Stories from Ripcord

Here are stories about events that happened during the Battle for Firebase Ripcord written by the soldiers that were there and also stories by their families or friends 

Patrick DeWulf   KIA   7/20/1970
by Evan DeWulf

50 years ago tonight our brother Pat was killed in action in Vietnam. I wanted to share some details from that day and reflections about his life in order to honor him and the brave soldiers who went through this ordeal with him. It took us over 40 years to learn what happened to Pat and much of the detail came from the fine souls tagged in this post, first found in a Facebook group and later met in person.

Patrick DeWulf was born on January 8th, 1951 in suburban Detroit. He was the sixth child and fifth boy to Harold and Ruby DeWulf – who would go to have four more boys. He was slightly built and of smaller stature and did not excel in academics or sports like his older siblings. What he lacked in these areas, however, he more than made up for with his personality…which was charismatic, funny, likable and loyal. He had an ability to get along with anyone. He was also a handsome lad and received plenty of attention from the girls. At 18 years old Pat contemplated his future, it was the summer of 1969. He decided to enlist in the Army, which was an unpopular decision both culturally and within our home. Mom was extremely upset with the decision, so much so that as a 4-year-old at her knee, I vividly remember her emotional reaction. There is some debate as to why he enlisted but without a doubt he cared for the country, had a sense of duty and was disappointed with the Anti-War movement. Some say he wanted to impress our father, himself an Army Air Corps veteran who flew bombing campaigns over Europe in WW II. Others might say he wanted to go make his own mark and get away from his disciplined father. Two of his older brothers were in the military as well, perhaps they inspired him. In any case, Pat committed to his decision, and by the end of 1969 was through his training as a member of the US Army’s 101st Airborne Division.

By early 1970 the US had begun the process of troop withdrawal in Vietnam. As the only full-strength division remaining in Vietnam, the 101st was ordered to conduct an offensive operation near the A Shau valley. Much of the activity in this theatre was around Firebase Ripcord, a steep, fortified hill that provided the higher-ground needed to control the surrounding areas. The battle officially began on March 12, 1970. On July 1 the NVA stepped-up the effort to siege the firebase and brought significant resources to do the job.

On July 20, Pat’s platoon combat assaulted into an area near Ripcord. Tragedy befell the 101st two days earlier when ramped-up attacks by the NVA took out a re-supply Chinook helicopter, resulting in the loss of life, equipment, ammo, fuel and morale. Prior to departure, an Army Chaplain visited with them; they knew there was going to be some heavy action. The minute they got off the Huey that was confirmed, evidence of enemy presence was everywhere. At about 5:00 in the afternoon, Pat was on a reconnaissance mission in the slack (2nd) position behind trusted point man Eloy Valle, his training buddy from Rio Grande, Texas. The NVA had a well-camouflaged mortar position and their troops ambushed the squad as they crept up on it. Valle was killed instantly and Pat was gravely wounded. A hellish firefight ensued. As Pat screamed in pain, another enemy ran over and shot him point blank the stomach. Fortunately, Dale Tauer was still within range and killed the enemy with a shot to the back (Dale’s subsequent wounding by a RPG and rescue by his friend Randy Benck is an incredibly heroic story). Several others in the platoon had been wounded in the intense fight. The rest of the platoon was told to retreat. Bill Browning, a relatively new guy from Lyerly, Georgia, decided against that. He told his CO to carry his own radio; he was going down to get to Pat and Valle. Sadly, this monumental act of courage cost him his life, he was not seen alive again. Once regrouped, the gunners, including Jim McCoy and Merle Delagrange, set up machine guns to lay down a continuous sheet of bullets- and brass-balled soldiers like Terry Hodges crawled underneath in an attempt to retrieve the KIA’s/WIA’s. The effort was unsuccessful and left the troops heartbroken that they could not rescue them…but darkness was setting in. It was later learned that the NVA had moved the KIA’s and WIA’s, likely to set up another ambush knowing our men would do everything in their power to not leave them behind. Even worse, that night as the battered squads hunkered down in their night defensive position, they could hear our captured men, presumably Pat and/or Bill Browning, screaming. Moments later the muffled sounds of gunfire ended their lives. The next morning did not provide an opportunity for recovery either – the NVA launched a full-scale mortar attack at sunrise on the survivors, which produced another set of incredible acts of bravery.

Within 72 hours the Ripcord battle came to a dramatic, tragic end. Killed in the final hours were heroes like Captain Donald Workman, who absolutely loved Pat. The West Point grad was due to go home to get married but wasn’t sold on his successor’s abilities to navigate a tough combat situation. He stayed over to see men through. Horrifically, he was cut in two by a crashing helicopter blade trying to get men evacuated on the 21st. Another Ripcord hero was Bob Kalsu, the former Oklahoma All-American and starting guard for the Buffalo Bills. Bob lost his life on the 21st in the hail of mortars raining onto the Firebase. His wife gave birth to a baby boy two days later. Even the commanding officer of the Battalion, Lt. Col Andre Lucas, lost his life on the last day of the battle, displaying great courage and valor evacuating his men from the Firebase. For this act of extraordinary courage he earned the Medal of Honor posthumously.

The battle was a depressing, resounding defeat. In retrospect it was predictable – the NVA had 10,000 troops in the area, we never had more than 600. It would turn out to be the last major ground battle of the war and was kind of a microcosm of the war itself. It was also largely forgotten as there was little media coverage and no appetite to hear more depressing stories like Hamburger Hill, which happened a year earlier. As for Pat’s body, along with Bill Browning, Valle and others – the Army did indeed go back two weeks later to retrieve them. It wasn’t without drama as some pilots were not crazy about the difficult and dangerous duty. As a result, the highest-ranking man in the theatre, Colonel Benjamin Harrison, gathered a team and personally flew the mission to retrieve them. I had the honor to thank the retired Major General for that a few years ago and have a beer with his door gunner. Both said it was among the toughest assignments they ever carried out.

The war was a waste for so many of our young men, especially at that stage. But Pat’s life was not in vain. His legacy lives on in me, my children, brothers/sister, nieces/nephews and the men he was with. He imparted values to me and our family by his sacrifice, which left us with a profound respect for all those who serve. Knowing what he went through has provided great perspective. Whenever I think I’m having a difficult day, I’m grounded by what a bad day really looks like. His courage, bravery and heart inspires us to face life’s challenges with a never-EVER-give-up attitude. Reflecting on his bravery to enter an enemy underground jungle tunnel as he did, what could we face today that could make us fearful? And when life is challenging, as it is now, you make the best of a bad circumstance and do your best to smile, which he did often. It’s not about how you die in this life, it’s about how you live. And he certainly lived.

Pat is buried in Michigan but I imagine his spirit spends a lot of time at the Wall with his beloved friends and fellow soldiers who perished with him. He loved the camaraderie. We will see him down the trail and he will be just as handsome, funny, brave and gregarious as he was then. God bless you brother and all those who have perished for our freedoms and liberties, which we enjoy every day. Your legacy will never be forgotten. And God Bless the men who battled alongside him and survived, who have for so many years carried the burden of survivor guilt. You went over and above the call of duty during this epic battle and have our family’s eternal gratitude. You warriors have been a light and are a joy to be around. You embody all that is good, virtuous and brave. The love for your fellow soldier and teamwork you exhibited under unimaginable stress is truly something to behold and a model for future generations. It’s an honor to know you. Currahee!