A Martial Vocation
A tidy and rather unassuming structure, the Herbert J. Dexter Army Reserve Center on 22nd Street is passed by thousands of motorists every day. With the events surrounding the building’s namesake transpiring nearly fifty years ago, there is a strong likelihood that many are not aware of the exploits performed by this Decatur hero on a long forgotten South Vietnamese battlefield.
Born to Decatur residents Henry and Ella Dexter in 1932, Herbert J. Dexter developed a strong penchant for all things military early in life. According to his sister, the Dexter’s dining room floor was often covered with the young boy’s toy soldiers. As Herbert advanced in age, he meticulously researched military books to ensure that he painted his figures with historical accuracy. A photograph of Dexter as a high school offensive guard alludes to character traits that would later be demonstrated on the battlefield. Striking dark eye brows and a determined expression emanate from an unfacemasked leather football helmet. Perhaps Herbert’s stoic temperament may have derived from the experience of great loss. The Dexter children were taken in by their aunt, Miss Nellie Foale, when their parents had died.
Following graduation from Decatur High School in 1949, Dexter enlisted in the U.S. Army. As Gary Wisby of the Decatur Herald would later write, “His toy soldiers became the hobby of a lifetime.” Quickly attaining the rank of Sergeant First Class, Herbert attended Officer Candidate School in Fort Benning Georgia and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant on September 19, 1952. That same day, he married a Decatur girl named Beverley Louise Funk. A year behind Dexter in school, Beverley’s senior quote in the Decatur High yearbook read “A happy smile, a pretty face, you’ll find she has friends every place.”
Beverly and Herbert soon made their new home in Clarksville, Tennessee. Mr. and Mrs. Dexter would have five children; Vicki, Lynn, Herbert John Jr., Diane, and Douglas. As Herbert’s career progressed, Beverly took on the daunting endeavor of raising the ever-growing Dexter clan as an “army wife.” Attaining the status Ranger and Master Paratrooper, the young officer’s duties took him to Japan, South Korea, and Laos in the years leading up to the intensification of the American war effort in Vietnam. Dexter served a tour of duty in South Vietnam as a member of the Special Forces from 1963 to 1964. Returning to the States, Dexter successfully rejoined the regular army so that he wouldn’t have to retire after twenty years of service.
With trepidation not present in his previous tours, Major Dexter returned to South Vietnam on July 9th, 1965 as a Major in the 2nd Battalion, 1st Brigade, of the 101st “Screaming Eagles” Airborne Division. As the main force of the Division arrived in Cam Ranh Bay towards the end of July, Dexter took on supply officer duties. The Associated Press reported that due to a shortage of jungle boots, many U.S. units had gone into the field wearing tennis shoes. Remarking on the situation, Dexter’s sister said, “I could just see him frothing. It was something he couldn’t fight.” Unhappy behind a desk, Dexter likely jumped at the opportunity to lead units of the 2nd Battalion, as they prepared to take the fight to the Communist forces operating in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam.
Operation Gibraltar: A Forgotten Encounter at An Ninh
On Saturday, September 18, 1965, over one-thousand soldiers of the 101st Airborne’s 1st Brigade were bound for the small village of An Ninh. The plan, code-named “Gibraltar,” called for battalions of the 1st Brigade to encircle and destroy enemy forces located there. A lack of helicopters to transport the men meant that the Dexter’s unit, the 2nd Battalion, would have to land piecemeal.
The Colonel commanding Major Dexter’s 2nd Battalion made an in-flight decision to land the unit near the southern edge of the hamlet. This would negate much of the distance the troops would have to travel. However, the decision proved to be perilous. Surrounded by hills on three sides, the first wave of helicopters unloaded the paratroopers onto dry rice-paddies without resistance.
Concealed in the hilly jungles around the landing zone (LZ), large numbers of enemy soldiers belonging to 95th Regiment of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) waited patiently. As the biting irony of war would have it, this NVA unit had recently been using the area as a training ground for defending against troops attacking from helicopters. True to their tactical doctrine, the NVA opened fire on the second wave, bringing down several helicopters and inflicting a number of U.S. casualties. The fierce hours of fighting that followed would mark the first time that large units of the American military engaged regular North Vietnamese Army forces.
In his memoir, When You Hear the Bugle Call, Peter Griffin related his experiences at An Ninh as a nineteen-year-old paratrooper. Waiting to enter the battle at nearby base, Griffin could hear Major Dexter on the radio as gunfire burst loudly in the background. Dexter exclaimed that they “had the tiger by the tail!” Soon however, the exasperated Major was shouting that “The tiger has us by the tail! If we don’t get more men and ammunition in here, soon we’ll all be dead. I repeat… we’ll all be dead!” Ominously, Griffin could also hear the screaming of attacking Vietnamese who must have been close to the Major’s position. Griffin recalled how the returning choppers were riddled with bullet holes. Some of the door gunners were slumped dead over their machine guns. Back on the LZ, Major Dexter quickly took charge of the deteriorating situation as many officers laid dead or wounded.
According to the official Army report, Major Dexter, realizing that an American position on one of the hills surrounding the LZ was starting to give way, rushed up and took command. Swiftly, the Decatur native organized the men and led them forward, just as their position was about to be overrun. Fighting alongside Dexter, Sergeant Ezra Vaughn later related how the Major had killed two NVA soldiers with his pistol. In this fierce engagement fought at close quarters however, the Major was soon hit in the leg by small arms fire. Looking down at his wound, Herbert shouted encouragement to his men with the words, “Don’t pull back! Don’t pull back!” A few seconds later, as many as four bullets riddled through Herbert’s body, killing him instantly.
At the time, Operation Gibraltar was covered extensively in the Associated Press. However, the enemy combatants were misidentified as “Viet Cong,” the irregular Communist forces in South Vietnam. An Ninh was quickly displaced in public memory by larger and bloodier engagements. More recently, the movie “We Were Soldiers,” has fed the perception that the Battle of Ia Drang Valley, fought two months after Dexter fell, was where NVA units first engaged with American forces. Nonetheless, the action at An Ninh in many ways was a precursor for future combat. Like so many battles, the NVA at An Ninh simply melted into the jungle in the face of superior U.S. firepower. After defeating their opponents in a series of hard fought engagements, American forces would fall back to their base camps, leaving the ground for the enemy to reoccupy.
The day following Major Dexter’s death in Vietnam was the anniversary of his officer’s commission and of his marriage to Beverley. That Sunday, she was at home with their five children in Clarksville Tennessee. Beverley’s parents were there visiting when the knock on the door that all military families fear came. Beverely’s father, Mr. Funk, told the Decatur Herald that the only details that the family were given said that Major Dexter was killed by small arms fire from Viet Cong forces. The following week, the Decatur Herald and Daily Review focused their reporting on Dexter’s career and the heroic circumstances of his fate.
Mourning and Memory
Exactly one week after his death, Major Herbert Dexter returned to Decatur on a Norfolk Western train; his casket accompanied by his close friend, Major Ralph Woodrow. The path to the Dawson and Wikoff Funeral Home likely took the procession past Decatur High School where Herbert had graduated sixteen years earlier. Memorial services were conducted with all solemn, yet majestic trappings of military ceremony. Tom McNamara of the Decatur Herald wrote that “the brightness of the flag-draped casket stood out in the softly-lit funeral home chapel,” as over two hundred mourners paid their respects on Monday, September 27, 1965.
The next day, private funeral services were conducted by Lt. Colonel Holland Hope. His eulogy was framed by John 15:13, “Greater love hath no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Amending Dexter’s last command to “Don’t fall back,” Lt. Colonel Hope contended that the phrase would go down in legend. Honoring a request that was made in a letter only to be opened in the event of his death in battle, Major Herbert J. Dexter was laid to rest in Camp Butler National Cemetery in Springfield. The highest ranking fatality from the city, Major Herbert J. Dexter was the second of forty three men from Decatur to perish in Vietnam.* Posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions at An Ninh, the memory of Major Dexter was also honored by the naming of an elementary school in Fort Benning Georgia. Commenting on her husband’s personality, Beverly told the Decatur Herald that “He didn’t want any publicity. He just felt that he was a soldier and was doing his duty.” Regardless, Herbert died as he had lived; leading his men with a tenacity and courage unfathomable to most.
*The Decatur Review reported on September 21st, 1965 that Major Dexter was the second Decatur man to be killed in the war. The first fatality from the city was Mr. Glen E. King, a 21 year-old Marine who was killed on September 10th, 1965. However, the September 22nd, 1965 Decatur Review stated that Major Dexter was the first Decatur resident to be killed in the Vietnam. The website www.virtualwall.org lists forty-two Decatur servicemen as fatalities of the Vietnam War and denotes Mr. Glen E. King’s hometown as Springfield, Illinois. The total of 43 Decatur servicemen to fall in Vietnam is arrived at by the inclusion of Mr. Glen E. King.
Photos: Herald & Review; Photo spread: Steve Ropp