Coming together for closure

Marines to recall Vietnam War battle

August 18, 2005|By Joe Burris | Joe Burris,SUN STAFF

Retired Marine Sgt. Maj. Cornelius Dorsey remembers how the coming of a quiet morning over South Vietnam suddenly got thrown into reverse. Everything grew dark and noisy: As the Baltimore native looked overhead, a swarm of incoming American helicopters and jets stretched as far as he could see, steadily blotting out the sky.

"It was like a swarm of bees. I never saw so many helicopters," said Dorsey, 69, reflecting on the morning of Aug. 18, 1965, and his role in the initial stages of Operation Starlite, the first major battle of the Vietnam War.

Back then, Dorsey was part of a mortar unit that formed a wall to block Viet Cong troops from escaping an assault of American ground, air and sea forces. He could scarcely know that the darkening skies would usher in the longest, most controversial period of military conflict in American history.

The man who now lives about 10 minutes from where his Marine training began in Parris Island, S.C., will welcome more than 80 Marines to South Carolina today to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the historic battle.

In the past, Operation Starlite reunions have drawn sparse attendance. Yet many see this reunion as an opportunity to commemorate their place in history as well as gain closure on four decades of horrific battle memories.

"I think it's the fact that it was such an intense battle, a lot of guys need to get this out of their system," said former Marine Jim Fontella of Detroit.

Much of the credit for the reunion goes to Dorsey. He attended a makeshift reunion a couple of years ago where only 10 people showed up, and discovered that nothing was being planned for the 40th. He then began organizing the event, calling old comrades and scouring the Internet for contacts.

"I talked to people I haven't seen since 1965," he said. "It sort of put me in a daze, like I had taken a trip back somewhere."

The reunion will be one of the largest ever for a group of battalions that stood 5,500-men strong in their decisive defeat of the 1,500 Viet Cong troops that had planned to attack a burgeoning Marine base.

Instead, Marines killed nearly 700 Viet Cong soldiers in the six-day battle while suffering 45 fatalities of their own.

Today, many of the men intend to remember friends who were lost in battle. "Basically, it's a get-together of old warriors, guys who were very close, very tight, back in the 1960s," said retired Sgt. Maj. Walter Melton of Beaufort, S.C. "It's something we're all looking forward to."

Dorsey said the men will come from all over the country, but he believes he will be the only person in attendance with Maryland roots.

The brother of the late Charles Dorsey, a prominent lawyer who was director of Maryland's Legal Aid Bureau, Cornelius Dorsey left his Freemont Avenue home in 1953 to join the Marines rather than take over the family's printing business.

In the years that followed, he lost touch with many of the men with whom he shared one of the most pivotal moments of the eventful 1960s.

Yet he, Melton and Fontella, all of whom served in the 1,500-man 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines, found 400 of their comrades in battle and contacted them via e-mail.

"A lot of times, I talked to their wives," Fontella said, "and they told me that their husbands need to go to the reunion for closure."

The men don't have much planned for their get-together. The highlight should come tomorrow morning, when they will be introduced during Marine Recruit Depot graduation ceremonies at Parris Island.

"After that, we're going to have a tour of the base," said Dorsey, "and then we're going to have lunch at one of the dining facilities, and that's going to be it."

Yet they say just being together again after 40 years will be worth the trip.

Back in the 1960s, they were 18- to mid-20-year-olds eager for the sting of battle, often led by sergeants only a few years older.

Dorsey's mortar unit never saw any battle, as the Viet Cong were so overwhelmed by the other units that they never drifted his way.

But Melton was among those who made an amphibious beach landing during the mission and found himself in the heat of battle upon reaching the shore.

"I was concerned, scared," he said. "Everybody was, it was normal. But we did our job and moved inland."

Fontella remembers his unit being hit with sniper fire as it came ashore via boats he said were "similar to those that were in Saving Private Ryan."

He spoke via cell phone while en route to the reunion with four other Operation Starlite veterans - including former Marine Greg Matton, of Ontario, Canada, who suffered severe injuries from a hand-grenade blast that killed one of his fellow officers.

"He took most of the blast and I took the rest," said Matton. "It went through my right arm, shoulder, wrist - there were [body] pieces all over."

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