I just finished reading Hill 488 by Ray Hildreth and Charles W. Sasser (Pocket Books, 2003). The man who recommended it to me is in prison. We have been corresponding by letter since May 2017 after he read my novel, The Trion Syndrome, about a Vietnam vet suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI).
This man—I refer to him as “John” to preserve his privacy—joined the U.S. Navy as a teenager. At nineteen, he was assigned to act as a medic to Marines in combat. Specifically, he was a U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman-Field Medical Service Technician (HM-8404/0000) with Charlie Company, 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Division, the same unit described in Hill 488. He joined the recon company immediately after the battle which is the subject of the book. He replaced the corpsman killed on the hill whose death is so vividly portrayed by Hildreth. Wounded twice, John received a Purple Heart, a Gold Star (for the second wounding), and a Bronze Star with “V” for valor.
John wrote to me because he recognized that the author of The Trion Syndrome was also a man who suffered from PTSI. In the pages of the novel, he saw himself. That makes John and me brothers in arms. We know without words that we share the anguish that living through combat inflicts.
Hill 488 is beautifully written. It depicts in grisly detail the battle for Hill 488, otherwise known as Nui Vu, between the Marines and North Vietnamese attackers trying to destroy them after they deployed secretly to the hill to spy on the communist units in the valley below. The battle took place on the night of 13-14 June 1966.
What made the book so gripping for me was the reaction of Hildreth to combat. He could have been describing me. And yet I was very different from the soldiers and Marines I stood beside in combat. My job was signals intelligence support. I was armed with a .38 revolver, not a rifle or ka-bar (a combat knife), and I never fired a shot at an enemy troop. But I saw men die in the same gruesome ways that Hildreth describes. And I responded to combat as he did. Like him, my enthusiasm turned to terror, then blankness. Like him, my training took over. I became an automaton acting as programmed.