Hill 996 - July 11, 1969

August 05, 2014 at 5:02 PM

By Len Griffin, FO, 1st BN, 506th, July 1969e.

On July 11, 1969, on top of a nondescript mountain top number 996 near Hamburger Hill, the 1-506th Infantry and other units engaged a larger NVA force. At the end of the day, 20 Americans had been killed and 26 wounded. There were 4 Silver Stars awarded to the men and one Medal of Honor to SPC Gordon Roberts. In 2010, SPC [now COL(R) Gordon Roberts] was deployed to Kuwait for his second tour.

On July 10, 1969 the forward observer for the infantry company was injured when he jumped out of the helicopter on this assault. I was called and told to replace him and that is how I got evolved with these men of the 506th.

Hill 996 was never made public mainly because of the adverse attention of Hamburger Hill. When I decided to face my demons of Vietnam, I had to face Hill 996. Thanks to enormous support of those who were there with me I made it.

I felt those men who didn't walk off the Hill should be remembered and honored to some degree. Living near Toccoa, Georgia and the Mecca of the 101st Airborne Division's 506th Infantry, I decided to climb Currahee Mountain and make a statement in their memory. Through eMails and Facebook, I announced what I was going to do. Twelve men and women joined me on Currahee Mountain, and we placed a small cross next to the benchmark. As each name was read, a dog tag bearing that person's name was placed on the cross. Veterans of Hill 996 who could not attend had prayers and messages read for them.

After rendering the final salute, a representative from the Toccoa Museum asked for the cross and dog tags so it could be placed in the Currahee Military Museum. Today it resides there as a permanent salute to those who died that day on Hill 996.

SGT Gregory John D. Denton, who survived Hill 996, told our medic, "No one will ever know what happened here." 17 days later SGT Denton died in a mortar attack. I swore, if I could, I would not allow that statement to remain true. Forever the hill will be remembered at the Currahee Museum.

Below is a list of those who fell that day. LTC Hayward and CPL Fernhoff were standing next to me when the three of us were hit by automatic fire. Several hours later the NVA came through killing the unarmed wounded and killed both LTC Hayward and CPL Fernhoff as they lay next to me as I played dead. I was one of the lucky ones.

LTC Arnold Hayward, 1-506th, Battalion Commander
CPL Curtiss Fernhoff
CPL Elbert J Baker, Jr.
SGT Norman H Bloomfield
CPL Mark Bruner
CPL Richard Corriveau
CPL Thomas "Doc" Fenush
PFC Claudie Fowler
SP4 George Fry
PFC Alan Geissinger
SP4 Joe Glassburn
PFC Bradley Klukas
PFC Larry "Doc" Motley
CPL Marvin Richardson
PFC Michael F. Rogers
SSG Byron Stewart
PFC George Tear
PFC Allan Thibou
2LT Dan Yarbrough
PFC Russell Yost

The last time I saw my friends killed was when I was shot by an AK-47. On July 9, 1969, I had just returned from a thirty-day search and destroy mission with the B/2-506th Infantry and had the traditional hot shower, clean clothes, new boots, hot food and ice cream when we came in.

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. A Forward Observer in D/1-506th had gotten hurt, and I was going to replace him. I later found out it his name was LT Fisher, who had jumped from the chopper at a hot landing zone and injured himself. A hot landing zone is when a helicopter lands while it is under enemy fire.

I flew to the hot landing zone that was under a mortar attack. I got off the chopper and reported to the Company Commander, CPT Ditchfield, 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 "Thoop" of a mortar firing. I located the direction of the sound and saw smoke rise from some trees below me. 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. From the location of the smoke from the mortar I knew it was within range of the M-60s machine guns but the Company Commander did not have them fire at it.

These were friends I had never met. We depended on each other for protection to get through Vietnam. They depended on me to stop the mortar fire. I got on the radio and called in a fire mission. The white prosperous round went off 1,000 feet up, and I adjusted the round and requested high explosive rounds on the ground 600 yards to the left. When the high explosive round hit, I further moved it to the left and put in six rounds of high explosives on the mortar position. The mortar stopped firing after that. The Artillery Representative at Battalion headquarters requested we go in for a body count, but the Infantry Company Commander with me refused to go. That Company Commander, Captain Ditchfield, was relieved by the Battalion Commander, LTC Hayward, the next day during the fire fight for being incompetent.

We began walking downhill to the valley then headed up towards Hill 996, Thua Thien, Vietnam, in the Rao Lao Valley area. In the valley I was amazed that 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 for us. 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.

It was quite that night in our night position. The next morning, July 11, 1969, we started to move out when the firing began. I saw the Artillery Battalion Liaison Officer, CPT James Thomas fall to the ground. He was awarded a Silver Star that day. He had flown in with the Battalion Commander that morning. I ran to him and saw that he was holding his head. Moving his hands, I saw blood where the bullet had grazed the top of his head. We were joined by a medic who began working on him. I picked up his helmet and saw a bullet hole in the front of it. I thought that he was the luckiest man alive. Placing his helmet on the ground next to him, I turned and looked towards the firing. I saw light green tracers coming in my direction and moved to where the Battalion Commander, LTC Arnold Courtney Hayward and his Radio Telephone Operator, CPL Curtiss Fernhoff were standing so I could access a radio and call in artillery fire.

Suddenly a burst of fire from and AK-47 hit the three of us. I was hit in the back of my left shoulder, that broke the upper arm bone and the bullet lodged in the joint. It felt as if my shoulder had been smashed with a baseball bat. I grabbed my left shoulder with my right hand after dropping my rifle. I dropped to my knees from the pain then onto my stomach. Looking at my right hand, I saw my blood on it. LTC Hayward was shot in the stomach, and I don't remember where the RTO was shot. 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, SP4 Joe Glassburn, who was later killed that day, dressed our wounds. I had left my rifle where I had been shot. 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-79. I didn't hear anymore sounds from that area.

I few minutes later I heard another shot and a man cry out "Mommie". He too became quiet. Sporadic shooting continued for a while, then a rocket propelled grenade hit near me, and a piece of shrapnel cut my left ear. For a while I was deaf and dazed. Then the shooting slowed and stopped. LTC Hayward, the RTO and myself talked in hush tones after my hearing returned and my head cleared. The RTO was in pain, but there was no one near who could help him. I became cold and covered up with a poncho. We were all lying on the ground. I lost track of time, but I knew the unit had pulled back, leaving us. I felt betrayed and terrified. We were suppose to protect each other, depend on each other, and I was left alone. I hated them for doing this to me, with no weapon to protect myself or the other two. I stopped the mortar attack to protect them, and they left me there to die. I trusted them to help me and was betrayed.

Suddenly bullets from a burst of an automatic weapon fired from very close by, hit in front of my face, knocking dirt into my face. I guess the NVA solider thought he had shot me in the head. 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 who were lying next to me were startled and jumped when the rounds were fired. The NVA solider opened fire on them shooting them with bullets with his AK-47, killing them. I can still remember hearing them grunt when they were hit before they died. The NVA were advancing on our position and killing the helpless wounded men. I listened as hard as I could, but could not hear him walk away. I could smell the smoke from the rounds he had just fired. I laid there waiting for him to see me breathe or move, so he could shoot me like he did the others. I thought of him squatting there, proud of himself killing two Americans who were wounded and defenseless. I kept waiting for him to shoot me. I knew I was going to die. I had given up all hope of living through this and asked for forgiveness from God, then waited to die. I remember the smell after the two were killed and recalled that I had smelled it before. It was the odor of a large quantity of blood, the smell of death. It had an odd smell to it. Acute copperish tangy smell. Before Vietnam I had never smelled anything like it. I never heard the NVA solider move. I guess he was waiting in ambush for someone from our unit to come and help us, using our bodies as bait. At this point, I passed out from shock or loss of blood, I don't know which.

When I came to it was dark. I very slowly turned my head to see if the NVA was still sitting there waiting, expecting a bullet that would kill me. I hoped if it happened it would be quick. I was alone. I heard very faint English being spoken up the hill and knew our line was close by. I began to crawl very slowly up the hill, trying not to make any noise. At about 20 yards away from the voices, 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.

That night I told CPT James Thomas, the Artillery Battalion Liaison Officer, who had been shot in the helmet earlier that day, what had happened. I told him "They pulled back and left us there". He asked about LTC Hayward, I told him that he "smelled dead". He got on the radio and called our Artillery Headquarters and handed me the radio handset. The Artillery Battalion Commander of the 2-319th Artillery, LTC Fulwyler, asked me what had happened, and I told him my story. I don't know if I can ever forgive the unit for leaving us. The Infantry Battalion Commander and his RTO might be alive today if they had stayed and helped us.

I found an NVA spider hole that is like a fox hole and crawled inside and spent the night. I was afraid and didn't want to get hurt anymore than what I had been. I didn't care what the guys in the unit thought of me. I was terrified and wanted a safe pace to hide, so I could get off that hill alive. The next morning, July 12, 1969, I came out of the hole and found four land leeches on me. I burned their blood engorged bodies with a cigarette to remove them and remembered that the scars from their bites remained on me several months.

Choppers were called in to remove the wounded. Since there was no landing zone, they lowered a cable and pulled the wounded up two at a time. 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. The medic 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 small arms 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 attack helicopters opened up on the NVA positions and kept them from firing at us until we could get out. The next helicopter came in and pulled us out. There were 20 Americans killed and 26 wounded on that day, July 11, 1969. The motto of the unit I was in was "Currahee" it is Cherokee for "Stands Alone." That day I stood alone, helpless, abandoned. I received my second Purple Heart for this action.

When I was in the hospital at Fort Gordon, GA, I received a letter from LTC Hayward's wife, Nancy P. Hayward, wanting to know how her husband died. I decided she did not need to know the whole truth. True, he died instantly from a gun shot, the second one; that was all I told her. She didn't need to know about the betrayal. I had to live with it, not her or her kids. I cannot deal with it anymore, I need help.

Being with this unit only a very brief period, I never learned their names or became their friends. There was awarded one Medal of Honor: SGT Gordon Roberts; and four Silver Stars: SP4 George Fry, SSG Ronald Kane, SGT Jim Hoyt and SGT Gregory Denton; in about eight hours on Hill 996.

For 42 years I knew in my heart that myself, the Battalion Commander, and his RTO were abandoned on the Hill. It was not until I located some of the guys from the Hill that I found out that groups were sent out to find us and other wounded before the NVA found us. After taking casulties, CPT Ditchfield ordered them to stop the search and rescue. Those that searched the darkness for me and others are to be commended for their bravery to another Brother. My eternal thanks for their efforts to help me.

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