The 'Battle of Hamburger Hill was a battle of the Vietnam War which was fought between the United States and South Vietnam and North Vietnamese forces from May 10 - May 20, 1969. Although the heavily fortified Hill 937 was of little strategic value, U.S. command ordered its capture by direct assault.
The battle was primarily an infantry affair, with the U.S. Airborne troops moving up the highly sloped hill against well entrenched troops. Attacks were repeatedly repelled by weather, friendly fire, accidents, and especially the highly effective Vietnam People's Army (PAVN) defenses. Nevertheless the Airborne troops took the hill through direct assault, causing extensive casualties to the PAVN forces, and taking such in their own units. The debacle caused an outrage both in the American military and public.
Assigned to Apache Snow were three airmobile infantry battalions of the 101st Airborne Division, commanded by Major General Melvin Zais. These units of the division's 3rd Brigade (commanded by Colonel Joseph Conmy) were the 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry (Lt. Col. Weldon Honeycutt); 2nd Battalion, 501st Infantry (Lt. Col. Robert German); and the 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry (Lt. Col. John Bowers). Two battalions of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam's (ARVN) 1st Division (the 2/1st and 4/1st) had been temporarily assigned to the 3rd Brigade in support. Other major units participating in Apache Snow included the 9th Marine Regiment; the 3rd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment and the 3rd ARVN Regiment.
The U.S. and ARVN units participating in Apache Snow knew, based on existing intelligence information and previous experience in the A Shau, that the operation was likely to encounter serious resistance from PAVN. Beyond that, however, they had little intelligence as to the actual strength and dispositions of PAVN units. Masters of camouflage, the North Vietnamese completely concealed their bases from aerial surveillance. When PAVN forces moved, they did so at night along trails under triple-canopy jungle. They effected their command and control mainly by runner and wire, leaving no electronic signature to monitor or trace. U.S. battalion commanders had to generate their own tactical intelligence by combat patrols, capturing equipment, installations, documents, and occasionally prisoners of war to provide the raw data from which to draw their assessment of the North Vietnamese order of battle and dispositions. It was this time-consuming and hit-or-miss task force which characterized the main efforts of Colonel Honeycutt's 3/187th Infantry during the first four days of the operation.
Initially, the operation went routinely for the 101st Airborne Division. Its units experienced only light contact on the first day, but documents captured by 3/187th indicated that the 29th PAVN Regiment, nicknamed the "Pride of Ho Chi Minh" and a veteran of the 1968 Tet Offensive assault on Hue, was somewhere in the valley. Past experience in many of the larger encounters with PAVN indicated the North Vietnamese would resist violently for a short time and then withdraw before the Americans brought overwhelming firepower to bear against them. Prolonged combat, such as at Dak To and Ia Drang, had been relatively rare. Honeycutt anticipated his battalion had sufficient capability to carry out a reconnaissance on Hill 937 without further reinforcement, although he did request that the brigade reserve, his own Bravo Company, be released to his control.
Honeycutt was a protégé of General William C. Westmoreland, the former commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam. He had been assigned command of the 3/187th in January and had by replacement of many of its officers given it a personality to match his own aggressiveness. His stated intention was to locate the VPA force in his area of responsibility and engage it before it could escape into Laos.
For the next two days, Honeycutt maneuvered his companies toward positions for a coordinated battalion attack on May 13 but was frustrated by both difficult topography and North Vietnamese resistance. One unit, Delta Company, descended into a steep muddy ravine on May 12 in a flanking maneuver, suffered numerous losses, and was unable to extricate its casualties for two days. The company eventually returned to the battalion LZ on May 15 without participating in the assault.
Map reconnaissance and helicopter overflights had not indicated that the initial scheme of maneuver was impractical, but the three contacts indicated that the North Vietnamese strength was greater than originally estimated, had likely received reinforcements from Laos, and were entrenched in well-concealed bunkers. The North Vietnamese absorbed and inflicted heavy losses, foreshadowing the heaviest fighting to come.
The 3/187 conducted multi-company assaults on May 14 and May 15, incurring heavy casualties, while the 1/506th made probing attacks on the south slopes of the mountain on May 16 and May 17. The difficult terrain and well organized North Vietnamese forces continually disrupted the tempo of U.S. tactical operations on Hills 916, 900, and 937. Steep gradients and dense vegetation provided few natural LZs in the vicinity of the mountain and made helicopter redeployments impractical. The terrain also masked the positions of the 29th PAVN Regiment, making it nearly impossible to suppress anti-aircraft fire, while the jungle covered the movement of North Vietnamese units so completely that it created a nonlinear battlefield. PAVN soldiers, able to maneuver freely around the LZs, shot down or damaged numerous helicopters with small arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades, and crew-served weapons. The North Vietnamese also assaulted nearby logistical support LZs and command posts at least four times, forcing deployment of units for security that might otherwise have been employed in assaults. Attacking companies had to provide for 360-degree security as they maneuvered, since the terrain largely prevented them from mutually supporting one another. PAVN platoon- and company-sized elements repeatedly struck maneuvering U.S. forces from the flanks and rear.
U.S. battle command of small units was essentially decentralized. Though Honeycutt constantly prodded his company commanders to push on, he could to do little to coordinate mutual support until the final assaults, when the companies maneuvered in close proximity over the barren mountain top. Fire support for units in contact was also decentralized. Supporting fires, including those controlled by airborne forward air controllers, were often directed on the platoon level. Eventually human error led to five attacks by supporting aircraft on the 3/187th, killing seven and wounding 53. Four of the incidents involved Cobra gunship helicopters, which in one case were more than a kilometer away from their intended target.
The U.S. brigade commander ordered a coordinated two-battalion assault for May 18, with 1/506th attacking from the south and 3/187th attacking from the north, trying to keep the 29th PAVN Regiment from concentrating on either battalion. Fighting to within seventy-five meters of the summit, Delta Company 3/187th nearly carried the hill but experienced severe casualties, including all of its officers. The battle was one of close combat, with the two sides exchanging small arms and grenade fire within twenty meters of one another. From a light observation helicopter, the battalion commander attempted to coordinate the movements of the other companies into a final assault, but an exceptionally intense thunderstorm reduced visibility to zero and ended the fighting. Unable to advance, 3/187 again withdrew down the mountain. The three converging companies of 1/506th struggled to take Hill 900, the southern crest of the mountain, encountering heavy opposition for the first time in the battle.
Because of the heavy casualties already sustained by his units and under pressure from the unwanted attention of the press, Zais seriously considered discontinuing the attack but decided otherwise. Both the corps commander and the MACV commander, General Creighton W. Abrams, publicly supported the decision. Zais decided to commit three fresh battalions to the battle and to have one of them relieve the 3/187th in place. The 3/187th's losses had been severe, with approximately 320 killed and wounded, including more than sixty percent of the 450 experienced troops who had assaulted into the valley. Two of its four company commanders and eight of twelve platoon leaders had become casualties.
The battalion commander of the 2/506th, Lt. Col. Gene Sherron, arrived at Honeycutt's CP on the afternoon of May 18 to coordinate the relief. 3/187th was flying out its latest casualties, and its commander had not yet been informed of the relief. Before any arrangements were made, Zais landed and was confronted by Honeycutt, who argued that his battalion was still combat effective. After a sharp confrontation, Zais relented, although he assigned one of Sherron's companies to Honeycutt as reinforcement for the assault.
The 3rd Brigade launched its four-battalion attack at 10:00 on May 20, including two companies of the 3/187th reinforced by Alpha Company 2/506th. The attack was preceded by two hours of close air support and ninety minutes of artillery prep fires. The battalions attacked simultaneously, and by 12:00 elements of the 3/187th reached the crest, beginning a reduction of bunkers that continued through most of the afternoon. Some PAVN units were able to withdraw into Laos, and Hill 937 was secured by 17:00.
The repercussions of the battle were more political than military. Questions raised by the media concerning the necessity of the battle stirred controversy for weeks after the fighting ended. These issues flared up again when the new commander of the 101st Airborne Division, Major General John W. Wright, quietly abandoned the hill on June 5. The debate over "Hamburger Hill" reached the United States Congress, with particularly severe criticism of military leadership by Senators Edward Kennedy, George McGovern, and Stephen M. Young. In its June 27 issue, Life Magazine published the photographs of 241 Americans killed in one week in Vietnam, considered a watershed turning point in the war. While only five of these were casualties on Hamburger Hill, many Americans had the perception that all the dead were victims of the battle.
The controversy of the conduct of the Battle of Hamburger Hill led to a reappraisal of U.S. strategy in South Vietnam. As a direct result, to hold down casualties, General Abrams discontinued a policy of "maximum pressure" against the North Vietnamese to one of "protective reaction" for troops threatened with attack, while President Richard Nixon announced the first troop withdrawals. Although the battle did not have the most U.S. KIAs of any single engagement, nonetheless the battle became a turning point in the war.
In 1987, a movie about the battle was released, called Hamburger Hill.