Oct. 5, 2007
By Bucky Berlin
There is not a single home football game that I look forward to more every year than Military Appreciation Day. The sights, sounds, and spirits of today’s game rival any other in my book. For years, I have been coming to Clemson games, and I can always recall the incredible tributes and demonstrations made to honor our armed forces…the F-16 flyovers, the pregame paratroopers, the Apache helicopters dipping their noses toward the west endzone, and the cannons on the practice fields sounding a 21-gun salute that resonates off Memorial Stadium, just to name a few.
There are countless events surrounding this weekend that give special recognition to all of those who have served or are currently serving our great country, and especially to those who have given the ultimate sacrifice to preserve our nation’s freedom.
I especially enjoy it when the opponent facing us on Military Appreciation Day is a university that shares a rich military heritage with Clemson, such as today with Virginia Tech. It serves to only unify us further and remind us that we are able to enjoy this game tonight thanks to the sacrifices of many great individuals that have served in our armed forces. Let us not confuse the boldness and intensity on the field of play with the courage and true heroism demonstrated by our soldiers on the field of battle.
I recently became familiar with the story of a great man and former Tiger football player by the name of Jimmie Dyess, who I believe personifies the very nature of those we remember on this day. His life began in Augusta, GA, found its way through Clemson Agricultural College, survived the Great Depression, and ended on an island in the Pacific during World War II.
Yet, as we are always told, it is not the destinations that define our lives, it’s the journey and events along the way. Nothing could be truer about Dyess. Along the way, he earned the Carnegie Medal and the Medal of Honor, becoming the only person who has ever earned America’s two highest awards for heroism.
Aquilla James Dyess, the third of four children, was born on January 11, 1909 in Augusta. Jimmie, known as a “healthy, happy, robust, energetic boy with a great shock of unruly dark red hair,” grew up in a faithful Christian family. “Pinky,” as he was known, spent his childhood as a Boy Scout, earning the rank of Eagle Scout, and attended the Academy of Richmond County for high school, where he fell in love with football and military drill. More affectionately referred to as “Big Red” as he grew up, he attained the rank of second lieutenant in the cadet corps by the time of his graduation in 1927.
Dyess followed his fondness for the military and his desire to play college football all the way to Clemson Agricultural College of South Carolina, as it was then known. At 6’1″ and 190 pounds, he was a starting end on the freshman football team, and he made the varsity squad as a lineman during his sophomore and junior years.
He was a letterman on Clemson’s 1929 team that finished with an 8-3 record. But towards the end of that year, his junior season, Dyess suffered a serious knee injury that would prevent him from playing his senior season, so he shifted his focus to the rifle team, where he was the captain and an accomplished marksman.
Dyess led the team to the National Team Matches at Camp Perry, OH in 1930, where they competed and earned 14th place, the highest finish ever scored by any ROTC team. He was also a cadet major and commander of the first battalion as a senior, making him one of the five highest-ranking officers in the cadet corps.
On July 13, 1928, in the summer between his freshman and sophomore years, Dyess was vacationing with his family at a beach just north of Charleston on Sullivan’s Island when a storm rolled in, bringing high winds and waves. He came upon a group of on-lookers, as apparently one woman, Miss Barbara Muller, was attempting to rescue another, Mrs. Roscoe Holley, who had been swept out to sea.
Several other unsuccessful attempts had been made at a rescue when Miss Muller made a “last-ditch” effort to save Mrs. Holley. Upon realizing the situation, Dyess immediately went into the sea after the two women, who had been carried out as far as 200 yards. After 30 minutes of apparent doom, Dyess helped the two women to shore, after which he gave further assistance in aiding the resuscitation.
An article in the Augusta newspaper chronicled the incident, citing that “on-lookers give high praise to Miss Muller for a display of bravery and self-sacrifice seldom equaled and never surpassed, and add that but for the strength and cool headedness of Jimmy Dyess, both girls would undoubtedly have been lost.”
Dyess received the Carnegie Medal for his heroism on that day, an award that is given to heroic Americans and Canadians who, at risk to their own lives, save or attempt to save the life of another. It is “America’s highest award for heroism by civilians,” and it was presented to Dyess in 1929. For the rest of his life, however, Dyess always selflessly gave credit to Miss Muller, who also earned the Carnegie Medal, for diving in first after Mrs. Holley.
After graduating from Clemson in 1931, Dyess accepted a job as a timekeeper for the Augusta Lumber Company, as it was the only job available in the depression-ridden area. He also continued his military career by joining the local Army Reserves.
He married Connor Cleckley in November of 1934, and they had a baby girl in the following spring of 1935. When the Marine Corps formed a new reserve battalion in Augusta in 1936 and offered more training and more pay each year, he quickly transferred between the services. He filled the rest of his time working either at the Lumber Company or as a small-time residential contractor. He had a “wide circle of friends and admirers, many of whom would look to him for advice and support during those years of the Great Depression.”
Dyess used his marksman skills again as a member of the Marine Corps Reserve team, and he spent some time from 1936-40 as a company commander and instructor. He was called to active duty in the fall of 1940 as war erupted, and he was named acting commander of a battalion deploying to the west coast in 1943. In that position, Dyess was responsible for the movement of an entire Marine battalion to Camp Pendleton, just north of San Diego, CA.
Soon after his arrival, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel, and at 34 years of age, he held a long-desired leadership position. In January of 1944, Dyess and the 4th Marine Division set sail for the Central Pacific, specifically the Marshall Islands.
The 4th Marine Division became the first group of Marines to go directly into combat from the United States and the first American unit to capture Japanese-owned territory in the Pacific. It also secured its primary objective, the Island of Roi Namur, in less than three days, a shorter time than any other important operation in the entire Pacific War.
Anxious to engage the enemy in combat, Dyess and his first two companies reached the beaches of Namur on the first of February in 1944. Heading inland, both companies were “immediately thrown into combat and were soon engaged in heavy fighting.” Dyess moved towards the area of heaviest fighting after volunteering to be the senior officer in charge of troops actively engaged in close combat with the Japanese.
Moving to the right frontline of the troops, Dyess learned that several Marines were caught behind enemy lines. With dusk approaching, he quickly assembled and led a rescue party that fought through enemy lines to reach the stranded Marines. While his men assisted wounded Marines back to friendly lines, Dyess continued to provide cover fire. The rescue was completed just as “total darkness engulfed the battered island.”
Closing in on the remaining Japanese military on the second day, Dyess maneuvered troops and tanks inland. While moving up and down the line at one position, he knowingly exposed himself to enemy fire in an effort to direct the fire of his fellow Marines.
At about 10:45 PM on February 2, as Dyess “rose up once again to observe the enemy’s firing positions and to direct fire against them,” a Japanese bullet struck him in the head, probably fired from a machine gun in an enemy pillbox, killing him instantly. Two nearby soldiers quickly grabbed a stretcher and carried Dyess a half mile back to the beach. The news of his death spread quickly, making it all the way to Augusta. Dyess would leave behind his 32-year-old wife and eight-year-old daughter.
On April 26, 1944, Admiral Nimitz highlighted the heroism of Dyess during a special ceremony to recognize a few heroes of the Pacific War. On July 18, an official announcement was made that “Lieutenant Colonel A.J. Dyess had earned the Medal of Honor on Roi Namur.”
The award, given as the highest honor, was presented by President Franklin D. Roosevelt posthumously for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as Commanding Officer of the First Battalion, Twenty-Fourth Marines, Reinforced, Fourth Marine Division, in action against enemy Japanese forces during the assault on Namur Island, Kwajalein Atoll, Marshall Islands, 1 February and 2, 1944.”
Several events followed recognizing his heroism, including the naming of a naval destroyer as U.S.S. Dyess in early 1945. Those that he saved, those that he knew, and those that know of his story will always remember him for his leadership, courage, and heroism.
I urge you to stand proud today in recognition and remembrance of our current and former armed forces, of Dyess and of all others who have lost their lives in defense of our country. As the national anthem sounds and the F-16s come shrieking into view, be thankful of those who have served.
When the “goose bumps” run up my arms from the blast of sound, I will be thinking about my own friends who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as my grandfathers and other family members who have served in years past. I will be thinking about a relative whose name is written in a book inside Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London, England for giving his life on the shores of Europe, and of a friend of the family who survived five years as a P.O.W. after being shot down over North Vietnam.
There are so many stories that I am sure each of us could share, which only stresses the importance of how we should remember them as much as possible. It is vital that as we leave this day, we continue to give thanks to the soldiers that have served our country. Our lives have more than likely been influenced by the results of war in this generation or a generation passed, whether we realize it or not.
It would be in our best interest to not let a day go by when we forget the sacrifices that have been made. I pray that we do not grow complacent or close our eyes in this world for a second to those who would dare try to take away our rights and instill fear in us. Let former Clemson football player and United States hero Jimmie Dyess serve as an inspiration to us all, and may the Medal of Honor and the Carnegie Medal always represent everything that he stood for.
God Bless America.
Bucky Berlin, a senior from Jamestown, NC, is a sportswriter for Clemson’s student newspaper, The Tiger.
March 14, 2019