LT. Melvin S. Dry KIA Vietnam to Receive Medal Posthumously
LT. Melvin S. Dry KIA Vietnam to Receive Medal Posthumously
Colleen Dugan – The Capital; Published February 26, 2008
Lt. Melvin Spencer Dry’s brother takes a moment of silence during his speech about his family’s appreciation for recognizing his brother.
ANNAPOLIS – A Navy SEAL who graduated from the Naval Academy in 1968 will be awarded the Bronze Star Medal posthumously tomorrow.
Lt. Melvin S. Dry was killed on June 6, 1972, when he jumped from a helicopter that was about 35 feet above the surface of the water in Vietnam. Lt. Dry was serving in a highly classified operation to rescue U.S. POWs near Thanh Hoa, North Vietnam, and was the last SEAL to die in the Vietnam War, according to media reports.
In 1972, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff authorized U.S. Pacific Command to execute Operation Thunderhead in which SEALs were employed to assist in the rescue of POWs planning to escape by stealing a boat and fleeing on the Red River to the Gulf of Tonkin. Details of the once-secret operation were reported in the Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine in October 2005.
Retired Capt. John D. Chamberlain, who served with the SEALs, read the article and realized the SEALs had never been recognized for their heroism, according to the Naval Academy.
Capt. Chamberlain submitted nominations to Secretary of the Navy Donald C. Winter for Lt. Dry and Lt. Philip L. Martin, another SEAL involved in the operation. The Navy authorized the medals in October of last year. Lt. Martin will be awarded his medal on March 18 at Naval Special Warfare Command Headquarters in Coronado, Calif., according to printed accounts. The Dry family will receive the award for Lt. Dry during a 2 p.m. ceremony tomorrow in Memorial Hall at the Naval Academy.
Bronze Star is honor delayed, not denied
Navy recognizes a fallen officer whose valor had long been a secret
By Josh Mitchell February 26, 2008
Navy Lt. Melvin Spence Dry dropped out of a helicopter into choppy waters off the coast of North Vietnam in June 1972. On a highly classified mission to rescue two escaped American prisoners of war, he died the moment he hit the water.
But because the mission was top-secret, Dry’s valor went officially unrecognized. No medals, no commendations and no place of honor among the fallen at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he graduated in 1968.
Even his parents were told that he died in a training exercise.
But his father, also an academy graduate, never bought that explanation.
He spent the rest of his life seeking the truth and arguing that his son should be honored, a cause picked up by Dry’s Annapolis classmates after his father died in 1997.
Yesterday, in a ceremony in the academy’s hallowed Memorial Hall that was attended by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Dry was awarded the Bronze Star posthumously.
Navy officials at the event could not recall the last time that someone had received the award so long after death.
“This gathering here today fulfills my parents’ greatest wish,” Dry’s brother, Robert Dry, told about 200 people gathered in Memorial Hall.
Dry, a 1968 graduate of the Naval Academy who died at age 26, was the last member of the elite Navy SEALs to die during the Vietnam War, officials said.
Because the operation involved saving two escaped prisoners, details surrounding the mission in which he died remained classified for years, Navy officials said.
Even when details emerged, the military declined to honor Dry or any other SEAL for their efforts during the rescue mission.
Story opened doors
It wasn’t until July 2005, when the publication Proceedings printed an article by two of Dry’s former Naval Academy classmates, that the full circumstances of his death were revealed.
After reading the article, a Navy officer who was part of the rescue operation submitted an application for Dry to be awarded the Bronze Star.
“It took a long time for this recognition to manifest itself,” Rear Adm. Joseph Kernan said at yesterday’s ceremony. “Today is … the result of tireless efforts of many of you.”
The story of Dry’s death began in early 1972, when U.S. airmen being held as prisoners of war at the infamous prison known as the “Hanoi Hilton” began planning an escape, according to Proceedings. The prisoners planned to steal a boat and travel down the Red River to the Gulf of Tonkin.
When military officials got word of the escape plans through intelligence operations, they sent Navy SEAL Team One on a rescue mission called Operation Thunderhead.
Dry commanded the team’s Platoon Alpha, which was assigned to carry out the mission. He and about a dozen other SEALs headed to sea aboard a submarine, the USS Grayback.
Once close enough to the coast, Dry and other SEALs were to head for a small island off the mouth of the Red River in a mini-submarine attached to the larger ship, establish an observation post and watch for the escaped prisoners, according to Proceedings.
The SEALs never made it to the island. During a reconnaissance mission in preparation for the rescue, the mini-sub ran out of battery power shortly after midnight, and Dry and three other SEALs had to abandon it. They treaded water for eight hours several miles off the coast, according to Proceedings, until they were rescued by helicopter the next morning and taken to the command ship for Thunderhead.
Dry insisted on returning to the Grayback to help in the rescue mission. A helicopter carried Dry and the three other SEALs to the Grayback late in the evening of June 5.
The helicopter had trouble determining its altitude and finding the submerged submarine.
After a number of failed attempts, the helicopter crew thought that it spotted the submarine, and when Dry got the signal from a crewman, he jumped.
But the helicopter, caught in strong winds, was too high – about 40 to 50 feet, significantly higher than what was deemed safe for a jump, witnesses recounted.
Three others who jumped from the helicopter were injured. Dry’s body was found that night. The Navy listed the cause of death as “severe trauma to the neck.”
The rescue mission was eventually aborted, and officials later learned that the escape attempt had been called off.
The day after Navy Capt. Melvin H. Dry learned of his son’s death, he wrote one word, “Desolation,” in his diary. He was determined to learn more, meeting with officials and writing them.
Navy officials were vague about the circumstances of Dry’s death, according to Proceedings, largely because they did not want word to get back to the North Vietnamese that an escape mission had been planned. Dry’s father learned more about the mission little by little over the years, as information leaked out.
Captain Dry died in 1997. He and his son share a grave at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
“Captain Dry, for the very last 25 years of his life, tried to have his son recognized by the Navy,” said Gordon I. Peterson, co-author of the Proceedings article.
Peterson said he and a former classmate decided to write the article after learning that Dry’s name was not inscribed on a wall at Memorial Hall that contains the names of Naval Academy graduates who have fallen in combat.
“Only several weeks ago I received a phone call I thought would never come,” Robert Dry said at yesterday’s ceremony, referring to the call from Rear Adm. Joseph Kernan about the decision to honor his brother with the Bronze Star.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was a member of Dry’s Class of 1968, also spoke to the audience, which included about two dozen of Dry’s relatives, many of his academy classmates and current midshipmen.
Finally, a medal
“I’ve been looking forward to this day for a long time,” said Air Force Col. John Dramesi, one of the Hanoi Hilton prisoners the mission was to rescue.
Dry’s name is now inscribed on the wall at Memorial Hall, and the citation for his Bronze Star award reads: “By his heroic leadership, courageous actions and loyal devotion to duty, Lieutenant Dry reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”
Colleen Dugan – The CapitalLt. Melvin Spencer Dry’s brother takes a moment of silence during his speech about his family’s appreciation for recognizing his brother.By DALE EISMAN Landmark News ServicePublished February 26, 2008They easily could have been forgotten, a handful of stealthy warriors on a secret mission gone bad.
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 and relatives.
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 next month.
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 ceremony.
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 Thunderhead.
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 the effort.
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 pain.
“They teach you to like pain,” Spence told him.
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 combat.
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 reconnaissance run.
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 territory.
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 life vest.
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 yesterday’s ceremony.
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 survivors.
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 awards.
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 relief.”
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.
Naval Academy honors SEAL killed in secret Vietnam mission