Marked dead in Viet­nam, a long jour­ney back to life

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY MICHAEL E. RUANE

Ron­ald L. Ridge­way was “killed” in Viet­nam on Feb. 25, 1968. The 18-year-old Marine Corps pri­vate first class fell with a bul­let to the shoul­der dur­ing a sav­age fire­fight with the en­emy out­side Khe Sanh.

Dozens of Marines, from what came to be called “the ghost pa­trol,” per­ished there.

At first, Ridge­way was listed as miss­ing in ac­tion. Back home in Texas, his old school, Sam Hous­ton High, made an an­nounce­ment over the in­ter­com.

But his mother, Mil­dred, had a let­ter from his com­mand­ing of­fi­cer say­ing there was lit­tle hope. And that Au­gust, she re­ceived a “deeply re­gret” tele­gram from the Marines say­ing he was dead.

On Sept. 10, he was buried in a na­tional ceme­tery in St. Louis. A tomb­stone bear­ing his name and the names of eight oth­ers miss­ing from the bat­tle was erected over the grave. His mother went home with a folded Amer­i­can flag.

But as his com­rades and fam­ily mourned, Ron Ridge­way sat in harsh North Viet­namese pris­ons for five years, often in soli­tary con­fine­ment, men­tally at war with his cap­tors and fight­ing for a life that was tech­ni­cally over.

Last month, al­most 50 years af­ter his sup­posed demise, Ridge­way, 68, a re­tired su­per­vi­sor with Vet­er­ans Af­fairs, sat in his home here and re­counted for the first time in de­tail one of the

most re­mark­able sto­ries of the Viet­nam War.

As the United States marks a half-cen­tury since the height of the war in 1967 and ’68, his “back-from-the-dead” saga is that of a young man’s per­se­ver­ance through com­bat, im­pris­on­ment and abuse.

He was 17 when he signed up with the Marines in 1967. He was 18 when he was cap­tured, 19 when his fu­neral was held and 23 when he was re­leased from prison in 1973.

“You have to be will­ing to take it a day at a time,” he said. “You have to set in your mind that you’re go­ing to sur­vive. You have to be­lieve that they are not go­ing to de­feat you, that you’re go­ing to win.”

‘Ev­ery­body’s dead’

About 9:30 on the morn­ing of Feb. 25, Pfc. Ridge­way’s four-man fire team charged an en­emy trench line.

The curv­ing trench seemed empty when they got there. But as Ridge­way and the oth­ers made their way along it, sud­denly an en­emy grenade dropped in.

“We back around the curve,” he re­called. “It blows up.”

“We throw a cou­ple grenades,” he said. “We backed off . . . . Then we re­al­ized the fir­ing [from Marines] be­hind us had al­most died down to noth­ing.”

When they stood up to look around, they saw North Viet­namese sol­diers walk­ing through the un­der­brush to­ward them. “I guess they thought we were all dead,” he said.

“We cut loose on them,” he re­called. “They were easy tar­gets.”

Ridge­way had been part of a pla­toon of about 45 men sent out from the be­sieged Khe Sanh com­bat base, in what was then north­ern South Viet­nam, to find en­emy po­si­tions, and per­haps cap­ture a pris­oner.

The en­emy’s noose around the Marine base had been tight­en­ing, with heavy mor­tar and ar­tillery fire, and the pa­trol was haz­ardous. Six thou­sand Amer­i­cans were sur­rounded by 20,000 to 40,000 North Viet­namese sol­diers.

On that foggy morn­ing, the pa­trol’s leader, 2nd Lt. Don­ald Jac­ques, 20, strayed off course and was drawn into a deadly am­bush, said Jac­ques’s com­pany com­man­der, Capt. Ken­neth W. Pipes.

More than two dozen Marines, in­clud­ing Jac­ques, were killed.

One of the Marines in the trench with Ridge­way, James R. Bruder, 18, of Al­len­town, Pa., was cut down as the en­emy re­turned fire, ac­cord­ing to au­thor Ray Stubbe’s book about Khe Sanh, “Bat­tal­ion of Kings.”

“Stitched him across the chest and killed him,” Ridge­way re­mem­bered.

The fire team leader, Charles G. Geller, 20, of East St. Louis, Ill., took a peek, and a bul­let creased his fore­head, knock­ing him down.

“Ev­ery­body’s dead,” Geller said, ac­cord­ing to Stubbe’s book. “Ev­ery­body be­hind us is dead . . . . What are we go­ing to do?”

They had to re­treat. Geller left first, run­ning back across the field where they had charged, fol­lowed by Ridge­way.

The son of a South­ern Pa­cific rail­road worker, Ridge­way came from a work­ing-class neigh­bor­hood of Hous­ton. He had a younger brother.

His par­ents were di­vorced. He had left high school and joined the Marines be­cause “I wanted to get away,” he re­called.

As he and Geller ran to the rear, they came upon Wil­lie J. Ruff, 20, of Columbia, S.C., who was ly­ing on his back with a bro­ken arm.

“We were in a hurry,” Ridge­way said. “But we stopped. He was wounded.”

As Geller knelt be­side Ruff, a bul­let hit Geller in the face, leav­ing a ter­ri­ble wound. Then Ridge­way was struck by a round that went through his shoul­der. All three men were now down.

“All we could do was lay there and play dead,” he said. “We were in the wide open.”

Ridge­way said he drifted in and out of con­scious­ness. When Geller, who was deliri­ous, got to his knees, the en­emy threw a grenade, killing him.

Ridge­way said the North Viet­namese then be­gan shoot­ing at Marines who had fallen in front of their trenches. “They’re pop­ping the bodies to make sure they’re dead,” he said.

One bul­let hit the dirt near him. A second glanced off his hel­met and struck him the but­tock, he said.

“When that hit, it jarred the body,” he said. “They fig­ured they got me. Left me for dead and kept work­ing their way down past me.”

Ridge­way passed out again. When he woke up, it was dark and Amer­i­can ar­tillery was pound­ing the area.

Ruff said he had been hit again and begged Ridge­way not to leave him. Ridge­way said he wouldn’t. At some point that night, Ruff died.

Ridge­way was awak­ened the fol­low­ing morn­ing by some­one pulling on his arm. He thought at first it was fel­low Marines.

But when he looked up, he re­al­ized it was a young North Viet­namese sol­dier try­ing to pull off his wrist­watch.

Agony and iden­ti­fi­ca­tion

Af­ter the fire­fight, the shat­tered sur­vivors of the pa­trol made it back to the com­bat base, and the dead were left on the bat­tle­field.

A res­cue mis­sion was deemed un­wise by higher-ups, who feared los­ing even more men and de­plet­ing the base’s de­fenses, ac­cord­ing to Pipes, who is now re­tired and lives in Cal­i­for­nia.

In a tele­phone in­ter­view, he said that with binoc­u­lars, he could see Marines’ bodies strewn on the bat­tle­field. “It was worse than agony,” he said. No fur­ther pa­trols out­side the com­bat base were im­me­di­ately per­mit­ted.

“We couldn’t go get them,” he said. “They laid out there for six weeks.”

On March 17, he wrote to Ridge­way’s mother: “I am sorry that I can of­fer no tan­gi­ble ba­sis for hope con­cern­ing Ron­ald’s wel­fare.”

Fi­nally, on April 6, the Marines were able to re­turn to the bat­tle­field, Pipes said.

What was left of the dead was brought back to Khe Sanh’s tem­po­rary morgue, where Pipes and oth­ers went about the grisly task of iden­ti­fy­ing the dead. “There wasn’t much there but bones and shoes and boots . . . [and] dog tags,” he said.

In the end, of the 26 miss­ing and pre­sumed killed in ac­tion on Feb. 25, re­mains of all but nine were pos­i­tively iden­ti­fied, ac­cord­ing to Pipes and Stubbe.

The unas­so­ci­ated body parts were sent home and placed in two cas­kets that would be buried be­neath a large tomb­stone bear­ing the nine names of those un­ac­counted for, Stubbe said.

The day of the fu­neral at the Jef­fer­son Bar­racks Na­tional Ceme­tery was sunny and cool. Ridge­way’s mother at­tended, and there were flags and solemn honors. A news­pa­per pho­tog­ra­pher took pic­tures.

Far away, in North Viet­nam, the rainy sea­son was on, and Ridge­way was in his sev­enth month as a POW.

The work of sur­viv­ing

As he sat alone in his win­dow­less cell be­side a wooden bed and the bucket he used for waste, Ridge­way went about cre­at­ing a “make-be­lieve” life.

There was no one to talk to, and he was only al­lowed out once a day to empty the bucket.

So he imag­ined that he was some­where else, that he owned a pickup truck, that he had a wife and chil­dren, that he would go fish­ing.

It was a men­tal ex­er­cise, he said, and he found that spend­ing three days in his make-be­lieve world would take up a whole day in soli­tary.

Ridge­way said that by then, his cap­tors con­sid­ered him a “diehard re­ac­tionary” and all Marines “an­i­mals.”

He hadn’t co­op­er­ated with his guards. He had lied to in­ter­roga­tors, pre­tended he was green kid who had never fired his ri­fle and gave them bo­gus mil­i­tary in­for­ma­tion.

The star­tled North Viet­namese sol­dier had locked and loaded his ri­fle when he re­al­ized Ridge­way was alive that morn­ing.

Ridge­way ex­pected to be killed. “You didn’t hear about pris­on­ers be­ing taken,” he said. But he was ban­daged, fed and marched away, through Laos and into North Viet­nam.

He spent time in sev­eral jun­gle camps, held in wooden leg stocks, and he even­tu­ally wound up in en­emy pris­ons.

He got lice, malaria and dysen­tery and lost 50 pounds. He wore pink-and-gray-striped POW pa­ja­mas and rub­ber san­dals, all of which he brought home with him when he was freed.

He was beaten with bam­boo canes and tied up dur­ing in­ter­ro­ga­tions.

One in­ter­roga­tor the Amer­i­cans named “Cheese” — be­cause he seemed to be the big cheese — was es­pe­cially cruel.

He spoke English and sat up on a high chair as he ques­tioned POWs tied on the floor. When he nod­ded his head, a guard would strike the pris­oner with the bam­boo cane.

He had a face like a rat, Ridge­way re­called, and was a “mean . . . sadis­ti­cal son of a b----.”

Ridge­way said he didn’t dwell on the no­tion that peo­ple back home might think he was dead. They would be fine. His job was to sur­vive.

In Jan­uary 1973, he was in North Viet­nam’s no­to­ri­ous Hanoi Hil­ton prison when his cap­tors abruptly an­nounced that the POWs were to be freed as part of a peace agree­ment be­fore the U.S. with­drawal from Viet­nam.

When the list of POWs be­ing re­leased be­came pub­lic, Ridge­way’s name was on it.

Back in Hous­ton, his mother banged on a neigh­bor’s door and said, “Ron­nie’s alive!”

Mem­ory etched in stone

Ron Ridge­way was re­leased on March 16, 1973. He came home, got mar­ried and went to col­lege.

“I came back in ba­si­cally one piece,” he said. “I came back able to live my life . . . . We went over with a job to do. We did it to the best of our abil­ity. We were lucky enough to come back.”

Sev­eral months af­ter his re­turn, he and his wife, Marie, went to Jef­fer­son Bar­racks to see his tomb­stone, which was later re­placed.

“It brought back mem­o­ries,” he said. “The loss of life of those that I knew. It was a solemn ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Carved in the sur­face were the words “Am­bushed Pa­trol Died in Viet­nam Feb. 25, 1968.”

Eight names from the top: Ron­ald L. Ridge­way.

MATTHEW BUSCH FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Re­tired Marine Ron­ald L. Ridge­way, pho­tographed at his Texas home, was 18 years old in 1968 when his pa­trol was at­tacked in Viet­nam. He was cap­tured and held pris­oner for five years be­fore be­ing re­leased, a time dur­ing which he was be­lieved dead and was given a tomb­stone.

MATTHEW BUSCH FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Af­ter his re­turn from Viet­nam — and his num­ber­ing among the dead — Ridge­way set­tled back into the United States, go­ing to col­lege and mar­ry­ing his now-wife, Marie, above. He worked for decades with Vet­er­ans Af­fairs. The tomb­stone that bore his name was re­placed.

FAM­ILY PHOTO

A fam­ily photo shows Ron­ald L. Ridge­way ad­dress­ing the pub­lic in 1973, shortly af­ter his re­lease from POW camps in Viet­nam.

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