Bravo! The Project - A Documentary Film

Archive for July, 2011

Skywalker Ranch

July 31, 2011

The Road to Skywalker Ranch

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Whether speaking metaphorically or literally, the road to Skywalker Ranch is laden with surprises. On a metaphorical plane, Betty and I marvel at the path that led us here . . . the bold idea for the film, the idea’s rapid implementation, but most importantly, the people we have worked with and with whom we will work. Twists and turns and surprises at nearly every juncture, and mostly pleasant, even exhilarating surprises. Like topping a humdrum, dry-season summit and having to catch your breath because of the towering copses of green trees, cacophonous bleats and rattles of wild animals and the chirps and peals of strange birds.

The road to Skywalker itself, the literal one, after turning off US Highway 101, is twisting and turning, up and down, curves masked by groves of live oak, madrone and laurel trees. As we near the Ranch, magnificent stands of Redwood trees, Sequoia sempervirens, line both sides of the road. Huge stones jut out of the golden grass of midsummer in this coastal forest ecoregion. The actual gate to Skywalker Ranch is unassuming, almost nondescript. You’d miss it if you didn’t know exactly where you were going.

When we went to San Antonio to interview the majority of the Marines in July 2010, we had no inkling that Skywalker would be one of the final destinations on the road to production of the film. We were sweaty and hot, anticipatory, even a little tremulous as we debarked our flight in San Antonio with Mark Spear and asked our questions, got our answers, got surprised, ate lots of great Mexican food in the ninety-eight-degree heat.

After Texas, when we went to Ann Arbor, Michigan and Washington, DC, or to Brown County, Indiana and Springfield, Illinois, Iowa City, Iowa, Omaha, Nebraska, the surprises continued to rear up and flash their brilliant neons.  Now, after Skywalker, where will the road lead us?

This evening we took a walk to inspect the Skywalker premises. The glass in the windows, the red brick in the Tech Building, the ivy on the walls, huge garden, rush-encircled pond, the veranda on the Main House, the covered bridge, the fitness center, the deer, the wild turkeys, olive trees, cattle, California Bay trees, apricots, corn, sunflowers, the swallows flitting across the skyline as the light from the setting sun striated in vertical lines, the late rays breaking over the top of a western butte. Like knowledge streaming into our brains.

Tomorrow we will begin working with John Nutt and Mark Berger and the spirit of Obi-Wan Kenobi, lost in the types of moments when Betty and I feel like we are barely holding on to a dream become reality, but the reality is big and broad and smiles like the mouth of the Sacramento as it empties from the Carquinez Straights into San Francisco Bay. After that, whence?

Khe Sanh Veteran's Reunion

July 26, 2011

On Rochester, MN

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Betty and I arrived in Rochester, MN with anticipation caught up beneath our lungs like gear jammed in a rucksack. What would these men of Bravo Company think about seeing themselves rendered on film like we had seen them…exposed, frightened, defiant, brave and glorious.

We were nervous. Excited. Even a little fearful.  Weather veered from hot and muggy to cool and windy, to rain, to overcast. The strawberry pannenkoeken were delicious, the Minnesota accents like cue balls clicking off the sides of nine balls. The Mayo Clinic loomed gigantic across the street and beckoned people from all over the world; all religions, and colors. The burkas, the kangas, the cowboy boots.

Every time I leave one of these Khe Sanh Veterans’ reunions I say I’ll never go to another. I have nothing in common with the other attendees but for the past experience of sitting in red mud waiting for the next NVA mortar to arrive. Waiting to live or die. Who needs those memories? Not that we don’t deal with thoughts and fears of the gulf between life and death all through our lives. But in our normal lives, life and death’s urgency gets kicked to the back of the six-by while we deal with traffic and bosses and spouses, children, the dog and cat, cleaning the garage. But at Khe Sanh, the conflict between living and dying clutched our throats moment to moment to moment. Like the hot breath of an Indochinese tiger pursuing us down the trail through a bamboo thicket.

We have nothing in common, nothing in common except….

But then the reunion date approaches and I become anxious and begin to remember forty-three years past and I begin to remember the reunion the prior year. Some men die between reunions, and I didn’t get to spend enough time with them. Some men don’t come back to the reunion, something made them angry, an incautious word may have stabbed them like a bayonet. It hurt. Some of us show up as if we are seeking things we lost and cannot find. As summer approaches, I need to move. I am drawn like a chunk of slag to a magnet.

As we showed the latest cut of Bravo! to the interviewees, I felt my heart hammer in my chest. Will they like it? Will they hate it? Will they hate us for exposing them? Did we get the story right?

I think we did. Most said so. Some acted as if we had released over forty years of pent-up rage and fear. Some said very little. Betty and I choose to believe it was a success. We pleased the ones who mattered most.

Later, we showed it again to the greater membership of the Khe Sanh Veterans. I had similar fears, and different ones, too. Would they be angry because we didn’t include them in the movie? Would they find it credible? Again, the response was generous. Men and women had tears in their eyes; they gave hugs of gratitude to Betty and me. Not that some men didn’t have issues. They did, and if they didn’t I would wonder if the movie was really effective.

So now we are back home in Boise, getting laundry done and bags packed for the next leg of Betty and Ken’s fantastic journey. On to Skywalker Ranch, Marin County, CA to do the final sound mix.

I think we are almost finished with the movie. I hope so. I need to get shed of the nightmares this movie inserts into my dreams. Now we just need to get it seen.

Khe Sanh Veteran's Reunion

July 20, 2011

Live From Rochester, MN

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Betty and I arrived at the Kahler Grand Hotel this evening. Rochester is choked in a heat wave we hope will break tomorrow. Across the street, the portals to the Mayo Clinic. The Clinic is a major force in this corner of Minnesota, and in medicine, a force in many other places. An interesting anecdote to the Mayo is that both Betty and I have relatives who were founding partners here. For Betty: Augustus Stinchfield, for me: Melvin Millet. The world may be populated by billions of folks, but in some regards the tentacles of the past and the present mingle in our lives in interesting and mysterious ways. Friday morning we show the latest cut of Bravo, Common Men, Uncommon Valor, to the interviewees and guests and donors, and in the afternoon, to other invited Khe Sanh Veterans. Both of us are apprehensive and excited and relieved, all at the same time.

Had dinner with old warrior mates this evening at Victoria’s Ristorante and Wine Bar. A lot of funny yarns about boot camp and early experiences at Khe Sanh.

Tomorrow the weather is supposed to break in a good way. Other mates will show up. The memories good and bad will erupt and things I had forgotten will flash inside my recall. Things I thought I saw will be proven false. Things I thought I saw and then rejected will prove to have happened. Oh, memory. You are a fickle faculty.

Khe Sanh

July 16, 2011

On Red Clay and March 30, 1968

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Our readers who are not veterans of the many combat actions in and around Khe Sanh, Vietnam, may be interested to know that there is an organization of Khe Sanh veterans that hosts an annual reunion, sponsors scholarships for college educations and produces a regular journal titled Red Clay. The ground around Khe Sanh was that particular ferric-laden clay that sticks to everything and stains a bloody red. Red clay was one of the salient features of Khe Sanh that still lives on in the memories and dreams of those who struggled to get out of there alive.

In the latest issue of Red Clay, the editor, Mr. Tom Eichler, included a number of articles about Bravo Company. The list includes a reprinted newspaper article from Marysville, California about the movie Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor, discussion and information on what has been called the Ghost Patrol that occurred on February 25, 1968 and an article written by Ken Pipes, the former commanding officer of Bravo Company during the siege and one of the men interviewed for the movie. Titled, “With Bayonets Fixed KHE SANH—30 March 1968,” which Lt. Colonel Pipes wrote some years back, the piece tells the story of Bravo Company Marines on March 30, 1968, which is also an event chronicled in some depth in the film.

Last week, I received a telephone call from Charles Davis, Lt. Colonel, USMC Retired. Lt. Colonel Davis was the S-3 officer for the 1st Battalion, 26th Marines and was tasked, as I understand it, with planning the event on March 30th. He told me that Fred McEwan, Colonel, USMC Retired, the commanding officer of 1/26 at the time and he, Lt. Colonel Davis, had been discussing Ken Pipe’s piece and thought that Ken had been overly modest about his contributions that day, and Lt. Colonel Davis sent me his thoughts.

Lt. Colonel Davis told me I could use his information if it helped our project and I thought I might quote some of what he had to say about Ken Pipes as Bravo Company’s commanding officer on that nasty, brutal and glorious day, 30 March, 1968. As for the plan he and his S-3 staff prepared for the day, Lt. Colonel Davis said:

…(it) contained some of the most extremely difficult and complicated maneuvers found in the small unit tactics handbook: movement to contact under cover of darkness coupled with a planned linkup prior to the attack. All of this occurred with a backdrop of continuous supporting fires from every weapon available to a Marine Infantry Battalion, as well as some borrowed from other services in the area. Normally a unit in the attack would use only one source of fire support at a time. In this raid 105’s, 155’s, 175’s, 4.2 mortars, 81MM mortars and Air were used to isolate the battlefield from the bulk of the enemy forces and our attacking company to maneuver within the defined area of concentration. This tactic required careful adjustment by the unit in the attack to prevent friendly casualties.

So, what we hear from Lt. Colonel Davis is that the plan was very difficult to institute and that Ken Pipes’ leadership was a key factor in its being implemented so successfully. More words on the matter from Lt. Colonel Davis:

A plan of attack such as the one Ken and his troops were asked to undertake would normally only be attempted after numerous rehearsals with well seasoned, experienced troops (a la Seal Team 6 in the bin Laden raid). Nothing about Khe Sanh was normal and therefore the question needs to be asked, why was the raid so successful? Ken, in his usually modest and unselfish attitude, attributes the success to those under him as desire for revenge and the efforts of his Officers and Staff NCOs. While I would never take anything away from their contributions, I would submit Ken’s strong will, military skill and determined leadership was the final factor that carried the attack to its successful completion… He led from the front. When the enemy using “imitative deception” briefly shut down fire support that allowed them to fire several mortar rounds, almost wiping out Ken’s command group and wounding Ken, he refused evacuation, continuing the attack. Even the loss of his artillery FO, Hank Norman, and his radio operator did not deter Ken from continuing the attack. (A key critical element in the planning of what should have been a Battalion raid was to make up for the lack of manpower with massive use of all available supporting arms.) Though painfully wounded, Ken strapped on the radio, coordinated the fire support and led the attack simultaneously. In fact, Ken even personally dispatched several enemy who attacked while Ken was overseeing evacuation of dead and wounded Marines. During the planned withdrawal, Ken was the last to leave the battlefield.

Those of us who served with Ken Pipes know that he was an exemplary commanding officer. In the best tradition of the United States Marine Corps, he led his men, as Lt. Colonel Davis says, “from the front.” When you are a Private, a PFC, a Lance Corporal, a Corporal, and you see your officers and staff non-commissioned officers leading you “from the front,” it makes it easier to charge into the breach of harm’s way and take the fight to your enemy, because that kind of leader shows you how effective combat needs to be accomplished under conditions of extreme difficulty.

And to those of us who served with Ken, we also know that he had other characteristics not always attributed to Marine Corps officers; he genuinely cared about his men and their concerns, he spent time with them on an individual basis, and he had and still has empathy. Lt. Colonel Pipes was awarded a Silver Star for his actions on March 30, 1968.

And for those of us who still survive those days in Khe Sanh, he still leads from the front.

On a separate note, next week Betty and I are on our way to Rochester, Minnesota to the Khe Sanh Veterans reunion. While there, we are going to show the movie, as it is now, to the men we interviewed. After that, we are going to take our show to George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch in Marin County, California where we will do the final sound mix with our editor John Nutt and the man who will actually do the sound mix, Mark Berger. We have a goal of finishing this film by August 15, 2011. Then we encounter a whole new endeavor. Getting it out so the world will know the story of Bravo and the Siege of Khe Sanh and the Vietnam War, as the interviewees see it now, forty-three years on.

Guest Blogs

July 3, 2011

The Skipper Speaks

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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!

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.