Honoring the warriors

Posted: March 27, 2007
1:00 a.m. Eastern

By Richard Botkin

For every citizen old enough to remember "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" or "The Beverly Hillbillies" before they were consigned to reruns, there was a "Vietnam experience." For most Americans though, their Vietnam experience did not involve combat or even serving in the military. It involved things separate from the war itself, a Sixties phenomenon; the cultural changes, the music, the sexual revolution, the denigration of respect for traditional forms of authority and other disparate issues.

Unlike the portrayal as idyllic and egalitarian the nature of World War II when fully 12 million Americans from a population of 140 million wore the uniforms of the various military branches, and with so much of the civilian manufacturing effort directly involved in building all manner of things to make the world safe for democracy, by the mid-1960s that level of commitment and sacrifice was somehow not deemed necessary to prosecute the war the nation’s leaders had chosen to fight.

Where the impact of the Great Depression had shaped the national character and temperament of those young people who would be charged with actually fighting World War II, the new-found affluence and relative plenty in America in the postwar period is given as reason for the notion of general sacrifice being a foreign concept for so many of the follow-on generation of young people who might have been tapped to fight the next war.

By early 1965, when the first American Marines landed in northern South Vietnam, out of about 200 million citizens, less than one percent were then serving to meet and keep the nation's Cold War obligations in Europe, Asia and places in between. When in World War II few people would have even considered avoiding their manly obligations as citizens, and stories of boys lying about their ages to join the military or quitting school or graduating early in order that they might serve were quite common, after the war in Vietnam was well underway there were as many or more stories of young men scheming to avoid the very same service and sacrifices their fathers and uncles and cousins had willingly made not 25 years earlier.

Where the burden of service and sacrifice in World War II was seen as eagerly shared by a wide swath of the population, the burden for the actual fighting in Vietnam was born by an extremely small number of young men and their families who sweated out their year-long tours. For most Americans the Vietnam War was a vicarious, evening news experience, a nuisance without real cost to most citizens.

Along with the war being a nuisance, it was also a war without publicly known or acclaimed heroes. There were no Vietnam War warrior-type hero equivalents to Audie Murphy or Jimmy Doolittle. There were no celebrated combat leaders like George Patton or William "Bull" Halsey. Thanks to an increasingly hostile press the American public would more easily identify those associated with failed leadership and corrupted honor like William Calley of My Lai infamy. Even though there was no Iwo Jima or Normandy or Guadalcanal, the fighting was just as tough, and every time American soldiers and Marines went to the field they bested their foe. There was never a shortage of exceptional leadership and exceptional sacrifice.

Ripley’s Raiders

Without public record or acclaim, the celebration and commemoration of hard-fought battles from the Vietnam War are left primarily to survivors who recall what took place so many years ago. While there are few published accounts except for official unit histories, March 2, 1967, was recorded as a day in Vietnam when one company of U.S. Marines – Lima Company 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment – engaged the greater part of a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regiment in the remote regions of northern I Corps, near the old Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). That particular day in that particular battle 12 Lima Company Marines were killed in action. Officially, 28 more were wounded in action and required actual evacuation. Nearly every other man who was in the fight, including Lima's commanding officer, was hit in that 24-hour period. The NVA regiment they engaged suffered far, far higher casualties.

These Marines, the survivors of the original Lima Company from that time period, known also as "Ripley's Raiders," came together in early March 2007 for joyful and tearful fellowship; to celebrate life with their remaining comrades, to offer respect to their forever young brothers who paid the ultimate price during their tours but especially in the series of battles fought 40 years ago this month, and to honor the man who led them into and out of the hell they collectively endured.

Few people outside of the Marine Corps and only the most serious, erudite students of Vietnam battle history recognize the name John Ripley. Best known for his exploits during a subsequent combat tour on Easter Sunday, April 2, 1972, when he personally emplaced, under enemy fire, 500 pounds of explosives into the belly of the Dong Ha Bridge in a four-hour period, and then personally blew up said bridge, his extreme heroism and perseverance in literally impossible circumstances resulted in his being awarded the Navy Cross, the nation’s second highest award for combat valor. (There are many who believe that the heroism he displayed easily rose to the Medal of Honor level. That Ripley was not so recognized remains a mystery to this day.) The strategic significance of the Dong Ha Bridge was such that had Ripley not blown the bridge and denied the massive NVA armor and infantry combined-arms force entrée into northern I Corps on Highway One at that time, the momentum of the communist attacks in the early stages of what the world would come to know as the Easter Offensive might well have carried them to ultimate victory in 1972 instead of 1975.

Inside the Marine Corps, and also at the United States Naval Academy where he graduated in 1962, John Ripley enjoys nears iconic status, again mostly, but not entirely, for having blown the Dong Ha Bridge that Sunday afternoon 35 Easters ago. Surely, if the Marine Corps came up with a "Warrior Hall of Fame" Ripley would be in it, and on the first team.

To the men of Lima Company, their skipper's actions in 1972 came as no surprise. During the 11-month period Ripley had command of Lima Company (about twice the average length of time a captain was given to command a rifle company in Vietnam in combat), they remained in the field for virtually the entire time and had significant enemy contact on a near daily basis. During the 11-month period that Ripley had command of Lima Company they experienced a greater than 300 percent casualty rate – meaning for the most part that everyone, everyone, every single Marine was "hit" and if he was not killed or too seriously wounded he was recycled back to the field. Sometimes several times. Ripley himself was wounded three times during that period and was forced to take a Purple Heart for one of those wounds. Common among nearly all of his men was the refusal to leave the field when wounded, unless the wound was completely debilitating, due to the needs of the company and loyalty to brother Marines. No one has a complete, accurate count, but the number of NVA soldiers dispatched by Lima Company during that same 11-month period was significant.

As impressive as John Ripley is, the Marines he led "who never disappointed" him are equally awe inspiring. To the uninitiated, to those only exposed to the old Hollywood stereotypes and bromides regarding the men who served in Vietnam, this reunion would have certainly caused them to reconsider their views. In knowing what these men went through as human beings and as Marines in the grit-with-horror fighting they survived all throughout 1967 and into 1968 and the famous Tet Offensive, few would challenge the supposition that they had indeed shouldered a disproportionate share of their generational responsibilities. The war stories these men could tell would fill volumes.

Of the more astonishing, completely atypical war stories and odd anecdotes, perhaps the most obvious strange one from Ripley’s Raiders is that belonging to Dave "Tiger Dave" Schwirian of Springdale, Ark. An infantryman with Lima Company's Third Platoon, Dave had been wounded by shrapnel on March 4, but like so many of his Lima Company mates, he remained with his unit. It was during the evening of April 15, that his squad had been sent out to establish an ambush position on some remote jungle trail when, as they stealthily waited for the NVA to show, he was attacked and very nearly killed by a real, live tiger; thus the name "Tiger Dave." At every reunion unbelieving spouses and children of other Lima Company Marines who are there for the first time track him down to see if the stories they have heard over the years are true. Dave always obligingly rolls up his sleeve to display the proof and, like Jesus appearing before Thomas after the Resurrection, turn doubters into believers.

Few people, even Marines, are aware that during the Vietnam War the Corps drafted about 43,000 young men. Conscripted at the ripe old age of 20, Chuck Goggin, now of Alexandria, Va., was making a go of life as a professional baseball player. When he had received his Uncle Sam’s invitation, Chuck had already played two seasons of Single A ball for the Dodgers organization; a year with the Salisbury Dodgers of the West Carolina League and a year with the St Petersburg Saints of the Florida State League.

Assigned first as an infantryman, he transitioned over to radio operator and was serving as such for Lima Company’s First Platoon on March 2 when the unit engaged the NVA regiment. In the buzz saw of action that occurred once the fight was on, First Platoon’s platoon commander, platoon sergeant and first squad leader were all killed or seriously wounded within the battle's opening moments. Without hesitation Capt. Ripley appointed Goggin to serve as platoon commander. With less than one year's service under his belt, he was now in a job that was, except for the exigencies of combat, one exclusively assigned to commissioned officers. Goggin would remain in the job for several months as Ripley was pleased with his performance. Even with the pick of new replacement lieutenants for a period of time, he kept the young man who had shown, on every occasion, that he could lead men and get results in combat.

Like Capt. Ripley, Tiger Dave, and nearly all of the others, Goggin was wounded a number of times but awarded only one Purple Heart. Upon completion of his Marine Corps time, he returned to baseball. And yes, he did finally make it to the majors in 1972. His first game as a Pittsburgh Pirate happened to be the game in which Roberto Clemente made his 3,000th hit. Chuck Goggin may well be the only combat decorated Marine from Vietnam to have played major league baseball as he was awarded the Bronze Star with a combat "V."

Skip Covert, of Moreno Valley, Calif., was a mortar man in Lima Company’s Weapons Platoon. As one of Walt Disney's original Mouseketeers – although Skip was then and is now quick to point out that he was not a part of the "inner sanctum" but rather the larger group of kids behind the ones everyone remembers – he was continually chided, and of course peppered with the obvious question red-blooded, cultured, high-testosterone Marines needed to have answered: "What about Annette Funicello?" To this day he still gets asked the same question.

As a mortar man Skip was part of Capt. Ripley’s "hip-pocket artillery" that was often the difference between victory and defeat, and saving the lives of brother Marines in Lima's infantry platoons. Like the others, Skip was wounded twice and once contracted malaria. He came back to Lima Company every time.

And then there were the rest of Ripley's Raiders, nearly 60 of them (61 of them had actually confirmed for the reunion but weather and a few personal emergencies trimmed the final number back to the high fifties.); an almost unheard of percentage given that 40 years ago Lima Company went to the field in early March with just slightly more than 200 Marines and navy corpsmen.

Fifty-some odd, nearly 60 men, each and every one of them with personal, inimitable stories, from both during and after the war, as unique and compelling as Tiger Dave's and Chuck Goggin's and Skip Covert's. Common to them all are the varying degrees of struggle endured, coped with or overcome from Vietnam in addition to whatever other cards life has dealt them. They are all individuals, and yet the common thread of service and sacrifice unites them. Forever. It is clearly a Marine thing.

Nearly as impressive as their stories of combat always against superior numbers of NVA, are the stories of accomplishments once they made it home. Like their fathers before them, the men of Lima Company for the most part, were not military professionals. In the group at the reunion only John Ripley and one other man actually retired from careers of Marine Corps service. The rest were single enlistment Marines and a few draftees who, when their time was up, came home and took up life. It was immediately apparent that this same group, 40 years hence, is disproportionately accomplished, and more importantly, disproportionately content. They are content in ways that only men who have survived the kinds of experiences they were forced to share can be content. Their bond and friendship as Marines and as Ripley's Raiders transcends everything. It is unique and has a depth and quality peculiar only to warriors.

It was particularly reassuring to meet folks like Mike and Pat Puckett of Commerce, Mich. Along with Skip Covert, Mike was a mortar man in Lima's Weapons Platoon. With the hulking, still formidable presence of a college or professional football player, he seemed ideally matched by the sweetness of his delightful, petite and perky wife of 38 years. Looking and acting more like newlyweds, they were not the longest married couple in attendance. Even John Ripley's nearly 43 years of matrimony was bested by Francis and Anne McGowin of Andalusia, Alabama, who also still appeared to be going strong after 48 years.

In the group of Raiders were quite a number of business owners, members of law enforcement organizations, attorneys, men with distinguished careers in manufacturing and sales, a college professor, a commercial fisherman, a respiratory therapist, one fellow who had just retired as an executive vice president with a Fortune 500 company, and on and on.

For this group of long-ago ordinary boys who came together to become uncommon young men who did uncommon things during uncommon times, there is one extra layer of brotherhood that unites them and makes that brotherhood near unique; the deep, abiding respect they, to a man, have for John Ripley, and the undiminished pride they have in being his Raiders.

It was instructive to listen in on the differing perspectives and impressions each of the Lima Company Marines had of their skipper. Stories of things he did, big and small, ordinary and extraordinary, that made a difference then in combat and very often later in life as examples to follow, were heartfelt and sincere.

Along with observations that did not surprise, and which almost sounded like a more adult version of the 12 points of the Boy Scout Law, one man described his skipper as "supremely confident without being brash." That confidence was contagious and several men chimed in that Capt. Ripley’s resoluteness and old-fashioned bravery sustained them all. Not a small number of his men came up, in different, separate conversations, and credited their survival in Vietnam specifically to his having led them. Not stopping there, those same men often said that because of Capt. Ripley they were better husbands, fathers, and did better in their civilian careers by having been unintentionally exposed to his brand of leadership.

The most unconventional, curious observation shared on this subject by one of Capt. Ripley’s men, started out as the shortest. "Decent. Capt. Ripley was simply just a decent man."

"Please explain," I asked.

It seems that late one afternoon; out in the middle of nowhere in particular in northern I Corps where the world was populated with lots of bad guys, as Lima Company was digging in for the evening, a number of pigs began foraging in an area nearby where the Leathernecks had recently buried their garbage. Concerned that the animals' activities might alert the NVA to their presence, a group of Lima's Marines wanted to kill the pigs. The men of the mortar section were particularly anxious to plop three or four rounds out to eliminate the risk a few hundred meters distant. To everyone the idea made sense. Everyone except Capt. Ripley. "No. Those pigs probably belong to some local farmer. If we kill them, some family may go hungry. Let's find another way to deal with them." This from a man who never backed Lima Company down whenever there were NVA units, of any strength, anywhere nearby.

Standing with a large group of Ripley's men close around, one of them said to me, reverentially, as if speaking for all of them – and he was because I could look and see heads nod in agreement as he shared his thoughts – "If Capt. Ripley had said to us 'Men, saddle up, we're moving out. The next objective is a tough one. They only think a few of us will actually survive. Let's go.' We all simply would have saddled up and followed him wherever that was." The odd thing, the ironic thing about that remark was that these were the observations of men who had seen and experienced, repeatedly, every horror there was in Vietnam; serious fighting men, not idealistic, naïve kids. What struck me was they had already done -- many, many times, sometimes for periods of 30 days straight in the terrible months of 1967 –what they said they would do if asked.

I think what they meant in agreeing was, if called, these no-longer young men who, down to the fibers of their individual chromosomes have "USMC" stamped on each and every one of them, and who still carry themselves, on slightly larger frames, with the same comportment they did when they left boot camp now more than four decades ago, would do it all again, as long as their skipper, Capt. Ripley, would lead them.

Capt. John Ripley, planting explosives while hanging from a bridge