Forty–five years ago the 101st Airborne Division went into South Vietnam’s A Shau Valley as part of Operation Apache Snow. The objective: to find, engage, and kill the 29th NVA Regiment on Hills 937, 900, 916, and Hill 800.
That battle is the basis of Frank Boccia’s chilling book, The Crouching Beast: A United States Army Lieutenant’s Account of the Battle for Hamburger Hill, May 1969 (McFarland, 472 pp., $40, paper). It’s a personal story of the 101st Airborne’s struggle to capture what became known as Hamburger Hill.
In forty chapters of small observations, exact conversations, clear insights, action, consequences, and emotions we learn how one of four under-strength 101st companies fought to destroy an entrenched NVA regiment on Dong Ap Bia mountain less than two miles from Laos in I Corps almost due west of Hue in Thua Thien Province.
In eleven sustained days of repeated, brutal combat assaults up a forty-degree vertical bamboo-infested mountain, with sawgrass-patch covered, vine-snarled ridges, draws, trails, v-shaped ravines, and stump-tough triple canopy forest, the men of the 101st’s Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 187th infantry—together with other Screaming Eagle troopers—lost ninety two killed and nearly 500 wounded.
Nearly 2,000 American and ARVN troops engaged some 1,200 heavily dug-in, camouflaged NVA regulars in one of the most brutal battles of the Vietnam War. Some have likened what happened there to the carnage of on Iwo Jima. The NVA lost some 630 men, but Montagnard peoples of Laos say that about 400 were dragged off the mountain during the two-week siege.
For 1st Lt. Frank Boccia, a 25-year-old, Georgetown-educated, Italian-born junior officer who commanded a platoon in the 187th (the Rakkasans), it was a six-month, hideous odyssey from arrival to the crest of Hill 937 in May of 1969.
After nearly eleven full days of sustained fighting featured close-quarter assaults, crashed helicopters, a blinding rainstorm that turned the mountain to engulfing mud, and miscalculations of who and how many were holed-up in the mountain, the battle against a heavily fortified enemy came to a close.
A unique feature of Boccia’s book is his uncanny accuracy recreating locations, reconstructed conversations, the weather, the sounds, and the personalities of the troopers who slogged up Hamburger Hill ten or more times until it was taken.
Also clearly articulated is the harshness and near brutality of Lt. Col. Weldon F. Honeycutt, AKA “Black Jack,” who sent his troops repeatedly up the hill only to have them driven back by .51 caliber Chinese communist machine guns, small arms fire, grenades, RPGs mines, and booby traps. Rivers at the base of the Hill featured mosquitoes, snakes, leeches, fog, and soil that was a combination of rotting putrid vegetation, dead body parts, and stray animals.
Yet as Boccia settled in and got to got to know his men, this English Literature graduate and draftee came to learn how to lead his men to fulfill their mission. His short descriptions of the men he served with are both spot-on and finely crafted. This is a fine officer any man would be happy to serve with.
By the time Boccia’s men left Hamburger Hill on June 5, Alpha Company had thirty percent casualties; Bravo Company (Boccia’s unit) had fifty percent; Charlie Company had sixty percent after replacements; and Delta Company suffered over seventy-five percent. During World War II units that sustained fifty percent casualties were classified as destroyed.
Throughout the book Boccia and his platoon suffer under-strength engagements, crashed helicopters, men blown to pieces by RPGs and heavy machine guns, confused and fragmented leadership, and true valor from nearly everyone who survived.
PFCs did incredible things; RTOs performed under unimaginable danger; helicopter pilots medevaced men away in overloaded, defenseless light observation choppers; medics did not give up no matter the terror; machine gunners stayed and fought when death was only twenty meters away.
Near the end, a nearly illiterate trooper stands up during the battle and curses the NVA, screaming that his “Rakkassans are going to kick their asses, and take this damn mountain, no matter what it takes.” They do.
In the end, Boccia and his men are spent, but hey have fulfilled their mission. And they served their nation with honor. We should stand in awe of their accomplishments.
—Robert M. Pacholik