By: Randy Tucker
The assault on Hill 1198 began on a flat hill 1,000 feet below the summit. Fingers of land stretched out above a deep ravine high above a bamboo and teak forest. David Orbell, a light weapons infantryman, and his squad were stationed on the far point of one of those fingers when the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) attacked the positions behind them.
“We dug fox holes, cut timber for bunkers, set sandbags, and covered everything with tin,” Orbell said. “We had four deuce mortars and five 105mm howitzers in place when the big brass came in: a colonel, lt. colonel, and sergeant major.”
The NVA assaulted two positions behind them and captured one of the 105 howitzers.
“They were trying to turn that gun on one of our headquarters; it would have blown those guys away,” Orbell said.
But the other four guns fired beehive rounds (similar to giant shotgun shells) into them and killed the NVA while destroying the howitzer.
As the assault began, Orbell’s squad had been ordered to advance up the hill and was away from their original position. If they had stayed in place, they would have been overrun.
“Our objective was to go up that hill, but they called us back when the attack came,” Orbell said. “They called in 8-inch guns from the valley below, but the trajectory was wrong and they couldn’t reach the top of the hill, so they called in an air strike.”
Fires Everywhere and Everything Was Smoldering
South Vietnamese pilots came in with F-105 Phantoms to hit the hill with napalm.
With the trees and vegetation still burning from the napalm strike, Orbell and his squad moved into the burned-out area.
“It was still hot, fires everywhere and everything was smoldering,” Orbell said. “We found two spider holes and a couple of dead NVA. The trees were just sticks – the NVA were toasted in their foxholes.”
At 1 a.m., the NVA hit the perimeter with flamethrowers and machine guns.
“They opened up on the bunker we had just left,” Orbell said. “We couldn’t tell what was going on but we heard machine guns and men dying.”
That night a lot of Americans and 135 NVA were killed in combat.
“The colonel had us count the dead. We counted 135 and they made us count them again,” Orbell said. “We weren’t supposed to lose that many men and not kill a lot more NVA, so they made us count again, but the number was the same. It was all about body count.”
Medevac began taking wounded men off the LZ (landing zone), and later big cargo nets full of dead GIs were lifted by heavy cargo helicopters and taken back to a main base.
Dead All Around Us
Orbell and another soldier built a makeshift stretcher and started to carry a dead machine gunner off the field, but he was incredibly heavy to lift.
“He was a big guy, but he shouldn’t have weighed that much,” Orbell said. “We checked him and found out he was carrying 600 rounds of M-60 ammo, five bull bandoliers. We broke off the rounds and got him out of there.”
Orbell grabbed an M-79 grenade launcher and began firing grenades into the trees around his area.
“There were dead all around us,” Orbell said. “A LURP (long-range reconnaissance patrol) lieutenant, a semi-gung-ho guy, was one of those killed in action when he attempted to charge an NVA position. There was shrapnel stuck to the trees, one guy cut his arm real bad against some sticking out of a limb. I shot those grenades high so the fragments would spread out. I took a bayonet off one of the NVA.”
Burning Equipment, Dead Men, and Splintered Trees
The NVA they fought that day were an elite ranger unit, newly equipped with state-of-the-art weapons.
“They had folding stock AK-47s, all new uniforms and equipment, but they threw those WWII-style German potato masher hand grenades,” Orbell said. “The scariest thing were those flamethrowers, just gasoline sprayed on you and set on fire. The NVA mortars were dead on. They fired one long, one short, and then they nailed you. Those guys were good.”
The surrounding areas were a wasteland of burning equipment, dead men, and splintered trees.
“A sky crane brought in tractors and bull dozers and they cleared the hillside,” Orbell said. “Our own mortars were landing behind us, between squads.”
After a three-day break, the unit was ordered back up Hill 1198 to assault the high ground. Jets and Skyraiders were brought back in to napalm the path up to the top and the hilltop itself.
“We were the last squad of the last platoon and halfway up the hill when we started to take fire from NVA snipers in spider holes,” Orbell said. “We were pinned down by the snipers and taking fire from our own mortars. My M-16 was shot up with mortar fragments, in the return spring. We screamed into the radio to drop 50. We jumped from mortar hole to mortar hole. Some of our people were hit in the face by our own mortars.”
A company clerk gave Orbell his weapon.
“A Hawaiian guy and I were put in a listening post,” Orbell said. “At 2 a.m. somebody behind us threw a grenade. It hit a few feet from us. Nobody got any sleep halfway up that mountain.”
The battle diminished their company down to just 85 men, 30 fewer than they started with.
“We had four platoons with eight machine gunners, ammo bearers, and assistant gunners. That left just 60 riflemen,” Orbell said. “We had wounded men and a corpsman, a conscientious objector froze and wouldn’t tend to them. I pointed my M-16 right into his temple and said you’ve got a choice, treat them. He broke and started to work on the wounded men.
“We started going up the hill again and got close to the top when they really opened up on us. I saw an abandoned M-60. The order came down to break down my M-16 into pieces and disable it.”
Randy Tucker is a retired history teacher and freelance writer from western Wyoming. He has a lifetime of experience in farming, ranching, hunting and fishing in the shadow of the Wind River Mountains. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.