In Khe Sanh Marine Mike Archer’s latest book, THE LONG GOODBYE, he describes a scene from his memory of incoming artillery rounds:
“Then it struck. It was not quite a direct hit because the roof did not collapse, but it could have not been closer. There was absolutely no sound. We were inside the explosion. A vacuum instantly sucked dust, loose paper and other light objects out the bunker’s hatchway. A painful pressure pushed on my eardrums. Then, as swiftly as it happened, it was over…”
One thing that interests me about Mike Archer’s passage from this exemplary book is how it intimates the moments where close calls remind us how mortal we all are.
Call it luck or divine intervention or karma, but those moments where you don’t die because you happened to be in the right place at the right time leave a lasting impression on you.
On March 30, 1968, Bravo Company, 1/26, went out the wire at Khe Sanh on an assault that has come to be known as the Payback Patrol. I was radioman for Second Platoon’s platoon sergeant, Staff Sergeant Gustavo Alvarado. As the company charged through a valley and up a ridge into a trenchline full of North Vietnamese troopers, SSgt Alvarado and I brought up the rear of the line of march.
As the Marines of Bravo dove bayonet-first into the NVA positions, SSgt Alvarado and I worked our way towards the apex of the ridge. Somewhere near the top, amid a small stand of shell-splintered trees, a mortar round landed between the staff sergeant and me. We couldn’t have been more than four or five feet apart when the round hit and exploded.
The first thing I knew was that I was alive, or at least I thought I was. I was sitting on my butt in the red mud. I had the strangest sensation that I was the center of a ripple of energy, or sound, that was emanating from me as if I was a stone tossed into a pond. I had the same sensation on the left side of my head, where shrapnel had entered the side of my face near my temple. That metal’s still lodged there like a memory that won’t go away, as if I needed to be reminded in one more way of my time at Khe Sanh.
SSgt Alvarado was hit in the leg by the mortar’s tail fin assembly and he was on the ground, too. But after a cursory inspection of each other, we moved into the melee over the top of the ridge and lived to tell about that ecstatically stimulating and horrible day where death flew perilously close like a flock of angry hawks.
I often return to that scene and think about how lucky we were that we didn’t die, or lose a limb or an eye, or have hot shrapnel penetrate a temple and hack out half of our intellects.
Another incident that often comes to mind happened several weeks before the Payback Patrol. Again, close calls were the name of the game during the Siege of Khe Sanh and any survivor can deliver a litany of the times they managed to beat death or maiming because they happened to be in the right place.
The other member of Second Platoon’s radio team was a man named Curtis Horn. I think Horn hailed from West Virginia. We spent a lot of time trading off on radio watch along with the platoon’s right guide. I don’t recall many specifics about Horn other than he was a damned good Marine and he didn’t talk much.
On this particular day we’d just spent quite a bit of time upgrading the platoon command post so that it could take (we hoped) a direct hit from a 152 mm shell, even one with a delayed fuse. Horn and I made the mistake of thinking that since we’d done the lion’s share of the work on the new bunker we would be allowed to bunk there. But we were sorely disabused of that notion and ordered by the platoon commander and SSgt Alvarado to bunk next door in the platoon ammo bunker.
The ammo bunker was a paltry excuse for a well-built facility. It had one layer of sandbags on top of a framework of pallets. The bunker was stuffed with machine gun ammo, rifle ammo, smoke grenades, willy peter grenades, hand grenades, mortar rounds, rocket rounds, claymore mines, pop up flares. Lots of things that burned, killed, smoked and exploded.
I didn’t like having to spend my rack time in that death trap, but it was late and we were tired and there were two cots inside, one on the floor and the other suspended off the walls above the one below.
As night settled in and the regular blanket of mist and fog descended on the combat base, Horn and I hit the rack. Always alert to the possibility of incoming, I lay in the cot and listened to NVA rounds hitting at the other end of the base.
I listened and listened until sleep wormed its way into my body, and I had just dropped off, I think, when I was jolted out of the bottom bunk with Horn soon crashing down on me from above. I didn’t have to think about it because escape is one of the original and fundamental human responses to imminent danger.
We scrabbled out of that death trap and into the command post. One of the higher ups, maybe the right guide, or maybe SSgt Alvarado, or maybe even the platoon commander, ordered us out of the bunker but I was scared and I was hearing none of it and I don’t think I threatened to shoot any of them but Horn and I spent the rest of that night inside the command post.
The next morning I crawled around the back of the command post and up to the top of the ammo bunker and saw where a round had hit near the southwest corner. There was an impact crater less than two inches from the roof. It looked like it must have been an 82 mm mortar round that, had it hit, would have probably spread little chunks of Horn’s and my bone and meat and gristle and red blood all over Second Platoon’s area of operation.
But it didn’t. It just scared the hell out of me and left an indelible set of images etched into my memory. And it also left me with an enduring wonder at how often we avoid death due to nothing more than blind luck.
One of the Marines, Ron Rees, in our film, BRAVO!, talks about how he lives his life a second at a time because that’s all it takes for you to be gone, snuffed, history, dead. Folks who have survived combat often tell me they exist from one second to the next. Living like that makes it hard to plan ahead, hard to think about how one might choose to live in years ahead because one second from now, you may not be alive; in the blink of an eye.
You can find out more about Michael Archer and his books about Khe Sanh and other subjects at http://www.michaelarcher.net/.
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