It was the height of the Tet Offensive, April 23, 1968. My brother-in-law, 21-year-old U.S. Navy E-4 Don Ray of Fitzgerald, Georgia, manned a 50-caliber machine gun on a Zippo 111-7 with a five-man crew. Part of the Mobile Riverine group based at Dong Tam, they worked out of the army base of operations with the 9th Infantry. The River Assault Craft his crew manned was the first to be converted to a flame thrower — napalm — and with its shallow draft they prowled the creeks and rivers along the banks of the Mekong River, supporting the army by burning out bunkers. Other jobs included transporting and inserting Vietnamese Marine troops for search and destroy, and searching sanpans to flush out Viet Cong and weapons. They were known as “river rats”.
Notified that Saigon was in danger of falling, all forces were ordered to advance immediately toward the South Vietnamese capital. The small Zippo and other river craft had neared the Cambodian border in the Mekong Delta when the outgoing tide left them beached in a cleared area in the middle of a cemetery. That’s when the enemy struck. Unable to move, they were close to being overrun and the men were fighting for their lives. Don was in the gun turret and his friend was in the steering section when they were hit by an RPG B-40 rocket. The other man was killed instantly and Don was severely injured from the waist down by shrapnel. (From the journal of Don’s wife, Betty Joyce Ray).
Don was med-vaced by helicopter to a hospital ship. While en-route, his finger was hit by a bullet. From the hospital ship he was transported to Ton San Nhut Hospital in Saigon where shrapnel was removed and the wounds packed with peroxide and gauze. From there he was transported to an Army hospital in Yokota, Japan, where he remained a month for his wounds to close. He was then transported stateside to Jacksonville Naval Center, remaining there until sometime in June 1969. Even after given light duty in the laundry for the final months of his hospital stay, he was examined monthly and told repeatedly “you’re not ready to leave”.
Retired now from Coachmen Industries, where he delivered RVs all over the country, Don has lived with the pain of his old wounds, and of wounds that reach deeper than a doctor can cure. He enjoys landscaping and working his yard, which includes a pond where he and Betty Joyce feed the fish, tolerate the geese and ducks, and enjoy their pets. They recently lost their beloved Jack Russell terrier, DeeDee (DD for Don’s Dog), but still are mobbed and barked at by cute little Sassy and ignored by their aged bob-tailed cat.
Don, recipient of the Purple Heart, a medal for veterans wounded in the service of their country, goes to monthly meetings of the newly formed 1082 chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America to meet and talk, and have dinners together. They have over fifty members who help needy vets and the high school ROTC program, by holding raffles and taking donations. Plans are in the works for a trip to Washington in the fall to visit the Vietnam Memorial.
Though a small town in south Georgia, Fitzgerald is home to nine Purple Heart veterans, and will soon be known as the “Purple Heart City”.
Don’s granddaughter now serves in the U.S Air Force, Airman 1st Class April N. Ray of Fitzgerald, stationed at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, Solano County, California.
As we celebrate the 238th birthday of our nation, let us remember Don and his fellow veterans who have made sacrifices for our country we civilians can never imagine. Some have made the ultimate sacrifice. They have served their country well. As a nation we should return the favor, and always with the utmost respect and veneration.
Happy Fourth of July. The star-spangled banner yet waves. Because of them.