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The 2000 Yard Stare

Posted by on April 6, 2016

Some sage said that one picture is worth a thousand words. There’s some dispute about who said it first, but I’ve got no doubt that whoever it was hit the proverbial nail right on the head. In fact, in my case one picture — like the one reproduced here — can prompt at least a thousand words. I’ll try to stay under that count, but I’m moved to talk a bit about what the photo means to me as a Marine, a writer, and a filmmaker.

The painting was conceived by Time/Life Magazine war correspondent/artist Tom Lea during his experiences with the 1st Marine Division fighting the bloody battle for Peleliu in September 1944, during World War II. It depicts a war-weary Leatherneck that Lea saw after the fight on Bloody Nose Ridge, one of the Japanese forces’ most sternly defended strong points on that South Pacific island. In a brief caption, Lea describes his subject thusly: “His mind is numbed in battle, his jaw hung, and his eyes were like two black empty holes in his head.” Those words are certainly descriptive but they are also unnecessary, particularly to observers who have seen infantry combat. I’m one of those.

During my time at war in Southeast Asia, I saw a number of similar men, standing post-battle and merely looking at something only they could see. Their mind and spirit ravaged by close combat, perhaps not thinking at all, barely conscious in the standard meaning of that condition, or maybe just trying to deal with the fact that they’d survived. It’s been called “the thousand yard stare” and most combat veterans are familiar with it — first or second hand. Such images haunt me as a Marine because I understand from my own wartime experience they depict the brutality of combat and define the limits of endurance beyond which human beings are too often asked to go. Put this guy in a snow-spattered parka standing on some Korean hill; put him in camouflage standing in a jungle clearing with an M-16 on his shoulder, or make him a man wearing a Kevlar helmet dusted with desert sand and the effect would be the same. This is a a strong image, which says silently what war in general, and infantry close combat specifically can do to the human spirit.

Lea’s haunting work has stayed with me since the first time I saw it as a boy growing up after the end of World War II. I got a chance to visit Peleliu when I was doing research for the popular HBO mini-series “The Pacific” and crawling around those coral ridges where discarded and ignored combat detritus lay rusting, rotting and undisturbed by tourists, gave me a new-found respect for the men who fought there. No combat in any theater of war is ever easy or inconsequential to the people who have to endure it but Peleliu must have been a particularly exhausting and brutal experience. Afterward I interviewed several Marine veterans of Pacific campaigns. Those who fought on Peleliu mostly just took a deep breath and shook their heads. Peleliu was indescribable beyond simple terms like rugged, bloody and profane words I can’t quote here. I came away from that experience sobered and determined to the best of my ability to make the Peleliu episode of the mini-series as real as I could to reflect how different and difficult the fight must have been. I hope we did that. Certainly all of us involved in recreating the Peleliu fight for TV were dedicated to it and while we were filming, I carried a copy of Tom Lea’s painting to convey to all involved what we were trying to show.

That image was impetus to me as a writer when I was deciding on a setting for my second book in the Shake Davis series of adventure stories. Shake and his buddies — U.S. Navy Seals this time — were hunting for terrorists who were experimenting with a particular virulent form of biological warfare and it seemed to me that what they should face in such a world-threatening scenario would be interesting if it happened on Peleliu where so many of their military predecessors fought just such a determined foe. So I had Shake Davis and company chase their enemies through the ridges and jungles of Peleliu. At the end of a brutal final fight, Shake stands numbly gazing out over the Pacific. In my imagination he looked at that moment just like the shattered Marine in Tom Lea’s painting.

13 Responses to The 2000 Yard Stare

  1. John kinard

    Thank you for your service.

    I spend many days wishing I had served my country as a soldier as my father did. We should be required tone equally-yoked in this country,..We have been given so much by our Lord and have done all that could be done to keep it – but such work has only been done by the young men and women who had the need and/or maturity to understand and recognize the benefit that one gains from becoming a soldier. I am in the minority but I have a crystal clear understanding of the value of a soldier AND of the need that I now have (that will never be satisfied) to have become a soldier. There is a huge void, and a resulting “scar” both inside and outside of my soul that I neither decided on my own nor was I specifically called by my country. I am not KIA. I AM NOT MIA. AND yet I should have been at least one of three…A soldier, MIA OR KIA to have fulfilled what I believe should have been and should be the absolute minimum “payment”, an amount that has been bravely paid by my country’s best men and women. And yet, the most “service” that I and so many others have provided has been to watch my country’s very best on television and/or perhaps read of the experience in a book or on the internet. I, like so many others have done nothing to protect my country. I have NOT BEEN THERE WHEN MY COUNTRY AND HER SONS MOST DESPERATELY NEEDED ME. As a result of my failure to become what I most respect, I must say I pay something of a price of guilt, a price of being a “small-thinker”, a price of being immature at the wrong times. In many cases I have become what I most despise. An American who has done nothing but to live in the shade of the umbrella above my head, which has been conceived, built, bought and paid for by thecAmerican soldier. I suppose there is value in the fact that I recognize and see things as they truly are. Yet, the very fact that I am an official part of an American public that has neither understanding nor desire to understand – and that I (as I sit here in 2016 writing) am an official part of the weakest part of my country which has been made immeasurably weaker over the last 8 years by the worst president in the history of my country, sickens me beyond any measure. I am a man, yet my hands are not those of a man doing the work of a soldier, work of which one can take great pride…This is my sadness. Being protected, but not protecting as a soldier. Leveraging the sacrifices, work and discipline of other men and women. Of this I am sick. That I am part of and, in fact one with the “not a veteran” population makes me sicker still. That I have and that I continue to live under a free sky for which have given no blood where others have given all…Of everything.

  2. Van Perley

    Capt. Was very pleased to be with you and the rest at the 2/3 reunion in Vegas last year (2015).

    Seems your in a new movie, ” Range 15 ” .

    Hope to be with everyone including you in San Antonio in 2017 . 2/3 has a line up of some people you know. Ask, Art Ferguson 2/3 Sec/Tres. for better info.

    Good Fortune


  3. Carl Lepak

    Thank you Sir for all that you do to make movies more crdible and entertaining. (Especially for those of us with military experience) Sometimes I get carried away with all the inaccuracies in some movies. I’m partial to your Army roles but all of your work is second to none.

  4. Jim Allen

    Saw “The Stare” a number of times on my dad’s face.Saw it also on a 101st AB vet I interviewed, a guy who refused to watch either Ryan or BoB because they hit way too close to home. He had passed by the time Pacific came out. My dad didn’t like the more realistic war movies but chuckled his way thru the lame ones, even if they were meant to be serious. For some reason, he just loved “Hogan’s Heroes.” He was long gone by the time Ryan, BoB or the Pacific were around.

    Anyway,to my mind, the essence of the respect combat vets are due is because they carry the psychological burden of combat. If not the physical. Even if it didn’t result in major emotional problems, the experience of combat can be a “40-pound pack” they can never drop. The best they can hope for is getting used to the weight. I know some amazingly well adjusted combat vets. Don’t know them well enough to ask how they dealt with it. I would think the measure of respect we give (or should give) helps.

    I feel uncomfortable saying it, but a measure of respect should also go to those of us who were willing but (thankfully) never had to actually endure combat. For some of us, combat could have come at the stroke of some unknown planner’s pen.

  5. Kurt Perkins

    Thank you Captain Dye, hope and wife are safe and well. SF, MGy KP

  6. H Melder

    Dear Capt. Dye
    I am an veteran of 11 wars wounden 4 times, I went out for my small country in UN and Nato missions, plus all the other stuff. But when I see what you do, and over the years I seen it, you are the man who tells and make the actors do it right. For me with over 25 years of active service this is a kind of blessing, I can not tell my children (I got 8) how it is or where to be out there. But you have over the years done what many veterans like and love, done the work so that those who never bin there see how it is, and learned actors to be like us.
    I thank you so much and bless you even more.
    H. Melder RIK (is like your Medal of Honor)

  7. Clara J. (C.J.) Pratt

    Dale, you probably don’t remember me. In 1983 I was engaged to Fred Giest and we attended your and Kathryn’s engagement party. We also saw you off at the airport but I did not know you were heading for Beirut (I think). My name is Clara J. Pratt – friends call me C.J. I have followed your career with much admiration and I have seen most of the movies you were in or consulted on. I have always thought you were a talented, handsome and honorable man. I wanted to say congratulations on all of your life’s accomplishments. Many people cannot say they have done so much. Also say that you worked hard for all of it. I am sure you are happily retired now but still keeping busy. Sorry it has taken me so many years to reach out to you. Best wishes to you and your family and God Bless your service and for all you did to keep our country free and safe.

  8. Ernest Ryan

    Congrats on a spectacular career. I found some old photos of 8/63. I was wearing the clothes you had sold me in the clothing store where you were working in downtown Mexico, Missouri that spring. The next time I saw you was Lt Dale Dye reporting from Beirut. I’ve about you from time to time since. From your posts it looks like your still active.
    I retired from Houston Airport System this spring where I worked in operations. My wife Amporn and I moved to Chaingmai, Thailand. After reading your bio I’ll have to pick up some of your books.
    Ernest Ryan MMA ’64

  9. George Dragan

    Dale, I served as a reserve Marine Capt MP plt cdr in Iraq in 2003, at the time in trace of the 1st MarDiv arriving during the pause in late March and pushing north in early April collecting EPWs and running them up and down the rt 1 corridor. Got there again as a company commander Major in early 2006 (artillery battery cdr B 1/14 with a provisional MP mission). Bottom line is that I did see (and own) the series, The Pacific, and thought you captured, very realistically, what you were trying to capture in the above article. As a son of a WWII veteran (9th Army Air Force B-26 Bombardier-Navigator), the WWII veterans were my inspiration, as were the Marines (specifically) who fought in Vietnam (no, the timing of my career doesn’t make sense, but if you want a long boring story, you can ask me.) Thanks for your personal service and for what you do. S/F

  10. Jeff Thompson

    Thanks for your service Marine and thank you for doing your best to project the reality of war, The atrocity of it and the humanity many can lose. As a movie fan Hollywood needs it.

  11. William Liddell Jr.

    Don’t know about the 1,000 yard stare. But I sure spend a couple moments diving for cover when things stateside reminded me of Nam. LOL.
    Oh and I slugged my father when he shook me by the shoulder to wake me when I’d come home. After that, he shook me by the feet and stayed out of arms reach. Too funny… now.

  12. Ken Craig

    Greetings and salutations Skippersan. I was a young PFC, Lance Chimpo, finally Corporal, during my tour in Okinawa 76’77…. I remember meeting you very briefly, as Sgt Dantona walked me through the Public Affairs office saying this is Top Dye. Sgt Dantona and I went to the same High School and crazy enough, we two knuckleheads had a similar interest in ventriloquism. My Drill Instructor, Sgt Nummer, the man with the best voice I ever heard in the Marine Corps, said he knew you. Anyway, I did a couple tours on the drill field and was an instructor at DI School at MCRD San Diego in the mid eighties. I went to the Gulf War after demanding that my battalion get me orders back from being the Ops Chief at the Camp Del Mar NCO School. I was a Military Policeman most of my career, but did some time as an aircrewman and aerial navigator on C130’s, and crew chief on C12’s. My final post was at Camp Smith Hawaii as the Marine Forces Pacific Provost Sergeant. I worked for LtGen Krulak, who would often stop by my office and say, “MasterGuns, you have the best view of Pearl Harbor from all of Camp Smith.” After I retired I learned to fly and became a flight instructor, then tour pilot in Hawaii, and first officer with Island Air. Later I was flying jets with Aloha Airlines and I had practically exceeded my level of competency when Aloha went out of business. I’m now back in San Diego living the good life wondering how I can help to pass on and portray the Marine legacy in the best possible light. By the way, I’m writing this after watching you in the latest Steven Segal movie. Semper Fi, Captain Dye.

  13. Will Moore

    CPT Dye, I stumbled across your blog just today (linked from Wikipedia article). I knew you were in USMC and I’ve seen most of your movies–but I didn’t know we served together somewhere. I was in 2/8 in the Multinational Peacekeeping Force in Lebanon–1982 and again 1983-84.

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