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 Amazon.com.