Excerpt from Ray: One Man’s Life
We went into A Shau valley at least four times, maybe five. Or into the mountains around the valley. The valley itself is something to talk about. They almost never shut the doors on those choppers. They’re up there, thousands of feet in the air. You’re flying straight for a long time. When they make that left hand swing, you see that valley. It’s a big green lush beautiful valley, lots of high mountains around it. It has a little haze on it, makes it looks eerie but beautiful. One of the prettiest things I’ve ever seen. But also one of the scariest.
We’d already heard about it, but once you’ve gone there, it’s scary. Once you know what’s on the ground, it’s different. When they make that left hand swing into the valley, no matter how brave you are, a cold chill goes thru you. You realize you may be about to die. The valley isn’t that big, and it comes quick. It’s always a combat assault, you never land. It was the most dangerous place on earth at the time.
We hit the valley, come in at the bottom at the foothills. We started out with two platoons and soon as we got there called in the reserve platoon. I remember we knew there’d already been contact and already long range patrols on the ground, some dead, some wounded. We were going after them and trying to get the dinks that were there. Before we landed, some of the wounded got out with medevac. What was left of the long range patrol, three, four was all that survived out of the six. Not from our troop, but they were from our regiment. Our sister companies, part of the same group. Our own long range patrols, just not our company.
I don’t know how those medevacs got them out. Their choppers were wobbling. The Cobras were trying to put in, Cobras above us spitting out machine gun fire trying to support our assault. Our chopper was the first one of the assault, one of twelve. The Cobras backed up a little to let us in.
We knew it was going to be a jump in. Harley was standing out on the skids and opened with his M-60 as we made the assault. That was extra fire they weren’t expecting. They usually try to take out door gunners, but they weren’t expecting somebody out front on the skids. It’s a bumpy ride, coming in to an assault. The copter comes in fast and then slows down fast, and I don’t know how Harley hung on. That last bump is when you have to jump because we’re under fire. Our assault was made without any casualties, at least in our bird.
Me and Shibe tried to stay together, but only half the time could we do that. We were the first team in that landing zone which was just jungle in the foothills. We throwed our backpacks, jumped on them, and then we done what we had to do trying to get some all-around security. There’s only six men on a bird. There was pretty much nobody in charge at that point but we knew what we had to do, which was secure the place and get to higher ground. We knew our lieutenant would be on the next bird.
We seen him get in and didn’t think anybody on his bird got hit, but we were taking fire. He started gathering up his men as they’re coming in. We’re trying to spread out and get further into the jungle. The long range patrol had told them there was still another man there, but the lieutenant was the only one who knew that. He was in communication with a different squad and headquarters. We knew other birds were coming in, and we’re trying to put out suppressant fire to help the other troops coming in. We couldn’t wait for our reserve platoon so at that point we only had 48 men. Four squads.
Fire is getting heavier. We’re starting to realize there’s a lot more NVA there than we realized. We realized they had us trapped because they were in the valley floor waiting for us. The official army report called this an ambush.
We’d landed just a little bit higher. The long range patrol was in a little higher elevation but they were already gone. We’re doing what we’d been trained to do, which was cover for the other choppers landing.
The valley floor has tall grass and holes the size of basketballs where they’re hiding to shoot at us. That’s why the valley is so scary. We’re starting to realize they’re above us and below us. They waited for us to get in there. They let us get our guys in there so we wouldn’t know they were waiting for us. The lieutenant came in, the other birds are down, we’ve got everybody who’s going to be there for at least forty minutes. We had them backed off, enough for everyone to land. It was done well. But the bastards were already above us.
The lieutenant starts leading. I mean, he’s out front. We’re starting to get into our sections and get more organized. Shibe and I were still together. We’re trying to find this other man. We figured we’d do what we’d done many times before, which was disappear in the jungle just like they did. In these hills above, they had tunnels and could fire at us through little damn holes. Pretty dangerous environment. Lots of cover but it was hard to move because the minute you move, you’re a target.
The jungle was wet. We were having a hell of a time trying to move. We had our 65 pound packs. We’d try to grab a plant and it would pull out of the dirt. These vines, dammit vines, have little thorns that catch on your clothes or helmet cover. They let you walk six to fifteen feet and then throw you back on your ass. When it throws you back like that, you’re on a slippery ass hill with nothing to hold onto with all this shit on your back. Once it throws you back, you’re unable to fight for a second or two and you’re completely vulnerable.
And it starts to drizzle rain. We realize time could be a factor. We’ve got to get out of there before we get stuck there. We didn’t have enough of anything to stay very long.
We get as high as we’re supposed to go. The lieutenant is scouting with Gator and somebody else. He’s gone out front. The lieutenant tells us to stop, says ‘When you see me coming back, pull up.’
We’re there maybe ten minutes. We don’t like being still. That’s a target too. We’re trying to hide. We’re still taking fire. We see the lieutenant come back from his scout and he’s on a small hill. We have to get to him, and that means going through a twenty to thirty foot patch of jungle that’s even thicker. So we went through that, and as me and Shibe pop out of that, the lieutenant pops up. It seemed like all of sudden he was there.
We were standing on a narrow ledge. We’d just stopped. He said, okay, we’ve got to go get a man down there. He pointed where that was, saying it was about thirty to fifty yards down there. We could hear things going on. As soon as he said that, Shibe and I stepped off. They said we volunteered, but we just went. Didn’t say a fucking thing.
Two other men and a sergeant went with us, an E6, good guy. This hill we’ve got to go down is really bad—mud, blood, and leaves. There’s massive jungle to our left and no cover to our right, the worst. Where the guy was at, as we started going down the hill, we could hear him then. Screams. Moans. Sometimes low, sometimes not so low. He’d been hit less than an hour before. He was trying to get out and we were coming after him. He was the last man of his LRP (long range patrol) team that was going to get out before he got hit. We’re going down the hill, trying to see if there’s any way to get more cover. There’s only five of us, and we’re completely exposed.
We get to this flat spot, about ten to twelve feet across with a little hill on the right that provided a tiny bit of cover, maybe half a guy could hide behind it. I seen that little knob, and because I was on the right and first, that’s where I went.
I’m three feet from this guy that’s hit. I’m trying to find a place to lay my rifle so I could get ahold of it with both hands in case we started taking fire. This guy is screaming. He was blowed in half. They shot him with a rocket propelled grenade (RPG). That was something they do demoralize the troops. No legs, no ass. I don’t know how he wasn’t already dead. Part of his ass was still there. His shirt was intact above the waist. He’s still alive and we’re trying our goddamnest to do this as quick as we can. The sergeant told me to keep it secure for a second while everyone else tried to do something. We were trying to pick him up…
The devastating account of Ray’s experience in Vietnam is only part of the even more devastating account of his life.
“I’ve had my jaw broke three times, my nose broke five times to the point that the VA had to do the operation they do to boxers. My hand’s been broke and on fire once, enough that the skin was gone clear back to my wrist. I’ve fell off buildings, ladders, and mountains. Somehow I survived all that craziness.”
How he survived the incredible journey of his life is indeed a question for the ages. Polio, combat assault jumps from helicopters in Vietnam, and three children by three different wives didn’t kill him. Neither did the flagrant murder of his father by his father’s latest wife. But the traumas changed him, as they would change any man.
Told in his own words, Ray’s life story rushes from one shocking experience to the next and brings him to the last days as he faces end stage lung disease. Turkey killer, outlaw, entrepreneur, and disabled vet, this boy from the horse farms and tobacco fields of Kentucky relates his adventures with wry wit and breathtaking honesty.
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