The Crouching Beast Was Hungry
Thomas Calabrese … On Vietnamese maps, the 3000 foot peak was dubbed Dong Ap Bia Mountain. On U.S. maps, it was Hill 937 and to the local Montagnard it was the ‘Mountain of the Crouching Beast.’ Between May10-21, 1969, the 3rd Brigade’s, (3rd Battalion 187th Infantry), (1st Battalion 501st Infantry) and (2nd Battalion 501st Infantry) of the 101st Airborne Division collided with the North Vietnamese Army’s (NVA) elite 29th Regiment in the A Shau Valley along the Laotian border.
Captain Clay Spencer was a staff sergeant before accepting a battlefield commission during his first tour in the early stages of the Vietnam War. He had fourteen years in the Army and was on his third combat tour in Southeast Asia. Spencer earned the respect and trust of those in his command with his hard earned knowledge of the enemy and his natural leadership skills. His men knew that if they wanted to stay alive, it was best to listen to this experienced warrior.
The dilemma that often faced this honorable Army officer was that since he was so much more qualified and skilled than everyone else in his unit he always felt conflicted whenever he had to give a dangerous assignment to some inexperienced ‘newbie’. Captain Spencer was a professional soldier and kept his personal preferences hidden from those around him. He knew that one of the cardinal rules of leadership in combat was that you can only hope that your men live long enough to learn from their mistakes.
Luckily for Captain Spencer that he had a man like Sergeant Lee Warden under his command. They had served two previous tours in Nam’, were close friends and had a unique rapport that only comes from facing numerous life and death situations together. Sergeant Warden never questioned his friend in front of the other soldiers, but if there was anything that concerned him, he wouldn’t hesitate to find a private place and voice his opinions. The two men never let rank or their egos get in the way of the mission or protecting their men.
Sergeant Lee Warden was born in Louisiana, right in heart of Cajun Country in a little town called Breaux Bridge that earned the nickname of being the crawfish capital of the world. He was a hard living man whose favorite drink was his next one and smoked two packs of cigarettes a day. He was only twenty-four years old, but looked more like he was in his late thirties. Lee Warden was burning the candle at both ends and it was a longshot that he would be around to see his 30th birthday. Captain Spencer knew that it was a futile endeavor and more than a little ironic to warn his friends about the dangers of his abusive lifestyle especially when they were in a country where there were at a least a dozen ways to die every day.
On May 9, 1969, Colonel Joe Conmy, commander of the 3rd Brigade called his officers to the command center to brief them on the upcoming mission and when it was over, he dismissed them, except for one, “Captain Spencer, I need you to stay.”
“Yes sir.” Captain Spencer replied.
“This is going to be a rough one so I’m sending my best company in first.”
“Then that must mean that you’re keeping my men in reserve,” Captain Spencer joked, “Don’t worry I’m not offended.”
“Nice try, maybe next time,” Colonel Conmy replied, “Good luck.”
On May 10, Operation Apache Snow was launched. It was an ambitious 10-battalion airborne/Marine/ South Vietnamese search and destroy mission that was supposed to take control of the area and build an all-weather highway that would permit allied operations even during the monsoon season. Captain Spencer and Sergeant Warden and the men from Lima Company boarded Huey helicopters. After they were airborne two battalions from the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam boarded a larger group of choppers and followed them. Before long the skies above the A Shau Valley were filled with aircraft.
When they touched down and exited the choppers, Captain Spencer pulled out his map and showed it to Sergeant Warden, “We’ll head east along the Trung Pham River until we can find a trail on the backside and get to the high ground. Alpha and Delta companies will wait for us to contact them by radio then make their assault up the front side. If things go according to plan, we’ll catch Victor Charlie in old-fashion crossfire.”
“First question…what happens if we don’t find a trail?” Sergeant Warden asked.
“Then we better hope that we’ve got a lot of sharp machetes in the company,” Captain Spencer replied, “because then we’re going to have to cut our way to the top.”
“Ever notice how good these plans always sound in the beginning then about halfway through the mission, things start unraveling like a cheap sweater in the rain” Sergeant Warden took a long drag from his cigarette and called out, “Dutton, you got point!”
The soldiers moved out in single file along the river bank and since they were heavily weighted down with ammunition and assorted gear, it was a continuous struggle to move through the soft mud that sucked at their boots. The company had gone1000 meters and the men were soaked with sweat and breathing heavily. They welcomed the break when Corporal Dutton turned to the man behind him, “Holdup, I might have something. Pass the word.”
Captain Spencer and Sergeant Warden moved up from the middle of the column until they reached Corporal Dutton who pointed at a steep narrow trail, “What do you think?”
The trail wasn’t wide enough for an entire rifle company with fully loaded packs to make it through because the triple canopy of jungle vegetation was much too thick. Captain Spencer looked at Sergeant Warden, “What do you think…a couple squads carrying only ammunition and minimal gear might be able to squeeze though.”
“Maybe, but what happens when we get to the top and we’re outnumbered?” Sergeant Warden replied,
“You said that plans have a way of falling apart, if it makes you feel any better, at least you can say that you were right.”
“I’m just overjoyed, can’t you tell?” Sergeant Warden smiled mischievously.
“Ask for volunteers, I need 20 men,” Captain Spencer said.
“Does that 20 include you and me?”
“It always does,” Captain Spencer said.
Captain Spencer turned to First Lieutenant Rosen, “Take the men back and rendezvous with Alpha Company. I’ll radio in two hours; my call sign will be Comanche Rain.”
“Yes sir,” Lt. Rosen moved out.
“The mountain trail was clogged with fallen trees with tangles of bamboo and vines. Sergeant Warden took point and began chopping at the vegetation. After fifty yards of exhaustive effort, he handed the machete to the soldier behind him, took a long gulp from his canteen and wiped his face with the faded green towel that was hanging around his neck.
Captain Spencer approached, “How’s it going?”
“Slow and slower, but we’ll make it.” Sergeant Warden answered.
At the two hour mark, Captain Spencer radioed back with a progress report, “This is Comanche Rain, we’re heading up the hill, but I don’t know how long it will be before we’re in position.”
Lieutenant Colonel Wesley Honeywell responded, “It doesn’t matter, Division ordered me to start the assault on Hill 937 at sunrise tomorrow morning regardless of where you are.”
“Roger that,” Captain Spencer ended the radio transmission and pondered the situation.
“What’s going on?” Sergeant Warden asked.
“Alpha and Delta companies aren’t going to wait.”
“Then we’re heading back down?” Sergeant Warden saw that his friend had something else on his mind, “But we’re not going back down are we?”
“I won’t give the order to continue unless you’re on board,” Captain Spencer offered, “It’s your call.”
“If we turn around then they’ll probably just send us right back up again and this way is a lot less crowded.”
Captain Spencer, Sergeant Warden and the other soldiers continued up the hill until it began to get dark then they dug in for the night. At daylight the men awakened and prepared to continue on their trek. As they started on their way naval gunfire and Air Force jets began hammering the enemy’s positions.
Back on the other side of the mountain, Spc. 4 Paul Nielsen of Bravo Company was on a scouting patrol when he noticed three dead North Vietnamese soldiers who had been killed by artillery. A Kit Carson scout (VC defector) searched the bodies and found documents that clearly upset him. These men were members of the infamous 29th NVA Regiment, ‘Pride of Ho Chi Minh’ who had a reputation for being ‘big American killers.’
It didn’t take long to find out how brutal this battle was going to be. As the two Army companies began moving up the mountains, NVA soldiers began popping out of spider holes that were strategically placed all over the face of the mountain. Some were firing AK-47’s while others had rocket propelled grenade launchers. One RPG hit Private Rizzo in the chest and it detonated the Claymore mine that he was carrying, killing him instantly. The explosion also blew Lieutenant Denton ten feet into the air, seriously wounding him. Medics rushed to his aid as the NVA hosed down the area with machine gun fire and rocket propelled grenades exploded among the tree branches showering shrapnel on the Americans below.
Unable to move forward, the soldiers staggered back down the hill while dragging the wounded behind them. The NVA were cunning enough to have some of their men stay hidden in their spider holes and tunnels until the Americans started their retreat then popped up and began shooting them. The soldiers could not go forward or backward without running into gunfire. When Sergeant Herbert saw a NVA soldier pop up right before him, he had no choice but to jump into the hole and kill the enemy fighter with his bare hands. The spider holes were connected by an elaborate tunnel complex so Sergeant Herbert squeezed his way through the dirt passageway and shot three more NVA soldiers with his .45 pistol before surfacing twenty feet away.
On the other side of the mountain, Captain Spencer and his men were trying desperately to reach the top since they knew by now how bad things had become from their radio communications with the other units. Corporal Nugent was walking point when he heard a noise up ahead so he gave the hand signal to stand fast and stay silent. Captain Spencer and Sergeant Warden made their way to Nugent’s position and he pointed to a machine gun emplacement with ten NVA soldiers located twenty five yards ahead. Captain Spencer pulled out his K-Bar knife and the other soldiers did the same. Everyone knew that they were getting close to fortified NVA positions so from this point on they would have to be both silent and deadly. The Americans crawled up within ten feet of the enemy then charged them in a surprise attack and after a quick fight, the North Vietnamese soldiers were killed.
Every American would have been content to stay safe and hidden in this heavily fortified bunker and let the battle proceed without them, but content and safe wasn’t going to cut it on this deadly day on the ‘Crouching Beast’. They disabled the machine gun then moved on to eliminate twenty more enemy soldiers and two more machine guns before escaping back into the jungle.
The Americans heard the distinctive sounds of 120mm mortars being fired then spotted the location where several mortars tubes were placed near the crest of the mountain. Sergeant Warden immediately got on the radio and relayed the coordinates for an artillery strike. The mortar tubes were destroyed when several high explosive rounds rained down on them.
“These guys must have a re-supply route, we need to find it,” Captain Spencer whispered to Sergeant Warden.
“Roger that,” Sergeant Warden agreed.
It took less than an hour for the Americans to find it. The North Vietnamese had cut an entire road up the side of the mountain then built a thick canopy with tree branches and vines to obscure it from view. Captain Spencer pulled out his binoculars and saw a long line of men loaded like pack horses coming from the direction of the Laos border. Artillery and aircraft began hammering the area and with methodical precision, Captain Spencer walked the bombardment all the way down the hill to the banks of the Trung Pham River. With their supply route disabled, the North Vietnamese had no choice, but to continue the battle with their remaining supplies and ammunition. This was good news for the Americans, but there was also bad news; since the North Vietnamese main path of escape had just been destroyed they would have no other choice but to stand their ground and fight to the death.
Captain Spencer and his men were going on their fourth day in the jungle and getting low on food and water so each time they killed enemy soldiers, they scavenged for anything that they could eat and drink. The NVA had positioned snipers in the trees, but luckily for Captain Spencer, he had excellent marksman among his 20 men and they began picking off enemy fighters with deadly accuracy.
On the other side of the mountain, 1st Battalion 506th Infantry launched another attack, but a combination of rugged terrain, high elephant grass and stiffening enemy resistance prevented the Americans from getting any further than halfway up the hill. They dug in for the night only to be awakened by a monsoon deluge that turned dirt into mud three feet deep. Mudslides and floods roared down the slopes carrying helpless Americans with them. Soldiers hung on to tree stumps and dug their toes and rifle butts into the goo and hung on for dear life. They were less than five hundred yards from the crest of the hill, but it might as well have been a million miles away. When the rain stopped and the sun came up, it exposed an eerie landscape; everything was burnt, bent or twisted. Nothing green remained and soldiers were walking around like robots, void of emotion and drained of strength and staring blankly into the abyss.
Captain Spencer and his men had found refuge inside a mortar bunker that they had captured from an enemy squad. The water was up to their waist and dead enemy bodies were floating around them.
“The next time I tell you we need to get the hell out of Vietnam, listen to me,” Sergeant Warden grumbled and when he reached into his pocket he found that his cigarettes were waterlogged so he tossed them aside.
“Next time,” Captain Spencer, “Where would you want to go instead?”
“I’m undecided between Bolivia and Australia.”
“You keep thinking and when you make up your mind, get back to me.” Captain Spencer peered out and saw NVA soldiers rushing about and assumed that they were preparing for another assault. His fellow soldiers were dug in about five hundred yards down the slope and to take every inch of remaining terrain was going to be very costly in American lives.
The American officer had asked a lot from his men and they had given him everything they had. Fighting with guns, knives and their bare hands they somehow found a way to keep going and after seven days on this hellacious hill, they were bloodied, muddied, hungry and completely exhausted. If anyone deserved a rest, it was these noble warriors, but Captain Spencer was going to ask even more of them …much more. “What do you think…are we up for one more battle?”
One by one, the soldiers nodded their head and checked their weapons. Captain Spencer
crawled out of the bunker and was followed by his men. When every soldier was in position, they charged down toward the command bunker, firing as they went. The NVA fighters were caught off-guard and the Americans killed dozens of them before engaging in close quarters fighting with the leadership of the elite 29th Regiment inside the underground structure.
The Americans were now surrounded on all sides by North Vietnamese fighters with no escape. Captain Spencer turned to his friend, “Broken Arrow! Broken Arrow!”
“We’ll be killed by incoming,” Sergeant Warden reminded his commander.
Captain Spencer fired a burst of gunfire into a group of approaching fighters, “We’ll probably already be dead by then. Put the fire order in for a Hamburger Hill with everything on it!”
Sergeant Warden called in air strikes, artillery and naval gunfire directly on their position then the Americans burrowed deep into the ground with prayers on their lips and the slimmest of hopes in their hearts. When the barrage ended, Captain Spencer and his men crawled out of their impromptu coffin and surveyed the massive destruction and human carnage that surrounded them.
Spitting out a mouthful of debris, Sergeant Warden quipped, “I’m not sure, but I think today might be Mother’s Day,” then pulled out a bloody North Vietnamese flag and held it up, “I think mom might like this, she can hang it up in the living room next to the Thunder Road movie poster. I’ll make up some excuse for the late delivery.”
“Most mothers prefer flowers or candy,” Corporal Mallory commented.
“You ain’t never met my Ma; she takes morning walks in the swamp and hunts gators with a kitchen knife,” Sergeant Warden smiled.
“That explains a lot about you,” Corporal Mallory laughed.
“I sure hope they don’t blame us for this mess,” Private Browning commented as he pulled out a six inch splinter from his bloody forearm and sat down on a splintered tree stump
Captain Spencer waved to his fellow soldiers down the hill to let them know that it was now safe to make their final ascent. He turned to the baby-faced soldier who had aged a lifetime since he set foot in the A Shau Valley. “If anybody ever asks you what happened on this mountain, don’t try to explain it; just say that ‘The Crouching Beast Was Hungry’ and walk away.