by: CPT Matt Visser, Commander of 40th Public Affairs Detachment
In a hangar at Fort Campbell in May 2019, hundreds of Rakkasans, Screaming Eagles, and local partners gathered to welcome home Vietnam Veterans.
Vietnam veterans were at Fort Campbell to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Battle of Hamburger Hill, which occurred at Hill 937, Dong Ap Bia, from May 10th to May 20th, 1969. 3rd Battalion, 187th Airborne Infantry Regiment, was the only battalion who fought at Hamburger Hill. As the hangar doors opened, a motley crew of Iron Rakkasans emerged in formation looking sharper, and taller, than ever.
"The war in Vietnam was not lost in the field, nor was it lost on the front pages of the New York Times or the college campuses. It was lost in Washington, D.C." – H.R. McMaster
This homecoming ceremony occurred to rewrite and erase the egregious memories of how our country had welcomed returning Vietnam veterans a half-century earlier, to live in isolation, wrestling with the trauma they faced overseas alone. But today, it was a joyous occasion and the veterans were met as they should have been originally, with a Nation grateful they fought the war their country required of them – the audience included Lieutenant General (Retired) Frank Wiercinski, Major General Brian Winski, Mayors of neighboring cities, families, and friends, who all welcomed these veterans with accolades, holding signs high, proud of these veterans’ contributions.
In the week that followed, Iron Rakkasans revisited Hill 937, grounds on which over 650 Northern Vietnamese were killed, 72 Americans killed, and 372 Americans wounded. This visit allowed for a cathartic experience for American veterans to meet with their previous enemy, where they had fought one another 50 years earlier. Lieutenant Colonel Martin ‘Jeremy’ Bowling, then-Commander of the Iron Rakkasans, was one of the Soldiers who had ascended the summit of Hill 937.
Once there, he dropped his ruck. It was there that James Greene shared his story. On the 8th day of Hamburger Hill, James, who had served as an M-60 Machine Gunner, alongside his Assistant Gunner George, established their position directed where they knew the enemy was most likely to be.
Just when established, the enemy lobbed a grenade into their position, destroying the M-60 and injuring George.
As James knew he would have to move quickly, he began to crawl down the hill attempting to reach the casualty collection point, but as he crawled closer, he noticed the enemy had made it to the casualty collection point. James stopped crawling toward the collection point, defending himself with a .45 caliber pistol while he placed himself behind a fallen tree. It was there, that James looked up when he heard a low-flying helicopter below the trees. In the helicopter was Doc Reardon and the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Weldon Honeycutt, and amazingly enough, they were low enough for James to reach the helicopter. Honeycutt said, “grab on, grab the skid,” and with his one good arm, James reaches up and grabbed the skid, keeping his .45 caliber pistol at the ready in his injured arm. James, fully expecting that he would fall from the helicopter, made it safely as Honeycutt reached down, grabbed James by the collar and says, “don’t worry, I’ve got you. You’re going to make it.”
James’ powerful story is a chapter in rewriting the war that was lost in Washington, DC. Lt. Col. Bowling worked with the Rakkasan Association, Human Resources Command, Army G-1, and the Department of Veterans Affairs, to ensure that James received the recognition he deserved for his valorous actions at Hamburger Hill.
On the steps of the Capital of James’ home-State of South Carolina, fifty-one years later, James was able to drop his ruck one last time. It was there that the orders were recited, as Lt. Col. Bowling presented Private First Class James Greene with the Bronze Star, Three Purple Hearts, the Presidential Unit Citation, the Valorous Unit Award, the Combat Infantryman Badge, the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal, and the Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross.
James Greene accepted the awards with humility, with a beaming smile under the Carolina sun, he thanked God, his wife Juliette, the 8 others Hamburger Hill veterans in attendance, Col. (Retired) Harkins (who commanded A/3-187 at Hamburger Hill) and Bowling. The audience shared in a moment of pride, for we live in a Nation that continues to fight with tenacity to appropriately honor our veterans for the freedoms they grant for us to enjoy today.
(U.S. Army photos by Spc. Andrew Jo and Cpt. Matt Visser, 40th Public Affairs, and Cpt Justin Wright, 5th SFG)