I spend most of my time working on the film, Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor. As I do, my memory of experiences during the Siege of Khe Sanh keep simmering and bubbling. One of the salient parts of the film, and my memory, is what the surviving Marines and Navy Corpsmen of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment have named “Payback.”
Tomorrow, March 30, 2012 is the 44th anniversary of the only bayonet charge, as far as I know, in the entire Vietnam War.
The mist hung thick that morning, March 30, 1968, cloaking everything in its damp clutches except for the artillery and mortar fire that kaboomed through the fog and the muffled jingle and creak of our gear.
We eased outside the wire barrier in front of our lines and set up for an assault of a fortified NVA battalion in their trenches. Then the command came down from the Skipper. “Fix Bayonets.”
For Marines, the command, “Fix Bayonets,” is one that sobers; cleans out all thoughts of home, girl friends in the back seats of blue Buicks, mothers baking chocolate chip cookies and sisters fighting for TV time. At that moment, for Jarheads, memories strain to recall the training: stabs, thrusts, slashes, vertical butt strokes. Hearts hammer like reports of fifty-caliber machine guns. Tongues and mouths grow suddenly parched.
As hard as I try to remember that March 30, 1968 command, “Fix Bayonets,” I can’t. Most of the other men who survived that assault remember the words being passed down from Skipper Ken Pipes to radio man Tom Quigley, who passed it on to the three platoons of Marines. I was a radio operator on that day, so I must have heard the command.
I suppose my inability to remember indicates the vehemence of what followed that command from the Skipper. My mind probably doesn’t want to remember those words. But it does recall, in some detail, the hours of battle that followed: vehement and bloody and vicious and exhilarating.
March 30, for a lot of the Marine combatants who fought that day, including myself, was the culminating event that punctuated the Siege of Khe Sanh. It was, in a number of ways, getting even; getting even for the deaths of our brothers on the February 25th “Ghost Patrol,” for our brothers killed and maimed at other times, for the lack of sleep and lack of chow and the lost weight and the fear…yes the fear…that rent us top to bottom. We were out there on March 30 for other reasons both tactical and strategic, yes. Yet for the snuffies who did the fighting, it was about getting even, whether we could articulate those emotions or not. And we got even. Here, 44 years later, that event, that bayonet charge, that in-the-trenches-satchel charges-flame thrower-hand-to-hand combat event, is known as “Payback.”
Not that the NVA didn’t get their licks in, because they did. Bravo Company took casualties that day. A lot of casualties. But in the give and take, take this, take that atmosphere of close-in combat, we kicked ass. It was payback.
When the siege began in late January 1968, for me it proved an exciting introduction to incoming, assault and danger. Heady stuff, adrenalin zapping the nerve endings, my thrilled innards lifted as if they were mortar rounds thumped into the never-ending. The January 21st initial attack and the ten days that followed were new, and compared to what would follow, subdued, and a fight most of us survived. I had no inkling that the siege would endure right up until March 30 and “Payback” and even beyond, into April.
February 1968 was the battering month for the men at Khe Sanh. We came to understand the horrors of combat. It was what we sought, I believe, in queuing up to be Marines. A test. A blooding. A chance to prove we were the match of our fathers and our uncles and our cousins who bled on the beaches of places like Iwo Jima and in the frozen hills of Chosin Reservoir. But I doubt any of us owned an idea of war’s true ferocity when we enlisted.
When I remember February 1968, that old adage comes to mind: Be careful what you wish for. You wish to prove you are among the brotherhood of the finest light infantry the world has ever known. Finding out that you are, or aren’t, is an onerous test. A deadly test. That was February, a deadly test…a test of physical stamina, mental stamina, spiritual stamina. February was the month of all-day artillery attacks, the fall of Lang Vei and the patrol of the 25th, the “Ghost Patrol.”
For us on the sidelines on February 25th, hearing those tortured hours, the loss, lives with us still. Time tends to dampen the power of emotion, but the infamous moments of February 25th still make my guts curl up and hide.
Yet my reaction now is nothing like it was my first thirty years after February 25th. For those thirty years my soul shrunk every time I thought of the foggy mist, the sounds of dying, the men of 3rd Platoon. I recalled smash-boom-blast of artillery, wounded and dead men carried inside the wire…not in a Marine Corps battle formation, but ones and twos, over hours and hours; I cringed, I felt like a failure. Even though the decision not to relieve the men of the “Ghost Patrol” was made way up the chain of command at regiment, division, or maybe (if rumor can be believed) in Lyndon Johnson’s war room, I still believe we let those men down. Marines relieve their embattled brothers, Marines don’t leave Marines behind. We let them down; me…even now, I believe, I let them down.
March was the month of reality whipping us again and again, as we lost men in front of the lines and behind the lines, eating chow, sleeping, flying in and flying out. Had enough bone-bending fright? Think you can’t go on anymore? Well, here’s some more, we will bash and batter you into minutiae.
And so, what happened on March 30 was a chance to recoup and get even, a chance to make a bullet point statement, a bayonet charge, a red blood and bone smash declaration…”Payback.”