Following is a synopsis of my recollection of the morning of 16 June 1966. It has been almost 40 years so the times or events may be somewhat different than what I remember. However, this is my recollection to the best of my memory and I will stand by it as what I recall.
Recollection of HMM-361 helicopter pilot Lt. John Downing regarding the Morning after the battle for Nui Vu (Hill 488) 16 June 1966:
I was already on the flight schedule for some resupply mission around mid-morning on 16 June 1966. However, around 0300-0400 the duty officer awoke two or three pilots in my tent and told us to report to the ready room for an emergency recon extraction from Hill 488 west of Tam Ky.
The briefing called for our helos to proceed to Hill 54 and pick up C/1/5 and drop them into an LZ at the base of 488. The LZ was at BT 151191 near the village of Dich An Tay. When the assaulting company (C/1/5) secured the hill we were to extract the recon unit (SGT Howards 18 people) and return to lift Charlie Company back to Hill 54. The brief included the position of four .50 Cal. AA guns which the enemy had bracketed on the top of Nui Vu. I still have this very map today with the .50's marked as reported by SGT. Howard and the VMO-6/ HMM-361 helos who had attempted the MEDEVAC/ Retraction earlier. After the brief I was approached by Lt. Jerry Johnson my squadron mate who had attempted the emergency retraction around 0300-0330 and was unable to land due to intense automatic weapons fire from the four .50 Cal. AA guns. He cautioned me to be extremely careful on this mission due to the proximity of these guns to the recon teams position and that they had taken several hits on their flight. Jerry was my tent mate at Marble Mountain for six months and he wanted to impress upon me that this would indeed be a dangerous situation.
The troop insertion at the base of 488 went uneventful as I recall. I can't remember receiving fire into or out of the LZ. I think we may have returned to Chu Lai and refueled to give C/1/5 time to secure the hilltop, but I am not sure. We may have orbited in the area for some time. When we returned for the extraction we only encountered sporadic small arms fire. When we landed on the northwestern slope of 488 there were so many dead enemy bodies that we actually had to set the helo down on some of the dead bodies...unavoidable as it were. I do remember vividly wondering to myself just what in the hell happened on this hill last night. There were dead VC/NVA scattered all over the LZ. Shot, bled out, burnt, torn and otherwise done with their tour in this war.
We were loaded up with some KIA/WIA's and returned to Division Med. I don't recall if these were recon casualties or those from C/1/5. I don't remember ever landing on Hill 488 again, so I guess the troop lift of C/1/5 back to Hill 54 was completed by another helo squadron from MAG-36. That is my recollection of the operation.
Photo: Lt Tom Parsons (left) being debriefed by Operations NCO, circa Sept 1966, as Lt John Downing (right) looks on. Tom Parsons along with Jerry Johnson were the pilots that attempted the Medevac on Hill 488 at 0230 16 Jun 66. According to Parsons, he and Johnson stayed on station for 3.5 hrs and acted somewhat like airborne FAC's. Parson's last mission was 22 Sep 66 flying Recon insertions and retractions.
Here is an account of the incident on the USMC Combat Helicopter Association web site:
Ray... Finally got around to opening your book yesterday morning...I couldn't lay it down! Except for a few "honey-do" interruptions, I was glued to it until finishing at 2200!! I must admit that it brought back some unwanted memories, and I didn't sleep all that well.
Great job you and Sasser did. Although I knew you guys were in a shit sandwich the night of 15-16 June '66, I never really appreciated the fact that it was a triple-decker club with all the trimmings!! Your narrative of your horrendous ordeal from 2305 until dawn was spellbinding to say the least! And there are some other parts of the book that especially impressed me.
I was struck right off by your 2-page "forward", thinking to myself how timely to be reading it with all the controversy ongoing regarding a current unnamed PRESUS wannabe’s antiwar activities during that period. Then much later in your Chapter 54, I had to smile at your reference to "a future President conspiring to evade the draft". Now, Ray, that couldn't be the same fellow whose autobiography hits the street as we speak, could it? But back to the overall content of your book, I found your and Sasser's intertwining of the personal and the historical masterful. You might be surprised to learn that USMC flyboys are as much in the dark re the big picture as Grunts.
I gained an incredible amount of knowledge from your book about the enemy, Vietnam's history and I Corps strategy during that period!! We Huey gunship guys (and I believe the rest of the MAG's troops), like you in the 1st Platoon, just did what we were told. Rambling a bit, when I got to Chapter 4, pg 21 and read that "Navy SEALs arrived in-country in 1962", that was the same time (April 15th) that I had the privilege of being an H-34 pilot in the first USMC helicopter squadron to enter Vietnam -- HMM-362 led by Lt Col Archie Clapp -- and set up operations in the Delta at Soc Trang. Our missions were (by LBJ decree) "logistical in nature", supporting the ARVN. We became known as "Archie's Angels"; Archie passed away this 15th of May and will be interred at Arlington 14 July, just after our Reno Reunion.
As for your extremely flattering coverage of Johnny Mike Shields and my Huey Gunship support (Ch 46 and sub), although I attempted to maintain a relatively low octave during my radio transmissions, I, too, was scared shitless! First, I was certain that with all the fireworks, I was destined to be either blown out of the sky or, perhaps more scary, to be shot down and captured by folks that were obviously very unfriendly. Second and, I guess, equally important, I was terrified of getting you guys with my "friendly fire". I had recently been a copilot on a 2-plane gunship mission that, although with authority to unload in a "free fire" area, had blown away 7 Marine Recon guys! An investigation cleared us, but I regret it to this day. It did not help my confidence when, on my first gun/rocket run, Jimmie Howard screamed over the radio something like, "Klondike, you're shooting us!" The red flashlight that followed helped! But Smokey Gold REALLY helped! Though it made us visible to the gooks, it allowed us to actually see 488 and your position. You said something about us coming in on runs with our running lights on...if that happened, we FUCKED UP! We had intended to keep them and our anti-collision light on at altitude so's not to run into each other, but to go dark during our runs. Also, about the time you guys were out of grenades and throwing rocks, we (in between rearming) were out of ammo, and made gun runs pulling on the microphone button (vice the trigger) and yelling bang, bang, bang to each other. Helped psychologically!
Couple of other "facts" - Had no idea how much damage that lone sniper did the next morning other than waste our skipper. He was good and a gutsy bastard...shoulda been a US Marine! He not only got the lead Huey, fatally wounding Goodsell, but flying right behind him, I remember hearing thump, thump, thump and soon realized he'd gotten my radios when I tried to tell lead he was smoking from the transmission area. Like you wrote, lead fluttered around and then began a controlled decent to the valley floor. Copilot Steve Butler did a superb job of grabbing the controls, getting his wounded skipper out of the way, and wrestling a bird without hydraulic boost (worse than no power-steering) to the ground in one piece.
Contrary to what your sources said, his landing in a rice paddy was ichi-ban -- no further damage to the bird (though we had fixed wing blow it up later). I thought he was going to crash, so I touched down some distance to the right of him -- too goddamn distant!! Then I had my left door gunner run over and help their crew carry Goodsell to our bird. With hootches all around, I was sure they'd be toasted...but they weren't. I lie awake sometimes at night asking why I didn't land closer. As you wrote, I poured the coal back to Charlie Med at treetop, screaming into a dead mike all the way. My skipper was DOA. Hmm, got carried away. Never shared any of this to anyone before. See what your "Hill 488" did?
Bottom line, Ray, really great book. Will look for your "stall" at the Hilton. If you were able to arrange it with Pop-A-Smoke, please set aside 2 copies of your "Hill 488". Think my two sons would appreciate a copy (with a personal note from the author, of course)! Oldest one (now 48, a great son working for DOD but once hippie), having seen the flick "We were Soldiers", asked me what Nam was like. Hope you & "date" can attend VMO-6 dinner 7/9, so’s we can socialize. Semper Fi, Jim.
PS. Re photos midway in your book, son of guy presenting you Silver Star and I were classmates at USNA. And on following page, the Fields/Howard pic is just the way I will always remember Jimmie...Shields and I visited him in the hospital on 17 June 66.
I was a clerk (personnel specialist) in DaNang, ’66. We were the first group that came to Da Nang, starting in early Mar, ’66. It took about 6 wks of 6-7 day weeks to get it done, then I was bored. See, I grew up in the South side of Chicago, never had a house, always apts, housing project (Racine Courts, 10901 Racine), bad neighborhoods. I grew up afraid, gangs, fights, I was first shot at when I was about 11-12 (housing project). Anyway, I grew up afraid, wondered if I was a coward, so I volunteered for Nam (I know, dumb reason). Well, when we settled in DaNang, I couldn’t sit by why other Americans (Army, Marines) were protecting me just a couple of miles from where I slept. So, I heard about someone needing volunteers for something called Flare missions. I had no idea what it was, but it involved flying, (which I loved) and doing something to help those who were protecting me. So, I began flying ‘Flare” missions in a C123 Fairchild Provider with the 311th Air command Sq. I reported every other night from 20 Apr. Sometimes we flew cover, sometimes sat standby in the alert trailer, sometimes we went out and dropped flares somewhere in I Corp area. Usually routine. We usually flew at 8,000 ft, above ground fire. Well, I found out that I had ulcers many yrs. later because EVERY time we dropped, I got air sick. After 5-10 min of feeling sick, I would stick my head out the ramp, unload on Charlie (I hoped) and go back to dropping flares. We had a set of chutes that fit in the ramp, help 3 or 4 flares (I don’t really remember which). We would take the flare out of the large wooden box, remove the plastic cover, set the dial timers for the parachute and the flare ignition, put it into the chute, attach the lanyard (I still have one of these) then the loadmaster would push the flare out when he received the signal from the pilot.
I had flown 21 missions by the time of 15 Jun, ’66. I, as a ‘non crewmember/volunteer’ really never had any idea of where we were (we were told later), certainly not what was going on down below. However, as my normal routine of getting sick on Charlie made it necessary for me to stick my head out of the aircraft, I got a different view than most. This particular mission I remember because we flew much lower than normal, much turbulence and when I stuck my head out the ramp I saw a sight that I will never forget. It was so light but the flares were starting to go dim. I could see a lot of firefight activity, tracers, etc. This must have been about 1:00 or so. A little later, I had just taken a flare (27 lbs, 25 lbs of Magnesium) from the box, was just going to remove the plastic cap when a round went between my legs, the flare and passed completely thru the aircraft without touching anything. It happened so fast I didn’t even know what happened. I have no idea the caliber, etc. But it didn’t really register what happened until later. I just know that if it would have been a couple of inches at most either way, it would have hit me or the flare. If it hit the flare, I would not be writing this story. Anyway, we dropped all our flares and went back to DaNang.
A little later, I found a note on my desk at work from the head of the CBPO (Consolidate Base Personnel Office), my boss. It said, ‘see me’. Well, when I reported, he threw this piece of paper at me and he said ‘What the hell is this?”. It was a recommendation for the DFC, for me, for the 15 Jun mission. See, I never asked/never talked about my flying. It just never occurred to me to ask. It never interfered with my work, I worked like normal, etc. so why mention it. Well, as I stumbled to come up with an answer, he asked me ‘How long have you been flying?’. I said, about 3 months. Well, he hit the roof, he said ‘you’re quitting as of now, because I’m not writing a letter for a f ______ clerk’. So, my flying days were over. I was awarded the DFC the AM (for 25 missions) and a personal Air Force Commendation Medal from my boss who made me quit.
Now I’m 74, still live in Chicago, still working 40 hrs a week. Having just read Ray Hidreth’s book about Hill 488 is why I am writing this. I can’t imagine the courage, the heroism, the bravery of those Marines that were down below me on that June night. I was shot at one time, they did this for a living. I can’t imagine that kind of courage, that makes a man (now woman) leave home, put on the uniform and go off to fight and possible die in a land far away in order to protect people they don’t know. All I know is that I have found out that I wasn’t a coward, I am certainly not a brave person, not a hero. But I had the honor to help, serve with, and fly with heroes. To Ray Hildreth and the other 17 Marines that were down below with him, and to those who wear the uniform today, thank you for being there for us. Thank you for protecting us. Thank you for showing us what courage really is. May you all find the peace you so richly deserve.
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 15, 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."
Ray, I recently finished reading the book "Hill 488". When I first found out about the book I was thrilled to know that someone had written a book about this historic event. I was even more thrilled when after I obtained a copy that the story was narrated by a survivor of the action that took place on Hill 488 the night of June 15-16, 1966.
After 41 years I now have all the facts regarding the events leading up to and during that eventful night. Everyone in the Marine Corps eventually heard about SSgt Jimmy Howard but until I read Hill 488 I had no information regarding the other members of Howard's platoon.
Now, I not only have the names of these men but I also know something about each man's personality and the life they led. I feel that I know each of them as a real person and not just as one of those Marines on the hill.
The book is not only an inspiration to me because I took some small part int these events but also to anyone who is not acquainted with the action that took place. This is a true story where the participants showed extreme courage and tenacity in the face of overwhelming odds. "When the going gets tough the tough get going". I heard that statement many times during the 4 years I served in the Marine Corps. On the morning of June 16, 1966 I was a witness to the results of this philosophy.
During the week of June 12-18, 1966 I was by somewhat unusual circumstances TAD to Charlie 1/5 just outside of Chu Lai. I believe that fate plays a big part in each persons life and that when fate makes a decision for us then we are carried along without recourse.
I was sent to Charlie 1/5 along with 3 other Marines to try and bring the strength of a company or platoon up as close to "table of organization" as possible. On paper a Marine platoon has 4 squads of 14 men each. This would make the total manpower of a platoon at 60 or so.
In reality most Marine platoons in the most combat active areas maintain around 45 effectives at any given time. This is where the 4 of us came in. We were going to fill in a few empty spaces for a while. As it was I had to volunteer for this duty just so I could get away from the man who was commander of my unit. This creep was a glorified Sgt, E-5, who was allowed to wear 1st Lt bars for the duration.
On the bumpy ride up to 1/5 in an old banged up truck I became friends with one of the other Marines, a young man named Fleming. At this time I was only a few weeks from my 21st birthday so most Marines from Corporal on down were younger than me. All four of us in the truck were Lance Corporals with less than 14 months in the Marine Corps each.
As soon as the 4 of us arrived at Charlie company area we were taken to meet the commander, 1st Lt Darling. I was not with the company long enough to get to know Lt Darling very well but my opinion of him was a well like officer. A strong silent type who was respected by not only the men under his command but also of his superior officers. Lt Darling was an officer that led by example rather than shouting at everyone. He also had a sense of humor. He introduced himself to us as Lt Bill Darling. We were told we could call him Lt Darling or Mr Darling (an old Naval custom) and if we were around long enough we could call him Bill but we were never to call him Bill Darling.
We "new meat" as we were called were then assigned to 2nd Lt Meyer's platoon. Everyone in Charlie company called Lt Myer "Stump" because he was rather short and muscular. Lt Myer was the exact opposite of Lt Darling. Lt Meyer was very young and still had all the energy and enthusiasm of youth. He was perhaps a little too rash and too ready to act before assessing a situation. But to say the least the man was brave and had guts.
Now the 4 of us new arrivals were each placed in a different squad. My squad leader happened to be Cpl Melville. Since Fleming and myself were in different squads we only saw each other from time to time or when we were able to go the the mess hall together. Fleming had struck up a friendship with another young Marine whose name was Terry Redic, a member of the same squad Fleming was in. Sometimes the 3 of us went to the mess hall together. Redic was eager to see some heavy action and couldn't wait to shoot some gooks. He was another young Marine eager for combat.
Over 40 years of time and lifes circumstances tends to dim ones memories of distant events, even those events of extreme importance. I recall the company was awakened earlier than usual and told we would be moving out soon. I do not think that many of us below the rank of Corporal knew where we were headed and I do not recall anyone saying anything about the events that took place on Hill 488 the night before. We were all told to go to the mess hall and get some chow. There did not seem to be a sense of urgency about the situation. I now know the reason for the delay in our departure was due to heavy fog in the area which would have made our mission even more difficult.
I do recall an interesting incident that took place as the company was standing by to board the helicopters. There was a South Vietnamese soldier in full combat gear waiting to go with the company. I assumed he would be some sort of interpreter. An officer whom I did not know told the man that his services would not be needed this day. Later on I imagined this statement to mean that there would be no prisoners for the man to interrogate.
The company finally boarded the choppers and after a short flight we were dropped (literally) on the side of a steep and barren hillside. Most people who were never in Vietnam may get the impression that all combat took place in wet jungles. I never saw a plant on or near hill 488 higher than my knees.
It was not until after I read Hill 488 that I was aware that a couple of choppers that preceded us to the hill were shot down and one pilot died. This, and the fact that the top the hill was covered with bodies made it necessary for our chopper to land so far away. It was not long that we spotted the first body of a Vietnamese soldier. As each minute drew us closer to top of the hill we saw more and more bodies and when we found the first dead Marine we knew something serious had happened.
By this time we were able to hear sporadic gunfire but were still not close enough to take any action. The squad I was in was the 2nd squad to arrive on the top of Hill 488. There was not a large area on top of the hill and by the time my squad got up the place was extremely crowded. With all the bodies there was also 12 surviving Marines from the nights fight and without standing up and taking a head count I would say no more than 25 or 30 from our platoon including Lt Meyers and our company CO Lt Darling. I now know there was also a FAC officer. The rest of the company had no place to go and so were tied up down on the side of the hill.
The first command I heard was "Down" keep it down damn it we already lost a man. The word was passed around that a machine gunner and possibly one or more riflemen had us pinned down. The gunfire from the enemy was not particularly heavy by Intermittent and close. It was impossible to raise up more than a few inches without hearing bullets passing close by.
After all this time I do not recall the exact order of events that followed but I remember a Marine bring a bag of hand grenades to where I was ad he and I laid on our backs and tossed them in the general direction of the gunfire. I do remember helping 3 other Marines place a severely wounded member of Sgt Howard's platoon on to a poncho to carry him to another group of Marines who took him to a waiting helicopter. I now know this Marine was Thomas Powles who suffered for so long from his wound. The dead Marine I helped remove from the field I now know was John Adams.
The incident I will remember forever was when the body of Lt Meyer was brought up. I had no idea he had been hit. Two Marines brought him to just a few meters from my position at the time. The 2 Marine set him gently face down on the ground. I was shocked. It was only a short time since I had seen Lt Meyer alive and leading his men into combat. I remember Lt Darling was very upset and he crouched down close and put his hand on Lt Meyer's shoulder and said to him "Rest easy Stump" you will be going home soon". It was hard as hell to imagine this energetic young man was dead.
With everything going on I just lost time. I think our platoon was on the hill for maybe 2 hours when someone shouted out "We got him". Then silence. But not for long as several gunshots rang out about 10 meters to my left. I only noticed a few Marines looking off on one side of the hill. It seems that one last enemy rifleman was left on the field. All these years I just assumed that a member of my platoon had shot the man but I now know that it was Ray Hildreth, probably the last member of Sgt Howard's unit that was still active. Call it irony or poetic justice but it seems only right that a member of Sgt Howard's team took down the last of the enemy soldiers.
There now proceeded a general policing of the area. The detritus of war was gathered and inspected and placed in piles to be sorted later. Bodies of the dead soldiers were searched for any useful information. It was interesting to observe the various uniforms these men were wearing. We saw some dark grey uniforms which may have been regular NVA soldiers. We saw several brown uniforms which we thought may have been some kind of Chinese support troops. There was also a strange mixture of civilian and military garb. One of the enemy dead was even wearing a pair of jeans.
As I was looking around for discarded weapons I noticed a Vietnamese soldier in a shallow hole who was still alive and trying to push himself up. Like a dumb ass I shouted "Hey, here's one still alive!". "Well shoot the bastard" came the reply from somewhere. Before I could take aim with my rifle another Marine stepped up and blasted the man in the chest with 2 quick rounds.
Soon it was time for the company to be removed from the field and returned to base camp. On my way to the choppers waiting to take off I noticed a familiar face getting a bandage wrapped around his head. It was my squad leader Cpl Melville. I walked up to him and shook my head. He smiled and said "tough morning huh?" I said "damn man you got shot in the head". He was still smiling when he said "yep, this is the 2nd time I got shot in the head. I hate when that happens". It was just another day at the office for that Marine.
During the action on the hill I had lost contact with my buddy Fleming but no sooner had the platoon arrived back at our area when Fleming came to me and told me that Terry Redic had been one of the 3 Marines from our platoon that had been killed. I did not know Terry Redic well at all but I was sad to hear about his death. I later learned that one of the Corpsman was seriously wounded and that another Marne received a minor wound in the face. The following day Charlie company held a memorial service for the 3 slain Marines.
Over a period of a few weeks most everyone in Vietnam picked up more information about what happened that night. We heard about how a handful of Marines had made mince meat out of several companies of well armed, highly trained, hard core Viet Cong and NVA soldiers. The enemy who attacked those 18 Marines were not a bunch of amateurs.
Over time the members of Sgt Howard's unit took on mythic characteristics. Everyone imagined them as a group of experienced hard ass killers. But now I know that with the exception of Sgt Howard these men in his platoon were just a regular group of 18 or 19 year old Marines with little or no combat experience. Did not matter. Because these men were Marines and the enemy made a fatal mistake in attacking them.
In September of 1967 I heard that Sgt Howard was awarded the Medal of Honor. I was very pleased to hear that and hoped then that the other men in St Howard's command would be recognized for their heroic actions. I now know that all of these men received well earned citations.
Like most men who served in the Marine Corps I could not wait to get out and at times I even hated it. Over time I have come to believe a couple of old sayings we had when I was in the Corps: "Once a Marine always a Marine" and the one that I like best is "You can take the man out of the Marine Corps but you can't take the Marine Corps out of the man".
It is an honor to be associated with the heroes of Hill 488, even in such a small way.