Bronze Star is honor delayed, not denied

The Baltimore Sun

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.

Treacherous jump

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."

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