<%@ Language=Inherit from Web %> Tiger Tale, Bangal Tiger, Vietnam War Story, 1967

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TIGER BITE TALE

 

 BY;  Colonel  JOHN  W. RIPLEY  USMC

            

                   As the Vietnamese War entered the year 1967 the 3rd Marine Division continued to establish its permanence in  what was coming to be called “Northern I Corps, “or the DMZ area. The Division CP. was still at Phu Bai some forty or fifty miles south by road so the emphasis on the DMZ area had not been transfixed as it would later in the year.

              With Division forward located at Dong Ha, that particular village, and Khe Sanh thirty miles west along the DMZ and on the Laotian border,  were probably the only two locations that Marines knew about with any degree of accuracy and anticipation. Another base , known simply as "artillery plateau" had been established after OPERATION HASTINGS  in September 1966 and on the Marine Corps birthday of that year it was dedicated as Camp Carroll, named for Capt. J.J. Carroll, a company commander killed in OPERATION HASTINGS.

            These three locations,  Dong Ha, Camp Carroll and Khe Shan spanned the DMZ: however, the only route connecting these bases,  National Route 9, was controlled just at its beginning at Dong Ha. The feasibility of controlling Route 9 so that, it might be used as an access route into central and western Vietnam below the DMZ was being considered. An obvious preliminary to this control would be the requirement of positioning troops intermittently along route for patrolling and reaction to enemy threats.

            In January 1967, the 3rd Battalion 3rd Marines moved from their home of two months on "Payable Hill" - an uncomfortable and unloved location between the Rockpile and Mutter's Ridge- to a new location immediately south of the Rockpile and astride Route 9. This battalion would be the first to occupy a permanent position along this road, a road which would gain greater importance with the buildup of Khe Shan. To further expand control a combat outpost was established seven miles beyond the Rockpile along route 9 at a location known as Ca Lu. A reinforced rifle company would occupy the outpost and with the help of a Regional Force Vietnamese Company(half strength)it would be responsible for the “road, bridges and TAOR in the CA LU area."

            The year 1967 ushered in a ferocity and intensity in combat operations which set the pattern from that point on for battalions operating in Northern I Corps. The enemy's continuous invasion attempts directly across the DMZ kept virtually all battalions 100% committed. 3/3 was no exception. From January to April the battalion had been committed along the  “one-zero" line, so named for the north/south grid line running from the Cam Lo area to Con Thein. In four months of operations in this area, as well as others, 3/3 began to show the effects of continuous combat. Two companies had suffered nearly 100 percent casualties. In his company, Cpl. David Schwirian, 20 , of Osterburgh,  Pa was one of three remaining sq1uad leaders with not even half of his original squad left. 

            Leaving the Con Thein area after a three week operation around Easter, 3/3 returned to its base camp at the Rockpile. Here the battalion commander shifted his companies in the TAOR in order to redistribute the loads. The most heavily committed companies of the previous months. Lima and India would get the outposts; Lima CO. to Ca Lu and India Co to the Fishbowl, a position north of the Rockpile. Ostensibly, outpost duty would be less demanding and hopefully something of a stand-down for the companies. 

            The individual Marine makes few demands of his superiors. His lot is a simple one. Often the lot of the leader is no better than his Marines, sometimes worse, but leadership as we know and practice it means subordinating your own personal well being-particularly creature comfort- to that of your Marines. In this respect, Cpl. Schwirian was the typical squad leader. He reported to the company supply bunker to inventory the personal gear of the sq1uad members he had lost recently lost on the last operation. While there he managed to wrangle new socks- a minor treasure- for his squad. He asked for and received exactly seven pairs; none for himself. While at the bunker the company commander told CPL Schwirian that the company would be outposting to Ca Lu soon, which quite likely would be less demanding than previous months on the one- zero line. 

            When Cpl. Schwirian arrived at his squad's position in the company perimeter he began handing out the socks, and with them the news that the company would be moving out to Ca Lu. The socks made a much greater impression than the news.

             In two day's time the plan became action with Lima 3/3 boarding trucks at the Rockpile. A heavy section of tanks attached to the convoy provide security as it wound its way along route 9. The trip to Ca Lu turned out to be something of a treat with good weather and no encounters during the 30 minute run. 

            Most of the Marines in the company reflected that only short weeks before this trip their previous acquaintance with this particular strip of highway had been different in every respect. It was at night, between 2400 and 0300 to be exact, and it was the conclusion of one of the longest operational marches conducted by the battalion: 15-20 miles throught dense jungle and eventually to route 9. In that operation the battalion had jumped off from the night position in the jungle  at 0700 and with the exception of enemy action had moved non-stop until arriving at Ca Lu. 

In spite of the fact that battalion moved along a well prepared enemy trail its progress was made much more difficult by the necessity of having to carry the wounded and dead. Movement was slowed down considerably. Worse, however, was the suffering to the wounded as their comrades struggled moving them along the muddy, steep and treacherous  trial in the rain and cold. I

n Cpl Schwirian’s platoon, as well as the company, the Marines were bone weary in just two hours from exhausting work. Unfortunately, however, it wasn't a matter of choice. The bad weather coupled with high mountainous jungle and impenetrable canopy blasted any hope of extracting the casualties BTL med-vac helicopter. Only a few months previous to this operation Lima Co had been in a similar situation, alone and on a mountaintop at the northern end this very same trail. Then the company had to keep its casualties for three days because of the inability to move or evacuate them. 

            Again nearing Ca Lu the company passed a Montagnard village which a year later would become the location of a major base-VANDERGRIFT- as the 3 rd Division moved westward. Following the village was the first friendly positions; the north bridge, and then Ca Lu itself where Kilo CO happily awaited Lima's arrival. Kilo had occupied the outpost for over two months and, whereas the Rockpile offered nothing in any way superior to their living conditions here, it was nevertheless considered reason for happiness. The turn-around took place rapidly. The company staff, platoon commanders and key personnel were briefed on the enemy situation quiet), locations,  fields of fire, etc. Anxious to get the convey moving back to the Rockpile where the rear echelon of lima still awaited movement. Kilo rapidly board and got underway.  

            It was already late afternoon as Cpl. Schwirian's squad of Marines moved into its part of the perimeter. What little gear they had was q1uickly stowed., then the Marines began moving around the area while Schwirian reported to the platoon CP. Everyone anticipated a quiet night made even better by the fact that no ambushes were required. 

By previous arrangement the Vietnamese RF Company would provide the ambushes until Lima had settled in completely the following day. While still at the CP an unexpected tropical downpour completely drenched the outpost flooding most of the bunkers including all those in Schwirian's area.  His squad had all of their clothing and equipment spread out on the bunkertops, wire, ect. trying to dry it out as Schwirian returned. 

            In the company CP the company commander, XO and company gunny were bailing water out of the command bunker when a radio operator called the CO away. The battalion operations officer had a personal message to pass. Although some of the message was garbled one part came through perfectly clear ... "ambushes required." 

Whatever had brought about the change in plans was not discussed when the two officers talked. The message came through cryptically and with finality " ambushes will be established in your area this evening and will be set at the following locations..." This last part of the message was even a bigger surprise.  Not only was the battalion requiring ambushes,  but was not leaving the selection of the ambush site up the company in accordance with normal procedure, and long standing battalion policy. Before even  checking to see were the ambush site was located, the company commander protested. He was in a better position to determine the ambush sites of greatest advantage to his company. 

After limited discussion on the net the battalion S-3 made it clear that the site location had been decided  and that the discussion phase had ended before the message was even sent. As if by way of a final protest the company commander reminded battalion of its own policy regarding ambushes, the stated that the patrol and ambush plan for the following day would be forthcoming after the bunker had been bailed out. A simple "roger out" ended the brief conversation. 

            " Take a look at this skipper." The XO had already plotted the location as he planned for that evening. Both of these company officers were somewhat incredulous as they looked at one of the ambush sites selected for them. Battalion policy dictated that ambushes should normally remain in range of 200-500 meters. All integral weapons could support at this range including the company's 60 mm mortars. 

If the ambush ran into bigger problems it would be less difficult for a reaction force to bail them out at this range. It was fully 4500 meters away from the outpost - just twenty meters less than three miles-and well outside the range of supporting arms at the outpost. It was also outside the range of direct support weapons at Camp Carroll and on the very fringe of maximum range of the 1105mm battery at the Rockpile. 

Furthermore, the ambush site could only be reached by only one route; directly out route 9. North of the road the terrain was much to steep to permit any movement parallel to the road while on the south side of the road  cliffs fell directly into the Quang Tri river rushing below. The company commander recalled the area well. On the last operation the company passed along the same stretch of road at night after having been all day on the high jungle trail. Carrying the casualties had so exhausted the company that had taken almost three hours to reach Ca Lu along the road. That night one exhausted Marine fell asleep on his feet and, stumbled along, fell over the side of one of the old French bridges which had no sides. 

            All factors considered, this was quite simply a bad location and a bad time to send an ambush out to such an area, such was the conclusion of the company staff. Sometimes a feeling of foreboding precedes even the best planned action or operation. This was one of those times, and, somewhat hesitantly, the company commander called the battalion back on the radio" for further clarification." " Payable this is Lima 6, request you confirm the following coordinates for cookie outhouse, down 5..4..."

 

            "Roger Lima 6, you've got a solid"

            "Roger that, Payable;  put the three on"

 

            At this point the company commander tried again to inq1uire of the obviously irritated operations officer  if the latter actually knew of the location of the ambush site and was still happy to send it out. A curt answer followed.  The ambush would go. 

            Cpl. Schwirian had almost managed to get all of his soaking wet gear spread out when a platoon runner told him to get up to the CP right away. Approaching the bunker he could see his lieutenant studding the map. Having been around as long as he had Schwirian knew the meaning.

             "We have to put out an ambush tonight, Cpl. Schwirian." his platoon commander told him,.

             " What the hell,  Lieutenant, " Schwirian replied, " the skipper says no ambushes until tomorrow, plus it's the second platoon's turn." The lieutenant replied that the second platoon was rear echelon and had not yet arrived at the outpost; then he and his squad leader got down to the business of organizing the ambush.

             In Vietnam during that part of the year the days are relatively long. A  still, the squad had a long way to travel, and light conditions were deteriorating with more rain moving in. They began stowing their gear in the bunkers, then looked after the weapons and personal equipment necessary for the mission. No special equipment was considered necessary since the mission was a  standard security ambush. Individual weapons, plus a machine gun a grenade launcher were all that was required - anything else might slow them down. In the way of personal equipment each Marine had his poncho. CPL Schwirian reported to the company CP with his platoon commander for the final briefing.

             The patrol moved out the company perimeter just at dusk with report on the radio net" Lima Alpha 3 departing." Acknowledgment from company CP sent them on their way. Moving out along this strip of route 9  in a westerly direction toward Khe Shan the squad was seeing the road for the first time despite having transverse it before. For some reason this terrain looked particularly wild with the high cliffs, the river and the road perched precociously between each. The jungle was also unbroken by numerous shell holes which were common around the Rockpile and Con Thien. 

            Within an hour the squad had arrived at the ambush site and silently moved into their positions. No communication was necessary, nor was it desired. They established their ambush according to a pre-set plan, each Marine moving low to the ground and taking up his firing position. Few of them actually expected an enemy encounter, but they realized that by just being there they were performing a security mission important to the company. Sometimes this realization still isn't enough when your spending all night on the cold wet ground with an incessant rain. 

            Back on the Ca Lu outpost the company had already gone into the nighttime routine. In the company CP the radio operator on the first watch made regular checks with the platoons and the ambushes.  Field radio procedures as it is practiced bears little resemblance to that formally taught. Jargon, slang and brevity codes reduce the conversational phase to very briefest response, often unintelligible to anyone unfamiliar with the particular operators  and their own code. Coupled with this are certain procedures, some standardized, some common only to that particular unit, which protect regular transmissions. Special radio procedures were always used for ambushes.. As the ambush left the company perimeter it reported out. This would be its last ratio transmission until reporting in as it arrived at the perimeter the next morning.  Regular” sit reps" - situation reports- were accomplished by a transmission from the company radio operator as follows: “ Lima Alpha 3, This is Lima, if your position is secure click your hand set twice."" All that was necessary was for the ambush radio operator to click his handset the specified number of times and his situation would be understood. Various codes could be established to indicate suspected enemy movement, enemy sighted, ect. The only transmission authorized from the ambush was “Bingo" which indicated enemy contact or ambush engaged. 

            Making his first check with Lima Alpha 3 the company radio operator received the two click “all secure." Things in the CP began to settle down to relative normalcy despite the six inches of mud remaining in the bunker from the rain. 

            One of the greater difficulties on an ambush is trying to keep your mind occupied in order to pass the time. Hours drag by almost painfully. The sentry on duty can at least walk his post. In the trenches and bunkers one can move around, talk to the Marines in the next fighting hole, take a five minute relief for a head call or coffee, and best of all; move, turn, stand up, scratch, etc. None of this is possible in an ambush, at least theoretically. The entire ambush must lie very still, quietly anticipating imminent enemy contact. 

            WHAT THE Fuck WAS THAT?  The ambush froze. Often when its raining the noise intensifies. It's easy to suspect movement when in fact there is none. But this time was real- every man new it. Allow guttural growl-could that be possible!- and definite movement. 

            Cpl. Schwirian's jaws tightened and his nostrils flared. His heart raced so that he could actually feel it against the ground. Slowly, pulling his knees up under him he moved his body into a slow crouch. His right hand grasped his weapon, still on the ground. Shifting his weight to his left leg he prepared to bring his weapon into a firing position.

             The source of the growl made a sudden leap!

            God in heaven! 

            No one was fast enough to fire. Whatever it was it had Schwirian screaming. The machine gunner jerked his gun around trying to bring it to bear but this thing and Schwirian were locked together in a desperate blur. 

            It's a Tiger! 

            The big cat had pounced out of the darkness and grasped Schwirian in its jaws. One paw was standing on the Marine's hand which held his weapon, pinning both to the ground. The other paw was on Schwirian's left shoulder, forcing him backwards and more erect, while the beast chewed on his right arm and shoulder literally tearing off great chunks of flesh. 

            In what had to be the luckiest punch of any fight; certainly in this brutal fight for his life, the terrified young Marine threw a left cross into the muzzle of the tiger with his free hand. The blow hurt enough to cause the animal to release its grip. 

            Cpl. Schwirian fell at that spot while the tiger lurched backward momentarily. It was the instant the squad needed; the Marines simultaneously opened fire. 

            The beast recoiled then simply disappeared. 

            The entire drama had taken seconds. The indescribable terror experienced by the squad left them shocked and drained. Their squad leader lay moaning and kicking where he had been dropped. 

            Doc was first to move. He was at once beside Schwirian trying to calm him and examine him, both nearly impossible tasks under the circumstances. Two Marines helped him while others formed a security perimeter. Their position now obviously compromised. They felt certain the enemy action would soon follow. 

            The corpsman's trained hands moved quickly and expertly around the torn clothing and flesh. He could see nothing, but it didn't matter. He knew this Marine was in serious trouble. It was easy to distinguish blood from rain dampness. The shock effect had to be massive and easily as great a threat to life as the loss of blood. 

Ripping open his unit 1, the medical kit which together with its corpsmen made them responsible for the continued lives of thousand of Marines. Doc found what he was looking for - morphine. He decided to sedate the Marine taking the risk that shock could be overcome. Stopping the bleeding with direct pressure, he then applied his largest battle dressing hoping to cover the wound. It would take two. 

His next move was one of absolute genius. It had undoubtedly never been taught in field medical school, nor did he learn it from any of the old hands. He had only been with the company a month. Taking still another battle dressing he carefully wrapped the wounded Marine's head, pulling it to the side opposite his shattered arm and shoulder. In its manner Cpl Schwirian would not be able to view the extent of the wound, either deliberately or inadvertently. 

            In the company CP the radio operator was immediately allotted to trouble. Someone had keyed a radio handset as if they didn't know what they were doing. Then there came a pause, followed by a scuffing noise, and finally," Lima, this is Lima Alpha 3, we have to come in."  he didn't believe what he had heard.  It couldn't possibly be the ambush, they would never break silence for such a ridiculous transmission, and even if they were in fact in trouble there was a specific code and procedure to follow.  Not only that, but he didn't recognize the voice. He called the company commander and quickly described the incident., offering his opinion that whatever was happening it was... serious. The CO immediately tried to raise the ambush. 

            "Lima Alpha 3 this is Lima 6, if your situation is all secure click your handset twice."' 

             No answer. The CO repeated his transmission. Suddenly there was this response: " Lima 6, this is Alpha 3, sir we're in trouble and have to return; can't explain; request permission to move; we have a wolf ( wounded in action)."

             The CO was stunned and silent. He immediately recognized the voice as that of the corpsman. 

"Roger Alpha 3, return at once; understand there are no friendlies, repeat, no friendlies, between yourself and us. Any movement is enemy." 

            Facing the grim reality of what lay ahead the squad galvanized into action. Doc, having done all that he could, took Cpl Schwirian around the waist and pulled him erect. Another Marine grabbed his free arm. With their casualty in tow the squad formed a patrol and started the long trip to the outpost. Each man took his position without speaking. The only noise was the shuffling and occasional moaning as the corpsman attempted to keep CPL Schwirian on his feet moving. 

            When the battalion received the preliminary report that an ambush was in  trouble they immediately requested more information. The company commander could only report the scant bit he had received in the only transmission from the ambush. He did indicate that the ambush had at least one casualty; probably serious, possibly emergency, which would require evacuation. More information would follow when available. 

            On the outpost, the senior company corpsman  made what preparations he could. He collected all blood volume expander, feeling certain this would be needed. Battle dressings, swabs, ect,  were in abundance at the Company CP and laid out in preparation. 

            Sometime after midnight the rain slackened, then stopped. It was replaced with thick ground fog which obscured vision even more than rain. In the second platoon area Marines were on bunker tops. It was through that part of the perimeter that the road entered the outpost, and the ambush was expected to arrive at that point. In the same area the engineering platoon, located right beside the road, strained to see or hear any movement on the other side of the protective wire. 

            Nearly three hours after the first report from the ambush, Marines in the line thought they heard movement. The commander 2nd platoon came into the CP to report just as the radio sounded. “Lima this is Alpha 3; we're outside the wire; request permission to come in." 

            Struggling to get the wounded Marine into the bunker the corpsman winced at what light from the lantern illuminated. For the first time he actually saw the extent of the wounds. He wasn't  prepared. No one was. He gasped with the others at the incredible sight of torn flesh, claw marks, and an amazingly clean bite which had removed nearly the entire bicep. 

            A final report now went to the battalion with all the detail and the request for an emergency med-vac. IT was painfully obvious that this Marine would need medical attention immediately. 

            "What's the problem Lima." asked battalion. 

            Trying to impart the seriousness of the wounds and what had actually happened over a radio was difficult. 

            "It appears that Alpha 3 was attacked by a tiger," ' the CO responded. A pause indicated certain disbelief at battalion.. 

            "We need an emergency med-vac" the CO continued.

            After some deliberation battalion indicated that a med-evac would not be possible before first light. Bad weather, distance and other factors argued against it.

             "This man must get out tonight" the CO insisted.

             Finally, the battalion consented to an attempt to move the casualty back to the Rockpile by road, from whence he could be further evacuated to Dong Ha either by road or air.

             The only vehicles available at the outpost were engineer equipment and two Ontos. With a dump truck for an ambulance and the Ontos as security, along with a rifle squad, the small convoy made a reckless dash for the Rockpile.. They moved along the same road Cpl Schwirian had rumbled down the previous day expecting a rest from enemy action.

            The story could end here, but it doesn't. Cpl Schwirian made it out, first to Delta Med at Dong Ha, then to USS Repose and finally to Philadelphia Naval Hospital. Lima Company would hear from him again. A Readers Digest article mentioned his ordeal. Then a few months later more casualties from his company ended up in his same ward at Philadelphia. They wrote back the welcome news that he was much improved and regaining the use of his arm.

              Lima Company remained at Ca LU another few months with no further tiger encounters. still, the last chapter of this episode was yet to be written. It would come almost a year later when another battalion was operating in the same area. On a hill west of Ca Lu , and within a few hundred meters of Cpl Schwirian's ambush site, a rifle company was moving into a night position. 

When the company perimeter had been established a platoon commander called a meeting of his squad leaders. They met in the dark for a few minutes then were dispatched back to their squads. Just seconds after the men had disappeared into the jungle, a ghastly scream and thrashing shocked the entire company and kept them awake the rest of the night. A search the next morning disclosed what everyone feared. The unidentifiable and indescribably  mauled remains were confirmation that Cpl. Schwirian’s adversary was still the ultimate enemy, at least in this part of the country. 

Colonel Ripley was a Major when he penned this true story. He was a Captain and Lima Company Co at the time this incident took place.

Webmaster's footnote:  If you have never experienced the fear of a Night Ambush, or never posted on an all night Listening post in a combat situation .............. Picture this

You are in the Jungle, in complete darkness, in a very unfriendly place. During the daytime,  you are shot at when seen by an unrecognizable enemy. During the night, your life and the lives of your friends are constantly in danger and you depend on them to be awake and sharp for your own sanity and well being. 

All of a sudden, you hear a scream that only a big cat can make, accompanied by the sounds of a man, your friend, being eaten alive by this Beast of the Night;

David Schwirian, Cpl USMC,  truly knows this fear.

As far as I can tell, David is the only living American, attacked by a Bengal Tiger during the 10 years of the Vietnam War !

The Bengal Tiger lives in Southeast Asia. Its length: up to 10 feet, Its Weight: 400 to 575 pounds, It was hunted, captured, and poisoned to such an extent that it has practically disappeared, there are less that 3,000 in the wild, 475 exist in natural preserves and national parks. It is now strictly protected. Some males occupy a territory of 200 square miles. When there is enough food, the tiger lives in a much smaller territory. It lives in the forest, the grassland, or the swamps.  

The tiger attacks a variety of prey, mainly deer, antelopes, pigs and buffalo. Once in awhile, it will attack cattle and even humans. There are many stories about the evils done by "man-eating" tigers. They're usually old tigers that are sick or wounded, and cannot hunt normally. The destruction of their usual prey may also cause them to attack humans. As soon as the tiger spots prey, it begins a slow and silent approach. When it is near it's prey, it charges. It may jump onto the prey's back or pin it down with it's powerful claws. It usually kills the prey by biting it's throat or neck. It's strength is amazing: it can drag a prey weighing several hundred pounds as much as 1,500 feet to hide the dead animal in bushes or tall grass. 

         David Schwirian was interviewed by Time Magazine while recovering from his wounds in mid 1967 and his story was a Time Magazine cover story later that year.

         I had the pleasure of talking to Dave a few weeks ago when he requested to be added to our Lima Co Duty Roster. He was kind enough to email me Colonel Ripley's story. I had heard scuttlebutt way back in 67, but I never new the whole story until now.

         I decided right off to publish this story on our web site, so I began an extensive web search to see if I could uncover other first hand accountings and related information. I have been working on and off at this, for the past 7 weeks and I was very surprised to find that there wasn't any information on the net at all. This may be the first web publishing of David's story written by now Colonel Ripley.