This Memorial Day, Americans will consider some significant anniversaries that relate directly to this time of national reflection. On June 6 the United States and its World War II allies will mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the massive military landing on the beaches of Normandy that would result eleven months later in the end of the European War.
On the evening of June 6, 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt gave a radio address in which he framed a prayer for those who fought: “They will be sore tried, by night and by day, without rest-until the victory is won. The darkness will be rent by noise and flame. Men's souls will be shaken with the violences of war.”
He had predicted on June 5 that the road ahead “will be tough and it will be costly… .”
It would be tough and it would prove very costly. But by the end of August the American 28th Infantry Division marched down the Champs-Élysées. Allied forces were greeted there and in the French countryside by cheering newly-liberated French citizens. It was a heady time even though Bastogne and the Rhine and Berlin lay ahead. And of course to the east the foreboding home islands of Japan.
There will surely and appropriately be many programs and speakers that remind us of this historic D-Day battle. As Americans in 2019 remember Normandy and celebrate that step to victory, it will be important to also pause to consider another anniversary, one that has little place in our national memory. It was a battle that engaged the sons of the World War II generation, a battle won but not celebrated.
This May marks the 50th anniversary of the major extended Vietnam battle for the mountain named Dong Ap Bia and recalled as Hamburger Hill. When units from the 101st Airborne landed at this desolate place in the Ashau Valley on May 10, 1969, no one recognized that they were about to engage in one of the few sustained battles of the Vietnam War. Following a vicious, 11-day fight, only 30 percent of the force that landed there on May 10 would reach the top on May 20.
Their accomplishment, their victory, was greeted at home by silence—or by criticism directed at those who ordered the assault. It was hard to celebrate a victory in a controversial, unpopular, war. There were no presidential statements about the battle, no national prayers, no celebration. No flags were raised. And on June 5, two weeks after the conclusion of the battle, the army abandoned the hill.
The next day Americans celebrated the 25th anniversary of D-Day. President Richard Nixon proclaimed: “Twenty-five years have not diminished but have, rather, enhanced the profound importance of that day.” He made no statement about Hamburger Hill. He quietly ordered the Pentagon not to initiate any more sustained offensive operations like that assault. A few days later he would announce the “Vietnamization” of the war and the beginning of the drawdown of American forces.
Each battle in its own way marked an important step in the ending of their wars.
On this 75th anniversary of the Normandy landing, there will be a gathering at Colleville-sur-Mer above Omaha Beach. Some veterans will be there and will be recognized warmly, as they should be. To mark the 50th anniversary of the battle of Hamburger Hill this month some 187th Infantry Regiment veterans of that battle will climb the hill accompanied by some current 187th soldiers. It will be a gathering filled with memories but no memorials.
Above Omaha Beach in Normandy there is the peaceful, well maintained Normandy American Cemetery with the elegiac statue “Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves.” It looks over the immaculate rolling grounds with row after row of white markers at the graves of 9,380 Americans.
On the top of Dong Ap Bia there is a small memorial placed by the Vietnamese Government celebrating “the anti-American resistance to save the country.” Despite the language, there was no Vietnamese victory there in the spring of 1969. And despite the outcome 50 years ago, there was no American celebration of their victory. The American War in Vietnam was a war without the markers of time-honored claims of conquest, of liberation, of the consequential “fall” or “capture” of strategic geographic places.
The D-Day landing on the Normandy beaches along with the paratrooper landings nearby was a long-planned strategic operation, a means to liberate France and unconditionally defeat Germany. 160,000 U.S. and allied forces came in as part of a massive operation involving tactical and strategic air and naval assaults. It was an essential part of a military strategy. Operation Overlord had taken a year of careful intelligence gathering and planning. With the Italian campaign nearing completion, this foothold in France was essential.
On the first day the Allies, landing on five different Normandy beaches, had over 10,000 casualties including over 4400 killed. By the end of the operation in late August 20, 1944, 20,668 Americans had died. Paris was liberated. But as the President predicted, it was costly.
The American War in Vietnam never sought a traditional military victory but a satisfactory political resolution. Military operations in Vietnam were generally platoon-sized and involved patrols and ambushes and more patrols and ambushes. The battalion-sized attack on Dong Ap Bia was a large operation.
Operation Apache Snow aimed to force a withdrawal of the North Vietnamese Army forces that had occupied areas in the Ashau Valley, in the northwestern part of South Vietnam, just a few miles from Laos and the Ho Chi Minh Trail. They sought to destroy what some called the “warehouse” area for enemy ordnance and supplies. The Third Battalion of the 187th landed on Dong Ap Bia and they were joined in the operation at nearby sites by other battalions from the 501st and 506th regiments of the 101st Airborne Division, two battalions of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam and units from the Ninth Marines at the northern end of the valley.
There was never a plan to occupy and hold these areas but only to punish the North Vietnamese, destroy their supplies, and hopefully convince them that they could not secure a military victory and would have to engage in serious political discussions to end the war. It was a tactical operation and one that was not based on good intelligence and planning. As Lt Col Weldon Honeycutt who led the 3rd Battalion of the 187th into the valley said later, the Division headquarters and the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, “had no idea” what to expect on the mountain.
There were 102 Americans and 31 South Vietnamese army killed in Operation Apache Snow. Seventy-two members of the 101st died in capturing Dong Ap Bia. If these figures do not compare with those of Normandy, it would be a cruel way to measure cost and consequence.
In the fall of 1969, Neil Sheehan, a distinguished New York Times Vietnam correspondent, wrote “Perhaps there is no difference, but it ought to be one thing to perish on the beaches of Normandy or Iwo Jima in a great cause and another to fall in a rejected and unsung war.”
Sheehan raises a fundamental question of modern wars that is worth contemplating. The sacrifices are no less final but the acknowledgement, the recognition, the sense of accomplishment that to some seems to justify the sacrifice is far more muted, more easily ignored. Battlegrounds like Fallujah in Iraq and Combat Outpost Keating in Afghanistan have joined Hamburger Hill and Khe Sanh and other places, many nameless and few known, where we have posted young Americans. Perhaps the best response to Neil Sheehan’s question actually preceded his asking it. The Washington Post editorialized on the Vietnam War on Memorial Day 1969:
Those who fight this war are very properly heroes—because they fight to no applause, because the cause is not supported, because all of it is so unequal. It is as if all the injustices of life have been concentrated in one unlucky place, where the burden is borne by a brave few whose stake in its outcome is very small. A man’s death is no less because it occurs at Danang rather than Remagen, and an exploit like Hamburger Hill is no less gallant than Iwo Jima. But it is not common now to speak of gallantry, any more than it is to speak of heroes.
This echoes today. And as we quite properly applaud those who scaled Pointe Du Hoc on Normandy on June 6, 1944, it is important to recall those who clambered onto the peak of Dong Ap Bia on May 20, 1969. Those Heroes.
We need to acknowledge that the difference in our reactions to their battles has nothing to do with their commitment, courage, and sacrifice. It has to do with the national purpose of and the national support for their deployment to these places. Those things are relevant today, for this is a story that has no end.
James Wright a historian and President-Emeritus of Dartmouth College, served in the Marine Corps. His most recent book, “Enduring Vietnam: an American Generation and Its War” was a finalist for the 2018 Dayton Literary Peace Prize. He has walked the beaches and cliffs at Normandy and has climbed Hamburger Hill.
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