Valor Friday

| June 26, 2020

United States Navy CMCN Marvin Shields

Today’s Valor Friday is dedicated to CM3 Marvin Shields, USN, and his actions 55 miles northwest of Saigon in Dong Xoai. Mason has done his usual outstanding research on Petty Officer Shields’ valor during the dark days of the Viet Nam war.


The US Navy construction battalions (known as Seabees from the abbreviation “CB” for the units) were created during the early days of US participation in World War II. At the time, most Navy construction, including overseas, was being done by civilian contractors. This wouldn’t be a problem except the Geneva Conventions prohibited civilians from resisting enemy attacks. If they did, they risked being classified as guerillas and, if captured, executed as such.

Thus the Navy enlisted thousands of tradesmen, creating the fighting Seabees. Seabees then and now filled a unique role for the Navy Department. They are equal parts construction crew (able to build airfields, hospitals, and barracks in record time), combat engineer, and naval infantry.

Seabees fought in every theater of the war, but earned their biggest accolades in the Pacific Theater. Of note, they were also the first Americans ashore at Normandy as they were tasked with clearing the beach of obstacles, an example of their combat engineer capabilities.

In the Pacific they were instrumental in the Allies’ island hopping campaign. Each island would be bombed,shelled, and then invaded. This resulted in most of the enemy infrastructure such as airstrips to be utterly destroyed. Seabees’ had a combat role in that they helped clear beacheads by placing explosive charges or driving bulldozers to literally clear beaches for landing craft. Once an island was captured, the Seabees shifted their role to rebuilding the infrastructure so that the island could be used against the next enemy-held island.

More than a quarter million officers and men served in the Seabees during WWII. Seabees were also where the first men would be drawn for Navy Underwater Demolition Teams (UDTs), which would eventually lead to the development of the Navy SEALs (in 1983 the UDTs were merged into the SEALs).

Seabees had similar critical roles in Operation Crossroads (the post-WWII nuclear test program), the Korean War, built the American permanent presence in Antarctica, and helped NASA with recovering spacecraft in the 60’s. With all of this, it would surprise you (because it surprised me) that only one Seabee has earned the Medal of Honor.

Marvin Shields was born and raised in the Port Townsend area of Washington State. After graduating high school there in 1958 he moved to Alaska to work on a gold mining operation. On January 8, 1962 he enlisted with the Navy to become a Seabee.

Completing his apprenticeship training by May 1963, he served in Georgia, California, and Okinawa before being assigned to Seabee Team 1104, deploying with eight other enlisted Seabees and one Seabee officer to Saigon, Republic of Vietnam (RVN). The men arrived February 1st, 1965.

The team helped build a US Army Special Forces (Green Berets) camp before being sent 55 miles northwest of Saigon to Dong Xoai (pronounced roughly “Dong Sway”). It was here they joined 11 Green Berets to build a camp there for them and 200 indigenous soldiers. An adjacent camp was home to a similar number of South Vietnamese troops.

They arrived June 4th, 1965 and on the night of June 9th the unfinished camp was attacked by a regiment of Vietcong, estimated at 2,000 men strong in a dense fog and steady rain. The troops had been ordered to sleep in their uniforms, likely saving time in their initial response to the assault, as an attack seemed likely. Twenty Americans were in camp that night, 11 Green Berets and nine Seabees.

Just before midnight the Vietcong launched their assault, having used the weather as cover to amass in the dense jungle just outside the camp’s cleared fields of fire. Mortars, more than 400 in total, rained down in the camp, creating havoc. Most of the American men were wounded (including Marvin Shields), with one, the Special Forces CO Captain Bill Stokes, critically injured.

During the first wave of the attack, Shields carried ammunition to the defensive positions, repeatedly exposing himself to enemy fire to resupply the meagerly dug-in defenders. After three hours, the mortar fire slowed and then stopped.

The report of a bugle call cut through the night. A horde of uniformed Vietcong (VC) burst forth from the jungle. Coming at the defenders in their hasty bunkers were scores of well disciplined VC equipped with rifles, grenades, machine guns, and flamethrowers. So well disciplined were the enemy that when the first rank reached the concertina wire they threw themselves onto it face down so that their comrades behind could use their bodies as a bridge to cross it without slowing.

Overrunning the American positions and attacking the indiginous forces and South Vietnamese, the VC even wore brightly colored arm bands and other distinctive clothing devices to help them distinguish friend from foe in the melee.

Special Forces radios had been knocked out earlier in the fight, but the men were able to cobble one together. Calling for air support, the fog and rain kept the airships from being able to drop anything more than flares, which diffused in the fog to create an eerie pale glow over the battlefield.

In this human wave assault Shields was wounded a second time. Even with neck and back wounds he helped to carry the severely wounded Green Beret Captain Stokes to safety after Stokes gave the order for the Americans to retreat to the South Vietnamese compound adjacent to their own, which was better constructed. Stokes returned to the lines and continued to fire into the enemy forces after helping transport the Captain.

During the first stage of the battle, before they abandoned their compound two Green Berets had been killed in action (KIA) and three of the Seabees had been cut off. One of those Seabees would be killed in the fight while the other two were able to escape into the jungle and evade capture.

The remaining Americans connected with the RVN forces, among whom was Green Beret Second Lieutenant Charles Williams, who had gone there to attempt to coordinate the two compounds’ defenses. With the CO out of action due to his injuries, Williams took over command of the Allied forces.

The Americans had huddled into the RVN compound’s headquarters building. Williams, a mustang officer promoted from the enlisted ranks, directed the remainder of the battle from the concrete building’s relative cover.

For four hours Marvin Shields fought on the perimeter, sending thousands of rounds into the determined enemy forces. Despite inflicting heavy casualties on the VC, they continued throwing wave after wave of troops at the defenders.

As dawn broke, a VC .30-caliber machine gun was set up a mere 150 yards from the HQ building. The withering fire the gun directed at the building was forcing the men within to hug the floor, preventing them from returning fire. If that gun weren’t silenced, it would enable the enemy to take over the building and kill or capture all of the men.

Williams, a heavy weapons expert, took a 3.5-inch rocket launcher and asked the battered men for a volunteer to carry two rockets out with him to silence the enemy gun. The hand of Construction Mechanic Third Class Marvin Shields came up, despite Shields having been wounded a third time, with a bullet to his face, breaking his jaw.

The two men set out for what was sure to be a suicide mission. The nearest position of relative cover from which to fire was across 20 yards of open terrain. They crawled forward, arriving at their position without attracting the enemy’s attention.

Williams came up to a crouch, aimed the launcher. Shields came up behind him and loaded it with a rocket. Moving off to the side to avoid the rocket’s blast, he tapped the lieutenant’s helmet to signal he was locked and loaded. Williams fired.

The rocket scored a direct hit, blowing up the machine gun. Their mission accomplished, the two moved to go back to the relative safety of the HQ building. The element of surprise completely lost, they attracted significant small arms and machine gun fire from the enemy.

Running back, Williams was shot in the arm and his abdomen, but was able to keep moving. Shields meanwhile went down after taking hits to both thighs. He’d almost made it back to the building and two of his comrades braved the enemy fire to drag him inside.

Severely wounded in both legs, his face/jaw, his neck, and his back, his compatriots rendered medical aid to the critically injured Seabee. Through the rest of the morning, as the attack came up to the 12-hour mark, Shields helped keep his fellow troops’ spirits up. His signature positive attitude and joviality booster morale. He laughed, made jokes, and continued to toss magazines of ammunition to his defenders.

After noon on the 10th, the rain and fog lifted, allowing air support in. Helicopter gunships were able to direct effective fire to the VC within the compound and fixed-wing close air support rained fire down on those outside the compound.

Two Huey helicopters braved the enemy fire to land within the compound, Lieutenant Williams ordered the evacuation of the wounded. The choppers landed close to the HQ building. Taking heavy small arms fire, the defenders had only seconds to get the wounded aboard. Shields, being the most critical was dragged out first.

Just after the Huey lifted off, Shields went limp. His mission completed, Shields could contribute to the Battle of Dong Xoai no more, he succumbed to his numerous wounds. He was 25 years old. The other wounded were successfully evacuated to Saigon.

The combined fire from the defenders and their air support caused the VC to break up and scatter back into the jungle. The battle had raged for 14 hours.

In the aftermath, the Navy sent a Civil Engineer Corps lieutenant to pin Purple Hearts on the wounded and collect the story of the battle. LT Vince Kontny, CEC, USN began the task of making award recommendations and writing letters to the families of the fallen. Together with Green Beret officers assigned the same role for the Army personnel, the following awards were made to the 20 men of the Battle of Dong Xoai;

– Construction Mechanic Third Class Marvin Shields – Medal of Honor (posthumous)
– 2nd Lieutenant (by time of award, 1LT) Charles Williams – Medal of Honor
– Three Distinguished Service Crosses
– Six Silver Stars
– Nine Bronze Stars w/ “V”
– 20 Purple Hearts
– Seabee Team 1104, Navy Mobile Construction Battalion 11 – Navy Unit Commendation

If you do the math, that’s 20 valor awards and 20 Purple Hearts, one each for every American serviceman in the battle.

US Navy Medal of Honor

Shields’ MoH was presented to his widow Joan by President Lyndon Johnson. Also present was Shields’ two year old daughter Barbara. At the ceremony was Lieutenant Williams who had earlier been awarded his MoH. He spoke of how Shields’ bravery during the entirety of the battle saved many men.

Williams had been only the second surviving recipient of the medal for Vietnam. Shields was the fifth recipient of the MoH and the third posthumous award. Shields was the first enlisted man to receive the medal for Vietnam and to date is the only Seabee to have been so honored.

A Seabee camp at Chu Lai was named Camp Shields in Marvin’s honor, as was the USS Marvin Shields (FF-1066). USS Shields bore the motto of the Seabees; “Can do!” She was in service from 1971 until 1992 and earned the nickname “Marvy do”. Transferred to the Mexican Navy and renamed, the ship remains in service today.

Hand Salute. Ready, Two!
Thanks again; Mason and I are in agreement- Quite the headstone, Petty Officer Shields.

Category: Guest Post, The Warrior Code, Valor

Comments (17)

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  1. Skippy says:

    As always Hooah !!!!!!!

  2. 5th/77th FA says:

    Just WOW! Gun Salute for CM3 Marvin Shields! “…no greater love!” “that such men lived!”

    Seems like the Bravery of the SeaBees was alluded to in that John Wayne version of the Green Berets Motion Picture, among others. Found this short video on CM3 Shields. Worth a look.

    Thanks Mason!

  3. Friend says:

    AW1…typo…first paragraph misspelled his last name..but THANK YOU for his story…

  4. Thunderstixx says:

    War……. Brings out the worst in men and women, it also brings out the best in those same people….
    We can never know what it takes to be awarded the MOH, but we are all beneficiaries of all of it……
    Godspeed young SeaBee…..

  5. Bones says:

    My American Legion Post, #26 in Port Townsend, WA is named for him. There is a standing offer for any vets to stop in, have a beer and chat. He have a pretty nice display there for him and others as well.

    Shields was from the Gardiner area, west of town, his memorial is there, and a part of US highway 101 in that area, is the Medal of Honor Highway. A stretch is named for him, for two guys from the Civil War and for a Marine from the Sequim area, Richard B. Anderson, who was KIA during WWII.

  6. ninja says:

    “Shields was the first enlisted man to receive the medal for Vietnam and to date is the only Seabee to have been so honored.”

    And this is one of the reasons why our family enjoys reading what Mason shares every week.

    We did not know the quoted information.

    Thank You, again, Mason. Your post brought tears to our eyes.

    CM3 Marvin Glenn Shields, Forever 25 Years Young, Forever A Hero.


  7. USAFRetired says:

    Outstanding history lesson.

  8. BlackAngus says:

    Explosive Ordnance Disposal was also formed from SEABEEs in 1941.