Military strategists called it Hill 937.

The Vietnamese called it Dong Ap Bia.

But the grunts called it Hamburger Hill.

On this Veterans Day, when America and much of the world honors the men and women who have served in the armed forces, it may be worth knowing that four men now living in Bakersfield were on various sections of that hill in 1969. Over a period of 11 days, the once-lush, green mountainside was stripped of its forest canopy as it became the scene of one of the most fierce and controversial battles of the Vietnam War.

"I just think it's amazing," said David Jackson, who enlisted at age 17 and made a career of the Army. "If you had told me on that hill nearly 50 years ago that I would still be here at almost 70 years old, I'd have said, 'No way.'"

The men didn't know each other then. In fact, it was some 47 years after the Battle of Hill 937 that Earle Cooper, David Jackson, James "Mick" Towery and Mike Norton came to know each other and became aware that each one of them had been on that hill together.

"We never crossed trails until we were all in Bakersfield," Cooper said.

As Cooper, Jackson and Towery gathered at the Kern County Veterans Memorial last week, stories rarely told began to spill out of them. War stories are almost never shared by combat veterans, they say. And for those who served in Vietnam, an unpopular war back home, the reluctance to open up is even stronger.

"I'll never forget how the bullets sounded going by," recalled Towery, now 69. "The crackle."

"You know what's happening," agreed Jackson, also 69.

"Yeah, those are the AK-47s," Cooper said of the Russian-made rifles carried by many of the North Vietnamese regulars and the Viet Cong.

There's an astonishing collection of Silver Stars, Bronze Stars with "V" for valor, Meritorious Service Medals and other commendations shared among this group. And each of the four have at least one Purple Heart, given to warriors wounded in battle.

In fact everyone who served in the 3rd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, which was central to the taking of Hamburger Hill, received a unit citation.

Towery was wounded on the last day of the battle.

"An RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) got me," he remembered. "There was an explosion to my right. It sent shrapnel through my helmet and into my head."

The injury took him out of the war, but the damage to the right side of his brain affected the left side of his body. He was left-handed and never regained full use of his left hand.

"I had to switch from left-handed to right-handed at age 20," he said.

One of the four friends, Mike Norton, said he was unable to participate in the story. Not only is he still recuperating from back surgery, he said, but revisiting memories of Vietnam was not something he wanted to do.

"You really don't want to remember everything," Jackson said, in perfect solidarity with his fellow veteran.

It's clear the men have only respect for Norton. They say they "still have his back." They are unclear on his specific designation during the war, but believe he was in a special ops unit.

"I think Mike lost a lot on that hill," Jackson said. "I think we all lost a lot."

Before the assault on the hilltop, held by well-armed North Vietnamese Army regulars, "Hill 937 had been little more than a few brown contour lines on a map: meaningless," according to "Rendezvous With Destiny," a publication of the 101st Airborne Division, the Screaming Eagles.

As troops approached Hill 937, adjacent to the Laotian border, sporadic enemy sniper fire grew to include more concentrated automatic weapons fire. Lt. Col. Weldon Honeycutt, commander of the Rakkasans — the nickname of the 187th Airborne Infantry, a regiment of the 101st — called in artillery and tactical airstrikes to the top of the hill.

For the next 10 days, infantry units probed and pushed, ordered more strikes on the enemy's dug-in positions, the pushed upward yet again.

Finally on May 20, 1969, American and South Vietnamese allies stormed the ridge from four sides. They were ultimately successful in destroying enemy positions and achieving their objectives.

Statistics vary, but early on, 62 Americans were listed as killed, and 420 were wounded.

Following the battle, the 101st Airborne's commanding general, Melvin Zais, called it "a tremendous, gallant victory by a bunch of gutty guys."

But as the three veterans of the battle talked last week, it was clear they had questions nearly 50 years later about the need for a costly frontal assault on an enemy position that military commanders would abandon soon afterward. 

Yes, it seemed Hamburger Hill was not worth occupying.

If he knew then what he knows now, he might have ended up serving time in Leavenworth, Jackson said, only half joking about his issues with command decisions made during those long, grueling days in the jungle.

It was two years after the Summer of Love. Hendrix and The Doors were on the radio and Nixon was flashing his now-infamous double-V-for-victory signs as he held residence in the White House. But Vietnam was a world away.

"As we departed the mountain, we never looked back at Hill 937," Cooper recalled in an earlier interview.

"After we left, the NVA moved in to reoccupy Hamburger Hill. Other units of the 101st took it back again about a year later, then abandoned it again. And I suspect the same thing happened several more times."

That was Vietnam.

But Cooper was awarded two Silver Stars, a Bronze Star, an Army Commendation Medal, three Air Medals, a Purple Heart and more.

His friends were also highly decorated. All were changed by the experience.

They believe they are the fortunate ones, because they came home.

The love and regard they share for each other is obvious. They wear it on their aging faces. You see it in their eyes and hear it in their voices.

They survived the paradox that was Vietnam.

Their honor is without question. Their legacy, secure.

Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.

(3) comments


crappy times....that war was a mess......1972 Napalm Girl.......Life Magazine....thank god they stationed me in Berlin in 1973

Boogerface Nutter

I was a crew chief on a huey with B Co. 158th Avn Bn in the 101st Airborne Div and we dropped the first troops of the 3/187 on the side of what became Hamburger Hill. The first few ships took no fire but as we went back to the staging area for more soldiers, we could hear the chaos starting as we monitored the radios.
The rest of the assault was crazy and, yes, you never forget the sound of the rounds both "tick-tick" as they hit the ship and the whistling zipping sound as they went through the cargo area of the ship without striking anything.
I don't live in Bako anymore but it would be great to lift a frosty beverage with these guys. Glad they made it home.


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