“In July of 1970 my company was to assault a hill called 805. It was July 12. I remember the day well. It was my 21st birthday. We took the hill without any opposition. Thought we had it made. Not hardly.”
“But we…shall be remembered. We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother”
It is customary to write of heroes such as George Patton, Joshua Chamberlain, and Jimmy Doolittle to commemorate Veterans Day; and I have done this in years past. But this year I write not about a general or a fierce leader of men. Instead, I write about a Specialist 4th class who carried a radio through the jungles of Vietnam. This Veterans Day I honor my father and the men of the 2nd Battalion/501st 101st Airborne Infantry who fought beside him in the sweltering July sun on Hill 805 in defense of Firebase Ripcord.
The battle of Firebase Ripcord was the last major land conflict between US troops and the North Vietnamese Communists. Until 1985, when the secrecy was lifted, not much was known about the battle because of a media blackout. My dad lived with that secret in the interim, and it was an experience that profoundly changed him.
Firebase Ripcord was a hilltop located on the eastern edge of the A Shau Valley. It acted as both an ammunition stockpile and an artillery control station from which the army could direct firepower down on the enemy wherever it was needed. Steadily, the Vietcong had been amassing and then moving against the withdrawing American force. Now they were dangerously close to Firebase Ripcord, so my dad and his comrades of the 101st were deployed between the base and the enemy.
On July 12, 112 men of the 101st took Hill 805 with no opposition, gaining the immense advantage of the high ground. They spent the rest of their daylight digging in as well as setting tripwires and mines. At 10:22 that evening, the Vietcong sent a small force to determine the strength of the American position. With the American guns counted, the Vietcong withdrew, but all knew that a major conflict was coming. For the next six days the Screaming Eagles of the 101st would wage war on an enemy they barely saw, and would fight the battle in oppressive 100 plus degree heat with little or no sleep.
On July 14, the Vietcong hurled themselves at the small American force on Hill 805. Wave after wave of Vietcong attacks were shattered by the withering fire of the brave Airborne infantry and the awesome firepower Ripcord belched forth with Howitzer, mortar, and quad 50 caliber machine gun fire. The battering fist of American air power flew overhead hurling lightning from above, as B-52 Stratofortress Arclight missions rocked the ground. Fast-moving F-4 Phantoms hit critical spots as radio operators and artillery coordinators identified which spot of ground needed obliterated next. Huey Cobra Gunship helicopters peppered the hillside with rockets and machine gun. AC-130 “Spooky” gunships rained fire and steel into the enemy.
Soon ammunition was running low. Guns were jamming. The barrels of the machine gunners M-60s glowed white hot and, soon, transparent; one could actually see the bullets pumping through. Enemy fire was so strong that supplies could not be refreshed and the wounded could not be evacuated. The Screaming Eagles, at one point, were preparing to fix bayonets and fight hand to hand. Fortunately, it never came to that.
Somewhere in this hellish inferno my dad’s arm was filled with shrapnel, but he—like so many of his buddies before him—refused to be taken from the hill. They gave him a shot of morphine and he continued the fight. Everyone who was conscious and able to use a weapon refused to leave. None would abandon his brothers.
My dad was a radio operator for the second platoon under the command of SSG. James Hembree. The 1st platoon was hit particularly hard, and Hembree, himself, took a squad to reinforce them. Why he didn’t take his radio man, we’ll never know. Hembree and his squad were cut down before they reached the other position.
On July 17, 45 of the 112 men who walked up that hill walked back down it again, many of them wounded. Overall the American casualty rate was about 85%, which is one of the highest in the annals of American combat. The secrecy of the battle was lifted in 1985, and it is now estimated that American forces were outnumbered 10 to 1. American military power virtually destroyed 8 of the 9 battalions of NVA they were up against, which severely delayed the North Vietnamese advance into South Vietnam.
As I grew up, my dad would tell me stories of these heroic men. They seemed larger than life; hardened warriors on a par with Achilles, their faces blackened by the ash of war, their Screaming Eagle patch proudly emblazoned on their arm. Yet, when I met them at a reunion, they seemed like regular guys, just like my dad. It took a while, but I finally came to realize that it was their seeming regularity that truly made them heroes. They did their duty to their nation and—on coming back to her—unassumingly continued to do their duty as citizens. Perhaps a post-Kent State, battle-fatigued nation would never realize it, but basking in the campfire at the feet of these mighty warriors, I did. In devotion to their country and to each other, they then gave all they had to give. Their continued devotion inspired them to pass on, undiminished, their abiding respect and love to a new generation. The least we can do is to honor these men, while we still have the chance.
Everyday my dad goes off to work, knowing his brothers are out there doing the same. While the debates may continue to rage over health care, borders, and whether America should still fight for freedom across the globe, my dad and the other Screaming Eagles continue to serve the cause of American freedom. They deliver the mail, drive the trucks, and own the companies that keep America running and worthy of these debates.
These men continue to raise the Stars and Stripes every morning, both figuratively and literally, and they will never allow what happened to them upon their return home to happen to our brave soldiers in Iraq. Best of all, they continue to show their sons and daughters what heroes really are.
I love you Dad. Thank you.
Rich Policz is a 1997 graduate of Ashland University and the Ashbrook Scholar Program. He is a freelance writer.