Originally created 05/28/01

Family tells story of local war hero



Lt. Col. A. James Dyess lived a hero's life but his heroism meant he never lived to tell his tale, and for 54 years his story was never fully heard.

A family member he never knew became the one to tell it.

Lt. Col. Dyess' son-in-law, retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Perry M. Smith, has chronicled the life of the Augusta native in his book A Hero Among Heroes: Jimmie Dyess and the 4th Marine Division.

The book, published in 1998, recounts the life of Lt. Col. Dyess, the only person to receive the nation's highest honors for both civilian and military valors.

The 230-page biography is meant not only as a testament to Lt. Col. Dyess but also as an inspiration for others in need of heroes, the author said.

"He was one of those take-charge people who felt like he had responsibility for others and that when others were in trouble, it was his job to go help," said Mr. Smith, who lives in Augusta with his wife - and Lt. Col. Dyess' daughter - Connor Dyess Smith. "By establishing people like that as role models for others, you can pass the spirit of altruism to others."

Lt. Col. Dyess' altruism was first honored in July 1928, when he was a 19-year-old rising sophomore at Clemson University, enjoying a family vacation at Sullivans Island, S.C.

He was walking along the beach when he noticed a commotion. Realizing that a young woman had been swept to sea and that a rescuer was herself struggling with the tide, he leaped into the ocean to help.

For 30 minutes, he struggled with "huge waves" to bring the two women to shore, according to an account in The Augusta Chronicle. After the rescue, the tired teen-ager helped resuscitate one of the women.

The rescue earned Jimmie Dyess the Carnegie Medal, considered the nation's highest honor for civilian valor.

Sixteen years later, on Feb. 1, 1944, the Carnegie recipient had become U.S. Marine Lt. Col. Dyess, leading a battalion of 800 men in the ferocious battle to reclaim the Pacific island of Roi-Namur. The island, a part of the Marshall chain, contained strategic airstrips from which Japanese bombers could attack and was heavily defended by the Japanese.

On the first day of fighting, Lt. Col. Dyess organized a small rescue force to retrieve a platoon of wounded Marines trapped behind Japanese lines. A 1988 letter to Connor Dyess Smith from Frank Pokrop, who was part of the rescue force, described his situation:

"With no protection and heavy fire coming at us from a few feet away and dusk approaching we were certain to be killed. All of a sudden Col. Dyess broke through on the right, braving the very heavy fire, and got all of us out of there. We were placed in the huge hole left by the enormous blockhouse explosion while Col. Dyess fought off the continued Japanese fire ...

"As you may see, Col. Dyess has never been out of my thoughts for these 43 years and he will always be there until I die. In the terminology of those days 'He had guts."'

On the second day of fighting, as he led his men toward one of the island's last Japanese strongholds, Lt. Col. Dyess was shot in the head and killed. He was the highest-ranking officer to die during the battle for Roi-Namur.

Lt. Col. Dyess was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously July 18, 1944.

Although accounts of Lt. Col. Dyess' heroism have appeared numerous times over the years, Mr. Smith's book also explores the rest of Jimmie Dyess' life.

It details his family life, his experiences in the Boy Scouts, his collegiate athletic career at Clemson University, and even his courtship of Connor Cleckley, who became his wife in 1934.

Through research and interviews with people who knew and served alongside Lt. Col. Dyess, Mr. Smith reconstructed a portrait of a courageous man who exhibited leadership qualities - and a bit of a stubborn streak - throughout his life.

The book's numerous anecdotes include Marines who remember the officer leading a 48-hour march with his battalion, despite a noticeable limp caused by a football injury at Clemson.

The pages also recount a young 1st Lt. Dyess who refused to admit he was wrong for demoting a Marine for fighting, even though the punished party actually was trying to break up an altercation between two other Marines.

"It took a lot of research, because I wanted to get it just exactly right," Mr. Smith said. "I wanted to get as many insights into his life as I could."

Some of those insights were from Mrs. Smith, who was only 8 when her father died. In a recent interview, she remembered a father who was loving, if a tough disciplinarian.

"He was a wonderful father," Mrs. Smith said. "He loved Mama. Even his sister said she never saw two people more in love than they were."

He also loved his daughter. Although he was always on duty on young Connor's Aug. 29 birthdays, Lt. Col. Dyess never forgot them. She recalled his sending her a singing telegram to celebrate one birthday.

Although he was away so much, Lt. Col. Dyess taught his daughter to swim and protected her as she learned to ride a bike on Monte Sano Avenue, running alongside to catch her if she fell.

Once, when the officer was home on a short leave, he helped her with her homework, dispensing advice she would need in life.

"Something seemed terribly hard to me at the time, and I said, 'I couldn't do this if I had to,"' Mrs. Smith recalled. "He said, 'You can do anything if you have to.'

"I didn't realize how true that was at the time."

Over the years, Augusta has remembered Lt. Col. Dyess in several ways, most notably in naming the Jimmie Dyess Parkway. The road connects Wrightsboro Road to Fort Gordon.

The Augusta Museum of History also features a permanent display dedicated to Lt. Col. Dyess.

He is noted at Heroes' Overlook, a memorial to the city's war dead along Riverwalk Augusta. A monument between Telfair and Walker streets also honors Lt. Col. Dyess and the 19th Marine Battalion, and the Dyess name adorns the local headquarters of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps Reserve.

Local Boy Scout troops feature the Jimmie Dyess New Scouting Program, under which fledgling Scouts learn about Lt. Col. Dyess' life.

The Smiths are pleased by the remembrances, Mr. Smith said.

"I have a dream that one day we will honor Jimmie Dyess even more," he said. "I'd love to have a school named after him, for instance.

"A society or a community can be gauged in large part by how it honors its heroes. A community without heroes is a community without a soul."

Reach Brandon Haddock at (706) 823-3409 or bhaddock@augustachronicle.com.