One of the things that has been resolved in the course of creating the film, Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor, is the questioning of my memory. When it comes to the Siege of Khe Sanh, I have questioned if I really saw this or that over the years. Maybe what I thought I saw on a particular occasion was something that someone else told me about and over a period of decades became my memory, my experience.
But over the last eighteen months, a number of things I thought I saw, and then discounted as the memories began to fade, have been rekindled as my special truths.
For instance: February 13, 1968.
The NVA (North Vietnamese Army) had a 57 MM recoilless rifle emplacement out in front of the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam—South Vietnamese Army) lines and harassed us (both the ARVNs and the Marines), sending their shells into our lines, scaring the hell out of us. Some men were hit, maybe some killed, and on February 13 the 37th ARVN Ranger Battalion sent out a six man patrol to silence that gun. Second Platoon—my platoon—of Bravo Company sent out a squad to back up that ARVN patrol.
By then I was a short-timer in Vietnam and the siege was really beginning to heat up. So as we wended our way outside the wire and down into the valley below the ARVN lines, I felt the cold fingers of fear squeezing my spine. I had a fire team to command and I had to keep my guard up so that I didn’t appear frightened. I tossed my usual bravado (which at that moment was pretty counterfeit) around like hand grenades.
We sat up in a bamboo thicket on a line perpendicular to a well used game trail that wore a lot of sign of human traffic too. The bamboo was so thick you couldn’t see two feet in any direction except back towards the trail. We all set in and began to look to our front, our sides, and our rear. I remember sweat on my upper lip as I licked my chapped lips.
The thicket was too quiet. Like nothing in the world was alive. Even though planes were taking off and landing not three hundred meters to our rear and artillery rounds and rockets were flying overhead into the NVA positions to our front and from the NVA into our trenches in the combat base. I remember my mouth was dry and I quickly drank a canteen of water. I wanted to smoke a Camel but feared the smell would draw someone to kill me. I looked for bamboo vipers and leeches. I looked for the enemy. I listened for him.
Suddenly gunfire erupted to my front. Men were yelling in Vietnamese and there was screaming like someone was in pain. At least one someone, maybe more. Unbeknownst to me, the ARVNs had ambushed the 57 MM recoilless rifle crew and killed most of the North Vietnamese, capturing the gun. In the course of the fight, the ARVN lieutenant in command of the patrol had been wounded and found himself isolated from his men. As they took casualties trying to rescue him, he killed himself so they wouldn’t have to endanger any more men. I didn’t know any of this then, I could only hear the racket and the gunfire and the screaming and soon I could hear someone coming back up the trail. With my M-16 ready, the safety clicked off, I watched as the ARVN patrol hurried by with the captured 57 MM weapon and some wounded men. They waved their arms as they moved by, jumping around and rapidly jabbering in Vietnamese.
Right after they passed through our position, we formed up and followed them into Khe Sanh Combat Base. I was the last man into the file, so I pulled tail-end Charlie all the way back waiting for the enemy to sneak up and shoot us.
Later that night, a runner came down from the platoon commander and ordered me to bring one of my fire team members with me up to the command bunker. The mist hung down like a mother’s breath on a child just found dead in the crib. Flares fired from 105 MM howitzers lit the night and clanked and squeaked on their parachutes as they floated towards the ground. You could hear them hiss as they burned, and their smoke trails snaked away in the nighttime breeze.
At the command bunker, two ARVN stood out in the trench with a shrouded body on a stretcher. The lieutenant told me to take them up to Graves Registration. At the time, I was under the impression that the corpse on that stretcher was an NVA officer, but now I believe it was that ARVN lieutenant who killed himself. Nevertheless, it was my duty, along with Furlong, or Foster, or O’Hara, or Horton (I do not remember who) to escort the Vietnamese soldiers and the corpse through our lines and into the middle of the base so that no one shot the ARVN troopers, thinking they were the enemy.
No lights. Thick fog. We stumbled around and responded to halts, who-goes-there from a number of positions—artillery units, cooks, motor pool outfits, and who knows who else—before we located Graves Registration. I walked in; the ARVNS close behind with their dead officer. As I talked to the NCO in charge, I heard the thump of feet running down a hall somewhere in the rear of the bunker. Suddenly a Marine burst out, looking back over his shoulder with his hands up like Green Bay Packer wide receiver, Boyd Dowler. A foot floated out from the corridor that the Marine had just vacated and dropped into his outstretched hands. As he caught the foot, he yelled, “Touchdown.”
It was ugly, macabre, sick, demented and pretty damned funny, or so I thought at the time, because I burst out laughing. Something we do to retain our humanity in moments of extreme horror, we laugh, joke, grin. Even to this day, I still smirk—I could say smile, but that is too beautiful a word for this occasion—when I think about that foot, which is quite often.
The ARVN Rangers we escorted to Graves Registration dropped the stretcher and vacated the premises. We laughed harder at that than at the foot flying into the hands of the pranking Marine mortician. Outside, I found them huddled in a niche of the trench, squatting like Vietnamese were prone to do. Like wild animals trapped in a cage, their eyes darted left and right as I approached. What little light could be captured from the night gleamed in the whites. We escorted the ARVNs back to Second Platoon’s command bunker, or we must have, because I retain absolutely no memory of what happened after seeing that night-gleam in their eyes.
On another note, we have been showing an almost finished version of the film to private invitation only screenings. The response has been…well…extremely gratifying.
You can see more about what is happening with Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor, at our Indiegogo cloudfunding site at www.indiegogo.com/Bravo-Common-Men-Uncommon-Valor. You can also find us on FaceBook at www.facebook.com/bravotheproject.
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