I don’t know if JJ Ryder is still alive and I’m not sure he ever made it back from Viet Nam. I hardly knew him except for being thrown into a situation where he needed me to be the A-gunner for his 106 recoilless rifle for about 15 terrifying minutes.
It was a typical hot, humid and hazy day in the northern mountains, when all of a sudden rockets started raining down on our platoon. In my view rockets are the most frightening of all situations because it doesn’t matter if you duck in your hole when they can drop right into it.
Even still, everyone was buried in their hole and the only way to stop the terror was to return fire with one of two 106 recoilless rifles we had.
I was an A-gunner, which means I loaded the rounds into the chamber. JJ Ryder was the trigger man, or Gunner, on the other team. My team was on one end of the perimeter and JJ’s team was on the side facing where the rockets were incoming.
One of the rockets took his A-gunner out while everyone was still ducking, Seconds later JJ is screaming clear across the perimter for a replacement. As the only other A-gunner, I was the obvious candidate.
He was sitting on the 106's side seat rotating the barrel and waiting for me to load the next round. Totally explosed, no shirt and a deep scar that ran from his neck diagonally down to his left waist. I heard later this was his 3rd tour. Again, they were landing about 10 rockets a minute, and JJ's the only marine above the ground.
So I'm in the hole just behind and left of the breech, where the 4-foot rounds were stacked.
At least somewhat protected in the hole next to the explosives, I started shoving rounds into the breech as fast as I could. Twist 180 degrees, pick up another 40 pound shell, twist 180 back and shove it uphill into the breech, then reach up to secure it. All in one move, continuously, one after the other untill the barrel started turning red.
JJ looks like he's riding a bronco. Every shell I loaded got hotter and hotter until we had a 'cook-off', where the barrel is so hot the round explodes in the chamber. The 106 is a 'recoilless' small cannon, meaning the breech (back end) is open and thrusts a massive flame out the back with fiery pellets that gradually flame out after about 10 seconds.
I didn't have time to get completely out of the way before it exploded. My shins burned like hell while I frantically brushed the smoking pellets out of my skin through shredded camos.
Almost as soon as I could gather my wits the rockets stopped. Were they out of ammo? Or did JJ beat them? I believe the latter.
After the shelling stopped I immediately went back to my team. We never spoke a word to each other. We just knew.
Every war is full of incredibly brave actions and I’ve seen many brave men take them. Of them all I will never forget the incredible courage it must’ve taken for JJ to do what he did under those conditions.
I never saw JJ Ryder again but I felt someone needed to tell this story. As his A-gunner for those 15 fateful minutes, I am proud to be the one to tell it. Semper Fi!