Memorial Day: William E. “Billy” Dodson, a chaplain’s story

In 1966, Alabama native and Howard College graduate William “Billy” E. Dodson responded to a call for Baptist ministers ready for immediate commission and active duty in the U.S. Navy. Here is his story.
Chaplain Dodson in front of the Chaplains Office at Camp Barnes, Vietnam.
Photo courtesy of United States Pacific Fleet, Camp Barnes, Vietnam 1967 Yearbook

Memorial Day: William E. “Billy” Dodson, a chaplain’s story

The following was posted by Baptist Press on Feb. 18, 1966, under the heading, “Navy Seeks Ministers as Chaplains.” 

“The Southern Baptist Chaplains Commission has put out a call for Baptist ministers ready for immediate commission and active duty in the United States Navy. The demand was brought on by a Navy adjustment of the number of Baptist chaplains and by the stepped-up manpower needs resulting from the war in Vietnam.”

One of those who responded to this call was William “Billy” E. Dodson who was commissioned as a Navy chaplain in 1967. His 89-year-old widow, Ray Dean “Teen” Dodson said, “I remember the day Billy came walking through the door with a copy of The Alabama Baptist in his hand reading me the story.”

Chaplain William “Billy” E. Dodson served three tours of duty in Vietnam. (Photo courtesy of Dodson Family Collection)

The Alabama natives were members of the last graduating class of Howard College (Samford University) where they had met. After college they moved to Fort Worth, Texas, where Billy completed a degree at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Following seminary, he became pastor of First Baptist Church of Wilmer, Alabama, where he was serving when he entered the Navy. 

‘Baptism’ by fire

During his first tour in Vietnam in 1967, he was assigned to the Marine Seabee Construction Unit, MCB 11, stationed at Camp Barnes near the DMZ. It was to be a baptism by fire. During their 1967 tour, the MCB 11 was involved in 128 firefights, resulting in 102 wounded and 12 killed in action. Because of their actions in 1967, the unit became the most decorated Seabee Battalion in history.

One night a firefight ensued at Camp Barnes. Billy said, “I was in a fox hole, and it was the scariest I had been in my entire life.” They were being hit with mortars and heavy gunfire when someone came looking for him. A Marine had been badly wounded and was asking for a chaplain. 

Dodson said, “I didn’t want to leave that fox hole.” But he knew his duty, he prayed for strength, scrambled out of the foxhole, and went to attend the wounded Marine. 

The following morning, after the sun had chased away the cover of darkness, Chaplain Dodson began surveying the smoldering damage from the battle the night before. As he walked by the first foxhole, he discovered it had taken a direct mortar hit. Had he stayed, he said, “I would have been killed.” It bolstered his faith for battles to come.

Damage done

During another firefight at Camp Barnes, Billy and a doctor slid into a bunker located near a large trench where the ammunition was stored. The ammunition took a direct enemy hit and began exploding. The ammunition continued to explode for eight long excruciating hours. They were not able to leave the bunker because of the explosions. At times they were literally being tossed around the bunker. 

Following the battle, the U.S. military altered the way munitions were stored, dividing the ordnance, and placing earthen barriers between the stores of ammunition. Unfortunately, for Dodson, the concussions had already done their damage.

Billy continued to faithfully serve as a chaplain, taking care of those who were frightened, wounded and dying. A cherished photo of the family is Dodson baptizing a Marine in a foxhole at Camp Barnes. Dodson would eventually serve a total of three tours of duty in Vietnam.

Another battle

At this point in Chaplain Dodson’s story, one would hope the next lines would read something to the effect; Chaplain Dodson returned home to his loving wife and family, and they lived happily ever after. Unfortunately, that’s not the way it worked. Returning home would be the beginning of another long battle.

After Vietnam, the family began to note changes in his personality. On the outside he appeared fine; the enemy would be an unseen foe lying within. At first, Teen said she thought it was PTSD, although it eventually proved to be something more.

Dodson continued to serve in the Navy as a chaplain, retiring in 1984. The family returned to Alabama where he served as pastor of Benton Baptist Church. Teen said the church was very patient, but eventually his problems led to their departure. 

After years of tests, examinations, uncertainty, frustrations and anxiety, he was finally diagnosed with Pick’s disease, a form of dementia due to deterioration of the brain. In Billy’s case, the deterioration was likely due to the concussions experienced during battle, specifically the eight hours spent in the bunker as ordinance exploded at Camp Barnes. 

Teen continued to take care of him as long as she could, even as his mind, memories and body slipped away. After she could no longer physically care for him, he spent the final two years of his life living in veterans’ homes in Alabama. In 2008, 41 years after his first tour in Vietnam, he succumbed to the wounds suffered in battle, he was 73.

‘A real chaplain’

One of the tributes shared at his funeral was from the captain of a ship on which he served on one of his later tours in Vietnam. The captain had honored Dobson by simply stating; “He was a real chaplain.”

His daughter, Kim Dodson Hogge, described her mother as “a saint” for taking care of her dad through those difficult years.  Although if the truth be known, being “a saint” is a trait shared by most pastors’ wives. Today, Teen lives near her daughter Kim and her husband Rick Hogge, and her son Dean near Indianapolis, Indiana. 

Memorial Day is set aside as a time to honor the memory of those who as described by President Lincoln at Gettysburg, “gave the last full measure of devotion.” Some of those who died in Vietnam have their names etched upon the moving Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. Others, like Chaplain William “Billy” E. Dodson, do not. Nonetheless, he and others like him, those who carried the wounds of the battlefield for the rest of their lives, deserved to be remembered and honored this Memorial Day too. 

EDITOR’S NOTE — This story was written by Charles Jones.