In June 1966, a Marine recon platoon, surrounded and vastly outnumbered, achieved one of the war’s most audacious victories.
Wearing his old jungle boonie hat, Ray Hildreth hunkered in the wheat-like grass at the top of Nui Vu Hill where he had fought exactly 45 years earlier. Far from his mean, lean days in the Marine Corps, Hildreth’s pilgrimage back to Vietnam corresponded with the anniversary of a desperate battle in which close friends perished, and his platoon became one of the most highly decorated small units in American military history.
As he pointed to a spot in the grass where a grenade killed his friend Pfc James McKinney, the pain at the memory etching lines into his features, he confessed:“I can’t explain why God took some and left others. I just try to accept it.”Hildreth’s Vietnam clock had stopped on June 15, 1966, but on this day, June 15, 2011, atop Nui Vu Hill, it started ticking again.“I felt I had to come back to prove to myself that the war is really over.”
In June 1966, North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong (VC) troops gathered by the thousands in a range of steep mountains and twisting valleys northwest of the U.S. air base at Chu Lai. The Marines had been largely absent from this area in the Hiep Duc region since the violent and frustrating expedition to trap the VC in the Phuoc Ha Valley, Operation Harvest Moon, in December.An early test of the strategy of attrition through search-and-destroy missions, Harvest Moon brought mixed results. The Marines were able to defeat the Viet Cong in open firefights, while the VC proved aggressive and skillful in attacking and in eluding entrapment. After Harvest Moon, the Marines returned to their base area. Now, hidden deep in this bandits’ lair, the enemy had had nearly six months to train and plan for assaults against the heavily populated seacoast hamlets and the Americans who defended them.
According to U.S. intelligence reports at the time,large mixed forces of NVA andVC were moving east in small elements. They would mass only when they were prepared to attack.
Seeking to counter such movements, Lt. Gen. Lewis W. Walt, commander of the III Marine Amphibious Force, put eight battalions on alert and detailed Lt. Col. Arthur Sullivan’s 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Division, to scout the mountains, report on enemy activity and, when practical, call in artillery and airstrikes.
Of the seven recon teams Sullivan planted around the high rim of Hiep Duc Valley on June 13, Staff Sgt. Jimmie Earl Howard’s 1st Platoon—16 Marines and two Navy corpsmen— drew the most isolated site, deep inside enemy territory on top of a 488-meter (1,600-foot) barren knob. Known as Nui Vu Hill, it was marked as Hill 488 on the Marines’ maps. Beyond the hill lay nothing friendly, all the way to Laos.
Nui Vu dominates the surrounding terrain, overlooking farmers’ huts and a number of small villages in the broad floor of the valley below. Less than 75 feet across at its widest point, the hill from above is shaped like a lopsided three-bladed propeller. The only cover is a boulder, about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle with the top chopped off, at the upper base of the north blade. Grass, knee-high and thick down from the crest, grows short and patchy on the top.
It was bright and hot the day H-34 choppers inserted the platoon on Hill 488. It seemed even hotter to Hildreth 45 years later, what with his 64-year-old legs aching from the climb to the top. He found it difficult to recognize many points of reference—except for the boulder, the“Big Rock”where Sergeant Howard had established his command post.
After reaching the top of that same hill in 1966, Sergeant Howard and Lance Cpl. Ricardo Binns, who acted as second-in-command, had established a defensive perimeter, designated fields of fire and zones of responsibility and assigned fire teams. Ready to provide artillery cover was a firebase of 105mm howitzers on heights at the end of the valley toward Chu Lai and another battery of 105s to the south at Tien Phuoc.
By mid-June, the valley was crawling with enemy drifting toward the coast between Da Nang and Chu Lai. At night, lines of blazing torches marked their progress through the valley. Even daylight did not deter them, so accustomed were they to having free rein.
By flying O-1 forward air controllers (FACs) over the valley, the Marines hoped to trick the NVA and VC into believing they were being watched and targeted from the air—while Sullivan’s recons on the ground called in F-4 Phantoms and artillery. Pillars of smoke began to rise all over the valley as the recon teams called in fire. Sooner or later, Hildreth figured, the enemy would catch on.
As a moonless night descended on June 15, the platoon’s second day on Hill 488, the men realized that, no matter what transpired, they were stuck where they were until daybreak. No helicopter extractions could be attempted in the dark in such rough terrain.
Hildreth was right: The enemy had learned of 1st Platoon’s presence on Hill 488. At about 2200 hours, a U.S. Special Forces detachment patrolling two miles north of Nui Vu spotted hundreds of NVA and VC marching toward the hill. The detachment radioed Howard.“There’s at least a battalion, and they look like they mean business.” Sergeant Howard placed his men on 50-percent alert and designated the Big Rock as the rally point for a final defensive line if it came to that.
Hoang Minh Tien was a fresh lieutenant and leader of the Viet Cong 31st Platoon, Bien Minh Battalion, 2nd Division. Before June 15, he had seen no combat action. His platoon had been on the march for 90 days, infiltrating from North Vietnam down the Ho Chi Minh Trail and into the Hiep Duc Valley. The Americans had to be shown how deadly it was to venture into the valley, and his orders were to wipe out the U.S. Marine recon post on Nui Vu Hill, no matter the cost. His superiors told him the fight would be over quickly.
Hildreth and Pfc McKinney hunkered on the southeast corner of the hill—two 19-year-olds in the dark, far away from home, surrounded by people who wanted to kill them. Warm breezes rustled through the tall grass, making little whispery sighs—like predators passing in the night. “Ray?” McKinney whispered. “Reckon there’s still a world out there?”
Forty-five years later to the day, Hildreth looked over to where McKinney was that long-ago night, then stared across toward the north blade of the hill where Sergeant Howard had placed Lance Cpls. Binns and Bill Norman on an observation post. His face betrayed the terror he was living all over again.
Binns had detected movement in the darkness in front of him—a“bush”slowly creeping from left to right.Without warning, he fired two rounds into the“bush,”causing it to roll down the hill, thrashing and writhing. As he and Norman scooted up to Howard’s Big Rock, Binns tossed a grenade down the hill.
Within seconds, the enemy, its surprise sprung, opened up, beginning a crescendo of automatic-weapons fire. At almost the same instant, a grenade landed between Hildreth and McKinney on the southeast perimeter, exploding with blinding light and searing heat. Stunned, Hildreth next heard what sounded like fluttering wings and was gripped by a primeval fear of things in the night as something settled to earth like a giant dying bat. He imagined it was about to land on him with razor claws extended, before he realized it was McKinney’s poncho, floating back down to earth.
“McKinney!” cried Hildreth,“Are you all right?” There was no reply.
At the Big Rock, as the firing erupted, Lance Cpl. Thomas Powles took a knee at his M-79 grenade launcher and began chunking 40mm grenades downrange.Within seconds a string of enemy tracers tagged him with a meaty, smacking sound that pitched him backward. Powles’ screams seemed to come from the very center of the earth. Binns pulled Powles behind the boulder and called for a corpsman. Hospital Corpsmen Billy D. Holmes and Richard Fitzpatrick raced to them.
The violent explosion of fire suddenly stopped, broken off by the attackers. Checking on his men, Howard learned McKinney was dead and Powles critically wounded.Yet he realized how lucky they were they hadn’t been caught completely by surprise, thanks to the warning from the Special Forces patrol. Howard assessed the situation. He had the advantage of high ground, while the enemy had the advantage of darkness, more firepower and vastly superior numbers. His platoon was armed with M-14 rifles, combat knives, four frag grenades per man, one M-79, two .45 pistols and 3,000 rounds of 7.62mm ammo. Judging from the rate of fire as the battle progressed, the enemy had four or five heavy machine guns, several 7.62mm RPD light machine guns, 60mm mortars, plenty of Chinese-made “potato masher” grenades and a variety of other weapons.
Outnumbered and surrounded,Howard’s Marines anticipated a full-force attack. With one of the 18-man platoon already dead and a second wounded, Hildreth was scared. When bamboo sticks began clacking, followed by whistles and the shrill notes of a bugle,he almost jumped out of his skin and shouted,“Them mothers are coming!”
Suddenly Hill 488 was again alive with balls of flashing light from blasting grenades, blinking men in and out of sight of each other. Heavy machine guns, their streams of bluish-green tracers weaving gracefully through the air, began lacerating the hill. Screaming men on both sides traded savage fire from AK-47s and M-14s as waves of NVA and VC charged first one sector, then another. They popped up and down in the grass, probing for weak spots, crawling right up to the Marine lines before being hurled back—only to attack again somewhere else.
A grenade smacked Corpsman Fitzpatrick in the jaw and exploded, leaving his face a ghoulish mask, teeth glinting through both sides of his cheeks. Holmes dragged his fellow medic to the protection of the Big Rock, next to Powles.
Binns and radioman Bob Martinez, fighting side by side at one end of the rock, had a grenade explode between them, spraying shrapnel into Binns’ legs and rupturing Martinez’ eardrums. Still in the fight, however, Martinez clobbered an attacker who lunged at him out of the grass.
Private First Class Ignatius Carlisi’s finger had been blown off. When Holmes crawled to him, Carlisi told him, “It’s not my trigger finger, I can still shoot!”
While Holmes was patching Carlisi’s hand, a potato masher slammed into the corpsman’s chest and dropped down between his legs, hissing like a snake. Yelling at each other and at the grenade, Holmes and Carlisi frantically kicked at it before it blew, peppering both men and blinding them temporarily.
Eighteen-year-old Pfc Thomas Glawe, leaning over the top of the Big Rock with Powles’ M-79, was laying down a vicious belt of flame and exploding steel until a machine gun round drilled him through the head, killing him instantly. Sergeant Howard scooted over and took the M-79.
On Hildreth’s section of the hill, an enemy fighter jumped out of the grass and hurled a grenade just as Hildreth took him out with two shots.
In the dark on Hill 488, with opposing lines so close to each other, artillery was ineffective. Instead, the 105mm batteries began sowing flares above the raging battle. Like small bright suns, the flares cast back the darkness to reveal a terrifying scene. To Hildreth, it looked like an old horror movie in which the living dead were coming after him, crawling everywhere, jumping up and down in the grass, shooting in volleys.
Until then, the Marines had had no true picture of what they were up against. Howard radioed battalion commander Sullivan at Chu Lai: “Skipper, you’ve got to get us out of here. There are too many of them for my people.”
But he knew that wasn’t going to happen. Not until daybreak, anyway.
THE MARINES WERE INFLICTING HEAVY CASUALTIES ON the attackers, stalling their momentum. Whistles and clacking bamboo sticks now pulled the Viet Cong back from the crest of the hill. They went to ground and resumed probing for weak spots. Small bands crept up to the Marines, trying to overwhelm them with grenades or bursts of fire. “We’re being attacked every time the flares burn out,” Howard yelled in the radio handset to Colonel Sullivan.“Keep the lights on up here!”
It was exactly midnight, 35 minutes after Binns had fired upon the first intruder. In the light of the flares, Hildreth and Lance Cpl. John Adams spotted an enemy .50-cal. machine gun less than 30 meters away, getting ready to rake the top of the hill. Just then, three Viet Cong charged the two Marines.
Hildreth dropped the first man. The other two attempted to overpower Adams as he sprang to his feet, swinging his rifle like a baseball bat. Hildreth heard the smack of wood and steel on flesh as Adams took out both of the attackers just as the enemy machine gun opened fire. A string of lead miraculously walked directly over Hildreth, but it hit Adams, whose back exploded in a thick mist of splattered blood. In the eerie sodium light cast by the flares, Hildreth saw the awful wound where Adams’ shoulder used to be. Dying, Adams called to Hildreth: “I’m hit! Real bad….”
Even after 45 years, Hildreth could still see the faces of his dying comrades. Their loss would leave him profoundly and perhaps permanently disturbed. In the sunshine, leaning against the Big Rock, he experienced a sudden depth of sadness.
IT WAS LIEUTENANT TIEN’S VIET CONG PLATOON THAT had made the battle’s first contact with the outpost manned by Binns and Norman on the north blade extending from the top of the hill, and one of his men was the first killed in the fight. When the now retired Colonel Tien met Hildreth at Nui Vu in 2011, he explained his platoon’s orders: “We were to climb the hill and get in close, to give no quarter, to wash over the defenders like a wave from the sea. My assignment was the north face. Twenty-four hours before, we had only just arrived [at Nui Vu]. Now we were dying.”
After Hildreth had knocked out the machine gun that killed Adams, things settled into another lull while the enemy mustered the strength and will for more attacks, still determined to wipe out the Americans on the hill.
From all around the hill came the sound of shovel work as the attackers dug in against air strikes they expected soon. Then, using these fresh bulwarks as staging points, the stubborn men hurled themselves again and again at Howard’s Marines, only to be thrown back each time. But the Marines, too, were taking casualties and burning up ammo at an alarming rate.
Carlisi was wounded for the third time when a grenade stitched his legs and back. A machine gun round creased Hildreth’s side. A bullet scorched Binns’ head and another gouged a gash across his back as he scooted around the perimeter, collecting ammo from the dead and seriously wounded, and redistributing it. Holmes was wounded several more times as he crawled beneath flying steel to treat the wounded.
As Holmes watched, he saw a pair of hands reach out of the grass and grab First Squad leader Corporal Jerald Thompson, who locked his VC attacker in a deadly embrace and tumbled over the edge of the hill.When Holmes crawled to help Thompson, he was knocked unconscious by a grenade explosion. Thompson whipped out his knife as he rolled down the hill and buried the blade in his abductor’s back. While Thompson scrambled back toward the hilltop, two more Viet Cong tackled him. Holmes regained consciousness to notice the VC dragging Thompson back down the hill, never to be seen alive again.
Then, to Holmes’ horror, hands suddenly grabbed him by the collar and started pulling him down the hill. Only half-conscious and virtually helpless, he looked up into his abductor’s face. It exploded in front of his eyes. In the light of a flare, Hildreth had seen what was happening and fired. Holmes dragged himself back to the Big Rock.
Still manning the M-79 from the Big Rock, Howard fired with deadly effect until he ran out of grenades. “Stay alert, Marines!” he roared.“We are gonna walk out of here.” Howard and Binns warned the platoon to conserve ammo and make every shot count.All they had to do was hold out until first light.
“We’re getting low on ammo,” Howard told Sullivan over the radio. “I got good men out here. I’d like to get them out.” He paused. “Skipper, just in case, tell my wife I love her.”
The platoon was literally making its last stand on Hill 488.
The prospects for the platoon’s survival grew dimmer moments later when a bullet pierced Howard’s back, paralyzing him from the waist down. Whether it was permanent or temporary, there was no time for him to consider it.“I’m not done for yet!” Howard roared.
But the platoon’s casualties continued to mount as the fight raged on. In pain from his own wound, Hildreth could hear Lance Cpl. Alcadio Mascarenas gurgling and gasping from wounds suffered early in the fight. Then the sounds stopped as Mascarenas, a quiet little guy, died the same way he lived, with hardly a word to draw attention to himself.
Carlisi was so shot up—a finger gone, bullet holes through his leg and foot, shrapnel wounds all over his body—he needed the Big Rock to support him. He continued firing his rifle one handed until another exploding grenade knocked him down. Carlisi died sprawled atop the comatose Powles.
Lance Corporal Ralph Victor caught part of the blast that killed Carlisi, but he dragged himself to the end of the Big Rock and fought on until he passed out from shock.
The enemy, having been badly mauled themselves, listened for signs that the Marines were shattered or demoralized. In the intimate zone of combat, they re- verted to psychological warfare during the lulls in fighting. High singsong voices floated up the hill: “Marines, you die tonight! Marines, you die one hour!”
Unimpressed, Binns called out to Howard, “Hey, Top Notch, ain’t that a laugh?”
Although he could not move and had little reason to be optimistic, Howard saw the opportunity to deliver a masterstroke in psychological one-upmanship. In a low voice, he said: “All right,Marines,give ’em the old horse laugh.All together now….”
Few moments in the annals of combat likely compare to the sheer audacity of what followed. A handful of badly battered and besieged Marines, apparently hopelessly trapped, now seemed to infect each other with a kind of gleeful exhilaration. Their situation was not funny, not a bit, but suddenly it was. The more they laughed, the funnier it became, and their laughter—genuine, rollicking, contagious—grew louder as it went on and on for several minutes. The conscious survivors were literally laughing hysterically in the face of the enemy, in the face of death.
It seemed to be the turning point of the fight. Indeed, months later, captured enemy troops admitted the moment had a devastating psychological impact upon them. Four and a half decades later, Colonel Tien recalled it vividly. “We thought you must be insane,” he told Hildreth. “It was not normal. It made my men afraid.”
Tien recounted how the Viet Cong had discovered the Marines on Nui Vu early in the morning of June 15 and kept them under surveillance as more than 600 VC and NVA troops massed in the valley, waiting for nightfall. The VC leaders assumed that only a handful of Marines occupied the hill’s knob. “But when the fighting started,” said Tien, “we thought you must be at least a company. I lost 40 percent of my platoon.”
Nguyen Thi Xuan, a radio operator, and Nguyen Thi Le, a nurse for the Viet Cong, were both stationed at the base of Hill 488 that night, and they accompanied Tien and Hildreth on their return to Nui Vu.“We set up our aid station in a farmer’s house in the valley,” Le explained. “There were many of our wounded soldiers carried in. And many died.” Xuan recalled how her job during the battle was to transfer messages from unit to unit.“It was a very hectic night,”she said.“They sounded very confident at first—but then the confidence departed.”
The morale of Sergeant Howard’s Marines had been at its lowest ebb a few minutes before the“horse laughing” episode, but it was now soaring. Things got better fast when Sullivan radioed to Howard:“We’ve got A-4s on station now with rockets and 250-pound bombs. What do we tell them?”
The diameter of the defense from the Big Rock on the north to Hildreth on the southeast was only about 10 steps because Howard had had to shrink the perimeter to compensate for casualties. “Spray the area, everything within 20 meters around the top of the hill,” Howard radioed back.
With superb coordination, Huey gunships and A-4 Skyhawks alternated their attacks. Smoke and fire writhed like boiling lava only a few yards outside the Marine perimeter as jets and helicopters expended more than 200 2.75-inch rockets, 23,000 rounds of M-60 machine gun ammo, 1,750 rounds of 20mm cannon, 44 bombs and 16 Zuni rockets.
In spite of the awesome firepower brought down on them, the VC and NVA were not ready to quit. Pilots, fearful of killing friendlies, left a narrow ring untouched just outside Howard’s defensive lines. Into that ring crawled the enemy fighters, hugging the Marine perimeter. Every time flares burned out, the enemy erupted from this safe zone and pounded the Marines, and the Marines pounded them back.
As his platoon’s ammunition ran perilously low, Howard issued another of the most unusual and cunning combat orders of recent history: “Throw rocks! They’ll think we still have grenades. Zero ’em when they jump out of the way.”
Incredibly, it worked. Attackers instinctively sprang away from the “thunk” of what they thought were grenades, exposing themselves and allowing Marines to make every shot count. A crazy fight was becoming crazier. The enemy fired automatic weapons. Marines answered with single shots. The enemy hurled grenades. Marines threw rocks.
As the first gray streaks of dawn began to pierce the darkness, Howard pulled off yet another psyops coup. At precisely 0600, he sounded off with a bawdy and booming, “Reveille! Reveille! Drop your…, grab your socks….”
With that, Tien admitted to Hildreth: “We were demoralized. Never had we heard anything like it. We were dying and yet you on the hill were laughing. We greatly underestimated the Marines on the hill.”
Leaving only a token stay-behind element to cover the retreat, the enemy withdrew in the remaining darkness, dragging their wounded and most of their dead with them. Still, they left more than 40 corpses on the hill. “We realized the Americans would come with airplanes when day comes,” said Nurse Le. “We took some locals and we carried the wounded into the forest to hide.”
At this point, Howard’s platoon had a total of eight rounds of live ammo remaining.
Of the 18 defenders on Hill 488, six Marines lay dead— McKinney, Mascarenas, Carlisi, Glawe, Adams and Thompson. All the other platoon members were wounded. Only three—Hildreth, Lance Cpl. Dan Mulvihill and Pfc Charles Bosley—were not carried off on stretchers or in body bags.
Among the survivors, Corpsman Fitzpatrick was the most seriously injured, losing most of the front part of his brain and one eye. Sergeant Howard was not permanently paralyzed.
Forty-five years to the day, Hildreth was back on Hill 488. Colonel Tien, his former foe who tried so hard to kill him and his comrades, and the VC women Xuan and Le had attempted the climb to the top of Nui Vu with Hildreth, but couldn’t make it. Grass grew in the old bomb craters, still looking like wheat blowing in a Kansas wind. Next to the Big Rock, the old Marine erected a small memorial to his comrades who died there.
That evening, Hildreth dined with Tien, Xuan and Le. In a simple ceremony, Hildreth returned to Tien photos and other items that had been removed from VC corpses after the battle. In turn, Tien, Xuan and Le presented Hildreth a“Vietnam Veteran” breastpin bearing the image of Ho Chi Minh.
“We shot each other,” Tien reflected.“Peace has now made us friends.”
Charles W. Sasser is the author of more than 50 books, including his 2003 collaboration with Ray Hildreth, Hill 488.
Originally published in the June 2013 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.