Signal Hill

By Robert A. Hackney Sr.

The sounds tonight are familiar. They take me back to a time twenty-six years ago--1968, very close to this same time of year.

The place Signal Hill, an LZ on the top of the highest ridge on the southern most end of the A Shau valley. The time frame is fifteen to twenty days before troops went into the valley for the first time. My team is blasting and cutting a perimeter for a couple of platoons from, I believe, the 101st and a LRRP team from same.

The terrain is tough--a narrow ridge like a razor on top, then drops off straight down both sides to nowhere. We have the LZ about eighty percent cleared, have been getting intermittant fire for days with no idea where it is coming from most of the time. The cover down both sides of the hill is double canopy, can't see very far in any direction except straight out and straight up. Both those directions are just thin air; from them comes rain and fog. The cold is bone chilling, especially at night, probably between forty to fifty degrees, wind blowing. Hard to believe that could be bone chilling but it was.

At the time I didn't know this would become one of my longest days in country. Late A.M. we set bangalor torpedoes to clear the last of the brush that needed to go.

I yelled FIRE IN THE HOLE, waited a few seconds, FIRE IN THE HOLE, few seconds, FIRE IN THE HOLE. I closed the detonater, and all hell broke loose for the umteenth time.

I heard screaming from behind us. Two guys stood up as I called "fire in the hole" the third time. They had seen us do this same thing multiple times at this point but had not seen what happened at the instant of detonation and thought they were safe to observe the actual explosion. I told all of them multiple times what to do when we called "fire in the hole." They had all followed instructions until this last time we were to blast.

The first thought was to be pissed; that passed quickly. The medic got to them; and the wounds were, luckily, superficial. The medic patched them up and a medevac was called to get them patched up properly. Little did we know then that the first evac would have to wait a couple of days.

The fog began to settle on top of the ridge, and small arms fire began coming in from all around the south end of the ridge. We set a perimeter partly in a bomb crater at the southern end, and spread it up the ridge from there. I don't think any of us could see an actual target in the trees and brush; we just fired in general directions of where the fire was comming from.

It became too intense for us to stay in the bomb crater, and we were called back to the rear edge of the crater where there was more cover. As we settled at the rear of the crater, I looked forward and saw one man still in the crater on the forward edge at about fifteen to twenty yards. He was not one of mine; I didn't know who he was, but he was firing in every direction there was to fire in. We all tried to call him back to our position and give him supporting fire so he could get back to where we were. To no avail. He was bound and determined to stay and finish this thing on his own.

I saw him stand, aim, fire, and fall. He was motionless for what seemed an eternity, probably a few seconds, maybe a min. {Now, this is not a hero or anything of the sort talking; so, please don't misinterpret this. It is only fear and ignorance, engaged for a moment, with rational thought disengaged, and irrational thought and rage in full power.} I jumped up and ran across the crater, picked him up, and brought him back to where we could see to his wounds. I rolled him over and saw one wound--a small hole half an inch up and centered between his eyes. The medic looked at him and pronounced him dead. The medic later told me he was probably dead before he hit the ground. So, what the fuck did I do that for, I will never know.

A lot more happened on Signal Hill. It was a long stay before we could leave. The thing I remember the most is that our platoon Sgt. {I won't say his name}, a five striper, long-term soldier, had not seen combat his whole career, and thought this mission would be easy and asked the Co. if he could go along.

He went along, but when the shit hit the fan, he hid under some rubble we had cleared and stacked. He hid there for most, if not all, of the time we were on Signal Hill. He laid with the body bags and the wounded until the first medevac came; and he was on it, as if he was the priority to go.

Several weeks later my crew was called to base camp. We had no idea why. The reason was clear very quickly. We were there for an awards ceremony-- ours. We had no idea this was coming. Quite an unusual thing for an engineer squad. We stood at attention and waited for the CO to call the names off. The first name to be called was the five stripe platoon Sgt. who had hidden under the brush with the dead and wounded and grabbed the first evac as a priority for himself.

My team and I looked at each other without saying a word; we knew what each of us was thinking. The CO presented the platoon Sgt. with a Silver Star for gallantry; we looked at each other again. The next award went to me; it was a Silver Star for retrieving a fallen soldier under fire. I stepped back one step and refused the award as did my whole squad. The CO didn't know what to say, so he didn't say anything. He asked me to see him later in person.

I may cover that conversation at another time. This is all I can do for now.

"C-4BOB" Hackney

Copyright 1994 © by Robert A. Hackney Sr., All Rights Reserved

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