"The Last Survivor"A Memorial Day Tribute

by Roger L. Albertson
U.S. Army Special Forces 1963-1966
B-52, Project DELTA 09/65 – 03/66

Sergeant Major Wiley W. Gray was buried in Arlington National Cemetery on 10 May 2001. Years earlier, he had retired from the United States Army after twenty-one years of service that included combat in Korea and Vietnam. I first met him in January 1966 when, then Master Sergeant, Gray had volunteered for long-range reconnaissance patrol duty with 5th Special Forces Group’s “Project DELTA.” Within a few of days of his arrival, he was a member of three six-man recon teams inserted into the An Lao Valley located in Vietnam’s Bihn Dinh Province. They were the first “friendly” forces to enter this valley in eight years. Their mission was to find and gather intelligence on a suspected NVA regiment.

On 28 January 1966, the morning after insertion, Gray’s recon team made light contact with the enemy. SFC Cecil Hodgson had opened fire on two armed enemy soldiers he caught walking up their back-trail. Compromised and moving fast through a large area of recent heavy enemy activity, the team stopped to reassess their situation and radio a request for immediate extraction. They were too late. A hail of small arms fire engulfed them fatally severing SSG Frank Badolati’s left arm and destroying Hodgson’s rifle. On the run, they traveled about half a mile when ambushed again. No one was hit but the ambush split the team. Gray, Hodgson and SSG Ronald Terry went one way while Badolati and the other two went another. Without a radio, Gray, Hodgson and Terry were able to evade the enemy all the way to late afternoon the next day, but that’s when their luck ran out.

They had to find an open extraction site where a helicopter could be flagged down with pen flares or florescent panels. Unfortunately, the NVA anticipated this and had the one they selected covered. The ambush they walked into killed SSG Terry in his tracks and separated MSG Gray from SFC Hodgson. Gray heard one shot from Hodgson’s 9mm pistol followed a minute later by three rifle shots. That was the last he ever heard from him. Using skill and guile Wiley Gray was able to elude his pursuers the rest of the 29th and until about noon the next. By then the NVA had over one thousand men in three to four man groups systematically searching for him.

Wiley heard one of these groups approaching his elephant grass “hide” and waited until they were six feet away before opening up and killing them all. Moving slowly away for an hour, he heard another group approaching. Again he waited until they were within six feet before killing them. Another hour later it happened a third time, again with the same results. About this time the NVA privates that were doing the grunt work in this hunt decided it was in their interest to slow down and be less methodical giving him a little more room to escape and evade. And just before nightfall, he was picked up after attracting a search helicopter with a pen flare.


L to R: MSG Wiley Gray, SFC Cecil Hodgson, SSG Billy McKeith
SSG Frank Badolati, SSG Ronald Terry
(photo courtesy Charles A. McDonald)

In 1994 I used Cecil Hodgson’s name in a small article that discussed the possible impact pending Vietnamese normalization could have on U.S. POWs. This article was reprinted in other newspapers and kept by a friend of Cecil’s sister, Brenda. Then last year, the U.S. Government approached Brenda with the erroneous news that they thought Cecil and Ron Terry’s remains had been recovered. At this point, her friend gave her my 1994 article and last October she used it to locate me.

In her quiet halting voice she told me that Cecil’s 29 January 1966 loss and subsequent governmental stonewall had split the family in half causing their mother and father to divorce after forty years. Their mother, who now suffers from Alzheimer’s, believed our government when they said they had no information. Their father did not believe them and, until his recent death, had spent everything unsuccessfully trying to get information on his son. Also, of Cecil’s four children, his oldest boy committed suicide two years ago while in the Air Force.

Brenda asked me if I knew a Sergeant Gray. She understood that a Sergeant Gray was the last person to see Cecil alive, and had been looking for him for over twenty years. I gave her Wiley’s number and just like that, he was able to help her understand what had happened.

Amazing! Thirty-four years after being saved from death, he was able to bring a measure of closure to a dead teammate’s family because of a small article written by a governmentally frustrated citizen, reprinted elsewhere and squirreled away for years by someone unrelated. Oh, the power of the press

Wiley Gray died of a heart attack on 16 April 2001. He was a super guy who stood a lanky six foot two with great looks and a devastating smile. In 1966, he refused a Distinguished Service Cross for his actions saying, “I wasn’t able to save anyone but myself, and I don’t deserve a medal for that”. Even at age 70, Wiley was a Green Beret poster soldier if ever there was one. On that beautiful May 10th morning, Wiley’s casket was placed on a caisson for the last mile of his life’s journey. Even the six draft horses pulling the caisson seemed to sense the solemnity of it all. Their heads were high and they moved with the same measured gate as their Honor Guard escorts while the mourners on foot followed close behind through Arlington’s tree shadowed sunshine. God, what a loss!

In the history of our nation’s wars there are thousands of stories similar to this one. Each has its dead, maimed, survivors and families. We must never ever forget, that this horrible collective loss was to keep the United States free. This is, and always will be, the price of our freedom. So this Memorial Day, and every day for that matter, when you see a veteran, stop and thank him for his service. Even if he says nothing, I promise he will be grateful. You see, for some veterans and their families, every single day is, or will be, a Memorial Day of sorts.
 

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