Bravo! The Project - A Documentary Film

Archive for October, 2010

Khe Sanh,Marines,Vietnam War

October 27, 2010

Old Voices

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Betty and I have been listening to a stack of oral interviews taped in 1968 concerning the siege of Khe Sanh. Cooks, truck drivers, Major Generals, Privates, ammo techs, armorers, artillery gunners, forward observers, grunts, Captains, Lance Corporals, intelligence staff, First Sergeants, Second Lieutenants, mortarmen, M-79 men, machine gunners, Corpsmen, radio operators, Lieutenant Colonels, and recon marines.

Listening to those voices from forty-two years past I ponder what they tell me now. I lived my own personal hell through the blasts and flashes, the shuddering felt through my own two jungle-booted feet anchored to the damp bottom of the trench, but after hearing these chilling tales, I realize there was more than one way to endure the siege. Trying to make coffee and pastries for the officers at Regiment while incoming pounded around you, wrecking your gas ranges. Trying to pull mortar rounds out of the ammo pit while incoming slammed into the adjacent ground, threatening to light up the whole ammo dump. Trying to call in artillery while bullets snapped by the side of your head. Trying to keep tires fixed after shrapnel has shredded them. Keeping the undetonated incoming enemy rounds cleaned out of the gun pits so your guys could shoot your big stuff back at the bad guys.
Betty and I listened to rationales for tactics, strategies, not saving this patrol, that position, why it was okay for some men to die for the greater good. Like those recon patrols that ran out from Khe Sanh before the siege began. Eight-man teams, no helmets, light weapons, a radio, a lot of tools to signal someone if you were in trouble. Out to our bastion on 881 South then into the jungle, maybe by chopper, maybe in a larger patrol of grunts , maybe by sneaking out at night, onto a trail through the head-high jungle grass that loved to find exposed flesh and slice, slice, slice.

A testy business, recon, running into large groups of the enemy and having to try and hide, or run away, getting shot in the back, leaving comrades’ bodies behind for another day (that’s a bitter salt tablet to bite into), sitting in tight 360s back to back to back to back firing away at the onrushing North Vietnamese soldiers intent on murdering you.

We ventured up to the spiny ridge on 881North (not 881 South where we lived in muddy bunkers, but 881 North, which was never occupied by the Marines) a number of times in my tour. I always seemed to be on point as we approached, the refuse of the big battle fought there in May 1967 evident. Maws of shell holes and bomb craters, the bush stunted. Snaggle-toothed trees on top of the ridge which reminded me of a razorback the way it cut at right angles to our search and destroy missions. On the demon’s spine, I knew, knew, knew, Charlie the Killer hid there, his machine guns, his AK 47s aimed right at my Adam’s apple. I could feel it. But no, they never raked us with enfilade fire. They stayed secluded in their spider holes like tarantulas, waiting. The sky was usually dotted with clouds and the place smelled of mud and mold and damp. A lot of men died on 881 North and the adjacent hills and valleys. I just patrolled around it, over it, climbed it, set up perimeters on it, ate beefsteak and potatoes cooked over a heat tab on it. Smoked Lucky Strikes and Camels and maybe Pall Malls on it. Got soaked.

The last time I was up there was on a patrol on Christmas Eve, 1967. The day started foggy but broke clear. We patrolled up 881 North, down the backside and in the direction of the DMZ. I drank water out of a creek that slithered over tiny flat rocks. The corpsman threatened to write me up for not using Halozone. “You’ll get liver flukes and they’ll eat your liver up.” I drank more and cursed him under my breath. I drank more just to show him—show him what? I don’t know.

We walked around fresh bomb craters with red mud shoved up as if giant subterranean dinosaurs had been at work. The trees hung over the trail and the jungle grass attacked us the same as every other day. No rest for our wicked butts, no rest because of Christmas. The same every day, patrols, patrols, fog, rain-soaked utility blouses, red mud stains on the skin, rain-soaked toes, mist. I wished for a cobra, a krait to show up in the trail and threaten one of us, maybe me. Some life . . . some life besides the deadly boredom of waiting, waiting for the surprise, waiting to die.

That night, Christmas Eve, back on 881 South we stood 100-percent due to a red alert even though there was a Christmas truce. Charlie the Killer probed around outside the wire. Fog choked the black morning after midnight and we couldn’t have seen Charlie if he’d been sitting ten feet from us.

Christmas day arrived magnificent, like Jesus coming out of His tomb, shards of dawn raking the grove-mottled ridges, the trees with their tops blown off. I led a five man fire-team-sized patrol down around the west side of Hill 881 South along the creek that bubbled and sang in the canyon. An easy patrol, only the imprints of unfamiliar boots in the mud, and here and there unusual ammo pressed into wet, red, muddy spots. Not like the times we patrolled in floods when men were swept down the canyon caroming off boulders as big as stateside houses, or the time the Hueys mistook us for Charlie and pinned us down as they circled around and around like voracious raptors intent on making a kill. They fired rockets and hot snaps from their nasty little mini-machine guns that brrrrrped, brrrped at us as the tracers lit up the dark spots beneath the bluffs. Mr. Dillon on the radio screaming “Cease fire. Cease fire. We are friendlies. We are friendlies.” Hidden beneath the lips of huge stones and roots as old as the Renaissance, we did not miss the balky, twisted humor there—friendly fire. But not this Christmas morning patrol . . . just a heated argument between me and Sergeant Deedee about grids and coordinates and clicks and trails and how best to follow the map from checkpoint to checkpoint.

After we struggled through the slick mud and ascended 881 South, hot chow arrived from the cooks at Khe Sanh. The choppers (our friends this day) whap-whapped onto the LZ with just-cooked turkey and ham, and mashed potatoes and gravy and dressing and green beans and hot rolls and pie and ICE CREAM (even though it melted by the time we got to eat it).

We left Hill 881 South the next day, after our two month stay up there, and dreamed of never having to ascend Hill 881 North again, and not long after this, Recon started getting their butts kicked out there on a daily basis. Ones, and twos and threes, they died out there in thick copses of tall hardwoods and the head-high jungle grass and the big red bomb craters. And with their dying, way down where one cannot deny what one knows, we knew it would not be a surprise. But we didn’t want to know it, so we acted like we didn’t. And ate our chow, and went on patrol and waited for . . . what? The greater good?

Other Musings

October 15, 2010

Cinematography

Working on film reminds me of working on written stories. You gather a lot of informational threads, stimuli from a number of different areas and then braid them together into a creation that has a fetching beginning, a plot with rising action, and an epiphany (or climax) that you hope will shock your reader or viewer’s eyeballs, clang their ear drums.

It’s strung together, then cut and pasted, and honed and sharpened and deleted and added to. The big difference is that one craft requires only words while the other requires words, video, music, and other types of sound and film.

Thank goodness for film editors and videographers. I know the story of Bravo!, and I know the characters who endured and survived, but it takes a technician to put it all together so that it runs like sand out of an hourglass—smooth.

Betty and I have had the pleasure of working with Mark Spear in that regards, as well as on a healthy part of the video shoots. We also have had other help from Drew Allen and Brian Crowdson and Jesse Hassler, as well as Betty herself, who shot three interviews while on our trip back east.

Today we are putting our trailer (preview) up on YouTube and Vimeo for anyone to view. The players in the trailer are the men we interviewed in San Antonio in July, 2010, at the Khe Sanh Veterans annual reunion. The other five men we interviewed on our journey across America, plus Boise State University’s Dr. David Walker (whom we will interview later in our process) are not in the trailer but will get full exposure in the film.

As I watched this 2-minute and 35-second piece, I felt my pulse race a little, and I suppose that’s for a number of reasons. I was looking at the fulfillment of a dream, a promise I made to myself 42 years ago after leaving Khe Sanh that this was a story I needed to tell. I helped make this snippet of film. I helped conceive it. And now I was looking at it. Shuddering, then feeling sad. Yet laughing once or twice—that old black humor from Khe Sanh still lives!

Watching the trailer, I also marveled at all the work that went into making just 2 minutes and 35 seconds of film and for a moment felt dismayed that we need to fashion 90 minutes of the real, living film. But then I got excited…it’s like imagining a novel or long short story. Something pithy and moving, scary and humorous, palpable, clutchy and gnawing at your insides. A piece of art waiting to be created. A piece of history; a movie. So onward. We move onward.

You can look at our video trailer at YouTube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FFUJyUmB9Yw or Vimeo at http://vimeo.com/15870694.

Semper Fidelis

Rodgers

Other Musings

October 4, 2010

Abandoned

Last Monday, Betty and I met military historian and former Marine, Dr. David Walker, at Boise State University.  We inspected potential locations for filming him talking about both the general and specific strategies employed by the U.S. military in the Vietnam War and the battle of Khe Sanh. We are most interested in hearing what he has to say about the reasoning behind why United States Marines and supporting personnel were placed in a location such as Khe Sanh—tough terrain to defend, isolated, triple-canopy jungles, rough and wet country hard by the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

One of the most poignant topics that emerged in our interviews with Khe Sanh survivors was why after less than ninety days after the siege ended, the military decided to leave and destroy the combat base regardless of thousands of death (both US and Vietnamese), damage, wounds and general mayhem that occurred there during its defense. Much of the literature I read suggests the destruction of Khe Sanh on July 5, 1968 by the United States military was an abandonment.

Abandonment, abandonment. An interesting word. It has similar sounds and emotional ties to a lot of other war-like words: bayonet, batter, bastion, banner. But it also has one big difference.  There is a sense of retreat, surrender, giving up. I know after all these years, none of this should matter, but as I sit here and bang these keys, I cringe.

I recall the day I heard we’d abandoned Khe Sanh. I was home in Casa Grande, Arizona, on leave. Most likely owned a hangover. Got a cup of Folgers and the Arizona Republic. Lit up a Camel. I don’t recall if it was a headline on page one, or if it was July 5 when I found it out. Maybe it was on page two, or three, maybe even page five.  Maybe it was July 10 or July 15. It may have been down in section two, buried in all the words, the photos, the small ads for storage units, used cars, and pet care. Like it was of little significance. I vaguely recall reading some statistics about casualties, how many tons of bombs were dropped, how many artillery rounds fired. And then it was abandoned.

I most likely had the Johnny Walker or Jose Cuervo shakes that morning. I don’t remember for sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised. But I do recall the way my stomach fell through the bottom of my body when I read about that particular abandonment. For a long moment it all came back: incoming, the thud and crush, the splatter and gash, the red, the red, the night, the black, the stink of dead North Vietnamese out there stacked up in ravines. My fear, man oh man. All that fear. And just like that, in the paper, abandonment.  Not a word about my fear, the fears of all of us, our longings, and the way we had to grip the muscles in our stomachs and just go on. No end, no end at all.  Incoming mortars, sniper fire, a man you’d known for thirteen months suddenly laid out on the table at Graves Registration, and a man you’d know for three days, right there next to him. And  for what? For abandonment?

As we conducted our interviews for Bravo!, the July 5th abandonment of Khe Sanh kept jumping into the conversation and I caught increments of bitterness.  They hung in the air like bad smoke, an acrid taste not to be discarded. Along with the essential question, “Why?”

I recall my high school journalism teacher, Mike Telep (a former Marine seriously wounded on Saipan in World War II), saying something to me about writing news stories. Who, how, when, where, what, but never why, because why is too subjective.

And that’s where Dr. Walker comes in…to explain the cold realities of global and theater-wide strategy in the Cold War, in the Vietnam War. Maybe we will get a why we can live with.

Nevertheless, the innate tension between intense personal agony and intense impersonal strategy becomes clear in the scenario for this documentary. I know when I think about the abandonment of Khe Sanh it still rankles me, jangles my spine. Makes my face turn a little red and sitting here writing this, now, I ponder who and what got abandoned on that day, July 5, 1968. And know I best not ponder why.

Speaking of being hard by, we are close to having a movie trailer (preview) and will soon run it up on the Web for everyone to see. Then it’s on to putting the film together. If you know of anyone who might like to help get this story made, please refer them to our website (http://www.bravo!theproject.com) where they can find more specific info about how they might assist with the making of Bravo!

Semper Fi