Local Veteran Spotlight: Benny Cooper – Battle of Hill 54

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Texarkana FYI is honored to spotlight our local Veterans in a series provided to us by James Syler with interviews he has conducted with our veterans at local VFW Post 4562 in Texarkana, Arkansas. This week we focus on Benny Cooper.

In this edition, James spoke with local veteran, Benny Cooper about some of his experiences in Vietnam.

When the battle for Hill 54 was over, only half of the original fifty-two-man team was alive, and of the survivors, only thirteen were able to walk under their own power…

For this veteran spotlight, we want to acknowledge the service of Benny Cooper, a member of the 1st Calvary – 7th Regiment, a Bronze Star award recipient, and a recipient of the Order of the Golden Spur. Mr. Cooper was drafted into the army in 1968 and quickly found himself in a replacement depot in Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam. On March 16, 1969, he boarded a Chinook helicopter for Hill 54, an outpost so small that the helicopter was unable to fully land, instead of having the troops exit the aircraft while the front wheels were still off the ground. As the outgoing team passed them, they advised that there had been no enemy action during their time at the outpost. Breathing a sigh of relief, the new team settled in for what they hoped would be a boring few weeks on a hill that no one knew where was. At midnight, this hope was destroyed.

The silence of the night was shattered by the explosion of a hand-thrown satchel charge, followed by a second, and then by a third…the enemy was inside the wire. Mr. Cooper grabbed his rifle and his vest and slid down the rain-soaked hill to a fighting position. A U.S. mortar team set up near his position to provide support, but each time a mortar was fired, the enemy was able to lock on the flash from the tube with a B40 rocket-propelled grenade and destroy the position. To make matters even worse, the enemy threw an incendiary device in the ammunition bunker located approximately twenty feet from Mr. Cooper’s position. Once ignited, the eighty-plus mortars and all of the other ammunition began to explode around him. But even though the world was exploding around him…Mr. Cooper kept fighting. When asked by the only other person in his fighting position what the plan was, Mr. Cooper replied simply…”we fight, or we die”. Mr. Cooper never stopped fighting. The incoming fire did not stop, it was wave after wave of enemy troops all determined to destroy the outpost at Hill 54 and to kill every last American there.

With no air assets available to assist, the only friendly support was from a 175mm howitzer battery located many miles away. The normal safety buffer for the 175 is normally 900 meters from the target to the closest friendly unit, but here they had less than 50 meters between their position and the enemy. Having no other available choice, as there were absolutely no other friendly units anywhere near the area, the howitzer battery started providing close support for the outpost.

The fight raged nonstop for six hours, but the Americans held the hill…no matter what the enemy threw at them. It was not until 6:00 a.m. that the fight finally ended. The light from the rising sun brought the enormity of the situation into clear view and allowed the team to assess the situation. Even though 26 of the original 52 Americans were killed within the first hour and a half of the battle, the remaining team never stopped fighting. It was estimated that more than 340 of the enemy were killed during the attack, with countless more wounded. When Mr. Cooper looked at the other US firing positions, he notice that almost all of them had been destroyed by the same rocket-propelled grenades that took out the mortar team. It was then he noticed that his position had in fact been hit by an RPG, but it was laying unexploded at his feet.

Later in the morning, a relief force was sent in to extract the wounded and staff and resupply the outpost. The incoming men could not believe the devastation they were seeing. In a final act of defiance to the enemy, the remaining 13 men stayed on that hill for three more weeks…ready to once again do whatever it took to defend the position.

Mr. Cooper was awarded the Bronze Star for his actions on Hill 54, but it took the Army 45 years to finally award Mr. Cooper and his company the Order of the Golden Spur…the only company to achieve that award from the Vietnam War. Thank you Mr. Cooper for your service and your sacrifice for our great country…you are a true American hero.

On a personal note, it was my true honor to be able to interview Mr. Cooper. This was the first time he has publicly shared his story, and I could tell it was not easy. Mr. Cooper is quiet and humble, a true American hero that would go completely unnoticed in almost every situation. I hope to be able to share several more parts of his service in future spotlights as Mr. Cooper faced action in three other major engagements, along with being ambushed two other times during his time in-county.

 

James Syler

James Syler is a veteran, local community leader, the incoming president of our local Kiwanis Club, and a supporter of VFW Post 4562 in Texarkana, Arkansas. We thank him for his efforts to document the real stories of what our local veterans experienced. We are grateful to those veterans that share their stories for the younger vets following them. These veterans with the VFW are there for each other with a whole lot more than just guidance to vet services. They are there to support each other on a much deeper level, mentally and emotionally and that is a wonderful thing. It is our honor to spotlight these great American heroes.

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After more than 30 years with radio and TV stations, I decided to do my own thing by blogging. It affords me the ability to stay super involved in the community, but still, have plenty of time with my 3 new granddaughters and other local projects.

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