YORK – Ron Dedlow, 75 and a retired NPPD electrical engineer, presents a calm, soft-spoken demeanor that belies the young Marine he once was in the north regions of South Vietnam in outposts along the notorious Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
There life’s reality was “painting up” in camouflage to perform dangerous night ambushes, defending the perimeter of his makeshift home base and doing everything he could to stay alive.
He was successful in the latter goal, but not without being injured in combat not once, but twice.
On June 1, 1967, Dedlow entered boot camp at the Marine Training Station at San Diego. He and a friend enlisted together when the friend, after three years of college, ran out of money to continue. Knowing his college draft deferment would end immediately and his number would be up, he decided to enlist. Dedlow decided to join him.
The two visited with recruiters from other branches of the service, but all they were offered were multi-year enlistments followed by more years of ready-reserve obligation. A phone call during those reserve years could bring them back from civilian life to the military immediately.
Then they popped in on the Marines.
The recruiter said, “Man have I got a deal for you boys,” Dedlow recalls with a chuckle.
The deal? Two years and done. No reserve obligation after that whatsoever. Two years and it would be over, “’But you have to go to Vietnam,’” he told the two young men.
They agreed and enlisted on what was euphemistically termed the “buddy plan” in those days. True to form, Dedlow ended up in the thick of it in ‘Nam while his buddy lucked into a job driving for a high-ranking officer in Dong Ha.
After boot camp, Dedlow was stationed at Camp Pendleton, Calif., with an infantry regiment for training. Next stop: Vietnam.
In early November of ’67 he found himself on a Continental Airlines flight from El Toro, Calif., to Hawaii, Okinawa and then on to Da Nang. Next stop, via a Marine C-130 cargo plane, was Dong Ha.
“That’s where we were issued our jungle boots, a rifle with two (ammo) magazines and a helmet,” he said. A lumbering truck ride delivered Dedlow and his fellow young Marines to Camp Carroll “right next to the DMZ” as a member of the 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines, 3rd Marine Division.
“We were there about three weeks and our platoon was sent to Cam Lo where we were supposed to be a reactionary force,” he explains.
Reactionary means just what it says; when something went wrong for American forces, Dedlow and his unit were on constant call to respond.
What did they do on the ground in Vietnam?
“One day you might be on perimeter security (in a bunker); one day night ambush; one day on patrol” in enemy territory. “That just rotated around,” he said of his ‘work’ schedule.
“If something happened,” say an ambush of U.S. troops who needed immediate reinforcements, “you’d get on a tank and go” at literally a moment’s notice.
His first combat experience was being caught in an ambush, “So that was not good,” he understated. “We called in artillery and they just kind of surrounded us” with fire. The men took shelter in bomb craters and, once it finally ended, “Carried out our dead and wounded” of which “there was a bunch,” he acknowledged.
On patrol at Hill 31 in the DMZ, Dedlow’s squad crossed a small creek, then stopped while the sergeant used the radio.
“I looked around and asked, ‘What are all these little boot prints in the mud?’ There were a bunch of them (enemy) around somewhere.”
The hill was blanketed with 1,000-pound bombs delivered by air strike after which his group of eight went in, walking over slick rocks. The point’s (Marine leading the column) gun went off and the lieutenant called us back, then put me on point,” he said, unable to make his interviewer comprehend the terror.
Down on one knee, Dedlow heard ‘Poom, Poom in the distance. When those two mortar rounds detonated seconds later, “they got six of us” and “blew off the right leg and left ankle of our fire team leader. It picked me up and blew me – I thought 100 miles. When I came down I ran back” and loaded the injured fire team leader in a poncho for a makeshift stretcher.
The mortar attack wounded Dedlow in the lower back. The lieutenant and the unit’s radio operator were hit in the shoulder.
“The Marines made us wear flak jackets,” he said, and thank goodness for that. Dedlow also had injuries to his right ear and to a lesser degree his legs, but the upper back and all the vital organs there were protected.
Then enter plain, garden variety good luck.
“A chopper came in with ammo and one replacement Marine,” he said. The timing could not have been better. “They threw that stuff off and loaded up all six of us” for evacuation by air.
Right after the TET Offensive attack by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong began February 1,Dedlow’s ambush came in one day at daylight, had breakfast – their only hot meal each day – and set about the task of digging bunkers more deeply into the ground to reinforce them.
“All of a sudden – they told us they were rockets – hit by the mess tent and they (enemy) just walked them right down the middle of our base camp.”
His detail, caught in an incomplete and wholly inadequate bunker, timed the bursts and ran for a finished bunker between explosions, three by three. Dedlow, running in the last threesome, remembers suddenly, “Boom! I was flat on my face.”
The others came back to help him to relative safety where it was discovered his ankle was badly broken. He began to remove the boot but was told, “Don’t take your boot off” to better hold the shattered ankle together.
He was evacuated, loaded aboard a C-130 and flown to Da Nang. The next day he was transported from Da Nang to Japan for surgery. After two weeks in Japan, “They said you can go to any hospital in the U.S.” Given his choice, the Gering, Nebraska native quickly said, “I’ll take Denver.
“Then they told me you’re going to Oakland, Calif.,” where he was two more weeks in the hospital. A 30-day leave finally arrived during which he and his wife, Donna, flew to Gering.
He returned to Oakland for physical therapy “for a while” before being stationed at Alameda below the Oakland Bay Bridge.
Problems with the original wounds to his back recurred while he was home on leave. His civilian doctor in Gering, after an examination, told Dedlow, “When you get back there go straight to the hospital,” where, sure enough, a remaining “chunk of shrapnel” was surgically excised.
He was discharged at Alameda in March 1969 as a lance corporal.
Asked to look back on the experience, Dedlow shrugged and, in his trademark deadpan way, said, “Well, I didn’t get killed. I also had the GI Bill when I got out” which he parlayed into the electric engineering degree at UNL that led to a 33-year NPPD career.
“I don’t regret going,” he commented. “I learned some things, met some good guys, lucked out and didn’t get killed.”