Forty-eight years ago on February 25, 1968, Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment’s Third and First Platoons were trapped in a nasty ambush that has since become something of a legend in the lore of the Marine Corps.
Third Platoon, on a patrol outside the wire at Khe Sanh Combat Base, was ambushed by troops from the North Vietnamese Army and when elements of First Platoon attempted to relieve Third Platoon, they were also ambushed.
I wasn’t out there that day. I was sitting inside the wire, peering in the direction from which the gunfire and explosions were coming, and listening to the strained voices of men in extreme danger come over the radio.
I have written about the event—now known as The Ghost Patrol or the Lost Patrol—before, and one of the reasons I keep writing about it is because the memories of that day and the men we lost preys on my mind.
At the time, and for some time after, we, the Marines and Corpsmen of Bravo Company, didn’t call it The Ghost Patrol or the Lost Patrol. I don’t think we called it anything. We didn’t need to because it loomed large in our psyches and in some regards, for some of us, it remains so today.
Unfortunately for mankind, this kind of event is fairly common in warfare and I suspect will remain so as long as we humans send our warriors into harm’s way.
You don’t have to go back very far in history to find record of the mayhem that ensues when a combat operation falls apart. S. L. A. Marshall, in his book titled THE RIVER AND THE GAUNTLET about the American 8th Army’s debacle in Korea, describes in detail fire-fight after fire-fight in which American troops were wounded, killed and captured, their units chewed up by the Chinese Army in November of 1950.
The thing that’s on my mind now, as I write this, is that if it is so common, why is it so devastating to us? Of course it’s because these sorry, dismal events happen to real people. More than maps and strategies, the things that we as warriors often remember are the faces or our comrades before and after the combat, the memories of a shared can of peaches or pears, three on a match, telling stories about back home as we brew coffee in a C-ration over the heat from a chunk of C-4. It’s personal.
In our film, BRAVO! COMMON MEN, UNCOMMON VALOR, we manage to capture some of that sense of loss that we, the men of Bravo Company, felt, as the events of February 25 tumbled about us. The loss. Such a waste. If only things had occurred differently. But they didn’t. They don’t. And of course, it wasn’t just us. Every service has had and will have the moments where close comrades are lost as an operation falls apart.
There was a civilian photographer at Khe Sanh (there were several) when the events of February 25 happened, and his name was Robert Ellison. Ellison captured some graphic and profoundly revelatory photographs of some of the Marines and Corpsmen involved in The Ghost Patrol. He was roaming around outside the base perimeter, helping wounded Marines struggle in while he took photos of the faces of war. What he captured on film reveals the men in ways that are heart rending. I share a few of his photos in this blog.
Unfortunately, Robert Ellison became a casualty of the Vietnam War on March 6, 1968, while aboard a plane on its way back to Khe Sanh from the coast. That plane crashed into a mountain outside the combat base and Ellison was killed along with all the other men on that flight. The photographs he left us are a powerful legacy.
Yes, combat is about people and personal loss and the things that happen to our souls when we go through the nightmares of war. In many ways, I think, our souls are damaged, often until the end of our lives.
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