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."
Dry's father, retired Navy Capt. Melvin H. Dry, worked for a quarter-century to find out what had happened to his son and to get him recognition for his actions, but he died in 1997.
Dry's mother, Catherine "Kitty" Spence Dry, who lives at an assisted living facility in McLean, was too frail to attend the ceremony, said Robert Dry, a longtime Washingtonian now serving with the U.S. Embassy in Paris. "She's very proud," he said.
Classmates, fellow SEALs and others who served with Melvin Spence Dry recalled a charismatic man with an easy manner that won the affection of peers and subordinates.
"He was a guy you wanted to be around," Mullen recalled yesterday.
"He was a terrific young man, one of those people whose men follow him because they respect him, not because he told them to do it," said John Chamberlain, who was commander of the submarine during the 1972 mission.
Based on intelligence that prisoners had formed a plan to escape and travel by boat on the Red River to the Gulf of Tonkin, the Navy initiated a rescue mission, Operation Thunderhead.
On the night of June 3, Dry and three members of his SEAL Team One platoon were launched from the Grayback in a mini-submarine to establish an observation post on a small island near the mouth of the Red River.
But the mini-sub went off course, and the SEALs were forced to scuttle it. They were rescued by helicopter and taken to a guided-missile cruiser.
Dry and his team were flying back to the Grayback on June 5 to resume the mission, but the helicopter had trouble finding the sub and was flying too high and too fast when the SEALs jumped. Dry's neck was broken on impact; the other men were rescued treading water the next morning, one with serious injuries.
Wilson was the last man to see Dry alive, and it fell to him to pull his body out of the water. "I hoisted Spence out and laid him on the deck," he recalled.
Ironically, the planned escape from the Hanoi Hilton was called off because it was deemed too risky. "It was a devastating disappointment to us," Dramesi recalled yesterday. "It was tragic in all ways."
The effort to recognize Dry was spurred by a 2005 article in the U.S. Naval Institute's magazine, Proceedings, co-authored by retired Navy captains Michael G. Slattery and Gordon I. Peterson.
The authors scoured formerly classified materials to piece together details and contacted participants, including Chamberlain. "When I found out they'd originally classified it as a training accident, I was stunned," Chamberlain recalled yesterday. As the on-scene commander, he submitted the paperwork for the medal.
"He agreed that this oversight needed to be corrected," said Peterson, who works as military legislative assistant to Sen. James Webb (D-Va.).
Said Dramesi, "I've been looking forward to this day for a long, long time."