This time of year with all the celebratory hoorah around the holidays, I tend to let the Siege and its ramifications lie fallow while I have a good time with family and friends.
But after January 1, I know I grow reflective, and a little sullen, I suspect, as I begin to remember that event and not just the death and fear and mayhem of the battle itself, but the people who served there with me—the ones I can remember, anyway.
In this Christmas season, though, I have been thinking about the Marines and Corpsmen with whom I humped the hills, stood watch and ultimately was caught up with in the 77-day Siege.
I arrived at Bravo Company in late March 1967 so I had served in Nam ten months before the Siege began, and during that time I got to know a lot of Marines who had arrived before me and who rotated out before the Siege began. The names of some of those men escape me now, as do their faces, although occasionally I can see a face but the name won’t come to mind.
In Second Platoon I was pretty tight with Deedee and Belfontaine and Mitchell and Fritschie and Roman-Colsada and John T. Poorman and a lot of other Marines whom I had known fairly well in that special intimacy that only warriors know. But by January 21, 1968, those Marines had gone home, or in the case of Belfontaine, somewhere else in the Republic of Vietnam.
In my recollection, Bravo Company had a lot of men rotate back home in the fall and early winter of 1967-68 and a bevy of new guys arrive so that when the manure hit the big blower, a lot of our Marines and Corpsmen were pretty boot. I may have been one of only seven or eight men who had been in 2nd Platoon before we arrived at Khe Sanh in May of ’67.
Some of the guys who came in the fall became pretty good buddies of mine, but I don’t even recall well more than three of the men who arrived after the Siege began in January.
Combat veterans say that you don’t want to know the names of the new guys because if you get to know their names, then they become something more than a helmet and rifle and flak jacket; they become your mates and in a way more special than just acquaintances who walk the flanks or stand watch with you. And when they die, some part of you dies with them.
The names of almost all those new guys escape me now and I may have never known them back then. The three I clearly remember all died, one at Khe Sanh and two later when Bravo Company went south.
By the time I left the company, there were few old salts, just mostly young guys, some of them still wet behind the ears and just out of training. But man, what Marines they were. Proud of their heritage and their training. As were almost all our warriors in the Vietnam War, these were men from a wide range of ethnic roots and regional locations. Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans and whites. It was a mixed bag of backgrounds yet they hung together because hanging apart would have probably meant the complete destruction of the Khe Sanh Combat Base and the surrounding hilltop fortifications.
But I don’t think fear was the only motivation to fight side by side with people who were different from you. There was something more going on. Some of it was pride in the Corps and pride in the unit, but deeper than that was a realization that no matter how different the backgrounds, the dialect, the skin color, the religion, most of us recognized that these men, these fellow warriors, were decent human beings just trying to survive.
Some will point out that the enemy was probably a collection of similar kinds of folks and I won’t deny that. But when in war, the enemy is the enemy and not your friend, and those folks over there fighting for the other side had no difficulty killing us any way they could.
Though as former enemies, we could all meet in Khe Sanh today and shake hands and reminisce and admire each side’s fighting prowess and perhaps even become friends, but back in 1968 we were enemies bent on killing each other.
And that’s the way it was and that’s the way it is and I’m afraid that’s the way it will always be.
A lot of my friends who don’t like war—and who likes war?…certainly not me—may not care for the notion that we were enemies then but could be friends now. So why not be friends all the time?
Good question yet a moot point, I suspect.
Yet combat is in a most ways about killing and combat is a thing that has its own characteristics, its own thingness, so to speak, and inside that thingness is a metaphorical universe with attributes about how combat is and is not done. And in many instances, executing those attributes well is an admirable thing outside and beyond the moral aspects of war and killing.
And what I am trying to get at here is that these boot Marines, these new kids, operated inside, for the most part, the attributes of that thing—that combat, and in my mind are to be admired for their courage, dogged loyalty to the Corps and their fellow Marines. Yes, they are to be admired and revered and remembered.
So for those new Marines who came to Khe Sanh after January 21, 1968…wow. Here’s a holiday tip of my hat to every one of them who were dumped into the midst of bedlam. Semper Fidelis.
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