Veterans Voices: Fighting to survive a Viet Cong ambush

Veterans Voices

WINCHESTER, Va. (WDVM) — A Marine from Frederick County did three combat tours in Vietnam, but the last one almost cost him his life.

Captain Jesse Riley began his career in the United States Marine Corps as a Private but reluctantly received back-to-back battlefield promotions when his platoon leader and company commander were killed during his third tour in Vietnam. “I told my battalion commander I didn’t want to be an officer,” said Riley, “But he told me you don’t have a choice.” The third tour turned ugly when Riley and 14 other Marines approached a village they had swept four or five times.

“We asked a young Major if we could check it out again to make sure Charlie [the name GI’s gave Viet Cong guerillas] wasn’t using it as a base camp for operations against Marines like the “Snake Battalion,” a little-known unit in the First Marine Division. Riley says the Major said, “No. We’ve checked it out enough.” That’s when all Hell broke loose.

“They [the Viet Cong] were coming out of trees, out of houses and out of the ground,” said Riley who was a sergeant at the time.

“Out of fifteen, there was only three of us left living. The commanding officer got killed. Men were falling all around. We were just fighting with anything we could get our hands on,” said Riley as he talked for the first time about killing an enemy soldier up close and personal. Riley still bears the scars of that deadly encounter.

“I killed him, but he got me across the face with a machete,” said Riley as pointed to an ugly scar on his forehead which extended down his check and across his chin. “He buried the machete in my skull and then pulled it down across the left side of my face, leaving my eyeball hanging on my check before slicing me across the chin below my lip.”

When Sgt. Riley was shot six times, once in each knee, twice in the belly and twice in the back, he dropped his M-16 rifle and sank to his knees. Seeing his enemy was defenseless, the Viet Cong guerilla came charging out of a treeline swinging his machete.

After trying to carve him up like a Thanksgiving turkey, Riley, weakened by loss of blood, managed to grab the guerilla by the belt buckle and pull him close.

Although he had dropped his rifle, sergeants like Riley always carried .45 caliber semi-automatic pistols in the waistbands of their fatigues. With the last ounce of strength he could muster, Riley pulled out the pistol, and while holding onto his enemy close, he fired several times into his stomach, killing the man who tried to kill him.

“I was busted up pretty bad,” said Riley, who laid on the battlefield for several hours until fellow Marines found him and his two badly wounded buddies.

“While I laid there,” said Riley, “I pulled the pins on two grenades I was carrying and put them under me; so that if the Viet Cong came back and rolled me over, I would take them with me.”

After what seemed like an eternity, Riley felt someone shake him on the shoulder. “Don’t let go of those grenades,” yelled the grunt who found him. Riley was blinded by the blood pouring from his head and couldn’t see the Marine who was bent over him. “I’m next to you, but don’t move,” said the Marine who found the pins and “safed” the grenades before calling for a Navy corpsman to put Riley’s eyeball back in its socket and bandage his wounds.

Captain Riley still suffers physically and mentally from what happened almost a half century ago. “I wake up at night in a cold sweat, needing a weapon, but there ain’t one,”said Riley who is 100 percent disabled. The bullets are still in his back. And he’s in constant pain, but he told me he would do it all over again, because he loves his country.

“I wouldn’t hesitate. I’d just do it. I got one life to give to my country, and I’d give it all I got,” said Riley as the interview for Veterans Voices ended.

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