Hill 488 Correspondence

From Richard Hart


I have just finished reading "Hill 488", and to say that I am overwhelmed by your accounts in this book would be an understatement indeed.

Your book has helped to fill in many details concerning the battle of Hill 488 which would be of great interest to the surviving members of all the various units participating in the battle.

My company, Charlie 1/5, got word in the night of June 15, 1966 of your situation on Hill 488, and that we were going to assist you. We quickly prepared to move out, and were transported to the helicopter pads in Chu Lai. We expected to be flown out immediately, but were delayed due to fog, as related in your book.

We were finally flown out after the fog lifted, and dropped off on a ridge at the bottom of Hill 488. We jumped out of those helicopters at full speed from a height of about six feet or more from ground level, unloading each helicopter in about 10 or 12 seconds.

We proceeded as rapidly as possible up the ridge, feeling the weight of extra ammunition and supplies we were carrying. As an automatic rifleman, I carried 500 rounds of 7.62mm ammunition, six loaded magazines, and a Ka-bar along with a helmet, a flack jacket, and backpack. Also, each rifleman was required to carry one mortar round, strapped to the top of his backpack, for Sgt. Riojas's Weapons Platoon.

Leading the way up the hill at point was the 2nd Platoon, Charlie Company, led by Lt. Ronald "Stump" Meyer. I was with the 1st Platoon following directly behind. We were heavily deployed, spread out with several yards between each man to avoid presenting a group target, and so there was a considerable distance between the point elements of the 2nd Platoon and our Platoon.

Before we reached the top of Hill 488, we heard that Lt. "Stump" Meyer had been shot. This was an officer who was highly regarded among the enlisted men, and respected by officers and enlisted men alike. He was comfortable talking with the enlisted men, not as far distant as most Marine officers. His death was a blow to all of us, but increased our resolve to get to the top and deal with the situation.

Finally reaching the top, we witnessed many of the scenes described in your book. One of the first scenes I remember was the body of an NVA lying face down with a Ka-bar stuck in his back. Someone, with tremendous force, had rammed a Ka-bar into the NVA up to the hilt. Considering the NVA was fairly thin, it looked as though the Ka-bar had gone clear through him and out the other side. This indeed must have been the NVA who encountered your squad leader, Corporal Thompson. He shared the same fate as all others of the who had mad it to the top of Hill 488--death at the hands of the valiant Marines defending the hill.

As we climbed up the slope leading to the top of the hill, we had seen the bodies of the enemy and equipment scattered all over the hill, which was still smoking from the recent bombing and strafing runs by fixed wing aircraft and helicopters. Now at the top, we were able to see the entire battlefield.

In the early morning light the view down the hill was truly beyond belief, with enemy bodies and equipment scattered all over the terrain. I would have guessed the body count closer to 100 rather than the 43 reported. Far in the distance we could see movement of the rear elements of the NVA battalion as they fled the scene like rats, leaving behind their dead and wounded and hundreds of weapons.

At the top of the hill, we did what we could to assist the wounded and put the Marine dead on the helicopters.

My memory of events is hazy at this point, there is one in particular that I will never forget.

While assisting with the evacuation of the wounded, I encountered a certain black Marine as he was struggling toward the helicopter that was to take him and several others off the hill. He was obviously in great pain, and it seemed doubtful that he could make it to the helicopter. Concerned that he might fall down and further injure himself I reached out to help him, but he brushed me aside and said, "I'll make it myself." I looked directly into his eyes, and saw the determined look of a warrior still engaged in the battle. I fully understood his rationale and intentions. For him, the battle would not be over until he made those final steps to the helicopter. He would leave the battlefield on his feet with the full honor of victory, in no way acknowledging even the smallest of victories for the enemy, whether they were present or not in the situation.Respecting his wishes, I immediately switched tactics as far as offering assistance to this Marine. Walking beside him as he made his way slowly toward the waiting helicopter, I told him that I knew he was going to make it, and that we were Charlie Company 1/5.

We had waited all night to come to their rescue, and would see to it that they all mad it off the hill. None would be left behind.

The helicopter crew waited patiently as the injured Marine made the final steps to the door, and as he pushed forward on the last step two strong crewman pulled him up and into the helicopter. He had made it by himself.

Based on the descriptions given in your book of the individual members of the 1st Platoon, Charlie Company, 1st Recon Battalion this person must have been none other than LCPL Ricardo C. Binns, who was later awarded the Navy Cross.

Now I would like to give you a little background information on the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines. Historically, this is the most highly decorated battalion in the Marine Corps, part of the "Fighting Fifth" Regiment, 1st Marine Division.

Our unit trained together for over one year in Hawaii as the 1st Marine Brigade, going through six months Counter Guerilla Warfare School, Raider School, and helicopter operations. About sixty of us were selected to attend Sniper School. On a personal note, I had also qualified as Expert in boot camp, shooting 224 on the "A" Course, and finished third in my class at Sniper School. We trained on the M14 and Model 70 Winchester Target with a 28 inch bull barrel out to 1000 yards. With a trigger pull of only 2 1/2 pounds, this was not exactly an ideal weapon for the field! Our instructors were members of the Marine Corps Shooting Team, with several Distinguished Riflemen.

We left for Vietnam as a unit in early 1966, spending a couple of months on "float phase" aboard the USS Princeton helicopter aircraft carrier and participated in several operations including Jack Stay (in the Rung Sat mangrove swamp area south of Saigon), and Operation Osage.

We were eventually sent to an area between Da Nang and Chu Lai, and established a base camp on Hill 54. Incidentally, we referred to Hill 488 as simply Hill 88, so the correct designation for our Hill 54 may have been Hill 454.

We moved quickly to establish control of the area, patrolling day and night as far out as 18 miles from our base camp. My company, Charlie 1/5, was the first to make significant contact with the enemy. They opened fire from about 300 yards across an open rice paddy. We immediately returned fire and did a frontal assault, running and firing as fast as possible toward the enemy. Facing the full firepower of Charlie Company, the enemy threw down their rifles and ran. Unfortunately for them, they ran directly into an ambush that had been set by Alpha Company of 1/5, and all 38 of them were killed. Although we had ran directly through their machine gun fire, we had only a couple minor casualties. From that point on, we were never challenged by an enemy unit of more than squad size in our immediate area.

We were intensely proud of our company, which was regarded as the best in the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines.

In the field, we aggressively engaged the enemy at every encounter. Our tactics earned our company the names of "Charging Charlie" and "Suicide Charlie", the latter name due to a tendency to be a bit reckless at times. However, we did have a reputation for getting the job done regardless of circumstances, and this is probably the reason we were selected to assist your unit on Hill 488.

In retrospect, it is entirely possible that on the morning of June 16th, 1966 that the NVA unit attacking your position knew that Charlie 1/5 was on the way to Hill 488, and that this could have been a factor in their decision to depart the area so rapidly, leaving behind their dead and wounded.

I must compliment all those in your unit for the efficient use of available firepower, and in particular the use of semi automatic vs. full automatic rifle fire, and making every shot count. Full credit for this strategy must of course be give to Sgt. Jimmy Howard, drawing on his experience in Korea in a similar situation. The truth in the philosophy of Chesty Puller that "one hit is firepower" was certainly demonstrated by your unit.

It must have been a tremendous psychological blow to the enemy to see their own men cut down one by one, not by thousands of rounds of machine gun fire, but by the well aimed semi automatic fire of individual riflemen.Your personal encounter with the 50 caliber heavy machine gun was probably the best example of marksmanship under pressure in the entire operation. You truly demonstrated nerves of steel as you picked off two entire machine gun crews one by one.

Much credit must also be given to the groups providing close air support to your unit, flying both fixed wing and helicopter aircraft, without which your unit would no doubt have been overrun by sheer numbers of the enemy.

Exceptional courage was shown by these men as they conducted bombing and strafing runs only a few feet above ground level, and provided helicopter gunship support through the night while under heavy fire.

As you noted, the enemy also had courage under fire, especially during the second major assault on the hill, after the first assault had resulted in extremely high casualties. Of course, the most outstanding example of courage of the enemy was that of the NVA machine gunner that endured every type of fire put on him by rifle, machine gun, and aircraft. After all of that ordinance failed to eliminate him he was finally taken out by Corporal Roth's bayonet, demonstrating the fact that there are some objectives that can only be accomplished by one on one combat.

During your long ordeal on the night of June 15, 1966, you could have been only partially aware of the different groups concerned about your situation. I have just found on the Internet an account by the 1st Division Medical Group of the preparations that were being made to receive those of your platoon needing emergency medical care.

They to were awakened in the early morning hours, and were told to make special preparations to treat your wounded.

I am sure that all that became aware of your situation began to pull for you, and that those in any position to participate in providing assistance to your unit did all they possibly could. Surely, all others that could not participate in any other way began to pull for you mentally and spiritually, and those so inclined offered up prayers on your behalf. It seemed like everyone wanted to do anything and everything that could be done to help those trapped on Hill 488. Certainly those of us in Charlie Company 1/5 were empowered by the prayers of others as we jumped out of those helicopters and ran to the battle without the slightest hesitation or fear of the enemy.

As a Christian, I felt there were strong evidences of the hand of God working on your behalf on a number of occasions. Some in your unit experienced a complete failure of physical and emotional strength at certain points, only to find strength beyond themselves as they rejoined the battle and fought on with great courage. Sgt. Jimmy Howard, in calling for a cease-fire at one point, spoke with such power that both sides stopped shooting. This was truly incredible, and I've never heard of anything like this happening in any battle. He may have spoken with the voice of authority from his days as a DI, but I think he had a little help in this situation. Also, the "psy-ops" tactics of laughing at the enemy and the sounding of "Reveille" worked so effectively that they caused a retreat of the main force of the enemy at a time when you had only eight rounds of ammunition left! Thank God those tactics worked.

Ray, I hadn't intended to write a whole book in response to Hill 488, but it looks like I just about did so anyway.

Of all the written accounts of operations involving my unit, yours is by far the best. Hill 488 is the finest book on military history that I have ever read, exciting in its presentation and historically accurate. While written in a politically neutral form, it is also written using the language of the time without any effort to be politically correct after the fact. Also, the background information leading up to the battle of Hill 488 is excellent, and the formation of using the time sequence of events was particularly effective in communicating the story of the main battle. Charles Sasser did an excellent job in writing up this account.

There are only two inaccuracies as far as the book is concerned, and both are right on the cover. First, the picture on the cover is obviously not that of Hill 488 and second, you are described as a "former" U.S. Marine. We know this isn't true either. You are as much a Marine today as you were on that night of June 16, 1966 on Hill 488. As my own drill instructor said, "Once you are a Marine, you belong to the Marine Corps first, last and always."

Semper Fi,
Richard Hart, Charlie 1/5