When Jerry Dellwo returned home from his first visit to Southeast Asia since his adventures as a Green Beret sergeant during the Vietnam War, it was no vacation.
This was a 41-year trip back in time.
The Spokane postal worker was invited to Vietnam to join the effort to locate the remains of Sgt. Anastacio Montez, the dead soldier Dellwo was forced to leave behind on the night of May 24, 1969.
The search was being conducted by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command or JPAC, for short. That organization, according to JPAC literature, is made up of military personnel, civilians, historians and scientists who are dedicated to achieving “the fullest possible accounting of all Americans missing as a result of the nation’s past conflicts.”
Locating and identifying our fallen is grueling, tedious and often frustrating work. It’s also a grand and noble pursuit that is worth every nickel we spend on it.
“This is all about commitment,” said Dellwo, who was happy to help. “We promised our troops that we would not leave them behind.”
That he had to leave Montez has haunted Dellwo ever since that awful night. There was no other choice given the extreme and hostile conditions, of course. Dellwo knows that. Everybody knows that. But it hurts all the same.
“Anytime I talk about the death of Montez I get choked up,” he said through tears. “I held him and I cried about as much as I am now.”
Dellwo’s time of duress in the central highlands of Vietnam was like something out of a war movie.
In the aftermath of an intense firefight with the North Vietnamese near Ben Het, Dellwo found himself cut off from his unit. He was the lone able-bodied soldier trying to protect six wounded men.
He was afraid to move due to Montez’s severe wounds. The man had been shot through the jaw and was losing blood.
Dellwo believes he could have saved him if he hadn’t lost his medic’s bag during the fight.
That was just one of his problems. Dellwo was down to a couple of clips for his M-16 rifle, and North Vietnamese regulars were still roaming the area.You’d think a situation like this couldn’t get worse, but it did. Dellwo discovered that the only radio was missing its handset and about as useful as a doorstop.
As night descended Dellwo suddenly heard the sound of enemy footsteps. They were working their way through the bush straight at his position.
Dellwo clutched his rifle and waited for the worst.
He still considers what happened a miracle. The footsteps turned out to be Keith Payne, a tough Australian warrant officer who had followed the faint phosphorescent glow from leaf mold overturned when Dellwo and others high-tailed it after the fight.
Dellwo and Payne share a special bond few of us will ever know.
Payne was awarded the Victoria Cross, Australia’s equivalent to our Medal of Honor, for his heroism on that day in 1969. Along with rescuing Dellwo and his wounded, Payne made four trips behind enemy lines to rescue 40 scattered soldiers.
Dellwo was awarded the Silver Star for combat valor for his role.
Although the two friends have reunited before, they were brought together again in the search for Montez. Joined by a group of JPAC specialists, Dellwo and Payne returned to the scene and attempted to retrace boot prints that time had erased long, long ago.
It wasn’t easy. The once-defoliated terrain was now overgrown with bamboo and elephant grass. Plus, our B-52s had rained a lot of bombs down on the area after Dellwo and Payne left.
“I didn’t want the Army and all these people to bring me there and have me disappoint them,” Dellwo said. But the more he thought about it, the more “I thought I could help.”
The JPAC group spent two days trying the recreate the arduous trek they made through the rugged land when Payne led Dellwo and the wounded to safety. Montez perished about 11:20 p.m. and the decision was made to leave the sergeant’s body behind.
Dellwo said they are reasonably confident that they have narrowed the area to about a sixth of a football field in size.
It takes a high level of confidence, however, before a JPAC team will start excavating an area.
Dellwo hopes more effort and visits from others who were there will one day lead them to where Sgt. Montez has lain all these years. After remains are discovered in a JPAC search, they are sent to the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii.
Former state Rep. Dennis Dellwo said he will always consider his younger brother “a hero.”
Jerry’s return to Vietnam, he added, reinforced the same virtues that he exhibited under extreme battle conditions nearly 41 years ago.
“I’m so glad he found the opportunity to go back,” said Dennis. “And I’m hoping his trip will help bring closure to a soldier’s family.”