It was 7:30 am on May 10th, 1969.
65 Huey transport helicopters touched down, depositing American soldiers deep into the heart of the jungles of South Vietnam.
These men were members of the 1 Battalion, 506 Infantry Regiment (1-506), 3 Battalion, 187 Infantry Regiment (3-187), and 2 Battalion, 501 Infantry Regiment.
These were units drawn from the elite 101 Airborne Division, which had been one of two key US paratrooper groupings formed in World War 2 (the other being the 82 Airborne).
In Vietnam, with thick jungle canopy blanketing the landscape, parachutists would have been tangled in trees and picked off after they’d drifted to earth. Thus, it was more sensible for the 101 Division to manoeuvre around the battlefield as many other troops did in Vietnam, with helicopters turning them into a kind of air cavalry, a lighter mobile formation that contrasted with the armoured units with their tanks.
Here, though, an unholy triumvirate of triple-canopy forest, widespread elephant grass and particularly heavy bamboo made moving into the area challenging even by helicopter.
To the North Vietnamese, the men of the 101 Airborne were known as ‘the Chicken Men’ because of their arm patches. This is because the North Vietnamese had never seen an eagle. ‘Chicken’ became, for them, the closest approximation.
Allegedly, men of the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) and VC (Viet Cong) were warned not to fight the ‘Chicken Men’ because they would lose. But over the next ten days, the ‘Chicken Men’ were going to have to fight hard to retain their fearsome reputation.
The Americans and their South Vietnamese allies, one battalion of whom accompanied them by helicopter and two more of whom came into the area on foot, were now in the A Shau (or Ashau) Valley. This was essentially the nerve centre of the enemy’s attack network because of where it was located.
The politics of the Vietnam War were complicated and prohibited US and South Vietnamese troops from crossing the border into neighbouring Laos or Cambodia where many enemy soldiers were located. Bombing of these countries, however, was permitted.
So a cat and mouse game ensued as NVA soldiers would cross from North Vietnam into Laos and Cambodia and move down to attack targets in South Vietnam.
They used to work their way down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a series of jungle roads and paths that bypassed the border with South Vietnam and deposited the communist forces throughout South Vietnam.
In May, 1969, the A Shau Valley was a major rallying point for NVA and VC forces, being adjacent to the Laotian border and replete with steep slopes that were easy to defend. This area had become a launching pad for major assaults into the south, and now the 101 Airborne, with support from US Marines to their north, were assigned the task of dislodging these North Vietnamese forces.
One of the slopes above the valley was Hill 937, labelled so because of its height in metres.
It was also known as Dong Ap Bia (‘mountain of the crouching beast’), which would become the name of the ensuing battle – a battle that would eventually pull in all of the battalions sent into the area as well as additional supporting units, even though the hill was originally an objective of only a single battalion, the 3-187.
On the morning of May 10, 3-187 set about dispersing its companies around the hill, with A Company positioning itself on the north-west side, C on the south-west, D part way up one of the hill’s ridges and B in reserve.
Battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel Honeycutt established his headquarters on the ridgeline taken by D Company. From this vantage point, he would direct the battle over the next 10 days.
It would get off to an eerily quiet start on May 11 as A and C Companies reconnoitred the area between the base of the hill and the Laotian border.
The only sign of the enemy was his tracks, and the suspected bunkers on and around the hill spied by B Company.
Further back, nine artillery batteries (eight American and one from the Republic of Vietnam) had been brought within range of Hill 937 and B company directed them to fire upon these bunkers.
Jets were also called in to provide air support by bombing the hill, which they promptly did.
But the enemy had their own supporting arsenal, albeit on a smaller scale. They stubbornly resisted the Americans’ aerial onslaught and then unleashed Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs), mortars, and assault-rifle fire when the assault was renewed on foot. B Company stopped and more airstrikes and artillery rounds came crashing down.
It was during this phase in the battle that a friendly fire incident occurred as a helicopter, acting as a gunship, fired six rockets into the battalion HQ (presumably mistaking it for an enemy bunker). It killed one and wounded 35, including Lt Col Honeycutt, who declined medical evacuation, electing to stay behind and continue directing the battle.
One small consolation prize was that the heavy weapons support had succeeded in pushing the enemy further up the slope. As they vacated the area, the Americans moved in and discovered plentiful weapons, equipment, supplies, a telephone network and identifying documents.
The enemy were members of the 29 NVA Regiment, which had come down the Ho Chi Minh Trail the month before. Given that NVA troops might spend up to sixth months on an expedition south, these were relatively fresh troops.
Honeycutt now knew who the enemy were, but not how numerous they were, and as a precaution, he committed all companies to the next concentrated assault on the hill the following day.
B Company continued to spearhead the push and came up against more well dug-in NVA soldiers 200 metres above them. Airstrikes and artillery followed, which this time included a complement of heavy bombs and napalm.
The reply came - Kalashnikov, PRG and mortar rounds - and caused multiple American casualties.
Honeycutt ordered A Company, which had been in reserve, to help prepare a landing zone so men could be medi-evaced by helicopter. Unfortunately, a helicopter ferrying engineers in to assist with this was hit and these men became casualties themselves.
B and C Companies were now stuck on the hill, casualties and all, and had to dig in for the night. They resumed their attack the following day, this time being supported by incessant artillery and gunship fire support.
This cut down on American casualties considerably, but the enemy would still not budge – it was becoming clear to Honeycutt that the 29 Regiment NVA soldiers were more numerous than he had previously realised.
The next day’s fight almost ended in American victory, with men of B Company practically making it to the peak of the hill, but C Company on their flank had been hit hard and Honeycutt issued orders to pull back. He didn’t want B Company left exposed to counter-attack.
They dug in for the night, with Honeycutt, now estimating enemy strength at anywhere from two companies to a battalion (around 400 or 500 to 800 or 1,000 men), carefully working out how to dislodge them the next day.
He planned to replace C with A Company and send them up alongside B Company, which would assault over the same ground it had that day. D Company would continue attacking from the northeast. Meanwhile, the brigade commander was directing reinforcements to come to Honeycutt’s aid.
The North Vietnamese had also prepared, and when A, C and D Companies began their assaults on the morning of May 15, they were ambushed by claymore mines laid the previous night.
B Company was severely hit this time, but still managed to get within 150 metres of the hilltop, only to be the victim of another friendly fire incident. Two men were killed and 14 wounded when a helicopter machine-gunned them, mistaking them for the enemy.
A Company kept going but the tenacious defenders unleashed a hail of fire, including RPGs at Battalion HQ. Honeycutt was wounded for a second time and again refused a medical evacuation.
The commander of A Company, not wanting his men to be left exposed, pulled them back to the previous night’s defensive positions.
Once he’d done so, artillery and jets swooped in again and hammered the hill from above.
Honeycutt looked over the enemy dead and, noticing their clean uniforms, new weapons and recent haircuts, realised that the ‘battalion-sized’ enemy force he was facing were somehow being reinforced. He elected to await the arrival of the 1 Battalion, 506 Infantry Regiment, which had been sent in support.
For their part, the 1-506 were coming under fire themselves just trying to get into position and a new attack would not commence until May 18.
Other reinforcements were also on the way, one of whom was Sergeant Arthur Wiknik.
Speaking in the History Channel’s ‘Vietnam in HD’, Wiknik remembered feeling guilty. He’d been relaxing on the coast (at 'Eagle Beach') not long before and when he arrived in the sector was struck by the rawness of the men he then encountered on and around Hill 937.
One of them told him to take off his chevrons so as not to make him a target for enemy snipers aiming for leaders:
“As he was explaining this, for me to take my stripes off, another guy came over and said ‘Come on Jim, let these guys be. They haven’t been here yet, they don’t know what it’s like’. Apparently these guys had been there since the beginning of this battle that had been going on for eight days… and then I started thinking back, how we were at a picnic, drinking beer, while these poor bastards were going through this battle. I just felt awful – I wanted to get away from these guys because I didn’t feel I even deserved to be in their company.”
He also remembered the eerie atmosphere of the fight he was about to be plunged into:
“As we settle in, I can hear these Vietnamese voices ringing out from the top of that hill. Now, nobody knows what they’re saying, but the message is clear: They want us to know that they’re there, and (that) they’re waiting for us.”
Wiknik wouldn’t have to wait long.
Airstrikes began on the morning of May 18 with bombs pounding the by now bald slopes. Artillery phased in as the aircraft zipped off into the distance, and under this protective screen three companies of the 3-187 and three of the 1-506 advanced on the enemy from the north and south sides of the hill, respectively.
By this point, the soldiers had been draped in flak jackets meant to help reduce casualties – they probably helped, but the trade-off was that the men ended up sweltering under the extra layer in the Vietnamese heat.
On the northern side of the hill, men of the 3-187 came under heavy fire despite the artillery support, again running into claymores as well as the usual Kalashnikov and RPG rounds.
After being pinned down and fired on from multiple directions, they called for a savage reprisal and a lethal cocktail of napalm, bombs, mortars, artillery and gunship fire was soon boring down on the defenders.
When the attack was renewed, claymores again deprived the men of the 3-187 from attaining their prize, ripping into them just as they got to the top of the hill.
Determined defenders also sprung on them, and conditions suddenly turned into a World War One Western Front-style hellscape when the heavens opened. The resulting downpour made the slopes of the hill “a virtual mudslide” and no doubt increased the monochromatic nature of a battle that had already seen Americans twice mistaken for the enemy and fired upon by their own air support.
The battalion sustained 78 casualties, including 14 dead, while inflicting 112 deaths on the enemy.
On the other side, men in the 1-506 had similar problems keeping their footing and, unlike Western Front commanders, brigade leader Colonel Joseph Conmy called the whole assault off, realising the futility of continuing under the present conditions. The 1-506 were left in defensive positions, 600 metres from the hillcrest.
The 3-187 Battalion had been particularly hard hit by this point, with eight of its 12 platoon commanders and two of its four company commanders having becoming casualties – along with 60 percent of its original strength.
Between them, Honeycutt, relieving battalion 2-506 commander Gene Sherron, and divisional commander Major General Melvin Zais coordinated relief for the next attack. Honeycutt insisted his unit was still battle ready but Zais ordered that one company (containing Sergeant Miknik) from Sherron’s battalion be attached for support.
Zais also arranged for the 2-501 Battalion and the South Vietnamese 2/3 ARVN Battalion both be brought in from nearby.
May 19 was largely uneventful and consisted of getting these units into position for the next day’s final attack. However, the 1-506 fought their way up from 600 metres to within 200 metres of the apex of the hill – a better jumping off point for the following day’s attack.
May 20 would be the climax of the battle, starting with an intense bombardment.
This time, it was followed by precisely calibrated mortar and artillery support which enabled the 3-187 to continue their advance after the initial bombardment. Carefully tracking and trailing their ordnance support, the men of this unit made it to the top at 11:45 am.
Wiknik, who’s company of the 2-506 had been attached to the 3-187 to augment it and replace casualties, remembered being shot at by some NVA soldiers who’d not been suppressed by the mortar and artillery support:
“In all that noise, you can hear the bullets coming in. It sounds crazy. You can literally hear them hitting the dirt in front of you, and I can’t figure out why the hell they’re picking on me. Then I realize: I never took my stripes off. They’re trying to kill me because I’m a leader.”
Simultaneously, US Marines were fighting north of Hill 937 to prevent the retreat and reinforcement of enemy soldiers.
Fighting on and around Hill 484, Marine Lieutenant Karl Marlantes recalled:
“To try and be a leader, you have to order people to do things that kills them. And that’s hard. And it’s usually your best guys because if you know it’s going to be tough, you put your best guys to make sure that we get the job done – and (then) your best guys die. That’s always a tough one – I carry that with me.”
Back on Hill 937, men of the 3-187 and those in Wiknik’s unit had to pick their way through enemy positions, bunker by bunker, blowing each one individually with grenades.
On the northeast side, the 1-506 received RPG, mortar and AK-47 fire for their trouble while advancing but they too made it to the top.
The 2-501 came from the south-west and, unlike their comrades, encountered mostly empty bunker complexes that had been abandoned, presumably by an enemy that knew it had now been outflanked. The South Vietnamese 2/3 ARVN were also able to advance without much resistance.
The final day’s fighting, though intense, had been free of any deaths for the Americans and their allies – the well-coordinated mortar and artillery support had pressured the enemy enough to stay below ground and reduced his volume of fire.
In the end, all that supporting fire resulted in the use of 3.5 million pounds of ground-based ordinance and air-dropped bombs over the course of the 10-day battle.
The Americans had sustained 476 casualties, of which 56 were fatalities, while they had killed 630 of the enemy and taken two prisoners.
16 days after the end of the battle the hill was abandoned and retaken by the enemy, a move that subsequently attracted much derision. Commanders insisted that the hill itself was not the point of the battle, having no tactical value. The objective was instead to kill or remove the enemy assembling upon it, whom the Americans anticipated would soon launch an assault on a populated area – probably the city of Hue – further south. The 1968 Tet Offensive had been launched this way.
Not that men on the ground necessarily understood this. Dazed and elated at having just come through unscathed, Wiknik remembered:
“I’m so thrilled, I don’t even know what to say. I can’t believe I survived – we’ve actually taken this bitch of a hill. But right as I’m about to sit down and rest for a second, a couple of soldiers come over to me and they say ‘Hey, you know they’ve got a name for this hill?’ So I say ‘Really? What is it?’."
They told him. It was a nickname derived from the fact that the battle had been like 'a meat grinder'.
A little while later, a hand-drawn sign bayonetted to a tree stump confirmed the story. It read: “Hamburger Hill".
And below that: "Was it worth it?”
Wiknik didn’t know.
Information taken from ‘Historical Summary of the Battle At Dong Ap Bia (Hamburger Hill), 10 – 20 May 1969’.
Cover image by Bác Trâu