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May 31, 2019

HAMBURGER HILL (MEMORIAL DAY 2019)

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Guest blogger Cobb Hammond’s article on the savage battle fought in May, 1969, originally published in the MEMPHIS COMMERCIAL APPEAL on May 24, 2019.

As Americans this weekend memorialize the casualties of our war dead, a small band of US soldiers of the 101st Airborne division will recall in their collective memories, comrades in-arms of a battle during the Vietnam War. The Battle of Hamburger Hill fought 50-years ago this month, is seared into the memories of its participants; a struggle in the heavily contested A Shau Valley. Fought over a specific mountain, known as Hill 937, denoted for its height in meters (approx. 3 thousand feet), it was also called Dong Ap Bia by the North Vietnamese, which translates into ‘Mountain of the crouching beast’.

Part of a chain of mountain ridges and numerous valleys, it sat one mile from the Laotian border and contained multiple ridges and fingers that came off the summit. The slopes of Dong Ap Bia were covered in extreme overgrowth of sharp elephant grass up to 7 feet, thick bamboo groves and triple-canopy jungle, making daylight appear as dusk. The entire area was a support system for the North Vietnamese infiltrating supplies and men into the South, and the general vicinity contained roads for trucks, major supply depots and the like.  After increased enemy activity had been noted by army recon teams in the valley, Operation Apache Snow commenced on May 10, utilizing a Marine Corps regiment, multiple airborne battalions and allied S. Vietnamese forces as well.  The 3rd battalion, 187th Regiment of the 101st – also known as the “Rakkasans” would be tasked with finding the enemy, on or around 937 and eliminating him. This understrength infantry unit was at 65% strength at the outset of the campaign due to recent engagements contributing to the attrition of the units.   The commanding officer of the battalion was Lt. Colonel Weldon Honeycutt, a no-nonsense career soldier and North Carolinian who had joined the army as a teenager at the end of WWII.

Hamburger Hill
Photo by Shunsake Akatsuka

On the morning of May 10, a one and one-half hour prep of the battlefield commenced, with multiple batteries of artillery opening, followed by dozens of sorties by attack aircraft and helicopters firing their ordinance.  At 7 am transport helicopters inserted the initial element of forces into landing zones in the valley, with one mission: find the enemy and make contact.  The first day drew only light contact for Alpha and Charlie companies. Due to the rugged terrain, extreme heat and thick underbrush progress was slow. Bravo and Delta, which were kept in reserve choppered in on the second day and incorporated into the general scheme of the attack.  The 1st battalion of the 506th regiment was working working its way north toward the area as well, but due to the hazards of the terrain and constant ambushes by the enemy would not arrive until the latter part of the battle, leaving the ‘tactical’ burden to the four rifle-companies of the 3/187. 

As day 2 absorbed into 3, the fighting intensified, clearly indicating to the commander that they were facing more of the enemy to their front than originally thought. In fact, as the battle progressed, the enemy, North Vietnamese, were able to fortify their forces on the hill. Little did US troops know at the time that they were facing the 29th NVA Regiment, which had distinguished itself in other battles previously. On May 14, the fourth day, Col. Honeycutt decided to attack more aggressively and could not wait for reinforcements, so orders were given to B, C and D companies to attack from different vantage points. Unfortunately, the attacks were unable to be well coordinated due to the terrain and because enemy resistance had become extremely heavy.  C Company which was counterattacked several times took the highest casualties on the day, losing its First Sgt, two of three platoon leaders, the company exec. officer and six-squad leaders; all either killed or wounded.  To compound matters, a helicopter gunship flew in and shot-up friendly troops, killing two and wounding at least twelve, mistaking them for the enemy. This was the first of three cases of fratricide during the battle.  As day fell to night after a day of fighting, the American soldiers could see enemy cooking fires above, which was usually unheard of in an engagement like this and could hear enemy troops hollering down at the men of the 3st battalion as well.

The topography of the landscape favored defense, and conversely the enemy did well in fortifying positions. They had built earthen-log bunkers- some 6-8 feet deep, with crisscross firing angles to take advantage of the slopes. The slopes also harbored dozens of spider-holes, allowing for a quick burst of gunfire or grenade throw with the enemy then stealthfully melting back into the earth. The NVA also had dozens of light and heavy machine-gun emplacements strategically placed and manned.

Hamburger Hill
Photo from M. Taringa

May 18th and 19th again witnessed the depleted airborne companies making progress, then gradually having to dig in, move forward or back down the steep slopes as the fighting devolved into a slugfest on the squad level; with each company making its own progress on sheer will.

On the morning of May 20, ten US artillery batteries opened fire on the hill and fired for almost an hour, before dozens of air sorties by tactical aircraft came in with napalm and 250 lb. bombs on the now denuded mountaintop. As fire stopped, up went the riflemen, working their way up the slopes and ravines encountering lighter resistance than previously encountered, and making it to the summit within two hours.

After enemy stragglers were cleaned out, the bloody mess of Hamburger Hill ceased.  623 enemy dead were counted, with a much higher casualty rate no doubt noted, as many were crushed in their earthen graves from bombs or taken by their comrades into Laos.  Of the airborne troopers of the 3/187, 39 were killed and another 292 wounded, more than 70% of the battalion. Total US losses were 71 dead and 372 wounded.  The battle although tragic, did accomplish its strategic task, albeit a costly one.

Guest Blogger Cobb Hammond

On this most reverent of days, remember these men, many which spent their last breath in that hellish place.  And one which was the most seminal event of their lives.

Cobb Hammond of Memphis, TN is a ‘Financial Advisor’ who writes on military history, military affairs and composes poetry. Cobb can be contacted @ chammond40@yahoo.com.

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