May 20

This Day in History

Vietnam War

May 20, 1969:

Kennedy criticizes the "Hamburger Hill" battle

As part of a growing outcry over U.S. military policy in Vietnam, Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts), in a Senate speech, scorns the military tactics of the Nixon administration. He condemned the battle for Ap Bia Mountain, which had become known as "Hamburger Hill," as "senseless and irresponsible."

The battle in question had occurred as part of Operation Apache Snow in the A Shau Valley. Starting on May 10, paratroopers from the 101st Airborne had engaged a North Vietnamese regiment on the slopes of Hill 937, known to the Vietnamese as Ap Bia Mountain. Entrenched in prepared fighting positions, the North Vietnamese 29th Regiment repulsed the initial American assault, and beat back another attempt by the 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry on May 14. An intense battle raged for the next 10 days as the mountain came under heavy Allied air strikes, artillery barrages, and 10 infantry assaults. On May 20, Maj. Gen. Melvin Zais, commanding general of the 101st, sent in two additional U.S. airborne battalions and a South Vietnamese battalion as reinforcements. The communist stronghold was finally captured in the 11th attack when the American and South Vietnamese soldiers fought their way to the summit of the mountain. In the face of the four-battalion attack, the North Vietnamese retreated to sanctuary areas in Laos.

During the intense fighting, 597 North Vietnamese were reported killed and U.S. casualties were 56 killed and 420 wounded. Due to the bitter fighting and the high loss of life, the battle for Ap Bia Mountain received widespread unfavorable publicity in the United States and was dubbed "Hamburger Hill" in the U.S. media, a name evidently derived from the fact that the battle turned into a "meat grinder." Since the operation was not intended to hold territory but rather to keep the North Vietnamese off balance, the mountain was abandoned soon after the battle and was occupied by the North Vietnamese a month later.

Senator Kennedy was not the only American who thought the battle had been futile and ill advised; there was widespread public outrage over what appeared to be a senseless loss of American lives. The situation was exacerbated by pictures published in Life magazine of 241 U.S. soldiers killed during the week of the Hamburger Hill battle. Gen. Creighton Abrams, commander of U.S. Military Assistance Command Vietnam, was ordered by the White House to avoid such battles. Because of Hamburger Hill, and other battles like it, U.S. emphasis was placed on "Vietnamization" (turning the war over to the South Vietnamese forces), rather than direct combat operations.

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