How 18 Marines Held Hill 488 Against More Than 200 Vietcong

Few battles from the Vietnam war loom as large as the fight that erupted on the peak of Nui Vu Hill. Hill 488, as it was known, was supposed to be a reconnaissance post in June of 1966. But the Marines sent to monitor North Vietnamese troop movements found themselves outnumbered, outgunned, and cut off from air support and artillery.

“In June 1966, North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong (VC) troops gathered by the thousands in a range of steep mountains and twisting valleys northwest of the U.S. air base at Chu Lai,” Historynet writes. “The Marines had been largely absent from this area in the Hiep Duc region since the violent and frustrating expedition to trap the VC in the Phuoc Ha Valley, Operation Harvest Moon, in December.An early test of the strategy of attrition through search-and-destroy missions, Harvest Moon brought mixed results. The Marines were able to defeat the Viet Cong in open firefights, while the VC proved aggressive and skillful in attacking and in eluding entrapment. After Harvest Moon, the Marines returned to their base area. Now, hidden deep in this bandits’ lair, the enemy had had nearly six months to train and plan for assaults against the heavily populated seacoast hamlets and the Americans who defended them.”

The 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Division, was sent to to scout out enemy movements.

1st Platoon, just 16 Marines and two Navy corpsmen, helicoptered onto the peak closest to enemy territory. Hill 488.

The peak was almost devoid of cover, and overgrown with tall grass. The Marines were provided with a false sense of security, knowing there were two batteries of 105mm howitzers covering their positions.

By June 15th, though, the situation had changed. There was no moon. And the enemy was using the darkness to move.

“The enemy had learned of 1st Platoon’s presence on Hill 488. At about 2200 hours, a U.S. Special Forces detachment patrolling two miles north of Nui Vu spotted hundreds of NVA and VC marching toward the hill. The detachment radioed Howard. ‘There’s at least a battalion, and they look like they mean business.’ Sergeant Howard placed his men on 50-percent alert and designated the Big Rock [a boulder on top of the hill] as the rally point for a final defensive line if it came to that.”

When a VC crept close to the Marine’s position, camofaluged as a bush, he was spotted. The Marines fired and the battle opened up.

The platoon was not heavily armed. The men had M-14 rifles, knives, four frag grenades each. They had one machine gun, and 300 rounds of ammo.

“The enemy had four or five heavy machine guns, several 7.62mm RPD light machine guns, 60mm mortars, plenty of Chinese-made “potato masher” grenades and a variety of other weapons,” Historynet notes.

The 18 man platoon faced off against 200 or more NVA and VC. Their lines were so close that the men could, in the flashes of light, see each other. This proximity meant they could get no support from the howitzers. Instead, the artillery battalions fired flares. In the short illuminations, the Marines could see the odds they faced.

The stories from the battle are numerous and epic in scope. Knife fights, brutal hand-to-hand combat, and empty rifles used as clubs. As the enemy entrenched below the Marines’ position, the American forces slowly ran out of ammunition.

The grenades were the first to go. Instead, they threw rocks. As the NVA jumped from their foxholes to avoid what they thought were grenades, the Marines picked them off.

Somehow, the Marines held their position. Before dawn, the NVA retreated. They left behind 40 dead.

“Of the 18 defenders on Hill 488, six Marines lay dead— McKinney, Mascarenas, Carlisi, Glawe, Adams and Thompson. All the other platoon members were wounded. Only three—Hildreth, Lance Cpl. Dan Mulvihill and Pfc Charles Bosley—were not carried off on stretchers or in body bags,” Historynet adds.

Reinforcements came. The survivors were airlifted to hospitals. The battle that had raged through that night took a massive toll on the Marines, but the story has become legend, an inspiration to all who face insurmountable odds.

For pictures of the men who fought in the battle, check out this dedication site.