Neal Connors/Voices | Remembering Sgt. Wayne Dawson

Neal Connors/Voices | Remembering Sgt. Wayne Dawson

By NEAL CONNORS

The first time I saw Sgt. Wayne Dawson's white military headstone in the Mt. Hope Cemetery in Champaign was in the fall of 1985.

At the time, I was a 22-year-old first-year law student at the University of Illinois. Mt. Hope Cemetery ran from the Pennsylvania Avenue Residence Halls to Memorial Stadium and the length of Florida Avenue. It was not uncommon to walk the gravel paths of Mt. Hope heading to a football game. But during the fall of 1985, the cemetery took on a special meaning for me.

During breaks between classes in law school, I ventured, like others did, into the adjacent cemetery to sit under a tall oak tree and read or just enjoy the beautiful fall weather. Sitting there one day, my eyes focused on a row of white military headstones facing Memorial Stadium, with one grave in particular catching my attention, Wayne E Dawson, Illinois, Sgt Co G, I MAR, 1 Marine Div, Vietnam, August 7, 1943-December 19, 1966, PH.1 There were the obvious facts, that Sgt. Dawson was a Marine who had died in Vietnam and had ties to Champaign and that he was only 23 years old when he died.

I figured that Sgt. Dawson had likely joined the Marines out of high school given his age and rank. Too, I wondered whether his family was able to come there to Mt. Hope to visit his grave in 1985. I also tried to imagine what it must have been like for a young man about the same age as me to go to Vietnam and not return home alive. To me, Sgt. Dawson represented a vivid reminder of the reality of a war, in this case Vietnam, for a young man from Champaign. I considered that in 1985, it was still less than 20 years from his death in 1966.

Recently, I have learned some more facts surrounding Sgt. Dawson's death. He was in fact the first squad leader in his platoon and was responsible for controlling the actions of a dozen or so men under his charge. He began his tour in Vietnam on March 12, 1966. He was wounded when his unit was ambushed near a village in the Quang Nam Province of South Vietnam during a company-sized mission out of the An Hoa Combat Base. His platoon commander later recalled several things about Sgt. Dawson when he visited the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. in 1987, such as the fact that Sgt. Dawson demonstrated strong leadership traits, enthusiasm and an eagerness to learn new tactical skills as a Marine.

Other friends and fellow Marines have remembered Sgt. Dawson in their postings on the Virtual Wall website of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial over the years, and I recognize that their familiarity and experiences of Sgt. Dawson are greater than anything I have conjured merely looking at his headstone and pondering his life and death.

But before I read their testimony and intimate recollections of Sgt. Dawson, a man I never knew, I made a pact to never forget his sacrifice. The thought of Sgt. Dawson motivated and inspired me during my own subsequent Marine training and beyond. I never forgot Sgt. Wayne Dawson's name.

If you're not familiar with PH.1, it stands for Purple Heart, indicating wounded in action.

So I extend this salute and personal remembrance on behalf of Sgt. Wayne E. Dawson, who would be 75 years old this year on Aug. 7, and thank him sincerely for the sacrifices he made for our country as a 23-year-old young man from Champaign.

Lt. Col. Neal Connors, who was a JAG lawyer, left active duty in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1996. He also served in the reserves and on periods of active duty through 2006. He now practices law in the St. Louis and Belleville area, concentrating in immigration law and criminal defense.