OPERATION MEDINA HEROISM
1stLt Jack Ruffer said "Goodbye." to his wife Pat and his three small children in the summer of 1967 and executed his orders to Marine Amphibious Forces Vietnam by way of Okinawa. Within days, he was in Vietnam and, since he was a Captain-selectee, he was assigned as XO of Charlie Company, First Battalion, First Marines. With the death of 1stLt Vic Kemp two weeks later (KIA along with nine of his men), Jack took command of First Platoon--Company XOs were a luxury in ground combat units in Vietnam. Jack's area of operation was the infamous “Island”, west of Hoi An, South Vietnam, in I Corps which was the northern most segment of South Vietnam that stretched from the DMZ in the north to just south of Chu Lai in Quang Nam Province. Ten days later Jack moved his platoon some ten miles to the west to defend an important bridge on the MSR between Da Nang and Chu Lai. Two days later, Jack learned that the platoon commander from Bravo Company, 2ndLt Cliff Robertson, who had replaced Jack and his platoon at the Island, was KIA along with several of his men. Jack said, "I was beginning to feel as though the finger of fate was pointing directly at me”. It would get worse. The lieutenant who would later replace Jack as Platoon Commander of First Platoon would be killed the following year.
October 10, 1967, Charlie Company was designated as the lead element or "spear" of the First Battalion in Operation Medina in Hai Lang National Forest northwest of Hue and several miles inland from Highway One. The operation was to take place in the southwest portion of the Hai Lang National Forest and made up of mountainous terrain covered in triple layer jungle with canopies reaching more than 200 feet above the ground. Trails ran through the objective area but common sense dictated staying off those trails to avoid mines and ambushes. This meant that Charlie Company would instead have to chop a path through the jungle to reach Regimental Objective #1. Charlie Company departed Quang Tri for LZ Dove on 11 October and, after landing, made slow progress in clearing the path through the dense jungle. Their movement was further delayed by a river, swollen by recent rains, which had to be crossed. The crossing took much longer than anticipated, so much so that Charlie Company had to set up a perimeter defense for the night shortly after the crossing was complete. The REMF's were not happy with the amount of time it was taking Charlie Company to reach Regimental Objective #1 and began pressuring the Battalion Commander to expedite Charlie Company’s movement. When the REMF’s insistence on more rapid movement turned into orders, the Battalion Commander directed Charlie Company to stop clearing its own path and proceed on the nearby, well-traveled, trail that ran close to the first Regimental Objective.
Charlie Company’s Commander, Bill Major, had no choice but to obey the order to hit the trail. Jack Ruffer and every other Charlie Company Marine knew the dangers that lurked on the Viet Cong/ NVA trails. Mines, booby traps, sniping and ambushes awaited the Company every step of the way to the objective and the lead platoon Marines were more than apprehensive. Jack Ruffer's First Platoon, by then exhausted from clearing the route through the jungle, moved to take up rear guard. Third Platoon moved up to point and Second Platoon would constitute the main body. Jack told his Company Commander, "We’re asking for it if we get on the trail, Skipper". "We’re following orders, Lieutenant!” responded Captain Major.
The lead platoon proceeded down the well-traveled path as ordered. Soon the point man stopped and said, "I don't like this!" The trail veered left and went upward toward a knoll. The Marines moved quietly forward. Doyle Glass in his book, Lions of Medina writes, "Suddenly, the stillness was shattered by the deafening staccato crack of a machine gun. Small arms fire tore through the column of men. Grenades fell from the sky like rain, sending shards of hot shrapnel through the Marines as they detonated. The predictable, yet lethal, ambush had been sprung. The well-concealed North Vietnamese had been waiting for the Marines along that trail." Ruffer was ordered to move First Platoon into a defensive perimeter behind Third and Second platoons to hold the high ground at the rear of the column. Reinforcements from second platoon rushed forward and filled the jungle ahead adding their firepower to the melee. The Marines then assaulted the knoll further up the trail and took it from the enemy. After some twenty minutes, the NVA broke contact and the gunfire and grenade explosions ceased.
Using C-4 explosives, the Marines cleared the knoll of trees to create an LZ for evacuation of the wounded and removal of the dead. The Company Commander sent urgent requests for emergency medevacs to remove the most seriously wounded. The dead Marines were covered with their ponchos and placed on the far side of the newly created LZ to await removal after the wounded had been evacuated.
The UH-34 helicopters came in and removed the wounded. Just as darkness was setting in, the NVA filtered in under cover of the helicopter noise until close enough to fire on the helicopter in the landing zone. The door gunner returned heavy fire as the H-34 lifted clear of the LZ. Grenades, machine gun fire and Ak-47s filled the air with tracers and detonations again as the NVA attacked and closed in on Charlie Company. The two platoons poured on the firepower to repel the attack. NVA snipers were shot out of trees surrounding the LZ and infiltrators were struck at very close range by fire from M16’s, M60’s and .45 caliber pistols. The NVA were beaten back, but only temporarily. Darkness set in and the enemy maintained its deadly contact with Charlie Company. Grenades rained on the hunkered down Marines while machine gun fire and RPG’s added deafening noise and devastating damage to life, limb and morale of the Company. More and more Marine casualties were inflicted by the NVA until the possibility of being overrun became imminent. At that point, Ruffer and his First Platoon were ordered forward from their position in the rear to help hold the hastily established defensive perimeter.
The NVA continued their attack on Charlie Company. The casualties mounted as the darkness was pierced by green tracers and grenade detonations from the NVA. The withering machinegun fire caused Charlie Company to fear the enemy might wipe out their positions at any moment. The fear of being over-run was in the mind of every Marine. When the situation was desperate and survival seemed not an option, Jack Ruffer decided urgent measures were required. He jumped to his feet near the center of the LZ and at the top of his lungs he began to sing the Marines' Hymn! Quickly, the men in his platoon joined in the Hymn. Then more Marines on the perimeter and those hunkered face down behind trees and in makeshift foxholes began to sing along with Ruffer. Their voices could be heard above the din of battle and other Marines responded by rising up and grabbing weapons from the dead and wounded. The Marines' Hymn proved to be a turning point for the beleaguered, exhausted Marines.
With the Marines fired up, Ruffer shouted, "LET'S GO CHARLIE. LET’S GO GET SOME!" and began charging toward the NVA gunners with his men following closely on his heels. Some of those men said later, "We thought the Lieutenant was crazy but we were going to die anyway so what did we have to lose by charging the enemy?" One Marine said, "We're all going to die. We might as well all go together!" The counterattack by First and Third Platoons surprised the NVA (Charlie Company’s Second Platoon was holding the high ground on the company’s right flank). The enemy appeared to fall back. The volume of fire decreased. Some of the charging men were killed and others were wounded during the 15-minute counterattack. The survivors felt their confidence return. They thought they might make it through the night.
During the lull in fighting, an emergency medevac was called in to pick up the newly wounded. The NVA attacked again with renewed ferocity. Grenades, machine guns and automatic weapons fire impacted throughout the LZ positions. The helicopter came under intense fire and cleared the LZ with as many of the wounded as it could carry. Still, the American casualties mounted. More wounded required medical treatment by the Company’s heroic Corpsmen. More ponchos were collected from the living to cover the dead.
The NVA assaulted again with massive firepower in grenades, machine guns and AK-47s. Soon Ruffer realized another counterattack was necessary. Once again he led a charge down the trail directly into the face of enemy fire. The maneuver again caused the enemy to open up on Charlie Company. And again they fell back to regroup which created a lull in enemy fire. In the counterattack Ruffer was wounded by a Chicom concussion grenade that detonated within two feet of his lower back. He and his brave followers made it safely back to the LZ.
The Company Commander requested reinforcements when the situation indicated the enemy was regaining momentum. The NVA were attacking with greater intensity. The Company was down to less than one hundred men and almost out of ammunition. Ruffer felt a third counterattack was necessary. Again, he gathered all the able-bodied men he could find and led them, along with some walking wounded, on yet another charge down the trail into the enemy’s front lines. Grenades and AK-47 fire filled the night with detonations, tracers and a booming din. Ruffer raised his .45 and fired at a series of enemy forms in the dark felling at least one and when he ran out of ammo, he threw his empty pistol at the next NVA in line and then stabbed him with his K-bar. Tripping over an enemy body, Ruffer fell to the ground. While he was down he was struck by a ricocheting enemy tracer round that hit him in the right mid-abdomen breaking his bottom rib on that side. His life was saved by one of his fire team leaders who used a machete to take down an NVA who had leveled his rifle at the Lieutenant as he lay injured. Dragged to his feet by his men, Ruffer made it back to the LZ with the other survivors. He did not get to rest for very long. Upon learning that Delta Company was nearby but needed to be led into Charlie Company’s perimeter to avoid being mistaken for NVA, Captain Major asked Ruffer if he had anybody he could send. Realizing his men were physically spent (two his men were dead and thirty-four others were already wounded), Ruffer told the Captain "I'll take care of it!" and off he went, alone, armed only with a .45 he’d picked up off the ground. At first creeping and then jumping to his feet and running back down the trail on which Charlie Company had advanced earlier that day, he located Delta Company albeit they were much further away than they’d estimated. He quickly briefed the Delta Company Commander and the platoon commander who was in the lead and then it was back to the fight for Jack Ruffer. Charlie Company poured out its few remaining rounds as Delta Company filtered into the defensive perimeter. Charlie Company would make it through the night after all. Insisting all other wounded be medevaced before he would allow himself to go, Ruffer was finally medevaced to Delta Med late on the afternoon of Friday, the 13th of October.
Charlie Company held their ground that deadly night in the Hai Lang National Forest and they would later learn they were responsible for inflicting 177 KIAs on the NVA. The cost was high. Eleven Charlie Company Marines died on Medina; another seventy-five Charlie Company Marines were wounded. For his extraordinary heroism, 1stLt Jack Ruffer was recommended for the Navy Cross Medal. Unfortunately, that recommendation would be downgraded to the Nation’s third highest combat decoration--the Silver Star Medal. Many in Charlie Company opined that somewhere up the chain of command someone did not want to draw too much attention to the poor command decisions that unnecessarily cost the battalion fifteen dead and at least one hundred wounded.
I extend my thanks to Doyle D. Glass, author of the "Lions of Medina" for information I have used in this story of the heroism of Jack Ruffer U.S. Marine Corps, during 'Operation Medina' in Vietnam in October 1967. Jack was against my placing this story on his pages. I persisted in putting the Medina heroism saga into cyber space so all visitors may learn of the exceptional heroism of Charlie Company in Operation Medina.
Semper Fi, Jack!