During the early morning hours of May 10, anticipation heightened as the 3rd Brigade troopers made ready for their long-awaited invasion of the A Shau Valley. They were going after the enemy where he lived. The XXIV Corps operation, codenamed Apache Snow, was designed to destroy those enemy forces in the steep mountains rising abruptly from the lush A Shau Valley separating I Corps from Laos. There was good reason for a massive strike there.
In mid-January the brigades intelligence section began receiving the information which would lead to the operation. A prisoner captured by the 3rd Bn., 187th Abn. Inf. in January, and another picked up by the 1st Bn., 506th Abn. Inf., both spoke freely of their activities and traced their routes of infiltration from their A Shau base "warehouse area" into the coastal lowlands of Thua Thien and Quang Nam Provinces. With other intelligence data, this was enough to pinpoint the warehouse and send Air Force fighters screaming in.
In two days of ripping up the landscape, the jets caused 16 secondary explosions while opening up much of the canopy. This allowed forward air controllers (FACs) and recon teams of the 2nd Sqdrn., 17th Cav., to accurately plot numerous bunker and hooch positions.
While Operation Massachusetts Striker continued in the extreme southern portion of the valley, plans were amended to exploit the warehouse area after the Cav made significant contacts and cache discoveries while making a B-52 strike assessment.
The Third Bn., 187th Abn. Inf., was selected to raid the warehouse and construct a new fire base - named Airborne - on the infiltration route nearby. The final touches were put on the plans for a new thrust into the valley. By May 9 the 3rd Brigade and elements of the 1st ARVN Division were poised to launch the largest airmobile assault of the Vietnam War. Precise timing and surprise were the main considerations of the operation's success.
Ten artillery batteries were placed at Fire Base Bradley, Airborne, Currahee, Brechtesgaden and Cannon only 16 hours before the invasion. Weeks before D-Day, in order to confuse the enemy and disguise plans, more than 30 landing zones were "prepped" by the Air Force. Jets dropped "daisy-cutter" bombs designed to detonate above the ground, clearing vegetation without making craters.
H-hour was 7:30 a.m. on May 10. At marshalling points at Fore Base Blaze were gathered quiet groups of men of the 3rd Bn., 187th Inf., the 1st Bn., 506th Inf., and two ARVN battalions. Pilots and door-gunners stood by the 65 Hueys that would take the men into battle. When the time came the troops boarded the helicopters - and Apache Snow was under way.
The choppers crossed the valley in the south and then, using the terrain as a screen, turned north along the Laotian border to the selected LZs. In the hour before, jets had bombed the landing zones for 50 minutes, artillery had followed with a 15-minute barrage, then came aerial rocket artillery helicopter for a one-minute frosting on the cake.
Covered by Cobra gunships, the lead elements of the two battalions were inserted in a 45-minute period, with Cos. B, C, and D and the command post of the 1st of the 506th hitting the ground at 8:12. Within minutes the soldiers were pushing from the west - to the enemys complete surprise.
It was a flawless combat assault, Col. Joseph B. Conmy Jr., Pembina, S. Dak., the 3rd Brigade commander, who was also responsible for coordinating Apache Snow, termed it :an outstanding example of the capabilities of an airmobile division. We effected complete surprise on the enemy by landing behind him, getting in without taking any casualties or losing any choppers," said Conmy.
The allied battalions were to block enemy escape routes into Laos along Highway 922 and to interdict the enemy-built Highway 548, which runs the length of the A Shau. RIF operations would find the enemy and his caches and destroy them. Enemy resistance was light the first day. "He knew we were in the area," said Maj. Kenneth H. Montgomery, the brigades S-3 (operations) officer, "but he didn't know in what force or exactly where. and thus he was unable to organize any kind of counterattack."
For three days Rakkasans of the 3rd of the 187th engaged trail-watchers and then began receiving automatic weapons fire from a hillmass called Dong Ap Bia. Lt. Col. Weldon F. Honeycutt, Columbus, Ga., maneuvered his companies along ridges leading to the top of the hill in an exploratory assault to determine the strength of the enemy.
That evening the 1st Currahee battalion, under the command of Lt. Col. James Bowers, Springfield, Va., was ordered to reinforce the 187th in taking the hill. Almost immediately the men came under heavy fire from enemy gunners and progress was slow.
For the next three days the combat situation remained static. The NVA units held the hilltop while Screaming Eagles probed and looked for weaknesses. At the same time, the hill was bombarded continually with artillery, ARA and air strikes as the Currahee battalion continued to meet resistance in their drive on the hill.
On the 18th, Rakkasans assaulted the enemy stronghold for the second time in an effort to drive him from his well constructed bunker complex. One unit, Delta Company, reported being within 25 meters of the top when a torrential rainstorm struck and forced the paratroopers to move off the hill, which rain turned into a barren mudslide.
Two additional battalions, the 2nd of the 501st and 2nd of the 3rd ARVN, along with A Co., 2nd Bn., 506th Abn. Inf., were ordered to move to the hill, virtually surrounding it, and join the other two battalions for a final assault to secure Hill 937, the highest point on Dong Ap Bia. At 10 in the morning on the 20th they started up the hill once more and by early afternoon had defeated the enemy and secured the objective, thus ending the ten-day battle and decimating the 29th NVA Regt.
As the battle raged the other three companies of the 2nd of the 506th were helilifted into the warehouse area discovered prior to the start of Apache Snow. Their mission was to locate and destroy an enemy command post complex thought to be in the area, and capture his food and munitions caches. Co. C quickly discovered both a hospital and the CP complex. More than 10 tons of rice and 75,000 round of ammunition for individual and crew-served weapons were also captured.
"A North Vietnamese prisoner said he had walked for two days along the valley floor and turned northwest for a few hundred meters to a hospital complex where he received treatment for his ounds," said Sgt. Alan Austin, Homosassa, Fla., point man for C Co. "He was only about 750 meters off from the location he pointed out to us on a map, and we found the caches and command post in the same area."
The month-long operation accounted for 675 enemy killed, three prisoners, 241 individual and crew-served weapons captured, and more than 100,000 rounds of ammunition discovered. "This operation," said Conmy, "just proved again that the ultimate weapon is the infantry rifleman. Victory achieved by the heroism of the rifleman going in and digging out the enemy."
Written by Lt. Harry Oyler for Rendezvous With Destiny magazine Summer 1969 issue.