My Day on Hill 996,
By Lt. Leonard E. Griffin
This story is not the complete story of the battle…skirmish…engagement…or firefight or what ever you want to call it, on Hill 996. It is what I saw, heard and did on the three days I was there. The remarkable thing about the firefight was the casualties. Rarely is the number of those killed and those wounded almost the same. Usually it is a one to five ratio. Each man has his own story and when they are all combined the event on those few days is truly revealed. The comments made by some of my brothers helped fill in the gaps and those gaps went from resentment and hatred of a few men to admiration. I learned not to make judgment until all the facts are known. It took forty years to find out many facts.
The reference of Brother is an overly used word by some war veterans but it is the closest word I can think of that expresses my feelings of those I served with. Each, regardless of race, age or religion was a brother and of each one there was a love like that can only be compared to that of my own brother. You would willingly sacrifice yourself for your brother and my fellow men were the same.
I arrived in Vietnam in October 1968 and was assigned to Camp Evans with the 2/320th Artillery also known as the “Balls of the Eagle”. I was assigned to Infantry unit B Company 2/506 as their Forward Observer with the call sign, “Bravo One”. Many times my RTO would answer the radio with my call sign and the caller would ask to speak with Bravo One. I would answer, “This is The Bravo One”. There were light sides in Vietnam. In July 1969 I had just returned from a thirty day search and destroy mission and had my shower and ice cream. The second day in Camp Evans, July 10, 1969 I was called by my Artillery Battalion Liaison Officer and told to get my gear and report to the chopper pad. I had never had a R&R or an in country R&R in nine months. A FO in D 1/506 had gotten hurt and I was going to replace him. I later found out it was Lt. Fisher who had jumped from the chopper at a hot LZ and injured himself.
I flew to the LZ, got off the chopper and reported to the Company Commander then went over to the closest platoon. We were on a hill top looking at Hill 996 with a large clearing in the valley below us. I was standing there and heard a “Thump” of a mortar firing. About 20 seconds later I heard a whistling sound then the mortar impacted near our position. I was amazed that no one moved, took cover or tried to engage the mortar. I saw the smoke from the mortar and knew it was within range of the M-60s but they were not firing. I got on the radio and called in a fire mission. The white prosperous round went off 1000 feet up and I adjusted the round and requested HE on the ground 600 yards to the left. When the HE round hit I further moved it to the left and put in six rounds of HE on the mortar position. The mortar stopped firing after that. The Artillery LNO requested we go in for a body count but the Infantry Commander refused.
We began walking downhill to the valley then headed up towards Hill 996. In the valley we walked through a field of standing corn. I pulled an ear off and stripped off the husk and found an ear of white sweet corn. Most of the men pulled off the ears and ate them raw as they walked. It was a real treat. When the hill began to become steep we found steps built into the hillside going up the hill. We all became alert because we knew we were not alone.
At the top of the hill we found two hill tops with a saddle between them. Just at dark the Infantry CO told me to place a final protective fire on one of the hill tops. He showed me on the map where he wanted it. I told him that the location he wanted the artillery was where we were standing. He said we were on the other hill top and told me to place the rounds where he said.
I called in the artillery and knew from experience that I could adjust the fire from the concussion I felt when the rounds hit and didn’t have to see them hit. I brought the rounds in and placed them on the hill top where the Company Commander said were standing. I knew how to read a map and knew he couldn’t.
It was quite that night. The next morning, July 11, 1969, we started to move out when the firing began. Looking towards the firing I saw green tracers coming in my direction and moved to where the Battalion Commander, LTC Arnold Courtney Hayward and his RTO were standing so I had access to a radio. Suddenly a burst of fire from and AK-47 hit the three of us. I was hit in the left shoulder, that broke the upper arm bone and the bullet lodged in the joint., LTC Hayward I believe in the stomach and I don’t know about the RTO. I do know we were all alive after being hit. We crawled to where a log was and lay behind it. One of the medics who was later killed dressed our wounds. I had lost my rifle during this time. After dressing our wounds the medic left to help others.
I heard more firing and heard a shot followed immediately but a loud grunt and a M-79 grenade launcher fire into the ground near me. I knew the M-79 round had a built in safety and would not explode until it had turned a certain number of revolutions. I knew the person who was shot was the one who fired the M-97.
I few minutes later I heard another shot and a man cry out “Mommie”. Sporadic shooting continued for a while then and RPG hit near me and a piece of shrapnel cut my left ear. For a while I was deft. Then the shooting slowed and stopped. LTC Hayward, the RTO and myself talked in hush tones when my hearing returned. The RTO was in pain but there was no one near who could help him. I became cold and covered up with a poncho. LTC Hayward was upbeat and never complained of any pain even though he was seriously wounded. We were all lying on the ground. I lost track of time but I knew the unit had pulled back leaving us. Suddenly a burst of fire from very close by hit in front of my face knocking dirt into my face. I played dead since I had no weapon except a knife on my belt and I was in no shape to use it. LTC Hayward and the RTO were startled and jumped when the rounds were fire. The NVA opened up on them killing them instantly. The NVA were advancing and killing the wounded. I remember the smell afterwards and recalled that I had smelled it before. It was the odor of a large quantity of blood, the smell of death. I never heard the NVA walk away. I guess he was waiting for someone to come and help us, using us as bait. I lay still for many hours until it became dark. I heard very faint English being spoken up the hill and knew our line was close by.
Very slowly I rolled over expecting to see the NVA aiming at me and saw no one then began to crawl up the hill. At about 20 yards away I hid behind a tree so that my own people would not become surprised and shoot me. I called out “This is Lt. Leonard Griffin the Forward Observer. , I’m coming in.” I moved from behind the tree and went up the hill as fast as I could until I got to our line. Almost immediately behind me and to my right I heard “I’m coming in” and another man came up the hill to our line. It was obvious he was one of ours from his American accent.
I told another FO who had been shot in the helmet earlier that day what had happened. I told him “They pulled back and left us there. “ Forty years later I found out that several brave attempts were made by the men when they heard the NVA shooting the wounded to come to our aid but the Company Commander decided to stop because it was too dangerous to send any more men out to save us.
I found a spider hole and crawled inside and spent the night. The next morning, July 12, 1969, I came out of the hole and found four leaches on me. I removed them and remembered that the scars lasted for several months.
Choppers were called in to remove the wounded. Since there was no LZ they lowered a cable and pulled the wounded up two at a time. Rick “Doc” Daniels one of the surviving medics hooked the wounded up to the cable. I told the Company Commander that I would be the last to be taken out. Daniels hooked me and another to the cable and it began lifting us up. About 30 feet up the mike cord from the crew chief’s helmet got caught in the winch and it would not go up any higher. Immediately we came under fire. The pilot had a choice, fly as is or lower us and cut the cable. He lowered us and cut the cable. I later found out the pilot had been shot in both legs. The Snakes opened up on the NVA and ran them off until we could get out. The next chopper came in and pulled us out.
At the hospital they removed an AK-47 bullet from my shoulder. I kept it until it was stolen from my desk at Ft. Bragg, NC with the 82d Airborne Division. When I was in the hospital at Ft. Gordon, GA I received a letter from LTC Hayward’s wife wanting to know how her husband died. I spoke with a Chaplain and decided she did not know the whole truth. True he died instantly from a gun shot and that was all I told her. The rest she didn’t need to know. I have to live with it, not her or their kids.
Being with this unit only a very brief period I never learned their names or became friends. Rick “Doc” Daniels told me their names. I found Rick 40 years later. They were my brothers as were all in Vietnam…even the Marines.
There were 20 Americans killed, 26 wounded. As with Hamburger Hill, that was about 4000 yards Northeast of Hill 996, we took it, then left it.
There was one Medal of Honor, four Silver Stars, four Bronze Stars with “V” devices and forty-six Purple Hearts presented.
The MOH was awarded to the youngest, still living, soldier ever in history and he later served in Iraq as a Colonel in the Medical Corps 40 years later. He helped the men there to mentally accept what was happening and how to cope with it. I know he had many odd stares when he was in his class A uniform. A LTC in the Medical Corps with a Medal of Honor, Silver Star and Bronze Star. He earned it!
It took me 40 years to face the Vietnam Memorial Wall on the computer. I know I cannot face the actual wall. I looked at the names of those who died on the day I was shot,researched their names and found out about Hill 996. Rick “Doc” Daniels told me he had left it behind and didn’t want to revisit it. He answered my questions to help me. I told him “Face it…deal with it…Let it go”
Now I can let it go.
I am available to talk anytime with any Veteran who needs to talk.
Lt. Leonard E. Griffin