An Australian at Hamburger Hill

Robert HallArticles, Australian Army, Uncategorised1 Comment

By Bob Hall

The Background

In mid-1968 General Westmoreland was replaced as Commander US Military Assistance Command Vietnam (COMUSMACV), by General Creighton Abrams. Following the heavy losses suffered by the Viet Cong and People’s Army of Vietnam during the Tet Offensive of 1968, Abrams attempted to introduce a new ‘pacification’ strategy. This reversed the previous US strategy in which top priority had been given to the destruction of enemy main force units. Under Abrams’ new strategy, top priority was the provision of security to the people. Second priority was training and development of ARVN. The defeat of enemy main force elements had slipped to third priority. However, despite this change in stated strategy there appeared to be little change in the way US forces conducted operations.[1]

President Nixon came to the presidency in January 1969 already committed to withdrawing US troops and ending the war in Vietnam. Peace discussions had begun under President Johnson with the first formal meeting in Paris on 13 May 1968. But for many months, negotiations were bogged down over the shape of the negotiating table.[2] Serious negotiations only began on 25 January 1969, five days after Nixon’s inauguration. But discussion soon became deadlocked again when the Democratic Republic of Vietnam delegation would not shift from its insistence that the US withdraw its forces from Vietnam and replace the government of Nguyen Van Thieu in South Vietnam.[3] They felt they could still win through a combination of ‘fighting and talking’ given that the United States negotiating position was weakened by rising anti-war sentiment and apparent weakening national will.[4]

To strengthen the US negotiating position in Paris, Nixon needed to placate the anti-war movement and present the US popular will as solidly behind the President. In turn, this required that there be no major battles leading to sharp peaks in the US casualty count. Abrams’ shift to a pacification strategy offered the prospect of fewer major battles with heavy casualties. Such peaks tended to add further stimulus to the anti-war movement leading to louder and more widespread demands for US withdrawal. This encouraged the DRV to believe that the US was losing its will to continue the fight and therefore encouraged them to remain inflexible in their demands at the Paris negotiations.

The battle

Hill 937 was located west of Hue near the Laotian border. It was a dominating feature on the western side of the A Shau valley which was used by the PAVN to channel supplies from the Ho Chi Minh Trail into South Vietnam. The hill was occupied by elements of the PAVN 29th Regiment in well-constructed bunker systems. The US 3rd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division was tasked with defeating the enemy, launching repeated assaults on the position over a 10-day period. The terrain presented difficult tactical problems – heavy jungle covered the feature, approaches to it were narrow and were dominated by the enemy bunkers. More troops joined the fight and heavy artillery and air attacks supported the infantry struggling up the steep slopes towards the crest. The enemy position finally fell to a combined US and ARVN assault on 20 May.

An Australian at Hamburger Hill

WO2 Max Kelly returned to Vietnam for his second tour with the AATTV on 4 March 1969.[5] Kelly was allocated to support the 1st Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Regiment, 1 ARVN Division which, in mid-May was flown into FSB Currahee located on the A Shau valley floor and dominated by Hill 937. The hill was later christened ‘Hamburger Hill’ for the high casualties sustained there.[6]

Like most AATTV members, Kelly had vast experience of combat, jungle warfare and counterinsurgency. He had joined the 2nd Australian Imperial Force in 1941 and had served in New Guinea and Borneo during the Second World War. After the war he served in the Australian component of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force in Japan later serving in the Korean War and in the Malayan Emergency. He also had a posting as an instructor in the Jungle Warfare School, Malaysia. He was highly experienced.

Kelly’s ARVN battalion was inserted into an LZ south west of Hamburger Hill from where they were to move up a ridge establishing a night time position about 400 metres from the crest of the feature. As they moved up the ridge-line they could hear small arms fire and the heavier fire of supporting weapons including Fighter Ground Attack aircraft using rockets and bombs. At dusk they found themselves in an abandoned enemy bunker system littered with the bodies of dead PAVN soldiers. They established themselves there, stood to, sent out patrols, and switched to night routine.

ARVN reconnaissance patrols the next morning found that from the direction they had approached it, the crest of the hill was not heavily defended. The battalion commander seized the opportunity to assault. At about 1100 hours 1st Company, with Kelly as adviser, was ordered forward to secure the top of the feature. Hamburger Hill consisted of two peaks joined by a saddle. The westernmost peak was quickly occupied by 1st Company against relatively light opposition, but despite wearing their distinctive identifying colour patches and bandanas, the ARVN soldiers received fire from both the PAVN and US 101st Airborne Division troops on the eastern feature causing several casualties. Kelly attempted to call off the American fire. He wrote:

After a fairly heated conversation with the Commander of the American Forces, who was appropriately code-named Black Jack, things were sorted out and we were ordered off the feature, and told to marry-up with the [American] troops on the eastern feature. It turned out that where we had been was the prize objective.[7]

The ARVN troops had seized the objective, but they ordered off it. They were initially annoyed that they had been ordered off the objective, but a few minutes after they vacated the position it was hit by pre-planned strikes by artillery, bombs and napalm.

After reorganizing Kelly and the ARVN troops of 1st Company again assaulted the crest of the hill, and again took enemy and friendly fire while they did so. Again, Kelly radioed the Americans to get them to stop firing on the ARVN troops, but despite assurances, the friendly fire continued. As the assault moved across the feature the ARVN company commander halted his troops in dead ground, refusing to continue until the friendly fire stopped.[8]

After a short pause the assault resumed when the ARVN Battalion Commander ordered the company forward. But by now the fight had gone out of the enemy troops and as the assault swept forward it encountered only light enemy fire. Then, as often happened in Vietnam, the battlefield went strangely quiet. The PAVN troops had pulled out of the position and were heading for the safety of the Laos border. As the enemy streamed along the tracks to the west, helicopter gunships took over the fight claiming over 300 enemy KIA. Kelly and the ARVN 1st Company watched from the high ground as the gunships rolled in for their attacks.[9]

Kelly made a few observations about the battle:

When [the battle] was completed we swept over the feature and found a few survivors in bunkers which, surprisingly, were still intact. …

One thing I must say is that the courage and determination of the Americans and the [North Vietnamese Army] had to be seen to be believed. In some ways the fighting was very reminiscent of battles in Papua New Guinea many years ago, where, despite heavy barrages etc, little or no damage was done to bunkers, and the troops occupying them were still full of fight.[10]

The aftermath

Casualty figures for the battle vary according to the source. However, of the ARVN troops involved in the battle, about 30 were killed. The US forces paid a high price, losing about 70 killed in the battle. To make matters worse, this figure included seven killed when US aircraft accidentally attacked US positions. A further 53 were wounded in the same ‘friendly fire’ incident. The US forces claimed 630 enemy KIA by body count with 152 small arms and 25 crew-served weapons captured.[11]

Soon after the battle Life magazine published the photographs of 242 Americans who had been killed in the week of the battle.[12] The Americans killed in the battle were among those listed in the Life story but many Americans were outraged, believing that all 242 of those killed had died during the battle.

Adding to the outrage generated by the high US casualties resulting from the battle, and the friendly fire incidents, the US abandoned the feature on 5 June, a few days before Nixon’s meeting with Nguyen Van Thieu at Midway Island where he was to announce the unilateral withdrawal of 25,000 US troops from Vietnam. Nixon’s move to withdraw US troops should have quieted the anti-war movement perhaps allowing his negotiators at Paris to exert some pressure on the DRV delegation. Instead, the Life story, the casualties from friendly fire, and the abandonment of the hill taken at such cost, tended to reinvigorated the anti-war movement.[13]

The ARVN rarely receives acknowledgment of its role in the battle and even fewer know that an Australian was there.

Finally, there seemed to be a lack of coordination between the political strategy waged in Washington and Paris, and the military strategy waged in Vietnam. This failure of coordination remained a problem throughout the campaign.


[1] Guenter Lewy, America in Vietnam, Oxford University Press, New York, 1978, pp. 136-7 and Andrew Krepinevich, The Army and Vietnam, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1986, p. 257.

[2] Although the discussion was literally about the shape of the table this was a surrogate for the relative status of those able to take part in the negotiations, for example, whether the National Liberation Front had the same status at the negotiations as the United States and therefore should be seated at a part of the table that reflected this.

[3] Thieu had been elected in September 1967 under the new democratic constitution of the Republic of Vietnam. See the article ‘50th Anniversary: South Vietnam’s 1967 Presidential Election’ for details.

[4] Phillip B. Davidson, Vietnam at War: The History: 1946-1975, Sidgwick & Jackson, London, 1988, p. 608.

[5] His first tour with AATTV was from May 1968 to January 1969. See Department of Veterans’ Affairs Vietnam Nominal Roll:

[6] WO2 M. Kelly, ‘Hamburger Hill’, in Australian Infantry: The Magazine of the Royal Australian Infantry Corps, Jan-Feb 1973, p. 21.

[7] WO2 M. Kelly, ‘Hamburger Hill’, in Australian Infantry: The Magazine of the Royal Australian Infantry Corps, Jan-Feb 1973, p. 22.

[8] WO2 M. Kelly, ‘Hamburger Hill’, in Australian Infantry: The Magazine of the Royal Australian Infantry Corps, Jan-Feb 1973, p. 22.

[9] WO2 M. Kelly, ‘Hamburger Hill’, in Australian Infantry: The Magazine of the Royal Australian Infantry Corps, Jan-Feb 1973, p. 23.

[10] WO2 M. Kelly, ‘Hamburger Hill’, in Australian Infantry: The Magazine of the Royal Australian Infantry Corps, Jan-Feb 1973, p. 23.

[11] See for example, Harry G. Summers, Historical Atlas of the Vietnam War, Houghton Mifflin, New York, 1995, p. 152, and LTGEN Phillip B. Davidson, Vietnam at War: The History: 1946-1975, Sidgwick & Jackson, London, 1988, p. 614.

[12] Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History, Random House, London, 1994, p. 616.

[13] Phillip B. Davidson, Vietnam at War: The History: 1946-1975, Sidgwick & Jackson, London, 1988, pp.614-615.

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