MARQUETTE — When Dennis Grall was sent on a rescue mission to aid an injured man during the Vietnam War, he didn’t know anything about the wounded Marine, or if the man would even survive.
But in the weeks following the rescue, Grall would find out he had a surprising geographic connection to the man, despite being thousands of miles from home.
Grall, now 75, was living in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, when he received his draft notice in 1965, the year after he graduated from Marinette Catholic Central. Grall looked into the various branches of the service and decided to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps, because as he puts it, “they made the best offer.”
The war — and the involvement of the United States — was ramping up at that time and many men were needed to fight overseas. Grall would serve in Vietnam for 8.5 months. He formally joined the U.S. Marine Corps in March 1966.
Soon thereafter, Grall went to Camp Pendleton in California, which is the major West Coast base of the U.S. Marine Corps. Although Grall grew up in the northwoods region of Manitowoc, Wisconsin, he had never touched a gun before arriving at Camp Pendleton for training at the rifle range.
But that was fast to change.
By early October, Grall had arrived in Vietnam and was stationed with the Foxtrot Co. of the 2nd Battalion of the 1st Marines about 10 miles southwest of Da Nang, Vietnam.
On Oct. 2, Grall ran his first patrol and found himself on a rescue mission for an injured man.
“I didn’t know who it was. But I was unexpectedly — I should say, expectedly — kind of terrified,” Grall said. “I mean, I had never been shot at before, had never been involved in anything like that at that time.”
Grall was one of four men who trekked around two miles through the rice paddies to transport the injured man, carrying him on foot through difficult terrain — some filled with knee-to-waist deep water — out to the highway, which they called U.S. 1.
“I didn’t know who he was. I didn’t know if he was dead, dying,” Grall said.
Once they reached the highway, the group went to the battalion area where the injured man flown out for treatment.
Two weeks later, Grall would find out he had a surprising connection to the man: The injured Marine he had helped rescue was Tony Wagner from Valders, Wisconsin, a mere 10 miles away from Grall’s hometown of Manitowoc.
“So I go 10,000 miles to meet a neighbor of mine,” Grall said.
Wagner would be taken to Da Nang for treatment, but would later return to the unit and spend time as a radio man with Grall’s company.
“There was a forward observer with him, and he would call back when we needed help, needed protection,” Grall said.
As the months wore on, Grall documented his time serving in Vietnam through the lens of a Kodak Brownie camera, taking photos of his fellow Marines, as well as the landscape, the buildings and equipment. These photos paint a personal view of the war as seen through the eyes of a young man from northern Wisconsin.
The images also provide a glimpse of the brave young men who served with Grall, some of whom would lose their lives during the Vietnam War.
One photo in particular, taken in April 1967, illustrates this in painful relief. Pictured are Wagner, Grall, and at center, a man who was killed during Operation Union on April 21, 1967, the same month that the photo was taken.
That man was one of 33 Marines who died that day. Another 81 men were injured out of the 120 who went out on that patrol that day, Grall said.
Another man, who was in Grall’s original four-man squad fire team, Gary Martini, will always be remembered for his bravery that day, he said.
“He won the medal of honor that day, posthumously,” Grall said. “He saved a couple of guys’ lives, went back out, tried to get a third — he got shot and he got killed.”
And it was only a matter of chance that Grall was not injured or killed that day, as another man who had never been out on patrol asked to take Grall’s place that day.
Their captain consented, not knowing what was coming, believing that it would be a routine patrol. The man who took Grall’s place on that patrol was one of the 81 injured that day.
After that fateful day, the Foxtrot Co. — what was left of it — was sent back to the battalion area and started getting replacements to fill out their ranks after losing so many.
And then, just about three weeks later on May 9, Foxtrot Co. went out on a company-sized operation.
“We were on this railroad track — and all of a sudden, an explosion,” Grall said. “Two guys got killed, one on his first patrol, one on his last patrol. He volunteered to go out because it was a guy’s birthday that day, he said well, ‘You celebrate your birthday, I’ll go out on patrol for you.’ He ended up getting killed.”
Grall was one of seven men injured that day, although, as he puts it, “none of us were serious.” But he was “banged up,” and was sent to the USS Repose — a naval hospital ship — to recover from his injuries, he said.
Grall returned to his company after recovering for three weeks, but would immediately find himself in another shocking situation.
“The very next patrol I ran after I got back from the (USS) Repose, I got wounded again,” Grall said. “It should have killed about 15 to 20 of us. They figure it was a 250-pound bomb that was buried beneath a railroad trestle …. It was buried so deep, it blew one guy about 15-20 yards away. It sucked me into the hole where the bomb had been.”
Grall landed on his radio and lost consciousness. As he came to, he was horrified when he realized what had happened.
“I’m yelling, ‘My leg, is it there?’ And they say, ‘Yeah, you’re OK, you’re fine,’” he recalls. “Well, I wasn’t fine. I had a busted leg, tibia and fibula were busted, I had a busted eardrum, I got powder burns on my arms … and I got a skin graft down here on my leg…. but I thought I was just minimally wounded.”
Grall later found out that even as the rescue helicopter was evacuating him from the scene, it was being shot at by Viet Cong soldiers.
Grall would make a stop at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines on his way back to the U.S. to receive medical care and found yet another surprising connection. The corpsman who helped Grall on to a gurney so he could be transported on to the bus to the airport was from Cleveland, Wisconsin, right between Sheboygan and Manitowoc, Wisconsin.
“I was born in Sheboygan, I live in Manitowoc … My dad would stop at the hotel restaurant that his parents operated,” Grall said. “The first patrol in Vietnam, I meet a guy from Valders, a neighbor. I’m going home and I meet anther guy, a neighbor … I mean, it’s ridiculous to be 10,000 miles away and meet neighbors.”
After a long journey — and a stop at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, where he called his parents, and his wife-to-be, Sally — Grall arrived at the Great Lakes Naval Hospital in Illinois to recover from his injuries.
Grall’s parents and Sally would visit him in the hospital, taking the train down from Manitowoc.
However, Grall still recalls wondering, “How bad am I?” as he laid in a ward surrounded by men who had serious injuries and multiple missing limbs.
He wondered if there was something they weren’t telling him about his condition.
But then Grall heard a familiar voice through a wall in the ward — the voice of a man from his company.
“I said, ‘Bob, is that you?’ He said, ‘Denny, is that you?’”
The two men began talking, and staff ended up moving the man to the bunk next to Grall in the ward “just so we were together,” Grall said.
Grall still has an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the treatment that he received while recovering, especially the fact that he — and other injured service members recovering at the hospital — were taken on a variety of outings once they were well enough.
Grall’s recovery was complex, involving a skin graft to repair the tissue on one of his legs. While his broken bones would heal, he wore a long-leg cast for four and a half months.
The cast was removed right before Grall was married on Nov. 1, 1967.
“I walked down the aisle on crutches, wearing dress blues,” Grall said.
Today, Grall and his wife, Sally, live in Delta County. Grall was awarded two Purple Hearts for his service in the Vietnam War. After the war, Grall would go on to a long career in sports writing, working for several years at the Green Bay Press-Gazette and then as sports editor of the Escanaba Daily Press for several decades.
And to this day, Grall and members of his company meet on April 21 to reflect on the fateful events of that day in 1967 and honor their fallen brothers.
Cecilia Brown can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 270. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.