FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. (May 14, 2012) -- Forty-three years ago today, Soldiers from the 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, started fighting the Battle of Hamburger Hill.
Pvt. Dan Cochran was one of them.
The 12-day battle occurred May 10-21, 1969, in the northern part of South Vietnam near the A Shau Valley.
An "Iron Rakkasan" with Alpha Company, Cochran was only 20 when U.S. and South Vietnamese forces commenced Operation Apache Snow, to clear the North Vietnamese from Dong Ap Bia Mountain or Hill 937.
"We knew we were going to the hill," Cochran said. "We went in by chopper. We set up a perimeter. The next morning we made our first assault up the hill ..."
A 101st LEGACY
Growing up in Kalamazoo, Mich., Cochran always wanted to be part of the legendary "Screaming Eagles." His grandfather, Frank Edwards, also served as a paratrooper with the 101st during World War II.
"My grandpa jumped in Normandy with the 101st," he said. "The 101st was the only airborne unit growing up that I ever heard of."
At age 19, Cochran entered the Army in January 1968. Within a year he completed basic at Fort Knox, Ky., and additional training at Fort Polk, La., and Fort Hood, Texas, before completing jump school.
"I was assigned to the 101st and found out that the unit I was assigned to was already in Vietnam," he said. "That's where everybody was going."
It was January 1969. Cochran, 20, was headed halfway across the world to fight.
"All of the training we got in basic and AIT (Advanced Individual Training) were aimed at Vietnam," he said. "In reality, we had a sense of what was going on, but until you really got there and got involved, it was quite different."
When he arrived in country, Cochran was one of about 150 Soldiers in A Co., who served under Company Commander Capt. Bob Harkins.
"Dan, like many of the Soldiers, he was a young kid, bright-eyed and bushy tailed," Harkins said. "We were pretty well tested. We had a lot of fights and a lot of battles. Dan had been through a lot like all the Soldiers in that company. I think it served us well on the hill."
CALL OF DUTY
Only a few months after arriving in Vietnam, Cochran's unit started its mission at Dong Ap Bia and A Shau Valley. He remembers Day 1 at Hamburger Hill like it was yesterday.
"We started the assault and we started taking small arms fire. I was toward the back because I was carrying an M16," Cochran said. "You could look across the valley and you could see the enemy moving. They were too far away for small arms, so they called in artillery. We moved a little more; then we were called back to our original night perimeter."
For days the enemy harassed 3rd Brigade with mortar, rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire. The units battled tough terrain and launched a series of attacks to drive the enemy out of its entrenched positions.
As the battle continued, Cochran said it was tough. Day 1, his squad leader was killed. Day 3, two more Soldiers out of his section were wounded and evacuated.
"We were all scared," Cochran said. "If you did sleep, you didn't sleep that long. Any little noise and you were wide awake."
Although the entire battle is etched forever in Cochran's mind, it is Day 10 that he will never forget.
"We knew we were going back up the hill," he said. "We had already named the hill, Hamburger Hill, because of all of the people being wounded.'"
Carrying his weapon, Cochran and his fellow Iron Rakkasans set out toward the hill. They had already passed the first two bunker lines, when they started taking heavy small arms fire.
"Me and my assistant gunner were behind a fallen tree. He went back to get some ammo," Cochran said. "When he came back he took the gun away from me. He says 'get out of here, you're wounded.'"
After checking his uniform for bullet holes, Cochran saw that he took an AK47 round to the right knee. He also had shrapnel in the thigh and groin areas of both legs.
"I put a field bandage on, started up back toward the medics and I couldn't move no more. My leg was locked. I didn't know if it was because I was scared or what," he said.
While his unit forged on up the hill, Cochran was evacuated to a field hospital. There a medic tried to straighten his knee, but the bullet was lodged inside. They put his knee in a cast and flew him to Japan for treatment. U.S. medical personnel in Japan removed the bullet from Cochran's knee.
Just hours after Cochran was evacuated, 3rd Brigade overran the enemy bunkers and captured Hamburger Hill. The brigade and attached units eliminated more than 500 enemy troops and seized caches of weapons and explosives.
Thirty-nine Soldiers from the 187th lost their lives at Hamburger Hill and 290 were wounded, including Cochran.
Because of his injuries, Cochran could not return to his unit in Vietnam. He was transported to Fort Dix, N.J., and then admitted to Valley Forge General Hospital, a military hospital in Phoenixville, Pa. He spent the next seven months recuperating.
"I consider myself really lucky; at Valley Forge they told me I would lose my [right] leg because of gangrene," he said. "When they made the initial cuts for the amputation, the gangrene was there but had not fastened itself to any of the bone. I was able to keep my leg and my knee."
Despite his injuries, the Screaming Eagle wanted to return to active duty and the 101st.
"At that time the doctor and I felt like I would not be able to continue on and complete the PT test," he said.
On Dec. 15, 1969, Cochran, 21, was honorably discharged from the Army as a private first class.
In the years that followed active duty, Cochran returned to his roots in Michigan. He met his wife Julie while he was a medic with an ambulance service. They married in 1980 and started a family in Bloomingdale, Mich.
In May 1980, Cochran learned he was able to serve his country again. He joined the Michigan Army National Guard. He served for nearly two decades and achieved rank of sergeant, before his Vietnam War injuries became an issue.
"My knee was starting to bother me a lot," he said. "You don't want to lose your leg. I decided it was time to call it quits."
He had knee replacement surgery in 1998. Shortly thereafter, he retired after 20 years total in military service.
Although decades had past, Cochran never forgot the Iron Rakkasans. About five years ago, he attended his first commemorative and reunion of the Weldon F. Honeycutt -- Hamburger Hill Chapter of the 187th Infantry Regiment at Fort Campbell.
Cochran's wife, Julie, said that first reunion had a profound effect on her husband.
"After the reunion was over, it was different. He changed after he had talked to these guys again after so many years of being apart," she said. "The reunion, I think is a good thing."
As is their tradition, the Cochrans and dozens of Vietnam-era veterans from 3-187th, their spouses and family members arrived on post Monday for the week-long reunion event -- 43 years after the battle.
"It's great to be able to come back and talk about what's going on with everybody," Cochran, now 64, said.
Cochran's former company commander, Harkins, serves as the chapter president. The reunion, Harkins said, seems to help the veterans he served with to move on.
"What I try to do is to teach people about what went on," he said. "I think there's a lot of guys who maybe didn't want to talk about Hamburger Hill or Vietnam [that] have been able to get OK with themselves and reconcile things in their own mind."
Cochran said he hopes that more of the Soldiers of today will plan reunions like the 3-187th has since the Battle of Hamburger Hill.
"Our battalion has a real good legacy going," he said. "They're holding up the legacy for future members. We tell them to keep in touch with everybody. Have reunions later on like we're doing. I think that helps the legacy keep going, too. Then, they can help share their experiences with the next group that goes through."
A recipient of the Purple Heart and Combat Infantry Badge, Cochran said he treasures his legacy as a 101st Airborne Division Soldier and an Iron Rakkasan.
"Knowing what I've been through, if I had to do it all over again, I would," he said.
"I was very proud to serve."