Wednesday, March 4, 2009

"It was like the Alamo, only with survivors."

On the evening of 13 June 1966, Ray Hildreth was a member of an eighteen man Marine Recon patrol that had been positioned on top of Hill 488, approximately 25 miles southwest of Da Nang. Their mission was to observe the Hiep Duc Valley and report any enemy troop movements to headquarters. During the next two days Hildreth's platoon sighted significant enemy activity and directed several artillery fire missions into the valley causing some secondary explosions from stored munitions.

Given the opportunity to pull out, Gunnery Sergeant Jimmie Howard decided to try to push their luck one more day. Their luck ran out. As darkness fell on the 13th, Howard received a report that an estimated battalion size enemy force was in their area and could be headed their way. The platoon was placed on 100% alert and manned listening posts at strategic positions around the hill. If the enemy were detected or contact was made they were to return to the Platoon CP at the top of the hill immediately and the platoon would "bug out". They never got the chance.

Some excerpts from Hill 488:

The Recon Patrol was armed with eighteen M-14 rifles equipped for full automatic fire; eighteen combat knives, mostly Ka-Bars; one M-70 grenade launcher; two .45-caliber pistols carried by the two corpsmen; at least four fragmentation grenades per man; two or three flares total for signalling; and approximately 3,000 rounds of 7.62 ammunition. A basic load per Recon Marine called for him to carry five twenty-round magazines of M-14, 7.62 caliber, plus a sixty-round bandolier. Some of us carried more than that. Of course Benson and his M-60 machinegun stayed behind, which might have been a good thing. At least for him or anyone else who attempted to fire a machine gun in close-range fighting. A machine gun drew enemy fire like a magnet attracted steel shavings. We were low on water and food, but what the hell? We were out of here tomorrow anyhow. The platoon waited for daylight. -- p.192.

Thompson went with me to check my new position. It came up around me to the height of my chin. The light wind made whispering sighs in the grass like predators passing in the night. A shiver skittered up my spine and prickled the short hairs on my neck. Folks back in Oklahoma said you got a shiver like that whenever someone walked over your future grave.

"Hildreth," Thompson said, "remember to fire underneath any muzzle flash if anything happens. Then get to the hilltop pronto." Underneath the muzzle flash was where the largest and most vital area of the firer would be. Why had he thought it necessary to remind me of that? Before I could question him further, he got up and continued his rounds, speaking a few words to each man in the squad.

I waited alone, feeling like the last man on the planet, unable to see anything around me except darkness. . . It was so quiet . . . that I thought I heard and felt the hill breathing. -- p. 194-195

2300 Hours, Wednesday, 15 June 1966 . . . Binns lay on his side propped up on his elbow with his feet downhill. A few inutes ago he thought he detected movement from the corner of his eye. but when he looked stratight at it, it disappeared. Imagination under stress did funny things. He kept looking, not convinced it was an illusion or a figment of an overactive mind. He swept his head back and forth slowly to make use of his peripheral night vision.

He hadn't noticed that bush before. About ten feet in front and downhill. Had he merely overlooked it earlier? He looked directly at it. It disappeared. He kept his eye on it. Rather, he kept the edge of his eye on it, for any object stared at directly in the darkness disappeared.

It moved. It wasn't the wind and it wasn't his imagination. Slowly, deliberately, almost casually, the lance-corporal one-handedly pointed the muzzle of his rifle at the bush. What if he was wrong? One shot and the enemy would certainly know we were up here, if he didn't already. Hesitant now, wanting to make sure, Binns held his fire. He wasn't the type of guy who shot at shadows. The bush crept from left to right. It made not a sound.

He fired twice in rapid succession, suddenly rending the night apart. Twin muzzle flames speared the darkness. The double report echoed ringing across the valley . . . Bullets smashed into something with a solid sound. The bush pitched backward, thrashing as it rolled downhill. There was no need for further hush-hush. The enemy was upon us. -- pp. 196-197

2320 Hours . . . Sergeant Howard crawled around the tiny perimeter on his belly. Touching each one of us, encouraging us, bolstering our spirit. . . "Hold your fire until you can see them," Sergeant Howard said. "Pick your targets and don't shoot at shadows. Don't waste ammo. Remember, we don't have an unlimited supply." It seemed on the face of it that we had sufficient. But before the night ended, even five thousand rounds per man would not seem like enough.

"We need the machine gun," Carlisi murmured. . . "A machine gun would do us little good," Sergeant Howard replied. "It's a prime target at close range. So is an automatic weapon. Fire only on semi-auto unless you want to be singled out by every gook on the hill. Good luck, men." -- p. 211

The attack continued for the next quarter hour, but it seemed to last forever. Waves of VC charged first one sector, then another, under cover of their grenades, machine guns and small mortars. Not a mass assault such as the Japanese and Koreans made notorious. These guys fought smart, popping up and down in the grass, probing to find a weak spot to exploit. Firing and maneuvering , cover and assault elements. Crawling right up to our lines and throwing grenades before being hurled back or retreating with their asses blistered. Only to attack again somewhere else.

"Holy shit!" Binns yelled. "This is a big one!" Pulled back into our tight circle, the platoon fought literally back to back. Defending our tiny perimeter of earth. Counting on each other to work as a team, to become instant combat vets and do the seemingly impossible by throwing back the assault. Sergeant Howard must have had doubts about how his cherry troops would react. I would have, had I been in his place. It was the platoon's first time in major combat. Most of us were young and untried, the first time out for several of us. Outnumbered by more than twenty to one, shocked and confused by the ferocity of the attack and the screams of the wounded.

The situation looked hopeless. We hugged the ground amid the crash of grenades and mortars, below a dark sky spider-webbed with tracer rounds. Giant flashbulbs from grenade explosions winked us in and out of sight of each other, bringing into momentray relief pale, stricken faces. Yet, we fought back out of sheer guts and desperation, this greenhorn Recon platoon. No seasoned outfit could have done better. -- pp 215-216

Our survival depended on holding out until daybreak. . . "Sarge, I'm really low on ammo," someone whispered. "Me, too," came an echo that relayed itself around the perimeter. . . None of us had grenades left . . . Enemy soldiers pushed their way through the close-in grass in another probe. Sergeant Howard, relying on cunning, issued what surely had to be one of the most unusual combat orders in recent history.

"Throw some rocks," he whispered. What? Had it come down to that -- rock throwing? . . . "They'll think we have grenades," he explained. "When they jump out of the way, we'll zap 'em." As incredible as it sounded, it worked. Again and again. . . Attackers instinctively sprang away from the "thunk" of the "grenades," exposing themselves and allowing us to make every shot count. Just like squirrels back in the woods in Oklahoma, they couldn't keep their heads down. The range was generally less than thirty feet. A lot of gooks ended up with holes in their foreheads.

It was becoming a crazy fight. The enemy fired automatic weapons; we replied with single shots. The enemy tossed grenades; we threw back rocks. Victor the Mormon threw his empty canteen and scored with it. Pessimist though he was, he rallied and became a funny kid under the circumstances. He started slinging C rat cans, commenting that the rations were deadly if we could get the dinks to eat them. Finally came the desperate report everyone dreaded: "I'm out of ammo." And an echo just as chilling: "So am I."

Air cover and artillery kept the hillsides cleared, but it was up to us to either kick Charlie back from the crest or go down beneath the onslaught. Soon it would be rocks, knives, rifle butts, teeth and claws. We waited anticipating the final assault. I still couldn't find my Ka-Bar. -- pp. 278-280

When they were finally relieved, a grand total of eight rounds of 7.62 NATO ammunition remained in the rifle chambers and magazines of the survivors. Eight. Rounds. Every member of the Recon Platoon had been hit and six were dead. The sixteen Marines, two Navy Corpsman, and their close air support wounded or killed approximately 200 of the enemy force. When relief arrived the next morning, around 10:00 am, forty-three enemy dead lay scattered within 5 - 20 yards of their hilltop perimeter, some as a result of hand-to-hand combat. Said one Marine officer, "It was like the Alamo, only with survivors."

Every man, living or dead, was awarded the Purple Heart. In addition, in the fullness of time, these men of the 1st Recon Battalion were awarded thirteen Silver Stars, four Navy Crosses, and one Congressional Medal of Honor given to Sergeant Howard. The platoon was, and remains, the most decorated unit for its size in the long history of American arms.

In Hill 488, Ray Hildreth, with the help of co-author Charles W. Sasser, chronicles the events that led him to join the United States Marine Corps, his subsequent training, and his awful experiences in the battle for what became known as "Howard's Hill."

This book stands as a testament to the American fighting spirit and to the efficacy of the M-14 rifle and aimed, semi-automatic fire. It should be read by every Three Percenter.

The book is available in most major book stores around the country in both hardback and paperback and on line at


MPA-III said...

"This book stands as a testament to the American fighting spirit and to the efficacy of the M-14 rifle and aimed, semi-automatic fire. It should be read by every Three Percenter."


GunRights4US said...

I read the story of Ssgt Howard many years ago, and it's truly phenomenal what that bunch of guys did.

When interviewed by a news-crew after the battle, Jimmy Howard had a chance to go down in Marine Corps history. All had to say was something cool like "Send more gooks!" but his actual response was more like "We were scared as hell up there!". LOL

I'm very proud to have worn the same uniform those men wore.

Semper Fi

Respectabiggle said...

I have heard that the Rhodesian Army was losing the bush war until they forced all the troops to set their FALs on semi-auto. Wish I could find the reference.

tom said...

PH friend and his Venda right hand man to this day (proving it wasn't a race war as commonly thought) now working primarily in RSA were in the scouts (they never called themselves Selous, just scouts) in Rhodesia. They never used full auto if avoidable because they were long range patrols and they could only carry so much ammo. Wasn't like being a US soldier and having a chance at airdrop or helicopter re-supply.

Rifles, a few grenades, knives, some explosives but stocks were very limited. Subguns and pistols were almost unheard of. Johan, to this day, is a crack rifle shot and fair with a pistol and he says he never got good with a pistol because he always had a rifle and why would he want to use a pistol if he had a rifle?

As to the Rhodesian Army losing the war, they lost because their supplies were cut off due to politics more than anything to do with the quality of their military. Germany wasn't stabbed in the back in WW I other than a bit of arms plant worker's strikes. Rhodesia was stabbed in the back by near all and sundry Western States and it's Mother Country.

The US Military didn't lose in Vietnam and the Rhodesian Armed Forces didn't lose their war. Politicians traded them away as pawns in both instances.

MPA dragon said...

Hah, one of the M14s on that hill that night was running in single-shot, versus as a semi auto: One marine lost the gas plug on his M14 and therefore was having to manually chamber his rounds as the gas system was not operating!!!

Long Live the M14!!!

And btw - GREAT book.

Dakota said...

I have always heard that the Marines actually cried when they were forced to hand their M14s in for the M16.

I was surprised that that is all the ammunition that they carried. Doesn't seem like very much....7.62is heavy but 160 rounds....less if you figure 18 per mag.

nick said...

I have a question that will betray my ignorance... How the hell do you get a sight picture with iron sights in the dark? It would seem to me that a peep sight would be almost worthless at night. Obviously there must be a way...

straightarrow said...

Amen, Tom.

Anonymous said...

Just one minor nit...the MOH is not "given", it is awarded.

Anonymous said...

There is a way. You shoot and shoot and shoot and shoot until you no longer have to ask the question.
I know it's an uphill battle, but please help me separate the word "Congressional" from the correct name of the award.
It's "Medal of Honor" and the other word somehow sullies its glory.
From Wikipedia:
The medal is frequently, albeit incorrectly, called the Congressional Medal of Honor, stemming from its award by the Department of Defense "in the name of Congress."

Tom P. said...

Nick. From what I understand getting a sight picture at night isn't as hard as you might think. As you've noticed if you've fired an M1 or M14, the closer your eyes gets to the peep sight, the more you can "see" because the light picked up by your eye increases the closer you get. All you have to do is focus your eye and attention on the front sight. This is easier to do if the front sight post is big and wide (probably why national match sights aren't used in combat, even though they're more precise). If you're worried about being able to center the front sight in the rear peep, your eye actually does that automatically. Human eyes are not advanced, by any means, in the animal kingdom, but our brains make up for that. When you look at a front post or blade through a peep sight, the brain's natural response is to try to get the sight centered through the peep sight. This happens without any conscious effort, although it helps to be aware of it. So, at night, all you have to do is make sure you're looking through the rear sight at the front sight, and your brain will do the sight alignment and picture for you. However, this doesn't mean you'll be able to shoot as well at night then during the day. I mean, cmon, it's really dark out. :D

MPA dragon said...

I have done night fires with looms (illumination flares) with the micky mouse rifle - It's actually not that bad... aim low...

And when the illumination fades, you holler for another flare!

I have shot my '14 at night just to see the difference between flash hiders, and with any light at all you can shoot...

This is an exercise that I recommend for any and all threepers...

Anonymous said...


The M-14 never had a "feed" problem like the M-16. Each 20-round mag had 20 rounds....however, with the M-16 you could only load 17 rounds or it would jam....
I carried and used both.

Old Vet