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Ron Dodge

 

Date and Place of Birth: June 17, 1936 Olympia, WA
Date and Place of Death:    circa 1967 (remains returned to U.S. on July 8, 1981)
Baseball Experience: Minor League
Position: Catcher
Rank: Commander
Military Unit: VF-51 U.S. Navy
Area Served: Vietnam

Ronald Wayne Dodge was born in Olympia, Washington, on June 17, 1936, to parents Doris and Donald W. Dodge. A young sister Judy would follow a few years later. His parents would eventually divorce, but Doris would marry James B. King in 1946 and they would have two sons. Donald Dodge served as a Chief Motor Machinist’s Mate in the U.S. Naval Reserve during WW II, and he ran a successful dry cleaning business in Olympia after the war. As his mother had, Ron attended Olympia High School where he was a two-sport star athlete and a member of the Spanish Club. He lettered in football his senior year, and as a junior in 1953, Ron was a member of the Olympia High School State 4F Championship team, the only football champions the school ever produced. Ron’s real talent, however, was on the baseball field. He played varsity ball during his sophomore, junior and senior seasons, lettering all three years. He was known to hit for power from the left side, but was more noted for a cannon right arm and for his superb defensive skills behind the plate. Ron’s close friend in high school, was Gerry Alexander (Gerry had played center on the football state championship team, and would later become a Chief Justice for the state of Washington). He offered up a quaint nugget about Ron many years later. During an interview in his chambers marking his retirement from the bench, the reporter was John Dodge, Ron’s cousin. “Here’s something you may not have known about your cousin,” Alexander said. “He brought an egg salad sandwich for lunch every day in high school.”[1]

After graduating high school in 1954, Ron attended the University of Oregon. When school was over for the summer, he signed on with a semi-pro team called the Washington “Cheney Studs” (later called the “Seattle Studs”). The Studs were the brainchild of Ben Cheney, a local lumber executive who had built several mills all along the West Coast and at one point, owned a small stake in the San Francisco Giants. Cheney sponsored many teams that were made up of local high school phenoms and young college all-stars. Those teams competed with other semi-pro talent and played exhibition games with professional Class B, or rookie league teams in the Northwest League. Ron played well and eventually would catch the eye of several professional scouts.

In 1959, at the age of 23, Ron joined the Missoula (Montana) Timberjacks. He had grown to 6-foot-1 tall and was a sinewy 170 pounds. The Timberjacks played in the Pioneer League, five rungs below major league talent. The team was affiliated with the Washington Senators and their home games were played at Campbell Park, whose most unusual feature was a trapdoor behind home plate near the grandstand where the players would emerge to enter the field. Ron appeared in only three games with the “Jacks” and made just two plate appearances with no hits.

Continuing in 1959 and despite the lack of opportunity in Missoula, Ron’s potential still outweighed his wonderful athletic ability. He jumped to the Northwest League and the Yakima (Washington) Bears who were part the Milwaukee Braves system. Led by manager Hub Kittle, the Bears won the second half title and defeated the Salem (Oregon) Senators in a playoff to capture the second of three consecutive league titles. (Interestingly, the Bears only had a mediocre overall record of 70-69 for the season). Ron played in 36 games, had 89 at-bats, contributed 20 hits (including his only professional home run), and finished with a .225 batting average. He also made two appearances as a pitcher, but did not manage a linescore.

Ron finished out his 1959 season with the Seattle (Washington) Rainiers of the storied AAA Pacific Coast League. The Rainiers were the top club of the Cincinnati Reds at the time, and their roster featured many soon-to-be and former major leaguers, most notably, Claude Osteen, Elmer Valo, Hal Bevan, Dave Stenhouse, Jay Hook and Harry “Peanuts” Lowrey. Ron’s time with the Rainiers would be the closest he would ever get to “The Show”, being just one level below major league competition. In four games, he made four plate appearances with just one hit. Ron ended his one year, minor league career with 43 game appearances, 95 at-bats, 21 hits, five doubles, one home run, and an overall batting average of .221.

In the mid-1960s, with his baseball career over and the Vietnam War escalating, Ron chose to undergo the demanding and rigorous training as a pilot in the U.S. Navy. With wife Jan and two small children, Ron and his family relocated to San Diego, California in 1966. Home would be at Miramar Naval Air Station, often noted as “Fightertown U.S.A.”. Ron was assigned to VF-51, a fighter squadron attached to the aircraft carrier, U.S.S. Hancock. The leadership skills he had honed on the baseball diamond soon served Ron well as a young naval officer. He would be chosen to fly lead on several missions, including his last, over the flak filled skies of North Vietnam.

On May 17, 1967, Lt. Ronald Dodge was piloting his F8E Crusader jet high above the jungle canopy of North Vietnam, about twenty miles northwest of the city of Vinh. While on point, he encountered heavy anti-aircraft fire and his plane was shot down. His wingman verified an opened parachute near the crash site. Radio contact was made and at least three radio transmissions were received with the last one being Ron claiming he was “surrounded” and “heading up a hill” as he prepared to “break up his radio”.[2] He waved his wingman off. Final visual verification noted several NVA around the crash site, but no confirmation of Ron. The next day, a local Vietnamese village newspaper and a Hanoi radio broadcast verified a crash at the known site, and because of these facts, it was assumed that Ron had been captured by the enemy.

In September 1967, a picture of a U.S. service member was published in Paris Match magazine. The photo showed a beaten American with a bandaged head being lead between two armed guards. Several government sources (as well as Ron’s wife), identified the airman as Lt. Ron Dodge. Later, an East German propaganda film titled “Pilot in Pajamas” featured clips of purported to be POW’s, including Ron, this time without a bandaged head and walking under his own power. When this evidence was presented to the North Vietnamese, the U.S. demanded to know Ron’s status and his whereabouts. The North Vietnamese denied any knowledge of him, and in fact, feigned astonishment that they would be accused of withholding any information of the sorts.

On November 10, 1972, Ron unknowingly became the face of the POW-MIA movement in the U.S. The Paris Match photograph appeared on the cover of Life magazine, slightly cropped, with the heading, “QUESTIONS FOR A PEACE”, along with “543 POWs: What shape are they in?”; “1271 MIAs: How many are still alive?”; “Where Does It Leave us?” and “An Ohio Town Talks of War”.[3] The ensuing public outcry fueled much more debate at the Paris peace talks, with both sides making demands and accusations and with the North Vietnamese issuing their same tired denials. As the war was winding down, the American people demanded answers and simply wanted their boys home. ALL of their boys.

In early 1973, the U.S. exhaustively negotiated the release of all POWs held captive by the North Vietnamese. Beginning in February, U.S. POWs finally boarded C-141 military aircraft with teary eyes, bright smiles and raised fists. Some had been held captive for over 8 ½ years. In all, “Operation Homecoming” returned 591 POWs to American soil. Sadly, Ron was not among them. After debriefing of fellow prisoners, there was very little information they could share about Ron. Many speculated that Ron had been beaten and tortured, and had died at the hands of his captors shortly after his plane crash. For those waiting, this was a cruel, devastating blow.

In July 1981, the North Vietnamese “discovered” the remains of three American pilots and turned over their remains and other “personal affects” to the U.S. government on July 8. The pilots were identified as Air Force Capt. Richard Van Dyke, Navy Lt. Stephen Musselman and Navy Cmdr. Ronald Dodge (Ron had been promoted in captivity). After fourteen emotionally long and gut wrenching years, Ron would now come home. “I guess it’s all over, all the waiting” said Brad Dodge, Ron’s 17-year-old son who was just three years old when his father went missing. “My mother was pretty upset. We’ve been waiting all these years to find out. I guess it’s better, though”.[4]

Ron is remembered as a tremendous baseball athlete and a true American hero. For service to his country, Ron earned the Purple Heart, the POW Medal, the Air Medal, the National Defense Medal, and the Vietnam Service and Vietnam Campaign Medals. He is interred at Arlington National Cemetery, Section 23, Site 22520. Ron is also honored on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC, Panel 20E, Line 14.

© Mark Haubenstein, February, 2012 (permission of use granted).

Notes

[1] The Olympian, Olympia Washington, Dec 17, 2011
[2] The pownetwork.org (crash site report)
[3] Life magazine, Nov 10, 1972
[4] AP newswire, Tacoma News Tribune, Tacoma Washington, July 22, 1981
Tacoma Public Library Online Archives
The 1954 Olympiad, Olympia High School Yearbook
The 1967 U.S.S. Hancock WestPac Cruise Book
Togetherweserved.com
FindAGrave.com
Baseball-reference.com

Date Added February 11, 2012 Date Updated March 17, 2014

 

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