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Battle For Hamburger Hill

Author Unknown, 5/30/1969

Captain william Mynatt, airborne Ranger qualified, would command Charlie Company 4/3 while they were OPCON to the 101st airborne division durning the Battle of Hamburger Hill from May 10 through May 20 1969. This is a part of the Charlie Company legacy. Standing tall.

AP Bia Mountain anchors the northwest corner of South Viet Nam's A Shau Valley, since 1966 a major infiltration route for Communist forces from the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos to the coastal cities of northern I Corps. It is a mountain much like any other in that part of the Highlands, green, triple-canopied and spiked with thick stands of bamboo. On military maps it is listed as Hill 937, the number representing its height in meters. Last week it acquired another name: Hamburger Hill. It was a grisly but all too appropriate description, for the battle in and around Ap Bia took the lives of 84 G.I.s and wounded 480 more. Such engagements were familiar enough in Viet Nam up until a year ago. But coming at this stage of the war and the peace talks, the battle for Hamburger Hill set off tremors of controversy that carried all the way to Capitol Hill.

Assaults Repulsed. The battle for Hill 937 began uneventfully enough. On May 10, nine battalions of American and Vietnamese troops were helilifted into landing zones between the A Shau Valley and the Laotian border to disrupt possible North Vietnamese attacks toward the coast and to cut off Communist escape routes. There was little contact at first, but the next day, conditions changed for Lieut. Colonel Weldon F. Honeycutt's 3rd Battalion, 187th Regiment, of the 101st Airborne Division. Wheeling away from the border and eastward toward Hill 937, Honeycutt's troops surprised a North Vietnamese trail-watching squad and wiped it out. Estimating that a company of North Vietnamese occupied the hill (it turned out to be part of two regiments), Honeycutt sent his men up Ap Bia on May 12. The troopers quickly ran, as Specialist Four Jimmy Speers recalled, "into garbage": rocket grenades, fire from automatic weapons, lethal Claymore mines dangling from bushes and trees. The American attackers were forced to pull back. An assault by two companies on May 13 was also repulsed by the North Vietnamese. Honeycutt, a hard-nosed commander who often walks the point (the exposed forward position in a formation) with his battalion, did not give up. On May 14 the battalion, trying again, nearly made the top of the hill. But while Honeycutt, whose radio code name is "Black Jack," radioed, "Get up off your butts, get moving," the commander of the lead company was wounded and the attack petered out.

After so many costly failures to gain Ap Bia's summit, some U.S. soldiers were dispirited. "There were lots of people in Bravo company [which had borne the brunt of the casualties] who were going to refuse to go up again," one soldier said. "There'd been low morale, but never before so low—because we felt it was all so senseless." Two other battalions from the 101st and a battalion from the Vietnamese 1st Division were brought up as reinforcements. On May 18, two battalions—all of their men loaded down with 40 magazines of rifle ammunition—tried again, and were thrown back just short of the crest in a blinding rainstorm and a shower of Communist grenades. One company commander stilled growing discontent among his men by telling them that "we are soldiers, and we have to do our job." He was scared, he said. "Everybody was scared. But we had to go back up."

Two days later, on May 20, after more than 20,000 artillery rounds and 155 air strikes had virtually denuded the top of 937, the assault force finally took the hill. The U.S. command claimed that 622 North Vietnamese had been killed, though only 182 weapons were found, indicating that the dead might actually be considerably fewer. Specialist Speers, who had begun the battle as a squad leader, came down as a platoon commander —such were the U.S. casualties. No Orders. The reaction in Washington came quickly. Mindful of similar assaults in the past—when hills were taken at high cost and then quickly abandoned—Senator Edward Kennedy charged that it was "both senseless and irresponsible to continue to send our young men to their deaths to capture hills and positions that have no relation to this conflict." After initial hesitation, the Army fought back, describing the battle as a "tremendous, gallant victory." Major General Melvin Zais, commander of the 101st, observed that "the only significance of Hill 937 was the fact that there were North Vietnamese on it. My mission was to destroy enemy forces and installations. We found the enemy on Hill 937, and that is where we fought him." Bypassing the hill would have made no military sense, he explained, because it would have given the Communists control of the high ground. "It's a myth that if we don't do anything, nothing will happen to us. It's not true. If we did pull back and were quiet, they'd kill us in the night." Zais said that he had received no orders to keep casualties* down. Could he not have ordered B-52 strikes against the hill, rather than committing his paratroopers? The general said "absolutely not"—air power could not possibly have done the job.

In strictly military terms, Zais' explanation made eminent sense, particularly since U.S. units are still operating under orders, first issued at the time of the bombing halt, to exert "maximum pressure" on their foe—part of the U.S. version of "fight and talk." Nixon, like Lyndon Johnson before him, probably feels that lack of such pressure could erode the allied negotiating position in Paris. But the war and domestic reaction to it have gone far beyond purely military considerations now, and the battle of Ap Bia raises the question of whether or not the U.S. should try to scale down the fighting by rescinding the maximum-pressure order. The Communists might follow suit and U.S. casualties might be reduced. All of that mattered little on Hill 937. When the battle was over—while helicopters flew out stacks of holed American helmets and bloody flak jackets—TIME Correspondent John Wilhelm found a piece of cardboard and a black 101st neckerchief pinned by a G.I. knife to a blackened tree trunk. "Hamburger Hill," a soldier had scrawled on the cardboard, and someone else had added the words, "Was it worth it?"

A Letter From Bill Mynatt
Dear Friends:
Have attached a few photos of Nam when I was Company Commander of Company C 4th Battalion 3rd Infantry Americal Division in 1969-70. Perhaps you might place them on the web site with all those other great pictures that bring back so many memories. Just to bring you up to date I spent 25 years in the Army, was stationed all over the world and retired as a COL. Spent the last 17 years as a US Customs Special Agent chasing drug dealers and terrorists. I am 63 and plan to retire again in two years. Keep in touch and be very proud of the way you have served your country.

A Memorial day e-mail from Mr. Mynatt, 2007
Dear Family & Friends:
This Memorial Day weekend has caused me to reflect my past. These photos I have attached were taken at the end of one of the largest battles I was a part of as an Infantry Company Commander in Viet Nam. The battle site was later named "Hamburger Hill". It took us 11 days to reach the top of the hill. The official toll was 59 men killed in our Battalion and over 1,000 North Vietnamese killed. What sticks in my mind was in that 11 days, 24 hours a day, the firing of weapons never stopped. I wondered if it would ever end. There was a movie made of the battle named "Hamburger Hill". Check it out, it is very accurate and brings back many unpleasant memories. Take some time to thank a Veteran this weekend, and remember the ones that were lost. Does not matter where they were stationed or what their military job was, without them we would not have our freedom. Keep in touch.

More From Bill

Our company was assigned to a 101 Airborne Battalion for about a month in 1969 during this operation as part of a task force. I was an Infantry Airborne Ranger, so perhaps that was why we were chosen. The task force also had tanks, mechanized units, air and naval support etc. It was probably one of the worst experiences I have ever had. The first two days we had to move across open rice paddies to get to the bottom of the hill. We had to move and fight between the tanks and armored personnel carriers. I felt like we were sitting ducks. Many of our troops were killed in the open fields. When we got to the bottom of the hill, of course the tanks and the carriers had to stop. When we were going up the hill, the tanks and carriers were shooting at the enemy from our rear and over our heads and the North Vietnamese were shooting at us from the front. To say the least it seemed like a madhouse. It was nice when the battle was over and we returned to the Americal Division.

Related Links & Resources:
Battle of Hamburger Hill - article by Wikipedia

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