War Stories Q & A: The Real Hamburger Hill

Martin Hinton in Vietnam

Tune in this Sunday, June 18 at 8 and 11 p.m. ET for an all new episode of War Stories!

"War Stories" senior producer Martin Hinton sat down with FOX Fan Central to preview this weekend's show:

FOX FAN: While writing and producing the episode, what was the most surprising thing you uncovered?

MARTIN HINTON: I've worked on three other shows about the Vietnam War, so nothing really surprised me. For the taping of this episode, we went to the jungle in Vietnam where this battle was fought. Standing there, in 105 degree heat and near 100 percent humidity, I couldn't stop thinking about having to fight in this weather.

Then you add in the terrain — suffice to say our National Parks Service didn't approve the trail to the top of Hamburger Hill! There were times when you needed to go to all fours just to stop from falling backwards down the hill. It was a brutal climb. The heat and humidity leave you soaked with perspiration. It is something you have to experience yourself to really appreciate. But just to give you an idea of how hot and muggy it was, consider this: I drank 12 liters of water, and didn't make a single head call.

At the end of the day, I had more than a few cold beers, a shower and a nice bed to sleep in. I can't imagine living in that environment, sometimes for weeks, without these comforts, like the troops did. I thought I knew how hard it was, but I was wrong. Just hiking those mountains was exhausting, never mind having to worry about ambushes around every bend in the trail. So what I "uncovered" was an even deeper respect and appreciation for those who served in Vietnam.

FOX FAN: How dangerous was it to visit the battleground, as you were the first television crew to be there since the war?

HINTON: When we departed for Vietnam, I left behind my wife, five-year-old daughter, and four-week-old son. So, for her benefit, there was no danger at all.

For the rest of you, I offer this: it took months for us to arrange our trip to Vietnam. While the country is opening its doors, it is still very much conditioned to life under an old Soviet-style communist government — think secret police and impenetrable bureaucracy. First, the trip needed to be approved by their state department, or Ministry of Foreign Affairs. After they reviewed the topic, they passed us along to the Ministry of Information and assigned us a guide. This guide acts as a local producer and makes all the arrangements you might need to tape in a public park or museum.

Initially, our guide told us that Hamburger Hill was off limits, because it was not cleared of mines or unexploded bombs. We were traveling to Vietnam for other episodes as well, so this didn't kill the trip. Arriving in Vietnam, we were thrilled to learn that the trail to the mountain's peak was clear, but the jungle was still very dangerous. All we needed to do was stay on used trails and not venture into the jungle. My response was, "Why would I go into the jungle?" So, as long as we stayed on the path, the greatest threat to our safety was dehydration or a good old-fashioned slip and fall.

FOX FAN: What was it like for the featured U.S. veterans to revisit the scene of such bloodshed, and to meet their former enemies face-to-face?

HINTON: If they had run into each other thirty-seven years ago, they would have tried to kill each other. That pretty much sums it up. Once upon a time, they were mortal enemies. But four decades later, they were able to stand on the ground where they had fought each other and chat in peace and quiet. The language barrier made it hard for them to communicate, but through a translator, they agreed on one thing: They were the lucky ones.

FOX FAN: How was the battle of Hamburger Hill pivotal in America's efforts in the Vietnam War?

HINTON: The battle for Hamburger Hill was part of a much larger mission called "Operation Apache Snow." The hill sits in the A-Shau Valley. During the war, this dense jungle became a major supply route for the North Vietnamese. It was a perfect haven for their supplies and units. To the valley's west is Laos. The North Vietnamese used Laos as their own territory, but the U.S. severely restricted military action in this theoretically neutral country. In reality, it provided our enemy a safe haven. So the A-Shau was this gateway into the South for the North Vietnamese Army, or NVA. As a result, it became a constant problem for our generals.

For a variety of reasons, U.S. and South Vietnamese forces never actually occupied the valley in the traditional sense. Special Forces camps and artillery firebases did dot the map during the war, but the enemy could simply avoid them. So keeping men on a base that the enemy avoided was silly. Additionally, the NVA rarely stayed in contact with U.S. units. We possessed far greater fire support, so they would "shoot and scoot" in order to avoid air strikes and artillery barrages. Add the helicopter to this mix and you can see why moving troops to the enemy, wherever they were, made sense. So this "Apache Snow" was a massive operation into the A-Shau, intended to disrupt enemy activity.

Despite the image most people have of Hamburger Hill, the battle was actually a resounding American victory. We located and decimated the 29th NVA regiment. They tried to hold their ground and fight, and as a result they got crushed.

FOX FAN: Did you notice any similarities between sentiment surrounding the Vietnam War around the time of Hamburger Hill, and present-day warfare in Iraq?

HINTON: Boy, is that a loaded question! In my eyes, the Vietnam War is very different from our current war in Iraq. Those that draw significant parallels are being lazy. Mistakes are made in every war. The war is unpopular, but try and name a popular war. Thinking about WWII? Don't forget, it took Pearl Harbor to get the U.S. into that war — most Americans were more than happy to sit it out.

Vietnam occurred in the greater context of the Cold War. Asia was up for grabs, and we resisted, diplomatically and militarily, Chinese and Soviet attempts to annex countries in the continent. The two obvious examples of this are the wars in Vietnam and Korea. The Soviets and Chinese poured billions of dollars into North Vietnam in support of Ho Chi Minh. There is no parallel example of support for the terrorists who hide an IED or gun down unarmed civilians.

There are obviously similarities, but all wars are similar. War is always a brutal, awful, experience. The wrong people die all the time. Watching flag-draped coffins come home or mothers and wives mourn the dead is painful, and that pain is lasting. Those who put on a uniform and go where their country orders them are heroes, and so are the families that love and support them. Veterans' Day isn't just another day off! They deserve our eternal respect, and the next time you see a person in uniform say, "thank you" (a cold beer wouldn't be a bad idea, either).

In my eyes, no one said it better than the English economist and philosopher John Stuart Mill:

"War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling, which thinks that nothing is worth war, is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself."