Once Upon a Time in The Arizona
Colonel Van D. Bell
Legend of the Corps; Leatherneck Magazine – June 2006
Story by Mike Fisher
It was a bad place even for South Vietnam. The shallow graves of men littered the terrain. Sodden mists shrouded the landscape perpetually in the terrible heat of the dry season or the numbing cold of the monsoon. The ghosts of men lost and battles past seemed everywhere.
From the base of Marble Mountain, an undulating plain sloped steadily if gradually upward. Far to the west and north, the Que Son Mountain Range rose, ringing the plain with its triple-canopied slopes of jungled wilderness. The Que Sons enclosed the plain, extending north and then east to the South China Sea, as well as pointing the long finger of ravine-pitted “Charlie” Ridge south and east of the same body of water.
The terrain west of Marble Mountain appeared an uninhabited as a moonscape, but veterans knew better. They knew that small, brown men, hidden during daylight by a combination of brush, scrub, tunnels and caves, filled the area. These North Vietnamese soldiers had made the long, difficult trip down the Ho Chi Minh Train from their native land. They came well-armed, clothed and trained, filled with patriotic beliefs and idealistic fervor. On their arms, many had tattooed: “Born in the North, To Die in the South.” They came to kill the Marines in The Arizona.
We had flown south by helicopter from Phu Bai early that morning. Having completed Operation Virginia, a sweep along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) during the previous two weeks, we had moved down Highway 9 form the then-deserted area surrounding Khe Sanh. Experiencing little enemy contact, we reached the Marine base at Phu Bai uneventfully. From there, we received orders to fly south to the Marble Mountain Air Facility just west of Da Nang. That brought us to the base of Marble Mountain, gateway to The Arizona.
We were the 1st Battalion, First Marine Regiment, or 1/1 in Marine speak. One thousand strong, men and boys, from the city and the plow, black and white, brown and yellow, veteran and boot, we formed two columns leading west from Marble Mountain to the water point some 200 meters. Between the files of Marines ran the faint, dusty trace of Highway 4, heading west to the Que Son Mountains.
At the van of the column stood our leader, Lieutenant Colonel Van D. Bell Jr. As always, he examined us with the steady, unblinking gaze of a warrior born, the patience of a wise father and the understanding of a Marine who had once stood in the ranks where we labored.
LtCol Bell rarely spoke directly to the entire battalion. He preferred to confer privately or informally with his subordinates. But for those rare Marines who gave less thank their best, LtCol Bell proved an intimidating foe. Conversely, toward those Marines willing to sacrifice for their Corps, his attitude and demeanor demonstrated respect. Formally, the world knew our leader as Lieutenant Colonel Van D. Bell. To his Marines, he was known affectionately as “Ding Dong”
Walking the Walk
We knew Ding Dong through experience and reputation. Because of the vast gulf that existed between officers and enlisted men in the Marine Corps, we knew far more about the former than the latter. By experience, we knew that LtCol Bell was:
Fearless. Always, he placed himself at the center of action, moving his command post into the midst of every fight.
Experienced. He dispatched indirect fires with speed and accuracy. He read maps with precision and accuracy. He taught leadership and loyalty in the classroom and by example. He minimized our losses while killing the enemy in large numbers, with great consistency. He could perform the duties of any Marine in his command.
Disciplined. The colonel demanded much of us, but gave much of himself. He slept on the ground near his fighting hole, which he personally dug. He laid out his weapons and gear on the lip of his fighting hole with the same precision he demanded of us. He seldom rested, always ate last, rarely left the “bush” and washed his own clothes.
Smart. Bell Consistently placed us in a position to win with reduced casualties. Our tactical movements followed no set pattern and rarely blended the subordinate units together, diminishing enemy ambush opportunities. He reduced the use of helicopters to better conceal our positions. He found the enemy’s weakness and struck where they were most vulnerable. The colonel sought the advantage of strategy and tactics, rather than overwhelming force, to defeat the enemy and protect his Marines.
Innovative. He modified the Marine doctrine of immediate reaction for his infantry units, instituting the Australian “peel back” technique, an effort to flank rather than assault directly into fire during an ambush. He preferred to operate from his fighting hole with only a poncho for cover and a small collapsible desk and chair. He moved troops and tracked vehicles by different but mutually supporting routes that always varied. He constantly emphasized the need to live like the enemy.
Through the grapevine of Marine informal information, we learned other facts about LtCol Bell. We would learn that none of his legend had been overstated. He enlisted at the age of 17 in the Marine Corps during the late 1930s, served in China and boxed as a welterweight and middleweight during his first tours of duty. He served with Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller during World War II as an enlisted man and was commissioned as a lieutenant before the Korean War. He was awarded the Navy Cross for rallying Company A, 7th Marines during a bayonet attack in the Korean Punch Bowl during the spring of 1951.
War Means Fighting
For the men who served with LtCol Bell, neither legend nor fact adequately captured the man. To us, he often seemed Homeric in his attitude, character and actions. Take, for instance, the events that unfolded in the southwest corner of The Arizona on 6 June 1966.
The Arizona had us by June 1966. It had exorcised most of life’s expectations with the exception of survival. That hope of survival had interlocked with a rage that approached an obsession, a madness to kill the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong who opposed us.
“Bravo” Co had displaced during the early darkness of 6 June, moving down the beach paralleling the South China Sea. The company invested the enemy-held hamlet of Phong Ho. After an early morning firefight, an intense struggle developed into a killing match, with both sides suffering casualties.
At that moment, Bravo Co welcomed LtCol Bell, leading a small convoy with 10 Marines on three Ontos (small, tracked vehicles each mounting six 106 mm recoilless rifles) unannounced and uninvited into the fight. Bell moved his small task force quickly and directly into the fire. Using a combination of automatic, cannon and small-arms fire, he silenced the enemy’s guns, inflicting a large number of enemy casualties.
With Bravo Co secured, Bell proceeded at once to an outlying infantry post to check that position. En route, the small convoy paused for a helicopter-fueled resupply. Suddenly, small-arms fire erupted from three sides of Bell’s position, downing the helicopter and threatening the convoy.
Bell immediately leaped from atop the lead tracked vehicle, organizing and directing fire against an overwhelming force that was attempting to overrun his Marines and destroy the helicopter and tracked vehicles. Rather than withdraw, Bell called to the battalion command post of 1/1 for help while engaging the enemy, holding the North Vietnamese in place.
At battalion, I heard the commander’s familiar voice talking calmly into his radio, describing his situation, summoning help for 1/1 while the sounds of the distant firefight began to drift into our position. I swung onto the lead amtrac (amphibious troop-carrying vehicle) at our position. In a heartbeat, I found myself with a Marine squad leading two tractors down a slim trace bordering a north-south wood line, comfortably situated behind an M60 machine gun and receiving further instructions from LtCol. Bell.
Fighting Means Dying
The big Chrysler engines that powered the amtrac roared their fitful cacophony of sound and power that blended with the same noise emitting form a similar vehicle following in trace. I looked back to see my Marines checking their weapons and piling sandbags before them.
The radio receiver cradled in my hand came alive. I heard the patient, slow throb of Bell’s Mississippi drawl, directing us into the battle. Ding Dong ordered us to parallel the wood line north and then gave us encrypted coordinates and a terrain feature where he wanted us to pivot right, crash through the scrub and enfilade the enemy, taking them on their exposed flank. He directed the second tractor to pass our pivot, proceed 50 meters farther south, penetrate the wood line and attack the enemy.
Then LtCol Bell made similar calls for helicopter gunship support and medical evacuation for the wounded in his convoy. I could hear the rattle of small-arms fire and the explosion of ordinance over Bell’s open microphone.
We executed precisely. We crashed through the scrub, broke into the open and found the enemy, unaware, immediately before us. Just to our left was the embattled Ontos convoy. Astride one of the 106 mm recoilless rifles, Bell sent aimed and measured M14 rifle fire into the enemy position before him.
At that moment, my M60 machine gun lit up, throwing a stream of orange-flecked fire down the length of the rice paddy dike behind which most of the enemy crouched.
Behind me, I heard small-arms fire of my men join the growing crescendo of my gun. To our immediate rear, the second tractor broke into the clear and added its own firepower to the melee. The green tracers from the enemy’s AK47 rifles that had been striking the convoy ceased. As quickly as the attack had begun, it subsided.
The amtrac rode down the length of the dike, crushing the North Vietnamese who crouched behind the embankment. We then swung back and fronted the lead Ontos. LtCol Bell remained astride the barrel of a cannon on the lead vehicle from which he had made his fight. Spattered with his own blood as well as that of his Marines whom he had aided, Bell continued to hold his M14 rifle comfortably in the crook of his right arm.
I leaped from the top of my amtrac where I had fought, running to LtCol Bell’s vehicle. Without a word, he passed down his weapon, still hot to the touch. Without a word, I reached up and grabbed the weathered, stocky, powerful 48-year-old lieutenant colonel underneath his armpits. I swung him down and laid him in the grass.
All My Sons
We lifted the colonel up and into the medical evacuation helicopter. He remained conscious despite his wounds, but the noise of the rotating helicopter blades prevented conversation. The helicopter fluttered off the ground. Simultaneously, LtCol Bell rose from the deck of the helicopter deck, braced himself momentarily in the door and then flung himself into the arms of the same Marine who moments before had loaded him into the helicopter.
We caught the falling Marine and helped him stand on his feet. His torn and bloodied uniform reflected the fight he had just finished. Shaken and unsteady, he struggled to regain his equilibrium. Despite his wounds, at that moment, on that field, he demonstrated the heart of a lion and an iron resolve not to leave his command, his Marines.
“Get me back to the battalion command post,” LtCol Bell instructed us in a low, yet firm voice. “I am not leaving my men out here.” We headed back to the command post. LtCol Bell rested atop the tracked vehicle.
We reached the battalion command post as the sun set behind the Que Son Mountains to the west. We lifted our battalion commander off the tractor and carried him a short distance to his fighting hole. A battalion corpsman patched up Ding Dong, and soon Bell rested beside his fighting hole.
We went back to work that night, killing the enemy. By first light, the colonel found his strength and vigor. Characteristically, he inspected his companies and then planned a battalion movement for that afternoon.
Years later, I read the citation for the Navy Cross that LtCol Bell received for “extraordinary heroism” on 6 June 1966. The writer of that citation recorded precisely most of the facts of what happened on that grim day, but he left out the part about LtCol Bell refusing to be medically evacuated and jumping out of the helicopter.
And the citation said nothing about how much Ding Dong loved his Marines or how much they loved him forever and “once upon a time.”
Editor’s note: The author served with LtCol Bell as a platoon sergeant in 1/1 during the Vietnam War. Decorated and disabled, the author subsequently spent many years as an athletics academic advisor, finally retiring from the University of Arizona. He earned a Ph.D. from the University of Kansas and has published two books and many articles.