By Blake Stillwell
“Have you ever been inside a hamburger machine?” Sgt. James Spears asked reporters in 1969 after capturing Hill 937 in Vietnam’s A Shau Valley. “We just got cut to pieces by extremely accurate machine gun fire.”
The Battle for Hill 937 was a costly one for both sides of the fighting. It required at least a dozen assaults from American troops who believed they were taking one of the largest North Vietnamese headquarters complexes in the country.
After nearly 11 days, 72 Americans were dead on Hill 937, with nearly 400 more wounded. The North Vietnamese Army (PAVN) lost 630 men as the U.S. finally took control of the hill. Then just a few days after wrestling it away from the enemy, the Americans abandoned it.
For the days and decades afterward, everyone from military officers, journalists, and politicians to the troops who fought in the battle would not only question the tactics used but the military significance of what would come to be known as “Hamburger Hill.”
The Battle of Hamburger Hill came in May 1969, as the U.S. and South Vietnamese forces fought to destroy North Vietnamese bases of operation in the A Shau Valley. The communists were using the valley to infiltrate South Vietnam through neighboring Laos.
The plan was for three battalions from 101st Airborne Division to conduct a reconnaissance in force into the valley, looking for North Vietnamese troops, weapons, and supplies. They would then destroy any they might find. Meanwhile, Marines and U.S. Army cavalry would cut off any possible retreat into Laos.
American troops on the ground knew that North Vietnamese regular units would aggressively resist any U.S. advance, but only for a short time. The communists would be forced to clear out before the U.S. could bring its superior firepower into the fighting. Prolonged, intense combat between the two sides, like the fighting seen at Ia Drang, occurred infrequently but was bloody when it did happen.
A Shau was a crucial stop along the Ho Chi Minh Trail for the communists, which meant that both sides wanted to clear the enemy out of the area. For the communists, the valley was a lifeline. For the Americans, it was a centerpiece of putting maximum pressure on the enemy as it moved.
But dense jungle and its remote location made it difficult to move men and materiel or gather intelligence in the valley. The Americans would have to get their information the old-fashioned way: combat patrols and captured prisoners.
The little information they could gather would not tell them one of the PAVN units in the area was a battle-hardened group of communist veterans known as “The Pride of Ho Chi Minh” or that the coming battle was going to be bloody and violent.
At Hill 937, two battalions of PAVN forces decided they would make one of those intense stands against the 101st. The 3rd Battalion, 187th Regiment arrived to take the hill on May 10, 1969, expecting to reach the top within hours. It would take nearly ten days.
The first attacks came on May 10, but the 3/187th was not at full strength, as much of the unit was still trying to march through the dense jungle foliage. The full unit would not arrive until May 19th. On the other side of the hill, 1/506th was making attacks to determine the level of resistance on that slope.
The Airborne troops made multiple frontal attacks on the communist defenders on May 14th as more reinforcements arrived. They made little progress but took heavy casualties. The defenses of the hill were well-organized and planned.
The approaches to the hill were narrow trails that created a bottleneck for the attacker, forcing the Americans to attack in smaller formations. Unable to capitalize on their numbers, the U.S. troops were funneled into prepared fields of enemy machine-gun fire, which was devastating during the frontal assaults. Once forced to fall back, American forces called in artillery fire, but that too was ineffective. The prepared defenses on the hill were both well-hidden and reinforced.
Over the course of 12 assaults, the Army dropped more than 1,000 tons of bombs, 142 tons of napalm, 31,000 20-mm shells, and 513 tons of tear gas on Hill 937. By May 18th, soldiers and reporters alike were referring to the fight as “The Battle of Hamburger Hill.”
The closest the Army came to taking the hill before they were fully reinforced came on May 18th. The 3/187th engaged entrenched PAVN defenders in close quarters combat with small arms and grenades. Just 75 meters from the summit, the Americans struggled to coordinate one final assault. A chance thunderstorm ended that day’s fighting early, and the 3/187th was forced to withdraw.
Finally, the Army moved in two fresh battalions of infantry to join the others, even though the first battalions had paid a high cost for their previous assaults. With reinforcements in place, the Americans launched a four-battalion attack of Hill 937 on May 20, 1969. Within two hours, they reached the top and cleared the hill of enemy forces within the next three hours.
On June 5th, the 101st Airborne’s new commander abandoned HIll 937, as he deemed it had no military value. The next fight over Hamburger Hill would take place in Washington, as it led Congressmen and Senators to fight over American strategy in Vietnam.
This article originally appeared in “Dispatches May 2022”, a monthly newsletter from the website, Together We Served. Here is the original link: https://army.togetherweserved.com/army/newsletter2/106/newsletter.html#article3
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This is a prime example of our how we fought. All the carnage on both sides and then just leave it
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I served with Bco 3/187 Inf 101st Airborne in this shit hole
I never thought a frontal attack was right Never thought it was a great idea Blackjacks own Soliders tired to shoot his Loach Down
We fought. For one another
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Thanks for sharing these courageous experiences of our U.S. Vetetans. I’m a forever grateful American.
I can only guess it must have been beautiful country before we bombed and napalmed it to smithereens.
It was never about conquering land – it was a guerilla war with the singular objective being destroy the enemy…
My book has just been published “BEYOND VIETNAM by Gerald E. Augustine
All about my tour with the 196th LIB & 4th Inf. Div. on Amazon
great thank you for the history!
I was in 2nd 506th Bravo company during this time. We were not on Hamburger Hill but served as support. I received a GSW to the right chest on June 5, 1969. When we were in rear for a 2 day stand down our CO announced we were going tithe Ashau Valley. The next morning we had zero ARVNS going with us. They disappeared in the night.
see if you can get any info about support that Radio Research provided. it was all classified back then but might be accessible now. the field station at Phu Bai and an aviation unit were probably involved. see 509th Radio Research Group on the internet. I got to Vietnam in late May ’69 and was with 330th RRC for 2 years.
It was interesting and Informative..
I served with Charie Co. 1st Bn 5th Marines. Toward the end of may the 1st Bn had continuely had firefights with 90th NVA. Finally on the night of June 11th they attacked our Bn defensive position which led to close to 300 enemy dead and numberous bloody body trails. The 90th NVA Regt went back to the hills above Charlie ridge. The battles were fought in an area known as Arizona Territory. We received a Meritorious Unit Commendation. We lost little casalties
I really don’t remember what unit or hill I was in !!! Marine, alittle hill at base of Charlie ridge and then alittle village, then a bigger hill !! Right next to Arizona, when I left California, I was in 2/3, so I really just went on ambushes , I remember faces, but not names !!! My name is jim rhone, 0351 and they put me in 4 man 60 machine gun fire team, but never had to walk point , where was I thank you, jim
I was involved in the Battle for Chu Moor Mountain …April 1968 in II corps west of Kontum…1/22 Infantry, 4th ID. The two battles, Hamburger Hill and Chu Moor, are very similar. Has anyone mentioned the NVA strategy called HILL TRAP MANEUVER?
Which “SGT James Spears” is the author talking about? What was his unit? I just googled him and ended up on the Facebook page of a Vietnam Veteran of that name with a LOT of issues.
Very good short article, I was present those ten days in May1969. I served in Echo Company Recon 3/187th 101st Airborne Division.
We were also there the 9th marines
Very informative but also very sad. Once again a vital battle that meant nothing once the battle was over. Total KIA and WIA just overwhelming, and to walk away in two days, indicates how committed our government was to the Vietnam war. Shameful, that general that made the decision to leave hill 937 should have been sent to Levensworth.
THEE MISSION WAS A R I F, TO ELIMINATE BASE CAMPS USED BY THE PAVN, THE HILL WAS NEVER A MISSION, JUST A PLACE THE ENEMY DECIDED TO STAND AND FIGHT, ONCE THEY WERE DEFEATED, THE MISSION WAS COMPLETED, THAT HILL HAD NO PARTICULAR SIGNIFICANT VALUE TO US, THUS IT WAS NOT WORTH DEFENDING
I was with the 3rd marines, Fox 2/3 The Ghost Platoon . I arrived in Country on April 13, 1969. The article was very good.