High Diddle Diddle, Right Up the Middle

LIEUTENANT COLONEL WEISE BRIEFED CAPTAIN VARGAS, the CO of G BLT 2/4, on the situation in Dai Do at about 0945 on Wednesday, 1 May 1968. They spoke aboard Vargas’s Mike boat, the leader of the two that had pushed up onto the beach at Mai Xa Chanh West some thirty minutes earlier to take aboard Golf Company and its two attached tanks. Vargas, who thought his company was going to be in reserve during the attack on Dai Do, was in for a surprise.

“The minute you hit, you’re going for broke,” Weise told him. “You’re going to have to go right into the attack. The other companies in there have been torn apart.”

Naval gunfire and artillery were already pounding the objective. Weise estimated that the NVA held Dai Do with a reinforced company. His plan to seize the square, hedgerow-encased hamlet called for Golf Company to put ashore east of An Lac and then to pass around the right flank of B/1/3. Golf would then attack northwest across the seven hundred meters of rice paddies between eastern An Lac and the southeastern underbelly of Dai Do. Hotel Company, to the east in Dong Huan, was to provide a base of fire that would shift north as Golf progressed in the assault. Foxtrot Company, also located in Dong Huan, was to move out to where it faced the north-eastern edge of Dai Do and provide a second base of fire, while B/1/3 remained in reserve in An Lac.

Dai Do, with roughly three hundred meters to each of its four sides, was surrounded by paddies except along its southwestern edge, which was snug against the bank of the unnamed tributary that ran northwest from the Bo Dieu. Separated from Dai Do by a hundred open meters, the long, narrow hamlet of Dinh To was situated to the northwest along this blueline, where it merged with the equally thin village of Thuong Do. Viewed together, the three hamlets looked like a tilted “L,” with Dinh To and Thuong Do forming the lean vertical leg along the blueline, and Dai Do the fat horizontal leg jutting into the paddies. Given the enemy’s capacity to reinforce from the DMZ, it was a good guess that additional NVA units stood ready in Dinh To and Thuong Do. At the very least, these hamlets offered the NVA in Dai Do a covered escape route.

Dai Do was being napalmed and bombed by a pair of A-4 Skyhawks when the ramps of Golf Company’s Mike boats went down on the shoreline immediately east of An Lac. Nearby, a Navy Monitor sent a stream of 20mm automatic-cannon fire into the swirl of dust and smoke partially obscuring the objective. Lieutenant Colonel Weise disembarked with Vargas, who immediately placed his exec, Lieutenant Deichman, in the first wood line off the beach along with the company mortars. Vargas wanted Deichman to remain at the splash point to coordinate their supporting arms. The 60mm mortar section began shelling Dai Do as Vargas moved on to the forward edge of An Lac, where he deployed his Marines in a defensive perimeter with their backs to the river. The two attached tanks moved up with them, their main guns booming downrange.

Captain Vargas, a twenty-nine-year-old Mexican American from Winslow, Arizona, held a platoon commanders’ meeting to finalize the assault plan. They would launch with Lieutenant Ferland’s Golf Three on the left flank, and Lieutenant Morgan’s Golf Two on the right. Vargas counted Jay Ferland, a sandy-haired working man’s son from Manchester, New Hampshire, as his best platoon commander. Rick Morgan, the son of a bank president in Charleston, West Virginia, was a similarly confident, forceful, and aggressive officer, but Vargas saw him as a greenhorn who questioned too many orders. Both lieutenants had gotten married less than a month before shipping out for Vietnam.

The two tanks would move between and slightly to the rear of the assault platoons. Captain Vargas and his gunny, Staff Sergeant Del Rio, would follow the tanks with the company headquarters. Stocky, dark Ray Del Rio was a thirty-year-old Mexican American from Texas. He had been with Golf Company for only two weeks. He was, however, a strong, up-front professional, and veteran of a tour with D/1/9—the company made infamous by Morley Safer and CBS News when its marines put their Zippo lighters to Cam Ne in 1965.

Staff Sergeant Wade, another pro, had the reserve platoon, Golf One, which since the Night Owl disaster had only two squads. Vargas also spoke with Lieutenant Acly, his forward observer, a twenty-two-year-old Yale graduate from upper-crust Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Vargas wanted Acly to plaster Dai Do with a barrage of white phosphorus and delay-fused high-explosive shells. He wanted to roll his company across those murderously open paddies while the barrage kept the NVA pinned to the bottom of their spiderholes. And he wanted an artillery-delivered smoke screen to cover them during the final few strides of their assault into the enemy entrenchments. Vargas basically wanted the same fire support that Hotel Company had enjoyed the day before during its successful assault, but he did not get what he needed. Acly explained why in a tape-recorded interview with the division historical team:

Part of Captain Vargas’s plan for the initial assault on Dai Do was to utilize a three-zero minute artillery preparation of the ville. Now there was air support in the area—Sky-hawks are flying in, dropping napalm and rocketing and using their cannons on the ville—so when I planned the artillery prep, initially [division headquarters imposed] a check-fire on the area due to the prevalence of aircraft. Not exactly sure why, but this check-fire was not lifted, with the result that we started our initial assault without having one round of artillery on the ville. Some system should be worked out so that check-fires on artillery are held to a minimum ’cause I’m sure it would have saved us a lot of grief if we had had our artillery functioning the way it’s supposed to function.

The Skyhawk pilots flew low and slow to place their high-drag bombs and tumbling, fire-blossoming napalm canisters right into the teeth of the enemy entrenchments along the southeastern edge of Dai Do. They did a superb job and were not the source of the problem. The red tape that muzzled the artillery came from division-level fire support coordinators at the DHCB who were overly concerned about the one-in-a-million chance of an artillery round meeting an aircraft in midair. Air and arty were supposed to be able to work in unison. The proper application of doctrine would have had the arty check-fired only when the Skyhawks were actually conducting their firing runs. The total cessation of artillery fires in this case was completely unjustified, according to the infantry officers waiting to attack. From the time Golf Company landed at An Lac (1040) until it launched its assault on Dai Do at 1253, the Skyhawks came on station only infrequently. Weise later wrote that although BLT 2/4 had finally been given priority for close air support (CAS), the battalion still “didn’t get all the CAS we requested, nor as quickly as we needed it.… We learned to operate without relying on CAS, the king of Marine Corps supporting arms.”

Dixie Diner 6 added a bitter addendum: “… lives were lost because of inadequate or unresponsive support in critical situations.”

The NVA were, at intervals, shelling Dong Huan and An Lac. Since Lieutenant Acly did not know how long the company would remain in the open area off the beach before moving out, he and his out-of-work FO team started to dig in. They were not successful. The day was getting hotter and the ground was brick hard. After a few rebuffed swings of their entrenching tools, they said the hell with it and settled for the relative cover of a paddy dike. Acly was crouched behind the dike when a Skyhawk dropped another bomb on Dai Do. He heard a quick, hissing sound—zzzppppt—justas a metal shard ripped his left sleeve from shoulder to elbow and smacked into the dirt beside him. He hadn’t even been scratched. Burning his fingers on the red-hot, two-inch fragment, he stowed it in his pack to take home as a souvenir. Acly was impressed. So were the NVA in Dai Do. The napalm especially got them stirred up. Lieutenant Prescott, the new Hotel skipper, said in his own interview with the division historical section that after the napalm hit, there were “gooks running through the ville, hopping out of various trench lines, and [we] were taking them under fire from our position. Foxtrot Company was working the back end of the village with a one-oh-six recoilless rifle mounted on an amtrac.…”

Lance Corporal Lashley, the machine-gun team leader with Golf One, was seriously wounded only a few steps into the assault on Dai Do. Lashley, with eight months in the bush, was down to seventeen days before he was to leave the field and begin outprocessing at the end of his two-year enlistment. He had written home the night before with the good news (“I don’t have to go out on anymore squad sized patrols or ambushes since I have so little time to do”), but he had, without objection, boarded the Mike boats with everyone else. Lashley did not think his dedication made him a standout. “All the grunts I served with were incredibly brave,” he later wrote. “To saddle up and move out when you were inadequately supplied, undermanned, and outgunned is an inherently brave act.”

Lance Corporal Lashley, who’d previously suffered two flesh wounds, was, nonetheless, totally unimpressed with their across-the-paddies scheme to assault Dai Do. It’s crazy, he thought. He had some real doubts about his ability to survive, so while the Skyhawks worked out he turned to his gunner and good friend, Mike Zywicke, who was also a Kingfisher vet, and said, “We’re gettin’ too short for this shit. Man, I just don’t know about this one.”

When Golf Company started off, Lashley, to the rear with the reserve platoon, stood atop a burial mound to orient himself on the area.

“I was just standing on the mound, checking out the scene like a goddamn tourist.…” A single round from the first heavy burst of gunfire directed at Golf caught Lashley high up on the left arm, shattering the humerus. He was left-handed, and his arm, which had been raised, dropped straight down like a piece of dead meat. Still on his feet but in terrible pain, Lashley stared in shock at the blood pumping out. I’ve been shot! he thought. He couldn’t believe it.

Lashley stumbled off the mound and collapsed, but Mike Zywicke quickly pulled him to cover and bellowed for a corps-man. Zywicke and the other members of the machine-gun team had to move out then with the rest of the platoon while the corpsman wrestled Lashley’s flak jacket off, administered a morphine Syrette, and hooked up a serum albumin IV. The corpsman also secured a battle dressing around the wound, which was still bleeding badly. When the pain wouldn’t go away, the sympathetic corpsman cheated and administered a second shot of morphine. It didn’t help. Lashley could only lie there, twisting in the grass as the battle was joined up ahead.

“Wow, man, these guys are crazy,” LCpl. James Parkins of Golf Two muttered to himself on the way in, cursing the lifers. “They’re so gungy, they’re gonna get us all killed.” Parkins, embittered by their earlier hamlet-to-hamlet battles above the Cua Viet, wondered if his own chain of command was as much the enemy as the NVA waiting for them in Dai Do. Both seemed pretty good at killing Marines. “Once again, we were real thankful to our leaders for taking us right into the open without too much fire support,” Parkins said later. “There was a lot of animosity, but you couldn’t say, ‘This is stupid, I’m not going to do it,’ ’cause if you weren’t there and your buddy got shot, you’d think, Oh man.…You kept those thoughts to yourself, just kind of mumbling as you went forward.”

The M16 rifle was prone to misfire. Its reputation was such that many a Marine advanced toward Dai Do with his three-piece cleaning rod already screwed together and taped ready-to-go along the rifle’s stock. The cleaning rod was used to pound jammed rounds out of the chamber. Golf Two and Three crossed about two hundred of the seven hundred meters between An Lac and Dai Do before the NVA began sniping at them, especially from one-man spiderholes that dotted the open field. Fire also came from the entrenchments hidden among the trees and hedgerows at the edge of Dai Do itself. The dry brown grass was about thigh high, and the grunts, returning fire, moved through it in a low crouch. No one in the lead platoons was hit.

About fifteen minutes into the assault—at which point Golf Two and Three, still unscathed, had advanced to within three hundred meters of Dai Do—there was a sudden, decibel-doubling increase in the enemy fire.

Lieutenant Ferland and Golf Three took the brunt of it. The NVA were firing not only from the front, but from both sides of the tributary that ran past the western edge of the paddies from the direction of Dai Do. The NVA on the near bank were entrenched in hedgerows, and Ferland’s squad on that flank was immediately pinned down. Ferland detached another squad to suppress the NVA fire, while pushing on with his one remaining squad, anxious to keep up with Golf Two. In short order, though, Ferland and his men became bogged down in the face of heavier and heavier automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenade fire from the front.

Several Marines were wounded. The NVA had opened up with several 12.7mm machine guns—a heavy, much-feared weapon—and Captain Vargas instructed Golf Two to halt until he could get Golf Three moving again. Vargas ran back to his reserve platoon and found the grunts lying prone to avoid the rounds snapping overhead. Vargas ordered them into the attack, but by the time they were advancing in fire-team rushes, enemy mortars were pumping out rounds. Enemy artillery also opened fire, and the fields the Marines were advancing across had never looked so naked as they geysered with incoming rounds. Golf One’s grunts had no choice but to keep leapfrogging forward, unable to even return fire for fear of hitting other Marines hidden in the tall grass ahead of them.

Lieutenant Ferland, meanwhile, received a call from his 1st Squad leader, whom he had put in charge of the two-squad action on the left flank. The corporal reported that he had two dead and six wounded. At the same time, Golf’s backup company, B/1/3, which had a wide-open view of events from An Lac, reported that a hundred NVA were visible on either side of the blueline on Golf Three’s flank. In response, Golf’s 60mm mortar section in An Lac commenced firing. While Ferland adjusted the mortars onto the noisy but, to him, basically unseen targets on the far side of the creek (expending most of the mortar section’s ammunition in the process), Vargas directed one of the supporting tanks to swing left and blast the NVA in the hedgerows. Immediately before the tank arrived, a pair of ammo-laden Marines made it up to Ferland’s position in response to his call for more machine-gun ammunition. One of the men was Cpl. Richard R. Britton, an S2 scout with BLT 2/4 who had been attached to Golf that morning after eight months out in the bush with other companies. Britton described his dash up to Ferland:

I slung my M14 on my shoulder, placed a couple of M60 ammo belts around my neck, and picked up two more M60 ammo cans. Another Marine quickly picked up more M60 ammo. The Marines laid down heavy fire, especially the M79 man and a machine gunner, and the other Marine and I raced towards the pinned-down squad with the ammo. Enemy fire hit all around us and RPG rounds screamed past us as we zigzagged our way forward. We dove face down into the ground several times because of the intense enemy fire, but finally reached the forward squad of Marines.

Then the tank arrived. Lieutenant Ferland wanted a fire team to guide it into position on the left. Britton said he’d go. Ferland asked for two more Marines to accompany him, and, as Britton wrote:

Two men quickly moved toward the lieutenant and me, shouting to us they were ready to go. These Marines and I got into position and the lieutenant and his men laid down cover fire. I ran as fast as I could toward the tank. Heavy automatic fire erupted around me and I quickly dove behind a dike. I returned cover fire for the rest of my fire team as best I could, but they got only a short distance before being hit and pinned down. I was way out in the open and I realized if I stayed where I was any longer I would be killed. I burst from my position and ran toward the tank. A bullet struck the heel of my right boot and sent me spinning into the rice paddy. By then I had only a few yards to go to get to the tank. The enemy rifle fire directed at me finally let up. I think the NVA thought they had killed me. I took advantage of the pause and ran to the rear of the tank and took cover.

Corporal Britton climbed onto the tank and shouted instructions to the tank commander. Marines from Golf Three’s 1st and 2d Squads also pointed out targets as the tank fired its 90mm cannon into the enemy entrenchments. Some NVA literally disintegrated in the roar, but others popped up with RPGs over their shoulders. Britton noted that twice as he directed fire he was “knocked off the tank by exploding enemy rockets, but I climbed back on. I was sure the tank would be knocked out of action if it stayed any longer.”

The tank commander felt the same way. The tank had been damaged so that it could move only backward, and backward it went in a noisy, dusty beeline for An Lac. Captain Vargas ran to the retreating vehicle and grabbed the external phone mounted on the rear of the tank. Vargas threatened to court-martial the tank commander if he did not stop, but the excited tanker told him to go to hell and kept on trucking. The tank did, however, make one stop before disappearing into the trees. It stopped to take aboard wounded. One of them was Lance Corporal Lashley with his shattered arm. After he was helped onto the tank’s back deck, he was shocked to see his good buddy, Mike Zywicke, lying there beside the turret. He had no idea that Mike had been hit. Mike was hurt too badly to talk, so Lashley held his hands as the tank started rolling back, bullets ricocheting off its armor.

The tank still on line between Golf Two and Three exhausted its basic load of sixty-seven 90mm HE rounds. This tank also started to retreat, and Captain Vargas, again feeling insanely exposed as he used the external phone at the rear of the tank, chewed out the tank commander. “You can’t leave me out here! Just keep driving for the village!”

“I’m outta ammo! I don’t have any need—”

“There is a need,” Vargas interrupted, “because the psychological effect of a piece of armor coming across the rice paddy, whether it has any ammo or not, is a tremendous weapon!”

The tanker was unconvinced. “I’m getting the hell out of here!” he shouted. Suicide was not part of his game plan.

“No way,” Vargas barked. “You’re going in there with us, or I am personally going to shoot a three-five in your tail!”

Lieutenant Colonel Weise, who was monitoring the radio in An Lac and intended to get more ammo up to the tank, finally got the tanker turned around with a no-nonsense affirmation of his company commander’s threat. “I don’t know what the enemy’s going to do to you, but if you come back here I’m going to blow you away. I’m back here where I can see you, so turn that goddamn tank around!”

In the thick of the fight was, of all people, 1st Lt. Judson D. Hilton, the battalion’s forward air controller. Hilton should have been back in An Lac with Weise, but had mistakenly thought the colonel intended to accompany the assault and had thus tagged along. Hilton shouldered his M14 and sprayed those treetops where he thought snipers were located. Nearby, Staff Sergeant Del Rio caught a glimpse of several NVA who had stood up in the brush to fire on the Marines. They were about sixty meters away, with their backs to Del Rio, and he assumed a sitting-kneeling firing position as he squared his M16 sights on the first of the fully exposed enemy soldiers. Del Rio, previously a competitive shooter, squeezed off a single shot. The NVA pitched face first into the brush. He never knew what hit him, and his overly excited comrades, firing on their own targets, never realized that a Marine marksman was shooting at them from the rear. Del Rio did not fire on automatic. Fire superiority was great, he thought, but he doubted that all the wild, ammo-burning fire of his young Marines really ever hit anything. Del Rio instead fired single shots down the line, dropping the enemy soldiers one at a time as though they were bull’s-eyes on the shooting range.

From the positions their platoons had assumed in the thigh-high grass east and northeast of Dai Do, Lieutenant McAdams of Foxtrot One and Lieutenant Lanham of Foxtrot Three delivered fire into the hamlet to support Golf’s assault. Neither friend nor foe was visible, but Golf marked its progress at intervals with smoke grenades, and Captain Butler made sure that his men fired to the right of the smoke. At one point, though, Butler saw .30-caliber fire from one of the amtracs impacting on Golf’s side of the smoke. Unable to get the amtrac commander on the radio, Butler realized that the young, hard-charging lieutenant was blazing away with a machine gun. Butler shouted at him, “I need you to be a commander, not a gunner! You have somebody else who can do that! I need you on the radio so you can control your troops!”

Enemy soldiers became visible in the distance as they moved back and forth between Dai Do and Dinh To in small groups, and the 106mm recoilless rifles on the amtracs fired at them. In the smoke and dust of the explosions, the effect was not clear, but the recoilless rifles barked until they were almost out of ammunition.

By that time, the missing body of the Foxtrot Marine killed the day before had been recovered, and Lieutenant Colonel Weise instructed Butler to return to the cover of Dong Huan. Shortly thereafter, at 1445, as Foxtrot was just starting to move, the NVA artillery batteries in the DMZ that had been placing intermittent fire on Golf shifted the fire of two of their tubes onto Foxtrot. The enemy did not need to make a single adjustment in their accurate, twenty-round barrage, which—delivered two rounds at a time—whipped shell fragments over the heads of the helpless grunts while showering them with dirt clods and debris.

Eight men were wounded, including Lieutenant Lanham and Staff Sergeant Balignasay, the acting gunny. Balignasay, at forty, was a crewcut, pineapple-shaped Filipino who had fought the Japanese in World War II as a teenage member of the Hukbalahap guerrillas. He was also a Korean War veteran, and was on his second tour in Vietnam. Balignasay was hit when he and seven other Marines sought shelter behind a big boulder, only to have an NVA artillery round land ten feet from them. Balignasay caught a large shell fragment in his upper left thigh. It was a bad, blood-gushing wound. It also happened in a moment of mass confusion, and Balignasay and the men wounded with him were left Where they lay. Most of the Marines were already lying prone. Others jumped up between salvos to put some distance between themselves and the amtracs, which the NVA seemed to be using as registration points, or to lead the retreat into Dong Huan. It was nearly an hour before anyone returned to where Balignasay had been left to bandage himself. Balignasay, on the verge of bleeding to death, was finally loaded into an amtrac.1

The artillery fire also killed three Foxtrot Marines. Private First Class Kachmar ended up evacuating one of the dead grunts, whose head had been blown off, leaving behind just a flap of bloody, hairy scalp. Kachmar first tried to carry the body out, but could not. He was too hot and tired. He finally began dragging the dead Marine behind him, holding the feet under his armpits. When he stopped to catch his breath, he looked at the dog tag laced into the dead man’s jungle boot. It was common practice to wear one dog tag around your neck and one on your boot, the premise being that whatever killed you probably wouldn’t remove both your head and your legs. Kachmar realized that he knew the headless Marine. He saw the man’s face in his mind. He had been a funny little guy, blue eyed and sandy haired, who always seemed to be in trouble with the powers that be. Kachmar couldn’t drag him anymore. Tired as he was, he hoisted the body over his shoulders in a fireman’s carry. Ignoring the blood and body fluids that gushed nauseatingly onto his face and down the front of his flak jacket, he started marching.

Lieutenant Morgan and Golf Two had been ordered to halt when they were 150 meters from Dai Do. The platoon was hunkered down and blindly returning fire against the entrenched enemy when a black Marine was suddenly shot through the throat. The wound was mortal. Next, Lance Corporal Parkins, who was firing his M14 from behind a burial mound, saw his good buddy, Mitch, who was about eight feet to his right behind another mound, get shot in the head. Mitch’s head dropped against the M16’s sights, and blood pumped out onto the plastic stock.

Parkins and Mitch had been trading bursts of automatic fire with a pair of NVA who were somewhere in the hedgerow to their front. The fire that had dropped Mitch gave Parkins a feel for where those two were specifically. Parkins turned his M14 on its side so that the recoil wouldn’t send the barrel up, but would instead allow him to scan side to side with his burst, then began firing into that spot. One of the NVA, wearing a pith helmet, suddenly jumped up to run away. Parkins couldn’t tell if he’d hit the man. Maybe the NVA made it to safety. Probably not: The whole platoon seemed to be shooting at this one and only visible target.

The second NVA who had had Parkins and Mitch in his sights ceased firing, too—the Marines later found him dead in his hole—and Parkins rolled over to his grievously wounded buddy. The side of Mitch’s face was a bloody mess. It looked as though he’d been shot in or along one eye socket, and there was an exit wound behind his ear. Mitch wasn’t screaming. He was in shock, and he asked Parkins if he remembered the words to the song that he’d been trying to teach him before they’d started across the paddies: “I’m on a little vacation in South Vietnam—an expense paid trip for one—I’ve got my own little rifle…”

“Don’t worry about it, Mitch, I got ’Em,” Parkins assured his delirious friend. “Everything looks good. It’s no problem.”

“Am I bleeding?”

“Just a little bit. I think you got grazed on the side of the head.”

Mitch’s voice was small and tentative, as though he was a little scared and not sure what was happening. He kept saying that he was cold and thirsty. The blood was pouring out. Parkins, a nonsmoker, removed the cellophane wrapper from Mitch’s cigarets and used it as a protective cover over one of the wounds before unsnapping Mitch’s first-aid kit and securing a bandage around his head. He did not believe that what he was doing would make a difference.

Golf Company was bogged down for two hours before Captain Vargas was able to position his reserve platoon between his two battered assault platoons and suppress enough of the enemy fire to allow a renewed assault. This time the Marines were able to leapfrog right into Dai Do. Captain Vargas, who carried an M16 plus a .45 pistol in a shoulder holster, caught shell fragments in his right arm while maneuvering toward an NVA machine gun firing from inside a bunker that resembled a burial mound. The bunker was located about a hundred feet in front of the hamlet’s hedgerow edge, and had been bypassed by the first Marines to get into Dai Do. The NVA gunner inside had opened fire on the Marines following them in. Vargas and one of his radiomen got behind the bunker, and the captain flipped the brush-camouflaged top off of it. There were three enemy soldiers inside. Before they could react, Vargas swung his M16 on them, shooting them all at point-blank range. The radioman tossed a grenade in for good measure.

Lieutenant Ferland of Golf Three crawled past a freshly killed NVA on the way in and, because he hated the guaranteed-to-jam M16, took his dead foe’s AK-47. Ferland also pulled the extra ammo magazines off the body and stuffed them in his cargo pocket. Moving to the berm at the hamlet’s edge, he spotted a bare-chested NVA with black shorts and an SKS carbine turning to crawl away from the trenchlike depression that ran down the enemy’s side of the berm. The NVA was about twenty meters away and had his back to both Ferland and a black sergeant who had moved up on the lieutenant’s right. Ferland quickly shouldered his AK-47, sighted in, and squeezed off a single shot at the same time that the black noncom let fly with a burst from his M16. The back of the NVA’s head popped open from what appeared to be a single hit, and Ferland and the NCO jumped over the berm, continuing the assault with the hard-chargers who were up with them, shouting and firing and throwing grenades.

Other young Marines hung back in the tall grass.

Staff Sergeant Wade, the commander of Golf One, reached a ditch beside a trail in the ville. He stopped there with several of his Marines to get reorganized. From a culvert under the ditch an NVA, who must have been hiding inside, suddenly jumped up and began running away from the Marines. Wade cut him down with his M16.

There was little return fire as the Marines worked in teams to clear each entrenchment they encountered in the vegetation. The NVA were in retreat, and could be seen bobbing between hedgerows as they ran. The grunts blasted away at them as Golf Company began sweeping through the right flank of the village. The vegetation was thin enough in spots to see all the way to the paddies on the other side. There were still enough hootches, trees, and hedgerows left that Lieutenant Morgan and Golf Two, anchoring the right flank, had worked forward only about fifty meters when they lost touch with the platoon on their left. The NVA chose that moment to begin lobbing in 82mm mortar rounds on Morgan and his men. One Marine was killed. The other eleven bunched-up Marines in the dead man’s squad were seriously wounded by the first round of what became a five-minute barrage. The attack stalled out. The senior corpsman moved up to help treat the casualties, who were then carried back and loaded aboard the lone tank that was still with them. One man required a tracheotomy. When he was hoisted onto the tank in a poncho, the Marine had a plastic tube sticking from the hollow of his throat and his eyes were crossed. The casualty-stacked tank, never resupplied with ammo, headed back for An Lac.

Captain Vargas, juggling radios, became aware that the 1st and 2d Squads of Golf Three, on the far left flank, had been pinned down again fifty meters short of Dai Do by NVA holding their ground in the hamlet’s southern corner. Vargas got Golf Company moving again. The Marines completed their sweep across the hamlet, then swung around in as even a line as the vegetation allowed to push through to the two pinned-down squads. The forward elements had gone only thirty meters when they came under heavy fire.

The NVA were counterattacking. They could be seen by an aerial observer as they crossed the open space between Dai Do and Dinh To. The aerial observer also reported that he had NVA in the open and likewise moving south from the vicinity of True Kinh, which was about two klicks to the northwest. Artillery and naval gunfire worked them over, as did helicopter gunships with rockets and machine guns. Jets also flashed in to drop bombs and napalm. Enemy in the open in broad daylight was a rare sight, and the pilots were excited as they coordinated with each other on the air net. “Hey, there’s a whole bunch of ’Em down there, over there by that tree on the north end of the village. I’m going in!”

“Let me get in there, let me get in there!”

“No, wait your turn!”

“There’s thirty of them over here in this graveyard. I see some and they got weapons on their shoulders …!”

The situation was not nearly so clear to thinned-down and ammo-light Golf Company. Captain Vargas had his men pop green smoke to mark their positions for the pilots. The Marines thought the air support had allowed their two pinned-down squads to break through, because figures soon became visible running toward them through the brush. A grunt shouted, “Hey, Gunny, more Marines coming on our left!” Del Rio also thought they were Marines—until they got closer. They were NVA, lots of them.

It was 1625. On Captain Vargas’s order, Golf Company began pulling back, but Staff Sergeant Del Rio, only a few steps into the retreat, was sent reeling by an explosion. He came to lying on his back in a shallow trench. He felt as though he’d been knocked out for only a few seconds. It was hard to tell. He realized that his helmet was gone and that he had blood running down his face from a wound on his forehead. He was also bleeding from his left knee. His M16 was gone. Del Rio unholstered his .45 pistol, chambered a round, and was lying there trying to get his brain unscrambled when two NVA suddenly jumped over him. They kept on running. They had looked right at him, but with one bloody leg stretched out in front of him and the other bent underneath, and with blood smeared on his face, the NVA had probably assumed he was dead, despite his open eyes. Del Rio got to his knees and shot one of them in the back. The other NVA darted around a hedgerow and disappeared.

Shit, I’m going to die here! thought Del Rio. In pain and confused about where to go, he joined two wounded and equally disoriented Marines. They helped each other stay on their feet as they moved out. They hoped they were going in the right direction. Another NVA sprang into view to one side of them, running in the same direction but paying them no attention. Del Rio knocked him down with a few shots from his pistol.

Meanwhile, Captain Vargas was standing up to direct his Marines past his command group and rearward some fifty meters more to a drainage ditch that would make a good defensive position. When no more Marines could be seen coming, the rear guard began pulling back. The NVA were right on top of them. Lieutenant Hilton, the misplaced air officer, threw his heavy, reliable M14 rifle to his shoulder and started banging away at those enemy troops he could see as they darted from one spot of cover to the next. The young sergeant walking backward beside Hilton had an M16 in each hand and was firing the weapons simultaneously on full automatic. Vargas was squeezing off his own M16 bursts. Although the NVA exposed themselves for only a few seconds at a time, some of them were going down in the cross fire. Vargas noticed that some of the enemy soldiers didn’t even have weapons in their hands. They were apparently hapless survivors of the original defenders of Dai Do who had been swept up in the counterattack.

Staff Sergeant Del Rio had made it to the edge of the brushy-banked drainage ditch when several NVA, in full, reckless pursuit, came through the bushes where he and a number of Marines were starting to set up. The Marines and NVA collided. Del Rio saw a Marine swing an empty or jammed M16 like a baseball bat. He saw another Marine jump atop an enemy soldier, smashing the man’s head again and again with an entrenching tool. The other NVA ran right through them, as a shocked Del Rio turned to fire his pistol at them.

1. After recuperating from his wound, Balignasay rejoined the battalion and was promoted to gunnery sergeant. Balignasay was awarded the Silver Star for his actions during a highly successful sapper attack on Firebase Russell in February 1969; despite grenade fragments in his face and a bullet wound through his arm, the gunny used his twelve-inch bolo knife from his days as a Huk to dispatch five sappers in hand-to-hand combat.

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