This piece first appeared on Rifftides on Memorial Day, 2011.
There is someone I think of every Memorial Day, and many other days. Cornelius Ram and I were among a collection of young men who accepted the United States Marine Corps’ bet that we weren’t tough or smart enough to wrestle commissions from it. It quickly became apparent to everyone, including the drill instructors charged with pounding us into the shape of Marines, that Corky Ram would have no problem. He was a standout in the grueling weeks of officer candidate competition and then in the months of physical and mental rigor designed to make us worthy of those little gold bars on the collars of our fatigues. After high school in Jersey City, New Jersey, he had served a hitch as a Navy enlisted man, and then got a college degree before he chose the Corps. He was two or three years older than most of us, and a natural leader. He could tell when the pressure was about to cave a green lieutenant exhausted from a 20-mile forced march with full field pack or demoralized after a classroom test he was sure he had flunked. Corky knew how to use encouragement or cajolery to restore flagging determination. He helped a lot of us make it through. The picture on the left is how I remember him from that period.
Unlike most of us who served our few years and got out, Corky made the Marine Corps his career. He served two tours in Viet Nam. Here is the official 5th Marines’ Command Chronology of what happened to him and another officer on his second tour in January of 1971, as the war was slogging to its demoralizing conclusion:
“On 10 January Major Ram (2/5 XO) and Captain Ford (E Co., CO), while attempting to aid two wounded Marines, were killed by a 60mm surprise firing device.”
There’s a bit more to the story. Major Ram, Executive Officer of 2/5 Marines, and Captain Ford (of Glen Rock, NJ), Commanding Officer of Echo Company, were overhead in a command helicopter when they spotted the wounded Marines in the open and in the path of oncoming enemy troops. The helicopter pilot, convinced that the open area was mined, refused to land in the vicinity of the wounded Marines and instead put down at a distance. Major Ram and Captain Ford exited the helicopter and began to cross the open area toward the wounded men. The pilot was right – the area was mined, and both Major Ram and Captain Ford died as a result. At least one of the two wounded Marines survived; he visited the Ram family several years later and described the circumstances.
Corky Ram was one of 13,085 Marines who died in hostile action in Viet Nam. I knew others, but he was the one I knew best. More than once, I have stood gazing at his name on the wall at the Viet Nam Memorial in Washington, DC. When Memorial Day comes around, he symbolizes for me the American service men and women who have died in the nation’s wars. What we and all of the free world owe them is beyond calculation.