But grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever. Amen.
2 Peter 3:18
NOTE: American ground troops were withdrawn from Vietnam by 1973. Saigon did not fall to the Communist North Vietnamese Army (NVA) until 1975. Therefore, American ground troops did not lose the Vietnam War. Rather, liberals in Congress cut funding to our ally, South Vietnam. But Soviet Russia and Communist China continued their support of North Vietnam. Therefore, it was our own left-wing liberals in Congress that lost the war in Vietnam.
(Edited slightly from Vietnam Experience, Copyright © 2002 D.C. Everest Area Schools ISBN 0-9708063-2-9)
I enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1967. In 1968, I was sent to Vietnam. I had been trained as a mortar man. But when I arrived in Vietnam, my unit (G Company, 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, 9th MAB, 3rd Marine Division) had been hard hit in an ambush.
I was told, We don’t need mortar men. We need riflemen. You are now a rifleman. I spent my entire tour in Vietnam as a rifleman.
I was in country only a few days when my battalion (2/4) was sent to stop the 320th NVA (North Vietnam Army) Division. They wanted to take Dong Ha -- the Headquarters of the 3rd Marine Division at that time.
The Battle for Dong Ha centered in the village complex of Dai Do. It was one of the least known, and yet one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War.
We lost 68 Marines killed and 323 wounded seriously enough to require medical evacuation (TIME Magazine, May 10, 1968, p.32). The number of dead rose to 81 as more died from wounds. We had another 100 walking wounded – those with minor wounds.
The 320th NVA Division outnumbered us at least 6 to 1. An NVA division has at least 6,000 soldiers. A Marine battalion, at full strength, has about 900 men (four rifle companies and HQ).
The NVA regulars had reliable AK-47s, RPGs (rocket propelled grenades) 12.7 mm heavy machine guns, anti-aircraft guns, mortars and 130 mm artillery support from North Vietnam. We had the guaranteed-to-jam M-16 rifles.
The combat lasted three days (30 April 1968 to 2 May 1968). On May 3, we got to pick up our 68 dead Marines. The NVA had left over 800 of their dead behind (TIME Magazine, May 10, 1968 Issue, p.32). The Marine rifle companies involved were:
E (Echo) Company, 2/4
F (Foxtrot) Company, 2/4
G (Golf) Company, 2/4
H (Hotel) Company, 2/4
B (Bravo) Company, 1/3
A Marine rifle company at full strength was about 200 men. But all 5 companies went into Dai Do at less than full strength, due to previous losses in combat. By May 3, not one of the 5 companies could muster more than 40 men. We were torn to shreds in three days of intense fighting.
But we had stopped a vastly superior enemy force from taking Dong Ha, the eastern anchor of our defense facing North Vietnam. Dong Ha is about 8 miles south of the DMZ (demilitarized zone).
My Company Commander, Captain Vargas, was wounded three times; winning the Congressional Medal of Honor, in hand to hand combat at Dai Do (The Congressional MEDAL of HONOR Library – Vietnam by Dell Publishing, Inc., © 1984, page 217). He had won a Silver Star and two Purple Hearts before Dai Do.
Captain Livingston of Echo Company was also wounded three times winning the Medal of Honor at Dai Do. Several Marines were decorated posthumously for bravery.
Our Battalion Commander, Lt. Col. Weise, was wounded winning a Navy Cross. Our Battalion Sgt. Major, Big John Malnar, a combat veteran of WWII and Korea, was killed at Dai Do winning a Silver Star.
All of this has been documented in a book based on official Marine Corps records and eyewitness accounts: THE MAGNIFICENT BASTARDS, by Keith Nolan, © 1994 (Hardcover Edition by Presidio; Paperback Edition by Dell).
Also, the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines Association, put a professional video together: MEMORIES OF DAI DO by Empire Video, Inc. (Phone: 1 (703) 866-1934).
The NVA hit my company (G, 2/4) alone with 250 rounds of enemy mortars and artillery shells. Marine Corp Historical Reference Pamphlet confirms this: A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE 4TH MARINES by James S. Santelli, 1970, page 49.
My company (Golf, 2/4) had 75% casualties at Dai Do (see THE MAGNIFICENT BASTARDS by Keith Nolan, Chapter 15 God, Get Us Out Of Here). That’s 3 out of every 4 men in my rifle company were either killed or seriously wounded at Dai Do.
There were three platoons in a rifle company. At full strength a platoon would number over forty men. By the end of three days of combat, not one platoon in Golf Co. could number 10 men.
After Dai Do, I was transferred from Staff Sgt. Wade’s 1st Platoon to Lt. Morgan’s 2nd Platoon. Why? 2nd Platoon had only 3 men in it. 1st Platoon still had about 7 men left.
Golf Co. was shelled mercilessly on 30 April as we attempted to join our Battalion at Dai Do. We arrived on mike boats (LCM-8s) with two tanks. Air strikes were called in and I saw anti-aircraft tracers shooting at our planes. I knew these were not just Viet Cong.
My guess was that they were NVA. I later found out they were well trained, well-equipped NVA regulars, fresh from North Vietnam (TIME Magazine, May 10, 1968 Issue, p.32). I prayed, Lord Jesus, please get me out of here alive. He did.
After the air strikes, we had to cross a rice paddy and (above ground) burial mounds to reach the tree line where the central village, Dai Do, was located. The first wave of Marines ahead of me got down in the tall grass under enemy fire.
At first they seemed to be taking cover. But one Marine crawled ahead, then came back and said they were all seriously wounded or dead. To my left, I saw a Marine machine gun crew set up on a burial mound. Then the gunner was shot dead.
We had to leapfrog forward in the tall grass, without firing, till we got past the wounded Marines. While behind one burial mound, an NVA soldier charged us. Lance Cpl. Robert Allen shot him in the chest with an M-79 grenade launcher. I shot another NVA.
Then Robert asked me if I wanted to help him rescue some wounded Marines under fire. I said OK. We crawled on our bellies and pulled one Marine (whose intestines were hanging out) to safety. Then we went back for a second one.
While crouched over the wounded, an NVA soldier shot at us. A bullet struck my M-16 rifle stock, cracking the hard plastic open and stung my left hand painfully. I picked up a wounded Marine’s rifle and returned fire. As the NVA fell over, we heard a thump.
Robert was glad and said, You got him! We then proceeded to pull the second wounded Marine out and told the third one that we’d be back for him. He didn’t want to wait. He rolled over, intestines hanging out, and tried to crawl out.
Still approaching the tree line, I passed another burial mound and caught an NVA soldier (in uniform, AK-47 on his lap) sitting behind it. I swung my rifle towards him and he threw his hands up. Another Marine on the other side shot him through the head.
Eventually, we reached the tree line. I was ordered to crawl to help evacuate some wounded Marines. Several were already dead when I got there. I laid my rifle down to help drag out another Marine with his intestines hanging.
We got maybe 15 yards to a shallow ditch by a hedgerow, under intense enemy fire. A radioman was being shot up right next to us so we quickly pulled him into the ditch with us. I watched the bullets burn in his buttocks, leg and radio as we pulled him.
It looked like the little sparks a cigarette lighter makes when you first light it. It all happened very fast. Three guys got up and ran. Then I noticed some leaves about 10 yards in front of us begin to move. They were leaves on the helmets of NVA soldiers.
Three stood up, AK-47s pointing from their hips, but they were looking at other Marines in an adjacent shallow ditch, not at me. I told the Marine with his intestines hanging out what I saw. He said, Shoot them. I couldn’t get to my rifle, so I picked up another.
It jammed!! The noise by now was deafening. I tried to get one of the wounded Marines to fire at the enemy or give me their rifle, but none would. It was very hot and they were drinking from their canteens. They didn’t even see the NVA coming.
Then, Anthony Fauer jumped in next to me and asked, Theiss, what are you doing here? I told him that they kept me in the States until after I turned 18 years old.
I had just arrived in Vietnam. We had gone through Parris Island boot camp together. He still remembered me. We were side by side when he was shot in his left shoulder, next to my right shoulder. I saw it go in, but it was a minor flesh wound.
He said, That’s one Purple Heart. Before he was done speaking, he was hit in the other shoulder. He shouted, That’s two Purple Hearts. I’m out of here! He jumped up and ran. Two Purple Hearts could get a man out of a combat unit.
Then I noticed Lt. Morgan, lying on his stomach the ground, talking on the radio. He shouted, Let’s get the hell out of here. I found out later that Capt. Vargas had ordered him to pull back. The NVA were advancing from all sides.
Once out of the tree line, I was given my third M-16 in a day. Golf Company was now surrounded by NVA. We formed a tight perimeter on the edge of the tree line. I was on a one-man hole watch all that night. My M-16 was off safety, in the fire position, in my hand all night. I half-pulled the pins on all my grenades. I never slept.
Friendly artillery slammed close in front of us all night. The enemy still probed our lines. We were low on ammo. We drove through the village again the next day. Some of my memories blur now. I remember the enemy having well-camouflaged, fortified positions.
We fought hard all day. On May 3, it was mostly over. As a new guy, most guys didn’t know me. Nor did I know most of them. I was assigned to help place the dead Marines in body bags. I counted 68 bodies.
One was a Cpl. Smith, who befriended me when I first arrived. He had 12 months in country and was almost ready to go home. He was shot through the head at Dai Do. I had to tie a rope to his arm, move away, and roll his body to check for booby traps.
Another Marine I picked up had blond hair, but no face left. I remember a dead black Marine, laying face up, with flies moving in and out of his nostrils. The stench from the dead bodies was so bad, that when I had time to finally eat, I couldn’t.
We captured many enemy weapons: AK-47s, RPGs, two 12.7 heavy machine guns, SKS sniper rifles, etc. Dead NVA bodies were everywhere. During the Battle, when ammo ran out, or M-16s jammed, some Marines would grab an AK- 47 and start firing.
The AK-47 had a different crack (sound) than the M-16 when fired. At least one Marine was accidentally mistaken for NVA and shot by fellow Marines when he fired an AK-47 while partly hid in the brush.
After the Battle, the unit was given three days of rest. Replacements were brought in to fill in our depleted ranks. I was promoted twice in Nam, making Corporal (E-4) when still 18 (1 Nov. 68). I served as a Fire Team Leader and briefly as a Squad Leader.
But there were many Marines better than me. It was only the mercy of God that I made it out alive and in one piece. I did my job only by His grace.
How many were in your company when you started compared to when you left Dai Do?
I don’t know the exact number. But I do know that we took 75% casualties at Dai Do (confirmed by THE MAGNIFICENT BASTARDS by Keith Nolan, Chapter 15).
You were a Fire Team Leader then?
No, not at Dai Do. I was just a Private First Class, a new guy from the States. I was promoted twice after Dai Do, probably because I was one of the few survivors.
How long did you serve in the infantry after that?
I was in Nam as a rifleman ten full months (19 April 68 to 18 February 69). Then my Mom died and they sent me home for the funeral. Enlistment for 17 year olds in 1967 was three years. I received a year early out with Honorable Discharge in July 1969.
As a rifleman, your job was pretty much to go out and get the enemy?
Yes. After Dai Do we did a lot of Search & Destroy missions near the DMZ, in the hills near Khe Sanh, and by the Laotian border, under our new CO, Captain Dwyer.
What went through your mind each day as you got up in the morning?
It was a hard job. I wanted to get home safely. Each man carried about 80 lbs. in ammo & food in extreme heat and heavy rains, up hill, down hill. Half of each night was spent on hole watch. You slept with your loaded rifle. You never knew if you’d be hit.
Could you tell us a little about the training you had before you went to Vietnam?
At Parris Island, the told us they would try to break us. Better to break here, than in combat. They did all they could to break us emotionally and physically. I’d rather go back to combat, than to go through Parris Island again.
After that was Advanced Infantry Training (Camp Lejeune). Next, I was stationed with the 28th Marines (Camp Pendleton) until after I turned 18 and was sent to Vietnam. The 28th Marines were mostly combat veterans who helped encourage 17 year olds like me.
Interviewers from D.C. Everest High School: Amanda Zimmerman and Shannon Whitman
George Theiss is a combat veteran of Vietnam who now follows Lamb of God. He and his wife, Christy, have been married 41 years (in 2018). They have 8 grown children. You can contact George at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2002 through 2018 by George Theiss