Never leave a man behind - Omaha.com
Published Monday, May 27, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 1:03 pm
Memorial Day
Never leave a man behind

The Marines of Mike Company are retirees now.

Ronald Coker would be a retiree, too. Sixty-five years old.

Sometimes a gray-haired Mike Company grunt will find his way to a small cemetery at a country crossroads on the edge of Nebraska's Sand Hills to pay tribute to a youthful comrade who left his Harley-Davidson motorcycle for an M-16 rifle and enlisted in the Marine Corps during the height of the Vietnam War.

And didn't live to return home.

The late Charlie Coker eventually received a replacement Medal of Honor for the family. It is in storage for safekeeping.

***

In 1991, Charlie Coker and his sister, Janet Artz, tore down a high iron fence erected against family wishes around their brother's grave at Fairview Cemetery in Alliance. The railing later was used to create a gate to the cemetery. “Ron was a family person,” Artz said. “He was a hero, but I don't think Ron wanted to be separated from family.”

***

Jimmy Don Murphy and other Mike Company Marines gathered in Alliance in 2009 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Coker's combat death.

***

The road past the Nebraska Veterans Cemetery at Alliance is named “Ronald Coker Lane.” A street at a Marine air station near Yuma, Ariz., is named Coker Loop.


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Coker died a hero. A posthumous Medal of Honor recipient.

His family buried him near his mother, grandparents and pioneer great-grandparents under the sod of native prairie grass he loved.

Fairview Cemetery is not far over the horizon of grass-covered dunes and wheat land from the farm he grew up on and the one-room rural school he attended.

Twenty-two years ago, another Medal of Honor recipient spoke at a Fairview ceremony on Memorial Day weekend.

“There is a great hero buried here, and it's worth our remembering that,” then-U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey said of Coker, who died nine days after Kerrey lost part of a leg in the war.

“He was a hero because somebody else's life was more important than his.”

Jimmy Don Murphy knows it's true. Murphy fought alongside Coker in Vietnam and was with him when he died.

But he didn't know Coker's heroism earned the Medal of Honor.

Murphy was sitting down for dinner at home in Hughes Springs, Texas, when the U.S. Veterans Administration called one day in 1991. The caller asked him if he knew Coker.

“They told me that he was buried in Alliance, Neb., and that his grave had been damaged,” Murphy said. “While they were checking his service record, they found he had won the Medal of Honor.”

It was close to Memorial Day. The damage was repaired and there would be a ceremony for Coker. The VA caller was trying to find someone who served with Coker to attend.

Murphy couldn't make it.

“I regretted that ever since.”

One of Ronald Leroy Coker's final flings before leaving his hometown for the last time in September 1968 was a family picnic at the Alliance City Park shelter house. He took a nearly 4-year-old niece for a ride on his green-and-cream Harley-Davidson Electra Glide.

Born in 1947, Coker grew up on his parents' farm about eight miles northeast of Alliance on the Long Lake mail route. Cecil and Nellie Coker raised three sons and a daughter on a 160-acre farm. They kept cattle, sheep and hogs and raised dryland wheat and corn. Not until the 1950s was the farmstead wired for electricity and telephone, or plumbed for tap water. The kids walked about three miles to District 78 School through eighth grade and then drove to Alliance for high school.

Coker was mechanically adept and liked to do things with his hands, including baking.

“It wasn't unusual for friends to catch him with baking flour on his hands, face and clothes,” said Karen Greenly of Torrington, Wyo., a high school classmate and Coker's senior prom date.

“He was very bashful,” Greenly said. “When he picked me up for prom, he was shuffling his feet outside the door and said he wanted to talk to me.”

Coker told Karen he wanted to go out with her but wondered if they could go somewhere other than the prom because he didn't know how to dance. They agreed to go to the prom dinner with the option of going to a movie afterward. But Karen showed Coker how to dance and they stayed.

“We had a good time,” she said.

Coker was tall and lean, about 6-foot-3 and 180 pounds. He always wore a black cowboy hat. Friends nicknamed him Cisco Kid after the fictional Western character.

He graduated in a class of 134 seniors from Alliance High School in 1965. He enrolled in a Denver diesel mechanics school that summer. His mother died the next year.

Coker was drilling stock and irrigation wells around Alliance in January 1968 when the draft board sent notice to report for military induction. Instead, he went to Denver in April and enlisted in the Marine Corps.

While Coker completed recruit training in San Diego and combat and infantry training at Camp Pendleton in California, the Vietnam War raged on in 1968.

In November, Coker reported to the 3rd Marine Division in embattled Quang Tri Province on the north-central coast of South Vietnam.

Richard Nixon was the newly elected president of the United States. Coker was a private first-class. He was a rifleman with Company M, 3rd Squad, 2nd Platoon, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment.

Mike Company's job was to roam the jungle south of the Demilitarized Zone that separated warring North and South Vietnams and stopped North Vietnamese infiltration into the South on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Day and night, the Marines ran patrols, operated listening and observation posts, ambushed North Vietnamese army troops in the jungle and guarded fire base perimeters.

During an enemy mortar attack the morning of March 20, 1969, waves of helicopters dropped Mike Company into Fire Support Base Alpine in far northwestern Quang Tri Province. Fire bases were temporary encampments to provide artillery support to ground troops.

The base was four miles south of the DMZ and about five miles east of Laos. Hills, mountains, narrow valleys and deep canyons dominated the base's view of dense, broadleaf evergreen forests covering steep slopes and sharp crests.

On the morning of March 21, North Vietnamese troops north of Alpine bombarded the base with 82mm mortar shells. The howitzer site atop the hill took a beating, but Mike Company Marines were hunkered down in bunkers on the hillside. They watched the attack play out in front of them.

“We would run out and listen for the incoming mortar popping off, run back into our bunkers and count the hits on the hill,” Lance Cpl. Gerald Blink later wrote.

Howitzers fired back. Air strikes supported the artillery. The morning duel went on daily.

The night of March 22, Cpl. Gifford “Tiny” Foley came to the squad with orders to move out early the next morning. The mission: Take out the mortar pit.

It started in typical fashion.

“Everyone is bitching and fussing about having to go out … myself included,” Murphy said.

The Marines — about 15 total — walked east across the valley and turned north.

Murphy said the squad members were tight. They watched out for each other.

“You never know what's going to happen when you saddle up and head out on a killer team,” he said. “It might be a really easy day, or you could run into all kind of crap.”

Just before nightfall, the Marines were at the base of the north side of the hill suspected of hiding the gun pit. They were about three kilometers from Alpine. The squad moved up the slope in silence to take positions for a night ambush. They spent the night at full alert, but there was no enemy activity.

“Yet there was a foreboding,” Blink wrote, “a feeling that something just wasn't right.”

The morning of March 24, the squad prepared to move down the south side of the hill and return to Alpine. Coker was on point.

Murphy remembers everyone trying to be quiet. After walking about a kilometer, the Marines found mortar pits.

Details of what happened next vary, but based on interviews, written accounts and military citations:

Another kilometer down the hill, Coker encountered five North Vietnamese soldiers coming up the hill. Then “all hell breaks loose,” Murphy said.

Reacting instantly, Coker fired his M-16 rifle and wounded one of the enemy soldiers.

“Then Coker started cussing. His gun jammed,” said Willie Terrell of Lithonia, Ga., then a private first-class rifleman in the squad.

Foley shouted, “Guns up!” Pfc. Tim Barrett and Murphy ran to the front. Barrett sprayed the area.

The startled North Vietnamese tried to return fire but abandoned their mortar tube and retreated on the run down a trail toward a creek. The Marines gave chase.

The Marines hustled down the hill and came to a narrow draw between the hillside and huge boulder near the creek.

Lance Cpl. Ronald E. Playford went first. He had been in Vietnam for nearly a year and was a veteran of jungle combat. He had taught Coker and others in the fire team how to be a good point man and how to stay alive. He was two weeks from rotating back to the United States.

Coker followed right behind.

“We were in a hurry to catch the (enemy),” Murphy said.

The M-60 machine gun team of Barrett, Murphy and Lance Cpl. Warren Vanaman jumped atop the rock for a better vantage point of the fleeing soldiers.

“We figured we'd get them running through the creek,” Murphy said.

Then Murphy heard the distinctive cracks of Soviet-made AK-47 assault rifles. He looked over the edge of the rock. Playford was down with leg, groin and stomach wounds. The North Vietnamese had slipped into a cave under the rock. The opening faced the hillside and the trail.

“The (enemy) waited until Playford was right in front of the cave and they cut him down,” Murphy said. “Once you went down there, you were exposed to them. They could almost reach out and touch you.”

Coker was on the ground about five feet from Playford. He shouted to Playford, assuring him that he would get him out.

Coker crawled toward Playford. He was shot in the chest and throat but continued to advance. He tossed a hand grenade into the cave.

The blast silenced the gunfire long enough for Coker to reach Playford. Coker grabbed him and started to pull him back out of danger.

“Everyone is shouting to him, trying to help, but there is no way to get to them,” Murphy said. “Coker never stops. He is determined to get Playford out of there.”

As Coker started dragging Playford out of the killing zone, a North Vietnamese soldier tossed a Chinese stick grenade. The crude explosives had bamboo handles and resembled the “potato masher” grenades the German army used in World War II. Marines called the Chinese versions “Chicoms.”

The grenade landed on Playford. Murphy yelled, “Coker! Chicom!”

Coker grabbed the grenade with both hands, turned away from Playford and tried to throw it back into the cave. The grenade detonated and blew off Coker's hands at the wrists. Severely wounded, Coker refused to abandon Playford.

“It didn't stop him,” Murphy said. “He took his stubs and ran them into the suspenders on Playford's cartridge belt, still dragging him.”

Other Marines tried to suppress the enemy fire. They tossed their helmets and flak jackets between their comrades and the North Vietnamese. Lance Cpl. Frank Drone moved his fire team into position to provide cover.

As Coker moved toward his comrades, two more Chicoms exploded near him. They opened his chest, tore away half his jaw and severely wounded his legs.

Coker didn't give up. He waved off assistance and kept trying to crawl. He was still trying to drag Playford when Foley pulled them to cover.

As the Marines gained fire superiority, Foley ordered the North Vietnamese to surrender. They responded with gunfire. Foley threw a smoke grenade into the cave and positioned his men around the entrance. Murphy and Terrell crawled into position and fired about 100 M-60 rounds into the cave.

Under the cover of the smoke, Drone and Foley attacked the emplacement. Small arms fire wounded Drone. Foley hurled hand grenades, then crawled into the cave with his pistol and dragged out two dead enemy soldiers and one who soon died.

Drone and Foley received Silver Stars for gallantry during the firefight..

Navy corpsman Roberto Valencia Jr. worked on Coker and Playford, but it was futile. They died in the jungle.

“I saw a lot of brave acts in Vietnam and saw a lot of people die for their country,” Murphy said of Coker. “This was the bravest act I witnessed.”

The firefight lasted a bit more than a minute.

Terrell said he and Coker often were on the same fire team and were foxhole buddies. Terrell's lasting image of Coker is of his friend wearing a black cowboy hat and black sunglasses in camp.

“Not a day goes by that I don't think about what happened,” he said. “We all looked forward to coming back.”

Vice President Spiro Agnew presented 15 posthumous Medals of Honor during a White House ceremony April 20, 1970.

Thirteen medals went to the families of Marines; two to Navy corpsmen. Coker's father, brothers Charlie and Ray, and sister Janet represented the family at the private East Room ceremony.

The citation signed by President Nixon noted Coker's “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.” It saluted Coker's “indomitable courage, inspiring initiative and selfless devotion to duty to uphold the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service” in gallantly giving his life for his country.

The medal was displayed in Alliance on Veterans Day 1971 with a Marine honor guard.

The next spring, Cecil Coker, who had moved to Rapid City, S.D., perished in a flash flood that tore through the city one night, killing more than 200 people. Floodwater swept Coker's house off its foundation.

His son's Medal of Honor vanished.

Contact the writer:

402-444-1127, david.hendee@owh.com

Contact the writer: David Hendee

david.hendee@owh.com    |   402-444-1127

David covers a variety of news across Nebraska, particularly natural resources and rural issues and the State Game and Parks Commission.

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