The urge begins as a mere impulse.
“I could write a book,” someone thinks. “I should write a book.”
While millions have confessed a similar urge, few start — let alone finish — the task. One who has done so is John B. Lang. Californian by birth and reared in John Steinbeck’s Monterey, he’s a trained storyteller. He majored in history at the U.S. Naval Academy.
One day the thought occurred to Lang that he ought to tell the story of a hero who failed to survive the bloody, nation-dividing Vietnam War. Thus, this is a story of a man who gave his life for his country. Yes, that’s true. But Lang shows readers that this man also gave his life for his treasured buddies. And that he gave his life because an honorable U.S. Marine puts selflessness before self-preservation.
This Marine’s name in Lang’s stirring, arduously researched biography-as-history was Doug Dickey.
You readers know Doug’s name. You have walked along a Darke County sidewalk and studied Doug’s earnest, baby face on a Hometown Hero poster. Or you’ve spotted Doug’s honored name on a highway signpost. John B. Lang’s book (Casemate Publishers) is titled “A Final Valiant Act: The Story of Doug Dickey, Medal of Honor.”
From book concept to final 296-page manuscript, the task took the retired lieutenant colonel more than 15 years to finish. The book is equal parts biography and military history told in an illuminating way to set Doug’s story within the backsplash of the American social milieu of the 1960s.
Lang is adept at capturing the geography of Darke County and demonstrating how that topography influences the men and women inhabiting those lands. “The people in Darke County use few words; but the few that say are important,” writes Lang. “A man who isn’t trusted or respected gets little mention—he is damned by silence and the absence of the quiet endorsement, `He’s a good man.’”
The Doug Dickey he researched only had begun to find himself as a man on that fated hour, minute, and second when an enemy Vietnamese soldier lobbed twin grenades into a Marine encampment. A former high school football player, though no star, Dickey leaped on one grenade and reached for the other to tuck both beneath him like a recovered fumble.
His last two seconds on earth he looked into the eyes of the four buddies he saved. And then, just like that, as happens in war, he was dead, but they lived. Doug ‘s personality was pure Darke County. A country boy and the son of World War II Pacific Theater veteran Harold Dickey and a mother, Leona, who could match a man in hard work.
Three of her four boys attended Ansonia High School and three served in Vietnam.
One brother, Norman, filed paperwork to try to substitute himself for Doug in combat. He almost succeeded. Doug’s death came only three days before his service in Vietnam was to end.
He was one of 25 Darke County soldiers to make the ultimate sacrifice in Vietnam.
Norman’s story of bravery is another well-told tale. On St. Patrick’s Day, 1967, his outfit was overrun by NVA soldiers, and a bullet shredded a leg. Down on the ground, he kept cussing and shooting. He was hospitalized when news of his brother’s demise reached him.
Norman was fiery while Doug’s temperament was even and steady. Doug’s personality was pure downhome country Rossburg. But his character was forged in the hot, steaming, treacherous jungle landscape of South Vietnam. The chunky lad failed to pass the USMC physical fitness test his first time in boot camp. Humiliated, he worked like a dog in a second camp to overcome deficiencies. Many sources Lang interviewed painted a similar portrait of Doug. He was “one of the guys” but never one of the rowdies though he liked their company. In and out of Darke County all said: “he was a good man.”
Doug isn’t the only hero whose story gets spun by Lang in “A Valiant Act.” One hero is legendary Lt. Col. “Blackjack” Westerman who commanded 1st Battalion, 4th Marines during some of the most ferocious fighting of the Vietnam War. In one fierce battle, he led his troops out of trouble despite being surrounded.
Then there was Ed Gutloff, a Bronze Star winner. He perished in a hail of bullets trying to save a Marine named Jerry Idziak, though the two had never gotten along. Idziak, terribly wounded by multiple grenades, screamed at his buddies to keep away, but Gutloff never did listen to him and charged like a bull.
Also of importance to tell Doug’s story are Darke County individuals that shaped Doug’s life and in turn were shaped by him. These included Platoon 394 buddies Tim Barga, Bob Birt, David Thornhill and Roger Young.
In telling the story of one valiant life, author Lang manages to transform the good name of Doug Dickey into so much more than a name on a Darke County American Legion post or even on a Medal of Honor.
Lang also superbly relates details of battles and describes Marine traditions with unabashed appreciation. Lang’s book appears during this crucial election time when tempers of voters can and do run hot. In time, most of the flaming discourse that is petty, divisive and temporal will disappear.
But “A Final Valiant Act” stands as testimony that honor, duty and solid values always endure. Lang’s book deserves a prominent place on the shelves of homes, libraries and schools. He reminds us the worst of times bring out the best in heroes like Doug Dickey. Long ago, John Lang mused that perhaps he ought to write a book.
He was so, so right. I just regret Doug Dickey isn’t here to read it.
Hank Nuwer is newly moved to Union City, Indiana — about one block from Darke County. He retired July 1, 2020 from the Franklin College Pulliam School of Journalism after 18 years. He is the author of the historical novel Sons of the Dawn: A Basque Odyssey, which makes use of his experiences as a young reporter trailing a large band of sheep with Basque herders from Spain. A longtime magazine freelance writer, he shares his reflections on the people and places he finds in Darke County. His wife, Gosia, a native of Warsaw, Poland, is a freelance photographer and longtime accountant.