(This chapter was cut down severely in the second draft of Yasutsune “Tony” Hirashiki’s “On the Frontlines of the Television War.” Here is the first draft.)
In early November of 1967, the US military command became aware of an enemy plan to launch a major assault in the Dak To region and sent over 16,000 troops from the Fourth Division, the 173rd Airborne Brigade, and the 1st Cavalry along with several South Vietnamese battalions. More Americans would die taking Hill 875 than any other specific piece of land in the entire war.
The bloodiest battle occurred from November 19th to the 23rd. Several hundred soldiers from the 2nd Battalion of the 503rd Airborne Infantry moved up the slopes of Hill 875. Just as the lead elements were hit with rockets, recoilless rifles, grenades, and small arms from the North Vietnamese who were hidden in well-built bunkers and trenches at the top of the hill, the company at the rear of the column was attacked by a battalion of the enemy—the American soldiers were caught in a trap. They retreated up the mountain with the enemy in close pursuit and, according to reports, only managed to avoid being overrun by soldiers who stayed behind and died holding off the North Vietnamese. They managed to link up but were still trapped on the mountain slopes with no water and no hope of resupply: six helicopters were shot down on the first afternoon as they tried to reach the beleaguered soldiers.
Air support was called in to bombard the top of Hill 875 but two bombs went astray and landed in the middle of the American position, right on the commanders, the wounded and the medics. The scene commander was killed along with 42 other soldiers. The next day, November 20th, three companies of the 4th Battalion of the 503rd were sent in to reinforce their comrades but it took most of the day for them to fight their way through heavy sniper and mortar fire from the North Vietnamese.
On the 21st, both battalions assaulted the crest of the hill but were forced to retreat with serious losses. At midnight, the 1st Battalion of the 4th Division redeployed to Dak To and on the 23rd of November, all three forces assaulted the mountain and took the crest, only to find that the enemy had abandoned the position. It was five days of horrific hand-to-hand combat, artillery, and air strikes. and in the end, the Vietnamese withdrew into Cambodia, leaving the Americans with almost 400 dead and over 1400 wounded. General William Westmoreland in Saigon declared the battle a victory but, if it was a victory, it was a certainly a bitter one for the soldiers on the front lines.
ABC News had gotten news of the battle late and so I flew with Dick Harris and correspondent Ed Needham into Dak To on the evening of the 24th. My competitive spirit made me hate arriving at a story late but sometimes it was simply beyond our control. On the day we arrived to cover the battle, there was already a large group of press standing not far from the runway of Dak To airfield near the special forces camp that was now a Press Center.
Once again, my soundman was Dick Harris but my correspondent was a new guy named Edward Needham, a veteran print reporter who had worked for several magazines but had only recently joined ABC. He was older and appeared to be a calm, gentle, and experienced reporter but it was the first time we had worked together. What we were told was that only Peter Arnett of Associated Press and two others had made it to the top of the hill and they had made it by winning seats in a chopper through a lottery. The military authorities thought it was still too dangerous to bring in the media. I could only comfort myself with the thought that the other two networks were stuck down in Dak To with me.
We were waiting for a helicopter which could take us to the top of Hill 875 when the soldiers began to come down from the battle. The Press Officer put up a rope along the edge of the path and told us not to badger the troops with questions. Some people think that the press is just a ruthless mob but that’s really not true, especially when the story is as tragic and serious as Hill 875. The network crews, reporters, and photographers all agreed to go along and we stood in a line along the rope. My camera was loaded with a full roll of film and I’d checked the microphone with Dick Harris.
When the first wave of helicopters landed about a hundred yards away, there was silence in the press corps as dozens of black plastic body bags were unloaded along with others who were only wrapped in their own green ponchos. As the choppers continued to shuttle between the hilltop and the base, we saw the wounded come in and then the first Airborne survivors. They were walking past only fifty feet away and no one in the press said a word. We all filmed and took pictures but after a look at their faces, the reporters were silent.
Their faces were filthy and unshaven, their uniforms stiff with a mixture of mud and blood and, in their eyes, you could see their anger and frustration. The walking wounded were covered with blood-soaked bandages that had turned a dark red that was almost brown. Their feet were dragging, and they walk past in complete silence. It was anything but a victory march by these brave, elite American soldiers.
When the second group came past, a reporter finally called out, “What happened at the front?” and another asked, “Tell us what happened on Hill 875.”
The soldiers just kept walking past without the slightest reaction and didn’t say a word. We were surprised when a few turned around and walked back to where we were standing. They faced the cameras and the massed microphones and began to tell us what had happened.
It was an eruption of anger, frustration, and sorrow at the hell they had gone through for the past days. In the beginning, the soldiers spoke one by one but soon they began to talk over each other, shouting and even weeping as the terrible memories poured out. I had covered these units before and I knew that they were some of the toughest troops the Americans had. It was a scene of raw emotion.
The military press officials tried to stop the men from speaking by pulling them away from the press but the soldiers ignored them and continued to tell us their stories of hell. We all stayed behind the rope but the soldiers came closer and their stories became more intimate. Everything they said was a testimony to the shocking, brutal, bitter and cruel nature of the fighting on that hill. They were so angry that curse words and slang came pouring out; i knew we couldn’t broadcast that sort of language back in those days but they were speaking from the heart and they were probably the only words that could begin to express their feeling. It was the reality of war being told in a truer way than I had seen in all the time I’d been in Vietnam.
It was not victory. Yes, they had taken the hill on Thanksgiving Day but, even with my imperfect English, I could understand how rough it had been up there. The tunnels and trenches that the North Vietnamese had built all across the battlefield had made a single, almost unbreakable fortress. The soldiers said that when they got close, the enemy set off smoke grenades that confused the Marine and Air Force bombers and led to the catastrophic bombing. If anything, they were angriest about the “friendly fire,” which had slammed high explosives and even napalm into the medics as they frantically worked to save the wounded.
This was going to be our first report and we had to ship it to Saigon as soon as possible. We knew that the next vital scenes would be from the wreckage on top of Hill 875. The other networks had two crews but ABC, as usual, only could send one so we decided to split up. Dick took one sound camera and went with Ed to finish the story at the bottom of the hill while I took my faithful Bell & Howell silent camera and followed the reinforcements from the 4th Infantry as they moved up to replace the battered remnants of the 503rd Airborne.
All three of us would then meet at the top of the hill when the press was allowed to be taken there. Although it would be a pretty serious march, I figured I could reach the top of the hill faster by following these replacements than by waiting what I was told would be hours for helicopters to be available.
While Ed was busy somewhere else, Dick told me to wait with the other crews—it was still too dangerous to climb through that hellish battlefield.
“I’ll be OK.” I answered, “Now, after you record the narration and ship the film, just make sure you guys get to the top to pick me up. I’ll wait there until you come. If you arrive before me, please wait for me.”
Of course, I actually was a little scared to go alone, but ABC was behind our competitors so we absolutely needed these pictures of the hill where all the action had taken place. As I’ve said before, I had a very competitive spirit.
We split up and I followed the reinforcements. These soldiers were fresh and strong so they moved at a fast pace. I was lucky I was carrying the small camera and not the heavy Auricon because it made it possible to keep up with them. The troops moved in a single column as we went up the mountain trails, but split up when we reached the edge of the fortifications at the top. Then they very slowly and carefully climbed towards the top of the hill. Just days ago, North Vietnamese soldiers had charged down on the struggling Airborne troops in a human wave attack and completely wiped out a whole platoon.
I filmed the soldiers but since they were trying to maintain silence, I worried that the sound of my camera was too loud. The soundproof case is what adds all the weight to the Auricon camera and the Bell & Howell didn’t have it so I tried to keep my filming to the minimum. As we got closer to the top, I could see the fierceness of the battle in the blasted and uprooted trees and the smoke that was still rising from those that had burned.
Once in a while, US Air Force jets passed overhead and each time, the men on the ground looked up nervously and swore at the pilot who had killed so many of the Airborne troops. In the end, the last yards to the top of the hill was bare earth from the constant bombardment: enormous pits in the red earth and all the trees and bushes torn away and burned.
When we finally reached the top, I could see the deep bunkers and sandbagged trenches that the enemy had built. Some of them were ten feet deep and had tunnels so soldiers could fire from one spot and reappear at another. While I was filming, an Airborne soldier who was standing next to me said emotionally, “When we took those bunkers, the US. Air Force jet dropped bombs. It was Napalm! Look how the bodies of American and Vietnamese soldiers are all together. They died in the same bunkers when the bombs hit.”
The view from the top of the hill was stunning. I could see for miles in all directions and picked out the low ground where Dak To stood. Militarily, I guess this view was the goal that to many soldiers fought and died to hole. For a hilltop base, 875 was quite spacious, about as big as two tennis courts. Helicopters were coming in and out with dead and wounded. In one corner of the base, there was a pile of canteens, knapsacks, helmets, boots and all the other personal items that had been collected from the slopes where so many had died. From the sheer size of the pile, you could guess how many had fallen.
It was about 3 pm when I reached the base after three hours of marching. I filmed all around the battered fortifications and was finished in about an hour. I was a bit concerned that a press helicopter hadn’t arrived because I really wasn’t all that interested in spending a night where so many night assaults had happened. Now, I know that the North Vietnamese, who had been badly hurt as well, were already across the border in Cambodia, but at the time, I had no idea if we’d simply be attacked again.
Just after 4, helicopters landed with a general and other command-level officers and, to my relief, Ed Needham and Dick Harris. There was going to be a memorial service for the soldiers who given their lives for this scrap of land. I was told that it would be a tradition.
The rifles of the dead soldiers had their bayonets attached and rammed point first into the ground and the men’s helmets placed on top. In front of each rifle, a pair of newly-shined boots were carefully placed. It struck me that the long line of rifles, helmets, and boots looked as lot as if the soldiers themselves were lined up at attention. w
Behind this sad formation, the surviving Airborne soldiers lined up to honor the fallen. There were no flowers, no candles, no photos, and no eulogies—it was a simple and short ceremony, but a very emotional one all the same. A chaplain gave a short prayer and a soldier played Taps on his trumpet. The sad tune of the trumpet echoed across the mountain and down to the valley below. The Airborne soldiers stood motionless but I could see tears flowing down their cheeks. I had trouble focusing because I was crying as well.
I didn’t know why I was crying, it wasn’t my war. These weren’t my people.
Perhaps Taps, which is played at the end of every day in an Army camp, was simply too sad.
Perhaps. But even I don’t believe that.
In A Companion to the Vietnam War (2008), Chester Pach described Ed’s report:
“ABC Correspondent Ed Needham’s wrap-up report after the North Vietnamese had abandoned Hill 875 was filled with “unhappy scenes,” since Dak To had claimed more US lives than any previous battle in the war. “It was a hard fight,” Needham concluded as the film showed a helmet on the ground with a hole ripped through it. “It hardly seems worth it.”
[This battle is Chapter One in Yasutsune “Tony” Hirashiki’s book, “On the Frontlines of the Television War.” Tony’s version doesn’t link up exactly with the soldiers who fought on May 12 through 14, 1967 but I think that’s expected in the “fog of war” and Tony’s lack of English.]
“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.
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.
At the time we had an ABC news man and a two man crew of Koreans carrying the large film camera they used. Most of the time that group was attached to the command group, the CO, his RTO, an FO and his RTO.
After about the third day I think, we got orders to start up a high hill with the plan to rendezvous with the choppers for resupply on the other side. My squad Sgt., I can’t remember his name, but he was a great guy, was to get on the chopper to go to the rear. He was going to go to Hawaii to meet his fianc and get married. She was already there, expecting to meet him in a couple of days.
As we started up the trail leading up the hill, it was clear it would be a hard climb. The trail was very steep, windy and narrow, with heavy jungle on all sides and above. I was in the last squad in my platoon. There were two platoons, 4th and 2nd, and the command group in between.
With a total number of about 55 or so men, spaced 5 meters apart, the entire column was perhaps 250-300 meters long. Those of us in the rear were nearly the length of a foot ball field away from the lead elements. With the jungle as it was, the only people we could see were all within about 15 meters forward and back. As a consequence, those of us in the rear really had no idea what was going on at the lead, other then what we could hear.
On the 13th of May, about noon we stopped for lunch break, each one of us sitting on the trail facing in opposite directions, leaning back on our rucks and eating C’s, smoking and talking quietly. All of a sudden, the guy sitting next to me, ( can’t remember who) jumped up and opened fire into the foliage just to our right. He fired one round then his 16 jammed. (not uncommon no matter how often you cleaned it). We went into the woods where he had fired and found a VC in his black pjs with a grenade in his hand. The one shot had hit him right in the heart. We had been seeing signs of enemy emplacements, commo wire and phones, ammo bags etc. as we had been going up the hill and this made it clear that we were entering Indian territory.
My memory gets hazy here but I think our CO decided to cap up and head up the hill right then.
“For My Friend Snow”
Airborne and ABU,
Mike “Doc” Ainsworth
9/66 to 5/14/67
Early in the morning we started up the trail,
Pat was point man in this green hell of hells.
As we headed towards the ridge line everything
was quite and still…
In a few minutes men would be laying all over the hill…
Most of them wounded and some would be dead…
I can still the cries for medic and the
muzzle blast that rang in my head.
As I moved from man to man, not one did cry…
I remember Michael, Pat and Snow with death in their eyes…
We fought like hell to get out of that mess…
Now, for you in the street and behind that big desk…
In Vietnam we gave Americas best!
How many returned to face a life of ruin…?
Those of us that made it, a new life begins, dealing with bigots
and people we used to call a friend.
I’ve heard some of those people laugh…
Most of the time behind my back.
But, if they went to war today, tomorrow there would
be no last laugh.
(I first wrote this in 1968. Crawford Snow one of my very best friends
died on this day May 14, 1967, I trained in jump school with him. He
was 100% American Indian, a warrior and a brother and son.)
Mike “Doc” Ainsworth
OR JUST SEARCH “MOTHER’S DAY HILL”
ALL PART OF
(It seems a bit vain to post this but, frankly, I don’t think I’ve received higher praise in my entire career. So, there you go and here it is.
Tony & Terry – I have read the book from cover to cover and tell you that the collaboration has produced the most extraordinary, factual and interesting story of what it was like for all sides in the dark time in Vietnam.
Tony’s matter of fact but still quietly emotional recollections of life there then, of doing his job but with feelings, of hardships suffered but endured from the early deadly operation with Ken Gale to the terrible circumstances of Terry Khoo and Sam Kai Faye’s deaths has really brought home in one brief book the true story of Vietnam for Americans.
A special word for Terry Irving. The story is Tony’s but the telling of the story for an English audience in such a powerful way, a way that drives home to the heart not just the head is yours. Terry, you have done Tony and the rest of us a great service; my thanks
March 14, 2017
REVIEW: On the Frontlines of the Television War by Yasutsune Hirashiki
On The Frontlines of the Television War is the story of Yasutsune “Tony” Hirashiki’s ten years in Vietnam—beginning when he arrived in 1966 as a young freelancer with a 16mm camera but without a job or the slightest grasp of English and ending in the hectic fall of Saigon in 1975 when he was literally thrown on one of the last flights out.
His memoir has all the exciting tales of peril, hardship, and close calls as the best of battle memoirs but it is primarily a story of very real and yet remarkable people: the soldiers who fought, bled, and died, and the reporters and photographers who went right to the frontlines to record their stories and memorialize their sacrifice. The great books about Vietnam journalism have been about print reporters, still photographers, and television correspondents but if this was truly the first “television war,” then it is time to hear the story of the cameramen who shot the pictures and the reporters who wrote the stories that the average American witnessed daily in their living rooms.
“The basic essence of war is death.” – David Snell
I grew up watching this war and when, in the forward, it’s described as the Television War, I said “yes, that’s it exactly.” Every night my parents had the 6 pm nightly news with Uncle Walter (Cronkite) on. I remember the video footage and the body counts even though I wasn’t even 7 years old. When the last helicopters lifted off the embassy roof, I wasn’t even a teenager but I recall those images vividly, too. I’ve read plenty of memoirs of the war from military sources but until I saw this book, it hadn’t dawned on me that I’d never read any by the journalists who covered it and produced what I saw on the nightly news. Here is the story of a man behind the camera who gives the journalistic experience told from the POV of a SE Asian photographer.