Bravo! The Project - A Documentary Film

Archive for January, 2013

Documentary Film,Khe Sanh,Marines,Other Musings,Vietnam War

January 25, 2013

Stringing Concertina

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It’s the time of the year when veterans of the Siege of Khe Sanh seriously reflect on events that led up to and occurred during the months of January, February, March and April 1968. That’s forty-five years ago. I remember watching television back in 1986/87 and hearing people talk about the 45th anniversaries of some of the darkest days of World War II; Pearl Harbor, Guadalcanal. I remember thinking, man, that’s a long time, forty-five years, but here we are, forty-five years since the events that trigger the most violent memories I own.

The actual big bangs of the siege of Khe Sanh began for me on January 21st, 1968, but my mind often goes back to events that occurred the day before.

My fire team rose early and we went on a work party to the south side of the combat base where we strung concertina wire barriers. As we worked, C-130s and C-123s and Caribous landed and six-bys hauled building materials and the pace of preparation for the anticipated North Vietnamese attack was furious.

Myself, I doubted we would see much action of any kind and I held that opinion, reason one, because we had been warned and warned and warned of impending attacks, none of which had come to pass, the boy-cries-wolf kind of situation, and reason two I now suspect was denial. I had been in Vietnam ten months and had managed to miss any kind of significant action and figured I should be able to skate my way right through the rest of the war without encountering significant danger.

That January 20th, 1968, as we pounded stakes into the ground and attached the concertina wire to the stakes and ran strands of barbed wire through the inside of the concertina, an unmarked Huey began to fly around with something attached to the bottom of a line hanging off the chopper. When it approached us, we could see that the thing hanging from the line was a man. The chopper dragged the man through the air and the tops of trees and as we watched, I don’t recall any one of us saying a word. No “What the hell’s going on?” or “Looks like motivation time for a prisoner of war.” Not a word. As if we were each out there on our own seeing something that only we could see, and about which we could not comment.

In 2010 when we interviewed the men whose words and memories are the backbone of our documentary film, BRAVO!, one of them brought up that chopper. When he brought it up he posed the subject in the form of questions, did I see it? and was it okay to talk about it? Was it okay to talk about it in 2010, forty-two years later? Why couldn’t we talk about it back then, in 1968? I recall that, thinking that. Why didn’t we talk about it in 1968?

I remember when I first remembered the event. In the mid 1990s. Not remembered every day of the last forty-five years as I have so much of what happened at Khe Sanh. I remembered that chopper with its special cargo twenty-seven years later. Why did I not think about it before then, and why didn’t I think about it more often?

The Marine I interviewed who brought up that scene…how should I phrase it?…seemed flabbergasted about what had happened that morning in January 1968. There was a man hanging on a line being dragged by a helicopter. Yeah, sitting in San Antonio, in the safety of time’s passing and a totally different place, we should have been flabbergasted. There was a man hanging on the end of that line who was probably going to die because he wouldn’t tell whoever was dragging him what they needed to know, or needed to hear. And if he did not die, then he would be severely damaged.

But back in 1968, as we watched that event, we weren’t particularly flabbergasted, indignant, angry; or I wasn’t, anyway. We were just…or so I remember and it has been forty-five years now and maybe my memory is failing or faulty…we were just…ho hum.

When the interviewee asked me if I remembered seeing that event, I recall feeling a little sense of satisfaction or relief because when I think about it now, when I thought about it in the mid-nineties, I wasn’t sure if I really saw it, or if I had manufactured the memory, so it made me happy that he had seen it too…kind of made me happy.

When we saw it in 1968, we weren’t happy or sad, I suspect, or alarmed or anything, we were just…this is hard to get a handle on…we were just…just, well, it was just part of the scene, the business we were in, the killing and the mayhem and the fright. Just part of a day’s work, like stringing concertina.

When I first recalled seeing that man dangling from the cable, I wrote a poem about it, an attempt, I suppose, to translate experience into art. The poem showed up in my chapbook of poetry titled Trench Dining, published by Running Wolf Press, ©2003.


by Ken Rodgers

We unrolled concertina wire
the German kind
with razors for slicing hide
in a hundred places

We pounded metal stakes
into red earth
and attached the concertina
ripped utility jackets torn hands

To the southwest
two hundred yards away
a Huey
with a body dangling
hands tied to a cable

The chopper maneuvered
some ponderous war hawk
towing the man
through the tops of conifers
surviving along the perimeter

Gazing at that scene
I bet myself
that for a hit off a Lucky Strike
and some hot chow
he would tell us
where to ambush
old Ho Chi Minh

He jerked on the cable’s end
when his feet caught
and flipped sideways
when he bounced off trunks

Years later
when the drama
seized my windpipe
I heard him scream
I heard branches snapping
and other things snapping too

But at the time
looking up from the wire
I couldn’t hear shrieks
only the whap whap whap
of helicopter blades
the clang of hammers
driving stakes
the curses of men with razor ripped hands

Documentary Film,Guest Blogs,Khe Sanh,Marines,Vietnam War

January 19, 2013

BRAVO!: An Appreciation

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BRAVO! supporter Jean Hegland muses about the film, history and the Vietnam War

Although I grew up with the Viet Nam war, it was never very real to me. I was born in 1956, and in the 1960s when my parents began to watch the nightly news on our family’s first television, reports of Viet Nam conflict were nightly fare when I wandered into the living room to check on dinnertime. After Walter Cronkite had finally announced, “And that’s the way it is,” and the television was turned off, discussions about the wrongness of the war and the inadequacies of the politicians who were promoting it were often a topic of my parents’ conversation as we ate.

But despite its frequent appearance in my family’s living and dining rooms, in many ways the Viet Nam war was an abstraction. I knew my parents were against the war—I couldn’t fathom how anyone could actually be for the crumpled bodies and destroyed landscapes I glimpsed on our TV screen—but no one I knew was directly affected by the conflict. My parents’ affiliation with the military had ended when they were discharged at the end of World War II (my father from the Army and my mother from the WAVES); and the draft was cancelled and the conflict in Viet Nam was officially over before any of my brothers or boyfriends were impacted. Later, when I went to college, there were few vets in the circles I ran in, and those I did meet—and occasionally even dated—seemed very reluctant to discuss their experiences in what they called “Nam.”

I suppose I was used to veterans staying silent about their war experiences. Although my mother privately told me that my father had been decorated for his service when he was a medic in the South Pacific, he himself never spoke of his experiences to anyone. I never heard my uncle or my aunt speak about their experiences in WWII, either, nor my other uncle who had been a fighter pilot in Korea, nor my great uncle who fought in France in WWI. And of course my ancestors who’d fought for the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War and those who fought for America during the Revolutionary War were also silent.

Novels such as Johnny Got His Gun, and The Red Badge of Courage, and later, Snow Falling on Cedars, The Things They Carried, and Matterhorn taught me a little about what war might be like for a soldier, but I have Ken and Betty Rodger’s remarkable documentary film Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor to thank for bringing the experience of soldiers at the Siege of Khe Sanh excruciatingly close.

I understand that no one who wasn’t there can ever really appreciate what those men endured during the 77 days of siege, and I also have some inkling of what a truly remarkable group that particular battalion of soldiers were, but after having watched Bravo! I feel I know much more than I did before about a soldier’s experience of the horror, pity—and glory—of war.

I wonder if anyone can listen to Cal, John, Daniel, Ken Korkow, Ben, Frank, Mike, Ken Pipes, Tom, Ron, Ken Rodgers, Lloyd, Peter, Steve, and Michael share their stories without experiencing both shudders and tears, if anyone can watch that film and not be haunted by it afterwards. Each time I watch Bravo!, I am appalled by the situation those men—then kids the age of my lovely son and his dear friends—were literally thrust into as they leapt out of moving planes and had to scurry to safety. I am heartbroken by the suffering they endured and the appalling waste that occurred. But I am also struck by the fierce, bright spirit of each of those men, by their commitment to each other in the face of such horrible odds. I am stirred not only by their courage in 1968 when they sacrificed so much to defend what turned out to be “a worthless patch of ground,” but also by their courage now, as veterans willing to risk further tears and nightmares in order to share their memories with the rest of us. Thanks to them, I feel I understand much more than I did before—not enough, to be sure, but a great deal more.

Bravo! has not changed the opinion I grew up with that the Viet Nam War was a horrible mistake, but it has deepened my sympathy for everything that those who fought in it endured, increased my appreciation for everything that they achieved, and my gratitude for the huge sacrifices that they made. It has given me fresh insight into all the silent warriors in my own family, too, and has encouraged me to reflect on the strange and compelling machine that war is, and why it is that we humans seem to have such a hard time getting beyond it. For all that, I am very grateful.

In addition to expressing my gratitude to the brave men who allowed their intimate stories to be captured on film, I also want to applaud Ken and Betty Rodgers, whose hard work and commitment brought Bravo! into being, and whose skill as interviewers (along with Mark Spear) and vision and craft as story-shapers helped to make Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor the compelling—and transformational—film that it is.

Jean Hegland is the author of the novels Into the Forest and Windfalls.

Documentary Film,Film Screenings,Khe Sanh,Marines,Vietnam War

January 6, 2013

California Dreaming

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We are just weeks away from the forty-fifth anniversary of the beginning of the Siege of Khe Sanh. I think about the siege every day, but I don’t always think about the weeks immediately before its commencement.

After being relieved by India Company, 3rd Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment on Hill 881S the day after Christmas, 1967, Bravo Company went down into the perimeter of the Khe Sanh Combat Base and took over their old lines on the east and southeast ends of the perimeter in what was called Gray Sector.

While in Gray Sector, we filled sandbags and filled sandbags and filled sandbags. We must have been taking a lot of photos, too, because in the course of creating the film, we came upon a fair number of photos that were taken in the time between vacating 881S and moving into Gray Sector.

Besides filling sandbags, we dug trenches, beefed up hooches, built fighting positions, sometimes ran ambushes at night as well as listening posts. And…we filled sandbags. When we weren’t doing that, or going on patrol, or sleeping and chowing down, we stood watch.

Marines from Second Platoon, Bravo Company, Gray Sector, Khe Sanh Combat Base

Some of us had transistor radios that we played at night and listened to Armed Forces Radio. They played a lot of great tunes back then. The types of tunes then were often different than what warriors listen to now, echoing the cultural changes we have undergone since 1968. The country music wasn’t as slickly rock-and-roll as it is now, and the rock they played in 1968 was mild compared to what was to come as well as what I hear on the radio these days. They played a lot of soul music, too, which is a far cry from the hip hop young warriors probably enjoy today. Though the music may be different between then and now, I suspect listening to it in either era aroused similar emotions…longing, sadness, but also a sense of hope, that you just might make it home to be with friends and family doing the things you love to do.

Some of the music I remember was “Happy Together” by The Turtles and “I Just Stopped in to See What Condition My Condition Was In” by the First Edition which had Kenny Rogers singing the lead before any of us really knew who he was. We heard “Ode to Billy Joe” by Bobbie Gentry and “The Letter” by the Box Tops. We heard Wilson Pickett, and Martha and the Vandellas, and Dianna Ross and the Supremes, and James Brown and Lou Rawls singing about Chi-town’s “hawk.”

One of our favorite songs back then was Otis Redding’s “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay.” We used to try and sing along and I can only imagine how that sound carried over the concertina wire barriers, across the bamboo thickets and into the hidden posts of our enemy. Even now, when I hear that song, it takes me back to the trenches. It takes me back to the men I served with, a lot of whom are gone and as I think of them, I get misty and something catches in my craw.

When we listened to Otis singing, we tried to dance and boogaloo around the trenches and the bunkers while we puffed on Salems and Camels (which we were not supposed to be smoking on watch, or listening to music either, because we were breaking light and sound discipline). More than once, the duty NCO or Officer of the Day would come by and if we didn’t catch on to his imminent arrival, we’d get our butts chewed out.

When we figured out our singing wasn’t so hot, we’d let Danny Horton take over. Man, he could warble tunes as well as any of those folks we listened to. B J Thomas songs were his staple and he really liked “California Dreaming” by the Mamas and Papas. When he was singing, it took me back to my southern Arizona home and my friends, and sitting around the front room with my mom and dad talking. It made me remember sweet spring nights when the orange blossoms saturated the dark. It was a link to home, it was…how can I describe it…almost magic.

Dan Horton at Khe Sanh

After January 21st, we turned the radio down, or turned it off, because by then the war was way too up-close and personally serious, although I do remember hearing Hanoi Hannah taunt us when one of those who owned radios chose to turn her on. We also listened to the news and heard about how bad we had it at Khe Sanh.

And it was bad. It was bad all over Vietnam that late Winter and Spring of 1968. Maybe we knew that, but all we really knew was what we were enduring. And the radio was our tether to the outside, to Otis Redding and “California Dreaming.”

Speaking of California Dreaming, We are taking BRAVO! on the road in March and April. As of now, we have tentatively talked about screenings in Chico, Sacramento, San Francisco, Fresno and the Camp Pendleton areas of California, and beyond to Reno and Las Vegas in Nevada, and Moscow, Idaho.

If you are interested in bringing the poignant sizzle of BRAVO! to your area as an educational or fund raising event, you may be interested in hosting a screening of the film. If so, please contact us so we can talk about what is required.