Vietnam vets remember Dale Wayrynen's sacrificeby Mark Steil, Minnesota Public Radio
Somewhere on a hillside in the central part of Vietnam a trail slopes down through dense jungle. The trail may be so overgrown now that it has practically disappeared. But even if the eye can't see it, the trail still exists. The image of that dirt path is sharp and clear in the minds of a group of U.S. Army soldiers who spent a harrowing night there in May 1967. One of the soldiers in the unit was from McGregor, Minnesota. He was awarded the nation's highest military award, the Medal of Honor, for his actions that night.
McGregor, Minn. — In March 1967 Army Specialist Fourth Class Dale Wayrynen left northern Minnesota to go to war. Snow still covered the ground when he boarded a plane for the steamy tropics of Vietnam.
His mother, LaVerne Malinen remembers the family drove the 20 year old soldier to the Twin Cities airport. In the car, Dale Wayrynen sat next to his six year old brother John.
"John was so little he was in the back with Dale," says Malinen. "And he had a coloring book along. So Dale colored a picture in his coloring book. Yeah, that was a hard day."
Wayrynen graduated from McGregor High School in 1965. His mother says he was a leader, serving on the student council and as a class officer. A talented athlete, he made all conference in football and basketball.
All that was far behind when he arrived in Vietnam, a country mired in war. More than 400,000 U.S. troops were stationed there. Fire fights were common.
The enemy was the Viet Cong, local fighters who opposed the South Vietnamese government. Fighting with them against the U.S. were uniformed troops of the North Vietnamese Army, the NVA. Don Singleton of Richmond Hill, Georgia saw a lot of combat. He says it took nerve to set foot in the jungles of Vietnam.
"Think about you going out into the woods to hunt," says Singleton. "Hunt deer or hunt rabbit or whatever. And all the deer and all the rabbits, all of them got weapons. I mean it was you know nasty, dirty, wet, hot, snakes, leeches, it was the jungles, man. It was tough."
In May 1967 Singleton's unit was stationed near the town of Duc Pho. One of the new arrivals to his platoon was the 20 year old soldier from Minnesota, Dale Wayrynen.
He and Singleton were members of the 101st Airborne Division. The First Brigade of the 101, several thousand soldiers, was conducting operations around Duc Pho. Much of it was jungle patrol. Danger was everywhere: landmines, trip wires, camouflaged pits bristling with sharpened stakes.
"Basically, on every operation there's usually casualties," says Singleton. "We went out to kill people and you know, if you're out there killing people chances are you're going to get killed."
On May 18, 1967 NVA units attacked U.S. soldiers near Duc Pho on what was known as Hill 424. When the attack began Don Singleton and Dale Wayrynen were several miles away. Their platoon was patrolling separately from the main body of troops.
When news of the attack came by radio, the unit set out to help. Bill Gunter was also with the platoon that day. He says the soldiers ran several miles, shooting as they moved toward Hill 424.
"When we got to the base of the hill we could hear some gunfire," says Gunter. "And then we walked slowly up the hill until we reached the company. And there was wounded all over the place and some, some killed."
Among the casualties were fighters from Laos, the Montanyards, who were helping the Americans fight the Viet Cong and the NVA. The platoon made stretchers to move the wounded off Hill 424. They started down the jungle path in single file as darkness came.
Gunter was at the head of the troop column, walking point as it was called. Directly behind him was the Minnesotan, Dale Wayrynen. Gunter took a few steps then stopped. He says it was so dark he couldn't follow the path. The unit radioed for illumination flares and waited. Gunter says occasional flashes of distant lightning lit the soldiers faces and the surrounding jungle.
"I turned around to say something to Dale and then I turned back and looked at the trail. And there was a slight burst of lightning. And I was looking dead at an NVA. I could reach out and touch him, with several behind him. All I did was yell and started firing," says Gunter.
The platoon was near a heavily fortified NVA bunker complex. The North Vietnamese returned fire and hit Gunter.
"I was wounded in the right lower leg and knocked down," says Gunter. "So Dale jumped out and drug me back to where some of the other guys were and they started open firing."
Gunter says by now illumination flares burst overhead, lighting the area. Despite his leg wound, Gunter lay down and resumed firing. He says along with the bullets, he saw hand grenades flying through the air.
"At this time I did not know where Dale was," says Gunter. "Then all of a sudden it was someone landing on my legs and ka-boom!".
The body that landed on Gunter's legs was Dale Wayrynen. The hand grenade went off at Gunter's feet.
The Medal of Honor citation says Wayrynen "shouted a warning, pushed one soldier out of the way, and threw himself on the grenade at the moment it exploded." Wayrynen lived for several hours, dying as the fighting subsided and the moans of the wounded replaced the sounds of rifle fire and explosions.
"If it hadn't a been for Dale, number one I wouldn't be talking to you today. Or I would not have either one of my legs," says Gunter.
Also injured by the same hand grenade was Don Singleton. Singleton says the unit spent the night on Hill 424, patching each other as best they could. He says the casualties were evacuated the next morning.
"I came out on a Huey, on a Huey helicopter," says Singleton. "Where I was the only guy on that Huey helicopter that was alive other than the crew. They had the bodies just stacked across the chopper and I was sitting back in the seat with my foot up on the dead guys."
Dale Wayrynen is remembered in his hometown of McGregor, Minnesota. On the east side of the community, sits a granite monument honoring him. His mother, LaVerne Malinen, stands nearby.
"Oh, it's just wonderful," says Malinen. "It's very touching and I'm very proud of my boy. Who would of thought, who would have thought?" Wayrynen's time in Vietnam was part of a long history of military service in the family. His father, Eugene, was a gunner on a B-17 bomber during World War II. When his plane was shot down in 1944, the elder Wayrynen spent a year as a prisoner of war.
Eugene and LaVerne were at the White House on October 16, 1969 to receive their son's Medal of Honor. The medal still hangs on the wall of LaVerne Malinen's home today. It's one of the treasured reminders of her son; pictures, newspaper articles, a page torn out of a coloring book. A photo of Dale Wayrynen in uniform hangs nearby.
In it he remains forever young, forever a soldier.
- All Things Considered, 11/13/2007, 4:58 p.m.