Springfield veteran: ‘I’ll never get over it’

Vietnam survivor wants other vets to be treated better when they return.

But, on this Veterans Day, when those deals and more are being offered in appreciation of those who served, it’s never more apparent how times have changed.

Fresh from 13 months of combat in Vietnam in 1968, Ron Coss was at Los Angeles International Airport, waiting for a plane back to Ohio, when he decided to sit down for a shoe shine.

After all, it had been the uniform that singularly inspired the Springfield resident to join the Marine Corps while still in high school in 1966.

The kid shining shoes that day at LAX couldn’t have been older than 8, Coss remembered recently.

“He said, ‘Sir, you’re a Marine?’” Coss recalled. “He said, ‘How many babies did you kill in Vietnam?’”

“We were ‘drug-crazed baby killers,’ ” Coss, now 65, explained. “I know what I did and did not do in Vietnam, so that phrase doesn’t bother me one bit.”

But, Coss is now part of a visible local contingent of veterans determined to be the change they want to see.

“We made a promise to ourselves,” added Dave Bauer, a fellow Vietnam veteran who’s active with Coss in the Military Order of the Purple Heart’s Clark County chapter, “that these guys coming back today wouldn’t be treated like we were.”

It’s not the first time Coss, for one, has worked to uphold his end of a solemn pact.

On the afternoon of Oct. 12, 1967, Coss and 161 other Marines walked into South Vietnam’s Hai Lang National Forest and into the waiting rifles and grenades of three, possibly even four, companies of the North Vietnamese Army.

The first shot was fired at 3:30 p.m. Oct. 12, and the Marines of Charlie One-One — Company C, 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Division — managed to hold out until 7:30 the next morning, Coss said, despite the overwhelming odds.

“They were going to wipe us out,” he said, recalling the NVA’s eerie use of horns and whistles to signal an all-out attack. “They started coming at us in human waves.

“You just kept shooting them,” he added, “and they just kept coming.”

The remaining Marines, he said, made a pact to fight to the last man, and it looked like it might actually come to that.

During a lull in the fighting, one communist soldier yelled out in fluent English through the darkness of the jungle:

” ‘Marine! Tonight you die!’ ” Coss said.

Their stand during what was known as Operation Medina — in all, they fought for three straight days — became the subject of a 2008 book, “Lions of Medina: The Marines of Charlie Company and Their Brotherhood of Valor.”

That same battle produced a Medal of Honor recipient in Cpl. William T. Perkins Jr., a combat photographer who threw himself on a grenade to save three Marines.

When asked if many people know of his involvement in a critically acclaimed book, let alone just such a battle, Coss shook his head from side to side.

After the war, he came home and spent 31 years on the Navistar production line, working with people who sometimes found it funny to sneak up behind him and make loud noises.

“People tell you, ‘Man, that was 40 years ago … get over it,’” Coss said.

“I’ll never get over it,” he added.

On one hand, it’s hard to forget the sight — or the smell — of a friend set on fire by an errant F-4 rocket.

On the other, Coss subscribes fully to the message posted on the bar in his Casey Circle basement: “The Marines Are Not a Branch. We Are a Breed!”

These days, Coss has a clock in that basement that plays “The Marines’ Hymn” on the hour. His phone’s ringback tone also plays “The Marines’ Hymn.”

And, when the last Marines of Charlie Company thought they had nothing left to lose during Operation Medina, they made a charge while singing “The Marines’ Hymn.”

An account of the battle from a 1968 issue of Leatherneck magazine reads like the script of a classic war movie, only for real.

It was probably 3 a.m., Coss recalled, when 1st Lt. Jack Ruffer started singing the famous song hailing the Marines’ exploits “from the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.”

Without prompting, a chorus joined in.

Then came the shout of, “Let’s go get some!”

The lieutenant, according to the magazine, was armed only with a .45 pistol. In tow was a corporal who had only the machete used to chop away at the jungle growth.

Coss isn’t sure how he survived.

“Luck of the draw,” he reasoned.

Before the Marines, Coss said, the heaviest thing he’d ever fired was a BB gun.

Before Vietnam, he and his fellow Marines were taught how to skin a rabbit in order to survive.

“That was great training,” Coss said. “There just wasn’t any rabbits in Vietnam.”

The rats, however, were bigger than groundhogs, he said.

Scared out of his mind the first time his squad came under fire in Vietnam, Coss took cover behind, of all things, a stack of wheat.

“The squad leader yelled, ‘Coss, you dumbass, get behind a tree or something,’” he recalled with a laugh.

Seven months later, Coss was part of a small group of Marines who were able to keep literally hundreds of enemy soldiers at bay.

He still vividly recalls emerging from the jungle after three days of fighting during Operation Medina.

“I look over to my left and there’s 14, I counted ‘em, NVA soldiers. They looked at us,” he said. “They never raised a rifle. We didn’t raise a rifle. We got on a Chinook and that was it.”

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