Reporters at Work: Giving a Battle a Name

By David Lamb

Over the years I’ve heard all kinds of explanations for how Hamburger Hill—the scene in May, 1969, of one of the Vietnam War’s most-written-about battles–got its name. None of them are correct. I can state that with authority because I was the one who came up with the name as a young combat correspondent for United Press International.

During the course of the bloody, 10-day battle in the A Shau Valley, I asked a soldier from the 101st Airborne Division if the troops had a name for the mountain other than the colorless ones military briefers in Saigon were using: Hill 937 (it’s height in meters) or Dong Ap Bia (East Hamlet Bia in Vietnamese). I was hoping he would come up with a punchy, descriptive label that I could use in that day’s dispatch. Something like Pork Chop Hill from the Korean War.

“I don’t know what anyone else is calling it,” he said, “but with all this chopped up red meat, it reminds me of a hamburger.”

That night I took journalistic liberty and wrote “The battle that GIs are calling Hamburger Hill…” At that point, though, the soldier and I were the only ones calling it that. In the next couple of days, Senator Edward Kennedy on the floor of Congress cited the battle—a frontal assault by U.S. forces that by official count took the lives of 70 Americans and ARVN (South Vietnamese) and 633 North Vietnamese—as an example of the war’s futility. He referred to the battle as Hamburger Hill and forever more that’s what the world would call it.

My friend and competitor at the Associated Press, the late Jay Sharbutt, continued to use Hill 937 in his copy even after his foreign editor telexed him: “UPI calling it Hamburger Hill. How please?” Jay insisted I had made up the name. He was not entirely wrong, but the term Hamburger Hill caught readers’ attention and in the intense competition between UPI and AP I won, as I recall, most of the play in newspapers.

Hamburger Hill overlooked Laos and North Vietnam’s supply routes south on the Ho Chi Minh Trail but other than that it had little strategic value. The battle was not of major significance like the Tet Offensive, the Ia Drang Valley or Khe Sahn and would probably not be remembered today were it not for the name.

On June 5, two weeks after the fighting for the hill ended, U.S. forces withdrew and Hamburger Hill was abandoned, to be reclaimed by the jungle.

David Lamb, who lived in Vietnam for six years, is author of Vietnam, Now: A Reporter Returns.

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