Blogs > The Best of Don Seeley's Columns

Former Mercury sports editor Don Seeley passed away in June 2013 from a heart attack. For more than a decade Seeley wrote about local sports. Featured here are his columns that were previously printed in The Mercury.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Dolby was a true American hero

Palmer Williamson, as soft-spoken a teacher as there ever was, very politely asked everyone in our business class to stop looking out the windows. No one seemed to listen, though.

It was September, 1968, less than a month into my senior year at Spring-Ford. Back then, you never saw a television truck, or van in this instance, parked in front of the high school. As we continued to glance out the window, all of us thought something must have happened. And when out of the vehicle stepped Gunnar Back — the legendary longtime anchor turned reporter at WFIL-TV — all of us thought something big must have happened.

By the time the bell rang to end the class we were in and rang again to begin the next, we discovered something very, very big did happen.

Dave Dolby, a 1964 graduate of Spring-Ford, was going to be awarded the Medal of Honor by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

That night, nearly every television in Royersford, Spring City, Limerick and Upper Providence was turned on and tuned in to Channel 6. And there was Back, who earlier that day was walking our hallways and interviewing teachers and coaches, telling the entire Delaware Valley that a young man, just 19 years old and from Spring-Ford High School, was going to be presented the Medal of Honor — the highest award or military decoration awarded by the U.S. government for those who act with uncommon and selfless courage.

The story we had just heard on television — and the much more comprehensive story we would read in

newspapers (and later books) — was hard to understand.

Everything seemed so surreal … so unreal.

But the story of what Dave Dolby did 15 months earlier during a battle in Vietnam, was oh so real.

To those fortunate to have served with him, to others who had the opportunity to meet him, and to those of us truly blessed to have known him as a friend, Dave Dolby was — up until his passing last Friday morning — a real American hero.


Growing up in Oaks, Dave Dolby was the oldest of Charles and Mary Dolby’s two sons. Everyone in the neighborhood knew dad because he was the personnel manager at nearby B.F. Goodrich, and everyone in and around the neighborhood knew Dave because he was big and rather intimidating.

“He was the toughest guy around,” said a former classmate, who asked to remain anonymous. “That’s just who he was.”

Soon after graduating from Spring-Ford, Dolby enlisted in the Army. He was eventually assigned to the 1st Cavalry Division, Company B, 1st Battalion (Airborne) 8th Cavalry … and was off to Vietnam.

Not long after arriving there, on May 21, 1966 to be exact, the 19-year-old Dolby and his platoon were part of Operation Crazy Horse. They were in I-Drang Valley, located in the central highlands of the country near An Khe, when ambushed by the North Vietnam Army (NVA) regulars.

Six members of Dolby’s platoon were killed instantly and a number of others, including the platoon leader, were seriously wounded. Dolby ordered men to provide cover as he moved the wounded back to safety and to continue fighting the NVA. Then he almost single-handedly neutralized the enemy.

Dolby’s Medal of Honor citation read as follows:

“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty, when his platoon, while advancing tactically, suddenly came under intense fire from the enemy located on a ridge immediately to the front. Six members of the platoon were killed instantly and a number were wounded, including the platoon leader. Sgt. Dolby’s every move brought fire from the enemy.

“However, aware that the platoon leader was critically wounded, and that the platoon was in a precarious situation, Sgt. Dolby moved the wounded men to safety and deployed the remainder of the platoon to engage the enemy. Subsequently, his dying platoon leader ordered Sgt. Dolby to withdraw the forward elements to rejoin the platoon. Despite the continuing intense enemy fire and with utter disregard for his own safety, Sgt. Dolby positioned able-bodied men to cover the withdrawal of the forward elements, assisted the wounded to the new position, and he, alone, attacked enemy positions until his ammunition was expended.

“Replenishing his ammunition, he returned to the area of most intense action, single-handedly killed three enemy machine gunners and neutralized the enemy fire, thus enabling friendly elements on the flank to advance on the enemy redoubt. He defied the enemy fire to personally carry a seriously wounded soldier to safety where he could be treated and, returning to the forward area, he crawled through withering fire to within 50 meters of the enemy bunkers and threw smoke grenades to mark them for air strikes. Although repeatedly under fire at close range from enemy snipers and automatic weapons, Sgt. Dolby directed artillery fire on the enemy and succeeded in silencing several enemy weapons. He remained in his exposed location until his comrades had displaced to more secure positions. His actions of unsurpassed valor during four hours of intense combat were a source of inspiration to his entire company, contributed significantly to the success of the overall assault on the enemy position, and were directly responsible for saving the lives of a number of his fellow soldiers. Sgt. Dolby’s heroism was in the highest tradition of the U.S. Army.”

Dolby was officially awarded the Medal of Honor by President Johnson during a White House ceremony on Sept. 28, 1967.

The late Samuel Lyman Atwood Marshall, a U.S. Army combat historian who authored more than 30 books about the two world wars as well as the Korean and Vietnam wars, dedicated nearly an entire chapter to Dolby and his actions that day in his book, “Battle in the Monsoons.”

“David held onto his mortally wounded platoon leader, whose last words were, ‘Take care of my

men,’ ” recalled Hank Llewellyn, a Vietnam veteran and one of Dolby’s close friends for nearly 40 years. “Those words inspired (Dolby) to do just that. His official congressional citation doesn’t mention that (while) he single-handedly ascended the hill three times during the four hours of intense combat to neutralize the enemy, he ran out of ammunition each time and resorted to bayonet and hand-to-hand defense until he was able to re-supply and ascend once again.”

Dolby didn’t just climb that hill time and time again, he would return to Vietnam again and again – to serve four tours in all.

The late Lt. Col. Patsy A. Milantoni, a former prisoner of war who was the commanding officer of the Army’s recruiting station in Philadelphia, swore Dolby in for his third hitch in the Army in 1969. Milantoni, a former prisoner of war who later resided in Royersford and was a teacher in the Pottstown and Pottsgrove school districts, once told me he was as surprised as anyone that Dolby chose to return to Vietnam.

“(Dolby) was awarded the Medal of Honor … more than served his country,” Milantoni said. “He could have done anything he wanted, but he chose to continue serving his country. That wasn’t a popular thing to do at that time. He was as honorable a man as any I had known.”

A Vietnam War hero wasn’t welcomed home at that time like veterans from World War I and World War II or even the Korean War. An anti-war protest at Kent State University led to the fatal shootings of four students; riots broke out at the 1968 Democratic National Convention; and the Vietnam Moratorium attracted millions of Americans in October of 1969. The unrest worsened, it seemed, when some veterans joined the Vietnam Veterans Against the War movement.

“He didn’t like it,” a former classmate recalled. “I remember he marched in a parade once and a person spit on him.”

In addition to the 1965-66 tour in which he earned the Medal of Honor, Dolby was deployed four more times to Vietnam. In 1967, he served there with the 101st Airborne Division; in 1969, with the 75th Ranger Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade; in 1970, as an advisor to the Vietnamese Rangers; and in 1971, as an advisor to the Royal Cambodian Army. In addition to being awarded the Medal of Honor, Dolby earned more than a dozen medals. Among them were the Bronze Star Medal with two Oak Leaf Clusters, three Bronze Service Stars, the Purple Heart, the Vietnam Armed Forces Honor Medal, Republic of Vietnam Honor Medal, Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross with a Gold Star, and Cambodian National Defense Medal.


Before Dolby returned home for what everyone thought was the last time, he had met a young Vietnamese woman who was a cook in a mess hall on a U.S. base there. The rumor was, “love at first sight.”

So back to Vietnam he went, one last time … to marry the love of his life — Xuan — and bring her back to the U.S.

Those close to him often said he was never happier than when he was married. That happiness allowed so many people to see a side of Dolby very few knew of.

“Dave was as tender as he was strong,” a former classmate said. “He wasn’t just a brute. He was a very kind-hearted man.”

Though some of his close friends say he changed a little after his wife passed away in the late 1980s, Dolby didn’t live in virtual seclusion as some mentioned since his own passing last week. He had been very active in supporting as well as participating in veterans’ dinners and memorial services. Last year he was the grand marshal in the West Chester Veterans Day Parade, and this past May he was the grand marshal in the Memorial Day Parade in Doylestown. He even opened the New York Stock Exchange on Veterans Day a number of years ago.

But this past weekend, shortly after Llewellyn learned of his friend’s passing, he admitted he may have never been more impressed with Dolby than after a speech he gave down at Henelopen High School in Delaware.

“Dave spoke at the school first thing in the morning,” Llewellyn explained. “You could have heard a pin drop that day. He made such an impression on the students and the teachers that they asked him to stay the entire day. They shared lunch with him, had him stop in their classrooms.

“Dave may have been a big bear, but he was a cub inside. He was a formidable man, a force to be reckoned with, as they say. But he was a very compassionate man, especially with his fellow veterans. He went out of his way if he felt he could help someone.”

Just two weeks ago, Dolby joined state Sen. Andrew Dinniman at the Medal of Honor Grove at the Freedoms Foundation just outside Valley Forge Park. Financial setbacks forced regular maintenance of the 52-acre memorial to be suspended, leaving the grounds overrun by weeds and the entire site in disrepair. The grove reserves a plot for each state to commemorate its honorees with a tree and plaque, but many of the trees have died and plaques have been uprooted.

“Dolby was concerned the grove was not being maintained in a way that would reflect the cause of freedom,” Dinniman said. “He was very proud. He took me to the Pennsylvania site, to his tree … (it was) a place of peace for him.”

Dolby was at peace last week when taking part in a veterans’ gathering in Spirit Lake, Idaho.

During his visit, he passed away in his sleep.

Mary Dolby lost her son. Dan Dolby lost his brother. Llewellyn and countless others lost a friend.

And all of us lost a genuine American hero.



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