And for more than three decades, the men of Operation
Thunderhead, a daring plan to rescue American prisoners of war in
North Vietnam, essentially were lost to history. Their bravery and
devotion to duty were recorded as a mere "training
operation," the truth hidden from all but a handful of shipmates
In a solemn ceremony at the Naval Academy in
Annapolis yesterday, the Navy and nation tried to make amends,
posthumously presenting the Bronze Star with valor to the operation's
leader, Lt. Spence Dry, a SEAL commando who leaped out of a helicopter
to his death in the Gulf of Tonkin on June 5, 1972.
Chief Warrant Officer Philip "Moki"
Martin, who followed Lt. Dry into the water but survived, will get the
Navy and Marine Corps Commendation medal at a ceremony in California
Lt. Dry was "a hero, a warrior, a leader,"
said Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Adm.
Mullen knew Lt. Dry only slightly, as a fellow member of the Naval
Academy's Class of 1968, but the bond of those days brought him and
dozens more of their classmates to yesterday's ceremony.
"The Dry family is honored, deeply grateful,
and frankly overwhelmed," Robert Dry, the youngest of three
brothers, told them.
"The one glue in the U.S. military is loyalty -
loyalty up and loyalty down," observed U.S. Sen. Jim Webb,
another member of the academy Class of 1968 and a man who counted Lt.
Dry among his close friends from those days.
Loyalty to his shipmates arguably cost Lt. Dry his
life. His fatal jump came in a quest to reach SEAL teammates aboard a
submarine, the U.S.S. Grayback, patrolling off the Vietnamese coast.
Loyalty to a fallen son drove Capt. Melvin Dry, Lt.
Spence's dad, through a lonely, quarter-century quest to secure
recognition for the men of Operation Thunderhead.
Loyalty to a lost comrade led a pair of Lt. Dry's
academy classmates to piece together the story of their friend's death
and nudge the Navy into giving him his due.
And loyalty brought Air Force Lt. Col. John Dramesi,
one of the POWs whom Lt. Dry had set out to rescue, to yesterday's
Lt. Dry's story "is a demonstration of the kind
of dedication to purpose ... that binds us together in terms of being
true military men," Lt. Col. Dramesi said.
Lt. Dry was the last Navy SEAL to die in Vietnam.
His death was the worst in a series of mishaps that marked Operation
After Lt. Col. Dramesi and other prisoners signaled
their escape plan to American planes flying over the Hanoi Hilton, the
Pentagon hatched Thunderhead to help them. Lt. Dry was chosen to lead
Then starting his fourth tour in Vietnam, Lt. Dry,
26, was a quiet leader, a man who could relax over a beer with his
shipmates and loved the Moody Blues, according to several who knew
him. But "if you messed up, he was in your face."
The product of a Navy family - father Capt. Dry was
a decorated World War II submarine skipper - Spence thought he was
indestructible, said James Dry, a younger brother born when the family
was stationed in Norfolk in the 1950s.
James recalled Spence coming home after SEAL
training and showing off the remnants of a thumbnail obliterated when
an instructor stepped on it to teach the trainees a lesson on enduring
"They teach you to like pain," Spence told
His brother "was going to get those Viet Cong.
He was going to win that war," James Dry said.
Operation Thunderhead "was everything he wanted
to do," Warrant Officer Martin said. "This was going to be
big, and he wanted to be part of it."
It was an audacious plan. As the escaped prisoners
floated down the Red River in a stolen boat, four men were to be
launched from the Grayback, meet them on an island in the Red River
delta and lead them to safety.
The rescue party was to travel initially in one of
several midget submarines carried by the Grayback. The "SEAL
Delivery Vehicle" - SDV in Navy parlance - never had been used in
Two of the men were to drive the SDV as close to
shore as possible, dropping the others to swim the rest of the way.
The SEALs were under orders to wait for no more than 48 hours; after
that the escapees would be on their own.
By June 3, the Grayback was in position. Lt. Dry and
his SEAL teammate Warrant Officer Martin, along with a pair of
underwater demolitions experts, Lt. j.g. John Lutz and Fireman Thomas
Edwards, took an SDV on what was supposed to be a midnight
The current quickly overpowered their
battery-powered craft, however, and in the darkness, the men could
neither locate the island nor return to the Grayback. A helicopter
found them treading water several miles offshore the next morning and
flew them to a nearby cruiser; the SDV had to be scuttled.
Determined to make another attempt and to warn
teammates of problems with the SDV, Lt. Dry arranged for a helicopter
ride back to the Grayback. He and his team were to be dropped into the
water from the helicopter and picked up by the Grayback's crew.
But again, the Grayback proved elusive. The
helicopter crew struggled to find a light that was supposed to guide
them to the ship. On one approach, the aircraft was so low that its
tail dipped into the water; on another, the crew mistook a light
ashore for the sub's beacon and flew briefly over North Vietnamese
When they finally found what they thought was the
ship, the helicopter was dangerously low on fuel. Lt. Dry had
cautioned the pilot that they must be no more than 20 feet above the
water and moving forward at no more than 20 knots for a safe jump.
When the jump order came, Lt. Dry was the first out,
disappearing in the darkness. There was no hesitation.
His last words to Warrant Officer Martin were,
"We've got to get back to Grayback."
Warrant Officer Martin, the third to go, counted as
he fell - one thousand, two thousand, three thousand - then muttered
an expletive just before hitting the water. They were much too high
and with a 20 knot tailwind, probably going too fast.
The impact snapped Lt. Dry's neck, killing him.
Fireman Edwards broke a rib and probably would have drowned had
Warrant Officer Martin not found him in the water and inflated his
Warrant Officer Martin, Fireman Edwards and Lt. Lutz
bobbed around for a while, then swam toward voices and found the crew
of a second abandoned SDV, launched earlier from the Grayback. The
entire group was rescued the next morning and Operation Thunderhead
was canceled soon after. The planned escape at the Hanoi Hilton also
was called off.
Lt. Col. Dramesi, who had been beaten nearly to
death after a pair of earlier escape attempts, counts cancellation of
the third escape as the worst horror he endured.
"It was the Hell of Hanoi," Lt. Col.
Dramesi recalled yesterday.
Life from death
Capt. Melvin Dry recorded a single word in his diary
the day he heard of his son's death: "Desolation."
He soon launched an effort to have Spence awarded a
posthumous Purple Heart.
But with the mission classified - Lt. Col. Dramesi
still won't discuss how the prisoners were able to send and receive
signals from American warplanes - the Navy refused to acknowledge the
death as a combat loss. The senior Dry died, frustrated, in 1997.
Two years later, Spence Dry's contemporaries from
the Class of 1968 were stirred when Mr. Webb, then a novelist, penned
an alumni magazine article suggesting that Lt. Dry's name be added to
a list of fallen graduates in the academy's Memorial Hall, site of
It took five more years for the academy to follow
Mr. Webb's advice. Even after Lt. Dry was added to the memorial, the
mission remained mostly shrouded until 2005, when two other
classmates, retired Navy Capts. Michael Slattery and Gordon Peterson,
published a detailed account drawn from records in the Library of
Congress, other documents collected by Melvin Dry, and interviews with
Spurred by Capts. Slattery and Peterson, Capt. John
Chamberlain, who had been skipper of the Grayback, submitted paperwork
in November 2005 recommending Lt. Dry and Warrant Officer Martin for
Virginia Sen. John Warner - like Mr. Webb, a former
Navy secretary- supplied a letter endorsing Capt. Chamberlain's
recommendation. Congressional intercession was required because the
usual deadline for award nominations was long passed.
Lt. Dry and Warrant Officer Martin were
"integral members of this operation," Mr. Warner wrote,
"displaying leadership, heroism and valor on this dangerous and
then highly classified mission."
Warrant Officer Martin said he is honored to be
recognized, even 35 years after the fact, but "it's more of a
It somehow didn't seem right that the Navy had never
paid its respects, he said. The awards bestowed on him and Lt. Dry are
really for their whole platoon, he said.