May 21

This Day in History

Vietnam War

May 21, 1969:

Military spokesman defends "Hamburger Hill"

A U.S. military command spokesman in Saigon defends the battle for Ap Bia Mountain as having been necessary to stop enemy infiltration and protect the city of Hue. The spokesman stated that the battle was an integral part of the policy of "maximum pressure" that U.S. forces had been pursuing for the prior six months, and confirmed that no orders had been received from President Nixon to modify that basic strategy. On May 20, the battle, described in the American media as the battle for "Hamburger Hill," had come under attack in Congress from Senator Kennedy (D-Massachusetts), who described the action as "senseless and irresponsible."

On May 22 in Phu Bai, South Vietnam, Maj. Gen. Melvin Zais, commanding general of the 101st Airborne Division that took "Hamburger Hill," responded to continuing media criticism by saying that his orders had been "to destroy enemy forces" in the A Shau Valley and that he had not received any other orders to reduce casualties by avoiding battles.

The battle in question had occurred as part of Operation Apache Snow in the A Shau Valley. During that operation, which had begun on May 10, paratroopers 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 repulsed the initial American assault and on May 14, beat back another attempt by the 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry. 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. Zais 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 Army off balance, the mountain was abandoned soon after the battle and was occupied by the North Vietnamese a month later.

The news of the battle resulted in 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 battle. Subsequently, Gen. Creighton Abrams, commander of U.S. Military Assistance Command Vietnam, was ordered 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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