Service Reflections: Vietnam vet recalls commander’s escape from captivity
Service Reflections: Vietnam vet recalls commander’s escape from captivity
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MSgt Ronald Hays
Status: U.S. Marine Corps Retired
Service Years: 1965-1986
Please describe who or what influenced your decision to join the Marine Corps.
My father served in the Marine Corps during World War II. He served in the Pacific on the staff of FMF Pac, first at Pearl Harbor and later at Noumea, New Caledonia. He used to tell me stories about working on the operational orders for the invasion of Iwo Jima, a plan developed by Admirals Halsey and Nimitz and Marine Corps General Holland M. (Howling Mad) Smith. Hearing these stories, including many from his boot camp and infantry training experiences, I felt challenged by the idea that not everyone had what it takes to become a Marine.
President John F. Kennedy told the nation that all young men of draft age had a 6-year obligation to serve their country, either in the military or civil service. Near the end of my senior year in 1965 in Odessa, Texas, my best friend, Bobby Eaton, enlisted in the 90-day delay program. The big push for troops in Vietnam was to come later in the year. Many of my classmates decided to serve that year and later, out of a sense of patriotism, not really aware of what was developing in the Vietnam War. We all felt the impact of the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the Cuban missile crisis, and the assassination of our President. We all wanted to answer the call for the defeat of Communism throughout the World and to defend our homeland and freedom around the World. Bobby Eaton became the first of 16 fellow classmates to make the ultimate sacrifice in Vietnam. Two young men from Odessa made that same sacrifice and received the Medal of Honor: Alfred Mac Wilson, USMC from Odessa High School, and Marvin Rex Young, US Army, from my school, Permian High School.
Whether you were in the service for several years or as a career, please describe the direction or path you took. What was your reason for leaving?
I was trained at the Naval Air Station Memphis as an Aviation Electronics Technician, Intermediate Maintenance Level. My first squadron was at Cherry Point, NC. From there, I received orders to a Staging Battalion at Camp Pendleton, CA, for further transfer to Vietnam. While there, I was one of 10% of all Marines to be selected to go to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, CA, for a 3-month short course in Vietnamese. I was ultimately assigned to the MAG-12 Civic Action Team in Chu Lai.
I was then ordered to El Toro, CA, and then back to Memphis for advanced avionics training. Upon completing that, I was selected to become an instructor for Avionics Basic and Advanced Courses. I returned overseas in 1973 and joined MAG-15 at MCAS Rose Garden, Nam Phong, Thailand, the Vietnam War's last combat group. When President Nixon ordered the bombing halt and return of all combat forces to the States, I went with the VMFA-232 Red Devils to Cubi Point in the Philippines for 3 months and then returned to MCAS Iwakuni, Japan.
When I returned to the States, I was assigned as an Avionics Instructor at MCAS(H) Tustin, CA. From there, I was selected to be the Avionics Monitor at HQMC Washington, DC. In 1981, I was ordered to the newly formed Enlisted Aviation Training Management Unit at NAS Memphis, TN. I retired there as an MSgt in 19866.
If you participated in any military operations, including combat, humanitarian, and peacekeeping operations, please describe those which made a lasting impact on you and, if life-changing, in what way?
On August 20th, 1968, when my Officer in Charge of the MAG-12 Civic Action Team, Major Rich Risner, was down to 2 weeks from rotating to the States, we all received a big wake-up call. A couple of weeks before that date, we made one of our usual visits to the Americal Division in Chu Lai to update intelligence. They would estimate what villages were considered "hot" and which ones were considered pacified within our area of responsibility.
One remaining area, Khoung Quang Village, about 10 clicks northwest from the base, was considered friendly by day and hostile at night. We made remarkable progress (noted by the Army and Marine Corps) to convert some of these hot spots from either known enemy-held or enemy-occupied at night to friendly villages. The result was evidenced by reduced hostile activity in these areas, including using them as launching sites for rockets or mortars. I don't know what the enemy knew of our defenses in Chu Lai, but at the time, we were protected on the outside by no more than an Army rifle company and an assortment of Vietnamese Popular Forces. It would have been difficult to attack our base with a sizable force, as they would be detected long before they could attack.
So the order of the day for our enemy was to launch rockets and mortars without being detected and occasionally to try suicide assaults against our fortifications. We did have some sapper assaults where a handful would penetrate our defenses and try to plant their charges amongst our aircraft, but these rarely succeeded. The major objective was to destroy our aircraft and cause as much mayhem as possible to demoralize the troops. Our mission was to go out to the hostile areas and connect with the village people and prevent these attacks. It was a multi-pronged effort that involved the Combined Action Platoons (CAP), our PSYOPS personnel, and the medical services. Once we or the CAP unit made contact with the village chief or elders, we tried to explain that our mission was to help them in many ways.
One way was to unite them with their government. Before US involvement in the war, there was little or no television, radio, or newspaper available. Any hamlet or village not close to a major city had no idea of what was going on in the area or the entire country. We would bring in the PSYOPS people who would show Vietnamese government films, educating them on the conflict and what was at stake. CAP units would move in and help the village set up defenses against infiltrating VC or NVA. Village members were given ID cards, and those suspected of being VC were investigated. Navy Corpsmen and Army Medics would set up clinics for the sick, passing out medicine and health and sanitation items. Dental corpsmen worked with the children and adults on dental hygiene. Many of the adults had rotting or rotten teeth, chewing beetle nut to ease the pain. We passed out toothbrushes, toothpaste, and fluoride treatments.
We would help them pour cement bases around open water wells where they bathed and washed clothes and then drank out of the same wells with the same dirty water seeping back into the ground. We showed them how to purify the water to prevent sickness and disease. We gave them materials through our self-help program to help build a school or additional classrooms or a market or temple. We tried to make suggestions on ways to improve their living and working conditions. Simultaneously, the VC would try to come in at night and murder the village chief, his wife, and his family to intimidate the village and force them to provide food and shelter. It was a slow and dangerous process for all involved. We were trying to win the hearts and minds of the people while the enemy was trying to instill fear and subservience through murder and torture.
The next day after getting all the information on the location of Khouang Quang Village from the Americal Division, the team set out to make contact with the village chief. Six or seven of us went in two vehicles out the main gate at the base, then headed north along the main service road (MSR), also known as Highway One, through the village of An Tan across the bridge and just past the village of Ky Lien. The Army Advisory Unit at Ly Tin District headquarters was about one or two clicks further north and visible from where we parked our vehicles on the west side of the MSR by the railroad tracks. There were maybe a dozen bamboo huts around this area filled with local inhabitants. They always waved at us whenever we went by. From the point where we parked our vehicles, we had to hike towards the west for about 2 or 3 kilometers because of the rice paddies and lack of road.
We made our entrance to the village, causing some excitement amongst the children as we were told later we were the first Americans to visit. We were all armed as always, but it was low key as we always did on one of these missions. I carried my .45 pistol, as did Major Risner and the interpreter SSgt Cong. GySgt Dick Petterson had his Thompson .45 sub-machine gun, and the rest carried M-14 rifles. None of us were wearing combat helmets or flak jackets, just our soft covers, and we were not carrying any special hardware like grenades or automatic weapons. We met with the village chief and elders and drank hot tea while the Major conversed with our hosts through our interpreter SSgt Cong. We spent a good couple of hours with an amiable exchange of pleasantries and about what we could do to help the village. We then set a date about 10 days away when we would return with the first gesture of help consisting of school supplies. We would bring paper, pencils, notebooks, crayons and the like. They were very appreciative, and all went well as we bade them goodbye in the traditional manner of hands clasped while bowing.
With the date set for the 20th of August, we forgot about the village until the day before when we accumulated all the supplies we were going to take. We had done this type of mission many times and were looking forward to meeting with them again. GySgt Dick Petterson had just returned from R & R in Hawaii and had decided to stay behind to unpack his gear. The morning we were to leave, the VMA(AW)-533 Civic Action Team Officer, Captain Greenwold, called and asked what we had planned this day, as they had never been able to go out with us on a mission. Major Risner invited them to come along. It was a good idea as Captain Greenwold was slated to replace Major Risner when he went home. Five of us were scheduled to go on this mission, but we now had eight extra members from 533. We told them not to bring helmets or flak jackets, just their normal weapons they were issued. We traveled in 4 or 5 vehicles back to the same area where we had parked our vehicles previously before hiking west to the village. We left the vehicles with the school supplies under our arms, and nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
Our group's main body headed towards the village with Cpl Doug McKillips and myself bringing up the rear. We had hiked almost a kilometer up and down a couple of small hills when I heard Major Risner conversing with Captain Greenwold about something. They stopped, and the Major headed back towards me and told Doug and me that he had forgotten that he was supposed to meet Army Major Nourse from the Ly Tin Advisory Team at the MSR where we parked our vehicles. I asked him if he wanted Cpl McKillips or me to go with him. He said it wasn't necessary that he would wait by his jeep until Major Nourse showed up. He didn't want us to be late for our meeting and said that he and Major Nourse would join us within a few minutes, and he left, disappearing over the next hill. I wasn't too concerned as a lot of traffic moved up and down the MSR, and he would be in sight of Ly Tin District. As the group started to move on, I hailed Captain Greenwold and told him that I thought Doug and I should remain behind a few minutes until the two Majors returned. He agreed, and the rest of the Group continued out of sight.
Doug and I engaged in some small talk for the next 15 minutes or so. I started to get concerned when, after another 15 minutes went by, and no one showed up. I told Doug to wait where we were at that I was going to check on the two Majors. It only took me about 10 minutes to get back to the MSR, where I found all of our vehicles still parked, but no Major Risner or Major Nourse and no Army vehicle. I asked a couple of villagers, both older men if they had seen an American Major.
Me: "Thieuta Nguoi, My o'dau?" (Where did the American Major go?)
Both shook their heads.
"Khong biet," (I don't know.)
I then saw a young girl whom I approached and found that she spoke passable English. She told me she thought she had seen the Major hitchhiking back towards the base. Now I was getting worried. The Major wouldn't hitchhike when he had a perfectly good jeep to drive. And where was Major Nourse? I immediately got in my vehicle and drove less than a click up the road to Ly Tin and the Army advisory unit. To my dismay, I found Major Nourse. I told him what had happened, and he told me he had forgotten about meeting Major Risner.
Now I was more worried. I told him I was going back to get the main group, and he told me he and his unit would meet us at our vehicles. I drove back to the other vehicles, jumped out, and ran as fast as I could back to Doug, who I knew had to be worried himself. Being the good Marine that he was, he had not gone anywhere until I returned. I quickly told him what I had discovered and told him to quickly find the main group and meet me back at our vehicles. I then ran all the way back to the MSR, and there I saw Major Nourse and about a dozen men, half of which were Vietnamese Popular Forces, fanned out canvassing all of the huts in the area.
The PFs reported back that either the villagers had not seen the Major or had related different stories about seeing him leave with another American soldier or hitchhiking back to base. Now I was scared. Not for me but for Major Risner. Our main group finally made it back to me, running all the way. It seemed like an hour but was probably half that. Again Major Nourse and I related all we knew. SSgt Cong, our ARVN Marine Interpreter, looked devastated. Captain Greenwold made the decision that we would return to base, inform our command, and then return for a full-fledged search. Major Nourse said that he would leave some of his men where we were at now and return to Ly Tin, o gather all the Vietnamese forces he had and then meet us again at the same spot.
As we returned through the main gate, I briefed the Americal Division MP on the duty of our situation so they could pass the word to have everyone on the lookout for Major Risner. It seemed like forever before we arrived at our office. While Captain Greenwold was making the appropriate calls, we all geared up from the group guard with M-16s, fragmentary and smoke grenades, and extra bandoliers of ammunition. This time we had combat helmets, flak jackets, bayonets, etc. and Dick Petterson joined us. We quickly drove back to our rendezvous point and found that the Popular Forces had already begun their search and rescue mission heading west towards the mountains.
Armed to the teeth, we joined up with the other members of the Army Advisory Unit and began our own search of the area around us, sweeping in a clockwise arc up to a kilometer away. The villagers who had previously seen little or no military presence this close to their huts ignored us. That really pissed me off. They knew something had happened but weren't talking. By dusk, we had to quit. SSgt Cong was visibly weeping, and it was all I could do to keep from joining him. By dark the next day, the PFs called off their search. It was my darkest moment to date.
The next two days, we went about the motions of trying to work. Initially, we talked about all kinds of scenarios about what could have happened to Major Risner, but none of them had good endings. Word had spread throughout the base. I don't think any of us slept. We went back and forth on Highway One in both directions a few times during daylight hours, but we knew the chance of seeing him was remote. If we did sleep at night, we nodded off for a brief time sitting at our desks. We were all hoping for a miracle. The morning of the third day after he was missing, Major Tom Durham, a close friend of Major Risner's, came into our office with a couple of cardboard boxes and very somberly went to the Major's desk and started packing the contents of his desk. He never said a word, nor did anyone in the office, as we all knew what he was doing. I broke the silence and asked him what would happen now. He told me that after making an inventory of Major Risner's personal effects, an official message would be sent to Headquarters, Marine Corps, Washington, DC, listing Major Risner as missing in action.
He said that a Marine Officer and a Navy Chaplain informing them of his status would then deliver a formal letter in person to Major Risner's family. I couldn't hold back the tears, and I left the office area and went to my living quarters. After he left, we were all in the office, either standing around or sitting at our desks, not saying a word. We were all left to our own thoughts. Around noontime, the phone rang, and Dick Petterson answered it.
Dick: "Say that again. You saw what?" He was getting excited. We all gathered around Dick. "Where did you think you saw him?" We were all getting excited now. "We'll be right there!" Dick let out a whoop for joy. "He's been spotted about 4 clicks south of the south gate!" he exclaimed. The south gate was rarely used except by heavy equipment like earthmovers, etc. "Grab your gear!" he cried, "Let's go!" We all rushed to get our weapons and had just got to our vehicles when an Americal Division MP jeep pulled up with Major Risner in it. We couldn't believe it. When Major Risner got out of the jeep, we were all whooping and cheering. He walked up to us with a big grin on his face and said, "It sure is good to see you guys!" and shook all our hands.
All of the Group Officers, including the Group Commanding Officer and Executive Officer, ran out to shake his hand. The Group XO then took over and drove Major Risner to our dispensary for medical attention. I was so glad to see him when he got out of that jeep that I didn't pause to reflect at the time what he looked like. He had no hat or shirt and his trousers were cut off above the knees, and his web belt was missing. He was wearing his boots without socks or shoelaces. His chest, back, arms, and legs were covered with big red welts. He had rings around his eyes, and his face and the top of his head was covered with scratches. His wrists looked like they had been rubbed raw almost to the bone. He had bruises all over.
After a couple of hours, Dick called sickbay and talked to the Doctor who had treated Major Risner. He told Dick that the Major had been severely beaten and prodded presumably with bamboo sticks. He was suffering from dehydration and malnutrition. The doctor said that he was allowing our S-2 (intelligence) to debrief him for only a short time, and then he told the Major that he was going to admit him as an inpatient. The doctor then explained that Major politely declined his invitation to stay in the dispensary as he was going to go back to his quarters. The doctor said that he agreed only if Major Risner would take a shot (sedative). Major Risner agreed, and the doctor told Dick that because of the Major's size and condition, he gave him a triple dose of sedative to make sure he slept, and the Group XO escorted the Major back to his quarters.
That night we had a mini celebration. We wanted to have the main celebration with the Major when he was well. We had just brought out the wine when Charlie decided to join us in the celebration. After the first rocket landed with that distinctive "crack!" we all went outside to our bunker until it was safe to come out. Dick had remarked that this one had sounded close. We didn't hear anything for another minute, so Dick and I looked over the top and saw two red streaks leaving the tubes about 5 clicks away, followed by the usual "thump!" sound. Dick grabbed my jacket as he was going down, and we both heard loud cracks this time. We looked up in time to see the dust and sand settling about 100 meters in front of us. "That was too damn close!" Dick exclaimed. "Come on, Gene, let's get to the command bunker."
In addition to our duties in Civic Action, we were also part of the Chu Lai Defense Command for the Marine Corps' part of the area perimeter. Off we went when another rocket landed about the same place as the other two. Another went off by the time we made it to the command bunker. The sirens were still going, and everyone was assuming their defensive positions. I was on the switchboard talking to one of our spotters in one of the towers when Major Risner walked in and promptly asked, "What's the situation, Gunny Petterson?" A cheer went up around the room.
This man never failed to amaze me. After all the welcome backs were given, Dick brought him up to date on the situation. The rockets had stopped, but we got a call from the group guard on our southern perimeter that trip flares had gone off in the wire (barbed wire), but our guys were blinded by our own perimeter lights that were supposed to be cut-off whenever we were under attack. It not only blinded our guys, but the lights exposed their positions no matter where they moved as there were no other lights turned on. The lights were supposed to be switched off automatically at Chu Lai Defense Command whenever we were under attack. Major Risner quickly got on the phone to CLDC and was talking to an Army Lieutenant Colonel who was in charge. He explained the situation in a rather terse language. Apparently, the Colonel didn't appreciate this junior officer's attitude and said so.
Major Risner's next statement was something to the effect that if he (the Colonel) didn't cut the lights immediately, Major Risner himself would come to CLDC and put out those lights along with the Colonel's running lights. The lights were extinguished soon after. We all would have cheered again, but no one dared, as we knew Major Risner was serious. Afterward, he did have a grin on his face, as we all did.
The next day about 0800, Major Risner returned to his office. We were all concerned about him assuming his duties again so rapidly. But no one at the Group Headquarters was going to question his decision, and neither would we. He called the XO, and from the conversation, they had a mild disagreement about what would happen next. Our S-2, as well as Americal Division G-2, wanted to debrief him as soon as possible. Also, reports had to be made to all the command levels above us, up to and including Headquarters, United States Marine Corps.
Additionally, Stars and Stripes, our official newspaper for the military, had already caught wind of the story, and they wanted details. Much to the displeasure of many, I'm sure, and Major Risner told the Group XO that he had one more thing to do before he would subjugate himself to any more debriefings or medical checks. I don't know what was said on the other end, but Major Risner replied, "Thank you, sir, I appreciate it," and he hung up the phone. Looking at all of us, he smiled and asked what we were looking at. "Grab your gear, Marines," he said, "We're going to town!" Once again, well, you know the rest. We loaded up the same as we did on every other mission and went right back to the place where we had lost him. When we arrived, he began to tell us some of what had happened.
When Major Risner had left us and arrived at where our vehicles were parked, Major Nourse was not there. Risner was going to drive his jeep to find Major Nourse then realized he didn't have the keys. So he started walking in the direction of Ly Tin District Headquarters. He had only walked a few meters when a young Vietnamese girl whom he took to be 7 to 9 years old ran up to him. He was surprised to see that it was Phan Thi Lan, one of the girls he had sponsored for a scholarship under the General Walt Scholarship Program. She didn't seem surprised to see him and spoke to him excitedly in English. She told him there was an accident on the railroad tracks further up the road.
Without thinking, Major Risner ran about 400 meters up the tracks and found a man lying face down in a ditch. He noticed several people standing above him from the ditch and 4 ARVN soldiers who were standing around the ditch. As he began to kneel down to inspect the man's condition, the man suddenly rolled over on his back, pointing a carbine directly up at Major Risner. He also felt a pistol placed at the back of his head. As he instinctively tried to move, he was pistol-whipped, disarmed, and a gunnysack was thrown over his head. He was taken up the hill from the ditch he had been in and pushed onto his stomach in what he believed to be a truck. They bound his wrists individually and then tied them together about 2 to 3 inches apart in front of him and tied the gunnysack around his neck. They conducted a thorough search of him and took all his personal possessions and papers, including a notebook, his boot blousing bands, military driver's license, US Armed Forces Identification Card, Geneva Convention Card, PX Ration Card, and ID tags (dog tags).
The notebook contained information on a Civil Affairs meeting with Major Nourse that concerned Chu Lai's New Life Hamlet. Though dazed and in shock, Major Risner realized what was happening and was already trying to gather his senses, paying attention to where they were going in case he got a chance to escape. He felt like there were 4 individuals in the back of the truck and possibly 2 in the front. The ones in the rear placed their feet and rifles on the Major's back. The truck sped off, and after two minutes or so, crossed a bridge and then proceeded for another 3 minutes or so when the road became rough. About 5 minutes later, the truck turned right and proceeded down a steep incline. The truck continued to move up and down steep inclines for another 10 or 15 minutes before stopping.
He laid in the back of the truck for a couple of minutes before they let the tailgate down, and they pushed his body out the back of the truck, where he slumped to the ground. As he tried to sit up straight, a rifle butt was thrust into his chest, knocking him back to a lying position. "You do as we say, you hear?" No response. This brought a kick to his side. "You hear, Marine?" No response. The captors laughed and talked some more. Then one of his captors raised him to an upright position and began to lead him down another steep incline placing a weapon across his chest to hold him up while walking downhill.
After walking for less than an hour, Major Risner was seated on the ground with his back against a wall or a well. It was cool to his back and reeked of urine. He heard a lot of talking around him, recognizing the word Thieu Ta (Major), and knew they were talking about him. He knew the next thing, someone came over to him and cut his jungle utility jacket off of him. They then led him inside a hut and removed the gunnysack from his head for the first time. Adjusting his eyes, Risner saw he was in a room that contained a table with a single candle, behind which sat a slender male Vietnamese. He called the Major by name, mispronouncing it as "Reesner" (sic), and asked him what type of airplane he flew.
Major Risner gave his name, rank, serial number, and date of birth. The interrogator again asked him what kind of airplane he flew. After receiving no answer, the interrogator hit the table hard with a round piece of bamboo about 2 feet long. He then quickly asked, "How many helicopters are in Chu Lai? How many bombs did you drop?" Major Risner realized that his captors had made the erroneous assumption that he was a pilot. What they didn't know was that during his tour of duty in Vietnam, he had flown a total of 41 missions in different aircraft, including assignments as a Bombardier/Navigator in A-6s, a Radar Intercept Officer in F4s, and as a Spotter in both TA-4Fs and 01 and 02 Spotter Aircraft. Risner also participated in 5 Rolling Thunders over Hanoi and Hai Phong Harbor before Operation Arc-Lite.
As it turned out, it was better for his captors to think of him as a pilot because they would dare not kill him in order to collect their bounty. The bounty was somewhere around $300-$500 American. The bad news was that they would surely try to transport him to the Hanoi Hilton, where they proudly displayed their captured trophies to the rest of the North Vietnamese Army and people. After again not answering the last questions, the interrogator moved around the table and hit him in the side with the bamboo stick. The interrogator then looked at him and said, "You are from Chicago, Illinois?" This startled Major Risner that they somehow knew his place of birth.
Later he realized this information was on his government driver's license. The interrogator then asked him what kinds of helicopters are in Chu Lai. Receiving no response again, the interrogator poked Major Risner in his appendix scar. It seemed the interrogator was amused by the appendix scar and delighted in poking him there. He then asked Major Risner 3 times in quick succession, "What type of airplane do you fly?" When Risner didn't answer, the interrogator hit him twice in the groin area, doubling Risner over. He then lost sight of the interrogator and heard what seemed to him to be some type of argument taking place.
Then a second interrogator appeared. He was a very short Vietnamese elder who introduced himself as Mr. Tahung (phonetic spelling). He was fluent in English, polite in manner, and spoke as though well educated. He said he was sorry to inconvenience the Major and apologized for the actions of his compatriot. He used the word compatriot many times in his conversation. He then proceeded to acquaint the Major with the following points: "It is indeed inconvenient that your President, a Capitalistic Warmonger, would order you to fight a revolution that is not your war?" "The peoples of the world want peace, and your country wants peace also.
"Isn't it an awful thing that we had to be fighting against each other in a people's revolution that was not part of your world?"
"Mr. Agnew was the Republican candidate for vice-president."
He said that he was certain that Major Risner's commanding officer disagreed with the war that involved the people's revolution.
He asked if the Major was aware of the student uprisings in Kentucky, Ohio, and California. He said that his compatriots would like to meet to discuss peace in a more pleasant atmosphere. He said that the United States had been forewarned by the French and other allied forces that they should not involve so many people in a war they would lose.
The interrogator was very current on affairs in the States, and Major Risner was shocked by how up to date he was on the news. Major Risner was allowed to sit down in a chair and was offered and drank one cup of a hot and bitter tea. Risner noted that this interrogator was answering his own questions with propaganda rather than trying to get the Major to answer. This second interrogator then went to the back of the room, where a heated argument seemed to ensue.
After a few minutes, the arguing stopped, and Major Risner was lifted from the chair by both arms. He was taken outside, where they dislocated both shoulders to keep him from using his arms. They took the Major's jungle boots off and removed his socks. They beat his feet with bamboo sticks, laughing about how big they were (he wore a size 12). They later gave his boots back to him minus the shoestrings because none of them could wear them. After they put his boots back on him, one of the captors smashed all of his toes on both feet to discourage him from running. They had already cut off his shirt and undershirt. His belt was removed and not returned. During this humiliation, they also jabbed him in the groin several times and beat him about the chest and back and his legs with bamboo sticks.
While in a hunched forward position, local villagers were brought to him and were encouraged by his captors to urinate and defecate on him. One of the women brought a baby boy close to his face and allowed the baby to urinate in his face. After a long period of abuse and torture, his captors replaced the sack over his head, tied it around his neck, and then placed a bamboo stick underneath both of his armpits and popped his arms back into his shoulder sockets, causing him to walk with his chest protruding out. 5 Viet Cong then led him off down a gradual incline that eventually leveled out. One of the VCs pulled the Major along with a rope attached to his wrists. This VC was dressed in a black, long-sleeved shirt, a straw coolie type hat, and black shorts. Most of the other VC were similarly attired except for some with cloths tied around their heads instead of a hat. Major Risner surmised that the man in charge was the one leading him because he was giving all the orders.
They marched during the rest of the night over rough terrain. Major Risner sensed that, at times, they were going through narrow passages in single file formation. He was warned to keep quiet, and his captors seldom said anything. If he tripped or fell or were not moving fast enough, they would beat him about the legs or poke him in the groin. His upper torso was bare, and the overgrowth scratched him. They would wade across small streams filling his boots with water chafing his feet as he struggled to keep walking. He could feel and hear his broken toes squishing in his boots. Upon entering a camp area, the VC who was leading Major Risner called another VC over and told him in English that his prisoner was a Major and a pilot.
"This is Honcho," he said, referring to the other VC leader. Honcho looked at Major Risner and spat in his face, and then reached back to hit him. The VC leading him stopped Honcho before he could hit Major Risner and then moved him through the camp and set him down under a tree. Honcho returned later, replaced the sack over the Major's head, and using the bamboo rod under the Major's armpits. He proceeded to dislocate both shoulders again, leaving him hunched over from the waist up. He could hear the others in the camp talking about him. It was almost daylight, and he tried to sleep.
The next night after his capture, Major Risner was led away by the same group of 5 VC except for the one leading him. Before they left, they popped his arms back into his shoulder, sockets once again. The VC leading him now, Honcho, was the same one who spit in his face and tried to hit him the prior night. It started to rain. Ever mindful of his need to escape, he waited for the right opportunity. The constant prodding and whipping continued until he hardly felt it anymore. They went up a hill for a short way, then descended another incline for an undetermined distance until they reached level ground. As they crossed one knee-deep stream, it started raining more heavily. The terrain to their right was high and steep. The rain intensified and made the trail along the stream slippery.
As they crossed another stream, the VC leading the Major slipped and let go of the rope. Major Risner fell into the stream along with the VC named Honcho. Major Risner managed to lift the sack tied around his neck sufficiently to see what little he could of his surroundings. Honcho was nowhere to be seen. Major Risner then stayed underwater, moving downstream and crossing to the far bank. He then backed into the stream bank and hid under some shrubs. He could hear the VC talking excitedly as they tried to find him. As one VC was prodding the brush with his rifle, near where the Major was hiding, Major Risner reached up, grabbing the VC by the neck still with wrists bound, dragging him into the stream, and holding his head underwater. Major Risner continued to strangle the VC under water until he was sure he was dead. It was Honcho. This was verified years later at the first POW reunion held in Washington, DC, that Major Risner attended.
Major Risner then swam further downstream until it got shallower and crossed over to the other side, where the water was deeper. He then went back upstream to find the trail where they originally entered the stream as he figured they would be looking for him downstream. Major Risner lay in the stream for a long time until he was sure that the VC had stopped looking for him. When he finally crawled out of the stream, he tried to locate the trail but was unable to do so. He reentered the stream and continued downstream until the water got shallow, and then he crawled out. He hid in the brush and tried to rest until daylight.
The next morning, he managed to cut through the rope on his hands by using a sharp rock on the stream bank. He started to move by crawling between the stream and a trail that ran parallel to the stream, but he could not move very far. Though he knew it could be contaminated, Major Risner took small mouthfuls of the stream water by hand to quench his thirst. Though still cold from the water, it helped numb his wounds. He found some plants that looked edible and ate their bitter roots. He knew he needed strength if he was going to survive. All of the training he had received was helping him now. He ate insects and would have eaten raw fish if he could have caught one. He ate until his stomach told him no more.
Then he was bloated and before much longer began to cramp. Not wanting to soil his trousers, he removed them. They had been torn in several places due to his ordeal, and he used the opportunity to tear the legs off below the knee. It would help him during his running. His trousers were badly torn by now, so he took the rope that bound his wrists and unraveled it to use as thread. For a needle, he found a broken piece of glass that he used to cut holes in the trousers. He could see the red marks all over his legs from where they beat him, but he didn't feel them now. Then diarrhea began. As his bowels loosed, he found himself trying to hide the bubbles that gurgled up to the surface. He laughed about that later, but not then.
He continued to move downstream. Before dark, he left the stream to get closer to the trail. When he was about 5 meters from the trail in the underbrush, he saw approximately 40 to 45 Vietnamese moving on the trail carrying pots or baskets on bamboo poles. As they approached his location, Major Risner hid further back in the underbrush. At one point, one of the Vietnamese women was only an arm's length away from him. They came to the stream and then, after a few minutes, returned to the trail and left. Major Risner stayed in that position until it got dark and then moved out to the trail once more. He was unable to orient himself, so he went back to the far underbrush and tried to sleep through the night.
When he woke again, Major Risner wandered around trying to find the trail or stream but had become disoriented due to his physical deterioration. As he continued through the thicket, it began to thin out, and then the Major saw a boy herding some water buffalo and followed him a distance until he came upon another stream. He stopped to drink some of the stream water, and he also ate some green berries that caused him to vomit. He then followed the stream for quite a distance until he saw another trail and some open fields. He could hear aircraft flying in the distance and then saw one helicopter fly overhead. He ran into the open field, but the aircraft never saw him. He then saw some people running towards him about 300 meters away. He went back into the stream and hid once more.
After he was sure the people were gone, Major Risner continued following the stream. He knew he must be close to the south end of the airbase from the aircraft he heard overhead. At this point, he noticed dust in the distance and knew it must be Highway #1 or the MSR (Main Service Road). He continued to follow the stream, as it got more and more shallow until there was almost no water left in the stream. He then left the stream bed and started running in the direction of Highway #1 that seemed to be about 600 meters away. He crossed railroad tracks, came upon the highway, turned left, and started running again. He continued to run even as vehicles were passing him and undoubtedly looking at him in fascination. He kept running through until he could run no further and stopped in the middle of the road, bent over, trying to catch his breath.
As he raised himself, he saw a figure a couple of clicks away waving at him, and he waved back and tried to move forward again. Within seconds, an Americal Division MP and jeep was at his side.
MP: "You wouldn't happen to be Major Risner, would you, sir?"
Major Risner: "Yes, I would"
MP: "Well, praise the Lord!"
The MP saluted and said, "Welcome back, Major!"
Major Risner: "It's good to be back. Take me home, please."
MP: "You've got it, sir. It would be an honor."
They wanted to take him immediately to the hospital. He would have none of it. He wanted to go back to our office and then back to his hooch. Even after he arrived and we all got to see him, the Group XO had to force him to go to sickbay. He just wanted to get in his own rack and sleep. Using his training, instinct, and never giving up attitude, Major Risner had beaten the odds and became one of the few who successfully escaped. Not only had he escaped, but he had also brought himself home! It was remarkable. At night he oriented himself with the North Star. He used surrounding vegetation for concealment and nourishment. He paced himself, always keeping his eyes alert for danger. He pushed his body beyond the normal limits of endurance and willed himself to succeed. Many thoughts must have run through his mind, but his main objective was to get back to us no matter what it took. His stamina, determination to survive, and his love of family and Corps would not allow him to fail. Major Risner went on to make training films for the Marine Corps on escape and evasion tactics. He spoke at conferences and forums wherever and whenever asked. He attended the first reunion of POWs hosted by President Nixon after the POWs were released. He found out from some of the other POWs that he had been a hero to them for killing Honcho. They explained that Honcho was their main tormentor and that they all celebrated when they heard of the news of Honcho's demise. Afterward, the POWs were tortured even more, but it was well worth it, as they told Major Risner.
Of all your duty stations or assignments, which one do you have fondest memories of and why? Which was your least favorite?
Along with my combat tour in Vietnam, some of my best times were spent teaching at NAS Memphis and NAMTRAGRUDETS Santa Ana. But my most rewarding tour of duty for me personally was my selection and assignment to serve at HQMC Washington DC. At that time (1978-1981), HQMC was located at the Navy Annex in Arlington, VA, just up the hill from the Pentagon. My family and I lived in housing at Andrews AFB, Maryland, and I made the daily commute from Maryland across the Capital Street Bridge to DC and then crossed the 14th Street Bridge into VA.
My assignment was as an Assistant Aviation Monitor, Aviation/Comm Section, Personnel Management Division, HQMC. I was in charge of the assignment and classification of over 7000 enlisted Marines in Occ Fields 63 and 64, Avionics. This was the most challenging job I had in the Corps. In addition to supplying my required quota for assignments to Drill Instructor and Recruiting Duty, Marine Barracks, and Embassy Duty, I was responsible for the overall staffing of every Navy and Marine Corps Command throughout the world. Additionally, I did all of the initial screening for Marine instructors in aviation schools and the initial screening for all enlisted aviation MOSs for assignment to Marine Helicopter Squadron One, Quantico VA.
My fondest memory from this assignment is being present at Andrews AFB when all of the Iranian hostages were released. One of the greatest honors for me was meeting General Louis Wilson, his successor General Robert Barrow and working with Leland Crawford, Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps.
From your entire military service, describe any memories you still reflect on to this day.
One of the moments that will always stand out for me was the memory of my boss, Major Risner, and how he looked after escaping from his captors and returning to us and his unit. For all the torture and abuse he endured over a three day period, his look of determination and satisfaction in beating the odds, escaping under impossible conditions, he made us all proud.
What professional achievements are you most proud of from your military career?
Navy Achievement Medal with Combat "V."
Of all the medals, awards, formal presentations, and qualification badges you received, or other memorabilia, which one is the most meaningful to you and why?
Meritorious Service Medal.
Which individual(s) from your time in the military stand out as having the most positive impact on you and why?
Major Richard F. Risner, USMC Retired (2/23/1932 to 1/27/2005). Major Risner stood over 6 feet tall and weighed around 220 pounds. He was born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1932. He attended high school in Sioux City, Iowa, and received his Bachelor of Science degree from Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
He received his commission as a 2nd Lieutenant, United States Marine Corps Reserve, from Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Virginia, in 1955. He then served tours of duty in Korea and Japan with the 3rd Marine Division Rear in 1955 and 1956. Upon return to the States, 1st Lieutenant Risner became Commanding Officer of C Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines at Camp Pendleton, California. From 1959 to 1965, Risner served as Executive Officer and then, upon promotion to Captain, the Commanding Officer of the 27th Infantry Company, United States Marine Corps Reserve, in Sioux City, Iowa.
He taught school and coached football and track at West Junior High School in Sioux City during this time. He received his Master of Arts degree from the University of South Dakota in 1964. Upon completing his MA, Risner was promoted to Major and transferred to active duty in 1965 and was assigned as the Commanding Officer, Schools Company, Schools Battalion, Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California.
In August 1967, Major Risner was assigned duties with Marine Aircraft Group 12, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing in Chu Lai, Republic of Vietnam. His primary assignment was as Ground Defense Officer, with secondary assignments as Civic Action Officer and Industrial Relations Officer.
I thought that Major Risner would have wanted an infantry command as a Battalion XO or CO, but if he was disappointed in being assigned to the Air Wing, he never showed it. I never heard him complain or say a bad word about his assignment. On the contrary, he was always energetic and enthusiastic about his duties, and he later told me he had been anything but disappointed. He was instrumental in setting precedence on what civic action could and should do. He was the epitome of a Marine officer in my eyes. I had only a couple of working associations with a Marine officer at this point in my career, but I watched and learned as I went like all Marines. I grew not only to like him but also respect him. Maybe it was because we were in a combat situation and spent so much time together that he stands out amongst all of the officers I have known in the Marine Corps, but I believe it's more than that. I was privileged during my 21 years of active duty to work with and know many Marines. Some were combat heroes, and others were just outstanding Marines doing an outstanding job. There are no other Marines that I have served with over the years that I admired and respected more than Rich Risner.
As formidable as Major Risner was, he had a kind and deferential demeanor. He did not raise his voice unnecessarily, nor was he prone to lash out at others. If he was provoked, he responded. Most of the time, his response was with words and a few times, with his fists. He was always mindful of his men and respected the counsel of his senior enlisted men. He liked to laugh and share a good joke. He occasionally drank off duty or in a party situation, but I never saw him out of control. He seldom used profanity and was never vulgar. He had a temper, but it was always measured and appropriate to the circumstance.
Major Risner didn't strive for personal attention. He let his friends and critics alike judge him by his actions. Rich was the kind of leader who didn't second guess his decisions and always took full responsibility for the results. I took several pictures of the Civic Action Team, but I didn't realize until I came home that a few included him; he shied away from any kind of recognition. I do not mean to make him out to be perfect. But in my humble estimation, he was born to lead and make a difference, and he had a date with destiny.
List the names of old friends you served with, at which locations, and recount what you remember most about them. Indicate those you are already in touch with and those you would like to make contact with.
I am still in touch with retired 1st Sgt Dick Petterson from the MAG-12 Civic Action Team in Chu Lai, RVN during 1968; MSgt Jim Bairley from H&MS-15 Avionics in Nam Phong Thailand, Cubi Point Philippines, and Iwakuni Japan during 1973 and 1974; MSgt Craig Mullis, MSgt John Akerley, SSgt Bill Chronister from NAMTRAGRUDETS Tustin CA from 1974-1978; Major Bob Nelson, MSgt Jim Willis and GySgt Frank Romero from MMEA-84A, HQMC Washington DC during 1978 to 1981; MGySgt Pat Wurthman from MATSG-90, NAS Millington TN during 1982 to 1985; MSgt Roger Schlicter from MATSG-90, NAS Millington TN; I would like to hear from any other past members of the MAG-12 Civic Action Team,
Can you recount a particular incident from your service, which may or may not have been funny at the time, but still makes you laugh?
After Christmas of 1967, I was struggling to learn the TACAN without the benefit of formal training. Because of my rank and being a trainee, I found myself selected for special duty. All junior Marines were supposed to be assigned special duty for 30 days, once in their 13-month tour of duty. There were three types of special duty: (1) guard duty, (2) mess duty, and (3) barracks police duty. Since my unit had quotas to fill for all three, my NCOIC (Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge) gave me my choice. Now I knew that guard duty could be very boring and dangerous at times, mess duty was always bad because of the hours you put in, so I picked barracks police duty.
Barracks police duty was not that bad. Five of us worked for the Police Sergeant doing odd jobs and cleanup (policing the area) around the living quarters. The most unpleasant aspect of this was the daily morning ritual of burning off the "shi**rs," as they were called. This took about three hours each day and was not hard work. The first thing we were to do was check inside the two-holer (or four) to make sure no one was inside. We would then put a closed sign on it and go around to the back of the wooden structure, lift open the back flap and pull out the barrels. As the barrels were made from 55-gallon drums cut in half, the top edges were ragged, so we had to wear gloves to protect our hands from cuts. We would take a five-gallon drum of diesel fuel, pour about half a gallon in the barrel, and light it off. The aroma had caused more than one Marine to lose his lunch.
The highlight of barracks duty was the once a month collection of all the barrels we would load up on a 6X truck and haul it off to the landfill where it would be dozed over. Early in the afternoon, we had accumulated 16 barrels behind the Staff NCO living area. Less than 100 feet away down a slight incline, there was a Vietnamese work party of a dozen or so working busily on the construction of the southern wall of a thatched hut that would serve as our Rec Hut. Many bamboo and palm branches were lying on the ground that they were using in the construction process. Everyone was looking forward to its construction because it would provide an enclosed weight room and an open area to watch flicks (movies) regardless of the weather.
One of my fellow Marines on the working party had gone to Motor T to check out a six-bye to load the barrels. This individual and I were the only ones that possessed a government driver's license, both of which were brand new. We had both attended a two-week training course to get the license. When he showed up, it was with a dump truck instead of a six-bye. The dump truck could hold all sixteen barrels, but the tailgate was bent up about thirty degrees. The driver remedied that by lifting the bed of the truck just enough to compensate for the tailgate, and we managed to load all sixteen barrels onto the bed.
As the driver and another Marine were loading the last barrel, the driver said: "Hey Hays, lower the bed of the truck!" Now even though I had my government driver's license, I had never operated a dump truck, but I wasn't about to admit it. So, I climbed in the cab, pushed in on the clutch, and pushed the bed gear lever forward to lower it. As I popped the clutch and gunned the engine, I could barely hear the shouts from the rear. I had wondered why I didn't see anything out the back window until I realized what I'd done.
Sixteen cans of sh*t had been dumped out the back, slopping on two of my fellow workers who were ready to kill me. At the same time, the sh*t oozed down the incline to the Vietnamese workers who were frantically trying to get all the bamboo and palm branches up off the ground while holding their noses, gasping for air. Realizing they weren't going to outrun the sh*t, they left for the day. In fact, they didn't come back for about a week. Worse, I became the most famous Marine in my unit because nobody went to the movie for two weeks after that; something about the odor.
What profession did you follow after your military service, and what are you doing now? If you are currently serving, what is your present occupational specialty?
After my retirement in 1986, I went to work for Martin Marietta Data Systems for five years. During that time, I worked on the U.S. Navy Aviation Training Support System contract and the F/A-18 Hornet Enhanced Comprehensive Assets Management System. From there, I went on to teach electronics at two different two-year colleges.
In 1996, Booz-Allen, Hamilton Inc. selected me as a Senior Consultant to the Royal Saudi Naval Forces in Jeddah, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Since returning from Saudi Arabia, I have worked in my field of electronics and the banking industry. I am presently fully retired, and I am working as an author of both fiction and non-fiction books. I am the author of Year of the Monkey, Civic Action, and the Leatherneck Warriors series. You can find all of my books at Amazon.com by doing a search on any of my titles or by my name, Gene Hays.
What military associations are you a member of, if any? What specific benefits do you derive from your memberships?
I am a Past Commander of American Legion Post 55, Oxford, MS, a life member of VFW Post 3978, Oxford, MS, and a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, Past Commander and a life member of Disabled American Veterans Chapter 48 Oxford, MS. I proudly serve as Judge Advocate for Marine Corps League, J.C. Hooker Detachment, Pontotoc, MS, and I am forming a new Marine Corps League Detachment in Oxford, MS.
In what ways has serving in the military influenced the way you have approached your life and your career? What do you miss most about your time in the service?
From my Vietnam experience, I learned that hard work, devotion to duty, and unswerving loyalty builds character. From just a high school education, the Marine Corps helped me develop organizational and leadership skills and provided me an opportunity for a college education. I have been retired now longer than I was on active duty, but a day never goes by that I don't think about where I came from and what the Marine Corps means to me.
Based on your own experiences, what advice would you give to those who have recently joined the Marine Corps?
Take advantage of all the educational opportunities afforded you. When I was just a Sergeant, I completed the Staff NCO Academy Course. As a Staff Sergeant, I completed the Officer Basic Course and Command and Staff Course, all by correspondence. I submitted applications every time I was eligible for ECP, MARCAD, and Warrant Officer. Make sure you stand out on your fitness reports, PFT scores, and every school you attend. While you may not be selected or be recognized or awarded a medal, you can build your own self-esteem, character, and integrity by applying yourself 100 percent. Semper Fidelis is not just a motto. It's a way of life.
In what ways has TogetherWeServed.com helped you remember your military service and the friends you served with.
The Marine Corps is a brotherhood. More than any other military branch, I have found that all Marines seek each other out and are willing to share their stories.
Togetherweserved.com is the best way to find any of your buddies that you have lost track of or to obtain the latest information on reunions and unit get-togethers. What sets this website apart from any other is the professional way each member is presented, it is easy to use, and it provides a source of enjoyment to me to look back on my career and the careers of others.
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