Jimmie Earl Howard enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1950 at the age of 21. He graduated from boot camp in January, 1951 and was promoted to PFC. He then stayed on MCRD San Diego as a drill instructor until December, 1951. (The Marine Corps operated a little differently then.)

In February, 1952, he was deployed to Korea as a forward observer for the 4.2″ Mortar Platoon, 1st Marines, 1st Marine Division. While in Korea, in defense of “an important hill position” (not specified in the citation), then-Corporal Howard not only called in effective mortar and artillery fire on attacking North Korean (and presumably Chinese; again, the citation doesn’t say) forces, but engaged in close combat to hold his forward observer position. After he was relieved by another FO, Howard set to helping evacuate the wounded and carry ammunition and supplies until he was knocked out twice by enemy mortar fire. He was awarded the Silver Star for his actions. He also received two Purple Hearts.

In 1954, now a Sergeant, he became a squad leader with 1st Amphibious Reconnaissance Company, staying with the unit as it turned into 1st Force Reconnaissance Company, until September 1957. He filled billets as Special Services NCO and Counter-guerrilla Warfare Instructor until he was assigned to be a platoon sergeant with Charlie Company, 1st Recon Bn in April 1966.

On the evening of June 13, 1966, Howard and his platoon of 15 Marines and two Corpsmen inserted by helicopter on Hill 488, 20 miles outside of Chu Lai. They were inserting as part of Operation Kansas, the attempt to root out the VC forces that were massing in the hills and mountains inland of Chu Lai. Since the VC did not mass in large units, but were dispersed until it was time to attack, the Recon Marines of 1st Recon Bn. were tasked to scout the mountains. If they found a large concentration of VC, they’d call in the grunts. If they just found small units dispersed in the area, they would call air and artillery to smash them. SSgt Howard’s platoon was one of the Recon teams looking for the VC.

The hilltop, 1500 feet above sea level, was grassy and open, without trees or any real cover or concealment. It was the dominant terrain feature for miles, and had evidently been used as an observation post by the VC in the past–there were numerous one-man foxholes scattered across the flat, three-pronged top of the hill. Howard let his Marines use these holes during the day, making up for the lack of concealment otherwise.

For the next few days, they saw numerous small groups of VC in the valleys below and called in as many air and artillery strikes as they could. On orders of LtCol. Sullivan, 1st Recon’s Bn Commander, the strikes were only authorized when there was an observation plane overhead. This wasn’t because of the kind of worrying over collateral damage and being sure of the target that might be expected today; LtCol. Sullivan was worried about the team being compromised if the VC realized that they were being watched from the ground.

Early on the 15th, Sullivan contacted Howard over the radio and offered to extract the team. He was concerned that they had been out long enough and that the risk of being compromised was getting too high. Howard argued to stay for one more day. Sullivan agreed.

Late that afternoon, two Special Forces Sergeants, SFC Donald Reed and SPC-5 Hardey Drande, leading a patrol of CIDG (Civilian Irregular Defense Group), spotted a force of 200-250 VC approaching Hill 488. They radioed back to their base at Hoi An, reporting the VC movement, and in the process alerted Howard’s team, as Howard had the radio set to the same frequency the CIDG unit was using. The two SF soldiers wanted to attack the VC from the rear, but the CIDG wouldn’t go. “The language those Sergeants used over the radio when they realized they couldn’t attack the PAVNs.” Howard recalled later, “well, they sure didn’t learn it in communications school.”