“Don’t mean nothin’.” That was the refrain of the powerful 1987 movie about the battle for Hamburger Hill, more correctly called Ap Bia Mountain or Hill 937. Many veterans of that May 1969 fight would no doubt agree, since the hill was abandoned to the enemy soon after it was taken. But the truth is that it was one of the most significant battles of the war, for it spelled the end of major American ground combat operations in Vietnam.
The Hamburger Hill battle had run afoul of a fundamental war-fighting equation. Master philosopher of war Karl von Clausewitz emphasized almost a century and a half earlier that because war is controlled by its political object, “the value of this object must determine the sacrifices to be made for it both in magnitude and also in duration.” He went on to say, “Once the expenditure of effort exceeds the value of the political object, the object must be renounced.” And that’s exactly what happened. The expenditure of effort at Hamburger Hill exceeded the value the American people attached to the war in Vietnam. The public had turned against the war a year and a half earlier, and it was their intense reaction to the cost of that battle in American lives, inflamed by sensationalist media reporting, that forced the Nixon administration to order the end of major tactical ground operations.
This was not the first time the American public had stopped supporting a war. Contrary to widespread belief, Vietnam is not the most unpopular war in American history. The Mexican War in 1848 was far more unpopular, as was the 195053 war in Korea. The majority of Americans supported the war in Vietnam from the landing of the Marines in Da Nang in March 1965 (64 percent supporting, 21 percent opposed after the first U.S. combat engagements) until October 1967, when for the first time a plurality (46 percent opposed, 44 percent supporting) turned against the war. Those 30 months equaled the period of time the American people supported the ground war in Europe in World War II, from the landing of U.S. forces in North Africa in November 1942 until the end of the war in May 1945. Public opinion had turned–not on ideological grounds, as the anti-war movement would claim, but for pragmatic reasons. “Either win the damn thing or get the hell out!” was the prevalent sentiment, and when the Johnson administration seemed unable to do either, the American people’s patience ran out.
American public opinion turned against the war in Korea after only five months, percentages of those in favor falling precipitously after Chinese intervention in the war in November 1950. The war became stalemated after the U.S. Eighth Army’s defeat of the 230,000-man Chinese Spring Offensive in April 1951 (as it did in Vietnam with the defeat of the enemy’s 1968 Tet Offensive), degenerating into a series of bloody outpost skirmishes.
The last of those skirmishes was the battle for Pork Chop Hill between July 6 and 10, 1953. Officially Hill 255 (from its elevation in yards), it was dubbed Pork Chop Hill because of its geographic shape. One of a series of outposted hills along the “Iron Triangle” in the western sector of the line of contact, it had long been contested by the enemy. Earlier, in November 1952, the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division’s Thailand Battalion had come under heavy Chinese Communist Forces (CCF) attack there, but the assault was beaten back.
On March 1, 1953, then defended by the 7th Infantry Division’s 31st Infantry Regiment, Pork Chop Hill came under an 8,000-round CCF artillery barrage. Then on March 23, the CCF 67th Division, under cover of an intense mortar and artillery barrage, made a ground attack on Pork Chop Hill. After some initial gains they were beaten back, only to resume the attack on April 16. Once again they were beaten back by counterattacks from the 31st Infantry, reinforced by a battalion from the 7th Infantry Division’s 17th Infantry Regiment. But it was artillery that made the difference, as the 7th Infantry Division massed the guns of nine artillery battalions and fired 77,349 rounds in support of the two-day battle.
On July 6, 1953, the CCF made yet another attempt to capture Pork Chop Hill. This time they gained a foothold on a portion of the crest. After repeated attempts to dislodge them were repulsed, General Maxwell D. Taylor, the Eighth U.S. Army commander, ordered the hill to be abandoned on July 11, 1953. Two weeks later, with the signing of the armistice agreement at Panmunjom on July 27, the hill became part of the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.
Ever the politician (as he would prove to be again in the Vietnam War), General Taylor had made his decision based on his perception of American public and political reactions to the high numbers of U.S. casualties. During the month of July 1953 alone, the United States and its allies along the line of contact, including Pork Chop Hill, had suffered 29,629 casualties both from enemy ground attacks and a record 375,565-round CCF artillery barrage. Chinese and North Korean casualties were estimated at 72,112, most from allied airstrikes and a 2-million-round artillery barrage.
The battle for Hamburger Hill, like the Vietnam War itself, was less intense than the battle for Pork Chop Hill in Korea. A body count confirmed that 633 NVA soldiers had died in the battle, but as Samuel Zaffiri noted in his definitive history of the fight: “There is no telling how many other NVA soldiers were killed and wounded and carried into Laos. No telling how many were buried alive in bunkers and tunnels on the mountain or ended up in forgotten graves in the draws or along the many ridges.”
Final U.S. casualties were 46 dead and 400 wounded. While these losses were high, Hamburger Hill was not the bloodiest fight of the war, even for the 101st Airborne Division. In the earlier November 1967 battle of Dak To in the Central Highlands, 289 U.S. soldiers were killed in action and an estimated 1,644 NVA soldiers also perished, victims of the 170,000 rounds of artillery, the 2,100 tactical airstrikes and the 228 Boeing B-52 sorties that supported the operation. Later, during the week of February 10-17, 1968, in the midst of the Tet Offensive, 543 Americans were killed in action and another 2,547 wounded without causing any outcry from the American public.
The Hamburger Hill losses were much smaller, but they set off a firestorm of protest back home. The American people were growing more weary of the war. A February 1969 poll revealed that only 39 percent still supported the war, while 52 percent believed sending troops to fight in Vietnam had been a mistake.
Politicians were quick to seek advantage in those numbers. Most prominent was Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, whose brother John F. Kennedy had been the architect of America’s Vietnam involvement. As Zaffiri related: “In the early afternoon of May 29 …Senator Kennedy [who had served as a draftee military policeman in Paris during the Korean War] stood up on the Senate floor and angrily denounced the attack on Dong Ap Bia, calling it ‘senseless and irresponsible…madness…sympathetic of a mentality and a policy that requires immediate attention. American boys are too valuable to be sacrificed to a false sense of military pride.’”
Kennedy would escalate his attack on May 24 in a speech to the New Democratic Coalition in Washington, referring to the battle as nothing but “cruelty and savagery,” as well as saying that the Vietnam War was unjustified and immoral. He was soon joined by other senators, including South Dakota’s George S. McGovern, a decorated World War II bomber pilot, and Ohio’s Stephen M. Young, an infantryman in World War I and an Army staff officer in World War II, who carried the attack to a new level.
In a lengthy speech on May 29, noted Zaffiri: “Young described how during the Civil War the Confederate generals Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee attacked the Union forces at Chancellorsville from the rear and flanks simultaneously and routed them. ‘Our generals in Vietnam acted as if they had never studied Lee and Jackson’s strategy,’ Young concluded. ‘Instead, they fling our paratroopers piecemeal in frontal assaults. Instead of seeking to surround the enemy and seeking to assault the hill from the sides and the front simultaneously, there was one frontal assault after another, killing our boys who went up Hamburger Hill.’”
What set off this wave of criticism was a May 19 dispatch by Associated Press war correspondent Jay Sharbutt. While reports of the Hamburger Hill battle had been appearing in newspapers since May 14, most were innocuous descriptions of the fight in routine terms. But Sharbutt’s dispatch struck a nerve: “The paratroopers came down the mountain, their green shirts darkened with sweat, their weapons gone, their bandages stained brown and red–with mud and blood.
“Many cursed Lt. Col. Weldon Honeycutt, who sent three companies Sunday to take this 3,000-foot mountain just a mile east of Laos and overlooking the shell-pocked A Shau Valley.
“They failed and they suffered. ‘That damn Blackjack [Lt. Col. Honeycutt's radio call sign] won’t stop until he kills every one of us,’ said one of the 40 to 50 101st Airborne troopers who was wounded.”
The day after Sharbutt’s story hit the newspapers, Hamburger Hill fell to the troopers of the 101st Airborne Division’s 3rd Brigade. But that victory was short-lived, for on June 5 the decision was made to abandon the hill to the enemy, further exacerbating public outrage. Adding fuel to the fire, the June 27, 1969, issue of Life magazine featured photographs of the 241 servicemen killed in Vietnam the previous week, including the five who had been killed in the assault on Hamburger Hill. The feature was titled, “The Faces of the Dead in Vietnam: One Week’s Toll,” and it was prefaced by a quote from a letter written by one of those five soldiers during a break in the fighting. “You may not be able to read this,” it said. “I am writing in a hurry. I see death coming up the hill.” The erroneous impression was thus created that all 241 pictured had been killed during the Hamburger Hill assault, increasing public disgust over what appeared to be a senseless loss of life.
Underlying that disgust was the fact that the war in Vietnam did not fit the model of war that was fixed in most American minds. Except for the 19th-century Indian wars on the Western plains, most of America’s wars had fixed geographic boundaries, and progress could be measured by movement on the map. But Vietnam was different. As MACV commander General Creighton Abrams tried to explain: “We are not fighting for terrain as such. We are going after the enemy.” At a news conference following Hamburger Hill’s capture, the 101st Airborne Division’s commander, Maj. Gen. Melvin Zais, reinforced General Abrams’ words.
“The hill was in my area of operations,” Zaffiri quoted Zais as saying. “That was where the enemy was, and that was where I attacked him. If I find the enemy on any other hills in the A Shau, I assure you I’ll attack him there also.” Asked why he had not relied on Boeing B-52 bombers to do the job, he said, “I don’t know how many wars we have to go through to convince people that aerial bombardment alone cannot do the job.” When criticized for the high number of casualties involved, Zais testily replied: “It’s a myth somebody perpetuated that if we don’t do anything, nothing will happen to us. It’s not true….It’s just a myth that we can pull back and everything will settle down. If we pulled back, and were quiet, they’d kill us in the night. They’d come on and crawl under the wire, and they’d drop satchel charges on our bunkers, and they’d mangle and maim and kill our men. The only way I can in good conscience lead my men is to insure that they’re not caught in that kind of situation.”
Zais was reiterating a truth that military commanders throughout history have known–offense is the very best defense. But war is first and foremost a political act, and in the view of politicians in Washington the 101st Airborne Division’s assault on Hamburger Hill had been a disaster. As Hedrick Smith reported in the May 23, 1969, New York Times, a number of civilian officials in the Nixon administration were afraid such Pyrrhic victories “would undermine public support for the war and thus shorten the administration’s time for successful negotiations in Paris.” As one official privately told Smith: “Now clearly the greatest limitation is the reaction of the American public. They react to the casualty lists. I don’t understand why the military doesn’t get the picture. The military is defeating the very thing it most wants–more time to gain a stronger hand.”
What the military did not realize was that the American public had always been the greatest limitation on the use of military force. As General Fred C. Weyand, General Abrams’ successor as MACV commander, wrote after the war: “Vietnam was a reaffirmation of the peculiar relationship between the American Army and the American people. The American Army really is a people’s army in the sense that it belongs to the American people who take a jealous and proprietary interest in its involvement.” In words particularly applicable to Hamburger Hill, he wrote, “When the Army is committed the American people are committed, when the American people lose their commitment it is futile to try to keep the Army committed.”
Given the public and political reaction to Hamburger Hill, a change in war-fighting policy was not long in coming. In order to hold down casualties, what had been a policy of keeping “maximum pressure” on the enemy was changed to one of “protective reaction”–fighting only when threatened by enemy attack. As Lewis Sorley wrote in Thunderbolt (Simon & Schuster), his 1992 biography of General Abrams, when Henry Kissinger, then special assistant to the president for national security affairs, was asked “whether Abrams ever received any instructions, written or otherwise, to hold down the level of U.S. casualties, Kissinger replied, ‘Not from the White House.’ General Alexander Haig [Kissinger's deputy at the NSC] provided a different answer to the same question: ‘Of course.’”
Sorley continued: “On June 19, just a month after the battle at Ap Bia Mountain, President Nixon cleared up any uncertainty there may have been about the existing policy. He had given explicit orders to General Abrams, he later said: ‘They are very simply this: he is to conduct the war with a minimum of American casualties.’”
Vietnamization of the war had begun. At the same time Nixon gave his orders to General Abrams, the president also ordered a 25,000-man U.S. troop withdrawal by July 8 and removal of 35,000 more by early December. The U.S. military was on the way out of Vietnam, and the fighting on the ground would gradually be turned over to the ARVN. At the strategic level of the war, time had run out. As State Department Foreign Service Officer Norman Hannah, author of The Key to Failure (Madison Books) and one of the more insightful critics of the war, observed, “This is the tragedy of Vietnam–we were fighting for time rather than space. And time ran out.”
Because time had run out at the strategic level, battlefield successes that had been won at the cost of so much blood and sacrifice were also rendered meaningless. In Hanoi a week before the fall of Saigon, I told my North Vietnamese counterpart on the Four Party Joint Military Team (set up by the Paris Peace Accords to deal, unsuccessfully as it turned out, with the POW/MIA issue), “You never beat us on the battlefield.” He thought about that for a moment, then replied: “That may be so. But it’s also irrelevant.” And that irrelevance is what made Hamburger Hill so frustrating.
Previously, battlefield successes had been relevant indeed. Operation Apache Snow, of which the battle for Hamburger Hill would be a part, was designed by the U.S. XXIV Corps to keep the NVA forces in the A Shau Valley off balance. The goal was to prevent them from using the valley as a staging area for an attack on the old imperial capital of Hue and the coastal provinces, as they had done the previous year during the Tet Offensive.
The 45-kilometer-long A Shau Valley, located in rugged country in southwestern Thua Thien province along the Laotian border, was the site of Base Area 611. This base area was a terminus of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a series of roads, trails and pipelines along the Chaine Annamitique mountains that begin in North Vietnam and continue southward along the Laotian and Cambodian border areas to some 60 kilometers from Saigon.
The valley had long been a staging area for NVA units preparing to attack the coastal provinces, and U.S. Army Special Forces established a camp there in 1963. On March 9, 1966, the NVA 95th Regiment launched a major attack on the camp, and the next day, after hard fighting, it fell to the enemy. There they would stage their capture of Hue during the 1968 Tet Offensive. After Hue was retaken, a counterattack into the A Shau was mounted on April 19, 1968, by the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), the ARVN 1st Division and an ARVN airborne task force. Called Operation Delaware/Lam Son 216, it ended on May 17, 1968, after stiff resistance and meager results. On August 4, 1968, two battalions of the 101st Airborne Division, with two ARVN battalions, launched an airmobile operation into the valley. Named Operation Somerset, it had no better luck than Operation Delaware and withdrew on August 19.
On January 20, 1969, after a hardened road into the eastern part of the valley was constructed, Operation Dewey Canyon was launched into the A Shau. Led by the three battalions of the 9th Marine Regiment, the Marines not only advanced to the Laotian border but also launched a battalion-sized raid into Laos itself. They discovered that the NVA had built major roads in the area, and as many as 1,000 trucks were moving east from there. After capturing enormous enemy arms caches, including 73 AAA guns, 16 122mm artillery guns, nearly 1,000 AK-47 rifles and more than a million rounds of small-arms and machine-gun ammunition, the Marines withdrew on March 13, 1969.
The immediate prelude to Operation Apache Snow was an operation by the 101st Airborne Division’s 2nd Brigade on March 1, 1969, into the southern end of the A Shau Valley. Labeled Operation Massachusetts Striker, it uncovered massive North Vietnamese supply depots that the enemy had abandoned in their flight northward, ironically right into the path of Operation Apache Snow, which began on May 10.
A 10-battalion operation, Apache Snow’s initial assault force consisted of the 3rd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division under the command of Colonel Joseph B. Conmy, Jr., with his 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry (3/187); the 2nd Battalion, 501st Infantry (2/501); the 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry (1/506); and two infantry battalions from the 1st ARVN Division. Also part of the operation were the three battalions of the U.S. 9th Marine Regiment; the U.S. 3rd Squadron, 5th Cavalry; and two additional ARVN infantry battalions. The operation was supported by some 217 airstrikes as well as fire from four 105mm artillery batteries, two 155mm batteries, one 175mm battery and one 8-inch battery.
The main action of the operation was the 10-day assault on Hamburger Hill, which was defended by the entrenched NVA 29th Regiment. The assault was led by the 3/187 “Rakkasans” under the command of Colonel Honeycutt. A detailed firsthand account of that battle by Colonel Conmy, the 3rd Brigade commander and a combat infantry veteran of World War II and the Korean War, appeared in Vietnam Magazine (“Crouching Beast Cornered,” in the August 1990 issue). Several of his observations bear repeating, however.
First is his defense of the 3/187 commander Honeycutt, who has been severely condemned as being a heartless butcher. He was my classmate at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., the previous year and was known even then for his abrasive personality.
Enlisting in the Army at age 16 as a sixth-grade dropout, Honeycutt advanced from private to captain in five years and in the Korean War ended up commanding a rifle company in the 187th Regimental Combat Team, then commanded by Brig. Gen. William C. Westmoreland. Earning the nickname “Tiger” for his aggressiveness, he drove his subordinates hard and some would say mercilessly.
Conmy saw him in a different light. “If I ever go to war again, I want him on my team,” he said. “He’s a real fighter. Here’s an indication of his type of leadership: In the first few days, 3/187 had sustained 50 percent casualties and there was talk of replacing the battalion. However, the troops and Colonel Honeycutt wouldn’t have any part of it. They had started the thing and they wanted to finish it.” And they did just that, joining forces with the 2/501, attacking from the northeast, the 2nd Battalion, 3rd ARVN Regiment, attacking from the southeast and the 1/506, attacking from the south. Reinforced by the 2/506′s Alpha Company, the 3/187 would attack from the west. After the other three battalions had fought their way up the mountain, Colonel Conmy ordered them into blocking positions and gave the 3/187 the honor of making the final assault. By nightfall on May 20, 1969, it was all over.
Conmy also commented on the negative publicity: “Well, people wanted the war to end. This was a battle; maybe if it had been fought a couple of years earlier, it would have been noted–but probably wouldn’t have received the attention that it did. In 1969 there was an uproar in the United States. In their eyes we were committing mayhem and murder. Our mission was still to save South Vietnam from communism and give it back to them. If nothing else, this battle certainly helped at the time [and] it was very instrumental in aiding in the eventual withdrawal of our troops from South Vietnam. The enemy had lost his Sunday punch, so to speak.”
The late General Abrams, the MACV commander at the time, should have the last word on the battle for Hamburger Hill. His biographer, Lewis Sorley, related: “Shortly after the battle and its immediate aftermath, Abrams had several people over for a game of poker. They had dinner beforehand, and Abrams told his guests: ‘Today we had a congressional delegation in, including Teddy Kennedy. They were complaining about the loss of life at Hamburger Hill. I told them the last time the 29th NVA Regiment came out of North Vietnam it destroyed Hue, and I heard from every antiquarian in the world. This time, when they came out again, I issued orders that they were to be intercepted and defeated before they could get to Hue. We drove them back into North Vietnam, but I was criticized for the casualties that entailed. If they would let me know where they would like me to fight the next battle, I would be glad to do it there.’ Then they dealt the cards.”
A rifle company squad leader in the Korean War and an infantry battalion operations officer in the Vietnam War, Colonel Harry G. Summers, Jr., is the editor of Vietnam Magazine. For further reading, he suggests: Hamburger Hill, by Samuel Zaffiri (Presidio); and Pork Chop Hill: The American Fighting Man in Action, Korea, 1953, by S.L.A. Marshall (Morrow).