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A Hill Too Far

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by Kelly Bell

In the early summer of 1966, U.S. Marines had been established for about a year at a fire support base outside the Vietnamese hamlet of Chu Lai. The leathernecks' main mission there was to keep a close watch on the twisting valleys and rugged hill country 20 miles to the west, where Communist forces staged, trained and planned for their depredations against the coastal communities the Americans were trying to secure and protect. Remaining dispersed until just before their attacks, the Communists presented few targets of opportunity for the American or Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) forces to mount a counterattack. The frustrated Marines at the Chu Lai garrison waited eagerly for their foes to make a mistake that would leave them vulnerable.

At the beginning of June, U.S. intelligence sources indicated the massive buildup of a mixed force of Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regulars in the highlands, but the enemy were not yet sufficiently concentrated to warrant a mass attack. Infiltrating through dense foliage in platoon­-size and smaller units, the Communist troops had little trouble evading any large forces sent after them. In an attempt to flush out the enemy, Marine Lt. Gen. Lewis W. Walt began dispatching patrols of from 8–20 men. Should these smaller units make contact with any substantial force, they were to radio for heliborne reinforcements, and then guide them to the objective. In the more likely case of the reconnaissance elements locating only small groups of enemy soldiers, they were to call down artillery and air strikes. Walt dubbed the project Operation Kansas.

Staff Sergeant Jimmie Earl Howard of the 1st Platoon, Charlie Company, 1st Reconnaissance Battalion was the ideal independent-­thinking, fast-­reacting natural leader this type of operation demanded. While still in his teens Howard had been thrice wounded in Korea, receiving a Silver Star for bravery under fire. Before leaving Vietnam he would have his fourth Purple Heart and a recommendation for a Medal of Honor.

At dusk on 13 June 1966, Marine helicopters landed at the base of an elevation locals called Nui Vu and the Americans knew as Hill 488. It was 25 miles west of Chu Lai, in the heart of a Communist­-controlled area. The plan was for Howard and 17 men to remain there, hopefully undetected, while they directed artillery and air strikes against the VC and NVA in the surrounding jungle. Marine headquarters would keep a decoy observation plane over the sector during shellings, hopefully to deceive the enemy into thinking that any observers were strictly airborne.

First Platoon climbed up the 1500­foot rise and surveyed its summit by starlight. Three slender, flat­-topped ridges spread outward from the top, giving the hill, from the air, the appearance of an airplane propeller. Howard set up his command post at the base of the northward-­pointing blade and placed observation teams on the other two. Apart from knee-­high grass and an abundance of abandoned VC foxholes, there was little cover.

For two days Howard and his men directed lethal barrages and air strikes onto small groups slinking through the gullies. After 48 hours, Major Allen Harris wanted to extract the unit from its exposed position, but Howard, noting how the spot was ideal for the purpose at hand, and that there was no indication his group had been detected by the enemy, secured permission to stay another day.

Events would show the enemy were well aware of the Marines atop Nui Vu, but had so far refrained from attacking so as to not arouse American suspicions. In fact, a fresh, battalion-­size force was moving into the area specifically to annihilate those 18 Marines on the hilltop. As darkness fell on the evening of 15 June, hundreds of well-­armed NVA regulars commenced picking their way up the slope, hoping to take the Americans by surprise.

Army Special Forces Sergeant First Class Donald Reed and Spc. 5th Class Hardey Drande were leading a nearby patrol of the Civilian Irregular Defense Group when they detected the enemy troops. They radioed the alert back to the U.S. Army base at Hoi An. Marine and Army units had been careful to keep their radios on the same frequency, so Howard learned of the coming assault at the same time as Hoi An.

Assembling his team leaders, Howard quickly briefed them on the situation, designated a central rallying point and sent them back to their positions with instructions to stay on full alert. At the first hint the enemy was near, they were to sound the alarm and then fall back to the defensive perimeter. At about 2200, four Marines were prone in a dish­shaped depression when Lance Corporal Ricardo Binns became suspicious of a bush that over the past couple hours had sprouted and grown large enough to hide a man. Raising his rifle Binns shot the bush, which gasped and went tumbling down the slope. The Marines threw a grenade apiece, grabbed their rifles and scurried for the summit. Automatic weapons fire erupted behind them, and the siege of Nui Vu was underway.

All the Americans withdrew to the hill's rocky crest to take advantage of its modest cover. Howard positioned his men in a taut, 20­meter circle as the NVA deployed in echelon. The enemy troops were clearly professionals, and they were on familiar ground. They had crept unnoticed to within 50 meters of the hilltop before Binns shot the point man. As the Communist troops deployed, there was no audible conversation or clumsy stumbling. As soon as they had all their people in position, they attacked. Corpsman Billie Don Holmes later described the enemy's tactics.

"They were within 20 feet of us. Suddenly there were grenades all over. Then people started hollering. It seemed everyone got hit at the same time."

The Communists showered the defenders with grenades while four .51­caliber machine guns raked the hilltop.  Shoulder-­fired 7.62mm automatics sprayed the summit with green tracers, pinpointing the target zone for the follow-­up forces arriving at the hill's base. At the same time a 60mm mortar pumped high explosives into the American position.

Howard was worried that his inexperienced troops might already be shell shocked, but when the softening-­up fire slackened and the enemy infantrymen came screaming up the slope, the young Marines reacted exactly as they had been trained. They opened up in unison, cutting down droves of surprised attackers. The first storming attempt ground to a bloody halt within seconds.

With their initial momentum destroyed, the NVA commenced probing for weak spots in the U.S. position. Infiltrators crawled as close as possible to individual Marines and let loose with all the firepower they had in hopes of opening a breach in the perimeter, but the larger and more powerfully built Americans were more effective at throwing hand grenades. Not only could the defenders pitch their bombs farther, but they had the advantage of higher elevation. They could expend less effort in their heaves and did not have to worry about their grenades rolling back down upon them. Moreover, the American-­made grenades were about twice as powerful as the Chinese stick grenades. Before long, the surviving North Vietnamese ruefully regrouped at the bottom of the hill.

Despite having won the first round, Howard realized this was similar to the way the siege of Alamo had started, and had no desire for him and his men to share the fate of Colonel William Barrett Travis and his command. Using his PRC­25 radio, Howard contacted his battalion commander, Lt. Colonel Arthur Sullivan, and requested immediate extraction, concluding with, "You've gotta get us outta here! There are too many of them for our people!"

Sullivan called the 1st Marine Division's Direct Air Support Center at midnight and requested flare planes, helicopters and fighters, but the response to his request was delayed due to some never­explained snafu. Shortly after Howard made this initial call, the attackers returned in force.

As the NVA swarmed up the slope, they were met with a hail of what they did not know were the last of the Americans' grenades. By this time the leathernecks were firing their M­16s on semi­auto in order to conserve dwindling ammunition. Traditional American marksmanship proved lethal, and this second assault stalled, broke and fell back. By then, however, every Marine was dead or wounded.

Howard kept to himself his fear that his unit would not be able to withstand another all­out push. He knew the enemy was listening for sounds like moans or weeping that would indicate the defenders were physically and/or emotionally spent. If this happened before the air support arrived, the handful of Americans was doomed. Already, heavily accented voices were jeering at the little band, "Marines, you die tonight!," and "Marines, you die in an hour!"

The Americans wanted to return the insults, and Howard thought it a fine idea. In deceptively strong voices, the Marines bellowed all the insults and oaths they knew or could make up. From the enraged tone of the response, Howard knew it was time for his psychological haymaker. At his signal, he and is men erupted in gusts of raucous laughter at the tops of their heaving lungs. Sure enough, the NVA did not again attack in force that night.

By 0100, jets and Huey gunships finally were circling the hill, but initially they could not attack because they had no illumination. Moments later an Air Force flareship with the call sign "Smokey Gold" arrived and commenced dropping parachute flares. The encircled troops were stunned by what they suddenly saw in the artificial light. Twenty­year­old Pfc. Joseph Kosoglow later recalled, "There were so many. It was like an anthill ripped apart. They were all over the place."

The jets hit the valley and the approaches to Nui Vu with missiles. Then the Hueys dropped as low as 20 feet, firing their machine guns. After the gunships pulled up, the jets returned, saturating the target area with anti­personnel bombs and napalm in a final strike before heading back to base. When the fighters roared off into the darkness, the helicopters again swooped to work over the battlefield with automatic weapons fire, picking off stragglers and assessing the overall results of the airstrike.

Helicopters loitered above the promontory all night as the Marines silently digested the ghastly sight. The strafing was like nothing they had ever seen. In Vietnam the enemy usually stayed invisible, and such large­scale air­-to-­ground engagements were still a rarity. Yet despite the grisly results of the aerial interdiction, the fight for Hill 488 was far from finished.

Helicopter pilots Captain John M. Shields and Captain James M. Perryman realized the siege was not over when they took small arms fire from the ground. A couple of Hueys were hit but not downed, and their pilots radioed for the fighters and Smokey Gold to return, but when the flareship again dropped illumination, the jet pilots could no longer spot the now-­hiding enemy. Smokey Gold began dropping markers directly onto enemy positions whose coordinates were called in by Shields and Perryman. Howard was careful to mark his own position via a filtered flashlight. With knowledge of the Marines' precise location, the helicopters laid down supporting fire as close as 25 meters from the Americans.

This slender buffer zone, however, was all the NVA needed to crawl into a strafe-­free area and again hit the defenders with small arms fire. The Marines responded by firing single shots and throwing rocks. This tactic, devised by Howard, was surprisingly effective. Upon hearing a telltale sound, a Marine would toss a rock in its direction. When the stone landed, the Communist would think it was a grenade and dive to another spot. After a few seconds he would raise his head, wondering why there had been no explosion, and the watching American would drill him with one well-­placed shot.

A grenade blast had knocked Corpsman Holmes senseless. When he regained consciousness he saw an NVA soldier a few feet away trying to drag off a dead American. Then a second Communist, thinking Holmes, too, was dead, took hold of his belt and began pulling him down the slope. A few feet away another wounded Marine, a Corporal Victor, saw yet another enemy soldier crouching over a dead American. Although half­-dead from loss of blood, Victor raised his rifle and killed the NVA troop. He then shot the one dragging Holmes. After shoving the corpse off him, Holmes spent the rest of the night tending wounded.

When the flares periodically burned out, the aircraft would climb to a safe altitude while South Vietnamese artillery advised by U.S. Army Special Forces at Hoi An shelled the base of the hill to prevent the enemy from massing there. During one of these intervals, Howard radioed Hoi An and informed Special Forces Captain Louis Maris, "If you can keep Charlie from sending another company up here, I'll keep these guys out of my position." Maris did his best, keeping the ARVN gunners busy bracketing the lower slopes and surrounding area with 105mm rounds.

At 0300, Sikorsky UH­-34 helicopters tried to pull the leathernecks off the peak, but fire from the attackers was still too heavy. Howard would have to wait for daybreak. Minutes later a ricochet struck him in the back. As Special Forces troops, aircrews and the senior officers of the 1st Marine Division listened to Howard's voice fade away, they all figured he and his men were finished, but he suddenly came back on the air very loud and clear. After coming around, he found his legs were paralyzed, but he was still clearheaded. Determined to stay that way at such a critical point in the battle, he refused Holmes' attempts to give him morphine. Pulling the radio behind him, Howard used his arms to drag himself from man to man, exhorting and encouraging them to hang in there and urging them to conserve ammunition and collect weapons from the dead of both sides. Binns trailed behind him, collecting weapons and dressing wounds.

At 0525, Howard bellowed, "OK you people, reveille goes in 35 minutes!" At 0600 his hale, hearty baritone boomed, "Reveille! Reveille!"

The survivors warily raised their heads and surveyed the surroundings. So lethal had been the night's hail of fire that the NVA had not followed their normal procedure of retrieving their dead and equipment. The bodies of enemy soldiers closest to the American lines remained sprawled where they had fallen. Surviving Communist troops stayed hidden in holes they dared not leave in daylight. Although still determined, the attackers now appeared more cautious. Hope for easy victory was gone.

Light and heavy machine guns opened irregularly timed volleys on the hilltop as enemy gunners tried to catch any American who raised his head, silhouetting himself against the sunlit skyline. The helicopters returned. One Huey hovered just over the summit while a second gunship loitered off to the side in case a dug-­in NVA soldier emerged to fire at the first chopper. Nothing happened. The second Huey, piloted by Major William J. Goodsell, buzzed low over the peak to drop a smoke grenade to mark a landing zone for the helicopters he mistakenly assumed were en route. Despite Howard's attempts to warn him off from the foolhardy maneuver, Goodsell swooped in, dropped his smoke and turned northward at treetop level. Gunfire erupted from all around the Huey, and the ship pitched to the right, coming within a few feet of crashing before the co­pilot, 1st Lieutenant Stephen Butler, brought it under control and fought the riddled craft to a crash landing in a flooded rice paddy a few miles to the east. With several bullets in his body, Goodsell was dead on arrival at the nearest field hospital.

When a MEDIVAC helicopter did arrive later, Howard frantically waved it off. As the pilots swerved, they came under intense small arms fire. Clearly, Howard's small band would have to wait for infantry support. The jets and helicopters resumed their attacks. One chopper was shot down, killing the crew chief, but the machine guns that brought it down gave away their positions in the process and were immediately taken out by other aircraft. Remaining NVA forces refused to budge, but by then a relief force from Company C, 5th Marines was on the way.

Since dawn troop transports had been in the air, waiting for a chance to make an insertion. For a final 45 minutes they had to circle the battlefield until a relatively secure landing zone could be strafed clear. Throughout this time they monitored Howard's transmissions. In one he pleaded to the aircrews, "You've gotta get this guy in the crater because he's hurting my boys!" By the time the insertion came, the reinforcements were spoiling for a fight.

When the relief force landed at the base of the hill, they moved up the slope, silencing individual riflemen and mopping up pockets of resistance. The company mortar team quickly destroyed the enemy mortar. Weapons Platoon Sergeant Frank Riojas leveled his rifle and fired a tracer round, killing an enemy soldier 500 yards away. All the while, C Company's machine gun laid covering fire on the scarred hillside ahead of the advancing Americans.

By the time the reinforcements reached the American perimeter atop Nui Vu, each of Howard's survivors had eight rounds of rifle ammo remaining, but the enemy still refused to quit, and by then it seemed apparent the ARVN artillery and the airstrikes would be unable to eliminate the Communist forces embedded in the hillside. Before noon four more Marines would die in the battle.

Taking his cues from Howard, 2nd Lieutenant Ronald Meyer of C Company deployed his troops along the old defense line. With Meyer wearing no rank insignia that might attract enemy attention, Howard assumed he was another NCO and began bellowing orders at him. Sensing the wounded sergeant's total grasp of the tactical situation, Meyer obeyed his every dictate and never mentioned his own rank.

Meyer yelled for his men to pass him their grenades. Howard peered from behind the boulder he was using as a command post and directed Meyer's tosses, but the grenades had little effect on the dug­in enemy. Meyer hollered for the air liaison to report to him so he could request more aerial support. As they were waiting, Lance Corporal Terry Redic became impatient and raised up, looking for a target for his grenade launcher. Redic had a reputation for being deadly with this weapon, but this was not the place for such tactics. Redic was shot dead instantly. Meyer lost his self-­control when he saw his young man fall. Clutching a grenade in each hand, he commenced crawling downhill, determined to blow away the enemy he could not see.

"Keep your head down, buddy! They can shoot!," called Howard. After bellying several yards, Meyer saw a hole and hurled a grenade into it, killing an enemy soldier. The lieutenant then turned and looked back uphill for some reason and was immediately shot in the back. Corpsman 3rd Class John Markillie set out to assist the junior officer, moving as fast as he dared. As he reached Meyer and sat up to examine him, Markillie was shot in the chest.

A second corpsman, named Holloday, and squad leader Corporal Melville began working their way downhill and quickly reached their fallen comrades. Meyer was dead, but Markillie was still breathing. Melville and Holloday began pulling him back toward the crest. A bullet knocked off Melville's helmet, but he and Holloday managed to drag their buddy back to their lines. With the landing zone still not completely secured, any extraction promised to be hazardous.

UH­34 pilot 1st Lt. Richard Moser later explained the situation, "For the medical evacs, a pilot had to come in perpendicular to the ridge, then cock his bird around before he sat down. We could get both main mounts down–first the tail. Well, sometimes we got it down. We were still taking fire."

Howard and Holmes were unwilling to leave the job unfinished, but by now both realized they were slowly bleeding to death. Holmes reported that one of the men was missing and presumed dead, but the body's location was unknown. Not until their reinforcements convinced them they would not leave without the missing man's body could Holmes and Howard be persuaded to leave. They were carried to a helicopter.

The company Forward Air Controller, 1st Lieutenant Phillip Freed, had risked his life running up the enemy­occupied slope when he heard that Meyer needed air support. Freed immediately radioed a pair of LTV F­8 Crusaders circling overhead. "This is Cottage 14," called Freed. "Bring it down on a dry run. This has to be real tight. Charlie is dug in right on our lines!"

The F8 pilots were 1st Lts. Edward H. Menzer and Richard W. Deilke. Lying prone on a pile of rocks, Freed prepared to call them down for an incredibly close strike. Fortunately, Freed knew Menzer and was himself a qualified F­8 pilot, but despite the skill of the pilots and the Crusader being what Menzer called "a good­shooting bird," Freed purposely directed the attack wide so he could gauge the airmens' ability to hit the enemy without harming the Americans only 20 yards away. Screaming in from the northeast out of the sun, they hit the designated spot flawlessly.

The F­8s came in for a second run, hitting a 20­ by 60­yard target zone with 20mm fire. After four such strafing runs the hillside was a wasteland of smoldering earth, but one NVA soldier remained and had no intention of surrendering. When Freed raised his head to assess the strike's results, a bullet instantly cracked past. A Marine yelled that it had come from the rifleman who had killed Meyer, so Freed formed a plan to retrieve the dead lieutenant and eliminate his killer.

Freed instructed the pilots to make a few dummy passes over the slope, forcing the Communist to lie low while the Americans recovered Meyer's body. Lance Corporal James Brown had been throwing every grenade he possessed while bellowing insults of every color at the unseen enemy. Lieutenant Buck Darling decided the energetic and motivated Brown was the best choice to help him with his hazardous venture.

With the Crusaders roaring just over their heads, Darling and Brown started crawling; but when they reached Meyer's body, they were unable to pull it uphill on their hands and knees. "All right," Darling said. "Let's carry him!" After 12 separate rushes, during which the lieutenant and the lance corporal had to drop flat between jet passes, the pair stumbled exhausted the last of the 30 yards to the top with their lifeless comrade. The job was almost done.

With the advantage of numbers finally on their side, the Marines went after the lone enemy rifleman. Covered by a machine-­gunner, they flanked the North Vietnamese through thick brush to his right, gunfire masking their noisy approach. They got within yards of the foxhole, then rose and emptied their magazines. Every round missed. Flattening on the ground, they reloaded and sprang back up just as their quarry did likewise. When Corporal Samuel Roth opened fire, a bullet knocked off his helmet. Roth sprinted forward and ran the enemy gunman through with his bayonet. The fight was finally over, and an uneasy silence settled over Hill 488.

Following the battle, the Marines silently surveyed its aftermath. One cluster of hacked-­to-­death Communists was found next to a couple of bloody Marine entrenching tools. One dead American lay under an equally dead NVA soldier. The Marine's bandage-­swathed right hand still clasped the hilt of the combat knife he had in his dying moments plunged into the back of the attacker who died atop him. After locating and wrapping in blankets the body of the final missing American, the Marines searched 39 NVA corpses sprawled across the hillside, looking for useful information. They also collected 18 Chinese automatic weapons.

The NVA's attempt to destroy Howard's patrol had failed. Of the original 18 men, six were dead and all the survivors were wounded. Two aircrewmen and two C Company Marines also had been killed. Howard later received the Medal of Honor for his lengthy vigil at the top of Hill 488. Binns and Holmes each received the Navy Cross, and 15 others were recommended for the Silver Star.

The siege of Nui Vu received little publicity. The American public was not yet overwhelmingly absorbed in the conflict in faraway Southeast Asia. It was slightly before the arrival of the coming flood of war correspondents, and one cannot help wondering what effect news of this smashing military victory might have had on a home front not yet swayed against the war. It was a glittering opportunity that came about a year too early.

Bibliography:

Bonds, Ray (editor.) The Vietnam War, Crown Publishers, 1979.

Welsh, Douglas. The Complete Military History of the Vietnam War, Dorset Press.

West, Captain Francis J., Jr., USMC. Small Unit Action in Vietnam: Summer 1966, Arno Press, Inc., 1967.

This article is from the August 2014 issue of SOF. To ensure you never miss an issue of SOF, go to http://www.sofmag.com/subscribe-soldier-fortune and subscribe now!