Written by Harry Van Riper
I don’t know where I’d be without the Army.
Before Vietnam took my arm, the Army saved my life.
Harry Van Riper tells his story at a VBC breakfast in September 2016 at the 911th Airlift Wing
I was a troubled teen, a real hellraiser. I rolled my car five times my senior year in high school and got into countless fights, the kind that would land you in prison nowadays. I was heading full speed down a dead-end road.
I had good reason. My family was what we now call “dysfunctional.” My father left us before I turned five. My mother was so poor, she handed my sister and me over to a boarding house orphanage. They fed us three bowls of cereal a day.
I returned to my mother after she’d remarried a violent alcoholic. At age 10, I decided I’d stand up to him and protect my mother. He beat us both.
All that trauma made me angry . . . and wild.
So when the Draft Board called in 1967, it seemed like just another bump in the road.
I entered Basic Training with a bad attitude. But that changed quickly.
I overheard a Drill Instructor saying to another recruit, “You’ve been hustling. Keep it up, and I’ll made you a squad leader, and you won’t have to pull guard duty or KP or any of that stuff.”
Right then, I decided that I was going to become a Basic Training squad leader. And I did. I became a model recruit. I turned 180 degrees because of Army discipline. It put me on the right path.
I don’t know what would have happened to me had I not been drafted. But I know the outcome wouldn’t have been good.
After Basic and Advanced Individual Training (AIT), I shipped out to Fort Lewis, Washington. We flew to Japan, then, on April 8, 1968, Vietnam.
The war became real for me even before we even landed. Looking out the plane window on approach, I could see tracers flying. It was the my first inkling of what was to come.
The Army didn’t waste much time getting me into action. I joined one of the few mechanized units in Vietnam, the 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment attached to the 25th Infantry Division headquartered in Cu Chi.
Harry on his first leave after Basic Training 1967 (Harry Van Riper)
We covered a lot of ground because, unlike other infantry, we rode into battle in M113 Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs). The M113 was a 12-ton tracked behemoth made of aluminum, the first of its kind. The hull was heavy enough to stop small arms fire, but not heavier weapons.
The “track,” as we called it, was manned by a driver and a gunner on a .50-caliber machine gun. Our track was named “Diane,” after the driver’s wife. The rest of us, as many as 11, rode in the back on benches that lined the hull. Everything smelled of grease and diesel exhaust.
We put a lot of miles on Diane. This was after the initial Tet Offensive, during the time of “mini-Tets” in III Corps in the spring and summer of 1968. Our area of operation was a hot 100km swath west-northwest of Saigon, including Tay Ninh Province, almost to the Cambodian border.
We patrolled exit points for the Ho Chi Minh Trail, trying to stop the transport of troops, weapons, and military equipment from North Vietnam to the South. I only recall one stand-down during that whole time.
To be honest, I don’t remember much of the fighting. I must have blocked a lot out. I only recall bits and pieces of firefights, but not much is vivid. It’s my brain’s way of protecting me from bad memories, I’ve learned. But I do know my Company B lost a lot of men, killed and wounded. I don’t remember anyone in my company rotating home at the end of 12 months.
One day, our track was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) that pierced the hull. I wasn’t in it at the time, but our driver was. He lost both his arms and a leg.
Our squad needed a replacement driver. I’d been trained on tracks, so I volunteered and got the job.
On August 17, 1968, our base camp at Dau Tieng received hundreds of mortars and rockets, wounding a few of our guys. We went out the next morning on a sweep to the west and were attacked by a battalion of the 33rd NVA (North Vietnamese Army) Regiment.
These weren’t black pajamaed guerillas. They were well-armed, uniformed regulars fighting a conventional battle that lasted all day. We didn’t know it at the time, but this was the opening scene of a major coordinated offensive launched by the NVA and their Viet Cong (VC) allies.
The enemy had shifted from attacking Saigon and South Vietnamese forces to targeting us on the northern and western outskirts of the capital.
Harry Van Riper and his track (Harry Van Riper)
The fighting was the most intense I’d ever experienced. Our tracks carried a lot of ammunition, but we ran out and had to be resupplied by air. I remember our machine gun barrels bending from the heat. We evacuated the wounded as we could. After nine hours of small arms, artillery, air strikes, and gunship fire from our side, the NVA broke contact. We returned to Dau Tieng for the night and rested as we could. Boots and flak jackets stayed on so we could be ready at a moment’s notice to scramble out again.
Early the next morning, August 19, we returned near the site of the previous day’s battle, more toward the Michelin rubber plantation near Ben Cui, searching for the NVA. We swept the tree lines for hours with no contact. I drove while the infantry walked in front of and behind my track.
At midday we took a break and powered down the APCs. There was a tree line about 150 yards away and some tall elephant grass in front of it.
The NVA were in the grass and in the trees. They were taking aim, preparing to strike.
The 1st Battalion’s After Action Report states that the NVA attacked us from three sides at 1225. We’d just received the signal to power up our tracks. I was in the low driver’s position, hands on the steering levers in front of me, right foot on the accelerator. All hell broke loose.
RPGs were bouncing and exploding all around us. I’d never seen so many. I looked in the periscope and saw the tracks in front of me backing up to get out. I reached up with my right arm to put the gear shift in reverse and glanced back.
Behind me were the infantrymen sprawled on the ground, taking cover as best they could. In an instant, without thinking, I decided not to reverse. Backing up would mean running over the men. I just couldn’t do that.
That’s when the RPG ripped into the track and took off my left arm. It happened that quickly. I hadn’t even removed my right arm from the great shift. If I had, the grenade would have taken that arm off, too.
Instead, it exploded into my left leg and chest. The heat from the blast blistered my eyes shut. All I recall are sounds, plus the impulses I had and the half-voluntary moves I made.
My first thought was: “I have to get out of this track. No one will find me here, and I’ll bleed to death.”
With my left arm hanging by skin, and part of my leg missing, I somehow crawled out of the track. Once out, I tried to stand up on the APC. I didn’t feel any pain and didn’t know my leg was damaged, so I fell face-first to the ground.
People later told me I flopped around like a fish. I was in shock, and my nervous system was going berserk. Again, I thought, “I’m going to bleed to death” and instinctively grabbed my left shoulder tightly to staunch the bleeding.
I was alone out there. Everyone had fallen back. I waited for someone to get to me.
The first voice I heard was that of my buddy, Bob Logan. He shouted my nickname, “Rip!”
Bob dragged me back to the medic track. He saved my life.
I was conscious almost the whole time. A medic said, “Oh my God, Van Riper.” They tried to give me blood, but my veins had collapsed. They ended up cutting my ankle and giving me blood there.
Meanwhile, the fiercest firefight I’d ever heard was going on all around us. But I couldn’t get up. I later learned my friend Roberto Garcia was holding me down, saving me from my fight-or-flight instinct.
Above the explosions, I heard obscenity-laced shouting from my platoon leader.
“If you don’t land that #!@*&% chopper, I’ll shoot it down!”
The evac helicopter pilot didn’t want to land. It was too hot, too dangerous. But my platoon leader’s threat must have done the trick because the chopper landed, and on it I went.
I was conscious for the flight to the 12th Evacuation Hospital at Cu Chi Base Camp, home of the 25th Division. I remember being rushed into an operating room and placed on a table.
“Do you know you lost your arm?” someone asked.
“Yes, I know,” I answered.
Those were the last words I spoke for eight days. After surgery, I fell into a coma.
Harry and Red Cross volunteer B. Flyfe (Harry Van Riper)
I later learned the doctors had given me a 15% chance of survival. They’d sent my mother a telegram breaking the bad news. My injuries were life threatening and, if I lived, I’d probably never walk again.
Then, BANG! An enemy rocket hit an ammo dump at our base camp. I jolted awake in terror.
Pulling out my tubes, I sat upright, got out of bed, and tried to run. My bad leg wouldn’t hold, and nurses put my back in bed. But I was now awake and could start rehabilitating.
I call that ammo dump explosion, “God’s Alarm Clock.”
When I was strong enough, they flew me to US Naval Hospital Yokosuka in Japan.
One day in Yokosuka, I awoke from one of my many surgeries to a pretty, smiling face. She was a Red Cross volunteer. She told me that knew a one-armed man back home, and that he was the most interesting and unique person she’d ever met.
That small act of kindness meant so much to me. It gave me hope as I was accommodating myself to my new one-armed life. I asked for someone to take a picture of us. On the back, she wrote her name, “B. Flythe.” I’ve always wanted to find and thank her.
After Japan, it was on to Valley Forge General Hospital outside Philadelphia. All told, I spent 18 months in hospitals before returning home to Pittsburgh.
Throughout my recovery, people hinted or, like one psychologist at Valley Forge, came out and told me that I should be depressed. I was only 18-years-old and severely disabled, they said. To think I could lead a normal life was just denial of the truth.
But I never thought that way. I’ve never considered myself disabled. Sure, I got frustrated as I re-learned how to do hundreds of things. Did it hurt when I tried to catch a door with my left hand and instead got smacked in the face with it? Of course.
But these were inconveniences, not disabilities.
I was alive. To me, that’s all that mattered because I knew plenty others who never made it home.
Nine of my comrades in the 1st Battalion had been killed on August 19, 1968 alone. I was one of the lucky ones. And I’ve always considered myself such.
In fact, losing my arm has been a gift. It’s made me stronger. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is an adage for a reason. It’s true. My wounds might have killed me. But I survived and am better for having suffered them, strange as that may sound.
Having to re-learn simple tasks made me a better thinker, more thoughtful. The world is built for the dual-armed. Having only one means I’m always thinking ahead, giving consideration not only to the next step, but the steps that follow. Having one arm has forced me to be deliberate and intentional in everything I do.
That trait helped me enormously in my career as a physiologist. All through my schooling, I had to think through my lab work, preparing thoroughly before conducting an experiment or test. Professors gave me more time, but the other students were usually two hours behind me, and their work wasn’t as thorough.
My original plan was to go to medical school. I was offered a full ride at the University of Buffalo. But, as I prepared to enroll there, I got a call asking if I’d fill in for a biology professor who’d suddenly quit at the Community College of Allegheny County.
In the classroom, I found my calling. I taught for 34 years and loved every minute my career. I tried to instill in my students not only knowledge of the subject matter, but some of the lessons I learned in the Army and Vietnam. Never give up. Never stop serving. Don’t waste time feeling sorry for yourself. Use your abilities to the fullest. That’s our mission in life, as I see it.
I think all veterans have a lot to teach. When people see me and learn that I served in Vietnam, they often say, “Thank you for your service.”
I’d rather they ask, “What’s your story?” I think sharing our stories is the biggest gift veterans can give.
I wouldn’t change anything. I’m proud of my service and love my fellow veterans. I see them all as my brothers and sisters. They saved me. And I’d do anything to save them, if they needed it.
Note: Decades after returning home, Harry learned his battalion received a Presidential Unit Citation for its actions for the month starting with the firefight on August 18, 1968. The citation reads, in part, “The 1st Battalion (Mechanized), 5th Infantry, 25th Infantry Division and its attached units distinguished themselves by extraordinary heroism in combat operations against numerically superior enemy forces in the Republic of Vietnam from 18 August to September 20 1968. During this period the 1st Battalion Task Force, through reconnaissance in force, ambush, counter-ambush, and reaction missions, effectively destroyed a regimental size enemy force and prevented the enemy from seizing the initiative in its ‘Third Offensive.’ The officers and men of the task force displayed outstanding bravery, a high morale, and exemplary esprit de corps in fierce hand-to-hand combat and counter offensive action against well disciplined, heavily armed, and entrenched enemy forces. . . . The heroic efforts, extraordinary bravery and professional competence displayed by the men of the 1st battalion, 5th Infantry and attached units are in the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon themselves, their units, and the Armed Forces of the United States. “