Forty five years ago this month, American troops engaged in an 11 day frontal assault on a hill over looking the A Shau Valley, thought to be a major supply and staging area for the North Vietnamese Army, operating under the cover of triple canopy jungle and thickets of elephant grass. The Vietnamese called it Dong Ap Bia (Crouching Beast Hill). Originally referred to by the military as Hill 937, the metric elevation shown on their maps, the members of the 101st Airborne—the “Screaming Eagles”—came to call it Hamburger Hill.
Forty years ago I moved to the Napa Valley and soon thereafter met Nikko Schoch. He had grown up among the vineyards, as his family was in the wine business. He worked for a while as a winemaker, until he realized he needed more distance from alcohol. He was quite counter- cultural, with flowing hair and beard, and often shoeless. He became a devoted father of two boys, one of whom developed disabilities that confined him to a wheelchair. Nikko and his wife worked hard to allow this boy as normal a life as possible, though it turned out to be all too short. I vaguely knew that Nikko had served in Viet Nam as a medic, and that he had served in the battle to capture Hamburger Hill, though I never heard him speak of this.
Ever since I attended his memorial service several years ago, I’ve wanted to know more about his experiences in Viet Nam. I came across a book titled Hamburger Hill, published years ago, which mentioned him a couple of times, but not with much detail. More recently I read a more personal account of the battle, in which he is mentioned throughout. Additionally his family graciously lent me a scrapbook, with accounts of not only his service in Viet Nam, but also his deeds after the war as a peace activist. It is a story that needs to be told.
After dropping out of Columbia University in 1968, Nikko considered going to jail in protest of the draft, but instead filed as a Conscientious Objector. Within months he was serving in the 101st Airborne as a medic for one of three platoons sent to take control of Hill 937. They engaged in 11 attempts in 10 days to occupy the top of Hamburger Hill. Often the North Vietnamese Army would engage in violent battles, then retreat before American air fire was directed at them. This time they stayed and fought from a system of bunkers and tunnels near the top of the hill—believed to be a regimental headquarters or major supply base. American losses were particularly heavy at a clearing just below the bunkers, which some American soldiers felt was intended as a “killing field”, in that the NVA withheld fire until the Americans were exposed there. Then they were attacked with rocket-propelled grenades and AK47 fire coming from the bunkers and from snipers in the surrounding tree canopies. Close combat took place throughout the battle, sometimes with each side separated by only 20 meters.
Additional American casualties were claimed during 5 attacks by supporting aircraft that were off target, resulting in 7 killed and 53 wounded by “friendly fire.” Over the 10 days of the battle to secure the hill there were 72 Americans killed in action, and 372 wounded, with an overall casualty rate of around 60%. Repeatedly the platoons had to beat a retreat due to casualties, only to be ordered back up the hill to attack the NVA positions. On May 20th, American troops finally controlled the top of the hill. The next day an Associated Press article titled “War Hater Is Medical Angel” appeared in newspaper articles across the country, accompanied by a photo showing Nikko giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to an injured soldier. This happened to be Nikko’s 21st birthday.
After his service was completed Nikko was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his heroism. The official documents accompanying this award cited several incidents: while treating 3 seriously injured soldiers in an area devoid of cover, they were again attacked by a sniper in a nearby tree, and he saved his comrades by using one of their weapons to shoot the sniper; he came to the aid of a fellow medic who had ceased breathing after taking serious wounds, and while under continued hostile fire, he performed a tracheotomy allowing air to reenter the lungs; when a helicopter carrying ammunition was brought down by hostile fire, he entered the burning helicopter though it might explode at any minute, carried an injured crewman through sniper fire, and administered life saving first aid; while treating another casualty an fragmentation grenade landed near him, which he grabbed and threw back into the bunker from which it came. In total he was credited with saving 9 soldiers, additionally receiving 1 Silver and 2 Bronze stars.
Yet control over the hill was relinquished 2 weeks later, allowing it to again come under control of the NVA. This lead to widespread criticism of the military leadership for taking so many losses in taking the high ground, only to give it up shortly thereafter. If occupying the hill was not of strategic importance, why were the infantry repeatedly ordered to continue the frontal assault in spite of the horrible losses? If the objective was only to destroy enemy positions, why was this not achieved instead by bombing runs?
An account of the battle was published just last year. It is named Crouching Beast, and the author is Frank Boccia, the leader of the platoon with which Nikko served. It is a devastating insider’s account of what is was like to be repeatedly sent back to charge the hill, taking many casualties each time. The author describes in detail Nikko’s actions, and there is an emotional account of Nikko’s own battle between his pacifist views vs. choosing to use weapons himself in order to save his comrades. From Boccia’s narrative, it seems once the infantry was given the objective of taking the hill, there was fear of failure right up the chain of command, with the platoon leaders coerced to act by the brass watching from above in their helicopters, who in turn would have to answer that evening to their superiors back at the command center.
In this battle huge losses were tolerated while seeking goals that were sketchy and vague, and couldn’t we say this about the Viet Nam War itself? America sacrificed over 50,000 American lives on the premise there was an international Communist movement that must be stopped to prevent countries from falling like dominoes. Yet within the decade following our intervention, the Vietnamese tossed out their Chinese invaders, as they had done with their French occupiers in the decade previous to our debacle—they obviously value self-determination. Now it turns out the enemies we were once so determined to defeat are OK people to do business with. I know winery owners who stop in Ho Chi Ming City to sell Napa Valley Cabernet while making their marketing tours of Southeast Asia. The Wall Street Journal touts the current business opportunities:
And we continue with our “wars of choice.” For all the casualties and expenditures in Iraq, the result may only be that we have helped the Shiites secure the upper hand in future civil war:
In Afghanistan we have spent over 713 billion dollars, estimated to be 10x the cost of college tuition for all American students each year:
It remains to be seen if we are leaving behind a stable country.
In spite of our leaders’ expressed intentions not to engage in nation building, we seem hell bent on entering conflicts about which we are naive. What is behind this impulse to act as the world’s police? While economic interests are always in the background to these actions, I think the hubris referred to in earlier postings on this site is a more powerful explanation: we seem to feel we are quick studies when it comes to determining the “Good Guys” vs. the “Bad Guys.”
When Nikko was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross For Extraordinary Heroism In Action at a ceremony at the Presidio in San Francisco, he said in an interview that day that his reason for accepting the award was that it was meaningful to him because it was originated with the people he served with on Hamburger Hill. He also said, “If I originally had the knowledge of what war, what the Army, is like, I would not have gone in ”–but would rather have gone to jail instead.
He became active in anti-war protests. He turned in all his medals during one protest at the San Francisco Civic Center, saying “The medals mean nothing to me. I’m concerned with people.” He became a long time leader in Veterans for Peace, in which there is now a Nikko Schoch Chapter named in his honor. Nikko continued in civilian life as a caregiver, working as a hospital nurse. But he never overcame the PTSD he suffered, nor the alcoholism that resulted from it, and died several years ago. He remains a contrarian hero.