22 May 2009


Our routine on the bridge during the day was simple. At intervals of about 40 meters along both sides of the roadway, the SeaBees had built small platforms that hung out over the river. It gave pedestrians a place to stand when trucks were crossing. We sand-bagged one on each side of the bridge and made them the observation post for day security.

For about 22 hours each day, the wind blew downstream (from the west), but from about 3pm to 5pm, it shifted 180 degrees. I have never learned why.

On April 30, the platoon sergeant had taken out the afternoon security patrol. I headed up to the compound for the Skipper’s daily meeting. While there, I got a radio message that one of my Marines had been lost in the river.

As we later determined, the death of Lance Corporal Ernie Tews occurred like this. He and another Marine were on watch on the upstream side of the bridge. Tews was a smoker, as were most of my Marines. Most of them carried engraved Zippo lighters that they had picked up after boot camp. Most also had a plastic cigarette box (think Tupperware) that would keep a standard pack of smokes and a lighter safe from rain.

Tews had placed his smokes on the sand bags around the OP. Suddenly, the wind picked up and blew the plastic box into the river 15 feet below.

“Oh, dammit. That’s my lucky lighter,” Tews told his shipmate. He walked across the bridge. “Here it comes. It’s floating.”

He took off his helmet and flak jacket and left his rifle in the OP. Then he stepped over the rail and dropped into the river.

The patrol was just crossing the bridge to continue up to the compound for supper. The tail-end Charlie (last man in the column) was a boot camp buddy of Tews’s.

“Hey, Tews, what the (universal adjective) are you doing in the river?”

Tews was swimming upstream and was about 20 feet from the ladder next to the diving board. “Had to get my lucky lighter.” He was laughing and not in distress.

The other Marine said, “I gotta catch up. See you later.”

He was running on up the bridge to catch the rest of his squad when 2 Seabees came running up and grabbed him. Pointing to the river, one said, “Is that guy really in trouble or is he just fooling around?”

Tews was about 40 feet down stream and struggling. One of the Bees jumped into the river and swam to Tews. The other took off his boots and then followed. By the time the second Bee got to where he had last seen Tews and his shipmate, they were both underwater. He surface dived, finally made contact with one man and pulled him up. It was the other SeaBee.

We sent out search patrols along the river until dark and resumed the next morning. He was finally found floating along the south bank about two miles down stream.

He was listed as a non-battle casualty (NBC) and his death has always bothered me because it seemed so purposeless. He was a good Marine, a fire team leader, and had a lot of potential. I have since learned that of the 58,000 names on the Wall in DC, some twenty percent, nearly 11,000, were NBCs, most of whom were from vehicle accidents and drowning.

It still haunts me.

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