David Lamb: “I was hoping he would come up with a punchy, descriptive label that I could use in that day’s dispatch.”

By Jack Limpert

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David Lamb gave a Vietnam battle a name that stuck.

From the New York Times:

David Lamb, a dauntless foreign correspondent for The Los Angeles Times who also wrote critically acclaimed books about the Arab world and Africa, died on Sunday in Alexandria, Va. He was 76.

Sandy Northrop, his wife and only immediate survivor, said the cause was lymphoma and esophageal cancer.

Mr. Lamb covered the front lines in Vietnam for United Press International and the fall of Saigon for The Times in 1975. Xan Smiley, a top editor at The Economist, characterized him as “inexhaustibly gutsy.”

Mr. Lamb was credited with naming the site of a 10-day battle in the A Shau Valley in 1969 “Hamburger Hill.” A young G.I. had told him, “With all this chopped-up red meat, it reminds me of a hamburger,” and the name stuck….
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Here’s a post David did for this website about the battle in Vietnam and how he came up with the name.

Reporters at Work: Giving a Battle a Name

SEPTEMBER 4, 2012

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.
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David wrote three articles for The Washingtonian. One, titled “After the Fall,” described life for Vietnamese refugees, including some high-ranking military leaders, when they came to Washington, D.C., after the war. Another, “Lovely Place for a Ride,” described the joys of bicycling around the nation’s capital. A third, “Drinking With the Enemy,” described how Republicans and Democrats socialized at the Monocle, one of David’s favorite saloons.

An editor’s note I wrote about him in 2004:

David Lamb spent 34 years at the Los Angeles Times, with a good part of that time spent covering the world’s hot spots from Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq. Since leaving the paper last summer to write out of his Alexandria home, he has indulged some of his tamer passions: Minor league baseball (he’s an owner of the Yakima Bears in the Northwest League), bicycling (he biked alone from Old Town Alexandria to Los Angeles a few years ago), and searching for the perfect saloon. In this issue, he writes about one of his favorites, the Monocle on Capitol Hill.

In that story, David called the Monocle “a Capitol Hill green zone among warring combatants.” He said the saloon was “a sort of political refuge flying the white flag. It is a place where Republicans and Democrats mix over food and drink and the bad blood between political parties seems to get bottled and checked at the door.”

 

Comments

  1. ITS height in meters, not “it’s”. Nonetheless, R.I.P. I have such personal admiration for the good war correspondents. I miss David Hackworth and Christopher Hitchens a lot.

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