Vietnam veteran reflects on service, bronze star 40 years later
POLSON — Forty years ago last month, local marine veteran Denny Ray Newby received a Bronze Star and Combat “V” for his heroic actions during the Vietnam War, one of the military’s highest honors.
Newby served from 1966 to 1969 and was a member of the first all-Montanan platoon. Per the article written at the time in The Ronan Pioneer, “Vet Wins Bronze Star,” Newby didn’t receive his award for 12 years after his discharge due to a metal shortage.
“I didn’t stick around for it when I got my discharge,” Newby laughed. “I just told them to give it to somebody else.”
The text of the award details that on June 20, 1968, an ammunition dump came under enemy attack and started several large fires, causing numerous casualties and trapping 12 Marines in bunkers surrounding the area.
After losing radio contact, volunteers were asked to go see if the group was still alive. According to Newby, no one raised their hand. So, he, another corporal, and a lieutenant stepped up. “We never leave anyone behind,” Newby said. “Life or death, and I just knew that if I was left out there, I’d want some crazy Marine to try to come get me. I guess I ended up being that crazy Marine.”
Newby and the others took an amphibian tractor to the site, with Newby standing on top of the vehicle to guide the driver around unexploded ammunitions and burning debris as they went to each bunker, rescuing trapped Marines. When the tractor reached an impassable barrier, Newby assisted evacuating wounded Marines in the remaining bunkers on foot, through the hazardous area, and back to the vehicle.
The rescuers had expected to be overrun that night, but it never happened, something Newby describes as a miracle.
“His heroic actions inspired all who observed him and undoubtedly were instrumental in saving the lives of several Marines,” the award states. “Lance Corporal Newby’s courage, resolute determination and selfless devotion to duty at great personal risk were in keeping with highest traditions of the Marine Corps and of the United States Naval Service.”
“I don’t think of myself as a hero, I’m just a patriot,” Newby stated. “Every person who goes into combat, no matter what kind, is a damn hero in my eyes.” Son of a World War II veteran, he and one of his brothers followed in their father’s footsteps when the call of duty came.
His younger sister, Joye Albert, remembers.
“He was there when he was young and just out of school and did what he thought he ought to. Did it as good as he could, like he does everything,” Albert said. “He was a good big brother to six kids. He was always ready to defend an underdog.”
One of Albert’s earliest memories of her brother was a family fishing trip when Newby was about four years old. He’d managed to hook a fish about as big as he was, and their father and grandfather helped him get it up onto the bank. Once it was up, however, the fish turned around to make an escape, and Newby jumped right on its back. “Dad and Grandpa had to fish him and the fish out. He wasn’t going to let that one get away,” she laughed.
Describing her brother as “always rough and ready,” Albert wasn’t particularly surprised when her older brother came back from the war with the Combat “V” and Bronze Star.
“The only thing about that article before that bugs me a little is that it says he ‘won’ the bronze star,” Albert said. “He didn’t join a talent contest, he was there under fire, in combat. He earned it.”
An old friend of Newby’s, Randy Neumann, still has a copy of the original article.
Also a local, Neumann had originally heard of Newby back in the 1950s or ‘60s before he met him. Polson had held a summer dance every year, but one year Neumann attended and noticed quite a few girls were missing. “I asked where everyone was and they told me ‘They’re with those Newby guys down in Ronan,’” he recalled with a laugh.
Eventually Neumann got to know Newby and his family very well through the community, even recovering from a skiing accident at Newby’s house. Neumann has come to think of the veteran as a brother.
“He’s a great guy. He could have gotten the medal of honor,” Neumann said. “He was on a hospital ship for a while, but he’s still kicking. He’s a survivor.”
Settled down now with his wife on Finley Point, Newby doesn’t dwell too much on the past. He credits the support he received from his family, his faith, and the brotherhood of the military as what gave him strength after he came home.
“It comes through my mind now and again,” Newby said. “It would sure be neat if any of [those] guys are still alive. I’d like to see them or talk to them.”
Newby has faced health problems since his service in Vietnam due to Agent Orange exposure during the war. After his return to the U.S., Newby helped other veterans apply for disability until his own health no longer allowed it. Newby says he’s one of the lucky ones.
“That’s the price of freedom. At least I got to live a lot of years after Vietnam and a lot of my brothers didn’t even make it out of there,” he said. “I’m blessed and lucky.”