During the Vietnam War, the remote A Shau Valley was one of the key entry points into South Vietnam for men and supplies brought south along the Ho Chi Minh Trail by the North Vietnamese Army. Operation Apache Snow was conceived to destroy the North Vietnam Army Base Areas in the A Shau Valley. The battle for Ap Bia Mountain (designated Hill 937) overlooking the A Shau Valley was fought from May 10 to 20, 1969 as part of that operation. The battle was so bloody that the soldiers who fought there called it Hamburger Hill.
The American troops repeatedly moved up the heavily forested and steeply sloped hill against well entrenched enemy troops on the ridge. The attacks were repeatedly repelled by strong defenses, mountainous jungle terrain, and poor weather. During one frontal assault on May 18, the lead company, the A-Team, fought very close to the summit and nearly reached it. They experienced severe casualties including all of their officers. It was close quarters combat, with both sides exchanging small arms fire and grenade fire within 20 meters of one another. It was a desperate situation. The A-Team was about to be encircled and annihilated.
Tar Heel was there. This is his story in his words.
I was leading a flight of two Phantoms out of Chu Lai Air Base, South Viet Nam, for combat CAP, Combat Air Patrol. For the first stage of the mission we went straight to the tanker and we refueled. We contacted Da Nang DASC, which was Direct Air Support Control, and advised two Phantoms, both working radar, both fueled, and we were just waiting for a mission assignment. We were assigned this mission - Hamburger Hill. The situation was A-Team was trapped on Hamburger Hill. A-Team had 200 men.
They had air control by an airborne tactical air controller. I think he was driving an O-2. That’s who we contacted with. He advised that he was going to mark the target with WP which is a white phosphorus smoke rocket. So he marked the target. He said my target was about 30 to 40 meters at 9 o’clock of his white smoke. I made a dry run up the valley and I could see no one, nothing on the ground. It was daytime, about 11 or 12 in the morning I think. It was totally covered with jungle canopy though. It wasn’t on top of the hill, about midway up. So I came back. I informed the FAC. I had left my wingman high and dry. I said “Helix”, that was the call sign for the FAC. I said “I can’t release weapons like this. The purple smoke was the friendly’s position and the white smoke was your mark and it is all blended together in my gun sight. I see no friendlies so I can’t pinpoint where they are located.”
The FAC said “Standby.” He came back and he said, “I just talked to the man on the ground. His name is Baby Jesus, that’s his call sign. He said put the weapons on his purple smoke and I quote, ‘We are in a world of shit. Bring it home to Baby Jesus.’” That is all it was. All his officers were dead or wounded. All the senior NCO’s in his detail were dead or wounded. They were down to about 120 guys out of 200.
So we walked that stuff up the mountain very close to the jungle. We each made three runs until we were out of ammo, both dropping napalm which is obviously a fire bomb - very, very intensive weapon for close air support. And we had 500 pound Snakeyes which is a high drag 500 pound bomb, fragmentary iron bomb. And the place was pretty much devastated.
Then I called the FAC as we were leaving the target, told him that we were going back to base with a Winchester. Winchester meant that we were out of ammo. There was not much we could do there without ammunition. He said, “Standby. I’ll talk to the people on the ground and see what the situation is.” He came back and said, “Baby Jesus says great job. He has got 117 pairs of Army boots in the valley and all dead and wounded awaiting extraction.”
The remaining men of the A-Team were saved that day by two very courageous men. Baby Jesus, a 23 year old Sergeant, had the courage to take command knowing that the NVA were targeting officers. And he had the greater courage to call down a heavy bombardment on his own head only moments after taking command.
Close air support is an extraordinarily dangerous mission under any circumstance. It is very fast and very low often over very difficult terrain. It is exposed to close range small and large caliber anti-aircraft fire. It took courage for Tar Heel, only 27, to bring his Phantom in at 50 feet above the trees at 450 knots to precisely place his ordinance on a strongly defended enemy position. It took exceptional courage to place that ordinance on a friendly position as required.
Tar Heel returned to Chu Lai. Hamburger Hill was secured and shortly thereafter abandoned. Baby Jesus returned to base. The two men’s paths did not cross again. They returned home from the war never having met, never knowing the other’s real name.
Tar Heel’s story continues.
Well, I ran into that guy. I was having lunch with a friend and his wife at a restaurant called O’Charley’s here in Wilmington. It’s closed now. It used to be in Monkey Junction. He liked to hear stories about airplanes. I told that story. But until then I had not met Baby Jesus.
This guy comes across from the other side of the room to just about ten feet I guess from the table we were at. He said, “Are you Tar Heel?” I said, “Well that’s what they called me for a long time.” He said, “I’m Baby Jesus.” We became incredibly close friends.
Baby Jesus is Staff Sargent Wesley Davis Bush Jr., Dave, the senior NCO left standing that day. After the strike, he had burning napalm on the back of his hand. He lit a cigarette with it and then shook it off. It is one of the scars he took home with him. He earned a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and 6 or 7 Purple Hearts in his military career. He eventually retired to Wilmington to be near his family.
Chu Lai Air Base. Dave Bush put him in for a Distinguished Flying Cross for his work that day. He returned to civilian life but like so many who served their country in Vietnam, he was never really able to put his experiences behind him. He retired to Wilmington where he grew up. Tar Heel is Captain King Oscar Bostrom, Jr., King, flying a Marine F-4 Phantom II from VFMA 314, the Black Knights, out of
And that is where destiny brought them together again. They became best of friends.
Dave died of a heart attack on December 11, 2012 at the age of 66. King died of cancer on October 13, 2014 at the age of 73.
Respectfully recorded and transcribed July 21, 2014 at the home of King Bostrom in Wilmington.
Fraternity brothers, roommates, and longtime friends
Lt. King Bostrom and Lt. Ken Herr / F-4 Phantom II over Vietnam
Lt. King Bostrom in training / Northrop Scorpion Capt. King O. Bostrom in Chu Lai RVN 1969