Fifty years ago last week, Army Specialist Ronald L. Mallory drove his armored gun truck into the middle of an enemy ambush — a “kill zone” in military parlance — at a mountain pass in Vietnam’s Central Highlands.
His assignment: protect an Army convoy of fuel tankers — “rolling bombs,” as Fred Carter describes them — that were under attack.
“It’s kind of unnatural for somebody to run into a gunfight, but that’s what we were charged to do, and that’s what we did to the best of our ability,” said Carter, who also was part of the Army 359th Transportation Company and in a nearby gun jeep assigned to protect the same convoy. “Our main mission was to defend the truck drivers and the cargo, so that our convoy mission could be completed, which was pretty hard to do sometimes.”
This time in particular.
Mallory and the other three crew members aboard their armored vehicle returned enemy fire and seemed to quell the attack. As the firefight subsided and the worst seemed to be over, a grenade landed in the gun box of Mallory’s truck. One crew member, Larry G. Dahl, dived to cover the grenade with his body. The grenade exploded, killing Dahl and seriously wounding two nearby crew members.
Mallory, who escaped injury, turned the gun truck around, pushed a burning tanker out of the way and — with the ambush reignited, there was enemy fire once again up and down the road — headed for a bridge where he knew he could get emergency medical care for his crew mates.
“He drove back through that entire kill zone in an unmanned gun truck to save the lives of his crew,” Carter said. “He drove down that mountain under fire with no way to return fire. Any hesitation on his part to withdraw from the kill zone and both [crew members] would have died.”
How often does Mallory, now 71 and a resident of Louisa County, think about that moment?
“Just about every day,” he said quietly. “It never goes away.”
Dahl was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, the U.S. military’s highest decoration.
Those who saw what Mallory did that day felt he should be honored as well. There was talk at the time he would receive a Bronze Star Medal, but for whatever reasons those efforts went nowhere. In the last few years, Carter and others resurrected the cause. There have been paperwork nightmares and bureaucratic runarounds, but now — with an assist from Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va. — a measure of long-delayed glory for Mallory has finally come.
On Thursday, Mallory will be presented with a Bronze Star — with an added “V” signifying an act of valor in combat — at a ceremony at the U.S. Army Transportation Museum at Fort Eustis. It has been a long time coming. At one point during the seemingly endless process, he told his wife he simply was going to forget about it. She told him to keep the faith, even though he was resigned to it never happening.
“Oh, my goodness,” said his wife, Earline, “he is so happy.”
Said his comrade and former Army roommate Carter, “It shouldn’t have taken this long to get this thing handled, But it did. Finally, he’s getting the recognition that he so deserved. I just wish we got this done sooner.”
Mallory grew up in the Montpelier area of western Hanover County. He attended John M. Gandy High School in Ashland, a school for Black students, and he was among the last graduating class in 1969. Later that year, the county schools were finally fully integrated, and Gandy was closed as a high school.
I asked Mallory if he had plans for his future when he was in high school.
“Not the military,” he said with a laugh.
But the military had plans for him. He was drafted. He entered the Army in January 1970, completed basic training at Fort Campbell in Kentucky and advanced training at Fort Polk in Louisiana, and by June he was in Vietnam with the 359th. He started out driving tractors that pulled 5,000-gallon fuel tankers that supplied military outposts throughout the country. He later took an interest in gun trucks — former cargo trucks clad with steel-plated armor and equipped with weaponry — that served as security for the long convoys of tankers traveling through perilous combat zones.
As a way to give the trucks an intimidation factor, the trucks were painted black and given names emblazoned in big letters on the side: Misfits, Untouchables, Brutus.
The North Vietnamese recognized the importance and danger of the gun trucks and their firepower and called them “the breath of the dragon,” Carter said. Brutus had developed a particular reputation in that it had been hit several times, crew members killed and wounded, yet the truck kept being repaired and returning to duty. The North Vietnamese came to call Brutus “the ghost truck” because, as Carter said, “It would not go away.”
Mallory befriended the crew of Brutus, helping them maintain the truck. After it was badly damaged in an ambush and its driver killed, Brutus was repaired and returned to the road, and Mallory volunteered to take over behind the wheel — shortly before the ambush of Feb. 23, 1971, when he saved the lives of crewmates Hector J. Diaz and Charles L. Huser.
Mallory was honorably discharged from the Army in September 1971. He returned home and, using his Army training, made a career as a truck driver. Just before retirement, he spent nine years working as a custodian at Louisa County High School.
“Really a great guy,” said Sherman T. Shifflett, retired assistant principal at the high school and current member of the Louisa school board. “We joked around a lot, but when it was time to work, he got to it.”
Shifflett knew Mallory served in Vietnam but was not aware of his heroics that led to the Bronze Star.
While Shifflett didn’t know about any of that, he said he is “not surprised” Mallory responded with courage and devotion to his crewmates.
Mallory never talked much about what happened that February day 50 years ago, not even with his family. Mallory, who has five children from two marriages, regrets his parents went to their graves not knowing that he would receive a Bronze Star. He still doesn’t like to say much about that day.
“It was a dangerous job,” he said of driving into the firefight to help the trapped tankers. “You have to do what you have to do.”
During our conversation, he began to tell me a little about the horrific scene that day: the ambush, the grenade, Dahl being killed and the other two wounded.
“I had to get them to safety,” Mallory said of his two wounded crewmates. There was a long pause on the phone line, and his voice began to crack. “Can’t say no more.”
Mallory has experienced painful flashbacks over the years in response to what he saw in Vietnam. Recent years have been kinder, said Earline, his wife of 33 years, as he opened up a little more.
His Army buddy Carter said Mallory has “always been an up-front, no foolishness type of guy. He is a shy person, kind of withdrawn at times, but that’s what combat can do to you.”
Carter and Mallory got together at a 2012 reunion of their Army unit and, soon after, Carter launched a new effort to get Mallory a Bronze Star. When Carter was having trouble making headway from his home in Trinity, Texas, between Dallas and Houston, he turned it over to Jim Donaldson, who served in the same transportation company in Vietnam but several years earlier and now lives in Virginia.
Donaldson compiled the paperwork (including eyewitness accounts) and checked all of the boxes of the stringent Army requirements for such awards, even enlisting the help of a private investigator to help find a living member of Mallory’s chain of command — no easy task almost 50 years after the fact. He also asked Kaine’s office to become involved.
The senator’s office wrote a letter to the Secretary of the Army and submitted the request for the award to the Department of the Army last year and followed up throughout the process with, as a Kaine staffer put it, “polite nudges.” Mallory was notified by the Army in October that he would be awarded the Bronze Star. It’s taken a while to make arrangements for the ceremony because of COVID-19 restrictions.
There were concerns among some who served with Mallory that he had been passed over for recommendation at the time of the incident. A Kaine staffer said the military often overlooks heroic acts in combat because the paperwork for submitting a recommendation for such an award can be arduous and cumbersome. As a result, medals occasionally are awarded decades later when people such as Carter and Donaldson commit to correcting an earlier oversight.
Finally, now, Ron Mallory will get his due.
“I’m so proud of Ron because he’s a very deserving person for this medal,” said Carter, who will travel to Fort Eustis to join Donaldson and several other members of the 359th Transportation Company to attend Thursday’s ceremony.
“I tell you,” he said, “it makes me feel good.”
Bill Lohmann writes for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.