The Vietnam War was raging.
Sixteen Marines and two Navy Corpsman were inserted via helicopter deep into enemy territory with the intent to observe enemy troop movements and call in artillery and aerial bombings.
The men of the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion were meant to connect the dots — no direct contact with the enemy was supposed to take place.
Eyes From the Eagle’s Nest
Led by Staff Sergeant Jimmie E. Howard, the men climbed what has since come to be known as Hill 488 as an observation post. It was from the top of this mountain they observed all enemy troop movement in the Que Son Valley below.
Just two days into their stay, the men had been wildly successful. The artillery and aerial bombardments had been so accurate that the Viet Cong rightfully determined they were being watched.
And Hill 488 was where they assumed the watchers resided.
Howard’s men were offered the opportunity to be evacuated from the mountain. But the team was so successful they elected to stay another night. It would be a decision with dire consequences.
As the Viet Cong prepared their forces, a hidden Special Forces detachment spotted them, notifying Howard. Estimates are that somewhere between 200-250 enemy forces were on their way up Hill 488.
Howard didn’t have much time to act.
His men quickly set up in defensive positions, with a rocky outcropping near the peak acting as their fallback point. Then they waited.
The first enemy soldier was spotted well after dark. One of the Marines saw “bush” making its way up the hill, just 20 feet downhill. He fired two rounds into it as the bush screamed.
Then the Viet Cong opened fire.
The Attack Begins
The enemy was everywhere, and the Marines put up a valiant defense, successfully repulsing the first wave. By this point, every American was either injured or dead.
A radio call for extraction was made, but it would be three hours of hard combat before any form of air support could arrive.
The fighting was intense, with hand-to-hand combat the norm. Marines swung their rifles like baseball bats and used their knives.
When the Marines finally ran out of grenades, they threw rocks instead. The Viet Cong, thinking the rocks would explode, jumped out from cover, exposing themselves to rifle fire.
Eventually, though, even the ammunition grew scarce.
Evacuation by air was never made possible. The battle was simply too hot.
One helicopter was lost in the process, and another waved off. It took a Marine infantry company brought to the front to clear out the enemy, permitting the remainder of the Marines on Hill 488 to retreat.
The men were given 18 Purple Hearts, 13 Silver Stars, four Navy Crosses, and even a Medal of Honor, making them the most decorated American unit in history.
And the enemy? They lost 40% of their platoon.
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