Surrounded

THE NORTH-SOUTH DRAINAGE DITCH THAT BECAME GOLF Company’s rallying point, and from behind which the Marines rose to fire, had bushes growing thickly along both banks. They had to shoot blindly through the vegetation, and lob their hand grenades and M79 fire at the unseen foe. The volume of their barrage compensated for what it lacked in accuracy, and the NVA were forced to seek cover. The enemy counterattack lost its momentum.

Captain Vargas had forty-five men with him along the ditch. He had a dozen or so other men, the survivors of the two squads on the left flank, pinned down in their own little last-stand position. Golf Company had started toward Dai Do with more than 150 Marines.

The NVA, having regrouped, tried to outflank the Marines at a point where Lieutenant Morgan and Golf Two had formed a line facing north above the drainage ditch. When fifteen to twenty NVA moved down a trench flinging Chicom grenades ahead of them, what was left of Golf Two began pulling back. They had no choice. They had expended almost all their ammunition repelling the first counterattack, and many a grunt’s M16 had failed so often that he had broken the weapon down, thrown away the bolt, and picked up an AK-47 instead.

Fortunately, the check-fire on artillery support had finally been lifted, so Lieutenant Acly quickly worked up a fire mission to put HE on the NVA trying to outflank them—an act for which he later got a Bronze Star. It took five minutes to go through the fire support bureaucracy, then two 105mm howitzers began firing from Camp Kistler. Golf was on the gun-target line, so each round roared in over their heads. Acly, who was behind a burial mound with his radioman and could not actually see the enemy, started the barrage long and then worked it back to within fifty meters of their position. The two tubes fired one round every thirty seconds, maintaining that pace—one shell crashing right after the other, for fifteen minutes until the enemy fire petered out.

“I was really worried about Golf Company,” Lieutenant Colonel Weise later wrote. At the same time the NVA launched their ground assault on G BLT 2/4, they also shelled Weise’s CP and B/1/3 in An Lac, and F and H BLT 2/4 in Dong Huan. When the NVA initiated their flanking maneuver some thirty-five minutes later, at about 1700 on 1 May, Weise had Golf’s perimeter boxed in with naval gunfire, artillery, and 81mm and 4.2-inch mortar fire. “But something more was needed to take the pressure off Vargas and give the enemy something else to worry about,” wrote Weise. That something was B/1/3, and Weise’s account noted that, “from its location in An Lac, Bravo Company, mounted on amtracs, would move quickly north (about 500 meters) into the southern edge of Dai Do, dismount, and fight its way to link up with Golf.”

As Bravo moved out of An Lac, Captain Livingston’s Echo Company began moving in. Livingston, who was super gungho, had monitored the battalion tac net since the battle began the previous morning, and had chafed at his role as guardian of the Dong Ha bridge under the opcon of the 3d Marine Division. Weise had sorely missed the presence of Captain Jim, as he called his longest-serving company commander, and had made repeated requests through regiment for Echo Company’s return. When Golf ran into serious resistance in the opening moves of its assault on Dai Do, Weise’s requests became more desperate.

Division headquarters, which had its own concerns about an NVA drive down Route 1, finally relented, and Weise wrote, “My morale went up several notches when I learned that Echo Company had been released by 3d Marine Division and was en route to my position in An Lac.”1

It was a two-kilometer hump from E Company’s bridge position northeast to the stream it would have to cross to reach An Lac. Captain Livingston put his best officer, Lieutenant Jones, on point with Echo Three, and they started down a footpath that sliced through deserted hamlets and fallow farmland. The trail took them to the brushy bank of the creek, where it ran past Dai Do. Here, the point squad, led by Sgt. James W. Rogers, spotted an NVA squad on the other side. The enemy wore pith helmets and fatigues, and they were swinging AK-47s as they moved at a fast trot through the high grass in the hamlet. In seconds they would be gone. Jones couldn’t afford to wait to get permission from the captain to engage them, so he told Rogers to open fire. There were about a dozen ammo-heavy Marines in the point squad. They all cut loose, creating a terrific roar with their automatic weapons and grenade launchers.

The NVA disappeared into the brush without returning a single shot. Lieutenant Jones wanted to pursue, but Livingston pulled in the reins. “No way!” he shouted over the radio. “Our job is to get across the creek and hook up with battalion.”

Captain Livingston, following behind with 2d Lt. Michael L. Cecil’s Echo One and 1st Lt. James Sims’s Echo Two, began taking fire from Dong Lai, which was due north of them. A hundred open meters lay between the hamlet and the grassy burial mounds behind which Echo One and Two dropped to begin lobbing M79 rounds and firing M60s in return. There were only a handful of NVA in Dong Lai, and the Marines could not see any of them through the cover of hedgerows and banana trees in the village.

The NVA could see them, though. Sergeant Elbert E. Cox, Jr., a machine-gun section leader, was shot in the back of the head. Cox was a big man, age twenty-five, from Chesapeake, Virginia. He was a veteran of Operation Kingfisher, but though a competent and experienced NCO, his men considered him abrasive and he was immensely unpopular. Sergeant Cox lay in the grass now, gasping for air and crying out, “Oh, mom, I’m hit!” The cry sent chills down the backs of the grunts who had run up to wrap useless bandages around Cox’s shattered head, and console this man they disliked. “Don’t worry, Sarge, you’ll be all right.… Corpsman, up!”

Sergeant Cox died. Lance Corporal Anthony Taylor, a rifleman in Echo Two, was also hit by a sniper from Dong Lai. He died, too. Taylor had been an easygoing, twenty-one-year-old black from Newark, New Jersey.

Hey, this ain’t my war, right? thought LCpl. Van A. Hahner. The enemy fire had gotten heavy, and Hahner, who’d only recently been attached to Echo Company with a two-man regimental sniper team, had his head down and a cigaret lit. Hahner had been in-country nine months. He didn’t see any use in shooting at what he couldn’t see. This was a job for arty. The team sniper, for whom Hahner acted as cover man, was similarly uninvolved. An angry lieutenant shouted at them, “Throw some sniper fire back!” The sniper went first. He rose up from behind their mound with his Remington Model 700, but before he could focus the scope he had to drop back down to avoid the rounds suddenly cracking past his head. It was Hahner’s turn. He shouldered his heavy, hard-kicking M14 as he came up and fired into the hamlet about six feet over the heads of the Marines pinned down in front of him. Having killed a bush or two, he dropped back behind the mound. There, he thought. I’ve done my duty.

“Hey, you’re Marines’ right by us!”

“He’s not hitting you, so don’t worry about it!” the lieutenant shouted at the Marines caught in the middle. He then turned his attention back to the sniper team. “I thought I told you to return fire!” he shouted.

Hahner got off several more quick shots before two bullets from the other side smacked into the headstone atop his burial mound. The rounds hit with dusty blasts about an inch below his eyes, and he went down quickly. Man, I’ve had enough of this, Hahner thought. The lieutenant kept bugging him, so he decided he was going to be cool. He wasn’t going to go over the top again. But as soon as Hahner put his left knee out, before he could even fire from around the side of the mound in a crouched position, the NVA marksman shot him. The round went through his leg in a straight line from shin to thigh, and zipped on out to graze his rib cage. Hahner let out a scream as he was knocked down. Two Marines, under fire themselves, quickly pulled him back behind the mound. The pain was immediate, but so was Hahner’s relief that he had not been shot in the stomach. It was his first thought. He knew he would live.

Hahner had the presence of mind to hand the shoulder rig for his .357 Colt Python to his partner and ask him to get the pistol back to one of the men in their sniper section. It was a commercial handgun, and Hahner had not finished paying the man for it. A corpsman tore open the bloody trouser leg and gave him an encouraging grin. “Hey, you got a million-dollar wound, baby—you’re goin’ home. You’re okay.…”

The sniper made one more go of it with his long-barreled, bolt-action rifle, but was dropped by a round that went through his arm. Unable to get artillery support, Captain Livingston had his 60mm mortar section pump a barrage of white phosphorus (WP) and HE on Dong Lai. While the NVAs’ heads were down, Echo One and Two pushed past the fortified hamlet and joined Echo Three along the creek, which ran southeast another five hundred meters to the Bo Dieu River. Echo Company followed it down, using the four-foot bank as cover. When the Marines were opposite An Lac, Sergeant Rogers’s point squad forded the sluggish, muddy, hundred-foot-wide obstacle. Lieutenant Jones dropped his helmet and unshouldered his flak jacket and pack in the hasty perimeter that Jones established, then waded back into the water. Livingston followed him and, joined by a half-dozen other tall Marines planted at intervals across the neck-deep tributary, helped the rest of the company across. Everyone felt terribly exposed out there. The line moved fast.

“I don’t think we were really keeping anything too dry,” recalled Lieutenant Jones. “We were just moving ’Em across, shoving ’Em across—and keeping ’Em from going under.” The NVA fired an occasional sniper round at them without effect. At one point Jones, who was facing north in midstream, saw a slow-moving RPG coming right down the creek at them. He ducked under the water. “I think I counted to a thousand.”

At 1745, when B/1/3 was still three hundred meters short of its linkup with Golf Company, the amtracs atop which the Marines rode became the targets of AK-47 and RPG fire from NVA entrenched in Dai Do’s southern corner. The effect was immediate. The Marines dismounted and sought shelter behind the burial mounds in the high grass of the open field. Bravo Company’s new commander, 1st Lt. T. A. Brown, who had transferred from D/1/3 only that morning, tried to organize an assault on the hamlet. When he realized that no one but his radioman was following him, he started back—only to have a rocket-propelled grenade explode behind him. Brown was seriously wounded in the shoulder.

Lieutenant Keppen, the greenhorn platoon commander, was again the only officer left in Bravo Company. He was losing people very quickly to the devastating NVA fire, and he screamed hysterically on the radio, “You gotta help me! We’re surrounded out here! They’re all over the place! They’re going to kill us all!”

Captain Vargas came up on the net. “Now listen to me, Bravo, take it easy. I’m right over here. You’re okay. Just pull your line in and talk to your people and stop yelling. Stop yelling and calm down and you’ll be all right.…” Vargas explained to Keppen that if he pulled Bravo Company back to An Lac, as he was shouting that he was going to do, outnumbered Golf might be overrun. Keppen came around as Vargas kept talking. He was confused and inexperienced, but he was no coward. Given some direction, he did the best he could in a desperate situation. Vargas could offer Keppen no more than moral support at the time, though, because as noted in the battalion journal, “The CO of Company G reported that NVA troops had moved between Company B and his position, making it difficult for either Company B or Company G to take the enemy under fire without endangering friendly troops.”

One of the Bravo Company corpsmen was screaming for help. Crawling as low as a snake, Pfc. Paul F. “Birdshit” Roughan, ammo bearer for a machine-gun team—and a tough, rough-edged eighteen year old from Worcester, Massachusetts—worked his way up to the corpsman’s burial mound from the cover of his own. Roughan was not with his team because their M60 had been disabled by a direct hit. He left his own weapon and ammo with his team so he could get closer to the earth. There was a paddy dike to the left of the corpsman’s mound, and the corpsman—barely able to get his head up for all the fire—pointed out the casualties he had spotted on the other side, the side facing the invisible enemy in the hedgerows. Roughan could see both casualties. One of them, a black Marine, was obviously dead. The other, a white Marine named Blakesley, was sprawled across the dead grunt. Blakesley had multiple wounds and was moaning deliriously, “Corpsman … corpsman …”

What an eerie, ungodly call, Roughan thought. He and the corpsman spent several minutes behind the mound, trying to figure out how to get to Blakesley. The corpsman, completely unnerved, handed his medical bag to Roughan. “It’s impossible, we can’t get to him! Don’t even try it, it’s crazy!”

The corpsman bounded rearward. You skinny little shit! Roughan thought, enraged. The sonofabitch asks for a volunteer, and then didi maus when the shit gets too hot! Blakesley was still moaning for a corpsman. Oh shit, how am I going to do this? Roughan figured the only way to get Blakesley was in an unburdened fireman’s carry. He kept his helmet on, but shrugged out of his hot and heavy flak jacket. He also left the corpsman’s bag as he shoved off on his belly toward the dike that separated him from the wounded man. He had covered about fifty feet when something exploded a few meters to his left. When he came back to reality, he felt no pain. He was just numb, except for the warm sensation of blood running down his neck. He’d been hit on the left side of the back of the neck, and he felt along the painless edge of the pockmark, trying to determine the extent of his injuries. He did not discover the exit wound on the other side.

Roughan bellowed for a corpsman. He could still hear Blakesley’s delirious groaning. When he realized that no one was coming for them, he crawled back to the mound. Too tired to keep pushing along on his belly, he continued rearward in a stumbling crouch with his head tilted to the right, cradled in his right hand, to staunch the flow of blood. His team leader’s helmeted head popped up from behind another mound. “Hey, Birdie, whataya doin’ comin’ back here? I thought you volunteered to help the doc?”

“I’ve been hit, I’ve been hit!” Roughan shouted.

After pulling Roughan behind the mound, the gunner secured a battle dressing around his ammo bearer’s neck. The last thing Roughan said to the four-man M60 team with which he had spent the four best and worst months of his life seemed very important at the time: “Any more pogey bait packages I might get while I’m doing time in the hospital, just open ’Em up and share ’Em.”

Crawling again until that became too tiring, Roughan completed his under-fire maneuver to An Lac in an exhausted, zigzagging stagger. He was placed aboard a skimmer—the driver had one hand on the throttle, and a .45 in the other—and taken downriver to Mai Xa Chanh West. The beach there was crowded with casualties. Roughan, numb and spent, lay on his back and called to a corpsman, “Can I have some water?”

“Sure you can,” came the reply.

“Can I have a smoke?”

“Sure, no problem.”

Oh shit, he thought. This is not a good sign. Roughan had been taught that casualties should not even ask for these things because they could adversely affect them. He was afraid that he was so far gone that the corpsmen weren’t even observing the usual precautions. Mustering his best John Wayne drawl for the corpsman, Roughan said, “Well, Doc, whaddya think my chances are?”

“Hey, where there’s life, there’s hope.”

A Sea Horse landed and two Marines lifted Roughan’s litter. He did not know that other Marines had pulled Blakesley to safety. All he knew was that he had failed. He thought he had left the man to die. He felt guilty and angry—and sad, too. He knew that the camaraderie of Bravo Company was something he would miss forever. As they lifted his stretcher into the chopper, he realized he was crying.

By the afternoon of the second day of the Battle of Dai Do, the beachfront hamlet of An Lac had become a going concern. Lieutenant Colonel Weise had established the antenna farm of his Alpha Command Group in the village, and he had brought forward his hard-charging S2, Capt. Richard J. Murphy (call sign Dixie Deuce), to take charge of the various elements gathered there. These included the 60mm mortar sections from B/ 1/3 and Golf Company, as well as BLT 2/4’s 81mm mortar platoon, the amtrac platoon, the reconnaissance platoon, and various medical and communications personnel. The BLT’s forward supply point had also been established in An Lac. Newly arrived Echo Company assumed security positions around the hamlet as B/1/3 struggled under fire to reach Dai Do.

An Lac was the first step in the medevac chain. Navy corps-men performed initial triage there before the wounded were evacuated by skimmer to Mai Xa Chanh West Further emergency treatment was rendered by the Navy surgeons and corps-men at the battalion aid station on the beach. Sea Horses from HMM-362 then flew the casualties to either the USS Iwo Jima or the hospital ship Repose.

This extended medevac chain was the result of lessons learned. During BLT 2/4’s initial operations above the Cua Viet, company commanders requested emergency medevacs whenever a man was seriously wounded. Although Marine pilots would brave enemy fire, the overly protective rules under which they operated did not allow them to fly through the artillery and naval gunfire being employed by the ground unit in need. A request for an emergency medevac thus resulted in a check-fire. Major Warren commented in his postbattle dialogue with the division historical section:

Invariably, we may save the life of one Marine and lose the life of three or four more because of not having the fire. It took us a while to learn this lesson, but once we did learn it, then we always established a forward triage station to which we would bring the wounded people regardless of the severity of the wound, knowing full well that we might lose some in the evacuation process. From the forward triage station, we would take immediate first-aid, life saving action and then move them back to the Charlie Papa, which could be as much as two or three miles from the forward triage station.

Helicopters could land at the CP at Mai Xa Chanh West without a check-fire being imposed on the engaged units in Dai Do. Warren added that because the medevac system allowed continual artillery fires it became “one of the things that allowed us to even exist in this particular battle where the enemy were so numerically superior.”

Colonel Hull, meanwhile, was not satisfied with the support provided by Marine chopper units. The issue was not courage but rather institutions. Hull had seen U.S. Army helicopters in action in the 3d Marine Division TAOR and had been much impressed. The emphasis of the Army aviation units had been on providing maximum support to the ground unit in need, and their flexible, mission-oriented doctrine allowed their dust-off pilots to make the most of their guts, initiative, and flying skills. The Army pilots flew in bad weather and landed in hot LZs that Marine pilots were usually not permitted near. The Army pilots did not require artillery check-fires when conducting medevac missions, and could thus perform the lifesaving function without disrupting the conduct of ground operations.

“These people do more with helicopters than we do,” Colonel Hull stated during his end-of-tour debriefing in July 1968. He added that Marine aviation units were overly interested in husbanding their assets. During the Battle of Dai Do, Capt. L. L. Forehand, BLT 2/4’s S4, used his Helicopter Support Team (HST) to establish an LZ opposite An Lac on the south shore of the Bo Dieu. This LZ was, Forehand wrote later,

in close proximity to the rear fringe of the battle area but not under either direct or indirect enemy fire. This was done on my order to shorten the distance for transporting casualties [but] at no time would any USMC helicopter touch down near the battle area. One aircraft did eventually land, refused casualties, and departed. When questioned via radio by both myself and the HST Team Leader, the pilot replied he was afraid of drawing fire. At that point he did, and I missed.

Captain Forehand recounted later that he delivered the friendly fire with an M16, and that he “put a magazine after the sonofabitch.”

It is unknown how many seriously wounded Marines died on the Dai Do battlefield because of the lack of helicopter medevacs. Major Warren stated that of the 287 casualties who were medevacked from Mai Xa Chanh West, “there were only four [who] died of wounds in the process of the evacuation or the treatment back aboard the ship.”

Those numbers were so low because of the tremendous care the wounded received on the beach at Mai Xa Chanh West from the first doctors they saw, Lieutenants Frederick P. Lillis and Runas Powers of the Navy Medical Corps. “Our battalion surgeons and their team worked wonders by saving numerous lives, limbs, and organs,” said Warren, who was a witness to their work on boatload after boatload of maimed young Marines. “You splint it, clean it, patch it, put an IV in, and the helicopters are right there to take ’Em back to the ship,” explained Lillis. Everyone did their tireless part. “Somebody on the ship even sent us X-ray film and developer. Well, of course, we were ten miles from any electrical plug—but someone was trying to help.”

When the Battle of Dai Do was over, Dr. Powers was recommended for a Bronze Star Medal with Combat V. Dr. Lillis was not. Both were draftees who had no intention of serving beyond their two-year obligations. Neither had volunteered to serve with a grunt battalion. Lillis made no bones about his desire to be reassigned to shipboard hospital duty. Powers, a thin, soft-spoken, and self-deprecating black doctor, adapted to the situation and earned the admiration of all who knew him. Lillis, on the other hand, had no interest in the staff responsibilities of a battalion surgeon, and conducted himself in a casual, irreverent manner that rubbed Weise and others the wrong way. There were those who liked Lillis, however, including one of his corpsmen, Roger Pittman, who described the doctor as “tall, gangly, and friendly. He was a free-thinker and a neat guy. He was not military, and his nonmilitary personal conduct did not lend itself well to the hardcore. He liked to mix in with the troops.”

“I didn’t answer the colonel as briskly and as professionally as the rest of his officers did,” Lillis reflected. “I probably should have.” It was not that the longer-haired, laid-back Lillis was antimilitary. It was more that he was amilitary. “The military was unnatural for me, and since I was Navy and since I was medical, I felt I didn’t have to put up with all that regimentation stuff.” Captain Butler, who also liked Lillis, was in the CP when an F Company corpsman called with a medical question. “I remember somebody explaining to Lillis how to use the radio, to say, ‘Fox Six, this is Dixie Diner Med,’ et cetera,” said Butler. “They went through a real long explanation, and then Lillis picks up the handset and says, ‘Hello?’ It just had everybody in stitches, but that’s the way he was.”

Another real character who played a support role in the Battle of Dai Do was Lang Forehand, the battalion logistics officer. Although irreverent, his otherwise forceful, rough-and-ready persona was one that Weise approved of enthusiastically. He was a crazy bastard and a fighter, and he was smart. During the engagement, Forehand constantly shuttled by skimmer between Mai Xa Chanh West and his forward supply point at An Lac. Weise later wrote that this up-front and exceptionally well-organized logistics officer “performed miracles with his Otter drivers and supply personnel.…These unsung heroes kept our assault units resupplied and evacuated the wounded, often exposing themselves to direct enemy fire.”

Captain Forehand had been the S4 of 2/4 since October 1967, and he loved Bill Weise. He was a graduate of North Georgia College, a military school, and had been a Marine for thirteen years. He was the product of a distinguished and fairly wealthy Southern family whose roots in Jesup, Georgia, predated the Revolutionary War, and whose male members were mostly doctors, lawyers, and military officers. His uncle was a general, and his father an admiral. Lang Forehand, however, was a black sheep. He had been married and divorced once before going to Vietnam, and passed over twice for promotion. He did things his way, and he stepped on toes. He never did make major. “Although he had a Southern accent, he looked more like a tough guy from the streets of Brooklyn,” said Weise. “He was a former boxer, and he was known to punch a few guys out in bars. Anybody pushed him hard enough, you had a fight on your hands.”

Whatever Captain Forehand’s sins were, they were not related to the battlefield. He had served a brief orientation tour with the ARVN in 1964, and had landed in Santo Domingo as the commander of an antitank company during the Dominican Republic expedition of 1965. Since his assignment to 2/4, he had done nothing but impress Weise:

Lang Forehand was one hundred percent Marine, and nothing would stop him: he would get the job done. He was very effective as a leader, and he could think along with you. When he was listening to what my tactical plan was, Lang was already thinking in terms of “how many boxes of machine-gun ammo, how many eighty-one rounds, how much resupply in water and rations and so forth will be required? If they’re moving around this way, I figure I’ll resupply ’Em right here and they ought to be here by this time.…”He had his logistics plan worked out by the time you were done briefing your company commanders, and he listened to what their plans were and could tell exactly where to resupply them.

Captain Forehand, who was thirty-seven years old at the time of Dai Do, very much wanted to command a rifle company in combat. He never did get a company, but his seven-month tour as S4 got him Bronze Star and Navy Commendation Medals with Combat V. His BSMv was for the battalion’s assault on Vinh Quan Thuong, and the citation read in part: “When the triage area came under a heavy volume of small-arms fire, Captain Forehand unhesitatingly manned the .50-caliber machine gun mounted on his vehicle, and as it advanced toward an enemy position, he killed three soldiers and caused several others to flee.”

Captain Forehand’s role at Dai Do was pivotal, although essentially routine. The systems that worked were already in place, to include using skimmers to transport supplies from the BLT CP to the scene of combat, and to evacuate casualties. It was a nonstop round-robin, and no trip was made, either way, with an empty boat. The Otter crews also earned their pay in the resupply effort. Forehand wrote that even though the M76 Otter “was always broke,” the boxy, open-topped, tracked vehicle “did more than it was ever designed to do.” The Otter was able to negotiate water obstacles by floating. “The vehicle was totally devoid of armor,” Forehand continued, “had a high profile on land, and was mounted with a .50-cal MG that invited RPGs. It was slow and ungainly in water, but could and did perform in places that would not support an LVT. These craft were invaluable and those who manned them were completely without fear.”

Incredibly, BLT 2/4’s Logistical Support Group suffered only one casualty during the Dai Do debacle. This was Forehand’s own radioman, who was shot in the arm while he and the captain were up one of the tributaries in their skimmer. The casualties would have been worse except that on the second day of the battle, Weise assigned Lieutenant Muter’s recon platoon to the logistical lifeline. Forehand used it to secure the forward triage station at An Lac, as well as to control the skimmer evacuations. Come nightfall, Forehand and Muter would personally accompany a small recon detachment to place strobe lights at certain points along the river to guide the skimmers and Otters in the round-the-clock resupply effort.

“Charlie was doing what he was paid to do, which was more than I can say for Division and Regimental staff,” wrote Captain Forehand. Their lack of support capstoned his bitter opinion that the Weise breed of warrior was the exception to senior officers who were generally unable “to force themselves to leave their underground bunkers long enough to see that there was a shooting war in progress.”

With no help coming from higher headquarters, BLT 2/4 survived the Dai Do engagement, logistically speaking, thanks to the five-day supply level that Forehand maintained at the CP at all times. Major Warren noted that he’d “never been in a battalion that had as much in the way of ammunition and supplies,” and this prestocked surplus, unreplenished by the powers that be, was just enough to carry the battalion through the battle. BLT 2/4 had those supplies going into the fight because Forehand had a behind-the-scenes network of logistical personnel in place at strategic points along the Da Nang-to-Dong Ha supply chain. “Best thieves I ever had,” Forehand remarked. Forehand also worked behind the lines. He found the junior officers in charge of supporting activities at the DHCB eager to help, unlike their superiors. When several overused 4.2-inch mortars malfunctioned during the battle, Forehand went directly to the captain who controlled the ordnance technicians at the DHCB. He traded the captain several captured AK-47s for the immediate, no-red-tape use of one of his teams. The technicians accompanied Forehand back to the BLT CP aboard his skimmer, and in short order the mortars were firing again.

There were repercussions. Immediately after the battle, the division G4, a colonel with whom Forehand had had some well-chosen words over the long haul, had both Forehand and the ordnance captain standing tall before his field desk at the DHCB. The colonel was a heavy set, cannonball-shaped man whom Forehand referred to as Dong Ha Fats. The colonel was furious with them for going behind his back. He accused Forehand of insubordination and grand theft. “That really bothers me, Colonel, that gets me right under my cigarets,”. answered the hot-tempered Forehand, who was within days of rotation and who had already decided to resign his commission. “Look, Colonel, as big as you are, I couldn’t miss you at this range if I tried.”

“Major Warren had been doing a tremendous job running things at our Command Post at Mai Xa Chanh, especially hounding Regiment and Division for more air and artillery support,” wrote Weise of his radio-juggling operations officer. Warren himself wrote that much of the planning for day two at Dai Do had “involved trying to convince higher headquarters that BLT 2/4 was in fact engaging an enemy force of substantial size.” Warren did not consider himself successful in his efforts to bring down upon the NVA in Dai Do the amount of firepower that their numbers deserved. Division seemed singularly focused on the stretch of Route 1 above Dong Ha (during the day, 3/9 and the ARVN made significant contacts in that area), and regiment appeared overly concerned with possible enemy exploitation of the thinning line along Jones Creek. Except for ill-fated B/1/3, the BLT received no reinforcements. Warren wrote of the “slowness of various echelons of command to realize just how serious the Dai Do threat was,” and he later commented that, in his frustration, his radio conversations with regiment “were bordering on the irrational because I knew that Bill Weise was in a shit sandwich, and I was so emotional about the need to get reinforcements there immediately.”

During Golf Company’s grueling assault on Dai Do, Major Warren had spoken in harsh tones with his regimental counterpart, Major Murphy, about the need to at least get Echo Company and Foxtrot’s detached platoon back in the game. Murphy responded by invoking the regimental commander’s name: “The order from Colonel Hull is that Weise should belly up.”

The sight of the smoke over Dai Do, visible from the CP, caused Warren to explode at this hint that Weise was bellyaching and dragging his feet. “He’s so goddamn close that his belly’s getting split open! We need some help!”

Warren was convinced that regiment never fully appreciated the intensity of the Dai Do action. He knew, however, that the tall, imposing, and intense Major Murphy was an intelligent, hands-on combat Marine. He also knew that Murphy and Hull were beholden to division, and it was division headquarters, in fact, that appeared most disconnected from reality. Warren reflected that Murphy’s own frustrations with the powers that be must also have been substantial. Warren was correct. Major Murphy was particularly disenchanted with Major General Tompkins. Neither Tompkins nor any member of the 3d Marine Division staff visited BLT 2/4 during the entire Dai Do debacle, and Murphy later wrote that he and Hull believed that the general “had gotten very tired and aged a lot during the first months of 1968. During Dai Do he was more concerned about Khe Sanh, and one night after a long day on the river in the boat, Colonel Hull told him so in rather heated words. They were both physically beat so we calmed the situation with some coffee.”

Major General Tompkins had been a Marine for thirty-two years. He was a wiry, peppery, hawk-nosed man who earned his Navy Cross as a battalion commander on Saipan in World War II. Tompkins had performed superbly during the Tet Offensive and the siege of Khe Sanh. His frequent helicopter trips into Khe Sanh had been made at great personal risk, flown as they were through the rocket and artillery fire that pounded the airstrip at the surrounded combat base. The division that Tompkins commanded was itself overextended and undersupported. There was a lot going on and not enough help to go around. Dai Do was not an event that Tompkins completely overlooked. Captain William H. Dabney, an assistant division operations officer (and a former Khe Sanh company commander), noted that as the sun set on G BLT 2/4’s precarious, cutoff position on day two at Dai Do, Major General Tompkins walked into the division CP in the DHCB “and directed, without preamble, that all 3d MarDiv tubes that could range on Dai Do shift trails immediately and be prepared to fire at max Ammunition Supply Rate all night!”

With the NVA fully occupied with B/1/3, which was caught in the open, Captain Vargas moved Golf Company a hundred meters back from the drainage ditch to an area with better cover in the eastern corner of Dai Do. An emergency ammo resupply mission was made by several Otters that came up from An Lac through the cemetery at Dai Do’s eastern tip, an approach that shielded the vehicles from the majority of enemy fire. After his men finished loading up, Vargas moved Golf another hundred meters into the cover of those burial mounds. His forward observer, Lieutenant Acly, organized several simultaneous artillery missions on Dai Do and on NVA reinforcements reported to be east of Thuong Do and Dinh To. The roar of artillery was nearly continuous. The only breaks came when a check-fire was called to let in the occasional air strike.

It was getting dark, and the fire on Golf was reduced to sporadic sniping. During the lull, Vargas called up his platoon commanders. They decided to dig in where they were and ride out the night with continuous illumination above and a ring of artillery fire around their tight perimeter. Golf would have been too exposed had it tried to cross the open paddies east to Dong Huan or back south to An Lac.

Meanwhile, B/1/3, pinned down in the open, fire-swept paddies three hundred meters from Dai Do’s southern corner, was too shot up to effect its assigned linkup with Golf Company. Bravo Company was too shot up to even evacuate its casual ties. Lieutenant Colonel Weise instructed Lieutenant Muter to use his recon platoon and the cover of the gathering darkness to begin moving Bravo’s casualties back the two hundred meters to An Lac. Muter personally led the back-and-forth, under-fire expeditions into the paddy to drag the wounded rearward. Weise would have expected no less from the cocky, fearless, twenty-five-year-old Muter, who was a married man and a doctor’s son from Macon, Georgia. Weise wrote that Muter “seemed to be everywhere, always informed, and ready to do whatever was required without fanfare. Having Lieutenant Muter and his platoon was like having an extra rifle company.” Forehand added that “Muter was typical recon: ‘I can not be killed.…I am iron.…’”2

The NVA were already pumping 60mm and 82mm mortar fire on Bravo Company, and a 12.7mm machine gun was burning tracers over the Marines’ pinned-down heads when enemy artillery began to hit Bravo’s mixed-up, spread-out positions. Enemy shells also fell on Dong Huan. Weise, in contact with inexperienced Lieutenant Keppen, gave Bravo Company permission to pull back to An Lac if he could account for all his casualties. The dead were to be left where they had fallen. Otters assisted with the evacuation of the last of the wounded, then the company straggled rearward under the light of flares and assumed defensive positions.

Captain Livingston spoke with Bravo Company’s few surviving NCOs, who looked shell-shocked, and with Lieutenant Keppen. “The lieutenant had had about all he could handle, but he was fairly responsive. I sort of took the fatherly approach. I spent a lot of time trying to get him calmed down, get him organized, and remind him that he was a leader and he had to take responsibility for his actions and the actions of his outfit.”3

Captain Livingston then helped reorganize Keppen’s lines, as well as the two isolated Golf Company squads previously pinned down on the left flank, which had been able to fall back with Bravo Company. “Those kids were all in a state of near shock,” Livingston said. “They’d really had the shit beat out of them, but I told them they had to get their stuff together because they might be back in this thing and we might have to depend on them.” During the night, Bravo Company heard something to the front; Captain Murphy, in command of the An Lac perimeter, described how “one or two men on the lines opened up with AK-47s. The rest of the men on the line, being acclimatized to the very familiar and peculiar sound of an AK-47, thought they were under attack—and we had an entire company just firing wildly at no particular enemy at all.”

Captain Vargas and the other forty-five Golf Company Marines cut off in Dai Do were hunkered down behind burial mounds or in holes they had hastily scooped out with their entrenching tools. It was a tight, virtually back-to-back perimeter. The NVA attacked under the cover of darkness. Acly, the forward observer, adjusted fire missions to within fifty meters. The NVA were most active on Golf Three’s side of the line, and they came at the grunts there as shadows that leapfrogged forward in the moments of darkness between illumination rounds—darting, dropping down, then popping up to fire AK-47s. Their tracers were bright green. Their RPGs thumped in with white flashes. Hilton, the misplaced air officer, had recovered an M79 from a medevacked grunt, and although he had never handled a grenade launcher before, he quickly became an expert. The artillery fired a salvo of variable time rounds, which delivered devastating airbursts and turned night into day above the open fields—catching a group of enemy soldiers in startling, freeze-framed clarity as they walked through the tall grass in a fast crouch, helmets on, automatic weapons held in both hands at the waist.

Hilton started lobbing M79 rounds. Nearby, an M60 gunner laced the field with a stream of red tracers. Marines who hadn’t seen a thing liberally expended ammo where the machine-gun fire was impacting.

Golf Three later counted ten dead NVA to its front. Golf One didn’t get any clear shots. Golf Two spotted an NVA soldier carrying a light machine gun as he walked out of Dai Do. The man did not fire, and he made no attempt to conceal himself. He was apparently unaware that he could be seen. The Marines dropped him.

Weise had made an emergency request for a flareship, and at 2030 one came on station to orbit Dai Do and provide nonstop, parachute-borne illumination. The flareship turned the battlefield into a brightly lit stage, and the NVA probes petered out. One NVA, however, attempted his own personal banzai charge. “He looked like he was delivering the L.A. Times,” recalled Captain Vargas. “His arms were full of grenades, and he was just throwing them and walking around.” Marines fired on the NVA and he went down—but then he got back to his feet. Incredulous, Vargas shouldered his Ml6 and put two rounds into the man’s chest. The NVA was unfazed, and kept throwing grenades. He finally collapsed after multiple hits. “He must have been on drugs,” Vargas said later. “There’s nothing else that can psyche anybody up that way to take that much punishment and just keep bouncing back up.”

Captain Vargas requested an emergency ammunition resupply during the relative lull in the enemy action. The Marines, although they had liberally expended ammo on every half-seen bump in the night, still had a fair amount left—just not enough to repel a major attack. An Otter made a daring run up from An Lac, but someone had been under the impression that Golf still had tanks in support: The Otter carried only 90mm rounds. Vargas gripped his radio handset and shouted, “Hey, Dixie Diner Six, we got a bunch of tank ammo out here! What the hell am I going to do with that?”

“Oh, shit. We’ll get you some ammo—”

“What the hell am I going to do with these ninety-millimeter rounds? Hit them with a hammer? I can’t shove them in a goddamn M16, sir. For Christ’s sake! I need some ammo.”

“Don’t worry, don’t worry, I’ll get it to you. Hang in there—we’ll get you ammo.” Weise then turned to Captain Forehand, who was even angrier than the colonel when informed of the mix-up. “Well, I’ll be a goddamned sonofabitch!” Forehand cursed in the night. “What asshole did that?” Weise told Forehand to hustle some small-arms ammunition up to Golf Company ASAP. He did not expect Forehand to do it himself, but Forehand swung aboard an Otter after making sure that it was loaded with the right stuff, and roared off across the wide-open, flare-lit paddies. “We got fat on grenades, and we got fat on M16 rounds,” said Vargas. “Then they drove off into the darkness. How the hell they ever got through there without getting shot, I’ll never know.”

“Thanks for the ammunition!” Vargas told Weise. He was laughing like hell. “You can’t imagine who just came here!”

“Yeah, it was the Four.”

“How’d you know?”

“Well, he heard about what happened, and he went out and unscrewed it.”

Lieutenant Acly, who had called in ninety minutes of continuous artillery to break the back of the ground attack, kept the NVA off balance during the lull by shelling Dai Do in thirty-minute intervals for the rest of the night. The shellings were configured as a TOT, or time on target. A TOT involved several artillery batteries firing on the same target, but at different times based on their different distances from the target, so that their rounds were coordinated to all impact in the same second. Each battery computed the time of flight to the target, and when a countdown was given each knew at what point to commence firing. The result was a devastating, twenty-in-one explosion that smothered a target and gave the enemy no time to react. It did, however, give the exhausted grunts time to get some sleep.

1. The commencement of E BLT 2/4’s move was inopportune in one regard: The troops, when ordered to saddle up, had just been clambering aboard several supply trucks that had arrived at their bridge position from the DHCB. The trucks were stacked not with C rations but with real food. The Marines had time only to stuff some oranges in their cargo pockets. They had to leave the steaks, soda, and ice cream untouched.

2. During Lieutenant Muter’s Vietnam tour (August 1967-September 1968), he was awarded the Silver Star, two BSMv, four NCMv, and two Purple Hearts.

3. Keppen, who got better with experience like most new lieutenants, continued serving with B/1/3 until killed in a mortar attack on Mutter Ridge on 7 July 1968.

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