By Don Kochi
When we think of the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam, the battle for Hamburger Hill (Hill 937) seem synonymous in many people’s mind to have been the singular defining combat event for the Screaming Eagles. A costly human meat grinder in casualty numbers, yes, but one occurring late (1969) in the division’s Vietnam chronology. It was far back as 1965 when a piecemeal element of the division was first deployed to South Vietnam as part of the initial expeditionary effort to suppress the growing communist insurgency. Soon upon arrival the Eagles found themselves locked in heavy engagements fighting the Viet-Cong and North Vietnamese Army (PAVN).
Referred by several names, ‘Always-First Brigade’, ‘Nomads of Vietnam’, and ‘Eagle’s Brigade’, the 1st Brigade (Separate) of the 101st Airborne Division arrived at Bien Hoa/Vung Tau in July of 1965 and was immediately dispatched to II Corps (RVN) as their tactical area of responsibility (TAOR). Operating out of Camp Eagle’s Roost at Phan Rang, units of the 1st Brigade (Sep.) assisted in the pacification of Phu Yen Province and experienced heavy combat action near Kontum. At the time, the 1st Brigade’s table of organization consisted of three frontline maneuver battalions; the 1st and 2nd Battalions, 327th Infantry (Airborne) and the 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry (Airborne). Making-up the Brigade’s both assigned and attached organic assets were; the 2nd BN of 320th Artillery (ABN), A Co. of 326th Engineers BN (ABN), D Co. of 326th Medical BN. (ABN), and B. Co. of 501st Signal BN (ABN). Note that the supporting units were all airborne-qualified. All personnel assigned to the 101st Airborne Division had to be a bona fide paratrooper wearing their hard-earned jump wings. However with the increasing dependency on the helicopter as the primary assault vehicle in Vietnam, the famed Screaming Eagle Division sadly lost their ‘jump-status’ by August 26, 1968 and was reconfigured into an air-assault airmobile division which as it remains to this day.
In April 1967, Task Force OREGON a provisional division-sized command was formed to neutralize enemy activity in the Quang Ngai Province. Its secondary role was to relieve U.S. Marines units in the area permitting their movement further northwards to the DMZ vicinity to stem the growing NVA pressure. Additionally the task force freed the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) to move their operations further west and southwest into the mountainous Central Highlands where their tactical air mobility gave them a distinct advantage. The three combat brigades constituting Task Force OREGON were the 3rd Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, the 196th (Light) Infantry Brigade, and the 1st Brigade (Separate) of the 101st Airborne Division.
Directed by USARVN Headquarters and OPCON TF OREGON, the 1st Brigade (Sep.) 101st ABN DIV was assigned the Song Tra Cau Valley and western Ba To District vicinity (Quang Ngai Province, I Corps) as their primary tactical area of responsibility (TAOR) for their next operation. The airborne brigade was to conduct a series of search and destroy operations to find, fix, and destroy residing VC/NVA forces and weapons caches as well as eliminate their base camps found in sectors west and northwest of Duc Pho. The mission nomenclature given for this rather optimistic campaigning was ‘Operation MALHEUR’, with Phase I commencing on May 11, 1967 (and terminating on June 8, 1967).
In preparation, from May 1st to May 6th 1967, the brigade began effecting movement to Duc Pho from their main home base at Camp Eagle’s Roost in Phan Rang. The first stage consisted of truck convoys up to Nha Trang, and was followed by a seaborne stage of LST ships transporting most of the brigade from Nha Trang to Duc Pho on the final northward leg. By May 8, 1967, all three combat maneuver battalions were firmly ensconced at CARENTAN Base, the brigade’s forward base camp at Duc Pho. It was about this time a young paratrooper, PFC Michael E. Peterson joined the brigade as one of several new replacement ‘cherries’ replenishing the depleted ranks for the upcoming operation.
A 19-year old draftee from Monrovia, California, Michael Peterson entered US Army basic training at Fort Ord, Calif., sometimes in mid-1966. Graduating with 2nd Platoon, B Company, 5th Battalion, Basic Combat Training (BCT) 3rd Brigade (fig. 1), this infantry training virtually sealed a guarantee tour-of-duty in South Vietnam. The contents of a letter written to his boyhood friend is revealing of the Army’s ramped-up training to meet manpower demands for a growing conflict in Southeast Asia. Postdated 13 SEPT 1966 with a Monterey CALIF. cancellation (fig. 2), it said in part:
“….Sorry I’ve taken so long to write, but I’ve been pretty busy lately. They keep us going from 5AM to 9:30PM. We do a lot of physical training that’s really hard. We got our M-14 rifles the other day and learned how to take them apart and clean them and put them back together again. I can hardly wait to start shooting them. All they do around here is yell at you. We’ve been having a lot of talks and films on guerrilla warfare and counterinsurgency. If you don’t know what that means, ask your dad. I signed up to go into the paratroopers but I might not get it. They said they can only take about three out of our company. Well, it’s almost time for light out, so I better sign off…”
Apparently he was successful in wrangling a limited jump-school slot at Fort Benning, Georgia, where he proudly earned his US Army Parachutist Qualification wings (fig. 3). Finishing his advanced infantry training, Peterson’s military occupational specialty (MOS) is listed on his service records, as 11C1P, Indirect Fire Infantryman Airborne-qualified. Next stop, an one-year combat tour in the Republic of Vietnam.
After a quick refueling layover in Honolulu, Michael Peterson stepped onto a broiling Bien Hoa airbase tarmac in mid-March 1967 and inhaled his first breath of the scorching Southeast Asian tropics. Bussed to the 90th ‘Repo-Depo’ Replacement Center on a fast sprawling US Army base at nearby Long Binh, Peterson spent a couple days undergoing the requisite in-country processing dealing both with reams of triplicate paperwork and armfuls of individual weapons, clothing, and field-gear equipment issues. Being an unassigned jump-qualified infantryman in March of 1967 there were only two possible unit assignments open to him, the Sky Soldiers of the 173rd Airborne Brigade or the Screaming Eagles of the 1st Brigade (Sep.) of the 101st Airborne Division.
The Eagle’s Brigade with its voracious appetite in replacement requirements quickly selected the lion’s share of the newly arrived paratroopers. Before personnel officers parceled them out to the brigade’s three line battalions, Peterson along with all newly arrived ‘FNGs’ were subject to a series of ‘P-Training’ (i.e., preparatory training). During this time in the brigade’s history, ‘P-School’ was conducted at their main base camp at Phan Rang. Lasting approximately a week, experienced 101st cadre instructors imparted hard-learned lessons orientating the green troopers to the rigors of jungle warfare and cunning tactics of the enemy. Strenuous PT and running exercises were mixed in, more so to acclimate and condition the men to the brutal tropical weather in hopes of reducing heat prostration cases once out in the real ‘bush’. When the rest of the division entered Vietnam in late November 1967, a formal inter-unit indoctrination course known as SERTS (Screaming Eagles Replacement Training School) was established at Bien Hoa.
Finally settled at Tent City in the brigade’s main base at Phan Rang, Peterson on the day of his 20th birthday wrote another letter to his boyhood friend. The franked-FREE cover (fig. 4a) displays a designated (to the 101st ABN DIV stationed at Phan Rang starting November 14, 1965 ending March 1968) APO 96347 with a 22 MAR 1967 APO postal cancel. The enclosed two-page letter written on divisional stationery purchased at the base camp’s PX (fig. 4b) conveyed in part:
“…I’ve been in Vietnam now almost two weeks. It’s pretty miserable over here. It’s real hot and dusty. When I got here I had to go through another week of jungle training in the mountains. I’m now at my permanent base camp for the 101st Airborne Division. In another week we’re going out into the field for about 3 months on some operation…..Hey, guess what? I’m not a teenager anymore. As of today I’m twenty years old. I hope the next twelve months go by fast. I can’t wait to get home. Well, I gotta(sic) get going so write as soon as you can….”
Shuttled out among the pod of replacements to the brigade’s forward operating base, CARENTAN Camp at Duc Pho, Peterson arrived in time for the commencement of Operation MALHEUR Phase-I. On May 9, 1967, he was finally assigned a company, marking the official start of his combat tour and where he was to spend the next 365 days. His new home was Alpha Company, 1st Battalion of the 327th Infantry Regiment.
Streaming a battalion motto, ‘ABOVE THE REST’, the Alpha Company men were known within the First (BN.) and throughout the brigade as ‘ABU’. Based on unit lineage and a former A/1/327th officer’s wild imagination, ABU was a mythical paratrooper monster serving as Alpha’s figurehead. A bizarre concoction of a gorilla’s body topped with a lion’s head spouting a moose’s horns, trailing an alligator’s tail, wearing jump-boots, clutching a pistol in one hand and a trench knife in the other, needless to say, it was both ugly and ferocious at first glance.
A couple of months before Peterson’s arrival to CARENTAN, Alpha Company recently underwent a command change acquiring a new company commander (CC). Never a good omen before the onset of a major field operation, the departing company captain, more for the welfare of his men, conducted a month long on-the-job training for his prospective replacement before handing over the reins. Older than the average company-grade officer, the untried honcho’s age, suggestive of a promotion pass-over in some distant fitness report, made his nickname as ‘the Old Man’ seem appropriate. Although sporting the mandatory set of airborne wings on his chest, the new captain’s branch of service was engineer, not infantry, which did little to bolster the confidence of the men or enhance his leadership mantle in their eyes.
It was into this particular company brew and turmoil, Peterson joined his new comrades. Feeling conspicuous in his crisp un-faded OD jungle fatigues and unfamiliar among the salty battle-hardened ABU line doggies, he realized as a ‘new-guy’ he was neither accepted or considered trustworthy until he met their approval in the face of combat. While anxiously pondering this crucible by fire, he was assigned the unenviable task as the Old Man’s secondary RTO (Radio/Telephone Operator) in the company headquarters. Besides having to ‘hump’ a twenty-seven pound PRC-25 field radio in addition to his usual combat load, the radio antenna often posed as an irresistible target for the first RPG round fired by an enemy hoping to waste the command element. Peterson’s radio monitored the sedate battalion net, while the captain’s primary RTO was assigned to a field-experienced trooper who could capably handle the heavier transmission traffic on the company (internal) net.
At CARENTAN on the morning of May 11, 1967, the men of the 1st Battalion each weighed down by their individual combat load, waddled to and mounted up the 176th Helicopter Assault Company slick-ships to kick-off the beginning phase of Operation MALHEUR. Air-lifted in a matter of minutes and deposited at their arty-prepped and gunship-saturated LZ at the bottom of Song Ve Valley river basin, the companies began to spread-out like groping fingers to locate their designated search-and-destroy coordinates. Accompanied by a three-man ABC reporter and camera crew, Alpha was further augmented by a scout dog handler from 42nd Infantry Platoon and a 320th Artillery forward observer (FO) team. Operating well within the arc of the artillery fan, the 2nd BN (ABN), 320th Artillery employed in a direct support role for the entire brigade, was prepared to deliver 105mm fire upon immediate request.
Although only 10 kilometers from the coast, the targeted vicinity still touched upon the Central Highlands mountainous terrain of steeply plunging and rolling hills covered by a dense jungle canopy and heavy vegetation. Both the Song Ve and Song Tra Cau Valleys featured a hostile local populace and a deeply embedded VC infrastructure. According to brigade S-2 intelligence, the enemy facing the ABU troopers during this opening phase of the operation was the 2nd VC Regiment. Characterized by one participant as ‘hard-core Viet-Cong’, all three VC battalions were active in Base Area 124, Alpha’s operating sector. Both valleys, a major food source for the local Viet Cong forces had several of its rice fields under defoliation consideration once the indigenous population was evacuated and resettled at the nearby detainee and relocation center during Phase-II. The gradual absence of local inhabitants also had the additional effect of permitting large four by six mile area swathes declared as free-fire zones throughout the lower valley regions. Daytime highs in the blistering upper 90’s with a punishing relative humidity pushing 60 to 90%, this was the malevolent slice of Vietnam Michael Peterson and the men of Alpha Company entered.
Enemy reaction to the incursion was swift. On the first day, the battalion recorded ten incidents of light contact resulting in an approximate eleven VC/NVA body count. The following day on May 12th, eight more incidents of contact were experienced by the battalion, once again racking-up the enemy body count, however at the cost of one US KIA and two US wounded. For Alpha Company moving on an easterly azimuth, they shortly encountered abandoned villages and deserted ‘hootches’ which were quickly zippo’ed on fire. Plodding under a merciless sun through a landscape strangely devoid of its inhabitants, the burial mounds and untended pottery seen in the empty hamlets added to the eerie spooky atmosphere permeating the air. In line with Alpha’s movement, the prominent feature of ‘Nui Hon Vu’ or Hill 464 soon loomed before the men. Reaching the hill’s base by nightfall, the Captain decided to surmount the hilltop’s bald promontory for a re-supply rendezvous with brigade choppers the following day. With this future objective in mind, Alpha Company bivouac-down for the night by a deserted ville, literally in the shadow of the hill.
On the morning of May 13th, the troopers with a collective mood of anticipation, saddled-up their heavy rucksacks and set the order of the march for the hill’s ascent. Following the point squad, 2nd platoon was the lead off with the company command sandwiched between it and the 4th (Weapons) Platoon lagging directly behind. Each trooper spaced 5 meters apart, the entire column was strung-out for several hundred meters with the 1st and 3rd platoons in trailing echelon bringing up the far rear. Scanning the precipitous degree of elevation, the ABUs already low on water, knew it would be a difficult hump as they started up the single narrow trail. The dense vegetation with a high jungle canopy swallowing them provided excellent cover and concealment but afforded poor observation and fields of fire. The smothering odor of decayed plant life coupled with the screeches and croaking of tropical birds and reptiles invaded the troopers’ senses. As the long column of men slowly snaked further up the scissoring cut-backs, they increasingly saw disturbing evidence and sensed the overpowering presence of the enemy. Unoccupied spider holes, strewn ammo pouches, empty satchels, pieces of dropped field-gear and even commo wire laid before their path.
About noon the same day, Alpha halted the advance for a break. The entire column wearily flopped down onto the trail in a staggered herringbone posture, every alternate trooper facing the opposite direction covering both flanks. Within minutes, sudden contact was initiated at one point along 2nd platoon’s ranks with their lead element pinned down at the head of the column. 4th platoon came on line to assist their endangered brother platoon and began to assault the enemy positions. Ordered by the Captain, a dozen 4th platoon troopers splintered off to roll-up the enemy’s right flank. After sustaining some casualties, the VC just as sudden, broke contact and retreated further up Nui Hon Vu Hill. Two 2nd platoon men, a M-60 gunner and a squad sergeant were wounded during the skirmish, and after preliminary medical attention were hoisted out by a hovering medevac’s jungle penetrator basket. Alpha’s presence and location was no longer a mystery to the enemy. Despite this, the Old Man after surveying the situation and conferring with battalion higher-ups, directed the men to ‘keep on pushing’ with their upward advance. Positioned only two-thirds up Hill 464 when faced by a rapidly approaching darkness, the company in a broken column formation, harbored-in a few feet off the trail for what was to be an apprehensive and sleepless night. Since Alpha would beat a hasty departure early the next morning, foxholes were not ordered dug, however a defensive perimeter along the file was erected. Reeling out claymores and situating early warning listening posts on their outer flanks; the entire company on high alert, placed grenades within easy reach, set the two-man watch and ate cold C-rats in total silence.
Mother’s Day in 1967 Vietnam fell on May 14th. The bone-weary men pulled themselves off the jungle floor and reluctantly greeted the morning with a palpable tingling of doom and danger. They tried to shake off the nervous stiffness by focusing their mental effort and energy on readying themselves and their gear for the day’s final push. The men popped malaria pills, policed the immediate area, readjusted rucksack loads, locked and loaded weapons, and shared a last cigarette or swig of precious water with their squad-mates. While the captain reviewed plans for the day’s track with his inner command circle, both the acting 4th platoon leader, a senior NCO, and the 2nd platoon lieutenant vociferously ‘suggested’ to the Old Man the inadvisability of continuing the route’s direction. The NCO, a seasoned infantryman with plenty of ‘field-time’, realized they could only walk into an inevitable ‘world of hurt’ the closer the hilltop. Ignoring the advice, the Captain’s only concern was meeting the projected supply drop as he once again set the order of the march. The 4th platoon point squad with anxiety and tension clearly etched on their faces, started-off the column into the thick jungle gloom.
It was not even mid-morning when a fork in the trail was reached. After being advised of this, the Captain split the column ordering 2nd platoon to take the right branch while keeping his command element intact with 4th platoon, veered off to the left angle. It was perhaps within a few minutes as both platoons moving somewhat abreast entered the kill zone. The point squad of 2nd platoon had stumbled onto a bunker complex off the side of their trail and while the platoon LT was radioing the Captain of this new development, the jaws of ambush snapped shut.
The enemy’s opening salvo was a tremendous fusillade of automatic weapons fire unleashed simultaneously at both platoons. Within seconds, the air was filled with flying lead, shredding and chopping the surrounding jungle foliage into bits of green confetti. A shower of Chicom grenades soon followed, peppering the men with hot metal fragments and blowing several of the troopers back down the hill. The initial contact killed the 4th platoon point-man, SP4 Pat Phillips and the scout dog handler, CPL. Michael Bost, and wounded several others. Reacting like muscle memory, the troopers shed their rucks, unlimbered weapons and began to lay down a base of return fire adding to the incredible noise and exploding violence. Snapping small arms fire whipped inches off the ground, muzzle flashes blazed in the dark undergrowth, endless bursts of enemy machine-gun fire hosed down the area as the incoming rounds found, smacked and thudded into the bodies of the troopers desperately clawing for available cover. When the call went out for ‘guns up’, 4th platoon M-60 gunner, CPL. Benito Gonzalez, a Mexican-American from Texas, charged forward like a linebacker carrying the ‘Pig’ with its needed suppressive firepower, caught a bullet to his head killing him immediately. Without hesitation, the platoon medics along with the senior company aid-man, scuttled forward like land crabs low-crawling directly into the firestorm to retrieve and assist the wounded.
The command element edged up, not quite to the point of contact, but close enough to better assess the chaotic fluid situation. The company captain shouted into the radio for a priority fire mission while the forward observer (FO) called-in coordinates, and just as quickly a marking smoke round arrived. Since the immediate terrain presented only a 20-meters visibility restricting accurate observation, there is some confusion from the participants as to what followed once the first volley of 105mm artillery rounds hit. Some believed to have heard the point squad yell ‘Drop, Drop!’, when others heard shouts of ‘Stop, Stop! Check fire!’. Those near the command post heard the Old Man without waiting for an adjustment check, over-ride the FO by demanding fire support to ‘drop twenty-five and fire for effect!’ The troopers who instinctively knew the first volley was ‘danger-close’, began to scramble wildly, burrowing for deeper cover once they heard the distant booming of the second volley shot-out and the incoming on its way.
The second volley of six 105mm rounds screamed in like a runaway freight train and struck the nearby upper tree-line. Time-delay fused for the enemy emplacements, the projectiles ricocheted off the canopy tops resulting in a classic tree-burst effect. One cone of deadly shrapnel spray deflected downward, blasting directly into the company CP. Killed immediately were SGT. Jerry Norris, and both of the company’s radiomen, CPL. Crawford Snow, a full-blooded Paiute Native-American Indian, and PFC. Michael Peterson. Others in the CP were wounded including the FO and the Captain himself.
In the Department of the Army’s official combat after-action report on Operation MALHEUR, the Battle for Mother’s Day Hill was reduced to one (verbatim) sentence: ‘On 14 May, one company of the 1st Battalion (Airborne), 327th Infantry contacted an enemy force of unknown size in well fortified, dug-in positions, resulting in 8 US KHA and 36 WHA’. Michael Peterson’s body was handled and prepared on May 29, 1967 (fig. 5) for the somber return to CONUS by a Graves Registration Team from the 19th Supply and Service Company at CARENTAN base. Before the casket was sealed shut for shipping, one of his dog-tags (fig. 6) was removed and returned among his personal effects to his mother. The dog-tag’s mate rests buried with his remains where he is currently interred at his hometown cemetery, Live Oak Cemetery in Monrovia Calif. (fig. 7).
Posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster and Valor device (fig. 8), his hometown newspaper featured, along with his photograph, a front-page article (fig. 9) that read in part his Bronze Star citation; “Pfc. Peterson, a radio-telephone operator with the 1st Brigade of the 101st Army Airborne Division, received the Bronze Star for rushing to the side of his commanding officer and firing on the enemy when his company engaged the North Vietnamese in a fight. He was killed when his body caught the brunt of shrapnel from an artillery shell, saving the lives of several of his comrades along with his commanding officer.” In the Nation’s capitol, Michael Peterson is also memorialized on panel 19E, line 121 of ‘The Wall’.
With today’s mounting battlefield deaths coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan, it is quite easy for Americans to lose sight of or become inured to the past sacrifices of our Nation’s long-ago wars. To the memory of the eight courageous paratroopers who gave their lives on Mother Day’s Hill, May 14, 1967… ABOVE THE REST! ABU! DRIVE ON! Lest We Forget.
Special thanks and acknowledgement to Mike ‘Doc’ Ainsworth (4th Plt., A/1/327th INF.), Ron G. Turner (2nd Plt., A/1/327th INF.), Steve Black (2nd Plt., A/1/327th INF.) and John ‘Jiggs’ Patterson (4th Plt., A/1/327th INF.) for re-living that fateful day for me.
All artifacts courtesy of the R.Wade MacElwain collection.
Credit to the Military Postal History Society Bulletin as the place where this article was first published.
Braddock, Paul, DOG TAGS: A History of the American Military Identification Tag, 1861 to 2002. Chicora, PA. Mechling Books, 2003.
Cosentini, George and Norman Gruenzner, United States Numbered Military Post Offices, Assignments and Locations, 1941-1994. MPHS, 1994. (Steve Henderson via e-mail 15 JUN 2010).
Department of the Army, USARVN Combat Operations After-Action Report, Operation MALHEUR (MACV/RCS/J3/32). HQ, 1st BDE, 101st ABN DIV. Sept 1967.
101st Airborne Division Association. Vietnam Odyssey: The Story of the 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam. Hillsdale, MI., Ferguson Communications, 1967
Sallah, Michael and Mitch Weiss, TIGER FORCE: A True Story of Men and War, New York, Little, Brown & Co., 2006
Shrader, Charles, Lt. Col., USA., AMICICIDE: The Problems of Friendly Fire in Modern War. US Army Combat Studies Institute, Command & General Staff College, December 1982.
Stanton, Shelby. VIETNAM ORDER OF BATTLE. Wash. DC, US New Books, 1981
“Mother Receives Citation of Son Killed in Vietnam”, Monrovia Daily News-Post,
Vol. 59, No. 58, Tuesday, November 7, 1967. pg. 1.
Oral Interviews conducted via phone:
-Michael Ainsworth on 5/31/10 (Memorial Day), 6/4/10, 6/5/10, 6/10/10, 6/13/10
-Steve Black on 6/11/10, 6/15/10, 6/21/10
-John Patterson on 6/5/10, 6/10/10
-Ron Turner on 6/4/10, 6/10/10, 8/26/10