Forty-seven years ago today the Siege of Khe Sanh began. Unless you were there or have experienced something similar, I am not sure you can understand how shocking, bizarre, frightening it all was. I had been warned and trained, but I was not ready for what happened to me that morning.
I had been in-country ten months and had pretty much convinced myself that I’d get out of Vietnam unscathed. Through the final weeks of December 1967 and the first three weeks of January 1968 we heard from both our company headquarters and through scuttlebutt that the North Vietnamese were going to attack. We were on red alert too much with nothing happening. It made me think of that old tale my mother told me about the “boy who cried wolf.”
I’m not sure that the other men in Bravo Company felt like I did. I don’t recall, but I had convinced myself it was all a bunch of BS. It was BS because I wished it to be BS.
About five o’clock on the morning of January 21, 1968, I was jolted awake by the yells,” Incoming!” I was groggy and managed to shake into my gear and stagger outside. The world was chaos. Flashes and yelling and explosions. The ground shook. I hit the deck and buried my head. Something hit by back. It burned. I yelled, “I’m hit. I’m hit.”
Someone scraped off whatever was burning through my skin. It was Foster and he laughed. “You’re not hit. Those are clods.” To this day I remember how those clods burned my back and how I knew I was badly wounded. What that taught me was the power of the mind. How you can BS yourself into imaging real things from things that are not real.
I scrambled into my fighting hole. Everything I recall after that is nothing but flashes of memory, bursts, explosions, blood, me shaking. I recall getting my fire team into gas masks and deployed in anticipation of an attack. I recall being in one of our machine gun bunkers, watching out the aperture as the perimeter to our front was pulverized by both incoming rounds and rounds coming out of our lit-up ammo dump.
Someone yelled, “Here they come. Men in the wire.” I looked out there and saw nothing but geysers of mud and rolls of concertina wire and barbed wire mazes built to trip anyone who tried to get through the perimeter. I remember thinking that no one could get through that hell.
I recall Corporal Taylor (I think his first name was John, but we never called anyone by their first names. Well, not never, but rarely.), had a nasty gash on his shin bone from a piece of shrapnel.
I remember someone coming down the line, calling me up to the Platoon CP. I sneaked down there, loaded down with magazines and grenades, flak jacket, helmet, full canteens, M-16. I recall looking through the eyepieces of my gas mask. The world was a funny color. Could have been from dirty lenses or the world really could have been a funny color. The Marines of Second Platoon, Bravo Company, reminded me of prehistoric beetles with their masks and their gear. Warfare is a prehistoric business. A modern business, too.
I remember Lieutenant Dillon telling me that we had lost contact with one of the units on our flanks. He wanted me to locate them and if possible, determine their disposition. I remember inching around the angles of the trench, my M-16 on full automatic, in case I met unfriendlies skulking around in the red mud.
All I met was a trench full of spent rounds that had fallen out of the sky. Most of them looked like stuff from our own ammo dump. Remnants of rounds—105s and 155s and 81s—littered the bottom of the trench. Here and there, Marines lay in the trench. Some were wounded. Some I knew. I recall one whose thigh was shattered by a falling 155 round that had cooked off from the ammo dump. I don’t recall his name even though we’d been in Nam almost the same amount of time and I was acquainted with him. I offered morphine but he told me he’d already injected himself. I told him I’d send help.
I encountered another Marine I knew who had been hit in the groin by white phosphorus. He didn’t need morphine either, but as I hurried away to find help for him (and the man with the shattered thigh) I recall thinking about his gonads and what if they were poisoned (white phosphorus is poisonous) and they had to be cut off and…and…
It bugs me to this day that I can kind of see these wounded Marines in the trench but I can’t remember their names…first or last. Did I really know them? Did I really see that?
What happened after that, I have trouble recalling. Did I find the people I was sent to find? Who was in charge and did I tell them I had been sent by Lieutenant Dillon to re-establish contact? Did I find help for all those wounded men in the trench? Did I imagine this event?
All day long the ammo dump cooked off. As the hours went by, the number of times we heard the cook-off, then looked up to see a trail of smoke shooting up into the sky, then heard the screech or scream or roar as the round approached the ground seemed to slacken. We finally got to take our gas masks off as we assessed the mayhem. I felt like…well, dead.
A lot of Marines, Army and other attached personnel died on that day at the Khe Sanh TAOR. Only one man from Bravo Company, as I recall. He was with Headquarters and Supply and was attached to Bravo Company as one of the radio operators. His name was Steven Hellwig. Today, forty-seven years on, I say, “Rest in piece, Lance Corporal Steven Hellwig.” If you are interested, you can find out more about Steven at the Virtual Wall.
Another thing I recall about January 21, 1968, was the realization that hot chow, showers, supply tents, and all the other semi-comforts we’d been enjoying at the combat base were gone. They were shredded and we were now in a world of war, real war, not red alerts that meant very little.
Right now I see a machine gunner. I don’t remember his name, either, but I see him crouching on the lip of the trench, his left arm in a sling, his jaw bandaged. Prior to January 21, he’d have been sent off to rehabilitate at the Battalion Aid Station or Charlie Med or down to the rear at Phu Bai. But not now. It’s real war.
So, not that I haven’t been guilty of BSing myself a time or two, but ever since that day, I’ve had a pretty good notion of what can happen to you. How things can end badly even though you wish your hardest that they do not.
On the screening front, mark your calendars for a fundraising screening in Casa Grande, Arizona, on February 15, 2015, at the historic Paramount Theatre. Doors open at Noon, lunch served at 1:00 PM, screening of BRAVO! to follow at 2:00 PM. Ticket cost: $15.00 advance purchase or at the door. Proceeds will benefit the Mobile Veterans Center and Emergency Veterans Services in Pinal County.
On March 30, 2015, BRAVO! will be screened at the Egyptian Theater in Boise Idaho. Doors open at 6:00 PM. Program begins at 6:45 PM. Following the screening there will be a panel discussion moderated by Boise author extraordinaire, Alan Heathcock. The panel discussion will include veterans, some of whom are in the film. Proceeds will go to benefit the Idaho Veterans’ Network and Veterans’ Treatment Courts. Tickets are available online from the Egyptian Theater here.
Additional Idaho screenings to support the Veterans’ Courts and the Idaho Veterans’ Network will be held in Lewiston, Idaho, on March 18, 2015; Twin Falls, Idaho, on March 31, 2015; Caldwell, Idaho, on April 1, 2015; and in Pocatello, Idaho, at a time yet to be determined.
If you or your organization would like to host a screening of BRAVO! in your town next spring or summer, please contact us immediately.
DVDs of BRAVO! are available. Please consider gifting copies to a veteran, a history buff, a library, a friend or family member. For more information, go to http://bravotheproject.com/buy-the-dvd/.
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