Vietnam: 30 Years Ago: The Alamo With Survivors

By Tom Bartlett - Originally published in June 1996

Vietnam was a land of attitudes in June 1966. For some, life was "good," and there was liberty in Da Nang. Hamburgers and milk shakes were sold at the USO off Dac Lap Street, and movies were shown nightly.

Main post exchanges were selling sodas, watches, cigarettes and hairnets.

South of Da Nang, the attitude changed. Hard chargers of the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion moved into the Que Son Valley. Bounded by mountains on three sides, the valley contained fine farmland and rich salt deposits.

Well-trained and supplied North Vietnamese Army regulars were reportedly moving into the area.

On June 13, 1966, a recon team (including Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Sullivan, the 1st Recon Bn commander) was helilifted to Nui Loc Son, a small mountain in the center of the valley. Another team of 18 men was landed on Nui Vu, 10 miles west of Tam Ky. Six other teams were emplaced the following day.

One 13-man team from the 1st Force Reconnaissance Company parachuted onto Hill 555. One Marine suffered a twisted ankle upon landing.

There had been times when Marine recon teams would be helilifted to mountaintops and hide for days at a time. The weather was pleasant, and enemy activity limited. The Marines reported little enemy activity, and occasionally they'd spot local Viet Cong guerrillas using elephants to transport supplies. Some considered the duty "boring" in Que Son Valley, but cool evenings guaranteed pleasant sleeping conditions.

But that was to change. The 1,500-foot hill on which Staff Sergeant Jimmie E. Howard and his patrol were emplaced began getting crowded, as a North Vietnamese battalion of the 3d NVA Regiment began massing at the bottom of the hill.

Marines of Howard's 18-man reconnaissance platoon on Nui Vu would earn four Navy Crosses, 13 Silver Stars and 18 Purple Hearts. (All were wounded at least once.) Howard would be presented the Medal of Honor to hang near the Silver Star he earned fighting in Korea. There, he had won the Silver Star fighting Chinese Communists at Hill 122, known to the First Marine Division as "Bunker Hill."

In June 1966, Howard was acting commander of the 1st Platoon, "Charlie" Co, 1st Reconnaissance Bn. The area in which the battle raged was simply referred to as "Hill 488," and it was located some 20 miles west of the Chu Lai Marine base.

Once landed by helicopter, the recon Marines reported extensive enemy activity in the area. Supported by an ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) 105mm. howitzer battery, the Marines would call artillery missions on "targets of opportunity."

Two days passed.... Howard's group spotted groups of enemy troops moving, and they called fire missions. The NVA soon realized that they were being observed, and they had a good idea of where the observers were located.

Howard radioed back that squads of enemy troops were moving toward Hill 488. Shortly after midnight on June 15, 1966, the NVA probed the Marine lines.

Navy Hospital Corpsman B. C. Holmes recalled, "They were within 20 feet of us. Suddenly there were grenades all over the place. People started hollering. Guys were getting hit at the same time."

The NVA fired their AK-47 assault rifles. Heavy machine-gun and mortar fire began sweeping toward the Marines. Howard radioed LtCol Sullivan, "You've got to get us out of here. There are too many of them for my people."

Marine and Air Force support arrived overhead, including flare planes and attack aircraft. Marine jets and Huey helicopters attacked the enemy force. Gunships strafed to within 20 meters of the patrol's perimeter; jets dropped bombs and napalm to within 100 meters.

The air support caused the enemy to slow their advance, but riflemen continued firing at the Marines throughout the night. Howard and his recon Marines were running short of ammunition. They began throwing rocks at enemy positions, hoping the NVA would mistake them for grenades.

Howard was shot in the back, temporarily paralyzing his legs. He dragged himself from position to position, encouraging his men.

At dawn, the attitude of Nui Vu changed, and luck smiled on the recon Marines. UH-34 helicopters of Marine Aircraft Group 36 ferried C/1/5 to the base of the hill. First Lieutenant Marshall Darling, Co C commander, recalled that when he approached the recon Marines, nearly all were armed with the AK-47 assault rifles they had taken from dead NVA.

As Howard and his men were taken off the hill, Darling's Marines counted 42 dead NVA. The Marines lost 10, including two from C/1/5 and two (Major William Goodsell, commanding officer of Marine Observation Squadron 6, and one other) from a Huey squadron.

Jimmie E. Howard would be awarded the Medal of Honor during ceremonies at the White House on Aug. 21, 1967.

Ricardo Binns and Navy Corpsman B. C. Holmes received the Navy Cross; J. T. Adams and J. R. Thompson were awarded the Navy Cross posthumously.

Charles Bosley, Navy Corpsman R. J. Fitzpatrick, Raymond Hildreth, Joseph Kosoglow, Robert Martinez, Daniel Mulvihill, William Norman, Thomas Poweles and Ralph Victor would receive Silver Star medals. Ignatius Carlisi, T. D. Glawe, J. C. McKinney and A. N. Mascarenas would be awarded their Silver Stars posthumously.

Jimmie E. Howard retired from the Marine Corps as a first sergeant. He died in November 1993 and was buried with honors at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego.