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East Belmont veteran recalls adventures in the Marines

Jan 09, 2020 09:42AM

East Belmont native and U.S. Marines veteran Ray Biggerstaff looks over some albums from his service days in the 1960s. Photo by Alan Hodge

By Alan Hodge

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As a child, Ray Biggerstaff, 75, lived in a house near the Crescent Mill in East Belmont and even took a job there for a brief period as a teen. However, the wide world called and Biggerstaff answered by joining the U.S. Marines at the tender age of seventeen.

“I didn’t want to work in that mill forever,” Biggerstaff said. “So my parents signed the papers that let me enlist in 1961.”

Like other Marine recruits, Biggerstaff began his training at Parris Island. After a time at that base, he went to Camp Lejeune.

“I was there except for trips overseas,” he said. “They called them cruises.”

The type of cruises Biggerstaff went on didn’t include shrimp cocktails and sunning on a lounge chair. Places he and his fellow Marines were deployed to included Spain, France, Italy, Turkey, and more.

“We took part in maneuvers as a show of force,” Biggerstaff said. 

In the Western Hemisphere, Biggerstaff and his comrades visited a variety of places such as Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, and the Dominican Republic. It was in that last place, the city of Santo Domingo to be exact, that Biggerstaff took part in a hair raising action that he still recalls to this day.

In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson sent 22,000 U.S. troops, including Biggerstaff, to the Dominican Republic to restore order and prevent a communist takeover of the government following the assassination of the dictator Rafael Trujillo. 

The Marines and other U.N. troops were involved in several actions trying to keep the

 warring Dominican factions apart. During the uproar, Biggerstaff was a crew member on a machine called an “Ontos”.

“It had four 106mm guns, a .50 caliber machine gun, and a .30 caliber machine gun,” Biggerstaff said of the mechanized beast.

In early May, 1965, Biggerstaff and his guys were patrolling with the Ontos in Santo Domingo when they happened upon a terrible scene.

“We pulled up and heard a woman hollering,” Biggerstaff said. “A guy on the Ontos could speak Spanish and so we eased over to where she was. She told him she had lost two children already to the fighting and the family wanted to leave and go to New York. Her husband ran and got their car. The wife and I took the other two children and ran them to the car and they drove off. I’ve  always wondered how the kids turned out.”

Amazingly, Biggerstaff has a copy of the May 5, 1965 San Juan Star newspaper story that shows him and his fellow Marines, guns at the ready, rushing the kids to the car.

What Biggerstaff and his guys did is heroic, but he doesn’t dwell on that.

“I just feel like we did our job to help those people,” he says. “We did not hesitate.”

After Biggerstaff left the Marines, he lived for a while in New Jersey and Maryland before returning to  Belmont in 1970. He still lives there.

“I am Belmont through and through,” he says. “I am proud of it.”

Incidentally, he also has another Belmont tie - his uncle is Jim Biggerstaff, long time South Point High coach.