Ronald Ray was one of five brothers, three of whom served in the military. In 1959, he left high school to enlist in the Army. Discharged after serving three years, he came home for two months, then reenlisted in the Special Forces. There he excelled in training activities such as HALO (high-altitude, low-opening) parachute jumps, which involved diving out of a plane at such high altitudes that oxygen was required and free-falling to 1,500 feet before opening the chute. His battalion commander recommended him for Officer Candidate School.
On June 19, 1966, two weeks after arriving in Vietnam, Lieutenant Ray was in charge of a platoon of the 35th Infantry in the Ia Drang Valley, part of an operation to cut off elements of the North Vietnamese Army entering Vietnam from Cambodia. A few days earlier, his company commander had split the unit into two parts, ordering Ray's platoon to cover a large area where enemy troops might try to infiltrate. Ray located a knoll to use as a base of operations and set up listening posts near approaches he thought the North Vietnamese might use.
Early on the afternoon of June 19, ten men in one of these listening posts came under intense fire. Convinced that they were being encircled by a large enemy unit, Ray radioed them to move back, but by this time they were cut off by enemy gunners When Ray called his company commander for reinforcements and was informed that there was no other unit close enough to help, he told the trapped men that he would come get them.
He and the rest of his unit pushed through more than a mile of dense jungle until the listening post was in sight, then began throwing grenades and firing their weapons in small, frequent bursts to make the North Vietnamese think they were a larger force. The ruse was momentarily successful, and the enemy pulled back long enough for Ray's men to join the others. But the North Vietnamese quickly regrouped and began to pour heavy fire at the Americans.
A squad that Ray sent to try to silence one of the enemy positions was immediately pinned down. Fearing that the men would be annihilated, he charged the position himself and killed the four enemy gunners with grenades and his 12-gauge shotgun. Nearby, a medic and the badly wounded man he was trying to evacuate came under fire. Ray went to their rescue, killing several more North Vietnamese. A few moments later, when he saw a grenade land near two of his men, he dived over them to shield them from the blast. He was badly wounded by shrapnel. Although he was shot in the legs by a machine gun, he managed to silence it with his last grenade.
Ray was momentarily paralyzed in his lower body by the trauma, but he continued to direct his men. During a lull in the fighting, he ordered his sergeant to prepare a withdrawal. He was planning to stay behind to cover his men, but once they left, his sergeant hoisted him on his back and took him to an evacuation zone.