Hamburger Hill 1969
Was it worth it?
It started in the rugged, jungle-shrouded mountains along the Laotian border with South Vietnam. Rising from the floor of the western A Shau Valley, Ap Bia Mountain is a looming, solitary massive, unconnected to the ridges of the surrounding Annamite range. It dominates the northern valley, towering some 937 meters above sea level. Snaking down from its highest peak are a series of ridges and fingers, one of the largest extending southeast to a height of 900 meters, another reaching south to a 916-meter peak. The entire mountain is a rugged, uninviting wilderness blanketed in double and triple-canopy jungle, dense thickets of bamboo, and waist-high elephant grass that in some cases was taller than a man. Local Montagnard tribesmen called Ap Bia "the mountain of the crouching beast."
On the 10th and final bloody day of the assault on hill 927, for two hours, around dawn, the air force jets and Skyraider pilots bombed all four sides of Ap Bia with every type of armament they could "scarf up" at their bases. The artillery blasted the North Vietnam Army (NVA) positions with tons of 105mm, 155mm, and 8-inch artillery rounds. At 1000hrs, four infantry battalions assaulted the burning, smoking, scoured, denuded mountaintop. In 3/187th area, the lineup had A Company on the right, my C Company in the center, and A/2/506th on the left. When the troops reached the base of the mountain, they formed long skirmish lines and began to move cautiously up the water soaked slopes. They were surprised when they were not fired on with the usual heavy bursts of fire at close range.
The hill was eerily silent. In ten minutes, the three companies had reached the first bunker line - now seemingly deserted. As a precaution, the soilders destroyed the bunkers with grenades and satchel charges. Twenty minutes later, their lines were just a hundred meters from the crest of Ap Bia and closing in on the second bunker line.
The mountain was quiet for another ten minutes. Then, at about 1040hrs, when the skirmish lines were just seventy-five meters from the top, the bunkers came alive with a rain of Rocket Propeled Granades (RPGs) at point-blank range. Ten to fifteen NVA hit C Company, wounded seven Rakkasans (187th Infantry Regiment), and thy continued the fight by rolling grenades down the slope. Sp4 Campbell and his assistant gunner rushed forward with a 90mm recoilless rifle and scored a ear shattering direct hit on one bunker and, a moment later, another.
On the right flank of C Company, Sp4 Merjil, 2d Platoon, was a one-man commando team. He knocked out two bunkers with a grenade launcher, and with his squad on both sides laying down covering fire, rushed head long destroying a third. While his men poured fire on the bunker, pinning down the enemy soldiers inside, Merjil took careful aim from ten meters away and shot a grenade right into the aperture, killing the two NVA soldiers cowering inside.
Merjil reloaded quickly, as he scurried forward, with sweat partly blinding him with the rest of his squad up the steep side of the mountain. Ten meters later, the men pored over the top of the mountain. They did not realize it at the time, but they were to be the first Americans to set foot on Dong Ap Bia. The time was 1145hrs, exactly nine days and five hours after Bravo Company first made contact on the mountain.
Still, Merjil and his men had taken only a few square feet of the mountain. The NVA were still dug in all over the top of it, and before the squad could move any further, they were pinned down by fire coming from a half-dozen enemy positions.
The NVA in the bunker line refused to give up, pinning down A Company's troops, and rolled grenades down on them. At the same time, an NVA squad hit C Company's right flank.
Pinned down on the far right side of Alpha's skirmish line Sp4 Jackson, a machine gunner in the 3d Platoon, huddled behind a log and thought: “Here we go again. Another attack failed”. As he cowered there, though, he suddenly remembered what he had boasted to a friend earlier in the morning. 'I'll tell you what,' he had said, 'if we go up that sonofabitch this time, I'm staying up. I ain't gonna be run down again and let them assholes shoot me in the back. I'm through with this retreating bullshit.”
Thinking of his words now, and then on impulse stood up and shouted out loud so everyone in the 3d Platoon could hear him, 'To hell with this bullshit!' With a fluid motion, Jackson brought his M60 up to his chest and raked the enemy position above, then charged up the side of the mountain, wildly spraying bullets from side to side.
On his way to the top, Jackson stumbled into a spider hole occupied by two enemy soldiers. Before they could grab their weapons, Jackson sprayed them with his M60. Then he raced upward and found himself looking into the aperture of another bunker. He fired into it and scrambled up the remaining twenty or so meters to the top of the mountain.
Below him, his friend, Sp4 Vallone, frightened but inspired by Jackson's charge, yelled. "Follow me," fired short bursts from his M16, and led his squad, then the platoon, and the rest of A Company, up the mountain. At the top, A Company rolled over the last bunker line and made it to the top. The wounded Captain Harkins set up a perimeter defense tied into C Company, turned the company over to Lt. Atcheson, and then began his laborious trek down the mountain to the Med-evac.
In a two-hour fight, C Company made it to the top, where sixty-five dead NVA littered the area.
By the end of the day, most of the troops of the 29th NVA Regiment had been killed or were trying to escape across the border to Laos.
The Rakkasans on the top and slopes of Dong Ap Bia found a landscape that resembled what they imagined hell must be like. Throughout the area, they found NVA pith helmets, AK-47s, stick grenades, bloody bandages, and RPGs. In the center of Hill 937, a line of Rakkasans came across a group of fifteen NVA who were apparently shell-shocked. Without waiting, the Rakkasans killed them all. Four of the NVA had been chained to trees. All of them wore patches that read: "Kill the Americans."
Honeycutt began the mop-up operation at about 1500. One POW, eighteen-year-old Pham Van Hai, told his interrogators that 80 percent of his hundred-man company and the 29th NVA Regiment's 7th and 8th Battalions had been nearly wiped out. Later, Sp4 Jackson and his squad, searching the top of the mountain, found an underground room containing the stripped and stacked bodies of more than forty NVA soldiers. Other Rakkasians searching the mountaintop discovered in its deep tunnels, a huge hospital, a regimental CP, and many storage areas containing 152 individual and 25 crew-served weapons, 75,000 rounds of ammo, thousands of mortar and RPG rounds, and over ten tons of rice.
The 3d Battalion of the 187th suffered 39 killed in action and 290 wounded. The total casualties of the American taking of Dong Ap Bia were 70 dead and 372 wounded.
The G2 Section of the 101st estimated the NVA dead at 633, based upon actual body count. But no one could count the wounded and dead carried into Laos or the dead buried in collapsed bunkers and tunnels.
The 3/187th's battle for Dong Ap Bia was over. For the next seventeen days, the other three battalions would continue to mop up the mountain. But on 21 May, we were evacuated from the area to Camp Evans for a stand-down at Eagle Beach.
While the other battalions were policing the Dong Ap Bia battlefield, one soldier found a piece of cardboard C-ration box, written on it, "Hamburger Hill," nailed to a charred tree trunk.
This would be one of the last major operations of the Viet Nam War and for the 101st Airborne Division.
This, as were so many of the hills we took, would be mopped up and left behind as we moved on somewhere else leaving it for the taking.
My question is, "Was it worth it?"