A historian gains a new perspective on Hamburger Hill.
In September 2014 I made the first of three trips to Vietnam. I was writing a book to tell the story of Americans who fought in the war. I had interviewed many veterans who served, and now I wanted to walk some of the ground marked by major American combat.
Traveling with a small group along the canals and waterways of the Mekong Delta, I began to understand what men meant when they called it a scary place. We also spent several days in what had been called I Corps, the military’s designation for South Vietnam’s northern region, where we visited battle sites at obscure places like Needlepoint, The Rockpile and Mutter’s Ridge, as well as the more well-known Khe Sanh and Hue. Then four of us set out from Hue for the A Shau Valley and afterward traveled down to the Central Highlands.
With me was Vietnam veteran Bruce Jones, who served in the U.S. Army and was now a guide with Military Historical Tours, which helped organize my trip. We had a Vietnamese guide and interpreter, Tran Thanh, and a driver. Our first stop in the A Shau Valley was Dong Ap Bia, a mountain labeled Hill 937 by the U.S. military and known by the soldiers as Hamburger Hill, where more than 70 Americans died and hundreds were wounded in a brutal battle fought May 10-20, 1969.
On our journey to the mountain, we met with three North Vietnamese veterans of the battle in the village of A Luoi. I interviewed them, and two accepted my invitation to join our climb up Dong Ap Bia on a trail maintained by the Vietnamese government. We saw no one else on the hill that day.
After a brief rain shower, the path was steep and slippery. Stone steps helped in some of the steepest or most difficult places. Bruce counted 922 of them. As I stumbled and slid and sweated, I wondered how the young men of the 101st Airborne Division had clamored up the hill in 1969. Knowing they were more than 50 years younger was not a sufficient explanation—I wasn’t carrying 50 or more pounds of equipment and ammunition. It took 10 days for the soldiers who reached the top. We did it in about two hours, but no one was shooting down at us. Some of the American units that arrived on the first day of battle suffered 70 percent casualties.
Our trail went up the eastern side of the mountain, while the sustained fighting and the initial landing zone were to the west, nearer Laos. The west side didn’t have a road or trail when we were there, and the Vietnamese warned us to avoid that area because of unexploded ordnance. Climbing through the dense jungle, we would sometimes pass old tree trunks with bullet holes and large puddles of water in bomb or artillery craters. Occasionally the two North Vietnamese Army veterans pointed out a small squared hole, what U.S. troops called a “spider hole,” a camouflaged opening that probably led to an underground network of enemy tunnels and storage areas.
At the top, we sat at the monument the Vietnamese built to commemorate their “great victory.” I decided not to remind the North Vietnamese veterans that there was no great victory for them, certainly not on that hill in May 1969. I asked what they had learned from the 11 days of intense combat. They learned they could stand and fight against American firepower. But they also came to respect our soldiers. All these years later, they still could not believe that these young Americans, despite heavy casualties, climbed the hill day after day to assault the North Vietnamese bunkers.
This year, as we mark the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Hamburger Hill, is a good time to reflect on the soldiers who fought with relentless determination until they defeated the enemy force. The battle captured the attention of people back in the States. It became a focus and symbol of much of the controversy about the Vietnam War as the American public debated whether lives had been senselessly lost fighting over a hill that U.S. forces abandoned shortly after their victory. Regardless, the battle reflected the remarkable courage of the generation that fought and sacrificed there.
Before our small group at the hilltop monument began the walk down that September day in 2014, I shared a story. After my service with the Marines in 1960, I went home to Galena, Illinois, an old mining town. Among other jobs, I worked in zinc mines, including time as a powderman setting dynamite charges. My boss, Clarence Lyden, was a Purple Heart World War II veteran. His son Michael was a bright, engaging young man. I liked him a lot and was deeply saddened when I learned that he had been killed at Hamburger Hill on May 14, 1969, while serving with the 101st Airborne’s 187th Infantry Regiment. He was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade and died instantly.
I interviewed some of the men who served alongside Mike, a sergeant well-regarded by his platoon and by his platoon leader, who saw him die. They said he was a good soldier and a natural leader. Mike’s family shared his correspondence, and there’s no indication that he spent a lot of time thinking about the cause. Mike was focused on his men, his own safety and coming home.
After I told the North Vietnamese veterans about Mike, I pulled from my pocket a piece of lead sulfide, about 1 inch square. The Latin name for this cubed form of lead is galena. I picked it up while working in Galena’s Graham mine 50 years earlier. I had kept it on my desk for many years, and now I had a new home for it.
I buried that chunk of lead sulfide on the top of Dong Ap Bia. Mike Lyden never made it to the top of the hill, but now a piece of his hometown is there. I am confident that the galena will outlast the red clay of that desolate mountain in Vietnam.
James Wright, author of Enduring Vietnam: An American Generation and its War, provides an overview of the Hamburger Hill battle and its historical significance in “The Capture of Hamburger Hill.”
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