Veteran Dennis Mannion Recounts Personal Connection To Vietnam Memorial

Veteran Dennis Mannion Recounts Personal Connection To Vietnam Memorial

When Cheshire native Dennis Mannion heard that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall was set to be revealed in Washington, D.C. in November of 1982, he knew he had to go.

Then an English teacher at Sheehan High School in Wallingford, as well as a coach of the Choate Academy football team, Mannion informed his bosses that he would need to take some time off. Jumping into his car, the Vietnam War veteran who served in the Marines for three years, drove all the way down to Alexandria, Virginia, where he checked into a hotel for the night.

“I called my wife (Joan) and told her that I’d arrived safe and sound,” recalls Mannion, “and it was (in the evening). She said to me, ‘I don’t want you going back into D.C. at night,’ and I said, ‘Oh, no. I’m just going to stay here and order a pizza.’”

That’s exactly what Mannion did. However, after finishing a few slices for dinner, the thought occurred to him: He hadn’t driven all the way down from Connecticut to stay in a hotel room for the night. He needed to see the wall.

So, Mannion jumped back into the car and went directly to the memorial.

There was no pavement in front of the wall. No lights had been installed. It was dark, and Mannion admits that, at first, he had a hard time figuring out exactly how to navigate the long, black marble wall that contained more than 57,000 names at the time (there are now more than 58,000 listed).

He knew he was looking for one name in particular — Lt. Benjamin Fordham.

“There were a few people there,” Mannion remembers. “One guy saw me and asked if I needed help. I told him I was looking for a name and knew it had to be (listed on a certain section of the wall).”

The man had a flashlight and, directed by Mannion, pointed the light to where Fordham’s name was believed to be, and … there it was.

“The man said he’d be around if I needed any more help, and I said thanks,” said Mannion. “As soon as he left me, I fell to my knees. I just cried and cried.”

“I didn’t go back to the hotel for two days,” he continued.

Mannion volunteered for the Marines in 1966, just after turning 20 years of age. His father, who worked for the FBI at the time, was distraught, but Mannion believed it was something he had to do. Years later, when father and son discussed that time in Mannion’s life, his father would admit that his frustration and fear was partly born out of believing, because of information available to him through his job, that the war could not be won.

In 1967, Mannion found himself at Khe Sanh, a mountainous area of South Vietnam near the Laos border. Though not an officer, Mannion was made a forward observer, the only enlisted man in K-Company, 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines to hold such a designation.

“It meant I had a map,” said Mannion. “You hear (veterans) say sometimes, ‘I didn’t know where the hell I was.’ I always knew where we were. That really helped me.”

A forward observer’s job is to be the eyes of the artillery, accurately plotting coordinates so as to quickly and effectively engage the enemy. At Khe Sanh in the fall of 1967, it meant Mannion was at the top of Hill 861, overlooking what would become one of the most famous battlefields in the entire Vietnam War.

As Mannion explains, in December of 1967, he and his fellow Marines took a shower — a quick dash of water, a little use of soap, and then rinse off — and did not take another one until April of 1968.

“I was on hill from that point forward,” he explains.

For those reading about the Battle of Khe Sanh in the history books, it is described as one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the war. The attack by the North Vietnamese came at midnight on January 21, 1968, with a massive artillery strike, one that led to the American main store of ammunition being destroyed, along with 90% of the U.S. artillery and mortar rounds.

It was determined by American military leaders that Khe Sanh should be defended at all costs, which resulted in 77 torturous days of fighting.

Mannion lived it … and lived through it, despite being injured twice. In recounting his experiences during the intense battle, he recalls one evening before the major attack, when he was sent down into the trenches. There, he and his fellow Marines could hear the enemy troops cutting the wires to make their forward surge possible, talking as they did so. The impact on the Marines, who did not fire so as not to divulge their location, was chilling.

“I thought, ‘Oh, my God, they are coming here,’” Mannion stated.

He also remembers the grizzly sight of North Vietnamese troops who had been killed during fighting while trying to get through the wire defenses, and how their bodies were left there by the enemy to rot.

“Within (a few weeks) they were just skeletons,” he said. “Between the rats and the maggots … they were just skeletons there, with their helmets, their backpacks still on.”

Life-and-death experiences became an everyday occurrence at Khe Sanh. One time, during an artillery attack, when a mortar landed right in between his foxhole and a friend’s, Mannion just barely escaped unscathed, though he didn’t initially realize it. When the two Marines emerged, Mannion noticed a portion of the artillery round still stuck in the ground. As he inspected it, his friend pointed Mannion towards a towel hanging outside his foxhole, and the “hundreds of holes” that were in it.

“That’s how most of the (soldiers) in Vietnam died … not from bullets, but from shrapnel,” said Mannion. He kept the towel.

Through it all was Fordham, with whom Mannion spent much of his time. While normally a forward observer would be invited to stay with the officers, Mannion’s superior did not like the idea of an enlisted man serving in that capacity. That meant that he and Fordham were together “kind of freelancing.”

“We were just kids,” he recalls. “We used to exchange books. We would talk about all kinds of things. We’d talk Texas football, Notre Dame football.”

U.S. officials had expected that the North Vietnamese would mount a major offensive against the base at Khe Sanh but it never materialized, so by mid-April a joint operation — Army, Marines, and South Vietnamese soldiers — was conducted to relieve the Marines at Khe Sanh.

On Mannion’s final day on Hill 861, he and Fordham were waiting to be evacuated by helicopter. Mannion was set to go first, with Fordham right behind. “We were in the dirt together. His group had LZ (landing zone) security, so they were going to be the last group out,” recalled Mannion. “As I start to get up, he squeezes my hand and says, ‘Good luck — I’ll see you at the base.”

Approximately five minutes later, Mannion had landed at his destination, waiting for the last group of Marines, including his friend to arrive. “Who comes in but a bunch of Marines, carrying five dead,” he said, “and one of them was Lt. Fordham.”

Fordham had been killed by an artillery shell that exploded at the ramp of the helicopter as he was boarding.

As Mannion sat on the ground in front of the wall in D.C. that November night in 1982, names began to flood back to him. Mannion vowed that, over the years, he would make it a point to visit the memorial at least once every five years, a schedule he has stayed true to.

On one such visit, with family and a few friends from Cheshire, Mannion woke his group early to arrive at the wall before the crowds began to emerge. As he found names of the men he’d known listed on the wall, he began to tell the stories that accompanied those names. At first, it was just his group that gathered around. Then, he noticed a few other people standing close by, listening. By the end, a whole audience had formed.

“There were (dozens) of people there, just listening,” he said. “I think it’s just a really powerful experience for so many people.”

Mannion was a part of the proceedings when the replica wall arrived in Cheshire back in 2007. He spoke on the first night it was displayed, sharing with an audience of young and old, not just his experiences during the war, but also his belief that all veterans need to be honored for their service.

In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the country was divided, and while Mannion insists he was never mistreated for being a veteran upon arriving home, he did feel the impact of those divisions.

On his flight back from Vietnam, he was seated next to another man who asked him where he was headed and where he was coming from. When Mannion explained that he was on route to Connecticut after having served in Vietnam, the man asked if he’d seen “any combat.” 

“I said, ‘Yeah, a little,’” remembered Mannion. 

After the flight lifted off, the man hit the call button for the flight attendant, who immediately responded and asked how she could help. “He said, ‘I need a seat as far away from this man as possible,’” recalls Mannion, “and he moved his seat.”

Similar instances arose when Mannion began attending the University of Connecticut, on his way to pursuing a career as a teacher. When fellow students would learn of his service in Vietnam, some would pick up their items and move. “That happened quite a number of times,” Mannion stated.

Now, the mood has changed. Mannion proudly displays a license plate that has “Khe Sanh” on it, and he will routinely wear a shirt that announces that he is a Vietnam veteran. Many will now stop and thank him for his service.

It’s one of the things he most enjoyed about the wall when it came to Cheshire the first time, and what he hopes a younger generation will appreciate now. Mannion compares the wall to a high school yearbook, where “time stops.” “There is no future in a yearbook,” he said. “The wall is the same way. Time stopped for the names (listed on it). Every one of them has a story. Some were (high school) educated, some were college grads … all were different.”

“When I speak to the students (in lead-up to the arrival of the wall in June), I want to make the point of just how much has happened just in the time since 2007, when the wall was last here,” he continued. “The world keeps on moving, but for those men, it all stopped.”


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