Fifty-one years after saving a squad of U.S. Marines from walking into an ambush by Viet Cong, Don Medley walked into a surprise gathering organized to honor him.
Members of the squadron Medley saved May 12, 1966, gathered Friday at Stone Hearth restaurant in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, for a surprise dinner. Medley, a former U.S. Army Warrant Officer, had believed he and his wife, Dianne, were meeting one of the Marine veterans, Earl Davis, and his wife, Claudia, for dinner.
In reality, three other men Medley saved, along with their wives, were waiting to meet him. Those honoring him traveled from South Carolina, Missouri, Georgia and Tennessee.
"I told my wife that one day I'd like to meet some of the guys on the ground that I helped," Medley said. "This is the day."
Medley, of Hodgenville, appeared stunned and overwhelmed by the handshakes, hugs and greetings he received as he stood near the doorway of the room reserved for the occasion.
"Thank you, for my wife and kids," one man said.
The words "thank you" repeatedly resounded in the room that held a dining table adorned with a centerpiece of white flowers highlighted with small U.S. flags. Placemats also were emblazoned with U.S. flags.
"This is such an honor for me," Medley said, his voice wavering as he received gifts of gratitude. "It's unbelievable."
Like other members of Bravo Company of 1st Marine Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, Earl Davis had wondered over the years who the Cessna pilot who saved them was. After an article was published in Vietnam magazine last year, Medley's identity became known.
Davis received contact information for Medley on Dec. 26. He decided to coordinate the surprise gathering.
During the gathering, Medley recounted the day he was flying his Cessna over a rice paddy and noticed Marines advancing toward a trench line holding enemy forces. He dropped a smoke grenade on which he had scrawled a brief message warning the Marines, but they continued to advance.
He soon noticed there were more enemies in a tree line, making the number much larger. He dropped a second smoke grenade warning them and included the words, "I'm calling Arty," referring to notifying artillery. His message saved them, the men said.
"We've been looking for this guy for over 50 years," Ray Maurer said. "I just broke up when I saw him."
Maurer and his wife, Bernadette, made the trip from Georgia.
Carl Whipple of Tennessee attended the gathering with wife, Myrtle Ruth.
"We all wanted the opportunity to meet him," he said.
Whipple described the experience as heartfelt and said it was "a God thing" that sent Medley to fly over the squad 51 years ago.
"We're indebted," he said.
Dan Ferrell of Missouri said the gathering was a much-needed opportunity to express his thanks to Medley.
"I've never been able to put this behind me," said Ferrell, who has post-traumatic stress disorder.
Medley was presented with a watch that was set at 10:30, the approximate time he dropped the first smoke grenade. He also was given mementos including a framed collection of items, among which was a signed letter of thanks.
Choking up in the process, Davis read the letter during the presentation. Later, he said the emotion he felt at that time summed up what he was feeling and how special the occasion was.
"It means a whole hell of a lot," he said.
Similarly, Medley visibly was moved during the gathering and said the items he received will be displayed with honor in his den.
"It's overwhelming," Medley said. "This vindicates my whole year in Vietnam."