Friday, May 23, 2008

CRANSTON Pat Cortellessa’s 1953 Dodge M37 Army truck is a rolling memorial to Sgt. Lewis Clark Walton, of Cranston, a Green Beret with the 5th Special Forces who was killed in the Vietnam War in 1971.

CRANSTON Pat Cortellessa’s 1953 Dodge M37 Army truck is a rolling memorial to Sgt. Lewis Clark Walton, of Cranston, a Green Beret with the 5th Special Forces who was killed in the Vietnam War in 1971.

But how Cortellessa ended up celebrating this Rhode Island son, and his involvement in solving the painful puzzle of Walton’s death, goes back to the early 1970s, when he was still in high school.

“I was in a history class in Central High School [Providence] in 1971 or 1972 and an Army officer came by to talk to us,” he said in a recent interview in his house opposite the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation, on Oaklawn Avenue. “And you could buy bracelets with the name of soldiers missing in action for $2.”

Cortellessa bought one with the name of “Capt. John G. Dunn, U.S. Army, 18 March 1968” — the date he went missing.

Fast forward to a cold February day in 2005 when Cortellessa was in the basement of his house going through some old boxes and “stumbled across the bracelet.”

“Suddenly I wanted to find out what happened to him,” he said.

This interest in Dunn’s fate combined with Cortellessa’s interest in military history. Although he has never served, he had an uncle who served in Vietnam and he has read widely and visited a number of war memorials, including various sites in Germany from World War II and Civil War sites in the United States.

And, in addition to the M37, Cortellessa, 52, who is married and has three children, has a 1951 GMC Troop Carrier parked beside his garage.

Working through the Internet, Cortellessa discovered that Dunn did not die in Vietnam; he was a prisoner of war who survived the war.

“Dunn was released in 1973 as part of a general release,” he said.

Cortellessa contacted Dunn, who had retired from the Army with the rank of colonel, through Dunn’s 85-year-old mother in Miami. He said he wanted to return the bracelet.

Dunn was delighted to hear from him. “That’s great, wonderful,” Dunn said, adding that Cortellessa could keep the bracelet. They got to talking and when Dunn realized Cortellessa was from Rhode Island, he said that when he had been captured there was a soldier from Rhode Island along with his group.

“Guess what? When I was captured on patrol, they ambushed me and three others and one was from Rhode Island,” he said. “James Ray from Woonsocket.”

“That got me interested in Rhode Islanders who were missing in action,” Cortellessa said.

But while Ray was one of eight Rhode Islanders listed as missing in action in the Vietnam War on, Cortellessa learned from declassified government documents that he was killed trying to escape from a POW camp in Cambodia.

Of the remaining seven Rhode Islanders listed by, one was Staff Sgt. Lewis Clark Walton, from Potter Street, in Cranston.

Cortellessa said he learned from declassified government documents that Walton had served in the Korean War in the early 1950s and had reenlisted at age 37 to fight in the Vietnam War. At the time of his disappearance, he was a member of the Military Advisor Command Vietnam/Studies and Observation Group (MACV/SOG), which operated behind enemy lines gathering intelligence, according to Cortellessa.

On May 3, 1971, Walton was helicoptered into western Quang Nam Province, which is about 12 miles west of Laos, as part of a long-range reconnaissance team. He was accompanied by Staff Sgt. Klaus Bingham and Staff Sgt. James Luttrell.

The three were never heard from again. After several attempts to locate the team by radio and flyovers, they were listed as missing in action. (There are currently 1,948 American personnel listed as missing in action in the Vietnam War, according to

Cortellessa began to research Walton’s fate around March 2005 and one source he called was the MIA-POW Department of the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi. An official, Rick Flanagan, told him of human remains being found in the vicinity of the disappearance of the three men. Cortellessa said Flanagan had been part of the recovery team.

“It was a miracle, a million-to-one shot,” he said. “To make a 2 a.m. phone call from Rhode Island to the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi and to have him come on the telephone.”

Cortellessa then called the Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) in Oahu, Hawaii, where the remains had been sent for analysis. The laboratory portion of JPAC, the Central Identification Laboratory, is the largest forensic anthropology laboratory in the world.

Cortellessa talked to an official, Dick Hites, and he confirmed that the remains had been analyzed and that JPAC was certain they were those of Walton. He said Hites asked him to contact the family and to ask them about a number of objects, including a parachute wings medal and a St. Christopher medallion.

Cortellessa contacted Walton’s daughter, Jackie, and son, Lewis Jr., who was a member of the Rhode Island National Guard and has served two tours in Iraq.

“I have information about your dad, his remains have been found,” he said he told them, adding that the remains were now in Maryland awaiting final DNA testing.

“Oh my God, is it really true?” he said Jackie responded.

The remains subsequently proved to be those of Walton and they were buried at a funeral service conducted at the Rhode Island Veterans Cemetery, in Exeter, last May.

Cortellessa, who owns PCRL Realty, a commercial real estate company in Providence, and ran for mayor against Buddy Cianci in 1978 following an altercation over an adult entertainment club he owned, along with an open-air café, said he bought the M37 truck from the Massachusetts National Guard for $1,200 in 2002.

The Dodge M37 was a three-quarter-ton four-wheel-drive truck that saw major service during the Korean War. While based on the WC series Dodge vehicles from WWII, it was updated and production began in 1951. About 115,000 M37s were produced between 1951 and 1968. They were used in Vietnam before being replaced by the M715 series of military trucks in the late 1970s.

Cortellessa said his M37 needed both an engine and body work. He took it to Westminister Auto Body, in Providence, which took it apart and “sandblasted the whole thing.” The engine, gas tank and electrical was worked on at Cima’s Garage, in Cranston, he said.

He keeps it garaged and said it needs constant tinkering, given that it’s 60 years old. And he has dressed it up in some of the insignia of Walton’s Green Beret unit, with the MACV/SOG badge on the side.

In the front window, there is a picture of Walton, along with the story of his service and disappearance, and the recovery of his remains.

“I really admire these guys, their service to the country and the general public,” Cortellessa said. “The more you read up on these fellows in military history books and what they accomplished in Vietnam, you have to tip your hat to them.”

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