Honoring the Men Who Fought at Dong Ha: A Good Way to Celebrate the USMC Birthday


2014-11-03 The Marines this year are celebrating their 239th birthday.

A good way to honor the Marines would be not only to remember the battle of Dong Ha, Vietnam, but to honor the men who fought there.

The entire Second Line of Defense team wishes to support the suggestion of Lt. Col. (Retired) Jack Deichman, a veteran of the battle, that a Presidential Unit Citation (PUC) would be an appropriate and deserving award for the members of 2/4 participating in the Dai Do battle.

Deichman makes a convincing case in the article below.

The Battle for Dong Ha, Vietnam, April 30-May 2, 1968: DAI DO Revisited

by Lt Col Jack Deichman USMC (ret)

For 3 days in April and May of 1968, a beleaguered battalion of 652 Marines (BLT 2/4) fought what was arguably the most tenacious and significant battle of the Viet Nam War.

The stakes were extremely high. The odds against them were even higher.

They were facing a formidable enemy, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) 320th Division of between 8,000-10,000 men just 1 ½ miles from the sprawling Marine Combat Base at Dong Ha. This was the main logistical outlet for all the units in Northern I Corps and was controlled and run by Marine support personnel.

Failure to defeat the NVA 320th would open a direct corridor to Dong Ha with no combat infantry to stand in their way.

The 3rd Marine Division Reserve was committed elsewhere leaving Dong Ha exposed and vulnerable to being overrun.

Failure to win this battle was not an option.

The entire war effort was in jeopardy of being  compromised if Dong Ha fell and would result in a major strategic and political victory for the NVA.

The objective of this article is not to offer the reader a blow-by-blow description of what transpired over those 3 days in Apr-May 1968.

That has been done very well in other articles and books previously written.

The intent herein is to reveal information that was not well understood or available at or around the time of the Dai Do action and consequently precluded the full understanding of the battle’s significance and its rightful place in the archives of  Marine history.

Disposition of Forces

1968 was the peak period of the United States commitment of troops to Viet Nam. It also was the high point of our casualties for the war.

Prior to the Dai Do battle, major actions were fought throughout the country during the Tet Offensive and again at Hue City to the north and Khe Sanh in the west. The lack of an uprising by the South Vietnamese people in support of the many NVA attacks was a blow to the North’s strategy and may have been a large factor in the NVA looking for another area to bring the fight to the South using the NVA regular troops.

To combat this threat, the Military Assistance Command, Viet Nam (MACV), commanded by Gen Westmoreland, had ordered its forward command (MACV FWD) to take charge of the northernmost operations in South Viet Nam and in March 1968 retitled that organization as Provincial Corps (Prov Corps).

It was commanded by an Army 3 star (LTG William Rosson) and had as its Deputy, Marine MGen and Medal of Honor (MOH) recipient Ray Davis who later relieved the then CG 3rd Mar Div, MGen Rathvon McC. Tompkins.

Prov Corps had significant forces under their command consisting of major Army units, the Marine 3rd Marine Division and some Navy units, ie Task Force Clearwater, who was primarily responsible for keeping supplies moving between the coastal base at Cua Viet and the combat base at Dong Ha.

Prov Corps had only one reserve infantry battalion available during the Dai Do period and it was deployed in support of the 3rd Marine Regiment under the operational control of its CO, Col Milton Hull. The Army unit took the place of Golf Company, 2/4 when they were moved from their positions northeast of Dai Do to the main battle area. Col Hull’s units were all committed but he did release one of his rifle companies to aid 2/4 in their attack on Dai Do and its surrounding villages.

BLT 2/4 had moved into the area east of Dai Do in March of 1968 and immediately began an active patrolling campaign that extended north to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and east to the South China Sea.

The photo shows about nine NVA shells hitting our Marine/Army positions in Nhi Ha. The NVA artillery was on tracks and it rolled out of the shelter of the hillsides. When they fired, the USS Boston (Cruiser) would track it by radar and alert our aircraft to get away.
The photo shows about nine NVA shells hitting our Marine/Army positions in Nhi Ha. The NVA artillery was on tracks and it rolled out of the shelter of the hillsides. When they fired, the USS Boston (Cruiser) would track it by radar and alert our aircraft to get away.

Unfortunately, the area in and around Dai Do was actually part of the Area of Operations (AO) belonging to the South Viet Nam Army (ARVN) and they were not aggressive in keeping the enemy at bay. This contributed significantly to the consistent distrust regarding the ARVN loyalties.

This concern was driven home during the Mar-Apr 1968 time frame as the NVA 320th began their incursions into the South. Their route of ingress took them directly by the “A-2 Dyemarker “ position at Gio Linh which was part of the so-called McNamara Line.

It also was manned by ARVN personnel who were loath to initiate actions outside of their perimeter. From there, the enemy intruders skirted the 2/4, AO and had a direct shot unopposed to the Dai Do area.

This buildup of the 320th NVA Division continued unabated until the first shots were fired by the NVA on a Navy patrol boat navigating the Cua Viet River early in the morning of April 30, 1968. The 2nd ARVN Regiment, who had responsibility of this AO, took little or no action to patrol or report any activity in the Dai Do area and then were conveniently diverted to another action to the west a day before Dai Do began. They were not available to assist during any part of the battle.

While the buildup of these enemy forces continued, Lt Col Bill Weise, the CO of BLT 2/4, had all his rifle companies aggressively patrolling his AO. Initially, the contact with enemy forces was minimal but picked up significantly at the end of March and throughout the month of April.

Weise was a master at predicting where the enemy was as well as their intentions. He rightfully thought that the enemy was concentrating to his west but having hard facts was another thing altogether. Any intelligence forthcoming was almost always late and not actionable but there was enough info to sense that something big was coming.

It just wasn’t clear how big.

MGen McTompkins was fixated on a major attack coming from the West near Khe Sanh which was strongly opposed by Col Hull from the 3rd Marines. Maj Dennis Murphy (MGen ret), who was the 3rd Marine’s S-3 at the time, has related that Hull and McTompkins almost came to blows over the threat analysis and strategy regarding the NVA 320th and it wasn’t until late on the 1st day of Dai Do that McTompkins relented and swung his support to the East to give priority to 2/4 and the Dai Do Battle.

In fairness to McTompkins, he had rigid requirements that he had to fulfill such as the McNamara Line and he could not be positive that the 320th wasn’t going to pass up Dong Ha and attack South at the new base of Quang Tri. There was some evidence that McTompkins had a “swing” battalion available at this time but this could not be verified. Records including Command Chronologies for 3rd Mar Div during this period have never been located.


The lack of real intelligence was a major problem, not only for Weise but also for the 3rd Marine Regiment and 3rd Marine Division.

Intelligence comes in many forms and at Dai Do the only form that was available and reliable was what the combat troops were able to muster up. This proved to be a severe disadvantage to all in the chain of command. Not only was the disposition of enemy forces unclear but their intentions and strategy were also unknown.

Colonel Al Gray (later CMC) had gone to great lengths to establish a Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) system that covered all of I Corps. He was revered as the Intel guru of the Marine Corps and had been working on getting a viable SIGINT capability for the Marines since he was a Captain and the SIGINT Ops Officer at HQMC.  As a Colonel in Viet Nam, he had ensured that SIGINT would play a roll and had 1st Radio Bn deploy many different detachments throughout the combat area.

Much of the intel was being processed for the Marines at Phu Bai.

In fact, the National Security Agency (NSA) had delegated SIGINT Operational Tasking Authority (SOTA) for the first time to a field combat organization, which enabled Commanders to get their requirements acted upon directly.

When the author checked with NSA as well as the historical archives to see how well SIGINT supported Dai Do or other combat operations, it was discovered that the files were still classified and could not be accessed. At the 2013 2/4 reunion, General Gray himself indicated that SIGINT in Viet Nam was not allowed below the Division level but that all major engagements since TET (early 1968) were known in advance.

It is unclear if MGen McTompkins had intelligence concerning Dai Do but even if he did, he may have decided that it was not reliable enough and kept his focus initially on the western areas toward Khe Sanh.

Both Bill Weise and Dennis Murphy have told the author that Intel Support for Dai Do was virtually non-existent. The intelligence deficiencies experienced by unit commanders in Viet Nam received a great deal of attention subsequent to the war with the emphasis on pushing the information down to the lowest levels.

Radio Battalion detachments now routinely accompany all deployed units.

The Battle

It is now known what the enemy disposition of forces were at Dai Do, what the deficiencies were in the intelligence but none of this was very evident at the time of the battle.

While it was clear that elements of the NVA 320th were involved, it was not clear which ones or how many there actually were.

Our casualties were known but enemy casualties were not available.

Even as late as the awarding of the Naval Unit Commendation (NUC) to BLT 2/4,   the numbers were far from being correct. The NUC Citation alluded to 6 enemy units (no size given) and the number of enemy killed was in the hundreds, as indicated in Lt Col Weise’s Navy Cross Citation.

On the third day of battle, while personally leading in a fierce assault on the enemy’s furthermost portion of the heavily defended objective, Colonel Weise was seriously wounded, but actively directed the orderly withdrawal of his forces to supporting positions.

Steadfastly maintaining control of his battalion, he tenaciously continued to direct the evacuation of casualties to the secondary positions until he collapsed from his critical wound. During this period, the battalion accounted for hundreds of North Vietnamese casualties and four enemy prisoners


It wasn’t until some 30 years later when BGen Weise (ret) went to North Viet Nam and met with the NVA General who commanded their forces during Dai Do that Weise found out  the NVA had committed the entire 320th Division  (approximately 8,000-10,000 men).

DONG HA, SOUTH VIET NAM: Bearing a heavy load, a Marine carries a wounded buddy away from scene of battle as a fellow Leatherneck (rear) lends a hand, 9/17. Marine was wounded in an engagement with Communists some 20 miles northwest of Dong Ha.UPI TELEPHOTO BY JOHN SCHNEIDER
DONG HA, SOUTH VIET NAM: Bearing a heavy load, a Marine carries a wounded buddy away from scene of battle as a fellow Leatherneck (rear) lends a hand, 9/17. Marine was wounded in an engagement with Communists some 20 miles northwest of Dong Ha.UPI TELEPHOTO BY JOHN SCHNEIDER

Additionally, Weise found out that we killed over 2300 NVA. When wounded enemy soldiers are factored in, the combat power of the 320th was rendered totally ineffective as a result of the battle.

These new numbers have dramatically increased the initial estimates at and around the time of the action and are based just on the 3 day battle at Dai Do and not a 3 month period alluded to in the NUC.

A significant difference that certainly reflected the ferocity of the fight and what was at stake.

Additionally, when reading the previously aforementioned NUC awarded to BLT 2/4, one doesn’t come away with anything close to capturing the tenacity and ferociousness of the Battle.

Not only were these heroes fighting against insurmountable odds, outnumbered 15/1, they were directed by higher headquarters to get “belly to belly” with the NVA and keep the pressure on.

BLT 2/4 did that and more but at a cost.

By the end of the 3rd day of continuous fighting, 2/4 had 125 men left from the 652 that began the fight.

The others had been killed or wounded seriously enough to require evacuation.

The remnants of the NVA 320th went back across the DMZ  to reconstitute and Dong Ha was again safe, for now.

MGen McTompkins said at the end of this fighting that this was the most awesome battle by the standards of the Vietnamese War.

A compliment well deserved indeed.

An Opportunity To Honor the Warriors

Lack of adequate intelligence on the balance of forces and the closeness of the units precluded much of the Marine traditional supporting arms advantage and meant that small unit leadership and individual courage were the keys to the dramatic victory.

While this was recognized partially at the time by the awarding of two Medals of Honor and other valor awards, there were many other courageous Marines at Dai Do who were never honored for their service due to the many casualties and unavailability of those who may have witnessed their achievements.

While late in the game, a Presidential Unit Citation (PUC) would be an appropriate and deserving award for the members of 2/4 participating in the Dai Do battle.

One can rightfully assume that had higher headquarters known the actual numbers associated with this action, the ferocity of the engagement and the significance of the battle, they would have proposed a higher award from the start.

The criteria for upgrades of unit awards falls under the guidance of 10 USC, para 1130.

It is a tough standard but if any unit deserves that recognition, it would be the “Magnificent Bastards” that fought at Dai Do.

Additionally, the criteria for the PUC changed dramatically in General Conway’s Green Letter of 2-10 which puts more emphasis on awards to smaller units.

The lack of a PUC for the men who fought at Dai Do is an injustice whose time has come to remedy.

A correction is warranted now while these warriors are still alive and can be properly recognized for their valiant contributions to Corps and Country.

LtCol Deichman was the XO of Golf Company, BLT 2/4 during Dai Do and was awarded the Silver Star and Purple Heart for his actions.  His final assignment before retiring in 1986 was as the Commanding Officer of Marine Support Battalion which provided SIGINT support to the Naval Security Group and NSA worldwide.

He can be contacted at [email protected].

The credit for the shelling photo is here: