Every war has a battle that stands out; remembered by many long after the war has ended. We remember Gettysburg from the Civil War and The Battle of the Bulge from WW II. Some remember Pork Chop Hill from the Korean Conflict or the Battle of Bunker Hill during the Revolutionary War. But few, except maybe for the Vietnam Veteran, remember the battle for Hill 937.
Hill 937 was a stronghold for the North Vietnamese in the A Shau Valley section of Vietnam. It was called Hill 937 because it is 937 meters above sea level. All hills in Vietnam were identified this way. It is a rugged, uninviting wilderness of dense thickets of bamboo, high elephant grass (stuff that can slice you like a sharp knife), and triple -canopy jungle. It’s a place where a normal person wouldn’t go. But, American senior military officers decided it was not going to be occupied by the enemy any longer.
The battle took place in mid-May 1969. It lasted for 10 days, a brutally long time for a battle to go on. It was part of Operation Apache Snow, a campaign designed to destroy NVA base areas in the A Shau Valley. It involved American and South Vietnamese units. The Allied side was made up of elements from the 101st Airborne Division (primarily 3 battalions of airmobile infantry) , 2 battalions of ARVN troops, the 9th Marine Regiment, and 3rd battalion of the 5th Cavalry Regiment.
The NVA were the masters of camouflage. They were able to completely conceal their bases from aerial surveillance. When they moved, they did so a night along trails under triple-canopy jungle. It was often next to impossible to fight them on conventional terms because of their ability act like ghosts, there one minute and gone the next.
Initial probing tactics by the 101st Airborne produced little resistance. That was pretty typical of the North though as they would encounter us briefly then slip away before we had a chance of bringing overwhelming firepower to bear against them. Senior officers in charge anticipated one battalion was sufficient enough to carry out further reconnaissance on the Hill.
On May 11th heavier actions by the Americans brought heavy contact with the enemy. Cobra’s were quickly dispatched as support for these hasty assaults. The Americans were within a kilometer of the summit of the Hill. Unfortunately though, because of the heavy jungle environment, one of the gun ships mistook the battalion command post as an enemy emplacement, killing two and wounding thirty-five U.S. soldiers. Of course this disrupted the entire assault and the battalion was forced to move back into night defensive positions rather than continue. They now knew though that the enemy numbers were large and that they had a tough fight ahead of them.
In the following days the Americans had a very hard time carrying out offensive movements against the enemy because of the rugged terrain. It was extremely difficult for them to established solid LZs from which to insert troops. When they were able to put boots on the ground, engagements with the enemy proved to be costly as units took heavy casualties from the enemy.
Then it started to rain. Again, because of the rugged terrain movement virtually came to a standstill because U. S. troops were slipping badly when they tried to climb up the steep hill. It was a mess.
The terrain masked enemy positions and the North Vietnamese were able to move units around under cover of the thick jungle.
The effectiveness of U.S. maneuver forces continued to be limited by narrow trails that funneled the attacking companies into smaller squad or platoon sized points of attack, where they encountered larger NVA platoons or companies with prepared fields of fire. The U.S. tried to pull units back briefly while artillery fire and close in air support pounded the NVA bunkers, but they proved to be so well situated and constructed that they survived these attacks. In addition they covered most of the Hill. Next, the Americans tried napalm, recoilless rifle fire and dogged squad and platoon-level actions which produced some results. Buts, these came at a cost to the U.S. units.
A coordinated two-battalion assault was planned for May 18. It was thought that such an assault would keep the NVA from concentrating on one battalion, thus lightening the effect of their defense. Fighting to within 75 meters of the summit , Delta Co. of the 3/187th nearly carried the hill but experienced severe casualties, including all their officers. The battle was one of close combat, with the two sides fighting within twenty meters of each other.
Because of the meager results the Americans had seen from their assaults, and the possibility of unwanted attention from the press, the U.S. leadership almost chose to call off further attempts to take the Hill. But, they decided otherwise and, with the addition of three fresh battalions laid out new plans to attack the Hill.
The 3/187th battalion’s losses were severe, with about 320 men killed or wounded including more than sixty percent of the 450 experienced troops. This included two company commanders and eight platoon leaders. Even so, the 3/187th became an additional unit involved in the new plans to assault the Hill.
On May 19 two of the fresh battalions, including an ARVN battalion, were airlifted to LZs northeast and southeast of the base of the Hill. Both began immediate movement up the hill to positions from which they would attack the next morning.
The entire 3rd brigade launched it’s attack at 10:00, May 20th. The attack was preceded by two hours of close support and ninety minutes of artillery prep fires. By 12:00 elements of the Brigade made the crest of the hill and began to take out the bunkers that continued to fight other Allied units still moving up the hill. Approximately 2 NVA battalions withdrew into Laos, and the hill was reported as secured at 17:00 that day. The battle was over.
U.S. losses during the 10-day battle reportedly totaled 72 dead and 372 wounded. In all the 101st Airborne committed five infantry battalions, about 1,800 men, and ten batteries of artillery. The Air Force flew 272 support sorties and expended 450 tons of bombs and 69 tons of napalm on the hill.
The U.S. claimed the North Vietnamese suffered 630 dead and an unknown number of wounded.
Sadly, for those who fought and suffered during the siege, the hill was abandoned by the U.S. on June 5. The debate over the siege was heard in the Halls of Congress and garnered criticism from the politicians, especially when it was reported that during the week of the siege 241 Americans were killed in Vietnam. This was a turning point in the War. It turned from a War being lead by the military to one dictated by the politicians.
For those of you wondering if there was any name besides Hill 937 placed on this assault. There was. This was “Hamburger Hill“. So named by the troops because, it seemed that any unit sent into the battle were turned to hamburger at the hands of the North Vietnamese.
Several years ago a movie was made about Hamburger Hill. While, like many war movies, it was over-dramatized, it was a fairly accurate account of how the battle transpired. Also, a very similar movie about a battle called Pork Chop Hill was made in the 50’s. That battle took place in the Korean Conflict.