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How I Wrote Hamburger Hill

By Samuel Zaffiri 
Originally published by Vietnam magazine. Published Online: May 08, 2009 
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People often ask me how I came to write Hamburger Hill. It's a long story, but oddly it's a story that doesn't begin on Hamburger Hill. The story begins instead on a 1st Infantry Division firebase called Oran. In early February 1969, the 1,000-man 101st NVA regiment launched a ground assault against Oran from two directions. My 4.2 mortar platoon, in which I was a charge cutter, spent the next five hours helping to blunt the enemy attack.

With my tape recorder running, I spent 10 days at Honeycutt's Florida home, and got a thorough picture of all the decisions he and other commanders made during the fight.

Heavy fighting continued around Oran for the next week or two. When it ended, my platoon was flown to Lai Khe for a stand down. While there, fate, in a bizarre twist, set in motion a chain of events that would end with my publishing Hamburger Hill. One night while sleeping on a cot next to my mortar, a drunken soldier from my platoon, for reasons still unknown to me, suddenly attacked me and broke my jaw in two places, requiring surgery. I was at an Army hospital in Japan recovering from surgery on May 10, when the fight began for Dong Ap Bia, or as it would soon be called, Hamburger Hill.

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I'd had some success as a writer in college, and had seriously entertained the idea of writing a novel about Vietnam. However, as the wards around me began filling up with wounded from Hamburger Hill, and as I listened to these men describe their experiences there, I forgot about my novel. Hamburger Hill was the story I needed to write.

Upon my discharge from the Army, my decision to write about Hamburger Hill hit the brick wall of publishing reality. As one literary agent told me in 1970, people were sick of reading about Vietnam and just wanted to forget the war. However slowly, this attitude began changing so that by the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Vietnam War had become a hot—and saleable—topic again. Soon, not only were quality books about the war selling well, they were also becoming bestsellers.

So, when I dusted off my Hamburger Hill file in 1985, I pleasantly discovered that a number of publishers were interested in the story of the battle. My prospects grew even better when I found that the then retired Brig. Gen. Weldon Honeycutt—the man whose battalion carried the brunt of the fighting for the hill—was more than willing to tell me his story. With my tape recorder running nearly nonstop, I spent 10 days at Honeycutt's Florida home and got a thorough picture of all the decisions that he and other commanders made during the fight.

Next, I loaded my tape recorder in my truck and hit the road. For a month and a half, I traveled more than 10,000 miles and interviewed 48 veterans of the battle. From these men, I got the whole story of the battle from the squad, platoon and company levels. Hearing their recollections of the battle for Hamburger Hill was riveting for me and often emotionally intense for the men who were reliving the most desperate days of their lives. More times than not I had men breaking down in tears as they recalled the battle.

Writing Hamburger Hill proved more difficult than I thought it would be because I had to successfully mix together the fighting on the ground, with decisions being made at the battalion, brigade and division level. In despair, at one point I came very close to abandoning the book. I hung on, however, and in about four months completed the manuscript. I wasn't entirely happy with the finished product, but my editor at Presidio Press was. She told me the book was great and predicted that it would be in print forever.

So far she's been right about the print run. After Presidio published the hardback edition in 1988, Pocket Books brought out a mass-market paperback. That same year, it was the Featured Selection of the Military Book Club, was published in England and was nominated for a Pen/Martha Albrand Award. In 1999, for the battle's 30th anniversary, the book again was a Military Book Club Featured Selection and was published in a trade paperback edition by Presidio. After buying Presidio in 2006, Random House published yet another trade paperback of the book and brought out a mass-market paperback. In 2006 Oliver North prominently featured the book in a television documentary about the battle.

As proud as I am of the book's publishing history, I'm even prouder of how veterans of the battle have responded to it. One, Tony Bresina, wrote me that he thought the book so "moving" that it gave him "goose bumps." Timothy Ard wrote me that he was likewise moved and thought it "incredible that what you write could effect me this way."  My most memorable letter, however, came from James Mangiapane. He wrote that he had gotten the book as a Christmas present and that it was the best present he'd "ever received." +

Samuel Zaffiri is also the author of a 1994 biography of General William C. Westmoreland, Westmoreland, published by William Morrow.

For more on Hamburger Hill, see James Willbanks' article Hell on Hamburger Hill published in the June 2009 Vietnam magazine.

Click here to see TIMELINE of the Hamburger Hill battle, from the June 2009 Vietnam magazine.

Also see Colonel Harry G. Summers' (U.S. Army, ret.) article Battle for Hamburger Hill During Vietnam War, originally published in the June 1999 issue of Vietnam magazine.


10 Responses to “How I Wrote Hamburger Hill”


  1. 1
    robert post says:

    I was a sgt.with brovo co. 1/28 inf. 1st inf div. We bulit oran 1.
    I was out on lp that night. My lp called in the first mortor barrage. Later that night they hit novembers side of oran. Yes it was one hell of a long night. Next morning there was nothing left standing inside the wire. One side had a hole blown in it so big you could drive a semi thru it sideways. Glad to you made it back to the world in one piece.
    bob

    • 1.1
      Gerald Slaughter says:

      Robert. I was Bravo Company/November platoon squad leader that night. Was quiet a night. Also was there for building of Oran.Would like to hear from you.

      • 1.1.1
        bob post says:

        Slaughter

        Yes I remember your name ( one of the few I remember).
        Oran was a fun place along with FSB DOT. Remember that night ???
        Just got word of your posting from historynet.com today 9/27 14.

        YES !!!! I would love to talk with you.

        bob

  2. 2
    Jadyn Zafffiri says:

    Hi Grandpa Sam it's Jadyn:)

  3. 3
    Mike Kerber says:

    I was with the 2/319th artillery just after Hambuger Hill. Your account of the attack of FB Airborne helped me know what went on in the A Shau valley with 2 of our batteries—C and B. I was with battery A.
    I would like to meet you some day.

    In April of 2013 I am going back to Vietnam. One place on my trip will be A Luoi

  4. 4
    Ann Ard Atnip says:

    I would love for someone to read my brother's book to see if it could be published. His name was Sgt. Tim Ard, 101st airborn.and he was on Hamburger Hill on the week of May and lived to tell the story of reaching the top of the hill. I have let several people read it, they said it should be published. but they aren't publishers.
    It is a fantastic book and I think the country would love it.'I jsut need someone to tell me.
    He passed away on March 5, 91994 after a long battle with stomach problems and supposedly Agent Orange although the Dr. wouldn't come out and say it.
    Please contact me if you are interested.
    Cheryl Ann Atnip
    (405-550-9700)
    2516 Easy Street
    Denison, Texas 75020

    Thank you

  5. 5
    Ernie Calvert says:

    I was on the first chopper that went into Veghel. We had to bail out of the chopper because there was no landing it. I have been looking for other soldiers that were on the first lift which was the 2nd platoon. I have only found 1. Possibly 2 as I haven't been able to contact the second one yet. My question is do you have a list of the names of the soldiers in the 2nd? Or know where I could get a list? I knew a lot of them by nickname only. Thank you. Ernie Calvert.

  6. 6
    Cathy Hooper Harris says:

    Did you know Steven Dale Hooper?

  7. 7
    Gerald Slaughter says:

    Bob, got to figure out how to take this conversation private, Are you on face book?

  8. 8
    robert post says:

    Slaughter

    I just joined face book today

    Look for my avatar in stead of a picture.
    you will know it when you see it ( if not shame on you )
    Look forward to hearing from you.

    bobso



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