In May 1969, US involvement in Vietnam was at an all-time high – just over half a million ground troops stationed throughout the country – despite various promises from President Richard Nixon of successive troop withdrawals through the policy of Vietnamisation under the Nixon Doctrine. More so, US and Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) forces were now engaged in conflicts with the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN), National Liberation Front (NLF) and People’s Liberation Armed Forces of Vietnam (PLAF) troops outside of Vietnam. In northern Laos and eastern Cambodia, US B-52 bombers had begun systematic carpet bombing campaigns aimed at crippling PAVN, NLF and PLAF sanctuaries and damaging the ever-important supply chain made possible by the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
The Battle of Hamburger Hill was bloody and wasteful. The carnage was so severe and the loss of American life so great that reporters quickly likened the battle to making mince-meat out of the troops involved – hence the description of “Hamburger” Hill. The hill in question was known locally as Dòng Áp Bia (Áp Bia Mountain), located under 2 kilometres from the Laos border in the Thừa Thiên-Huế Province of South Vietnam. It was officially known by American forces at the time as Hill 937 due to its elevation recorded on US Army maps. An unremarkable solitary massif, unconnected to the ridges of the surrounding Annamite range, Áp Bia held little strategic value.
The order to attack the hill was given in accordance with Operation Apache Snow, the second part of a three-phased campaign intended to destroy PAVN bases in the remote A Sầu Valley. The Valley had been held by PAVN forces since March 1966, after they captured a US Special Forces base at the Battle of A Sầu. From then on, PAVN and NLF troops had solidified their presence in the region, basing themselves there permanently and constructing well-planned and effective defensive positions.
Very soon after the first assault, US and ARVN forces ran into debilitating tactical difficulties. With the sole use of narrow trails for manoeuvring troops, US and ARVN soldiers were funnelled into Việt Cộng traps and defensive fire positions. Due to dense cover smothering the narrow trails, often three tiers of forest and jungle foliage, attacking infantry units could not rely on artillery or aerial support.
When artillery and aerial support was used, it had disastrous consequences. Due to the terrain being featureless and unfamiliar to American troops, the command of small units was decentralised and unable to coordinate effectively until close to the end of the battle when most foliage had been destroyed. This, combined with human error, resulted in five friendly fire attacks that left seven dead and 53 wounded. PAVN and NLF bunkers were so well dug-in and constructed that any aerial or artillery attacks had little effect.
The battle was considered a victory for US and ARVN forces, who captured the hill on 20 May. However, the loss of life, the wounded and the soldiers missing in action proved to be a toll that served only to inflame the growing discontent with the war in America, fuelling renewed anti-war demonstrations and protests. Worse still, the anger over the battle in America was intensified after, having captured the hill, American and ARVN troops quickly abandoned it soon after victory, typifying it as a needless battle. Ultimately, the Battle of Hamburger Hill is considered one of the last instances of major American ground combat operations in Vietnam.