Hamburger Hill – discovering the hidden battlegrounds of Hill 937
The battle of Hamburger Hill is one of the most well known clashes of the Vietnam War, up there with the siege at Khe Sanh 1968, the battle of Hill 875 in 1967 and the Ia Drang Valley 1965.
What started out as a routine operation, one of many, to clear areas from NVA forces, turned into 11 days of fierce assault against one of the most well defended positions of the war guarding their supply routes through the Ashau valley.
As I have had the honor to know and worked with a couple of veterans from the battle in researching the events, I had long been interested in learning more about it and the terrain it was fought on. With the 50th anniversary coming up in May 2019, I was contacted by Mike Smith, a 2nd Platoon, Delta Company veteran from the Rakkasans, the 3rdBattalion of the 187thRegiment of the 101stAirborne that dominated the fight for Hamburger Hill. Mike is also the Treasurer of the Weldon F Honeycutt/Hamburger Hill Chapter of the National Rakkasan Association.
We talked about the work the late Frank Boccia had been doing to clarify the locations of units during the battle. Due to irregularities in the After Action Report and inaccurate maps, it had always been difficult to know the exactly where the battle took place. Boccia was the leader of 1st Platoon, Bravo Company during the battle and wrote a book called ”The Crouching Beast” about his time in Vietnam including the battle for Hamburger Hill.
Mike wanted to make sure that they once and for all had the correct locations pinned down. We decided that the best way to verify the coordinates they had settled on would be for me to go there and see for myself. I had been on the hill before, in 2012, but that was before this work started and I only followed the regular visitor trail to the monument near the summit. Maybe this time I could find out where the actual battle took place?
Being one of the most talked about and described battles of the war, surprisingly little is known about how it was actually fought and the challenges the Rakkasans faced. There was a movie made about it in 1987. As a war movie in general it is worth watching, but when it comes to describing the battle, basically the only thing they got right was that an American unit was fighting to take a hill.
Afterwards, the battle came under heavy scrutiny in the media and by politicians. Even as it was underway, the fierceness of the fighting attracted the press to this very remote area. One of the combat leaders remembered thinking that when he saw the media show up at the Battalion CP that this was shaping up to be a major fight.
The US troops were landed on LZs north and west of the mountain and as they probed the area they ran into heavy resistance and it soon became clear what they were up against. The 29th NVA regiment were waiting for them in heavily fortified positions on the steep and narrow ridges stretching out in all directions from the summit.
After first attacking along three directions towards the summit, Lt. Col. Honeycutt, decided to focus his troops’ efforts along just two routes with Charlie and Bravo Companies. Over the course of the battle Alpha and Delta Companies would take over their positions.
It would take in total 11 days of close and violent combat before the Rakkasans, with assistance from other airborne units and an ARVN unit, could take the hill and declare the battle over. The battle took a heavy toll, The Rakkasans suffered more than 60% casualties and the NVA’s death count was about 600 dead, in reality probably a lot more.
One of the reasons there was controversy surrounding the battle was the fact that the American units after just a couple of months left the hill. Politicians and media questioned why the Army would sacrifice so many men and then just leave the position. It deserves to be mentioned that this battle, as well as the larger Operation Apache Snow it was part of, was never about taking and holding real estate. It was about taking on the enemy and driving him out of the valley so he could not use it as a logistics center. The operation by any measure was a military success. Over the coming years, American units backed by fire support bases on the eastern ridges, would be able to operate at will in the valley, although they still often met heavy resistance.
Re-visiting Hamburger Hill
We were two people traveling to Vietnam, myself and a friend who was on his first visit. Joining us in Hue was a friend who lives in Saigon who had long wanted to see the hill.
We woke up early at our hotel in Hue. The weather seemed to be perfect with a clear sky. Obviously this also meant it would be hot. On our way west towards Ashau Valley we stopped for a quick visit to the old Fire Support Base Bastogne. It was a nice start to the day as we got to discover this once large base that was crucial to American operations in the area.
After a quick stop in Aluoi to clear our permits we continued west towards the Laotian border where the Hill 937 is located. By the time we reached the hill, the sun was well up and it was clear we were in for a hot day in the jungle.
The regular route where guides take visitors approaches the hill from the southeast past the Hill 900 area and up to a monument. The walk up the hill starts with about a kilometer’s climb, fortunately they have installed steps to make it easier to get up the steeper parts, and the last few hundred meters are along a trail winding through the jungle before one reaches the Hill 900 area. On the sides of the trail area there are a few signs pointing to some sites where events took place during the battle and an NVA field hospital. From what we understand, there is nothing much to see at those sites and they were not our main goal anyway. Our objective was located another kilometer ahead, on the other side of the Hill 937 summit. A little bit north of the Hill 900 area is a monument built by the local government. It provides a convenient rest stop before continuing up the last bit to the summit which is about 500 meters north.
This is where our real journey began.
I had personally been on the hill before during a regular tourist visit where a guide took me and my friend to the monument and then further up to the summit. We weren’t even really sure it was the summit at that time.
This time it was different, however. Armed with tons of material from the research I had done, we were going to find and explore the two ridgelines where the Rakkasans fought and from where they finally took the hill. We hoped to still find some signs of the battle half a century later. As we came to the summit, I happily noticed that they had put up a sign there. We stopped for pictures and a bit of storytelling before we moved on westwards across it and through the thick elephant grass in search of any trails that could lead us to the scenes of the main assault.
Almost all the way across the summit there was a trail leading to our right which was north. A quick check for our exact position confirmed that the trail would probably lead us to the ridge where first Bravo Company and later Delta Company fought their way up. All well so far, we decided to go back there after we had finished exploring the rest of the summit, hoping to also find out where Alpha Company’s final attack had come from. It wasn’t far, maybe 50 meters before the elephant grass changed back into jungle. Our guide stopped and asked if we should really go in there considering how dense the jungle was and how steep the slope was.
Of course we had to go down there, this is what we came for.
After years of studying the battle, with the last few months having been especially intense, and listening to those who had been there and reading their accounts, this felt like graduation day.
We started our descent and were immediately struck by how steep the hill was. How was it even possible to fight here? Today the jungle has taken back the slopes, but during the last days of the battle, there was nothing but mud and blown up tree trunks mixed up with bomb craters.
It was from here that the final charge came. On the 20th of May as Alpha Company was involved in a vicious firefight trying to clear the hill of the battered NVA soldiers, one M60 machine gunner had enough of crouching behind a small berm. He got up and ran straight into the enemy fire, clearing the closest bunkers within seconds before moving on to clear more bunkers and spider holes. His platoon leader reacted quickly and ordered the rest of the men to follow him up the hill. In only a few minutes the machine gunner, joined by the rest of his platoon, was standing on the summit of Hill 937 — Hamburger Hill.
Talk about finding yourself in a historically significant spot.
We continued to walk down the ridge perhaps 250 meters. To our right, northeast, was the ridge where Delta was fighting the last days of the battle. Back then the terrain had been bombed to pieces so the two companies could see each other and provide covering fire. Today with the jungle having reclaimed the hill, that isn’t possible. The slope alternated between being almost flat at some places and extremely steep at others.
We didn’t have time to move much further down, so we started to make our way back up the hill in order to explore Bravo’s ridge. On our way we found remnants of old NVA fighting positions, obviously not intact, but it was clear where the bunker lines had been.
Back up at the summit we followed the path to the first north-going trail we saw earlier. At this point, I was certain this was the right path to Bravo’s ridge, and indeed it was. On our way down I tried to imagine the fighting on the 19th of May when Delta company assaulted over open terrain straight in to the waiting NVA forces hiding in their bunkers. It was steep, it was muddy and it was deadly.
The terrain was similar here to Alpha’s ridge. We reached the location of “the Clearing” which anyone who has read Frank Boccia’s excellent book about the battle will know about. It is here that Bravo Company was stuck for several days as NVA faced them in heavily fortified bunkers. To enter “the Clearing,” the men of Bravo Company had to climb a very steep and narrow ridgeline, it was so narrow that they had to move in a line formation to enter. The NVA had picked the perfect ambush spot as anyone who wanted to get further up the hill had to get past one of the most effective kill zones in the history of war.
From that location we continued down the ridge another 150 meters or so. Without being too certain, we believe we passed the location of the Company Command Post as well.
As with the other ridges, walking back up, the same direction the Rakkasans fought, gave a better understanding of what they had faced. Again, it is very steep in some places and the ridge is in parts just ridiculously narrow. Over the course of the battle, thanks to artillery and air support wearing the resistance down combined with astounding bravery and skill, the Rakkasans managed to fight their way past this well dug in and determined enemy.
It was as the Rakkasans reached the summit and the last resistance had been cleared out that they could finally breathe. The battle was won. It came at a high cost. Many brave men on both sides had lost their lives.
For those of us who had the privilege to walk the hill that sunny day in February 2019, it was an experience we never will forget. During my research, I have come to the conclusion that no one knowing these ridges’ historical significance has been down here since the battle. The local tribal people living in the village at the foot of the mountain walk through here more or less daily, but for those seeking the battle site, this part of the mountain has remained undiscovered. For me, who has traveled to and explored hidden war sites in Vietnam for many years, this was most definitely a high point. This was one of the most famous battles of the last century and it was with a solemn sense of reverence that my friends and I re-discovered it.
This journey would not have been possible without the graciousness I encountered from the Hamburger Hill veterans that I have had the privilege of getting to know and who have provided so much insight and advice. Special thanks goes out to Mike Smith, the late Frank Boccia, Bob Harkins and Dennis Helms. They provided insight before and after our journey and also provided material for the video featured in this article. As with any research, on the field or in the library, it raises new questions and opens up doors to new areas that needs to be explored. I will certainly be up the hill in the future.
My travel companion and friend Paul Schemm is a journalist at The Washington Post. He also wrote an article about our journey to Hamburger Hill. Click here to read it.