The man who commanded Bravo Company at Khe Sanh, Ken Pipes, Lt. Colonel, USMC Retired, muses on events at the siege, as well as subsequent events.
I have been told by a small number of those that I love deeply and by many acquaintances—some of whom had no military service in their background—to get over thinking and talking of those days at Khe Sanh and Northern I Corps. “You just need to put those 13 months behind you and get on with your life. After all, it was so long ago!” I have often thought: no, not so long ago, especially late at night…perhaps only yesterday. For those that I care about I explain that first of all I don’t want to forget as it would be a great disservice to those with whom I served in 1967 and 1968: Bravo Company, First Battalion, 26th Marines. More importantly, it would be a deliberate—and represent the absolute ultimate—disrespect shown to those who gave their lives so that others, like me and my family, could continue to live and enjoy ours. Finally, I could not and cannot forget, ever!
Then there are the coincidences that have happened since 1968 that are more than random occurrence. For example, there is a clock of black lacquer that has been sold nationwide for many years. It has the statue of three bush grunts (one of the big attractions at the Wall in D.C.) superimposed upon the names of an unmarked section of that sacred black marble. Sharon and I were at the Pendleton uniform shop when I first noticed it 25 or more years ago. Out of curiosity I looked closely at it and was staggered–almost going to my knees. That unmarked section of this nationally distributed work of art contained the names of those lost by our Company on 25 February 1968. Forget? I don’t hardly think so! Don, Mac, Ken and Brellentin, Laderoute and the other Brave Marines who fell that day, and the day itself, came rolling back. They are with me now!
More than 30 years ago, while working my second job following my retirement from the Marine Corps, I returned home one evening and the phone rang. When I picked up the phone a voice on the other end said, “Bet you don’t know who this is!” Instantly, I said, “It is Ernie,” and it was! He wanted to know how the hell I knew. Because, as Company Commanders together at Khe Sanh we talked constantly on the radio, either back and forth or listening to each other as we monitored the Battalion Tactical Net, and still later when he was the Battalion S-2 and I was the Assistant S-3. I just knew, and the hair on the back of my neck stood up. How can you forget? I could not!
In the mid 1980s I went to a VA clinic located in Vista, California, seeking medical treatment. One of the counselors who assisted me noticed that I had served at Khe Sanh. He asked in what unit, and was amazed when I told him Bravo Company. His uncle had served in our unit at the same time. We exchanged messages through his nephew, but never directly talked on the phone. Still, I think this is more than a mere coincidence. At the same clinic sometime later I saw a gentleman who obviously had served in our Corps of Marines. His name was Jim, a retired postman in Oceanside who was very seriously wounded in action in the First Battle of the Hills. What a story he had to tell—he too, had not forgotten; we never will!
Still years and many phone calls later, the phone rang, again. When I picked it up, what turned out to be a beautiful and wonderful lady, Naomi, was on the line. She said she had an important favor to ask: Would Sharon and I come to her wedding to Jake the following week in Compton, California, as a surprise for her future husband? Remember, I had never met nor talked to this outstanding woman before and had not seen her future husband, Quiles Ray Jacobs, since we left Khe Sanh. What a reunion it was and how great it was to visit with Jake and to get to know the sweet lady that he married. As some of you know, Jake passed sometime ago from Agent Orange-related cancer. My friend Mike and I miss this powerful, gentle and Heroic Man, Marine and sterling Squad Leader, “Jake the Snake.” Who in their right mind could or would want to forget such a giant of a Warrior? Not Mike nor me—that is for sure!
One of the first of the Bravo Warriors to die the morning the Siege began was Steven Hellwig. Steve was in the Marines because he wanted to be; he was in Vietnam and at Khe Sanh because that is what he wanted. He was a communicator by choice and gained the respect of the other Platoon and Company Radio Operators because he, like my old comrade Tom, was a solid, calm professional and had a quick grasp of the situation. I reached him just after he passed. The story: another phone call, this time from his younger brother, Ray. He wanted to come to San Diego from their home in Seattle, Washington, to spend some time with us to discuss the passing and circumstances of Steve’s death. We met at MCRD in San Diego, spent most of the day talking about his brother, and that place and time at Khe Sanh some of us remember so well.
But it did not stop there. Less than a year after Steve’s death, Ray said that he enlisted in the Marines, graduated from Boot Camp, went to Comm School, to Vietnam and, would you believe, was assigned to First Battalion, 26th Marines and, if I remember correctly, as the Battalion Radio Operator assigned to Bravo Company. Ray did not volunteer for anything except his enlistment in the Corps. He was in the unit at the same time as the now well-known screenwriter, Bill Broyles. Bill unexpectedly came by our house in Fallbrook just a day or two before he went to Hollywood as he was nominated for an Academy Award for Apollo 13. As a side note, Steve Hellwig, Jr., enlisted in the Marine Corps about three years ago, was a gunner with tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is now back home and starting the next phase of his life. Like his Uncle Steven and his father, Ray, Steve Jr. carried on the family tradition of service in our Green Family. All this a coincidence—not for a minute of it, at least not in my mind!
At the beginning of the week, the last week in June, I overheard one person ask another just what good came out of that war. The response was, “Great advancements in emergency medicine.” To that I would add something equally important: The honor of staying in touch with men that I will never see the likes of again. Men of Honor, Courage and Commitment. We each have a second family—one our blood family sometimes finds hard to understand. In an unexplainable way, we love and care for each other—in a different but similar manner as the feeling we have about our wife and children. If it were not for the war, I would have never had the opportunity to meet and become Friends and Blood Brothers with such Warrior Giants as Mike, the Sgt. Major, Tom, Jake, Gilbert, Bruce, Steve, Pete, Matt, Bill, Ben, Ken, Dennis, Short Round and so many others! Oh yes, I almost forgot Craig—he was with us, helping defend our lines, fending off the barbarians.
Because of time and space constraints, I will close this heartfelt effort to explain that all that has happened to me and, I am sure with many others in Bravo Company, is not just happenstance. There is a power working that we all have yet to understand. Perhaps, in some way, Ken and Betty’s project may help as they shine a bright spotlight on what, until now, has been an untold story. Perhaps they will become “Speakers for our Dead?’ Just maybe, their effort will cross the chasm that separates us and those Cherished Companions at Arms who are no longer with us; their long silent story will finally be told.
In this vein and in closing, at the end of last month, several members of Bravo were invited to attend a memorial service sponsored by the Atlanta Vietnam Veterans Business Association. Guess who they randomly chose to honor: PFC Ted Britt, Killed in Action on 30 March 1968. His mother, who is still alive, and his younger brother, Tim Britt, Brigadier General, United States Army Reserve, with a tour of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan behind him, were the Guests of Honor. Several hundred citizens of Georgia were in attendance. The entire program left us with moist eyes and cracking voices. The music was provided by the Marine Band of the Logistics Base in Albany—every detail accomplished with a precision and professionalism that would have met the very highest standards expected at Marine Barracks, Washington, D.C. The Guest Speaker was Retired Marine Colonel H. Barnum, Medal of Honor. However, the real keynote address and tribute paid to PFC Britt was done by our own Lieutenant Pete Weiss and Bill Jayne. When these two members of Bravo Company concluded, there was not a dry eye in the area.
Bravo Company’s Ted Golab, Lieutenant Hank Norman’s Assistant FO, was also present. In fact, Ted and his wife Pat put me up for the time that I was in Atlanta. Ted, like Mike, is another unsung Hero of 30 March. When Hank passed, Ted and his radio operator moved to what was left of the Command Group and helped get our artillery support back in battery. Now it gets spooky and moves beyond coincidence—Ted leaned over to me and said that he and Ted Britt were born on the same day, same year, and were the exactly the same age when PFC Britt was KIA. For the details of the magnificent tribute of one of our own, Google the AVVBA and PFC Ted Britt. It will leave you spellbound–his posthumous Silver Star Citation is there for all to read.
What follows, I hope, will make a fitting end to this article and indicate my strong feeling that we must never forget! The few short lines came to me late one night some years ago, when my thoughts turned to that place and to that time that is so indelibly imprinted upon each of us!
YOU COMFORT US IN THE DARK OF NIGHT. WE SEE YOU IN THE EYES OF OUR CHILDREN.
YOU ARE BESIDE US IN THE SAFE, FORESTED TRAIL. YOU ARE ONLY A SMILE, A THOUGHT
AND A TEAR AWAY. OUR HEARTS ACHE FOR YOUR FAMILY EVEN TODAY. WE SPEAK PROUDLY OF
YOUR BRAVERY AT OUR ANNUAL GATHERING. YOU ARE THE BENCHMARK AGAINST WHICH ALL
ELSE IS MEASURED. REST IN PEACE AND HONOR, BRAVE RIFLES,
YOU ARE NEVER FORGOTTEN.
Ken Pipes is a retired Marine Corps officer who is beloved by the men he led at the Siege of Khe Sanh in the winter and early spring of 1968.
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