ESCANABA - America's veterans who gave the supreme sacrifice have a special day today as we honor those who gave their lives.
They died at Iwo Jima, Pearl Harbor, the Battle of the Bulge, Khe Sanh, the Chosin Reservoir, Gettysburg, Yorktown. They are still dying in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Whether it was a major battle or a brief firefight between small units, their blood was shed in defense of our freedom and we owe them - and their families - everlasting thanks and gratitude.
Dennis Grall photo
The Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C. provides a reflection of Dennis and Sally Grall of Escanaba. They visited the wall as part of their trip to his U.S. Marine Corp reunion of his Foxtrot unit that served in Vietnam in 1966-67. The names of 33 Foxtrot members who died April 21, 1967, are on the wall behind them.
Foxtrot 2/1 of the U.S. Marines held a Vietnam reunion in Virginia Beach last month, the first time the unit had been together since April 1967. Daily Press sports editor Dennis Grall, right, is with company commander Gene Deegan, center, and fellow radio operator Vinny Dwyer, left. Deegan and Dwyer were both wounded in a major battle April 21 that became Operation Union.
Memorial Day - Decoration Day as it was called for years - began as a way to honor the memory of those who died in the Civil War. Eight more wars have claimed our country's best and brightest men and women, leaving only memories of what they accomplished and thoughts of what they may have done.
One of our local Iraq victims, Joe Micks, will be remembered in a special way today in Rapid River. A run in his honor will be part of the celebration of his too-short life.
Gathering to remember our veterans should be the focus. Recently I had the privilege of an early Memorial Day celebration that is one of the special times in my life.
A group of 44 Marines from Foxtrot Co., Second Battalion, First Marines met for two days in Virginia Beach. We shared precious memories, shedding some tears and also laughing about some of the good times as we met April 21 for the first time in 44 years.
On that day in 1967 we lost 33 Marines and had another 81 wounded in the Que Son Valley about 30 miles south of Da Nang.
One of those casualties was Pfc. Gary Martini, who received the Medal of Honor posthumously for his actions in trying to save the lives of two Marines. Also on hand were family members of Marines who died that day and they quickly became part of our Foxtrot family.
The Breedloves of West Virginia were in the midst of a highly emotional period honoring their brother and uncle, Craig. A portion of highway by the family home was named in his honor a week after the reunion.
Also on hand were sisters of Rodger Hamilton, who was never accounted for on the battlefield that day and was declared dead in 1978. During the first night's session, two Marines recounted how he died. The sisters received an MIA flag from Foxtrot in a very highly charged and emotional presentation.
That day in 1967, about 120 Marines unexpectedly ran into a North Vietnamese force of more than 1,200 who were entrenched in Binh Son, a village just a few miles from Nui Loc Son, a hill we had occupied for three months.
We had been running patrols of various sizes and objectives during that period and had numerous small contacts and only a few casualties, including three who died.
I missed that April 21 battle because a fellow radio operator, Vinny Dwyer, asked to go out that day. Attached to us from regiment, he had never been on patrol and wanted the experience. Fortunately he survived minor wounds and was one of those at the reunion, with his wife and son.
The first night of the reunion dealt with that battle, which became known as Operation Union I. Larry Leonard of Escanaba was also involved in that operation, joining Mike 3/5 a couple of weeks later. He was quickly wounded and that incident is discussed in a book about that entire five-month series of vicious battles, the Road of 10,000 Pains. The author, Otto Lehrack, attended the reunion.
Survivors at the reunion recalled the firing was immense. Gene Deegan, our company commander who retired as a major general, led the discussion but pointed out he was seriously wounded early and did not have first-hand knowledge of much of the day's action.
"You cannot imagine the intensity of the fight," said Deegan as he led the discussion. "The number of enemy boggled the mind. It was not long before we knew we were in trouble and would need all the help we could get.
"This is the first opportunity to see the big picture. Otto did a great service to all of us here (with his book). As a captain you see the war in your own little horizon. Otto has tied all of the operation together."
The book indicates the 2nd NVA regiment's casualties were so large it was unable to attack Da Nang as part of the Tet Offensive in 1968, which basically spared that giant base.
"We took a bloody nose and they (NVA) took a bloody nose also," Deegan said of that day's battle. He discussed the entire planning stages, and said despite official USMC accounts it was a standard patrol, albeit larger than many we had executed in the region because the target area was further from the hill than normal.
Deegan said he has questioned his role all these years. "We didn't take great risks, but maybe I wasn't overly cautious," he said at the reunion. "We knew people (NVA) were there but we didn't know how many. We grossly underestimated. It didn't take 30 seconds to know we didn't have enough combat (strength) to do the trick.
"They were prepared to defend. We attacked an outfit that was locked and loaded."
Due to the the close quarters between the Marines and NVA, artillery and air support could not get as close as needed. "We had air stationed three deep but we were so close we couldn't use it," he said. "After we engaged (the NVA) we had more than we could handle."
Lt. Abel Paredes, second platoon commander, said "it was a horrible day. Good Marines died. We did the best job we could do."
Lehrack, at the reunion, said his research that included discussions with NVA officers indicated the two battalions "wanted to control the (rice-rich) valley" and were not interested in attacking our hill position and were basically trying to build up for Tet by avoiding our patrols.
During the discussion, Deegan talked about the huge battlefield area and the intensity and volume of fire - outgoing and incoming - that made it difficult for all the combatants to know what was going on more than a few feet away.
The informative discussion cleared up many questions of what happened that day, making for a supremely successful reunion. Most of us had not been together since that day, which made for a very emotional gathering that was healing and comforting.
Many wonderful Marines died that day, and many other service members have died across the globe in similar battles protecting our freedom.
Remember all of them when you attend Memorial Day festivities. It is because of their service and sacrifice we can enjoy our precious freedom. Semper Fi.
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Editor's note: Dennis Grall is sports editor of the Daily Press. He was wounded twice during his 8 months in Vietnam.