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Sunday, June 12, 2005

Breaking the back of the Army

US soldiers in Vietnam

Hamburger Hill Revisited
Hamburger Hill proved to be the telling battle of the Vietnam War, as Pork Chop Hill was for the Korean War.

By Colonel Harry G. Summers, Jr., U.S. Army (ret.)


Final U.S. casualties were 46 dead and 400 wounded. While these losses were high, Hamburger Hill was not the bloodiest fight of the war, even for the 101st Airborne Division. In the earlier November 1967 battle of Dak To in the Central Highlands, 289 U.S. soldiers were killed in action and an estimated 1,644 NVA soldiers also perished, victims of the 170,000 rounds of artillery, the 2,100 tactical airstrikes and the 228 Boeing B-52 sorties that supported the operation. Later, during the week of February 10-17, 1968, in the midst of the Tet Offensive, 543 Americans were killed in action and another 2,547 wounded without causing any outcry from the American public.

The Hamburger Hill losses were much smaller, but they set off a firestorm of protest back home. The American people were growing more weary of the war. A February 1969 poll revealed that only 39 percent still supported the war, while 52 percent believed sending troops to fight in Vietnam had been a mistake.

Politicians were quick to seek advantage in those numbers. Most prominent was Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, whose brother John F. Kennedy had been the architect of America's Vietnam involvement. As Zaffiri related: "In the early afternoon of May 29 [1969]...Senator Kennedy [who had served as a draftee military policeman in Paris during the Korean War] stood up on the Senate floor and angrily denounced the attack on Dong Ap Bia, calling it 'senseless and irresponsible...madness...sympathetic of a mentality and a policy that requires immediate attention. American boys are too valuable to be sacrificed to a false sense of military pride.'"


What set off this wave of criticism was a May 19 dispatch by Associated Press war correspondent Jay Sharbutt. While reports of the Hamburger Hill battle had been appearing in newspapers since May 14, most were innocuous descriptions of the fight in routine terms. But Sharbutt's dispatch struck a nerve: "The paratroopers came down the mountain, their green shirts darkened with sweat, their weapons gone, their bandages stained brown and red--with mud and blood.

"Many cursed Lt. Col. Weldon Honeycutt, who sent three companies Sunday to take this 3,000-foot mountain just a mile east of Laos and overlooking the shell-pocked A Shau Valley.

"They failed and they suffered. 'That damn Blackjack [Lt. Col. Honeycutt's radio call sign] won't stop until he kills every one of us,' said one of the 40 to 50 101st Airborne troopers who was wounded."

The day after Sharbutt's story hit the newspapers, Hamburger Hill fell to the troopers of the 101st Airborne Division's 3rd Brigade. But that victory was short-lived, for on June 5 the decision was made to abandon the hill to the enemy, further exacerbating public outrage. Adding fuel to the fire, the June 27, 1969, issue of Life magazine featured photographs of the 241 servicemen killed in Vietnam the previous week, including the five who had been killed in the assault on Hamburger Hill. The feature was titled, "The Faces of the Dead in Vietnam: One Week's Toll," and it was prefaced by a quote from a letter written by one of those five soldiers during a break in the fighting. "You may not be able to read this," it said. "I am writing in a hurry. I see death coming up the hill." The erroneous impression was thus created that all 241 pictured had been killed during the Hamburger Hill assault, increasing public disgust over what appeared to be a senseless loss of life.

Underlying that disgust was the fact that the war in Vietnam did not fit the model of war that was fixed in most American minds. Except for the 19th-century Indian wars on the Western plains, most of America's wars had fixed geographic boundaries, and progress could be measured by movement on the map. But Vietnam was different. As MACV commander General Creighton Abrams tried to explain: "We are not fighting for terrain as such. We are going after the enemy." At a news conference following Hamburger Hill's capture, the 101st Airborne Division's commander, Maj. Gen. Melvin Zais, reinforced General Abrams' words.


On January 20, 1969, after a hardened road into the eastern part of the valley was constructed, Operation Dewey Canyon was launched into the A Shau. Led by the three battalions of the 9th Marine Regiment, the Marines not only advanced to the Laotian border but also launched a battalion-sized raid into Laos itself. They discovered that the NVA had built major roads in the area, and as many as 1,000 trucks were moving east from there. After capturing enormous enemy arms caches, including 73 AAA guns, 16 122mm artillery guns, nearly 1,000 AK-47 rifles and more than a million rounds of small-arms and machine-gun ammunition, the Marines withdrew on March 13, 1969.

The immediate prelude to Operation Apache Snow was an operation by the 101st Airborne Division's 2nd Brigade on March 1, 1969, into the southern end of the A Shau Valley. Labeled Operation Massachusetts Striker, it uncovered massive North Vietnamese supply depots that the enemy had abandoned in their flight northward, ironically right into the path of Operation Apache Snow, which began on May 10.

A 10-battalion operation, Apache Snow's initial assault force consisted of the 3rd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division under the command of Colonel Joseph B. Conmy, Jr., with his 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry (3/187); the 2nd Battalion, 501st Infantry (2/501); the 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry (1/506); and two infantry battalions from the 1st ARVN Division. Also part of the operation were the three battalions of the U.S. 9th Marine Regiment; the U.S. 3rd Squadron, 5th Cavalry; and two additional ARVN infantry battalions. The operation was supported by some 217 airstrikes as well as fire from four 105mm artillery batteries, two 155mm batteries, one 175mm battery and one 8-inch battery.

The main action of the operation was the 10-day assault on Hamburger Hill, which was defended by the entrenched NVA 29th Regiment. The assault was led by the 3/187 "Rakkasans" under the command of Colonel Honeycutt. A detailed firsthand account of that battle by Colonel Conmy, the 3rd Brigade commander and a combat infantry veteran of World War II and the Korean War, appeared in Vietnam Magazine ("Crouching Beast Cornered," in the August 1990 issue). Several of his observations bear repeating, however.

First is his defense of the 3/187 commander Honeycutt, who has been severely condemned as being a heartless butcher. He was my classmate at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., the previous year and was known even then for his abrasive personality.

Enlisting in the Army at age 16 as a sixth-grade dropout, Honeycutt advanced from private to captain in five years and in the Korean War ended up commanding a rifle company in the 187th Regimental Combat Team, then commanded by Brig. Gen. William C. Westmoreland. Earning the nickname "Tiger" for his aggressiveness, he drove his subordinates hard and some would say mercilessly.

Conmy saw him in a different light. "If I ever go to war again, I want him on my team," he said. "He's a real fighter. Here's an indication of his type of leadership: In the first few days, 3/187 had sustained 50 percent casualties and there was talk of replacing the battalion. However, the troops and Colonel Honeycutt wouldn't have any part of it. They had started the thing and they wanted to finish it." And they did just that, joining forces with the 2/501, attacking from the northeast, the 2nd Battalion, 3rd ARVN Regiment, attacking from the southeast and the 1/506, attacking from the south. Reinforced by the 2/506's Alpha Company, the 3/187 would attack from the west. After the other three battalions had fought their way up the mountain, Colonel Conmy ordered them into blocking positions and gave the 3/187 the honor of making the final assault. By nightfall on May 20, 1969, it was all over.


What Summers doesn't say is this:

In the end, they did more than curse Honeycutt. They offered a bounty for his murder. After the battle, memebers of the 101st Airborne put a $10,000 bounty on Lt. Col. Honeycutt. In today's money, that's $50000. He survived seven attempted fraggings and had to travel with an MP bopdyguard. It seems that the soldiers had had enough. After this, the effectiveness of the US Army sharply declined. There were 209 fragging courtmartials in 1969 alone. This was clearly an army coming undone.

What is even more remarkable about the events following the battle is this: the 101st Airborne was regarded as probably the second best Army division in Vietnam, with only the 1st Air Cav as better. The problem was that even though in 1969, it still had a fairly high proportion of volunteers, the pointlessness of the fighting was hitting home. Withdrawing from Ap Bac Bia after hurting the enemy was a final blow to morale. Not just in the 101st ABN either. It was starting down a five year road of destroying the Army. This is the battle which broke the US Army. After it, US units would never be as effective before it.

Despite an apparent battlefield victory against the PAVN, having met and defeated them in every major battle over the previous 15 months, the fight was beaten out of the US Army. Not just because of growing opposition to the war at home, but increasing indiscipline in the field. The whole goal of the war became survival. Anything that got in the way of that became expendible. The US Army grew less and less effective each month until withdrawal three years later.

Armies cannot fight forever. They must have purpose to their mission and their sacrifices. When it gets to the point where the soldiers doubt the mission and think of their own survival, victory becomes impossible. A wise leader knows this, but foolish ones do not.

posted by Steve @ 10:58:00 AM

10:58:00 AM

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