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.”
Alerted that the VC were coming, Howard called his team leaders together, set a central assembly point, and then directed them to pull their teams back to that point at the first enemy contact. The TLs scattered to their observation points at the prongs of the hill to brief their Marines.
At 2200 that night, LCpl Ricardo Binns raised himself up slightly from his position, put his rifle in his shoulder, and fired at a bush 12 feet away, killing the VC who was hiding in it. The fight was on. The Marines threw grenades and fired into the bushes before falling back to the central rally point, where Howard set a 20-meter perimeter. They were under heavy small arms, grenade and 12.7mm machinegun fire the entire time. There were boulders and rocks strewn around the perimeter, providing some cover to the Marines.
Under heavy covering fire from their machineguns, the VC assaulted the Marines’ position from multiple sides, throwing grenades and firing as they rushed the rock pile. Their assault was well coordinated, using whistles and bamboo sticks struck together as signals. Howard was worried about how his Marines would react–most of them were green, and almost every man had been wounded in the initial fusillade of grenades and gunfire.
But they reacted with a savagery that the VC weren’t prepared for. With storms of small arms fire, they cut down the first skirmishers in seconds. The VC went to ground, realizing that they weren’t going to overwhelm the Marines by assault. Instead, they turned to probing the perimeter with small groups, trying to get close to a Marine, then take him out with a grenade. The Marines were alert however, and were able to throw their own grenades, often before the VC could get close enough. The Marines could throw farther and the US grenades had a wider blast radius than the ChiCom stick grenades the VC were using.
Howard got on the radio to Sullivan, saying, “You’ve got to get us out of here. There are too many of them for my people.” Sullivan was immediately on the line to the 1st MarDiv Direct Air Support Center, asking for flare ships, helos and fixed wing aircraft to support and extract Howard’s Marines. But the support wouldn’t come fast enough. Howard and the rest of the platoon had to hold out until daylight.
At midnight the VC rushed the position again and were thrown back again, though now the Marines were out of grenades and were already keeping their rifles on semiautomatic to conserve ammunition. Their accuracy was making up for lack of volume, but all of them were now wounded and several were dead. The living salvaged the ammo from the dead and got ready for the next assault.
For some time it didn’t come. The VC had been badly mauled by 18 Marines and 2 Corpsmen. From his earlier combat experience, Howard knew they were listening for signs that they’d broken the Marines morale. Soon, taunts started to come out of the dark. “Marine, you die tonight” and “Marines, you die in an hour.” When his men asked if they could shout back, Howard said, “Sure, go ahead and yell anything you want.” The Marines proceeded to bellow out every bit of invective and verbal abuse they could think of. When the VC screamed back at them, Howard called out, “All right. Ready? Now!”
The Marines laughed as loud as they could, taunting the VC. The hillside went quiet. Howard later said, “They were shooting at us, and when we started laughing…they stopped. There was complete silence. I think it had a chilling effect on them. They must have known we were terribly outnumbered, but here we were laughing at them.”
At 0100, air support arrived, heralded by a flare from the flare ship “Smoky Gold.” PFC Joseph Kosglow described the scene revealed by the light. “There were so many, it was just like an ant hill ripped apart. They were all over the place.” The jets and Hueys that Sullivan had called for had been on station for some time but couldn’t strike without light. Now that the flare ship was lighting up the battlefield, they went to work, strafing and rocketing the VC in the valleys.
While Howard was signaling the Marines’ position with a red-filtered flashlight, the air controllers in the air couldn’t be 100% sure where all the Marines were, so they left a space around the perimeter. The VC, using a tactic that would later be called “hugging”, got close in response.
The fight continued. The Marines used single, aimed shots, instructed by Howard not to shoot unless they were sure of their target. Out of grenades, they used rocks to flush out the VC, lobbing them like grenades, then picking off the VC when they tried to scramble away before the “grenade” exploded.
At 0300, a flight of H34 helicopters arrived to extract the team, but the fire was too heavy and they had to break off. At about the same time, Howard took a ricochet in the back and his voice died over the radio. Back in the rear, Sullivan and the rest feared the worst, but Howard came back on a moment later. Refusing to accept morphine, and unable to use his legs, he dragged himself around the perimeter, encouraging the Marines, dragging the PRC-25 radio with him the entire time.
At 0525, he announced that reveille was going in 35 minutes. He proceeded to call reveille at the top of his lungs at 0600. They were still under sporadic fire from two of the VC 12.7mm machineguns, though the VC had dug in to wait for darkness. They still had the hill surrounded, and LtCol Sullivan later theorized that after taking such significant losses from Recon units in the recent past, they wanted very badly to destroy one. Howard’s platoon was their chosen target.
Shortly thereafter, a Huey, flown by Maj Goodshell, flew in to see if they could extract the platoon, testing the VC fire. There was nothing until the helo got low enough to drop a smoke grenade, when the VC opened fire, killing Maj Goodshell. The Huey crashed. Howard desperately waved off the medical helicopter, lest it be shot down as well.
The jets and Huey gunships swooped down to take their vengeance on the VC and managed to knock out the two remaining 12.7s. Shortly after that, the infantry arrived in the form of Charlie Company, 1/5. They had been forced to circle in their H34s for 45 minutes until a secure landing zone could be blasted out of the terrain that was still swarming with VC. When the grunts got within sight of the rocks where Howard and his surviving Marines were holed up, they were greeted by requests for cigarettes.
Fighting continued until noon, with Charlie Company losing four more Marines. Of the 18 men who had inserted onto Hill 488, only 12 had survived, every one of them wounded. When the grunts got to them, they had only 8 rounds left between them.
Some of the Marines’ story will never be told, as they fought and died alone along that 20-meter perimeter, in the dark. One was found dead under a Vietnamese body, his hand still wrapped around the knife buried in the VC’s back. Another position only held a heap of mangled Vietnamese bodies and two Marine entrenching tools, covered in blood.
Four Navy Crosses and thirteen Silver Stars were awarded for the battle of Hill 488. SSgt Jimmie Howard, for his leadership under fire, was awarded the Medal of Honor.
Jimmie Howard retired as a 1st Sgt in 1977. He died in 1993.