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Marine killed in Vietnam War laid to rest

Pfc. Richard Rivenburgh was shot down in 1975 aboard a helicopter attempting to rescue a merchant ship's crew taken hostage in Cambodia. His remains were buried at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery.

August 07, 2012|By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times
  • A U.S. Marine ceremonial detail carries the remains of Marine Pfc. Richard Rivenburgh, who was killed in the 1975 rescue operation of the U.S. container ship Mayaguez.
A U.S. Marine ceremonial detail carries the remains of Marine Pfc. Richard… (Rick Loomis, Los Angeles…)

SAN DIEGO — In a ceremony that was brief but redolent of the sacrifice and pain of war, one of the last bits of unfinished business from the Vietnam War was completed Monday at the Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery.

The remains of Marine Pfc. Richard Rivenburgh were buried 37 years after his helicopter was shot down during the attempt to rescue the crew of the U.S. merchant ship Mayaguez, which had been taken hostage byCambodia'sKhmer Rouge.

The rescue is considered the last battle of the Vietnam War. Rivenburgh's name was one of the last placed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington.

Rivenburgh's remains and those of three other Marines were not recovered until 2008. Positive identification was made this year of the 21-year-old who had been in the Marine Corps barely seven months when he was killed.

"He was my big brother, a superhero," Robert Rivenburgh, 46, of Las Vegas, told reporters after the ceremony. "He always said he'd come home. It took 37 years, but now he's home."

Among the small crowd at the ceremony was Tim Trebil, 56, a retired police officer from Minneapolis. On May 15, 1975, he was a Marine private in the same CH-53 helicopter as Rivenburgh. Trebil was among 13 personnel rescued from the ocean off Cambodia; 13 others, including Rivenburgh, died.

"It's been 37 years of praying and waiting," Trebil said. "Until we bring them home, there's no comfort for the family."

Rivenburgh was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment. Lt. Col. Thad Trapp, who was the 2/9 commanding officer more than three decades later — from 2007 to 2009 in Iraq — was at the ceremony.

"He was a brother, just like the brothers we have today," Trapp said.

Different generations joined together to show their respect for the fallen.

Carrying the casket were six enlisted Marines in their mid-20s. Lining the walkway were three dozen members of the Patriot Guard Riders, many of whom served in Vietnam. In the crowd were two men who served on ships that were part of the rescue effort ordered by then-President Ford that included Navy, Marine and Air Force personnel.

"They took an American ship, then they realized that America wasn't going to stand for that," said Ronald Falls Sr., 56, who was aboard the carrier Coral Sea, which launched attack aircraft.

Falls is part of a group of former military personnel who were serving during the Mayaguez rescue effort. The group is called the Koh Tang Beach Club, an ironic reference to the heavily armed island where the Mayaguez crew was thought to be held.

Facing the threat of continued U.S. firepower, the Khmer Rouge released the Mayaguez crew after four days. Ford went on national television to announce their release.

Rivenburgh's remains were recovered and identified through the efforts of the military's Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in Hawaii, which has search teams scouring battle sites throughout the world for 83,000 Americans still missing from past conflicts.

According to the Department of Defense, more than 1,600 military personnel are still unaccounted for from the war in Vietnam. Trebil said there were still some from the Mayaguez rescue who have not been identified.

"Their day will come," said Robert Rivenburgh. "You don't think it will — then one day out of the blue, you get a phone call and your life changes."

After Pfc. Rivenburgh was declared dead, a tombstone with his name was placed over a grave at the Rosecrans cemetery. Now that his remains have been identified, a new grave site has been arranged, officials said.

"Now when we visit, we'll know he's really there," Rivenburgh's brother said.

tony.perry@latimes.com

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