Dave Dunlap isn’t a Yankee doodle dandy who was born on the Fourth of July. But he does sing and tap dance while performing as Uncle Sam.
The Vietnam veteran developed his patriotic education show, “The Shaping of Uncle Sam,” in 2014. Since then he has done 90 shows in 14 states. In May he performed in Tallahassee, Florida, and he did three classroom-size shows in Decatur. The show usually runs about 40 minutes.
“This is a great country,” Dunlap said of why he performs for schools, patriotic organizations and events. “And we’ve got a great government if we ensure its greatness. And I also do it because I am so blessed to be alive.”
Dunlap, born in Spokane, Washington, grew up in Long Beach on the Mississippi Gulf Coast where he attended junior high and high school. He was from a military family. His father, a World War II veteran, medically retired from the Navy as a commander after 27 years of service. His older brother did two tours in Vietnam with the Marines. His younger brother graduated from the Naval Academy while he was in Vietnam and went on to serve in the South China Sea.
He sang in the church choir with his mother and he did plays in high school. Dunlap said he wasn’t doing well in school and “needed a sabbatical” so he volunteered for the draft. He entered the Army in 1970 and went to Vietnam as a 22-year-old private first class. He served as a combat infantryman in Charlie Company, a light weapons platoon, in the 1st Cavalry Division based at Bien Hoa. The roles he served included walking the point, the second in line with the compass and machine gunner for two months each and as a squad leader for three months.
“It kicked my butt. I grew up. I learned to love myself,” Dunlap said. “I also learned to take more responsibility for myself. But I also left with some survivor’s guilt. I wrote a lot of stuff off because I survived and some fellow grunts hadn’t.”
He said he was lucky to survive three incidents,
including a major ambush June 15, 1971. His unit was called to retrieve bodies of a sister company which had been ambushed but were also ambushed by North Vietnamese soldiers entrenched in bunkers near the original ambush site. Dunlap’s 30-man platoon lost one killed and 14 wounded. A 100-pound crate kicked out from a Huey on a resupply fly-by left a volleyball-sized-diameter bruise on his back.
In May 1971 he and his fellow Soldiers were flown to Fire Base Mace, about 40 miles from Bien Hoa, for a USO show featuring Miss America contestants. But Dunlap wasn’t impressed by their performance. “It was played off a tape recorder, there were no instruments,” he said. “They ladies seemed to be lip syncing.”
He thought to himself that he could do better. About four months later, during a break from the bush, the “grunts” were watching a movie at the same stage as the USO show until a nuisance mortar attack stopped the movie. “A guy and I got up and did an impromptu vaudeville show and that was a hoot. I’ve been into it ever since,” he said.
Dunlap, who served in Vietnam from December 1970 to January 1972 and left the Army as a sergeant, remembers returning to the states in uniform and lugging two duffel bags at the San Francisco airport. A girl directed by two guys in the corridor rushed up to him, pushed on his chest and called him a “baby killer.” He moved the girl away with one of the duffel bags and continued walking.
“I was proud of what I’d done in Vietnam but I let that incident stifle my pride for years,” Dunlap said.
He went to work for a year and then finished school. He received his bachelor’s in industrial engineering in December 1973 from Mississippi State University and started pursuing a master’s. He received a commission through ROTC and became an Air Force second lieutenant. He went on active duty in December 1974 and retired from the Air Force as a lieutenant colonel in 1994. His last assignment was senior system engineer for the Air Force Electronic Combat Office.
While a lieutenant he competed in Tops in Blue, the Air Force-wide talent contest, as a vocalist and tap-dancing vocalist. “I won two first place and a second place at base level in 1976, ’77 and ’78,” Dunlap said. Having gained rapport with the Air Force Band, he performed accompanied by the Air Force Band at the base’s 1976 bicentennial festival, singing and tap-dancing to “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
After his Air Force career and three years as a student, he worked 12 years as an engineer for Teledyne Brown. He left in 2009 as a senior systems analyst.
At 71 he stays busy with his performances and volunteer work. He serves with the Military Order of the World Wars as director of the Huntsville Youth Leadership Conference, the national chairman of MOWW’s Patriotic Education Committee and as adjutant and treasurer of the Huntsville Chapter. He directed the MOWW Southwest Youth Leadership Conference held June 9-13 at the University of Texas at Dallas. The Somerville resident also belongs to the American Legion, the Military Order of Purple Heart, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, Toastmasters Speaking Easy Club in Decatur, the Military Officers Association of America, and the Vietnam Veterans of America.
His wife of more than 31 years, Sandra Johnson Dunlap, died in 2014. His stepson, Richard Bell, and his younger son, Howard, reside in Somerville. His daughter, Susan Dunlap-Short, lives in Nashville.
Dunlap’s hobbies include karaoke, dancing, jogging, kayaking and canoeing. He started doing karaoke in 2008.
“When we weren’t in the bush, we sang a lot,” he said of his yearlong tour in Vietnam. “Man, that’s freedom. You go to a fire base where at times there’s a reprieve from light and noise discipline, that’s freedom. I mean, man, let your lungs go.”
Editor’s note: This is the 226th in a series of articles about Vietnam veterans as the United States commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.