Ten brutal days of miserable fighting on a jungle-shrouded mountain in the spring of 1969 left scores of American dead, hundreds wounded and fueled a raging outcry from the American body politic that irretrievable altered the course of U.S. military policy in Vietnam. Even though the valiant effort of U.S. troops was, in the end, successful in taking the hill and inflicting heavy enemy losses, the terrible prices of the drawn-out fight and its seeming senselessness—among some troops on the ground and the general public—made this one battle an enduring symbol of the overall futility of America’s war in Vietnam.
In their flak jackets, and heavily laden with grenades and extra ammunition, Honeycutt’s men moved up Hill 937 for yet another attempt.
The battle was the result of a renewed effort in early 1969 to neutralize the North Vietnamese forces in the A Shau, a 45-kilometer-long valley in southwestern Thua Thien Province along the border with Laos. The A Shau sheltered enemy Base Area 611 and had long provided a major infiltration corridor for Communist forces from the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos to the coastal cities of northern I Corps Tactical Zone.
The valley’s formidable terrain was dominated at its northern end by what local Montagnard tribesmen called the “mountain of the crouching beast,” Dong Ap Bia. On military maps it was simply Hill 937, so labeled for its height in meters. Several large ridges and fingers ran out from its summit, one of the largest extending southeast to a height of 900 meters and another reaching south to a 916-meter peak. The steep slopes of Dong Ap Bia were cloaked by a heavy undergrowth of sawtooth elephant grass, thick stands of bamboo, and double-and-triple canopy jungle. It was an area long occupied by the NVA and it was fortified with bunkers, spider holes, deep tunnels and trenches.
The battle of Ap Bia Mountain evolved as part of Operation Apache Snow, a follow-on to Operation Dewey Canyon, launched in the same area in January 1969 by the 9th Marines, 3rd Marine Division. During this operation, the Marines discovered that the North Vietnamese Army had constructed major roads in the area, and intelligence revealed that some 1,000 trucks were moving supplies into area base camps. During Dewey Canyon, the Marines captured 16 122mm guns, 73 anti-aircraft guns and more that 525 tons of materiel, including nearly 1,000 AK-47s and more than a million rounds of small-arms and machine-gun ammunition.
In March, MACV intelligence revealed that NVA forces were again building up their logistical systems in the A Shau. This new enemy presence posed a significant threat to Hue, Quang Tri and the other major I Corps cities and towns. Accordingly, Lt. Gen. Richard G. Stillwell, commander of XXIV Corps, ordered a campaign to eliminate the North Vietnamese in the area. Operation Apache Snow was phase two of a three-phase operation to clean out the valley. It was preceded by Operation Massachusetts Striker and would be followed by Operation Montgomery Rendezvous, each targeted against a different area of the A Shau.
Apache Snow called for the insertion of 10 battalions of American and South Vietnamese troops into the valley to disrupt the Communist buildup and destroy enemy forces. The allied troops for this operation included the 9th Marine Regiment, two battalions from the 1st ARVN Division, 3/5th Cavalry, and the 3rd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, which would make the initial combat assault. The Marines, 3/5th Cav and two other ARVN battalions would play supporting roles in the operation with 3/5th Cav clearing Highway 547, so it could be completed through the eastern mountains and pushed into the heart of the valley, while the 9th Marines operations would blunt any attempt to reinforce the northern end of the valley.
In the main attack plan for Apache Snow, the commanding general of the 101st Division, Maj. Gen. Melvin Zais, ordered Colonel Joseph B. Conmy Jr. and his 3rd Brigade into the A Shau to seek out and destroy the 29th NVA Regiment, known as the “Pride of Ho Chi Minh,” which was known to be operating in the area. Conmy’s brigade consisted of the 2nd Battalion, 501st Airborne (2-501); 1st Battalion, 506th Airborne (1-506); and the 3rd Battalion, 187th Airborne (3-187). For this operation, 3rd Brigade was to also have operational control of two ARVN battalions.
The operation was conceived as a reconnaissance in force; Conmy’s intent was to find the enemy and pile on. When one of his units made significant contact with the NVA, Conmy would reinforce it with one of the other units and maneuver his remaining forces to cut off the enemy’s retreat and destroy them. The 2-501 and 1-506 were to look for the enemy in their assigned operating areas and block enemy escape routes into Laos. The 3-187 drew the most difficult mission, which was to air assault into a landing zone 2,000 meters northwest of Hill 937 and move cross country to clear and occupy the mountain.
Conmy had little good intelligence on actual enemy strength or where they were specifically located in the A Shau. The U.S. forces had learned some from captured documents and equipment and the occasional prisoner, but the enemy was heavily camouflaged and conducted most major movements at night under radio silence and thus had not been detected. Still, Conmy knew that the North Vietnamese were in the area in force and spoiling for a fight; he was eager to oblige them.
The operation began on May 10 with a 74-minute prep of 30 potential landing zones in the A Shau by artillery, Cobra attack helicopters and close air support. At 0710 hours, after the prep fires were concluded, 64 Huey helicopters inserted the lead elements of the 1-506 and 3-187 into their assigned landing zones at the northern end of the valley.
There was only light contact throughout the first day. Alpha and Charlie companies of 3-187 had moved only a few hundred meters from their landing zones, however, when they discovered enemy huts and bunkers all along their lines of advance. Lieutenant Colonel Weldon F. Honeycutt, commander of the 3-187 “Rakkasans,” still was not sure what his battalion was facing, but it was clear that it had landed in an active NVA base area and that the enemy was in the area in significant numbers. Honeycutt, whose Bravo Company was being held in 3rd Brigade reserve at Firebase Blaze, called Colonel Conmy and requested release of his company. Conmy agreed and Honeycutt had it inserted into a landing zone east of Dong Ap Bia. Bravo arrived at about 1600 and moved out toward the mountain. The lead element of the company had a short but sharp fight at sunset, but Honeycutt ordered its commander to form a night defensive position and continue the attack in the morning.
The Rakkasans resumed their attack the next day, with Bravo and Alpha companies moving out toward the mountain’s summit by two different routes while Charlie Company conducted movement to the east toward the northern edge of Dong Ap Bia. Late in the day, Bravo Company came under intense machine gun and rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) fire from NVA troops dug into heavily fortified bunker positions on the hill. Cobra gunships and aerial rocket artillery were called in. As they attacked, they mistook the 3-187 command post for enemy and opened fire, killing two Americans and wounding 35, including the battalion commander. This was the first of five friendly fire incidents during the battle, caused by the thick jungle that rendered target identification very difficult. With the battalion CP in disarray, command and control in 3-187 broke down. Bravo Company, unable to move forward, withdrew into defensive positions for the night about 1,000 meters from the summit.
Over the next two days, Honeycutt, believing that the enemy occupied the mountain top with a reinforced platoon and maybe even a company, attempted to push his battalion into positions where he could launch a coordinated attack on Dong Ap Bia with three companies, each going up the mountain from a different direction. However, it would be difficult going for the American troops as they trudged through heavy jungle and rugged terrain. The enemy continued harassing them every step of the way, and in some cases pitched battles broke out. Delta Company, which had been securing the battalion CP, took more than five hours to advance 500 meters in the face of heavy enemy fire. The thick foliage and close proximity of friendly troops inhibited the use of indirect fire, further slowing any progress.
It was becoming clear that the Americans had grossly underestimated the enemy’s strength on the hill; it was much more than company strength, and was getting stronger every day as additional reinforcements arrived from Laos.
By May 13, the brigade commander realized that the hill was occupied by more NVA than the 3-187 could handle alone. Accordingly, he ordered the 1-506 north from its area of operations to assist Honeycutt by attacking cross-country to strike the NVA facing the 3-187 from the rear. Conmy expected that the 1-506, the “Currahees,” starting from their location some 4,000 meters south of Hill 937, would be in position to provide some relief to the 3-187 no later than the morning of May 15, but it would take 5 ½ days—until May 19—for the Currahees to reach a position where they could support the Rakkasans.
Not wanting to give the enemy a chance to reinforce and strengthen his position on the mountain, Honeycutt decided he could not wait for his sister battalion to arrive. On May 14, he launched a coordinated attack on Dong Ap Bia with three companies. He ordered Bravo to continue to attack up the main ridge while Charlie launched another attack up a small finger 150 meters south of Bravo. He ordered Delta to slide back down the ravine where it was located and attempt to launch a flanking attack up the north side of the mountain.
As the attack commenced, Bravo Company ran into heavy enemy fire from automatic weapons and Claymore mines. Charlie Company initially made rapid progress toward its objective, but the North Vietnamese counterattacked and in the ensuing fight, the unit lost its first sergeant, two of its three platoon leaders, the company executive officer, two platoon sergeants, six squad leaders and 40 enlisted men.
Meanwhile, Delta Company struggled to get into its assigned attack position, severely hampered by the difficult terrain and under constant enemy machine gun and RPG fire. It took until late afternoon for its troopers just to get off the ridgeline where they had spent the previous evening.
A dozen Rakkasans were killed and more than 80 were wounded in the day’s fighting. One of those killed and three of the wounded were victims of friendly fire, hit by helicopter gunships that mistook them for enemy soldiers.
By this time, both Honeycutt and Conmy realized that the North Vietnamese, who usually fought hard for a while before quitting the battlefield, were going to stand and fight on Dong Ap Bia. Honeycutt’s troopers had suffered heavy casualties, but had gained little ground in the bitter fighting. Knowing that his troops were heavily outnumbered, Honeycutt pleaded with Conmy to tell the 1-506 “to get their asses in gear!”
As dusk arrived on May 14, the survivors of the day’s fight assumed night defensive positions. After sundown, the Rakkasans could see enemy cooking fires, ominously dotting the mountainside above them—one trooper counting more than 100 of them running in three irregular rows all the way around the mountain. The enemy was still there and didn’t care if the paratroopers knew it; they would be waiting on the Rakkasans when they tried to take the hill again.
The next day, Honeycutt ordered his battalion to renew the attack. Alpha and Bravo companies once again headed up the hill. This time they made it to within 150 meters of the summit, but yet again, a helicopter gunship mistaking friendly troops for the enemy salvoed an entire rack of rockets into Bravo, pummeling the company command post, killing one American soldier and wounding the company commander. By this time in the battle, the two companies had lost a total of 36 men, taking both down to half-strength. Badly battered and growing demoralized, the companies withdrew back down the hill to take up night defensive positions—and prepare for the next day’s attack. Some of the soldiers began to question their orders, convinced that the whole mission was senseless.
Nevertheless, the battle continued. On May 16, the plan called for the 3-187 to continue its attack as before up the two ridges, but to hold short of the summit to exert pressure on the enemy defenses while the 1-506 assaulted from the west and south to sweep across the top of Hill 900 toward Hill 937. As the day unfolded, however, the 1-506 was stopped short after seizing Hill 916, still some 2,000 meters from the summit of Ap Bia itself. With the Currahees halted, Colonel Conmy ordered Honeycutt to postpone his attack to wait for the 1-506.
By this time, the news media had caught wind of the vicious battle raging in the A Shau. The Associated Press sent a reporter, Jay Sharbutt, to investigate the situation. After visiting the 3-187 command post and interviewing a number of soldiers in the area, he met with Zais. The general tried to explain to him why the battle was being joined on Dong Ap Bia, but the journalist was not satisfied with his explanation. In a subsequent newspaper account, Sharbutt described the bloody battle to the American public, writing, “The paratroopers came down the mountain, their green shirts darkened with sweat, their weapons gone, their bandages stained brown and red—with mud and blood.” He reported that one of the paratroopers said, “That damn Blackjack (Honeycutt) won’t stop until he kills every one of us.” Sharbutt’s gripping description of the “meatgrinder” battle horrified readers and set off a firestorm of protest that spread all the way to the floor of Congress.
On May 17, with the 1-506 having made little progress, the two-battalion attack up the hill was again postponed. While they waited for the arrival of the 1-506, Honeycutt directed his troops to prepare for the next assault up the mountain. They began stockpiling supplies, passing out new protective gas masks and bringing up concussion grenades for use against the dug-in NVA troops in the bunkers and trench lines.
On the 18th, with the 1-506 still some 500 meters from Hill 900 and nearly twice that distance from Hill 937, the brigade commander, not wanting to postpone the attack again, ordered a coordinated two-battalion assault with the 3-187 attacking from the north and 1-506 attacking from the south. In preparation for the new attack, Conmy threw every resource he had against the mountain. Starting at 0800, he hit the area with every available fighter-bomber, followed by a 60-minute artillery prep. He hoped that this pounding would allow the Currahees to initiate a breakout and get their attack on the mountain underway to alleviate some of the pressure on the 3-187.
In their flak jackets and heavily laden with grenades and extra rifle ammunition, Honeycutt’s men moved up for yet another attempt. The fighting was intense and progress was slow as gunships, artillery and mortar fire continued to pound enemy positions on the summit while the paratroopers clawed their way up the hill against heavy enemy fire.
In the middle of this swirling melee, there was yet another deadly and demoralizing incident of friendly fire. Cobra gunships mistakenly shot up a platoon from Bravo Company, killing one soldier and wounding four others. A livid Honeycutt ordered the attack helicopters out of the area.
Despite the fratricide, the attack ground on. Delta Company almost made it to the top of the hill as the battle degenerated into a close-quarters fight, with friendly and enemy troops separated by only a few meters. By this time in the battle, every officer in the company was killed or wounded and the unit had suffered more than 50 percent casualties.
Honeycutt ordered Charlie Company to the aid of Delta, but a sudden blinding rainstorm halted the attack and the Rakkasans again reluctantly withdrew back down the mountain. Meanwhile, on the south side of the ridge at Hill 900, a large enemy force in bunkers had the 1-506 pinned down.
General Zais arrived on the scene around this time and considered calling off the attack because of the heavy casualties and intense media attention but, backed by General Stilwell and General Creighton Abrams, MACV commander, he decided to continue the attack. He committed three additional battalions (2-501, 2-506 and 2-3 ARVN) to the battle and ordered the relief of the badly battered 3-187, which by now had suffered heavily in the repeated assaults up Dong Ap Bia. A and B companies had lost 50 percent of their original strength; C and D companies had each suffered 80 percent losses. Of the four original company commanders in the battalion, one was dead and one was wounded, and eight of 12 platoon leaders were casualties along with several NCOs.
Despite these losses, Colonel Honeycutt adamantly protested the relief of his battalion, demanding that his men, who had already paid such a high price, be allowed to continue the mission to take the hill, saying all he needed was one additional company. The division commander relented and left the 3-187 in the fight, giving Honeycutt a company from the 2-506 for the new attack.
The brigade plan for the next attack called for the insertion of two additional battalions to the northeast and southeast of Dong Ap Bia. While the 3-187 held the enemy in place on the western face of the mountain, the 1-506 and the other two battalions, 2-501 and 2/3 ARVN, would overrun the summit. Honeycutt again balked, saying his battalion was not going to sit on the side of the mountain to “get our asses shot off” waiting on the other units. He promised that the Rakkasans would take the mountain this time.
At 1000 hours on May 20, after 10 artillery batteries fired more than 20,000 rounds and 272 tactical airstrikes dumped more than 1 million pounds of bombs, and 152,000 pounds of napalm virtually denuded the top of the mountain, the 3-187 once again started up the mountain, supported by the 1-506, which renewed its attack on the southern side.
At 1145 hours, exactly nine days and five hours after Bravo first made contact on the mountain, the Rakkasans, reinforced with the additional company from the 2-506, took the summit—only to find that most of the enemy had already fled. The paratroopers began to clean out the remaining North Vietnamese from the bunkers and trenches, and intense fighting followed with about two enemy platoons that had apparently been ordered to hold until the end.
Finally, by 1700, the hill was secured. Soon after, a trooper cut out the cardboard bottom of a C-ration box, printed “hamburger hill” on it, and tacked it to a charred tree trunk near the western edge of Hill 937. Later, another soldier passing by scrawled underneath the question, “Was it worth it?”
This was a very good question. The seizure of Dong Ap Bia had been a costly affair. The 3-187 suffered 39 killed and 290 wounded; the total casualties for the mountain were 70 killed and 372 wounded. More than 600 enemy bodies were found on the hill when the battle was over. It will never be known just how many NVA were killed and wounded and were carried into Laos or were buried in collapsed bunkers and tunnels on the mountain, but a Special Forces patrol on the Laotian side of the border reported that some 1,100 enemy dead and wounded had been removed from the hill during the battle. What is without doubt, however, is that the 7th and 8th battalions of the 29th NVA Regiment had been virtually wiped out.
The fact that the American troops had prevailed made little impact on the outrage simmering at home in the wake of reporter Sharbutt’s newspaper accounts of the battle. In the Senate on May 20, Edward Kennedy of New York angrily denounced the attack on Ap Bia, charging that it was “both senseless and irresponsible to continue to send our young men to their deaths to capture hills and positions that have no relation to this conflict.” He proclaimed it “…madness…symptomatic of a mentality and a policy that requires immediate attention. American boys are too valuable to be sacrificed to a false sense of military pride.”
The Army responded. In a press conference, General Zais claimed “the only significance of Hill 937 was the fact that there were enemy on Hill 937, and that is why we fought him there.” Insisting that the battle had been a “tremendous, gallant victory,” he elaborated that he had received no change in mission and that the battle for Ap Bia was in keeping with the guidance to exert “maximum pressure” on the enemy.
The intensity of the controversy heightened on June 5 when orders were given to abandon Dong Ap Bia. Just two weeks later, military intelligence reported that more than 1,000 North Vietnamese Army troops had moved back into the area and reoccupied Dong Ap Bia as soon as the U.S. and ARVN forces withdrew.
Further incensed, Sen. Kennedy asked from the Senate floor, “How can we justify sending our boys against a hill a dozen times, finally taking it, and then withdrawing a week later?”
Media reaction was likewise sharp. An article in The New York Times declared “the public is certainly entitled to raise questions about the current aggressive posture of the United States military in South Vietnam.” The June 27, 1969, issue of Life magazine ran the photos of 241 servicemen killed in Vietnam the previous week, including five who had died in the assault on Hill 937. Many readers no doubt thought that all those pictured had died at Hamburger Hill.
The battle for Dong Ap Bia came at a time when support for the war was on a steeply downward path. A February 1969 poll revealed that only 39 percent of the American people still supported the war, while 52 percent believed sending troops to fight in Vietnam had been a mistake. While a tactical success in keeping the North Vietnamese off balance in I Corps, the battle for Hamburger Hill resulted in a public outcry against the seemingly meaningless nature of the struggle, which resulted in such a bloody expenditure of lives only to have U.S. forces abandon the battlefield shortly after the fighting was over.
For much of the American public, Hamburger Hill crystallized the frustration of winning costly battles without ever consummating a strategic victory. The battle had been won but at a very high price—then only to be abandoned for the Communists to reoccupy. Giving up such hard-won territory seemed to typify the purposelessness of the war. To many Americans, it served as proof of the Nixon administration’s failure to make any substantive changes to the American approach in Vietnam.
The controversial battle ultimately led to a reappraisal of U.S. strategy in the Vietnam War. Nixon administration officials admitted to Hedrick Smith of The New York Times that such costly victories would further undermine public support for the war and thus shorten the administration’s time for successful negotiations that were ongoing in Paris. The public outcry against the seemingly senseless bloodshed at Hamburger Hill appears to have had an impact on deliberations in the Nixon administration about the way ahead in the war. If the president was going to have time to achieve “peace with honor” as he had promised in his election campaign, he had to make sure there were no more Hamburger Hills. He gave explicit orders to General Abrams that he was to “conduct the war with a minimum of American casualties.”
Shortly thereafter, Nixon announced that he intended to “Vietnamize” the war and, concurrent with that effort, the United States would begin withdrawing troops from Vietnam. He subsequently announced that the first contingent of 25,000 U.S. troops would depart for home by the end of August. On August 15, General Abrams received a new mission statement for MACV instructing him to focus his efforts on assisting the South Vietnamese armed forces “to take over an increasing share of combat operations.” Moreover, MACV was to assist the Republic of Vietnam “in assuming full responsibility for the planning and execution of national security and development programs at the earliest feasible date.”
Perhaps Colonel Harry Summers best summed up the impact of the Battle of Hambuger Hill on its 30th anniversary: “The expenditure of effort at Hamburger Hill exceeded the value the American people attached to the war in Vietnam. The public had turned against the war a year and a half earlier, and it was their intense reaction to the cost of the battle in American lives, inflamed by sensationalist media reporting, that forced the Nixon administration to order the end of major tactical ground operations.”
Hamburger Hill proved to be the last campaign in General William Westmoreland’s discredited attrition strategy and it was also the last battle in which the outcome was determined by enemy body count. Before Hamburger Hill, the U.S. forces were still seeking victory on the battlefield; after Hamburger Hill, they were only seeking a way out.
Retired Army officer James H. Willbanks is the director of the Department of Military History, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kan. A Vietnam veteran, he is also the author of several books including The Tet Offensive: A Concise History, Abandoning Vietnam, and the forthcoming work to be published by Facts on File,Vietnam War Almanac.
Samuel Zaffiri’s book Hamburger Hill was a Featured Selection of the Military Book Club when it was published. Click here to learn how he came to write it.