A Hero Gets His Due

Virginia Vietnam veteran receives Bronze Star 50 years after saving two lives

For Army veteran Ronald L. Mallory, who recently received a Bronze Star Medal 50 years after saving the lives of two fellow soldiers, life in Mineral, Va., is good. In the late afternoons, dissipating sun beams and whispering breezes coax twilight across the verdant meadows that surround his idyllic home.

But 50 years ago, Mallory was living 8,300 miles away in a concrete bunker near Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, where, instead of sunbeams and whispering breezes, the air was full of palatable fear and never-ending gunfire.

“I was drafted when I was 20,” he says, “and when I first got to Vietnam, I could hear shooting right from the get-go. I was scared all the time and I often cried.”

Born and raised in the Montpelier area of Virginia’s Hanover County at a time when schools were still segregated, Mallory graduated from the all-Black John M. Gandy High School in Ashland in 1969.

The following year, he was in the jungles of Vietnam and assigned to the 359th Transportation Company. The company protected military convoys of 5,000-gallon fuel tankers as they made their way 180 miles west to supply troops in Pleiku, through treacherously steep mountain passes littered with enemy kill zones.

On Feb. 23, 1971, while driving an armored gun truck in one of these kill zones, Mallory showed the world what he was made of.

Bravery and Danger

“I was driving the armored gun truck called Brutus,” he says, tears welling in his eyes as he remembers. “We had four people in the truck. There was the driver, which was me, then there was one radio operator and two weapons guys.”

Mallory pauses, then puts one hand to his face and says, “I’m sorry, I can’t talk anymore about that day, except to say that we got hit, and I did what I had to do.”

Fellow Army veteran Fred Carter, also assigned to the 359th, was there, too, driving the gun Jeep named Little Brutus alongside Mallory’s larger, armored truck namesake.

“We had 37 trucks in that convoy,” Carter remembers. “Most were tankers, which were like rolling atom bombs that could explode at any time. We were headed west toward the An Khe Pass at about 10:30 a.m. that morning after all the roads had been cleared of mines.”

Carter says that his crew heard on the radio that another convoy was in trouble and needed help. Another armored gun truck and some other vehicles had been disabled. “We kept hearing ‘contact,’ which meant their convoy was being engaged by the enemy, so we started up into the pass, and filled in the gaps in the kill zone,” he says.

Mallory says the sole purpose of the armored gun trucks was to protect the convoys, and, as such, they were always loaded for bear. “Brutus had two 0.50-caliber guns on it,” he says. Mallory recalls that Brutus was also equipped with a M134 Minigun, a six-barrel rotary Gatling-like machine gun that could fire from 2,000 to 6,000 rounds per minute.

“There were about 15,000 belt-fed rounds on board for that minigun during missions,” Carter adds.

But that February morning, even all the firepower still wasn’t quite enough.

“When we were nearly clear of the kill zone, there were 350 to 400 enemy that descended from the embankments,” Carter remembers. “We could see some of them in the grass. They were trying to hit us in a z-pattern triangulation, left, right, left. After about five minutes of targeting them with our own guns, the shooting seemed to stop, but then I heard a 0.50-caliber gun on Brutus go off, and saw smoke coming out of the gun box.”

An enemy grenade had been thrown into the gun box of Mallory’s truck. Without any hesitation, crew member Larry G. Dahl threw himself on top of it. When it exploded the grenade immediately killed Dahl and seriously wounded two other crew members, Charles L. Huser and Hector J. Diaz.

In that moment, Mallory sprang into action to save the lives of his comrades.

“I saw Mallory turning Brutus around,” Carter says. “He pushed a burning tanker out of the way and then took off back down the pass, back through the kill zone in an unmanned gun truck through a hail of RPGs, heavy machine gun and AK-47 fire, without the ability to return fire of his own.

“He drove all the way back down, nearly a mile, to an area where he could get medical attention for Diaz and Huser. They were seriously wounded and any hesitation on his part to withdraw from the kill zone would certainly have cost them their lives.”

A tearful Mallory recalls that he “just had to get them to safety,” and that he was “just doing my job.” He says he also recalls being covered in blood and medics asking him if he had been hit, not really knowing, and learning that none of the blood had been his own.

Mallory suffered from flashbacks about the tragic event for years, something that his wife of 33 years, Earline, says is much better now.

Posthumously, Dahl was awarded the Medal of Honor, the U.S. military’s highest decoration, but for unknown reasons, Mallory’s lifesaving actions went unacknowleged for more than 50 years.

“Those truck drivers were some of the most unsung heroes of the entire war,” says Mack Payne of the Vietnam Veteran News Podcast. “It was one of the most important and dangerous jobs in that war.”

A Call to Action

On March 4, more than half-a-century after his selfless actions saved the lives of his crewmates, Mallory was awarded the Bronze Star Medal, with V Device, designating heroism.

The ceremony took place at the U.S. Army Transportation Museum at Fort Eustis in Newport News. “It was long overdue,” says Carter, who got the ball rolling after seeing Mallory at an Army unit reunion in 2012.

Carter began a letter-writing campaign from his home in Texas that year, trying his best to see to it that Mallory was recognized for his bravery, even if it was nearly five decades later. “I wrote two presidents and everyone on down for more than seven years,” he says.

In 2019, Carter enlisted the help of a fellow veteran who had also served in the 359th in Vietnam five years earlier. “I thought I could help,” says Jim Donaldson of Fredericksburg. “I had just worked with (Virginia) Sen. Tim Kaine’s office on another veterans issue.”

Donaldson says he did a lot of paperwork, crossing all the t’s and dotting all the i’s, and working with Kaine’s senior defense policy advisor, Ryan Colvert. “It was complicated and challenging,” he says, “Especially finding eyewitness accounts and a living member of (Mallory’s) chain of command, but we got it done.”

Now finally recognized for his bravery, Mallory, a Rappahannock Electric Cooperative member, credits Carter, Donaldson and everyone else who helped him get the Bronze Star Medal that now hangs on the wall in his Louisa County home. “He’s so happy to finally be recognized,” says Earline. “For a while there he was near to giving up on it ever happening, but I told him to keep the faith.

“I’ve always been so proud of him, but now that the world knows all about it, I honestly don’t know who’s happier, him or me.”

GALLERY

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