The Americans who fought and bled and stood firm at Khe Sanh in 1968 will be a part of my life forever. That’s the payoff I treasure most after writing Last Stand at Khe Sanh. Among the extraordinary people who graced my life during this project were Ken and Betty Rodgers. Their powerful film on the men of Bravo 1/26 was a source of early inspiration for me. At the invitation of Ken and Betty, I’ve put together a Q-and-A about my Khe Sanh literary experience. It draws on questions I’ve gotten from Khe Sanh veterans and readers at large, as well as my personal reflections on this unforgettable journey.
WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO WRITE ABOUT KHE SANH?
I discuss this at some length in the introduction to Last Stand at Khe Sanh. The Vietnam War was a great and tragic event that hung over my childhood. My early fascination with the American Civil War piqued my curiosity about what American soldiers were experiencing in Vietnam. My mother had lost her oldest brother in World War II, and that deepened my interest in the war and the rising human cost of the conflict. I identified with the men who answered the call and served in Vietnam. I always believed that I would have been a grunt in Vietnam if I had been born ten years earlier. When I decided to write a book about Vietnam, Khe Sanh drew me in. It was a high-stakes showdown in the war’s pivotal year, and a dramatic setting for an examination of the American combat experience in Vietnam.
WHAT WERE THE STORYTELLING CHALLENGES YOU ENCOUNTERED IN WRITING A NARRATIVE HISTORY ABOUT KHE SANH?
I knew I would have to limit the scope of the book to the siege months to tell the human story in some depth, but that still meant constructing a complicated narrative that unfolds over four months, from January to April 1968. Another challenge was the fact that the action at Khe Sanh plays out in several different locations: the combat base; Hill 881 South; Hill 861 and 861 Alpha; the Rock Quarry and Hill 64; Khe Sanh village; and Hill 558. Contemporary readers expect a cinematic experience in a work of narrative history, and that entails conveying a story through the experiences of compelling characters. I wanted to turn a spotlight on as many men as possible without overwhelming the reader. It was a constant balancing act. There was one final narrative challenge: Khe Sanh didn’t end with a big pitched battle or a scene like Santa Ana’s soldiers pouring over the walls at the Alamo, or Pickett’s charge crashing against Union lines on Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg. The closest thing to a dramatic final act at Khe Sanh was the 3/26 assault on Hill 881 North on Easter Sunday, April 14, 1968. But even that wasn’t really the final act: The killing and dying at Khe Sanh continued for another three months, out of the spotlight, before the base was abandoned.
WHAT WERE YOUR MOST REWARDING MOMENTS IN WRITING LAST STAND AT KHE SANH?
It was gratifying to give a voice to men who had not been heard before. I was trying to find a mix of representative characters, from the COC at Khe Sanh Combat Base down to the grunt-level of line platoons on the hill outposts. Obviously, some of the men who populate the narrative of Last Stand at Khe Sanh had appeared in previous books, but many hadn’t. I also was very inspired to tell the stories of men who had lost their lives at Khe Sanh, to put a face on brave and selfless souls who had faded into the mists of history. I wanted readers to know something about the final moments of men like Tommy Denning, Jesus Roberto Vasquez, Joe Molettiere, Eugene Ashley, Jonathan Nathaniel Spicer, and so many others. They deserve to be remembered, as do their comrades who returned from Vietnam.
WHAT WERE SOME OF THE PROJECT’S MORE TRYING MOMENTS?
It took much more time than I expected to identify and correct the errors in historical records and previous books about Khe Sanh, and to reconcile discrepancies in the accounts of eyewitnesses I interviewed. There were a couple of instances where individuals had clearly created embellished accounts to recast themselves as heroes. It took a lot of digging and checking to get it right. Finally, it was painful to have to edit and tighten the manuscript and lose the stories of so many men.
WHAT WOULD YOU DO DIFFERENTLY?
With unlimited time and money, I would devote another three years to interviewing Khe Sanh veterans, digging through the archives, walking the battlefield and tracking down NVA veterans. I would spend another year or two writing, fact-checking, proofreading and polishing the manuscript. A publisher’s deadlines never seem to leave enough time for everything that needs to be done.
HOW ARE SALES OF LAST STAND AT KHE SANH?
My editor at Da Capo Press, Bob Pigeon, had very high hopes for Last Stand at Khe Sanh. He loved the finished manuscript, and this fall submitted the book for three major prizes. Leatherneck magazine called Last Stand “a classic,” and scores of veterans have told me that Last Stand captured their Khe Sanh experience better than any previous book. But the fact is that Last Stand at Khe Sanh hasn’t found the “larger audience” that I hoped it would find. The men who fought at Khe Sanh deserve to have their story told, and word of mouth is a powerful force in the history genre. Last Stand at Khe Sanh is still selling, and the paperback edition will be out next spring.
WOULD YOU DO IT AGAIN?
Absolutely. I became a journalist because I wanted to experience history as it happened. I witnessed some extraordinary history in my thirty years in journalism. When I left daily journalism in 2010 to devote myself to chronicling American history, I dreamed of writing books like Last Stand at Khe Sanh. Getting to know some of the men who fought at Khe Sanh and telling their story has been one of the most satisfying experiences of my life.
Gregg Jones is the author of three critically acclaimed nonfiction books: Last Stand at Khe Sanh, Honor in the Dust, and Red Revolution. He reported from Afghanistan in 2001-02, and has covered insurgencies, revolutions and other major news events on five continents during his four decades in journalism. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Washington Times, Dallas Morning News, Boston Globe and other U.S., British and Australian newspapers and magazines. He has been honored with numerous awards and has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He was based in Asia from 1984-89 and 1997-2002.