Ray Maurer will never get to say thank you to the man who saved his life because he does not know his name. The words "10 VC In Trench" probably don't mean much to the average reader, but to Maurer and his comrades, it meant the enemy was near.With no working radio for outside contact, the members of his platoon had little hope for survival in the dangers of the Vietnam War. Just then, a gift dropped in from above; a smoke grenade with the words "10 VC In Trench" printed in permanent marker on the canister warned the U.S. Marines that there were 10 Viet Cong hiding in a trench just ahead.
Confident that they could easily wipe out 10 men, the platoon pushed forward until a second grenade was dropped from a U.S. plane with the words "10-20 VC In Trench, Calling Arti." This told the soldiers that artillery was on its way and they were to take shelter in a nearby trench.
Shortly after, the same plane that dropped the smoke grenades flew over a field of fallen soldiers. Maurer and Bernie Triano, a machine gun operator, were chosen to identify the bodies; to do so they had to pull on a rope tied to a grappling hook that was attached to a body and drag it in; it was the only way to protect their own lives from possible booby traps. To his horror, he knew almost every one of the men. At that moment he learned that all but two of the men from his squad, 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, Bravo Company, had been lost. The date was May 12, 1966.
"I didn't know until I came back that these were the Walking Dead," Maurer said. That was the name the Ho Chi Minh called them to their generals, "because they never had a chance."
Maurer said the two that survived only lived because it looked like they were dead. Otherwise, the Viet Cong would have shot them in the head when they did their walk through to ensure there were no survivors of the attack. When he found one of the survivors, who still had his "skin head" from being shaved at training camp, he said the skin on his head was parted in the middle just like you would part your hair; his face was covered in blood.
Men quickly learned that because of the 120-degree temperatures and high humidity, wounds or broken bones wouldn't heal. Those who were wounded needed to be transported out of the country. Maurer remembers watching his comrades lay in the trenches during an attack with their legs up in the air praying for a bullet to pierce them.
For beds, the U.S. soldiers dug holes in the ground; a thin plastic poncho was their shelter from the rain. During monsoon season, holding onto one another was the only chance for survival. Sixty days without showering or shaving was normal. Maurer said perhaps that is why the Viet Cong had such a hard time finding them; they smelled as bad as the water buffalo, and therefore blended in.
Though Maurer returned home from the war in 1967, his inner battle was just beginning. "I was freezing," he said, "even though temperatures here were in the 70s." Shortly after his return, he remembers diving under the coffee table in his Coatesville living room, convinced the sound of the Scott field Fireworks was approaching artillery. "I didn't know what it was, I didn't know where I was," he said. For years Maurer said he jumped every time he heard a loud noise and feared another flashback or hallucination every time he closed his eyes.
As if this wasn't bad enough, he and his fellow comrades were greeted back into their own country by people spitting in their faces, calling them rapists and baby killers. He couldn't even talk about the war without someone twisting his words and taking it the wrong way. "All they cared about was that we lost the war-but we didn't," he said. "You were more of a hero if you went to Canada than if you went to war."
Maurer said today he is truly touched to see the way Americans treat their soldiers. "When I returned, I was told to go back, that I didn't belong here," he said. "Things like that don't make you feel good. People may be against the war-I'm not a warmonger myself-but today they are truly behind the soldiers, and that is a great thing to see."
As far as wanting to be recognized, Maurer said, "I don't want it. I don't need it." He eventually found out that he was supposed to be awarded a bronze star, but he never was. Thirty-nine years after returning he was honored with a Navy Commemorative Medal at the Christiana American Legion.
Upon returning to the U.S., Maurer was asked to join the reserves, but said he didn't even consider it. "Once was enough," he said. "I figured I'd never make it twice; I had too many close calls." Besides, the only thing he wanted to do upon arriving home was marry the love of his life. While he was gone, his only communication with Bernadette was the couple of sentences he could fit on the torn cardboard from C-ration boxes. "It's a wonder they ever made it through the mail," he said.
Now a retired postal worker living in Parkesburg, a loving husband, father of three, and grandfather of six, Maurer finally feels comfortable talking about his experiences in Vietnam. In the shadow of war, he asked one of his co-workers at the post office to look for his name on the draft board in the basement. When he learned that he was to be drafted a couple of weeks from that date, he marched up to Sergeant Little, a recruiter who was stationed in the post office, and willingly signed himself up. That way he was given the opportunity to choose his start date. He chose the end of June so that he could take Bernadette to her senior prom.
When asked if he had considered running away to Canada or getting married like so many of his friends "foolishly" did, he said his father, who was wounded in the Invasion of Normandy during World War II, wouldn't have liked it.
"To me, he was a hero," Maurer said of his father. "And each of the 58,000 names on that wall, they are the heroes."
In 2006 he and seven of his friends went to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington D.C. where he saw the names of 14 of his buddies who he had fought next to for 13 months. He said every time they get together, talk of the war never touches their lips. "We don't need to talk about it," he said. "We all went through the same thing. We all just laugh and have a good time." They plan to meet again at the wall in 2011.
Pictured right: During the war, the only way Maurer had to communicate with his family was by letters written on the cardboard from C-ration boxes. Shown is one of the letters he sent Bernadette Zazzara, who was awaiting his safe return so they could be married. They celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary last year.