By LtCol Mike Christy-TogetherWeServed Dispatches
A separate design for a version of the Medal of Honor for the U.S. Air Force was created in 1956, authorized in 1960, and officially adopted on April 14, 1965. Previously, members of the U.S. Army Air Corps, U.S. Army Air Forces, and the U.S. Air Force received the Army version of the medal. The first person to receive the new U.S. Air Force Medal of Honor was Major Bernie Fisher during the Battle of A Shau Valley in March 1966. He also received a Silver Star during the same battle.
The A Shau Valley is located in Thua Thein Hue Province, 30 miles southwest of the coastal city of Hue, along the border of Laos. The valley runs north and south for twenty-five miles and is a mile-wide flat bottomland covered with tall elephant grass, flanked by two strings of densely forested mountains that vary from three to six thousand feet. Its geography and isolation made it a primary infiltration route for the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) into South Vietnam for men and material brought down from the north along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Located just five miles from the border with Laos was A Shau Special Forces camp with the mission of detecting and interdicting enemy forces. Defending the camp were 10 Green Berets from the 5th Special Forces Group and 210 South Vietnamese Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG). Out of friendly artillery range, it was supported by Air Commando units equipped with vintage A-1 Skyraiders and AC-47 Spooky gunships.
The camp consisted of some barracks buildings, a triangular fort, and an airstrip made of pierced steel planking just outside the barbed wire perimeter east of the camp. The fort had a mortar bunker at each corner. The walls consisted of steel plate and sandbags.
The camp was routinely harassed by small Vietcong (VC) formations leading up to the battle. Throughout February andMarch, 1966, platoon-sized troops from the camp were sent out to conduct reconnaissance patrols in the surrounding area. On March 5, two North Vietnamese Army (NVA) defectors turned up at the camp. Under interrogation, they indicated that four battalions of the North Vietnamese 325th Division were planning to attack the camp.
Based on that information, night patrols were dispatched to confirm the enemy positions but no sightings were made. However, Air Commandos conducting reconnaissance flights observed large build-ups of NVA troops along with anti-aircraft emplacements. As a result, airstrikes were ordered against enemy positions.
On March 7, Air Force C-123s brought in reinforcements in the form of a MIKE force, increasing the strength of the camp to 17 Green Berets and 368 South Vietnamese irregulars and Chinese Nung mercenaries.
On March 8, the camp was placed on general alert and the camp’s defenders had taken up their positions. During the night a small enemy assault was launched but thrown back.
Shortly after midnight on March 9, with the cloud ceiling at 400 feet, an Air Force AC-47D “Spooky 70” from the 4th Air Commando Squadron got through the clouds and flew up the valley at treetop level, strafing the attacking NVA formations. On the gunship’s second pass, it was hit hard by ground fire. The right engine was torn from its mounts. Seconds later, the other engine was knocked out, too. The bullet-riddled AC-47 crash-landed on a mountain slope, five miles farther up the valley. All six crewmen survived but were attacked by NVA troops. Three crewmen were killed but the other three were eventually rescued by a U.S. Air Force HH-43 helicopters.
About 2 am, March 9, a second attack began with enemy bombardment emanating from the surrounding hills. Mortars, artillery, and rocket-propelled grenades pounded the camp, killing two Americans and wounding 30. The barrage set buildings and the supply dump afire and reduced defensive positions to rubble. The enemy artillery barrage stopped at dawn.
Early in the morning of March 9, two A-1Es from Pleiku were diverted from other targets and sent to the aid of the fort at A Shau. Leading the A-1E flight was Air Force Maj. Bernard F. Fisher, a 39-year-old fighter pilot from Kuna, Idaho and a devout Mormon who did not drink, smoke, or use strong language. He had been in the Air Force for 15 years.
There weren’t many jets in Vietnam in the early part of the war, so Fisher had volunteered to fly the A-1E, which was in use both by the South Vietnamese Air Force and by U.S. Air Commandos. Fisher was initially sent to Bien Hoa, where he trained South Vietnamese pilots to fly combat in the A-1E. He then transferred to the 1st Air Commando Squadron at Pleiku.
Arriving in the area of A Shau Valley, Fisher and his wingman Bruce Wallace found the mountains blanketed by clouds and began probing to find the canyon in which the camp lay.
On his third attempt, he emerged from the overcast and barely missed colliding with a helicopter that had just come from A Shau with wounded aboard. The helicopter pilot directed Fisher toward a saddle in the mountains, where he found an opening in the clouds about five miles northwest of the camp. He and Wallace went through the hole and flew down the valley at very low level. The enemy AAA was intense.
A C-130 airborne command post told Fisher to destroy the crashed AC-47 before the NVA captured the three 7.62 mm Gatling guns, which could fire 6,000 rounds per minute and which were still in working order. Fisher assigned that task to Wallace – who dropped six bombs on the wreckage and obliterated it – while Fisher went to the direct assistance of the fort.
For the next several hours, Fisher and Wallace collected arriving aircraft above the clouds and led them down into the valley. Fisher guided a CH-3C helicopter that came to evacuate the badly wounded. He also led A-1Es in a strike to break up a force that was massing to attack the fort.
Fisher went up again to bring down two Air Force C-123s. The mountains were tight on all sides, and forward visibility was less than half a mile. They began taking fire seven miles north of the camp. Fisher suppressed the ground fire as the transports air-dropped supplies for the fort from an altitude of 50 feet.
Low on fuel, Fisher went through the clouds one more time to help a forward air controller lead two B-57 bombers down the valley. In all, Fisher spent about two hours under the clouds. He made an emergency landing at Da Nang, 20 minutes away, with almost no fuel left in his tank.
Fisher was awarded the Silver Star for his role as on-scene commander and Wallace received the Distinguished Flying Cross. However, Fisher had not yet seen the last of the A Shau Valley.
In the afternoon on March 9, supplies of ammunition were flown in by C-123 and CV-2 aircraft, but the resupply drops often landed outside of the camp and could not be retrieved. At the same time, helicopters were called to evacuate the wounded. Because of bad weather, however, reinforcements from Hue and Phu Bai could not be deployed, forcing the camp’s defenders to repair as well as they could their defensive wall and dug in for the night.
Sometime between midnight and 3 AM during the night of March 10, the NVA launched yet another attack with mortar and recoilless rifle fire. Two C-123s and an AC-47 dropped flares throughout the night. Before daylight, an enemy assault team penetrated the east wall of the camp, where hand-to-hand combat took place for three hours. By 8 AM, the defenders were pushed into the camp’s north wall and the NVA dug in between the airstrip and the camp.
Throughout the day U.S. Marine Corps and Vietnam Air Force (VNAF) aircraft strafed NVA positions around the camp, but as fighting continued the situation deteriorated with ammunition supplies running short.
About 11 AM, the defenders reported that they could hold out no more than another hour and that airdrops to resupply them with ammunition should stop since they could not retrieve the bundles.
Bernie Fisher and his wingman that day, Capt. Francisco “Paco” Vazquez, were en route to provide air support to Army forces near Kontum when they got an emergency radio call to divert to A Shau. Fisher’s call sign was “Hobo 51,” and Vazquez was “Hobo 52.”
By 11:15 AM, Hobo flight had joined numerous other aircraft that were stacked and circling at 8,000 feet and higher above the valley. They had not yet gone to the aid of the fort because of the danger of running into mountain peaks hidden by the cloud cover.
One of the other A-1 flights in the stack was led by Maj. Dafford W. “Jump” Myers from the 602nd Fighter Squadron at Qui Nhon. Myers was “Surf 41,” and his wingman, Capt. Hubert King, was “Surf 42.”
The A Shau Valley is a rugged, remote passageway near the border of Laos and the Ho Chi Ming Trail in Thua Thien province. It runs north and south for twenty-five miles. It’s low, mile-wide, flat bottomland is covered with tall elephant grass and flanked by two strings of densely forested mountains that vary from three to six thousand feet. Because of its forbidden terrain and remoteness – and the fact it was usually hidden from the air by thick canopy jungle and fog and clouds – it was a key entry point during the Vietnam War for the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) for bringing men and materials in support of military actions around Hue to the northeast and Da Nang to the southwest.
To stop the flow of hardware, food and soldiers coming through the A Shau Valley, a number of bitter battles were waged by the American Army and Marines. So fierce was the fighting that any veteran who fought thereearned a mark of distinction among other combat veterans. But once the Americans achieved their objective, they did not remain in the valley for very long. U.S. strategy for fighting the enemy did not include occupying remote and sparsely populated areas.
That enabled enemy survivors to flee back to their safe haven across the Laotian border where they waited until the Americans deserted the battlefield. Satisfied the Americans were gone, they infiltrated back into the valley, picked up where they left off, and relaunched their vital resupply mission.
Dominating the western end of the valley next to Laos and the Ho Chin Ming trail loomed a solitary ridge named Dong Ap Bia, towering some 937 meters above sea level. Snaking down from its highest peak were a series of ridges and fingers, one of the largest extending southeast to a height of 900 meters. The entire mountain was a rugged, uninviting wilderness blanketed in double-and triple-canopy jungle, dense thickets of bamboo, and waist-high elephant grass.
In May 1969, Operation Apache Snow was launched and like previous allied operations, its goal was to limit enemy infiltration from Laos that threatened Hue and Da Nang. The ensuring bloody battle was the infamous ten-day Battle of Hill 937, or for those who fought there, cynically dubbed Hill 937 “Hamburger Hill” because it reminded them of a meat grinder.
The operation kicked off on May 10, 1969 with a heavy concentrations of pre-assault firepower, including heavy artillery, napalm, and B-52 “Arc Light” air strikes of suspected enemy positions. But this time was different.Rather than retreat from the area, the enemy chose to defend his dug-in positions, which meant eventually his positions had to be assaulted by infantry with the inevitable high casualties.
When the fires were lifted, elements of Colonel John Conmey’s 3rd Brigade of the 101st Airborne landed by helicopter in varies predesignated landing zones scattered throughout the valley.
Among his forces were the 3rd Battalion 187th Infantry (3/187) commanded by Lt. Col. Weldon Honeycutt and 1st Battalion 506th Infantry (1/506) under the command of Lt. Col. John Bowers. Supporting them was the 9th Marines Regiment and the 3rd Battalion 5th Cavalry Regiment, as well as elements of the Army of Vietnam (ARVN).
Describing the operation as a reconnaissance in force, Conmey’s strategy was for his five battalion to search their assigned sectors for PAVN troops and supplies. The 9th Marines and the 3/5th Cavalry were to conduct reconnaissance in force toward the Laotian border while the ARVN units cut the highway through the base of the valley. The 501st and the 506th were to destroy the enemy in their own operating areas and block escape routes into Laos. As his troops were airmobile, Conmey planned to shift units rapidly should one encounter strong resistance. In this way, Conmey could reposition his forces quickly enough to keep the PAVN from massing against any one unit.
Contact on the first day Americans and ARVN were in A Shau Valley was light but intensified the following day, May 11, when the 3/187th approached the base of Hill 937. Sending two companies to search the north and northwest ridges of the hill, Honeycutt ordered Bravo and Charlie companies to move towards the summit by different routes. Late in the day, Bravo met stiff PAVN resistance and were forced to fall back.
Helicopter gunships were brought in for support but the gunships mistook the 3/18 7th’s staging area for a PAVN camp and opened fire killing two and wounding thirty-five. This was the first of several friendly fire incidents during the battle as the thick jungle made identifying targets difficult. Following this incident, the 3/187th retreated into defensive positions for the night.
Over the next two days, Honeycutt attempted to push his battalion into positions where they could launch a coordinated assault. This was hampered by difficult terrain and fierce PAVN resistance. As they moved around the hill, they found that the North Vietnamese had constructed an elaborate system of bunkers and trenches. Seeing the focus of the battle shifting to Hill 937, Conmey moved Bowers’ 1/506th to the south side of the hill. Bravo Company was airlifted to the area, but the remainder of the battalion traveled by foot and did not arrive in force until May 19.
On May 14 and 15, Honeycutt launched attacks against PAVN positions with little success. The next two days, elements of the 1/506th probed the southern slope. American efforts were frequently hindered by the thick jungle which made air-lifting forces around the hill impractical. As the battle raged, much of the foliage aroundthe summit of the hill was eliminated by napalm and artillery fire which was used to reduce the PAVN bunkers. On May 18, Conmey ordered a coordinated assault with the 3/187th attacking from the north and the 1/506th attacking from the south.
Storming forward, Delta Company of the 3/187th almost took the summit but was beaten back with heavy casualties. The 1/506th was able to take the southern crest, Hill 900, but met heavy resistance during the fighting.
Later that day, the division commander of the 101st Airborne, Major General Melvin Zais, arrived and decided to commit three addition battalions to the battle as well as ordered that the 3/187th, which had suffered 60% casualties, be relieved. Protesting, Honeycutt was able to keep his men in the field for the final assault.
Landing two battalions on the northeast and southeast slopes, Zais and Conmey launched an all-out assault on the hill at 10 am on May 20. Overwhelming the defenders, the 3/187th took the summit around noon and operations began to reduce the remaining PAVN bunkers. By 5 pm, Hill 937 had been secured. Eleven days later on May 28, the Americans and ARVN left A Shau Valley.
American losses during the ten-day battle totaled 72 KIA and 372 WIA. Losses incurred by the 7th and 8th Battalions of the 29th NVA Regiment included 630 dead (discovered on and around the battlefield); including many found in makeshift mortuaries within the tunnel complex. Yet no one could count the NVA running off the mountain, those killed by artillery and air strikes, the wounded and dead carried into Laos or the dead buried in collapsed bunkers and tunnels.
The battle of Hamburger Hill was similar to other engagements during the war. Enemy losses were much higher than American casualties, the enemy retreated without pursuit by American or ARVN forces, and the battlefield was abandoned 11 days after the end of hostilities. Being the most sever and costly battle going on in Vietnam at the time, it also attracted significant media attention.
Much of the coverage pointed out the difficult and slowness the airborne troops were taking the enemy positions and the high number of casualties they took each time they assaulted the hill.
In its June 27 issue, Life Magazine published the photographs of 241 Americans killed in one week in Vietnam; this is now considered a watershed event of negative public opinion toward the Vietnam War. While only five of the 241 featured photos were of those killed in the battle, many Americans had the perception that all of the photos featured in the magazine were casualties of the battle.
The overall result was of Hamburger Hill was the frustration of achieving an overwhelming battlefield success without any indication that the war was being won. To many, this frustration suggested that such battles were isolated events which were unrelated to any eventual policy goal. Consequently, Hamburger Hill became the subject of passionate public debate, focusing on the decision to capture Dong Ap Bia regardless of the casualties and irrespective of its marginal significance in terms of the reasons why the United States was in Vietnam.
The United States Congress also spoke against the war. Several influential senators stood before their peers, severely criticizing the military leadership and calling the operation “senseless and irresponsible.” Their chorus of disapproval was seen as part of a growing public outcry over the U.S. military policy in Vietnam. This led to further outrage in America over what seemed a senseless loss of American lives.
The controversy of the conduct of the Battle of Hamburger Hill led to a reappraisal of U.S. strategy in South Vietnam. As a direct result, to hold down casualties, General Abrams discontinued a policy of “maximum pressure” against the North Vietnamese to one of “protective reaction” for troops threatened with combat action.
While the coverage by the media was highly critical of the tactics and the leadership, newspapers and television often applauded the honor and courage of the foot soldiers who bravely followed their orders knowing there was a very good change they could be killed or wounded every time they assaulted the hill.
In 1987, the movie Hamburger Hill directed by John Irvin hit the American theaters. In it the horrors – and futility – of the Vietnam War came brutally to life through the eyes of 14 American soldiers of 101st Airborne Division as they attempt to capture a heavily fortified Hill 937 under the PAVN control. In the opinion of most Vietnam combat veterans the movie was the most realistic depiction of deadly combat.
In the website below is an extraordinary 27-minute film on two desperate battles. One in the A Shau Valley early May 1969 which follows elements of the 101 Airborne Division’s 3rd Brigade during the 10 day battle of Hill 937 (Hamburger Hill). It features Sgt. Arthur Wiknik. The other takes place two months earlier in Mach 1969 at the Rockpile. In it Company C, First Battalion Fourth Marines is attacking Hill 484. Featured is the company’s executive officer, 1st Lt. Karl Marlantes, who earned a Navy Cross for his actions on Hill 484. Marlantes is the author of ‘Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War’ and ‘What It Is Like To Go To War.’