May 11, 1969
Bloody 10-day battle at “Hamburger Hill” begins.
Hamburger Hill was the scene of an intense and controversial battle during the Vietnam War. Known to military planners as Hill 937 (a reference to its height in meters), the solitary peak is located in the dense jungles of the A Shau Valley of Vietnam, about a mile from the border with Laos.
The Vietnamese referred to the hill as Dong Ap Bia (or Ap Bia Mountain, “the mountain of the crouching beast”). Though the hill had no real tactical significance, taking the hill was part of Operation Apache Snow, a U.S. military sweep of the A Shau Valley. The purpose of the operation was to cut off North Vietnamese infiltration from Laos and enemy threats to the cities of Hue and Da Nang.
101st Airborne Division Attacks
Under the leadership of General Melvin Zais, commanding general of the 101st Airborne Division, paratroopers engaged a North Vietnamese regiment on the slopes of Ap Bia Mountain on May 10, 1969. Entrenched in well-prepared fighting positions, the North Vietnamese 29th Regiment repulsed the initial American assault, and after suffering a high number of casualties, U.S. forces fell back.
The soldiers of the North Vietnamese 29th Regiment—battle-hardened veterans of the Tet Offensive—beat back another attempt by the 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry on May 14. An intense battle raged for the next 10 days as the mountain came under heavy air strikes, artillery barrages and 10 infantry assaults, some conducted in heavy tropical rainstorms that reduced visibility to near zero.
Due to the bitter fighting and the high casualty rate, Ap Bia Mountain was dubbed “Hamburger Hill” by journalists covering the Vietnam War. Speaking to a reporter, 19-year-old Sergeant James Spears said, “Have you ever been inside a hamburger machine? We just got cut to pieces by extremely accurate machine gun fire.”
Hamburger Hill Captured
On May 20, General Zais sent in two additional U.S. airborne battalions (the 1st Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment and the 2nd Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment), plus a South Vietnamese battalion as reinforcements for his increasingly disgruntled soldiers.
One U.S. soldier—who had fought in nine of the 10 assaults on Hamburger Hill—was quoted as saying, “I’ve lost a lot of buddies up there. Not many guys can take it much longer.”
Finally, in the 11th attack, the North Vietnamese stronghold was captured on May 20, when thousands of U.S. troops and South Vietnamese soldiers fought their way to the summit. In the face of the four-battalion attack, the North Vietnamese retreated to sanctuary areas in Laos.
Hamburger Hill Abandoned
On June 5—just days after the hard-won victory—Ap Bia Mountain was abandoned by U.S. forces because it had no real strategic value. The North Vietnamese re-occupied Hamburger Hill a month later.
Reports of casualties vary, but during the 10 days of intense fighting, an estimated 630 North Vietnamese were killed. U.S. casualties were listed as 72 killed and 372 wounded.
Legacy of Hamburger Hill
The bloody battle over Hamburger Hill and the fleeting victory resulted in a firestorm of criticism from anti-war activists. Outrage over what appeared to be a senseless loss of American lives was exacerbated by photographs published in Life magazine of U.S. soldiers killed during the battle.
On the floor of the U.S. Senate, Edward Kennedy scorned the military tactics of the Nixon administration. Kennedy condemned the battle for Ap Bia Mountain as “senseless and irresponsible.” General Creighton Abrams, commander of U.S. Military Assistance Command Vietnam, was subsequently ordered to avoid such intensive ground battles.
But not all the soldiers and military leaders agreed that Hamburger Hill was a wasted effort. Of the criticisms leveled at U.S. commanders, General Zais said, “Those people are acting like this was a catastrophe for the U.S. troops. This was a tremendous, gallant victory.”