NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ – It was Ray Taylor’s last patrol in Vietnam, just before midnight on July 3, 1967. The 21-year-old Marine sergeant should have been sleeping, but he was going home in a couple of weeks and felt a little wired.
About a mile and a half away on top of the Nong Son Mountain – the site of the only active coal mine in Vietnam – Marine Corporal John Kuchar was asleep in his bunker when he became involved in the bloodiest battle of his 13-month tour.
Kuchar credits Taylor, a Rutgers University-Newark alumnus, for saving his life. Taylor is among the thousands of Rutgers graduates who have served – and sometimes died – in American military conflicts throughout the university’s nearly 250-year history. He has recorded his experiences as part of the Rutgers Oral History Archives, home to one of the nation’s largest collections of personal accounts.
“If it wasn’t for Ray, I wouldn’t be here,” said Kuchar, a Marine in the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Division, and a buddy for almost 50 years, who met Taylor in 1968 after the two had left Vietnam and enrolled in Union County College. “I’ll always consider him to be my guardian angel.”
Taylor, who graduated from Rutgers University-Newark in 1971 with a degree in economics, arrived in Vietnam on June 14, 1966 after serving one tour in Guantanamo Bay. His jobs ranged from a machine-gunner, scout and sniper, to commander of the recon platoon and liaison at the division headquarters.
On the night of the attack at the mine, Taylor and another Marine in his reconnaissance platoon were sitting on top of an observation hill located on the other side of the Song Thu Bon River. Recon’s job is to be the eyes and ears of larger units, to find the bad guys before sending in the infantry, and going on to their next patrol.
While the two Marines noticed a firefight on the Nong Son Mountain, they didn’t think much about it until it intensified. Looking through binoculars from a spot that offered 360-degree views on a clear day, all they could see that night was darkness. It was 11:30 p.m. and pitch black.
Taylor remembers thinking that if the enemy made it up the hill, which stretched a thousand feet above the river, it could be catastrophic. He didn’t learn until later that 400 Vietcong and North Vietnamese were overrunning the 59 Marines and three soldiers atop Nong Son. The attackers, led by a Chinese officer, used mortars, satchel charges, grenades, small arms, and even a flamethrower.
With the assistance of another Marine, Taylor used his radio to contact the 2nd Battalion - 5th Marine base eight-and-a-half miles away at An Hoa for artillery support. “They wanted me to give them a grid so they could fire to the top of the hill. But it’s risky because you don’t want to kill your own.”
Taylor calculated the firing data. Four rounds were fired, each miraculously landing atop the hill 25 yards from Kuchar, driving the North Vietnamese and Vietcong away and helping to save Kuchar’s life and dozens of his fellow Marines.
“I found out many years later that if we hadn’t fired the artillery when we did nobody would have survived the attack,” said Taylor, who was with Bravo Company 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Division. Of the 62 troops atop Nong Son, 43 were wounded, 13 were killed and only 12 – including Kuchar – could walk.
Taylor participated in about 45 reconnaissance operations during his 13-month tour and received a Purple Heart after being wounded when he was hit by shrapnel. His mission at the coal mine less than two weeks before he left Vietnam and his first, two days after he arrived, following the June 15, 1966 Battle of Hill 488 or Howard’s Hill, were two he will never forget.
“They thought the enemy was going to attack the Special Forces Camp about six miles away so they sent us in,” said Taylor. “I was a machine-gunner so as soon as I got there they put me in a pit and told me to keep my eye out.”
The camp was never hit, but two U.S. aircraft did come under enemy fire and Taylor spent hours helping to tend to the wounded and dead.
One incident of the war that will always be seared in Taylor’s memory: A lieutenant ordering the troops to fire on a low hill at the enemy. The round came in short, hit directly behind Taylor, killed his assistant machine-gunner and wounded four others. A few months later, the same officer ordered Taylor to fire artillery through what he considered to be friendly villages. Taylor refused.
“It was all about morality,” said Taylor who faced being court-martialed for disregarding the order of an officer and cancelling the mission. “It was something I knew I shouldn’t do and that’s all there was to it.”
Military brass agreed and a month after the February 1967 incident, Taylor was promoted from corporal to sergeant.
When Taylor returned home to New Jersey in July of 1967, he considered signing up for another tour but meeting Kuchar and other Vietnam veterans at Union County College before transferring to Rutgers-Newark made the transition back to civilian life easier.
The 70-year-old retiree, who spent his career in supermarket logistics, is still amazed when he looks back at his transformation – from a kid who graduated from Barringer High School in Newark not sure what he wanted to do – to a Marine running a platoon and working in a war room.
“I was 21 years old and I’m wondering what happened to my life,” said Taylor, of Flemington, who has been involved in veteran organizations including the commander of the New Jersey chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart. “I never dreamed I would be leading men in combat, let alone a recon team.”