Vietnam veteran who helped build Marine Corps museum now subject of new biography

Tom Jackman/The Washington Post - Retired Brigadier General Bill Weise served in the U.S. Marines for 31 years. He completed combat tours in both Korea and Vietnam.

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Brig. Gen. William “Wild Bill” Weise retired from active duty in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1982, having seen some of the heaviest action of the Vietnam War, and he stopped working in 1992. Sort of.

A longtime Northern Virginia resident, Weise was part of the foundation that envisioned, raised funds for and created the National Museum of the Marine Corps near Quantico, which opened in 2006. Now he is leading a campaign to memorialize every member of his famed 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, known as the “Magnificent Bastards,” with a commemorative brick for each of the 1,100 or so troops from the “2/4” killed since it was constituted in 1914. He has raised $79,000 for the project but estimates he needs about $170,000 more.

(U.S. Marine Corps Photo/Courtesy of Bill Weise) - Retired Brigadier General Bill Weise on March 19, 1968 in Vietnam.

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And this month, Weise will receive the full book treatment when a biography of him, “One Magnificent Bastard,” is published.

“The little remembered Battle of Dai Do,” Marine and former U.S. senator James Webb writes in the book, “stands out as one of the fiercest and most complex engagements of the Vietnam War. The leadership of General William Weise will be remembered as one of the centerpieces of that historic battle.”

Weise, 84, who lives at the Greenspring retirement community in Springfield, was previously featured in a book and documentary about the Battle of Dai Do, where he was wounded and temporarily paralyzed, but he moves now without any seeming difficulty, and his memories are clear and entertaining.

The south Philadelphia native and Temple University graduate had planned to go to law school, but the Korean War was on. He decided to enlist, do his stint, then use the GI Bill to attend law school. On his first day, a Marine Corps recruiter asked for volunteers. Weise raised his hand, figuring that his family had served in all the other branches. He stayed for 31 years, training along with his men in scuba and paratrooper units, and earning the nickname “Wild Bill” for his all-out pursuit of every mission, his biographer, Mark Huffman, wrote.

In both Korea and Vietnam, Weise was given rear guard assignments that would have kept him from seeing action. Twice, he requested reassignment to infantry battalions. “I want an infantry battalion so bad I can taste it,” Weise said he told his commanding officer in Vietnam in October 1967. Twice, he was refused, and then twice, fate intervened and he was placed at the head of infantry units, including being assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines that same fall of 1967, and he fought during the North Vietnamese’s massive Tet Offensive in January 1968.

But after repelling the Viet Cong during Tet, Weise’s battalion was assigned to protect a key base at Dong Ha, on the Bo Dieu River, that served as a supply conduit for many other American outposts. Early on April 30, 1968, a Navy utility boat was fired upon, and when ground troops went to investigate they found signs of a huge North Vietnamese presence. “I felt uneasy,” Weise wrote in 1987 in an article in Marine Corps Gazette. “Something big was happening.”

He was right. The 320th North Vietnamese Army had massed nearby, with an estimated 6,000 to 10,000 troops. Weise’s battalion numbered less than 1,000. The Magnificent Bastards fought ferociously, and the Battle of Dai Do was on. Weise’s requests for additional units or permission to shift units were often denied or granted piecemeal. South Vietnamese units that were supposed to be fighting alongside them sometimes vanished.

On the third day, May 2, 1968, Weise led a small company from Dai Do, and again the South Vietnamese abandoned them. At one point he and his men were surrounded on three sides. “The fighting was close and violent,” Weise wrote. Helicopters jumped into the fray. A sergeant and close friend, “Big John” Malnar, was killed by a rocket round.

Then Weise was wounded, shot in the side. As his company fought off the attack and withdrew, Weise lost feeling in his legs. “The bullet lodged between my fourth and fifth vertebra,” he said, near his spinal cord. “Had that bullet gone another inch . . .” Instead, it was later removed in surgery, and he recovered. The 2/4 lost 81 men in the Battle of Dai Do, but it is estimated that the North Vietnamese lost thousands.

For his actions in 1967 and 1968, Weise received the Navy Cross, America’s second-highest award for heroism in combat, the Silver Star (the third-highest award), two Legions of Merit for distinguished service, three Purple Hearts and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry; the 2/4 received a Navy Unit Citation “for outstanding heroism” in the spring of 1968.

Weise later served in a variety of posts in the military, including teaching at Navy, Army and Marine colleges and commanding the base at Parris Island, S.C., where he’d first entered the Marines. He retired in 1982 and has lived in Northern Virginia since then.

Weise later co-chaired the Marine Corps Heritage Center committee for five years, which helped lay the groundwork for the Marine Corps Museum. “His boundless creativity helped guide the dream of a National Museum of the Marine Corps to fruition,” retired Marine Lt. Col. Fritz Warren, who fought with Weise at Dai Do, wrote in the biography’s foreword.

Now Weise is on another campaign. On the grounds of the museum is a place called the Semper Fidelis Memorial Park, set aside for monuments to various groups within the Marines. Weise, through the 2/4 Association, has begun raising the funds to have a brick placed in the park for each of the 2/4’s fallen. The bricks are $300 each. The first 376 bricks will be laid next month in the park, Weise said, to be followed by a ceremony sometime next year. Sunday was the 238th birthday of the Marine Corps.

“The idea is for this to be a sacred place,” Weise said, “to honor the sons, fathers, husbands, who died fighting for freedom.”

 
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