Johnny Dwain Cabe
Johnny Dwain Cabe (Special to the Times)

SANTA FE -- Johnny Dwain Cabe went to Vietnam as a gung-ho Marine, the kind who volunteered for combat duty in the misery of monsoon season.

On Veterans Day, like every other day, his buddies remember him as somebody who burned with determination.

"He wanted to win the war, not just survive it," said John Jenny, who served with Cabe in Vietnam.

Cabe graduated from Carlsbad High School in 1966. He joined the Marines soon after and deployed to Vietnam in August 1967.

After six months, Cabe became part of one of the war's innovations. He entered the Combined Action Program, in which a Marine unit would join forces with South Vietnamese villagers.

About 110 of these combined platoons were established, in part to protect villages from attacks by the Vietcong. But the units also were aggressive, deploying members to ambush the enemy.

On June 3, 1968, Cabe was supposed to have the night off. But he went to his platoon leader, Sgt. John Gillespie, and asked for an extra turn on the ambush squad.

"It was his night to stay in the compound, but he wanted to go," Gillespie said in an interview.

Though Gillespie was in command, he was a couple of months younger than Cabe. Gillespie gave Cabe his way, not wanting to diminish his fervor.

"He was a good Marine. He took charge," said Gillespie, of Prairie Du Sac, Wis.


So Cabe, Jenny and four members of the South Vietnamese village militia headed into the raw night, intent on getting the drop on any advancing Vietcong.

Jenny said he, like Cabe, preferred to be on combat duty instead of behind the barbed wire of the compound. Part of his bond with Cabe was that both believed the fight should be taken to the enemy.

For a warrior, Cabe was not imposing physically. Jenny said Cabe might have weighed 135 pounds and no more than 150. Neither the darkness of night nor the prospect of battle seemed to bother him.

"He was one of the bravest guys I've ever met," said Jenny, of Columbus, Ohio.

Cabe, a corporal, carried the unit's two-way radio and ended up leading the six-man detail. Gillespie said this would turn out to be the wrong arrangement strategically, but the Marines lacked the experience to know better.

Cabe was 20 and Jenny, 19. Even in their youth, they had more skill and training than the South Vietnamese militia members who accompanied them.

In what was then the province of Quang Tin, Cabe walked over a small bridge that appeared safe. It was a trap.

Cabe stepped on a land mine that the Vietcong probably had intended for a vehicle.

Jenny heard the explosion but said he could not see his friend. The next thing Jenny felt was shrapnel tearing into his stomach.

Later, other members of the platoon found Cabe's broken body. The radio was destroyed, eliminating any chance of summoning a helicopter that might have evacuated him.

Gillespie often thinks of Cabe, his raw courage and lonely death in a faraway land.

"I've always felt a little guilty about it," Gillespie said.

If he had said no when Cabe volunteered for additional combat duty, Cabe probably would be alive today, Gillespie said.

Four days after the land mine blew up, Cabe's death made the front page of the Albuquerque Journal in a three-paragraph story. That day's edition was dominated by news about the assassination of Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy.

American involvement in Vietnam shaped the political campaign, driving President Lyndon Johnson from the race and forcing every other candidate to discuss the wisdom of sending American soldiers to Southeast Asia.

Jenny said that Cabe had no doubts about what he was doing. He believed in the war effort, as evidenced by his willingness to risk his life on a night when he could have slept.

In the movies, Marines are a band of brothers. But it was not like that in Vietnam, Gillespie said.

Men moved in and out of units as combat tours began and ended. Much of it was brusque and impersonal.

In 1968, Gillespie was a platoon leader too young to vote. Still, he said, he instinctively knew that he had to encourage his charges while maintaining his distance.

"I couldn't get close to them," he said.

Gillespie, looking back at Cabe's short life, says one emotion fills him. "It's nostalgia with the sense that he and I would have been friends now" if only Cabe had not taken that extra combat shift.

Cabe, who would have turned 65 this month, is buried at Fort Bliss National Cemetery in El Paso.

Milan Simonich, Santa Fe bureau chief of Texas-New Mexico Newspapers, may be reached at or 505-820-6898. His blog is at