The Transylvania Times -

Vietnam Veterans: Ron Severs, Marine Combat Engineer Trained For Trouble

 

Last updated 2/11/2019 at 3:31pm

Courtesy Photo

Cpl. Ron M. Severs, WERS-27, named Driver of the Month, circa 1970.

"Fasten your seat belts and stay in your seats," said the stewardess on a chartered commercial flight from Okinawa to Danang, Vietnam. "We have to make a quick descent."

It was 1969 as 18-year-old Ron Severs looked down on the streets of Danang, teeming with vehicles, tanks, military personnel and civilians. Severs still remembers that moment.

"I thought to myself, 'They're going to shoot at us. This is not a movie, this is the real thing,'" he said.

Severs joined the Marines immediately after graduating from Brevard High School in 1968.

"I graduated the first week in June, and on June 18th I was at Parris Island. My brother and I left home the same day," he recalled. "He went in the Army and I went in the Marine Corps. I never thought about the impact that had on my poor mother, especially since we all knew where we were going."

The war in Vietnam was escalating in 1968 and Severs' training at Parris Island was cut short by two weeks, as the U.S. military strived to get as many boots on the ground as possible. After transport training at Camp Geiger and infantry training at Camp Pendleton, Severs was sent directly to Vietnam.

7th ESB – "Big Red"

Cpl. Severs' military operation specialty (MOS) was a truck driver in a combat engineer battalion: the 7th Engineer Support Battalion, First Marine Division, located eight miles southwest of Danang. The battalion provided engineering support to the Marine Corps, including upgrading and maintaining roads, building lookout towers, helicopter landing pads and gun pads, and sweeping roads for mines.

"As a truck driver, I hauled supplies to different locations, carried gravel and moved heavy equipment such as bulldozers up and down the roads," Severs said.

One of the obstacles encountered while hauling supplies was constant theft by the civilian population. "Whenever I drove back from Danang with construction materials, children would jump on the truck and start unloading supplies. If we stopped, they would take everything, so we just kept going," he said. "We fastened the load down to make it as difficult as possible.

"One day, I took a crew out to re-build a bridge. As I was waiting to load timbers onto my truck, a Vietnamese boy casually walked by me and slit my hip pocket with his razor, hoping my wallet would fall out. He disappeared before I turned around. Praise the Lord, although I was in combat, I never got hit."

He added, laughing, "The closest thing that happened was when that boy tried to cut my pants off."

Security Truck On

Mine Sweeping Team

Hauling supplies to work sites was accomplished only after roads were cleared by mine-sweeping teams. Severs, in a security truck, and 10 to 12 men on foot (sweepers), made up the sweep team that surveyed the potentially lethal traffic routes.

"I drove for the sweep teams the whole time I was in Vietnam," Severs said. "When I was at Camp Pendleton, a gunny sergeant asked me, 'Marine, what's your job?' I told him I was a truck driver. 'Your life expectancy is less than that of a machine gunner. You'll never make it,' he said. A machine gunner's life expectancy in a fire fight was less than six seconds and he was telling me that my odds were worse than that."

Every morning the crew would sweep a section of road for mines. Severs, in his vehicle, was the last person on the sweep team.

"My security truck (a 5-ton cargo truck with a 50-caliber machine gun) was the first motor vehicle to go down the road," he said.

The sweepers didn't rely on metal detectors alone because most of the mines were wood. Keen eyesight was critical as the team looked over the shoulder of the road, searching for disturbances or something that hadn't been there yesterday. The enemy harassed the road crews continuously, planting dummy mines as well as live mines, and subjecting the Marines to sniper fire and ambushes.

"I went for months doing this every day. Every drive could be your last," he said.

"Civilians would stay behind my truck as we proceeded down the road," Severs noted. "Behind me were people on bicycles trying to get to the next village to sell their products. By the time we were done sweeping the road, there'd be 50-150 people behind us, waiting for us to clear the road. No other military personnel – just civilians."

"We liked to buy ice cream from the kids. But the Viet Cong used that technique to poison us. I learned this when I suffered from severe food poisoning. It was a ploy by the VC," he said. "You'd get to know them and trust them, then they'd poison the food and vanish. If you asked about someone who had disappeared the answer was always, 'he beaucoup VC.' You never knew who your enemy was."

Lethal Wooden

Pegs In A Box

The Viet Cong forces planted many types of improvised land mines with deadly effectiveness. Severs described the simplicity, and sophistication, of some of the VC land mines. On one occasion, his engineer group was laying a radar cable around Danang, which would detect the Viet Cong when they approached the area. The combat engineers were harassed continually as they worked on the project.

"I was driving the security truck carrying a bed full of soldiers, and our group was taking a bulldozer out to the construction area. The guy in front of me was pulling a lowbed trailer, carrying the bulldozer," said Severs. "He told me to fall back on the hills because he might not be able to make it to the top. He made it up two hills. He started up the third, I fell back, and suddenly, 'Kaboom,' the whole back of his truck blew up. Since it was the trailer, the driver wasn't killed. He crawled out, scared to death."

"The VC had been aiming at my truck loaded with infantrymen. They had been watching us and knew how many vehicles were in front of me, so they planted a mine that was designed to withstand the other vehicles until mine detonated it."

Severs explained how it was done.

"The VC put pegs of different lengths in a wooden box. When the first vehicle ran over the box, a peg would break. The second vehicle broke the second peg. Eventually the targeted vehicle would drive over the box, breaking the last peg and detonating the mine," he said. "My truck and those of us on it were saved because the enemy hadn't counted the trailer that was pulled behind the vehicle in front of us."

Combat Engineers

Ambushed

The Marines in Big Red were always prepared to fight as infantry. During the mine sweeps, eyes were constantly peeled for snipers. If one turned up, suddenly the engineers became riflemen.

"We were sweeping a road in front of a rice paddy," Severs recalled. "The paddy was bordered on one side by the road and by hedges on the other three sides. As the sweep team passed, a large group of VC hiding in the hedges ambushed us. We crossed the road and dove into a ditch, calling back to our hill for reinforcements.

"When reinforcements arrived, we crossed the road and entered the rice paddy. No shots were fired. When we were almost to them, everything blew up. We were caught in the cross fire of machine guns on both sides of the rice paddy. I remember looking up and seeing leaves flying in the air as the machine gun hit the hedges. I thought, 'This is it.' We didn't get shot, Lord only knows why. He took care of us that day."

Combat Engineers

On Patrol

Severs remembered holidays in Vietnam with grim humor.

"Sometimes we'd have to go out on a Listening Patrol at night. We paroled outside the perimeter of the hill, listening and watching. If anything was coming, we called back to the hill. During any holiday season – Christmas, New Year's, 4th of July – five or six of us were always put on Listening Patrol. The CO knew we were non-drinking Christians and that we would be sober. Yep," he chuckled, "we could count on it – we'd have patrol duty on the holidays."

Severs' worst war experiences were the aggressive assault patrols of 10 to 12 men assigned to root out the Viet Cong in small villages.

"As a good old Southern boy, this really tore me up," he said. "We had to go into those villages at night, burst into the hooches with dirt floors, and run them out of bed, throwing the beds over, over-turning their tables and trying to find their tunnels. We had intelligence that there were VC in the village, but to me, you just don't treat people this way, even if they're your enemy."

"Unfortunately, in war you see people get killed, and you see death," Severs continued. "When I first got there, it bothered me; but after I'd been there and seen mutilation and death on a regular basis, it got so that it didn't bother me. It's very sad to say that. The villagers were Vietnamese and Viet Cong; you never knew which were your enemy until they did something."

Extreme Fatigue In

Nam And At Home

In 1970, Severs' Charlie Company was moved to Bravo Company's hill. He remembered the extremely long days and nights during his final months in Vietnam.

"When we got there, we joined their recon group. We were in the bunkers at night, and working our usual jobs during the day," he said. "The last three months I was in Vietnam, I got very little sleep - building during the day and on patrol at night. We had drivers falling asleep while driving down the road."

When he finally got home, Severs visited his high school sweetheart, Cathy, leaving her house at midnight. Driving to his grandmother's house, he fell asleep at the wheel, crossing the highway and railroad tracks and waking up as he was flying over the bank through the pine thicket into Camp Straus. "When I woke up, I thought I was riding in an airplane. Once again, the Lord took care of me. I made it to my grandmother's house, went to bed and slept for 18 hours. That's how stressful my last few months in Vietnam were," he said.

Severs and Cathy were married one month after his return from war. He noted that the guys in his tent in Vietnam placed bets on when each of them would receive a "Dear John" letter from the girl back home. Severs was the only one whose girl was still waiting when he returned.

Today, honoring his community's veterans and helping people in need fill Ron Severs' time. After retiring as Polk County's director of school transportation, he put his military-acquired truck driving skills to work with Anchor Baptist Church and his own organization, Triumphant Ministry. He provides disaster relief throughout the country, moving church supplies, bibles, pastors and missionaries wherever they're needed. He also volunteers with Asheville's "Hearts with Hands," and performs honor guard ceremonies with the Transylvania County Honor Guard.

Although he doesn't think he suffers from PTSD, Severs admits to periodic sleepless nights "fighting the VC," and to suffering from the effects of Agent Orange, especially diabetes, a condition known to have been caused by the toxic defoliant.

Courtesy Photo

Emblem of the 7th Engineer Support Battalion, "Big Red."

Reflecting on the Vietnam War, Severs said, "I understand why we were at war – basically to defeat communism. I'm proud I went, and I thought we had a purpose. But it's sad that we never got the South Vietnamese army trained so they could defeat communism. We pulled out too early – it was a political war."

How did his truck driving in the Marine Corps carry over into civilian relief work?

Ron Severs said: "I remember laying my head down in that rice paddy when the machine gun was shooting over me, and I said, 'Lord, if you get me out of here, I'll serve you the rest of my days.' With a life expectancy of less than 6 seconds, I came back home uninjured. Today, I trust in the Lord and let him take care of me."

(In collaboration with writer Michel Robertson and the WNC Military History Museum of the Carolinas, The Transylvania Times will publish an article once every two weeks on a local veteran who served in Vietnam.)

 
 

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