CAPTAIN LIVINGSTON, CO, E BLT 2/4: “AT FIVE O’CLOCK in the morning, I said on the radio, ‘We’re fixin’ to go. Fix bayonets.’ That was really something to hear—all those young fellas, a hundred-fifty-something of ’Em, clicking bayonets. All down the line you could hear these clicks. They were for real.”
During the night of 1-2 May 1968, Battalion Landing Team 2/4 was deployed as follows: G Company (Vargas) was cut off in the eastern tip of Dai Do; F Company (Butler) and H Company (Prescott) were in Dong Huan; and E Company (Livingston) was in An Lac with B/1/3 (Keppen). At 0023 on 2 May, Lieutenant Colonel Weise, who was also in An Lac with his Alpha Command Group, issued his frag order for the next attack on Dai Do. The concept called for E Company to launch a predawn assault into the hamlet with H Company following behind. Once linkup had been achieved with isolated G Company, the three-company attack was to continue through Dai Do and into Dinh To. F Company was to be the BLT reserve. B/1/3 was not to participate. As noted in an after-action report, B/1/3 was “no longer an effective fighting force due to casualties,” so the company was to remain in An Lac to “aid in resupply, medevacs, and provide security for the 81mm mortar section.”
Captain Livingston, CO, E BLT 2/4: “Bravo Company had a lot of bodies still left on the battlefield, which we passed as we began the attack on Dai Do. It’s a sad situation where you’re firing and maneuvering past the bodies of your fellow dead Marines.”
THERE WERE VOICES IN THE DARK ABOUT FIFTY METERS ahead of the burial mounds where Sergeant Rogers’s squad from Echo Three had established its ambush/listening post. There were also the muffled sounds of equipment and weapons. Someone was walking toward them, and Rogers, who did not have a starlight scope, was very concerned that Marines had entered his kill zone. Rogers whispered into his radio handset as he described the situation to the company headquarters, which was two hundred meters to the rear in An Lac. Captain Livingston personally came up on the net to verify that there were no friendly patrols in the area. At the same time, one of Rogers’s men whispered to him, “They’re speakin’ Vietnamese out there.”
It was shortly before dawn on Thursday, 2 May. Captain Livingston thought the NVA might be approaching An Lac to surrender, and he put his Vietnamese interpreter on the radió to tell Rogers what to say to find out. Rogers gave away his position when he called out, “Chieu hoi chieu hoi—”
The reply was an AK-47 burst. The Marines responded with everything they had, including an attached machine-gun team, until there was no more enemy fire. Livingston instructed them to withdraw, and they walked back to the company perimeter as quietly, cautiously, and quickly as they could. Shortly thereafter, when the sun came up and Echo Company was moving in the assault across those same paddies, Rogers’s squad passed the scene of its two-minute contact. The Marines found three dead NVA behind a burial mound, along with the 12.7mm machine gun that they had never had the chance to set up.
“We fought the palace guard at Dai Do,” said Captain Livingston. “They were big guys with new uniforms, brand-new weapons, and closecropped haircuts. They were quality troops.” The NVA were not guerrillas. The NVA stood and fought, nose to nose, and that was the kind of enemy that Echo 6 wanted. “I was impressed at his anxiousness for combat,” wrote Lieutenant Deichman of Golf Company. Deichman had been at An Lac when Livingston had arrived the previous afternoon from the Dong Ha bridge, and he noted that at the time Livingston “sort of had a smile on his face like the combat he had been waiting for had at long last arrived, and he wasn’t going to miss it for the world. He was itching for a fight, and he got one.”
“Captain Livingston was hardcore as hell, well-respected, and sometimes feared,” commented a rifleman about his spartan, cigar-chewing skipper. “Even his voice was gung-ho sounding.”
Captain Livingston, age twenty-eight, was a Georgia farmer’s son. He was a tall man with features that were handsome in a rawboned way. He shaved his head and carried himself with a certain hands-on-hips confidence. He referred to his troops as his youngsters. Livingston’s tour had begun with his assumption of command of E/2/4 on 31 October 1967. The company had just come off Operation Kingfisher, where it had taken serious casualties. Morale was not all it could have been. The company was filled with replacements, including four new lieutenants. Livingston came on hard from the word go. He was, of course, seriously resented by the old salts in the company, especially after he ordered every Marine in the outfit, regardless of time in service, to get a skinhead, boot camp-style haircut. Mustaches were outlawed, and daily shaving was enforced. There was little time to bitch about this new spit V polish skipper, nor was there time to be idle or bored. When Echo Company was not out on combat operations, Livingston was PTing the hell out of them, and when he wasn’t PTing the hell out of them he was holding class or another weapons inspection. Livingston was especially tough on his young, inexperienced lieutenants. At Ai Tu, he’d locked their heels and told them that if they did not get squared away soon they would be relieved of command. He did not have to relieve them, however, because “after I had my platoon commanders clean a platoon’s worth of weapons, they understood what I meant about keeping weapons clean—and about making sure that the troops were shaving, and had clean socks, and those kinds of issues that cause Marines not to be combat ready.” Captain Livingston hated what Vietnam was doing to the Marine Corps. “I was uncompromising. A lot of people were beginning to make accommodations. They had lowered their expectations for their Marines. I kept my Marines looking like Marines. I was death on keeping weapons cleaned, and we were famous for conducting office hours in foxholes.” “Office hours” involved a monetary fine and a black mark in a Marine’s record book, which Livingston and his grand old first sergeant would administer whenever and wherever needed. No-slack Echo Company was also famous for conducting PT on the front lines, even after the battalion had moved from Ai Tu to the sticks around Mai Xa Chanh West. When the tactical situation allowed, Livingston jogged his men around the perimeter in flak jackets, and he had them dig fighting holes large enough in which to do sit-ups, push-ups, and bends-and-thrusts. “We were getting up at oh-five-thirty, before all the other companies, and running around the area doing our morning exercises,” remarked Lieutenant Jones. “That was kind of a local joke within the battalion. We hated it, but we always felt that we were the most ready.”1
On most of Echo Company’s hot and sweaty days in the sand dunes and rice paddies, most of its hot and sweaty young Marines hated Captain Livingston. Ultimately, though, they would agree that his hard, unyielding standards kept them alive. Private First Class Michael Helms, who was grievously wounded at Lam Xuan East, wrote that “we blamed the skipper for our woes because it seemed he was always volunteering us. A lot of us figured he would win the Medal of Honor, or die trying. We used to gripe and bitch among ourselves that he would probably kill us all getting it, but he definitely had our respect and, secretly, our admiration. I can think of no other officer I would rather have around when the shit hit the fan.”
It was not quite light and Echo Company was just saddling up to attack Dai Do when a lone NVA was spotted inside the perimeter. The running soldier appeared as only a half-glimpsed shadow to LCpl. Philip L. Cornwell, a machine-gun team leader in Echo Two. Cornwell fired his M60 at the same time that several other Marines opened up with M16s, and the NVA went down immediately. Cornwell tossed a grenade, then ran to the area with his Colt .45 in hand. The NVA was lying facedown, and when he started to get up Cornwell shot him in the back of the head. It was his first confirmed kill. A machine gunner nicknamed El Toro rushed up to congratulate Cornwell—and to hand him a bayonet. “Here, here, he’s yours!” said El Toro, grinning broadly.
“El Toro was always happy-go-lucky, but that boy was sick,” Cornwell recalled. “He would really smile when he got the chance to cut bodies up.”
This time Cornwell used the bayonet. He cut the ears off his kill.
Cornwell had seen El Toro in action two months earlier in an embattled hamlet that was thick with smoke from burning hootches as the Marines grenaded the enemy bunkers beneath each. The men in Echo Two were in a black mood because one of their most popular comrades had been killed by a defective grenade. When Cornwell tossed a grenade of his own into a bunker, an ancient-looking Vietnamese woman emerged. She stood small and gray and wrinkled on the trail, hands clasped against her chest. No civilians were supposed to be in the area. “The sergeant called to ask what to do with her. Word came back to waste her. I wanted to kill her. She was mine. I threw the grenade in that bunker.” Cornwell put down his machine gun. He wanted to kill her execution-style with his .45-caliber pistol. He started to unholster the weapon. “El Toro beat me to it. He whipped his machine gun up and just put a burst right through her. I always wondered if it would have bothered me if I’d gotten the chance to kill her. When you’re eighteen and in that position day after day, you know you’re going to die. There’s no doubt whatsoever that you’re going to die. The fear, the total fear, cannot be understood. You do things you’re not really proud of.”
As Echo Company’s attack on Dai Do got rolling, two more NVA, previously undetected, were discovered squatting in holes in the tall grass. They immediately raised their hands in surrender. They had apparently deserted their positions in Dai Do and had waited all night to give up. They were quiet and scared, and Lieutenant Jones quickly organized a detail to escort them back to the battalion CP. There they joined two other khaki-clad prisoners, deserters who had approached Hotel Company in Dong Huan during the night with their brand-new, folding-stock AK-47s held over their heads.
Sergeant Ernest L. Pace from the division G2’s Interrogator-Translator Team spoke with the prisoners, then reported directly to Weise. Pace said that one prisoner told him twelve NVA companies were in Dai Do alone, and that they had identified themselves as belonging to the 52d Regiment, 320th NVA Division. The prisoners claimed that the only thing they feared were the air strikes. Weise looked at them before they were loaded into a skimmer for the trip downriver. They were sitting under guard with their hands tied behind their backs. They occasionally looked around with great curiosity, but mostly they had downcast eyes. Weise said later, “I’m sure they were wondering whether they were going to be killed. I was very concerned for their safety. We made it a point to impress the intelligence value of prisoners on our troops all the time, but the men were really upset and you had to be careful.”
“We fixed bayonets and went for it,” Captain Livingston said of Echo Company’s assault on Dai Do. Echo Company did not advance from An Lac behind a smoke screen, nor did it enjoy a rolling barrage to keep NVA heads down. Once again, there were problems with the artillery. Echo’s new FO, GySgt. James Eggleston, who was serving his second of four combat tours, noted that “all I was able to get out of Dong Ha before the assault was just a half-assed prep, maybe thirty rounds for effect from a one-oh-five battery. Hell, that was it.” During the fight itself, Eggleston spotted NVA on the west side of the tributary about a thousand meters away. “I got one round of Willie Peter on them, then a fire support coordinator, a lieutenant in Dong Ha, cease-fired the goddamn mission because he said they were ARVN up there. Those weren’t ARVN, I’ll guarantee you that. Me and that lieutenant had some hard words over the phone.”
Coordination with the ARVN, which did have units on the other side of the creek, was always difficult. Captain Anthony C. Conlon, commander of H/3/12, a 105mm battery at the DHCB, wrote of another problem: “The magnitude of the artillery support [was such that] Hotel Battery expended all ammunition on several occasions during the battle. Needless to say, when calls for fire from BLT 2/4 were corning in and we could not fire due to the paucity of ammunition, I cannot express how helpless we felt.”
Nothing could replace the value of constant, coordinated artillery to an infantry assault, but there was some compensation in this instance: BLT 2/4 had finally been given priority for CAS. The Phantoms and Sky hawks had practically been stacked above Dai Do before this fourth frontal assault commenced on the fortified hamlet. “We were piling in on there,” wrote Livingston, “and, meanwhile, we were using weapons organic to the company, i.e., the M79s, LAWs, rocket launchers, mortars—the whole bag. We were using anything we could find that would shoot, and then it was high-diddle-diddle-right-up-the-middle right across that same paddy again.”
When the NVA in Dai Do opened fire at 0715 on 2 May, Captain Livingston and the company gunny, GySgt. Roscoe Chandler, dropped behind one of the burial mounds dotting the five hundred open meters between An Lac and Dai Do. The lead elements of Echo Company were within two hundred meters of Dai Do. The NVA entrenched in the hedgerows at the hamlet’s edge had waited until the Marines were that close before commencing fire. The first volley included RPGs aimed at the numerous radio antennas in the company command group. Livingston and Chandler kept their heads down momentarily as one explosion after another, about eighteen altogether, virtually disintegrated the burial mound they were hunkered behind.
Captain Livingston had Lieutenant Sims’s Echo Two forward on the left flank, and Lieutenant Jones’s Echo Three on the right. Lieutenant Cecil and Echo One were in reserve. The Marines in the assault platoons could hear bullets thumping into the burial mounds behind which they dove for cover as they ran, crawled, and ducked their way toward Dai Do. Everything was happening in a blur of confusion. At one point, an Echo Two Marine who had gotten ahead of the line was accidentally shot in the back. His flak jacket saved him, but the bullet tore open a magazine in a bandolier slung over his shoulder. The rounds inside began to cook off, and the Marine dropped his M16 as he frantically ripped off his bandoliers and extra machine-gun ammo, knocking off his helmet in the process.
Corporal Nicolas R. Cardona, the wounded man’s incredulous squad leader, screamed at the Marine who had shot him to cease fire. The Marine could not hear him over the din, so Cardona finally ran over, took a hard swing with his helmet, and hit the man on top of his own steel pot.
“Stop firing!” Cardona screamed.
Meanwhile, the wounded Marine stood for a second and gave a visible sigh of relief after ripping away his last bandolier. The NVA shot him in the stomach in that unguarded instant. It was only a flesh wound, but the Marine, understandably shook up, raced rearward, scared out his mind.
Lance Corporal Cornwell’s machine-gun team was advancing with Cardona’s squad. Corn well and his best friend, Danny Wilson—a Boston Irishman with an eagle, globe, and anchor tattoo—were both humping M60s and were both loaded down with ammo. They had just jumped up to run to the next piece of cover when Wilson let out a scream. Corn well spun back and threw himself prone beside him. Wilson had a serious stomach wound, and Cornwell got a battle dressing over the bullet hole as he told his buddy to hang on.
Danny Wilson was taking it well; as soon as a corpsman got to them, Cornwell bounded forward again with his other gunner and the team’s ammo bearer. The trio dropped behind cover that was a fraction of an inch higher than their prone bodies, and started blasting the hedgerow with machine-gun fire. They heaved grenades over the bushes between bursts. Chicoms came back at them, and Cornwell was grazed by a fragment across his right hand as he blazed away. The NVA were right on top of them but impossible to see. In an act of desperate, inexperienced bravery, Cornwell’s gunner jumped up without warning and charged. He fired as he ran, sweeping the hedgerow, but as soon as he crashed through it the enemy dropped him with three rounds in the leg. The gunner started screaming in pain.
When Echo Company began to bog down on the southeastern side of Dai Do, Captain Vargas’s Golf Company attempted to relieve the pressure by sweeping into the hamlet from its previously cutoff position in the eastern corner. Golf Company, whose forty-six members had come through the long night unscathed, went into the assault high in spirits but low in supplies. Lieutenant Acly, for example, had dug in the previous night with a few smokes, no food, and a canteen of muddy water he’d gotten from the bottom of his foxhole after hitting the water table. The Otters that had delivered ammunition had also brought rations, which were distributed to the lowest-ranking men first. There were not enough meals for the officers and noncoms. Acly’s preattack breakfast consisted of a handful of crackers that one of his radiomen shared with him. One grunt later wrote that he was “so thirsty that I was licking the dew off the leaves.”
Staff Sergeant Del Rio, wounded twice in two days and weak from loss of blood, had spent a semisleepless night leaning against some ammo crates with his pistol in hand. He was sick and exhausted, and his whole body ached. When two Otters pulled up, Vargas directed him to get aboard with the other wounded men who had ridden out the night with them.
“Well, Skipper, I’m not that bad.”
“Go on, get on the Otter,” said Vargas.
“Okay.” Deep down, Del Rio didn’t want to argue with the captain. “I was scared, I wanted out,” he said later.2
Captain Vargas no longer had a gunny, but he still had Lieutenant Hilton, the battalion air liaison officer, who had accidentally been swept up in Golf’s initial assault on Dai Do. Hilton had started the morning with a call from Vargas that Dixie Diner 6 was on the battalion net and wanted to talk to him. Weise told Hilton he’d thought he was dead and was glad he was not, then added, “What the hell are you doing with Vargas?”
“Well, sir, I—”
An angry Weise cut him off. “We’ll talk about it later.”
Lieutenant Hilton may have been lost, but it didn’t bother Vargas, who used him as a platoon commander. Hilton had an AK-47 slung over his shoulder and an M79 grenade launcher in hand. As Golf Company’s attack stepped off with a roar of fire, Hilton shouted to the Marines he’d been given temporary command of, “Everybody ready? Okay—fire! Let’s go!”
Hilton started toward the trees his men had just unloaded into. He’d gone maybe a hundred feet before it registered that they were hollering at him, “Lieutenant, Lieutenant—stop! Stop!”
Hilton looked back. No one was with him. They were still at the start line. “Stop, Lieutenant, stop—we gotta reload!”
Hilton hit the deck and called back over his shoulder, “Okay, everybody reload then, goddamnit!”
Things got very serious very quickly. Although the advancing Marines blasted everything ahead of them, they began receiving sporadic return fire about the same time that Echo Company reached the fringes of Dai Do. Lieutenant Ferland of Golf Three sent one fire team after an enemy soldier detected while firing on Echo Company from a camouflaged spi-derhole. The fire team discovered more NVA in a deep trench, which was expertly constructed and camouflaged; the Marines could hear a 60mm mortar pumping out rounds from inside it. Ferland later told the division historical section that when his fire-team leader went after the mortar tube with a hand grenade, “he was shot at several times from an enemy who was no more than about five feet in front of him—yet my fire-team leader could not see him. This is how well they were concealed and dug in. We were unable to secure this mortar tube as far as we know. We did fire M79 rounds and throw hand grenades into that area, not knowing the effect as we were not able to get close enough.”
At one point, Lieutenant Ferland and his radioman, LCpl. Jerry Hester, dropped into an NVA communications trench. Hester had his M16 up as they slowly slid along the trench wall toward a sharp, L-shaped turn. They were about five feet from the turn when an NVA with an AK-47 suddenly sprang from around the corner, fired three or four rounds, and then jumped back. The enemy soldier had taken them completely by surprise, and Ferland had to keep his terrified and enraged radioman from charging recklessly after the man. He told Hester to get against the wall and not move. Ferland himself, moving so fast as to fumble, unholstered his .45-caliber pistol, unwrapped it from its protective plastic bag, and frantically pulled the slide back to chamber a round. He was pressed firmly against the trench wall, and the NVA missed when he jumped out to fire another burst. When the man pulled back, Ferland reached around the corner and blindly squeezed off a few shots of his own. The enemy soldier lunged out again, fired, missed, and disappeared. Ferland played ’possum. He wanted the NVA to think he’d gotten him. Ferland readied himself, and when the soldier made his next move around the corner, the lieutenant shot him squarely in the chest, killing him instantly. Ferland, who’d been acting on adrenaline and instinct, began to shake like a leaf.
Lieutenant David Jones of Echo Three was a hard-charger from Silver Spring, Maryland, who led by example. “If you made a mistake, he wasn’t down on your case,” noted Sergeant Rogers. “He was there showing you how to do it better.” When the squad in the center of Jones’s formation was pinned down by 12.7mm machine-gun fire at the edge of Dai Do, Jones shouted over the din to Rogers, who had the squad on the right flank. Jones wanted Rogers to send two men to help suppress the fire on the center squad.
Sergeant Rogers, a twenty-three-year-old career Marine, told his assistant squad leader to take over, then he moved out with Lance Corporal Frank. Bullets kicked up around the pair as they found a good firing position. When they opened up they saw an NVA jump up to run farther back into the thick vegetation. There was a lull in the enemy fire, but as Lieutenant Jones started pushing everyone forward again Frank suddenly went down, clutching his side in agony. Rogers had to get back to his squad, which was moving into the first hedgerow, but he also needed to get Frank to where a corpsman could assist him.
“Can you walk?” asked Rogers.
“Can you run?”
Sergeant Rogers covered Frank’s withdrawal with his M16 in his right hand and the wounded man’s rifle in his left. When Rogers caught up with his squad, he found his assistant squad leader, Cpl. Joseph C. Pickett, twenty-two, of Chicago, dead with a bullet in his neck. Pickett, a black Marine, had not been the senior corporal in the squad. Rogers had selected him as assistant squad leader, though, by dint of his cheerful, fearless enthusiasm. Private Jerry Fields, a nineteen-year-old black from Lexington, Kentucky, was also dead. He’d been shot in the head.
The squad’s senior corporal was nowhere to be found, however. The word Rogers got was that the noncom, who’d always been a self-centered whiner, had latched onto a wounded man as an excuse to head back across the paddies. He never came back. In fact, Rogers never saw the man again—even after the battle.
Corporal Cardona, a squad leader in Echo Two, finally made it up to the first hedgerow with his radioman. A dilapidated barbed-wire fence, less than two feet high, ran through the overgrown vegetation on the opposite side. A Marine flung himself prone on Cardona’s right, and another made it up to his left.
From the right, a wounded corporal from another squad hollered at Cardona, “There’s somebody in that bush!” Cardona bobbed up to his knees and flipped grenades over the bushes as he tried to see where the enemy was. He could hear the NVA firing but saw nothing. The wounded corporal could see the concussion of the automatic weapon as it shook the leaves, though. “I’m going to fire some cover for you! Come over the fence!” he shouted.
Captain Livingston suddenly appeared beside Cardona to help them get organized. The skipper fired his grease gun into the brush as Cardona shouted at a machine gunner to move up on the left and provide more fire. The Marine started forward with his M60 and, to Cardona’s horror, was immediately wounded. It was now or never. The wounded corporal on the right was still firing to help them over the hump. Cardona shouted at one of his men, Lance Corporal Mitchell, to get over the fence. Mitchell stared at Cardona as though he was crazy. “Mitchell, we gotta go!” Cardona screamed. When Mitchell started to get up, Cardona shoved him over the fence, then hurdled the shrubs himself and went prone. Mitchell was already firing. Cardona squeezed off a few more rounds, then threw a grenade. Other grunts were doing the same, and the enemy Soldier in the bushes was finally silenced.
There were dead NVA in camouflaged spiderholes at the edge of Dai Do, and live ones dug in amid the gutted hootches, hedgerows, and bamboo thickets. Echo Company pressed forward behind a shock wave of M16 and M60 fire. The Marines also used LAWs and M79s against identified enemy positions, then pitched in fragmentation and white phosphorus grenades.
The NVA did not retreat.
One Marine took a direct hit from an RPG—and his blown-off leg went cartwheeling through the air.
Lance Corporal Cornwell was behind another Marine when he saw spiderhole trapdoors abruptly open to either side of the advancing grunt. The Marine hesitated. Before he could decide whom to swing his M16 at first, the NVA shot him in the head. When the situation allowed Cornwell to move forward again, he noticed that the dead Marine had fallen at such an angle that the blood had all rushed to his head. The dead man was purple from the neck up.
Gunnery Sergeant Eggleston, the artillery spotter, crouched over a young Marine who had been hit in the side of the head. The man’s brain was exposed, but he was still coherent. He told Eggleston that he knew he was going to die. As Eggleston wrapped a battle dressing around the wound, he told the man he’d be all right—that he was going to get him back. The gunny hefted the wounded Marine over his shoulders in a fireman’s carry and humped back toward an Otter that had driven up to within a hundred meters of the hamlet.
Gunnery Sergeant Eggleston was a big man, but when he saw several Marines huddled behind one of the burial mounds with an M60 he called to them for help. The Marines did not move. “We’re takin’ fire here!” they shouted back. Eggleston moved on to the Otter without assistance, and got the wounded man propped up on the deck inside the open back door. At that instant, he glimpsed the flash of an RPG being fired from behind the first hedgerow. He turned to see the slow-moving projectile arcing toward the vehicle. Eggleston pushed the wounded man inside with an instinctive shove that was so hard and fast he was afraid he had killed him. Then he dove for cover, losing his helmet in the process. The RPG exploded about twenty meters away, just as Eggleston was hitting the deck. He was grazed across the top of his head, and blood ran down his face. The Otter took off at top speed as soon as the RPG impacted, and he could see the wounded man’s legs bouncing as they hung out the back. Eggleston secured a battle dressing over his own head, tied it under his chin, and put his helmet back on over the thick bandage before starting back into Dai Do in a crouching walk.
Assigned as a machine gunner, Pfc. Marshall J. Serna of Echo Company had also played corpsman and grenadier on the way to Dai Do. He put a lot of rounds through his M60, but he couldn’t see a single NVA; he finally ceased fire and moved to assist the casualties nearest him. Serna grabbed an M79 from one of the wounded men and slung a bag of 40mm shells around his neck. After lobbing several into the first hedgerow, he leapfrogged his way to the next wounded Marine, carrying his M60 in one hand and the M79 in another. By then he was close enough to make some sense of where the NVA had dug in. He fired the M79 at those positions, pausing repeatedly to bandage the wounded man lying beside him. He finally called for a corpsman and charged on through the hedgerow into the hamlet itself.
Someone was shouting, “Machine gun up!”
Serna put down the M79 and clambered into the cleared-out NVA trench from which the call had come. There were about ten Marines in it. The trench was only about forty meters from one that was full of NVA who kept exposing themselves as they rose to fire. There was a bunker in the clearing between the two, and several wounded Marines huddled behind the earthen mound for cover.
“Why hasn’t anybody got those guys?” Serna screamed, furious at the other Marines’ inaction.
He decided to go after the wounded himself.
The irony was that Serna, who had been raised fatherless and on welfare in Pittsburg, California, had previously been a discipline problem in Echo Company. He had a real problem taking orders. Furthermore, Serna was a pothead who got stoned almost every day he was in Vietnam. He got stoned because he was scared.
Serna had never touched marijuana prior to shipping out to Vietnam in November 1967. During his first day in the transient area in Da Nang, however, a fellow grunt had taken pity on the nervous new guy and fired up a nerve-mellowing joint as he rapped with him about the ’nam. From then on, Serna smoked grass whenever and wherever he could get away with it, even on patrol. Although no one in the platoon lit up as enthusiastically as he, there were usually takers when he passed a joint. “We just talked and cracked up,” Serna recalled. “Hey, a lot of things were ugly but after smoking weed, you didn’t give a damn.” The marijuana was never smoked openly, and Serna himself told no one that his nerves had become so jangled that he had graduated to morphine. The only person who knew was the corpsman who supplied Serna with morphine Syrettes from his medical bag. It started the first time Serna saw the doc thump a Syrette into a badly wounded grunt. Serna approached the corpsman afterward and asked, “What the hell did you hit him with? First he’s screamin’, now he’s laughin’? Doc, do you think, you know.…” After that, Serna would shoot up in his fighting hole when no one was looking.
Oh God, Serna thought as he went over the top with his machine gun and dashed to the bunker behind which the wounded Marines were pinned down. He received the Silver Star for what he did next. Serna dropped to his gut atop the bunker and fired his M60 into the enemy trench in front of them. Return fire cracked past his head as several NVA clambered out to charge his machine gun. Everything was happening fast but with a clarity that was almost like slow motion. Serna could see the pith helmets and the banana-shaped magazines in the AK-47s of the NVA charging him. He could see his bursts hitting them, but one NVA would not go down. Serna kept firing. He knew he had hit the man in the chest. It terrified him. He figured the man must be on opium. The guy was going to kill him. Serna flashed back to childhood arguments about Superman, whom he hated, and he remembered how stupid it had seemed when the villains shot the superhero in the chest. He had always said he would have shot Superman in his big fat head. Thinking of that, Sema raised his sights and shot the NVA superman in the head. The enemy soldier finally fell.
Sema threw grenades into the NVA trench, then left his M60 atop the bunker as he grabbed one of the wounded. Hunched over, he dragged the man like a sack back to the Marines’ trench. Then he ran back to his machine gun. No one followed him. These guys are watching me like they’re watching goddamn TV! he thought. Why isn’t anybody helping me? Sema resumed firing, hammering out long bursts that burned out the barrel of his M60. Another machine gun lay nearby in the debris, and he kept firing with that weapon until he turned and grabbed another of the wounded. Sema made it back with the man, and then went back for another, screaming at the other grunts for not assisting him.
“What the hell is wrong with you guys?” Sema clambered back out of the trench, shouting, “The hell with you, man—I’m going to kill these sonsofbitches, man!”
Sema picked up the machine gun and started toward the enemy trench in a killing fury. He hadn’t gone two steps when an enemy soldier, apparently the last one still alive in the position, flung a grenade at him. He saw it tumbling end over end and spun around to jump back onto the mound. The grenade exploded. When he rose back up to try to kill the NVA, Sema saw that his right leg was pumping blood from a wound below the knee. Oh, goddamn, I’m hit! he thought. He couldn’t feel anything, but his leg buckled under him. He lay where he had fallen and bellowed that he was out of ammunition. He was so scared that it took him a moment to remember the ammo bracelet he wore around his wrist. He snapped the half-dozen rounds into the M60 and got behind the weapon to sight in on where the NVA had appeared. Sema waited for the soldier to come up again with another grenade. When the man did, Sema fired a burst into his head and chest. Then Sema passed out.
Awakened during his evacuation by amtrac, Sema was on a stretcher at Mai Xa Chanh West when he saw a newsman lining him up for a photograph. “I don’t need this kind of shit, man, to be showin’ at home.” Serna screamed at the photographer, thinking of his nervous mother.
Bitter and shell-shocked, Serna was in the recovery ward aboard the Iwo Jima when he made a decision. “I knew I had reached my limit,” he recalled. “I’d seen men snap out there and they got people killed. Rather than going back out there and being a worthless piece of shit, I said no, I better end it now.” Serna had been wounded before, but it took three Purple Hearts for an enlisted man to be reassigned off the line, not two, as was the policy for officers. Serna knew one of the corpsmen working the ward, and he talked the man into altering his medical records so that an injury he’d received when burned by a hot machine-gun barrel would show up as enemy related and thus become his ticket out of ’nam. The trick worked, “but to this day it still bothers me because I’m supposed to be a big war hero.”
Lieutenant Ferland of Golf Three slid into an abandoned enemy trench at the forward edge of Dai Do. As the NVA retreated into Dinh To, the next hamlet along the creek, Ferland established radio contact with an aerial observer above the battlefield and called for an air strike.
Lieutenant Ferland’s radioman, Hester, was to his right in the trench. Hester was an easygoing, redheaded country boy whom Ferland thought the world of. Because Hester was strong as an ox and because Ferland wanted to be able to move quickly and freely, Hester humped not only the radio and his gear but most of Ferland’s stuff as well. Ferland appreciated those long handset cords because Hester could not always keep pace, loaded down as he was.
Private First Class Bill McDade, the platoon’s number one grenadier, was to Ferland’s left in the trench. McDade was a tough guy from New York City—the type you’d love to know in combat and hate to know in civilian life, according to Ferland. McDade was impressive with the single-shot M79; he could put three rounds in the air before the first one landed.
As Lieutenant Ferland talked to the aerial observer, an RPG exploded in front of their trench, wounding all three men before they could get the air strike in. Ferland caught a metal fragment in his right eye. He thought that both eyes had been hit because his left one clouded in unison with his right. He grabbed his face and slid down to the trench’s bottom as he exclaimed, “Oh, shit!” Ferland wasn’t in pain, but he couldn’t see anything. His right eye felt very heavy, and he thought it was gone. The pressure was not as severe in his left eye. His first thought was that he’d be able to take up skeet shooting again with that eye. Then reality hit: How the hell are we going to get out of here? he wondered.
Although Ferland had been rejoined by his two squads that had fallen back to An Lacthe previous evening (they had come up with Echo Company), his shot-up platoon could not spare anybody to escort the wounded trio rearward. The only assistance they got was from a corpsman who wrapped a bandage around Ferland’s eyes, treated Hester’s wounded arm, and then tended to McDade, who was semidelirious with a head wound. The idea was to have McDade lead them back through the partially cleared hamlet, with Ferland hanging onto McDade’s web gear with one hand and keeping a grip on his AK-47 with the other. Hester, who was too badly injured to hold a rifle, would bring up the rear. If they ran into anything, Ferland was to blast them at Hester’s direction. After making it back to An Lac without incident, the three became separated along the medevac chain. Lieutenant Ferland was finally helped aboard a Sea Horse that flew him to the USS Repose. He had refused to let go of his folding-stock AK-47 the whole way back, and he still had it in the triage area when a gurney carrying a wounded NVA prisoner was wheeled up beside him. Ferland, who had become delirious and was mumbling to himself, began screaming, “Get this bastard away from me or he’s going to get it!” A Navy chaplain came over to calm Ferland as the prisoner was moved away. The chaplain told Ferland he could keep the AFC’s clip as a souvenir, and Ferland agreed to give up the weapon only if he could toss it overboard. He didn’t want it to wind up as some Navy brass hat’s undeserved trophy. The chaplain helped Ferland off the gurney, led him to the side of the ship, and together they threw the rifle over the railing.3
Lieutenant Morgan of Golf Two never heard the descent of the 82mm mortar rounds that the NVA fired from Dinh To twenty minutes after his platoon reached the far side of Dai Do. No one could hear the mortars being fired over the general din. The Marines were in and around the hedgerow-covered slit trenches that the NVA had vacated, and they were checking their ammunition supply and refilling magazines when explosions began erupting around them. The enemy fire was right on target, and before Morgan knew it he had fifteen more wounded Marines on his hands.
Meanwhile, Captain Livingston, who had caught fragments from two grenades in his right leg, coordinated the evacuation of Echo Company’s approximately ten dead and sixty wounded aboard Otters. The severely wounded included one of the captain’s radio operators. As a corpsman worked on the prostrate radioman, Corporal Cardona’s squad happened to be passing by on its way forward. Livingston called to Cardona that he needed his radioman. This randomly picked replacement would prove to be a good one: He would very shortly help save the captain’s life. Dai Do had been secured, but the battle was not over.
1. Although they had different styles, Captains Livingston, Vargas, and Williams had a lot of faith in each other. They were the mainstays of BLT 2/4 in terms of company leadership during the high-casualty, fast-turnover campaigns along the Cua Viet. As Vargas put it, “The three of us knew that if anything went wrong, the other guy was going to come hell for broke.”
2. Del Rio was awarded a BSMv and his second Purple Heart for Dai Do. His first Purple Heart was the result of a booby trap encountered during his first tour.
3. The metal shard that had lodged behind Lieutenant Ferland’s eyeball was too small and had done too little damage to warrant surgery. The doctors left it where it was, and within four days his eyesight began to return. He went back to BLT 2/4 and became an assistant S3. He later received an end-of-tour NCMv in addition to the BSMv and Purple Heart he got for Dai Do.