A Tribute Long Coming

By Steve Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Riding in the dark inside a Navy helicopter over rough waters off the coast of North Vietnam, Navy Lt. Spence Dry didn't hesitate when the time came to jump.

Dry, commanding a SEAL team, was determined to link up with the submarine USS Grayback in the waters below to continue a daring mission to rescue U.S. prisoners of war trying to escape from the Hanoi Hilton, the infamous North Vietnamese prison.

" 'I've got to get back to Grayback,' " John Wilson, the helicopter crew chief, recalled Dry saying. "He was adamant that the mission go forward."

Finally, the helicopter crew spotted a flashing light they believed to be the submarine's beacon. Wilson slapped Dry on the shoulder, the signal to jump, and Dry disappeared into the night, followed by the three SEALs in his team.

But the helicopter was flying too high and too fast, and Dry, 26, died instantly upon impact with the water, the last SEAL to die in Vietnam. The circumstances of his death would remain tightly classified for more than three decades. Dry was given no recognition by the Navy, and his family received few answers. The Navy labeled it a training accident.

The U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis declined to add the 1968 graduate to its listing of alumni killed in action displayed in Memorial Hall, citing the accident classification.

Yesterday, inside that ornate hall considered the heart of the academy, more than 200 friends and family members from the Washington area and abroad gathered for a ceremony in which Dry was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star medal with valor. His name was also formally added to the alumni scroll in Memorial Hall.

The guests included Wilson, the helicopter crew chief, as well as many of Dry's SEAL platoon members and the former commander of the USS Grayback. The Naval Academy's Class of 1968 showed up in force, including Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Also paying his respects was retired Air Force Col. John Dramesi, one of the prisoners Dry was attempting to rescue.

Standing in the back of the hall were several dozen midshipmen who hope to become SEALs after graduation.

"Today has been a long time coming," said Rear Adm. Joseph D. Kernan, commander of the Naval Special Warfare Command, a speaker at the ceremony.

"It's sad that it's taken this long, but the upside is he's finally been recognized," said Wilson, who flew from Hawaii for the event.

Dry's younger brother Robert told the audience that the ceremony "fulfills my parents' fondest wish, that their firstborn son be recognized for his sacrifice. It's a fitting end to the tragic events that occurred 35 years ago."

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