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Archive for the ‘Khe Sanh’ Category

Documentary Film,Film Screenings,Khe Sanh,Marines,Meet the Men,Vietnam War

July 16, 2014

Something of Value

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Bravo Company 1/26 came off of Hill 881 South on July 10, 1967, and went into battalion reserve at the combat base, first at the west end and then into the trenches on the north side of the perimeter. Bravo stood line watch, ran patrols, listening posts and ambushes for the next ten days.

On July 21, Mike Company, 3/26, engaged elements of the North Vietnamese Army northeast of the base and suffered five KIA.
If I was aware of Mike Company, 3/26′s casualties, I don’t recall. When units got hit around Khe Sanh I usually went into a funk; scattered, not focused on cleaning my rifle or gathering the rest of my gear in case we charged into the maw of battle. I would flit from task to task, smoke a Camel, clean part of my weapon, grab some grenades, smoke a Camel…I don’t recall doing any of these tasks.

View  looking down on the Quang Tri River Valley where Route 9 ran. Photo by John Corvus

View looking down on the Quang Tri River Valley where Route 9 ran. Photo by John Corvus

On the same date, another Mike Company—Mike 3/3—was also out in the vicinity of Mike 3/26 and they, too, took casualties; 11 KIA. Again, I have no memory of that event or the edgy fear that probably gnawed at the back of my brain as I tried to stay focused and not look like I was afraid.

Also on that same day, Bravo 1/26′s First Platoon was out east of the combat base patrolling down Route 9 when they got ambushed. Three men were killed on that patrol: one 81 MM forward observer with H & S Company, 1/26, and two men from Bravo’s First Platoon. Some of the men in our film BRAVO! were on that patrol.

As soon as Second Platoon, my outfit, got the word about First Platoon being ambushed, Sergeant Michael Dede came down the line and told us to gather our gear.

I shared a bunker with a salty Marine who had come over to Bravo earlier in the year from 3/26. He was a short-timer. I do not recall his name. At that moment, he was teaching me how to play Back Alley Bridge and as we played our cards, he was cleaning out my pockets. We were playing for money—Military Payment Certificates—because, as he told me in his clipped Boston accent, if you weren’t committing something of value, then you wouldn’t be at your best.

Dede told us to get ammo, grenades, poncho liner, and other gear we’d need for a helicopter insertion in support of First Platoon. My bunker mate sat back and grinned, and as I tried to gather my gear, flitting like a mosquito from one item to the next, he cajoled me to keep playing the game since there was no guarantee we’d be going anywhere.

I recall him saying, “You know how it is. Hurry up and wait.”

So as I got my gear together and rumors of death and combat circulated like demons among the men of Second Platoon, he collected more and more of my MPC.

Finally, Sergeant Dede came down the line and told us to assemble on the air strip and await choppers to transport us out to assist First Platoon. My bunker mate was so short he didn’t have to go. I can see him, right now in my mind’s view, leaning back on his rack, smiling, his big red mustache and his disheveled shock of red hair implanted in my memory. He was counting my MPC.

We sat on the air strip in the sun. It was hot and we were nervous. Some of us talked incessantly. Some of us didn’t say anything.

I don’t know that I thought about it then, but I think about it now. Something of value. Some MPC in a game of Back Alley Bridge. Some casualties out on Route 9. My young life available to what…be wounded, killed, captured, honored? Something of value, like the lives of those 19 Marines who died in our TAOR that day, and the wounded men, too, whose names we don’t put up on monuments.

Finally, the helicopters arrived and we loaded up and away we went.

Michael E. O'Hara during his interview for Bravo! Photo by Betty Rodgers

Michael E. O’Hara during his interview for Bravo!
Photo by Betty Rodgers

***

On the screening front, BRAVO! will be screened at the Union League Club of Chicago, 65 West Jackson Blvd, Chicago, Illinois on July 24, 2014. Sponsored by American Legion Post 758, this event begins with registration at 5:00 PM. The film will be screened at 5:30 followed by a Q & A session with Co-producers Betty and Ken Rodgers, BRAVO! Marine Michael E. O’Hara, and Echo Company, 2/26′s Tom Eichler, the president of the Khe Sanh Veterans Association. Complimentary snacks will be provided and there will be a cash bar with beverages of your choice.

The program will end at 8:00 PM. Reservations are required. To reserve your seats please go to the Eventbrite registration page @ https://bravofilm.eventbrite.com/.

Please note, this event is business casual: no jeans, no denim, no shorts; shirts must have collars.

If you would like to host a screening of BRAVO! in your town this fall or winter, please contact us immediately.
DVDs of BRAVO! are available. For more information go to http://bravotheproject.com/buy-the-dvd/.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject/. It’s another way you can help spread the word about the film.

Documentary Film,Guest Blogs,Khe Sanh,Marines,Vietnam War

June 25, 2014

A Beacon for All the Words that Remain Unspoken

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By Don Johnson

2.5 ~ 58,000 ~ 6,000,000 ~ 60,000,000 ~ 250

Numbers, the kind I’ve seen a lot of recently, the kind that makes me realize just how fortunate my number really was.

I’ve seen Bravo! twice now; 2.5 times, to be exact. The .5 was the time I tuned into its broadcast on the local PBS channel, but misread the schedule and tuned in an hour late. That’s a dumb way to watch this moving documentary; it can’t be cut up into pieces. Bravo! must be swallowed whole.

Bravo! doesn’t go down like honey. It’s a bitter pill, but turns into honey later once you get to know the minds and hearts of the veteran Khe Sanh
survivors who were interviewed for the film.

Don Johnson Photo courtesy of Crane Johnson

Don Johnson
Photo courtesy of Crane Johnson

I last saw this amazing and heart-wrenching documentary on May Day, at a showing hosted by our local camera club. It’s a small group, so we were treated to some genuine and rare personal time with Ken and Betty. We’re lucky to have such hometown heroes, and grateful that they could find time for us. Because of the intimate atmosphere, I was able to absorb the events on the screen as if it were being screened only for me. It made a huge impact, and not in the way I expected.

I’ve watched I don’t know how many war movies and documentaries on WWII, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, just like most people my age (63). But this one was different. Although I have a number of friends and acquaintances who served in Vietnam, including old high school classmates, none ever talk about it anymore. I don’t think they ever did, at least with me. So Bravo! is a beacon for all the words that remain unspoken.

A few days after the club screening, my wife and I were on a plane to Washington DC, and Bravo! was still on my heart. I spent a lot of time thinking about the Khe Sanh story, the men interviewed for the film, and what they said. It interested me that they didn’t speak in one voice. Every one of them served heroically beyond imagination, but not one behaved anything like a hero of the movies. I heard, along with the hard descriptions of their life and death situations, their humility and sacrificial love of their fellow Marines, acceptance of impossible circumstance, and surprisingly some tinges of doubt and criticism of the war effort, wondering now, decades later, why they had been sent and how they had been treated on their return. I wasn’t prepared for that. These were real human beings and their honesty floored me.

In DC, we visited all the war memorials on the Mall and around the Tidal Basin. We’d seen them before, but not with Bravo! on my mind. The numbers were overwhelming. 58,000, the number inscribed on the Vietnam Wall. Six million dead Jews named in the Holocaust Museum. Sixty million dead in WWII, 2.5% of the world’s population, causing FDR to say “I hate war.”

I Have Seen War Photo courtesy of Don Johnson

I Have Seen War
Photo courtesy of Don Johnson

It was about that point that I had a poignant realization, that my life could well have taken a different turn but for a certain number. That number was 250, my draft number in 1969. I vividly remember sitting around the TV with my family, as did all my high school buddies, watching the Selective Service lottery being drawn. Some of my friends drew low numbers and went off to boot camp before shipping off to Vietnam. One friend drew a 13 and headed off to Canada; another got a deferment to work in a Portland mental hospital. I drew number 250. I was safe and relieved of having to make any kind of decision to join in a war we watched every night on TV.

The men of Bravo Company, First Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment went to Vietnam and suffered the Khe Sanh siege in Ken and Betty’s harrowing tale that will stick with me permanently. It’s not untrue to say that they went in my place because of the random fortune of a number. Bravo! has reinforced my love for those who sacrificed their own safety to allow civilians like me to go on with our lives rarely thinking of war and our warriors. For me, 250 represents the gratitude I haven’t properly expressed.

The Wall Photo courtesy of Don Johnson

The Wall
Photo courtesy of Don Johnson

Thank you, Ken and Betty, and the warriors of Bravo Company for making this film. May it travel far and wide and open the eyes and hearts of peace-loving people everywhere. War no more.

Don Johnson is an Idaho photographer, blogger, and educator who loves to instill the joy of cameras and vision in others. His popular Facebook group, Photo Assignment, is open to anyone interested in becoming a more creative photographer. Don is owner of Arrowrock Photography, co-founder of Sawtooth Photo Pros, and author of his almost-daily blog, Motel Zero.

You can find out more about Don Johnson and his work at:

Facebook Photo Assignment: https://www.facebook.com/groups/photosign/
Arrowrock Photography: http://arrowrockphotography.net/
Sawtooth Photo Pros: http://www.sawtoothphotopros.com/
Motel Zero: http://robinstarfish.blogspot.com/.

If you would like to host a screening of BRAVO! in your town this summer or fall, please contact us immediately.

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. For more information go to http://bravotheproject.com/buy-the-dvd/.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject/. It’s another way you can help spread the word about the film and what it is really like to fight in a war.

Documentary Film,Film Screenings,Khe Sanh,Marines,Vietnam War

June 18, 2014

Notes on the Springfield, Illinois Screenings of BRAVO!

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Last week Betty and I flew into Chicago, rented a car and drove down to Springfield, Illinois, the burial place of our 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. We traveled there as the guests of the Staab Family and to screen BRAVO! at the Hoogland Center for the Arts as part of a Flag Day benefit for the planned Oak Ridge Cemetery Purple Heart Memorial in Springfield.

We arrived in town and were met by BRAVO! Marine Tom Quigley, a native son of Springfield who was instrumental, along with PJ Staab and the Staab Family, in making these events happen.

The next morning, Betty and I met Tom at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library where Tom and I were interviewed by local radio personality Jim Leach of WMAY radio. Betty, Tom and I were impressed with Jim’s knowledge of the Vietnam era and the Siege of Khe Sanh in particular. You can hear the interview here: http://wmay.com/assets/podcasts/20140612jlsBravo.MP3.

Later, Betty and I walked down to the Hoogland Center for the Arts where we met with their events manager, Vanessa Ferguson, and checked out the facilities for the screening. On the way back to the hotel, we stopped in at the First Presbyterian Church and looked at their seven fabulous Tiffany stained glass windows and the pew where the Abraham Lincoln family sat during church services.

Left to Right: Tom Quigley, John Cicala, Michael E O'Hara, Cal Bright, Ben Long and Bruce Stuckey. Photo courtesy of Ken Rodgers

Left to Right: Tom Quigley, John Cicala, Michael E O’Hara, Cal Bright, Ben Long and Bruce Stuckey.
Photo courtesy of Ken Rodgers

During the day, Bruce & Francine Jones and Bruce & Judy Stuckey arrived. Bruce Jones, alias T-Bone, was a radioman for 81 Millimeter Mortars and spent a lot of time on patrol with Bravo Company. Bruce Stuckey was a radio man for Bravo Skipper Ken Pipes. That evening, we all went out for dinner at Saputo’s Italian Restaurant where we were joined by Tom’s wife Nancy and daughter Erin Parsons and her family. If you are ever in Springfield, I suggest you try the fare at Saputo’s. It is rumored that Al Capone liked to dine there, and as we tucked into our ravioli and manicotti and other dishes, I imagined seeing Al parade in with his entourage, all wearing natty summer suits and two-toned fancy shoes, ladies of the night hanging onto their arms.

Also arriving in Springfield later that night was BRAVO!’s associate producer, Carol Caldwell-Ewart.

The day of the screening, Betty and I and BRAVO! Marine Michael O’Hara, who had arrived early that morning, toured the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum—definitely worth the fees and the time it takes to watch the films, view the exhibits and look at all the memorabilia.

BRAVO! Marines Cal Bright and Ben Long with his wife Joyce, and John “Doc” Cicala who was one of Bravo Company’s corpsmen, arrived that day too. We all met at the Hoogland before the screening and had a moment to visit while Carol, Betty and I worked with the staff to make sure everything was in order.

The very capable A/V tech estimated that over 300 folks came out to donate funds to help build the Oak Ridge Cemetery Purple Heart Memorial and to watch BRAVO!. The evening started off with a reception hosted by the Staab Family. Right before the film was shown, Master of Ceremonies PJ Staab introduced all of the Khe Sanh vets in attendance, and we were honored by an enthusiastic standing ovation from the audience. I haven’t ever been honored like that since my return from Vietnam in 1968. You must recall that the Vietnam Veteran wasn’t particularly popular back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Somehow we were blamed for our political leaders’ decisions, so the standing ovation was particularly heartwarming. And the ovations didn’t stop there! We were also honored at the end of the film as the credits ran, and yet again before a snappy and informative Q & A session that followed.

The scene at Staab Funeral Home in Springfield, just before the Ride in Honor bike run. Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers.

The scene at Staab Funeral Home in Springfield, just before the Ride in Honor bike run.
Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers.

The next morning, all of the BRAVO! folks met for a special breakfast and then as some headed home, five us—Michael E. O’Hara, John “Doc” Cicala, Carol, Betty and I—traveled over to the Staab Funeral Home where lines of motorcycles threaded across the parking lots in anticipation of the annual Ride in Honor, a bike run to four of the area’s veteran’s memorials.

I had never been around one of these bike runs—I’ve heard about them—so it was exciting to see all the bikes with their multi-hued frames and the colorful characters who were riding them. Again, the bikers chipped in funds to participate in this event with the proceeds going for the Purple Heart Memorial.

Just prior to the run, PJ Staab invited us to meet his Aunt Catherine, the last of the World War II era Staab generation. We of course said, “Yes,” and followed PJ upstairs to visit with Aunt Catherine for a while. And what a delight! She’s seen the film twice and wanted to meet us.

Then it was off in a roar of engines to the veteran’s shrines, the first being the Oak Ridge Cemetery where the planned Purple Heart Memorial will be built. Also located at Oak Ridge is President Lincoln’s tomb as well as commemorative tributes to the men and women who fought and died in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. Michael E. O’Hara, Doc Cicala, Bob Cowles, Tom Jones and I made up a detail that placed a wreath on the Vietnam War Memorial.

I have never been a part of anything like the placing of the wreaths, so it was humbling to be a participant. Both Bob Cowles and Tom Jones have been instrumental in getting the Purple Heart Memorial project off the ground. Betty and I first met Bob Cowles, a US Army veteran of the Vietnam War, when he arranged for us to interview Tom Quigley for BRAVO! in 2010 at the Springfield VFW Post. Tom Jones, also a Vietnam Veteran and Navy Corpsman who served with Force Recon, is the author of the novel LOST SURVIVOR about an African-American’s journey to fight in Vietnam.

Left to right: Bob Cowles and Tom Jones. Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers.

Left to right: Bob Cowles and Tom Jones.
Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers.

After placing the wreath at Oak Ridge, we proceeded to travel to the memorials at New Berlin, Spaulding and the National Veterans Cemetery at Camp Butler where we again placed wreaths at each location. We were treated to a poetry reading and to a trumpet rendition of “Taps.” Before departing Camp Butler, the crowd of bikers lined up and hugged and thanked each one of us for our service. It was intimate and humbling for each of us. For a generation of veterans who were pretty much shunned by their country, it is amazing, after 46 years, to be getting some thanks for what we did. We were young then, and wanted to do what was required, and we wanted to do it well.

We finished the day with another trip to Saputo’s, this time with PJ Staab and his lovely wife Ruth. For me it was sausage and peppers with a side of spaghetti. And they got the red sauce right.

Thanks to PJ Staab and the Staab Family, to Jessica McGee, to the Marine recruits who acted as ushers at the screening of the film, to the Hilton for our lodging and the Hoogland Center for the Arts for a screening venue, to all the folks who came to see BRAVO! and to Springfield with its wonderful memorials. And thanks to Carol Caldwell-Ewart and to the men of Bravo and their wives for traveling to participate in this special weekend.

If you would like to host a screening of BRAVO! in your town this summer or fall, please contact us immediately.

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. For more information go to http://bravotheproject.com/buy-the-dvd/.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject/. It’s another way you can help spread the word about the film and what it is really like to fight in a war.

Khe Sanh,Marines,Other Musings,Vietnam War

June 11, 2014

Remembering June 7, 1967

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As I write this blog, the date is June 7, 2014. Recognition of the date leads me to ponder a June 7 forty-seven years ago.

Not long after returning from Vietnam in April, 1968, I was cruising the streets of my home town with one of my high school friends who looked at me and said, “Rodgers, you could fall in a bucket of manure and come out smelling like a rose.”

I didn’t quite know how to respond to that comment but now I remember thinking that, yeah, I’d been lucky in my life.

Ken Rodgers, co-producer, co-director of BRAVO!, photo courtesy of Kevin Martini-Fuller

Ken Rodgers, co-producer, co-director of BRAVO!, photo courtesy of Kevin Martini-Fuller

During the Siege of Khe Sanh I was one of the lucky members of Bravo Company. I didn’t go out on the Ghost Patrol and my platoon, 2nd, wasn’t in the first wave of attackers as we assaulted the NVA on March 30, 1968. Yes, I had to deal with incoming and snipers and going out on listening posts at night, but for the most part I was pretty lucky. And yes, I learned to tell where incoming was going to hit by the sound it made leaving the tube and yes I didn’t stick my head up so a sniper’s round could rip the top of my head off, but sometimes you didn’t hear the incoming leave the tube and sometimes you had little choice, you had to stick your head up. So you needed some luck to survive.

Some folks say that luck is only being prepared but in the case of the Marine Corps, you really don’t have any choice about when you get picked to go into action.

I was pretty lucky before the Siege, too, because I didn’t go out on the Bravo Company patrol of June 7, 1967. Two squads from 2nd Platoon went out on a company-minus patrol which we thought would be a routine exercise off the north end of 881 South that morning. The squad I was in was chosen to remain behind and man the lines. I was pretty new to the outfit, so I remember that it seemed like just another day in my tour. Instead of humping the hills outside of Khe Sanh, I’d fill sandbags and stand watch.

It wasn’t long before we could hear activity going on and it wasn’t the kind of activity that you want to hear. Even though I didn’t know a lot of the guys in our platoon very well, I can still remember feeling empty. Empty and a little frightened, too. Our squad leader was monitoring the action on a radio, or trying to, and gave us some confused information about what was going on. It all sounded like a lot of chaos to me. Bravo Company hadn’t been lucky and had walked into a well-planned ambush, or at least that’s what I remember.

A trench line on Hill 881 South. Photo courtesy of marines.org

A trench line on Hill 881 South.
Photo courtesy of marines.org

Eventually the battle was ended and our men came back in. There was only one problem. We were short 18 Marines and Corpsmen. And I knew some of them.

I had never felt anything like what I felt as I heard the list of names of our dead and saw the blank look on the faces of the men who returned. I knew well enough to keep my mouth shut and not say anything stupid. I wanted to apologize and to sympathize and to…I wanted to reach out to them but I realized that wouldn’t do much good.

The men of 2nd Platoon who didn’t go out on that patrol sat there and talked in hushed voices. Inside, in my guts and my chest, I felt drained, like something had vacuumed my innards. I couldn’t imagine what the men who had been out there felt like. (Later in my tour, during the Siege, I would get firsthand experience.)

One of the things I remember best from that day is my fireteam leader’s reaction to news that his best buddy was KIA. They’d come over from 3/26 about a month before. My team leader was the most stoic man I ever knew but on that day he cried. He didn’t try to stop the tears. He didn’t try to hide them. He let them go and they streamed down his brown face. I wanted to reach out and hug him but we didn’t do that kind of thing back then, or that’s what I believed, anyway.

A few days later we reorganized the platoon and within several weeks we acted like we had forgotten all about what happened on June 7. But we hadn’t. We were just trying to move on, hoping to be lucky enough not to end up like those good men who hadn’t come back from that action.

The names of those men:

Lance Corporal James Blaz
Lance Corporal John Chase
Corporal Ronald Crooks
Lance Corporal Ronald Enderby
Corporal Edward Furlong
Private Gale Gotti
PFC Thomas Healy
PFC Kenneth Johnson
Lance Corporal Kenneth Keefer
PFC Steven Millett
PFC Larry Morris
PFC Wayne Pitts
PFC Frank Shovlin
PFC Philip Van Deusen
Lance Corporal Edward Vercouteren
HN (Corpsman) Gregory Vercruysse
Corporal Walter Ward
PFC Larry Worthen

Semper Fi, Marines.

If you would like to host a screening of BRAVO! in your town this summer or fall, please contact us immediately.

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. For more information go to http://bravotheproject.com/buy-the-dvd/.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject/. It’s another way you can help spread the word about the film and what it is really like to fight in a war.

Documentary Film,Film Screenings,Khe Sanh,Marines,Vietnam War

June 4, 2014

BRAVO!’s Michael E. O’Hara Delivers a Stirring Speech; News on Upcoming Screenings

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BRAVO! Marine Michael E. O’Hara was the guest speaker at the Brown County, Indiana, Memorial Day celebration hosted by Veterans of Foreign War Post 6195. The event was held on the courthouse lawn and Brown County’s fallen veterans of war were honored. Michael O’Hara is an articulate and passionate man who, when he sets out to do something, does it with an eye to perfection. His speech is moving and memorable and does us all proud. You can read Michael’s speech here:

http://www.thisisbrowncounty.com/2014/05/28/welcome-home-vietnam-veterans/.

Michael E. O'Hara during his interview for Bravo!

Michael E. O’Hara during his interview for Bravo!

On a separate note, as we move into the summer season, BRAVO! COMMON MEN, UNCOMMON VALOR will be screened in a number of places. Here’s what we can tell you about future showings right now. We hope you will join us or send an interested friend or relative.

• Springfield, IL – The Staab Family of Springfield presents BRAVO! COMMON MEN, UNCOMMON VALOR on June 13, 2014, 7:30 PM, at the Hoogland Center for the Arts located at:

420 South Sixth Street, Springfield, Illinois.

The film’s producers, along with several of the men featured in the film, will take part in a Q & A session immediately following the screening. Never before have so many of BRAVO!’s stars attended any one screening. You will meet Cal Bright, John Cicala, Ben Long, Michael E. O’Hara, Betty Rodgers, Ken Rodgers and Tom Quigley. Springfield is Tom Quigley’s hometown. Also in attendance will be the film’s Associate Producer, Carol Caldwell-Ewart.

This is a free event, but donations will be gratefully accepted for a proposed Purple Heart Memorial at Oak Ridge Cemetery.

Here’s a link to the radio ad about this event. You will hear the voices of Dan Horton, Steve Wiese and Michael E. O’Hara. Staab Family IN HONOR WEEKEND 060414

Michael O'Hara in Vietnam

Michael O’Hara in Vietnam

• Chicago, IL – Union League American Legion Post 758 presents BRAVO! on July 24, 2014 at the Union League Club of Chicago.
More details to follow.

• Southern California - We are screening the film in Southern California around The Marine Corps Birthday and Veteran’s Day. Specific times, dates and locations to follow.

• If you would like to host a screening in your town this summer or fall, please contact us immediately.
DVDs of BRAVO! are available. For more information go to http://bravotheproject.com/buy-the-dvd/.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject/. It’s another way you can help spread the word about the film and what it is really like to fight in a war.

Documentary Film,Khe Sanh,Marines,Meet the Men,Other Musings,Vietnam War

May 21, 2014

Anatomy of a Photograph

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One of the seminal images associated with BRAVO! COMMON MEN, UNCOMMON VALOR is a photo provided to us by BRAVO! Marine Mike McCauley. When we interviewed nine of the men in San Antonio in July 2010, Mike brought a copy of the image presented below and we knew immediately that it would be an important addition to the film. The men in this photo were in Third Squad, First Platoon of Bravo Company, 1/26.

3rd Squad, 1st Platoon, Bravo, 1/26. Photo by Author Smith Photo Courtesy of Mike McCauley

3rd Squad, 1st Platoon, Bravo, 1/26.
Photo by Author Smith
Photo Courtesy of Mike McCauley

One of the major desires we had as filmmakers was to make sure that as many of the images and sounds as possible were generated during the actual time of the battle. This includes photos, film, video, and oral interviews, so having a photo like this, taken of men who were actually in Bravo Company in that time and place was very important to us. Not only were we interested in the photo being genuine, we were interested in the aesthetic value the picture holds. I say holds because there is something organic to this particular image that captures the sadness, the sorrow, the horror, the stoic courage and the brotherhood experienced by the men who fought at the Siege of Khe Sanh.

The Marines in the photo are listed below. Please note that in the Marine Corps in the 1960s, you rarely called anyone by their first name. You probably didn’t know their first name. In regards to the “unknown” there were so many men who came and went as replacements-in and casualties-or-deaths-out, that you often didn’t have time to know their names. You may not have wanted to know their names, because that meant you would have to get to know them and you did not want to get to know them because if they were killed you had to deal with the personal grief that ensued as a result of their deaths. Please also note that some of the names may not be spelled correctly since we are relying on memories of over forty years.

Back row, left to right:

Black, Paben, Shockley, Unknown

Front row, left to right:

McCauley (Mike, from the film), Britt (Ted), Sinkowietz, Beamon, Roper and Wiese (Steve). Steve Wiese was the squad leader of 3rd Squad and is also one of the men featured in the film.

According to Mike McCauley, this photo was taken by Author Smith who was killed in action in what has come to be called the Payback Patrol which occurred on March 30, 1968. According to Steve Wiese, Author Smith was KIA while overwhelming a NVA machine gun bunker. You can read more about Author Smith here: http://www.virtualwall.org/ds/SmithAC03a.htm.

Mike McCauley

Mike McCauley

Of the other men in this photo, Ted Britt was also KIA on March 30. He was posthumously awarded a Silver Star for his actions on that date. According to Ted Britt’s Silver Star citation:

While reorganizing to continue the attack, his squad was suddenly pinned down by hostile mortar and machine gun fire. Realizing the seriousness of the situation, Private First Class Britt alertly pinpointed the primary source of fire and unhesitatingly left his covered position to assault the automatic weapons emplacement. Fearlessly moving across the fire-swept terrain, he reached the fortified bunker and, delivering a heavy volume of accurate fire, killed four enemy soldiers and silenced the hostile fire. Continuing his determined efforts, he launched another attack against an enemy fighting hole, and while boldly advancing, he was fatally wounded.

You can read Ted Britt’s entire Silver Star citation here: http://projects.militarytimes.com/citations-medals-awards/recipient.php?recipientid=23309.

Photography is a way for us to record the present so folks can understand what was happening at a given moment. Photography is journalism but it is also art that allows us to acquire the visceral, personal knowledge that can’t always be given us in words. We feel the moment, the subject, the place.

Steve Wiese

Steve Wiese

This photo of the men in Third Squad, First Platoon, Bravo 1/26 gives us a peek at the time and the place and the sadness, again, of the Marines of Khe Sanh. That peek is related to the aesthetic power photography holds. The image is in black and white and captures the mood of the men at the siege. Somehow, that array of grays and blacks and whites reveals messages to us.

The faces in this photo are gaunt and mildly disturbed. The men you see are young, none of them over twenty years old. Fear has aged them. They are not happy yet they seem determined. They are a team, a brotherhood, and they are not creations for a Hollywood film. Some of them are not coming home and they may know that. Some of them were probably wounded soon after this photo was taken. Some of them were killed later at Khe Sanh, as well as after Bravo 1/26 moved south. Some of them are probably trying, right now, to forget what happened to them and their comrades at Khe Sanh.

And some of us remember and feel we have…and I emphasize the “have”…to tell the story of what happened at Khe Sanh, to the men of BRAVO!, to all women and men in all wars, and this photo, with its real men, its real heroes, plays a critical role in helping us create the narrative.

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. For more information about purchasing BRAVO! DVDs, go to http://bravotheproject.com/buy-the-dvd/.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject/. It’s another way we can spread the word about the film and the Vietnam War.

Documentary Film,Khe Sanh,Marines,Other Musings,Vietnam War

May 7, 2014

On Art and War

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We have art in order not to die of the truth.
Friedrich Nietzsche

Betty and I recently returned from a trip to California where we screened BRAVO!. On our way back to Boise we stopped in at the Living Memorial Sculpture Garden outside Weed, California, to look at the sculptures. The work exhibited here is the brainchild of a group of veterans from the Weed area who got together in 1988 and brought in sculptor Dennis Smith to create the work. Dennis Smith is a Marine who served with Bravo Company, 1/26, during the Siege of Khe Sanh.

Left to right: Ken Rodgers and Sculptor Dennis Smith. © Betty Rodgers 2014

Left to right: Ken Rodgers and Sculptor Dennis Smith.
© Betty Rodgers 2014

The sculptures at the Living Memorial Sculpture Garden are beautiful depictions of the human form as we might view it: engaged in war and yet at the same time reacting to the atrocities of war, or suffering from the aftermath. They are thought-provoking, expressive, and evocative of something more difficult to discover, the “Why” of war and it’s aftermath.

POW-MIA by Dennis Smith. Photo © Ken Rodgers 2014

POW-MIA by Dennis Smith.
Photo © Ken Rodgers 2014

In Smith’s sculptures there is a distinct conflict between art and war. Humans often thrive on conflict, on the junction of fear and redemption, good versus evil. We want conflict in our novels, in our movies, in our visual art. We say we don’t like conflict, yet we crave it on more than one level.

Some of our finest art is based on the never ending conflict between us. Consider Stephen Crane’s novella, The Red Badge of Courage, or Eric Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. These stories are verbal works of art that capture the pure energy, the agony, the ecstasy of war and humanity’s propensity for creating war and conflict.

In more recent literature, Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn and Nick Warr’s Phase Line Green are fine examples of stories written about the Vietnam War that expose the depth and breadth of war and humanity’s experience in that conflict.

And it is just not in story and sculpture, but in poetry, too, such as the Vietnam War poetry of Bruce Weigl and Yusef Komunyakaa. As an example of war poetry, check out the piece that follows by First World War British Officer Siegfried Sassoon. I like how it mixes the beauty of lyrical poetry with the horror of war:

Hero

‘Jack fell as he’d have wished,’ the Mother said,
And folded up the letter that she’d read.
‘The Colonel writes so nicely.’ Something broke
In the tired voice that quavered to a choke.
She half looked up. ‘We mothers are so proud
Of our dead soldiers.’ Then her face was bowed.

Quietly the Brother Officer went out.
He’d told the poor old dear some gallant lies
That she would nourish all her days, no doubt.
For while he coughed and mumbled, her weak eyes
Had shone with gentle triumph, brimmed with joy,
Because he’d been so brave, her glorious boy.

He thought how ‘Jack’, cold-footed, useless swine,
Had panicked down the trench that night the mine
Went up at Wicked Corner; how he’d tried
To get sent home, and how, at last, he died,
Blown to small bits. And no one seemed to care
Except that lonely woman with white hair.

(Siegfried Sassoon, “Hero,” from the website: http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/hero/.)

Another example of art applied to war in the form of poetry is Brian Turner’s “Here Bullet,” about the horrors of the war. Turner served in both Bosnia and in Iraq.

Here, Bullet

If a body is what you want,
then here is bone and gristle and flesh.
Here is the clavicle-snapped wish,
the aorta’s opened valves, the leap
thought makes at the synaptic gap.
Here is the adrenaline rush you crave,
that inexorable flight, that insane puncture
into heat and blood. And I dare you to finish
what you’ve started. Because here, Bullet,
here is where I complete the word you bring
hissing through the air, here is where I moan
the barrel’s cold esophagus, triggering
my tongue’s explosives for the rifling I have
inside of me, each twist of the round
spun deeper, because here, Bullet,
here is where the world ends, every time.

(Brian Turner, “Here, Bullet,” from the website: http://www.brianturner.org/poetry/.)

What about other examples of visual art? Below are two paintings created from events that occurred during the First World War. The initial painting, titled “Gassed,” is by the famous British artist John Singer Sargent, and the second, titled “A Battery Shelled, 1919″ is by Wyndham Lewis. Both of these paintings depict the horrors of war via the beautiful tools of the painter, the tools of the mind, the memory and the painter’s genre.

Gassed, by John Singer Sergeant

Gassed, by John Singer Sergeant

(John Singer Sargent, “Gassed,” from the website: http://ind.pn/RksGnw.)

A Battery Shelled, 1919 by Wyndham Lewis

A Battery Shelled, 1919 by Wyndham Lewis

(Wyndham Lewis, “A Battery Shelled,” from the website: http://bit.ly/1mwza0q.)

The horrible glories that arise when art and war combine can also be portrayed through photography as in the following photo of Khe Sanh shot by the famous photographer, David Douglas Duncan, whose images are featured in BRAVO!.

Photo Courtesy of David Douglas Duncan and Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas Austin

Photo Courtesy of David Douglas Duncan and Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas Austin

Having participated in war, I think something aesthetic intrudes into our minds as we retch at the carnage that man heaps on man. I think that is one way we can come to terms with all the horror: through the art that depicts it.

On a quiet night in the war zone, nothing is quite as arresting as the sight of Snoopy, or as some of us called it, Puff, firing at the enemy:

Puff the Magic Dragon

Puff the Magic Dragon

(An AC-47, Puff, from the website: http://cherrieswriter.wordpress.com/2013/10/09/when-puff-ruled-the-night-the-birth-of-gunships/.)

Or the terrible beauty of napalm dropped on human beings:

Dropping Napalm

Dropping Napalm

(Napalm dropped on Vietcong targets, from the website: http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/vietnam/photoessay.htm.)

Or the sight of concertina wire etched against muddy terrain:

Concertina Wire

Concertina Wire

(Concertina wire, from the website: http://bit.ly/1o0mAWF.)

I just finished reading the late war correspondent Ernie Pyle’s book about World War II, titled Brave Men. Pyle generally had a no-nonsense style of writing and describing, but when he really tried to get at the essence of how we kill each other in combat, he waxed poetic in a way that takes us away from the lists and statistics and into the human aspects of war, and not just the horrible, but the sublimely beautiful. Here is an excerpt from Pyle’s book that, to me, shows what I am trying to get at:

From the scattered green leaves and the fresh branches still lying in the road. From the coils of telephone wire, hanging brokenly from high poles and entwining across the roads. From the gray, burned-powder rims of the shell craters, their edges not yet smoothed by the pounding of military traffic. From the little pools of blood on the roadside, blood that had only begun to congeal and turn black, and the punctured steel helmets lying nearby…From the scattered heaps of personal gear around a gun. I don’t know why it was, but the Germans always seemed to take off their coats before they fled or died.

(Ernie Pile, from: Brave Men, Grosset and Dunlap, NY, NY, 1943 and 1944, Pp 309 and 310.)

I began this blog with a quote from the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche that implies that we need art so that the truth of what we are doesn’t kill us. As horrible as war is—and believe me, anybody who has fought in one understands the essence of pure horror—we need to depict, portray and ponder how combat and its associated mayhem fit into who we are; and how can we best do that but through the beauty and truth we attain through art?

With that in mind, if you head in the direction of Weed, California, consider stopping in at the Living Memorial Sculpture Garden to see some of BRAVO! brother Dennis Smith’s beautiful sculpture that contemplates our horrible human endeavor, war.

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. For more information about purchasing BRAVO! DVDs, go to http://bit.ly/18Pgxe5.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject/. It’s another way we can spread the word about the film and the Vietnam War.

Documentary Film,Film Screenings,Guest Blogs,Khe Sanh,Marines,Vietnam War

April 30, 2014

Skipper Ken Pipes’ Reports on Veterans in the San Diego County, CA Jail

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I have been asked by Ken and Betty Rodgers to comment upon a special program that has been recently instituted by the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department within their county jail system. The program’s goal is to stop veterans from returning to confinement in a never-ending revolving door scenario, which is a known and tragic aftermath of war. We hope to give our incarcerated veterans a chance to get back on—and stay on—the high road.

The hands-on supervisory authority for this program is the responsibility of retired Marine Master Sergeant G. Morales, who is the program administrator and chief counselor.

The three outside team members are Marine Combat Veterans: Bill Rider, Colonel Al Slater and I. Bill Rider and I served at Khe Sanh, and Al Slater did his time in the barrel in the unforgiving environment of the far Northern sector of the DMZ, in The Trace and along the Ben Hai River. He and his company of Marines battled the NVA to a standstill every time they crossed sabers. Both Bill and Al are members of one of the most famous Marine infantry units to serve in Vietnam, “The Walking Dead,” First Battalion, 9th Marines (1/9).

Bill, the team leader, is the founder and chief executive officer of the American Combat Veterans of War (ACVOW). I note that Bill and all volunteers in ACVOW receive no compensation. They are volunteers in the true, righteous sense of the word. Bill was with 1/9 before, during and after the second Battle of Khe Sanh, serving as a riflemen, fire team leader and squad leader until he took the hardest and last of his three hits and was evacuated out of country. Though it was never awarded, his unit twice nominated Bill for the Silver Star.

These two Marines are veterans of some of the most vicious, hand-to-hand combat and hardest fought battles in the history of the Vietnam War. I note in passing that the three of us wear a total of six Purple Heart medals. This is mentioned only in the context that when discussing the effects that hard, sustained combat can have on Warriors, we collectively and individually bring some bona fides to the table, lending credence to our observations, comments and recommendations.

Ken Pipes © Betty Rodgers 2014

Ken Pipes
© Betty Rodgers 2014

Our mission, which has been reduced to a Memorandum of Understanding, is currently awaiting review and approval by the sheriff and his staff. The short version of our mission is to assist these veterans in re-entering society in a productive and responsible manner. This will be done by assisting with job placement, education, establishing/re-establishing their veterans benefits to include discharge upgrades, medical, disability and limited financial assistance if needed/as available. Clearly, the official document is more detailed.

The veterans in the jail, and the three of us, with the assistance of Master Sergeant Morales, agreed to the necessity of establishing a couple of ground rules within which both sides could operate. Briefly, ground rule #1 recognized that the inside veterans and the three of us on the outside have developed over a number of years, rather well-oiled B.S. detection meters. That said, we agreed to not consciously force the use of this rare detector, and rule #2, and as important, agreed that what is discussed in the cell block stays in the cell block (CB). With those two essential operational rules, the program was set in motion.

The veterans who are in this test program have been carefully screened. Veterans who have committed violent crimes, such as serious assaults/batteries, child molestations and other similar crimes, are not in the program. Those who are selected, for the most part, have been accused/convicted of committing crimes that can be attributed to drug and/or alcohol related abuse problems, minor domestic violence issues and other crimes of this type; poor decision choices made while under the influence, which short-circuits normal thought processes.

The resulting group of 32+ veterans includes a couple of our vintage from the Republic of South Vietnam era. The numbers of specific War on Terrorism veterans increase as we get closer to the Iraq and Afghanistan ventures. I have made very satisfying and personal contacts with several of the vets in the CB—one will be released by the time you read this and will be working within a verified, excellent program. He was in 3/5, “The Dark Horse Battalion,” as a rifleman in what remains one of the fiercest of several tough battles in Iraq. Another is a long-serving SEAL with tours in both the above areas of operations. He is a good man who probably should not be where he is. Our consensus is that he will be released very shortly.

The group meets once a week, usually every Thursday morning or afternoon, and the sessions are critiqued and reviewed by the chief counselor and the ACVOW Team afterwards. The program as envisioned is constantly being fine-tuned, and it does vary from session to session. For example, on a recent Thursday, Bravo! was shown in its entirety to our veterans in their CB, or as we like to say, in their home, with their permission and on their time.

The Skipper at Khe Sanh

The Skipper at Khe Sanh

I refer to what we do, including the documentary screening, as training that is needed for each of them as they are all on an extended, unaccompanied tour of duty without dependents; not necessarily a bad way of describing their current situation. I must say that some veterans were completely overcome by the film’s content, the subject and presentation. As I scanned the common CB room, I noted several of the men were having trouble with eyes perspiring—most of these were verified combat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Sounds kind of familiar?

After 4-1/2 months of data collection:

* 26 Inmate Veterans released
* 21 Inmate Veterans placed into a program
* 5 Transferred to state prison
* 1 Drug relapse (not arrested, returned to program)
* 1 Charges dropped and released to work-furlough (refused community service, subsequently rearrested)
* 0 Disturbances noted in the Veterans CB during this period

As many of you know, the ultimate success of programs like this can frequently get side-tracked; lack of funding, too many people claiming to be the daddy, fights over turf—the list goes on. I personally feel that this program, under the supervision of the chief administrator, Retired Marine Master Sergeant Morales, is progressing very well and that the credit for the success must rest with him, Bill Rider, and Colonel Slater.

Finally, The Program has been enthusiastically received and accepted by the veterans. They collectively feel it is beneficial, informative and very professionally conducted. If the initial data is any indication, the program is positively headed in the intended direction and at a manageable speed. I will attempt to keep everyone informed of our progress as this worthwhile project matures and develops.

I am proud to note that Ken and Mrs. Betty believe so strongly in what Mr. Rider and his organization are doing that the ACVOW received the net proceeds of the Vista American Legion Post 365 and the Fallbrook VFW Post 1924 documentary previews of Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor.

For the Veterans, Team Morales and the ACVOW,

Ken Pipes

Documentary Film,Eulogies,Guest Blogs,Khe Sanh,Marines,Vietnam War

April 19, 2014

BRAVO! Marine Michael E. O’Hara Remembers Quiles Ray Jacobs

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Nineteen years ago the ground around Los Angeles shook terribly for just a moment. A Giant of a man had just fallen after a long and courageous struggle for survival. Quiles Ray Jacobs had succumbed to his cancer, probably related to what is commonly referred to as Agent Orange from his time serving as a Marine in Vietnam. His heroism during that time is documented elsewhere on this Blogspot dated March 2011 entitled “Ghosties.”

Jake, as he was affectionately known, and I were good pals from our days in “The Nam.” He was a bit younger than I but had entered the Corps ahead of me, which is why he became my Squad Leader at Khe Sanh. Everyone loved the guy from the git-go. He had his “stuff” together and we all knew it. He was a born leader. For a kid from the streets of Compton, CA, in the greater Los Angeles area, he would make his family proud. He earned two Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star with Combat “V” device and the coveted Silver Star. He got them all the “old-fashioned way”—he earned them.

Horton Jake photo The late Quiles R. Jacobs and Dan Horton, Khe Sanh, Vietnam, 1968
Photo courtesy of Michael E. O’Hara[/caption]

After the war he continued on life’s journey, as did we all. His moral compass never faltered. He was a Lion for sure. He was one of those men who always knew, instinctively, what the morally correct decision was. He had built and owned a twelve-unit apartment complex behind the Shell station on the four corners that everyone watched burn during the LA riots of 1992. It was a really nice building. He and his brothers transported the twelve families to his home 4 miles away and his wife Naomi cared for them all for two weeks until the area settled down. All the while Jake and his brothers guarded their property from the rooftop of the apartment so it would not fall victim to the violence. In the end they were all returned safely to their homes unscathed. That was the man I knew in Vietnam and came to admire. He remains one of the finest examples of a man I can relate to anyone.

I visited him last in August of 94. Our CO, Lt. Col Ken Pipes, and I went to visit with him as he was failing somewhat and we knew time was running out. It was a wonderful three days.

The night before he died I had a dream in which we were together and the magnolia trees were in full bloom. The next morning when I went to town I saw all the magnolias were indeed blooming that day and I knew it was time. When I returned home in the late afternoon, the phone rang as I opened the door. It was his beloved Naomi with the heartbreaking news that he had slipped away to be with the Lord. It was 19 April 1995 and some jerk had just taken the lives of so many young people in Oklahoma City that morning. No one felt the earth shake in Los Angeles.

Jake's Magnolia Photo courtesy of Michael E. O'Hara

Jake’s Magnolia
Photo courtesy of Michael E. O’Hara

Sometime later I planted a magnolia tree in my yard in his memory. Actually, I planted two. One died, one survived. That was the way it was in “The Nam”. The trees were but mere sticks and would take years before the one began to bloom. My magnolia now blooms continuously from April until August, just for my friend Jake.

Documentary Film,Guest Blogs,Khe Sanh,Marines,Vietnam War

April 16, 2014

Lou Kern Muses on Green Ghosts, Hill 950 and the End of the Siege of Khe Sanh

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I came down from the mountain a few weeks after the end of the Siege in June of 1968. I’d been up there for 11 straight weeks. Two of us radio operators from my company were stationed up on Hill 950 (3119 feet). We lived in a cave approximately 8 feet wide, 6 feet deep and 5 feet high which was dug into the hilltop. Large pieces of interlocking metal runway strips provided a ceiling that would not collapse. Of the dozen or so caves dug into the side of the hilltop, about half had metal ceilings and half had ceilings made from tree branches. The hilltop had been alternately “owned” by our forces and theirs and in the process had been overrun many times. The tree branched caves had been dug by the NVA, the caves with metal ceilings by American soldiers. We felt happy to have a cave made by our own Marines.

We managed to squeeze two cots, four radios, a lawn chair and everything we possessed into that space, as well as a few rats that became named companions. Most of the time up there was spent with Roy Hagino, a good-natured blue collar kid from Flint, Michigan, and proud of it. We two were running the radio relay for our recon teams in the jungle during the Siege.

Bits and pieces of that time still blow around in my mind. It was so unusual, so isolated, so beyond the reaches of safety, so frightening that those bits and pieces run out of my memory like sand out of an open hand. No shave nor showers, often without drinking water, eating C-rations dating from the early 50′s, sucking the juice out of cans of fruit to stay hydrated, constantly surrounded by the NVA and for one ten day period dead sure we would be overrun, writing final letters home and hoping an enemy soldier would bother taking them from our blood-soaked pockets and mail them.

We manned the radios in a 6-hour-on and 6-hour-off schedule to break the stranglehold of stagnant time as much as possible. There was absolutely nothing to do outside of our work. The mountaintop was about 30 yards by 30 yards, it had a sheer drop on three sides which is what made it defensible at all, and our caves were dug into the sides like earholes in a monk’s head. The place vibrated like an earthquake every time a chopper landed, which wasn’t very often. We were socked in by monsoon clouds about half of that time. The mouth of our cave was a small oval; there was a trench outside and outside of that a drop of about 400 feet. The jungle began at that distance and that was NVA territory.

Lou Kern © Betty Rodgers 2014

Lou Kern
© Betty Rodgers 2014

The NVA loved sniping at us, which meant that leaving the cave and exercising was risky business. Nothing to do but sit in that 5-foot-tall cave, monitor the radios, and try and rub out the knots that kept popping up in our muscles. I was taller and thin, Hag was built like The Hulk, his favorite comic book character. Our diet didn’t put weight on me, but Hag gained pounds like a snowball. Near the end of our stay a plump Hag would lay on his bunk, snoring and farting at the same time.

There are things I learned later about the Siege that I did not know at the time. There were about 6000 young men involved at the base camp and the rest spread out on the various mountains around the base: 881 South, 861, 861-A, 558, 64, 950, all famous among Marines and historians, each in their own way. There were more explosives dropped during the Siege than all the explosives of WWII combined. This in an area of about 2 square miles. That is a hard thing to image. It’s hard to imagine how most of us 6000 lived through all that, but we did, hunkering down in caves, bunkers and foxholes.

The ground shook almost constantly as the B-52s arc-lighted, and from the constant artillery, rockets, mortars, Gatling guns, grenades, machine gun fire, rifle fire and the screams of badly injured soldiers. We could see the B-52s on a clear day, 3 miles above, and we could see when they dropped their bombs because the giant aircraft suddenly lost half their weight and had to peel off or snap their wings. If we stared at the spot in the sky where they dropped their load long enough, the clusters of bombs themselves would become visible, shivering like cold dogs in their plunge into what had been for centuries a pristine sub-tropical jungle.

I also learned later that my small company was credited as the main factor in defeating the NVA at Khe Sanh. The enemy called us the Green Ghosts. We were always out there in the jungle in 4-man teams, our faces painted with camouflage, every item in our gear fixed so that it would make no noise, every surface covered or coated so it would not reflect light, every man a volunteer in what seemed to others like crazy suicide missions. Some were. We spied on the NVA right in their back yard. It caused them great grief. If they wanted to move a unit to assault Khe Sanh from a different angle, we knew. If they had a favorite supply route, we knew. We found their caches and blew them, we called in artillery or Phantoms or Skyhawks on their base camps, we took prisoners and captured sets of orders from runners we had killed.

Hill 950, 1968 Photo Courtesy of Lou Kern

Hill 950, 1968
Photo Courtesy of Lou Kern

In the cave, on the radio, all the conversations about the team’s activities passed through the relay Hag and I manned. Everything. Our activity, like all wars, was pure drudgery and boredom punctuated by raging, adrenalin-saturated chaos. During the days we tracked our teams on the maps we had pinned to the dirt walls. We relayed their situation reports, their calls for artillery or air support, their screams of “contact” which came through our speakers riding on a wave of rifle fire. At nights, if the teams were surrounded and dare not talk, we would ask them questions. “If the enemy is within 20 feet, click your handset twice.” We were their umbilical cord, their lifeline, the only reason they could survive at all in that environment. And the teams were the only reason we were up on this ancient mountaintop, hoping the NVA who surrounded us would let us live one more day. Hag and I agreed, they were monitoring our radios. That was more useful than killing us. They had tried that. 950 had been overrun many times. The NVA took it and we took it back. 1371 was taller but there was no place to land a bird. 1050, 950′s sister hill, was a perfect cone, the top just waiting to be attacked from any angle. But 950 was different, tall enough to be a radio relay, approachable on foot along only one narrow saddleback.

Eleven weeks of 6 on and 6 off, constantly in vicarious combat, our young bodies out of our own control from cramping, dehydration and a poor diet, engaging in long conversations about jumping off the 400 ledge if the enemy got to us, or at least throwing our radios off so the NVA could not use them. Last letters home, badly wrinkled photos taken in and out of a filthy pocket countless times. Isolating ourselves from the dozen grunts up there who shared our fate and whose job it was to guard us, protect us against what seemed the inevitable, perhaps the liberating AK-47 round to the head if it came to that.

Those guarding us were really kids. Hag was at the end of his tour and myself in the middle. The 26th Marines had decided not to waste any well-trained or hardened grunts up on 950, so they sent clerks and cooks, 18-year-olds who had not even been to infantry training. Hag and I were frightened with a reason; they were frightened without knowing why, and that is much worse.

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There was a young lieutenant with them. He stuck his head in Hag’s and my cave and began telling us what to do if we were overrun. He knew, or more probably just guessed, that we had more training and experience that his kids did not. “I want you two to man the machine gun right up by the saddle.” He showed us a sketch of the hilltop and his grand, Napoleonic plan. Hag shook his head sadly and replied, “Sorry Sir, but we are not under your command.” “I’m the highest rank up here, mister.” Hag hardened his expression and shook his head again and the Butter Bar stormed off. Hag then called our command back at our base camp. “Get the S-3,” he said and when the S-3 came on the radio Hag briefly explained the circumstances. And that was the end of that. The Butter Bar never spoke to us again. Hag told me, “I don’t mind being on the machine gun, but if we are in front of all these kids we’ll probably get shot in the back.”

In early May, NVA activity shifted and our ground artillery and the New Jersey sitting out in the Gulf with her 16-inch guns started firing right over our heads, nights and days on end with the constant whistling of 105s, 155s and the big 16-inch guns. The 105s went over with a whistle, the 16-inch shells like a freight train, wa-ruff wa-ruff wa-ruff. “Hope they don’t aim a little low,” Hag commented. A 16-inch shell, 2000 pounds of high explosives, would have vaporized the hilltop.

When the monsoons hit, it poured for days, then weeks, then a month, endless cascading sheets of water, isolating us even more from the outside world. Our cave exhaled the deep smell of the earth; it leaked, it creaked, the rats extended their stay to the days as well as the nights. Stuck up in the clouds like that, air support was not available. Artillery never had been. On a tiny peak like 950 an artillery shell even a few feet off dead center would miss altogether. The NVA got very bold. They set up camp in plain sight. We could hear them talking, see them silhouetted against their fires at night, watch them mill around in an easy manner during the day. The Butter Bar ordered his men to snipe at them; Hag rolled his eyes. He called S-3 again and the next day the sniping stopped. No need to aggravate them. If they came at us they came at us. Save your ammo for an assault. Hag and I tied our two repelling ropes together and together they still didn’t reach halfway down the 400-foot drop.

All the while the minutes dragged on like hours until a “contact” scream came over our radios and we did everything we could to assist a team out there in trouble for a short while.

Hag was getting short in Nam. Two weeks then one week and then dead time changed; he was busy ordering a new Firebird and obsessed with the details. His excitement helped me lean against the groaning of time. One day, one hour, one minute, then Hag stepped on a bird and a new guy jumped off. To this day I do not remember the new guy at all. Once Hag left I started calling S-3. “I’m seeing little people,” I said. After I told S-3 five days in a row about the little people S-3 promised to relieve me and a week after Hag was gone I was down from the mountain, ready, willing and able to soundproof my gear, paint my face and melt into the jungle like a green ghost.

Lou Kern on HIll 950, 1968 Photo courtesy of Lou Kern and Bob Fuller

Lou Kern on HIll 950, 1968
Photo courtesy of Lou Kern and Bob Fuller

Years later when the Internet came around, I tried to find Hag. I did, a year after his death. He died at age 50, leaving a family behind. He had tried to stop an armed robbery of the restaurant he managed and was shot four times. Never really recovering, he died a year later.

Lou says this about himself:

I grew up on a farm in Iowa. I graduated in 1965 as a state champion runner and a member of the National Honor Society. I got my draft notice in January of 1966 and enlisted in the Marine Corps. I trained first as a radio operator and then as a Force Recon Marine at Camp Pendleton in 5th Force Recon Company. Among other schools, I attended Amphibious Recon School, Naval Divers (SCUBA) School, and Army Airborne School. I went to 3rd Force Recon Company, I Corps Viet Nam in February of 1968 and left Viet Nam and the Marine Corps in December of 1968. During my tour I spent 11 weeks on radio relay at Hill 950 and ran 20 deep recon patrols in the I Corps area. After the Corps I wandered through college, had a series of white collar jobs and ended up in construction at age 29. I have spent 35 years specializing in residential staircases. You can see some of my staircases at http://www.functional-art.com/. I have 4 children and 9 grandchildren, all of whom I am very proud.

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