Approximately 40 people gathered at the Choteau Cemetery July 11 to honor the memory of Thomas A. Dellwo, a Choteau High School graduate and Vietnam War veteran who died in 1971. Among them were both young and old, from fellow West Point classmates who traveled across the country, to local children who know him only from the stories their parents tell.
Thomas Albert Dellwo was born Dec. 22, 1946, in Great Falls to James and Anita Dellwo. He graduated from Choteau High School in 1965, where he was a National Merit Scholar, Heisey Award recipient, his junior class president, a band and chorus member and a lettered athlete in track, basketball and football. He was also involved with the local Boy Scouts troop and Catholic Youth Organization.
Upon graduating high school, Dellwo accepted an appointment to West Point from Sen. Lee Metcalf, turning down a scholarship from the University of Chicago to do so. While at the academy, he met Laura Demers, a student at the neighboring Ladycliff College. The two were married July 27, 1969.
His sisters Diane, Mary Ann and Jeannie were all quite young when he left (ages 13, 10 and 6 respectively). They all have fond memories of looking up to their big brother.
“I remember when we were little he tried to trade me to his friend for a radio,” said Mary Ann. “But he was my role model. Everyone thought so highly of him, and not just in the family. He left big footprints for us all to fill.”
Tom never expressed interest in West Point, so the decision came as a surprise to his family. “I remember our mother was so worried about him, and I was too little to fully understand everything,” said Diane. “I remember saying, “It’s West Point; at least he’s not going to Vietnam.”
Dellwo’s excellence in academics and athletics continued into his time at West Point. He served on the academy’s honor committee for three years, led his team to a cross country championship and always offered tutoring help to anyone who needed it.
“Nearly everyone sought his academic wisdom,” wrote Gerald Burgess, a fellow member of Dellwo’s West Point Class of 1969, for the academy’s Association of Graduates memorial website. “Those of us who truly needed his help to maintain the required 2.0 will never forget his aid.”
Decades later, Burgess still never forgot his friend. The Acantha reported in 2002 that Burgess raised more than $2,000 for a Boy Scout trip in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia in Dellwo’s honor.
“Tom Dellwo personified the Boy Scout ideals, particularly those dealing with honor,” Burgess told the Acantha. “I hope this event will help many of those who fought in Southeast Asia find a way to continue with the healing process and resolve lingering emotions from serving in that war.”
Lt. Dellwo began duty in Vietnam on April 13, 1970. He served as an adviser to the South Vietnamese Army in the Cambodian invasion, and later led a battery in the First Calvary Airmobile Division.
“When I was a forward observer with the First Calvary Division 2/7th Charlie Company, Tom worked on the fire support base as my fire direction officer. As such, he would direct the artillery to support the infantry when we needed them for combat missions,” said William Caulk, a fellow Vietnam veteran. “I recall one particular mission where, using Tom's expertise, I was able to call in a fire mission and destroy a small bridge on the Song Be River used by the Viet Cong. When it was my turn to rotate onto the fire support base, Tom became my mentor and good friend.”
While Dellwo was in Vietnam, his wife gave birth to their daughter, Susan, on Aug. 28, 1970. He was able to meet Susan in Hawaii the following January, just two months before he died. Susan is now married and has two girls of her own.
Dellwo died on March 15, 1971, from wounds he sustained from an alleged “fragging” incident. Lt. Richard Harlan was also killed. In the heat of the anti-war movement, these deliberate attempts by U.S. soldiers to murder a fellow soldier or superior officer (usually by use of a grenade) were unfortunately common. The Army reported 305 fragging incidents in 1969 and 1970, resulting in total of 101 deaths. Dellwo’s case wasn’t the first alleged fragging incident, but it was the first to see a court-martial trial in the United States.
U.S. Army Private E-2 Billy Dean Smith was found with a grenade pin in his pocket, and was charged with two counts of murder, two separate attempted murders and assault of an officer. The prosecution contended that Smith, an African American, intended to kill his commanding officer Capt. Randall Rigby (who Smith described as “prejudiced”) and Sgt. Billie Willis, but instead killed Dellwo and Harlan. The case made national news and further fanned the already raging fire of tense anti-war and race relations talks.
“Sadly I recall, frequently, the night of his death,” said Caulk. “A group of artillery officers had gone to the Officer's Club on the Air Force Base at Bein Hoa. We had a wonderful time of great food and fellowship. […] Then at about 1 a.m. we heard the explosion that killed Tom and Lt Richard Harlan, while wounding Lt. Pete Higgins. We thought we were being attacked by Viet Cong sappers and went into defensive operations mode. After about 20 minutes, my battalion commander came in to inform us that the barracks had been attacked by a grenade tossed into an open window. […] I cannot begin to tell you the emotional shock impact this had on me. I had instantly lost two of my best friends and comrades in arms. I remember them at every Veterans’ Day parade and especially on Memorial Day commemorations.”
A month after the attack, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield from Montana gave an emotional statement on the Senate floor mourning Dellwo, saying, “In every respect, this young man had every right and every reason to live. He was fragged to death as he lay sleeping in his billet. He was murdered by a serviceman, a fellow American GI.” This was the first time many American citizens had heard of the troubling fragging problem overseas. The bright, patriotic picture of war that most media had been portraying was broken down.
Smith, who defended himself by saying he was smoking marijuana at the time of the attack, was acquitted by a jury of all charges except for the assault of the officer who arrested him.
When he wasn’t appearing in the courtroom, Smith was held for 20 months in solitary confinement on location at Fort Ord. He was sentenced to a demotion to E-1, forfeiture of back pay and a bad conduct discharge for the assault conviction.
Ray Dupere, a retired Army National Guard chaplain and a fellow member of Dellwo’s West Point’s Class of 1969, officiated Wednesday’s memorial service.
“It’s our 50th reunion next year, and every five years, West Point does a memorial service for the graduates who died. From our class, we have eight buried at West Point, and 11 buried elsewhere. We spend a lot of time at the West Point cemetery already, so I was honored and humbled when my class asked me to travel to the other gravesites,” he said.
Dupere has already visited gravesites in Iowa, Michigan and Minnesota, traveling more than 2,000 miles from his home in Connecticut to get here, with at least another 3,000 miles ahead of him going to Texas and Mississippi before the tour is complete.