Hometown Heroes: Ken Ritchie, Staff Sgt. U.S. Army, retired

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By DAVID SWEARINGEN
TheFlashToday.com

EDITOR’S NOTE: Residents of Dublin, and the rest of Erath County, are very fortunate to have many men and women who make living here safe, many of whom are volunteers. They are Hometown Heroes! These people keep us safe and we owe them our thanks and our respect.  THANK YOU!

STEPHENVILLE (October 21, 2016) – In this edition of the Flash Today’s Hometown Heroes we would like to recognize Ken Ritchie.  

Ritchie was born in Eureka, Kansas on August 10, 1945.  He was an only child.  When he was about 6 months old, his family then moved to Oklahoma, where they lived for several years.  After completing the fifth grade, he and his family then moved to California.  They stayed in California, where Ritchie worked as a race horse jockey, in the middle of his senior year in high school the family returned to Oklahoma. Ritchie later earned his high school diploma while in Stephenville, and, with help from the Army, he later completed 53 college credit hours.  

In October 1965, Ritchie found himself in the United States Army, headed to Fort Polk, Louisiana – known as Tigerland because of a small portion is filled with dense, jungle-like vegetation. Ritchie said when you consider the Louisiana weather (the humidity, heat and precipitation) is similar to the weather in Southeast Asia, the Army decided it was an excellent place to train their soldiers for combat in Vietnam.  In the 1960’s, more soldiers were shipped to Vietnam from Fort Polk than from any other American training base. 

While at Tigerland, Drill Sergeant Washington made Ritchie a member of “The 4 Foot Squad.”   To be considered for the squad a soldier had to be no taller than 5′ 6″ and at the time, Ritchie was 5′ 1″ and weighed about 107 pounds.  This smaller stature is essential because the 4 Foot Squad was selected and trained as Tunnel Rats. Sergeant Washington was very strict, Ritchie said, and extra tough on the 4 Foot Squad to prepare them for the tough assignments they would soon face in Vietnam. 

The following 3 paragraphs are copied from Wikipedia:

Tunnel rats were generally, but not exclusively, men of smaller stature (5’6″ and under) in order to fit in the narrow tunnels.

The tunnel rats were American, Australian and New Zealander soldiers who performed underground search and destroy missions during the Vietnam War.  During the Vietnam War “tunnel rat” became a more or less official specialty for volunteer infantrymen, primarily from Australia, New Zealand and the United States. Their motto was the Latin phrase “Non Gratus Rodentum”—”not worth a rat”. Since the 1940s, during the war against the French colonial forces, the Viet Cong had created an extensive underground system of complexes. By the 1960s, there were underground hospitals, training grounds, storage facilities, headquarters and more. The Viet Cong, who were skilled at guerrilla warfare, might stay underground for several months at a time. The tunnels were their territory.

Whenever troops would uncover a tunnel, tunnel rats were sent in to kill any hiding enemy soldiers and to plant explosives to destroy the tunnels. A tunnel rat was equipped with only a standard issue .45 caliber pistol, a bayonet and a flashlight, although most tunnel rats were allowed to choose another pistol with which to arm themselves. The tunnels were very dangerous, with numerous booby traps and enemies lying in wait.

The tunnels presented many potential threats: enemy soldiers manned holes on the sides of tunnels through which spears could be thrust, impaling a crawling intruder. Not only were there human enemies, but also dangerous creatures, such as snakes (including venomous ones, sometimes placed there as living booby traps), rats, spiders, scorpions and antsBlack-Bearded Tomb Bats (Taphozous melanopogon) and Lesser Dawn Bats (Eonycteris spelaea) also roosted in the tunnels, though they were a harmless nuisance if awakened. Often there were flooded U-bends in the tunnels to trap poison gas. Underground, gas could be a very deadly weapon, and a tunnel rat might choose to go into the tunnels wearing a gas mask as it would be impossible to put one on in a narrow tunnel. More often than not, however, a tunnel rat would take his chances without a gas mask, as wearing one made it even harder to see, hear and breathe in the narrow, dark tunnels.  The loud noise of the underground gun shots would usually leave the tunnel rats temporarily deaf. 

So, as you can imagine, Ritchie was one extremely brave young man serving his country in this fashion.

After training in Tigerland, Ritchie was next sent to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, for more training.  And, finally, to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, for still more training.  It was from there he and his group were deployed to Vietnam in January 1966.  The soldiers left out of San Francisco, California, on a ship, containing 2,500-3,000, making the 28-day trip to Vietnam. 

Upon the ships’ arrival at Vietnam, the soldiers exited by way of the cargo nets dangling off the sides.  They boarded the landing crafts which took them ashore. Ritchie and the soldiers with him worked in and around the Cha Rang Valley for several months.  

Ritchie said the thing he remembers most about when he first arrived in Vietnam was the terrible smell.  He recalled it smelled that way pretty much the whole time he was there. He said he suspected it had something to do with all the rain, humidity, rice paddies and drainage issues.

Ritchie’s main responsibility was to perform as a tunnel rat whenever he was called upon, which was frequently.  Unfortunately, a high percentage of the tunnel rats did not survive their time in Vietnam. Ritchie held the assignment of jeep driver when not working in the tunnels. 

This man was and is a true hero to perform this extremely dangerous, but necessary, task for our country. He finished his tour of duty and returned to the states on October 17, 1967, and would move to Stephenville in the months that followed.

Ritchie swore to himself he would never wear a green uniform again, but six months later he found himself joining the Army National Guard, serving as Tank Commander until receiving a honorable discharge in April 1983. 

Ken Ritchie ended his military career with the United States Army at the rank of Staff Sergeant.  He has been married to wife, Robin, for 34 years and they have two sons and three daughters.  Today, Ritchie suffers from PTSD and survivor’s guilt. He said he feels guilty he made it home while so many others did not and still receives counseling from a program at the Veteran’s Administration. 

He said it took 15 years after his return from Vietnam before he would openly admit to being a Vietnam Vet due to all the negative reactions he and his fellow soldiers received upon their return. Ritchie said, “Robin is my backbone, she has been for the last 34 years, and if it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be alive today, point blank, that’s it.” 

Several years ago, Ritchie assisted a young Stephenville man with the task of earning his Eagle Scout Award.  The boy is Gus Sturmer and his  Eagle Scout project was to create a story and video on Ritchie’s life and career with the United States Army.  The story and video are now in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

Life is a little more peaceful for Ritchie now. He list hunting and performing at the annual By Gone Days as his hobbies.  He and Robin are two of the founders of the annual By Gone Days in Stephenville back in 2001. Ritchie is also a member of the Stephenville Masonic Lodge. 

Ritchie said there are quite a few other Vietnam Vets in Stephenville, many who most do not even know about because they prefer to remain silent.  Ken and Robin both have numerous people in their family trees who have served their country honorably through the various branches of the military in various times of war and peace. One whole room in their house is dedicated to honoring these men and women. 

Mr. Ritchie, The Flash would like to thank you for your service to this wonderful country of ours on behalf of all the residents of Erath County and beyond.  You sir, are a true Hometown Hero.   


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2 Comments

  1. Thank you Flash, Jessie and David for recognizing MY hero! WE still live with it every day, but I would not give one second of my life with Ken back! And even if he hate the fact – he IS a true hero!! 🙂 Thanks again!

  2. Jen Willa always be my friend, Brother and Hero! Awesome story I hope the whole world gets to read this

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