Independence Day is an ideal time to remember an outstanding hero

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On this Independence Day, when our nation is fighting two wars simultaneously, it may fitting to highlight a story of combat heroism that is largely unknown here in the CSRA.

Dyess Air Force base in Abilene, Texas, is not named for my wife's father, Medal of Honor recipient Lt. Col. Jimmie Dyess. This large base is named after Lt. Col. William E. Dyess of the U.S. Army Air Corps. Ed Dyess' air and ground combat experiences in World War II earned him both the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Distinguished Service Cross (second only to the Medal of Honor).

BORN AND BROUGHT up in Texas, Ed Dyess had a great love of flying. After graduating from college in 1936, he joined the Army and soon earned his pilot wings. Because of his outstanding pilot skills and his natural leadership abilities, he was soon chosen to command a fighter squadron (P-40s). He was, at the time of his selection, just a first lieutenant. In November 1941, his squadron shipped off to the Philippines. Within a month he was engaged in aerial combat against the Japanese.

In the short few months between the first attacks by the Japanese on the Philippines and the surrender of American and Filipino forces on Bataan, Dyess went from a fighter pilot to an infantry officer, then to a fighter pilot and, once again, to an infantry officer (his fighter unit kept running out of airplanes). He endured the infamous Bataan Death March, spent a year in a Japanese prison camp on the island of Mindanao, participated in the greatest escape of American forces in the Pacific theater, walked for more than a month to the northern shore of Mindanao, and escaped by submarine to Australia.

When Dyess met with Gen. Douglas MacArthur, he described what happened on that infamous weeklong forced march up the Bataan peninsula. Dyess observed beheadings, throat cuttings, casual shootings, bayonet stabbings, disembowelments and rifle-butt beatings.

He explained to MacArthur how Japanese soldiers deliberately denied the prisoners food or water while keeping them continually marching for nearly a week in tropical heat. Falling down or inability to continue moving was tantamount to a death sentence, as was any kind of protest. Prisoners were attacked, and often killed, for assisting someone falling due to weakness. Strings of Japanese trucks drove over and over anyone who fell.

Returning to the United States in 1943, Dyess made a strong personal commitment to tell the American people, in vivid detail, about the way the Japanese treated their captives on Bataan, en route to the prison camp and in the prison camp itself. For the first time, America was to get a firsthand description of some of the greatest atrocities in modern times. Thankfully, Ed Dyess was a gifted writer.

ON JAN. 28, 1944, in a series of articles on the front page of the Chicago Tribune, the agonizing details of the Bataan Death March were explained to the American people. Shortly thereafter, Ed Dyess's book, The Dyess Story, was published. It soon reached the top of The New York Times' best-seller list.

The American people were outraged, and the results of that outrage were profound. War production increased significantly, war bond sales increased, and more forces and equipment were sent to the Pacific theater. America made a collective decision to end the war against Japan as quickly as possible so that American prisoners of war could be released.

If you are interested in this story, I would like to recommend a brand new book by a first-rate historian, John Lukacs: Escape From Davao: The Forgotten Story of the Most Daring Prison Break of the Pacific War . Also, Ed Dyess' book is still in print. It is now titled Bataan Death March . Both books are available on Amazon.com.

Two distant cousins, Ed Dyess and Jimmie Dyess had much in common. Both played on their high-school football and track teams. Both joined the military long before World War II. Both commanded combat units and were highly respected by their men. Both fought heroically in the Pacific theater. Sadly, both were killed before the end of the war (Jimmie Dyess was killed in combat; Ed Dyess died in a P-38 accident).

So on this Independence Day, right here in the CSRA, how might we honor those who gave so much to gain and maintain our freedom? Here are some suggestions.

- Pray for those who are serving in combat zones today.

- Visit the Augusta Museum of History (it is open today from 1 to 5 p.m.). Go upstairs to view the "One Man, Two Ships: Lessons in History and Courage" exhibit. While there, spend a few minutes watching the Jimmie Dyess DVD.

- Come join Brig. Gen. and Mrs. Jeff Foley and hundreds of others at St. Paul's Church (the corner of Reynolds and Sixth streets) around 7:45 p.m. and attend the wondrous Star Spangled Concert ,which begins at 8 p.m. There are still seats available.

- Thank any soldier, sailor, Marine or airman that you see today (the short haircuts will help you identify them).

- Stay for the fireworks. While you are watching them, please remember that you are living in the land of the free because of the brave.

(The writer is the secretary of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation. He assisted in the editing of the best-selling book Medal of Honor, by Peter Collier.)


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