A Soldier Talks - Thirteen Months And A Wake Up
By Pete Ritch C 2006
Memories from Peter J. Ritch, USMC 1967- 1970. Viet Nam, 1968-1969 and
a member of the USMCVTA.
In 1967, two days after graduating from college and having just
received my draft notice in the mail, I beat the draft and joined the
Marines. And just as my Marine Recruiter had promised, seven months later I
was headed for "my thirteen months and a wake-up" in Vietnam.
The flight into Da Nang was fairly routine but the C-130 "touch and go"
landing in Dong Ha, was a shock. We rolled out of the cargo door, hit the
tarmac and were told get off the air strip as fast as possible as we were
within rocket range of the DMZ.
As with all Marine 2nd Lieutenants, arriving in country, regardless of
MOS, my first assignment was as an infantry platoon leader. You had to be a
grunt to understand the value that a Marine infantryman provided on a daily
basis. Man, did serving with an infantry platoon make being a tanker look
On my first operation, our platoon was assigned to secure an "arty"
fire support base near the border of Laos. The only day during the entire
operation that it did not rain was the day we were choppered onto the
We'd run foot patrols by day and provide perimeter security by night.
One night during the operation I received a radio message to report to
the LZ, at day break, with all my gear. My mother had passed away. The next
morning I went to the LZ and with three other Marines waited for a chopper.
It was so foggy that we could hardly see each other. I think we sat on the
LZ for about 10 hours, when all of sudden the clouds broke and a chopper
dropped in. We took off just as the clouds socked the mountain back in.
I noticed series of band aids on the ceiling of the chopper. The
Machine Gunner saw me staring and said, "Shrapnel holes".
We landed at Stud and I was taken by another chopper to the Dong Ha
airstrip where I boarded a C-130 to Da Nang; where I boarded a C-5 for
Okinawa, where I showered and shaved. Dressed in "Greens", I left for the
U.S. via Hawaii, San Francisco and New York. Twenty-six hours after I was
choppered off a mountain top near Laos, I was back in the World, on
emergency leave, standing on my front porch in Syracuse, New York. The
Marine Corps efficiency and professionalism was amazing.
A week or so later, I returned to Quang Tri Province, where I was
assigned to Bravo Company, Third Tank Battalion, Third Marine Division.
Bravo Company was headquartered, at a small base camp on Rt. 9 between Quang
Tri and Khe Shan.
As Bravo 3, Third Platoon Tank Commander, I learned that my "new twenty
best friends" had just finished running road security for supplies in
support of the Marine Base at Khe Sahn during the siege. These Marines were
battle tested, salty and that was just what I needed. I learned really quickly
to listen to them. If they survived Khe Sahn, they were not about to let a
green 2nd Lieutenant get them killed.
Lt. Pete Ritch- pistol practice and base camp near DMZ- 1969.
My first operation as a Tanker was a road sweep from Rt. 9 just east of
Stud, southward up a small mountain range, ending at a village of roughly
300 Viet Namese farmers. Next to the village was a dirt airstrip, a Special
Forces base camp, with Montayard trainees and a Marine base with my three
tanks, a platoon of Marine grunts and a "coordinator". The "coordinator" was
dressed in camouflage unlike any I'd seen since I arrived in country. He
appeared to sleep all day and show up around sunset to ask what we had run
into action on the road sweep or day light patrols. Then he would head out
of our base camp and be gone all night. He carried a Thompson sub-machine
gun and several knifes that were not standard issue.
We'd sweep the road first thing in the morning, to the joy of a hundred
or so small kids who would ask for food and wave. After our sweep, the road
would be open for traffic and we'd run patrols into the surrounding area.
Just outside the village was a large banana plantation run by a French
Catholic priest and worked by the villagers. It was beautiful country and we
witnessed some fantastic sunsets. Too bad there was a war going on.
Our patrols into the surrounding area were boring. We never found any
indication of NVA troops or "pajama'd" bad guys moving through the areas
that we patrolled. Our patrols were limited to narrow corridors bordered by
areas patrolled by the ARVN. Every evening I'd meet with the " coordinator",
let him know that we'd found no evidence of the enemy and ask if he could
get us permission to widen our patrol area.
Finally, one night he told us that the ARVN would not be patrolling the
two clicks to our west and we were free to check it out. The next morning we
completed the road sweep and set out with three tanks and a grunt platoon
into our expanded patrol zone. We crossed into the grid previously patrolled
by the ARVN. The Marine grunts dismounted and moved through a tree line and
reported that they spotted smoke across a field, in the next tree line. As
they started across the field, they took some small arms fire and hit the
deck. I directed the tanks through the near tree line, maneuvered between
the infantry platoon and the far tree line and opened fire. We fired around
15 rounds of buck-shot into the tree line. The small arms fire ceased. The
grunts than searched the tree line and found five bodies, dressed in NVA
uniforms and a small cooking fire. We had interrupted an NVA lunch break.
The grunt platoon commander reported our encounter to his CO and we
were ordered to load the bodies in the tank fenders and return to our base
camp. The "coordinator" met us just outside the village and told us to place
the bodies along the road side in front of the village. The next morning at
daybreak, the entire population of the village inspected the bodies. One
old woman broke down screaming and crying. She had found her son.
We never were allowed to patrol outside of our narrow grid again and
the ARVN resumed their patrols to our left and right. We never had another
encounter with the enemy during that operation.
Two days after our firefight, as we swept the road in front of the
village, there were no children along the road asking for food and waving.
Fifty meters down the road we found a land mine. We blew it in place and
continued the sweep. I should have picked up on the fact that there were no
kids on the side of the road. We were taught to notice any changes and do
not get in a routine.
Our next operation was to support a land clearing operation from Con
Tien to Cam Lo.
Flame Tank clearing brush covering tunnel complex- 1968 near Con Tien.
My five tanks, with three Army APC's, a Marine Infantry Platoon and 25
Navy Seabee bulldozers were to clear all the bushes and trees in a 5 mile by
3 mile stretch from Con Tien east. The cleared land would be open to aerial
and ground observation and any NVA movement through that area would be easy
We set up a base camp just out side of the Wash Out near Con Tien and
each day we'd take 6-8 foot high underbrush and tress to dirt level. The
dozers would line up in an overlapping column and make small forest look
like freshly plowed farm land.
One morning, I was on Bravo 33 watching the dozers clear the brush,
when I saw a human hand waving in the freshly cleared strip of dirt. I
halted the next dozer before he reached the hand. The hand was moving, so we
knew we had a live one beneath the recently tilled soil. We started to dig
out the area and eventually got another hand surfaced and determined that
there was a good chance that we'd eliminated the chance of a booby-trap and
Eventually, we dug out two NVA officers from a tunnel complex. We found
hand drawn maps of several local US bases, including one of Bravo Company,
Third Tanks, my company base, complete with security positions including
tank locations, machine gun positions and our communications bunker. We did
not have an interpreter so we radioed for a chopper to come in and pick up
Later on during this operation, as we were performing maintenance on
the dozers and tanks, Staff Sergeant Jewel asked me to join him for an ice
run to Camp Vandergrift. Vandergrift had an ice factory, the only ice
factory that I was aware of in I Core. As we came through the gate, we heard
the sirens go off signaling a rocket attack and troopers yelling "in
coming".. Sergeant Jewel said, "Hang on". We drove up to the ice factory and
there were over fifty vehicles lined up to pick up ice. However, all of the
drivers were in bunkers or culverts due to the rocket attack. Even the ice
factory workers were gone. Jewel accelerated to the front of the line; we
filled our 10 insulated chow containers with ice and bolted. As we exited
Vandergrift, the all clear signal was sounded. Back at our base camp, we
iced down a couple of cases of Black Label beer and shared them with
everyone- grunts, Seabee's and tankers. It was the only time we ever have
cold beer in the bush.
Corporal Riggs, Lt. Pete Ritch, Staff Sgt. Jim Jewel- Vandergrift 1969.
We continued the land clearing operation. The Marine Infantry Platoon
assigned with us was commanded by a 2nd Lieutenant code name Blue and were
known as Blue's Bastards. Needless to say they were a very salty group and I
was glad to have them working with us. Late one afternoon we had finished
clearing several hundred acres of land and escorted the bulldozers back to
the base camp near the Wash Out. Our aerial spotter radioed us and said that
just behind us over the next ridge there were a bunch of NVA "little people"
boogie'n down the trail. He said if we got to the next ridge it would be
like shooting fish in a barrel.
I took two tanks and two APC's and Blues Bastards and headed back
toward the ridge with the spotter plane tracking the bad guys. Before we got
to the ridge there was a gully still thick with underbrush that had a narrow
cut that we'd have to get in single file to move through. As we stopped to
check out the gully, the spotter said that the bad guys were just the other
side of the gully below the next ridgeline. We headed into the gully, single
file, my tank in the lead, followed by the two ACP's with the other tank
bringing up the rear. All four vehicles had grunts riding on the fenders and
decks. Lt. Blue was on riding on the back of my tank. Halfway through the
gully we got ambushed by small arms, 50 caliber and RPG fire. The driver of
the APC behind me was killed and the APC stopped in the middle of the
ambush. I accelerated forward, spun back around and went back into the
ambush zone with our 30 caliber and 50 caliber machine guns firing into the
brush. Blues grunts dismounted and followed the tank back into the ambush
but Blue remained on the tank, radio in hand, directing fire, like John
Wayne. I swung the turret around toward some small arms fire and in the
process whacked Blue of my fender with the 90MM barrel. We fired buck shot
rounds into the brush on both sides of the driverless APC. The attacking
fire ceased and we got driver into the APC. We loaded up the grunts and
drove out of the ambush sight. Blue was on my fender holding his ribs.
We called in a Medi-Vac chopper for the dead and wounded and as I
assisted Lt. Blue on the chopper he said something like "Thanks but my ribs
are killing me." I went back to my tank and looked up at the thick glass
ring that surrounds the cupola. There were five impact fractures in the 6 inch
thick glass where AK-47 rounds had hit the ring. The glass ring was about 5
inches below my exposed torso in the tank commander's seat. I got a little
light headed and threw-up..
Lt. Blue, I found out later was Oliver North and our ambush was written
up in his first book, entitled Under Fire. We correspond about once or twice
a year and he reminds me about batting him into the air like a baseball but
also thanks me for saving the day. We both received Bronze Stars for our
Our next assignment was to run supplies to the most northern most
Marine outpost in I Core. There was a Marine infantry platoon at a small
base at the mouth of the Que Viet river situated on the southern border of
the DMZ. Every morning, we'd run our tanks, loaded with supplies and
replacement troopers up the coast of the South China Sea. One track would be
in the water the other track would be in the hard pack sand near the waters
edge. The sand was pure white and the weather was great. We'd actually stop
and take turns body surfing when the surf was up, with the tankers and
grunts providing security.
On one trip up the coast, a just-arrived in-country 2nd. Lt. named
Tomlinson joined us aboard one the tanks from Bravo 1. He made the run up
the beach with us just fine but on the return trip he insisted on moving
inland just beyond the sand dune line. I told him we'd wait for him on the
shore line. His tank disappeared over the sand dunes. We could see his radio
antenna's moving south, so we shadowed him remaining in the surf and on the
hard pack. Suddenly his antenna's disappeared. He radioed that his tank was
in a marsh and sinking quickly. By the time we reached him, Tomlinson and
his tank crew were standing next to the marsh (quicksand) and the only
visible sign of a U.S. Marine Corp. M-48A3 Tank was the two antennas
sticking out of the mud. Last I heard Tomlinson was still paying off the
Later on that mission we were running up the beach with infantry troops
riding on our fenders. We hit a land mine and the trooper who was sitting
right below me on the fender was knocked out but still seated on the fender.
Half of his left leg was gone. Using my web belt I tied a tourniquet around
his upper leg near his crotch and kept him awake until the MediVac Chopper
arrived. We buttoned up the track and limped back to Dong Ha. I heard later
that he made it, but lost the lower half of his leg.
After a week refurbishing our equipment at Bravo Company, Third Tanks,
Headquarters on Rt. 9, my platoon was assigned to an U. S. Army unit along
the DMZ. Our mission was to assist the Army with the transition of Leather
Neck Square to the ARVN. The base camp was just south of the DMZ and
included my Marine Tank platoon, an ARVN infantry Company and approximately
20 U. S. Army advisors.
After dark we monitored activity in the DMZ and on clear nights we
could see and hear the USS New Jersey lobbing shells into North Viet Nam. I
sounded like small cars passing overhead. During the day, we'd provide
armor support for the ARVN foot patrols along the southern border of the
DMZ. One day we stopped for lunch, yes the ARVN treated this like an 8 am to
5 pm job, and in sky overhead we saw vapor trails going north. When the
vapor trails made a u-turn and headed south again, we would wait for the
rumble of thunder and ground shaking that accompanied an Arc-Light Strike.
After one patrol, as we headed back to our base camp, my two tanks,
Bravo 31 and Bravo 33, were flanked by ARVN infantry troops who walked a lot
faster on the way back to the Army Base Camp than they did on way out to our
My tank, Bravo 33, hit a land mine. We radioed the Army Major in charge
of the operation and told him that I needed the ARVN to set up a security
perimeter until we got the tread repaired. Bravo 31, our other tank also
provided security. As we worked on the tread, the ARVN ground troops kept
moving past us and did not set up a security perimeter. I radioed the Army
Advisor and told him that the ARVN column did not set up security and kept
moving past our disabled tank. He said he'd get the security perimeter set
Suddenly the ARVN column was gone. No security and no more troops
moving past my tanks. I radioed the Army Advisor again and told him of our
situation. He said he'd send them back. They never showed.
Bravo Co. Third Platoon replacing track at Camp Vandergrift- 1968.
We got my tread repaired and started toward the base camp and hit
another land mine. I radioed my status and asked for ground troops and a
tank retriever. Now we had one tank damaged and the second tank providing
security. We figured that we could fix the tread but that we'd be unable to
move the tank at a speed above 10 miles per hour. The Army Advisor responded
that he would send ARVN ground troops.
Bravo 6, our Company Tank Retriever Commander, Staff Sergeant Harold
Reinche, radioed me that he was headed my way, less that a click away but
that the ARVN column troops were all heading in the opposite direction. A
minute or so later he advised me that there were no ARVN ground troops to be
seen and that he was almost to my position. Then he hit a land mine. We
heard the explosion and saw black smoke in the air just over the next rise.
Bravo 6 radioed that they were going to button up the damage and try to get
to us. I told him we were able to start his direction at a very low rate of
speed. Then I heard small arms fire in the background and he said that they
had been ambushed. I sent my other tank to his location.
Sgt. Reinche radioed that his troopers were down and he was still
taking fire. He stated that he had fired all of his weapons, 50 caliber
machine gun, grenade launcher and was now down to his 45 caliber pistol.
Bravo 31 arrived at the ambush site and supplied suppressing fire. My
tank limped to the ambush site as darkness set it. We still had no ground
troops from the ARVN. I directed all three vehicles to stay buttoned up and
shoot anything that moved around us. We had Fat Albert above us all night
dropping flares that kept the surrounding area lit up until the sun came up.
Sgt. Reinche, me and the Tank Commander of Bravo 31, stayed on the radio
with the flare ships and each other throughout the night.
At about the time it got daylight, a Marine infantry platoon from Cam
Lo arrived and set up perimeter security. These guys had humped all night to
get to us. We found 8 dead NVA troops on and around the Tank Retriever. One
of the dead NVA was on the top of the retrieve within a foot of Sergeant
Reinche's hatch. Sgt Reinche's hand was severely burned from grabbing the
barrel of his 50 caliber machine gun when he had to jam it into place so he
could fire more rounds.
We medivac'd two Marines from the tank retriever who were killed
instantly when the ambush commenced. And then we repaired Bravo 6's tread.
We drove out to the main road and Bravo 6 headed south to our Company
headquarters and Bravo 31 and 33 headed to the Army Base near the DMZ.
I found the Army Major who was supposed to provide us with ARVN
security and chewed him out. I think he was so surprised that a Marine 2nd
Lt. would "chew him a new one" that he never said a word. I left his command
bunker and blew lunch. I wished I had blasted on him.
Staff Sergeant Reinche was awarded the Navy Cross for his heroism and
calmness under fire. He was the epitome of a fighting Marine.
We continued the transition of responsibility to the ARVN and after one
of our patrols, I received word to bring my platoon back to Bravo Company
headquarters on Rt. 9 in Quang Tri. When we returned to the Company
headquarters, we were told that several of us were going home and that we
would be the first contingent of the 3rd Marine Division to be returning to
the World. There was going to be a parade when we landed in California, and
the political message was that the ARVN were ready to defend their homeland.
The trip back to the World was a blur- a C-130 to Da Nang. Showers,
haircuts and fresh uniforms. Then on to Okinawa for 10 hours- confined to
the base- not much fun; and then on to El Toro, in California.
We landed to a marching band and about 100 well-wishers and no members
of the press. Whatever political statement we were making about bringing
Marines home wasn't well attended.
We were given 30 days leave and Lt. Hefferan (also a Tanker) and I
booked a flight to New York and headed for the O Club. We took a cab to LAX
and split a case of beer on the ride. We were poured onto the non-stop
American Airlines flight to JFK airport and slept all the way home.
Almost thirteen months to the day, I finally had my wake up.
The Three Servicemen Statue South non-profit organization was created to raise the necessary funds to bring this one-of-kind detail of the original sculpture to Apalachicola, Florida. The Three Soldiers, Detail bronze sculpture, made from part of the original molds, is set on a black granite pedestal and is the centerpiece of Apalachicola's Veterans Memorial Plaza.|
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