A local veteran waited 46 years for a hero’s welcome.
Ron Dailey, of Manawa, and 129 other Vietnam War veterans were greeted with cheers from over 1,000 people when they stepped off an airplane on Friday, Aug. 1, at Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh.
“That was the welcome home we should have had 46 years ago,” Dailey said.
The veterans were returning home from Yellow Ribbon Honor Flight II, after visiting Washington, D.C.
The 5 a.m. departure of American Airlines 737 on Aug. 1 kicked off EAA AirVenture’s salute to Veterans Day activities.
The flight was sponsored by Old Glory Honor Flight in partnership with American Airlines. The trip provided an opportunity for Vietnam veterans to visit the memorials built to honor their service and to recognize their many sacrifices.
After landing at Reagan National Airport, the veterans embarked on a day-long tour, which included the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, the Smithsonian American History Museum, The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and Arlington National Cemetery.
“I didn’t realize it was so big,” Dailey said about Arlington National Cemetery.
After the Honor Flight, which is provided at no cost to veterans, Dailey said there was not a dry eye on the airplane.
At Oshkosh, his friend, Sandie Wilz, greeted him and walked him through the crowd. She said people were cheering, saluting and shaking the hands of the veterans.
“It was such an honor and a privilege to walk him through the crowd,” Wilz said. “He was smiling from ear to ear, and I had tears rolling down my face.”
As they were walking, Dailey turned to her and said, “Can I go again tomorrow?”
He said the welcome home was much different than when the soldiers returned from the Vietnam War.
“When I first came home, they called us baby killers and everything else,” he said. “It made we wonder why I had to go.”
With over 500 applicants chosen by a random drawing, Wilz worked hard to get Dailey accepted. She called the Honor Flight office and insisted that Dailey needed to be on the Aug. 1 trip.
He was moved to the top of the list after Wilz explained his health complications due to Agent Orange, including ischemic heart disease and poor hearing.
“All it took was some phone calls to get him a day he deserved,” Wiz said.
Joining him on the Honor Flight were his friends Gary Heise, of Manawa, and Marvin Biabasz, of New London.
“They say they can’t do these Honor Flights fast enough because they are losing too many veterans,” Dailey said.
On the flight, the veterans met a stewardess who had been born in Vietnam. When she was a baby, a soldier found her crying over the body of her dead mother.
That soldier gently picked her up, took her home to Minnesota and raised her as his own child.
Serving as a volunteer on the Honor Flight was her way of paying back that act of kindness.
Dailey recalled how the flight home was delayed about three hours after a baggage truck damaged the door of the airplane.
“They finally got that plane in the air and it vibrated like a son of a gun,” he said. “The pilots said they might have to land in Pittsburg, but then they caught a tail wind right through to Oshkosh.”
Dailey was drafted at the age of 19. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1966-68 and spent 13 months in Vietnam.
“I didn’t mind being in Vietnam, but I couldn’t figure out why people were riding around on bicycles in a war zone,” he said.
While overseas, Dailey was assigned to drive an Ontos, officially known as the Rifle, Multiple 106 mm Self-propelled M50. The American light armored tracked anti-tank vehicle was developed in the 1950s and used until about 1969.
Originally conceived as a fast tank killer, the Ontos mounted six M40 106 mm recoilless rifles as its main armament, which could be fired in rapid succession.
Dailey said the light-weight vehicle included the driver, the commander and the loader. The loader usually walked alongside because the guns could only be loaded from outside the tank.
They were usually assigned to escort convoys along Highway 1. With one Ontos in front and one at the rear, the convoys traveled about 60 mph.
“I kicked up a lot of dust,” Dailey said.
Using a stick for left, right and stop was not the easiest way to maneuver a tank through Vietnam, according to Dailey. One day, they barely missed a buried 106 shell.
“We scraped the top of it, but it never went off,” he said. “I had somebody watching over me that day.”
His most terrifying moment came when his unit was pinned down in a rice patty. Dailey recalls that was the same day his youngest sister, Lyn, was born.
“We had one coming and one going,” he said.
Dailey made it safely through his deployment, with only a piece of shrapnel in his leg. He was hit as he was standing next to the Onotos.
“They told me it would pop out in a year,” he said, “but that was 48 years ago.”
Dailey was born in New London and spent most of his life in Manawa, graduating from Little Wolf High School in 1964.
He was a factory worker at Curwood in New London for 23 years.
Dailey has two children and eight grandchildren.