The entire mountain is a rugged, uninviting wilderness blanketed in double- and triple-canopy jungle, dense thickets of bamboo, and waist-high elephant grass. Local Montagnard tribesmen called Ap Bia “the mountain of the crouching beast. ” LTC Weldon Honeycutt, commander of the 3d Battalion, 187th Infantry (the “Rakkasans”), called it “Hill 937. ” The Soldiers who fought there dubbed it “Hamburger Hill. ” The ? ght on Hamburger Hill occurred during Operation Apache Snow, the second part of a three-phased campaign intended to destroy North Vietnam Army (NVA) bases in the treacherous A Shau Valley.
The American and South Vietnamese units participating in Apache Snow knew, based on existing intelligence and previous experiences in the A Shau, that they were in for a tough ? ght. Beyond that, however, they had little evidence as to the enemy’s actual strength and dispositions. Masters of camou? age, the NVA completely concealed their bases from aerial surveillance. When the NVA moved, they did so at night along trails covered by triple-canopy jungle, again confounding observation from above.
They effected their command and control mainly by runner and wire, leaving no electronic signature for the Americans to monitor or trace. Technology, therefore, provided scant assistance to the American battalion commander trying to “see the enemy” during Apache Snow. He had to generate his own tacticalintelligence. Patrols, captured equipment, installations, documents, and occasionally prisoners provided combat commanders with the raw data from which to draw their assessment of the enemy order of battle and dispositions. Gathering this information took time, though.
Moreover, intelligence about the enemy’s strength and dispositions did not necessarily illuminate his commander’s intent. It took days to ascertain this, and the learning experience proved decidedly unpleasant for the Americans. On 11 May, Honeycutt dispersed his Rakkasans and scoured the vicinity to the north and northwest of Ap Bia Mountain. When Bravo Company made heavy contact with some NVA late in the day, Honeycutt adjusted his estimate of the enemy’s strength from “a few trail watchers” to a reinforced platoon or even a company.
The Rakkasans could still deal with a force that size, but they would have to concentrate to do so. For the next three days, Honeycutt fought the mountain and the NVA to bring his scattered companies together for a coordinated battalion attack. Despite the fact that, since the initial assault, no company was more than about 1,500 meters from the crest of the mountain, it took two days to consolidate the battalion for a three-company assault.
Time and again, the American infantrymen found themselves hampered as much by the topography as by the enemy. The rugged terrain slowed dismounted movement to a crawl. Between 12 and 14 May, for example, Delta Company was virtually immobilized when it went down a steep ravine and was caught there by the enemy. In one grueling ? ve-hour period, the company labored to advance a total of only 500 meters. The steep, mud-covered slopes, more than the enemy, kept this company from ful? lling Honeycutt’s intent.
In the end, the troops had to abandon their attack and withdraw the way they had come. These three days were a period of intensely unpleasant “discovery learning” for Honeycutt and his men. Map reconnaissance and helicopter over-? ights did not indicate that his initial scheme of maneuver was impractical. It took Delta Company’s three-day ordeal to do so. Though Honeycutt had a long and distinguished record as a combat commander in both Vietnam and Korea, he underestimated Ap Bia Mountain and the NVA facing him.
Although his estimate of the enemy strength was incorrect, his miscalculation was not immediately apparent to him or to any of the American leadership. It took three days of assaults by Bravo and Charlie Companies, each bloodily repulsed, before the situation became clearer. The enemy was stronger than anticipated, much stronger than company strength, and he grew more powerful every night as he received reinforcements from Laos. The NVA commander’s demonstrated tenacity and willingness to replace heavy losses indicated he intended to put up a stiff ? ght for Hill 937 (Scalard).