‘As long as no one got hurt’
“Words are easy, like the wind; Faithful friends are hard to find.” - William Shakespeare
There is a most pleasant benefit to living in a small community, and that is making and keeping friends for a lifetime. Friendships that change as the years pass, adding layer upon layer to that bond.
But there is a drawback, as well. And that is the tendency to think we know all about our “friends,” when, in fact, we do not.
Folks who count Ray Sharp, of Marlinton, among their friends, are fortunate, indeed.
Sharp is the 10th of 13 children born to Milburn and Pearl Beverage Sharp. And it may be that it was within the family unit that he felt protected and learned to be a protector.
Sharp and his wife, Linda, live and farm on the Old Campbelltown Road above Marlinton.
True to lifelong roots in this place, Sharp refers to his land and the surrounding area as “the Otis Waugh farm” and “the June Buzzard Place.”
Sharp recently purchased a young bull which wandered off the farm - twice - and made its way to Dairy Queen along Rt. 219.
Such a situation might cause heart palpitations in a person cut from a lesser cloth.
But Sharp took it in stride.
“It didn’t bother me,” Sharp said. “As long as no one got hurt.”
Throughout his life, Sharp has found himself in several occupations that have a degree of danger associated with them. He worked in the coal mines for Allen Creek Coal Company and Donegan Coal and Coke; cut timber in several places, most notably helping to clear the mountaintop for the building of Snowshoe Resort; as well as working at the Pocahontas Producers Stockyards, serving as its manager for five years.
But perhaps his greatest work went unseen, except by a few close associates whom he met in a foreign land, under nearly unbearable conditions.
It was as a 23-year-old inductee in the United States Marines that Sharp’s skills were challenged and he proved his mettle.
It took three letters from the local draft board, and three physicals, before Sharp was accepted into the service and found himself in basic training at Parris Island, South Carolina.
Leaving basic training and heading off to Camp Lejune, North Carolina, and then to Camp Pendleton, California, Sharp knew all along that his ultimate destination was Vietnam. His tour of duty commenced in June 1966.
And at the end of that tour, he returned home with three medals – a Silver Star, a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star with Combat “V.”
Being at war was tough enough, but Sharp well remembers the physical effects of the climate of that country.
“There was a USO two miles down the road from us,” Sharp said. “That’s where we could get personal items. “
During his time in Vietnam, he only met one person from home, and that was the late Gary Hefner.
“Gary was in the Engineer Battalion,” Sharp said. “We were sitting in the USO and I was froze plumb to death. I walked over to see what the temperature was, and it was 96 degrees inside.”
The reason for his chill was that the temperature outside was 135 degrees.
“You were always wet,” he said. “Sweat from head to toe. Then during the six week monsoon season, it rained continuously.”
Sharp recalls sleeping on the ground with his head on his pack and the water running over him.
“We lived in a little tent and the water ran right through it,” he said.
With his friendly mannerisms and ability to “take things in stride,” Sharp quickly endeared himself to his superiors, “wiring up electric lights, building boxes for observation points and anything else that needed to be done.”
As a platoon leader, it was concern for “his men” that endeared him to his fellow soldiers. And there was much to be concerned about in places like Happy Valley, Camp Carol, Razor Back, Rock Ridge, Dong Ha and Da Nang.
Sharp didn’t back down when he felt the instructions of his superiors would put his men more in harm’s way. And the skills he honed in the woods of Pocahontas County served him well. Taking time to study a map saved a lot of wasted time and steps.
“I went through compass school,” Sharp said. “They gave us a map, so I sat down at a table and studied it first and got all the coordinates and orientated myself.”
The instructor said it would take all night to complete the exercise, but Sharp laid out his plan by the number of steps between points.
“It only took me 15 minutes,” he said.
He had the same results with survival training, which was supposed to take a day and a-half to complete. That exercise included roads, woods and a boat.
If you got caught they would bring you back and you had to start all over, Sharp said.
“I just looked at the terrain on the map and figured where the ambush would be,” he said. “We started at 9 and at 10:45 we were through.”
As a skilled platoon leader, Sharp only lost one man.
“When they landed the helicopter, you got off shooting,” Sharp said. “The enemy would shoot at the Chinook 46 helicopter to try to cripple it so they couldn’t come back to get you.”
The radio man was shot in the leg.
“I turned him over and they shot him in the chest,” Sharp said quietly. “And he told me, ‘I’m not hurt’ and he was dead at the same time.”
Captain John Hemingway was onboard the helicopter. He left his seat to look out to see if Ray and his men were okay.
“That saved him,” Sharp said. “There were seven holes in the seat where he had been sitting. You couldn’t find a better man than Hemingway.”
And then there was Lt. Norman Heisler, of Louisiana.
It was Heisler who pinned Sharp’s medals on his uniform.
He told me he was going to come here and go hunting and snowmobiling with me, Sharp said. I told him, “you aren’t coming to see me,” but he did.
“Everybody liked him,” Sharp said. “He would do anything for the men.”
Sharp would do anything for his men, as well.
Sharp is reluctant to tell his story, but the citations that accompanied his medals tell of this soldier’s dedication.
Bronze Star with Combat “V” – “For heroic achievement in connection with operations against the enemy in the Republic of Vietnam…Ignoring the intense enemy automatic weapons and machine gun fire falling all around him, Lance Corporal Sharp courageously stood up on three separate occasions and threw grenades at the enemy until the position was destroyed. Exposing himself to the deadly enemy fire during two more occasions, Lance Corporal Sharp threw smoke grenades to mark the enemy positions for supporting aircraft. In addition, he located and cut three enemy booby trap wires and removed the devices from the proximity of his companions…Lance Corporal Sharp’s extraordinary courage, exceptional presence of mind and selfless devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and of the United States Naval Service.”
Silver Star – “For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action…Lance Corporal Sharp’s eight man reconnaissance patrol was attacked by an estimated reinforced squad of North Vietnamese Army soldiers armed with automatic rifles and a machine gun. In the ensuing fire fight, Lance Corporal Sharp, acting as the point man, and two other members of the patrol were wounded. Realizing that the enemy machine gun had to be silenced, Lance Corporal Sharp, with complete disregard for his own safety, maneuvered to within hand grenade range of the position and threw a grenade which destroyed the machine gun emplacement. A few minutes later, as he lay in a small depression with two other patrol members, he saw an enemy grenade land beside him. Without hesitation, he picked up the grenade and threw it away from the position, seconds before it exploded. Exhibiting outstanding presence of mind and quick reaction, Lance Corporal Sharp prevented serious injury or possible death to himself and his fellow Marines. Extremely adverse weather conditions prevented extraction of the unit, therefore the patrol was forced to remain in their perilous position throughout the night…Lance Corporal Sharp threw hand grenades, fired his grenade launcher, adjusted artillery fire and offered words of encouragement to his fellow Marines. Shortly after daybreak the weather cleared which enabled a rescue helicopter to land. Although wounded himself, Lance Corporal Sharp assisted the more seriously wounded men aboard the aircraft before allowing himself to be evacuated…”
The Marine’s motto is “First to Fight,” and Sharp took that to heart, but he didn’t want to make it a career.
“When I left, I didn’t look back,” he laughed. “They tried to promote me to Lieutenant, but I told them I wouldn’t stay if they made me a General.”
That wandering bull aside, today Sharp is content with his wife, his farm, draft horses, cows, bear dogs and beagles.
And perhaps many more men lived to find contentment as well because their leader did what was necessary - “as long as no one got hurt.”