In early June of 1966, intelligence reports reaching III Marine Amphibious Force headquarters in Da Nang indicated that three regiments of the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) had entered the Que Son Valley. Extending some 24 miles from Route 1, which passes through Tam Kỳ parallel to the coastline, reaching west to the village of Hiep Duc, the Que Son Valley contains some of the best farmland in Vietnam, providing the greater region with an abundant rice harvest. In that range of steep hills and twisting valleys, PAVN and South Vietnam-based Viet Cong units could train and plan attacks against South Vietnam's heavily populated seacoast hamlets. In the meantime, their units were kept widely dispersed, moving mainly in squads and platoons.
Operation Kansas: A Marine Reconnaissance Campaign
The affected area was part of the Tactical Area of Responsibility assigned to the 1st Marine Division, which had in late March established its headquarters at Chu Lai. In order to frustrate the North Vietnamese scheme, 1st Marine Division commanders conceived of a novel reconnaissance effort code-named Operation Kansas. Rather than sending full infantry battalions in search of small bands of enemy soldiers, reconnaissance forces would move in seven small teams of 8 to 20 men. Should they locate a large concentration of enemy soldiers, Marine infantry were to be flown in. Reconnaissance platoons would respond to sightings of small North Vietnamese or Viet Cong groupings by calling in air and artillery strikes.
On the night of June 13, a 1st Reconnaissance Battalion team consisting of 16 Marines and 2 attached medical specialists was dropped off near the top of Hill 488 near Hiep Duc. The team was commanded by Staff Sergeant Jimmie Earl Howard. Ray Hildreth, co-author of Hill 488, was among them. Finding the 1,500 hill an excellent observation platform, they spent the next couple of days there, reporting extensive North Vietnamese activity in the area and calling in air and artillery strikes.
Not all requests were honored. To prevent enemy forces from inferring the reconnaissance platoon's presence, most firing was done only when an American observation plane or helicopter was circling above. After two days, commanders back at base decided that growing risk resulting from leaving a platoon in one fixed location had become too great. Staff Sergeant Howard made a request that his team be allowed to remain on the hilltop for one more day, justified by the discovery of a secure escape route along a ridge to the east. His request was granted.
Twelve Hours of Vicious Overnight Fighting
The North Vietnamese had, however, already become aware of the Marine's hilltop presence. In the late afternoon of June 15, hundreds of enemy soldiers began to ascend, hoping to annihilate the Marines in a surprise attack. They were frustrated by a U.S. Army Special Forces patrol from a nearby base camp. The patrol had spotted elements of an enemy battalion approaching the base of Hill 488 and reported the movement on radio. Howard's radio had purposely been set on the same frequency and he was also alerted.
The platoon commanded a tiny, rock-strewn knoll on the hilltop. The rocks provided some protection for the defenders. Sergeant Howard set up a tight circular perimeter, no more than 20 meters across, and selected a firing position for each man. The North Vietnamese made no audible noises while climbing. They were less than 50 meters from the top when the Marines suddenly discovered that they were surrounded from all sides.
Support didn't arrive until 2:00 in the morning, in the form of Huey gunships, attack aircraft and flare planes assaulting enemy forces massed at the bottom of the hill. At times, the gunships strafed to within 20 meters of the defensive perimeter, while fixed-wing aircraft dropped bombs and napalm on targets as perilously close as 100 meters. Helicopters trying to extract the platoon were driven off by ground fire. Howard was told by radio not to expect any reinforcements until dawn.
After dawn on June 16, UH-34 helicopters finally arrived and safely dropped infantry from Company C, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines on the southern slope of the mountain. By then, each man in the reconnaissance patrol had been wounded at least once, and six were dead. The reconnaissance team was evacuated immediately, while the infantry reinforcements went on to battle for control of the hill until noon.