Battle of Dai Do
Thomas Calabrese– It was the darkest part of the morning on April 30, 1968 as a U.S. Navy utility boat motored down the Bo Dieu River just south of Vietnam’s demilitarized zone. Hidden in the dense vegetation along the shore, 100 heavily armed North Vietnamese Army troops watched silently.
As the boat neared their position located just south of the convergence of the Cua Viet River, a little less than a mile downstream from Dong Ha in the Quang Tri province, the commander of the NVA force fired the first shot. It signaled the others to unleash a barrage of rocket propelled grenades, small arms fire and recoilless rifle rounds. The attack killed one sailor and wounded six more and heralded the beginning of the three-day fight as the Battle of Dai Do.
Dai Do was one of five hamlets (along with An Lac, Dinh To, Dong Huan, and Thuong Do). They are clustered on a small peninsula where the Bo Dieu River emptied into the Cua Viet River, a major U.S. military water transportation link during the Vietnam War. Supplies flowed up the Cua Viet from the Gulf Of Tonkin to Dong Ha, the supply hub for 3rd Marine Division and troops at Khe Sanh, Camp Carroll, the Rockpile, Con Thien and several fire support bases.
Sergeant Ray Richards was with Lima Company, 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines and was two months into his second tour in country and based at Mai Xa Chanh about three miles north of the Dai Do village complex. The peninsula itself was under the control of the South Vietnamese 2nd Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN)
While on routine patrols in the weeks prior to the attack, Sergeant Richards noticed that camouflaged defenses, including trenches, fighting holes and A-frame bunkers were being constructed at strategic locations. He already had a mistrust of the South Vietnamese soldiers in the area so he didn’t buy the explanation that this was part of their defensive strategy. Sergeant Richard had seen enough of North Vietnamese construction during his last tour to see the distinct similarities now. He reported his suspicions to his platoon commander, who in turn forwarded the Intel up the chain of command. U.S. Intelligence already had a tumultuous relationship with the South Vietnamese commanders so when they were told that everything was under control, the Americans did not question, investigate or dispute their allies’ reassurances.
When Sergeant Richards found out that nothing was going to be done about the construction, he prepared for the inevitable and he didn’t have long to wait to get the next bit of bad news. His sense of foreboding only became worse when he was told by an interpreter that he heard from a villager that the VC commander’s brother-in-law was an officer in the ARVN unit. What Ray didn’t know was that 6000 men from three full regiments of the 320th NVA Division had made their way onto the peninsula with the tacit approval of the ARVN command, heavily outnumbering the Marines in the area.
Prior to this battle, contact with the NVA had been potshots, ambushes and hit-and-run jungle fighting, but at Dai Do, the enemy stood and fought, there would be no retreat this time. Either the Marines or the NVA would die, there would be no other options.
Once the fighting began, the NVA already had effective fields of fire and made effective use of their fighting positions. If there was any good news, and it wasn’t much, it was that Ray was not surprised when all hell broke loose. He already had his men ready to go with double the amount of ammo and explosives that each one usually carried. His orders were to take 3rd platoon and cross the stream at Bac Vong and get a foothold on the other side.
Ray had been in the Corps long enough to have developed selective amnesia and as soon as he was given his mission, he completely forgot about the breakdown in intelligence and focused on the task at hand. His men boarded two Amtracs (amphibious tractors) and were accompanied by two M-48 tanks. They immediately came under intense fire from the villages of Dong Huan and Dai Do as soon as they crossed the stream. Ray ordered his men to take cover and quickly evaluated the situation, then began moving up and down the line to situate his Marines to defend their position. The M-60 machine guns were set up and began returning fire. Three NVA soldiers tried to breech the Marines’ perimeter and Ray shot them a split second before they saw him. A sniper began taking out the NVA soldiers and as soon as one went down, another took his place. There seemed to be an endless supply of enemy soldiers.
Ray called out, “Radioman!”
Lance Corporal David Munsey came running up with the PR-25 (portable radio) strapped to his back and Ray took the headset and began calling in air strikes from Navy ships, helicopters gunships, fixed wing aircraft and artillery. After accurate bombardment silenced most of the enemy’s incoming fire, Ray called in white phosphorous and smoke shells fired from by the 12th Marine artillery batteries. When that ceased, Ray lead his men toward Dong Huan before the cover of the smoke dissipated. Along the way they crossed paths with Lieutenant Bob Crowder and his platoon of men running just a couple steps ahead of enemy gunfire. They dove for cover right on top of Sergeant Richards’ Marines who were hunkered down in a ravine. Another time, these Marines would be fighting among themselves about being crowded and jumped on, but today everybody was just happy to be out of the line of fire, even if it was only a temporary reprieve.
“I’m going to call the ARVNs’ for help,” Lt. Crowder called out in panic.
“I wouldn’t do that,” Ray warned as a rocket propelled grenade whistled overhead and hit a building ten feet from his location.
“We don’t have any choice, we’re about to be overrun!” Lt. Crowder screamed out in panic.
“My men and I are fine, you want them, you take ‘em,” Ray called to his men, “We’re moving out, check your weapons, make sure you got full magazines loaded!”
Ray led his men toward the Bo Dieu river shoreline and passed two Amtracs that were knocked out of action by NVA rocket propelled grenades. It couldn’t have been more than a few minutes ago that were hit, because they were still on fire.
Radioman Munsey called out, “Sergeant, you’re going to want to hear this.”
Ray ran over and listened to the radio chatter, “We’re being overrun!” and immediately recognized the voice of Lt. Crowder and shook his head “I warned him.”
“We’re not going back, are we?” Pfc Federson asked.
“There’s got to be somebody else who heard their radio call, let them go,” Corporal Nadalson commented.
Ray looked at his men and didn’t feel he had the right to order them to go back, “I’m goin, you can stay here if you want.”
As soon as Ray turned around and started walking down the trail, his men didn’t hesitate to fall in behind him. When they got to Lt. Crowder’s position, Sergeant Richards saw that his fellow Marines were caught in a deadly crossfire. He led his men to a position where they could come up behind the superior NVA force. With the help of helicopter gunships, they killed most of the enemy and the remainder of NVA troops retreated.
Lt. Crowder was equally enraged and confused, “I saw the ARVN’s coming our way, but instead of helping, they went past us and right behind them were the damn NVA! What the hell!”
Ray shrugged, “I think that we’ll have a better chance of staying alive if we keep this an American only operation.”
By the time Ray, Lt. Crowder and their Marines reached the southern end of the peninsula, Lt. Colonel Weise was coordinating action from a Monitor gunboat on the Bo Dieu River. The NVA troops were entrenched in An Lac and within five minutes of the firefight they had killed seven Marines and wounded 14 others. Ray and his men joined up with remnants of Bravo and Fox Companies and dug in for the night while mortar and artillery fire kept the enemy at bay.
As a bright yellow sun rose on May 1, Ray observed 40 to 50 enemy sappers (explosive experts) crawling up a ravine toward their position. Every Marine knew the seriousness of the situation if even one of these sappers reached their position so they unleashed everything they had and literally stopped them dead in their tracks, a tangle mass of bodies filled the ravine. As they prepared to move out, Captain Vardal took a headcount of his men and turned to Ray in shock, “At this same time yesterday morning, I had 123 men and now I’m down to 41.”
Ray had a bad feeling that no matter how bad things were right now, they were only going to get worse. There was nothing he could tell his Marines that would make any difference either. The Marines had passed the point about thinking about their own survival and were now dealing with the reality that their final demise was inevitable. They just wanted to do their duty, go down fighting and join their fallen brothers. Each Marine had a captured AK-47 and some even carried two. The orders didn’t need to be sent down the chain of command. They were so simple that that not even the newest boots in country could get it wrong, “If it’s not a Marine, kill it before it kills you.”
The NVA had made a significant investment in manpower to win this battle and they were not going to give up. Intense close combat; toe-to toe, hand-to hand and house to house fighting ensued and just when the Marines started to make progress, long range artillery from north of the DMZ force them back. Fox Company attempted to help by attacking Dai Do, but was stopped short. Lt. Colonel Weise ordered Bravo Company to fight its way to Golf Company, but its advance was also stalled.
Ray and his Marines met up with Echo Company on the west side of the peninsula and they headed to An Lac at 1735 hours. Once they arrived, Ray volunteered to go out with a recon platoon to help Bravo Company collect its wounded and bring them back to an American held position.
If the Marines were fighting a force similar to their own size, they would be making significant progress in the battle, but that was not the case. The NVA were sending wave after wave of men at the Americans and no matter how many went down, they just kept coming and coming.
The Marines were reaching the point of total exhaustion and no scientific theory could explain what reservoir of strength that they tapped into to keep going. Some Marines were wounded, but continued fighting while bleeding profusely until eventually they just fell over from loss of blood. It was impossible to estimate the courage of the Corpsmen who were running from wounded Marine to wounded Marine to provide life- saving medical care while exposing themselves to deadly fire.
Once such hero was Doc Ferrer, who turned to Ray when he saw a Marine go down from a shot to his abdomen, “Cover me!” then rushed into the barrage of enemy gunfire while Ray grabbed an M-60 machine gun from a nearby Marine and sprayed the enemy’s position with 7.62 mm rounds. Doc Ferrer put the seriously wounded Marine on his back and rushed to return to American lines. An NVA soldier suddenly appeared and Doc Ferrer drew his .45 sidearm so quickly that it would have made a western gunslinger proud and shot the enemy in the chest. Ray rushed out to help carry the Marine and felt the impact of the enemy bullet as it hit his helmet, snapped his neck back and ricocheted off.
A steady influx of medivac choppers were landing and taking off with the wounded. During interrogation, one of enemy prisoners confessed that at least 12 NVA companies were in Dai Do.
The battle plan was quickly devised; Echo Company would fight its way to Golf Company and both units would attack Dai Do, Hotel Company would be held in reserve while Fox Company held Dong Huan and Bravo Company secured An Lac.
“I need to get back to Lima Company,” Ray told Lt. Colonel Weise.
“The last I heard they got pulled back after getting caught in an ambush. We need every man right here.”
“Roger that,” Ray responded and found himself getting dizzy. He put his hand out to steady himself against a wall.
“Get some chow and some rest Sergeant, that’s an order,” Lt. Colonel Weise said.
When Ray got back to his men, they were literally passed out on the ground like discarded litter. When he stepped over Corporal Holmes’ limp body, the Marine jumped up screaming and began searching for his weapon.
“Take it easy, I’m a friendly.” Ray commented in a monotone voice.
Corporal Holmes stared blankly for several seconds then fell back down and went back to sleep. Ray didn’t even know where he got the c-rations and wasn’t sure what he was eating until the can was half empty, “Ham and Lima Beans,” then took two more swallows and realized that he had lost his sense of taste. Ray took off his helmet and looked at the two inch indentation from the bullet, pulled out a felt tipped pen from his pack and wrote KIA (killed in action) above it. This was his way of reminding himself that he was living on borrowed time.
At 0500 hours the assault began and the Marines hit 100 enemy bunkers with flamethrowers, satchel charges and (LAAW’s) light anti-armor weapons. The NVA soldiers that managed to survive, engaged the Marines in hand to hand combat, but at 0930 hours, the Marines prevailed and took a much deserved break. Ray and several Marines dragged four dead NVA soldiers out of a bunker and collapsed into a pile of flesh, blood and sweat, each moment of rest was a treasured possession to these valiant warriors.
Ten minutes later, when their heart rates finally dropped out of the triple digit range, the Marines sighed in relief when they thought the battle was over. It was not to be though, the NVA launched a vicious counterattack supported by long range artillery from north of the DMZ.
Ray stood up and looked around, “Hey, that’s not enemy artillery, that’s Saint Peter calling us; Hey Marine, what are you waiting for, the gate is closing, you’d better hurry up.”
Another time and another place and the battle weary Marines would have looked at Sergeant Ray Richards like he was crazy, but this was a strange and brutal time in history. Anything that helped these men make it through one more battle including self-induced lunacy was welcomed.
Corporal Ochoa seconded the hallucination and put his hand to his ear, “You’re right, I can hear it too. What was that you said, Saint Pete? What am I doing down here in the mud and blood? You’ve got a nice clean cloud waiting for me? Okay, be patience I’ll be up there any minute.”
As the Marines prepared to move out, Pfc Wicker walked over to Ray and whispered through quivering lips, “I don’t think I can do this anymore.”
“I agree, it’s pretty tough around here. Good luck, but in case you’ve forgotten, we’re surrounded. It’s going to be just as bad running away and it is going to be running forward, so pick your poison.”
Pfc Wicker thought about his decision for a few seconds then called out to Corporal Ochoa, “Hey Manny, save me a cloud.”
By the time, Ray and a dozen Marines reached Dinh To, the NVA automatic weapons fire was so heavy, it was literally mowing down banana trees and elephant grass like a lawnmower. Behind the wall of bullets, the bushes seemed to be moving on their own, alive with heavily camouflaged NVA soldiers.
It was wartime whack-a mole, for every time a Marine shot an NVA soldier, another popped up in his place. When Ray saw a sniper from Hotel Company go down, he rushed over and grabbed the modified version of the Remington Model 700 and two bandoliers of ammunition and ran for high ground. In twenty minutes Ray spotted three NVA 12.7mm machine guns and began eliminating the enemy every time they were replaced. He killed 20 NVA soldiers and wounded a dozen more in less than ten minutes. Every Marine who was able to shoot, including the seriously wounded had a weapon in his hands and was firing.
NVA forces moved in between Hotel and Echo Companies and began infiltrating the American positions. The warning was shouted down the line, “Danger Close! Danger Close! Broken Arrow! Broken Arrow!”
American artillery and naval gunfire unleashed their massive power on American and NVA alike. When the barrage lifted, the Marines regrouped and aided by reinforcements they drove the remaining NVA forces back across the DMZ. The three day battle seemed like a lifetime to many and was the end of life to others.
Sergeant Ray Richards was sitting at the edge of the LZ (landing zone) as helicopters took off and landed. The sound of the spinning chopper blades surprisingly had a relaxing and hypnotic effect on him and he couldn’t help, but remember what a seasoned combat veteran told him during the early part of his first tour in the Vietnam War. ‘Battles are fought by scared men who would rather be somewhere else.’
The Battle of Dai Do would go down as one of the epic battles of the Vietnam War, but it will also be remembered for something else; even when Marines are vastly outnumbered, they are never outfought.