In Vietnam, a lone boulder crouches at the peak of grassy, windswept Nui Vu Hill (Hill 488) overlooking Hiep Duc Valley northwest of Chu Lai. In June 1966, a recon platoon of sixteen U.S. Marines and two Navy corpsmen fought one of the fiercest battles of the Vietnam War. Ray Hildreth, 19, was one of the Marines who survived.
An old friend now in his 60s, Hildreth asked me to return with him to Vietnam and Hill 488 where he witnessed the deaths of his friends. He stood at the boulder and gazed out over the now-peaceful valley, his emotions carefully controlled. But I saw the sadness in his eyes.
On 13 June 1966, his platoon led by SSG James Earl Howard inserted to observe unusual enemy activity moving toward the coastline. That first night the Marines observed a line of torches moving ghost-like across the valley floor toward Chu Lai. Perhaps 140 enemy soldiers.
The torches reappeared the following night—except more of them.
The third night, an Army Green Beret patrol scouting the valley radioed a warning: “Elements of (NVA) and Main Force VC are heading east. There’s at least a battalion, and they look like they mean business.”
SSG Howard’s men were stuck on the hill until daylight.
Now, these years later, Hildreth paced slowly away from the rock and hunkered down in the grass where he and 19-year-old PFC James McKinney assumed their observation-defensive position that moonless night of 15 June. He sat there in the grass with his thousand-yard stare looking down from the hill, remembering.
Enemy probes began before midnight. On their bellies in the grass, hearts thumping, Hildreth and McKinney stared intently into the darkness.
McKinney cried out and fired a burst. At almost the same instant, an enemy grenade seared a burst of light into the black wall of eternity. Some primeval fear of things in the night struck terror in Hildreth’s heart as he heard the flutter of giant wings in the air settling back to earth like a giant dying bat. He feared it would land on him with razor claws extended before he realized what it was—McKinney’s poncho.
Hildreth’s buddy was one of the first to die on the hill.
The battle raged until relief forces arrived at dawn. Six of the eighteen defenders died on the hill; everyone else suffered various wounds. More than 100 enemy soldiers lay dead around the crest of the hill.
The platoon became the most highly-decorated unit of its size in the history of the U.S. military. SSG Howard received the Medal of Honor. The others were awarded Purple Hearts and Silver Stars for valor, six of them posthumously.
Now, years after that fateful night, I watched Hildreth sitting in the grass where his friend McKinney died. Like me, he was becoming an old man but still with a young man’s memories. His chin slowly sank into his chest. He sat there for a long time in the grass with his eyes closed.
Hill 488 by Ray Hildreth and Charles W. Sasser is Ray’s story of that night. Available at bookstores and on Amazon.com, it has been contracted to become a major motion picture.
Chimp Robertson, perhaps the best writer of the Old West in Oklahoma, is featured in March with a short story in a collection of new historical westerns entitled The Posse. Story telling at its best. Chimp is a former bull rider, U.S. Army vet, and rancher in Western Oklahoma. Follow the release of The Posse and other updates of Chimp’s books on his website: www.chimprobertson.com