers begin crowding around the van chatting excitedly and thankfully, happily. We get out and engage them with the interpreter trying to keep up with the task at hand. The children, especially the young boys, are the most fearless and crowd around. Younger girls and mothers form the outer circle and then the men of the village a little more stand offish and at a distance. When I get out the Polaroid and motion for several children to gather together for a photograph, some of them simply scatter. The brave ones stay and I shoot a picture. Then I hand the Polaroid to one of the kids. At first he doesn't understand but the interpreter is telling him to watch the thing I've handed him. As the photo develops you can hear the amazement in their voices. The boys crowd around, even the ones that scattered. Then the women move in and finally the men. The developed photo is handed to one of the senior men and he examines it in quiet awe. Within minutes he asks for a picture of himself. I take a few more pictures. Okay, so far, the villagers have seen a van pull up and out jumps Americans. Then they have this crazy contraption that takes instant images.
Then I ask through the interpreter that I'm interested in bartering for some local pipes. I break out the beads and what I've described above about bead bartering takes place. Cash is simpler. But we make a few trades and purchases and everyone is happy. Then I remember that I have the soap bubbles. By now your every move is being watched by the villagers. I fish the simple plastic bottle out of my pack. All the children are chattering happily and crowd around me as they have lost any fear of me. Now my purpose was to dunk the wand, blow a few bubble strands and hand the bottle over to one of the kids and stand back and photograph them playing with the bubbles. Again, this sounds innocent enough. As I begin to dunk the wand, the noise of the crowd dies down. What is this strange person doing now? I bring out the dripping wand and blow a nice string of bubbles high in the air. YEOW!!! screams most of the children and they scatter in all directions. You'd think I had just pulled the pin on a grenade. I realize that they have never seen anything like this, something seemingly so common back home. As the bubbles flutter among them they contort to avoid having one land on them. Some of the braver boys filter back around me and I blow another string. A few scatter but most hold their ground. As the bubbles drift down they all again avoid being touched by them. Finally, I'm able to coax one of the braver boys to take the wand and become the bubble master. Most of the children return but some still stay on the fringe. Even with the road now connecting their village to a greater world outside, these are still primitive villages. There is no electricity, running water, sanitation, medicine, television, anything. It still is a very harsh and dire existence for these hill tribes. Months later, stuck in another Los Angeles freeway jam I can't help envy the simplicity of their existence. After a few more bubbles and Polaroids, we say our good byes and continue on to Aluoi.
With about 5 miles to go until the village of Aloui, the interpreter stops us at well built home on the side of the road. He explains to us that the house is owned by an ex-NVA soldier. It is not thatch but made of local mud bricks and a kind of exterior stucco. It is a substantial structure. It seems that the owner was given this nice home for his family's wartime service. There is a large cement monument outside the house which describes their sacrifice. The owner greets us at the door. He says that he was an NVA soldier stationed in the south outside Saigon. In one of the side bedrooms lay his brother. Apparently, his brother had served the war effort as a member of the Viet Cong in the Ashau Valley. After the battle of Hamburger Hill, he had been in the valley during a B-52 strike and was seriously wounded in the head. His wounds were so bad that he now lay in his bed, shaking violently. He shook the whole time I was there in the house. His brother took care of him. I offered a bit of money and we continued on to Aloui village. We arrive in the late afternoon.
We are just going to be spending the night and then head down to Ashau village in the morning. There won't be a chance to hike up to the Hill. Near the Ashau village, a road connects back to Hue and we will travel past Firebases Bastogne and Blaze. After we settle into the hotel, I state that I'm going to hike out toward the Hill before the sun sets. Jim the ex-Marine, is going with me I quickly pull out a map and compass and we head out much like I did the year before.
Everything looks very familiar and I'm happy to point out to Jim all that I know. The creek that blocked my path the year before is now just a trickle and we push on. The villagers wave to us and we signal back. The surrounding views are spectacular and it is going to be a great walk. After about twenty minutes, I can see a bicycle heading toward us. Within minutes the bicycle stops in front of us, blocking our advance. I recognize him as the border lieutenant from the year before. Fantastic!, I think. I wave a hello. He doesn't recognize me and has a very grim look. He sternly jabbers in Vietnamese, pointing at us and then back at the mountains. I show him the map and point to the Hill. I try to explain that we are just going to look at the Hill from a distance. He again makes the motions that we cannot pass and pats the pistol on his hip. He seems very disjointed and almost, in a way, crazy. He is totally different from the cool and collected border guard that he was a year ago. He is somewhat dishelved. Something has happened to upset him. He doesn't recognize me at all. Finally we feel it best to turn around and head back to the hotel. I'm puzzled that he didn't even recognize me--how many Americans does he get out this way? It won't be until later that I find out from Gerry that apparently the Lieutenant had tried to call Gerry in the United States. This had put him in big trouble. I'm sure his assignment to this lonely outpost was one of the worst for someone in his outfit. Now he had blown a chance to get out with his phone call. When he happened upon Jim and I, he probably felt that letting us continue on could cause him even more problems and he would never get a transfer out. Whatever the reason we just felt it best to leave. It may well be that I couldn't have hiked up to the Hill if I wanted to that week.
Returning to the hotel we discover that we have missed an afternoon special treat prepared by the hotel "kitchen". Everyone in our group has had the opportunity to sample a plate of bear meat. Even if there was some left, I probably would not have eaten the meat anyway. My caution is borne out the next day as Jim and I are the only ones without the runs.
The next day we leave the Aluoi hotel and drive south to visit what little is visible of the Ashau Special Forces camp. The airstrip can still be defined but not much of the old camp. The village is built up around what must have been the camp. Looking around at the surrounding mountains one can get the sense how strategically located this camp was in the valley. But its isolation is tremendous. The NVA laid siege to the camp in March 1965 and eventually overran the camp. The battle created an interesting Medal of Honor. There is an excellent account of this action on the Skyraider site.
There are a number of buildings and homes over what would have been the airstrip. We meet the local school mistress and walk back to her classroom. The kids are terrifically well behaved. I break out the rest of the beads which is still quite a load and make them a gift to the school mistress to use with her kids. She seems genuinely thankful. After a few more photographs we climb aboard the van and head toward Hue.
This route back into Hue is a road that was built by us during the war. By us, I believe it was built by Army engineers attached or working with the 101st Airborne. It is still a decent, hard-packed dirt road. I can tell that the bridges we cross were American made and they have they held up extremely well through time. When traveling all over Vietnam, it is sometime hard to see any evidence that we were even here except for the roads and bridges. A strong testament to the Engineers of whatever service branch built them. This road is flanked by a number of firebases which are a proud part of the 101st Vietnam history. The evidence of Agent Orange defoliation is evident. The rolling countryside looks like the rolling hills of Northern California with the occasional tree spotted here and there. We make it into Hue by late evening.
Hamburger Hill, 1996.
This trip to Vietnam is again arranged superbly by Gerry Schooler.
This trip my brother, Steve, has come along. He is a year older than me. Although
he didn't serve time in Vietnam during the war, he was an artillery forward observer
with the 3rd Infantry Division and was stationed in Germany. Also joining us is a
man named Mel Cooper. Mel is not a Vietnam vet, although his brother served up in
the Dak To area. Today Mel is a Lieutenant in the correctional system of Illinois.
He is extremely interested in the study of the American combat history of the Vietnam
war. He has also made some amazing contacts and connections. He brings with him a
tremendous amount of knowledge and background material. He had even obtained photographs
of the Hill taken by Colonel Honeycutt, the battlefield commander, which he graciously
shared with us. On this trip to Vietnam we have flown into Hanoi first to spend several
days. Then we boarded Air Vietnam for Danang. We spent the night in Hue. From Hue
we will travel to Dong Ha and visit Con Thien, the Rockpile, Khe Sanh Combat Base
and the site of Operation Buffalo near Con Thien where the Marines suffered heavy
casulaties in an ambush. I will soon post those visits on this website. Visiting
these areas along Highway 9 is a one day tour. The next day we will head out for
the Ashau Valley and Hamburger Hill from Hue.
Our main intreperter is Hinh, who I have met and used on a previous trip to Vietnam. He is an ex-AVVN helicopter pilot now living in Saigon. We are using a driver, Trinh, who is of Chinese descent and is extremely loyal and gung-ho to anything we want to do. He is driving his own vehicle which I would guess is a early 1990s Land Cruiser. This character has become a welcome addition to our travelling party. He is the kind of guy you like to have a beer or two or three with at the end of the day. Probably the most interesting addition to our group is Tuan. He has been described as a member of the "Secret Police", whatever that is. He is probably in his late twenties or early thirties. He has traveled with us since we arrived in Hue. His grandfather was killed while fighting with the Viet Minh against the French and his father was killed fighting the Americans. In fact, we visited his father's grave outside Hue. With that lineage I am sure that he is well placed within the Party. Gerry has dealt with him in Hue and secured the necessary permissions to complete our travels. He turns out to be a great person and we try to communicate in our fractured English and Vietnamese. He is definitely an asset when dealing with the local officials as he carries a good bit of clout.
We get an early start and leave Hue behind headed for the Ashau Valley. This time we are going to enter the Ashau Valley through the "southern road". I had taken this road out of the Ashau Valley during my 1995 trip. Apparently this road was built by the Army during the way as a secondary route into the Ashau. I'm sure it already existed as some indigeous route west and was reinforced by U.S. Army Engineers. We are told that it is hard packed, solid, and with American bridges fording any rivers. If all goes well we should be in Aloui by the afternoon.
Traveling in Vietnam is always an adventure. I always give veterans
the same advice when they ask me what it is like to visit Vietnam. I simply remind
them that they are in a third-world country. Everything doesn't always work or go
as smoothly as we'd like. Adopting an easy going, go-with-the-flow attitude is the
best. The hotel shower may not work, the beer may be warm, the interpreter's English
may be poor, etc. I'm not saying that you won't have those times where you want to
blow your cork but for the most part it is just best to let it all wash over you
and enjoy it as much as you can. Remembering a few basic things is important. For
instance, and without getting into the politics WE are perceived as the losers of
the war. REMEMBER, good, bad or indifferent, It is their flag flying over their
buildings. You have to remember that bit of history and give it whatever
respect, albeit grudgingly. It is not wise to get into political discussions about
the war with government officials. Don't bother. Also, government officials don't
like surprises Most vets returning to Vietnam want to see where they served and what
it looks like today. They want to remember those days long ago. They want to remember
old friends that didn't make it back. Maybe even find the sight of a battle where
friends were lost and then say a prayer. All these are legitimate things to complete
on a return trip. Absolutely legitimate. However, make sure your guide understands
exactly what you want to see and accomplish. This goes back to what I said about
surprises There is a line that you can work up to but do not cross. Some vets believe
they are going to go back to a firebase or battle site and erect a monument to their
fallen comrades or raise the American flag and have a full blown memorial service
with taps and everything. That probably just isn't going to happen unless you have
cleared every detail with the government. Translation: grease palms ahead of time.
When I was discussing my first trip in 1994 with Gerry Schooler he was filling me
in on this protocol. Now some vets may think that they'll just keep it secret and
pull off an impromptu memorial service on the spur of the moment and to hell with
them. Well, here's what happens and has happened in the past. Sometime before I went
on my first trip, a couple of Marines returned to a spot in I Corps that meant a
lot to them and pulled off an impromptu memorial service including the raising of
the Stars and Stripes. BOOM! I Corps is shut down to American tourists until further
notice. So this little impromptu, uncleared antic has now prevented other vets from
visiting the area. It screws it up for future vets that need to return for their
own personal closure. This is especially painful if you are the vet prevented and
you have your trip already paid for and now you can't get into the areas you need
to see. Finally, I guess, you have to think of the vets down the line.
We leave Hue and motor along for an hour or two. At one point we need to ferry a large river which I believe is the Perfume River. This requires us to board the Land Crusier onto a ferry. We arrive at the boarding point and don't have to wait too long before the ferry arrives. Actually, it is a barge that is pushed back and forth across the river by a tiny tugboat. We board the ferry with our Land Cruiser, a local bus and about 30 people. About 40 minutes later we are back on the road to Ashau.
As I said, traveling in Vietnam is an adventure. Sure enough we
haven't been traveling but two hours and there is a loud, shuddering grinding noise
coming from one of the Toyota's wheels. We pull over to the side of the hard packed
dirt road. The driver gets out and looks at the offending wheel. Within minutes he
has the vehicle blocked up and has pulled off the wheel. He starts to dig into the
brake drum. This looks serious to me. There isn't a Pep Boys for at least 10,000
miles. Forget Triple A. I figure we're done for and will probably have to hitch back
to the hotel in Hue and start again tomorrow. The driver tells us to give him an
hour. This is where that go-with-the-flow action takes place. Steve, Mel and
myself just wander off into the nearest village. The nearby road marker says that
Aluoi is 44 KM away.
You can travel all over the former South Vietnam and it will be difficult to see that America was ever there. Unless you look closely. The North Vietnamese victors wanted to remove every vestige of our presence. If you saw some of the major camps during the war like Chu Lai, Camp Eagle, Khe Sanh, Camp Holloway, etc., you would think that they would be occupied today by NVA troops. Not so, not one of those bases remain, except Chu Lai in some limited capacity. They simply told the population to remove whatever they wanted of those former American bases and it became history. Travelling near some former major American base you can see the remenants of it for sale in the local area in the form of PSP, broken up concrete runways, and whatever. They simply made our presence disappear.
However, one of the things that remains of our presence is the "ordnance" we delivered to those "in need". There is a huge amount of unexploded artillery, bombs, grenades, bomblets, you name it. Rounds scattered throughout the countryside. As farmland, villages, homes, etc., are being developed this ordnance becomes visible. In areas that were heavily contested, you will find artillery rounds at the ends of every plowed row or field. In just about any village that you wander into will be stacks of rusted metal from the war. I'm not sure of the recycling system but apparently a villager can remove metal from his fields and stack it in his front yard. I don't know if the government has a program to come around and remove this stuff but you'll see these stacks of metal in almost every farmer's yard.
It is in this context that Mel, my brother and I wander off to the nearest village. Leaving the driver to fix our vehicle. Within minutes we come to a home which has a large mound of almost unidenfiable rusting metal stacked in front of it. We start to pick through the debris and soon can pull out rotted out grenades and the like. We barter for some of these treasures and I pick up a rusted out grenade and some other fragments for a dollar. One of us picks up a rusted grenade from the pile. It seems farily intact. Because we have shown interest in this bit of rusted junk offers are immediately made. One of us says that we can't take this old grenade because it seems the insides are still intact. The villagers aim to please and without a moment to reconsider, they converse among themselves and almost immediately one of the salesmen grabs the grenade and begins to tap it apart with a crude hammer and chisel. Now we should have run for the hills. But I am fascinated in the way the young man wields his crude tools to separate the offending piece from the bulk of the grenade. I video his labor and realize I could be watching his father do this in the jungle twenty-five years before. Within minutes, he has the grenade down to just the outer casing and wound steel wire inside. How can you refuse this purchase of one dollar. After our purchases, we sit inside their hootch and have tea. Eventually we return outside and kill more time by spinning tops with some of the local children. Word comes from the driver that he has fixed the problem. We are ready to continue our journey. I decide that, what the hell, let's trust the driver and go with him. This late in the day, the worst that can happen is that we break down a little further down the road and have to spend the night in a village. Whatever happens on the road will be an adventure.
There is still time left in the day. This southern route into the Ashau passes by several firebase landmarks of the 101st Airborne. One that is right off the road is Firebase Bastogne. We hike up to the location of this firebase. I wish I had photos of how it looked during the war. These two views show it today. This is one view and this is another of Firebase Bastogne. These photos were taken within the perimeter of the base looking out. We are told that this area was heavily wooded and if so, then I imagine that the foilage around the base was destroyed by Agent Orange as even today there is still little regrowth that would limit the fields of fire. We prowl around Bastogne for a little while and probe a few old bunkers overgrown with foilage. Then we continue on our way to Aluoi, happy that the Land Crusier fires up when we restart.
It is dark when we pull into the old familiar sight of the "Aloui Hilton". Actually, I have described this place in my 1994 trip and in this trip it hasn't changed much. We are told that the generator will run for about another hour so we best get into our rooms and stow our gear as lights will soon be out. We scramble to get settled. Check the mosquito nets on the beds. Soon the generator switch is thrown off and the valley is pitched into darkness and quiet. We shoot the breeze in the dark and discuss the next day. As the evening progresses the sounds of the night begin to increase. Around midnight I make my way to the rooftop of the hotel. The sound of the frogs is deafening. They work in unison, screaming louder and then softer as someone or something comes into their area. These are the sounds of Aloui at night.
We are up early and have breakfast. Brothy vegetable soup, bread and strong coffee start our day. There are several little shacks near the hotel that serve as little variety stores and we pick up our bottled water for the hike. I have brought along a powdered Gatorade mixture to add to the water to replenish our electrolytes during the hot hike into the jungle. This stuff has proven to be a lifesaver. Heat exhaustion can kill and it came come out of nowhere. I am in fairly good shape having done a pretty good conditioning workout for months before this trip. But hiking in the cool foothills around Los Angeles doesn't prepare anyone for a hike in the jungles of Vietnam. On this trip I'm almost 49 years old. My brother is almost 50 and is in even better physical shape than I. I am not concerned about myself or my brother. Mel Cooper is just 38 years old and although he is probably in good physical shape, strength wise, he has found out that he is not in the best shape to hike up and down mountains in the oppressive heat and humidity. As a Lieutenant of the Guards in the Prision system of Illiinois, he has regaled us with terrific stories of physical encounters with the inmates. He is as strong as a bull but hiking in the jungle and elephant grass has really opened his eyes. But he has pushed along in every one of our hikes without complaint, although I know it has been tough. On our hike up Hill 861 overlooking Khe Sanh, he was really in a tough spot. I think that he has the beginnings of heat exhaustion as he was not sweating at all in the 100 plus degree heat and humidity. I made him take a break and gave him some of the Gatorade mixture and you could literally see the color flow back into his face. I'm a little concerned about how he will do today. Actually more concerned that he will tough it out and not ask for assistance. I want to make sure he keeps drinking fluids. I know this from experience. I ran out of water in the jungle in 1969. I was with several dozen Montagnards patrolling through a jungled ridgeline while the other American was patrolling the valley below with the rest of the Montagnard troops. I had been out of water from the night before and by mid-afternoon standing in a boiling jungle clearing, I realized the serious spot I was in. The prospects of getting water were nil. The sun, heat and humidity were overwhelming, stifling. I remember fighting the panic. I made the cardinal sin of asking some of the Yards for their water. A request that showed weakness on my part. Obviously they had none to offer. I toughed it out in silent panic. Overwhelming heat will make you do crazy things. Within a couple of hours we stumbled onto a mountain spring. That was the best drink of water I have ever had in my entire life. In hiking up to the Hill you have to pack in all your water. It is best to take way more than you might use. You cannot drink from the streams and you don't really have time to use a filitering kit. Our guides had set off with either no water or just a single bottle of water in their hand. And they hardly broke a sweat.
We make our way to the same border guard outpost of my 1994 trip. We pick up a border guard escort. He is a young kid, proably nineteen or twenty and speaks no English. Our guides give him a quick briefing on what we want to accomplish. I again remind Steve and Mel that we have to realize that the Vietnamese may want to take the easiest route possible and just walk us out into the jungle nearby and say, "Here we are, Hamburger Hill, we go back hotel now". I have again brought along maps and a compass. We have also brought along a new marvel of technology--a GPS. We couldn't afford to buy the device so we have rented it from a company who thinks we are hiking in the High Sierras. We have already used it on our Route 9 trip but I'm still wary of how the Vietnamese will react to maps and compasses, let alone a GPS. I know they don't have a clue as to what a GPS is but we are in a sensitive border area. There is still unrest and mistrust between the Vietnamese and the Montagnard tribes. My brother is in charge of the GPS and we agree that we will just go ahead and use it and not make a big deal about it.
We stop into the local village that I had stopped in during my 1994 hike. This time we don't have to meet with the village elders and instead are taken to the local schoolhouse. Class is in session and we meet the school teacher. We goof around with the kids in class while our guides arrange with the locals. Soon it is time to keep moving and we say good-bye to the kids. As we wind out of the village we have several villagers tagging along. We hike the same way we had gone in 1994. It is a well used dirt trail with dense elephant grass on either side. Villagers hike among us on their way to their fields. When we arrive at the northwest corner of the base of the mountain range that Dong Ap Bia is a part of we begin to head south around the mountain. In 1994 we had continued in a westerly direction up the mountain. I stop to ask the guide if this is the right way. We look at the maps and they say that this is the best way to get to the top. They keep repeating a word that I don't understand followed by "go this way". "??????? go this way", they repeat. Finally, I'm able to understand them, they are saying that this is the best way to go because the tanks went this way. Shortly after the battle the 101st moved APCs up to the top of the Hill. To do so, they blazed a trail using an old existing trail. I am carrying with us the picture taken by Colonel Honeycutt from his command chopper taken shortly after the battle. The tracs are clearly visible. This picture of the Hill was obtained by Mel Cooper when he visited Colonel Honeycutt at his home.
We hike on and any coolness of the morning is long gone. It's another beautiful, blue sky, hot day. I pause and look back north to the Dong So mountain range. I still am determined to explore that area which was also used as a major storage area by the NVA. It is supposed to be riddled with caves. Since leaving the schoolhouse we have hiked along a well used trail flanked on both sides by eight foot plus elephant grass. Up ahead I can see the jungle face of the mountain range containing Hamburger Hill. It is an unassuming view. Soon we begin to move into the jungle. One would think that moving from the hot sun into the dark jungle would be cooler. That's not the case. The jungle canopy acts as a lid on a pressure cooker. That coupled with the lack of air movement makes moving through the jungle a walk in a sauna. We go from baking to boiling. We're taking slugs of Gatorade water as we need them. I'm always trying to gauge the time of day and how far we have to go including the return trip and then check the amount of liquid we have on hand.
Once we have moved under the canopy of the jungle, the GPS has become ineffective. We can only pull up one satellite. We also don't have a clear view of distant landmarks to locate ourselves with the compass. We hike along for what seems like hours trusting our guides. Finally, we come to a decent break in the canopy and we call a halt so that we can really examine the maps and try the GPS. Steve can still only get one satellite. I can make out a few distant landmarks and we begin to plot our position with the compass. We seemed to have walked far longer than I remember from the first trip and still we are a long ways from the top. I discuss this with the guides and they reassure us that we are not lost and that we will soon be near the top. We pour over the maps and decide we have to trust them and move on. We are definitely moving up a very substantial trail. It is easily two meters wide in most spots and gradually ascends the Hill in an almost round-about manner. The guides must be right. I'm now convinced that this is the trail blazed up by the tracs. It is a steady, slow climb and never as steep as the path we used in 1994.
The jungle has its own noise. The dominant sound is what I know in California as cicadas. I believe it is a cricket-like insect that makes an incredible racket by rubbing its back legs. Occasionally a bird can be heard calling in the distance. All my video shot during this time sounds like it has an electrical static throughout it but it is just the jungle noise.All my video shot during this time sounds like it has an electrical static throughout it but it is just the jungle noise. My video editing program reads the sound of the cicadas as static and attempts to filter it out. What you'll hear is a distortion of the cicada sound but the birds can be heard clearly. I'm working on improving the sound of the bugs but bear in mind it has a distorted, space-like quality that is not like the real thing. Here is a sample. That is not static, but the cicadas. I don't know what kind of bird it is and I never saw it. This is sample from another part of the jungle with a different bird. The sound is ever changing. As we sweat our way up the Hill, the sound is just about deafening in the jungle heat. It seems that the hotter it is the louder the cicadas are--almost as though they complaining about the heat as much as we. Then there is times when it is dead quiet. On my first trip to the Hill in 1994, I simply set up the video camera near the top and filmed the sun coming through the trees. It was very quiet and peaceful.
Although this trail is well used, we never come across anyone else. We do come across evidence that loggers are working nearby. We find several places where logs have been moved to a central spot for transport down the mountain. They simply tie three logs together, lash on a travois type arrangement and then I suppose one guy can drag the three logs down the mountain. During the war, I'm sure that our recon teams would come across the exact same sight as we, only back then the logs were moved to fortify some bunker complex. Later in our visit to the Ashau Valley we visited a newly constructed log home that was remarkable in its construction without power tools.
For several hours we settle into the grinding routine of plodding uphill. We want to make it to the top, but we welcome any diversion like the logs to explore and take a break. I'm completely drenched in sweat. I have to wipe my hands just to use my camera. I feel pretty good and so does my brother. Mel looks all in but doesn't make a sound of complaint. He is a trooper. We come to another clearing where Steve can now pick up three satellites. We confirm our position. Looking at the map and seeing that we just have a "half-inch" to go. That is not a relief. That half-inch translates into another hour of humping in this green hot house. The Vietnamese are doing just fine. In fact our two local guides simply disappear in the distance up the trail and then reappear. I figure they have walked twice as far as the rest of us and look no worse for it. We are putting one foot in front of the other in the deep, hot jungle. We are all soaked through in sweat. There isn't a part of my clothes that isn't wet. I carry my Minolta 35mm hanging around my neck. It too is wet from the sweat dripping from my face. I'm glad that I'm in some kind of decent shape to keep pushing on up the Hill.
Aside from Vietnam, the only other battlefields I have ever been to are in the States. I have been through many battle sites of our Civil War and Revolutionary War. Even a half dozen or so battlesites out west during the Indian Wars. They all have their own aura. Some of the battlefields, like Gettysburg and Bull Run, are overwhelming. Their vastness almost makes them hard to comprehend that thousands of men died on those rolling hills. Not so Vietnam. Humping, sweating, thirsting my way up the Hill in peacetime, almost 30 years after the battle in this dense and close jungle, I can get a real sense of what it might have been like. It is that closeness that is scary. That sense is terrifying to me. I'm worn out, thirsty, miserable, and yet this is a nice sunny, calm day with extreme humidity. I can not imagine what this was like in the slick mud and bullets flying and people dying all around. That thought hits me as I stumble forward. I stop and take a moment. We are close to the top. I could be standing on a spot where a Screaming Eagle trooper had lain, just feet from the top wondering how he had been so lucky to have survived this far. With all that he must have been through and which I can't even begin to imagine was how he had to steel himself for the final push to the top. I stand there. The jungle is quiet except for the humm of the cicadas and the call of a bird. The sun streams through the canopy. For several moments I am lost in thought as to what sights and sounds must have swirled violently around my location during the battle. I look around at what is left of the trees and jungle. To be a trooper and pushing and crawling to the top, not knowing what was five feet in front of you. The courage of those men is so evident all around me yet I cannot imagine how they did it. Some thirty years later and in peacetime, I push on up the Hill to the top.
And then suddenly we plunge into the head high elephant grass of the top of Hamburger Hill. We've made it. Breaking out of the jungle and back into the sun, I realize just how hot this day has become. It is a scorcher. It has taken us a bit longer to get up here. I realize that we only have about two hours to explore before we need to head back down.
The top of Hamburger Hill is simply tall elephant grass and tangled low bushes. Surrounding it is the double and triple canopy jungle that obviously covered the whole mountain. We are standing in the area that took the biggest beating. Every tree has been blown away. There are little trails burrowed through the tall grass. We remind everyone of the real possibility of unexploded ordnance. If you are seriously hurt up here you are seriously out of luck.
There is absolutely no shade on top. Following the call of one of the guides, I set my pack and video camera down on the ground. He has found something. We carefully pick our way over and he pulls back the low grass to reveal a good size artillery round rusting away. We carefully explore this western edge of the grassy perimeter right up to where the mountain slopes back down into the jungle. At the edge we can still find fighting positions. We collect some barbed wire. I return to get my video camera. In the short twenty minutes I have been gone it has become covered in giant black ants. I brush them off and pick up the camera. It has been in the sun and I can hardly handle it--if I had needed to do any welding I could do it with my video camera. I wonder about the quality of any video I might be shooting.
Another one of the guides calls out and we gingerly move over to the northeastern part of this grassy area. The entire area is probably the size of two football fields. The guide has found a burned trash heap obviously from the Army. There are melted plastic canteens, bits of poncho liners and c-rat cans. We carefully sift the top but dig no further. There is the real possiblity that some booby trap left by some Screaming Eagle could still work after all this time. None of us wants to tempt that fate. We gather together a good selection of war relics from the surface. This time I remember to gather dirt from the top of the Hill. I move in a northerly direction off into the jungle near the area I explored on my 1994 trip. Under the jungle canopy it is easy to spot the bunkers and foxholes. First occupied by the NVA, then the Screaming Eagles and then maybe again by the NVA once the B-52s stopped. I pick my way down the trail by myself. It is quiet and almost somber in this little part of the jungle. I feel that I actually am in the same area of my 1994 trip. In the tangled undergrowth I find what I'm looking for and carefully drag it out.
I knew that when I got to the top I would want to take a panoramic video of the Hill. I experimented with portable monopods to bring along but all of them seemed to be just too much trouble. Instead, I fashioned a video camera mount that I knew I could lash to a long piece of bamboo. I had found my bamboo monopod. It was about 25 feet long. I dragged it back up to the top. I have mentioned before that you want to keep your guides informed of what you are doing so that they don't misunderstand your intentions. I was so focused in dragging the bamboo pole up to the top and digging out my video attachment from my pack. All the time Tuan and our interpreter were watching me intently. I'm sure they thourhgt I was going to raise the American flag. Now that is a good sentiment; however, that could have created a little incident. We are just a half-mile from the Laotian border. At one point I looked up from my work and saw their faces and immediately realized what was going on. I quickly explained what I was doing and everything was calmed down and they even pitched in to help. When I felt certain that my $1,500 camcorder was securely attached to the bamboo, several of us raised it into position, Iwo Jima flag style. The pan shot is a little crooked but still very telling. This shot is looking northwest. I got some other great shots of the top of Hamburger Hill.
We explore a little more on top and spend some time orienting ourselves to our position on the map and to Colonel Honeycutt's photograph. It is a truly exciting experience to visit a relatively untouched battlesite and realize you are one of the first, if not the first to return to the site of one of the most important battles of the Vietnam War. Based on the information we received from the local guides we are the first to get up this far onto the Hill. Once again, I realize that we could easily have spent the night and probably several nights on the Hill. This will have to be a trip for the future. I am still intriqued by the NVA escape routes down the western slopes of the Hill and on into Laos. I would love a chance to explore those areas and to look for any cave complexes that might still exist.
You explore this type of untouched battlefield with great excitement and awe but you are always extremely cautious about where you are stepping. A tremendous amount of ordnance was unleashed on this small mountaintop and I'm sure there were plenty of dud rounds. The photograph by Colonel Honeycutt of the top of the Hill shortly after the battle shows the ferocity of that battle. The jungle is simply blown away, leaving a few trees and the mud and burned out undergrowth. Today, the Hill has not regained any of the destroyed tree growth but is lush with elephant grass. My experience on top of the Hill is truly one of the high points of all of my trips back to Vietnam.
Finally we realize we need to begin our trek back down so we won't be caught in the darkness. We have been on the top of the Hill in the blazing sun for several hours. We are extremely tired and worn out from the heat and humidity. We head back down into the jungle and retrace our steps. Once again we are the vegetables boiling in this soup. It is simply just plodding along, one foot after the other. There isn't much excitement or discovery in the trip down. Mel does look down at one opportune moment and discover an M16 casing. What a great souvenir. We wonder what the circumstances of it are and realize it could have washed down over the years from anywhere. It seems to take just as long to get down the Hill as getting up. Although he doesn't complain, Mel is looking worse and worse. When he stops sweating and is out of any fluids to drink we call a halt. We have been tramping down for several hours. I can hear the sound of a good sized stream nearby. We get Mel to lie down and take his condition serious. We decide that Steve will stay with him with the rest of the group. If he seems to get worse they'll try and carry him to the stream and submerge him. The border guard and myself will get back down the mountain and retrieve more water from the Land Cruiser. Hien should be waiting with our driver in the village. It's all we can think to do. Remembering my panic about having no water more than twenty-five years earlier I try to not make a big deal of our plans with Mel. He seems to accept what we need to do. I guess he realizes he has no other choice.
I'm actually surprised at how good I feel. My brother is also in fine shape. I set off with the guard at a good clip and make good time. I don't think the guard or the other Vietnamese really realized the spot we could be in with Mel's condition. Besides none of them have really even broken a sweat. The guard had just brought a plastic water bottle with him and it still had some water in it even after ten hours on the trail. At one point in our trek down the guard stops me and then scales a tree, barefooted like a Pacific islander going after coconuts. He has spotted something in the tree that he wants. I figure it is some type of jungle orchid. He finds a niche in the tree and plucks whatever he's found into the water bottle. When he drops back down to the jungle floor he shows me that he has caught a centipede type create about one foot long and at least a half-inch in diameter. I look at him and shrug my shoulders and ask, "Why?". He pantomines that he will mix the centipede into some type of home brew and drink it. Then balling his fist he shakes his arm and describes that it will make him a stud with the ladies. Okay. Let's move on.
Finally, we make our way into the village. The Land Cruiser is no where to be found. Great. Just great. The LC had the only know source of untainted water except for the little stands back in Aloui village some four miles away. I just start trudging on to Aloui all the while wondering where I can get some water for Mel. Within fifteen minutes I come upon Hien and the LC heading back into the village. I quickly tell them the situation and we beat back to the village and as far up the trail as we can. I get out with the water and start to head up the trail again when out of the jungle walks Mel, my brother and the rest of the group. Mel looks beat but at least he is walking under his own steam. My brother says that after they rested a good half hour, Mel said he felt good enough to continue on down the mountain. Stopping a few more times, and without water they made it. I handed Mel the water bottle and I'm sure that was the best water he has ever had in his life.
We relaxed in this little village and soon about thirty villagers crowded around us. A young man about thirty pulled out a buffalo horn. I admired the horn and then he began to blow it. I suppose they use it as some type of signal device, maybe to round up the kids when they stray. This is a sample of that sound Someone suggests we should buy the horn. I agree that it would be a great souvenir. However, I have picked up this habit when Gerry Schooler and I traveled together. That is it is very easy to create a market in just about anything over here where one didn't exist. I'm leery of picking up unique items and then creating a cottage industry that could possibly harm some other area. I guess it is a hard concept to put into words. The best example I have is when I made my first trip in 1994 and was traveliing around in Montagnard villages south of Pleiku. We were riding an elephant and moving through a small village. I saw a separate area that was dotted with carved posts the size of a two by fours by about six feet tall. Carved totems of some kind. I asked our guide what they were. He said that it was a montagnard graveyard and those were their equivalent of tomestones. They were simply carved and striking. I filmed them and moved on. When I made plans for my trip in 1995. I had reviewed my video of the previous trip and again saw the totems. I thought it would be great to try and buy them on the upcoming return trip. Suffice to say, as I gave it more thought I realized what a bad idea it would be. If I went over to a dirt poor Montagnard village and even went to the local totem carver and bought these items it could possibly create a market where none existed before. My fear is that my Vietnamese guides would see me paying cash for these totems and then next thing you know every 'Yard cemetery would be looted over night. Not a good idea so I shelved it. As much as the buffalo horn was attractive as a souvenir, it just didn't seem right to try and buy it.
However, one souvenir I have found on other trips are the pipes used by the local women. There were four or five women in the group crowded around us smoking unique pipes. I spoke with a couple of the women and bargained to buy several pipes. They were still smoldering with tobacco or whatever they were smoking. The women were also wearing handmade necklaces and I bought a few of them for my wife and my sister. We finished our shopping and packed up the Land Cruiser and headed back to the hotel. A beer, hot or cold, would be a welcome sight.
Back at the hotel we grabbed our beers at the adjacent local "club" and relaxed and reveiwed the day. One of the locals had captured a small monkey-like creature called a Loris. It probably is destined for some awful fate in the markets of Hue or Saigon. All I can do is photograph his big, sad eyes through the handmade cage.
Probably the most fun moment of our time in Aloui was when my brother and I rented a couple of bikes and pedaled down the road toward the village of Ta Bat in the fading light of the afternoon. This is a shot of my brother Steve pedaling a bike down the center of the Ashau Valley. What a great experience to pedal along the road with all the villagers coming out and waving. We stopped occasionally and spoke in pantomime with these excited and friendly people. We stopped in a little shack and had a beer. Even after all the humping of the day, we were energized with that little bike ride in the waning light of the day. We pedaled back to the hotel in the dark.
In the morning we packed up and returned to Hue through the same road we had come in. The trip out was pleasant and we all felt we had been a part of something unique.