Veteran Recounts Battles, Both Past and Ongoing

By John Kelly
Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A perfect wind blew at Arlington National Cemetery yesterday, a crisp breeze that caused the flags to flutter cinematically.

Tourists walked about, taking in the grid of gravestones through the eyepieces of their camcorders. Teenagers hunched their shoulders and thrust their hands into sweat shirt pockets to fend off the chill. Veterans squinted into the sunlight. No longer the slim, uniformed warriors of their youth, they showed their allegiance mainly through their hats: baseball caps embroidered with the battalion or unit, ship or squadron with which they'd served.

You could have asked any one of them to tell you his story -- what had brought him to this garden of stone, what he remembered about the mess hall or the battlefield -- and he (or she) would have been happy to oblige.

I happened to ask Col. Douglas Dillard, 83, U.S. Army, retired and living in Bowie with his wife of 63 years, Virginia. He had on a brown leather jacket and a hat that read "551st Parachute Infantry Battalion." His eyes were behind aviator sunglasses, and when he spoke there was a hint of his native Georgia in his voice.

"I joined the Army when I was 16 and jumped over France when I was 17," Col. Dillard told me.

His mother had signed the papers allowing him to enlist on July 3, 1942. "She was kind of upset about it, but I'd really been bugging her about letting me join." And since her husband -- his stepfather -- was an Army sergeant deployed to North Africa, it wasn't as if she could say she didn't know what he was getting into.

Then-Pvt. Dillard was assigned to the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion, becoming one of those soldiers who is able to suppress the understandable reluctance humans have to throw themselves out of perfectly good airplanes.

On Aug. 15, 1944, he stepped into the air above southern France. His unit fought in the Battle of the Bulge in conditions so brutal and quarters so tight that at one point, Col. Dillard said, "Lieutenant Durkee, who's buried over there, he yelled to fix bayonets and let's go."

That was Jan. 4, 1945, in Dairomont, Belgium, one of the last bayonet charges of the war.

Col. Dillard didn't have a bayonet -- he had a Thompson submachine gun that was frozen and useless -- so he pulled out his .45-caliber sidearm and used it instead.

"I can remember that as if it happened yesterday, the Germans lying there with their breath coming out like it was steam."

In the next war -- Korea -- Col. Dillard received a commission and worked on clandestine missions that sent men behind enemy lines into North Korea and Manchuria.

And in Vietnam?

"I ran the Phoenix Program for the CIA in the Delta."

He probably saw my eyes widen.

"I tell you what, we never tortured anyone when I ran it, in '69 and '70. I said, 'If I ever find that anyone has used torture, I will have you court-martialed and I will personally file the papers.' "

Col. Dillard retired in September 1977 after 35 years in the Army. For the last 15 years, he has been fighting the military bureaucracy almost as much as he fought the Germans.

In 1993 he started lobbying the Pentagon to award a Distinguished Service Cross to a Ranger named Sgt. William T. Miles, who disappeared in Korea in 1951.

Sgt. Miles had been among a group of allies who parachuted behind enemy lines. When their positions were discovered by the Chinese, "Miles called on the radio and said, 'I'll try and hold them off until you can get away.' "

He did and they did, but Sgt. Miles was never seen again. Col. Dillard compiled reams of documents on the episode and has for years been writing to the chief of staff's office. He keeps getting the same letter back.

"The application is 'pending' or 'under review' or some damn thing," he said. "How long can it pend? Maybe it's too political. Maybe they don't want to act on this thing for fear of annoying the North Koreans."

It is clear that annoying the North Koreans is not something that much troubles Col. Dillard.

I asked what brought him to Arlington. "To remember the history of our unit and to remember the people who were killed or maimed for life," he said.

So, when the time comes, will he be laid to rest among the rows of plain white markers?

"I've got so many friends -- not just from World War II but Korea and Vietnam -- buried all over this place. That's what we decided we'd like to do."

My e-mail: kellyj@washpost.com; my blog: http://voices.washingtonpost.com/commons.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company