On May 10, 1969, American Army and Marine forces were sent into dense jungle with orders to find and destroy the communist North Vietnamese Army (NVA) 29th Regiment reported by intelligence to be on a remote 937-meter high hill in South Vietnam’s A Shau Valley.
South Vietnamese forces backed up the Americans.
The hill was well fortified, with the enemy holding key hilltop trenches — their guns pointing down the steep slopes to dense jungle below. They’d carved a network of tunnels deep into the hill — some leading into Laos, only about a mile to the west.
Gen. Melvin Zais, commander of the famed “Screaming Eagles” 101st Airborne Division ordered the hill taken.
The North Vietnamese called the 101st the “Chicken Men,” referring to the bald eagle image on the shoulder patch. They’d never seen eagles. “Enemy commanders are said to have warned their men to avoid the Chicken Men at all costs because they were sure to lose any engagement with them,” one report said.
Operation Apache Snow was about to begin — a military sweep of the A Shau Valley to cut off North Vietnamese infiltration from Laos and enemy threats to Hue and Da Nang cities.
Helicopters flew in the troops to Hill 937. Entrenched NVA watched from hilltop — and waited.
On both sides many would die, and the press later named it the Battle of Hamburger Hill.
History often repeats itself.
That Vietnam battle would be uncannily similar to another on the Crimean Peninsula 115 years earlier.
Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote “Charge of the Light Brigade” — one of English literature’s most notable poems — telling about 600 British cavalrymen ordered to attack Cossacks and Russians manning cannons at the Battle of Balaclava in 1854.
It reads in part:
“Stormed at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of hell
Rode the six hundred…”
Robert O. Martin of Coeur d’Alene was in the 101st Airborne’s 3rd Brigade, 187th Infantry. “I got to Hamburger Hill a week after the fighting started,” he said. “The jungle was so thick you could hardly see the guy in front of you.
“That hill wasn’t real big, but it was steep, and tough to climb carrying all that gear, gun and ammo.
“I got hit by shrapnel, but so much was going on I didn’t even know there was shrapnel in me until it started popping out several days later. Anyway, I didn’t put in for a Purple Heart.”
The triple-layer dense jungle made it almost impossible to see the enemy from the air, hampering air support and making it difficult to find helicopter landing spots to pick up the wounded.
With casualties mounting and Hill 937 having no apparent strategic value apart from enemy troops being there, public criticism soon erupted.
“Was there a man dismayed?” Tennyson continued.
“Not though the soldier knew
Someone had blundered.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die…”
Few survived and historians consider the battle a disaster.
The commander was blamed.
Day after day, the 101st Airborne’s Third Brigade charged up Hamburger Hill, suffering heavy casualties. Artillery support whistled overhead pounding the enemy, and jet fighters scorched the hill with fiery streams of napalm.
But at day’s end the exhausted troops had to fall back, tend to the wounded, rest and reload.
Then they were ordered back up the hill, squad leaders urging the men on — echoing Shakespeare’s King Henry V rallying the troops at the Battle of Agincourt in 1215:
“Once more unto the breach dear friends, once more!”
Hollywood’s “Hamburger Hill” movie released in 1987 portrayed the horror of seeing comrades-in-arms killed and bodies torn apart causing tempers and racial tensions to flare.
“That may have happened in rear units, but I didn’t see it among the men fighting on the hill,” Bob Martin said. “We didn’t have time to grumble. We were too busy shooting at the bad guys and trying to stay alive.”
The Third Brigade attacked again — backed up by Marines and South Vietnamese units. They faced blistering enemy gunfire and the terror of hand-grenades tumbling down the hillside at them, causing still more casualties. The men advanced, only to fall back again.
One American soldier who’d already survived nine of the 10 assaults on Hamburger Hill said, “I’ve lost a lot of buddies up there. Not many guys can take it much longer.”
Tennyson: “Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.”
Then rain drenched Hill 937.
Air and artillery support had stripped away most of the vegetation that was cover for the attackers and the rain turned the ground into a mud slide — making slopes almost unclimbable.
On May 20 — the 11th day of fighting — the rain let up and a massive assault of thousands, including South Vietnamese forces finally reached the top.
Hamburger Hill was ours.
They found more than 600 North Vietnamese dead, many crushed when tunnels collapsed. The rest had vanished into other tunnels, carrying their wounded with them into Laos — then off limits to Allied ground forces.
The high U.S. casualties enraged the American public.
On the floor of the Senate, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) called the battle “senseless and irresponsible” and blamed it on the Nixon administration. Fellow Democrat Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota said much the same.
Gen. Zais disagreed. “Those people are acting like this was a catastrophe for the U.S. troops,” he said. “This was a tremendous, gallant victory.”
The press eagerly took the anti-war side, as protesters rioted in the streets against an increasingly unpopular war.
“They that had fought so well
Came through the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.”
On June 5, American forces abandoned Hamburger Hill.
A month later, the North Vietnamese took it back.
As remains of the American dead were flown back to the U.S., anti-war mobs howled that Hamburger Hill wasn’t worth it.
Then Life magazine published a misleading story about the battle, illustrated with photos of 241 dead Americans killed in one week, creating the perception that all had died at Hill 937. Only five of those depicted had.
Among the 57,939 names engraved on the black granite Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., 72 of them are soldiers who died at Hamburger Hill.
Not on the Wall are another 372 who were wounded.
Pete Seeger’s melancholy song asks:
“Where have all the soldiers gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Long time ago…”
Bob Martin served four tours in Vietnam. For gallantry in action at the Battle of Ia Drang in 1965, he was awarded the Silver Star Medal — the U.S. military’s third highest decoration.
He retired from the Army after 20 years of service.
He and his wife, Diane, moved to Idaho in 2014 — Bob serving two years as commander of the Coeur d’Alene Veterans of Foreign Wars, helping other vets.
“A lot of those guys are still hurting and I’m glad we could help them.”
Today, nearly 45 years after the war ended, veterans across America carry a quiet pride for having served in Vietnam, even though it was an unpopular war that America didn’t win.
But many of them would still rather not talk about it.
Deep inside though, they well remember the thump-thump-thump sound of Hueys, the rice paddies, the tropical heat, the carnage, the drugs, the chaos, mama-sans, boom-boom, Puff the Magic Dragon, “Good morning Vietnam!” and waiting for letters from home.
Many today still suffer from old combat wounds, and from Agent Orange, and from depression that won’t let go the haunting memories of the horrors of war, and of comrades who didn’t make it.
And they haven’t forgotten how back in the U.S., so many fellow Americans turned their backs on them while they were facing death in a faraway land — and then reviled them when they came home.
Happily, attitudes have changed, and Nam vets no longer face humiliation from churlish troublemakers who weren’t there.
Now they can spend their golden years in peace — enjoying the belated thanks of a grateful nation.
Bless ’em all …
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Contact Syd Albright at email@example.com.
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Losing a comrade…
“If you are able, save for them a place inside of you and save one backward glance when you are leaving for the places they can no longer go.
“Be not ashamed to say you loved them, though you may or may not have always. Take what they have taught you with their dying and keep it with your own.
“And in that time when men decide and feel safe to call the war insane, take one moment to embrace those gentle heroes you left behind.”
— Major Michael Davis O’Donnell
1 January 1970
Dak To, Vietnam
Listed as KIA Feb. 7, 1978
It’s the Band of Brothers…
“It’s not the generals and the colonels that win battles — it’s the soldiers, the people at the front.”
— General Wesley Clark, U.S. Army
In 1898, American reporter Richard Harding Davis wrote of a similar fight to take San Juan Hill in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. Colonel Teddy Roosevelt boldly led his Rough Riders, who were mostly on foot, while he rode one of the few horses that made it to the battle:
“There were a few men in advance, bunched together, and creeping up a steep, sunny hill, the top of which roared and flashed with flame… Behind these first few, spreading out like a fan, were single lines of men, slipping and scrambling in the smooth grass, moving forward with difficulty, as though they were wading waist high through water…It was a miracle of self-sacrifice, a triumph of bulldog courage, which one watched breathless with wonder.”
Ground combat units at Hamburger Hill…
• U.S. Army’s 3rd Battalion
• 187th Infantry Regiment, part of the 3rd Brigade
• 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile) “Screaming Eagles”
• 2nd Battalion, 501st Infantry
• 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry
• 9th Marine Regiment
• 5th Cavalry
• 3rd ARVIN Regiment (South Vietnamese)
Hamburger Hill name…
“Sergeant James Spears, a 19-year-old who fought in the battle, told reporters, ‘Have you ever been inside a hamburger machine? We just got cut to pieces by extremely accurate machine-gun fire.’”
— Barbara Maranzani, A&E History Channel
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