By Keysha Drexel
The son of a World War II veteran and career U.S. Army officer, Ty Dodge grew up knowing about the sacrifices soldiers make defending our country on foreign soil.
But it wasn’t until the Mountain Brook resident was inches away from the enemy in a North Vietnamese Army tunnel in 1969 that he saw the true face of war.
Dodge, the president and chief executive officer of RealtySouth, was a lieutenant in the U.S. Army and volunteered to go to Vietnam in 1969.
“I was 24 years old and ready to take on the world,” he said.
A graduate of Furman University, Dodge made the decision to follow in his father’s footsteps and make serving his country his career.
“I realized that if I was going to be a career guy, I would eventually have to go to Vietnam. I had originally gotten orders to go to Germany after I graduated from Furman, but I asked to have them changed so that I could go to Vietnam,” he said.
Right from the start, Vietnam was not what he expected, Dodge said.
“We got to Saigon and I expected to see rockets and bullets flying by, but it was interesting, because at that moment, it was kind of like landing in Birmingham,” Dodge said.
But the calm scene at the airport in Saigon belied the chaos happening in the country at the time, Dodge said.
“I got my first wake-up call on the bus from Saigon to a base camp near Cambodia. They had put up chain link fencing over the bus windows, and I realized that was so that hand grenades couldn’t be thrown in the bus,” he said.
In June 1969, Dodge assumed command of a platoon in the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment after the former platoon leader had been killed.
“I had just spent a long time processing and was ready to get out to the field, but when I arrived at the unit near Cambodia, I was told I had to attend a memorial service,” Dodge said. “There were about 20 guys standing around in the mud, and I couldn’t understand why the officer in charge wanted me to attend the service until he told me that it was (a memorial service) for the guy who for about three days commanded the unit I was about to lead. That changed my whole attitude about what I was getting into, and right after that, they loaded me on a helicopter and flew me out to the field.”
Cavalry troops are the eyes of an army, Dodge said, and it was the mission of his platoon to find the enemy. The platoon also provided security for convoys to protect them in case of an ambush.
“Unlike infantry units, the cav (cavalry) spent most of its time in the field because we were able to carry more supplies with us. During the five months I was in country, we spent a total of about three weeks at base camp,” Dodge said. “An infantry unit, on the other hand, would go on a one-to-five day mission and then return to base camp to recuperate.”
Rain was a constant problem while Dodge was in Vietnam, he said.
“With constant rain–and it seemed like we never dried out completely–and a nighttime temperature in the 50s, it could get pretty uncomfortable,” he said. “The other problem we constantly battled was mud. With heavy vehicles, it was pretty tough and slow going at times.”
In September 1969, Dodge’s unit was sent to the Terra Rouge rubber plantation located in and around Quan Loi, some 70 miles north of Saigon.
After a 100-mile road march from the Blackhorse base camp southeast of Saigon to Quan Loi, Dodge said he and his men were exhausted.
“It was an all-day and most-of-the-night affair, and we were tired, having been shot at along the way,” he said.
But the cavalry platoon was well-armed, Dodge said, carrying about 24 machine guns, three main tank guns and several small firearms and explosives in three Sheridan tanks and six armored cavalry assault vehicles, which Dodge said the troops called “tracks.”
“For any 19-year-old kid bent on breaking things, a cavalry platoon was a dream come true,” Dodge said. “We also had a bit of bravado emblazoned on our tracks because Col. George Patton Jr. had recently served in the 11th ACR and had stenciled in cavalry yellow on the hatches of every track, ‘Standing Orders of the 11th U.S. Cavalry: Find the Bastards–Then Pile On.’ The tactic was to send a small force to find the enemy and tear into him, while a larger force was brought in, if necessary, to finish him off. So that’s what we set out to do.”
As the soldiers moved closer to the rubber plantation, they began taking hits from enemy heavy small arms, machine guns and rocket propelled grenades, or RPGs.
“The closer we got, the more intense it became, and by the time we actually made it (to the rubber plantation), it was quite a firestorm,” Dodge said.
By midafternoon, the soldiers had fought their way to a large clearing at the rubber plantation. That’s when Dodge said he witnessed one of the most horrifying things he saw in Vietnam.
“Across the clearing, not 50 meters away, a medevac chopper with a large red cross painted on its nose was coming in to pick up our wounded,” he said. “As it hovered just a few feet from the ground, a RPG streaked from the wood line and turned it into a fireball. I could distinctly see the faces of the pilot and the copilot as it went down. I just hoped they died quickly.”
It would be 30 years later while visiting the National Archives in Washington, D.C., with his wife, Florence, that Dodge would learn the fate of those in the medevac helicopter.
“I was researching the battle and learned from an after-action report that three of the five crew members actually survived,” he said.
It was also at the edge of that same clearing that Dodge and his men found a wounded North Vietnamese soldier propped up against a tree. He had been shot several times and was clinging to life.
“So we did what American soldiers have done in every war–we gave him aid. My platoon medic shot him up with morphine, stopped the bleeding as best he could and put him on the next medevac chopper that came in,” Dodge said. “I don’t know whether he lived or died, but we had done our best to save a warrior no longer in the fight.”
The next morning, fighting was sporadic, Dodge said, and the soldiers realized that the North Vietnamese troops could be hidden in a series of tunnels and bunkers all around them at the rubber plantation.
“Tunnels and bunkers were all around us, and some still concealed enemy soldiers,” Dodge said. “We had to get them out.”
As a cavalry unit, the men under Dodge’s command were not experienced in tunnel warfare.
“Someone had to be the first tunnel rat. Ringing in my ears was something my father must have told me thousands of times growing up. He told me to never expect my troops to do anything I wouldn’t do or hadn’t already done myself,” he said. “It was clear to me that I needed to follow Dad’s advice, so I armed myself with a flashlight and my .45 and headed in.”
Dodge said because the Vietnamese soldiers were generally smaller than American soldiers, getting into the narrow tunnel was a challenge.
“You sort of had to slither into them on your belly like a snake,” he said. “It was very scary. I had the cold sweat of fear pouring out of me, and I could see no farther than the beam of my flashlight.”
About 10 to 15 feet into the tunnel, Dodge approached a bend in the passageway and came face to face with a North Vietnamese soldier with a grenade in his hand.
“It’s amazing what can go through your mind in a split second like that. I remember thinking that this guy was a soldier doing his duty for his country just like I was doing for mine. I wondered if he had a wife back home in Hanoi like I had in Tuscaloosa. I wondered if he had kids,” he said. “But it came down to who could pull the trigger–or in his case, the grenade pin–first. I pulled the trigger and it blew him back into the darkness and I backpedaled for daylight as fast as I could go.”
Even in ground combat, Dodge said, most soldiers never come as close as he did to the enemy.
“When you can see the whites of your enemy’s eyes, when you can smell him and hear him breathing, it makes war very, very personal for you,” he said. “It was one of the toughest moments of the whole war for me and one I absolutely did not want to repeat.”
In early November 1969, Dodge’s platoon was sent to Fire Support Base Buttons near Song Be, a provincial capital city. Intelligence had learned that the North Vietnamese wanted to overrun the city and to do so would have to take the base first. Dodge and his troops were dispatched to help provide security.
Around 1 a.m. on Nov. 4, Dodge and his soldiers were attacked by a North Vietnamese Army force of about 4,000 men. There were only a few hundred soldiers at the base camp at that time.
“The base camp was overrun and my platoon was attacked not only from our front, away from the base camp, but also from our rear, from inside the base camp,” Dodge said.
The North Vietnamese forces started firing RPGs at the American armored vehicles, and one of those hit Dodge’s vehicle.
“It blew the guy to the right of me out the back of the vehicle and went right through my leg,” Dodge said. “I reached down to check my leg and it felt like warm Jell-O, and my first thought was that I was going to get to go home. That thought quickly vanished, though, and was replaced with the thought that these guys are going to kill me.”
A second RPG blast ripped through Dodge’s armored vehicle as he scrambled to get out and find cover.
“I was hit by two RPGs. They blew away most of my right thigh, including three inches of my femur. I also had a lot of internal injuries and shrapnel from head to toe. Several guys dragged me off to get me out of the area, and around 5:30 a.m. the fighting had died down enough they could get a helicopter in there to take me to a field hospital in Quan Loi about 30 miles away,” he said.
Dodge said he doesn’t remember anything about the next four days. He woke up in a hospital in Saigon and stayed there for about 10 days until he was stabilized enough to be flown out of the country.
“At that time I was in a body cast–my ‘shipping container’–and my next stop was Camp Zama in Japan, where I had several surgeries and spent two months in traction,” he said.
On Jan. 10, 1970, Dodge was flown to Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, had several more surgeries and was put back in traction for another six months.
After he was released from the hospital in June 1970, he went back to active duty and was stationed in Colorado.
“After that, I decided I was tired of moving around and so in 1971, I decided to move into the civilian world. There weren’t many jobs available at the time, so I ended up working at South Central Bell in Birmingham and stayed with them for about seven years,” he said.
In 1978, Dodge got his Alabama real estate license and worked as a sales associate, partner and vice president of Fletcher & Associates. In 1982, he became a broker/manager for Norville-Randolph & Shaw realty company and then worked in several positions at Johnson-Rast & Hays Company.
In 1983, Dodge married Florence, and the couple settled in Mountain Brook.
Dodge became the regional vice president of RealtySouth in 1998 and took the helm as the president and CEO in January 2008.
Since 1998, Dodge has taught Sunday School at Briarwood Presbyterian Church and said he started sharing his experiences in Vietnam with groups at the church.
“I think it’s important to talk about it because I think people need to realize that war is not as glamorous as we sometimes make it out to be. Fathers die, mothers die, children die. People get killed and hopefully, in the future, we’ll have less war, not more,” he said.
Dodge said when he gives talks about his military experience, he tries to make people understand the sacrifices men and women have made to ensure American freedoms.
“Many a Vietnam veteran returned home to a world that could little relate to his experience. It’s like people didn’t want to hear too much, but I think it’s important to talk about what happened there and what happens in all wars so that we can really appreciate the sacrifices made that enable us to continue to enjoy the American way of life,” he said.