The Great Hump
by Richard Dieterle
AUGUST 4, 1967 — After returning from the hospital, I had been painfully readjusting to the field for several weeks. There was still some question in my mind, not to mention that of others, whether I had reached the proper level of endurance. We were not going to be taken by helicopter anywhere. This surprised me a bit, since the usual procedure was to drop us far off somewhere and have us sweep an area to see if we could make contact or otherwise disrupt enemy activities. They decided to send us over the An Lão mountains. The object was to see if we could run across anything that the enemy had set up and in the process, destroy it. This seemed like a reasonable way to proceed, but I sure wasn't looking forward to climbing a mountain while carrying 400 rounds of machine gun ammo.
Then began our ordeal. It was hot out, and as was always the case, our uniforms became drenched in sweat. It looked like someone had turned a hose on us. The incline was steep, and I was becoming worried that I would simply give out. I was huffing and puffing, but I was still holding it together. We came to a series of very large boulders resting on the mountainside. The officers seemed to think that one stack of three was a useful natural defensive structure, so they resolved to blow it up. This would not be easy, as these boulders were massive and weighed tons. Nevertheless, a large quantity of C-4 was strategically placed in all the right crannies of the formation so that we could accomplish in an instant what it would take geological forces millennia to effect. We were to climb up a ways to clear the blast area. At this point, I took a photograph, one of the few to survive, as all but one roll of film was irradiated despite my printing plainly on the container not to do so as it contained film. In the photo, the people at the bottom are rigging up the explosives. As I turned to resume my climb up the hill, I ran into a stretch of loose dirt. The riflemen had negotiated this without too much difficulty since they were not so loaded down as an ammo bearer. However, as I tried to get up this steep incline, my feet kept sliding out from under me, and like Sisyphus, I no sooner got somewhere than I slid right back down. I then threw a temper tantrum of foul language, rather like an overgrown 5 year old with Tourette's syndrome. Heath thought it all rather funny. Yelland, the gunner, seemed a bit annoyed. The two of them took cover behind the boulders just below me, while I continued to struggle against this obstacle. Suddenly Yelland noticed that I was standing in the open just as they yelled, "Fire in the hole!" He shouted, "Get behind the rocks!" I was so pissed off, all I said was, "Fuck it!" Boom!! The explosion annihilated the giant rocks in a flash. Bits of lithic debris of all sizes fell from the sky like a satanic hail. Not a one so much as touched me. Apparently, as the only 5 year old in the Army, I was leading a charmed life.
|Heath (Foreground) and Yelland (Background)
Ascending the Boulder Strewn Mountainside
|The Cornfield in the Mountains|
Right nearby was a carefully manicured field of corn. It was the general consensus that this corn had been planted by the NVA as a food supply for their troops up in the An Lão mountains. I now wonder if it did not belong to the Montagnards (Hmong). In any case, it was considered imperative that we destroy it. At first they tried to burn it with some kind of accelerant, but like everything in the jungle, it would not burn. The humidity of everything there was too great to burn. So a bunch of guys with machetes cut the whole of it down by hand. Even cut down and stacked, it still would not burn, so we left it that way.
We struggled up this steep mountain, then down the other side, only to find, much to my horror, that there was yet another ridge to traverse. I already felt exhausted. I wondered how I could repeat the ordeal just now completed yet another time. Up we went. At least we took it slowly. It was an incredible ordeal. At times my legs had a light tremor from the stress on the muscles. Somehow I managed to get across this mountain too without any incident. I felt not only like I had crossed a great divide in the landscape, but that I had crossed another great divide in my own mental landscape. I had finally reached the other side. I was now certain that I was a soldier and could measure up in the end. It meant a lot to me.
We debauched from the mountains down into a flat land populated with tuffs of grass and small brush. Some of it had been terraced, but long since abandoned. We were all nearly exhausted from this hump, yet we continued on across this plain for some distance, until we found the magical spot to set up. Some how the officers divined this place just short of making offerings to the infernal spirits. We began digging in and setting out our claymores, as per the usual ritual. I sat down on the edge of the rather large rectangular Gun foxhole I had just helped to dig, when all of a sudden, I got a cramp in every muscle of both legs simultaneously. I suddenly contorted and let out a guttural, "Urrrrrrggggggh!" Heath knew what it was immediately, and rapidly rubbed each leg until it finally cleared. I have never experienced anything like it before or since. Had I not undergone it myself, I would not have thought such a thing possible; but it was a testimony to just what an ordeal it had been to carry all this gear over two mountains and a plain.
About ten minutes later, much to our surprise, a fairly large group of Montagnards showed up at our perimeter. They were of all ages and descriptions. There must have been about 25 or 30 of them. They were very animated, and we had someone there who was able to communicate with them (or perhaps one of them spoke a little English). They revealed that they had come down from the nearby mountain range, fleeing the NVA. They said that the NVA had abused them, raped their women, stole their food, and generally did any spiteful thing that an imagination released by impunity could devise. Some C-rations were flown in, and in the photo below, a Montagnard woman and child can be seen going through them.
|CP with Mortar Pit in Foreground||Dieterle Standing in the Gun Foxhole|
I believe, in the end, we flew them out in a Chinook. On reflecting on what happened to these poor people — and they were economically poor too, dressed practically in rags — our own minor struggles seemed to pale in comparison.
|Burning Brush with WP Mortar Rounds|
Late in the day the Mortar Platoon (4th Platoon) fired some WP rounds to see if some of the odd brush could not be burned off to clear a field of fire. This was probably not strictly necessary, since it was highly unlikely that the enemy would attack us at night on an open, white plain. So we spent an uneventful and secure night.
For a map of the company's progress during this period, see the "Odyssey" map for 4-5 August 1967.
For the Montagnards, see the Map, Indochina, Ethnolinguistic Groups.