PICKING UP THE PIECES


Here is my story. It's always so enlightening to compare each of our own remembrances of what went on while we were over in Viet Nam. Although we all seem to have our own thoughts on what actually went on, listening to everybody's stories helps me to remember what I experienced.

The event I recall the most vivid was on February 23rd,1971. That was the day Sp4-Gilbert Ruff was killed when he stepped on a booby-trapped bomb. Gilbert Ruff was the RTO for 2nd platoon leader LT Allen Boyd of B co. 2-506 infantry, 101st Airborne.

The way I remember that day is that it was a laid-back kind of a day. You know, that kind of day that you kick back and just enjoy the ease of the fact that there's nothing to do but wait for the choppers to take you back to the rear the next day.

We had been working an area 10 klicks due north of Ripcord and had just spent a couple of harried days down by the Ngon O Lau river chasing NVA that weren't interested in a confrontation. Even though 2nd platoon did have a brief firefight with the enemy, we in 1st platoon came away with only an injury to PFC Larry King when he tripped a booby trap when we walked into an NVA campsite with their cooking fire still smoking and clothes hanging on a clothesline, including a woman's bra, which we found rather strange at the time. Then we climbed to the top of the ridge line to wait to be pulled back to Firebase Jack in the next couple of days.

It was an existing LZ and NDP, so there wasn't the usual hard work of blowing and cutting the LZ. I remember the area very well, with the trees blown every which way. As I think back on it, the area had more than likely been cleared with a B-52 strike or something similar to that. I've got this picture in my mind exactly what the area looked like, and it's hard to put into words; but I'll try.

I was in 1st platoon, and the squad that I was in was set up on the opposite side of the LZ from the 2nd platoon, which was set up on top of a hill with the LZ located in the saddle between two hills. We were just past the LZ but down in the saddle with a stand of trees between us and the LZ and were just sitting with our rucksacks still packed as we weren't assigned to our NDP yet. Someone brought out a deck of cards, and we proceeded to get a game of spades going when Gilbert Ruff happened along and saw our game going on and stopped to chat.

Well, we invited him to sit down and join us in a game, and he set his ruck down and became my partner. We proceeded to beat everybody that cared to play against us. It seems to me that we sat and played for several hours, him sitting on his ruck and me on mine. We talked about our homes and families back in the world, and he told me about his wife and little girl. We laughed at just about anything either of us said, and we claimed that no one could beat us at spades; and on this day no one did. I remember joking about him being a junior as if he might be an aristocrat or something like that, and we laughed; and I can still see him sitting back on his ruck busting a gut laughing so hard.

That reminds me that when I talked to Jeff Taylor, from 2nd platoon, he said he was talking to Gilbert; and Gilbert was laughing when the explosion occurred. Jeff said he was only about 15 feet away when the bomb went off. One second Gilbert was walking along laughing, and the next he was gone.

When it came time to set up for the night, Gilbert and I said we would get together the next day and play some more spades; and he picked up his ruck and wandered off across the LZ and back up the hill to where his platoon was. I proceeded to set up an NDP for the night when I heard an explosion and saw a ball of smoke go up from the top of the hill where 2nd platoon was setting up for the evening.

Rumors of what happened started to filter down, and then I heard it was Gilbert that disappeared. I can't remember if it was that evening or the next morning, but I remember I walked up to the sight of the explosion; and I can still very vividly see the hole in the canopy. It must have been that evening because I ran into Jeff Taylor on top of the hill, and he told me how he was only 15 feet away when the bomb went off.

When I talked to former 3rd platoon leader LT Art Olsen, he too remembers being on the LZ the day Gilbert Ruff was killed. Art mentioned that he had just come out from Camp Evans and had just gotten off the bird when he heard the explosion that killed Gilbert, and he said he could remember hearing Lt Allen Boyd call for Gilbert on the radio. His voice was almost a cry as if he were hoping that Gilbert had just walked off somewhere.

Then we formed a line down the side of the hill and walked around the perimeter in search of anything we could find of Gilbert. I never did find anything, but I do remember picking up a green sandbag weighing about six or seven pounds with a tag tied around it and placing it into a helicopter to be taken back to the rear.

Then I basically forgot it ever happened until about the fall of 1990. I was in the process of quitting drugs and alcohol when these visions of that day came roaring back into my head. When these visions first came back, they were so vivid that I could see Gilbert's face; and I tried to read his name tag because I couldn't remember his name.

The final vision, besides the ones of Gilbert sitting on his ruck and leaning back laughing and of the hole up through the canopy and of myself loading the bag on the bird, is like I'm looking down from above at myself lying on a grave presumably of Gilbert; and I always wondered how I would fulfill this vision.

I went out to visit the Viet Nam Memorial in 1991 and again in 1992, and it became even more apparent the need to know the name of this person that seemed to have such an impact on my life. And thus began my search for members of my old company with the hope that maybe someone might remember details better than me.

Since then, I have located twenty-two members of my former company including Jeff Taylor who was able to finally inform me of the identity of Gilbert Ruff of Florisant, MO. We are hoping to get together at a reunion in conjuncture with the 101st Airborne Division Association in Knoxville, TN, this coming July 30 & 31, and Aug 1 & 2, 1997.

Christopher Garrett


copyright © 1996 by Christopher Garrett, all rights reserved


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