In February 1968, two platoons of Marines from a combat base near Khe Sanh went out on a combat patrol. Ronald Ridgeway, just 18-years-old at the time, was one of those Marines. He and 26 of his fellow Marines would not be coming back that night, their patrol would live on, forever known as “The Ghost Patrol.”
A Marine lieutenant lost his way around the area and accidentally led his Marines into a devastating ambush. Ridgeway was shot in the shoulder. Others took much more serious wounds. When the ambush was over, the North Vietnamese walked through the grim melee, popping rounds into Marines to ensure their job was done. Ridgeway was grazed by a bullet that shook his body. The NVA figured he was dead.
So did the Marine Corps.
A 1973 photo of Ronald Ridgeway.
Many of the ambushed Marines were dead, including two of Ridgeway’s closest friends. Through the night, the young man survived an American artillery barrage and excessive bleeding. He woke to an NVA soldier trying to pull off his watch. For six weeks, the remains of those Marines were left. It turns out there were upwards of 20,000 NVA troops moving to assault the Combat Base at Khe Sanh, defended by just 6,000 Marines.
At first, Ridgeway was listed as missing in action, but after the survivors of the ambush made their way back to Khe Sanh and the battlefields couldn’t be cleared, there was little hope for him. The Marines declared him killed in action. His funeral was held Sept. 10, 1968 in St. Louis. His family and friends mourned the loss of their young Marine. By then, Ridgeway had been a POW for seven months.
Ridgeway in 2013.
The NVA soldier taking his watch didn’t kill him, he just put him in leg stocks and marched him to a jungle POW camp. Eventually, the young Ridgeway found himself in North Vietnam’s Hanoi Hilton. He was beaten and starved, but he survived. He sat in a lonesome cell, with just a wooden bed and a bucket that he emptied in a courtyard once a day.
He was there for nearly five long years before the Paris Peace Accords meant he was headed home before the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. When the list of returning troops was released, Ridgeway’s family was shocked to see their son’s name included on that list.
Ridgeway getting a hug from then-First Lady of California Nancy Reagan and California Governor Ronald Reagan upon returning home in 1973.
“I came back in basically one piece,” he told the Washington Post. “I came back able to live my life. . . . We went over with a job to do. We did it to the best of our ability. We were lucky enough to come back.”
Another place he wanted to see his name listed was his own tombstone. He and his wife visited that several months after he returned home: “Ambushed Patrol Died in Vietnam Feb. 25, 1968… Ronald L. Ridgeway.”