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Father Gerlach and the Ambush

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By Terrence Britton Dunne

The following events involved India Company, 3rd Bn, 1st Marines, 1st Marine Division, in the Que Son Valley southwest of Danang, Vietnam

The questions came later. If you believe in God, did Father Gerlach’s bravery have value? If you don’t believe in God, did his bravery still have value?

It was a good hot day in 1968 Vietnam, around noon, when our 12-man patrol was ambushed by the North Vietnamese Army. It came from a tiny island in the rice paddies, a couple of thatched roof huts maybe 60-70 yards away. The burst of gunfire dropped two Marines and kept coming. We fired back with all we had.

No Navy Corpsman was with us that day and I looked over my shoulder to check the two shot-up Marines. India company’s chaplain was with them, a Jesuit priest we knew as Father Gerlach. It looked like one Marine was dead and the other badly wounded. Father Gerlach kneeled beside them, his green stole of priestly authority draped around his neck, the Latin words of the Christian last rites in the air.

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Little dusty puffs from bullets nicking the ground appeared to the left and right of Father Gerlach. Then a machine gun burst stitched the ground in front of him. He seemed unaware.

From the NVA’s point of view, Father Gerlach had to be an easy target. We Marines were hugging the ground, flat as flat could be, blasting away with a machine gun and rifles. Father Gerlach was behind us, kneeling, silhouetted against the sky.

Had divine intervention taken place?

Another enemy machine gun burst hit the ground inches from his kneeling figure. “He’s gonna get it for sure,” the Marine next to me said, but Father Gerlach, lost in devotion, continued administering the Roman Catholic sacrament of Extreme Unction.

He was lucky. No bullet hit him. The enemy fire stopped, the ambush broken. One Marine was dead, the other seriously wounded, both evacuated by helicopter. We picked up our gear and moved out. Father Gerlach shouldered his M1 Carbine and continued on patrol with us as if nothing had happened.

It was only luck that Father Gerlach wasn’t cut to pieces by enemy bullets. But, I couldn’t help but wonder, was it something else?

Had divine intervention taken place. Was the Lord protecting Father Gerlach?

Why wasn’t he afraid? Did he believe God was on his side?

Was he unhinged? Did he have a death wish?

I was hoping to ask him those questions but, after that day, I never saw him again. I never knew his first name and over the years I tried to find him but all inquiries hit a dead end. Much later, searching the web, I emailed Catholic parishes around the country that listed the name “Gerlach” as one of their priests. No replies but years later I heard Father Gerlach had long since left the priesthood. Had the same individual with the courage to perform so bravely under fire succumb to despair? Had he lost his faith?

Maybe, but nothing can change what he did. Those of us there that day witnessed his valiant actions impart dignity to a dying teenager, a young Marine rifleman giving his life for his country. With deep respect, we remember Father Gerlach.

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