Sunday, July 30, 2006

Colonel Dabney's Navy Cross

This is such a great story that I decided to post it here for those who may not have seen it. It ran in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Sunday, April 24, 2005 and was written by Bolling Williamson (no relation), a VMI graduate and guest columnist.
This article has nothing to do with Chomsky. I guess you can say that after reading Chomsky's defense of Hez-eb-allah, I thought we needed to clear the putrefaction from the air.
This should do it.
Lexington, Virginia. On April 15, Colonel William H. Dabney, USMC (Ret) was awarded the Navy Cross in a ceremony at Virginia Military Institute for actions 37 years earlier in Vietnam.
Second only to the Medal of Honor, the Navy Cross is reserved for those who demonstrate extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an opposing armed force. An alumnus of VMI's Class of 1961, Dabney was cited for leadership as a captain of an infantry company occupying a key position on a hill overlooking the Khe Sanh combat base during the siege from mid-January until mid-April, 1968.
Located in a valley just below the Demilitarized Zone, Khe Sanh was reinforced in response to increased enemy activity. (During Khe Sanh, U.S. aircraft flew 24,400 sorties and dropped 100,000 tons of bombs. The battlefield would become the most heavily bombed in history.)
Dabney's India Company was ordered to occupy Hill 881 South - a key position because it overlooked the base. On January 20, one of his patrols ran into a large North Vietnamese unit preparing to assault the base. Extracting his troops from the heavy action, Dabney drew his company back to their positions on top of the hill under withering artillery and mortar fire. They were surrounded in an area approximately 50 by 150 yards.
For the next 77 days, the Marines withstood daily artillery shelling as the North Vietnamese tried to blast them off of the hill. In turn, they grew adept at spotting the enemy gun positions and calling in counter-fire from their own artillery down at the base. They also directed numerous air strikes against the enemy, preventing them from massing for an attack on the base. Their nightly patrols and outposts frequently interrupted attempts to penetrate their positions on the hill. They learned to listen for the distinctive "pop" made by an enemy mortar round when it was dropped down the tube, knowing they had about 20 seconds to take cover before it landed. The artillery rounds didn't give much warning.
Re-supply had to be by helicopter. Because the landing zones were visible to North Vietnamese gunners, an elaborate fire suppression operation -- involving napalm, bombs, and rockets preceded every re-supply mission. Low clouds and weather conditions limited these missions to about once every three days.
Writing later of the engagement, Dabney said: "Heroism was routine. The landing zones were always hot, and most dangerous were the medical evacuation missions. It took time to carry badly wounded men from cover to the helicopter and then return to cover, and the mortar rounds were often announced as being 'on the way.' Yet there was no occasion when men had to be ordered to carry stretchers. To the contrary, it was often necessary to restrain too many from lending a hand and exposing themselves unnecessarily."
The daily flag raising ceremony became an act of defiance against the enemy. "Each morning three Marines would race from the bunker to a 15-foot radio antenna," Dabney said. "Two would raise our nation's colors, then stand at attention while the third sounded a rusty rendition of, 'To the Colors' with a battered bugle." They had about 20 seconds to raise the colors and dive into their holes -- just ahead of the incoming mortar rounds that inevitably followed. "We were never without volunteers for this ceremony."
"You would think you would have people go off the edge under those circumstances, especially when their friends are dying around them. You'd think there'd be some fatalism. None of the above. That amazed me, that these troops, 50 to 60 days into it, were just as alert on watch. We always had more volunteers than we had a need for. It said a lot about the attitude of these young men. They were every bit as good on the 70th day as they were on the first, if not better."
On April 18, the enemy gave up and abandoned the area. Dabney's men had played a critical role in deflecting attacks on Khe Sanh, along with defending their own position. Legends grow from such courage and tenacity, and the new Marine Museum, opening in November, 2006, will have a special exhibit commemorating the heroism of men who held Hill 881 South.

Following Khe Sanh, Dabney was nominated for the Navy Cross for his actions on Hill 881 South. But his battalion executive officer's helicopter carrying the nomination papers crashed -- and the papers were lost. Until recently, the nomination languished.
A native of Gloucester, Dabney entered VMI after an enlistment in the Marines. In a career totaling 36 years, he attained the rank of colonel and commanded two battalions and a regiment before being assigned to VMI as the senior naval science instructor and then Commandant of Cadets. He and his wife, the former Virginia Puller, live near Lexington.
Following a parade by the Corps of Cadets, the award was made in Jackson Memorial Hall by Lt. Gen. H.P. Osman, Deputy Commandant of the Marine Corps. In addition to family and classmates, approximately 70 former Marines who had served with Dabney on the hill watched their former commander receive the appropriate recognition after so many years. During his remarks after receiving the medal, Dabney asked his former comrades to rise. "I wear this honor today only symbolically," he told the audience. "It is they who earned it."
Dabney concluded his remarks at the award ceremony by addressing the Cadets. Standing before the painting depicting the charge of the Cadets at the Battle of New Market in 1864, he told them that the torch had been passed: "Many of you will soon shoulder the responsibility of leading our citizen-soldiers. If you should be called upon to lead America's patriots into harm's way, you will find their resolution awesome."
Richmonder Bolling Williamson, a VMI graduate, served with the 3rd Marine Division in Vietnam, 1966-1967.