Captain William H. Hardcastle, the chief of the U.S. Naval Advisory Group in South Vietnam during the early 1960s, believed that the ideal advisor had to be a “co-equal” leader with his Vietnamese counterpart, and be in the forefront of all operations. “Should an advisor flinch under such fire, or show signs of nervousness, or momentary indecision,” wrote Hardcastle, “it would be immediately noted by the Vietnamese River Force personnel, and the advisor’s effectiveness would be diminished.”
Lieutenant Harold “Dale” Meyerkord exemplified these virtues. By the spring of 1965, he had received enemy fire on more than 30 combat missions, and in several of these actions, had performed well above and beyond the call of duty.
For Meyerkord, service with a Vietnamese River Assault Group represented an opportunity to participate in operations not witnessed by many U.S. Navy officers since the American Civil War. Meyerkord joined the United States Naval Reserve in 1960 shortly after graduating from the University of Missouri at Columbia as a political science major. After serving on the cruiser Los Angeles (CA-135) and the destroyer Duncan (DD-874), he volunteered for duty as an advisor in Southeast Asia because, as he wrote in a letter to his mother, “a lot is going on there that will eventually change the world.”
On the day of his last mission, 16 March 1965, Meyerkord was scheduled to appear at the Naval Advisory Group headquarters to receive a Bronze Star. Early that day, Meyerkord contacted Captain Hardcastle’s office and asked to be excused from the ceremony, explaining that he wanted to accompany his counterpart, Lieutenant Dai Huy Hoa, on a mission against a suspected Viet Cong position near Vinh Long. Later that day, he and Hoa lead a small flotilla of riverine craft down a canal. The small boats turned a bend and caught a fusillade of enemy fire. Chief Eugene Barney seized his 12-guage shotgun and took cover with an Army advisor behind a bench. Meyerkord remained in the exposed deckhouse and returned fire with his pistol. After a bullet slammed into his stomach, he cried out, “I’m hit,” and collapsed on the deckhouse but continued firing. Barney got up and grabbed Meyerkord in a bear hug and attempted to get him to safety. A round hit Meyerkord in the chin and another struck Barney’s back. Both men collapsed onto the deck of the commandement. Barney, who would later receive a Bronze Star for his heroism that day was flown by helicopter to the Third Field Hospital near Saigon, and then back to the United States, where would spend the next six months recovering from his wound at the Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego. Meyerkord was not as fortunate. He died by the time the commandement reached Vinh Long a few hours later.
Meyerkord was one of the first U.S. Navy officers killed in Southeast Asia. His death marked the end of the advisory period of the war and the beginning of a more active phase in the Navy’s involvement in South Vietnam. The Navy ultimately awarded Meyerkord a Navy Cross and named a frigate (FF-1058) after him. The U.S. Navy lost one of its best riverine fighters when Meyerkord died, but as one of Meyerkord’s U.S. Army colleagues, Oscar Padgett, put it, “If you send the best over here, you’re going to lose the best.”