In turbulent times like ours, examples of heroism can be uplifting. This is why you should know the story of United States Marine PFC Douglas Dickey. This young man who sacrificed his life to save fellow Marines during the Vietnam War is not well known. His story is particularly compelling since he seemed to have premonitions of the violent way he would die. He did not show the slightest trepidation or hesitation when called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice.
Doug was born on December 24, 1946, to Harold and Leona Dickey in Greenville, Ohio. He was quiet, unassuming, cool-headed and never lost his temper. The most common adjective used by those who knew him best was “good.”
Whereas Doug really was a “good” young man, few would ever imagine that one day he would become truly “great.” Yet the seeds of greatness were already sprouting in the soul of this young man from an early age.
Doug graduated from Ansonia High School in the spring of 1965. The hippy revolution, which was in full swing, glorified a licentious lifestyle without rules. The young men in Darke County, Ohio, are known for their patriotism. The county is honored to have three Medal of Honor recipients, including Doug Dickey.
He surprised friends and family members by enlisting in the Marine Corps rather than waiting to be drafted for the war. They considered him an unlikely candidate to answer America’s call to arms. This decision was not surprising. It was the young man’s hope that, by going to war, he would spare his younger brothers from the danger of injury or death. His mother explained that Doug had the mistaken idea that if he enlisted, the other siblings might not have to go. Besides, it was part of the Dickey heritage, which can proudly boast of ancestors who had served their country in every conflict going all the way back to the Civil War.
Rigors of Boot Camp
In his book, A Final Valiant Act, Lt. Col. John Lang recounts how military service was not easy for Doug Dickey.1 He was a stocky young man who earned the name “fat body” by his frustrated drill instructor at the recruit depot in San Diego, California. He was physically fit but suffered from a metabolic inability to lose unwanted weight. The drill instructor solved this problem by putting him on what amounted to a starvation diet. PFC Dickey took it all in stride without complaining as he continued the grueling physical training required of a Marine. To alleviate his hunger pangs, friends smuggled food out of the mess hall. Doug was so famished he would eat the burgers they provided along with the greasy napkin they were wrapped in. In letters home, he told his mother he was on a diet.
Those letters provide pearls of insight into the soul of Doug Dickey. One letter tells of the “weekly parades” to honor the Vietnam veterans returning from war. He described one such parade as “sobering” because fifteen decorations were handed out.
This awareness of danger led him to inquire if his life insurance was paid. “If you haven’t,” he said, “you had better do so right away.” This is but one of his presentiments of what was in store for him.
Shortly after finishing boot camp, he got orders to depart for Vietnam. He made a visit home and was proud to show up at church in his dress blue uniform. One can only imagine the pride that welled up in the breast of his dear mother, Leona. It was the last time she would see her son alive.
First Experience in Combat
PFC Dickey arrived in Vietnam in the fall of 1966. He was sent to the most northern region next to the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) and assigned to the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines. It was commanded by the legendary Lt. Col. Jack “Blackjack” Westerman, who had earned the Navy Cross during the Korean War.
Mr. and Mrs. Dickey must have been surprised to receive a personal letter from Col. Westerman, who explained their son was in his care. He said the intention of the letter was “to establish a stronger bond between you and your son and the Marine Corps during this Vietnam crisis. If at any time I can answer a question to relieve your anxiety,” he explained, “feel free to write.”
Doug’s first taste of combat occurred while serving with 2nd Platoon in Company B during Operation Prairie on October 12, 1966. He was very excited about the enemy encounter and told his mother all about it in one of the regular letters home.
This first experience in combat prepared him for the fight of his life. A curious comment when Doug was still an impressionable, carefree boy helps explain his courage during the final episode in his life. It had to do with his willingness to sacrifice it all.
I’d do that.
Herb Schlecty, Doug’s Sunday school teacher, tells the story. During one class, Herb explained what true friendship is and exemplified it with the passage of scripture: “No greater love hath a man than to lay down his life for his friends.” The teacher then explained how uncommon it is to have such friends. Doug casually remarked, “I believe I’d do that.” This might appear to be a case of braggadocious. However, he made similar assertions at other times.
During the war, he and a fellow Marine, Mac McClelland, were reading an issue of the Stars and Stripes. “Mac” was particularly moved by a story of a soldier who jumped on a grenade to save his fellow warriors.
“That takes a lot of guts,” McClelland said. He remembers PFC Dickey looking him straight in the eye. “You know [Mac],” he said, “I’d do that.” Finding it hard to believe, Mac responded, “Are you serious. You won’t know that.”
Doug didn’t waver. “Yes, I do. I would!”
He Kept his Honor Clean
To understand fully Doug Dickey’s iron-clad strength of will, one must look at his limpid purity.
On March 5, 1967, Doug’s unit was anchored in Subic Bay for some much-needed R&R. As often happens with young men in the stressful rigors of war, they sought solace in drink at a local tavern.
As they were sitting in the bar, someone paid the best-looking girl they could find to flirt with Doug. She did as instructed, walked over, sat on the lap of this unsuspecting warrior and began to sweet talk him. Doug quickly interrupted her uninvited advance. According to an eyewitness, “He gently lifted the girl off his lap and set her down on another chair.”
He then looked at the stunned girl and said, “No, no, no. I can’t do that. I can’t do that.”
His fellow marines were in awe. The one who instigated the incident said, “He had been raised with strong values, and they stayed with him.”
None of them could imagine that Doug only had weeks left to live. Yet this marvelous defense of his purity prepared him to go before God with his honor clean.
Operation Beacon Hill
It seems more than appropriate that Doug’s life would end on Easter Sunday, March 26, 1967. During Operation Beacon Hill, 2nd Platoon was overwhelmed by enemy forces and sought refuge in a small depression. They were pinned down by withering machine-gun fire when shrapnel from an exploding grenade took out the radio operator. Commander Lt. Larry Dickerson then called for Doug Dickey, who had been trained as a replacement. This placed him in the epicenter of a battle that was going from bad to worse very quickly.
Soon more grenades were thrown towards their safe haven. One landed in the midst of the Marines. Doug looked at those around him as if measuring the consequences and unhesitatingly threw himself on the projectile.
Navy Corpsman Greg Long was an eyewitness and described the scene, which lasted only seconds but seemed like forever.
“He knew he was going to die,” Long said, “but he had a peaceful look on his face.” The grenade, which Long thought was a dud, suddenly exploded. Doug absorbed the blast and died quickly from massive internal injuries.
He was only three days away from returning home, but instead, his short life had completed a very symbolic full circle. Doug was born on the eve of Our Lord’s birth, and it was divinely ordained that he die on the anniversary of Our Savior’s glorious Resurrection.
Col. Lang argues very well that he saved more than just four Marines that day. Also in the fox hole were the 2nd Platoon’s commander Lieutenant Dickerson and the remaining medic, Doc Long. The loss of Dickerson might have meant certain defeat, and many more lives would have been lost without the Navy corpsman.
The Family Mourns
After his death, Leona Dickey endured her dear son’s loss in a selfless way. The son is better understood when one considers his mother.
At his funeral, she noticed a young lady from the community in the long greeting line. She was pregnant, and Leona knew the expectant mother’s husband was in Vietnam. Mrs. Dickey put her pain aside and directed her charitable affection toward her. She greeted the women affectionately, and the two walked out on the porch to chat, where Mrs. Dickey invited her to sit down.
Mrs. Dickey also wrote beautiful poetry. One poem penned after her son’s untimely death was titled Rose Garden. With wonderful use of metaphor, Mrs. Dickey referred to her family in botanical terms, with her four sons being roses. In flowing rhyme, the verses explain how her “garden” was “almost to full bloom when the “angry shadows of war cast a haze of gloom.” It was then, the poem continued, that Our Lord plucked the “happy smiling” rose “for all up there to see.”
Leona always referred to the men in 2nd Platoon as “my boys,” and they called her “mama Dickey” or just “Ma” Dickey. Leona was a deeply religious woman and instilled a love of God in her children. As was the case with her son Doug, she did not curse and frowned upon those who did. At the yearly 2nd Platoon reunions, the men who served with Doug would get carried away, and inadvertently their banter led to coarse language. The guilty one would immediately look apologetically at “Ma Dickey.” She simply smiled but conveyed the idea that it had better not happen again.
Without realizing it, Leona played a great part in forming a man who would become a symbol of the pure warrior. This is important because, in today’s revolutionary world, a combative man is seldom portrayed as someone who is also pure. A true warrior, who is both bellicose and chaste, is an example of the archetypal human type in history, the medieval knight. Doug Dickey was not bound by a vow of chastity like those knights who belonged to religious orders of chivalry. Nevertheless, he maintained his integrity in much the same way they did.
Thus, America should be proud of this warrior who courageously fought communism in Vietnam. But more importantly, he provides the nation with an example of a modern-day American crusader.
1.Lt. Col. John B. Lang, A Final Valiant Act: The Story of Doug Dickey (Havertown, Penn: Casemate Publishers, 2020. All quotations hereafter are taken from Col. Lang’s book.