Bonds of Vietnam veterans renewed at Wall, Arlington Cemetery
By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 19, 2016
WASHINGTON — Ronald Mallory eyed the name before him, carefully reading the letters etched permanently into the smooth black marble alongside 58,000 others.
For him, this one was special. This was his friend — the “comical” soldier who even on the toughest days running supply convoys through the Vietnamese jungles “was always smiling. Always happy.”
“Larry G Dahl” — Mallory ran his eyes over the name once more, recalling the day Dahl jumped on a grenade, saving Mallory and the other soldiers serving on the gun truck Brutus — an act for which Dahl would posthumously receive the Medal of Honor.
And then, after a few moments, the 66-year-old Mallory turned away.
It was his first visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial — “the Wall” — and like so many of the 35 veterans of the 359th Transportation Company who joined him May 11, the experience left him speechless.
“It’s hard,” said Ron Kendall, who served with the 359th between 1967 and 1968. “We all have brothers-in-arms on that wall. It’s such a sad place.”
Between 1966 and 1972, the 359th Transportation Company ran 50-vehicle convoys almost daily, often directly into enemy ambushes. Fourteen 359th soldiers would be killed and dozens more left suffering from physical and mental wounds.
In the 50 years since the unit first shipped off to Vietnam, many of those soldiers have committed to gathering together every couple of years to reconnect, share stories and keep their brotherhood alive.
“It’s the best thing to ever happen for a lot of us,” Kendall, 67, said of the reunions. “We have a good time, talking about the ups and downs. It’s tough to talk to others about some of it, but we can always talk to each other … I’m going to continue to do it until I die.”
‘It was rough’
By the time Mallory arrived at the unit in June of 1970, the North Vietnamese were well aware of the roughly paved routes the 359th used to deliver fuel and ammunition to troops across the battlefield. The enemy understood the impact attacking those convoys could have on the American war effort.
“We were just sitting ducks,” Mallory recalled. “When we were going through those hills – they’d just wait until you got into the mountains, just crawling 15, 20 miles an hour up there. That’s when they’d come and get you.”
It was an ambush that would lead to Dahl’s death.
Mallory was driving the behemoth gun truck Brutus — a 5-ton truck outfitted with makeshift armor, twin .50-caliber machine guns and a 7.62 mm Mini gun — when the convoy was attacked by North Vietnamese troops near An Khe on Feb. 23, 1971. The enemy had attacked the forward portion of the convoy, Mallory recalled. Brutus’ firepower was needed.
“Lots of shooting and everything,” he said. And then, the fighting stopped.
“We thought everything was over with, so we started to turn around to go back to get into the convoy line, and all of a sudden there was this explosion.”
It was not immediately clear what happened. Mallory saw blood and initially thought he had been hit. By the time he realized he was OK, his gunners in the rear of the truck started yelling.
“They said, ‘Go, go, go, go. We’re hit. We’re hurt. Go’,” he said.
When he finally looked back, Dahl, 21, had already jumped on the grenade, the source of the explosion, and died.
“Man, that was tough,” Mallory said. “It was rough.”
That day lives on in his mind. Forty-five years later, it is just as vivid as it was when he was 21 years old.
Medicine helps, he said, but the reunions, spending time with his fellow 359th veterans, is more powerful.
“They understand what’s going on,” Mallory said. “Sometimes, you just want to be around folks with similar experiences.”
Healing with brothers
They did not all serve together. Many of the 359th veterans who gathered this month in the Washington area to reconnect and honor their fallen comrades at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery did not meet until decades after the war.
They’ve bonded like family in the years since, said Bob Dye, who at 19 was drafted and sent to Vietnam in 1968 to drive an 18-wheel fuel truck with the 359th.
“We’ve gotten really close,” said Dye who was shot through both of his legs in an ambush on a convoy. “When you go through the things we did and have those experiences and learn from each other you do become like brothers. We were kids — 19, 20, 21 years old, sharing those experiences.”
Dye, now 67, was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder years after leaving Vietnam and regularly goes to counseling sessions.
That helped influenced Burrell Welton to seek out a similar group several years ago. Welton was Dye’s platoon leader in Vietnam and received a Bronze Star Medal after he was credited with helping save Dye’s life the day he was shot.
Welton, 67, did not reconnect with the 359th veterans until attending a reunion in 2005. He’d spent years trying to push back thoughts of the war and any feelings that occasionally creeped up in his mind.
“My self protection when I got out of the service was to just not talk about it,” Welton said. “Anybody that hadn’t been there didn’t understand anyway. So I just shut up about.”
That changed when we walked into an Indianapolis hotel in 2005 and set eyes on Dye for the first time in 37 years.
“He came up to me and said ‘Thank you for saving my life’,” Welton recalled.
It brought out emotions he wasn’t aware he had.
“To have these guys say that is very moving,” Welton said. “I didn’t know how much I had penned in with my feelings, and then there it was, and I’ll never miss another reunion.”
Bonding with a new generation
Welton and the other veterans of the 359th Transportation Company have vowed in recent years to share their lessons of brotherhood with the modern-day version of their unit, the Fort Eustis, Va.-based 359th Inland Cargo Transfer Company.
The unit’s soldiers joined the Vietnam veterans this month to lay wreathes at Arlington National Cemetery dedicated to the 14 359th soldiers killed in Vietnam and three others who died in Afghanistan in 2013.
It was an unique experience for the modern soldiers, said Army Capt. Neil Stevenson, who commanded the unit during that Afghanistan deployment.
“I don’t know of many other units that have carried a bond with soldiers that were in the unit previously so that makes it very special,” said Stevenson, who is now a staff officer at Fort Eustis. “It’s important for younger soldiers to look and see what these guys have done. They are really part of that history, and our guys are going to pick that up and carry it on until they get relieved by the next generation.”
The Vietnam veterans had connected with the current 359th several months before it deployed in December 2012, visiting Fort Eustis to tour the base. The veterans regularly sent care packages to the soldiers deployed to Bagram Airfield and several of them committed to welcoming the soldiers home at the end of their rotation.
When word came home that three had been killed in action — two in a roadside bomb and a third in a mortar attack — it brought back old feelings, Dye said.
“That was really sad to go through that again,” he said. “You really felt for them.”
The loss of their own brothers-in-arms during that busy deployment taught the current 359th the value of closely bonding, said 24-year-old Army Spc. Keith Brewer, who served that tour and is still with the unit.
“We realized during that deployment that we had to get together and be a real family,” he said. “It wasn’t easy, but I figured out that this is a unit I’m very proud to be a part of.”
Their combat experiences, though separated by nearly five decades spent in different parts of the world, link the veterans together, Welton said. He said he encouraged them all to remain close and not lose decades of shared experiences as he did.
“I’ve told a couple of these guys — find someone who has been there, done that and talk to them,” Welton said. “You’ve got to talk to someone and get it out in the open.Your feelings come out and it’s cleansing. It’s therapeutic.”
Stevenson said he hoped 50 years from now that the modern 359th soldiers are just as close as the Vietnam veterans have become.
“I’m hopeful about it down the road,” the captain said. “I can see the 359th that I know, that I commanded and had those experiences with, staying in contact and having reunions just like these guys. That is an amazing bond, and that’s something you know will be good for us, too.”
Burrell Welton reaches touches the name of George D. Anderson during a visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington on May 11, 2016. Welton was Anderson's platoon leader in the 359th Transportation Company when he was mortally wounded in an ambush on their convoy Jan. 25, 1968 in Pleiku, Vietnam.
COREY DICKSTEIN/STARS AND STRIPES