This Day in History: Ronald Eric Ray’s action against the Viet Cong
On this day in 1966, a United States Army lieutenant leads his company in an action against the Viet Cong. Ronald Eric Ray would receive the Medal of Honor for his bravery and leadership on this day so long ago.
One has to wonder if Ray was practically destined for such military service? He was born on the same day that Pearl Harbor was bombed! A few of his brothers would also serve in the military. Finally, Ray would attend the University of Tampa, along with two other Medal of Honor recipients.
In June 1966, Ray was deployed in Vietnam, serving as a platoon leader in the Ia Drang Valley. His platoon was to monitor Vietnamese troops that might invade from Cambodia. He’d set up several listening posts to help with the effort.
By June 19, Ray was getting suspicious. He felt that something was about to happen in his sector. He sent a patrol toward one of the listening posts and told them to stay there. “I just felt something was going to happen,” he later explained. “And, sure enough, that outpost got surrounded. I got a call saying we’re pinned down . . . .”
Ray called for reinforcements and set off, trudging through more than a mile of dense jungle to get to his troops.
Ray was everywhere, first taking out an enemy machine gun with grenades and a shotgun, then helping medics who’d come under attack as they tried to evacuate a wounded soldier. By now, he’d taken fire and his legs were injured.
Then he noticed a grenade land close to two of his men. He yelled at the soldiers, but they didn’t appear to hear him. Acting quickly and decisively, his citation explains, “he dove between the grenade and the men, thus shielding them from the explosion while receiving wounds in his exposed feet and legs.”
“If there had to be someone to die that day, it was going to be me, not them,” he later said.
Ray was pretty badly injured, but he didn’t have time to stop and think about that. An enemy machine gun was still firing! He threw a grenade toward the enemy, silencing the gun. At about this time, he realized that he was paralyzed from the waist down. Ray ordered his troops to pull out, but to leave a gun behind for him. He might be paralyzed, but he could provide cover fire for the American soldiers pulling out.
A sergeant who was there would have none of that! “No sir, I’m taking you with me,” he said. He threw Ray over his shoulders and evacuated him. The sergeant and Ray were the last two to leave.
“I didn’t do anything more than what everybody should do,” Ray later concluded. “I mean, if you’re a leader . . . that’s what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to lead them best you can. Fight the battle the best you can. But you should protect them the best you can. And that’s all I did, was protect my troops.”
America’s Heroes: Medal of Honor Recipients from the Civil War to Afghanistan (James H. Willbanks ed.; 2011)
Medal of Honor citation (Ronald Eric Ray; Vietnam)
Medal of Honor oral histories (Ronald Eric Ray; Vietnam)
Peter Collier et al., Medal of Honor: Portraits of Honor beyond the Call of Duty (2d ed. 2006)
The Library of Congress: Veterans History Project (Interview transcript; Ronald E. Ray).