BY THE TIME LIEUTENANT HILTON GOT SEPARATED FROM his pickup squad, he had already expended all his M79 ammo—maybe a hundred rounds—and had handed the weapon to a Marine moving rearward. He had also dropped all his excess gear. He was traveling fast and light. All he had besides his .38 revolver, an aviator’s weapon, was a LAW he had picked up. Hilton ended up along the creek on the left side of Dinh To, where he saw an exhausted, soaking-wet Marine crawling over the bank. He joined the man, and they spotted three NVA cautiously coming out of the trees a hundred feet ahead of them. The wet Marine showed Hilton how to prepare his LAW for firing, but when Hilton put it over his shoulder to shoot it, he said, “I better aim it up a little bit to loft it.”
Bad move. Hilton watched aghast as the 66mm HE projectile shrieked over the heads of the three NVA he’d been aiming at. The enemy soldiers, who’d been looking around, dropped and then backed up into the tree line. Other NVA, however, were still running past in the brush.
Hey, we’re surrounded! thought Lieutenant Hilton as he and the young Marine slid into the creek bed and crawled along in about three feet of water until they reached Dai Do. Hilton saw Sergeant Pace in the mob of Marines. Pace had just made it back with a wounded Marine he’d found staggering dazed and naked near an old barbed-wire fence. All the grunt had on were his jungle boots. When Pace grabbed the Marine’s arm to help him back, he weakly jerked away and moaned not to touch him because it hurt too much. Pace then noticed that the man had been hit in several places. The Marine mumbled, “I’ll make it, I’ll make it,” as Pace walked beside him. When they finally reached Dai Do, the Marine sank to his knees and said, “told you I’d make it.” Then he died.
Lieutenant Hilton and Pace stared at each other, and then hugged. “You got guts, Pace,” Hilton said. “No,” Pace answered. “You’re the one with them.” Given the casualties and the confusion, they wondered if they were the senior Marines on the spot, and Pace said half-jokingly, “Looks like you’re in charge.”
“Bullshit. I’m an air officer. You’re in charge.”
“Shit, I’m an interrogator. I don’t know anything about this shit.”
There were no coherent units left. “It was like a fire team here and a couple of stragglers there,” recalled Lieutenant Acly of G Company, “and just about everybody had been hit or cut up or something was wrong with them. Everybody felt beat up.” While running around along the forward edge of Dai Do getting Marines into defensive positions and organizing litter teams, Lieutenant Taylor of H Company saw Lieutenant Colonel Weise being helped back by Vargas on his shaky, semiparalyzed legs. Taylor, greatly concerned, asked him how he was doing. Weise, in much pain, answered through clenched teeth, “We took a lot of ’Em with us.”
Weise was led to Major Warren, and passed command to him with a simple, “It’s all yours.” A young corpsman helped remove Weise’s torn-up flak jacket, slapped a battle dressing over the gunshot wound in his lower left side, and hooked up an IV of serum albumin to his left arm. Holding up the bottle, Weise was led to a stretcher on the floor of an amtrac alongside several of his young, badly wounded Marines. When the ramp went down in An Lac he was hustled to one of the skimmers. Moving down the river, Weise, who was on his back, could see Navy craft gliding by in both directions. The logistical lifeline had been reopened. They had accomplished their mission. A feeling of peace washed over him. He had given everything he had and done everything he possibly could. There wasn’t anything else he could do. When he allowed himself to relax, Weise passed out on the floor of the skimmer. The shock and blood loss had finally caught up with him.
At 1740 on 2 May, Major Knapp, XO of BLT 2/4, heard the first report that Dixie Diner 6 was a casualty and that F and G Companies were withdrawing to the perimeter held by E and H Companies in Dai Do. Knapp relayed the news to Fire Raider 6 and to the SLF commander aboard the Iwo Jima, adding that he was leaving Mai Xa Chanh West to get a handle on the situation. Within one minute, Knapp caught a skimmer at the boat landing near the medevac beach and proceeded at top speed for An Lac to take command of the battalion if necessary. Knapp had no information on how badly Weise had been wounded.
Meanwhile, Major Warren, the de facto, on-the-spot battalion commander, was running around bareheaded in Dai Do getting different people to do different things. Warren did not shout directions in the typical hey-Marine-get-your-ass-over-here fashion, but rather with an encouraging, “Hey, buddy, help us out with this,” or “We need you over here, buddy.” He never lost his cool. Warren had artillery and naval gunfire pounding into Dinh To in coordination with their suddenly available close air support. Huey gunships added to the racket, as did the Navy Monitor positioned where the westernmost tributary emptied into the Bo Dieu. Lieutenant Hilton was back on the air net and in contact with the Huey pilots, who indicated that they could see the bright air panels that Hilton had instructed the Marines at the front to put out once he’d determined that they had a front. When the Hueys began their strafing runs, a lieutenant on the ground net reported to Hilton that his men were taking friendly fire. Hilton immediately keyed the handset linking him to the pilots. “Hey, our guys say you’re shooting at them!” he shouted. “You gotta go farther north! Do you see the air panels?”
The pilots answered in the affirmative. After the next strafing run, however, the lieutenant on the ground net screamed, “If they shoot at us one more time we’re going to shoot ’Em down!”
Lieutenant Hilton ran forward to ensure that confused Marines had not accidentally positioned the air panels to their south. They had not. It was the pilots who were confused, and Hilton was still up front when the next strafing run commenced. Hilton bellowed into his handset, “You’re aiming right at me! My guys are going to shoot you down if you do that one more time!”
“Well, goddamnit—” the pilot began, but Hilton cut him off: “Do not shoot if you’re not sure, because our guys will shoot you down!”
When corrected, the Huey’s fire added to the devastating, overwhelming volume of ordnance that was churning Dinh To and preventing the NVA from continuing their assault into Dai Do. Meanwhile, the battalion moved into a small pocket in the eastern corner of Dai Do, still taking some fire as the Marines established vulnerable, barely concealed positions amid the skeletonized trees. “Tactically, it was a terrible place to be,” Warren later commented. “If the NVA had had the numbers to keep coming, there was no way we could have stood our ground. We should have gone back to An Lac so as to have that open field in front of us. We didn’t because to try to have people move and establish some other defensive perimeter would have been just a nightmare operation given that there was so little control and so few people left.”
It was dusk when Major Knapp’s skimmer landed in An Lac. Knapp contacted Warren and asked for a situation report before setting out across the paddies on foot to join Warren up in Dai Do and take command of BLT 2/4. As the perimeter was battened down in Dai Do, Knapp called his company commanders back to the hole that served as his CP. Using a piece of cardboard from a C-ration box, which he would take home as a souvenir, Knapp wrote the status of the personnel and equipment in each unit. The numbers did not reflect the total trauma of the battle because they included a lot of walking wounded.
Golf Company, still under the command of the thrice-wounded Captain Vargas, was incredibly weak, with only three lieutenants—Acly, Morgan, and Deichman—two Staff NCOs, three corpsmen, and twenty-nine enlisted men present for duty. The company had three radios and three machine guns, but no grenade launchers, no rocket launchers, and no tubes left in the mortar section.
Echo Company, commanded by its only remaining officer, Lieutenant Cecil, was not doing much better, with only two Staff NCOs, three corpsmen, and thirty-nine enlisted men. There were no machine guns and no rocket launchers, but they still had a grenade launcher, two mortar tubes, and six radios.
Hotel Company, led by lip-shot Lieutenant Taylor, had one other lieutenant left, Boyle, plus six corpsmen and fifty-six enlisted men. The Marines in the company had managed to hang on to six radios, two machine guns, three grenade launchers, and two mortar tubes.
Captain Butler’s F Company was in the best overall shape, with two lieutenants, Basel and Wainwright, plus one Staff NCO, six corpsmen, and forty-two enlisted men. They had three machine guns and seven grenade launchers, plus two mortars and ten radios. Behind them in An Lac, Captain Murphy had one officer and thirty-two enlisted men with four tubes from the 81 mm mortar platoon (which was presently firing into Dinh To), plus Lieutenant Muter and his eighteen-man recon platoon. In addition, three officers and sixty-eight enlisted men had just arrived at the splash point from Mai Xa Chanh West. Knapp had directed the headquarters commandant to round up all nonessential personnel at the BLT CP to reinforce the rifle companies, but, since it was already dark, Knapp elected to have them remain in An Lac. Also in An Lac was B/l/3, which had three officers and eighty-six enlisted men on hand. Knapp later told the division historical team, “We tightened in our defense, redistributed our people, and checked all radio nets to see that we had active FO teams, air teams, and so forth. We continued preparations by posting listening posts and firing close night defensive fires—we put them in very close. Requested illumination throughout the night from a flareship, and our request was approved and provided for.”
During the madhouse retreat, Pfc. Otis E. Boss, who served as the radioman for the 81mm FO attached to Foxtrot, was left behind. Boss and his FO, a lance corporal, were at the tail end of the retreat when a squad of NVA suddenly appeared behind them. Boss shouted at the FO to make a run for it while he covered him. When Boss swung around to fire his M16, he was amazed to see the NVA turn tail for the protection of a tree line. By that time, though, the FO and everyone else was out of sight. Boss crawled to a pagoda among the burial mounds and lay exhausted in its cover while he searched the airwaves for an active frequency.
Lieutenant Hilton heard a terrified, whispering voice break in on the air net, repeating, “They’re all around me, they’re all around me.”
“Where are you exactly?” asked Hilton.
“I don’t know. They’re all around…”
Hilton put Boss in contact with the aerial observer in the Birddog, and Boss said that he would identify his position by waving his helmet. The aerial observer saw the helmet immediately. So did the NVA. Huey gunships strafed the NVA soldiers firing at the pagoda, and Boss took advantage of the distraction by crawling away. He hadn’t gone thirty meters toward what he thought was Dai Do—it had gotten totally dark—when the NVA saw or heard him again. They tossed Chicoms at him, but the Hueys rolled in again with machine guns blazing.
Boss made it to new cover. The decision was made to extract him by helicopter. The word was passed for everyone, including the mortar crews, to fire on signal into the western side of Dinh To so as to suppress NVA movement and allow Boss to crawl east to a clearing that would accommodate a Sea Horse. When the Marines opened fire, Boss immediately reported over the radio that they were shooting at him. The fire was shifted on his order. The aerial observer in the Bird-dog, meanwhile, had asked Boss to mark his position in the dark. The young radioman struck a match and held it inside his upturned helmet. The aerial observer spotted the brief flame and directed Boss toward the clearing. Boss got there on his hands and knees, but when the Sea Horse started to land the NVA opened fire from several directions and the helo had to break its hover and clear the area.
The suppressive fires cranked up again, and the Hueys strafed with rockets and machine guns. When they finished, the Sea Horse went back in while Boss, who was at the end of his tether emotionally and physically, guided the pilot by radio. “Come left, come left… no, no, come right, come right … ah, straight ahead, straight ahead … okay, stop, stop … back up, back up … come left—”
“How far am I from you?” the pilot interrupted.
“You’re fifty feet.”
“I’m settin’ down—you run to me. Run to me!”
Private Boss clambered aboard the Sea Horse—the whole battalion cheered when the pilot reported that the rescue was a success—and returned to duty the next day. He was awarded the Silver Star for his actions during the three-hour ordeal.
At least one other Foxtrot grunt, LCpl. David R. Bingham, a skinny, scared-to-death young Marine, was left behind in Dinh To. Bingham, who was really nice but a little slow, was both the company screwup and the company pet. When the battle was over, his body was found in the rubble of a demolished, tile-roofed house three hundred meters farther north in Dinh To than the battalion had advanced. He was lying on his back with one hand on his stomach, and with NVA-type bandages around the wounds that had prevented him from keeping up with his comrades during the retreat. He had another NVA bandage tied around his head covering his eyes. The NVA who had taken him prisoner, and who had treated his injuries before deciding that he was too much of a burden to take with them, had blindfolded the eighteen-year-old Marine before shooting him in the head.
It was a long night in Dai Do. At 2045, there were exchanges of grenades and automatic-weapons fire between a platoon-sized group of NVA and Foxtrot Company, which covered the northeastern side of the perimeter. The NVA were probing, not attacking, and the Marines lobbed M79 rounds wherever they saw a shadow in the flarelight. The Marines could hear the NVA shouting to each other. The NVA also shrieked such things as, “You die tonight, Marine!”
One enemy soldier tried to get into the perimeter, although sniper O’neill didn’t believe it at first when the Marine beside him said he heard movement. The enemy had been lobbing in an occasional round with a captured M79, and O’neill answered, “Nan, you probably hear the bloop gun firing.”
“No, no, I hear movement—I really hear something!”
“Well, hey, you go wanderin’ out there and somebody’s going to shoot you.”
“I hear something!”
Lance Corporal Cornwell of Echo Company, who was asleep in his nearby position, heard the same movement and snapped awake with a start. It took a moment before he realized that there was an NVA about ten meters ahead of them. The NVA was walking slowly and deliberately toward them, scanning the area ahead of him before each step. When Corn-well woke the two Marines with him, the NVA disappeared in the brush. They kept their eyes open; then the Marine on Cornwell’s left suddenly tapped him on the arm. The NVA was crouched about six feet away. Cornwell fired his .45 at the same time his buddy did, then crawled toward the enemy soldier and found him lying perfectly still on his back, his brand-new AK-47 beside him. The man, a gurgling noise coming from his throat, was beyond using his weapon. Cornwell finished him with a bullet in the head.
At 2130, the NVA fired a recoilless rifle from a pagoda on the far side of the creek. The shells exploded near the rear of the Marine perimeter, where an amtrac had been parked to serve as an aid station. One shell landed in or near Hotel Company’s mortar position. Eight Marines were seriously wounded. “You could hear ’Em scream through the night,” commented a sergeant when interviewed by the division historical section. Another said, “Our men on the Otter got up with a .50-caliber—they just totaled out the pagoda where the recoilless rifle was.” A Navy patrol boat also poured .50-caliber tracers into the little cement structure, and Major Knapp shifted artillery fire onto the area. Knapp said that although “we had previously requested and received permission through Fire Raider, 3d Marines, to have blanket clearance to fire on the other side of the stream, because it was 2d ARVN Regiment territory, it took twenty minutes to get the fire mission cleared on this particular problem.”
The wounded were treated in the amtrac, and a helicopter medevac was requested rather than running the risk of moving the wounded downriver in the dark. Major Warren guided the Sea Horse into the cemetery on the southeastern edge of Dai Do while standing on a grave mound with a flashlight. The pilot, flying blind, set down his helicopter right on the light. As Warren backed up, he tripped and fell in the dark. He had to roll to one side to avoid the Sea Horse’s front tire as it settled down where he had been. There was no enemy fire.1
The next medevac was for Sergeant Pace, the battalion interpreter. He was lying on his back against a dike between two other Marines when he heard the crack of an RPG being fired. Hell, he thought, secure behind his cover, let ’Em shoot—I’m going to sleep. He never heard the explosion, but he suddenly realized that something was wrong with his legs. They were numb; they wouldn’t work. Pace reached down to squeeze them awake and came up with a handful of blood. Damn, they got me! he thought. The RPG had riddled his legs with seventy-two metal fragments. Pace tied off a battle dressing around one thigh as he hollered for a corpsman. Lieutenant Hilton recognized his voice and came to get him. Hilton helped Pace to the landing zone and assisted him aboard the Sea Horse, shouting over the roar of the blades, “I’ll see you again someday, Sergeant!” It was a promise he kept.
Lieutenant Hilton spent most of the night in radio contact with the flareship that orbited above them, although he could not see the aircraft because of the slight overcast. The pilots could not see through the clouds either, so Hilton adjusted their flight path as they blindly jettisoned their parachute-borne flares. Hilton lay on his back with his radio and extra batteries and, without knowing it, slid into a quick, numb sleep. He jerked awake and grabbed the handset he had dropped. “Are you guys still there?” he asked.
“Yeah, you must’ve dozed off—we thought we’d lost you.”
“No, no, I’m okay. I just fell asleep.”
“Okay, hang in there. Get some coffee or something.”
Hilton brought in several more flares—it was well after midnight—and the next thing he knew someone was shaking him. “Wake up, wake up—they’re trying to get a hold of you!” Major Knapp had a radioman relieve Hilton. He managed to catch a few hours of sleep before waking up to help with the last hour of flares, which, like the nonstop artillery on Dinh To, carried them to daybreak.
Meanwhile, Colonel Hull decided to land the 1st Battalion, 3d Marines, in An Lac the next afternoon to continue the assault through Dinh To and Thuong Do. With an Army battalion in position along Jones Creek, Fire Raider 6 finally felt secure enough to commit his only remaining maneuver battalion. Fire Raider 3, Major Murphy, relayed this information to the BLT 2/4 CP in Mai Xa Chanh West via the secure net at approximately 2230, but it was not until 0100 that the combat situation had quieted down enough to allow this very welcome message to be radioed to Knapp and Warren in Dai Do. Assuming that the battalion net was being monitored by the enemy, the watch officer, Captain Mastrion (who had just flown back from the Iwo Jima despite his injured back), came up with a message that would frustrate NVA efforts to decipher it. Bearing in mind that 1/3’s call sign was Candy Tuft, and that the fresh battalion would pass through BLT 2/4 in order to continue the northward attack, the message that Mastrion crafted read: “Sweetheart Boy will step on your back on his way to Santa Claus’s home.”
At first light on 3 May, the seventy-one H&S Company fillers who’d been shuttled to An Lac the evening before hiked up to Dai Do. They were distributed by grade to each of the skeletonized rifle companies. Other reinforcements had joined the support activities at An Lac and Mai Xa Chanh West, and these men were a mixed bag. A request had been sent to the Iwo Jima the evening before for “every able-bodied man on ARG shipping,” and within forty-five minutes Sea Horses had brought to the BLT CP a platoon’s worth of volunteers, which included two majors and three captains from the SLF staff. There were also a number of walking wounded from the ship’s hospital. It was suspected that even a few gung-ho sailors had donned Marine gear, picked up weapons from the casualty receiving area, and gone ashore with or without permission. Lieutenant Hilton saw men in helmets and flak jackets who were wearing blue Navy work jeans. Corporal Schlesiona, aboard a skimmer, was convinced that some of the personnel at the splash point were sailors because “on at least two occasions when we landed with resupply materials, I ran across people who just didn’t look right. Perhaps they were too clean or too raw looking, or just too generally uncomfortable in their attitude. They seemed not to know what to do, where to go, or even what questions to ask.”
There was no enemy action in the morning. At 0815, Colonel Hull choppered into Dai Do. Major Knapp’s report to Hull was reflected in his later conversation with the division historical section, in which he said that, “except for numbers, we had an efficient, effective fighting force.” He added that “it was extremely gratifying” to observe how well organized the companies remained despite the loss of key personnel. “The number threes and fours stepped right up, took over, and did an excellent job with what they had. There was no loss of control. Command and control remained in effect. Communications were sustained throughout.” Knapp’s primary recommendation, at least for the historical branch, was “don’t send bits and pieces. Send a whole battalion to do a battalion’s job.”
The Marines in BLT 2/4 were disgruntled with how Fire Raider 6 had piecemealed them into Dai Do. “If we could have had the entire battalion from the beginning,” said Knapp, “it would have been an entirely different story.” But they were angrier still with the ARVN, who had disappeared in the Marines’ hour of need, and whose earlier negligence set the stage for the entire debacle. Prior to the engagement, the Dai Do complex had been in the TAOR of the two battalions from the 2d Regiment, 1st ARVN Division, withdrawn to defend Dong Ha. “It is inconceivable to me that the 320th NVA Division troops could have been so well dug in with mutually supporting bunkers, communications lines, and infrastructure without having done so over a period of days and probably weeks,” wrote Major Warren. He was convinced that the ARVN had turned a blind eye to the buildup rather than tangle with an NVA force that would have eaten them alive. “It would have been nigh impossible for the ARVN not to have gotten wind of this activity, as these areas were occupied by ARVN family members and other camp followers.”
At 1100, correspondents were finally allowed to visit the battlefield. The Marine casualties in Dai Do itself had already been evacuated, but dead NVA lay everywhere in the rubble, leaving the impression that the NVA had been butchered in a one-sided display of overwhelming firepower. One young correspondent, aghast at the human carnage, turned on Lieutenant Hilton, whom he’d been interviewing. “You guys are unmerciful! Why are you so cruel?” Hilton said he “grabbed the reporter by the seat of his trousers and the nape of his neck and escorted him headfirst into a bomb crater. I was going to beat the shit out of him, but somebody said, ‘Get Hilton and get him outta here,’ and three or four enlisted guys grabbed me and pulled me away.”
At 1200, a light but hot meal was delivered to the field. Air strikes were being run the entire time on the north end of Dinh To and on Thuong Do. At 1445, two companies from the 1st Battalion, 3d Marines, began landing in An Lac aboard amtraes. They passed through Dai Do to continue the assault. The scene shocked them. The place looked like Tarawa in its own torn-down, churned-up way, and the stench of death was overwhelming in the hot, windless air of the wrecked hamlet. There were pith helmets and canteens, bloody battle dressings, and smashed weapons. There were dead NVA who had been killed when napalm sucked the oxygen from their lungs and who had not a mark on them, and there were dead NVA who’d been shot in the forehead, the backs of their heads blown away.
There were also dismembered bodies teeming with maggots strewn about the area. Lance Corporal Ross E. Osbom of AJ 1/3 paused to look at two NVA who still clutched their weapons in death, and whose “eyes were wide and staring at the sun, their faces contorted in horrid death grimaces. Their intestines protruded from their khaki shirts like purple balloons. You felt sorry for the bastards. You were glad they were dead, but they were soldiers, too. I remember everyone being very quiet.”
After the battle it was estimated that BLT 2/4 had engaged more than 2,000 enemy troops, and that the battalion had “accounted for 537 known enemy dead as a result of ground action alone.” The battalion had also taken four prisoners. An additional 268 NVA kills were credited to supporting arms (“For once,” a correspondent wrote, “these estimates were probably not too far from reality.”), which included twenty-seven air strikes during the three-day battle in addition to 1,147 81mm mortar, 2,383 naval gunfire, and 5,272 artillery rounds. This tabulation did not include counterbattery fire against NVA artillery in the DMZ, which had been massive in its expenditure of shells.
As 1/3 moved through Dai Do, BLT 2/4 was policing its immediate surroundings by dragging dead NVA to a central location and shoveling dirt atop them. Hospitalman Carmen J. Maiocco, a corpsman in D/l/3, wrote in his journal that the covering was “very shallow and you could see the shapes of the bodies just beneath the freshly turned dirt. I’ll guess and say there were maybe 50 or 60 bodies. An image that stands vividly in my mind is of a human arm sticking up straight from the dirt. A few of our men walked by and shook the dead hand and even had their photograph taken in this grisly pose.”
Battalion Landing Team 2/4 was awarded the Navy Unit Commendation (NUC). The opcon B/l/3 was included in a separate NUC given to the entire regiment for its successful defense of the supply routes on the Bo Dieu and Cua Viet rivers. However, 81 Marines had been killed during the three-day battle, and another 297 Marines in the five companies involved had been seriously wounded and medevacked. An additional 100 Marines had been wounded but treated in the field. Half the casualties occurred on the final day of the battle, and 41 dead Marines were left behind in Dinh To. While 1/3 passed through Dai Do and launched its assault on Dinh To, Major Knapp walked back to An Lac with Echo and Foxtrot Companies, where they loaded aboard Mike boats for the trip downriver to Mai Xa Chanh West. Knapp’s orders to Major Warren, who remained in Dai Do, were to follow behind 1/3 with Golf and Hotel and recover the dead.
By 1730, the sweep through Dinh To was in full swing. The bags of rags that had been NVA soldiers were everywhere, too, and 1/3’s Marines were stunned to see dead grunts lying with them amidst the battlefield debris. Marines did not leave bodies. Marines did not leave weapons and ammo and ammo boxes, nor packs, canteens, helmets, entrenching tools, or flak jackets. But they had. The impossible had happened here. “Dig this,” said one numb Marine to another. “The NVA did some wounded grunts from Two-Four a job, man. Shot ’Em skeleton dead in the back of the head.”
“Wow,” said his stunned companion.
“You want to go see ’Em? They’re over there by the river.”
“No way, man.”
“We found their empty rifles, man. It’s for real. Five or six dudes lyin’ facedown in a ditch.…”
Much of the ground was burned and black. When 1/3 reached the trench that had served as BLT 2/4’s hasty command post, they found twenty dead Marines in it. Hospitalman Maiocco wrote in his journal that they were “piled in on top of each other, covered with flies, arms and legs all twisted. We couldn’t speak. When we did speak it was in whispers.”2
A haystack situated on the right flank of the trench was determined to have actually been a camouflaged gun position that afforded its occupants a straight line of fire down the trench. Thousands of spent cartridges were found inside the hollow haystack. The scene in the trench was all the more appalling to the recovery parties from BLT 2/4 coming up from the rear, because those who had been slaughtered were not only fellow Marines but friends. Lieutenant Acly of Golf Company looked down at Sergeant Snodgrass, whose intense blue eyes were still brilliant in his dead face, and he thought of how the noncom had shared his last cigaret with him the day before. Big John Malnar was also in the trench, along with the spotter from the mortar section, whose face was waxy and who had black ants crawling into his shot-open mouth. The senior company radioman’s PRC-25 was still strapped on and functioning. Voices from the battalion net came out of the speaker on the dead man’s back.
Lieutenant Morgan, also of Golf Company, stood beside the trench. Some of the dead Marines in it had been in his platoon. He had come to Dai Do with thirty-eight men. Including his radiomen, he had only three left. He could not fathom the victory in that.
The dead Marines were pulled from the trench with difficulty. Several were stuck to the ground by dried blood. Rigor mortis had set in, so it was tough to straighten out the bodies so that they could be zipped into body bags. They were then carried to amtracs and skimmers, which had come up the creek to take them back. Discarded and inoperative weapons were thrown onto a pile aboard one skimmer, along with armfuls of web gear and other bloody equipment. The Marines left more than they recovered. It was dusk by the time the forty dead Marines in the area had been bagged like yesterday’s garbage. While 1/3 began setting up for the night, to include positions in that bloody irrigation trench, the Marines of BLT 2/4 climbed aboard amtracs, skimmers, and Otters for the ride back to Mai Xa Chanh West. They were satisfied that they had recovered all their comrades. Actually, the last man would not be discovered until the next day when 1/3 pushed beyond the irrigation trench and found the body of David Bingham, the radioman who had been captured and executed.
It was 2100 when the last element off the Dai Do battlefield—the recon platoon at An Lac—secured inside the BLT CP. An amtrac near the medevac beach was pointed toward the DMZ so that when its back ramp was lowered the interior lights would not be visible to the enemy artillery spotters to the north. The battalion’s KIAs were gathered outside the vehicle. Marines with flashlights unzipped the body bags and lined up the dead men by company.
“Sadness,” recalled Doc Pittman, one of the fatigued corps-men on the scene. “There was nothing but humble sadness. There was quiet. There was not a lot of talk.”
The medical team in the amtrac worked on one body at a time. They started with G Company. Each body bag was unzipped on the vehicle’s floor. Pittman was stationed to one side of the body, and another corpsman was on the other side. They filled out casualty tags, one to attach to the body bag and the other to the body itself. Up front were two majors from division, and another corpsman who had a log in which he recorded the name, rank, service number, unit, and cause of death of each KIA. A fourth corpsman was present to determine the cause of death. “Sometimes it was very apparent,” said Pittman. “Sometimes we had to search and turn the bodies over. It was professionally done with no talking unless absolutely necessary.”
Doc Pittman had seen worse—the enemy had not mutilated these dead, nor had the elements had time to. But he had never seen so many, and by the time they got through Golf and then Hotel Company he had reached his limit. Foxtrot, with which he had served, was next. “I could not do it. I could not stay there.” When they stopped for a short break, Pittman, who was twenty-two years old, stepped out into the darkness. He found another corpsman to relieve him inside the vehicle. “I couldn’t take any more. It was going to be real bad when it came to Fox Company. I didn’t want the memories.”
Pittman was exhausted, physically and emotionally, and he lay down on a stretcher near the amtrac. He realized just before he fell asleep that he was enraged. That bastard, he thought. That gung-ho, hard-charging bastard. He’s after his bird at any cost.
Although Pittman at first blamed Weise, he later realized that the battalion commander, a remote figure, had been a convenient scapegoat for his anger and frustration. But even when he cooled down, Pittman would never understand the logic of frontal assaults or why, having paid the price, they then moved on as soon as the bodies had been counted. “It was absolutely—absolutely—ridiculous, and I always felt that somebody ought to have been hung. I lost so many friends. I was starting to grasp the picture of Vietnam by then, and I realized at that time that it was going to come down to just surviving. There was no purpose in that war, and there was no purpose in dying for those villages.”
The bullet in Lieutenant Colonel Weise’s back was removed aboard the Iwo Jima. The damage to his spine was not permanent, but he was still in a wheelchair when most of his officers came to the ship one or two at a time to say good-bye to the finest battalion commander any of them had ever served under. Weise also had a last farewell to make, and he asked Lieutenant Muter to push his wheelchair down to the ship’s morgue. The morgue had been vacated for the colonel’s visit. The body of Big John Malnar was lying on a cold steel table, around which was a curtain. Muter wheeled Weise into the partitioned area and left him there until called.
On 4 May 1968, the Marines at the BLT CP could see black smoke rising from the air strikes the Army battalion was calling in on Nhi Ha. The battle was three klicks away. It did not concern them. Because of the heavy casualties, the BLT 2/4 TAOR had been reduced to the two square kilometers around Mai Xa Chanh West to give the battalion the breathing room needed to reorganize. For the survivors, there was steak and potatoes and grape juice. Beer soon followed. “Division sent us 10 cans per man for our show at Dai Do,” wrote Captain Murphy to a battalion veteran who had rotated out before the battle. “Judd Hilton B.S.’Ed and we ended up with about 15 cases. The bunker is completely full of beer—there are ‘priorities’ you know.”
Shedding helmets, flak jackets, and worn, torn utilities, Marines went swimming in the Cua Viet River along the southern edge of the perimeter. A lieutenant cracked a grin for a reporter and said, “Looks like a damn nudist colony.”
“Despite losses, the battalion still had a strong nucleus of officers and senior sergeants,” the reporter wrote. “And it still had confidence.” The reporter had been a Marine in Korea. The spirit in the battered command had not been stamped out, and it made him proud. “According to both officers and men, the battalion’s heavy losses at least did not result from tactical errors or plain carelessness.” Trophies brought back from Dai Do were on display near the river. They included a Chinese-made mortar, a recoil less rifle, an antiaircraft gun, and a pair of 12.7mm machine guns, each on its own tripod. There were also two Chinese field telephones, plus piles of mortar rounds and other types of ammo, and some seventy AK-47s, SKSs, RPDs, and RPG launchers. A lot more enemy weapons had been captured, but the troops still had them.
One of the heroes of the battle was the tall, slender ex-VC who was Golf Company’s Kit Carson scout. Corporal Schlesiona wrote afterward of “the admiration this man had gained for himself. Everyone I spoke to was quite aware that he could easily have deserted. It would not have been difficult for him to get into an NVA uniform and slip away.” Schlesiona was in the river that morning when there was “an uproar about fifteen feet away. The Kit Carson was being attacked by a number of Marines misdirecting their desire for revenge. Before I could get to his aid, any number of other Marines had already pulled those guys off and were giving them quite an earful about how stupid they were. I have always believed that those Marines could not have known what a brave man they were attacking.”
There was an uproar in Hotel Company, too, but only because Lieutenant Prescott—who everyone thought had been shot in the spine the day before—suddenly appeared with nothing worse than a bruised back. Prescott was grinning from ear to ear as he walked into the company area. His men went nuts, and amid the laughter and welcome-back shouts, Prescott and Taylor joked about who was in command of the company. Major Knapp gathered everyone at the Buddhist temple that served as the CP to read them a note from Weise praising the men. There was also a minute of silent prayer for the dead. Then, wrote the reporter who had also worn the uniform, “the Marines looked up and one by one, in matter-of-fact tones, discussed the mechanics of getting ready for combat again—replacements, supply, equipment…”
1. Major Warren got the LMv for the Battle of Dai Do, as well as a BSMv for Lam Xuan East/Vinh Quan Thuong and a second BSMv as an end-of-tour award.
2. The 52d Regiment, 320th NVA Division, had retired from Dinh To and Thuong Do during the night to make for the DMZ. On 5 May, while in pursuit, 1/3 was ambushed by the NVA rear guard in Som Soi, one kilometer north of Thuong Do. Pinned down, 1/3 lost 15 KIA and 64 WIA (they claimed 151 NVA kills) before the enemy broke contact at dusk.