- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
The induction into the Army Ranger Hall of Fame took place on July 24 at Fort Benning, Ga. “It was a much bigger deal than I thought it would be,” said retired Lt. Col. James Dabney of Leonardtown, who was one of the 12 new inductees.
There were more than 3,500 people in the audience at the ceremony, Dabney said. Bands played. High-ranking generals participated.
But there was something missing — the rest of the company that served with him during four days of critical combat in Vietnam back in 1968, combat that was cited during the induction. Those men should have been standing with him, Dabney said, when representatives from the Army hung around his neck the medallion designed “to recognize the contributions of America’s most extraordinary Rangers.”
“I got the recognition, but they were the real heroes,” Dabney said at his home last week. “Delta Company was honored during the Ranger Hall of Fame ceremony. … I was representing each and every one of those men and their bravery.
“This story is not about me.”
It was early May in 1968. Dabney was 25 and an Army captain; the officer in charge of the 123 men of Delta Company, 4th Battalion, 12th Infantry, 199th Infantry Brigade and medics, forward observers and soldiers with the 17th Armored Cavalry.
For the most part, his men hadn’t chosen to be fighting in Vietnam. They were teenagers or barely out of the teens, and they had been drafted to serve. “We were all kids, really,” Dabney said.
That May, they were located between 15 and 20 miles outside of Saigon, Dabney said. The company was supposed to block the opposing force’s entry into the city.
It was hot and humid. There were torrential downpours. “One night, it rained so hard that the men were in foxholes sitting in water up to their chest,” Dabney said.
The soldiers were eating rations left over from Korea. The food was in tins, and Dabney remembers seeing 1952 stamped on the tins. He remembers items like “god-awful pork patties” that came from those tins.
“Most of the guys had just been through the Tet Offensive,” Dabney said.
They were spent. They were hungry. They were tired from being constantly on alert. They were sweaty and smelly (because shaving with shaving cream or cleaning up with soap would have left different scents that could have alerted the enemy, Dabney said.) They were young, and they didn’t want to be there.
Nevertheless, those soldiers were committed to watching out for one another, Dabney said. And they behaved heroically during the subsequent four days of fighting, May 5 to 8, he said, when the company of 123 men surprised and defeated four battalions of North Vietnamese soldiers, with each of those battalions including approximately 500 men. The company would later be awarded the Presidential Unit Citation.
As he described what happened those four days, Dabney leaned over the table where he sat and sketched out the tactical maneuvers used from the battle 45 years ago. “The good thing is they didn’t all come at us at the same time,” he said.
He described how he designed his men’s formation to limit casualties and relied on what he expected the opposing forces would do. And, while he said you never know what will happen in a battle, his expectations turned out to be right.
Dabney said that to keep his men alive, he knew that keeping them alert and following best practices on the field was critical in the days leading up to the May combat. “I was a hard-ass company commander,” he said. “We did it by the book.”
He had studied British tactics that worked when fighting in Malaysia, and incorporated every lesson learned from that and from Army Ranger training. He was demanding, Dabney said.
A medical corpsman who was with the 4th Platoon of Delta Company during that May 1968 battle remembers that about Dabney.
Gunther Bahlaj, now 66 and living in Mukwonago, Wis., had just celebrated his 21st birthday the day before the fighting began that May. Dabney “did those things that were necessary to keep us as safe as possible,” Bahlaj said during a phone interview Tuesday. “He had to be that way. He wasn’t running a popularity contest.”
While the men might have griped about their captain’s demands, Bahlaj said, it was clear that Dabney’s attention to safety measures and careful tactical decisions were critical to their success and survival.
“I can’t stress to you how much we all appreciate the captain,” Bahlaj said. “He’s our hero. He talks about us being that. But you need good leadership.”
Pasqual Ramirez Sr. of Northridge, Calif., was a sergeant that May in Delta Company, overseeing a squad of 13 other men. He was only 20 years old. As for Dabney and his demanding ways, Ramirez said. “We hated him. He was like a [tough] football coach.”
But Ramirez noted that Dabney’s approach kept losses way down. The members of the company say they are haunted by those five or six (depending on when in the fighting you consider) who were lost, young men like Sp5 Harvey Cooley, Sgt. 1st Class Jose Agon, Pfc. Raymond Witzig, Sgt. Charles McGowen, Pfc. Gary Howard and Sp4 Peter Calvio. That year, 1968, would turn out to the bloodiest of the war for U.S. soldiers.
Ramirez said he is amazed that their company’s losses weren’t worse, especially considering the odds they faced. “That percentage is very low,” he said.
Ramirez was wounded on the third day of the battle, taking between seven and 11 bullets through the right side of his body. But he survived. “It was tough,” he said of his service in Vietnam. “But I’m just glad it was [Dabney] in charge. He was a great leader.”
Dabney spoke of his men at his induction to the hall of fame this summer. “This honor represents the brave men and exceptional platoon, squad and fire team leaders I served with in Vietnam,” he said. “Everyone pushed their minds and bodies to their limits during four days of nearly continuous combat with four different enemy battalions. These 123 men who will always be my own personal heroes decimated those battalions, killing 180 enemies, capturing nine prisoners of war and deterring the enemy attack plans on the American embassy in Saigon.”
In addition to his induction into the hall of fame this summer, Dabney has also been awarded the Presidential Unit Citation, Distinguished Service Cross, a Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, three Purple Hearts and the Legion of Merit for his actions in Vietnam. In the foyer of his home, those awards and others are in a display case. But what Dabney says he really values sits on top of that display case. The figurine of an eagle includes an inscription from the men in his company, thanking him for his leadership.
In 1963, Dabney graduated from the Student Infantry Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning. He retired in 1984 from the Department of the Army staff in the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., and met his wife, Jeanne Marie. They celebrated their 25th anniversary last year and have five children, Jill LeWallen, Lynn Raper, Jeannie Pilgrim, James Winch and Marrianne Mazurowski.
The Dabneys have lived in Southern Maryland for about 20 years, during which time he has worked at a variety of CFO, engineering and other jobs, including work as the government lead on Mission Control subsystem for the BAMS (Broad Area Maritime Surveillance), now Trident.
Four days in Vietnam
(The following is an excerpt from a military release.)
During the four [days] of continuous combat in the Quan Binh Chanh Province in the Republic of Vietnam, [Capt. James] Dabney repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire from the combined North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong force while he led his company, a fire team, artillery and air strike support into an assault. Discovering a North Vietnamese mortar position, he charged the emplacement, killing two enemy soldiers with grenades and taking two prisoners. The enemy retaliated in the early morning hours of the next day, only to have Dabney adjust air strikes to within 50 meters of his unit’s position. Two days later, Dabney and his team sprung an ambush on the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. He moved among his men, encouraging them and directing their fire. He also manned a machine gun to kill three Viet Cong who were less than 25 meters from his position. He and his team crushed the remaining pockets of resistance.
In the Presidential Unit Citation award given to Dabney and his team, the nation’s highest unit award for bravery, former President Richard Nixon said the team denied hostile forces approach routes into Saigon and portions of Binh Chanh District.
“Company D and attached units repeatedly displayed outstanding acts of valor against superior forces in offensive, defensive and ambush operations,” said Nixon, according to a statement. “During the period, nine major contacts were made with elements of four North Vietnamese battalions and in each instance, the enemy forces were routed from the battlefield by the aggressive action, teamwork, firepower, esprit, heroism and outstanding tactics of the combined arms team ... These actions significantly contributed to the overall defense of Saigon.”