veteran

Marine Corps veteran Ernie Tuten was awarded the Silver Star Medal for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action” while serving as a machine gunner during the Vietnam War.

Today’s veteran: Ernie Tuten, 68

Born: Jesup

Residence: St. Simons Island

Service: Marine Corps, three years

Duties: Infantry machine gunner

Rank: Corporal

Recognitions: Silver Star Medal; Vietnam Service Medal; Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal; National Defense Service Medal; Good Conduct Medal

Duty stations: Vietnam; Parris Island, S.C.; Camp Lejeune, N.C.; California

His story: It took 28 years for Ernie Tuten to get formal recognition for his courage during a battle in Vietnam.

He was an infantry machine gunner serving under then Lt. Oliver North during Operation Virginia Ridge, when his platoon was pinned down by machine gun, mortar, grenade and automatic weapons fire by heavily bunkered North Vietnamese troops.

As casualties continued to mount, Tuten, a young corporal, stood and assaulted the bunker with his machine gun blazing while he dueled with an enemy machine gunner. He kept the enemy pinned down, enabling fellow troops to advance.

He threw himself on the ground about 60 feet from the bunker, continuing to fire at the enemy before throwing a grenade into the bunker, destroying the enemy position.

His commanding officer originally recommended Tuten for the Navy Cross for gallantry in combat, but the paperwork got lost.

His former commanding officer learned about the paperwork snafu at a reunion decades after the battle and filed new paperwork. Two weeks later, the commandant of the Marine Corps called to tell him he was being awarded the Silver Star.

“I said ‘Good God.’ I was floored,” he said.

The Marine Corps awarded Tuten the Silver Star Medal at a ceremony on the drill field at Parris Island in 1997.

Tuten, the son of former U.S. Rep. Russell Tuten, dropped out of college to join the Marine Corps, following in the footsteps of two older brothers who were also Marines.

After he completed basic training, he was recommended for training as a radar technician, but Tuten told commanding officers he wanted to be an infantry machine gunner. After six weeks of jungle training in California, Tuten was on his way to Vietnam.

As a machine gunner, he went on patrol mostly every other day, where he walked point. Some patrols lasted as long as five days, he said.

He carried more than 150 pounds of equipment on patrol, which made it physically challenging.

“We were pack mules,” he said. “We were doing ambushes every night. It was pretty exhausting.”

Tuten said he averaged about three hours’ sleep each day.

During the battle where he earned the Silver Star, one of the goals was to capture a live North Vietnamese soldier.

“We actually captured one but he died before we got him back,” he said.

Oliver North was also awarded the Silver Star for his role during the battle.

“Oliver North was a great lieutenant,” Tuten said. “He had great battle instincts. We admired him.”

North volunteered his platoon for every mission, which meant there were many times when Tuten said he wondered if he’d make it home alive.

“You get immune to it,” he said. “We got mortared incessantly. We lived real close to a fox hole.”

He considered making the Marine Corps a career, flirting with the opportunity to become a drill instructor, but he close to return to civilian life instead.

He worked as a contract supervisor in Afghanistan, managing camps where troops could rest from the rigors of combat, before retiring several years ago to resume his home building business on St. Simons Island.

“The Marine Corps let me know no matter how tough it gets, it doesn’t compare with back then,” he said. “I love the Marine Corps.”

Our Veterans runs Wednesdays. Contact Gordon Jackson at gjackson@thebrunswicknews.com, on Facebook or at 912-464-7655 to suggest a veteran for a column.

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