The Battle for Hamburger Hill left such a big mark on the American psyche that it has appeared in films, documentary series, video games and even a rap song.
It wasn’t just one of the bloodiest moments in the Vietnam War, but it marked the turning point in strategy and public opinion towards the conflict – and could even have contributed to the beginning of the end for the armed resistance against the communist forces in the country.
Maybe the press back in America could have tolerated the loss of life if Hill 937 was of strategic value, or if the military had kept and occupied it after costing so much to take it. Maybe if the top brass had planned better, or if friendly fire had not killed seven and wounded 53 of their own men things would have turned out differently.
But they didn’t, and US soldiers died from wounds caused by their own fire as well as those from the North Vietnamese forces.
Because of the surrounding vegetation, the battle was mainly an infantry affair, with the U.S. Airborne troops moving against the well-entrenched enemy through the steep hillside and bad weather. The hill was eventually taken, causing much worse casualties to the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN).
The engagement came about due to Operation Apache Snow commencing, which had the aim of clearing the PAVN from the A Shau Valley in South Vietnam. This valley was situated near the border with Laos, and it had become a haven for the communist forces and a major infiltration route into the south.
This valley was heavily forested, and above it stood Ap Bia Mountain, otherwise known as Hill 937 – or Hamburger Hill. It was unconnected to the ridges that surrounded it, and it was covered in dense jungle like the valley that encapsulated it.
A three-part operation was planned to clear the area of enemy forces, and the second phase of that started on May 10th, 1969 as parts of Colonel John Conmey’s 101st Airborne, 3rd Brigade moved into the valley in the shadow of the hill that would claim so many lives.
Among the forces available to Conmey were the 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry, 2nd Battalion 501st Infantry and the 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry. Supporting was the 9th marines and the 3rd Battalion, 5th Cavalry as well as parts of the Army of Vietnam (ARVN)
The engagement began when the ARVN cut the road off at the base of the valley, while their American allies pushed forward the Laotian border with the Marines and the 3/5th Cavalry.
The task of destroying the PAVN forces in the valley was given to the 3rd Brigade, who were ordered to take out any and all enemy soldiers in their zones. Because Conmey’s troops were air mobile, his plan was to move them around the battlefield quickly should one unit require assistance – and heavier contact was quickly established on the May 11th when the 3/187th got closer to the foot of Hill 937.
It was on this day that one of the most tragic events of the whole battle took place, and one that would have revolted and disgusted the public back in the States – as well as damaged morale among the forces in Vietnam.
Lt. Colonel Weldon Honeycutt had control of the 187th Infantry, and he sent Charlie and Bravo companies to move up towards the summit of Hamburger Hill on different routes. Later on during that day, Bravo came up against fierce resistance by PAVN forces and gunships were sent in to provide some much-needed fire support.