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Hamburger Hill and Memorial Day 2018

The last week in May in the Great Lakes is met with great fan…fare as the weather heats up to its customary humid burst until mid-September, when it calms down to merely obnoxious until the snow falls, sometimes as early as October. Why I have put up with it for these three score plus years I really don’t know, but I find other weather patterns dull.

But 28 May is known for several momentous events, such as the 585 BC solar eclipse visible in the Eastern Mediterranean; recorded by Herodotus and called the Eclipse of Thales after the Greek philosopher who predicted it; the event is used as a benchmark for other date calculations. On 28 May 1533, the marriage of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn was voided; the grounds have always been shaky, but the Great Harry usually got his way. On 28 May 1818, steamboat Ontario was launched at Sackett’s Harbor, New York; she was the first steam vessel to work any part of the Great Lakes. And, on 28 May 1923, the United States Attorney General declared that it was legal for women to wear trousers anywhere; talk about your dress code on steroids… Today is also National Hamburger Day, no doubt to commemorate the millions of pounds of beef rendered inedible on Memorial Day grills across the country; and National Brisket Day, ditto. But today we’re talking about useless firefights and the passing of a buddy.

Operation APACHE SNOW in May 1969, a little more than a year after the Tet Offensive had soured most of the United States on the conflict in Southeast Asia, was going to eliminate some of those Base Areas.

On most of the maps, it’s called Ap Bia Mountain, but in 1969 it was officially known as Hill 937. It was situated a little more than a mile from the Laotian border on the western end of the A Shau Valley. This was Screaming Eagle territory, where the US 101st Airborne/Airmobile Divison fought most of its war in Vietnam. It was also very close to North Vietnamese Army Base Areas at an outlet of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Operation APACHE SNOW in May 1969, a little more than a year after the Tet Offensive had soured most of the United States on the conflict in Southeast Asia, was going to eliminate some of those Base Areas.

It was the media that dubbed the prominence “Hamburger Hill,” even though there were less than a hundred Americans killed there, and probably not a lot more NVA.

Nobody thought much of Ap Bia when they moved around it, but the NVA was dug into the elephant grass and bamboo thickets such that their positions could only be seen from directly on top. The Americans, who had been relying on firepower to dislodge and destroy enemies since George Washington’s time, were unaccustomed to having to fight like this in Vietnam, even if their fathers did it time and again a quarter century before against the Japanese. Two battalions, then three, then four were used up in the fighting against barely 800 NVA regulars. It was the media that dubbed the prominence “Hamburger Hill,” even though there were less than a hundred Americans killed there, and probably not a lot more NVA.

The press transposed all Vietnam casualties for a week onto Hamburger Hill. Once again, press distortions were treated as truth.

The hill was secured on 20 May, but it had limited strategic and no tactical value, having been denuded of vegetation in the fifteen-day firefight. On 28 May 1969, after a little less than two weeks of occupation, the decision was made to pull off Hamburger Hill, the withdrawal being completed 6 June. The press, as they were wont to do, somehow transposed all Vietnam casualties for a week onto the Hamburger Hill action, and as the blowhards of Congress denounced the action, that was one of the arguments used. Once again, press distortions were treated as truth.


Today, 28 May 2018, I’ll be memorializing a buddy who passed last October. Bill Crum got to Vietnam at about the time Hamburger Hill was wrapping up and spent a year as an artilleryman with the 1st Infantry Division, the Big Red One. He got hurt over there, and came home to the protests and the media distortions, went to school, eventually got married, fathered two kids, divorced, got sick, and died alone.

That, regrettably, was the sum of his life. But Bill was my buddy, and that’s all anyone needs to know. We met on Veterans Day in 1982 at the Student Union in the basement of UWM. He was a fellow Army Reservist and veteran of the deeply misunderstood conflict in Southeast Asia. He had a very droll sense of humor, but he at least had one, unlike many others who were hurt in that war and didn’t come back quite whole. Bill did his 20 years in the Active and Reserve and got his small pension and health care benefits at last on his 60th birthday. He used them for eight years. His last four few months were spent tied to a hospital-grade oxygen concentrator because his lungs had nearly stopped working. He was working on getting strong enough for a transplant.

I was out of town when his son called me, saying that his father had passed that morning. I saw Bill on my regular weekly visit just the Saturday before. He seemed like he was gaining weight, but in retrospect, it was as likely he was retaining water, and that’s what killed him. But, I understand his passing wasn’t prolonged. I had been looking forward to having another beer with my buddy on Veteran’s Day last year, but instead, his sister and I were planning his memorial.

RIP, Wild Bill/Floogle Street. This Memorial Day is for you and every other person who gave his health, wealth, welfare and life for our freedom.

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