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Captain Bill Dabney Led His Two Companies in a Desperate 77-Day Fight, Where the Only Way Out Was To Be “Flown Off or Blown Off”
Story by R. R. Keene
Photos courtesy of David Powell
The Marines on Hill 881S were by necessity unshaven and unkempt, but they were also stubborn and tough—held together by their Skipper, Capt Bill Dabney. They frustrated the attempts of an overwhelming communist force out to overrun them and capture or destroy the leathernecks holding Khe Sanh.
"The Secretary of the Navy, Washington, D.C. 20350-1000
"The President of the United States takes pleasure in presenting the NAVY CROSS to COLONEL WILLIAM H. DABNEY, UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS for service as set forth in the following CITATION: …"
Colonel William H. "Bill" Dabney, USMC (Ret), 70, was presented the Navy Cross on April 15 in Lexington, Va., at Virginia Military Institute, his alma mater, Class of 1961. It would be the last and most senior medal of many other medals for valor Bill Dabney has received since enlisting as a buck private in 1954. Yet those who know Dabney say the medal is not about him. For Marine officers, it can never be about them, but rather about those whom they lead. The veterans came, 37 of them, from across the country to VMI, to once again honor a man who led them by example and stood by them for 77 harrowing days on a hill called 881 South in Vietnam.
Virginia Military Institute is nestled in the Shenandoah Valley well above the Virginia fall line. It is a long way and a long time from an off-ramp of the Ho Chi Minh Trail known as Khe Sanh, and Hills 881 North and South. VMI and Vietnam are pungent memories. The former recalls the pleasant musk of gray uniforms, white belts, polished buckles and shakos on parade while the latter is of dust-caked helmets and tattered uniforms stinking of one's own filth while hunkered down in the laterite clay between burlap sandbags.
"For extraordinary heroism while serving as Commanding Officer of two heavily reinforced rifle companies of the 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines, in connection with operations against the enemy in the Republic of Vietnam from 21 January to 14 April 1968."
Hill 881S: The Marines there burrowed deep on Dabney's orders, which essentially admonished them to dig, dig, dig to make the trenches deeper. Sleep by day and dig by night. He promised: "I will report the first man I see without his flak jacket and helmet!" His men later would say, "Thank God he made us do it." It had become accepted as a truism, between shovels of clay, "There are only two ways to get off this hill: flown off or blown off."
They were strong, tough men of "India" and "Mike" companies, 3/26. Surrounded by the communist North Vietnamese Army (NVA), they daily risked life and limb for each other. They were so tough they took their R&R at Khe Sanh Combat Base, and they improvised not only to survive, but also to leave an indelible memory of pain on those enemies who would be fortunate enough to survive. The Marines took an unrelenting and brutal pounding and with cool efficiency provided what help they could to other Marines also under siege at Khe Sanh four miles to the east. And in doing so, they inspired others from all U.S. forces providing support in one form or another to the beleaguered garrison at Khe Sanh.
One reason for their tenacity was their "Skipper," Captain Bill Dabney. At 33, he was a well-muscled Mustang who mastered small-unit tactics and creatively commanded an assortment of trench-filthy leathernecks standing up against hordes of NVA infantry and sappers looking to make Khe Sanh another Dien Bien Phu and Hill 881N another Battle of the Little Bighorn. The Marines, however, were neither the French nor the 7th Cavalry, and they boasted when Dabney wasn't in voice range, "Ya know, the Skipper's Chesty's son-in-law," referring to Marine Corps legend Lieutenant General Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller, USMC (Ret), winner of five Navy Crosses.
They had dug in since 26 Dec. 1967 on Hill 881S and Hill 861 (more than a mile east), regimental outposts that had been seized from the NVA in bloody battles the previous spring.
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North Vietnamese Army replacement units had been spotted coming down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. They'd made a left somewhere near Lao Boa, a Laotian ghost town, and Co Roc Mountain, whose formidable cliffs were shrouded in clouds and mystery. Then the NVA units would simply disappear and it became exceptionally quiet.
That was until a Marine reconnaissance team walked into a platoon-size ambush near Hill 881N on 18 Jan. 1968. Dabney sent a platoon from India Co to recover equipment abandoned by the recon team. The platoon ran into what was estimated to be at least a company of NVA.
His interest piqued and antenna up, Dabney knew he needed to quickly head off whatever the NVA were planning. He requested to make a company-size reconnaissance-in-force to Hill 881N about a mile away.
Mike Co, less one platoon, was to hold Hill 881S while India left the knoll and fanned into the jungle below and between the two hills. India Co pushed north and ran headlong into an NVA battalion doggedly marching south. Dabney had forced the cover and shrouds of mystery to come off the NVA, and the bullets, grenades and mortar rounds flew. By nightfall regimental commander Colonel David E. Lownds radioed "India Six Actual" (Dabney's radio call sign) to break contact and get back up 881S. Dabney's men were fighting the battalion that was walking point for two NVA divisions preparing an attack on Hills 881S, 861 and Khe Sanh.
The area erupted into firefights, artillery duels and close-in aerial bombing brought on by a Marine regiment under siege.
"During the entire period, Colonel (then Captain) Dabney's force stubbornly defended Hill 881S, a regimental outpost vital to the defense of the Khe Sanh Combat Base. Following his bold spoiling attack on 20 January 1968, shattering a much larger North Vietnamese Army (NVA) force deploying to attack Hill 881S, Colonel Dabney's force was surrounded and cut off from all outside ground supply for the entire 77 day Siege of Khe Sanh."
As the senior officer, command of Hill 881S and the Marines on it fell to Dabney. Initially it made for crowded conditions with approximately 400 Marines and corpsmen. In addition to India and Mike companies, there were two 81 mm mortars, two 106 mm recoilless rifles and three 105 mm howitzers from Charlie Btry, 1st Bn, 13th Marines. At times, casualties reduced that number to about 250 Marines and corpsmen. Capt Dabney remained with his men through it all, always observing and counting ways to kill his enemies.
"Enemy snipers, machine guns, artillery, and 120-millimeter mortars responded to any daylight movement on his position. In spite of deep entrenchments, his total casualties during the siege were close to 100 percent. Helicopters were his only source of resupply, and each such mission brought down a cauldron of fire on his landing zones. On numerous occasions Colonel Dabney raced into the landing zone under heavy hostile fire to direct debarkation of personnel and to carry wounded Marines to evacuation helicopters. The extreme difficulty of resupply resulted in conditions of hardship and deprivation seldom experienced by American forces."
"Thank God for Marine air," wrote Dabney for the Web site "The Warriors of Hill 881S." Dabney's call sign was India. He recalled the following transmission with the CH-46 helicopter pilot with Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 364 "Purple Foxes" (whose call sign was "Swift").
" 'Swift, India. You're taking rounds above your blades!'
" 'India, Swift. Roger.' The pilot maintained his hover, holding the ramp against the hill. Five casualties aboard now, then another burst from the NVA twin .51s [caliber machine guns].
" 'Swift, India. Hits in your right engine!'
" 'India, Swift. Roger.'
"The pilot continued to hold his hover. The engine started smoking. Another burst. This one hit the deck beside the ramp, catching a stretcher-bearer in the leg. The crew chief jumped off the ramp and pushed the stretcher in, then dragged the wounded bearer aboard. One more emergency wounded to go. We got him aboard, and my HST [helicopter support team] man waved the 'bird' away. (Two of the priority medevacs [medical evacuations] had been stretcher-bearers and had remained aboard. The remaining four and one permanent routine medevac could wait for the next helicopter to arrive at the hill.)