Sgt. John Rucker, who was killed in action during the Vietnam War, was an “American fighting man” and a hero to those who knew him.
Through his bravery and actions leading up to his death in the face of overwhelming odds, Rucker was posthumously awarded the Army’s Distinguished Service Cross and the Purple Heart.
Decades after his death, family members, loved ones and veterans gathered Dec. 14 at the Jonesboro Cemetery in Roseland for a ceremony honoring the 50th anniversary of Rucker’s death. Rucker was a U.S. Army Ranger in his early 20s when he was injured and ultimately killed Dec. 14, 1970, in the province of Phu Yen.
The ceremony was organized by U.S. Airforce veteran Edrie Marquez, and was punctuated by a wreath-laying as well as a gun salute and taps tribute performed by members of Lovingston-based American Legion Post 17, a ceremony downsized because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Marquez served from June 1969 to June 1973 as a crew chief on a transport cargo aircraft. His plane was assigned the mission responsible for transporting Rucker’s remains from Vietnam to Taiwan to eventually be taken back to his family in Virginia in time for the 1970 Christmas season.
“I’ve never forgotten that night, that mission,” Marquez said. “There hasn’t been a day that’s gone by since that night that I haven’t thought about that mission. That is why I’m here today: to pay tribute to what I consider a great, heroic American fighting man. It’s a tribute that I’ve been wanting to pay to John since that mission back in December 1970, 50 years ago.”
Army Ranger veteran Spc. Michael Rubinstein is a surviving member of the six-man long-range reconnaissance unit that included Rucker. Rubinstein was injured the same day Rucker died of his wounds.
Rubinstein recounted to the people at the sergeant’s grave the downpour that had occurred the night before, similar to the rains that soaked the county the morning of the ceremony.
That morning, on Dec. 14, 1970, Rubinstein and two others went to wake up Rucker and the remaining soldiers when they noticed approaching North Vietnamese Army soldiers on a high-speed trail — comparable to an interstate — which was located roughly a couple dozen feet from the unit.
It wasn’t until the unit initiated contact that they realized what they were up against. The men had opened fire on a company of NVA, about 200 soldiers.
At that moment, “all hell broke loss,” Rubinstein said, with only grass and rucksacks separating the six men from the barrage of enemy small-arms fire.
According to the citation accompanying his Distinguished Service Award, Rucker, being heavily outnumbered, realized the threat of being surrounded by the enemy. He “exposed himself to the hail of enemy rounds” to prevent the men from being flanked. Another team member had to jump on Rucker to get him down, Rubinstein said.
Rubinstein said Rucker refused to stop fighting and refused any medical treatment despite his injuries.
After withstanding what Rubinstein said was about 45 minutes to an hour of ongoing combat, a helicopter arrived to ferry him and Rucker to a hospital for medical treatment. Gunships also arrived to help relieve the men. The remaining four Rangers would continue to fight for another 10 to 15 minutes before they evacuated as well.
“When I got on the dust off and I looked back at John I think — and it’s just my memory — that one of the medics just shook his head ‘no’ to the pilot. John had passed,” Rubinstein said. “John fought till past the very end. He earned every bit of [the award] and then some.”
Unbeknownst to him at the time, Marquez would be part of the crew responsible for transporting Rucker’s remains to Taiwan. He recalled walking from the barracks to the debriefing office to his awaiting plane to start preparing it for what he thought was going to be another routine cargo mission.
He entered the plane from the rear of the open cargo area and froze upon seeing Rucker’s body bag. The load master explained to Marquez his plane had been given a “special high-priority mission” carrying the dead Army Ranger and “no other cargo” back to Taiwan.
“Having been born and raised as a Christian and in a Christian environment, I just couldn’t help but feel how cold his statement was to me. ... And at that point I realized I was actually experiencing death in wartime for the first time.”
Marquez said he was so taken by the experience that he remained with Rucker for the duration of the four-hour flight, refusing to leave his side while saying several prayers for him. Upon landing, he helped officials on the ground remove Rucker’s body from the plane and watched as the funeral car drove away. That was the last time he saw the Army Ranger until 50 years later.
Jo Anne Rucker, John Rucker’s older sister, said it was significant her brother’s sacrifice still was being honored decades later.
“It’s hard to imagine 50 years and you think about what he would have done who he would have been, all those kinds of things. But someone has carried his memory and his heart, I don’t know that there are particularly words to say the significance of that,” she said.
Sue Rucker, of Roseland, described her older brother as a “quiet, wonderful daredevil.” He was her hero. Although she said she was familiar with the story of her brother’s death, having spoken with Rubinstein before, Sue Rucker took comfort in the stories and knowing John Rucker died as part of a “family unit.”
“The stories are our lives. The stories give you hope for the future. He was a wonderful guy. It makes sense that once he was drafted that he lived on the edge,” Sue Rucker said.
She and Jo Anne Rucker laid one of two wreaths upon their brother’s gravestone Monday as part of the ceremony. While the experience for her was “very difficult,” the younger Rucker described being able to lay the wreath as an honor.
Toward the end of the ceremony, the two veterans stood facing the Army Ranger’s gravestone now adorned with two wreaths, saluting him one final time, followed by an about-face and walking away. But before they did, Marquez gave Rubinstein a gentle pat on the back and offered him a hushed whisper.