Marine Corps Association
For all who have earned and worn the eagle, globe, and anchor, the Marine
Corps Association is the professional organization for all Marines --
Reserve, retired, and Marine veterans. The MCA understands and identifies
the sacrifices made and the services rendered as a Marine to this great
We strive to keep our members informed of developments and future plans,
emphasizing the rich history of the Marine Corps and keeping everyone
abreast of current operations.
CMC has determined that Leatherneck magazine and the Marine Corps Gazette
are mission essential
to help promote professional growth and distribute troop information
[Letter of instruction 1560 / MRV / 30SEPT04.]
These two great publications foster the spirit and traditions of our Corps.
Search the magazine archives back to their
very first issue. Demonstrate your
commitment to the
Marine Corps and join the professional association for all Marines today.
Join, subscribe or give-a-gift of 2 or more years and receive an exclusive
MCA Mission Essential Coin FREE with your paid membership/subscription.
Offer valid through 30 June 2005. (Please reference key code NIMCOM05).
"Just as the helicopter began to move away from the hillside, a couple of rounds from another burst of .51s went through the Plexiglas above the pilot's head. I didn't call.
"Figured he knew about that! The bird limped away, down toward Khe Sanh, black smoke trailing from the right engine.
" 'Swift, India. Thanks.'
" 'India, Swift. Welcome, Anytime.'
"He meant it too! Damnedest feat of pure guts, superb airmanship I'd ever seen! And so it went for 77 days."
As hills around Khe Sanh go, 881S stands out. Any activity, especially that involving helicopters, was noted by everyone in the area. To make matters worse, landing zones tended to be crowded.
Approximately 20 to 30 Marines were forced to work exposed to fire during helicopter operations. "Given volume and accuracy of mortars," Dabney wrote, "we often took more casualties, sometimes multiple."
According to Dabney, "As incoming got more frequent and more accurate … helos picking loads up were at greater risk, and loads themselves were often damaged by shrapnel. We figured out that the NVA tended to leave mortar tubes registered wherever they'd fired the last round, so we switched zones often."
Dabney says "Super Gaggle," a unique logistical support tactic devised by the First Marine Aircraft Wing, contributed to the survival of his Marines and the accomplishment of their mission.
"We grunts had a problem, but the zoomies came up with the solution. It was brilliant! In the first four weeks of battle, six birds were downed on Hill 881S alone, along with a bunch of WIA [wounded in action] aircrews (I don't know how many, since they reported casualties separately). We lost 100 plus KIA [killed in action] or WIA getting them in and out. In the seven weeks after Super Gaggle started, zero birds were downed (although a few were hit by antiaircraft fire), and we had perhaps 20 WIA and zero KIA during resupply. Wow!"
Super Gaggle operations, according to Dabney, required the Marines to register all their mortars on known or suspected AA sites. "At about 10 minutes prior [to helicopter resupply missions, the Marines on 881S would] fire all mortars with white phosphorus (WP) rounds on NVA AA sites. Four A-4s [Skyhawk attack jets] would then attack mortar-marked sites with Zuni rockets. Two more would then drop delay cluster bomb units (CBUs) and high-drag 250-pound bombs in valleys north and south of the hill. Then they would drop napalm along both sides of the hill about 75 to 100 meters out to discourage NVA who would lie on their backs and fire up into the bellies of birds with their AK47s." Finally, two more would lay a WP smokescreen on either side of the hill.
This gave Marines on 881S about two minutes in which helicopters could "land, deliver, pick up [and] get out. What amazed us was that it always worked, even the first time.
"My guess, based on knowledge of Hill 881S casualties both before and after Super Gaggle, is that it saved 150 to 200 casualties and perhaps half a dozen birds."
A special bond developed between the Marines on Hill 881S and the aircrews of HMM-364 and HMM-262, who were the primary source of resupply and only link with the outside world. Dabney said his Marines "knew the Purple Foxes and other helo folks also cared."
Aircrews tried on one occasion to get in several gallons of ice cream. It took awhile and Marines waited until dark because of enemy fire to retrieve the supplies from the landing zones. By then most of the ice cream had melted and the containers were punctured with shrapnel, indicating the aircrews took fire trying to deliver their gift. Although Dabney's Marines didn't get to enjoy the treat, they appreciated the thought. "More than once we watched a crewman lean out a window to toss a bundle of magazines into the zone. We loved them, especially Playboy ."
"During the 77-day siege, we never called for a 'routine' medical evacuation. For us to subject the CH-46 crews to unnecessary exposure was not an option."
When Dabney recalled the bravery of the helicopter crewmen, he also remembered the Shore Party Marines serving as HST. "I have always thought of them as my HSTs. They did, as a matter of routine, what would have, in any other circumstances, been deserving of many heroic awards. I do not recall any medevac, resupply or external load hook-up where the zone was not 'hot.'
"The antiaircraft rounds were always whipping by and the 120 mm mortar rounds were often 'on the way,' and they knew it, yet they did their duty till the bird was gone, then ran like hell and dove into the nearest hole. (I often thought that the way they stood, with their backs to the NVA guns as they guided the helos in, was a superb gesture of disdain.)"
"Nevertheless, Colonel Dabney's indomitable spirit was truly an inspiration to his troops. He organized his defenses with masterful skill and his preplanned fires shattered every enemy probe on his positions."
Dabney recalled the reality. "Our time spent on the hill always seemed a bit surreal, as if we were TAD [temporary additional duty] on another planet.
"I had no rank insignia (not a good idea to wear around NVA), hadn't bathed or shaved in three months. My flak jacket was so worn the plates were falling off, and my trousers were so rotten they'd split at the crotch. I was indecent."
Dabney needed some way for the troops to identify him from a distance, so he didn't wear the camouflage cover on his helmet. "Figured that if I needed camouflage on my helmet, we were all in deep kimchi . We were all a bit scrawny [and] couldn't have passed the PFT if our lives depended on it (PFTs didn't exist then, anyway), but we could hit the deck and roll faster than any other Marines still alive."
It was a hill that was constantly slammed with ordnance and an always-looming threat that an enemy massed in force would, with fixed bayonets, come across the wire. In the meantime the Marines kept busy "ducking rounds, running CAS [close air support], working birds in daytime, pulling in loads, improving defenses and standing 100 percent watch from midnight till dawn 'cuz that's when NVA was likely to attack. Troops did most of their sleeping in daytime. It not only kept them under cover, but saved water and thus birds, since they weren't working in the heat of the day.
"It took a full external load per day just to get us enough water to drink, cook and clean wounds. I took some heat for troops not shaving, not much. No way was I going to ask the Purple Foxes to take those risks so we could look pretty."
Some smart-thinking artilleryman at Dong Ha came up with the idea of filling 155 mm howitzer canisters with water. The canisters were strong and were not likely to burst if dropped. "If rounds hit nearby, we'd lose a few, but most would still be full when we went out after dark to clear zones (too dangerous to clear them in daytime)."
One of Dabney's corpsmen suggested using empty canisters for excrement. "Fill 'em up, screw the top down tight, and pitch them off the hill. That way we didn't have to go through the hassle of getting diesel fuel up and burning excrement cans every day. Wasn't long before another Marine suggested that the last man to use the 'commode' before it was completely full be required to place a grenade, spoon down and pin pulled, into the canister on top of the excrement, screw the top down tight and pitch it off the hill, which was steep. The canister would bounce a good distance down. Every once in a while, late at night, we'd hear an explosion and screams from down below."
Want to have your base newspaper or military publication featured on our site?
Military.com is always on the lookout for more great content. Submit your publication
When the morale took a drop, one private first class wrote a letter to his pastor back home. It started "Operation We Care," which resulted in an abundance of "We Care" packages arriving at 881S. "We also received gin and vodka in plastic baby bottles. A note from one donor, a Korea veteran, said he remembered what a little 'joy juice' could mean to front-line troops, and that he'd used plastic baby bottles because they wouldn't break with rough handling. I recall one load of incoming mail; several days' worth, where letters and packages were riddled with shrapnel and soaked with whiskey from a broken bottle in one of the 'We Care' packages. (Chocolate chip cookies soaked in bourbon weren't that bad.)
"There was a deli in Wantaugh, N.Y., that sent us neat packages including whole salamis, other smoked meat and 'joy juice.' " Dabney explained the "juice" wasn't a problem because "with 250 to 400 men, even large packages had only enough for about one sip per man. Morale did improve because troops realized folks back home cared."
Morale-boosting events weren't limited to actions by the people back home. It started in February and continued every day. "Three Marines would race from the bunker to a 15-foot radio antenna. Two of them would raise our nation's colors, then stand at attention, while the third sounded a rusty rendition of the 'Call to Colors' with a battered bugle. We were never without volunteers for this ceremony. They were proud of themselves and our flag and were willing to get shot at to raise it.
"At night this process was reversed as we retired the colors. Often the retired flag was folded, packed and shipped to the family of a Marine slain on the hill. We had a substantial stockpile of flags sent to us by people all over the country."
"He also devised an early warning system whereby NVA artillery and [rockets firing] from the west were immediately reported by lookouts to the Khe Sanh Combat Base, giving exposed personnel a few life saving seconds to take cover, saving countless lives, and facilitating the targeting of enemy firing positions."
Riflemen burrowed in on the crest of Hill 881S could, through eyes bloodshot and raw from dirt and fatigue, see and hear North Vietnamese artillery and rockets coming up from the hills and valleys of Laos and the Demilitarized Zone. The big artillery rounds going over sounded like squirrels running through dry leaves.
It is an eerie emotion watching large artillery rounds flying overhead. There is awe and much fascination that such large objects can be hurled so far and so accurately. There is death, not some apocalyptical horseman, but the real knowledge that death is riding a rocket and that lives may in seconds end for men who are remarkably like you and only want to live and do their duty.
"For what it is worth, the folks in the Khe Sanh COC [combat operations center] never realized how the NVA artillery was emplaced and employed," Dabney would later comment. Hill 881S had been chosen as a regimental outpost for sound tactical reasons. From the hill, Marines could observe the NVA gunners shoot off their rockets, usually in sheaves of 50 firing simultaneously from several sites toward Khe Sanh. This permitted Dabney's Marines to give the main base about a 10-second warning to sound the alarm and for the Marines there to take cover. While unable to suppress the rockets because of their sheer volume, Dabney's Marines could and did take countermeasures. Dabney had noted the NVA regularly used the same sites over and over, so he employed his mortars and 106 recoilless rifles against them "at night" while they were setting up, sometimes producing secondary explosions.
"Colonel Dabney repeatedly set an incredible example of calm courage under fire, gallantly exposing himself at the center of every action without concern for his own safety. Colonel Dabney contributed decisively to ultimate victory in the Battle of Khe Sanh, [which] ranks among the most heroic stands of any American force in history."
In the end, Khe Sanh and its surrounding outposts were no Dien Bien Phu or even the Alamo. The North Vietnamese, pummeled by artillery and air power, abandoned their siege. Khe Sanh had earned its own place in American history.
"By his valiant combat leadership, exceptional bravery, and selfless devotion to duty, Colonel Dabney reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.
"For the President, /s/ Gordon R. England, Secretary of the Navy"
Thirty-seven years later, Dabney watched VMI's brigade of cadets pass in review before him. Lieutenant General H. P. "Pete" Osman, Deputy Commandant for Manpower and Reserve Affairs, who as a company grade officer had served with Dabney when he was a major, presented the Navy Cross, saying, "Well-deserved if maybe a couple years late."
LtGen Osman also said that Dabney is a positive man who "still sees the glass as half full."
Dabney stood to address those who had traveled or been mustered to honor him. He introduced the VMI cadets to 37 fellow Marines who had served with him on Hill 881S. As they stood up in Jackson Memorial Hall (named for Civil War Confederate LtGen Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson), Dabney said of his men: "These are the citizen-soldiers of the '60s who fought against the same general [Vo Nguyen Giap] who overwhelmed the French at Dien Bien Phu. And [it is these men] who, by enduring, triumphed. It has been the greatest honor of my life to have served with these men in battle."
The cadets of VMI, a school that embodies military discipline and the tradition of the citizen-soldier, and has for more than 173 years graduated some of the nation's best military officers of whom Dabney is one, listened. "Many of you will lead the citizen-soldiers of this nation in Iraq and Afghanistan. You will find them, as I did, awesome in their courage and determination."
Later they all talked long into the night and heard of other men such as Second Lieutenant Thomas D. Brindley, Corporal Charles W. Bryan, 2dLt Michael H. Thomas, who earned Navy Crosses, and Cpl Terry L. Smith, who earned the Silver Star, all posthumously on Hill 881S, all "awesome in their courage and determination."
Editor's note: Col Dabney's actual battle descriptions are from the Purple Foxes' Web site: The Warriors of Hill 881S .
Hill 881S will be a featured attraction when The National Museum of the Marine Corps opens in November 2006 outside of Quantico, Va. Visitors will be treated to an "immersion experience" when they step off the rear ramp of a helicopter and onto a reconstructed exhibition of Hill 881S.
© 2005 Leatherneck Magazine. All rights reserved.