The Sad Case of SSgt Hambleton

Medic was not present when staff sergeant Mark Hambleton hit the trip wire of an Automatic Ambush, which detonated the Claymores, which exploded and killed him. In 2003 Kirk Anderson sent this harrowing eye witness account. Other recollections follow. For reasons that will become clear Medic has waited until now to publish them.

“Hambleton was killed and three or four men were WIA. We were in the second platoon, not the 4th Platoon. The 4th didn’t walk into the 2nds AA [automatic ambush]. We walked into our own Claymores. Please pass this on to your friend in the 4th.

4th platoon M 79 man Jessie Mobley on patrol. Song Be, 1970. Photo: Mike HudzinskiI’ll explain exactly what happened: He was right about us still humping along the trail. When I read that part, I remembered. We were having a hard time finding a turnoff point for the night. We normally turned off the trail and went up the side of a hill, found a flat spot, then bedded down for the night. That night we were having a hard time finding a spot to turn off, so we kept going. I remember our CO was a major. He was replaced later with a lieutenant. Finally, we found a small beaten down path to turn off on,which led up the side of a small hill. My guess is that we proceeded up the small path about one hundred yards or so,found a fairly flat spot,and started to settle in.

To the best of my knowledge, it was about 5:20 PM, getting dark. Our CO told my squad (led by Mark) and another squad to go down and set up the Claymores. Our procedure was this: We would go back down the hill. When we hit the trail we had been on, one squad would go right, and the other would go left. We were supposed to go exactly one hundred fifty steps, stop and set up the Claymores. No more, no less.

We went left, Mark lead the way, and I happened to bring up the rear.  The other squad went right. We counted out our one hundred fifty steps, then two of our guys set up one Claymore on each side of the trail. By the time we got down there, set up our Claymores, and started to head back, it was about 5:35 to 5:45 PM and starting to get really dark and, it had started to rain, and the rain was getting heavier.

Our procedure was: whatever order you went down in, you came back in the reverse order; i.e., I was the last one down, so I was supposed to be the first one going back,and I was. I was leading the way back to the cutoff trail, when all of a sudden, Mark and another guy (an E-5) passed by me at a quickened pace. I remember asking Mark what the big hurry was. He told me it was raining harder, and he wanted to get back up to camp so he could set up his tent (poncho liner) before he got soaked.

Well, we kept walking and walking. Finally I realized that we had  U.S. soldiers are on the search for Viet Cong hideouts in a swampy jungle creek bed, June 6, 1965, at Chutes de Trian, some 40 miles northeast of Saigon, South Vietnam. (AP Photo/Horst Faas)walked too far and must have missed our cutoff trail. Obviously, no one (including myself) bothered to count the one hundred fifty steps back to the cutoff trail. I guess everyone was in a hurry to get back and we figured we’d see the cutoff trail, and that was it. About that time ,others had realized this,too. I finally orally expressed this to the others, and they agreed. Unfortunately, it wasn’t in time. Before myself or anyone else could pass this on to Mark, he had tripped the wire to the Claymores.

I was looking right at it. It was a thunderous explosion, followed by an orange/red ball of fire. I could see Mark’s body about five or six feet in the air.

At that point, everyone hit the ground. At the time, we had no idea what had happened. We all thought Charlie had ambushed us, maybe had us pinned on both sides. Me and a few of the guys just opened fire, firing into the jungle, not up the trail. Then it was dead silent.

It must have been about two minutes or so that had gone by, when we realized no one was firing back at us. We carefully made our way up to Mark. We were still confused. Just didn’t know what the hell was going on, until the other two squads came down the hillside and appeared “behind” us. It was then that the reality had started to sink in. Now we knew for sure that we had missed out cutoff path, and Mark ran right into the Claymores. But we weren’t far enough past the cutoff path to be one hundred fifty steps away. It wasn’t until after we talked to that other squad leader that we found out he got lazy that night and only went down the trail about fifty steps or so, not the one hundred fifty steps he was supposed to. He said because it had started to rain, he decided to cut it short, set them up and get back to camp. It was just a series of horrible events: If It hadn’t of started raining, Mark wouldn’t have been in such a hurry; if someone had actually been counting the steps; we would have stopped sooner; had the other squad leader gone the full one hundred fifty steps, etc. etc.

We wrapped Mark’s body in a poncho liner and put it off the side of the trail until the next morning. The rest of us went back up the hill to our campsite. Other than Mark and that E-5 who was in real pain, I do not recall anyone else being injured. In fact, that E-5 stayed with me that night. I used both of our poncho liners to set up a double tent, and we shared the tent. Neither of us got any sleep, especially him. He had severe ear problems from the concussion.

It’s very possible there may have been one or two others that suffered head/hearing problems from the concussion. It was real chaotic. I felt the concussion myself. My ears were ringing for a couple of days. A couple of years after I got out of the Army, I ended up with tinnitus and a high frequency hearing loss. I suspect, but can’t prove that the concussion from that explosion damaged my ears, and it just took a couple more years to finish the job.

I remember our CO was screaming up a storm at that other squad leader, asking him why he didn’t go the full one hundred fifty steps. Why he cut it so short. Looking back, I cannot and will not ever fully know how bad that squad leader felt. He’s probably still carrying that around with him. I wish I could remember who it was. I’d like to speak to him and tell him it was just a series of unpredictable events. We were all to blame, not just him.

Anyway, four squads of men were milling around in complete shock…just numb. Everyone really liked Mark. He  The photo shows the plastic matrix attached to the backside of the front wall, with the steel shot ("BBs") embedded in it. The silver cylinders are the fuze wells. There are 2 kilos of C4 packed behind it. When detonated, the steel BB's are thrown forward like a big shotgun blast. Grunts pried apart Claymores for the C4. A small ignited chunk could boil water in less than a minute. The fumes were posinousnever complained. Just did his job like a pro. I remember the Doc, I think it was Doc Ellis, when he came down he tried in vain to save Mark. Someone had a flashlight on Mark. All those BB holes. About 2,000 or so I believe. 1,000 in each Claymore if I remember.* I could hear that horrible “gurgling” sound. I just closed my eyes and turned away.

So, in all the confusion and numbness, it’s possible others could have been injured, and simply went back to camp and dealt with it. I remember the next day, we must have spent three hours chopping down that damn forest so the helicopter could get the body. God it was thick. All I can remember is dead silence during that time. I remember helping to load Mark’s body on the helicopter, and that E-5 getting on, but I don’t remember anyone else getting on, but after all these years, I could be wrong about that.

I may have forgotten some names and other things that happened over there after all these years, but I can assure you that the incident that I just described, happened exactly as I wrote it. I remember it like it happened yesterday.

So, maybe I just read that part about the 4/6 (fourth platoon) running into the 2/6 AA incorrectly.  Anyway, please pass this along to your friend. I’m sorry this is such a long email, but I thought maybe he would like to know exactly what happened that night.

Again, thanks so much for all your help, Marc! And a big hello to “You,” Marc’s friend in the 4th!”

In 2010 Medic received this recollection from Carl Lee, squad leader of 4th platoon:

“You talked about SSgt. Mark Hambelton. Did he graduate from the University of Hawaii Soldiers on patrol. Photo: Charlie Haughey, 25th Infantry 68-69and if memory serves me right, he was a short guy with a moustache? I’m not sure, but if he’s the one that walked into a AA during a light rain at dusk, then it was a Directional AA that our platoon had put out to the right of our perimeter and his platoon had to put an AA to the left. On the way back to the small trail to our night perimeter, he walked on the left side of his platoon and they had missed the trail and walked into the AA we had set up. I felt bad about it, as I had set the trip wire on our AA. The Army sent out a team to investigate and they determined that it was an accident and blamed the light rain and impending darkness, for them missing the trail to the perimeter. I still feel bad about it to this day, but time heals a lot of things and I’m okay.”

In 2012 Medic received this account from 2nd platoon machine gunner Bob Behrens:

“I think I remember Kirk Anderson, the name sounds familiar. I think he was a transfer from the Fourth Infantry Division, maybe when they were pulling out of Nam, and he didn’t have enough time in-country to go home. Was he an E-5 at the time? Big burly looking guy? If it’s who I think he is, I have a picture of him, I just looked it up in my collection.

When I first met Mark, I had a great dislike for him. He was too bossy, lifer-like, a real Mr Know-It-All. It wasn’t until after 9-13-70, that I realized what he was trying to do. On that particular day we came across a fresh trail and ended up walking into an ambush. FNG Sgt Davis (?) was killed, an FNG medic blown apart, many were wounded. I was on the sixty and yelled to Sgt Hambleton  to cover me as I was moving up. It was a two hour ordeal. Several nights later, Mark and I shared a hootch. We talked, and that’s when I understood he was doing his best to keep us alive. After that day I had the utmost respect for him; a week later we lost him. It taught me a valuable lesson in life and I’ll remember it forever.

My gun team was not there when it happened. I stayed back with the other half of the platoon to set up a night Bob Berhens FNG photo taken first week in-country. Photo: Bob Berhensperimeter. It happened at the end of the day. We were setting up camp about thirty meters off the main trail. The CO had a squad go from second platoon, and I believe it was third platoon, to set up AA’s on the main trail. They were to go two hundred meters once they hit the main trail, one squad one way, the other squad the other way.

Second platoon went their two hundred and set up the AA. Third platoon set up their AA at one hundred meters so they could get back to camp and pitch their hooches for the night, as it was getting dark quickly. So third platoon was back to camp first, and because second platoon went the full two hundred meters, it took them longer to start back. (SSgt Hambelton was a stickler for doing things correctly). Once they started back it was getting dark fast so they were hustling. It seemed they were taking forever to reach the cut off to the camp. At one point the point man stopped and told Mark he was lost. Mark said he would find it and took five or six steps and walked into third platoons AA. At first second platoon thought the gooks had moved up the AA, but later the truth came out that the AA was not set up two hundred meters off the main trail.

The CO was bucking for major and had to cover up the story so he didn’t look bad. If I recall correctly, someone from third platoon was transferred out for screwing up on the AA. They didn’t bring the body back to camp that night, just covered it up with leaves and such and the next day a body bag was flown in and his body was retrieved.

Some day I’ll get up the nerve to visit the wall in Washington. I know what the results will be, a melt down, heck—I get teary eyed now just thinking about it. In my book, Mark Hambleton was a hero and always will be. Sorry this was so long. Garry Owens.”

In 2000, before Medic had contacted Kirk, Lee and Bob, Delta’s commanding officer told Medic that SSgt Hambleton, a Shake ‘N Bake, was head strong and arrogant and should have known better than to walk into an AA. The Silver Star, he said, was awarded for the sake of the grieving family, who were not told how Mark died.

Tributes have been written to Sgt. Hambleton on the digital Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. Among them are remembrances by Kirk Anderson, and SSgt Hambleton’s mother, Elenore, who died in 2013. They can be viewed here.

*Anatomy of a Claymore