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Gruntworks History Military

“Don’t Mean Nothing, Man” – The Battle for Hamburger Hill, May 11th – 20th, 1969

Below is an excerpt from Military History Dispatches:

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.Product Block - Remember the Fallen

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.

Conmy also commented on the negative publicity: Well, people wanted the war to end. This was a battle; maybe if it had been fought a couple of years earlier, it would have been noted–but probably wouldn’t have received the attention that it did. In 1969 there was an uproar in the United States. In their eyes we were committing mayhem and murder. Our mission was still to save South Vietnam from communism and give it back to them. If nothing else, this battle certainly helped at the time [and] it was very instrumental in aiding in the eventual withdrawal of our troops from South Vietnam. The enemy had lost his Sunday punch, so to speak.

The late General Abrams, the MACV commander at the time, should have the last word on the battle for Hamburger Hill. His biographer, Lewis Sorley, related: Shortly after the battle and its immediate aftermath, Abrams had several people over for a game of poker. They had dinner beforehand, and Abrams told his guests: ‘Today we had a congressional delegation in, including Teddy Kennedy.

They were complaining about the loss of life at Hamburger Hill. I told them the last time the 29th NVA Regiment came out of North Vietnam it destroyed Hue, and I heard from every antiquarian in the world. This time, when they came out again, I issued orders that they were to be intercepted and defeated before they could get to Hue. We drove them back into North Vietnam, but I was criticized for the casualties that entailed. If they would let me know where they would like me to fight the next battle, I would be glad to do it there.’ Then they dealt the cards.

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