Visiting Vietnam War Sites: The Rockpile on Highway 9.
Above Photo: A helicopter approaches the wooden landing platform on top of the Rockpile. (© Bill Collier)
On my way to Khe Sanh recently, as part of my BACK-related Vietnam War sites and sights tour, I stopped at The Rockpile, a rocky limestone outcrop north of Route 9 and south of the former Vietnam War Demilitarized Zone, which separated North and South Vietnam.
Because it towers over Route 9 and was largely inaccessible except by helicopter, during the Vietnam War the Rockpile was used as a US observation post and artillery base, when it was manned by the Marines.
Looking at it today, through rain and cloud, it is hard to get an idea what life on top of the Rockpile must have been like for its former inhabitants, who could only get on to it – and off it – by chopper, and who were surrounded day and night by North Vietnamese soldiers and the Viet Cong.
Because there was no place for a helicopter to land on the top, skillful flying was needed to steady visiting choppers, which had to set one wheel down on the tiny wooden landing platform while supplies and men were loaded or unloaded. Later in the war the wooden landing zone was expanded and strengthened so that helicopters could briefly land.
The Rockpile was recognized for its strategic importance as early as May, 1966.
Located at the junction of five major valleys, about seven miles south of the DMZ, it commanded spectacular views over all five valleys, which were infiltration routes from north Vietnam into the south.
As the Stars & Stripes commented: “An enemy force attempting to climb it might reach the top in five hours, exhausted, cut and bleeding from the sharp, coral-like rocks. Even then, they would be reduced to single file squads.
There is just one reasonable access and this is by helicopter, which at times also proves unreasonable. Frequently resupply choppers are unable to get in because of rain, fog and the ever-present winds which often reach 50 m.p.h.”
I discovered a number of quotes on a website (www.swanassoc.com) from former inhabitants of the Rockpile, which accurately covey what life was like at the top during the war:
“There was no way off that darn pile of sharp jagged rocks that tore your boots, clothes, skin and beat up your M-14, other than another UH-34 with an experienced crew who could pull it off.
With the sun baking you during the day, and the enemy keeping us up at night trying to probe our position, steal our grenades, trip flares and claymores we had set up as our perimeter warning on the South side, sleep was a welcome commodity when it was available.
Fire fights in the valley below, B-52 raids on the Razorback and illumination rounds most nights made for an interesting mixture of excitement. When the Grunts would fire illumination for us, it would light up the dark nights and we would watch the flares slowly descend to the valley floor on their parachutes. Then total darkness again as our ears strained to reach out as far as they could for any noise.
One night, a lone NVA soldier made it through the maze of trip wires and release wires which were all tied into a system of flares, grenades and claymores that were place along the south side of the Rockpile to warn us of any impending danger. To this day I don’t know how he managed it…”
See also: The Adventures of a Helicopter Pilot: Flying the H-34 helicopter in Vietnam for the United States Marine Corps: https://amzn.to/2qCxwAt
See the trailer for our new film, M.I.A. A Greater Evil. Set in the jungles of Laos and Vietnam, the film deals with the possible fate of US servicemen left behind after the US pulled out of the Vietnam War.
For POWs left behind in Laos, see:
© Peter Alan Lloyd
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