By Tom Clavin
“The Overlook” appears every Thursday at tomclavin.substack.com. An overlook is usually a place from which one can see in many if not all directions, including where one has been and where one is going. If you enjoy the column, please "like" it and let me know what you think by commenting (check out previous ones while you're at it). Likes, comments, and shares help with author discoverability on Substack.com, and all support is appreciated.And don't forget to hit the ‘Subscribe’ button – it’s free!
“Old breed? New breed? There’s not a damn bit of difference so long as it’s the Marine Breed.”
Lt. Gen. Lewis Burwell “Chesty” Puller
Everyone who knew him has a favorite Dick Bonelli story. Here is mine: Early in 2009, I was invited to do a book-signing at the U.S. Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia. The book was The Last Stand of Fox Company, the second book Bob Drury and I had written together. One of us had the idea of having Dick Bonelli participate. He was hesitant at the prospect of a lowly corporal being a presence at the base where his beloved Marine Corps was headquartered. But then Dick figured what the heck, he was soon to turn 78 and this would most likely be his last opportunity, so he flew up from Florida, where he had retired after many years working for the U.S. Postal Service.
We were set up at a table at the front of the base PX which on a Saturday afternoon would be busy with leatherneck families. For the first half-hour or so we didn’t do much business, but then in ones and twos and threes off-duty Marines and spouses and others stopped by the table to check out Last Stand and then make the connection: This man had served in Fox 2/7. This elderly man sitting right here had served in Fox 2/7.
Dick was inundated with requests to shake hands and sign books. For the next hour, until we ran out of books, the old corporal was not only the center of attention but the object of pure, unrestrained hero worship. Then came the exclamation point to what was one of the most powerful experiences of Dick’s life: Word had reached someone in the Quantico high command (forgive me, I can’t recall his name) that a member of Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Regiment -- yes, that Fox Company --was in the house. Suddenly, the sliding front door of the PX opened and the general came striding in. “Corporal Bonelli?”
Poor Dick was stuck. His immediate reaction was to stand and salute. But he was so floored by the general’s sudden appearance it took several seconds before he struggled to his feet. “Can I have the honor,” the general said, “of shaking your hand?” Dick knew that from a general that request was the same as an order so he stuck out his right hand. There were tears in his eyes as they shook.
All I could do was apologize that we did not have one copy of the book left to give the general. “Not to worry,” he said, “I’ve already got one and I’ve read it from cover to cover. And now that I’ve met Corporal Bonelli,” the general smiled at Dick, who had finally gotten his hand back, “I’ll do so again.”
Three years later, the then-81-year-old Bonelli was invited back to Quantico to give a talk there. After he got home, he emailed this to Drury and me: “It was absolutely awesome!! Doesn’t hardly describe my visit to Quantico. Ever since i set foot on the Base, there was always an Officer at my side!! All read ‘Last Stand’ and know FOX CO is a legend in the Marine Corps. They treated me, and told me pleasure to meet a Marine legend!!!! After my talk to not 1 but 3 classes and after Q & A, i never shook so many hands, signed so many books, and have them just gather around and stare at me in awe … gave me goose bumps!! They had me bring my change (dress blues} to their office, asked what i drank, chardonnay, there was always a bottle close by. Entering the dining room area for ‘Officers Mess’ i had to walk past 10 Marines with crossed swords overhead. Officer opened door, entered large area, Officer rang one large bell-ring and announced my rank, name and Fox Co, Chosin, i looked at a sea of dress blue Marine officers, who just screamed, then i joined them and screamed with them as the rest of guests entered, i was followed by Base Commander, Colonels, Generals, you scream YES as they came in. Good God, never saw anything like it. Then i was introduced to ‘my escort,’ Lt. Ryan, my Capt gave him my bottle, but the Lt already had one for me, he never left me. Then more handshakes, pictures, stares. Jeez, now i know what a movie star feels like on Oscar nite. More what followed later. SF, Dick.”
Who was Richard Bonelli? Why should you care? I’ll answer the second question first. You would have enjoyed knowing the man we came to call “Uncle Dickie” if you care about courage, sacrifice, love of country, and a life dedicated to love of family and his leatherneck brothers. He was not the only hero in Fox Company and he would be the first to tell you that.
Dick Bonelli was a tough teenager in Brooklyn who was caught stealing a car. The judge gave him a choice – go to jail or joining the Marine Corps. That was how in late November 1950, at age 19, Dick found himself climbing up to the top of Toktong Pass in North Korea. The Chinese had entered the war and there was 100,000 of them advancing on the 8000-man 1st Marine Division at the Chosin Reservoir. One Chinese general realized if 10,000 soldiers were sent through Toktong Pass, they would exit it behind the Americans, who, caught between enemy forces, would then have to surrender or be slaughtered.
Suddenly realizing the threat, the colonel in charge of the 7th Regiment sent Fox Company up to plug Toktong Pass. All 246 of them. Against 10,000 Chinese infantry. Captain William Barber knew it was a suicide mission but orders were orders. He was told if Fox Company could hold the pass for just one night, the division could reposition out of harm’s way. Corporal Bonelli and his brothers in arms trudged up to the top of the pass where, that first night, it was 30 below zero. Soon after 2 a.m., the Chinese attacked.
Fox Company held for five nights and five days, until relieved by Col. Raymond Davis and his force of “Ridgerunners.” After close to 2000 casualties, the Chinese had given up and retreated from Toktong Pass. Of the 246 men of Fox Company who had arrived that first night, 60 walked back down. To this day, the Battle of Fox Hill is regarded as one of the four signature battles fought by the Marine Corps in the 20th century, along with Belleau Wood, Iwo Jima, and Khe Sanh.
There were three Medals of Honor awarded and several Silver Stars. Dick Bonelli received the latter and a Purple Heart too. On the fifth day of the fighting he was shot by a sniper and was in such a bad way that when he was evacuated to a hospital, he was given Last Rites. That tough teen survived, and after his active Marine Corps service was over, back in the States he married his other love, Mary. They were married for 66 years and had eight children, 18 grandchildren, and 25 great-grandchildren.
The proud old corporal’s very full life ended last week at age 90, in Virginia, where he had relocated after Mary’s death. Dick was the longtime president of the Fox 2/7 Association and ebulliently presided over its reunions, which Drury and I were privileged to attend. He was one of the most remarkable men I ever met.
If Marine Corps readers will allow me this one time: Semper fidelis, Uncle Dickie.
Tom Clavin is the bestselling author/co-author of 18 books, including this latest collaboration with Bob Drury, Blood and Treasure: Daniel Boone and the Fight for America’s First Frontier, published by St. Martin’s Press. Please go to your local bookstore or to Bookshop.org, Amazon.com, or BN.com to purchase a copy.