Photos courtesy of U.S. Navy Seabee Museum and Vince Kontny
The following account of the Battle of Dong Xoai was written by Vince Kontny. In 1965, Kontny was a Navy lieutenant and CEC officer, and recently had been assigned as the Officer in Charge of all Seabees in Southeast Asia. He arrived at the Dong Xoai camp the day after the attack, and interviewed many of the soldiers and Seabees who fought during this historic battle 50 years ago. Vince Kontny served as a U.S. Navy Seabee from 1959-1965.
“Every one of the men I interviewed said what a fantastic job Marvin did. When the mortars were coming in, they ran out of ammunition. He would go find more. He was sort of a runner; they really needed to get the ammunition from where it was to right next to them. He even went into a trailer on fire and full of ammunition. When someone needed to be carried, like (injured Camp Commander) Bill Stokes, Marvin did it. Marvin was badly injured and had shrapnel in his back and neck from a mortar. At some stage, he was shot in the face. But, he was still able to talk, and he was the one who kept the morale up. Everyone would mention Marvin Shields, and always in two different contexts: one about him running and getting ammunition, and the other about his spirits and sense of humor.” –Vince Kontny
By Vince Kontny
Seabee Team 1104 was sent to an established Special Forces camp at Dong Xoai (loosely pronounced “Dong Sway”), some 55 miles northwest of Saigon, to extend clear ﬁelds of ﬁre around the compound, reinforce earthen berms on the perimeter and build interior bunkers. Once the defenses were completed, the Seabee team would turn their attention to constructing rudimentary facilities for the occupants (dining, sleeping, sanitation, power, etc.).
On the night of June 9, 1965, 11 members of Special Forces Detachment A-342 were in camp along with nine Seabees, as some of the team was still organizing transport of equipment from an earlier deployment. As dusk turned to a dark night with a dense fog and a steady rain falling, the Americans drifted off to their quarters with orders to sleep with their clothes on. It was going to be a very long night, with no sleep.
The camp’s location was at the intersection of two rudimentary, but important, dirt roads. One road ran north/south with access to the mountainous jungle to the north and the other east/west with access to the Cambodian border and beyond. In short, this was a very strategic piece of real estate to both combatants.
The Viet Cong wanted to control both roads to facilitate the movement of men, equipment and materiel coming down the Ho Chi Minh Trail and supplying their forces near Saigon and the Mekong Delta to the south. For the South Vietnamese military and their American support, controlling the roads was critical to stopping the Viet Cong from accomplishing the above.
The camp consisted of two adjacent compounds—each covering an area roughly 80 yards square. The northern compound was for the Special Forces, Seabees and their contingent of more than 200 Montagnards along with their tag-along dependents.
In the adjoining compound was the District Headquarters (think county) for the Vietnamese Army, and served as its command post. Within the compound was a Vietnamese Army unit of 200+ men with some artillery and armored cars. The building and facilities in the Vietnamese compound were more permanent, consisting of rudimentary brick structures with a stucco siding.
So why were the Montagnards separated from the Vietnamese? Because they didn’t much like each other, even if they were on the same side of the war.
Across the road to the east was the rather sizable village of Dong Xoai. At night, the 20 Americans were usually divided between the two compounds, with an American always on watch in each area.
There was more than ample evidence in early June that the Viet Cong were massing a force for an attack on the camp. Patrols and friendly Montagnards from neighboring tribes obtained this intelligence. However, the size and armament of the force was unknown.
On the night of 9 June, just a few minutes before midnight, as the American watch was changing, the silence was broken with a heavy barrage of incoming mortars landing within the Montagnard compound. The mortars were coming from the jungle just beyond the cleared ﬁelds of ﬁre to the west. With the darkness, heavy fog and rain, the Viet Cong had assembled its forces undetected in the dense jungle.
Their mortars kept raining down, creating havoc and injuring many of the occupants, including some Americans. One of the ﬁrst casualties was the Special Forces team commander, Captain Bill Stokes, who sustained heavy shrapnel damage to his legs and was essentially disabled. Most of the other Americans in that compound also suffered shrapnel wounds, but were not immediately immobilized.
The Vietnamese compound was also taking mortar ﬁre, but with better buildings and bunkers, were less vulnerable except when a round actually hit one of the buildings. With leadership from the Special Forces, the battle was fully engaged with small arms, mortars and machine gun ﬁre from the perimeter berms and bunkers. After more than an hour of steady mortar explosions, the incoming shelling slowed, and then ceased.
The blare of a bugle was heard and a screaming horde of disciplined, uniformed Viet Cong burst from the jungle and charged across the clearing toward the perimeter berms. When they approached the concertina wire, those ﬁrst to reach the wire threw themselves on it, face down, so those that followed could step on their backs and continue the charge.
The Viet Cong were well trained and heavily armed with riﬂes, grenades, machine guns and ﬂame throwers. To identify the attack units and distinguish friend from foe, the VC were displaying distinctive garments like brightly colored armbands, checkered cloths around their waists or even shirts with one shoulder exposed.
The defenders fought back with everything they had, but seemingly when one VC went down in the clearing, he was replaced by two more of the advancing mob. Waves of VC reached the Montagnards compound perimeter berms and soon they even came over the berms into the Vietnamese compound. This VC force was later estimated to be in excess of 2,000 strong.
Despite heavy losses, the VC were soon inside the compounds creating total chaos. Probably ﬂame throwers were most frightening to the native defenders, many of whom simply scattered in an attempt to save themselves. The Special Forces radios were knocked out by mortars, but they were able to cobble together a radio and make a desperate call for air support. Unfortunately, the rain and fog prevented helicopters from dropping anything more lethal than ﬂares, which, when ﬁltered through the rain and fog, cast an eerie, soft light on the ground.
American casualties during those early hours were heavy, with most men suffering wounds of some sort. Two of the Green Berets were believed killed while returning ﬁre. Three Seabees were separated from the other Americans in the Montagnards compound. One was the oﬃcer in charge of the team, Lieutenant (JG) Frank Peterlin. He sustained a serious foot wound but nevertheless made it over the eastern berm into a wooded area where he was able to evade the VC and be rescued some 30 hours later.
Also cut off was Peterlin’s assistant, Chief Petty Oﬃcer Johnny McCully, who was wounded but managed to get over the eastern berm, cross the north/south road and hide in the village, which was soon occupied by the VC. He also was rescued the following afternoon.
The third separated Seabee (Second Class Petty Oﬃcer William Hoover) was killed on the northern berm and his body recovered two days later. Captain Stokes was incapacitated by his leg wounds, but gave the order for all Americans to fall back to the District Headquarters building.
Stokes himself was carried between a Special Forces soldier and a Seabee with back and neck shrapnel wounds. The Seabee was Marvin Shields, a third class petty oﬃcer.
With the surviving Americans huddled in the small headquarters building, Captain Stokes passed command responsibilities to his executive oﬃcer, Second Lieutenant Charles Williams. Williams was a mustang (i.e. promoted from the enlisted ranks); he directed all subsequent actions from their Alamo-like position. The building was surrounded by the VC and was taking continuous small arms ﬁre and grenade blasts, but the Americans managed to prevent being routed from the masonry structure.
When dawn ﬁnally broke, a VC .30-caliber machine gun about 150 yards away started delivering withering ﬁre into the headquarters building, causing all the occupants to hug the concrete ﬂoor. Williams concluded very quickly that unless they could silence the machine gun, all would be lost.
A weapons expert, he grabbed a 3.5-inch rocket launcher tube and asked for a volunteer to carry two rockets. Shields, who by this time had his jaw broken by a bullet in addition to his back and neck wounds, held up his hand. To get into a somewhat-protected ﬁring position with a clear shot, Williams and Shields needed to navigate across about 20 yards of exposed area. They successfully crossed without attracting ﬁre.
Crouching, Williams put the launcher to his shoulder and Shields loaded a rocket, stepped to the side to avoid the back blast, then tapped Williams’ helmet to signal all was ready. The rocket was ﬁred and found its mark; the machinegun was out of action.
Having accomplished their mission, the two men again had to cross the exposed area to return to the relative safety of the headquarters building and their compatriots. However, without the element of surprise, they drew heavy small arms and machine gun ﬁre. Both were hit. Williams was wounded in the arm and the soft abdominal area, but was still mobile. Shields was not so lucky; he was hit in both thighs and went down. He was close to the building and two brave men reached him and drug him inside.
Shields, though mortally wounded, received aid and, throughout the remainder of the morning was instrumental in keeping the spirits of the defenders up by laughing and making jokes. He would also toss clips of ammunition to his buddies when they called for them.
With the rain ﬁnally abating and fog lifting, air support arrived. Helicopter gunships could accurately train ﬁre on the VC within the two compounds while ﬁxed-wing aircraft dropped their ordinance outside the berms. This disrupted the VC units, which scattered.
Shortly thereafter, two crews in Huey helicopters attempted a rescue operation by landing close to the headquarters building. Attracting heavy small arms ﬁre, the Americans had precious few seconds to scramble out of the building and carry the seriously wounded to the helicopters.
Shields, with his severe leg wounds, was dragged to the helicopter, where he died shortly after lift off. The others made it to a Saigon hospital and medical treatment.
While the battle of Dong Xoai continued to rage with the arrival of Vietnamese relief forces, the surviving Americans, including the Seabees’ Peterlin and McCully, were rescued from their hiding places later that afternoon. For these 20 Americans, their war was over. Their actions that long day were the very deﬁnition of valor and would later be recognized with awards and decorations.
The next day, I pinned purple hearts on the hospital gowns of the surviving Seabees and received brief accounts of the battle from the Seabees and the Special Forces survivors. I would shortly start the process of recommending awards for each Seabee, and writing letters to the families of those who had perished. The Special Forces leadership did likewise.
The following awards were made to the 20 brave Americans who fought at Dong Xoai:
Medals of Honor – 2 (one Army, one Navy)
–Charles Williams, presented by President Johnson in June 1966.
–Marvin Shields (posthumous), presented by President Johnson to Shields’ widow in September 1966.
Distinguished Service Crosses – 3
Silver Stars – 6
Bronze Stars with Combat “V” – 9
Purple Hearts – 20
Navy Unit Commendation to Seabee Team 1104 by the Secretary of the Navy
Medal of Honor Citation
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving with United States Navy Seabee Team 1104 at Dong Xoai, Republic of Vietnam, on 10 June 1965. Although wounded when the compound of Detachment A-342, 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), 1st Special Forces, came under intense fire from an estimated reinforced Viet Cong regiment employing machine gun, heavy weapons and small arms, Shields continued to resupply his fellow Americans with needed ammunition and to return the enemy fire for a period of approximately three hours, at which time the Viet Cong launched a massive attack at close range with flame throwers, hand grenades and small-arms fire. Wounded a second time during this attack, Shields nevertheless assisted in carrying a more critically wounded man to safety, and then resumed firing at the enemy for four more hours. When the Commander asked for a volunteer to accompany him in an attempt to knock out an enemy machine gun emplacement which was endangering the lives of all personnel in the compound because of the accuracy of its fire, Shields unhesitatingly volunteered for this extremely hazardous mission. Proceeding toward their objective with a 3.5- inch rocket launcher, they succeeded in destroying the enemy machine gun emplacement, thus undoubtedly saving the lives of many of their fellow servicemen in the compound. Shields was mortally wounded by hostile fire while returning to his defensive position. His heroic initiative and great personal valor in the face of intense enemy fire sustain and enhance the finest tradition of the United States Naval Service.