Morning Colors on 881 South


During the siege of Khe Sanh, Vietnam, in 1968, one of the outposts, Hill 881 South, was surrounded and almost continuously bombarded for 77 days.

During daylight hours, life for the defenders was almost totally below ground level. Once the siege began in early February, and continuing until the enemy gave up the effort, the Marines adopted a routine demonstration of defiance. At dawn, two volunteers would hoist the American flag on a fifteen foot radio antenna and then stand at attention while Lt. Owen Mathews played “To the Colors,” which normally takes about 38 seconds, on a battered bugle as the angry North Vietnamese rounds tore past them. Then all three would dive back into the trenches. They would repeat the ceremony while lowering the colors at sundown.

The Marines had no shortage of flags, which were easy to include in a helicopter resupply. The flags were sent by donors from all over the U.S. and included the coffin flag of a soldier killed in World War II. The retired flags, often with multiple punctures, were sent to the families of slain Marines. Capt. Bill Dabney, the hill commander, had a “rear echelon warrior” point out that regulations required him to fly the Republic of Vietnam flag whenever displaying the American flag. He radioed back his enthusiastic desire to comply if someone would send up a contingent of South Vietnamese troopers to do the honors. The matter was not pursued. Dabney reported later that among his Marines, there was never a shortage of volunteers.