50 years later, Connecticut veteran recounts one of Vietnam War's most notorious episodes

During a 10-day span in May 1969, American troops were engaged in a deadly battle against a deeply entrenched enemy to take control of a 3,000-foot-tall hill in South Vietnam near the Laotian border.

The hill was nicknamed Hamburger Hill by soldiers who considered it a "human meat grinder."

The goal was to eliminate the North Vietnamese, who had brought a great number of supplies and manpower from Laos into Vietnam through the A Shau Valley.

Art Wiknik Jr., a young combat squad leader serving with the 101st Airborne Division, had been in Vietnam for about a month when his unit was sent in to help support the fighting.

"Right away I hear grumbling in the formation," the 70-year-old resident of Higganum said, recalling the reaction among soldiers to being sent to A Shau Valley, where they knew the opponent did not hesitate to attack openly and in large numbers.

"No more booby traps. Now you're talking ambushes and bayonets," one soldier said.

Wiknik was drafted into the U.S. Army in May 1968 at the age of 19. The death toll was rising — about 37,000 American soldiers had been killed by the time he was drafted, he said.

"I didn't want to go. I had a good job at Pratt & Whitney, a girlfriend I was crazy about, a brand new 1968 Camaro. Life was good," he said.

The 101st had just returned from a three-day stand down at a rest and recreation facility called Eagle Beach when the soldiers were told they'd be going to the A Shau Valley. They were told to load up on ammunition, leave their personal belongings behind, and to bring a canteen of water but no food so as not to weigh them down.

Wiknik, who was always hungry, stuffed a can of peaches in his pocket anyway.

They spent the first night in the jungle at the base of the hill as they waited for other units to get in position. The next morning, they loaded themselves with ammunition and attached bayonets to their rifles in preparation for hand-to-hand combat and were told not to take any prisoners.

"Even guys who'd been there for a while were thinking, 'This is not going to be good,'" he said.

When the 3rd Battalion, 187th Regiment landed on the hill at the start of the battle on May 10, it was estimated they'd summit in a couple of hours.

Instead, the battle raged for 10 days.

The U.S. Army dropped more than 1,000 tons of bombs, 140-plus pounds of napalm, 31,000 rounds of 20-mm shells, and 513 tons of tear gas on North Vietnamese forces.

Wiknik was the first in his unit to safely reach the top of the hill during the final assault but not before being shot in the chest, igniting a fire that he had to "beat out" with his hands. Adrenaline propelled him to the top of the hill, he said. He looked around and realized none of his guys had followed him. When they finally caught up to him, he asked why they'd let him go up alone.

One replied: "because you didn't share your peaches."

More than 72 Americans died and more than 370 were wounded in the battle, which ended May 20. While estimates vary, at least 630 North Vietnamese were killed.

Less than two weeks later, on June 5, 1969, U.S. forces withdrew from the hill, and soon after the North Vietnamese reoccupied it. Unlike World War II, the Vietnam War was not about gaining ground, it was a war of attrition, Wiknik said.

Politicians like Sen. Ted Kennedy were quick to decry the battle for being senseless, given the number of lives lost. Public opposition to the war was already strong, and "this just solidified their position," Wiknik said.

Asked what point he wants to make 50 years later, Wiknik, who wrote a memoir about his experience in Vietnam called "Nam Sense," said, "I just want the country to remember that, during a very unpopular war, there was young men out there doing their job, doing their duty. They fought very courageously and a lot of them lost their lives."

j.bergman@theday.com

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