I arrived in Vietnam early in January of 1968 as a Navy, Fleet Marine Force (FMF) Corpsman and within a week I was assigned to Bravo Co. 3rd Recon Bn, 3rd Marine Division, just as the war was heading into its bloodiest year. Bravo Co. 3rd Recon, at that time, was assigned to the reinforced 26th Marine Regiment that was operating out of the forward Marine air base at Khe Sanh. I was flown up to the base from Dong Ha with another newbie Corpsman assigned to Bravo, 3rd Recon, some other Marine replacements, and some supplies.
In the early morning hours of January 21st the base was hammered with a massive barrage of NVA mortars and artillery fire hitting, among other things, one of the ammo dumps. By the end of that barrage, much of the base was in shambles. The 77-day long siege had begun. In command of the 26th Marines was a “lifer” Marine by the name of Col. David E. Lownds. This article is about his service to the nation and his Marine Corps history.
Lownds was born in Westerly, Rhode Island on October 10, 1920. He entered the Marine Corps on March 3, 1942 only three months after the Pearl Harbor attack. He would serve in the Pacific theater as a 1st Lt. commanding the 2nd platoon of C. Co., 1st Bn., 24th Marines at the Battle of Roi-Namur in the Battle for the Marshall Islands (Kwajalein).
Lownds would fight again at the Battle of Saipan with that same unit. He received his first Purple Heart in that battle and would spend some time in the hospital at Tinian. After recovering he would again see action in the Battle of Iwo Jima with HQ Co. 1/24. Lownds was wounded again in action there and received his second Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.
After WWII, Lownds came home and joined the Marine Reserves and would reactivate to serve in the Korean War. He would then serve with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force aboard the USS Boxer in Operation Powerback during the Dominican Republic revolution. But he was not done yet.
When Vietnam came along, Lownds had reached the rank of Col. and was put in command of the 26th Marine Regiment of the 3rd Marine Division. He would command this unit during Operation Ardmore and Operation Scotland and as the commander of the Khe Sanh Combat Base. He was our commander during the siege.
Lownds’ experience over three wars made him a wise and cagey commander. He was a constant source of frustration for the news reporters getting into Khe Sanh for stories. He played with their minds making them think, for example, that he had never heard of, or knew anything about a place called Dien Bien Phu. Khe Sanh was being compared to that battle in which the French colonial forces of Vietnam were defeated by the Vietnamese rebels led by Ho Chi Minh and commanded by the same General that was leading the NVA forces at the Siege of Khe Sanh, General Vo Nguyen Giap.
The journalists thought Lownds was stupid but, in fact, Lownds knew more about Dien Bien Phu and Gen. Giap than most. In the end, those journalists would give Col. Lownds a nickname, “The Lion of Khe Sanh.”
He led us through that 77-day long siege with courage, skill and commitment to his men. At the end of the siege, he was relieved by Col. Bruce F. Meyers on 8 April, 1968. On the 23rd of May, Lownds and the Sgt. Major of the 26th Marines were in attendance at the White House when President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded the Presidential Unit Citation (PUC) to the 26th Marines for their conduct during the siege at Khe Sanh. Lownds would later be awarded the Navy Cross for his service at Khe Sanh.
Col. David E. Lownds was a Marine’s Marine. Those of us who served under him at Khe Sanh are proud of that PUC. We are proud to be a part of the Marine Corps’ storied history.
The Veterans Site honors the lifetime of service that Col. Lownds gave to the Marine Corps and to the nation. We also honor those who gave their last full measure at the Siege of Khe Sanh, and those who survived that battle and came home to offer so much to the nation in their civilian lives. Semper Fidelis!