The kindly man with the smile of a child and “body of steel” – a recipient of the Medal of Honor during the Korean War – asked the driver of the golf cart to hide his can of beer.
Not much scared the ole’ war hero, but as the driver pulled nearer and nearer to Duane Dewey’s wife, his voice turned to a whisper, and the can of beer, well, it disappeared, altogether.
“My doctor says I can only have one a day,” Dewey said of his can of beer. “But he didn’t say I couldn’t go without for a few days and save ‘em up for days like this.”
His wife, Bertha, saw through the ruse. As the golf cart driver pulled up beside her, she simply and quietly put her hand out and took the beer away. Red-faced and laughing like the kid who had just gotten caught with his hand in the cookie jar, Dewey said nothing. He just shrugged his shoulders, and smiled.
Such was the love – the life-long bond – between husband and wife.
Dewey, a U.S. Marine who in 1953 was presented the Medal of Honor by President Dwight D. Eisenhower and with lifelong ties to this area, died this week in Florida at age 89. His memorial service will be Oct. 22 in South Haven. He and Bertha were married almost 70 years before she preceded her husband in death last year.
“I don’t know what to say, other than, we just lost a true hero,” said Marlene Gaitan, commander of the Duane E. Dewey Amvets Post 1988 of Baldwin.
“Bertha was definitely … his rock, as was (all) his family. He was a very kind soul, a patriot, and yet he lived a humble life. He made you feel very special when you were talking to him. He was simple, and yet so full of kindness – overflowing. He just lived his life like he was the ordinary guy that you’d meet in the grocery store. He always took the time to stop and talk to people who wanted to talk to him.”
A few years back a fellow Marine, Ted Arens, led a community campaign in Manistee to place a plaque honoring Dewey in the city’s Veterans Memorial Park. Over the years, he and Dewey had become close friends, the type of which are defined by the Marines’ motto “Always Faithful.”
“Semper Fi, Duane,” Arens said on Tuesday when he learned of his friend’s passing. “Duane was, and always will be, an American hero. President Dwight Eisenhower had the honor of presenting the first Medal of Honor to Duane, in his presidency. When he presented the medal to Duane, he said ‘You must have a Body of Steel.’ Duane, like so many other heroes, was willing to sacrifice his life for his country and his fellow Marines.
“I am proud to have served as a Marine and called him a brother-in-arms. He was my hero. As many times I spoke with him, he never had a cross word about anyone. He always had that little grin on his face, and he loved (his wife and family), and his Bud Natural beer. Oh, he loved his beer. Every time I visited him and Bertha in (their) assisted living complex, I would bring him a case of his favorite beer.”
Arens recalls that shortly after Bertha passed away last year, he tried to visit Dewey in his Florida assisted living home, where he hoped to share one more beer with his friend.
“(But), he couldn’t have his beer, I could not visit him,” said Arens. “I pleaded with the staff, ‘My God, that is all the pleasure the man has left,’ but the doctor would not relent.
“I also remember, so favorably, Duane and Bertha riding around in the golf carts during the Duane Dewey golf tournaments (here in Manistee), supporting the Manistee County Veterans Endowment Fund, with the American flag flying. He would talk to all the golfers and supporters and they all thoroughly enjoyed the comradeship. All the veterans and supporters loved Duane and Bertha. I will miss him, dearly.”
Rick Plummer, a U.S. Navy veteran and Ludington resident, said Dewey will be sorely missed.
“It’s always sad to lose one of our own, especially someone like him. Duane was an exceptional person,” Plummer said. “Kind, generous, giving, funny… He was a genuinely swell human being.
“And, of course, when you read his Medal of Honor citation when that medal was awarded to him, it’s just remarkable to conceive how anybody could do the things that he did. It’s a great loss for us. He led a great life for us. Eight-nine-years-old. I’m glad he was able to get out of the cold and move down to Florida for the last few years of his life. We’re sorry to lose him.”
The Duane E. Dewey Amvets Post No. 1988 of Baldwin has a permanent display of his military and personal items, including his Marine uniform, a baseball jersey with his name on it presented to him by the Chicago Cubs, an American flag, books, and more.
The Michigan’s Military and Space Heroes Museum of Frankenmuth also has a permanent display of Dewey items, including uniforms.
For four summers before the Deweys moved to Florida, the Duane Dewey Golf Tournament was held at the Fox Hills Golf Course, which was located just south of Manistee, but is now gone. Proceeds from that tournament were donated to the Manistee County Community Foundation, and earmarked for the Veterans Endowment Fund.
In the weeks before he and his wife moved to Florida, Dewey spoke to the Ludington Daily News about his actions during the Korean War. The Deweys lived in northern Lake County, just a tree shadow over the Manistee County line and, over the years, when appreciative ears took him hostage, he told and retold his story.
First came Marine boot camp, and then assignment to Company E, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Division.
And then came Korea – 11 p.m., April 16, 1952.
Already wounded by shrapnel in his legs from one enemy grenade, and shot in the stomach, the young serviceman said he instinctively grabbed a second Chinese grenade and held it beneath his body in order to save his fellow soldiers from being wounded, or worse. As a result, Dewey’s wounds would be horrifying, hence the “body of steel” statement of President Eisenhower.
“Me and my ammo carrier had just gone on watch and something went over our heads,” Dewey said. “I whispered, ‘I think that was a grenade.’
“About the same time, a second grenade went over our heads and I said, ‘I know those are grenades.’ Then all hell broke loose and the fire fight was on.”
Outnumbered about 700 to 80 – though later accounts raised that number to the U.S. Marines being outnumbered 20-1 – Dewey and his comrades battled ferociously and valiantly. Every few seconds, he said, the pitch black midnight sky exploded in brilliant flashes of orange and white.
Then, an enemy grenade exploded near Dewey’s legs.
“I got shrapnel in two places in my left leg, and my buttocks – just like Forest Gump,” he would say. “That, of course, put me down.”
Seriously wounded and bleeding badly, Dewey said a corpsman rushed to provide first aid.
But then another grenade bounced into where Dewey was laying, causing him to react instinctively, quickly and heroically. Not knowing for sure where the enemy was, nor his own troops, the last thing the young Marine wanted to do was to grab the grenade and toss it in a direction that might injure the latter – his buddies.
“I grabbed the corpsman and told him to lay down on top of me,” Dewey said. “(I told him) I had the grenade in my hip pocket. When that thing went off, it took both of us off the ground.”
Incredibly, the corpsman was not injured – Dewey’s body had absorbed the explosion.
“It blew a hole in my backside,” Dewey said.
Of Dewey’s 80-man crew that night, 66 were wounded, or killed. But they had held off any enemy advance.
Dewey was evacuated by helicopter to a field hospital, and then to a hospital ship. When X-rays were finally taken doctors discovered a bullet had been lodged in his stomach, too. He had been shot, and didn’t even know the bullet was inside him.
Dewey was awarded a Purple Heart, and then ordered to travel to Washington, D.C., and to the White House.
“Meeting the president was something,” Dewey would tell his attentive listeners. “That was humbling. I was pretty nervous. I was the first one President Eisenhower decorated, himself, so he was pretty nervous, too.
“Mr. Eisenhower leaned into me and whispered, ‘son, you must have a body of steel.’”
Still, Dewey would say his story is not unique.
“I’ve known many, many veterans who would have done the very same thing I did,” he said. “They wouldn’t have hesitated. They’d have grabbed that grenade and tucked it underneath themselves, too, to protect their fellow soldiers.
“We’re a country filled with everyday guys – regular guys – who are willing to do whatever it takes to save their buddies, and their country. Every veteran I’ve ever met, every one of them, is a hero in my eyes. They’re all great men and women.”
Visitation for Mr. Dewey will begin at noon on Oct. 22 at the Filbrandt Family Funeral Home, 1076 South Bailey Ave,, South Haven, followed by a memorial service at 1 p.m.
A memorial service at the Amvets Post in Baldwin is still being considered.
“We probably will, more and likely, have one here in Baldwin, as well, but I haven’t discussed it with the other officers yet,” said Gaitan. “We (also) just called the governor’s office to see if we can get our flags lowered to half-staff, but we haven’t heard back yet.”