The cast of the 1987 film “Hamburger Hill.” Photo courtesy of IMDb.
In May 1969, the US Army’s 101st Airborne Division launched several assaults against a ridge near the Laotian border. Their objective — Hill 937, or “Hamburger Hill” — was heavily defended by hundreds of battle-hardened soldiers of the North Vietnamese Army’s 29th Regiment.
For more than a week, US troops climbed the steep slopes of the Ap Bia Mountain to seize the NVA stronghold. Their assaults came under constant enemy machine gun fire, rocket attacks, and mortar strikes. Sometimes the paratroopers fought amidst heavy tropical rainstorms that made visibility near impossible. Ultimately, the Americans captured the NVA garrison on the 11th bloody assault. The remaining defenders escaped into the jungle sanctuary of Laos.
Soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division inspect damage in the surrounding area of Dong Ap Bia during Operation Apache Snow, May 1969. Wikimedia Commons photo.
The mission’s success was short-lived.
Days after the hard-fought victory, US troops abandoned Hill 937 as it posed zero strategic value. The NVA reoccupied the position a month later. The uphill battle that claimed 72 American lives and wounded 372 more spawned criticism far and wide from the veterans who fought there, to journalists covering the battle, and even high-ranking government officials in Congress.
Eventually, the controversial battle caught the attention of Hollywood. Released in 1987, the movie Hamburger Hill captured some of the events that transpired.
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Hamburger Hill was one of the most controversial battles of the Vietnam War. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Soldiers and war correspondents referred to the mountainous battlefield as “Hamburger Hill” for its similarity to a meat grinder.
John Wilhelm, a Time magazine correspondent covering the battle, became aware of the nickname after the fighting had ceased. He noticed a cardboard sign pinned to a tree, left by soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division. The words scribbled in capital letters were “Hamburger Hill.” According to History.net, in smaller lettering, someone wrote, “Was it worth it?”
According to The Guardian, many soldiers, including Sgt. James Spears, believed Hamburger Hill was a formidable description.
“Have you ever been inside a hamburger machine?” he asked a reporter. “We just got cut to pieces by extremely accurate machine gun fire.”
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US soldiers loading casualties into a US Army medical evacuation helicopter during the Vietnam War. US Army photo.
Initially, the US Army claimed victory in the Battle of Hamburger Hill. However, in the aftermath, critics disagreed.
Gerald “Bob” Harkins fought in the 10-day battle. He told Stars and Stripes in 2019 that their mission was to rout the NVA, adding that “the hill itself had no meaning.”
Others wondered whether the US military could have used B-52 bombers —
among the most feared air assets of the war — to take out the enemy’s tunnels and bunkers.
According to The Guardian, Gen. Melvin Zais, the 101st commander in charge of the operation, said it wouldn’t have been possible. He explained that the well-entrenched enemy was immune to the bombs because they wouldn’t wipe out their positions.
Soldiers of the 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, Rakkasans, place a wreath on May 18, 2017, at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. The wreath was made and placed in honor of fallen Rakkasan Soldiers during the Battle of Hamburger Hill at the Hamburger Hill Memorial Ceremony. US Army photo by Sgt. Steven E. Lopez.
Instead, a combined infantry assault with artillery fire and air strikes commenced. The targeted strikes included 1,088.5 tons of bombs, 142.5 tons of napalm, and 31,000 rounds of 20mm shells. However, the artillery still fragged friendlies on the ground because of the proximity to US troops.
Sen. Edward “Ted” Kennedy called Zais out for his actions. “How then can we justify sending our boys against a hill a dozen times or more, until soldiers themselves question the madness of the action?” he said during his famous Hamburger Hill speech on the Senate floor on May 20, 1969. “American boys are too valuable to be sacrificed for a false sense of military pride.”
In response, Zais felt compelled to enter the media limelight.
“I didn’t care about me, but I just thought that we had fought such a gallant and brilliant fight,” he told the US Army Heritage and Education Center in 1977. “For those men to think that it had all been a needless, suicidal attack just galled me, and that is why I was willing to talk to the television, radio, and newspaper people who obviously were aware of what Senator Kennedy said and were clamoring to talk to me.”
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Actors Don Cheadle, Courtney B. Vance, Daniel O'Shea, and Tim Quill in Hamburger Hill (1987). Photo courtesy of IMDb.
The popularity of Vietnam War movies exploded during the 1980s. Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and Born on the Fourth of July are just a few of the Vietnam flicks that hit theaters in the decade following the end of the war. Each movie contributed its own aspect of the war to the Vietnam film canon, but one film that’s too often lost in the stack is Hamburger Hill.
John Irvin directed the squad-based story that follows soldiers from the 101st Airborne’s 187th Infantry Regiment, also known as the Rakkasans, as they spend the movie’s entire hour and 50 minutes sacrificing everything to seize Hill 937.
The film features a strong cast, with appearances by Dylan McDermott (Sgt. Adam Frantz), Don Cheadle (Pvt. Johnny Washburn), Courtney B. Vance (Spc. Abraham “Doc” Johnson), and Steven Weber (Sgt. First Class Dennis Worcester).
The Rakkasans ultimately take the hill at the cost of most of the characters. It would be a comically simple plot if it weren’t true.
A scene from the movie Hamburger Hill, which captures the brutal uphill climb while under heavy enemy fire. Photo courtesy of IMDb.
Hamburger Hill is far from a perfect war movie (if such a thing exists). There’s plenty of ’80s cheese, like the death of Pvt. Vincent Languilli, who utters a cliché “remember me” with an expression resembling that of someone suffering through all the pain of a tummy ache, and none of the panic or agony one might expect of a man fully aware he is about to die.
But while you can knock it for its synth-heavy score and flat dialogue, Hamburger Hill is a rock-solid war movie that remains true to the sometimes absurd and often expendable institution of wartime infantry.
If Apocalypse Now captures the insanity of war and Full Metal Jacket reveals the loss of innocence, then Hamburger Hill tackles the eerily timeless theme of the waste that comes with ever-shifting objectives.
Related: A Combat Veteran Reflects on ‘Born on the Fourth of July’
US Marine Corps Cpl. Jesse Hutchins, a combat engineer with 2nd Squad, 3rd Platoon, Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 6, takes part in a security patrol out of Forward Operating Base Shamsher, Helmand province, Afghanistan, Sept. 6, 2012. US Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Jason Morrison.
Just like Hill 937, places in Afghanistan such as Marjah, Korengal, and the Pech River Valley were seized for loosely defined reasons and at a heavy cost. And as with Hamburger Hill, which was abandoned less than one month after it was taken, each piece of hard-won terrain Americans had held in Afghanistan was recaptured by Taliban forces soon after the Americans left.
In Sangin, Helmand province, Afghanistan, America injected battalion after battalion of Marines into the enemy-occupied district. And like the Rakkasans slogging their way up Hamburger Hill, the Marines seized Sangin only after 76 Americans were killed and countless more wounded. Sangin quickly fell back into the hands of the Taliban following the US withdrawal from the district.
Watching the film with Vietnam and Afghanistan in the rearview mirror, one can’t help but notice the glaring lack of clear objectives in both wars. Seemingly arbitrary pieces of terrain were deemed strategically vital objectives, where inches of real estate were bought with the lives of American service members. But that’s the story of both Vietnam and Afghanistan: American forces steadily accruing tactical victories in a war with no definable strategic importance.
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Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.
Mac Caltrider is a senior staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. He served in the US Marine Corps and is a former police officer. Caltrider earned his bachelor’s degree in history and now reads anything he can get his hands on. He is also the creator of Pipes & Pages, a site intended to increase readership among enlisted troops. Caltrider spends most of his time reading, writing, and waging a one-man war against premature hair loss.
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