Colonel William H. Dabney, Unites States Marine Corps (Ret.) passed away today. He was the son-in-law of legendary Marine Lewis “Chesty” Puller, and was a mustang officer who commanded a two-company detachment of 3rd Bn 26th Marines on Hill 881S near Khe Sanh for seventy-seven days in early 1968. Colonel Dabney’s Marines held onto that key terrain with clenched fingers against anything and everything the NVA could throw at them. Only two ways off the hill, they said. “Blown off, or flown off.” A 2005 Leatherneck Magazine article tells the story.

Colonel Dabney waited 37 years to receive a Navy Cross for his actions. It was awarded in 2005, at Virginia Military Institute, his alma mater. Here is his citation:

The President of the United States takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to:

William H. Dabney (0-80399), Colonel [then Captain], U.S. Marine Corps, for extraordinary heroism while serving as Commanding Officer of two heavily reinforced rifle companies of the Third Battalion, Twenty-Sixth Marines, THIRD Marine Division (Reinforced), Fleet Marine Force, in connection with operations against the enemy in the Republic of Vietnam from 21 January to 14 April 1968. During the entire period, Colonel Dabney’s force stubbornly defended Hill 881S, a regional outpost vital to the defense of the Khe Sanh Combat Base.

Following his bold spoiling attack on 20 January 1968, shattering a much larger North Vietnamese Army (NVA) force deploying to attack Hill 881S, Colonel Dabney’s force was surrounded and cut off from all outside ground supply for the entire 77 day Siege of Khe Sanh. Enemy snipers, machine guns, artillery, and 120-millimeter mortars responded to any daylight movement on his position. In spite of deep entrenchments, his total casualties during the siege were close to 100 percent. Helicopters were his only source of re-supply, and each such mission brought down a cauldron of fire on his landing zones. On numerous occasions Colonel Dabney raced into the landing zone under heavy hostile fire to direct debarkation of personnel and to carry wounded Marines to evacuation helicopters.

The extreme difficulty of re-supply resulted in conditions of hardship and deprivation seldom experienced by American forces. Nevertheless, Colonel Dabney’s indomitable spirit was truly an inspiration to his troops. He organized his defenses with masterful skill and his preplanned fires shattered every enemy probe on his positions. He also devised an early warning system whereby NVA artillery and rocket firings from the west were immediately reported by lookouts to the Khe Sanh Combat Base, giving exposed personnel a few life saving seconds to take cover, saving countless lives, and facilitating the targeting of enemy firing positions.

Colonel Dabney repeatedly set an incredible example of calm courage under fire, gallantly exposing himself at the center of every action without concern for his own safety. Colonel Dabney contributed decisively to ultimate victory in the Battle of Khe Sanh, and ranks among the most heroic stands of any American force in history. By his valiant combat leadership, exceptional bravery, and selfless devotion to duty, Colonel Dabney reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.

Great web site about the “Warriors of Hill 881S”, of which Colonel Dabney was the mightiest. “India Six Actual”. Colonel Dabney was 77.

“Another Marine reporting, Sir, I’ve served my time in hell.”

h/t Masta G

Posted by UltimaRatioReg in Hard Power, History, Marine Corps

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  • Tom Ripley

    Col. Dabney was the Commandant of Cadets at VMI while I was there. An incredible Marine, role model, and leader. This is a man who saw the world in black and white, he made no excuses for his absolute approach to all things – including the disciplining of young cadets. If you have ever heard him speak you know his delivery was direct without exception. He was the kind of person that you did not ask a question if you could not stand the answer.

    When asked about his time on 881S, two comments remain burned in my young impressionable mind.

    First, that the men of his command, India Company, were exceptional. His men were a tough breed. The stories he would share of those men and what they would do for each other defined for us what it would mean to be a Marine, and the privilege we would have to serve those men as an officer. To lead these men you need to be tough.

    The second comment defines everything that I remember about Col. Dabney. When asked about leading his Marines on 881S his response to the threat was as genuine as the man. “A B52 is an exceptional direct fire weapon.” We all knew the story of 881S, and his comment defined his approach during that fight – hit them so hard that they will never want to take you on.

    Most would take a comment like that as bravdo, but not when it came from a man like Col. Dabney. He was a huge man, and every feature of him spoke to his larger than life personality. His big pipe, big hands, massive bushy eyebrows, 6’5″ frame, and his defining feature – his nose. When he would speak to you he would step in extra close. He would loom over you and make you a part of his story – the experience of hearing him talk was unforgettable.

    Col. Dabney was a man from a different time. Tough, unapologetic, and pure Marine. Semper Fi, Sir.

  • RIchard j mace

    Rest in peace Sir.

  • The Institute sure was heard from on that day on Hill 881S. Fair winds and following seas, from one Institute Man to another.

  • John Squid

    USS WILLIAM H DABNEY has a nice ring to it

  • John Taylor

    As a young Corporal, I served under Col Dabney when he was the 3rd Marine Division Inspector (1982-83). Two quick stories. During this time, he was in the process of editing an oral hisotry interview he did with Fortitudine on his experiences in Vietnam – the text of the interview was 180 pages. He asked me to re-type the interview and include his edits. Col Dabney wrote everything out long hand on yellow legal pads. At night, in my spare time I would use the Division Adjutant’s word processing center (not too many laptops then) to re-type the document over a couple of weeks. One day he ask me how it was going and I replied “Sir, it should go much faster now that I am done reading it.” I was just fascinated by the stuff they endured. Second story involves my education. A Staff Sergeant and myself were discussing the complexities of college football one day when from his office, Col Dabney asked me if I knew the maximum range of the M60 machine gun, I said “no, sir.” He then asked me if I knew how far the round moved on the target if the windage was adjusted several clicks to the right, I again replied “no, sir.” He asked me another question about elevation to which I replied “no, sir, I do not know anything about the M60 machine gun.” His reply was succint and immediate “But, you sure know a lot about football!” My reply was a simple “Aye, Aye, sir” but I knew exactly what he meant. After that day I never allowed myself to be unknowledgeable about those things that concerned my profession. At the time, I only had a GED, but eventually retired from the Marine Corps after 24 years. I completed AWS, TBS, Cmd & Staff, got my Bachelor’s degree, commissioned as a MECEP, and got my Master’s in Systems Engineering. I used this story all of the time to motivate young Marines and others to never stop learning. Thank you Col Dabney for putting me on the right path. Semper Fi.

  • Byron

    For a good read of the situation, here it is in Col. Dabneys own words:

  • Richard Collis

    I have a feeling that at this time there must be one joyous reunion going on with him and all those men who proudly served with him and that proceeded him to the “Streets of heaven”.

    Semper Fi and rest in peace Sir!

  • James Moore, ex-HM1, USN

    From a corpsman who was with both the 1st and 3rd Marine Divisions, in Vietnam–Fair winds and following seas, sir. Semper Fi

  • ASM

    “You are the last of us, the only one left
    of the Waegmundings. Fate swept us away,
    sent my whole brave high-born clan
    to their final doom. Now I must follow them.”
    That was the warrior’s last word.
    He had no more to confide. The furious heat
    of the pyre would assail him. His soul fled from his breast
    to its destined place among the steadfast ones.

    …Rest well now sir among your brothers, the steadfast ones. Thank you for standing the hard watch, for so long.

  • Jesse Brown

    Believe it or not but that stand on 881S is what changed my life. I did not know it was Col. Dabney who led that stand (at the time) but it convinced me to quit college and enlist in the Marines. I had always wanted to join the Air Force and be a pilot but this battle changed everything. At the end of the semester I dropped out and enlaced on June 19th 1968. I was in Vietnam a little over a year later. I was was briefly assigned to A 1/26 just prior to their departure from Vietnam back to Okinawa in 1970 but by then there was no one left who had been at Khe Sanh.

    Semper Fi Col. Dabney, May you rest in peace.

    Sgt Jesse Brown
    1/1 1968-72

  • C. J. Lofstrom

    I was privileged to have Col Dabney as my NROTC commander at VMI, he was the inspiring and demanding leader that has already been recounted, but also a gentleman who easily adapted to any situation and found a teaching moment in almost every interaction with a person. As NROTC CO he would regularly invite a group of midshipmen out to his home (a restored inn from the colonial era) for a meal and some drinks with his lovely wife, Virginia. In these settings he would become a host, a husband, and a father, showing us the importance of social niceties and the joy of a good meal and conversation with one’s peers and seniors. He also taught me another lesson many years after my graduation. My wife and I were driving cross-country, PCSing from San Diego to DC, and we stopped at VMI. This was my first time back since graduation six years earlier, and as it was summer, the Post was very quiet. We were sitting on the steps of Moody Hall, the alumni building, drinking cans of beer, when Col Dabney walked up to us. He recognized me and called me aside; I looked at my wife and told her I was probably in trouble for drinking beer in public. I walked over to Col Dabney with trepidation, unsure of what was going to happen. He leaned in close and said “Get inside and get you and your wife a decent drink, there is some good bourbon, glasses, and fresh ice in there.” He then walked me in and guided me to where he kept some supplies. My wife still loves to remember how I walked over to the Col Dabney with alarm in my eyes, and came back to her with two great glasses of bourbon and a wonderful story about a brave and thoughtful warrior. Rest in Peace, Colonel Dabney.

  • Michael Wigton

    I met Col. Dabney at his Navy Cross Ceremony at VMI. I was attending on behalf of my brother Greg KIA 1968 who served under him.

    The ceremony was most impressive and after we were invited with others to his house near Remington, VA where we met his gracious wife and other kind members of his family. Col. Dabney, as pointed out above, was direct and I found that out while there. Not having been a Marine, I sat next to Col. Dabney in his Family room. While addressing him, I referred to someone as a “ex-Marine” and was promptly reminded by Col. Dabney that there is no such thing, rather the title is “former Marine”. For Col. Dabney, however, I will simply call him a “Marine”.

    This Marine did great service to his country and carried on the fine tradition of honor and duty set by those who preceded him, including his father-in-law, Chesty Puller. I was deeply honored to have met him and his wonderful family.

    My condolences go out to his family for this grievous loss, the second to be suffered by them in a few short years.

  • Michael Pettet, DC

    In 1977 I checked into 1/1 at Camp Horno, Camp Pendleton, CA as a young Cpl. I was on the last year of a 3 year enlistment and was intent on getting out. LtCol. Dabney was my Bn. C.O. and Maj. Wilhelm (later Asst. CMC) was the X.O., LtCol. Dabney called me in to his office and told me “Cpl. Pettet, the Marine Corps needs Marines like you. I want you to re-enlist.” He didn’t convince me at first, but any time he saw me around the Bn. area, or while at the Jungle Ops Training Center in Panama, or at cold weather training in Bridgeport, CA, he would take the time to remind me that he thought I should “stick around”. He was right; I re-enlisted and retired after 22 years as a MSgt. He changed my life. I have not or ever will forget him.

  • Bob Burke, 1stSgt USMC (Ret)

    Col. Dabney was my Battalion Commander when I was the Company 1stSgt for Charlie Company, 1st Battalion 1st Marines in 1977-78. Rest in peace, Col.

  • Don Simmons Cpl. 11th Mar. Ist Mar. Div. Nam 67-68

    Being in the 1st Nam, I did not have the pleasure of knowing Col. Dabney. Reading his NC citation and the comments tells me he was a great Marine in the tradition of the Corps to which Adm. Halsey stated of the Marines on Iwo “….uncommon valor was a common virtue.”
    My condolences to his family. The Corps and country has lost a valuable treasure.

  • Bill Buckner, CDR, USN

    Thank you for your leadership, guidance of wayward cadets at VMI and personal sacrifice. Rest in peace, COL Dabney, we have the watch.

  • As a Marine who translated the intel to keep our ground troops informed, I will miss having ever met the likes of such a hero as Col Dabney. God Bless you Col.
    Semper Fi

  • Sean Williams

    Rah Virginia Mil! Semper Fi sir. Godspeed

  • Wow. An incredible Marine and American, a death angel of our better natures. May I offer my paeans and condolences.

    This post was the first time I ever heard of Col. Dabney. Here on the USNI blog I first learned of Col Ripley. In researching Pete Ellis, I’m becoming familiar with John Lejeune, Thomas Holcomb, Wendell Neville, Clifton Cates, Ralph Keyser, John Quick and Tony Waller. I’m frankly embarrassed at my ignorance and amazed that these men have been portraye so rarely in popular media. The last fifty years have seen uneven public support for the naval services and the military in general, and the exploits and character of such men fell out of fashion.

    America needs its sea services more than ever, in a tense, crowded, soggy world. It is time that we retell with skill and charisma these stories of our fellow citizens who guard the walls of civilization, and who have been down these roads before.

  • ShawnP

    One of those men who touched every one who he served with and for. Salutes to the good Colonel.

  • Dennis Mannion K 3/26

    All I know about Chesty Puller — a Marine’s Marine, they say — is what I have read in books.

    However, I do know that his son-in-law was his equal — except in rank — in everything there is about being a Marine’s Marine. I only got to know Bill years after my limited time in the Marines and mainly because of my friendships with Glenn Prentice, Tom Esslinger, and late Bob Arrotta to name a few.

    Truth be told, I’ve always been a bit jealous of the 881s men and their connections with their CO during the siege. All of them under his guidance and expertise — especially their 81 mortar crews — helped immeasurably to save our lives over on 861 that opening night.

    Hey Bill: No more oxygen, no more wheelchair. Rest free and easy with the rewards you so justly earned. You’ll be missed, loved, and never forgotten by many.

    S/F Dennis

  • Andy Greenway

    The Corps and the nation lost s true warrior yesterday.

  • Skip Polak

    He treated People as they deserved. A leader in every sense of that word. As the troops used to say, “Look down on us, Chesty” and now Chesty has his son-in-law to help him stand watch.

  • Jade Benay Dabney

    What an Icon the so few of us remember.A leader in every sense of the word.I will take the time today to remember this man…he did touch my life…will you?

  • Frank Eversole

    I served under Col Dabney when he was the Commanding Officer of 1stBn, 1stMar. He took a chance on a young 1st Lieutenant to command one of his rifle companies and I will never forget his admonition to me to take care of “his” Marines and they will take care of you. He also swore me in when I augmented from a reserve commission to a regular commission. His brother-in-law, Lewis Puller Jr. was present and I was honored to be in the presence of these two Marine officers. I will always remember the Col as a soft spoken, gentleman who set a high bar of achievement that inspired all who served with him. Rest in peace, sir.

  • Col J.C. Goff

    God Bless you, sir and thank you for all you taught me and did for Wayne and I. Semper Fidelis. I will see you on the other side.

  • LtCol Robert R Darron

    Bill and I go back a long way — to before Khe Sahn, during it, afterwards in the Corps, and even a lunch in Urbana VA, where he kept his boat years ago.

    Bill had a way of inspiring those around him — that was rank-independent!

    Semper fi, Marine —

    Bob Darron

  • 1stSgt C.J. Plocica USMC Retired

    Another great warrior has left our ranks to assume the watch with his fellow Marines. God speed, Rest in Peace Col. Semper Fi. and condolences to your family.

  • Gunner A

    Starting to see many from my early years in the Corps going away and it saddens me at times. But to be reminded how great many of them and you were lifts my spirits and lengthens my stride once again.

    Semper Fi Sir. Rest well, we have a new set of heroes and leaders forged in a new far off land – they have the watch.

  • Major RossL. Webster USMC (Ret)

    We ate some of the same dirt as Gy Highway says. I was a L/Cpl in Hotel Company, 2/26 in Khe Sahn during TET of 68. Col Dabney was also my Company Commander at TBS in 75 of his death. at Quantico. Wge had many talks and a few beers while at TBS and he invited me to his home to meet his lovely wife. Many stories were told. He was a true Marine and I am saddened by hearing of death. May God Bless! Semper Fi Marine!

  • Lou Preysz III

    As a Marine legacy and Army officer from the Viet Nam era, I salute you sir and pray for your family! Love has no bounds for those who lay down their life for their brothers! Thanks for protecting our country and your fellow Marines!

  • I do not have the words to express my feelings. Col. Dabney was my C.O.(On Hill 881S), my teacher, A man we followed into the breach—taught us of life and death–showed me how to put others before one self. Bob Arrotta and I over the years would visit Bill–cleared up many ghosts we b0th had–I will truly miss him–but he will be always with me–Fare Well my Friend–be at Peace!

  • Maurice Deets Sgt Maj USMC Ret

    I served with Col Dabney in Rota, Spain 1964-1966 . He taught me the importance of doing it right the first time which means doing it the Marine Corps way. My condolences to his family and especially to his gracious wife – a real lady – Semper Fidelis Marine – (M. A. Deets SgtMaj USMCRET)

  • John Andrew Jackson

    Hardest man I ever met….

  • John A Butler

    From August 62-June63 I was a platoon leader in then, 1st Lt Bill Dabney’s F-2-8. It was my very best year in the 5 years I served on active duty in the US Marine Corps. I knew no better skipper and when I heard of his deeds on 881 South I was not surprised.
    The men of Inia & Mike 3/26 had the very best as their skipper. he was a Marine leader for the ages.

    John Butler

  • Steve Shi

    Sad news. RIP

    I got to know Bill in 1982-4I was the MOI at UVA NROTCU when I was privileged to watch over Bill’s son who was then a midshipman there.

  • Bob Carnahan

    I was proud to serve under Col. Dabney on 881S and even more proud to attend his Navy Cross ceremony at VMI. Rest in Peace Colonel.
    Carolyn and I extend heartfelt condolences to the Dabneys and their extended family.

  • Sergeant Paul Harris, U.S.M.C.

    My friend P.F.C. Terrance Melvin Johnson served under the colonel’s command on 881S. Terry was killed while loading wounded Marines on choppers for medivacs. I spoke with the colonel a few years ago and he told me he was so proud of those Marines. He said he could not have served with finer Marines in any war at anytime. I’m sure you had one hell of a reunion in heaven, sir. God bless and Semper Fi.

  • SSG Michael E. Romero

    An exceptional Marine and leader. The Marine Corps has truly lost a leader who did right by the men he commanded in combat. He trained future Marine leaders and gave it his all! God bless Colonel William H. Dabney, and God bless the United States Marine Corps!

  • Cpl. Glenn Orange

    I served under Col. Dabney at HQMC in the late 80’s and it was a pleasure to have done so. I always tell my friends and family of the times at meetings when he would tell of the times he spent in Vietnam he always had everyone’s attention. When I first arived at HQMC he actually took all the new Marines on a tour of DC and the areas around there. We ended at the Vietnam Memoral where he spent time remember those whe did not make it home.

    Semper Fi Col. may you rest in peace.

  • Rod Brown

    Then Major Dabney was my company commander at TBS. I will never forget his rendition of the insertion of a scout team on 881N. “They moved by bounds to the FCL, inserted a fresh magazine, and assaulted. It was a classic.” I’m sure every Marine Officer in the room that day fully understood what being a Marine meant. Col.William Dabney was a classic.

  • Bill Cunningham

    I was privileged to serve under Col Dabney at HQMC, 1984-85, as a young sergeant. He would gather the NCOs once a month and discuss current events and leadership. He had extraordinary insights into political and strategic matters. I feel fortunate to have known Col Dabney, the epitome of what it means to walk the walk. Semper fi Sir, and thank you for 2 years of inspiring leadership.

  • I remember working With Col Dabney in Okinawa Japan 1981-82 : we went out around 11:00pm drinking and eating talk about his time in Marine Corps BC Street was not the Same ; i got home 4:00am

  • Anthony P. Rothfork

    I first met Col. Dabney at TBS where he was the CO in 1974. I later worked with him at HQMC where he was CO of HQS BN. His leadership style was inspirational and his war stories galvanized all who were fortunate enough to hear him. God bless you Colonel, you and Chesty must be smiling ear to ear as you assume command of the pearly gates! Semper Fi. Major Rothfork, USMC (Ret.).