Then-Captain William Dabney, photographed on Hill 881S. (Courtesy of David Powell)
It isn't often that one can look back in time and know exactly when life changed. I can. While serving as a contract historian on the National Museum of the Marine Corps project, I traveled to New York for a meeting with Batwin and Robin Productions. Also in attendance was Colonel Joseph Alexander. His last instructions to me during that meeting were "Learn everything you can possibly learn about the siege of 881S and the resupply of the hill outposts around Khe Sanh Combat Base." I never imagined that simple tasking would change my life so completely.
India Company's position on 881S, during the siege. To the right of center, 881N can be seen. (Courtesy of David Powell)
Upon my return to Virginia, I began work. I read everything I could find on Khe Sanh Combat Base and the surrounding hill outposts. When I finally felt I had a solid background, I contacted Major Frank Gulledge, who served as the webmaster for "The Warriors of 881S." Over the course of the next several months I spoke at length with a number of veterans, Marines who had served on the ground, as well as those who had resupplied the beleaguered outpost by air. One of these veterans was Colonel William Dabney, who commanded the Marines on the hill. He was more than willing to field any questions I had, to offer his opinion on a variety of subjects. By this time, I was completely hooked on the story of 881S. I asked Colonel Dabney if he would take the time to speak with me at length about his service in Vietnam. He was ... but only if I was "properly prepared." Colonel Dabney proceeded to email me a very extensive reading list! I learned something about Colonel Dabney that day ... he demanded excellence of himself, and expected it in others.
So who was Colonel Bill Dabney?
Born on 28 September, 1934 in New Brunswick, Canada, Dabney was the son of Hugh and Mary Dabney, a Virginia native. After moving to the United States in the 1940s, Dabney enrolled in Yale University in 1953. A year later, he left Yale and enlisted in the Marine Corps. Upon graduation from recruit training, Dabney reported to the Third Marine Division on Okinawa ... and was promptly put on mess duty for 71 consecutive days. Assigned to the communication station at the northern training area, it was during this time that he decided the Marine Corps would be his life, not as an enlisted man, but as an officer. Said Dabney, "I was so impressed by the dedication and competence of the officers I'd seen, and I thought, 'this would be a great way to spend a career."
Discharged as a sergeant in 1957, Dabney served with 100th Rifle Company, Marine Corps Reserves while attending Virginia Military Institute. There he met and married Virginia McClandish Puller. Her father was also a VMI graduate, and a Marine ... perhaps the most famous Marine of all. Said a friend of Dabney's, "It took a hell of a man even to ask for the hand of Virginia Puller, the daughter of General Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller," and a hell of a man to meet with his approval. Bill was that man."
Colonel William Dabney, and Virgina Puller Dabney, photographed during the Navy Cross ceremony. (Courtesy of "The Warriors of 881S")
In 1967, Dabney reported to Vietnam for duty with the 3d Marine Division, serving as company commander with "India" Company, 3d Battalion, 26th Marines. The war was heating up in Northern I Corps.
By February 1967, elements of the 9th Marines moved into the area around Khe Sanh, to protect a detachment of Seabees whose mission was to extend and improve the airfield located there. Increased contact led to reinforcement of Khe Sanh with a second company. By April, the Marines had encountered strong North Vietnamese Army forces in fortified positions. Two battalions of the 3d Marines were committed to the area. In some of the bloodiest fighting of the war, which came to be known as "the Hill Fights," the Marines gained control of the commanding terrain overlooking the combat base.
By October, the North Vietnamese 325C Division had once again moved into the area. Operation Scotland, the mission of defending Khe Sanh Combat Base, and using it as a base for offensive operations against NVA forces, became the responsibility of the 26th Marines. Said Col David E. Lownds, commanding the 26th Marines, "All indications are that we are going to get hit. How bad, I can't say."
In early December 1967, the 3d Battalion, 26th Marines moved to Khe Sanh and were briefed that the NVA was building up forces in the area. Ordered to sweep the area south and west of the base, the battalion moved from Lang Vei north and west to within 2 kilometers of the Laotian border. The Marines then swept northward, finally arriving back at Khe Sanh shortly before Christmas 1967. They made no contact with the NVA nor did they find any evidence of recent enemy presence in that area.
By mid-January, 1968, however, intelligence officers of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) had observed a definite and significant shift in the patterns of movement of the North Vietnamese Army. Instead of moving well to the west of the Khe Sanh Combat Base, the NVA was infiltrating into South Vietnam from Laos and the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and assembling in large numbers in the area of Khe Sanh and its supporting outposts. Any hope the NVA had of a successful attack on the combat base would depend on their ability to seize, or at least neutralize the hill outposts, especially Hill 881S and its nearby neighbor, Hill 861.
India Company, 3/26 was given the mission of occupying and defending 881S. Dabney's Marines made an overland march from Khe Sanh to the hill. From 27 December through 17 January, India Company patrolled the area aggressively, sometimes to the limit of the range of the attached 81mm mortars (about 4000 meters).
Marines of 3d Platoon, "India" Company, photographed the morning of 20 January, 1968. (Courtesy of Dick Dworsky)
At 0500, on 20 January 1968, India Company began a reconnaissance-in-force up Hill 881N, encountering an NVA battalion moving towards Khe Sanh. It was the opening move in a siege that would last 77 long days. That night, India Company was ordered to return to 881S. Said Dabney, "The mission was still to hold 881S ... There were a bunch of guys up there and they'd come prepared to fight. We hosed down 881N and all the ground between it and 881S til dark, with air, 81s, 60s and all the artillery we could get ... For once we knew where they were." That night the enemy hit Khe Sanh and all the outlying outposts EXCEPT 881S.
Veterans of the embattled outpost credit Dabney's leadership with keeping them alive throughout the siege. Lt. Carlton Crenshaw, who commanded the 105mm howitzer detachment on 881S wrote:
"Captain Dabney, being the senior officer on the hill, is in charge of both India and Mike Companies. He is an excellent Marine ... I think I might have mentioned it before, he is the son-in-law of the Marine Corps' most famous general and war hero in the Banana Republic Wars of the 1930s, World War II and Korea -- Chesty Puller ... Captain Dabney has a lot of weight on his shoulders and has grown weary up here. He is thirty two years old and looks like he has aged five years up here on Hill 881. He also leads a magic life in terms of not being hit. He personally supervises every medical evacuation we have. He is there helping to direct the helos in. He gets stretcher bearers moving the minute the wheels touch ground. When we get replacements or the return of our stretcher bearers, he directs them immediately to a nearby trench because it is only a matter of seconds before a mortar round will land. He has had a round land close to him every day for the past three weeks! He is 6 feet 4 inches, like myself, and is also a big target for the snipers. He has had a helmet shot off his head. During a mortar attack the other day, I saw Captain Dabney standing on a trench wall shaking his fist and cursing at the NVA..."
Forward Air Control Team on Hill 881S. LCpl Ulrich, radio operator, Capt Bill Dabney, Cpl Robert Arrotta, and 1stLt Chuck Schneider, Forward Artillery Observer. (Courtesy of David Powell)
What was life on 881S like? It was about digging in, living day to day with no relief in sight. It was about lack of food, lack of water, lack of sanitation. It was about the wounded, and the dying and the dead. And the fog ... and the rats ... and waiting for resupply and medevacs. Said Crenshaw, "Our small force here on Hill 881 is pretty tired -- there is no place to go, constant incoming, attacks at night, inadequate amounts of food water and mail. We are under siege constantly."
Marines on 881S take cover from incoming fire. (Courtesy of David Powell)
Through it all Marines fought and endured and sometimes found humor in life on the hill. And Colonel Dabney never failed to remind me that he was incredibly proud of his Marines. He would often say, "These were AWESOME men, Beth."
Colonel Dabney later wrote:
There was never a climactic day or event. Rather, from 21 January through 17 April 1968, the threat to life and limb remained essentially unchanged. The dangers were greatest during helicopter operations because those offered the most lucrative targets to the enemy's gunners. The potential for catastrophe, however, was greatest at night or during the frequent foggy weather when we could not see to detect the enemy's approach or to bring our massive supporting fires to bear against him. That potential took a psychological as well as a physical toll. To stand in a trench for eight hours on a given night without relief, in total darkness, in a fog so thick that even a magnesium flare could not pierce it, all senses focused on detecting any sound, any smell, any hint of movement to the front, was trying in the extreme to the Marine required to do it. To require all hands do so nightly for three months was to stretch the limits of resolve. We all knew that if the North Vietnamese assaulted there was no possibility of reinforcement or withdrawal. Aside from the preplanned supporting fires, we were entirely on our own. The Marines had daily opportunities to take the measure of their enemy. He was brave, he was disciplined, and he was not suicidal, so they knew that he would assault only when he was reasonably confident of success, and with adequate strength. They also knew that if wounded, they would be evacuated to a medical facility only when and if the weather broke and the helicopters could fly -- that there was little their Corpsmen could provide save comfort and some morphine to ease their pain. Forty-two Marines or Corpsmen died on or near the hill and nearly two hundred were wounded, not including aviation casualties whose numbers, being reported separately, were unknown to us. Seven helicopters were shot down, yet we never called for a medevac that didn't come, weather permitting. None of these losses occurred in a single pitched battle, but rather in discrete incidents scattered over the course of the siege. Incoming was constant, and although we learned to cope with it to a point, a lucky round in a trenchline or active medevac zone was just as deadly in April as in January. Through it all, the troops did their duty. They stood their watches, flew their aircraft or serviced helicopter zones, manned outposts, engaged the enemy and raised the flag as zealously at the end as at the beginning. They were never asked to stand back-to-back against the flagpole with fixed bayonets, but rather to endure. By enduring, they triumphed. They were magnificent!"
Marines raise the American flag over Hill 881S. (Courtesy of David Powell)
Colonel Dabney's leadership during the siege was finally recognized on 15 April 2005, when he received the Navy Cross in a ceremony at Virginia Military Institute. On a clear, spring day, friends, family, and veterans gathered together to mark this occasion. The VMI cadets conducted a parade and pass in review. I shall never forget the sight of Colonel Dabney rising out of his wheelchair to render a salute, or the pride in the voices of "his Marines."
The cadets at Virginia Military Institute conduct a pass in review. (Courtesy of David Powell)
Later that day, the Navy Cross was presented in Jackson Memorial Hall. Before a magnificent mural depicting the battle of New Market, in which the VMI Cadet Corps spearheaded an infantry charge across a rain-soaked wheat field, the Navy Cross was affixed to Colonel Dabney's suit jacket. Colonel William Grace, the Commanding Officer of the NROTC Unit, VMI, read the citation:
"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.
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. 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. 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. He also devised an early warning system whereby NVA artillery and rocket firings 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. 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.
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."
Once again, rising from his wheelchair, Colonel Dabney refused a microphone. His voice rang through Jackson Hall:
Refusing a microphone, Colonel Dabney rose to address those in attendance at Jackson Memorial Hall. (Courtesy of "The Warriors of 881S")
"Ladies and gentlemen, these men standing before you, and the Marines and Navy Hospital Corpsmen, living and dead, whom they represent, are the men who, for 77 days at Khe Sanh, held the hill and poured hot steel on a determined enemy. The same forces under the same general besieged Khe Sanh as had overwhelmed the French at Dien Bien Phu. At Khe Sanh, they were faced by these men, and they quit and faded away. These men did their duty and endured -- Stonewall Jackson would have called it resolve -- and by enduring, they triumphed."
Marines on 881S endured a 77-day siege, living in bunkers and in "bunny holes." (Courtesy of David Powell)
It is the greatest honor of my life to have served with these patriots in battle. I wear this decoration only symbolically, as their commanding officer. It is these men who earned it."
Some of the veterans of 881S stand during the Navy Cross ceremony. (Courtesy of David Powell)
Colonel Dabney left the stage, aided by his wife Virginia. He stopped by the first rows in the center of the hall, where the veterans of 881S were seated. In a booming voice, he said "Follow me, men." They would have followed him to the gates of hell, had he asked them. He was the recipient of the Navy Cross, a Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and two Navy Commendation Medals ... but I believe he felt one of his greatest rewards was commanding the Marines on Hill 881S.
Later that day, after the reception, many of us had an opportunity to spend time with Colonel Dabney and "his Marines." It was a fantastic day, and one that I shall be forever grateful for ... but my great respect and admiration for Colonel Dabney goes much deeper than the fact that he was an American hero. You see, Colonel Dabney was the kind of Marine who always felt it was his duty to mentor those who came after. I spoke with so many Marines that day who told me stories of Colonel Dabney inviting them to his home, talking with them for hours, mentoring them throughout their careers. Upon hearing of his death, former Sergeant Glenn Prentice, who served on 881S, stated, "I do not have the words to express my feelings. Col. Dabney was my C.O., my teacher, a man we followed into the breach -- taught us of life and death -- showed me how to put others before oneself. Bob Arrotta and I over the years would visit Bill -- cleared up many ghosts we both had. I will truly miss him -- but he will be always with me. Farewell my friend -- be at peace!"
He gave so much to so many ... including me. There was never a time when I asked a question that I failed to receive an answer. There were times I turned to him for his wisdom and guidance and he was always willing to share his insight.
When I first started working in the field of Marine Corps history, all I really wanted to do was write World War I history. After working on several projects over the course of many years, I found that the majority of the projects which crossed my desk were on Vietnam. Although I enjoyed the history of the Vietnam War, I was reticent. I started talking with those people whose opinion I respected. More than one told me to stay away, that Vietnam was "still a minefield." I spoke at length with Colonel Dabney about this. He was quick to remind me that I had a responsibility to those who served in Vietnam, that their courage, their valor, was no different than the Marines who fought at Tarawa, at Peleliu, at Iwo Jima, at Chosin. The difference was in the way they were perceived by the outside world. Every time I give a lecture on Vietnam, I use those words. Largely because of Colonel Bill Dabney, I embraced the history of the Vietnam War, and it has been one of the greatest gifts in my life.
I never had the opportunity to know Colonel Dabney when he was healthy. He was largely confined to a wheelchair and on oxygen ... but he remained a giant of a man.
Thank you, Colonel Dabney, for giving me the opportunity to walk with giants of the Corps. Thank you for your wisdom and your guidance. You were a true American hero, and you will be remembered as such ... and you will be missed by many.
Rest in Peace, sir.
Captain William H. Dabney (Courtesy of Mrs. Joanne Schneider)
(For more information on this reconnaissance-in-force on 20 January 1968, see http://www.mca-marines.org/blog/beth-crumley/2012/01/24/siege-khe-sanh-begins. For more information on close air support of Hill 881S see http://www.mca-marines.org/blog/beth-crumley/2012/01/10/robert-j-arrotta-mightiest-corporal-marine-corp
Beth Crumley is a regular blog contributor for the Marine Corps Association & Foundation. You can find more of her blogs at: www.mca-marines.org/blog.