Kilo Co. 3/3/3 Reunion
30 Years After Mutter’s Ridge

At 9:00 on July 18, 2000, former 1st Plt. members of Kilo Co. 3/3 Dan Salles, Aldo Torboli, and Ray Clark pulled away from the parking lot of the Hampton Inn in Winchester, VA for their return trips home.  They were the last of the former Kilo Co. 3/3 Marines to leave what had been called “Reunion 2000, Reopening the Book and Finishing the Story.”  They had participated in a reunion that began to come together in 1999 through the wonders of the Internet.

Locating these men, and the subsequent reunion, particularly 1st Plt. Members, would be an important factor for them in helping them to find closure to a particular event which happened over 30 years ago in a place called Mutter’s Ridge, a ridge line just on the southern edge of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in South Vietnam.

In September, 1969, Kilo Co., under the command of First Lt. Richmond O’Neill, moved out from the Rockpile, a forward artillery base just south of the DMZ. They moved towards a ridge line that could be seen looming in the distance.  This ridge line was well known to the 3/3 Marines in the Northern I Corps area. This would be Kilo Co.’s third trip to the Ridge in a matter of months.  Each trip to Mutter’s Ridge had ended successfully with completed operational goals, but always with a high cost in casualties for their successes.  There were always engagements with the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) in “their own back yard.”  Ambushes, heavy mortar and artillery bombardments were par for the course on Mutter’s Ridge.  This time would be no exception.  This was to be the 3/3’s last time to the Ridge before leaving Vietnam as part of then-President Nixon’s Vietnamization plan for U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam.

From the very start of the mission, Kilo Co. and Lima Co. had made contact with the NVA.  As Kilo made their way up the sides of the Ridgeline onto the top, they had already started taking casualties from the sweltering heat.  After reaching the top and cooling down long enough to have their heat casualties Med-evac’d out, the Company began moving down the ridgeline towards hill 410.

Later in the afternoon, the word was passed up to the pointman, in 1st Plt, L/Cpl. Raymond Clark, to “hold it up”.  The Company would begin digging in for the night.  The Pointman had no idea he had stopped just 15 feet short of a NVA ambush which was waiting for them.

Because the Company stopped where it did, the botched NVA ambush opened fire on the column of Marines, even though the Marines had not entered their “kill zone.”  The Marines returned fire, and a small firefight erupted.  The only casualty the Marines suffered was to L/Cpl. Clark’s helmet, which was hit twice, leaving him shaken, but unscathed.

The NVA broke contact and ran, but not for long.  They knew the Marines were present, and they knew exactly where they were.  Kilo Co. began digging in a good defensive position, knowing what was to come.  Just before dark, a heavy mortar attack began to rain down on the Marines, but due to good defensive preparations, casualties were kept low.

Every day brought more contact and more casualties. Kilo was inflicting damage on the NVA, but the NVA was also inflicting casualties on Kilo.  The Company knew they were in for a fight, but didn’t know just how bad it would get.  The Army sent a DC-3 to fly above the area with loud speakers, broadcasting in Vietnamese to the NVA “cho Hoi” (give up).  The Marines knew the NVA would either give up or fight harder.  The latter was soon to come.

Lima Co. was working in the same area as Kilo Co., and were fighting their own war against the NVA.  They had hard fighting for 3 or 4 days, taking many casualties of their own, but inflicting greater losses on the NVA.

On the morning of Sept. 15, 1969, Kilo Co, 1st. Plt., led by Lt. Eric Bowen, was sent over to hill 410 for a search and destroy mission.  The results of this mission would inevitably change the lives of the Kilo Co. Marines forever.

At approximately 08:00, the column of 1st Plt. Marines began to stretch out from the Co. area, and started their assent of hill 410.  The column was moving slowly and cautiously as they moved up the finger that led to the top of the hill.  Suddenly, claymore mines exploded from nearby trees, and small arms fire erupted from seemingly everywhere.  1st Plt. Had walked into a horseshoe ambush by a reinforced NVA Plt.  This ambush would eventually account for 42 casualties among the 48 Marines with the 1st Plt.  Five were KIA and 37 were WIA.

The pointman, L/Cpl Donald Liebl, had passed through the ambush area, away from the Marines.  The 1st Plt. Marines, along with 3rd Plt. Reinforcements, would spend the next hour or so being pinned down in the ambush area, taking more casualties while trying to get their wounded pointman out. Because of the heavy volume of fire into the ambush area from the NVA positions, as well as the constant mortar and grenade attacks, the Marines were only inching their way through the ambush site.  It seemed that neither the Marines nor the NVA were going anywhere.  A comforting thought for all the grunts in Vietnam was that no one gets left behind.  Marines don’t leave Marines!  The fight was on for L/Cpl. Liebl, and the Marines weren’t giving up.

Still pinned down from the heavy incoming of small arms fire, the Marines had just lost two more of their men to machine gun fire when L/Cpl. Robert DeRusse broke from his position in the ambush site.  In a selfless act of courage, he crawled off alone to find L/Cpl. Liebl, who was now calling out for help from his comrades.  The Marines continued moving forward, trying now to locate both L/Cpl.’s Liebl and DeRusse.

A short time later, a familiar voice was heard saying, “Don’t shoot; it’s me.”  It was L/Cpl. DeRusse, dragging his wounded fellow Marine, L/Cpl Liebl, behind him.  L/Cpl. Liebl had been 30 yards up the trail beyond the pinned down Marines.  By this time, everyone was accounted for, and the Marines could now pull back and turn the hill over to the air support.  F4 Phantoms and Huey gun ships were waiting for their turn at the ambush site.

As the grunts pulled back to join up with the main body of Kilo Co., and have their wounded Med-evac’d out, the NVA began mortaring the area where the choppers were trying to land.  The NVA had Kilo Co. zeroed in, and their fire was relentless.  The incoming continued for another hour or so, throughout the effort to get the wounded out.  L/Cpl Liebl and the corpsman helping him, HM3 James Sickles, would be killed in the final mortar attack on Kilo Co.  The 3rd Plt. Would also receive multiple casualties in their effort to support and assist 1st Plt. during and after the ambush.

After the fighting had broken off, and the mortars had ended, the Marines moved back down the ridge line to be resupplied and to receive replacements.  Kilo Co. would spend the next several days patrolling the length of Mutter’s Ridge before being choppered off.  Every day brought new engagements of one sort or another with the NVA, but the operation continued.

When the 11-day operation ended, Kilo Co. was choppered back to Vandergrift and on to Quang Tri, the Battalion rear.  At Quang Tri, the pullout of 3/3 from Vietnam to Hawaii was in full swing.  The Marines were separated into two groups.  The group who had been in country for 9 months or longer would qualify for the pullout, and the others would stay and be reassigned to other units.

The entire Battalion had been hit hard during the operation to the Ridge with Kilo Co. being waylaid in their final weeks in Vietnam.  Because of the timing of the pullout, many of the Marines would be reassigned to other units without ever hearing from any of the others again.  It would be 30 years before these Marines would find out what happened to each other after the ambush of September 15, 1969.

Vietnam had been the watershed of the lives of the men who fought there.  It seemed that on September 15, 1969, one of the most important chapters of their lives was suddenly slammed shut. For 1st Plt., it all ended so abruptly!!  Suddenly everyone was gone.  Where did they all go?  Who lived?  Who died?  For 30 years, the questions lingered, and there were no answers.

Answers finally began to trickle in.  In 1974, former Marines L/Cpl. Larry Renfro and L/Cpl. Ray Clark made contact with each other and friendship was restored.  They and their families have remained close friends  for the past 25 years.  There would not be any other contact with anyone else until 1999.

In June, 1999, Larry Renfro found the 3/3 website on the internet and began looking through the 900+ messages from former Marines looking to make contact with their old buddies.  From this, the idea was born that maybe some of the Kilo Co. Marines could be located through the internet.  The first to be “found” would be L/Cpl Gary Kober (1st Plt radio man).   Soon others were located:  Cpl. Dan Salles, L/Cpl. Bob DeRusse, L/Cpl. Aldo Torboli, L/Cpl. Bob Snider, Cpl. John Nelkin, and L/Cpl. Terry Ruge.

Col. Paul Goodwin (Retired), Kilo 6 until September 1969, was also discovered on the 3/3 website, and through him, other contacts were made.  Col. Goodwin had contacts with other officers and enlisted men with Kilo Co., of whom some had been with 1st Plt. Soon contact had been made with Lt. Bill Haskell (1st Plt. Comm., wounded May, 1969), Lt. Eric Bowen (Plt. Comm. Wounded in Sept. ambush), L/Cpl. Ronnie Thompson, Lt. Richmond O’Neill (3rd Plt. Comm. And Kilo 6 in Sept., 1969), and several 2nd and 3rd Plt. Marines including L/Cpl. Kitt Flake from 2nd Plt. (who attended the Reunion) have been located and contacted.

Several other Marines wanted very much to attend the Reunion (including Lt. Col. Ollie North, former 2nd Ptl. Comm.), but for various reasons, they regrettably could not attend.  Another Reunion is being planned for Kilo Co., the number of those “found” now exceeding 35, thanks to the internet.  The next Reunion will be much larger.

Healing comes.  The Reunion of 2000 was to be the foundation on which all other Kilo Co. reunions will be built.  This one was especially geared for the survivors of the September ambush, who have been long overdue in getting the information they needed about their buddies.  Company Rosters for August and September, 1969 were obtained, to help find out whose names were listed on the “Vietnam Memorial Wall”, and to help locate other Kilo Co. Marines through the Veteran’s Administration, using their names and service numbers from the roster.  Medical reports were obtained on many of the wounded, stating the extent of their injuries.  All of these things helped to bring a degree of closure to these former Marines.

This Reunion was to help bring healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation to the Vietnam experiences of these men.  It was to gain good memories of each other, and to overshadow some of the bad memories carried for so long.  Some of the family and friends of Cpl. William Bushey (KIA in the September ambush) attended the Reunion to stand in for Bill, and also to gain some closure for themselves.

All of the Kilo Co. Marines who attended the Reunion brought a small bag of dirt from their own homes to be blended together at a ceremony at the “Wall.”  The blended soil was then taken and poured out at the base of the Wall as a symbol of unity….an eternal band of brothers that couldn’t be separated again.

Those who attended spoke of a feeling of fulfillment they had never felt before.  L/Cpl DeRusse stated that he felt he had been dreaming for the past 30 years and he just woke up in Winchester, VA.  Lt. Bill Haskell stated that to him, it wasn’t so much a “closure”, but rather a sense of “opening up”, as if there had been a room in the lives of these men that had been closed up and off limits for a long time.  Now, that room has been opened to friends and families, allowing them to come in and look around, and it was discovered to be a really neat room after all.

Everyone went to Winchester, VA with a little fear and a lot of anticipation.  No one knew quite what to expect.  It turned out to be so much more than expected, and it was GOOD!  The “Book” of 1969 was reopened, and that chapter completed.  A new chapter has begun for the men of Kilo 3/3/3, 1969.  It will have a lot of good things in it this time, including our families and friends, and a lot of good times “together again.”
 
 

To the men of Kilo Co. 3/3/3

Welcome Home and
Semper Fidelis
 
 



 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

If you have any information regarding any Marine who may have belonged to Kilo Co., please email us and share that information as we try to find more of our buddies.

Thank you.