By Bill Dial
Bill Dial lives in Alexandria, Virginia. He retired from the Navy in 1994.
This article was written, circa 1995, for the family of Walter Ripley Tyrrell
If you knew Rip Tyrrell you are among the truly blessed. If you knew him, you certainly remember him: bright kid, big heart, easy to talk to. I still talk to Rip. I say hi to Gary Norman Young too, but I talk to Rip. Gary and Rip died together, their names are very near each other on the black marble of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the "Wall," here in Washington. They were killed in the crash of a Marine Corps helicopter shot down in Vietnam in 1969. When I visit the wall every year around Memorial Day I say hello to the seven other Navy Corpsmen from my unit who were killed that year, most of them in helicopters that were shot down just like the one in which Gary and Rip died. I say hi to Gary but we don't really talk. I talk to Rip.
This year when I visit him, I'm going to tell him that I finally got the courage to call his family. I'll laugh and tell him I'd rather fly a night medevac mission than lay out my feelings like that. Only took me twenty-six years. Talked with his mom. She was so sweet I forgot that I was nervous. I should have known Rip's mom would be like that. She said Rip's dad died a few years ago. I told her how sorry I was that I never talked with him - never told him about his son.
Mrs. Tyrrell was a little surprised to hear from someone who had served with Rip. Seems most of what she knew about what happened came wrapped in the stiff prose the government uses to break bad news to families. I know about that because I wrote those words. My boss signed the letter but I wrote it. That stiffness helped us hide the tears and pain we young men were not allowed to express back then. But we cried when no one was looking and we drank too much and we vowed to get even with an enemy that probably was crying too.
I first met Rip when he picked me up at the headquarters of the First Marine Aircraft Wing at the big air base in Da Nang. I had arrived in Vietnam the day before. I was scared to death. I had been thoroughly brain-washed by some of the rear area heroes in the surgeon's office at headquarters. I learned later that it was some sort of initiation for FNG's, "friendly" new guys. "To you who is about to die, here's the one fingered salute. If the rockets don't get you, you'll die in a flaming helicopter crash." Rip laughed. What a pleasant change. "Not to worry," he said, "We haven't lost anyone in over a year." He made me feel at ease. I knew almost immediately that I had found a friend.
And friend he was. He showed me the chow hall - important to a twenty-three year old kid, where to get uniforms, all the stuff I needed to know. He volunteered to fly my break-in missions with me. Rip did that. He didn't want the hazers interfering with our primary mission, flying out to rescue Marines, soldiers an Vietnamese who had been badly hurt, most of the time from enemy contact, and then working, often in vain, to keep them alive until we reached the hospitals around Da Nang.
The medical evacuation mission, called medevac, was the most dangerous type of helicopter mission flown in Vietnam, followed by missions to extract reconnaissance teams that were in distress. Usually, the medevac crews flew both missions. Marine Corps medevac was different from the Army's equivalent, the famous "Dust Off" teams. We had no big red crosses to offer their meager protection against an enemy who cared little for the Geneva Convention. They had two, big, fifty caliber machine guns for protection and flew in pairs so that one "bird" could backup the other. The one thing that distinguished a medevac bird was the presence of a Navy Corpsman, trained as an air crewman. Those big machine guns made testosterone soup of our blood streams - no sissy red crosses for us. But this policy also made us fair game. And we paid the price.
It is true that war is a situation inflicted upon the younger by their elders. The product is a young warrior that affects an image of tough ruffian, full of bluster and impervious to the horrible tools invented by those same elders solely for the purpose of tearing kids to shreds. That's the way it was, is, and will always be. The kids who chose to care for the victims of war, the corpsmen and medics, are a little different. Their percentage of hormones in solution varied little from their combatant counterparts. And, yes, they were armed - most carried the issue M-16 in addition to a pistol. A few tried to look like little Pattons but most very conscious of their job - saving lives. So I had a choice, Patton or protector. Rip made the choice easy.
Rip's calm demeanor, his determination to keep his patients alive no matter what, his easy smile, his use of encouragement instead of denigration got me through the scary, scary first days of my job in Vietnam. He flew with me my first time. We picked up a young Marine who, less than an hour before, had both legs an an arm blown off by a land mine. Rip told me to go for it, encouraging me, gently suggesting ways to care for my patient. He could have taken over. He could have pushed me aside. But he didn't. When we started taking fire from the ground, the big machine guns opened up. The sound was terrifying, like the repeated slamming of the doors of hell. The bullets from the ground passing through the skin of the helicopter made little sporing noises and dots of sky appeared where green aluminum had been before. Rip steadied me with his gentle touch and we kept working on the young Marine.
Movies about Vietnam attract me like a moth to a flame. I know I'll hate them but I go anyway. I'll look for every little nit-picking technical error and I always bitch about how the troops are depicted. You never see the Marines who built the school, or dug the well, or held sick call in the village for the Vietnamese villagers whom, you knew, turned right around and gave the medicine to the enemy. But to win hearts and minds you care more for the bad guys than they do for you. Twice a week Rip grabbed his bag, his box of supplies, and with our Vietnamese nurse and one of our doctors, went to the village down the road from our base. The village, whose name I have forgotten, was at the base of a natural marble monolith appropriately called Marble Mountain. Recently, I saw a television program about former Viet Cong bases, one of which was inside the same Marble Mountain. But Rip went there willingly, sutured cuts, lanced abscesses, treated colds, removed nails, and performed dozens of other procedures to help the villagers. The same villagers who, by night, helped the enemy.
China Beach, immortalized by television, was in the backyard of our base, the Marble Mountain Air Facility or, simply, "Marble." We lived in metal roofed, plywood cabins called, affectionately, "hootches." Rip and eight other corpsmen and a Marine ambulance driver shared our hootch. Rip was the steady influence to all of us sharing our sand encrusted, bug infested cottage by the sea. He served as priest, surrogate parent, medical authority, and favorite nice guy. He never complained and he blew off the incessant teasing with good-natured ripostes and his charming smile.
Between Marble and China Beach was an orphanage run by Roman Catholic sisters. It was a sad place. Too many children crowded its dilapidated facilities. Too many were missing limbs or showed other horrible scars of a conflict the politics of which they knew nothing about. Rip frequently went to the orphanage alone, or recruited one of his buddies to come along. The sisters were not medically trained and spoke little English. Rip had learned enough Vietnamese to effectively communicate. He trained the sisters, he cared for the children, and he worried constantly about their care. When a measles epidemic slammed the orphanage, Rip got permission to spend several days there, bathing babies to keep the fever down. He knew the danger, the nights belonged to the bad guys, but he did it anyway.
Rip died doing for someone else, Hospitalman Gary Norman Young, what he did for me, helping Gary through those scary first medevac missions. They went in to pick up some Marines who had taken casualties from a booby trap. The mission was routine. No enemy was known to be nearby. But a big combat operation was going on and intelligence was not the best. Or, they may have been ambushed. It was not uncommon for the enemy to cause casualties among small patrols to lure a big helicopter in. After embarking the casualties, the helicopter lifted off to return to Da Nang. It didn't get far. Back at Marble we heard the news almost immediately, the thoroughly chilling, "Medevac bird is down in zone. No activity noted." Orbiting a few hundred feet above was the medevac's wing man, the "chase bird." The chase bird called in the emergency. When an aircrew is in distress, all available air assets, from little spotter airplanes to supersonic fighters make themselves available to assist. The Air Force dispatched one of their magnificent heliborne rescue teams to the scene. Under fire they dropped para-medics on the wreckage. One of the Marines was still alive, but barely. He died in spite of their efforts and the rescue team was extracted. A company of Marines was inserted into the area to recover the remains. The wreckage was destroyed. I know in those last few seconds, Rip had his hand on Gary's, calming him and urging him to focus on his patient. With the horrible din around him, I'm sure Gary was terrified. But Rip's calm leadership must have helped Gary just like it helped me.
Naval heroes get ships named after them and their pictures are prominently displayed at naval stations everywhere. Rip won't have a ship named for him and I doubt we will see his picture on any official wall. But I can tell you, Walter Ripley Tyrrell, Hospital Corpsman Second Class, United States Navy is a hero. Elmira can be proud of him. He represents the very best of your city, the United States Navy, and our country. On this Memorial Day, when I talk to Rip, I'm going to tell him how proud you are.
Maryellen Ennis, sister of Walter Ripley Tyrrell
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