Bravo! The Project - A Documentary Film

Documentary Film,Eulogies,Film Screenings,Khe Sanh,Marines,Other Musings,Veterans,Vietnam War

October 20, 2017

Fiddler’s Green

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Earlier this year, Betty and I saw a documentary film by the director/producer Terry Sanders, titled FIGHTING FOR LIFE. The film recognizes how doctors and other medical personnel are trained at “the medical school no one’s ever heard of,” the Uniformed Services University. Besides anatomy and physiology and biology and regular medical training, many of the people who attend this university are trained for going onto the battlefield to heal and patch up the warriors of our country.

I always assumed that medical training is medical training, but as the film shows, the way we are taught to treat the women and men who fight our wars is, in many instances, governed by a different set of needs revolving around combat. It’s a pretty obvious conclusion when I think about it right now, but until seeing the film it hadn’t occurred to me what special skills military doctors, dentists, nurses, medics and corpsmen require in their efforts to save and mend lives.

Miramar National Cemetery, San Diego, California. Photo courtesy of Miramar National Cemetery.

I bring this up because last Tuesday, October 17, 2017. Lt. Commander Dr. Edward Feldman was buried at Miramar National Cemetery in San Diego, CA, and his interment got me thinking about the medical folks I served with in Vietnam.

Dr. Feldman was one of the physicians who served with the 9th and 26th Marines during the Siege of Khe Sanh. And like so many of the doctors and corpsmen I served with, his story is remarkable. He arrived at Khe Sanh on January 3, 1968, eighteen days before the beginning of the Siege. Almost immediately, on the opening day of the big battle, January 21, 1968, Dr. Feldman was called upon to perform an amazing feat of surgery. He removed a live mortar round from the abdominal cavity of a Marine. For his action, he was awarded a Silver Star. Below is a quote from his Silver Star Award. I will let you read for yourselves what an astounding act this surgery was.

When the Khe Sanh Combat Base came under heavy mortar and rocket attack on 21 January 1968, a wounded Marine was taken to the Battalion Aid Station where preliminary examinations revealed a metal object protruding from a wound in his abdominal region. Further examination disclosed the possibility of the object being a live enemy mortar round. Quickly assessing the situation, Lieutenant Feldman directed the erection of a sandbag barricade around the patient over which he would attempt to operate and summoned an ordnance expert to identify the object and assist in removing the suspected explosive device from the injured man. Disregarding his own safety, Lieutenant Feldman removed his helmet and armored vest and exposed himself to the danger of a possible explosion as he began to operate. Displaying exceptional professional ability while performing the delicate surgery under flashlights, he succeeded in removing the live round from the Marine and directed an assistant to carry it outside for disposal. By his courage, exceptional professionalism and selfless devotion to duty at great personal risk, Lieutenant Feldman undoubtedly saved the life of a Marine and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and of the United States Naval Service.

You can read Edward Feldman’s entire Silver Star citation here.

Dr. Edward Feldman. Photo courtesy of Before They Go.

Dr. Feldman was also, during his tour of duty in Vietnam, awarded a Bronze Star with Combat V for his actions with Charlie Med at the Siege. The United States Army awarded him a Bronze Star for Valor when, just before he was to rotate back to the States, he went into the field to medically assist a company of Army warriors and ended up acting as the commanding officer when the unit’s officers and senior NCOs were either killed or wounded in action.

After his service in the United States Navy, Dr. Feldman went on to establish medical practices in New Jersey and then California.

I found a comprehensive interview on the internet that he gave to the Navy and you can access it here.

You can also read Edward Feldman’s obituary here.

The medical folks at Khe Sanh were necessary to the Marines and by virtue of their bravery, from both doctors and corpsmen, earned the undying devotion and respect of the Marines who inhabited that hellhole.

Medical personnel in action during the Siege of Khe Sanh. Photo by Dave Powell.

I don’t know if it was Dr. Feldman, or one of the other physicians who went out with us on the patrol of March 30, 1968, where the Marines of Bravo Company, 1/26 assaulted an NVA battalion entrenched on a ridgeline south-east of the combat base. I guess it doesn’t matter who it was, but in my mind I imagine it being him.

I don’t know what physicians do out on the battlefield except try to save lives, but I imagine there is a set protocol for particular procedures: triage for a quick assessment of a casualty’s chances of surviving, then application of tourniquets, bandages, administration of drugs like morphine and other forms of emergency treatment.

But the thing is, out there on that day, bullets were flying and incoming artillery and mortar rounds fell all around us, killing or wounding many of us. And the doctor, whoever he was, and his corpsmen, were subject to death and dismemberment by the same hostile fire that beset the rest of us.

We often think of doctors in an office, rushing down the halls of a hospital, or even attending to the wounded in a field hospital, but not treating wounded Marines in the bottom of a bomb crater. If Edward Feldman didn’t draw that duty on that day, if ordered to do so, he would have been out there with his scalpel and the other tools he’d need to save lives. I don’t doubt that.

Waiting for the wounded at Khe Sanh. Photo by Dave Powell.

My experience with doctors at Khe Sanh was almost nonexistent. If I had a problem, it was handled by a corpsman so I don’t know if I ever crossed paths with Dr. Feldman. Nevertheless, I salute him—and all the medical personnel who put their lives in danger to save others—for his courage and his skill in the face of imminent danger.

There’s an old Navy myth about a magical afterlife called Fiddler’s Green where sailors go when they die, where never-ending laughter and a fiddle that plays forever and echoes of dancing feet ring.

My company commander at the Siege of Khe Sanh, Lt. Colonel Ken Pipes, mentioned Fiddler’s Green when he alerted all of us old Jarheads of the passing of Dr. Ed Feldman.

Like so much of what makes up the naval milieu, there is a ditty about Fiddler’s Green that goes like this:

At Fiddler’s Green, where seamen true
When here they’ve done their duty
The bowl of grog shall still renew
And pledge to love and beauty.

Revel in your time at Fiddler’s Green, Ed Feldman.

Semper Fi!

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Upcoming creening information:

In conjunction with the Ken Burns documentary, the Nampa Public Library in Nampa, Idaho, will screen BRAVO! on November 1, 2017. Doors open at 6:30 PM and the free program will begin at 7:00 PM, followed by a Q&A. A panel discussion with Vietnam Veterans is scheduled for November 8. The Nampa library’s website is http://nampalibrary.org.

On April 7, 2018, the Warhawk Air Museum in Nampa, Idaho, will host a one-day symposium in recognition of the 50th Anniversary of the Siege. The event will encompass a forum for educating the public about the Siege of Khe Sanh and the Vietnam War, as well as an opportunity for a Khe Sanh Veterans Reunion. Activities will include a screening of BRAVO! and guest speakers remembering the battle. Khe Sanh Vet Mike Archer, author of two heralded non-fiction books on his Khe Sanh experiences, will be one of the featured speakers. You can see more about Mike at http://www.michaelarcher.net.

Mark your calendars now, as this will be a stellar event in a world-class air museum. We are still in the planning stage, so if you would like to participate and were involved with the siege, or just want to help, please contact me at 208-340-8889. An event like this can only happen with a core group of committed volunteers. We can’t do it without you! For more information on the Warhawk Air Museum, check out their website at https://warhawkairmuseum.org.

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

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. Please consider gifting copies to a veteran, a teacher, a history buff, a library, a friend or family member. For more information, go to https://bravotheproject.com/store/.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject?ref=hl.

Documentary Film,Film Screenings,Khe Sanh,Marines,Veterans,Vietnam War,Warhawk Air Museum

October 4, 2017

The Standard Bearers of the 1st Marine Division

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On September 13, 2017 the Standard Bearers of Headquarters Battalion, 1st Marine Division, hosted a PME for their Marines and Corpsmen. The acronym, PME, stands for Professional Military Education, which covers a wide array of subjects that the Marine Corps deems critical to achieving its mission.

At the September event, the subject matter of the session was a screening of BRAVO! COMMON MEN, UNCOMMON VALOR followed by a question and answer session with Marines who survived the Siege of Khe Sanh.

At the PME with the Standard Bearers, Headquarters Battalion, 1st Marine Division. Left to right: Colonel Carlos Urbina, Colonel John Kaheny, Bill Rider, Lt Colonel Ken Pipes, Ken Rodgers, Sergeant Major M. P. Chamberlin. Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers.

Colonel Carlos Urbina, commanding officer of Headquarters Battalion, 1st Marine Division, introduced the session by pointing out the future wars will require an awareness of a different kind of combat from the asynchronous fights in which the Marine Corps has been involved since 9/11. The enemy may very well be more like the conventional forces of the United States and thus the fights will be more like what Marines endured in World War II, Korea and in battles between Marines and the North Vietnamese Army in the 1960s and 1970s.

After Colonel Carlos Urbina’s introduction, BRAVO! co-producer and former Marine Ken Rodgers talked a bit about the film to the two-hundred-plus active duty personnel who watched a well-produced screening of BRAVO!.

Colonel John Kaheny and BRAVO! co-director, co-producer Betty Rodgers. Photo Courtesy of Ken Rodgers.

The question and answer session included Khe Sanh Marines Rodgers, retired Colonel John Kaheny, USMCR, and medically retired sergeant Bill Rider. Colonel Kaheny served an eighteen month tour of duty with the 26th Marines, including command postings with Alpha, Charlie and Delta Companies. Bill Rider was a squad leader and platoon sergeant with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines.

One of the most discussed questions from the audience was how current Marines go about teaching their new Marines to deal with fear. The discussion investigated whether it was even possible to teach someone about being frightened when faced with the possibility of death.

The event finished up with a rousing speech by retired Lieutenant Colonel Ken Pipes, Commanding Officer of Bravo Company, 1/26 during the 77-day Siege of Khe Sanh, about the legacy of the Marines of Bravo Company, 26th Marines at the siege, and a call to action for contemporary Marines to carry on the storied status of the USMC.

Prior to the screening, Colonel Urbina and Battalion Sergeant Major M. P. Chamberlin hosted the guests in their offices. We had a chance to share lunch and talk about the film, the Vietnam War, and the Marine Corps in general.

One of the highlights for us was having Colonel Urbina present both Skipper Pipes and us, the Rodgerses, with handsome plaques that recognized Skipper Pipes for his past, present and ongoing actions and inspiration to and for Marines, and the Rodgerses for creating BRAVO! and educating the public, and Marines, about the events and aftermath related to the Siege of Khe Sanh.

Colonel Carlos Urbina, right, presenting memorial plaque to BRAVO! producers Ken and Betty Rodgers. Photo courtesy of Derek Clark.

BRAVO! continues to be used in schools, colleges and the military, including at The Basic School and at PMEs, as a source of education material relative to both the history of this country and as a lesson to what the future most surely will bring to us. Betty and Ken Rodgers are most gratified that their film has become an educational tool!

You can watch a segment of Lieutenant Colonel Pipe’s stirring remarks here:

Following the screening, the active duty personnel returned to their posts.

As noted by Ken Pipes during his remarks, it appeared to all of us that the future of the United States Marine Corps is in very good hands.

Lt. Colonel Ken Pipes visiting with Marines. Photo courtesy of Derek Clark.

Thanks much to Colonel Carlos Urbina and Sergeant Major M. P. Chamberlin for the grand welcome we received for this event.

In other screening information, Idaho Public Television screened BRAVO! on Sunday, September 24th as a follow up to the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick produced series, THE VIETNAM WAR. The producers of BRAVO! wish to thank Idaho Public Television for this event as well as the Idaho Division of Veterans Services for underwriting the IPTV production of BRAVO!.

For a few more days, BRAVO! will be available to view on Idaho Public Television’s website at :
http://video.idahoptv.org/video/2365119915/.

Also in conjunction with the Ken Burns documentary, the Nampa Public Library in Nampa, Idaho, will screen BRAVO! on November 1, 2017. Doors open at 6:30 PM and the free program will begin at 7:00 PM. A panel discussion with Vietnam Veterans is scheduled to follow. The Nampa library’s website is http://nampalibrary.org.

On April 7, 2018, the Warhawk Air Museum in Nampa, Idaho, will host a one-day symposium in recognition of the 50th Anniversary of the Siege. The event will encompass a forum for educating the public about the Siege of Khe Sanh and the Vietnam War, as well as an opportunity for a Khe Sanh Veterans Reunion. Activities will include a screening of BRAVO! and guest speakers remembering the battle. Khe Sanh Vet Mike Archer, author of two heralded non-fiction books on his Khe Sanh experiences, will be one of the featured speakers. You can see more about Mike at http://www.michaelarcher.net.

Mark your calendars now, as this will be a stellar event in a world-class air museum. We are still in the planning stage, so if you would like to participate and were involved with the siege, or just want to help, please contact me at 208-340-8889. An event like this can only happen with a core group of committed volunteers. We can’t do it without you! For more information on the Warhawk Air Museum, check out their website at https://warhawkairmuseum.org.

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

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. Please consider gifting copies to a veteran, a teacher, a history buff, a library, a friend or family member. For more information, go to https://bravotheproject.com/store/.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject?ref=hl.

Documentary Film,Film Screenings,Khe Sanh,Marines,Veterans,Vietnam War,Warhawk Air Museum

September 1, 2017

Big News On The Screening Front–Camp Pendleton, Idaho Public Television, Santa Fe, And More

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Most independent filmmakers produce a film, get it out to the public as far as quickly possible, and then move on to the next project.
When Betty and I started this experience of making BRAVO!, we had little idea about how films are made and in some ways we have continued to operate outside the normal purview.

One of the things we have done differently than a lot of independent filmmakers is to keep pursuing the distribution of BRAVO! even though we finished the film a number of years back.

Our feelings and thoughts on the subject are that if there is somewhere we can manage to get BRAVO! on a screen and inculcate a discussion about war and combat and the aftereffects of these activities, then we will do our best to make that happen.

Our friend, Marine and former prison warden, Terry Hubert, earlier in the life of BRAVO! suggested to Betty and me that we were educators and we have taken that suggestion to heart. And as we approach the 50th anniversary of the Siege of Khe Sanh, there is flurry of activity coming up in BRAVO!’s screening arena which we think will offer more opportunities for us to share history, art and education.

Ken Pipes, Skipper of Bravo Company, 1/26 at the Siege of Khe Sanh.

Later in the month we will travel to Fallbrook, California to meet with BRAVO! Marine Skipper Ken Pipes where we will then screen the film at Camp Pendleton on September 13. The screening will be part of H & S Battalion, 1st Marine Division’s PME program. Skipper Pipes and I will be joined by several other survivors of the Siege in this presentation that will begin at 1300 and end at 1400. Location for this event will be specified soon.

On September 21st, 2017, BRAVO! will be broadcast on Idaho Public Television immediately following Ken Burns’ documentary, The Vietnam War. The broadcast will begin at 9:30 MDT (and PDT in IPTV’s Pacific Time Zone locations).

PBS will also show the film on its PLUS channel at 7:00 PM MDT (7:00 PM PDT), September 24, 2017.

In conjunction with the PBS showings of the film, Idaho Public Television will also rebroadcast Marcia Franklin’s DIALOGUE segments of her interviews with us—Ken and Betty Rodgers—and BRAVO!’s Steve Wiese. The two segments will run back-to-back starting at 10:00 PM MDT (10:00 PM PDT) on September 26, 2017. You can take a look at Idaho Public Television’s schedule, plus a lot of other informative info, here.

Also in conjunction with the Ken Burns documentary, the Nampa Public Library in Nampa, Idaho, will screen BRAVO! on November 1, 2017. Doors open at 6:30 PM and the program will begin at 7:00 PM. A panel discussion with Vietnam Veterans is scheduled to follow. The Nampa library’s website is http://nampalibrary.org.

On November 17 and 18th, BRAVO! will be screened in Santa Fe, New Mexico, twice on the 17th (once in the afternoon and once in the evening) and on the evening of the 18th at the New Mexico National Guard Bataan Memorial Museum. Details are forthcoming. You can access information about the New Mexico National Guard’s Bataan Memorial Museum here.

On April 7, 2018, the Warhawk Air Museum in Nampa, Idaho, will host a one-day symposium in recognition of the 50th Anniversary of the Siege. The event will encompass several goals: a forum for educating the public about the Siege of Khe Sanh and the Vietnam War, as well as an opportunity for a Khe Sanh Veterans Reunion. Activities will include a screening of BRAVO! and guest speakers remembering the battle. Khe Sanh Vet Mike Archer, author of two heralded non-fiction books on his Khe Sanh experiences, will be one of the featured speakers. You can see more about Mike at http://www.michaelarcher.net.

BRAVO!’s Steve Wiese.

Mark your calendars now, as this will be a stellar event in a world-class air museum. This last event is still in the planning stage, so if you would like to participate and were involved with the siege, or just want to help, please, please contact me at 208-340-8889. An event like this can only happen with a core group of committed volunteers. We can’t do it without you! For more information on the Warhawk Air Museum, check out their website at https://warhawkairmuseum.org.

As BRAVO!’S Steve Wiese says, “Bravo lives on!”

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

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. Please consider gifting copies to a veteran, a teacher, a history buff, a library, a friend or family member. For more information, go to https://bravotheproject.com/store/.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject?ref=hl.

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

August 29, 2017

A Bridge In Pocahontas

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On September 15 of this year the folks who live in Pocahontas, Virginia, are going to rename and dedicate the Center Street Bridge, Route 1103, as the “Donald R. Rash Bridge.”

Donald Rash was a Marine in Bravo Company, 1/26 who was killed in action on March 30, 1968 in what has become known as the Payback Patrol where the Marines of Bravo Company went outside the wire at Khe Sanh to kick some butt, get even and find their fallen comrades still out on the battlefield since the Ghost Patrol of February 25, 1968.

Photo of Donald Ray Rash in Marine Corps blues. Photo credit: Virtual Wall

I didn’t know Don Rash, or if I did it was by sight and not by name. He was in the third platoon and I was a radio operator with the CP for Second Platoon. I didn’t know a lot of the men I served with outside of those whose lives were tangled up with my routine—standing radio watch, mail call, patrolling, noshing on C rations, sitting around “shooting the moose.”

Don Rash was posthumously awarded a Navy Cross for his action on the Payback Patrol. A Navy Cross isn’t a medal handed out for anything less than life threatening actions performed without regard for one’s own safety to help save fellow warriors, and/or for extraordinary combat action.

Navy Cross Medal

An excerpt from his Navy Cross citation gives an idea of what Don Rash did to deserve his award:

“Company B suddenly came under a heavy volume of small-arms fire from a numerically superior North Vietnamese Army force occupying fortified positions. Although the majority of the hostile fire was directed at his squad, pinning down his companions, Private Rash disregarded his own safety as he unhesitatingly left a covered position and launched a determined assault against the enemy emplacements. Ignoring the hostile rounds impacting near him, he fearlessly advanced across the fire-swept terrain, boldly throwing hand grenades and delivering a heavy volume of rifle fire upon the enemy force. Although continuously exposed to the intense hostile fire, he resolutely continued his vicious attack until he had destroyed five enemy positions and killed numerous North Vietnamese soldiers. When his company was subsequently ordered to withdraw while under accurate enemy mortar fire, he steadfastly remained behind, and as he delivered suppressive fire to cover the evacuation of casualties he was mortally wounded.”

You can read Don’s entire Navy Cross citation here.

Pocahontas, Virginia

Sometimes it seems to me that these citations for actions above and beyond the call of duty read a little like a stiff collar. On page 274 of Ray Stubbe’s book about Khe Sanh titled Battalion of Kings the entry about Don’s actions reads more like someone telling us a story about Don’s heroism on March 30, 1968:

“PFC Donald Ray Rash, a Marine with the point squad of B-3, overcame 3 NVA positions with grenades and small arms fire. When the company was ordered to break contact, PFC Rash remained behind to provide effective suppressive fire for the evacuation of KIA and WIA, and was killed when he was struck with shrapnel from one of the NVA mortars.”

But I think the most gut-wrenching words that move me more than anything when I think about Donald Rash’s award come from his fellow warrior, Michael E. O’Hara, who states in the documentary film Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor:

“You just don’t know what it’s like to see a nineteen year old kid—I believe it was Rash, but I’m not sure, I think it was Rash—laid out on his belly in the mud, sticking his rifle in that direction and give you the thumbs up and tell you to go that (O’Hara points the opposite way) direction and he knows damned well he’s never going to get up out of that mud. He knows he’s dying for you.”

Pocahontas, Virginia, is an old coalmining town hard by the Virginia/West Virginia border in Tazewell County, and according to Wikipedia had a population of 389 folks in 2010.

So many of the men I served with in Vietnam were from towns the approximate size of Pocahontas. Maybe it was the Selective Service draft that was in place nationally back then that hastened young men to join the Marine Corps and/or maybe it was their patriotism that threw them in the trenches with me. Maybe it was something else.

Whatever the reason, we spent some intensely intimate moments together and not the romantic kind, but moments of fear and rage and revenge and redemption; moments of dark humor. I only met one or two Marines who set out to earn medals. Most of my comrades were just trying to survive, to do their jobs and to take care of their buddies.

I suspect that’s what Donald Rash was doing out there on March 30, 1968, just trying to survive, just trying to do his job, just trying to take care of his Marines. I bet he didn’t have any notion of being selfless when we first went outside the wire on that foggy morning.

Michael O’Hara. Photo credit: Betty Rodgers.

And thanks to men like Don Rash, I get to sit here and think about those days at Khe Sanh nearly fifty years ago when the Marines of Bravo Company, 1/26 stood knee deep in killing and misery.

So, here’s a salute to the memory of Donald R. Rash and what he did for us—all of us—on March 30, 1968. Semper Fidelis.

And may Don Rash’s bridge in Pocahontas be a suitable memorial to the price he paid in 1968.

If you are anywhere near Pocahontas on September 15, 2017, consider attending the dedication.

You can take a look at Don Rash’s Virtual Wall page here:

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On the screening front, BRAVO! will be screened on Idaho Public Television at 9:30 PM, September 21, 2017 in conjunction with Ken Burn’s documentary PBS series on the Vietnam War.

On November 1, 2017, BRAVO! will be screened at the Nampa Public Library, Nampa, Idaho. Doors open at 6:30 PM and the screening will begin at 7:00 PM.

On November 17 and 18th, 2017, BRAVO! will be screened in Santa Fe, NM. On the 17th, there will be an afternoon screening and an evening screening. On the 18th, there will be an afternoon screening. More details to follow.

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

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. Please consider gifting copies to a veteran, a teacher, a history buff, a library, a friend or family member. For more information, go to https://bravotheproject.com/store/.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject?ref=hl.

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

August 16, 2017

Perfect Pitch

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I recently heard someone on the radio talking about an Austrian composer and violinist named Friedrich “Fritz” Kreisler who fought with the Austrian army during the early days of World War I.

Here is a short biography from Wikipedia about Fritz Kreisler:

Friedrich “Fritz” Kreisler (February 2, 1875 – January 29, 1962) was an Austrian-born violinist and composer. One of the most noted violin masters of his day, and regarded as one of the greatest violin masters of all time, he was known for his sweet tone and expressive phrasing.

Photo of Fritz Kreisler.

He served briefly in the Austrian Army in World War I before being honourably discharged after he was wounded.

On the radio show, the announcer talked about Fritz’s perfect pitch, or absolute pitch. According to Wikipedia:

Perfect pitch is a rare auditory phenomenon characterized by the ability of a person to identify or re-create a given musical note without the benefit of a reference tone.

Besides its value in the realm of music, Fritz’ perfect pitch endeared him to the men who served with him in the trenches during World War I. Perfect pitch enabled Fritz to distinguish the sounds of incoming and to tell his comrades where incoming artillery rounds were going to hit.

In his memoir, Fritz said this about the sound of incoming:

I, too, soon got accustomed to the deadly missiles, in fact. I had already started to make observations of their peculiarities. My ear, accustomed to differentiate sounds of all kinds, had some time ago, while we still advanced, noticed a remarkable discrepancy in the peculiar whine produced by the different shells in their rapid flight through the air as they passed over our heads, some sounding shrill, with a rising tendency, and the others dull, with a falling cadence.

Hearing about Fritz’ abilities to pinpoint artillery round sounds and the location they would strike led me to think about the trenches of Khe Sanh and how, if one survived long enough and had scrambled away from close encounters with 152 millimeter shells lobbed at us from Laos, then he may be gifted with the ability to tell where a round was going to hit.

I remember yelling at new arrivals during the months of February and March that it was time to move when I heard the report of certain 152s leaving the mouths of caves across the Laotian border on their way to wipe us out. There was a particular “thump” sound—more hollow than the sound of the rounds that fell farther away—that told me it was time to di-di mau for a safer place. Usually, the new guys would look at me like I was stupid or crazy, but if they survived that round, they paid attention to me the next time I announced it was time to move.

Michael O’Hara at Khe Sanh. Photo courtesy of Michael E. O’Hara.

Unlike Fritz, I couldn’t accurately predict the impact area for all the incoming: the 130 MM, the 122 MM, the various mortar and rocket rounds, the sniper rounds, all of which we received plenty.
And every one of them made a different sound.

I remember those big rounds, those 152s sounding like a train.

In our film, BRAVO!, Michael O’Hara made this comment on 152s:

“But it’s like a freight train coming through the bathroom when you’re taking a shower. And you know it’s coming and you can’t get out of the bathroom.”

Michael also said this about the big guns firing into Khe Sanh Combat Base:

“I thought to myself, this is crazy. People don’t understand what it’s like for all that artillery to come in like that. It’s just terrifying. It’s meant to do more than just tear up your body. It’s meant to tear up your mind. It will scare you to death.”

But it wasn’t just the 152s that could kill you. It was all of the various types of hardware the NVA threw at us.

The late BRAVO! Marine Lloyd Scudder said this about incoming:

“Every time there was incoming or the ammo dumps, you know, were blowing up, I was scared to death. That shhhheeeww and the whistling of the rockets and the poof of the mortars and the kapoof sheeeewhirwhirwhir. That right there scared the hell out of me.”

Yes, the big stuff could kill and maim, but the silent slap of a sniper round could get you, too. And the worst part about it, as anyone who has been sniped at knows, is you don’t hear the round coming because that sleek and stealthy killer travels faster than the speed of sound. I suspect that muzzle velocity is responsible for the old saying, “You don’t hear the one that kills you.”

BRAVO! Marine Ron Rees had this to say about snipers:

“ . . . rounds from a sniper. It was like a mosquito. They were buzzing your head constantly . . . you just realized that was a bullet.”

Lloyd Scudder. Photo courtesy of the late Lloyd Scudder

Besides being killed or maimed, there was the psychological assault–as alluded to earlier by Michael O’Hara–that all of that incoming delivered to each one of us in the Khe Sanh area; not just the Combat Base, but Hills 861, 861A, 558, 950, 881 South, Lang Vei, and Khe Sanh Ville.

Again, Ron Rees:

“You hear it leave the tube and then just the seconds that it takes . . . and you know how long it is . . . when you heard it leave the tube, you knew how long you had, and from the time you heard that round leave the tube until it hit, you imagined death; you’re thinking all along, Is it you?”

And as this happened, sometimes over a thousand times a day, day after day, it had an effect, a life-long effect.

When people plan for the future, near-term or farther out, and I’m involved in their plans, I often times find myself thinking, “Why are we spending all this time working on plans? We don’t know what the future will bring. This is all a waste of time. A minute from now we might all be dead.”

Ron Rees. Photo Courtesy of Ron Rees.

Ron Rees had something to say about that, too:

“I really learned to live—because of the incoming and counting and everything else—to live by the second. You hear people say they live like that, I mean they literally live like that. My whole life I’ve never stopped living like that.”

As I thought about Fritz Kreisler in World War I and the men at Khe Sanh during the Siege, I felt a strange sensation, a linkage, related, I suppose, to the notion that even though there was a span of more than fifty years between Fritz’ experiences with the horrors of war and mine, we both learned to survive, and in some instances that survival was related to our ability to employ perfect pitch or some facsimile thereof.

***

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

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. Please consider gifting copies to a veteran, a teacher, a history buff, a library, a friend or family member. For more information, go to https://bravotheproject.com/store/.

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

August 2, 2017

Requiem for a Warrior–Michael H. McCauley

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The bonds created by shared fear and the horrors of battle are strong. For years I didn’t understand that. For years I didn’t understand that the bonds forged between warriors who endure the fury of combat even existed. For forty years I felt there really were no such bonds.

Since most Vietnam veterans chose to clamp our mouths shut and corral our memories of combat, the opportunities for us to begin to understand the emotional linkage that exists between warriors were not taken advantage of for decades.

Mike McCauley in Marine Corps dress blues.

I recall the first time I talked to one of my old comrades. It was 25-plus years since I’d escaped the savagery of war, and when we first talked it was like I’d found someone I’d been looking for even though I didn’t know I’d been involved in any such search.

Yet there was something pulling at me and over the intervening years since that initial contact, that attraction, that magnetic force, so to speak, has drawn me into close relationships with the men who shared the nightmares of Khe Sanh with me.

One of those men was Michael H. McCauley. I didn’t know Mike in Vietnam. I might have seen his face as I walked by on my way out on patrol or ambush. We might have nodded at each other and maybe exchanged a comment.

Mike McCauley on a panel of Marines at the screening of BRAVO! in Moscow, Idaho, 2013

He was in First Platoon and I was in Second. He was a relative new guy compared to me. We hadn’t a lot in common . . . me a desert rat from Arizona and he a city boy from Boston. But what we did have in common was the Marine Corps and over seventy days trapped inside the concertina wire perimeter of Khe Sanh Combat Base.

And boy what a bond. We became good friends and I’m not sure that’s even the right word to describe our relationship. We were comrades; we were men who understood what very few could understand. We had knowledge—emotional and intellectual and intuitive—that I really wouldn’t want anybody else to learn because how you learn it, the price of it, is too damned high.

Nevertheless, we were comrades who understood leeches and jungle grass and the roar of 152 millimeter artillery rounds storming at you. We understood the glint in the eye of the enemy, be he living or dead. We understood combat. We could talk about it. And we could laugh about it, among ourselves of course, but not with many of the uninitiated.

Mike liked to hand out these hats to men who served with BRAVO! They were his creations.

And Mike liked to laugh. He was quiet most of the time. A listener with a quick wit. A man who endured much in his life during and after the war.

Mike was a man whom I liked to be around. It was easy being around Mike. No angst, no bullshit, just a straight-up guy. A very kind man beloved by many whether they were war comrades or not.

In the war, Mike saw a lot more hell than I did. He endured the siege and then continued with BRAVO! all spring and summer and fall of 1968 when the 1st Battalion 26th Marines were locked in repetitive battle with the enemy in other locations around South Vietnam.

And like all of us veterans of war fighting, I believe the warrioring took its toll on Mike.

In early July of this year, Mike left us to go wherever it is you go when you pass on. I think he believed that to be some kind of heaven.

Ruth and Mike McCauley in Moscow, Idaho, 2013.

He’d been pretty damned sick for a while. I’d call him up or he’d call me and we’d talk and he’d tell me—he’d man right up—about exactly what was happening to him. It was sad and he was courageous and it hurt me every time we talked and every time I thought about it after switching off the cell phone.

I’m going to miss Mike’s laugh. I’m going to long for his smile and his wry comments in that Boston patois I’d know anywhere.

And yet I’m grateful I can still laugh with him, and recall the Siege of Khe Sanh with him, every time I watch BRAVO!. But not without shedding a tear or two when I think about how much I miss him.
All of us Vietnam veterans are on a march, one from which we can’t fall out, to join Mike and all the other men we served with in that long-ago conflict.

Mike will be interred at Arlington National Cemetery, a place of honor and dignity, on August 7, 2017 at 11:00 AM. Arlington, a place he deserves to rest.

Our deepest condolences to Mike’s devoted wife, Ruth McCauley, his big and boisterous family who embraced Betty and me with open arms, and the multitude of his many beloved friends around the country.

Documentary Film,Marines,Other Musings,Veterans

July 5, 2017

Stouthearted and Indomitable

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Idaho recently honored Medal of Honor recipient Arthur J. Jackson in a memorial ceremony held at the Idaho State Veterans Cemetery in Boise. Art passed away on June 14, 2017.

Art’s Medal of Honor was for his actions as a Marine PFC with the Seventh Marine Regiment on the island of Peleliu in 1944. You can read the citation here.

A young Art Jackson with his Medal of Honor.

The United States Marine Corps was involved in Art’s memorial and they brought Marines from Washington’s 8th and I Barracks as well as Marine Corps Band members who serve in the President’s own band.

The weather was warm, but not hot, and a breeze out of the west set the flags to fluttering.

Art and Sally Jackson at a celebration of Art in 2016 in Boise Idaho. Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers.

A good sized crowd arrived in time to see Art honored with a 21 gun salute, a flyover by Marine Corps F-18s, a service delivered by the Boise Rescue Mission’s Reverend Bill Roscoe, and a solemn presentation of the American flag to Art’s wife, Sally.

I got acquainted with Art last year while we interviewed Sally Jackson for our upcoming film I MARRIED THE WAR about the wives of combat veterans. I was lucky enough, while Sally was being interviewed about her art work or going through old photos of family and friends, to chat with Art at some length.

Marines from 8th & I honoring Art with a 21 Gun Salute. Photo courtesy of Ken Rodgers.

At the time, Art was ninety-one, so his memory was a little worn and I doubt he remembered me the few times we met, but he did tell me some things about his service in the Marine Corps. He talked about the miserable weather at Cape Gloucester and the horrible ordeal of Peleliu and the brutal and grueling grind of Okinawa.

When Art told me these stories he’d stop midsentence and stare off at the other side of the living room, and I knew he was back there, reliving those moments, whatever they might be at that instant.

I don’t know, he may have been thinking about what he was telling me, or it could be something else: the face of a Marine who stood beside him in one of the firefights, or it could have been a recollection of the dead volcanic terrain of Peleliu, or the shattered families, the frightened children and other locals on Okinawa.

The rest of Art’s biography is interesting and you can read about it here.

On Peleliu, Art’s actions came to be referred to as “the one-man assault.” He was responsible for killing fifty Japanese soldiers—solo, no help.

Members of the President’s Own Marine Corps Band performing at Art’s memorial. Photo courtesy of Ken Rodgers.

When I think about what that means, killing all those men, leads me to think about my own combat experiences. For the most part, my time at Khe Sanh was spent dodging incoming—everything from 152 MM artillery rounds roaring in from Laos to 7.62 rounds from SVD sniper rifles. But in one instance I was involved in an assault into an entrenched position of an NVA battalion.

On that day, after an hours-long often hand-to-hand struggle, the men of my outfit, Bravo Company, decimated that battalion of NVA. Some of my comrades were honored with Navy Crosses and Silver Stars and Bronze Stars, but as far as I can recall no one did anything to match what Art Jackson did on Peleliu.

People talk a lot about courage when they talk about Art Jackson.

What is the nature of courage?

Dictionary.com defines courage as follows:

The quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc., without fear; bravery.

I don’t hold with the notion that what Art did or what others do in times of intense pressure is done without fear. I suspect courage comes forth in spite of fear.

Sally receiving the American Flag from Art’s coffin. Photo courtesy of Ken Rodgers.

A couple of quotes I found on the Internet seem to match what my experiences have led me to surmise:

“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear.” ~ Mark Twain

“Courage is feeling fear, not getting rid of fear, and taking action in the face of fear.” ~ Roy T Bennett

Most of what I did in my stint during the war—and I was under fire a lot—was to do what was required of me and sometimes that placed me in extreme danger. And although I was scared, whether I did anything or not made no difference. I was still scared.

And also, after all the forty-nine-plus years since I left the war, I’ve come to believe that a lot of what I did that led me to eschew my own safety on the battlefield was due to peer pressure. I thought then and I believe now that next to death and maiming, and maybe, in some instances even before those horrible results of combat, behaving so that I was not thought of as a coward by the men with whom I served was the prime motivator for my taking actions that were life endangering.

Fear is a powerful motivator and left unchecked it can eat a man or woman up, drive them to inaction in a situation demanding action, can force them to hide when those they love die. To overcome that requires courage.

Lastly, besides peer pressure and duty, a man or woman engaged in combat will go above and beyond to help their comrades. Some people call it love. I don’t know what to call it other than regard for those with whom you share a bunker, those who make you laugh, who walk through the valley of death with you, who will pull you to safety when you get shot. As a Marine, we all felt we owed it to our brothers to help them if they were in extreme danger. A creed, I guess, that seems to be overdone these days, but more than a creed, something, on second thought, that is akin to love. And somewhere in there, I’m sure courage is involved.

I don’t know what Art Jackson’s reasons were for doing what he did. Maybe it was all of the above.

I am glad I got acquainted with Art Jackson. He was a national hero. The citation for Art’s Medal of Honor states that he was “stouthearted and indomitable.” I think that’s something all of us would, in some fashion, like to be.

Rest in peace, Art, and Semper Fi.

———————————————————

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

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. Please consider gifting copies to a veteran, a teacher, a history buff, a library, a friend or family member. For more information, go to https://bravotheproject.com/store/.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject?ref=hl.

Documentary Film,Khe Sanh,Marines,Veterans,Vietnam War,Warhawk Air Museum

June 14, 2017

On the Warhawk Air Museum and Journeys Through the Trenches of My Memory

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Last week I had the privilege of speaking before 150 folks at Nampa, Idaho’s Warhawk Air Museum. I talked about the making of BRAVO! and my experience at the Siege of Khe Sanh.

Most of the attendees were veterans, many of them men who fought in World War II and Korea. There were also a good number of Vietnam War veterans as well as men and women who fought in the wars of the Middle East. We even had active duty United States Air Force officers, a front seater (pilot) and a back seater (weapons officer), who fly F-15E Strike Eagles out of Mountain Home Air Force Base in Mountain Home, Idaho.

Guest speaker Ken Rodgers and Barry Hill of the Warhawk Air Museum discussing the display screen prior to the event. Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers.

The Warhawk Air Museum is a local marvel as far as military museums go. Lots of old planes and choppers, but the most amazing thing to me is the personal testimonials and memorabilia available to view. As one of the men who attended the screening said, “It’s a very personal museum.”

The Warhawk also records video interviews of veterans talking about their combat experiences, sponsors field trips for school children and has educational classes so students in the area’s schools can learn about the military and wars directly from veterans, the folks who know the emotional aspects of combat.

Visitors who travel through Idaho go to see the museum as they pass through, and for some, a trip to the Warhawk is a destination in itself.

Thanks to Sue Paul and Barry Hill and the staff and volunteers at the museum for their support on my presentation as well as all they do for veterans and the memory of those who have served our country. If you are interested in finding out more about the Warhawk you can find their webpage at http://warhawkairmuseum.org/.

Some of the folks who attended the event at the Warhawk Air Museum. Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers

Several weeks back I blogged about June 1, 1967. Today I want to write about June 14, 1967 at Khe Sanh. On today’s date in 1967 Bravo Company was dug in on Hill 881 South and still staggering from the events of June 7 when a patrol ran into an NVA ambush and we lost 19 good men.

Besides living with our collective grief and agony, at 16:15 on June 14, 3rd Platoon Bravo received an incoming sniper round and responded by calling in an 81 MM mortar mission that evidently silenced the sniper. Whether the sniper was actually nullified or if he moved to another location was not known.

Elsewhere in 1/26’s area of responsibility in the Khe Sanh region, Charlie Company discovered an enemy bunker and destroyed it with five pounds of C-4.

A look at Route 9 outside Khe Sanh. Notice the rough terrain.

The battalion’s command chronologies for 6/14 made the area sound relatively quiet for a war zone.

It was about this time that Bravo went out on patrol to Hill 881 North and beyond, and in the process of digging around in the old battle sites of the Hill Fights which happened in March and April of 1967, found the scattered remains of human bodies partially sticking out of the mud where a fresh torrent of rainwater had eroded what looked like a burial site.

Someone spotted a ragged uniform remnant and that led to someone else digging around in the red-mud mess and then a femur appeared out of the muck with swatches of what we assumed was an NVA uniform still attached. The bone was yanked out of the ground and the femur soon hung off the jungle dungaree trousers of some Marine whose name I cannot recall.

In my memory, I cannot see the Marine’s face but I can see that leg bone dangling off the left side of his dirty dungarees. I don’t think that lasted long. I suspect the platoon sergeant or some officer spotted the bone on the belt and delivered an order that the bone was to be disposed of. You hear stories over the course of your life about a Marine who cut off and collected the ears of his enemy or Marines who pulled the gold teeth out of the mouths of enemy corpses. I never saw any of that, but I did see the bone dangling off the leg.

I usually have a good memory for names and faces of the men I served with in Vietnam, but during this time frame, subsequent to the ambush of 6/7, the faces that haunt my memory are like a maze of eyes and mouths and skin colors. We were an ethnically diverse group, I believe, because that’s how it was back in the 60s before the draft was killed.

What became 2nd Platoon of Bravo 1/26 was a mix of men from both 2nd and 1st Platoons, which had taken the bulk of casualties from the event of 6/7/67. We had, for a short time, a new platoon commander, Ben Long, who went on to command 1st Platoon and then became Bravo Company’s XO during the Siege in early 1968.

A look at the mountains around Khe Sanh.

I often think how difficult it must have been to run an efficient platoon filled with a number of men who had no familiarity with each other. I know the Marine Corps prides itself on the ability of the NCOs to run the ship, but when you don’t know the man who’s got your back, it’s hard to trust him and if you don’t trust him, he knows it and if he knows it, he won’t trust you as much as he might need.

Fortunately we had a strong set of NCOs: Staff Sergeant Ward and Sergeant Blankenship and Sergeant Martinez, Corporal Dede, Corporal Poorman, Corporal Fideli and others whose names I can’t remember.

The Marines of 2nd Platoon were a dirty, ragged bunch, but Lieutenant Long and the NCOs held us together. We became a unit of Marines. We learned to trust each other and to work with each other despite a number of obstacles in leadership that kept coming to the fore after Lieutenant Long went to on to command the newly reconstituted 1st Platoon.

As the summer wore on, we moved from Hill 881 South to the combat base and then some of us went out on Route 9 for over a week after 1st Platoon busted up an NVA ambush intended to fry bigger fish, traffic of heavy guns going up to Khe Sanh. Then we moved on to Hill 861 and then back to the combat base and rivers of rain.

It was a summer of long patrols and nights spent out in the mist and rain waiting for an enemy that would not show up. Occasionally we took sniper rounds or someone got a glimpse of the enemy, but there was little action and when there is not action, Marines turn to work to keep themselves out of trouble.

So we dug and dug and filled sandbags and installed culverts made from 55 gallon drums with both ends cut out so the trenches would drain and we wouldn’t have to stand knee deep in the water that accumulated from the incessant precipitation.

We were damp and dirty and often soaked. But we persevered.

____________________________

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

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. Please consider gifting copies to a veteran, a teacher, a history buff, a library, a friend or family member. For more information, go to https://bravotheproject.com/store/.

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Documentary Film,Film Screenings,Khe Sanh,Listening Posts,Marines,Veterans,Vietnam War

May 31, 2017

Fire In The Hole!

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Spring started off with a bang for BRAVO!. The City of Idaho Falls in conjunction with Idaho Humanities Council and the Veterans Affairs Committee of Eastern Idaho sponsored a screening of BRAVO! in Idaho Falls’ historic Colonial Theater on April 6, 2017.

Over one hundred folks attended the screening which was followed by the audience’s spirited discussion of the film with a panel of Vietnam vets, a Vietnam-era vet, and a veterans’ counselor. Thanks to Mr. Ed Maronh and Mr. Bob Skinner and Idaho Falls Mayor Rebecca Casper along with the folks at the Idaho Falls Arts Council, the Colonial Theater, the City of Idaho Falls, the Idaho Humanities Council and the Military Affairs Committee of Eastern Idaho for their efforts in making the screening a big success.

Entrance to the Colonial Theater, Idaho Falls, Idaho

One of the most gratifying experiences for us was the number of youngsters who came to the event and who had a number of great questions about the history of the war and about current affairs including US involvement in the wars of the Middle East.

A number of folks also introduced themselves as teachers and college professors who entertained interest in showing the film to their students. We always love seeing BRAVO! used as an educational tool.

Coming up on the screening front: On or around Veterans Day, 2017, BRAVO! will be screened in Santa Fe. Please stay tuned for details.

Since since tomorrow is June 1, 2017, we thought a look back at some events and experiences in Vietnam fifty years ago, around June 1, 1967, would fit the moment.

The men of Bravo Company, 26th Marine Regiment, were dug in on the crest of wet and breezy Hill 881 South, not far south of the DMZ, not far from Laos, and west of the Khe Sanh combat base. At that time we Marines were patrolling off the hill, down tree lined draws, into monstrous swamps, along the ridges and into the shattered tree line of Hill 881 North, wearing only soft covers and no flak jackets.

That behavior would soon change, and we’d begin to go out of the wire wearing flak jackets and helmets. On June 7, 1967, elements of Bravo would walk into an ambush sprung by North Vietnamese troops that would leave 19 Marines and Navy Corpsmen dead and because the men were not wearing helmets and flack jackets, the damage inflicted by the NVA was much worse.

I remember enjoying going out on patrol without worrying about flak jackets and helmets, all the extra weight and the rivers of sweat they generated. But after June, 7, I didn’t mind wearing that extra gear.

As for June 1 itself…according to the command chronologies of the 1st Battalion 26th Marines, Bravo Company didn’t even go outside the wire on that date other than the requisite listening posts and ambushes (referred to quite often as “night activities”) that sneaked outside the concertina wire after dusk and hustled back before the sun came up.

It might have been about June 1 that we knocked down the copse of tall trees that obscured the fields of fire in front of 2nd Platoon’s sector down on the southern end of the hill.

I remember being on a work detail with a combat engineer—I think his name was Treadway—stuffing a satchel of C-4 plastic explosives inside a big roll of barbed wire. We inserted a blasting cap into one of the C-4 sticks, ran the wire back to a claymore mine detonator, and then we all ducked.

“Fire in the hole!”

What had once been a stately stand of very tall trees was gone. We knew it before the smoke cleared from the explosion. We knew it because as we knelt in the trench the overhead whine and whistle of what once was barbed wire and statuesque trees hurtled over our heads..

After that, we could see quite well, down to where the bend of the terrain turned steep towards the creek that babbled way below.

We needed to see so the NVA didn’t sneak up on us in the night and cut our throats. We had to destroy the trees and underbrush to clear our fields of fire. It was going on all over the Vietnam war zone from south to north. The enemy used the cover to his advantage and we destroyed the cover. Fire, explosives, bombs and Agent Orange. We needed to kill the trees.

The trench line on Hill 881 South.

Those early days of June 1967 were also encounters with huge rats and snakes and dripping mist and nights on listening posts with leeches crawling up your nose and into your mouth. It was violent thunderstorms with barrages of hail and so much precipitation that the runoff barreled down the trenches.

We were covered in mud and shivered, the skin of our hands wrinkled with too much moisture. Nasty sores that oozed puss day and night and hurt every time you moved appeared on arms and legs. Huge hives hung in the bamboo patches with the meanest bees in the universe. When they attacked, they came full bore and in depth, leaving the Marines who were unlucky enough to disturb the hive with hands and faces swollen several times their normal size.

But yeah, compared to what we encountered a week later on 6/7/67, or seven months later when the Siege of Khe Sanh began, these inconveniences were really nothing.

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

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. Please consider gifting copies to a veteran, a teacher, a history buff, a library, a friend or family member. For more information, go to https://bravotheproject.com/store/.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject?ref=hl.

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

March 29, 2017

On Payback and Recapture

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One of the things that I’ve discovered during the process of making BRAVO! is how the memories of various men who went through the same events are different. What I remember, someone else doesn’t remember at all, or remembers in a very different way, or maybe the only difference is in a detail or two.

And a follow-up to that notion is the question: Because we don’t remember events the same, are all, one, or none of the memories not the the truth? And that begs another question: Does it matter?

Tomorrow, March 30, will be the 49th anniversary—if that is the correct word—of what has come to be called the Payback Patrol.

On that day, March 30, 1968, I had just a few more days to make it through my thirteen month tour of duty without getting hurt or killed.

Bayonet and Scabbard for an M-16

We had been told, as I recall, that the patrol out the southeast gate of the Khe Sanh Combat Base was to be a standard patrol to bring back the twenty-seven Marines and Corpsmen we hadn’t saved or salvaged from the nasty events related to the Ghost Patrol of February 25, 1968.

I also recall that when I was told that the patrol would be “standard” some little message kept sneaking into my consciousness whispering something like, “Don’t believe them. It will be hell out there.”

And as it turned out, it was. Twelve Marines lost their lives and most of the other ninety or so participants on our side were wounded. I think, collectively, we killed a lot of our adversaries. But to make matters worse, we didn’t have the opportunity to retrieve our fellow Ghost Patrol Marines because we were locked in mortal combat with the entrenched NVA for hours.

While I was interviewing the men of the film, BRAVO!, it surprised me that some of them recalled the events of March 30 differently than I did. Some remembered that they were told we were going out to assault an entrenched battalion of the NVA’s best troops. Not something I heard or if I did, I chose not to believe it, and if I did that, why? Because I wanted to put the best face on it? I suspect that could be the answer. Optimism is something I have a healthy load of.

Tom Quigley at Khe Sanh

Tom Quigley at Khe Sanh.

One of the other things I don’t recall is the order that Skipper Ken Pipes gave to his radio operator, Tom Quigley, to, “Be advised, fix bayonets.”

Tom Quigley passed that order along to the rest of us via our radio network and as a radio operator, I must have heard that order.

No less than five of the interviewees of the film remember that moment very well—the fixing of bayonets and the inference they took away from the order: that they would be involved in up-close and personal combat, in some cases hand-to-hand battle, and all the images of death in close proximity that one’s mind could dredge up to scare the hell out of you.

With that many of the men spontaneously recalling the event at the interviews some forty-two years later, individually with no prompting from me, I have come to the conclusion that I must have blanked that memory out.

I wonder why. Was it because the thought was too horrible for me to deal with?

I wasn’t personally part of the combat where Marines and NVA soldiers were locked in fights that required the use of bayonets. And since I wasn’t, maybe my memory and my mind settled on the things that did happen to me: getting hit in the side of the head by mortar shrapnel, watching Marines satchel charge and flame throw bunkers with the enemy in them, running out front to call in artillery fire so we could begin to retire and collect our dead and wounded, watching Second Lieutenant Moscato trip a booby trap and get hit in the chin with a Willie Peter round that caused his face to smoke, to find my buddy David Aldrich’s body being carried back to the base after we retired from the battlefield.

It was a horrible day. One of those times, if you are thinking about the Marine ethos, that you associate with what happens when Marines go to war. Although not as long-lived, but over its four or five hour duration probably as savage, the Payback Patrol was akin to Belleau Wood, or Peleliu or Chosin Reservoir. On March 30, 1968, there were enough monstrous memories for every one of us who survived to store away a whole bevy of them and still not recall everything.

Ken Pipes

It’s curious what you do recall, sometimes, from those moments. One would think that the only thing that mattered was those ultimate instances where your survival was challenged in a terrifyingly personal way in a grippingly personal moment. But one of my clearest memories is of the faces of the dead. How the NVA all looked to me like they were fifteen years old and how the faces of the dead Marines began to change color, becoming sallow, and after a while they seemed to me to be no different in that regard—the tint of the skin—than the enemy. And of course, in the most important way—all of them being dead—they were no different.

I have been thinking a lot, over the past few months, of memory and how important it is for our mental health, that we have the ability to extract these mementos of horror and retell them so we can somehow better deal with the effects they have had on who we have become.

And if one man’s truth isn’t the same as mine in terms of what we recall, I don’t think it really matters. What matters in this regard, it seems to me, is that we learn to confront the reservoirs of monstrance that our un-dealt-with memories harbor.

I know that tomorrow a lot of men who were on the Payback Patrol will join me in recalling their own individual memories of those particular instances—fixed bayonets, charging the NVA trench, killing other men up close—and thinking about them.

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

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. Please consider gifting copies to a veteran, a teacher, a history buff, a library, a friend or family member. For more information, go to https://bravotheproject.com/store/.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject?ref=hl.