A Village Too Far

AT 0914 ON 2 MAY, ECHO AND GOLF COMPANIES REPORTED that Dai Do had been secured and that they were tied in and consolidating along the northwestern edge of the hamlet. One minute later, the NVA in Dinh To began mortaring Dai Do to cover their retreat. The sporadic shelling lasted for fifteen minutes, during which time Colonel Hull arrived by skimmer. Fire Raider 6 joined Lieutenant Colonel Weise and the BLT 2/4 Alpha Command Group in the forward edge of An Lac. While Hull and Weise were talking, the battalion sergeant major, Big John Malnar, raised his binoculars to investigate a lone figure he’d spotted in the paddies between An Lac and Dai Do. “Look, there’s someone running right across the front there—shit, it’s a fucking gook!” he shouted.

The NVA was in the open about a hundred meters away. The soldier, who wore green fatigues and carried an RPD light machine gun, seemed utterly confused and lost. He was trying to get away from Dai Do, but his escape route made him a shooting-gallery target for the Marines in An Lac. Sergeant Bollinger, the battalion commander’s radioman, asked, “Can I get him, Sergeant Major?” When Malnar told him to go ahead, Bollinger shouldered his M14. His first shot led the NVA too much, and his second was behind the running figure. The third caught the man in the head, and he dropped like a stone. As another Marine rushed out to check the body for intel material, Sergeant Major Malnar looked down at his radioman-turned-rifleman and said with mock disgust, “Shit, Bollinger, took ya three comin’ shots to get ’im.”

Colonel Hull had meanwhile informed Weise that he wanted BLT 2/4 to maintain its “momentum” with an assault on Dinh To within an hour. Weise, who later said that he didn’t think his superiors “really knew what the hell was going on,” listened incredulously to the plan. While BLT 2/4 hit Dinh To, an ARVN unit was to hit Dong Lai, which sat on the opposite side of the narrow tributary on Dinh To’s western flank. With or without ARVN support, BLT 2/4 was in no condition to launch another assault into prepared enemy positions, and Weise was aggravated more than ever by Major General Tompkins’s failure to visit the battlefield. Weise wondered if regiment was providing division with accurate reports about the magnitude of NVA activity in the Dai Do complex, and he told Hull as bluntly as he could that his battalion had just about run out of steam. “We don’t have anything left. We’re worn out. We’ve been fighting here—continuous fighting—and every one of my companies is pretty well shot up.”

Hull was adamant. “I have to keep the pressure on,” the colonel said. “I want you to go.”

“Well, we’ll do the best we can,” said Weise resignedly. “You know, if you really want to catch these guys, land some battalions north of here and drive ’Em into us. We can occupy Dai Do and dig in. Drive ’Em into Dai Do and we can clean ’Em out.”

Weise and Major Warren had discussed this hammer-and-anvil plan the day before, and Warren had suggested it then to the regimental operations officer. Specifically, Weise and Warren proposed that the regiment’s two remaining battalions, 1/3 and the 1st Amtracs, be placed on either side of BLT 2/4. This would be the anvil against which the battalions inserted north of Dai Do would hammer the NVA as they swept south. Hull, however, could not move 1/3 or the Amtracs without permission from division, and it was doubtful that Major General Tompkins, whose units were stretched thinly along the DMZ, could have come up with the forces needed to make a meaningful hammer. Weise later wrote that whether his recommendation “ever reached the commanding general, I do not know. I do know that no aggressive plan to destroy the enemy was carried out and that we lost a rare, golden opportunity to annihilate the crack 320th NVA Division.”

Lieutenant Colonel Weise, who would soon salute the flagpole and dutifully launch into Dinh To with the out-of-steam BLT 2/4, saw folly in the method of attack. He did not see folly in the rationale behind it. Weise was a conventional warrior, and he viewed the 320th NVA Division’s offensive within conventional parameters. The confluence of the Cua Viet and Bo Dieu rivers near Dai Do lent strategic value to this otherwise worthless terrain. If the NVA controlled the juncture of the rivers, they could cut resupply down the Bo Dieu to the 3d Marine Division at the DHCB, and down the Cua Viet to the provincial capital, Quang Tri City. The NVA had accomplished this first step, and Weise was of two minds as to what he suspected their next move would be. An attack against the division headquarters was one option:

Dong Ha was a sprawling combat support and combat service support base. Once a strong enemy got in close, penetration of the thin defensive perimeter, manned by and large by support troops, would have been relatively easy. Enemy assault units might take heavy casualties, particularly after the friendly maneuver battalions near Dong Ha reacted. Heavy casualties would have been a small price to pay for Dong Ha.…What could be a greater propaganda victory than destroying and temporarily occupying the largest Marine base in northern I Corps?

Another possibility was an NVA attack through the ARVN defenses at Quang Tri City. The capture of a provincial capital would also have resounding propaganda value. “Such a bold stroke would have been possible if the 320th NVA Division had not been stopped on the north bank of the Bo Dieu,” wrote Weise. In stopping the NVA, BLT 2/4 had been forced to go nose to nose with them—taking heavy casualties in the process. Weise thought those Marine losses were justified. “Just think of the casualties suffered in World War II assaults on Tarawa, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, and Sugar Loaf Hill on Okinawa,” he wrote. He further reflected that “if the 320th NVA Division had planned to attack Dong Ha or Quang Tri, then BLT 2/4 had conducted a successful, albeit unintended spoiling attack.… I have fought the Battle of Dai Do many times in my mind and always return to the same conclusion: We accomplished our mission against great odds. Whatever the enemy intended to do, he didn’t.”1

There was another perspective to the Battle of Dai Do, however. This view held that the NVA had, in fact, accomplished exactly what they intended. They had wanted to kill a lot of Marines, and this they did. The NVA never actually attempted to cross the Bo Dieu River to reach Dong Ha or Quang Tri. It was the Navy’s TF Clearwater, not the NVA, that shut down logistical traffic on the river. The NVA had simply fired a number of recoilless rifle rounds at river traffic; and then readied themselves for the Marine response. The NVA in their camouflaged, sandbagged, and mutually supporting entrenchments had forced their opponents to fight on ground of their choosing. By plunging full speed ahead into the fortified NVA hamlets, the aggressive Marines aided and abetted NVA tactics. It was really the NVA who were playing the body count game.

“I saw what was happening as wasteful of American lives,” wrote Lt. Gen. Victor H. “Brute” Krulak, commanding general of the Fleet Marine Force, Pacific. Krulak was headquartered in Hawaii, and although a frequent visitor to the war zone, he did not have operational control of the Marines in Vietnam. Operational control rested with General Westmoreland in Saigon. Westmoreland saw battles such as Dai Do as victories. Krulak did not. Since June 1966, when Westmoreland formally announced his search-and-destroy strategy—which sought battles such as Dai Do—Krulak had been trying to change the direction of Westmoreland’s war horse. The search-and-destroy strategy was aimed at bringing the NVA to battle anytime, anywhere, until overwhelming U.S. firepower had inflicted such heavy casualties on Hanoi’s army that it could no longer field a meaningful force. Westmoreland intended to pound the NVA into submission. Krulak understood the folly of this. Search and destroy was a war of attrition, and it was a game that Hanoi was destined to win. Hanoi had time, and it had men to expend by the hundreds of thousands. Washington did not. The North Vietnamese embraced the DMZ battles as a chance to bleed the Americans in empty, meaningless terrain that favored their dug-in forces. Krulak understood, as did his counterparts in Hanoi, that victory did not hinge on the big battles, but on which side could provide security to the villages of South Vietnam’s densely populated coast. Westmoreland’s strategy pulled U.S. units away from pacification efforts in these areas, and Lieutenant General Krulak, unable to focus U.S. efforts back where he thought they belonged, would write bitterly that “we were pitting American bodies against North Vietnamese bodies in a backcountry war of attrition, while the enemy was free to make political speeches in the hamlets and villages.…However valiant, however skillful were the Army and Marine operations against the large formations … in terms of doing what we came to Vietnam to do, the costly, blood-sapping, grinding battles were blows in the air.”

“We knew the odds. After being there so many months we were all very realistic. We knew a certain number were going in, and a certain number were coming out,” said 2d Lt. Vic Taylor of Hotel Company. “We were going to prevail—that was not a question—but it was a matter of going up and doing it.”

Hotel Company had been issued orders for the attack on Dinh To, and Lieutenant Taylor, the acting commander of Hotel Three, walked his line in Dong Huan to make sure that his Marines had their gear and were ready to go. Taylor, a reader of history and a romantic, had grown up watching such movies as Battle Cry and The Sands of Iwo Jima, and there was a certain dramatic and familiar ring to the things he saw and heard as they saddled up. He thought of the Marine “Devil Dogs” advancing through the wheat at Belleau Wood, and of the next generation of Leathernecks wading through the bloody lagoon at Tarawa. Of his own Marines about to go into battle across the rice paddies, Taylor later wrote:

Some were standing watch, some readied equipment, many slept or lounged, but all were quiet. No nervous jabbering, no false bravado, no whining, no melodramatics—they were professionals. Most were teenagers, many with far less than a year away from home, but they were seasoned by months of fighting with a determined enemy. Despite their youth, despite their short time in the Corps, they were as willing and serious—as professional—as anyone who ever wore a uniform. I was proud to be among them.

Lieutenant Taylor had rejoined Hotel Company only the previous evening from his XO billet aboard the USS Iwo Jima. At twenty-eight, Taylor had more experience and confident, soft-spoken maturity than the average second lieutenant. Originally from Chester County, Pennsylvania, he had done three years as an enlisted Marine following high school. After college he soon became bored with the life of a junior business executive, so when Vietnam cranked up he went back in as an officer. It was in Vietnam that he decided to make the Marine Corps his career.

“Taylor was a real handsome, studly kind of guy, and a great, heroic-looking Marine,” said Captain Williams, the former Hotel Company skipper.

Hotel began moving out of Dong Huan at 0955 to cross the five hundred meters of exposed ground between their position and Dai Do. The Marines in the column were well spaced so there would be no mass target on which an NVA artillery spotter could adjust fire. Lieutenant Taylor wrote:

We plodded forward in our attack formation—H Company, all seventy-five of us. The day was still, the heat intense. We had guzzled all the water we could hold and had refilled canteens in Dong Huan, not knowing when there would be more. Now the sweat poured out, and uniforms were soaked. Little puffs of dust rose from the dry rice paddy at each step. The metal of weapons was almost too hot to touch. Up ahead, I could see the hedgerows and thickets of Dai Do, burning and smoking from earlier attacks. The firing had ceased. Maybe this would be easier than I expected.

Hotel Company’s grunts moved through the southeastern side of Dai Do, past the few Marines they could see among the many from Echo and Golf who were safely tucked behind cover. Reaching the muddy, sluggish stream that defined the western edge of the battlefield, Hotel turned northwest along it. The battalion command group had moved into Dai Do, and Lieutenant Prescott, Hotel’s new skipper, gave Weise a cigar. “We’ll be back shortly,” he said.

Lieutenant Prescott assaulted Dinh To with Lieutenant Taylor’s Hotel Three hugging the blueline on the left flank, and Lieutenant Boyle’s Hotel One moving abreast on the right. Hotel Two was in reserve under the command of Sgt. Bruce Woodruff, who until that morning had been a squad leader in Hotel One. The assault platoons were moving forward aggressively and methodically in team and individual rushes, using trenches, hedgerows, and tumble-down hootches for cover, when they began taking fire from the front. It sounded as if it was coming from two enemy soldiers with AK-47s in separate, camouflaged positions. More NVA, none of whom the Marines could see, opened up as Hotel Company pushed on. Taylor suspected that the enemy had deployed observation posts ahead of their main line of resistance, and that it was these small teams of NVA who were doing the shooting. Their fire was accurate. Several Marines had already been hit when Taylor and his radioman knelt behind some bushes. Prescott was on the radio. When the radioman extended the handset to Taylor, the young Marine was hit in the elbow by one of the to-whom-it-may-concern bullets snapping blindly through the vegetation.

Hotel Company leapfrogged deeper into Dinh To, returning the increasingly heavy fire but not suppressing it. As Taylor passed seriously wounded men he would thump the nearest Marine and tell him to help get the casualty to the rear. Their corpsmen already had their hands full, so Taylor had no choice but to use able-bodied riflemen. Nevertheless, he did so reluctantly. Their firepower was needed up front. Taylor knew that some of his Marines would rush forward again as soon as they carried a wounded man back, but he had others he knew would drag their feet, hoping, for example, that the gunny might scoop them up to move water cans or ammo in the company rear. As more Marines were hit and others fell out to help them, it became impossible for Hotel to maintain its momentum.

A lot of prep fire had hit Dinh To, but there was still plenty of greenery. There were trees and leafy bamboo thickets, as well as the hedgerows that had once demarcated property lines. There were also thatch-roofed homes with stucco-covered brick walls. Some were demolished, some were not. Some of the fences and empty animal pens were also still standing. Taylor thought it was like going from yard to yard in suburbia. He finally bogged down with the squad on his platoon’s right flank. They were hung up against a hedgerow that ran across their front. The entrenched NVA on the other side had every opening through the thick bushes zeroed in, and the enemy on the flanks covered the trenches that ran the length of the hedgerow, one in front and one behind the shrubs.

Meanwhile, Taylor’s platoon sergeant, Sgt. Joe Jones, was pinned down with the squad on the left flank. They were under heavy fire along the creek, and had several wounded men. Jones had two machine-gun teams with his squad, but one of the gunners had fallen out with heat exhaustion. The man was in agony, and his comrades bellowed for a corpsman. The squad’s M79 man took over the machine gun, but it jammed on him just as the corpsman made it up to help the gunner. The other M60 was still firing, and the grenadier’s M79 also still worked. Every M16 in the squad was jammed, however. All the riflemen could do was throw grenades. Infuriated, Jones grabbed the inoperable machine gun. As he was trying to clear the weapon, he spotted one of the NVA who had pinned them down. He told the grenadier to fire on that position. Then, with the M60 back in working order, Jones rushed to their corpsman to provide the covering fire needed to start getting their casualties back. Jones, who was subsequently awarded the Silver Star, later told the division historical team:

That was the first time we’d ever seen snipers in trees [and] the wounded we had, we couldn’t get ’Em out because people just didn’t seem like they wanted to get out of their covered positions. You almost had to move up to the individual Marine and beat ’Em over the head with the weapon that you had to get ’Em up to help the wounded out. I don’t know. Maybe people was scared or maybe they was just plain tired. I don’t know what the story was behind it, but they wouldn’t even help carry the wounded out.

North Vietnamese soldiers were firing from the hootches and bushes on the far side of the creek. Sergeant Jones said that once he’d forced some litter teams into action, NVA snipers were able to slip down the near side of the streambed to pour point-blank fire into Hotel Three’s flank because his scared grunts had begun “to pull in from the flanks and cluster up in the middle.”

Lieutenant Boyle and Hotel One were also in sorry shape. They had bogged down in the face of heavy AK-47 and RPG fire. As understrength as it already was before taking more casualties, the platoon could not properly cover the right flank, where the vegetation gave way to open paddies. There were NVA in that vegetation, as well as behind the burial mounds in the paddies themselves. Hotel Two, brought up from reserve, was also subjected to this fire from three sides and was unable to restore the momentum of the assault.

There was a lot of confusion. Many Marines simply kept their heads down, but there were a number of others who did more, such as LCpl. Ralph T. Anderson, an eighteen year old from St. Petersburg, Florida. According to his Silver Star citation:

Observing two Marines pinned down by sniper fire as they attempted to move a companion to safety, Lance Corporal Anderson obtained a pistol and several hand grenades, unhesitatingly left his covered position and began crawling toward the sniper. Advancing beyond friendly lines, he silenced the enemy position, enabling his comrades to move the Marine to safety. Before he could return to his position, however, he was killed by enemy fire.

Almost every M16 in Hotel Company was inoperable due to overuse and a lack of cleaning gear. When Sgt. Donald F. Devoe’s carboned-up rifle jammed, he opened a C-ration can of beans and franks and used the grease it contained to lubricate the weapon. Devoe resumed firing.

Lance Corporal Donaghy of Hotel Two, crouched behind an earthen mound, was just rising up to fire his M16 when the Marine doing the same thing beside him was shot in the head. The round went through the man’s helmet, which stayed on his head, and he wordlessly turned to look at Donaghy as a fountain of blood spurted from the wound. Slumped over but still conscious, the Marine did not make a sound as the corps-man worked on him. He didn’t look as though he was going to survive.

“We were in a nasty, narrow spot and we had a lot of people jammed in that narrow front,” Lieutenant Prescott said later. He had moved his command group into a partially demolished hootch maybe fifteen meters up from the stream and was trying to get a handle on the situation.

“Scotty Prescott was a real good leader, and the troops liked him,” said Captain Williams, the man Prescott had replaced. “He had a lot of spirit and he had the wiseguy in him.” Prescott, a twenty-four-year-old Texan, could also be serious when necessary. From September 1967 to March 1968, when he’d had Hotel Three, he’d been considered by some to be the best platoon commander in the battalion. His follow-me brand of leadership had gotten him shot in the leg during the assault on Vinh Quan Thuong, where he’d also been an on-the-spot grenadier, machine gunner, and LAW rocketman. He’d been bumped up to the exec slot after recuperating. Prescott had no career intentions. He was a citizen-soldier. “Most of the officers were USMC. I was USMCR,” he noted. “I never wanted the R dropped off. I was always United States Marine Corps Reserve and proud of it, knowing that at the end of three years I was gone.”

Lieutenant Prescott, watching from behind cement cover, saw Cpl. Tyrone W. Austin, a black machine gunner, get shot in the head after setting up right outside the lieutenant’s hootch. The round took away half of his head. The corpsman inside the hootch with Prescott went into shock at the sight. He had to be shaken back to reality.

The NVA had moved in too closely for Prescott to call in air or arty—or even his own 60mm mortars, which the gunny had set up at the edge of Dai Do. At about 1200, Prescott radioed Lieutenant Colonel Weise to report that Hotel Company would probably be overrun if not reinforced. Shortly thereafter, Prescott’s radioman got off the horn and said excitedly, “Captain Livingston is coming!”

Lieutenant Prescott, who knew then that they would be okay, hollered to Taylor, who was about seventy feet from the hootch, “Echo is coming up!”

“Echo is coming!”

“Echo is coming!”

The word was repeated down the line, and it electrified Hotel Company. Marines who’d had all they could take of eating dirt got up to scream and wave, “C’mon, let’s go on. Let’s go!”

Lieutenant Prescott came out of his hootch, bellowing for everyone to stay where they were. He had taken only a few steps from cover when he was suddenly spun three-quarters of the way around and dropped on the spot. He had been hit in the small of the back. Prescott was vaguely aware of the sound of an AK-47 squeezing off a shot from across the creek at the same moment he stepped out of the hootch, and he was terribly aware that he could not feel his legs. He figured that his spine had been damaged, and as he lay on the ground he imagined that he would have to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. A corpsman and several Marines dragged Prescott back into the beat-up hootch. A thousand thoughts rushed through his mind. He had been shot before, and this did not feel like a gunshot wound. His back was sore. He could feel something wet, but he didn’t seem to be bleeding badly. But why don’t my legs work? he wondered frantically.

Lieutenant Taylor ran over to the hootch. Prescott passed command to him with three words—“You got it!”—then the corpsman got two Marines to start back with Prescott on the trail to Dai Do. Prescott had an arm over the shoulder of each and, with his feet dragging, he grimaced in pain and mumbled groggily about his useless legs.2

After being taken by skimmer to the BLT CP, Lieutenant Prescott was lying facedown on the beach among some other Hotel Company casualties when, perhaps thirty minutes after being medevacked, his feet suddenly began to tingle. He removed his jungle boots and massaged his feet. Feeling returned to his legs. Prescott was unsteady when he stood up, but he felt 100 percent better. There was a half-dollar-sized bruise at the base of his spine, but no blood, and his torn-up gear explained why. The bullet had hit the full canteen on his left hip, mushroomed, and ricocheted against a stud on his cartridge belt. The stud was driven into the small of his back, and the blow had temporarily knocked out the feeling in his legs. The bullet had then zipped through the canteen on his right hip. The first canteen had a small entrance hole and a big exit hole, and the second canteen was completely ripped apart. The luckiest hit of the war, Prescott thought as he showed the canteens to the bloody, bandaged Marines around him.

Lieutenant Colonel Weise had not planned to send Echo Company into Hotel Company’s meatgrinder. He thought that Echo Company, which numbered about seventy-five men after its dawn assault into Dai Do, was thoroughly winded. Golf Company, also on hand in Dai Do, was even more beat up. Weise’s original idea was to form a composite platoon from the support personnel in An Lac and hustle them into Dinh To aboard amtracs. His next step would then have been to bring Foxtrot Company over from Dong Huan to follow the composite platoon in. Weise contemplated taking command of Foxtrot himself because he did not trust Butler’s drive. Captain Livingston, however, made these plans moot. He had been monitoring the situation by radio. He neither waited for nor asked for orders but simply got on the battalion tac net. “Dixie Diner Six, this is Echo Six. I’m going to help Hotel. They are really fixin’ to get into trouble. I’ll go get ’Em.”

Captain Livingston called up his platoon commanders before leaving Dai Do, but just as Lieutenant Jones of Echo Three started to move he heard the thump of an outgoing mortar round. The sound seemed to have come from just ahead of his covered position. Jones was sure that Echo’s mortars hadn’t been brought forward yet, but he couldn’t imagine an enemy mortar being that close to their lines. After waiting for what seemed a long time and hearing nothing, Jones reckoned that it had been an outgoing friendly shell. He came out of his ditch then, just as what was in fact an enemy shell landed right behind him. The round had been fired from such close range that its arc was almost straight up and down, and its time of flight relatively long. The explosion lifted Jones off his feet and sent him crashing into another ditch. He figured out that he was still alive, but beyond that he really didn’t know what had happened to him. He could feel a lot of burning sensations cutting through his overall numbness.

Well, this must be what it’s like to get hit, he thought. This hurts bad enough that I might be outta here.

Lieutenant Jones’s radioman ran up to him from the ditch and said, “Your legs are messed up—you need to get out of here.” The back of Jones’s flak jacket was shredded, but it had done its job and protected his upper body. Except for small bits of metal in the backs of his arms, the fragments had mostly gouged him in his buttocks and the backs of his legs. He had seventeen serious wounds. Jones radioed Captain Livingston, who told him to hang in there and make sure that someone took care of him—and to find somebody to pass command to. Jones told his radioman to find Sergeant Rogers, the squad leader who was next in the chain of command in the absence of a wounded platoon commander, platoon sergeant, and right guide. That done, the as-yet-unbandaged Jones started rearward with six or seven other walking wounded.

“I wondered how in the hell we were going to assist anyone without ammo,” recalled Lance Corporal Cornwell of Echo Two. He was angry and scared as he retrieved his M60 and started forward with the rest of the platoon. The assault pouch on his machine gun, which normally held a hundred-round belt, was only partially filled. That was all he had. “We were almost completely out of ammo, and we were out of water. In that heat, water was as important as ammo. We were hardened. You know what you can do, and you know what you can’t do. In our condition, what we were doing was crazy.”

There were NVA in bypassed and camouflaged spiderholes to Hotel Company’s rear; Echo Company, moving rapidly into Dinh To, rolled right over the top of them. Sergeant Rogers, the new Echo Three commander, suddenly saw an NVA soldier come out of nowhere to run past him on his left. The NVA was going in the same direction as the Marines. Rogers, who could have almost reached out and grabbed the terrified man, hadn’t even had a chance to swing his M16 around before an M60 gunner chopped the soldier down. Rogers saw five or six more NVA, panicked by the machine-gun fire, pop from their spiderholes and start running away. The machine gunner turned them into rag dolls before his eyes with one long burst.

It was about 1040. Lieutenant Taylor, who had moved to a bomb crater, turned to see Captain Livingston coming forward at the head of a group of what looked like twenty to thirty Marines. Taylor noticed that Livingston did not flinch despite shots that literally kicked up dirt around his feet. As Livingston directed his Marines into positions to flesh out the gaps in Hotel’s lines, Taylor rose up a bit from his cover to greet him. Livingston clambered into the crater with an enthusiastic, “How ya doin’, Tiger? C’mon—let’s go!”

Echo and Hotel Companies started forward again with their men jumbled together and bayonets fixed. They advanced in leaps and bounds between spots of cover. One of Lieutenant Taylor’s radiomen had his loudspeaker tuned to the battalion tac net, and at one point this background noise included their crusty regimental commander, Colonel Hull, coming up on the net to ask Weise, “What’s your situation up there?”

“We have two companies in the attack,” replied Weise.

“Now, exploit your advantage, exploit your advantage. Don’t hold back—exploit your success!”

Weise had a gravelly Philadelphia voice, and he barked back with some anger, “Well, you don’t have to tell me that, Six, because what we’re going to do is get up there and kill as many of these little yellow bastards as we can.”

Sounds like the “Send More Japs” message from Wake Island, thought Taylor. It was pure Weise and it breathed fire into them. The Marines needed that; it was about all they had. Most of their M16s were fouled from constant firing, and they were low on ammo of every type. Some men picked up NVA weapons. Others, out of ammunition, attacked with empty weapons. Taylor saw one Marine go by with no weapon at all. When Taylor called to him, the man explained that his M16 was jammed and that he had used an M79 until he’d run out of shells. He said he was looking for another weapon. Taylor, who had two .45-caliber pistols because past experience had taught him that there wasn’t always time to reload, gave the unarmed man one of them, along with a couple of magazines, and off the Marine went.

Lance Corporal Cornwell was in a ditch with maybe twenty other Marines, and when the shout went up to charge the NVA who had them pinned, he reflexively went over the top. Within a few steps he’d fired the last of his ammo, and he dropped to the prone even as he realized that the Marines running with him were being hit. He looked around. One of them was dead; two others were seriously wounded. There was no one else there. Shocked, Cornwell looked back. In the confusion, the other Marines had never left the ditch. They were holding their M16s above their heads and firing blindly. Cornwell screamed at them to stop firing so he could crawl back. He had no idea if the three men with him had been shot by the NVA or by the Marines behind them. Cornwell left his empty M60 behind as he took hold of one of the seriously wounded men and started back in an exhausted, ground-hugging crawl. He made it.

On the right flank, LCpl. James L. Barela of Hotel Two was behind cover and working on his jammed M60 when a Chicom grenade exploded in his position. He and the three grunts with him were all wounded, but then a crazy little Marine from Echo Company got up to throw grenade after grenade; Barela, not wanting to let the man down, moved up with his cleared machine gun. He started firing where they thought the NVA were, then he moved on in the confusion to a trench full of Marines whose weapons were mostly jammed. There was a hootch about twenty-five meters to their front with a trail to the right of it. Two or three enemy soldiers in the hootch provided covering fire for other NVA who were moving into position by crossing the trail. One Marine fired several LAWs into the cement hootch, and another ran to the right to move in on its flank. The NVA cut him down. Barela left his rejammed M60 in the trench and worked his way toward the man with several Marines from Hotel Three. One of them was hit in the arm, so they dragged him back along with the man they’d gone out to rescue. The NVA, meanwhile, were still crossing the trail despite the M79 rounds being lobbed in by a grenadier. Soon they had worked in close enough to fling Chicoms at the trench. Barela still couldn’t get his M60 to work.

It was 1340 and the NVA were counterattacking. Lieutenant Taylor had just moved to the cover provided by the banana trees in the courtyard of a shot-up cement hootch with a partially collapsed thatch roof. There was a sudden and definite increase in the amount of NVA fire, and it riddled the banana trees and the masonry wall of the hootch. As banana leaves folded down around them, Taylor looked up to see that the bushes fifty meters to his front were alive with heavily camouflaged enemy soldiers. The closest NVA were already within twenty-five meters. Their pith helmets, fatigues, and web gear were covered with fresh leaves. They looked like moving bushes with little faces, and Taylor flashed back to a ghostly, black-and-white documentary he had seen of identical-looking Viet Minh in an attack on Dien Bien Phu.

Fuck it, he thought. Come on, you assholes! Lieutenant Taylor, firing his .45 when not talking on the radio, was at a fever pitch, as was the Marine nearest him. The grunt was armed only with a pistol and a sandbag full of grenades, and he pitched the frags as fast as he could pull the pins.

Nearby, Pfc. Vincent A. Scafidi of Hotel Three, a lean, tough kid from New York City, earned the Silver Star as he stood with his M60 braced against his hip, killing the enemy soldiers as they came through the brush.

Corporal Britton of the battalion scouts was preparing to grenade an enemy bunker when the counterattack began. Four NVA rushed him, and he pointed his pistol at the closest one. “I fired at least three shots into him and watched him fall at my feet,” Britton later wrote. “I suddenly found myself out of ammo in my .45, with no time to put in another magazine.” Britton unslung his M16, which he carried with fixed bayonet, and killed the next NVA with a slash to the throat. He shot the third one in the stomach. “As he died, he lunged into me, and his bayonet sliced my left leg just inside the thigh. At this exact moment, the fourth NVA crashed into my right side, knocking my M16 to the ground. I immediately grabbed his rifle with my left hand, pulled my K-Bar knife from its sheath on my belt, and slammed it into his stomach. He slumped against me.”

A Chicom grenade landed beside them, and the explosion blew apart Corporal Britton and the last NVA, with the enemy soldier taking most of the blast. Britton’s face was bursting with pain, and he put his hands to it. Blood was everywhere. He passed out.

Britton was startled back to reality by a long burst from an M60 as the machine gunner ran up to him. After rolling Britton over, the grunt shouted back that Britton was still alive and needed a doc. The corpsman bandaged Britton’s face, and two exhausted Marines half-carried, half-dragged him to where other casualties were waiting to be loaded onto skimmers. Britton passed out again, and did not regain consciousness until he’d been medevacked to the ship and the doctors were working on him. They removed a piece of metal from his right foot, another from his right forearm, and three from his face. The explosion had also broken his nose, both cheekbones, and partially dislocated his jaw. A corpsman visited Britton after surgery, and Britton wrote that the doc “gave me a bullet that he’d removed from the upper chest area of my flak jacket after taking it and the rest of my gear when I arrived on board ship. Sometime during the two days of fighting it was shot at me and lodged in my flak jacket. I really do not know when.”

“Captain Livingston and I were in visual contact most of the fight, and I never once saw him take cover or a backward step,” Lieutenant Taylor later testified. “Instead, he moved among his troops encouraging, threatening, comforting, urging, pushing, and pulling them to virtually superhuman feats.”

Livingston’s famous grease gun had jammed up on him, and he had thrown the ammo magazine in one direction and the defective weapon in another. He unholstered his .45 then, but one of his young Marines suggested he become a rifleman and threw an M14 to him, along with a bag full of magazines. Livingston maintained one M14 per squad for use as a sniper weapon, and he put the heavy, reliable weapon to accurate use. “It was survival of the fittest at that point,” Livingston recalled. “There were multiple targets—it was a matter of who you wanted to get involved with. I was banging away at a few of ’Em. I don’t know how many I dinged. I was shooting and people were dropping. There were plenty of them to go around.”

Sergeant Rogers of Echo Three was suddenly knocked to the ground, and when he moved his hand to his hip he felt blood. Don’t look at the wound, he thought. You’ll go into shock! Staying close to the ground, he hollered for a corpsman. One made it up to him and asked, “Where you been hit?”

“I’ve been shot in the hip!”

The corpsman gave him a quick inspection, then exclaimed, “You dumb ass—you’ve been shot in the canteen!”

Rogers, thinking he’d been hit, had expected pain, so there was pain. It disappeared when the corpsman shouted at him. Regretting only that he’d just lost his last precious canteen of water, Rogers moved on to assume a prone firing position behind some cover. Everything was happening fast. He could see the enemy coming at them. Everyone was firing. Rogers settled his sights on one NVA, and then another, and another as more popped up in the place of each who went down.

1. Captain Forehand, the BLT 2/4 S4, wrote that, in retrospect, had the NVA overrun the division headquarters, “it might have been in the best interest of our side if some of the clowns there had been ‘smoked,’ but not all of them.”

2. Lieutenant Prescott had a BSMv from Operation Kingfisher, and the Silver Star and Purple Heart from Vinh Quan Thuong. He got his second Silver Star and Purple Heart for Dong Huan/Dinh To.

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