In Contact

By Charlie Vallance

War, children, it’s just a shot away

It’s just a shot away

The Rolling Stones, “Gimme Shelter”

In Vietnam, ‘in contact’ usually meant one of two things.  You were in radio contact with nearby friendlies or you were in much closer and much less friendly contact with the VC or NVA.  In either case, the radio operator was in the middle of things.  Radio operators, or RTOs, as the Army called them, were a different breed.  They carried the field radio, the PRC 25.  The ‘Prick’ 25 as it was fondly called by grunts in the field, weighed 23.5 pounds.  I watched my radio operator hump one for seven months secretly thankful I wasn’t the one carrying it.

The radio operator carried everything a rifleman carried plus the radio and its accessories.  This included extra handsets, antennas, and as many spare batteries as possible; because what mattered was that it worked when we needed it to work.  A ‘25 could summon food, water, life saving medivacs, and all manner of death and destruction.  It was the Holy Grail and the radio operator was the keeper of the grail.

Every radio operator I had while I was in the bush probably weighted under 150 pounds.  How that happened, I have no idea.  Did they volunteer to prove they could hack it, or was it just another perverse Marine Corps joke?  What I do know was that they all did their jobs with a degree of skill and dedication that I remain in awe of.

It was a dangerous job.  The platoon radio operator was always within arm’s reach of the platoon commander.  Actually he couldn’t be more than about 36″ away since that was roughly the length of the handset cable stretched tight.  In a firefight, we made a pretty tempting target.  We weren’t hard to spot what with the antenna sticking up and the two of us running around like Siamese twins connected by a wire.

Radio operators had to be smart as well as cool under fire.  A good radio operator could do what the platoon commander could do with a radio; often better.  He could make us look good, save our lives, or he could get us all killed just by talking into his handset.  It was a lot to ask of 19 year olds, but without fail, they delivered.

In the period between December 1968 and July 1969, our platoon spent most of its time in the bush.  We did a lot of walking.  Christopher John Ricetti carried the platoon radio, his personal gear, his ammo, and his weapon – often in the rain or 110 degree heat – without a single complaint.  For this alone, he had the deep and abiding respect of the entire platoon.  But Chris did much more than that.

Christopher John Ricetti, right

Christopher John Ricetti, right

Chris became my platoon radio operator shortly after I arrived in Vietnam.  The picture shows us together around that time.  He had already been in country for several months, so by comparison, was a seasoned veteran with a boot lieutenant on his hands.  Chris accepted me from the start and in his own unique way helped to show me how things should be done. He taught me C-Ration recipes, he taught me what I really needed to know about the radio he carried, and he taught me a lot about leadership. He also taught me humility and courage.

We were together until July 3rd 1969.  We spent more than one wet chilly night, snuggled up under a poncho liner taking turns on radio watch. Regardless of the conditions or how he felt, Chris went about his duties with good humor, competence, and a boyish optimism.  The longer we were together, the more I came to depend on him.  In combat, a Platoon Commander has a lot of responsibilities.  A good radio operator, who understands those responsibilities can make a difference in the outcome of a life and death situation.  Chris’ devotion to his duties and to his fellow Marines made such a difference on more than one occasion.

Chris was close friends with my first squad leader who was a big southern boy from Mobile, Alabama.  Chris was a skinny Yankee kid from Long Island, New York.  They couldn’t have been more different in stature or demeanor but had somehow become fast friends in boot camp.  They had also been in country a lot longer than me, and I depended on them both.

That hot July one day before Independence Day, we were at a small fire base in the ‘Arizona Territory’ southwest of Da Nang.  The platoon was resting and preparing to go out on patrol.  As the squad leader was checking weapons, he picked up Chris’ 45 and pulled back the slide.  He didn’t notice there was a full magazine in the pistol.  He released the slide and pulled the trigger.

I was in my hooch when several of my Marines ran in and told me that Chris had been shot in the shoulder.  How bad can that be I thought?  When I got to him, he didn’t seem to be in a lot of pain, but his face was gray.  The wound was a dark red circle on the outer part of his upper shoulder.  There was no blood.  There was no exit wound.  It didn’t look all that serious, but his gray face told a different story.  The Corpsman had already called for a medivac.

Because we were in a relatively secure area not too far from Da Nang, the medivac arrived in minutes.  As we put him on the helicopter, Chris looked at me and said, “Don’t worry Lieutenant, I’ll be OK”.  I’m pretty sure he knew otherwise, but he wasn’t about to start complaining now.  We were told later that he died before the chopper reached Da Nang.

Rarely a day goes by that I don’t think about Chris.  If I was talking to his family, I would tell them that regardless of whether Chris’ fellow marines are able to tell them, I can say with conviction that they will carry his memory with them for the rest of their lives.  I know I will.  I can only guess at the pain of losing a child, but as a father and a grandfather, I now have some sense of it.  If sharing the pain can be of any consolation, then they should know that Chris’ Marine brothers have shared in their grief.

I only knew Chris for seven months, but after almost a lifetime, he’s still with me.  Years later, I was told that on the day he was shot, I picked Chris up in my arms, carried him to the LZ, and laid him gently on the deck of the medivac chopper.  I honestly don’t have a clear recollection of this, but I hope it’s true.  I’d like to think that we were ‘in contact’ this one last time.

Charlie Vallance served in Vietnam from 1968-69 as a platoon commander with Hotel Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines.  He lives in Indian Harbour Beach, Florida with his wife Marianne, where he works for Underwater Engineering Services, Inc. as Vice President of Nuclear Power Services. He has two daughters, Susan and Catherine, and one grandchild.