Bravo! The Project - A Documentary Film

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

February 21, 2018

February 21, 1968—Fifty Years Gone

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A lot of the great followers of BRAVO! have become personal friends, too. Back when we first dreamed of making a film, Lance and Pam Thompson became some of our initial mentors and have been supporters for years. Recently they gifted me a beautiful book of narrative and photographs titled REQUIEM centered on the work of all the photographers who were killed or went missing in the Indo-China, Vietnam and Cambodian wars of the mid-twentieth century.

One of the first photos I found as I thumbed through the striking pictures was a portrait of Robert Ellison who snapped a lot of photos of Bravo Company during the siege before his untimely death on a flight into Khe Sanh on the 6th of March, 1968.

Jarheads like me often sat around the trench aware that Ellison might sneak up and photograph one of us and if you were lucky enough for that to happen, you wanted to appear most vigilant, squared away, warlike, masculine. I doubt he was interested in capturing any image except what was to him, the emotional truth of a moment, the ragged determination, the fright, the courage the defenders of Khe Sanh exhibited.

Marines of Bravo Company, 1/26, on February 25, 1968. Photo by Robert Ellison. Used with permission.

We saw him often, in the trench with his camera, trying to be insignificant. But he knew his job was to portray the reality of war and so he willingly appeared at moments the grunts in the trenches tried to avoid such as the ammo dump going up in red and orange flame on 21 January, a trench full of very frightened men trying not to be pulverized by incoming 152 MM artillery rounds, the ambushed Marines of the Ghost Patrol. It was his job to show the world the ugliness of war in a stark and beautiful way.

My most memorable experience with him was on a day about a month into the siege when the base was taking an awful pounding from the NVA. When that happened—round after round after round of small stuff and big stuff and everything in-between shaking our world—I looked for a place to hide and so did most of the other Marines with whom I served.

We tried to get small. We tried to get away, but there was none of that—getting away. On the day in question, I sat in a bunker, back against a wall. On my left, the trenchline to the north, on my right, the trenchline to the south, and to my front, the trench itself passing right through the bunker where I sat.

I had my knees up against my chest and my head down on my knees, and I flinched with every explosion, and I bounced from the impact of the big ones that landed close and I…I don’t know if I can explain how it feels to be overwhelmed with the fear that all that artillery delivers along with the concussion and shrapnel and roar.

I do know that on that day, I sank deeper and deeper into an abyss. In reality, there was no escaping the physical aspects, the screams and the chaos, the men you knew were probably dying. No escape unless you could hide somewhere inside the mind.

Enduring the barrages allowed agony to creep into the small parts of your body, liver and lungs, vessels and veins, cells, molecules. It was physical input, what was happening outside, feeding what you were on the inside—the great and the ignominious.

Author Ken Rodgers at Khe Sanh. Photo courtesy of Michael O’Hara.

I recall it well, after fifty years. My mind hightailed it away from my body. I could see myself not just sitting on my butt in the damp red mud, but also walking on a tightrope, or maybe a roof peak. On my left was insanity. On my right, sanity but with a caveat that outside, the end of the world as I knew it stalked. I was confused and didn’t know whether to jump to the left, to the side that whispered to me of safety (and some sort of insanity), or to the right, into the outside, the known, the specter of death, or maybe a leg gone, or an arm. No eyes, no jaw.

Lucky for me, I heard the snap of a camera shutter which drew me out of my mind, my fear. I looked to my right and there knelt Robert Ellison, taking photos of me.

I think I had mixed emotions. He had found me in a battle inside my mind, maybe at one of my worst moments at Khe Sanh, maybe the worst moment of my life. I was vulnerable, exposed, caught in the act of battling cowardice. (You couldn’t afford to be a coward there. Peer pressure would gobble you up, not to mention the guilt that would ride your back, spurring you like a devilish master for the rest of your life.) But I also understood that his intervention in my moment of doubt probably saved me from going crazy. And that has earned him my undying thanks.

***

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

February 14, 2018

14 February–Fifty Years Gone

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The big, new guy first showed up at Khe Sanh jammed, along with a lot of other Marines, into a C-130 that took incoming upon approaching the combat base. Lots of Jarheads sat on the deck and men on either side of the big, new guy got hit when NVA anti-aircraft fire perforated the skin of the plane. The flight returned to Danang, but he boarded another C-130 the next morning and returned to the combat base where they kicked the big, new guy off the plane before departure.

Corporal J put him in my fire team and there he stood, telling me about the blood and the flecks of flesh on that first flight as his head shook up and down like someone with palsy.

Khe Sanh Combat Base. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Jittery, he reminded me of quail, just before you bust them with a blast from your twelve-gauge. Those quail sense their impending death before they really know you are stalking them.

I put the big, new guy on first watch that night and I kept going out and to check on him.

I’d ask, “You alright?”

“Yeah, I’m alright.”

Khe Sanh took a lot of incoming at all hours of the day and night and he was so frightened of getting killed by an enemy 152 MM round that he hit the red-mud deck face-first every time one of our F-4 Phantom fighter-bombers flew nearby. Ditto with outgoing barrages from the battery of Marine 105 MM howitzers right behind our fighting holes. Down where my own fear resides, I sensed that his fear meant trouble.

I checked on him just before hitting the rack. Ambient light gathered in the mist so I could see him. He held a fragmentation grenade in his hands.

“What’s the reason for the grenade?”

He bent his knees and hissed, “Gooks!”

I ducked, too and slammed up against the wall of the trench. I peered over the lip but didn’t see anything but the usual; concertina wire and the dark night sky and a wooden shed that I think the Airedales used to help guide airplanes in for a landing.

“Where?”

He whispered, “Right out there.” He used his head to motion towards the concertina barrier.

All I could see out there that might look like a man was that wooden shed.

I talked fast and hard. “There’s nothing out there.”

He spit, “Bullshit, I can see them.”

I said, “Don’t stare at stuff out there, makes you think it’s moving. Let your gaze rove.”

I heard it before I saw it. He’d pulled the pin on that grenade.

I cajoled, I ordered, I almost begged him to put the pin back in the grenade. Then I grabbed his hands and we got into a push and shove. Like I said, he was big and like most Marines who’d been in the bush for almost twelve months, I wasn’t much thicker than a cigarette.

While all of this transpired, I imagined the grenade going off and what it would do to our arms and stomachs and chests and hearts, our faces.

He finally gave up the grenade and the pin and I got the damned thing squared away and stashed in the fighting hole before I began to slap him and punch him and kick him and talk nasty about his mamma.

He wrapped his arms around me and slammed me to the ground and asked me politely to quit hitting him.

Later that night, I told Corporal J to get him out of my fire team. J told me to settle down, but I wasn’t settling down. A man as frightened as that big, new guy would cost us lives. So away he went, to Weapons Platoon to be an ammo-humper for a machine gun team.

Over a month later, we assaulted a ridge southeast of the Gray Sector at Khe Sanh. By that time, I’d moved on from a fire team leader in a rifle squad to become a radio operator in the platoon command post.

Blogger Ken Rodgers at Khe Sanh just prior to the Siege. Photo courtesy of Michael E. O’Hara

Staff Sergeant A and I moved down a trench as the war hammered around us. Sallow-faced dead people littered the field. Explosions rocked the ground, throwing red dirt into the air. Everywhere you advanced, bullets snapped, guns roared, men yelled and men screamed.

Trying to stay focused on radio communications, I looked off to my right—to this day, the memory is one of my strongest—and I saw a machine gunner thumping a Marine’s head with the butt end of his M-60.

It stopped me cold in my tracks. In my mind, the Marine getting pummeled has always been that man with whom I’d wrestled over that grenade. As sure as those quail I wrote about earlier know you’re going to bust them with your shot, I knew—I know it now—it was the big, new guy getting his head bashed in.

I think all combat vets intuit this but don’t really want to talk about it, how fear can crush your throat and grab your gonads and twist you into someone you never imagined you’d become.

***

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,Khe Sanh,Marines,Veterans,Vietnam War

February 9, 2018

9 February 1968—Fifty Years Ago Today

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Early in the sequence of events that make up this blog, I sat on top of a bunker with a Marine as he fired a fifty-caliber machine gun at anything that moved outside the concertina wire. F-4 Phantoms, F-8 Crusaders and A-4 Skyhawks swooped down and dropped bombs and napalm. Suddenly, in flames, enemy warriors erupted from a depression in the landscape. Like burning matchsticks with legs, they ran and we pomp-pomp-pomped at them with that fifty-caliber.

Almost immediately the whistle of rockets sent us diving for cover. In a memory that periodically crashes into my consciousness, I recall a Marine sprinting across a stretch of open ground just before I hit the deck.

When the shock of landing on my head retreated and the stench of explosives cleared my nasal passages, I heard screaming. The fifty-caliber machine gunner and I leapt out of the trench and scrabbled over to the Marine who’d been running. A chunk of shrapnel from one of those incoming rockets had severed his arm and blood shot out like a rampant river.

We tried a tourniquet as we hollered for a corpsman who, mercifully for both the wounded Marine and us, showed up.

That was just the beginning of a series of events that set me to gnawing fingernails.

In the early hours of 5 February, NVA troops attacked and breached the perimeter of Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 26th Marines’ perimeter on Hill 861-A. We hunkered down in our fighting holes on Red Alert and waited to be attacked.

PT-76 Tank

The following night, the NVA attacked the Special Forces installation at the ville of Lang Vei, a community a few miles southwest of the combat base. Again we were up all night on Red Alert.
Word slithered down the trench like a four-foot spitting cobra that the assault on Lang Vei included tanks.

TANKS!!!!

All night I heard the clank of metal, like the sounds tank tracks make as the vehicle turns. The NVA did employ PT-76 tanks that night. I often wonder if those sounds that shivered me with terror were real or if I just made them up, my imagination fueled by fear.

For me the ring of death began to choke our esprit de corps. Facial expressions seemed grimmer, teeth gritted tighter, eyes stared out of sockets like they watched the end of the world. The humor grew as dark as the nights into which we peered. And the incoming kept slamming into our bunkers and trenches, sending debris and red dust flying.

C-130 taking off at Khe Sanh.

On 8 February, Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, the celebrated “Walking Dead,” had a platoon overrun in one hell of a nasty firefight near the “rock quarry” west of the main combat base. Again, we stood prepared on Red Alert.

I wondered if I’d ever see my mother again, or my best friend, or my girlfriend—even though I really didn’t have a girlfriend. The pit in my stomach felt bigger than Arizona, where I’m from. I walked around in a perpetual state of dry mouth, trying to keep my hands from shaking, talking a tough, vulgar patois to the men with whom I served. For the most part, I reckon they were doing the same thing.

The next day, the 10th, a C-130 plane approached the combat base. This plane, call sign “Basketball 813,” flew south of the base and the men in my fire team and I watched it as we filled sandbags.

Antiaircraft fire struck “Basketball 813” which struggled around to the west end of the strip. Smoke and fire flared out of the fuselage as it landed. The plane roared down the runway until it careened off the south side of the tarmac and pitched into a ditch. It erupted in flames.

We all broke for the wreckage which wasn’t that far away. One of the most vivid memories I have of my time at Khe Sanh is watching men come out of the cockpit through those big windows at the front of the plane. They hung by their hands and dropped to the earth. It was a long drop.

Blogger Ken Rodgers prior to the beginning of the Siege. Photo courtesy of Michael E. O’Hara.

As I watched that conflagration, it seemed almost unreal. Revulsion, fear, despair did not rear up in me as I realized that whoever was in the back of the plane would burn to death. I was immune. Mayhem and catastrophe were an everyday occurrence. This realization haunts me.

****

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,Khe Sanh,Marines,Veterans,Vietnam War

January 29, 2018

January 29–50 Years Gone

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Fifty Years Ago—29 January 1968

Right before the siege began, a bunch of new Marines arrived to beef up Bravo Company to nearly its full complement of warriors. One of those Marines was a staff sergeant whose real name I never knew. Upon his arrival, he spent a large portion of his supervisory time hard-assing all of us who had been with the company a while.

What rankled a lot was the fact that most of his Marine Corps service was as a reservist, so when he came down the trench line kvetching at us for not filling sandbags fast enough or for too much jiving around, we waited until he moved on before muttering about “Mr. Macho Gung-ho Green Machine Maggot,” or badmouthing him for being a “weekend warrior.”

The man talked trash and bragged that he could kick our asses and do serious damage to the NVA, too.

But it wasn’t long after January 21, eight days or so, when one of my buddies, Corporal A, came marching down the trench with news of Mr. Macho Gung-ho Green Machine Maggot. Corporal A had arrived at Bravo Company three or four days before me and we’d palled around some even though he was in Weapons Platoon (his killing specialty was rockets).

A stark image of the damage war can do. Photo courtesy of Mac McNeely.

Corporal A was a pretty quiet guy who wasn’t given to overemphasis, so it was a great surprise when he came dancing down the line, a big smile on his face.

He yelled at me, “Rodgers, he’s gone.”

“Who’s gone?”

“Staff Sergeant Macho Gung-ho.”

I said, “Already? Did he get hit?”

“Naw, man, he lost it.”

“Lost it?” Right then I felt a little surge rocket up through my legs.

“Yeah. He went total dinky-dow.”

Right then, a notion leapt into my mind that here we were, the men of Bravo, privates and privates first class, lance corporals and corporals—what we often called the “Snuffy Smiths” of the Corps—and none of us had gone total dinky-dow. (Dinky-dow is the American bastardization of the Vietnamese dien cai dao which roughly translates as “crazy.”)

In my mind, I could see Staff Sergeant Macho Gung-ho Green Machine, his face the color of blood as he hard-assed us for some stupid stateside Jarhead idea that he thought accounted for something in the trenches, and how we’d bitten our bottom lips so as not to tell him exactly what we thought.

I mused out loud, “Dinky-dow, hunh?”

Corporal A surprised me when he jumped up and down and yelled, “Hell, yeah, just like this,” before dropping down on his hands and knees, digging in the bottom of the trench like a dog attacking a gopher hole, then howling and barking like said canine.

“Aw, hell, I don’t believe that,” I scoffed.

He jumped up and said, “No, Rodgers, I saw it, after that last little barrage of 122-millimeter rockets came in and hit behind the open space up by 2nd Platoon’s command post. He was ordering me and the rest of my rocket team to make sure our gear was squared away when those rounds came in and scared the hell out of all of us. Then he started running back and forth in the trench with a face that looked like it had been stretched in seven different directions. Then he dropped down and started digging like a dog and barking.”

At the time, I didn’t feel sorry for Staff Sergeant Macho Gung-ho Green Machine. I felt . . . I felt vindicated, proud. I might have stuck my chest out. We didn’t like that Marine and he hadn’t been too smart about how he treated all us old salts, so his breakdown made me proud. I think it made Corporal A and the men in my fireteam and any other “Snuffy” who had experienced the distinct displeasure of one of his butt-chewings proud. We held up. We could stand up to the fury. We were the real Mr. Macho Gung-ho Marines.

I don’t know what happened to Staff Sergeant Gung-ho Green Machine, but I do know I never saw him again.

Of course, later, as the Siege drug on, I had my moments where I came close to losing it, although I never lost it as bad as that staff sergeant.

That Marine didn’t last long before the mental aspects of incoming got to him. Over the succeeding years, many of the rest of us ended up exhibiting our own symptoms of what has been called over the decades, “Soldier’s Heart, Shell Shock, Battle Fatigue and PTSD” as the effects of warfare picked and whittled at our attempts to be the young men we had been before it all began.

Blogger Ken Rodgers at Khe Sanh, 1968. Photo courtesy of Michael E O’Hara.

At Khe Sanh We were macho and we were tough. Emotionally fragile yet for the most part also supple, we survived the direct onslaught of mental effects that combat bestows upon those who survive. Yet the siege made us brittle, too, and deep down some of us shattered, went “Dinky-dow” on some level. Some of us sooner than later. And like Staff Sergeant Macho Gung-ho, some not just on the inside where most of us stuff our feelings about the war, but on the outside: prison, jail, alcoholism, suicide, insanity.

One of the things I pride myself most on in surviving the Siege of Khe Sanh is how I, for the most part, held myself together in the face of maiming, death and the constant pressure of fear. But as I said, I had my moments of being “dinky dow,” too, and sometimes (for decades) I wondered if the Siege of Khe Sanh would ever let me be.

Now, fifty years later, I don’t feel compelled to judge the staff sergeant so severely. War and fear take a heavy toll on all of us, leaders and “Snuffies” alike.

***

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,Khe Sanh,Marines,Veterans,Vietnam War

January 21, 2018

Fifty Years Ago Today–The Big Shebang

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Fifty Years Ago Today—January 21, 1968

I jerked awake as one of the Marines in my fire team yanked at my leg and screamed, “Incoming.”

Explosions roared and the earth shook. Dust filled the air along with the scent of fright.

Outside in the black of early morning, Marines screamed, rockets and artillery rounds boomed, our ammo dump went up like ten thousand 4th of Julys.

Men sprinted hear and there.

Khe Sanh Combat Base

My head spun and a notion of what waited out in the dark infected my mind. Along with a lot of other Marines, I fell down in the bottom of the trench and buried my face in the mud.

Something hit my back and burned through my flak jacket. I yelled, “I’m hit, I’m hit.”

The Marine whose skull I split open the day before crawled over and began to laugh.
I thought, “He’s getting even.”

His hand swept across my back as he leaned next to my right ear and whispered, “Clods, Rodgers. Just clods.”

The CS gas that was stored in the exploding ammo dump began sneaking down the trench lines.

I found my gas mask, pulled it over my head and face, and crawled inside the nearest machine gun bunker. The gunner knelt behind his M-60 as we stared out at the edge of our lines. We all knew what would come, an assault led by sappers breaching our concertina wire and then hard core warriors of the NVA following through the holes blasted in our perimeter.

Everyone looked like weird beetles. It was the gas masks.

The platoon right guide sat against the north wall. A nasty gash on his right shin dripped blood. A corpsman came and patched him up after telling him, “Aw, hell, it’s nothing. You’ll get a Purple Heart.”

I don’t know how long we waited for the attack to come. But as the light of day glowed, it seemed we weren’t to be overrun.

Outside, the ammo dump continued to cook off like the worst artillery attack in the world.

Sometime later, a runner came down from the platoon command post and told me the lieutenant wanted to see me. I followed the messenger out the bunker’s back hatch and down the trench.

The lieutenant told me that the unit to our left could not be contacted and he wanted me to go down and see if I could assay the situation.

I didn’t want to go down that trench to see what was happening, but I did. I passed the men of 1st and 2nd squads then came to a bend in the trench, closer to the ammo dump, which by that time had calmed down.

I wondered if there were NVA soldiers around that crook in the trench and that’s why no one could contact the Marines who manned that area.

Debris at Khe Sanh. Photo Courtesy of David Douglas Duncan.

I crept, my M-16 ready if I needed it.

A Marine lay in the trench. He looked like he was dead. All around him spent ordnance that had come from the ammo dump littered the red mud.

I duck-walked up and leaned close. His eyes opened and he blinked. I knew this man. We had arrived at Bravo Company about the same time. I don’t remember his name.

He had a jagged hole ripped in his right trouser leg and the flesh looked like raw hamburger.

He said, “One of those 155 rounds in the dump went up and came down on my leg.” He laughed.

I said, “Need some morphine?”

He shook his head, “I’ve had plenty.”

Ken Rodger at Khe Sanh. Photo courtesy of the late Dan Horton.

The next Marine I found had been hit between the legs by Willie Peter (white phosphorus). I don’t remember the conversation between us but remember wondering if he’d lose his family jewels.

On down the trench, I found men in similar situations—wounded. And if not wounded, in a state of shock that reminded me of stories from World War I.

But they weren’t wiped out.

I reported back to the lieutenant and then marched back to my bunker.

It was day one.

***

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

January 20, 2018

50 Years Ago Today–Spooky

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January 20

On today’s date, fifty years ago and the day before the Siege of Khe Sanh erupted, I woke my fire team before first light to go on a work detail.

One of the men in my team slept hard and didn’t like to wake up. This happened a lot. I finally told him if he didn’t get out of the rack and eat some chow, I’d kick his ass.

That was a mistake. We didn’t really think much of each other. He jumped up and wrapped me in a bear hug. A strong kid from Detroit, he squeezed and made mention about my heritage and my mother. I thought he’d crush my chest.

Somehow I struggled and freed my arms and with my left hand found a metal bucket on a shelf in the bunker. Using both my hands, I clutched it and drove it down on the top of his skull.

He dropped me as blood shot into his brown hair, down the sides of his head and over his forehead into his eyebrows.

Concertina Wire. Attribution: Wikipedia

My stomach churned at the sight of all that blood and I figured there would be hell to pay. I sent him to see the corpsman while we ate chow. Word came back that he went to the battalion aid station to get his head stitched up.

We went off and built a concertina wire barrier somewhere behind the main trench lines. All day I worried about the private, his split open head and the ramifications with which I would have to deal.

While we pounded posts into the ground and strung concertina wire, a Huey flew over with a man hanging below. It looked like his hands were tied to a cable. The helicopter had no markings that would identify it as an American chopper.

We all watched as the Huey flew above a line of ragged trees that grew along the south side of the base and dragged the dangling man through the tree tops. I still imagine the sounds I imagined at the time—snapped bones, ripped flesh, the wash of guts and other organs impaled on the remains of broken branches.

For years, I didn’t remember the incident of the chopper dragging that man but I did remember splitting the private’s head open. Not until the mid 1990s did I recall the Huey and the dangling man and it wasn’t until 2010 that I was sure I’d seen what I saw. I was worried that I had taken someone else’s memory and made it mine. One of the men who we interviewed for BRAVO! asked me, while we were filming him, if I remembered seeing the Huey and the man hanging below.

Fifty years ago, when we arrived back at our fire team area the private with the busted head waited. He seemed quite pleased with a head full of stitches and that he didn’t have to help string concertina.

As I stood there peering at the top of his head, someone down the line set off a claymore mine by accident. When I looked that direction I saw Marines charging into their fighting positions and for the first time, an inkling of what was to come at the Siege of Khe Sanh snuck into my consciousness.

A time lapse of Spooky firing it’s miniguns.

Later that night, I took first watch. A heavy mist hung over the combat base. I walked up and down the trench, thinking, I suspect, about the bloody skull and the man who’d been hanging from the bottom of that Huey. I know I thought about that claymore mine and the echoes of its explosion that bounded along our lines.

I heard a soft, low moan and shivered. A waving line of red tracer fire sketched out of the sky and out to the front of our position. We called that moaning weapon, an airplane, Puff the Magic Dragon but it was more commonly known in Vietnam as Spooky.

And spooky it was as the red tracers etched a curved crimson line into the misty night and the low, sad moan of its sound followed and made me think of lamentations from spirits of the dead.

Ken Rodgers prior to the beginning of the Siege. Photo courtesy of Michael E. O’Hara.

As I got ready to go off watch, I stood at the back of my hooch and stared into the night.

It was spooky.

***

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,Khe Sanh,Marines,Veterans,Vietnam War

January 11, 2018

Fifty Years Gone

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Today, we start with a series of blogs remembering fifty years ago at the Siege of Khe Sanh as recalled by BRAVO! filmmaker and Marine with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines, Ken Rodgers.

25 December, 1967, Christmas Day

I awoke on Hill 881 South to mist and fog and Christmas Morning. The night before had seen us stand one hundred percent watch because we were on red alert. A Christmas Truce was supposed to be in effect but like most truces of the Vietnam War, this one didn’t mean much.

The day before, Christmas Eve, we ran a company minus patrol out the north gate. I walked point for a large portion of that sortie, crossing the eerie and wrecked summit of 881 North then on down the back side a few clicks before being replaced on point.

As I stood beneath vines draping from some stout and tall tree, the new company commander, Captain Ken Pipes came by and actually grinned at me. That was the first and maybe only time a captain in the Marine Corps allowed me a smile.

Steve Foster showing off some Christmas bling. 1967. Photo courtesy of Michael O’Hara

On Christmas Morning, my fire team, accompanied by Sergeant Michael Dede, exited out the south gate of 881 South and humped down around the creek that ran by the west base of the hill. We stopped at various check points and radioed in to the Six that all was secure. We ended the patrol by going back into the perimeter through the north gate.

Soon to follow was a hot Christmas meal choppered in from the kitchen at Khe Sanh. I don’t recall what it was but I know without a doubt it was better than C-rations.

The next day we left the hill and went into the Gray Sector lines at the east end of the Khe Sanh Combat Base where, less than a month later, we would begin our hell in the Siege of Khe Sanh.

****

New Years Day, 1968

On December 22nd 1967, I wrote to my mother from Hill 881 South.”I’m going on R&R again. I don’t know where, but any place is alright.”

And fifty years ago today I awoke in a hotel in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

I don’t remember a whole lot about the trip now. I flew in on a small Pan Am prop job. My first morning, I went down to the hotel lobby and bought a toothbrush.

I went to a circus. I initially thought it hokey. Yet the man who walked the high wire didn’t fall. There were elephants and tigers. A fakir lay on a bed of nails. He didn’t bleed and he didn’t act like the nails hurt. I thought the name “fakir” was accurate. No one could lie on a bed of nails and not bleed. When I left the circus I saw the fakir’s bed and managed to touch the nails. They were hard and sharp. I wondered if I really knew what I thought I knew.

Marines of 2nd Platoon, Bravo Company, 26th Marines. L to R: Carwile, Foster, O’Hara, Jacobs, Furlong, Rodgers, Richardson. Photo Courtesy of Michael O’Hara.

Outside a man sat on a big green lawn next to the street. He had two baskets and a growing crowd of people gathering around him.

He pulled a mongoose out of one of the baskets and a small cobra out of the other. Immediately, the mongoose began to attack the cobra which attacked in return.

They were both quick. The snake sliding, slithering and striking at the mongoose which managed to dance, leap, and twist just out of reach of the cobra’s fangs. There was a lot of hissing and the sound of scrabbling feet, scales scraping the macadam.

I think the mongoose killed the cobra.

What I witnessed in the vicious little war between the cobra and the mongoose was a metaphor of what was to come at Khe Sanh.

***

11 January, 1968

I turned twenty-one at Khe Sanh.

I still hummed with memories of R and R. I had returned to the combat base with a quart of Smirnoff Vodka and a fifth of Johnny Walker Black Label Scotch.

That first evening back from R & R, January 8, 1968, a bunch of us 2nd Platoon Marines gathered in my hooch and got drunk. Later that night they called a red alert. We staggered out of various states of intoxication into the bright light of a full moon and officers and senior NCOs on the prowl.

As I talked with our platoon right guide, who’d had more than his share of Scotch, the company’s XO came barreling down the trench line. Unlike other XOs for Bravo Company, this gentleman was not popular.

The moonlight made it seem like day and we could clearly see the 1st Lieutenant approaching us like he was going to an important formation with captains and colonels and sergeants major. The right guide called out, “Who’s there?”

And the XO didn’t vary his march or respond. The right guide challenged him, “Who’s there and what’s the password?”

But the XO didn’t halt. He came on until he was almost parallel to the right guide and me. That’s when the right guide whipped out a M1911A .45 caliber pistol and jammed it right in the XO’s face as he said, “Who’s there?”

The XO managed to stop dead in his steps and glare at both of us as the right guide hissed, “If you don’t identify yourself and give me the password, I’m going to blow your dumb…”

To this day, I can see the business end of that side arm jammed up against the XO’s gleaming teeth.

Blog author, Ken Rodgers, looking like he’s in trouble. January, 1968. Khe Sanh Combat Base. Photo courtesy of Michael O’Hara

The XO barked his name, rank and delivered the password. The M1911A side arm went back into the holster, the XO sneered at both of us as he marched off.

The next morning, scuttlebutt had it that I was going up for a Captain’s Mast because so many of Bravo’s men had been drunk while on watch.

For over a week I tried to hide as we Marines of 2nd Platoon filled sandbags, built bunkers, deepened our trench.

My birthday was spent in anticipation of being deep in the manure pile of Marine Corps discipline instead of enjoying the cakes and cookies my mother and her friends had sent me.

***

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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,Veterans,Vietnam War,War Poetry

January 3, 2018

Lt. Colonel Jim Wilkinson

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One of the most pleasing things to come to light on my journey with post-combat Khe Sanh Veterans—and veterans of war in general—has been the discovery, by both them and me, of art as a way to process and understand the horrors or war.

Some of us have written books, some of us have created sculpture, some of us have created paintings, drawings and music. In my case, my wife Betty and I created a film. And a lot of these men, these tough and battered warriors, have created poetry.

In today’s blog, I share a poem written by Bravo Skipper Ken Pipes as a eulogy, a requiem, in honor of Marine Lieutenant Colonel James Wilkinson who commanded the 1st Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment through much of the Siege of Khe Sanh.

Lt. Colonel James Wilkinson.

Lt. Colonel Wilkinson passed away on December 1, 2017. You can read his obituary here.

And below, please find Ken Pipes’ poem honoring James Wilkinson as well as other Marines and Corpsmen who fought at Khe Sanh.
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Gentleman Jim, Our Eagle

An Eagle fell from the sky today and the sun stood still.
The shrill wind howled in the clear blue sky,
as heavy mist fogged the eye. Some wondered why
‘til the message arrived, then many silently cried.
The wires rang with sadness and sorrow
as the much feared word went forth,
“Gentleman Jim,” our Eagle,
was now outward bound from this earth.

We who spent our life there 50 year ago or more,
stood rock steady as we started to recall.
Quigley’s voice resoundingly strong
while he and Doc C locked an eye.
Mac sounded off with a message so loud
that it cleared to the azure sky—
“Black Bud 6 sends his respects, Sir,
and requests your presence soonest;
don’t bother bringing your gear.”

On the eve of our Commander’s passing,
just a few short days ago
in the stillness of the mid-watch,
where some Marines are want go!
‘Twas then our Eagle went swooping
down as the word went quickly about,
“The Eagle was out!” where
nothing escaped his sharp glances or sharper eye.
Neither did deserving Marines escape
a heartfelt thanks as he moved on down the line.

In the later years when asked
by those not privileged to be there—
“What did you learn from your Commander, Lad,
that was held so close and dear?”
The answer to that one was easy,
“That when in the company of your Marines
and killing times are near, nothing is
more important than not outwardly showing fear!“

And so, what we all learned
from this impressive man,
was to righteously understand,
that the fortunes of war may wobble a bit,
but to Marines, the mission is first
and if you fall while in the attack
you will not be left behind.
Your mates will have your back.
Care deeply for your Marines, remembering if you do,
they will fix bayonets, sling their packs and follow you.
How well I remember, as I was dismissed—
thinking, I have just been shown the way.
Things might be looking up
for our blessed Nation and her Warriors on this day.

Gentleman Jim’s Marine heritage was born and bred
deep in the South. His nickname “Gentleman Jim” deceived,
’cause like the Eagle, he moved swiftly about,
going forward of the battle line when the guns were swung around.
Thus, his Eagle eyes and attitude kept many of us alive.

So, as he now speeds outbound
to assume his last command,
where he will link up with David,
that Lion of a Man,
there they will each hold
‘til our last wave touches down.
So hold tight Colonels Dave and Jim;
for Charlie and the Gunny are moving
fast to meet you and they are almost there.
Bravo and the Captain,
with the squads of Jake, Mike and Wiese.
The Doc, Britt, and Rash,
with the rest following in trace.

On the high ground our flag will be planted
as we rest at Fiddlers Green
where we will be awaiting the landing
of the next wave of battle scarred Marines.

Ken Pipes

It is time to shut this down, now.
It all seems like an endless dream.
As we scan the ranks and read the Clay—
it becomes patently clear this day
it won’t be long until we will have more men
there than we have here!
We miss each of our brothers, but know it won’t be long—
‘til we muster to share a few rounds of beer
with “Gentleman Jim” our Eagle!

Ken Pipes, Assisted/Advised by:

Major Larry Luther (881), Sergeant Major Morris (USMC), Sergeant Mike O’Hara (Bravo), Corporal Ken Rodgers (Bravo), and Lieutenant Derek Clark, San Diego Sheriff’s Department (Ret)

***

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,Marines,Other Musings,Veterans,Veterans Courts

November 10, 2017

A PARADE!!!

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Thirty or so years ago I used to sit around with a buddy of mine and talk about Vietnam. We didn’t serve together overseas but did pull duty together at the Marine Barracks at 32nd Street Naval Station in San Diego. His combat experience was quite different than mine, but he’d seen enough that it left its imprint on him.

We used to guffaw at some of the early Vietnam veterans groups and talk about how what they were angry about was that they didn’t get their parade. He and I didn’t need veterans’ groups or parades, either, or so we thought.

Being a Marine was good for making me a stoic. Being in combat, in my mind, made me strong, too strong to show any kind of weakness associated with my war and that included veterans’ organizations and associated activities.

But times change and things change and even an old trench rat can learn how to negotiate the mazes of life in different ways. And that includes even being in a parade. And so, on November 4, 2017, I was allowed the distinct honor of being one of four parade grand marshals at the Boise Veterans Day Parade.

Right to left: Ileen Bunce and Ken Rodgers wth Ileen’s Corvette. Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers

The other grand marshals were Mr. Clair Kilton, a World War II Army veteran who fought and was wounded in the European Theater; Mr. Harold Kwan, a Korean War Marine Corps veteran who fought in Korea, including the Inchon landing and the brutal battle at Chosin Reservoir; Colonel Tom Mahoney, a veteran of the United States Air Force, who flew in the opening mission of Operation Desert Storm in the Middle East.

Unfortunately, Mr. Kilton passed away a few days before the parade, so his three daughters, Penny, Peg and Lisa, took his place, and I imagine how heart wrenching and at the same time uplifting that had to be for them.

On the day of the big hullabaloo, Betty and I arrived earlier than necessary which is something we do often. The threat of continued rain from the night before had abated, leaving only scattered black clouds that umbrellaed over the parade route which ran east down State Street in front of the Idaho State Capitol building, then on around to head west down Jefferson Street.

The crowd of parade officials, news folk, volunteers, politicians, generals and colonels, active duty military personnel and grand marshals gathered before the parade began for donuts, bagels, coffee and juice, and to become acquainted, and to get last minute direction.

One local Treasure Valley politico, State Senator Marv Hagedorn, with whom I am acquainted came up and told me that I was a good choice for the Vietnam veteran grand marshal.

Ken Rodgers, Khe Sanh Veteran and Grand Marshall. Photo courtesy of Katherine Jones, Idaho Statesman

I was most humbled by, as I have been throughout the entire experience of finding out about—and then living out—my choice as grand marshal for this particular parade. But it also bothers me and leaves me with a sense of guilt. I told Senator Hagedorn that it bothered me in some respects to be grand marshal because it might give people the impression that I was some kind of hero. I said, “I’m no hero. The heroes didn’t get to come home from Khe Sanh.”

He smiled and said, “But as grand marshal, you are representing those men since they can’t represent themselves.”

His words worked, at least for the moment, the day, the experience of riding down the street with the sun out and people waving and shouting good things at me.

Betty and I ended up in a snazzy Corvette owned and driven by Ileen Bunce, president of Valley Corvettes. There was only room for one passenger in the seats, so I sat up top. I had to remove my boots so that Ileen’s Corvette didn’t get trashed.

Before the parade moved out, we pulled into line and were placed behind a large mechanized weapon, a tank or a self-propelled piece of artillery from the 116th Cavalry Brigade Combat Team of the Idaho Army National Guard.

As we waited, our breaths visible in the chill, the parade folks honored the late Marine, Art Jackson, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on the island of Peleliu in 1944.

A flight of A-10 Warthogs flew over the parade route as did, later, a flight of choppers. Even I found that a bit stirring.

There were all kinds of folks in the parade: Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, National Guard, first responders, boy scouts, girl scouts, school bands, floats from organizations and businesses, mayors and other politicos. The local media, including a live broadcast by KTVB Channel 7, were out in force giving detailed coverage of the parade for those who couldn’t make it.

When we finally took off, the tank in front of us roared to life and left the smell of burning fuel hanging in the air.

Right off the bat, we spotted our friends, Leland and Trisha Nelson, standing on a corner. The Nelsons have been great friends of BRAVO! over the years. We waved at each other. It felt good to me.

As we approached the state capitol, a huge American flag hung off of fire truck extension ladders. The autumn winds that are common this time of year in Boise lifted the flag and reminded me of surges on the ocean.

All the way down State Street, people greeted us. I waved back at moms and dads, children, elderly veterans, grandpas and grandmas. More than once, somebody yelled, “Semper Fi.”

A mechanized weapon in the Boise Veterans Parade. Photo courtesy of Ken Rodgers

One of the more interesting experiences I had, early on, was that of a Korean War veteran (that’s what his ball cap announced) sitting in a folding chair on the south side of the street. As we approached, he rose and saluted. I looked into his eyes and it was like he was saying something to me, something I should be proud to hear. I saluted back. As a matter of fact, I saluted a lot of people—veterans all, I suspect—as we wound around the route of the parade.

As we turned off of State Street, the parade passed below some trees, maples of some sort, whose leaves were still clinging to the branches. They were tinted between rust and gold and when the tank in front of our Corvette roared beneath, the exhaust blew the leaves off of a lot of the limbs. As the leaves fell, they were momentarily captured by a gentle breeze and sailed one way, and then another.

As we went on, I thought about me, sitting up there, being honored for something I am not sure I have earned or ever will. But those leaves gently falling to the street made me think of the men I served with who didn’t make it home: Furlong and Kent, Aldrich and Rash, McRae and a lot of others whose names I don’t remember or didn’t know.

And I decided that those leaves were the souls of those men falling down around me, saying that it was okay for me to be up there on the back of that Corvette, representing them.

Thanks to General Walt Smith, Vicki Lindgren and all the other folks who made the 2017 parade a big success.

***

In other news about BRAVO!, Betty and I attended a screening of BRAVO! at Idaho’s Nampa Public Library on November 1, 2017, hosted by librarian David Johnson. A great group of folks came to see the film. Often, as the intensity of the narrative thickens the air with a palpable tension, a few folks will get up and go out of the theater for a respite, but not that night. The audience was engaged. Glad to see young veterans and older ones, too, among the group. Thanks to David Johnson and the Nampa Public Library for all their efforts to make this event happen.

***

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,Eulogies,Khe Sanh,Marines,Other Musings,Vietnam War

October 27, 2017

Donna Elliott

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I bet it seems to our readers that all we ever do is post memorials, requiems, obituaries. I guess it’s inevitable since the Vietnam War is five decades past. The Vietnam Veteran generation is approaching its eighth and ninth decades of life. It only stands to reason that we would be announcing the passing of people important to the story of Khe Sanh and the siege.

Today we wish to remember Donna Elliott, the sister of a soldier who went missing in action on January 21, 1968, while on a mission to relieve the soldiers and Marines who were under attack at Khe Sanh Ville. Donna’s brother, Jerry, was a staff sergeant in the United States Army who was acting as a door gunner on one of the choppers that flew in under fire at Khe Sanh Ville. Donna spent much of her lifetime trying to locate his remains.

Donna was a writer and journalist, and a United States Army veteran, who passed on October 22, 2017 and will be interred tomorrow, October 28, in Mountain Home, Arkansas.

Donna E. Elliott

In April of 2012, we shared a guest blog from Donna about her search for Jerry. In memory of Donna and her brother, we are re-sharing her post:

Guest blogger Donna E. Elliott shares her essay, The Blade and the Cross, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund’s Essay Contest prize winner, excerpted from her book, Keeping the Promise (Hellgate Press, 2010).

On 21 January 1968, my brother, SSGT Jerry W. Elliott was declared Missing-In-Action in Khe Sanh, Vietnam. When the 55th Joint Task Force (JTF) investigated the loss site in 1999, his buddy, Mike Teutschman and I were present. After interviewing two local residents who had scavenged the Old French Fort, the team presented me with a charred section of rotor blade from Black Cat #027. The blade had survived a B-40 rocket attack, laid undiscovered in the red dirt of Khe Sanh until found by a farmer, and then spent years holding up the corner of a cow pen. Jerry had left his position as doorgunner on a different chopper to assist survivors from this crashed and burning helicopter when he disappeared.

I brought it back to America. May 2000, found us in the Pentagon parking lot with Run For The Wall, waiting to ride in the Rolling Thunder parade and carry the rotor blade in a pine box to the Wall. Many notables mingled with the bikers, but I never knew the name of the man I remember the most. He stared at the blade for a long time before he spoke. He was one of two survivors from a chopper crash. The other crewmember had managed to return to the crash and recover a small piece of stainless steel from the helicopter, which he used to make two crosses. The vet reached into his pants pocket and a small piece of silver flashed in his palm. He explained this cross was never out of his sight; he carried it with him at all times as a reminder of the friends he had lost. Tears welled up in his eyes when he choked out, “I don’t know why I didn’t die that day; they were all such good men.” Around noon, the lead bikes began to roll out. As soon as the wheels stopped turning, strong hands reached out to carry the heavy wooden box to its final destination at Panel 35E in an honor guard procession. One by one, the riders touched Jerry’s name with bowed heads as a silent statement of respect. Overwhelmed, I left the Wall. Like a moth to a flame, I later returned. While bending over the pine box, which now overflowed with miscellaneous mementos, I lost my balance and leaned into the Wall to break my fall.

Donna Elliott at the Wall, 2000

That’s when I saw it. Tucked deep into a corner of the pine box was the small silver cross! For reasons unknown, the Vietnam vet from the parking lot had chosen to leave his talisman at the Wall in remembrance of Jerry. His gift an anonymous, selfless act, reminiscent of actions I’d heard combat vets share about their brother soldiers on the battlefield. I placed the cross on one end of the blade, where it gleamed boldly. I hope my nameless friend from the parking lot walked away from the Wall that day with as much peace in his heart as I felt at that moment.

Donna E. Elliott, a retired military photojournalist, values the peaceful surroundings of the family farm in the Arkansas Ozark foothills. In civilian life, she utilized her writing skills as a newspaper and radio news reporter, and freelanced as a human interest photojournalist. While in service, she earned the U. S. Army Command FORSCOM 4th Estate Award and three Minaret awards for excellence in journalism. Donna is a member of the Military Writers Society of America.

Used with permission of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (www.buildthecenter.org/) and Donna E. Elliott.

You can read Donna’s obituary here.

And you can find out more about her book, KEEPING THE PROMISE, here.