This Day in History: Captain Jay Vargas & his 3-day ordeal in Vietnam

On this day in 1968, a United States Marine leads an attack on the village of Dai Do in Vietnam. Jay Vargas and his men would persevere through a 3-day battle with little to no sleep. Captain Vargas showed such bravery during the conflict that he would ultimately receive the Medal of Honor.

There was a time when Vargas thought that he might be a Major League baseball player, but that dream never came to be. Instead, Vargas became the youngest of four brothers to join the Marines.

Vargas’s heroic actions came as he was commanding a company of Marines near the demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam. Late in April, his Marines had found themselves in a difficult situation requiring a night march back to base camp.

The enemy was shooting at them throughout the march, but they made it! They hadn’t slept in 36 hours.

Unfortunately, sleep was not in their immediate future. Practically as soon as they arrived, they were being ordered out—again. Help was needed in the village of Dai Do.

Vargas had shrapnel wounds in his leg from the previous night’s march, but he told his corpsman, “Don’t you dare report it.” He and his men were soon on river boats headed toward Dai Do. Once they landed, they would need to cross 700 meters of rice paddies.

Vargas and his Marines made it about three-fourths of the way through the rice paddies before getting pinned down by enemy fire. Vargas knew he had to do something. “I went forward with four Marines,” he later recounted, “and they got hit immediately. So I ended up all by myself up there. But I knocked out three heavy machine guns, and killed 14 in the trenches.”

The move enabled the Marines to continue with their attack.

Vargas’s Marines at first seemed to have Dai Do secure, but you wouldn’t believe what happened next! The North Vietnamese began a counter attack that pushed Vargas and his men into a cemetery. They were surrounded and night was falling.

They survived in part by digging up graves, pulling out bodies, and using the holes as cover.

Remember. None of them had slept yet.

It turned into a 3-day battle. During the conflict, Vargas alternately called in air strikes, evacuated wounded men, and exposed himself to enemy fire.

At one point, he hoisted a wounded Marine across his shoulder. The Marine had lost his arm—then asked Vargas to go back for it! Muttering expletives, Vargas went back for the “f—ing” arm.  

One officer later wrote that “Vargas was everywhere, giving orders to small groups of Marines, helping move wounded, and occasionally firing his rifle. His presence, inspirational leadership, personal actions, and total disregard for his own safety averted complete disaster . . . .”

Another officer, Jim Livingston, would also receive the Medal of Honor for his actions during this conflict, but he spoke highly of the “massive effort and bravery of Vargas and Golf Company.”

Years later, Vargas spoke of what the Medal meant to him, but he couldn’t get through his comments without getting choked up thinking about the sacrifices of his troops that day.

“When I put my medal on—I can’t stop thinking about the troops, I can’t—and I tell ‘em, I say, when I put this thing on, and I have trouble buttoning it. I still shake, but I wear it with pride. And basically in honor of them.”

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