Today’s guest blogger, nationally recognized historian and journalist Gregg Jones, muses on the Siege of Khe Sanh.
In the autumn of 2010, I had just finished writing a nonfiction book about America’s rise to world power in the Spanish-American War and the subsequent colonial war in the Philippines that bedeviled Theodore Roosevelt’s young administration. While my editor read my manuscript, I began weighing possible subjects for my next book. I had spent years researching the death of my uncle and eight comrades on a B-24 bomber crew in World War II, and so that story was high on my list. At the same time, another subject called to me: America’s war in Vietnam.
My interest in the Vietnam War had its roots in my lifelong love of American history. Growing up in a small southeast Missouri town, the American Civil War had been my passion, and I had devoured books by Bruce Catton and Shelby Foote. I was nine years old in the summer of 1968 when we piled into our ’64 Chevy Impala for a family vacation to Washington, D.C. I persuaded my parents to stop at every Civil War battlefield in our path, but each day our journey into America’s past was jolted back to the present by newscasts and headlines about the widening war in Vietnam. As we walked through Arlington National Cemetery a few days later, we could not help but notice all the fresh graves. We watched in solemn silence as a flag-draped coffin passed the Custis-Lee Mansion on a horse-drawn caisson, and then, some minutes later, the sound of Taps echoed over the hallowed hills. Back home in Missouri, my family followed events in Vietnam on the CBS Evening News and in our local newspaper. Every so often, the paper wrote about some hometown boy who had died in America’s service in Indochina. Eventually, fourteen young men from my hometown of 15,000 people would never return.
Two years ago, as I began to seriously consider a book on the Vietnam War, I debated two questions: What should be my focus? And could I write something of lasting historical value? Three events occupied my thoughts: the battle for Khe Sanh; the Tet offensive; and the fall of Saigon. As a student of American military history, I had long been fascinated with the former two events. While I read everything I could about Khe Sanh, I initially decided to take a broader approach and chronicle the experiences of several men who fought in Vietnam in 1968.
Almost from the beginning, I found myself drawn deeper into the epic story of Khe Sanh.
Three Khe Sanh veterans—Michael O’Hara, Tom Quigley and Dennis Mannion–were my first interviews in the project. When I first contacted Michael, he was wary. He wanted to know who I was and why I wanted to write this book. They were fair questions, and I answered these and others in detail. I explained that I had been a Pulitzer Prize finalist in my 29 years as an investigative journalist and foreign correspondent, and I had spent 10 years in Southeast Asia.
I told Michael about the years of work I had done on weekends and holidays to unravel the mysteries of my uncle’s lost bomber crew, tracking down family members of the men and arranging for a memorial to be placed in the Austrian meadow where the bomber crashed on the afternoon of October 1, 1943. When I told him that the remains of my uncle and his comrades had been returned to the United States in early 1950 and buried in a group grave at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, he could barely contain himself. Michael had stood almost in that exact spot, paying tribute to several comrades from Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines. It turned out that some of the Marines killed in the “Ghost Patrol” of 25 February 1968 had been buried in a group grave just a few yards from my uncle’s crew.
Months passed and Khe Sanh continued to dominate my thoughts. Michael, Tom and Dennis shared their experiences and generously put me in touch with other men who had served there. I became an associate member of the Khe Sanh Veterans Association. Last summer, I drove up to Rochester, Minnesota, to attend the annual reunion as Michael’s guest.
Those three days I spent with the Khe Sanh veterans rate among the most memorable 72 hours of my life. I met some exceptional men and their families, and witnessed the extraordinary bonds that forever sustain Khe Sanh survivors. I spent hours recording the experiences of Ken Pipes and other Khe Sanh veterans like Ghost Patrol survivor Cal Bright. (I also witnessed some priceless karaoke performances by such iconic Khe Sanh Marines as Tom Eichler and Bruce “T-Bone” Jones.) I left Rochester inspired by these men. On the drive back to Texas, I resolved to focus my book on what the defenders of Khe Sanh had endured and achieved in those red clay hills in 1968.
Four weeks later, I handed my literary agent a 40-page proposal that laid out the book that had begun to take shape in my head—a narrative history of the epic battle for Khe Sanh, based on extensive interviews with enlisted men and officers who were there. My agent sent the proposal to a dozen top trade publishing houses in New York and Boston. There was immediate interest, but ten publishers eventually retreated to the tired conventional wisdom regarding books on America’s most unpopular war: We like the proposal, but Vietnam War books just don’t attract enough readers…. I wanted to say: Well, they should! Fortunately, two publishing houses believed in my vision for a new book about Khe Sanh. I settled on Bob Pigeon at Da Capo Press, who told me that he had long wanted to do a major book about Khe Sanh.
And so the project, now a book focused solely on Khe Sanh in 1968, took life.
The project timetable calls for me to deliver a manuscript to Da Capo by 31 December of this year. As of this writing, I have interviewed 52 men who served at Khe Sanh in 1968, and I will be speaking with many more in the coming days. I have been moved and inspired beyond words by the accounts I have heard, testaments to the camaraderie and indomitable spirit of the men who served at Khe Sanh. The great challenge I face in the months ahead is transforming these hundreds of hours of priceless interviews into a narrative worthy of these men and their service.
Among the powerful accounts I have gathered is that of a fellow writer who had been a young Marine rifleman from Arizona in 1968. Spending time with Ken Rodgers and his wife Betty at the Rochester reunion had been one of my personal highlights. I had become aware of their film, Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor, even before I began contacting Vietnam veterans. Later, Ken and Betty generously invited me to attend the private screening of their film with Bravo Company veterans. I thought I had steeled myself for the experience, but the power and raw honesty of Ken and Betty’s interviews swept away my defenses. I’ve never shed more tears than I did while watching the scarred survivors of Bravo Company speak of their experiences at Khe Sanh.
As I move ahead with my own modest effort to preserve the history of Khe Sanh, I am closely following Ken and Betty’s important work to bring Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor to a wide audience. Financially and emotionally, they put themselves on the line to make this film. It is an extraordinary piece of documentary art. Whatever your opinions of the war, the young Americans who served our nation in Vietnam deserve to have their stories told in movies like Bravo!, and in books like that which I hope to create. If I may paraphrase Ken and Betty’s powerful prologue, this is not a pro-war or anti-war statement. This is about what happened. And, as Americans and intelligent beings, we need to remember.
A Missouri native, Gregg Jones is the author of Honor in the Dust: Theodore Roosevelt, War in the Philippines, and the Rise and Fall of America’s Imperial Dream (New American Library/Penguin, 2012) and Red Revolution: Inside the Philippine Guerrilla Movement (Westview Press, 1989). He is currently writing a narrative history of the 1968 battle for Khe Sanh, which will be published by Da Capo Press in 2013. He was a Pulitzer Prize-finalist investigative reporter and foreign correspondent before writing books full time.
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