By the second week of the siege it had become apparent to us on the hill that the difficulty of delivering supplies coupled with the general chaos throughout South Vietnam resulting from the Tet offensive were restricting our supply support. Because our communications were limited to the tactical and fire support radio nets, both "in the clear", getting information, particularly about personnel, to our own rear was also difficult. As a result, we determined that we needed a dedicated courier to ride back and forth between the hill and the rear supporting agencies to ensure proper delivery of supplies and messages.
This was not as simple as it sounds. For one thing, helicopter landing zones on the hill were always "hot", that is, under fire, as were the helicopters themselves, so our courier was required to take considerable risks daily. For another, when a helicopter departed the hill there was no assurance he would even land at Khe Sanh where our immediate rear agencies were. If, for example, a casualty with a life-threatening wound was aboard, the helo would often proceed directly to the medical facility at Dong Ha forty miles to our east, or to a hospital ship at sea off the coast. In either case, our courier would be left to his own devices to get to where he needed to be to deliver his message or pick up supplies. Complicating his duties was the reality that the supply system was not always responsive. A message requesting firing pins for our 60mm mortars received the response "Not in stock", a reply utterly unacceptable to a unit in contact whose mortarmen found themselves "dumping tubes" under fire because the old firing pins were worn out. Similarly, a request for replacement "flack jackets" (the ones we had were rotting and falling apart) elicited a reply instructing us to send the old ones down for survey (to that one we responded with a suggestion that the supply officer was welcome to come up to the hill and try to take the jackets off the troops himself. He never did.)
Since the courier would spend as much time off the hill as on it, we could not use a Marine in a position of authority or who occupied a critical billet. It had to be a man we could spare. More importantly, it had to be a man who was brave, enterprising, resourceful, and, if need be, larcenous. We were generally at 100% watch between midnight and dawn because that was when the NVA was most likely to attempt an assault, and sometime during those hours I toured the trenchline, not only to help keep the troops alert but also because it was the best opportunity to get to know the men individually (Marines have a tendency to talk frankly at such times, especially in the face of danger.) On one such tour I had a conversation with PFC Villers that convinced me he had been adventurous before joining the Corps, had joined it to continue his adventures, and met the qualifications for the job of courier. I offered it to him, and he volunteered with alacrity.
A word here about "larcenous". It has always been true in the Corps that Marines who feel the "system" is not responding to their needs will find some other way to meet them, and it is particularly true of Marines in combat. Generally it takes the form of "scrounging" outside the established system; that is, finding some other entity, be it another unit or another service, that is willing to share of its excess to meet the particular need. We call it "cumshaw." On occasion, however, a willing sharer cannot be found. Since the combat-critical need continues, the remaining alternatives are to make the item or steal it.
Thus, when the system was unresponsive to our requisition for 60mm mortar firing pins, PFC Villers equipped himself with a bottle of excellent Scotch whisky that someone had sent us, a .50 caliber machine gun barrel from a downed helicopter and a sample firing pin, caught a helo off the hill and "thumbed" his way to Da Nang. There he found a Chief Petty Officer at the Naval Support Activity who, in return for the whisky, used his lathe to mill a half-dozen replacement firing pins from the barrel. In the case of the flack jackets, he again worked his way to Da Nang, and while wandering around, found a barracks whose occupants all had brand-new flack jackets they apparently never used. He waited until the base sirens announced one of the periodic Viet Cong "nuisance" rocket attacks, which announcement caused the occupants of the barracks to abandon it for a nearby bunker. While they were gone, he loaded the forty jackets we needed into a jeep and trailer he had "borrowed". In both cases, he was back on the hill with the "goods" as soon thereafter as helicopter scheduling and weather allowed. He was similarly effective in meeting several other critical needs, but these two suffice to illustrate his resourcefulness.
How many times he dodged artillery in the landing zones, watched anti-aircraft rounds tear through the skin of the helicopter he was riding, how many men he saw wounded or killed during those many missions we do not know. What we do know is that he did so willingly throughout the 77-day siege, unfailingly brought back to the hill whatever he was sent to get, and was ready to go again when the next helicopter arrived. Inevitably, a few days before we left the hill he was wounded and evacuated while boarding a helicopter.
There is no such billet as "CO's Courier" on any Table of Organization in the Marine Corps, but unusual circumstances, and the situation on Hill 881 South was certainly that, require unusual solutions. The duty PFC Villers was assigned was unique. His performance was superb.
PFC Villers signs emails forty years later "Phidippides" (the Athenian soldier who completed the first marathon when he ran back to Athens to announce the victory at Marathon.) No man in modern times deserves the name more.
The pass he carried is reproduced
|From: O-in-C, Hill 881S, Khe Sanh
To: Whom it may concern
The bearer of this card, PFC. Ralph D.
William H. Dabney