Nightmare at Nui Ba Den – Combat photographer shot at Black Virgin Mountain

Staff Sgt. Ray Jewett received three Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart as a combat photographer in Vietnam during his two tours of duty. He almost died after being shot in the neck by an enemy bullet during a battle at Black Virgin Mountain while filming a Special Forces unit in 1964.  Photo provided by Dick Hornyak

Staff Sgt. Raymond Jewett was a combat photographer in July 1964 attached to the U.S. military Assistance Command in Vietnam.

His assignment: Accompany a U.S. Special Forces strike company camped near Nui Ba Den, South Vietnam, into enemy territory. The unit was planning an attack on Black Virgin Mountain in the Tay Ninh Province, along the Cambodian border. The mountain was a Viet Cong stronghold honeycombed with hidden enemy tunnels and caves.

The Special Forces team rendezvoused with a group of South Vietnam civilian construction workers and escorted them the final 10 miles to a remote construction site. Just before Jewett and his unit made contact with them, the V.C. knocked out the work force’s bulldozer leading the procession with an electronically detonated land mine buried in the dirt road they were traveling.

Members of a U.S. Special Forces strike force begin an attack on Black Virgin Mountain, a Viet Cong stronghold in South Vietnam, during the summer of 1964. This is where Sgt. Jewett as shot and nearly killed. Photo provided by Dick Hornyak

“Then the Viet Cong set off another mine beneath one of the trucks transporting the construction workers,” the sergeant wrote in his account of the battle. “I stared in disbelief and horror as limp bodies of Vietnamese workers flew through the air like bundles of old rags tossed helter-skelter.”

The V.C. opened up on the helpless workers with automatic weapons at close range. The guerrillas had the South Vietnamese workers and the Special Forces surrounded. The enemy was pouring weathering fire on them.

The American unit called in attack helicopters to quell the V.C. assault. When it subsided 28 civilians, mostly women and children, had been injured. They were treated at the front for wounds and the most serious were taken to the rear for additional treatment at a hospital. Eight adults and two children died in the firefight.

After the V.C. attack on the convoy was over, Jewett wandered around the Special Forces’ jungle camp taking candid pictures of team members in the field. Staff Sgt. Clement McGee invited the photographer on a patrol with his unit. He accepted the invitation.

Staff Sgt. Jewett, squatting on the right, is pictured with members of the Special Force he was photographing at Ban Ba, South Vietnam the day before he was shot during a fire fight with a Viet Cong guerrilla unit. Photo provided by Dick Hornyak

The Special Forces objective: Destroy the Viet Cong guerrillas and their mountain hideout. Before their assault on nearby Black Virgin Mountain stronghold the Green Berets called in the airstrikes on their objective.

“As the planes flew away a brief lull developed. Then the Viet Cong opened fire. The assault force returned their fire and advanced toward the base of the mountain,” Jewett wrote. “I accompanied the Vietnamese soldiers on the right flank in the assault on the V.C. positions. I well remember charging with my pistol in one hand and my camera in the other, yelling like a banshee to give encouragement to our advancing soldiers.

“Continuous rifle fire was heavy on both flanks. We moved into dense foliage where it was extremely difficult to distinguish friend from foe until you were uncomfortably close.”

The South Vietnamese soldiers and Jewett moved forward into a rice paddy under extremely heavy enemy fire.

“I looked to my left for a better camera angle when something slammed into me knocking me on the ground. The impact from the bullet tore through my throat and left a gaping hole in the left side of my neck.

“I felt very tired and heavy, but I knew I would have to leave the pool of mud and blood or I would die. I managed to get to my feet and started walking toward the command post.

“The South Vietnamese soldiers were laying on the ground all around me firing at the enemy. They motioned to me to take cover as the firing was quite heavy.

“Eventually two of the troops came to my assistance. The roar of a low-flying helicopter cut through the sound of the gunfire. The chopper swooped over the area as we made urgent signs for it to come down. The firing was so heavy the copter ducked down behind some distant trees.

“I wondered if I could make it to the helicopter before the pilot was forced to take off again. Each step I took became more difficult than the one before. I finally reached the flying ambulance. It never looked so good to anyone as it did to me the moment I made it to the door.

“Then I began choking on my own blood that was filling my throat. The Army doctor aboard the helicopter removed my shirt and began treating my wound.

“I kept wondering whether the helicopter would be shot down as we had to travel a considerable distance over Viet Cong territory. I looked up and saw Sgt. McGee sitting near me with blood oozing from his right arm. He had an artery severed in two places.

“‘Hi Ray,’ he grinned.

“The medic had placed a tourniquet on his injured arm and was giving him blood in the other. McGee told me, ‘The Viet Cong also zapped Sgt. 1st Class Charles Minnicks, but not seriously.’

“Our helicopter landed at the Vietnamese 3rd Corps Headquarters. We were placed in an ambulance and taken to the U.S. Naval Hospital in downtown Saigon.”

On his second tour to Vietnam in the early 1970s Sgt. Jewett took this photo in Saigon of American and Vietnam leaders. From the left: Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, Gen. Maxwell Taylor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., a Vietnamese general and Gen. Paul Harkins, American commander in Vietnam. Photo provided by Dick Hornyak

Jewett made it stateside sometime later and wound up in Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, D.C., where it took him six months to recover from the V.C. bullet hole in his throat.

In the early 1970s, he returned to Vietnam as a combat photographer on a second tour of duty. He survived without incident the second time around in Southeast Asia. He retired from the Army after completing 20 years of service in the military.

This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Sunday, April 17, 2005 and is republished with permission.

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  1. survived 91 days (four tours) or 25% of my time in Vietnam atop Nui as radio operator for 21 TASS 1972. worked with Rustics, Sundogs, and Specters 130s plus fighter bombers coordinating airstrikes along border An Loc battle and into Cambodia

  2. Back in 1969, I enlisted into the Army, and went to Vietnam as a common 11B Infantryman. I volunteered to walk point in my platoon in January 1970, on Operation Cliff Dweller IV. I was with A Co., 3rd/22nd/25th. We were sweeping along the base of Nui Ba Den, and were ambushed. I was shot going to assist a downed chopper. I was medevacked by a brave chopper crew whom took rounds while they picked me up. Out of the 26 guys in my platoon, only eight guys were uninjured when I was lifted out.

  3. Although we had signal M.O.S.’s, a couple dozen of us from Co B (possibly from other companies too) of the 125th Signal Battalion in Cu Chi, volunteered 7-1-1968 to provide security(nightly bunker guard) for an important signal site in tay Ninh. We got flown (NO truck convoy!) to tay ninh, got on two Chinooks and ended up at a US Army retransmission site 3000+ feet atop Nui Ba Dinh mountain!! We spend 6 weeks on that pile of giant boulders, in clouds/fog so heavy you couldn’t see a foot in the dark of night! We got gassed one night, mortared by our own guys, A Huey crashed within 50 yards, stopped a certain attack with 6 M-79 HE rounds one night, had shit detail a time or two, and it was cold and damp every long night! Replacements(11bravo)finally arrived via two Chinooks within an hour break in the cloud cover and we got down to tay ninh base camp. The signal site was attacked less than 8 hours later!! This was 8-17-1968. They repulsed the attack and killed 25 soldiers while suffering 5 KIA and many wounded. A soldier was given a medal for heroism that night! I’ve found out years later that this same signal site was overrun may 13,1968 and 25 soldiers were killed and a couple taken prisoner! We were never told this info when they looking for volunteers!
    Also found out that yes it was a radio retransmission site between Danang and Long Binh; but the more important mission of the site was a highly secure NSA Listening post directly connected to NSA worldwide! I’m not certain if they were also Involved in coordinating air support for army patrols. Vernon J Hall Co B 125th Signal Battalion 4-13-68 to 4-15-69

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