Jack Ruffer knew he wanted to be a Marine after rifling through the pages of a war-time novel as a young man.
“I read ‘Battle Cry’ by Leon Uris — I read it at least a half dozen times,” Ruffer said. “I asked myself if I could measure up, I wanted to see if I had what it took to be a Marine.”
Ruffer, 71, of Palm Desert, enlisted in the Marine Corps in August, 1959. After basic training, the 18-year-old was tapped to serve in myriad leadership positions, which prepared him for combat action in Vietnam, where he earned a Silver Star Medal for “Conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action,” on Oct. 12, 1967.
Commissioned in 1965, Ruffer landed in Da Nang in July, 1967 and was assigned as platoon commander to Company C, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines. Ruffer and his men were later sent to Quang Tri Province, about 30 miles south of the Demilitarized Zone — the dividing line between North and South Vietnam.
“The company commander wanted to run combat patrols in our area of operation,” said Ruffer. “I volunteered for day patrols, night patrols, all patrols — where we had been, we weren’t allowed to patrol. I’d never moved my men in combat formations, never been able to assess how well they performed basic infantry tactics.”
The men were preparing for Operation Medina, a four battalion search and destroy mission. The objective was the Hai Lang Forest Reserve, a staging area for North Vietnamese forces. Progress through the dense jungle was slow.
Ruffer and his men were on point and paralleling a North Vietnamese army trail.
“The Company Commander kept saying, ‘Jack, can we move any faster?’ I said, ‘Sir we’re going as fast as we can.’ We ran into strange creatures, large pythons.”
Then the captain called the lieutenants together and told them they’d have to get up on the trail.
“He said, ‘Jack, pick up the rear guard.’” It wasn’t but 20 to 25 minutes later that all hell broke loose up at the front of the column.
Here’s how Ruffer’s Silver Star Citation describes what happened:
Then came a yell for help. “Jack, get down here, we’re going to be overrun!”
“So I grabbed my platoon and we ran down that same trail and I crawled over to the company commander. I said, ‘Yes sir, what’s your orders?’ He said, ‘Go out there and fill in your men and flesh out the third platoon,’ and as we were doing that, grenades were flying in at us, we took over 300 grenades that night.”
Knowing he had to lead his men — outnumbered by at least four-to-one — into the face of enemy fire, Ruffer drew inspiration from his early days in the Marine Corps. He remembered how he felt when he graduated from recruit training, standing in formation with his platoon, while the Marine Corps band started playing the Marines’ Hymn.
“That wasn’t just a piece of music; now that belonged to me. I was a Marine. The only thing that came to mind was the Marines’ Hymn, so I stood up in the LZ (landing zone) bullets dancing all over, and I started singing the Marines’ Hymn.”
“I sang the first verse then I said ‘Let’s go Charlie! Let’s get some!’ and what was left of Charlie Company followed me down the hill.”
“You could see white tracers flying up at us. The NVA used white, Marines used red tracers. … grenades falling on top of the wounded. I determined I was going to have to counter attack to push the NVA back. To get ’em out of grenade range.”
During the counter attack, he noticed a Marine on his right, holding a pistol, instead of his familiar 16-mm camera.
Somebody yelled ‘Grenade!’ … I dove over a fallen tree stump and I heard a muffled explosion, and I got up and said, ‘Let’s go! Let’s continue!’ It didn’t dawn on me that the young man to my right — Corporal William T. Perkins — had grabbed that grenade and pulled it under his chest. He died right there.”
Ruffer’s citation continues:
“As the North Vietnamese launched another fanatical assault on the Marines’ position and again succeeded in penetrating one section of the perimeter, Captain Ruffer was wounded by a concussion grenade which detonated within two feet of him.”
“So I gathered my men and we went on another counter attack,” said Ruffer. “This time I was in the front and I saw a grenade — the fuse of a grenade — and I hit the ground and I was (just above the ground) and another (concussion) grenade bounced off my backpack and detonated.”
“Concussion grenades contain about three times the amount of explosives of a fragment grenade. The force of that blast blew me into the ground. I couldn’t hear anything. I was dazed and I was numb all over. I couldn’t feel anything. My nervous system had taken a real jolt.”
“My men grabbed me and pulled me back up the trail and called for a corpsman but I thought I was all right,” he said.
“I said, ‘Let’s go again!’ managed to get on my feet and went down the same trail,” said Ruffer. “This time they were coming up the trail, and I just emptied my .45, my last seven rounds, as they came up … the next guy was in my face.”
Out of ammunition, Ruffer threw his pistol and hit the NVA soldier in the chest.
“Then I tripped over a body and found myself on the ground, about ready to be dispatched by this NVA.”
Fire team leader Ken Chambers, who’d given his remaining rounds of ammunition to his men, came to his rescue, grabbed Ruffer by the back of his H-harness and started dragging him back up the trail.
In the course of the firefight Ruffer didn’t realize he’d been shot — he thought he’d been burned by a piece of phosphorous from a ricocheting bullet that penetrated his jacket.
“It didn’t feel bad. As it turned out my system was so numb — phosphorus separated from the jacket when the bullet it was attached to broke my rib and went up underneath my arm. I didn’t know I was shot, I couldn’t feel it. I couldn’t feel much of anything.”
Ruffer was called back to the command post. Delta Company was coming in to relieve some of the battallion’s Marines. He was asked if he had somebody he could send who could lead them in.
“Well, all my people were spent. I reached down and grabbed a .45 off of a dead Marine, stuck a clip of seven rounds in it and I took off down the trail we’d been ambushed on earlier.”
Ruffer reached Delta Company after running about a quarter mile.
He briefed the commander and then helped them to reinforce Charlie Company.
The operation was partially successful. Even though the NVA were not driven out of the Hai Lang Forest Reserve 177 NVA were killed. Charlie Company sustained 11 killed in action and 75 wounded in action.
The Marines and Navy corpsmen of Charlie Company, 1st Marines, 1st Marine Division are the subject of the book, “Lions of Medina,” by historian Doyle Glass.
Jack Arden Ruffer
Date of Birth: Oct. 3, 1941
Hometown: San Bernardino
Residence: Palm Desert
Branch of service: U.S. Marine Corps
Years served: Aug. 28, 1959 – Sept. 30, 1981
Awards/Commendations: 15 medals, including the Silver Star Medal, Bronze Star Medal, Purple Heart and Meritorious Service Medal.
Family: Wife Pat; three children, Teresa Jandt of Apple Valley, Susan Perrine of Hesperia, and Greg Ruffer of Eastvale; eight grandchildren; two great-grandchildren.