Vets, KIAs remembered at Hamburger Hill ceremony

By Heather Clark, Courier staffMay 20, 2013

Vets, KIAs remembered at Hamburger Hill ceremony
Dennis Helms, a Vietnam veteran of Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, remembers a fallen brother during the 44th Hamburger Hill Reunion Wednesday. The "Iron Rakkasans" who fought the 12-day battle took the hill known as Dong Ap Bi... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. -- "It's a myth somebody perpetuated that if we don't do anything, nothing will happen to us. It's not true….It's just a myth that we can pull back and everything will settle down. If we pulled back, and were quiet, they'd kill us in the night. They'd come on and crawl under the wire, and they'd drop satchel charges on our bunkers, and they'd mangle and maim and kill our men." -- Gen. Melvin Zais, commanding general, 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile), 1968-1969, on the Battle of Dong Ap Bia Mountain

During the Vietnam War, the 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, was known as a "nomad unit," and its Soldiers were routinely placed in enemy hot spots to engage the highly-trained, entrenched forces of the North Vietnamese Army. This hazardous charge would lead the Rakkasans into the treacherous A Shau Valley May 10, 1969, to remove enemy forces from Dong Ap Bia Mountain, or "Hill 937," during Operation Apache Snow.

A 12-day ground-battle ensued, with three 101st Infantry battalions and South Vietnamese soldiers forging up the hill against mortar attacks, rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire. The grueling fight ended with more than 500 enemy troops eliminated and capture of the mountain. It was also a hard-earned victory, leaving more than 300 U.S. Soldiers wounded, another 72 killed in action. Of that number, 39 Rakkasans lost their lives. Countless casualties and injuries led the troops to dub Dong Ap Bia "Hamburger Hill."

On Wednesday morning, Soldiers, guests and veterans gathered under blue skies and sunshine to lay a commemorative wreath at the 187th Infantry Regiment pylon, across from the Don F. Pratt Museum, and to remember the consummate price paid, 44 years ago, by 39 noble men.

"Their names, their faces are just as familiar to us today as they were 44 years ago," said Dennis Helms, Hamburger Hill veteran, during the ceremony invocation.

"We thank you that we can come together each year and see our old battle buddies and reminisce about the times of old. We thank you for the friendship and the bonds we have formed with men we didn't even know back then," said Helms.

He gave a special thanks was finally given to the Soldiers that "paid the ultimate sacrifice."

Currently in Khost Province, Afghanistan, Lt. Col. Pat Work, commander of the 187th Inf., addressed the attending veterans via letter.

"Their stamp on our regiment's rich history is indelible," he wrote. "And it's because of them, and generations of brave Rakkasans like them, that I often urge our Soldiers to gaze at our battalion's battle streamers and reflect on who we are..."

Who the Rakkasans are and who they were are the same, yet different, for Tom McGall, who served as squad leader for Delta Company, 3rd Battalion, 187th Inf. Reg., during the battle of Hamburger Hill.

"This is a new Army - better trained, better equipped than we were," he said in a distinctive New England accent as he spoke to the crowd. "We were trained for four to six months and then sent overseas to replace casualties and Soldiers who had completed their 365-day tour of duty."

Translated to a personal level, McGall noted that today's Soldiers have the opportunity to train together and deploy as a cohesive unit, thereby garnering a deep sense of trust and understanding before being tested by the sobering reality of battle.

"In our case, this was not so," he explained. "We were strangers just out of high school, college - some were married; most were single. We learned to trust each other and take care of each other."

Forged by days of dogged battle, these bonds drove the young Soldiers to press on at the hill. McGall recalled a time during his conversations with his former captain, Lee Sanders, when he was asked "Tom, what makes a man charge up a hill again and again?"

"I said, 'Lee, because we had a job to do, and we took it seriously,'" said McGall. "The main thing was we didn't want to let our buddies down…We share a history and a bond that few people ever know."

McGall shared the story of one such bond he formed with a private 1st class named Mike "Rock" Rocklen, who had been in the Army for just five months before being placed in McGall's squad at Hill 937 - his first battle.

"After the battle was over he said, 'Sarge, how am I ever gonna make it here for a whole year?'" said McGall.

Their experiences in an unrelenting enemy territory built the foundation for a friendship that would last for decades.

"Mike was my good friend," said McGall, pausing for a moment as emotion crept into his voice, "and he passed away four years ago. Before he passed away, he told me the highlight of his year was to come to this reunion, and I just wanted to share that with you."

It is a highlight for many of the men who braved that mountain in the A Shau Valley and were able to make their way back home. Men like Jerry Deen, who makes his way to Fort Campbell from west Texas each year for the memorial ceremony.

"It's just to see my friends, you know," he said. "They're a pretty good bunch of people."

Deen was 20 years old when he went to Vietnam, leaving behind a bride he'd married only two weeks before. As a Spc. 4, he served with B Company at the battle -- a battle he has condensed to a single word.

"Hard," said Deen. After a moment's thought, Deen's eyes welled up and the sentiment was reaffirmed.

"It was hard."

He admits that he doesn't have grand stories to tell about Hamburger Hill, because he still doesn't think about the experience much.

"We were there, we had something to do, so we tried to do it the best way we could," he said.

The chance to reconnect with battle buddies, to see old friends leading new lives -- it's the thing that brings a smile back to Deen's face.

"We all enjoy this; we really look forward to it," he said. "We like to get together and tell everybody the same story we told last year and hope somebody will believe it this year."

As the Rakkasan legacy is perpetuated through the sands of South Asia, each spring the 3rd Brigade Combat Team pauses to honor 39 souls who gave all, and to give continuing thanks to the men who made it through the nightmare to embody their time-honored motto: "Ne Desit Virtus -- Let valor not fail."

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