In 1965, North Vietnamese leaders planned to launch a summer offensive to destroy the regular units of the South Vietnamese military. For the first time, the newly created VC 273rd and 274th Regiments were ordered to join the 271st and 272nd Regiments to attack and establish “liberated zones” in the south.
As part of the overall plan, the VC 9th Division was ordered to attack Dong Xoai. Dong Xoai was a district town situated at a road junction that connected Inter-Provisional Road 13, National Highway 1, and Highway 14. The district was defended by 200 local Vietnamese soldiers drawn from the 327th and 328th Militia Companies, and the 111th Regional Force Company. They were supported by one armored squadron (six armored vehicles) and two 105mm howitzers.
Dong Xoai was also home to a Special Forces A-Camp, Detachment A-342, 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), that housed 400 Montagnard CIDG strikers and 24 U.S. troops including Army Green Berets and Navy Seabees. The Green Berets had only been there since May 25 and the defenses were far from finished.
The Attack Begins
On the night of 9-10 June, the Viet Cong, with North Vietnamese support, attacked the base with about 2,000 guerrillas armed with AK-47s, grenades, rocket-propelled grenades, rocket launchers, and flamethrowers.
The Americans were aware of the buildup outside the camp and had placed their troops on full alert. This caused the Viet Cong to begin their attack more than an hour early, and at 2330 they began to mortar the camp hitting both Vietnamese and U.S. positions. This was followed by an infantry assault from the 272nd Regiment. The initial assault suffered heavy casualties as the VC had failed to detect the minefields and their sappers had trouble maneuvering through the barbed wire fences.
It was during the initial artillery fire that the Special Forces commander of the camp, Captain Bill Stokes, was hit and seriously wounded in both legs by a mortar round as he was racing to the command bunker to report the attack.
Stoke’s wounds would place 2LT Williams in command of the camp. However, he wasn’t the typical 2LT. Williams had been an NCO in the 82nd Airborne Division before joining Special Forces and later attending Officer Candidate School.
Williams had a PRC-10 radio which he used unsuccessfully to try to contact district HQs. He then organized his compound’s defenses, determined the source of the insurgents’ main effort, and led the troops to their defensive positions on the south and west walls.
Attempting to reach the other compound and establish communications, Williams was driven back by the heavy Viet Cong assault and wounded in his right leg by shrapnel.
The Viet Cong succeeded in scaling the camp’s walls and some of the strikers began to panic and retreat. Williams ran through a hail of gunfire, rallied the Montagnards, and led them back to their positions. He was wounded two more times in the process.
Told that communications were restored, he raced back to the communications bunker, where he sustained wounds in the stomach and right arm from grenade fragments.
The Viet Cong stepped up the pressure and the camp defenses began to crumble. At 0130 hours two helicopter gunships from the Bien Hoa airbase expended all of their ammunition on the communist troops inside the wire.
With casualties mounting, Williams ordered the consolidation of the American personnel from both compounds and the establishment of defense in the district building. The Special Forces and Seabees from the SF compound withdrew to the district headquarters and consolidated with the remaining CIDG troops.
Williams, despite his many wounds, grabbed a radio and directed airstrikes through a forward air controller while also managing the defense from the district building.
The Situation in Dong Xoai Becomes Dire
Williams’s men in the district building were now besieged and they were throwing grenades out the windows at the charging Viet Cong.
By dawn, the Viet Cong had the upper hand. They were firing a machine gun directly south of the district building, pinning the defenders down in a murderous fire. The machine gun had to be taken out. Williams didn’t hesitate and led the mission himself.
He grabbed a 3.5-inch rocket launcher and asked for a volunteer to help him go after the gun. CM3 Marvin G. Shields, a member of the camp’s Seabees detachment stepped forward despite already having been wounded three times. Under heavy fire and completely ignoring their own safety, the two assaulted the enemy position: Shields loading and Williams firing. Despite a faulty sight, they destroyed the enemy gun from a distance of 150 meters.
While trying to return to the district HQs, both men were hit again and Shields was seriously wounded. Williams was unable to carry him back to the district building. So he pulled him to a covered position and then made his way back to the HQs where he sought more volunteers who went out and successfully brought Shields back.
Shields would die of his wounds the next day while awaiting a MEDEVAC flight.
Viet Cong attempts to take the district HQs building increased and were firing 57mm recoilless rifle fire directly into the American positions. Williams continued to direct airstrikes on the VC but they were creeping increasingly closer almost on top of their position.
By early afternoon with the situation deteriorating, he moved the seriously wounded to the communications bunker. Informed that helicopters would be landing to exfil the Americans from the area, Williams led the team to the camp’s 105mm artillery positions.
The 118th Aviation headquarters in Bien Hoa received a desperate radio message, sent by Special Forces radio operator SSG Harold Crowe. “I’m using my last battery for the radio and there is no more ammunition,” it said. “We are all wounded, some of the more serious are holding grenades with the safety pins already pulled. The VC are attacking in human waves. The last wave has been defeated but we are expecting the next wave now.”
In reply, the commander of the 118th told his staff, “I’m going in.”
A relief force consisting of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) 1st Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment, was airlifted into the landing zone near the Thuận Lợi rubber plantation, about four kilometers north of Dong Xoai. However, the Viet Cong had planned for this and the 271st VC Regiment wiped them out in a deadly ambush.
The U.S. 118th Aviation Company also airlifted the ARVN 52nd Ranger Battalion into Dong Xoai with the mission to take the road into the town and free the SF Camp. Their lead company was likewise decimated in an ambush, but they pushed forward and retook much of the town and SF A-Camp.
After the Vietnamese Rangers were ambushed by the Viet Cong, Saigon sent a battalion of ARVN Airborne troops. But the VC had intercepted the radio transmissions and ambushed the paratroopers. By the next morning, the paratroopers’ strength was down to just 159 troops from the 479 that had landed at Dong Xoai. This prompted General Westmoreland to send a battalion of about 750 men of the 173rd Airborne Brigade into action. This was the first major involvement of U.S. troops in Vietnam. Nevertheless, by that time, the VC had withdrawn and slipped away.
Finally, after evacuating all other wounded personnel, Williams boarded a helicopter and took the last Americans out.
But for two of the Seabees, the ordeal was not over yet. LTJG Peterlin and EOC McCulley had been manning a machinegun and a recoilless rifle on the northeast berm of the camp. Fighting alongside the CIDG strikers, their position was eventually overrun. They escaped through the wire and took up positions outside the camp near a sawmill. They were picked up a day later on June 11.
The 14-hour battle would leave 20 of the Americans killed or wounded along with 200 Vietnamese strikers and civilians. Viet Cong dead numbered between 500 and 700.
Williams would receive the Medal of Honor from President Lyndon Johnson at the White House a year later in June 1966. Shields’s wife, Joan, and daughter, Barbara, accepted the medal by President Johnson a month later. In his remarks, Johnson would say of Williams,
“We have come here this morning to honor a very brave American soldier.
The acts of extraordinary courage to which we pay tribute were not performed with any hope of reward. They began with a soldier doing his duty–but they went so far beyond the call of duty that they became a patriot’s gift to his country.
Lieutenant Williams and a very small band of Americans and Vietnamese fought for 14 long hours against an enemy that outnumbered them more than five to one.
During those long hours, Lieutenant Williams was wounded five times. Any single one of those wounds might have caused another man to completely abandon the fight. Yet Lieutenant Williams continued to rally his men, to protect his wounded, to hold off the enemy until help could come.
Few men understand what it really means to draw deep from the wellsprings of such bravery. Few have ever made that kind of journey – and far fewer have ever returned.
Lieutenant Williams, it is hard for your President to find words to tell you of the deep gratitude and admiration that your fellow Americans have for you.
But I do rejoice that I may present to you, in the name of the Congress of the United States and of the grateful people of America, the Medal of Honor – for the bravery and the gallantry that you displayed at the risk of your life, far above and beyond the call of duty.”
Williams retired as a major and died in 1982 at the age of 49. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.