Marine Cpl. Ray Kelley led his machine-gun team through hell in Vietnam

Ray Kelley of Port Charlotte was the leader of a four-man machine-gun squad in Vietnam. During his tour in 1966 and ’67 he was involved in 24 operations including one firefight where he received the “Silver Star” and “Purple Heart.”

The citation accompanying his “Silver Star” reads in part:

“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity against the enemy as a machine-gun team leader with Company D, 1st Battalion 3rd Marine Division in the Republic of Vietnam. On May 18,1967 Lance Corporal Kelley’s unit was executing a relief mission for an adjacent company pinned down by enemy fire.

He aggressively maneuvered his machine-gun team onto a high vantage point from which his team provided observation and devastating supportive fire. As the enemy fire on his position intensified, his team sustained multiple casualties. Disregarding his own safety, Lance Corporal Kelley repeatedly placed himself in the open in order to assist the wounded Marines to the command post where they could receive medical attention.

Undaunted by the danger, he regarded his fighting position, and ignoring his own wounds, murderously engaged the enemy until they broke contact. Cpl. Kelley’s selfless and bold actions, courage under fire, and devotion to duty, reflected great credit upon him and were in keeping with the highest tradition of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.

“Signed,
“Secretary of the Navy”

In his own words Kelley put it this way, “We were doing a company sweep in the Demilitarized Zone, (separating North and South Vietnam). I looked up on this rise in front of us and saw this guy with a .30 cal. machine-gun he opened up on us. The NVA (North Vietnams Army) had set up a horseshoe ambush to trap us.

Cpl. Kelley and his four-man machin gun team in Vietnam in 1966: Kelley, Clarence Dickens, Glenn Close, and Bill Peters. Photo provided

KODAK Digital Still CameraCpl. Kelley and his four-man machin gun team in Vietnam in 1966: Kelley, Clarence Dickens, Glenn Close, and Bill Peters. Photo provided

“When he fired at us we moved forward toward the rise,” he explained. “The DMZ is flat and sandy and has little protective cover. As we approached the little rise the enemy rained grenades down on us. Thank God they weren’t fragmentation grenades. We had already received 1,500 incoming artillery rounds across the DMZ earlier in the day.

‘My A-gunner, a rifleman in our platoon with an M-16, and I decided to charge the people on the hill. My A-gunner helps me with my machine-gun. I was carrying an M-60. We fought to the top of the little rise and drove the enemy back down the hill.

“Unfortunately there was a sniper off to our right shooting at us from the trees. I could see smoke from his rifle in the trees.

“The guy carrying the M-16 rifle got shot in the leg. I left my machine-gun and carried him down to the bottom of the hill,” Kelley recalled. “On my way back up the hill I found one of my other men shot in the helmet. The bullet went all the way around his helmet and took the tip of his ear off. He was dazed. I told him, ‘You better pull yourself together or the enemy will kill all of us.’

“When I got back up to the little rise I discovered my A-gun helper had gotten shot in his right leg. He was screaming in pain as I pulled him back down the hill for treatment.

“Back up the hill I went to get behind my machine-gun. I pulled the gun’s cocking lever back and opened it up. There was no bolt in the gun. It wouldn’t fire! My A-man had taken the bolt from the gun and put it in his pocket, but I didn’t know it at the time.

“I had to run back down the hill for some grenades. About the time I threw the grenades at the close-by enemy a “Skyraider” fighter plane from the South Vietnamese Air Force flew over and emptied its .20 mm guns on the enemy I’d been fighting. He drove them off the hill.”

On Aug. 31, 2017, 51 years after the battle, Kelley was awarded a “Silver Star” at a ceremony held at the National Marine Corps Museum in Quantico, Va. It was attended by more than 160 people.

“At the ceremony two of the wives of the Marines who charged up the hill with me in Vietnam were there together with their grandchildren. My two buddies died from “Agent Orange” exposure in Vietnam years after the war. Talk about emotional.

“I left Vietnam after a tour that lasted 12 months and 20 days. The day I rotated out was emotional for me. You wanted to go home but you didn’t want to leave your buddies.

“In Vietnam we didn’t fight for our flag or our country, we fought for each other. That’s all we had.”

Marine Cpl. Ray Kelley saw lots of action in Vietnam in ’66 and ’67
Ray Kelley came face-to-face with North Vietnam Regular soldiers or Vietcong Guerrillas during encounters with the enemy in 24 named fire-fights. Here is a list of 14 of those occasions and their official names that his unit: Company D, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Division took part in.
1. 26 Nov. 1966: “Operation Prairie.”
2. 27 April 1967: Participated in counterinsurgency action against NVA and VC.
3. 28 April 1967: “Operation Beaver-cage.”
4. 18 May 1967: “Operation Hickory/Beau Charge.”
5. 2 June 1967: “Operation Bear Bite.”
6. 6 June 1967: “Wounded in fighting in Tinh Quang Tri Province.
7. 14 June 1967: “Operation Choctaw.”
8. 14 June 1967: “Operation Union.”
9. 25 June 1967: “Operation Maryland.”
10. 4 July 1967: “Operation Bear Claw/Buffalo.”
11. 15 July 1967: “Operation Hickory II.”
12. 22 July 1967: “Operation Beacon Guide.”
13. 12 Aug. 1967: “Operation Beacon Gate.”
14. 18 Aug. 1967 “Operation Beacon Gate/Cochise.”

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This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Oct. 28, 2019, and is republished with permission.

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