CAPTAIN VARGAS, CONCERNED THAT HIS FORWARD PLATOONS might be outflanked and cut off, instructed Lieutenant Morgan and Staff Sergeant Wade to abandon their crater in the middle of Dinh To. Vargas wanted them to move with the remnants of their platoons to the left flank and set up a perimeter there with their backs to the creek. This was accomplished without casualties. Morgan then radioed Vargas to report that because of thick vegetation the fields of fire around their new position weren’t very good, and that he and Wade didn’t have enough men to hold if the enemy attacked.
Captain Vargas was about fifty meters to their rear in a natural irrigation trench that his company headquarters shared with Lieutenant Colonel Weise and his command group. Vargas told Morgan and Wade to move back to that pos. When they arrived with their radiomen, Weise said to them, “Let’s get our people together. We’ll put up a three-sixty and hold what we’ve got. How many men do you have left?”
Captain Vargas had twenty men in his headquarters, to include the mortar section. Morgan and Wade, however, had only nine men apiece, and Sergeant Colasanti of the reserve platoon was down to eight. In the last two days, Golf Company had lost three-fourths of its Marines but none of its guts. After Morgan gave the colonel his single-digit head count, he added, “but we’re all good under fire.”
Two days before, Vargas had considered Morgan a typical greenhorn second lieutenant. Now he saw him as one of their stalwarts. The last two days had been a crucible for all of them. Vargas told Morgan and Wade to take the company mortarmen with them to reinforce their beleaguered two-platoon position. He said he would soon follow with the reserve platoon. As the meeting was breaking up, Morgan stood up in the trench just as the sharp report of a sniper’s shot rang out; he saw dust smack off the trouser leg of the Marine in front of him. Blood jetted from that spot in the next instant. The wounded man was the colonel’s regimental tac operator, and he was so flushed with excitement that it took a moment before he realized he’d been hit. He was quickly bandaged and directed rearward.
Lieutenant Morgan, meanwhile, started back for his platoon with the mortarmen-turned-riflemen in tow. As he approached the perimeter, he saw several Marines making a frantic run across the stream on their left flank. His immediate reaction was to shout at them to come back—but then he saw a dozen NVA coming out of the bushes in a frontal assault on their position.
It was 1645, and the NVA were counterattacking north to south down the length of Dinh To. Marines were screaming at Lieutenant Morgan to run because the NVA were right on top of them. Morgan and his radioman, who’d yet to be spotted by the enemy, quickly dropped into the cover of a ditch. Morgan got on the horn with Captain Vargas, who shouted that they should “pull back, pull back, pull back!” Morgan and Wade did just that. The two platoon commanders had completely lost contact with the Marines on the other side of the stream, but they were able to hastily organize those men still around them and get them back down a trench that paralleled the tributary.1 That they made it out of there was due in large part to Lieutenant Deichman, their hard-charging exec, and Sergeant Colasanti of Golf Three, who had been moving the reserve platoon toward the blueline. Including the exec’s radioman, there were eleven Marines in this line, which was oriented in and along an abandoned enemy trench. Their orders were to provide a base of fire along with those in the command trench until all the forward elements had made it through and were well on the way back to Dai Do, where they would make their stand. The thin line produced a firestorm. “Grenades were being exchanged freely,” wrote Deichman, who was wounded in the process. “I remember how fanatical the NVA appeared to be, openly and unhesitatingly charging us with reckless abandon.”
Lieutenant Deichman was awarded the Silver Star. Sergeant Colasanti, who also won the Silver Star—and his fifth Purple Heart—during the holding action, wrote that “at one point we were involved in hand-to-hand combat. I got a couple with my K-Bar.”
Lieutenant Morgan didn’t know it then, but his platoon sergeant, Sgt. Richard F. Abshire, twenty-three, of Abbeville, Louisiana, had bought some of the time that the Marines splashing across the creek needed to escape. Morgan had left Abshire to honcho the men manning the perimeter when he’d moved back for the captain’s meeting. Sergeant Abshire died on position and was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross. Abshire, a good, low-key NCO with a shock of dark hair and a ruddy, pockmarked face, had, according to his citation, thrown several grenades at the attacking NVA before ordering the retreat across the tributary. He remained behind and “resolutely provided covering fire, which enabled his men to reach positions of relative safety. After expending his ammunition, he was attempting to rejoin his unit when he was mortally wounded.”
Corporal Yealock of Golf One was one of those who escaped across the chest-deep stream. He had been firing his M16 from a crater along with two machine gunners whose M60s were doing the most damage to the NVA, when he was hit in the left leg; one of the gunners was hit in the hand. Someone who seemed to be in charge told them to pull back across the tributary. It seemed the only way out. Yealock’s wounded leg hurt so badly that it almost buckled under him as they rushed down the bank, but he made it to the water and started wading across with his M16 in one hand and a bayonet in the other. He could see rounds hitting the water. As they crawled up the opposite bank, the Marine to Yealock’s right was hit in the arm. They crashed through a hedgerow and tried to figure out where they were. By that time Yealock had lost his rifle and had only two grenades left. They started down the stream to find the rest of the company.
The NVA seemed to be everywhere. They were—including on the left flank, where individual enemy soldiers and squad-sized groups moved into position to place RPG and AK-47 fire across the narrow creek. An ARVN mechanized battalion was supposed to have moved up on that side of the blueline in conjunction with BLT 2/4’s attack through Dinh To. But the ARVN were not there. Coordinating and communicating with ARVN units was difficult at best, and it had been made worse in this instance because BLT 2/4 had neither the time nor the officers available to place a liaison team with the ARVN, as it normally did on joint operations. There had been no face-to-face meeting between the battalion commanders, only a series of quick radio conversations in which the U.S. Army adviser with the ARVN unit had said that his counterpart understood and agreed to the plan of attack.
Weise considered the ARVN vital to the operation’s success. “Were it not for assurance from Colonel Hull of the ARVN support, I would not have agreed to another attack,” Weise later wrote, although it remains unclear why Dixie Diner 6 would place the fate of his battered battalion in the hands of so untrustworthy an ally. “The assurance that I had was that if we got into something we couldn’t handle, the ARVN, with their 90mm tank guns and .50-caliber machine guns, would move ahead of us on our left and blow the hell out of the enemy facing us.”
The ARVN, however, were opcon to neither BLT 2/4 nor the 3d Marines, and when the joint maneuver encountered heavy resistance, the ARVN commander, either on his own initiative or on order from his superiors, withdrew his unit in the direction of Dong Ha. The U.S. Army adviser came up on the BLT 2/4 net to apologetically report that his battalion was peeling away from the Marines’ flank, and with that the ARVN vanished from the battlefield. The Marines never forgave them.
There were dead Marines in the part of the trench that Lieutenant Acly, the Golf Company FO, reached with his radioman, Lance Corporal Prill, before the NVA counterattack. Acly moved up to the trench on his hands and knees, rushing from cover to cover. It was almost impossible to force himself forward through the hail of fire. He felt too heavy to move. He felt as though he was on a ladder that was too high, but on which he had to keep going up. The trench was sanctuary. There were four or five live Marines in his part of it. A thick, concealing hedgerow ran along its northern edge, and bamboo grew up along both sides.
Captain Vargas, who was down to the right, shouted at Acly to get some arty going, but Prill’s radio malfunctioned. They couldn’t raise anybody.
Panicked, one of the Marines in the trench bolted rearward—and immediately dropped with the loud, distinctive smack of a bullet hitting meat. The Marine had been shot in the upper thigh. Acly leaned out of the trench, grabbed the man’s feet, and pulled him back in, then used his K-Bar to cut away the trouser leg so he could apply a battle dressing and get the bleeding stopped.
The NVA fire suddenly became more intense. Lieutenant Acly could see puffs of dust coming off a nearby hootch; the bamboo above their trench bucked back and forth from explosions and automatic weapons fire. Acly was cut up by splintered bamboo. The hedgerow along the forward edge of the trench kept grenades from bouncing in with them, but the explosions were so close that the concussion was like being punched in the stomach. The bamboo to the rear of the trench caught fire, and smoke filled the air around them. Prill, remaining in a crouch, lifted his M16 above the forward edge of the trench to spray anything that might be rushing them, but the hand guard was knocked off the weapon by enemy fire. When Acly shoved his M14 through the hedgerow to open fire, it too was hit almost immediately. He pulled the rifle back and was astonished to see that the barrel had been bent at a forty-five-degree angle behind the flash suppressor. He threw down the M14 and took up one of the abandoned M16s lying in the trench. A Marine was shot in the arm and began whimpering and raving. He tugged on Acly’s arm as Acly tried to shoot, and mumbled that they were all going to die. The wound in the man’s upper right arm barely bled, but it appeared as though the muscle had been turned inside out. It was bright red and jiggled—like Jell-O, Acly thought. Acly was becoming more and more unnerved by the man’s keening. When the wounded Marine started to climb from the trench, Acly stopped him by barking, “Just stay down and keep your mouth shut and you’ll be all right!”
After a terrible two to three minutes the enemy fire slackened. It seemed that they had survived. But then Prill suddenly started pounding Lieutenant Acly on the back. “Sir, everybody’s takin’ off!” he shouted. Acly could barely make out through the smoke the figures of Marines running to the rear. He and Prill grabbed the shell-shocked Marine, hauled him out of the trench, and pushed him ahead of them as they joined the retreat. Acly had lost his helmet, and his secondhand M16 was out of ammunition. They immediately hit some old barbed wire in the flaming, chest-high bamboo at the rear of the trench, and they tore their hands and arms as they forced their way through it at a run. Nobody cared. They didn’t feel a thing. “It didn’t look like a fighting withdrawal,” Acly said. His group had caught up with other Marines as they crashed through a hedgerow. “There wasn’t a lot of firing and maneuvering going on. People were just trying to get the hell outta there.”
Lance Corporal Ron Dean, the acting commander of Foxtrot One at the right edge of the hamlet, had expended all his M14 ammunition on the NVA behind the burial mounds out in the fields. Now other NVA were charging out of the bushes and trees. Dean already had out his .45. He was at the prone, and the enemy soldier he saw most clearly was rushing right at him with his AK-47 held out in front of him. By the time Dean could aim his .45, the man was five feet away.
Dean shot him in the face.
Twice-wounded Lieutenant McAdams, late of Foxtrot One, had escaped the sudden crescendo of fire behind him by crawling down into the creek bed with another wounded Marine. They could see two Golf Marines trying to get back by swimming from the opposite shore. They were about twenty meters from McAdams when a burst of automatic fire splashed around the two heads. Only one head remained visible. That Marine made it to shore and disappeared into the brush. The NVA had not seen McAdams and his partner. They were in the shallows near the bank, where they could remain prone and keep their heads up as they crawled along the muddy bottom. The water gave them bouyancy, making crawling easier. McAdams was too numb to realize how narrow his escape had been.
Lieutenant Colonel Weise shouldered his M16 and Sergeant Major Malnar swung his twelve-gauge pump into action. Every man in the command trench was firing at the NVA who darted at them or rushed past in frenzied pursuit of Golf One and Two. They dropped several enemy soldiers within a few steps of their position. It was impossible to tell who was hitting whom. Everything was happening so fast as to be a blur of sound and motion. An NVA soldier on the right flank turned an automatic weapon down the length of the trench. The burst missed Vargas, who was firing his M16 to the front, but it killed his senior radioman and the 81mm mortar section spotter, who were on either side of Vargas. The mortar spotter lay in the trench, his mouth shot open.
Lance Corporal Pendelton, who was the captain’s backup radioman, was hit by the same burst. While Sergeant Bollinger secured a battle dressing around Pendelton’s wounded arm, Vargas used his K-Bar to cut the radio shoulder straps, then pushed Pendelton over the back of the trench and told him to crawl to the rear. Vargas then grabbed one of the radio handsets and began coordinating artillery support. Vargas shouted at everyone to get down in their four-foot trench just before the salvo slammed in some forty meters to their front. The concussion was stunning, and shell fragments ripped down tree limbs above their heads.
There was a definite pause in the enemy fire.
Moments later, several NVA who had gotten to a nearby hedgerow began flinging Chicoms. Some landed at the edge of the trench, and some rolled in. Some were duds and some were not. There were RPG explosions, and then a dozen NVA broke into the open on the left flank and rushed the trench. Captain Vargas stopped them with a full magazine of full automatic M16 fire. Most of the NVA went down dead or wounded; the rest disappeared into a hedgerow. There was another pause, and Weise shouted to Vargas that it was time to get out with their wounded. The dead they would leave. Malnar, who was to Weise’s right on Vargas’s other side, took up the call. “Start pullin’ back the wounded—”
Big John Malnar was interrupted by the sudden, shattering detonation of an RPG against the forward edge of the trench. At that instant, Sergeant Major Malnar and Sergeant Bollinger, the colonel’s radioman, were side by side and on their knees behind the earthen berm at the rear of the trench. Bollinger was firing his M14 and Malnar had lowered his shotgun as he turned his head to shout. The blast of the RPG flung them both backward, and Bollinger, suddenly on his back, saw blood burst from Malnar’s mouth. A chunk of metal had hit the sergeant major in the chest and blown out the back of his flak jacket, killing him instantly.2
Sergeant Bollinger got back to his knees and reached for the M14 rifle that had been blown from his hands. He was in bad shape. His right humerus had been shattered and the artery cut. Feeling no pain, he glanced in numb shock at the bone sticking from the massive wound and at the blood pumping out of his upper arm.
Lieutenant Colonel Weise, who was still in the trench, resumed firing with his M16 after he saw Malnar go down. An instant later, an AK-47 round bounced Weise against the back wall of the trench. He felt the thud in his lower left side. It stung, but it didn’t really hurt. The shock dulled the pain, and Weise fell forward across the front edge of the trench and squeezed off a few more shots. He tried to climb out of the trench but couldn’t. His legs wouldn’t work; there was no feeling in them. He had to grab onto the edge of the trench to keep from falling to the bottom of it. He was bleeding badly.
Lieutenant Colonel Weise’s legs had gone out from under him because the bullet that punched through his flak jacket had lodged between his third and fourth vertebrae. Captain Vargas dropped his M16 and reached down to pull Weise out of the trench by his arms; then, with one hand locked around the collar of the colonel’s flak jacket and his .45 in his other hand, Vargas started dragging Weise toward the rear. Weise, sitting upright with his legs dragging behind him, kept a grip on his M16. When Vargas would stop to catch his breath, the colonel blasted the bushes, where it sounded as though there were enemy soldiers. Vargas was pulling Weise along again when he suddenly saw an NVA coming over the bank of the creek on the left flank. The NVA saw them, too, but before he could swing his AK-47 up to fire, Vargas snapped off a shot with his pistol. The slug hit the dirt in front of the enemy soldier, then ricocheted up to catch the man in his cartridge belt and knock him back into the water. The NVA, dead, wounded, or just stunned, did not reappear, and Vargas was able to get Weise back about fifty meters to the cover of a tree stump. Before Vargas headed back toward the command trench, he shouted at the Marines behind the stump to haul the colonel back to Dai Do.3
Meanwhile, Sergeant Bollinger, who was on his second combat tour with the Magnificent Bastards, had resumed firing his M14 despite his shattered right arm—only to be hit again as he blasted away on his knees. The first round caught him in the left bicep—missing the bone but cutting the nerve to his hand. As he dropped his rifle and spun around from the impact, another round hit him in the face. The bullet tore across his mouth from one side to the other, split his lips, blew out his front teeth, and tore away his mustache. He hit the deck with no rifle and a mouthful of blood and tattered flesh, and he knew he was in trouble. This time it hurt. It hurt beyond words.
The only Marine that Bollinger could see—the only man still in the trench—was Lance Corporal Kraus, the colonel’s bodyguard, who was blasting away with his M16. Bollinger, in a panic because of the pain, screamed at him. “Kraus, I’m comin’ bleedin’ to death! Get this radio off of me!” Kraus smacked Bollinger in the face, which brought him to his senses, and then used his hunting knife to cut the shoulder straps on the sergeant’s radio. Working fast, he secured a battle dressing around each of Bollinger’s blood-streaming arms—the bandages didn’t do much good—then got him up on his feet with an arm around his shoulder. The pair stumbled back to a position of relative safety, then Bollinger sank to the ground and passed out. He woke up when a black Marine tried to heft him onto his back. Bollinger mumbled that the man wasn’t doing it right, and the exhausted grunt told him to shut up or he’d leave him. He got Bollinger back a little farther, then said he was going to find a stretcher and some help.
The Marine disappeared. Kraus was already gone. Bollinger was all alone. He passed out again. He opened his eyes as he was being lifted onto a stretcher, and he drifted in and out of consciousness as they hustled him back to where Major Warren, the operations officer, was organizing a line of resistance in Dai Do. Bollinger didn’t know where he was or what was going on. When a lance corporal he knew from the communications platoon went through his pockets to get the crypto sheets used to decode radio messages, he suddenly became alert and kicked out as violently as he could at what he thought was a gook. He got a whoa-hey-I’m-a-Marine response from the man, and then calmed down when a corpsman thumped a morphine Syrette into one of his wounded arms. Major Warren appeared for a moment above his stretcher. Bollinger told Warren that the colonel was hit and the sergeant major was dead, but the morphine and shock fuzzied his thoughts. What he was really thinking about was how the major used to lead their morning exercises. When they lifted Bollinger’s stretcher and carried him past Warren toward an amtrac that was taking aboard wounded, he shouted, “Hey, Major, no more PT!”
Lieutenant Colonel Weise was a big, strong man, and although the initial shock of the blow to his spine had rendered his legs numb, he was able to shake off the trauma and start walking back. The first Marine he ran into was Lieutenant Hilton, whose FAC team was about a hundred meters to the rear of the vacated command trench. Weise sat down. Hilton, who’d been so busy on the air net that he’d lost track of the details of the ground action, was surprised that the colonel was not in the company of his sergeant major and radiomen. Hilton was even more surprised when he realized that Weise was wounded. Weise was holding his side and there was a lot of blood. Hilton blurted, “Do you need any help?”
“No,” Weise said. “Big John’s been hit. I think he’s dead. We’ve got to pull back. We’ve got to pull back.”
Weise told Hilton, who was a big, bold, crazy young officer, to organize a delaying action to give the remnants of Golf and Foxtrot the breathing room they needed to reach the position that Major Warren had organized in Dai Do with Echo and Hotel Companies. To put Weise back in contact with Warren, Hilton stood behind one of his radiomen and changed the frequency on the radio from the air net to the battalion net. He told the radioman to stick with the colonel and help him back, then took the handset from his other radioman to speak with the aerial observer in the Birddog above them. “I want you to bring in everything you can. Fly as low and fast as you can—make as much noise as you can—but don’t drop any bombs because they’re in amongst us. I don’t know where anybody is.”
Packing an M79, Lieutenant Hilton—who was near the end of his tour after six months in helicopters and six months playing grunt—moved forward to organize the delaying action. Weise, who had previously considered Hilton a typically immature, smart-ass aviator, made sure he got the Silver Star. Hilton ran into Pace, the battalion interpreter, in the hedgerow in front of his original position. Pace had become separated from his two ARVN scouts. There were six Marines near Pace, and Hilton knelt beside them to explain the situation: “The colonel said delay. We’ve got to hold until we can get our people back.”
Sergeant Pace was a career Marine from Lookout Mountain, Georgia. When Hilton told him what needed to be done, he answered, “Lieutenant, we’re with y a, we gotta hold.” Pace turned to the young Marines around them, shouting, “We’re going to hold! How many you guys going to stay with the lieutenant?”
Holy shit, thought Hilton when all the Marines answered in the affirmative. I guess I’m here with ’Em. They went forward to the next hedgerow and spread out behind it in a determined, nine-man line with about ten meters between each covered position. Those Marines they saw they waved back through their hedgerow. When one group went through and on across the open ground toward the next hedgerow, another group followed hard on its heels. The second group was made up of NVA. There were eight of them, and they were so focused on their chase that when they hustled through the breaks in the shrubbery, they did not see any of the grunts in the pickup squad at the base of the hedgerow.
“Those weren’t our guys!” Hilton exclaimed to Pace.
Lieutenant Hilton quickly turned and aimed his M79 at the back of one of the running enemy soldiers. The NVA was literally blown apart by the 40mm shell. As Hilton reloaded, Pace rose up and blasted away with his M16. He was joined by several other Marines, and before the NVA realized what was happening, they were dead.
Lieutenant Hilton covered his men with the M79 as he directed them back to the hedgerow behind them. There were several wounded Marines there, and they stopped and made their next stand. Hilton saw Captain Vargas and several able-bodied grunts helping the wounded, so he slung his M79 across his back and joined them. Hilton tried to heft one of the wounded into a fireman’s carry, but he was too tired, too drained. Instead, he grabbed a camouflage poncho liner and, along with three other Marines, rolled the man onto it and started back with him. They were all exhausted. They couldn’t keep the poncho off the ground, and every time it bumped against the ground the Marine inside, grievously wounded in the buttocks, would let out a ferocious yell. He looked as though he was dying. A Marine ran up to take Hilton’s place at one of the corners of the poncho, and behind that grunt came another with a stretcher.
Lieutenant Hilton rejoined his pickup squad in the hedgerow then, and they covered the casualty evacuation. Hilton was reloading his M79 when three more NVA caught him by surprise, busting out of their brushy cover and charging right at him. They had seen the broken-open, one-shot grenade launcher and had thought to take advantage of the Marine reaching into his demo bag for the next shell. Hilton quickly snapped the weapon closed and swung it up. His shot hit the nearest NVA squarely in the chest at such close range that the round had not traveled the fourteen meters required to arm its warhead. There was no explosion, but the impact of the shell was enough to kill the enemy soldier as it knocked him off his feet. The other two NVA dropped in the dirt in that same instant as Pace and his men opened fire. Hilton, quickly snapping his next round into the grenade launcher, thought he saw another NVA wheel around in midcharge and disappear into some bushes. That was where he fired next.
Lance Corporal O’neill, the sniper, was behind a four-foot hedge with his partner when a Marine coming out of nowhere jumped over it. The Marine still had his helmet and flak jacket on, but he’d lost his rifle and other gear. All he had was a bayonet and a wild look in his eyes. The bayonet was bloody, as was the man’s hand. “They’re everywhere,” he screamed. “God, get us out of here! They’re everywhere, they’re everywhere! Get outta here!”
The Marine took off in a frantic run, and O’neill said to his partner, “What’s he talkin’ about? That’s desertion if we run, isn’t it?” O’neill started to rise to look over the hedgerow so he could see what was going on, and there was Lieutenant Colonel Weise, bulling his way through the brush, pushing and limping. He fell when he got through, but there were other Marines with him, and they quickly got him moving again.
“Do you know who that was?” O’neill gasped.
“No,” said his partner.
“That was the battalion commander!”
“Damn, he looks hurt!”
“Well, I’m a firm believer in doing like they always say—follow your leaders. Let’s get the hell outta here!”
The sniper team fell in with the colonel’s group. O’neill, hanging to the rear to provide some security, could see other Marines running back through the brush. He suddenly realized that there was an NVA about twenty feet to his right. The man was going in the same direction in the same cautious trot. They saw each other at about the same time. O’neill veered to the left as the NVA veered to the right and disappeared. Neither combatant had fired a shot.
“It’s amazing what the human body does when it’s trapped,” reflected Captain Vargas. “I actually believed I was not going to get killed. I was shooting as fast as I could because I knew it was my ass or theirs.” After having dragged the colonel back, Vargas ran forward several more times with other Marines in the rear guard to personally haul back at least five more wounded men. He had picked up an AK-47 and secured several hand grenades from Marines in the rear, and he used them each time he rushed forward. “I had to go back. I couldn’t leave them, not after what they had gone through.” He was wounded when an RPG knocked him down and opened up his knee while he was hustling rearward with a one-armed Marine on his back. Later, Vargas was running forward again when he and an enemy soldier collided in the brush. “It was that crowded. There was so much confusion in there between the Marines and the NVA.” The man fell down, then tried to swing his AK-47 around as he got up. Vargas had already drawn the knife that he kept strapped to the front of his flak jacket. “I got on him right away and just stuck the knife right in his throat. Other Marines had other NVA down on the ground, and they were fighting, too. Marines who were out of ammo were swinging their rifles or entrenching tools. It’s amazing that any of us got out of there.”4
Nearby, Private Kachmar and his buddy James Moffett, having lost track of the rest of Foxtrot Three during the retreat, had gotten mixed in with Golf Company. They ended up all the way down by the creek on the left flank. There were other survivors from Golf, most of whom had lost their weapons and gear, trying to climb up from the creek bed, and Kachmar reached down to help a sergeant. Kachmar had no more grabbed hold of the man’s hand than the NVA opened fire again. Kachmar saw a bullet punch through the sergeant’s chest as he struggled to get out of the water. The round thudded into the ground between Kachmar’s feet on the bank. He quickly pulled up the sergeant and dragged him to cover. The man had a sucking chest wound, but Kachmar and Moffett sealed the hole with plastic and then started carrying him back toward the casualty collection point.
They were quickly pinned down. They could see NVA, whose uniforms were dark green from having just crossed the chest-deep stream, as they fired and rushed forward. Kachmar and Moffett fired like madmen, dropping some of the enemy soldiers. Kachmar, who’d taken cover behind a tree, fired until he was out of ammunition. He had never run out of ammo before. He was terrified. Spotting three NVA setting up a drum-fed RPD light machine gun in a dugout, Kachmar dropped his M16 and heaved a grenade at the position. The grenade exploded at the lip of the dugout, and without thinking Kachmar charged in right after the blast. The three NVA were all wounded and stunned. “One tried to get at his SKS rifle, which was maybe two feet from his hands, and I plunged my K-Bar into his chest,” recalled Kachmar. He pulled out the knife and turned like a robot toward the next enemy soldier. “I stabbed him, too, but I twisted my knife. I couldn’t get it out.” The third NVA was sprawled against the back wall of the entrenchment, moaning in pain. “All these years later I want to say he was trying to get me, but I don’t think he was. He was just moaning and I just choked him to death. I didn’t even think about what I was doing. I just did it. It was like watching a movie. There wasn’t any rage. I don’t think I felt any conscious emotion whatsoever. I only thought consciously about what I did two or three days later, and I didn’t feel like I actually did it. It all happened so fast.”
Kachmar and Moffett ran back to their group, where Kachmar got ammo for his M16 from some of the walking wounded as they kept moving rearward. The sergeant with the sucking chest wound was a big man, and it took four Marines to carry him. Every time he started gasping for air they would put him down and Kachmar and another Marine took turns giving him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. It seemed to help. The sergeant wanted water, but they adhered to their training and refused to give him any. Finally, the man started mumbling that he knew he was going to die. He did not sound scared, nor was he screaming in pain—the fire was simply going out in his eyes. “I really wanted that guy to live,” said Kachmar. “I intensely wanted to see that man live.” He screamed at the sergeant not to give up. He gave him mouth-to-mouth again. He kept talking to him. They got the sergeant all the way back to Dai Do, but when they set him on the ground where the corpsmen were working, he died. Kachmar, exhausted and overwrought, angrily pushed the sergeant’s body with his foot and shouted, “You comin’ gave up—I don’t believe you comin’ gave up!”
Cut off on the wrong side of the creek, Corporal Yealock’s group from Golf One was buzzed by one of the Phantoms that had arrived to provide close air support. Luckily, the grunts, convinced they were about to be strafed, were able to wave off the low-flying jet. Moments later, a Navy Monitor appeared in the stream—the group had worked almost all the way back to the Bo Dieu River—and when the gunboat swung its machine guns toward the unidentified figures on the bank the Marines again began waving frantically. The Monitor pulled up close enough to let a ramp down on the bank for them to come aboard.
Lance Corporal Dean of Foxtrot One, wounded twice already, had just shot the charging NVA when an RPG explosion peppered his forehead with little fragments. Dazed, he realized that the Marine lying beside him was dead; the explosion had blown away half his shoulder. Dean couldn’t find his pistol, so he was unarmed as he started crawling toward the rear, screaming at the handful of grunts who were still there to follow him.
Dean staggered into a nearby hootch, and saw a squad leader struggling to hold down a convulsing grunt named Walter Cleveland. Better known as Coffee, Cleveland was a big, happy-go-lucky black Marine who was popular even with the Johnny Rebs such as Dean and Digger. Coffee loved to wrestle and horse around with them. Dean helped the squad leader pin Coffee to the hootch floor, amazed that he was reacting so violently to what looked like a little ding in the arm.
“Goddamnit, we’re all hurt,” Dean yelled. “Just lie down!”
In moments, Coffee went limp under them. He was dead. Dean couldn’t believe it until he rolled the body over and saw the massive exit wound in the big man’s chest, near his heart.
Foxtrot Company Marines were moving back helter-skelter all over the place. Digger Light, along with Alvarado and Bob Young of Foxtrot Two, having worked their way into the tree line between the hamlet and their fire-swept field, got their wounded organized for the run to Dai Do. They had eleven casualties with them, all of whom were shook up but still listening and functioning, to include Tanabe, who was temporarily blind. They had all the wounded men hold hands or grab onto web belts—the stronger supported the weaker. With the most able-bodied casualties in the lead, their bleeding, stumbling daisy chain made its desperate run. It was a moment of wild confusion. They did not know the terrain. They ran through smoke, then made like a centipede over a dike, then ran on into more smoke and popping embers. They passed the bodies of Marines and NVA alike. Light and Alvarado brought up the rear, firing at anything that looked as though it might be following them. Huey gunships roared in directly over their heads, their machine guns blazing.
1. Lieutenant Morgan was awarded a BSMv for Dai Do/Dinh To, and another during the 25 May 1968 engagement in Nhi Ha. He earned the Purple Heart on 4 June 1968 after the battalion had moved to Khe Sanh and after one of his patrols accidentally walked into a USMC minefield. Morgan was on his hands and knees, probing a path to one of his casualties with a bayonet, when the wounded man, thrashing wildly in his agony, detonated another mine. The explosion removed the thumb and fingers on Morgan’s left hand, seriously wounded his right leg, and blew off his left leg at the hip.
2. Sergeant Major Malnar, veteran of Saipan, Tinian, Okinawa, Inchon, Seoul, and most recently of Bastards’ Bridge and the Cua Viet campaign, was posthumously awarded his second Silver Star and fourth Purple Heart for the Battle of Dai Do.
3. Lieutenant Colonel Weise was awarded the Navy Cross and two of his three Purple Hearts for the Battle of Dai Do. He got the Silver Star for Vinh Quan Thuong, and a Legion of Merit with Combat V for his six months of command service with BLT 2/4.
4. Captain Vargas was awarded the Medal of Honor and three of his five Purple Hearts for the Battle of Dai Do. His Silver Star was from Vinh Quan Thuong.