101st Airborne Division at Hamburger Hill –
The Battle of Hamburger Hill was fought May 10-20, 1969, during the Vietnam War (1955-1975). In late spring 1969, American and South Vietnamese forces commenced Operation Apache Snow with the intent of driving North Vietnamese troops from the A Shau Valley. As the operation moved forward, heavy fighting developed around Hill 937. This soon became the focus of the battle and additional American forces were committed with the goal of securing the hill. After a grinding, bloody fight, Hill 937 was secured. The fighting on Hill 937 was covered extensively by the press who questioned why the battle was necessary. This public relations problem escalated when the hill was abandoned fifteen days after its capture.
In 1969, US troops began Operation Apache Snow with the goal of clearing the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) from the A Shau Valley in South Vietnam. Located near the border with Laos, the valley had become an infiltration route into South Vietnam and a haven for PAVN forces. A three-part operation, the second phase commenced on May 10, 1969, as elements of Colonel John Conmey’s 3rd Brigade of the 101st Airborne moved into the valley.
Among Conmey’s forces were the 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry (Lieutenant Colonel Weldon Honeycutt), 2nd Battalion, 501st Infantry (Lieutenant Colonel Robert German), and the 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry (Lt. Colonel John Bowers). These units were supported by the 9th Marines and the 3rd Battalion, 5th Cavalry, as well as elements of the Army of Vietnam. The A Shau Valley was covered in thick jungle and dominated by Ap Bia Mountain, which had been designated Hill 937. Unconnected to the surrounding ridges, Hill 937 stood alone and, like the surrounding valley, was heavily forested.
Terming the operation a reconnaissance in force, Conmey’s forces began operations with two ARVN battalions cutting the road at the base of the valley while the Marines and 3/5th Cavalry pushed towards the Laotian border. The battalions from the 3rd Brigade were ordered to search and destroy PAVN forces in their own areas of the valley. As his troops were air mobile, Conmey planned to shift units rapidly should one encounter strong resistance. While contact was light on May 10, it intensified the following day when the 3/187th approached the base of Hill 937.
Sending two companies to search the north and northwest ridges of the hill, Honeycutt ordered Bravo and Charlie companies to move towards the summit by different routes. Late in the day, Bravo met stiff PAVN resistance and helicopter gunships were brought in for support. These mistook the 3/187th’s landing zone for PAVN camp and opened fire killing two and wounding thirty-five. This was the first of several friendly fire incidents during the battle as the thick jungle made identifying targets difficult. Following this incident, the 3/187th retreated into defensive positions for the night.
Over the next two days, Honeycutt attempted to push his battalion into positions where they could launch a coordinated assault. This was hampered by difficult terrain and fierce PAVN resistance. As they moved around the hill, they found that the North Vietnamese had constructed an elaborate system of bunkers and trenches. Seeing the focus of the battle shifting to Hill 937, Conmey shifted the 1/506th to the south side of the hill. Bravo Company was airlifted to the area, but the remainder of the battalion traveled by foot and did not arrive in force until May 19.
On May 14 and 15, Honeycutt launched attacks against PAVN positions with little success. The next two days saw elements of the 1/506th probing the southern slope. American efforts were frequently hindered by the thick jungle which made air-lifting forces around the hill impractical. As the battle raged, much of the foliage around the summit of the hill was eliminated by napalm and artillery fire which was used to reduce the PAVN bunkers. On May 18, Conmey ordered a coordinated assault with the 3/187th attacking from the north and the 1/506th attacking from the south.
Final Assaults: Storming forward, Delta Company of the 3/187th almost took the summit but was beaten back with heavy casualties. The 1/506th was able to take the southern crest, Hill 900, but met heavy resistance during the fighting. On May 18, the commander of the 101st Airborne, Major General Melvin Zais, arrived and decided to commit three addition battalions to the battle as well as ordered that the 3/187th, which had suffered 60% casualties, be relieved. Protesting, Honeycutt was able to keep his men in the field for the final assault.
Landing two battalions on the northeast and southeast slopes, Zais and Conmey launched an all-out assault on the hill at 10:00 AM on May 20. Overwhelming the defenders, the 3/187th took the summit around noon and operations began to reduce the remaining PAVN bunkers. By 5:00 PM, Hill 937 had been secured.
Due to the grinding nature of the fighting on Hill 937, it became known as “Hamburger Hill.” This also pays homage to a similar fight during the Korean War known as the Battle of Pork Chop Hill. In the fighting, US and ARVN forces suffered 70 killed and 372 wounded. Total PAVN casualties are unknown, but 630 bodies were found on the hill after the battle.
Heavily covered by the press, the necessity of the fighting on Hill 937 was questioned by the public and stirred controversy in Washington. This was worsened by the 101st’s abandonment of the hill on June 5. As a result of this public and political pressure, General Creighton Abrams altered US strategy in Vietnam from one of “maximum pressure” to “protective reaction” in an effort to lower casualties.
US Casualties: 70 Killed 372 wounded
North Vietnamese: 630 Killed
The Giant Killer book details the incredible life of the smallest soldier, Green Beret Captain Richard Flaherty along with the harrowing stories from the men of the 101st Airborne in Vietnam. The Giant Killer FB page honors these incredible war heroes making sure their stories of valor and sacrifice are never forgotten. God Bless our Vets!
Story by Kennedy Hickman