A Clash of Prey

Bengal Tiger 004The Bengal Tiger is a denizen of Southeast Asia. A full sized specimen may grow to ten feet, as measured from the tip of its nose to the end of its tail, and weigh anywhere between 400 and 600 pounds. Always a danger to the local population, past Vietnamese have attempted to poison, capture, and kill the animal. Today, the Vietnamese government protects the Bengal Tiger; wildlife experts estimate that about 3,000 of these animals roam the jungles of the Northern Highlands of Quang Tri, Thua Thien, Quang Nam, Quang Tin, and Quang Ngai provinces in what was once the Republic of Vietnam.

Tigers are territorial, with some males prowling 200 square miles of jungle, grassland, swamp, or a combination of these. Its mainstay includes deer, wild pigs, buffalo, domesticated cattle, and unfortunate human beings. Hunting its prey, the Bengal Tiger is absolutely quiet, and when within striking distance, it strikes suddenly and powerfully. The goal is to immobilize its prey as quickly as possible. It will do this by pouncing on the hapless animal, pin it down, and using its powerful jaws, rip out the throat. A Bengal Tiger can drag a prey weighing several hundred pounds 1,500 feet to hide the dead animal in bushes or tall grass.

When the violence of war came to South Vietnam in 1965, the animals living in the Northern Highlands began looking around for some place a bit quieter—somewhere less lethal, away from American artillery and Marines, who were also looking for a prey of their own choosing. This left the Bengal Tiger with a reduced menu; now they only had a few deer to eat, and humans. Some of these wore the uniform of the United States Marine Corps.

There are several accounts of unhappy contact between the famed Bengal Tiger in Vietnam and Marines operating within in I Corps Tactical Zone (I CTZ) (spoken as “One Corps”). I have read that some people discount these anecdotes as “sea stories,” which given the inclination of Marines to tell tall tales, might be easy to accept —were it not for first hand testimony and press reports that validate such attacks. We know tigers made several attacks. We know of two Marines killed and partially consumed by Bengal Tigers: Private First Class Frank Baldino (1968), and Sergeant Robert C. Phleger (1970). Marine Corps legend Colonel John C. Ripley (now deceased) confirmed one account in his story Tiger Tales (1967).

Colonel Ripley wrote:

One of the greater difficulties on an ambush is trying to keep your mind occupied in order to pass the time. Hours drag by almost painfully. The sentry on duty can at least walk his post. In the trenches and bunkers one can move around, talk to the Marines in the next fighting hole, take a five minute relief for a head call or coffee, and best of all; move, turn, stand up, scratch, etc. None of this is possible in an ambush, at least theoretically. The entire ambush must lay very still, quietly anticipating imminent enemy contact.

What the FUCK was that?

The ambush froze. Often when it’s raining, the noise intensifies. It’s easy to suspect movement when in fact there is none. But this time was real —every man new it. A loud guttural growl —could that be possible? — and definite movement.

Corporal Schwirian’s jaws tightened and his nostrils flared. His heart raced so that he could actually feel it against the ground. Slowly, pulling his knees up under him he moved his body into a slow crouch. His right hand grasped his weapon, still on the ground. Shifting his weight to his left leg he prepared to bring his weapon into a firing position.

The source of the growl made a sudden leap!

God in heaven!

No one was fast enough to fire. Whatever it was it had Schwirian screaming. The machine gunner jerked his gun around trying to bring it to bear but this thing and Schwirian were locked together in a desperate blur.

It’s a Tiger!

The big cat had pounced out of the darkness and grasped Schwirian in its jaws. One paw was standing on the Marine’s hand, which held his weapon, pinning both to the ground. The other paw was on Schwirian’s left shoulder, forcing him backwards and more erect, while the beast chewed on his right arm and shoulder literally tearing off great chunks of flesh.

In what had to be the luckiest punch of any fight; certainly in this brutal fight for his life, the terrified young Marine threw a left cross into the muzzle of the tiger with his free hand. The blow hurt enough to cause the animal to release its grip.

Corporal Schwirian fell at that spot while the tiger lurched backward momentarily. It was the instant the squad needed; the Marines simultaneously opened fire.

The beast recoiled then simply disappeared.

The entire drama had taken seconds. The indescribable terror experienced by the squad left them shocked and drained. Their squad leader laid moaning and kicking where he had been dropped.

Doc was first to move. He was at once beside Schwirian trying to calm him and examine him, both nearly impossible tasks under the circumstances. Two Marines helped him while others formed a security perimeter. Their position now obviously compromised. They felt certain the enemy action would soon follow.

The corpsman’s trained hands moved quickly and expertly around the torn clothing and flesh. He could see nothing, but it didn’t matter. He knew this Marine was in serious trouble. It was easy to distinguish blood from rain dampness. The shock effect had to be massive and easily as great a threat to life as the loss of blood.

Ripping open his unit 1, the medical kit which together with its corpsmen made them responsible for the continued lives of thousand of Marines. Doc found what he was looking for – morphine. He decided to sedate the Marine taking the risk that shock could be overcome. Stopping the bleeding with direct pressure, he then applied his largest battle dressing hoping to cover the wound. It would take two.

His next move was one of absolute genius. It had undoubtedly never been taught in field medical school, nor did he learn it from any of the old hands. He had only been with the company a month. Taking still another battle dressing, he carefully wrapped the wounded Marine’s head, pulling it to the side opposite his shattered arm and shoulder. In this manner, Corporal Schwirian would not be able to view the extent of the wound, either deliberately or inadvertently.

In the company CP the radio operator was immediately allotted to trouble. Someone had keyed a radio handset as if they didn’t know what they were doing. Then there came a pause, followed by a scuffing noise, and finally,” Lima, this is Lima Alpha 3, we have to come in.”  He didn’t believe what he had heard.  It couldn’t possibly be the ambush, they would never break silence for such a ridiculous transmission, and even if they were in fact in trouble there was a specific code and procedure to follow.  Not only that, but he didn’t recognize the voice. He called the company commander and quickly described the incident, offering his opinion that whatever was happening it was… serious. The CO immediately tried to raise the ambush.

“Lima Alpha 3 this is Lima 6, if your situation is all secure click your handset twice.”‘

No answer.

The CO repeated his transmission. Suddenly there was this response: ” Lima 6, this is Alpha 3, sir we’re in trouble and have to return; can’t explain; request permission to move; we have a wolf (wounded in action).”

The CO was stunned and silent. He immediately recognized the voice as that of the corpsman.

“Roger Alpha 3, return at once; understand there are no friendlies, repeat, no friendlies, between yourself and us. Any movement is enemy.”

Facing the grim reality of what lay ahead the squad galvanized into action. Doc, having done all that he could, took Corporal Schwirian around the waist and pulled him erect. Another Marine grabbed his free arm. With their casualty in tow, the squad formed a patrol and started the long trip to the outpost. Each man took his position without speaking. The only noise was the shuffling and occasional moaning as the corpsman attempted to keep Corporal Schwirian on his feet moving.

When the battalion received the preliminary report that an ambush was in trouble, they immediately requested more information. The company commander could only report the scant bit he had received in the only transmission from the ambush. He did indicate that the ambush had at least one casualty; probably serious, possibly emergency, which would require evacuation. More information would follow when available.

On the outpost, the senior company corpsman made what preparations he could. He collected all blood volume expander, feeling certain this would be needed. Battle dressings, swabs, etc., were in abundance at the Company CP and laid out in preparation.

Sometime after midnight, the rain slackened, then stopped. It was replaced with thick ground fog, which obscured vision even more than rain. In the second platoon area, Marines were on bunker tops. It was through that part of the perimeter that the road entered the outpost, and the ambush was expected to arrive at that point. In the same area the engineering platoon, located right beside the road, strained to see or hear any movement on the other side of the protective wire.

Nearly three hours after the first report from the ambush, Marines in the line thought they heard movement. The commander 2nd platoon came into the CP to report just as the radio sounded. “Lima this is Alpha 3; we’re outside the wire; request permission to come in.”

Struggling to get the wounded, Marine into the bunker the corpsman winced at what light from the lantern illuminated. For the first time he actually saw the extent of the wounds. He wasn’t prepared. No one was. He gasped with the others at the incredible sight of torn flesh, claw marks, and an amazingly clean bite, which had removed nearly the entire bicep.

A final report now went to the battalion with all the detail and the request for an emergency med-vac. IT was painfully obvious that this Marine would need medical attention immediately.

“What’s the problem Lima?” asked battalion.

Trying to impart the seriousness of the wounds and what had actually happened over a radio was difficult.

“It appears that Alpha 3 was attacked by a tiger,” ‘ the CO responded. A pause indicated certain disbelief at battalion.

“We need an emergency medevac” the CO continued.

After some deliberation battalion indicated that a medevac would not be possible before first light. Bad weather, distance, and other factors argued against it.

“This man must get out tonight” the CO insisted.

Finally, the battalion consented to an attempt to move the casualty back to the Rockpile by road, from whence he could be further evacuated to Dong Ha by either road or air.

The only vehicles available at the outpost were engineer equipment and two Ontos. With a dump truck for an ambulance and the Ontos as security, along with a rifle squad, the small convoy made a reckless dash for the Rockpile. They moved along the same road Corporal Schwirian had rumbled down the previous day expecting a rest from enemy action.

The story could end here, but it doesn’t. Corporal Schwirian made it out, first to Delta Med at Dong Ha, then to USS Repose and finally to Philadelphia Naval Hospital. Lima Company would hear from him again. A Readers Digest article mentioned his ordeal. Then a few months later more casualties from his company ended up in his same ward at Philadelphia. They wrote back the welcome news that he was much improved and regaining the use of his arm.

As already noted, Corporal Schwirian wasn’t the only Tiger Tale. An article in Stars & Stripes dated 22 December 1968 records another attack.

Quang Tri —A man-eating tiger was killed by members of a small Marine patrol when the 400 pound cat attacked a 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion Marine in the northwestern corner of South Vietnam.

The Marine who was attacked is listed in satisfactory condition at a military hospital at Quang Tri. Identification is being withheld pending notification of his next of kin.

The six man recon team was on an observation mission near Fire Support Base Alpine, six miles east of the Laotian border in Quang Tri Province when it encountered the tiger. The team had completed its mission and was waiting to be heli-lifted from the area when the incident occurred. Bad weather conditions had prevented immediate pick up and the team had posted a two-man radio watch while the others settled down to sleep.

The tiger struck silently and swiftly.

“Suddenly, I heard somebody scream,” said PFC Thomas E. Shainline (Gilbertsville, PA) “and then somebody was yelling, ‘It’s a tiger, it’s a tiger.”

PFC Roy Regan (Nacogdoches, Texas), who had been sleeping next to the attacked Marine recalled, “I jumped up and saw the tiger on my partner. All I could think about was to get the tiger away from him. I jumped at the tiger and the cat jerked his head and jumped into a bomb crater 10 yards away, still holding his prey.”

The Marines quickly followed the tiger to the bomb crater and opened fire on the attacking beast. They could not be sure which one of them actually killed the tiger, since they all fired at it.

Once hit, the tiger released his prey and the attacked Marine staggered out of the crater.

“He looked dazed and asked what had happened,” recalled PFC Maurice M. Howell (Richmond, KY).

The injured Marine was given first aid treatment and a medical evacuation helicopter was called.

Bengal Tiger Nov 1968In minutes, a Marine CH46 helicopter arrived to pick-up the injured Marine, the rest of the team and the now dead tiger.

The injured Marine was rushed to the 3rd Medical Battalion hospital at Quant Tri suffering from lacerations and bites on the neck.

The tiger, measuring nine feet from head to tail was transported to the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion headquarters.

The incident took place about 10 miles south of the demilitarized zone near the spot where a young Marine was slain by a man-eating tiger on November 12.

Military authorities had sent out a Marine contingent and two professional South Vietnamese tiger hunters three weeks ago to find the killer tiger and three others believed are in the area, but the hunt failed.

For the Americans fighting in Vietnam, there were bigger things than VC in the bush.

9 thoughts on “A Clash of Prey”

  1. Although fictional, in the novel Matterhorn, Karl Marlantes describes with terrifying prose a tiger attack on a Marine in Vietnam. I didn’t know that there was a historical background to those kinds of events. Thank you for bringing out this slice of combat that, though horrible, illustrates the fear, caprice, and bravery of battle.

  2. I’m glad Schwirian made it, that’s for sure. Imagine expecting Viet Cong and getting a tiger attacking you?
    From your post and the comments, it’s clear this wasn’t unusual. Who knew?
    I love how the medic tied the shoulder/head so Schwirian couldn’t see the damage; THAT is heroic’s part. That shows medical training, psychiatric training and a VERY great heart.

  3. Incredible tale. No pun intended. Indeed, the Marines had many stresses upon themselves out in the jungle besides hidden enemy…but a tiger attack could not be even imagined by this arm chair civilian. Hard to fathom hidden tigers in addition to freakin’ huge centipedes and kraits to name a couple.

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