I have often mused, over the years, about how the NVA went about their manpower buildup prior to the beginning of the Siege of Khe Sanh. They must have been assembling most of the summer, yet through late summer and fall and early winter of 1967, any sign of them was sparse. During those months Bravo Company generally skated in the getting-hit-by-the-enemy department. Which suited me. By the time I had been in-country for three months, I hoped I’d get out of there without ever seeing any of the lambast-smash-mouth of combat.
As I write this blog entry, it is mid October 2011. By mid October 1967, Bravo Company had begun preparing to occupy Hill 881 South to the west of the Khe Sanh Combat Base. Some of us who had been in Bravo for a while had spent time on Hill 881 South soon after the 1st Battalion, 26th Marines arrived in the Khe Sanh area in early May of 1967 after the hill fights. After patrolling in the vicinity of the combat base and operations to the east and southeast, Bravo assumed control of Hill 881 South from late May through June of 1967.
By October 1967, a large number of Marines who had served with Bravo rotated back to the States and a draft of young Marines arrived to replace them. I came off R & R the day before a typhoon struck and as the typhoon whipped and battered our tents, we holed up in our bivouacs for a day or two until the storm blew itself out. Then we saddled up and hiked up from the combat base, through Hill 861 onto Hill 881 South. At the time, as I recall, Bravo Company, at least the second platoon, was a mess. We had a new lieutenant who had yet to earn his chops, and the old lieutenant had left a lot of Marines with sour tastes in their mouths. We had a new company commander, too, who was trying to square us away.
And it rained and the wind blew and once we were established on Hill 881 South, our hooch roofs leaked and the leeches were everywhere and our fingertips were perpetually wrinkled. In our squad, Third Squad, we couldn’t find a squad leader who was competent enough to lead us. We kept getting new leaders. They kept failing. We went on patrol after patrol, wet from top to bottom, red mud soaked into our skin. The whole time, the commanding officer of Bravo, Captain Bruce Green was on our case, our platoon commander’s case. He rode us pretty hard.
On one patrol, Captain Green gassed us. He had repeatedly given orders to us to carry our gas masks. We went on a company minus patrol, and after a frustrating day of getting lost in thick fog, we took five on a hill northeast of Hill 881 South and he threw gas grenades in among us. I saw him preparing to do it, so the men in my fire team put on their gas masks, which they carried, so we weren’t as panicked as the other men in the patrol. It was like a herd of horses headed for the barn. Rag tag collections of Marines splattered over the muddy red landscape, up one hill and into a valley, up another hill and into a valley, until all of us, thank goodness, reported back to the hill. There was some butt chewing going on with Captain Green doing the chewing. We all carried our gas masks after that.
Under Captain Green, we patrolled long and hard, got in condition, got sniped at from the ridge to the west, spent many a night soaked out on ambush or listening post as rain water dripped dripped dripped off the tips of tree limbs, off the sharp, pointed ends of elephant grass.
On patrol we often ran into sign that the NVA was around, anecdotal evidence, footprints squished in the red mud, and here or there a cartridge from an AK-47, a 61 MM mortar round or two. But we had no idea what was to come, the buildup of the two-plus NVA divisions, the siege. We just thought they were units passing through on their way down to the flats, to Con Thien and Cam Lo, Dong Ha and Phu Bai, where the fighting had raged all summer and autumn long. We didn’t get into any firefights, but by the time Captain Green got promoted to Major and we had a new skipper, Captain Pipes, we were a bunch of seasoned, in-shape Marines.
All the while though, the NVA was building up and as I look back on it now, they were most likely often sitting in a tree line, watching us as we patrolled by them. I recall that sometimes, when I walked point, the sense we were being watched was palpable. We knew the enemy was very close at hand…I don’t know how we knew, we just knew from the way the hair stood up on our arms when we approached certain pieces of terrain, or the strange smells we encountered from time to time, the old scent of fire, or bad tobacco. And we looked for him because that was our job, but we did not stumble over him and I suspect that was because he chose not to be stumbled over. He was waiting for something bigger…the Siege of Khe Sanh. I often think about that patrol where Captain Green gassed us and I wonder how many NVA soldiers hid out there in the jungle grass and the triple canopy copses that hugged the ever-present streams. I wonder if instead of picking us off, one by one, or capturing us, they didn’t almost die laughing as we stumble-bummed our way back to the hill.
On a different note, next week we will submit Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor to two more film festivals, Tribeca in New York, and South-by-Southwest in Austin, Texas. Last week we screened the film to a group of local supporters here in Boise who could not see the film at our previous private showing. There were a lot of film people in the group, and as has been consistent throughout our screenings, they were impressed; they were moved by the movie. As a result of that screening, we have received an unsolicited request for a film “screener” from a documentary distributor—an unusual occurrence for first-time documentary filmmakers. Ooorah!