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 ,
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
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.”