Doug Dickey was meant to be forgotten. Except by those who loved him.
Born on Christmas Eve 1946 in Greenville, Ohio, where the hospital and movie theater were located, he grew up on a farm near Rossburg, a crossroads with a flashing traffic light.
Dickey’s childhood was pleasant, though unremarkable. At school he sang in the choir and joined the football team. He didn’t play much, but he was known as a real team player. When he tried for the basketball team and was unsuccessful, he volunteered to be the towel and water boy. Doug Dickey was a good guy. People loved him.
But Dickey didn’t write the history books until his death. And not because he died and not necessarily even how. But why.
Dickey graduated from high school in the spring of 1965. By Christmas he had enlisted in the United States Marine Corps Reserve, but the following spring he re-enlisted in the Regular Marine Corps. After completing his training at Camp Pendleton on October 1, 1966, he joined B Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, 3rd Marine Division, Vietnam, and was promoted to Private First Class.
On Easter Sunday, March 26, 1967, during a fight against the Viet Cong in Operation Beacon Hill, a grenade fell on the trees and landed in the middle of Dickey’s platoon. Without hesitating, Dickey dove into it. When another landed next to him, he reached out, grabbed it and pulled it under him as well, sheltering the explosions to save the rest of his comrades.
By also saving the men leading the platoon, Dickey would have foiled further chaos and destruction.
With the exception of his family and those whose lives he has preserved, very few people knew or remembered the act of heroism which earned Private First Class Dickey a posthumous Medal of Honor for heroism. Until Lt. Col. John B. Lang, a native of Monterey, USMC (retired) wrote a book about it.
“A Final Valiant Act: The story of Doug Dickey, Medal of Honor,” the result of over 14 years of research, including Dickey’s handwritten letters home and over 50 interviews, is what Lang knows to be the most detailed account of Operation Beacon Hill ever written. More importantly, perhaps, April 28, 2020, when the book was published, was the day that Dickey received his due.
Published by Casemate Publishers, the book is a mixture of fact and fiction, with a narrative woven into the gaps in knowledge or understanding, a difficult story told in a way that allows readers to stay with the story and to learn more about a remarkable young man.
Dickey is one of 62 posthumous Medal of Honor recipients Lang has dedicated his retirement to research, seeking to contact relatives or siblings or someone they have served with, to see what he can learn and ultimately understand how and why they gave their lives in service to their country during the Vietnam War.
“None of us, even the guys who knew him well,” Lang said, “will ever know for sure what made Doug Dickey do this, which prompted a 20-year-old to take the hit and sacrifice. his life for his platoon.
“Maybe the bigger question is what makes someone a hero. What I have found among all those heroes who have received the Medal of Honor posthumously is something that revealed how much they cared about others in their civilian lives.
Amidst 62 heroes whose stories Lang is still going through, he was drawn deep enough into Dickey’s story to write a book. Here was a young man to whom so many other lives meant more than his, except for how he could be of use to them.
Lt. Col. Lang was driving through Ohio as he was driving from the Pentagon to his next posting in San Diego when he remembered Dickey having grown up in Greenville. He left the highway to find it and paid homage to the young man’s grave.
Two years later, Lang retired. Still thinking of Dickey, he found the phone number for his mother, Leona Dickey, who seemed delighted to speak about her son. Lang learned that Dickey’s brother, Norman Dickey, who had followed him to Vietnam, had been seriously injured. Uniformed officers had arrived at the family home to brief Leona. Nine days later, the same police returned to the home to let him know that Doug Dickey had been killed in action.
Lang also learned that the survivors of Dickey’s Platoon had held regular meetings which, by 1997, were held in Ohio, allowing Leona Dickey to meet most of her son’s comrades. In 2006, they returned to Ohio and Lang was invited to attend. He has since attended all of the meetings.
In 2012, when Leona Dickey fell ill, Lang gathered all the information he had about his son into a 90-page document for her, which he then incorporated into his book. She died the following year.
Learn more about Larry
Through his research and conversations with surviving members of Dickey’s Platoon, Lang learned that Larry Larson, another member of the platoon, had grown up in Carmel. Deeply devoted to the idea of becoming a priest, Larson worked with the priests at the Carmel Mission Basilica near his home in Mission Fields. While his brother, Bob, attended college, Larson attended seminary high school in the Bay Area.
“Larry did not lose sight of his journey to become a priest,” Lang said, “but he continued to read obituaries of guys killed in Vietnam, many of whom had left wives and children behind. He couldn’t. not, in good conscience, to obtain exemption from enlistment by becoming a priest, and not to go to Vietnam.
Instead, Larson decided he would “take the place of a man on the front line” and then go home to attend the seminar. Not a natural athlete, he started training, got in shape, enlisted and was assigned to the same squad as Dickey.
“March 26, 1967,” Lang said, “Larson was the leader, eyes and ears in the front of the platoon when he reached a section set up as an ambush point. He was the first man killed. The following year, the Larsons had the playground adjacent to the Mission named in memory of their son. Last year, his comrades added a brass plaque bearing his name.
Lang’s nephews grew up playing ball at Larson Field. The same is true of decades of other Carmelite children.
After the first meeting with the Dickeys, the peloton decided to meet every year. In 1999, they held their first reunion in Carmel with the Larson family. This year, the members of the platoon meet again at Carmel, from Friday to Sunday. On Sundays, from noon to 4 p.m., River House Books in Crossroads Mall is hosting a signing session for “A Final Valiant Act,” which includes both Dickey’s and Larson’s stories. Guest platoon members and author John Lang will be on hand to speak to the public and sign copies of the book.
“People only make the kind of sacrifice that Doug Dickey made, out of love. Love is the only emotion,” Lang said, “that can lead people to make those kinds of decisions – whether we’re talking about the Marines or parents. Love is what makes people heroic. Above all, Doug Dickey’s Medal of Honor is a monument to his incredible love for his pals. His short life was defined by enormous loyalty and love he gave to his family, friends and comrades.
Dickey’s list of medals and decorations includes the Medal of Honor, the Purple Heart with two gold stars, the National Defense Service Medal, the Vietnamese Service Medal with a Bronze Star and the Campaign Medal of the Republic of Vietnam.
Lang is a decorated combat veteran of Operation Desert Storm; the United Nations operation in Somalia; and the Iraq War, retiring with over 22 years of commissioned service. He was honored as the Marine Corps Intelligence Officer of the Year in 1996 with the Donald G. Cook Award. Lang graduated from the United States Naval Academy, where he majored in military history. He also holds an MA in International Relations from Creighton University.
In addition, Lang is a graduate of Air War College and Naval War College courses, as well as the Armed Forces Staff College. Although his home is in Carlsbad, he spends six months of the year in Monterey. It is his intention and his objective to make 12.