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Noble Warrior: The Story of Maj. Gen. James E. Livingston, USMC (Ret.), Medal of Honor

by James E. Livingston, Colin D. Heaton and Anne-Marie Lewis, Zenith Press, 2010

A former U.S. Army soldier and Marine Scout Sniper—during which he first made the acquaintance of James E. Livingston— Colin E. Heaton has written widely on an international cast of veterans going back as far as the Anglo-Boer War. In Noble Warrior, however, he and co-author Anne-Marie Lewis confine their efforts to editing while letting their subject do the talking. This retired Marine Maj. Gen. Livingston has earned the right to do, by acts of leadership and self-sacrificing valor during the relatively little known Battle of Dai Do that led to his being awarded the Medal of Honor.

The climactic engagement of the North Vietnamese follow-up to the 1968 Tet Offensive that the Americans called “MiniTet,” the Dai Do fight occurred when 800 men of 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, moved to pre-empt a North Vietnamese Army threat to the Marine base at Dong Ha on April 30, and slammed directly into the headquarters area of the NVA’s 320th Division. Then-Captain Livingston, whose policy of continuous rigorous training paid off for his Echo Company, provides a compelling blow-by-blow account of the three-day battle, weaving from the “big picture” of the overall fighting to the “little picture” of his officers and men in action. He emphasizes that the deeds for which he and Major Jay R. Vargas of Golf Company received Medals of Honor were part of a team effort by virtually all Marines involved. Adding further dimension to his narrative—and providing added perspectives on his contribution—are numerous sidebars giving firsthand accounts from his embattled comrades-in-arms.

The ultimate result in Livingston’s afteraction assessment was a bloody defeat for the Communists that may have prevented their overrunning Dong Ha, and which ended major NVA offensive operations until 1972. In retrospect, he remains critical of adjacent American and South Vietnamese forces for inadequately supporting his hard-pressed battalion and for failing to move to entrap and destroy the 320th Division when they had the chance.

Still, Livingston admits that the nature of the meeting engagement took his higher command by surprise—and discovered, after comparing notes with former enemies after the war, that “none of them seemed to have really been aware of our disposition, illustrating that the classic fog of war cuts both ways.” He concludes, “This was Custer’s last stand for both of us,” which accounted for Dai Do being the mutually bloody affair it was.

After recovering from two wounds from grenade fragments and the 12.7mm hit that fractured his right thigh bone at Dai Do, Livingston went on to command Marines in the evacuation of Saigon in 1975 and to aid Philippine government forces against their own Communist guerrillas in the late 1980s.

David Livingston remains the lifelong Marine, which he maintains is largely the foundation of his values and outlook. Coauthor/editor Heaton prefaces each chapter with a quote from a historic figure. Curiously, the last one comes from Léon Degrelle, a Belgian fascist who led a brigade of Waffen SS volunteers on the Russian front in World War II. His statement on the importance of hard training is quite in line with Livingston’s own philosophy, but one has to wonder how General Livingston feels about ending his autobiography with an “endorsement” from a man of whom Adolf Hitler once said, “If I had a son, I would want him to be like Degrelle.”


Originally published in the February 2011 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here