Dennis Clarence Fitzgerald
Dennis Clarence Fitzgerald was born January 6th, 1930, in New Underwood, South Dakota. Fitzgerald and his family later moved to Rapid City, South Dakota, where he first became interested in the United States Marines. Dennis Fitzgerald was only a sophomore in High School when the Freedom Train, displaying America’s great documents and guarded by the United States Marines, came to Rapid City. Once he graduated in 1947 from Rapid City Central High School, the only high school in Rapid City at the time, he enlisted into the Marines. Fitzgerald remained in the Marines for three and a half years during which he rose to the rank of Staff Sergeant.
When Fitzgerald returned home, he began his aviation experience. He purchased a J-3 Piper cub, which he flew during his two years as a professional baseball player and during his freshman year of college at Notre Dame. After his freshman year at Notre Dame, Fitzgerald returned to South Dakota and attended Black Hills Teachers College for two years where he played football and looked into pursuing a career as a high school coach. But in the end, he knew that he wanted to be a pilot and left Black Hills Teachers College to attend Naval Air Cadet Training in June, 1957.
Fitzgerald went into Naval Air Cadet Training as a Second Lieutenant and rose to Captain. After Fitzgerald completed his training, he was assigned to VMA-121 Squadron at El Toro, California. It was in California that Fitzgerald met his wife, Tory, and where they began their family of three daughters: Cathleen, Victoria, and Suzanne. In order for Fitzgerald to advance any further in the ranks, he had to become a college graduate, thus Fitzgerald returned to the Black Hills with his wife and three daughters to finish his degree at Black Hills Teachers College.
Fitzgerald served twenty eight years in the Marines, including two, 13-month tours during the Vietnam War. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross on February 2, 1968, for an incredibly dangerous mission that ended in the rescue of a Marine reconnaissance platoon in Vietnam near Dong Ha. There had been previous failed attempts that had been forced to abort due to heavy overcast as well as low fuel supply. Fitzgerald displayed incredible bravery when at an altitude of 400 feet over the sea, he broke through the overcast and headed inland, putting his life in severe danger. He skillfully positioned his aircraft all while under intense enemy fire and conducted repeated “rocket and strafing” runs within seventy-five meters of the Marine positions and managed to execute evasive maneuvers in order to avoid the fragmentation of his aircraft. Because of his sheer determination, skill, and bravery, helicopters were able to enter the zone and extract the reconnaissance team.
From 1977-1978, he commanded the VMA-214 Squadron, also known as the Black Sheep Squadron, a group made up of almost all Marine aviation whose purpose was to aid the men on the ground in Southern Vietnamese territory. This squadron was later made famous by the “Black Sheep Squadron” television show. Fitzgerald flew 261 Combat mission which earned him four Air Medals and the Bronze Star Medal.
It was while Fitzgerald was stationed at the Southern Command Headquarters in Naples, Italy, that it was discovered that he had developed a brain tumor. The tumor progressed rapidly and Fitzgerald only lived eighteen months after the diagnosis. He passed away August, 1981, at the Ft. Meade Veterans Hospital near Sturgis, South Dakota. He is currently buried in the Black Hills National Cemetery outside of Sturgis, South Dakota. Posthumously, in August 2001, Fitzgerald was inducted into the South Dakota Aviation Hall of Fame.
Written by Savannah Davis