There were three routes the enemy could take up Hill 947 to attack Hank Castillon and his unit of the 3rd Battalion, 8th Infantry. As the field artillery forward observer for Delta Company, it was Castillon’s job to anticipate enemy movements and calculate artillery and air strike coordinates in combat. With just over 100 men dug in on the hill and an estimated 400 North Vietnamese Army soldiers on their way, Castillon’s assessment and calculations were critical. He decided the most likely routes of attack were from the southeast, the southwest or the north.
Instead, when it came, the attack began in the west.
The lion’s den
Castillon, a Green River native, had joined the Wyoming Army National Guard in 1961 as a 17-year-old, after convincing his mother to sign consent papers.
He later attended basic training and officer candidate school and headed to Fort Carson, Colorado, for the beginning of active duty in January 1968. He was sent to Vietnam in September 1968 and arrived in Cam Ranh Bay, where he began the process of adapting to war.
“You didn’t think the war was happening there,” said Castillon. “There was a lot of logistical activity, like boat stocking of materials, supplies and ammunition. But it just didn’t seem like it was a war zone. Cam Ranh was also a rest and recuperation center for in-country.”
He remained in Cam Ranh Bay for a couple days before flying to Pleiku, which he found to be a different environment.
“We went right into the lion’s den in Pleiku,” said Castillon. “The first night we were there we started receiving rocket fire and mortars coming into the camp. We had sandbags around our tents. Everything was pretty much protected with concertina wire and guard towers around the facility. The hangers were sandbagged. That was the realization now that you went from a stable environment into a hostile environment.”
Castillon was initially assigned to the 6th Battalion 29 FA, 4th Infantry Division but was transferred just a short time later to the 3rd Battalion, 8th Infantry where he would serve as the field artillery forward observer.
“The forward observer really is the eyes and ears of the artillery,” explained Castillon. “What they do is they communicate back to the field artillery unit, and they adjust the fire from the cannons in previously located positions. We never moved out of the range of the field artillery. My job was to make sure the field artillery was always ready to support the infantry.”
Castillon’s abilities would be tested just a few months later in the first days of March 1969.
The Alpha, Bravo and Delta companies of the 8th Infantry had penetrated deep into the heavily forested central Highlands of South Vietnam, looking for the notorious 66th Regiment of the NVA, otherwise known as the Tiger Regiment. On March 3, Alpha unexpectedly encountered the 66th’s headquarters and engaged in a fierce firefight, resulting in the loss of a majority of the men in the unit. Of the unit’s 100 men, just 40 escaped the fight. When Delta Company arrived the next day to search for survivors, only one was found.
The POW survivor, a private named Guffy, recounted the horrific battle and informed Delta Company of the significant force of NVA troops nearby. In fact, Delta Company had encountered a small group of NVA men on the trail earlier, killing four of them, and they knew the short firefight had alerted the rest of the NVA troops to their presence. The decision was then made to retreat to Hill 947 and await the inevitable response.
Hill 947, named for its elevation of 947 feet, would be occupied by Delta Company for the next three days and nights, with just one delivery of ammunition and supplies by helicopter.
The battle began the next morning when the NVA forces attacked from the west with mortars and then small arms fire, probing the area, trying to determine how many U.S. troops were on the hill, their locations and how well-armed they were. Castillon responded by calling in 105 mm and 155 mm howitzer artillery fire, which temporarily repelled the attack.
But on the morning of March 6, the enemy broke through the perimeter. Castillon made the most desperate of decisions.
“When the attack came we had to call in artillery fire on our own position,” said Castillon, noting that the artillerymen initially refused the order. “The artillery wouldn’t fire until they got clearance from my boss. I turned the phone over to him and said ‘boss they want to talk to you.’ He said, ‘You do what he tells you what to do.’ So we called in artillery on ourselves.
“That is the last resort before the ship sinks,” he continued. “We were getting overrun. It was one of those situations, it is them or us. They were breaching the perimeter. You just dig in, cover up and hope for the best. And say a Hail Mary. Did we get any friendly casualties as a result? I don’t know. Sometimes it bothers me. But it saved the day for the company.”
Late that morning, the enemy abandoned its attempt to take the hill.
Much like Alpha Company before them, Delta Company suffered major casualties. Castillon estimates only 30 to 40 men survived the three-day ordeal.
Despite the experience, Delta Company received no reprieve and continued combat missions. Castillon was stationed in various parts of the country including Kontum, Plei Me, An Khe, Dak To, Ban Me Thuot and the Ia Drang.
Castillon returned from Vietnam in September 1969 and was disappointed in the homecoming he received. While it was not hostile, like other soldiers experienced, it was not welcoming either.
“After my tour ended I flew back home to my family and of course they were glad to see me, but no one even said ‘thank you’ or ‘welcome home,’” he recalled. “For me, no one seemed to care about my time in Vietnam, especially people who hadn’t themselves been vets. Everyone looked at me like I had done something bad.”
In January 1970, Castillon ended active duty and later went to college, earning multiple degrees. He worked as an accountant for several years for a trona mining company and later as an assistant field manager for the Bureau of Land Management before retiring in 2009. In addition, he served as mayor of Green River from 2007 to 2014.
He also remained part of the Wyoming Army National Guard for 36 years. He earned numerous medals and was promoted to brigadier general in 1993 before retiring in 1998.
Despite the terrifying experiences of combat, Castillon decided in Vietnam to commit his life to the military, rather than end his service when his 365 days were up.
“You get to do a lot of thinking while you are there,” he said. “Not too many people can explain the fear and agony and the leadership that keeps those folks from giving up or giving up the will to fight … I just decided I wanted to continue on with my career. I was lucky. And maybe there was a reason for that. I was one of the survivors, so I said, ‘I am going to continue on and do what I can for the soldiers.’”