Bravo! The Project - A Documentary Film

Archive for March, 2018

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

March 30, 2018

Cutting the Mustard—March 30—Fifty Years Ago

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

In situations where folks failed to accomplish a goal, my father used to say, “He can’t cut the mustard,” like Mickey Mantle striking out with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth inning in game seven of the World Series. He’d say, “Couldn’t cut the mustard.” So as I write this, I wonder if one of the big reasons I joined the Marine Corps was to see if I could “cut it.”

A lot of folks join the Marines because they think it offers excitement and adventure and an opportunity to test one’s mettle. My experience at Khe Sanh tested me in ways I never imagined beforehand, and none sticks in my mind so much as March 30, 1968. Some images that come forth:

– Before dawn, the fog, the trench prior to going out the gate to attack a battalion of NVA. Not a word uttered, just Marines weighed down with grenades, M72 Light Anti-tank Weapons, magazines for M-16s, belts of machine gun ammo. Warriors leaning against the red mud trench walls smoking cigarettes, the fiery ends like beacons at the edge of the world. And then out we go.

– A mortar crashing between Staff Sergeant A and me, blowing both of us onto our butts. A chunk of shrapnel embedded in my head. In my mind, a sensation like the ripples one sees after a stone is tossed into a pool of water. A peaceful few seconds where I am not caught in a life-or-death sequence of savage events.

What Khe Sanh looked like at the end of the Siege. Photo courtesy of Mac McNeely.

– At the top of the ridge, watching First and Third Platoons in the enemy trench. The noise, the smoke, the death. Getting doctored by the Corpsman while the Gunny worries if I’m alright. His hands shaking. And that shakes me up—that old battler being frightened.

– Then into the enemy trench as Marines drop grenades and satchel charges into bunkers manned by the NVA. Our guys burning them out with flame throwers.

– The dead littering the trenches, the shattered ground around. Sallow-faced dead men, and hard to know if they are theirs or ours.

– Moving to the front of the battle, seeing a machine gunner thump an ammo humper with an M60. Me knowing that the humper didn’t cut the mustard.

– Running past the Company Command Post that’s hunkered in a bomb crater. A North Vietnamese prisoner on his knees. A barrage of enemy mortars falling into the command post. Smoke clouds and mud eruptions. As the chaos clears, most of the Marines lying on the deck, dead or wounded, and if not, standing there drenched in blood. Someone shooting the prisoner with an M1911A .45 caliber pistol. The prisoner’s head jerking as he falls on his back.

– Being out front in the blasted terrain where our advance ends, calling in an artillery barrage to protect us from their counter attack as we retire and gather our dead and wounded.

– Being sent with Lieutenant M who has lost his radio operator. He keeps jumping out of the trench as we head back to the combat base. I keep telling him to get back in the trench because he will set off booby traps. But he is a lieutenant (although a very new one) and I’m an enlisted man. The next time he jumps out of the trench, he does what I feared. He trips a booby trap. A round erupts out of the ground and strikes him. Since his back is to me I can’t see what happens but it stops him cold and I know it is a white phosphorus round of some kind because the squiggly white guts of the thing come flying at me and some of them hit me in the face. I curse him. Not once, but many times and scold him as I approach to see what kind of damage he’s encountered. When I get even with him and then in front, I see the round has smashed him in the chin and lower jaw. It’s all white smoke and stink and Willie Peter (what we call white phosphorus.) I pack his face with red mud, since Willie Peter burns on contact with oxygen. I get him to the temporary aid station at the rear of the battle field. Willie Peter, I keep thinking at the time, is poisonous. I imagine that the white phosphorus that hit my face is burning deadly holes in me, so I pack red mud on the spots. I curse the lieutenant again.

– On the way back into Khe Sanh Combat Base, the sky is yellow and filled with smoke. Explosions from our stuff, 105mm artillery and bombs dropped by our Phantoms.

Blogger Ken Rodgers at Khe Sanh. Photo courtesy of the late Dan Horton.

-Marines walking down the road and hitting the deck every time enemy rockets scream in. Hitting the deck jolts my head, my neck, my knees, jams the lip of my helmet into my upper spine.

– I spy two Marines dragging a dead body. I get close and see the back of the corpse’s flak jacket and even though the dead Marine is dragged face down in the dirt, I know it is Corporal A, who begged me the night before to take his dog tags and a letter to his parents telling them he would die on this patrol. I didn’t take the letter or his dog tags. I screamed at him, “if you feel that way, it’s what will happen.” It bothers me that he is being dragged like that, like he is something not worth picking up and carrying. But I don’t do anything about it.

Something about my failure to help him still haunts me and the shrapnel still resides in my skull.

***

If you or your organization would like to host a screening of BRAVO! in your town, please contact us immediately.

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. Please consider gifting copies to a veteran, a teacher, a history buff, a library, a friend or family member. For more information, go to https://bravotheproject.com/store/.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject?ref=hl.

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

March 21, 2018

Friendly Fire–Fifty Years Gone

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

March 21, 1968

On the morning of March 21, 2nd Platoon, Bravo Company, went outside the wire. As far as I know, it was the first time anyone had ventured out into the hellscape surrounding the combat base since the Ghost Patrol debacle of 25February1968.

We went out early as the ever-present fog and mist lifted. We got on line, something Marines have done since the United States Marine Corps’ inception in 1775, and we swept off to the southeast towards one of the NVA’s trenchlines.

1st Squad was on the left, 2nd Squad in the middle and 3rd Squad on the right. The platoon sergeant and I were behind the formation, bringing up the rear. I was his radio operator.

Being a short-timer, I shivered and my mouth felt like the cracked bottom of a dry creek bed. I didn’t know what awaited. We went as feelers to test the enemy’s strength. I felt like a little chunk of chum to bait the NVA.

As we tread down an incline into a shallow valley, .50 caliber machine guns opened up from our rear, firing over our heads, giving all of us some cover. I could see the tracer rounds as they streaked like red jets into the tree line on the opposite ridge, our initial destination.

Grenade. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

As our formation neared the summit of the ridge, the .50 calibers firing from our lines were supposed to cease fire. As 3rd Squad reached the summit of the ridge, the .50 caliber fire continued. I witnessed as those big, hot rounds began hitting amongst our marines.

Busy monitoring the radio I carried made it difficult to process what I saw: that instantaneous chaos up there where that friendly fire had hit around our men.

That’s what we called it, “friendly fire,” like it was nothing to worry about. It was our friends shooting at us. So why worry?

My first encounter with friendly fire was on June 7, 1967, when the fire team I was in went out on an LP on Hill 881 South. One of our own men evidently hadn’t received the word about our departure. We exited the south gate and swung around on the west side below the wire a ways and settled in.

Not long after, something bounced in among us and the fire team leader, a seasoned warrior name John T. Poorman, said, “Grenade.” It went off right there amongst the four of us. We didn’t wait around, thinking it was the NVA sneaking up for an assault. We went straight up, with Poorman jabbering into the handset of our radio that we were “coming in.” We barged through the wire barrier in front of one of our machine gun bunkers.

Fortunately only one person was hit. It was Corporal Poorman, and his wound wasn’t serious.
We soon found out that one of our machine gunners, thinking the hill was about to be probed, lobbed that grenade down there. He was a “friendly.”

On a sunny morning in the fall of 1967, 2nd Platoon patrolled at the bottom of Hill 881 South when attacked by two Marine Corps Hueys. Lucky for us, a lot of big boulders were lodged in the creek we followed so we dove behind them and lay low while our lieutenant pleaded with someone out in radio frequency land to get those choppers to stop firing rockets and machine guns at us. They were friendly, too, and luckily, no one was hit this time.

But on 21March1968, someone did get hit, in the back, by friendly fire. Corporal Jacobs, 3rd Squad’s leader, took one in the back that destroyed his flak jacket and flayed the skin and muscles of his back. He required a lot of stitches but lived and went on to fight and earn laurels for his bravery and leadership in Vietnam. He was a hell of a Marine.

I have always marveled at the way the military, or large organizations of most kinds, like to coin a term for something that lowers war’s brutal nature to a case where the brutality appears less vicious, damaging, deadly.

Friendly fire. The word is accurate but infers incongruity, and if you are the one getting hit by friendly fire, it ain’t friendly.

People tend to blame things like friendly fire on the chaos of war and I suppose there is some truth to that, but there is also the human factor: not paying attention to what is going on and not doing your job, like passing along word about something, your own guys, your allies moving into harm’s way.

On 21Mar68 we made it back into the base and were exhilarated because, other than five Marines wounded by enemy activity and one by friendly fire, we got in the enemy’s trench, reached all our checkpoints and returned to our area without any of our own being KIA.

Blogger Kn Rodgers at Khe Sanh in 1968. Photo courtesy of Michael E. O’Hara.

At the time, I recall thinking that the enemy had finally hightailed it back into Laos or up north to their own country. But the next night, the NVA laid an artillery shelling on us like we’d only endured a few times. They pounded the hell out of Bravo Company’s lines and I spent the night with my face buried in a fighting bunker. Unbeknownst to us, not far from our lines, the NVA massed for an attack with the intent of overrunning us, killing us all, or if not all, then marching our remnants up the Ho Chi Minh Trail into years of captivity.

But that assault was shattered by our own air strikes and artillery and lucky for us, none of that supporting fire went awry to kill any of us with “friendly fire.”

****

If you or your organization would like to host a screening of BRAVO! in your town, please contact us immediately.

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. Please consider gifting copies to a veteran, a teacher, a history buff, a library, a friend or family member. For more information, go to https://bravotheproject.com/store/.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject?ref=hl.

Documentary Film,Guest Blogs,Khe Sanh,Marines,Other Musings,Veterans,Vietnam War,War Poetry

March 19, 2018

Tear in the Fabric

Tags: , , , , ,

As we continue remembering the events at Khe Sanh 50 years ago, we are honored to share a recent poem by Lt. Col. Ken Pipes, USMC Retired, the beloved Skipper of Bravo Company, 1/26.

Tear in the Fabric

Shadows flicker, fire reflecting
off the pines at the midnight hour—
another time—or place—or both—
another brief shadow—
just at the corner of the eye—
thinking—seen—imagined—
50 years is a long half-century away/ago—then
just perhaps a brief shadow—
that draws the string to a tight close
at the top of the bag that holds
all the secrets in a holder that holds it all:
the secrets—memories—
most good, some not so good?
Names, pictures, times, dates—
a minor tear in the fabric and the past—
even the future—could be revealed.
And the time—time moves
with a speed all its own—
the tune sometimes out of synch—
then the beat settles in
and the march begins again—
sometimes at the slow—
but increased step of the Kepi Blanc
of the Legion Estrangier moving
out the gates of Forts
on the edge of some far flung and isolate outpost—
with flickering fire shadows
and movement out of the corner of the eye—
looked briefly like Don, Hank, Ken—Mac—
no—
it is but the tricks of the midnight hour
or the light fading from the glow
that was once yesterday.

Ken Pipes, on the right, signing posters for screenings of BRAVO! in Fresno-Clovis, CA in 2013. Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers

© Ken Pipes
March 14, 2018

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

March 14, 2018

50 Years gone—3-14-1968

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

All through the 77-day Siege of Khe Sanh we learned how to live with less of everything except ammo and conflict. It was one of those exercises in finding out how little you could live with and how much you could live without.

What we had a lot of was death and fear, two things linked by chains that the mind manufactured. For some of us, even though we escaped death and maiming, we were wrecked by the accumulative effects of fear.

One of the things we didn’t get enough of was chow. Our major source of nutrition, C-rations, for me at least, were always the meal of last resort. If I could get A-rations (hot chow in the mess hall) or B-rations (hot chow delivered out into the field)), I’d take them over C-rations anytime (we received neither A or B-rations during the Siege.) But even our C-ration allotments were cut down from three meals to two per day, and sometimes even less, to one-and-one-half, or even one.

What was left of the post office at Khe Sanh where our packages from home might show up some time.

A lot of us got care packages from home loaded with things we loved to eat . . . chocolate chip cookies and carrot cake and other stuff, jerky, salami . . . but the perilous nature of flights into Khe Sanh made delivery an iffy deal and when packages came, they had often been in storage so long that everything would be moldy or crushed or rifled through by someone in the battalion rear at Phu Bai.

So it was of some interest to me when the platoon commander ordered me to lead a patrol, after dark, down to the battalion supply depot to procure some extra rations for all of us.

Procurement is an ancient and accepted activity in the military and is really nothing more than a form of theft, robbing from Peter to pay Paul, so to speak. The reality was, we were hungry, losing bulk, and someone out there had what we needed. Down at the supply dump it was damned important for them to hang onto whatever it was they husbanded, but our needs, in our minds, trumped their duty.

So we set out after dark. Six of us. We sneaked down the trench and out the back of our lines as the mist hung like a curtain. We crossed a flat area devoid of structures, then past a few bunkers where, if you got close, you heard men talking in low tones.

We came into the supply dump from the back, climbed under a half-assed fence and turned to on mounds of supplies that were covered with big tarps. We found a lot of stuff we weren’t looking for, but eventually we found cases of #10 cans of sliced pears and sliced peaches and grapefruit juice.

A couple of the men picked up as many cases as they could carry while still keeping ahold of their M-16s. We discovered stacks of C-ration cases and loaded up with those, too.

We struggled with our burdens as we tried to sneak back out without making a lot of racket.

At the fence we were challenged by a guard, “Halt, who goes there?”

I whispered something like, “Ignore him and get out.”

But he wasn’t having any of that. “Halt or I’ll shoot.”

I wasn’t sure if he’d shoot or not. I said something like, “Okay.”

We dropped our loads and for what seemed like an eternity we stood there, him pointing his rifle at us, us pointing our weapons—our M-16s and M1911A .45 caliber pistols—back.

I said something like, “Let us go. We’re starving to death down there in the trenches.”

He said, “Maybe so, but it’s my job to keep this stuff secure,” and he nodded at the piles of gear in the supply dump. “So,” and here he waved the business end of his M-16 at us, “I’ve got to turn your dumb asses in.”

Blogger Ken Rodgers at Khe Sanh, 1968. Photo courtesy of Michael E O’Hara.

It’s funny how you can panic at the littlest stuff. I thought, for a moment, about dropping my loot and threatening to light him up. Then I thought better of it, and then I didn’t know what to do.

Someone from my side took over, started rapping about Ohio—because he’d recognized the accent of the guard’s speech—and how they were both home boys, what my man missed about the Midwest: young women, summer nights, high school football.

The guard said, “Yeah, man, and I’m rotating out of here in three days.”

Somehow, my Marine talked him into letting us go with the loot. An exchange of Military Payment Certificates greased the squeaky wheel and we sneaked back to our platoon command post where the lieutenant took all of the #10 cans of fruit, all the grapefruit juice, and most of the C-rations.

When we got back to our squad area and opened the C-ration cases, we discovered those particular meals were manufactured during the Korean War. They were old and tasted like it.

We never saw any of the fruit or fruit juice.

***

If you or your organization would like to host a screening of BRAVO! in your town, please contact us immediately.

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. Please consider gifting copies to a veteran, a teacher, a history buff, a library, a friend or family member. For more information, go to https://bravotheproject.com/store/.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject?ref=hl.

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

March 6, 2018

March 6—50 Years Gone

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

In late February and on the 1st Day of March, 1968, the NVA massed at least a regiment out to our front with the intention of overrunning the Khe Sanh Combat Base.

Deep down in our guts, where the kind of knowledge resides that keeps you alive—not the information we learn later in life, but the intuitive stuff that dwells in our guts from our early ages—we knew they were out there and that they meant to kill or imprison us all. Knowing that turned us into salty, irreverent and determined men. We cleaned and loaded our M16s, our M60s, our M79s and waited for death to show his face.

Lucky for us, B-52 raids and heavy artillery attacks on the massing enemy forces blunted the impending assault.

Ron Ryan, KIA 6March68. Photo courtesy of Michael E. O’Hara.

Even though we never had to face crack NVA sappers breaching our concertina wire barriers during the 77 day seige, the consistent pounding of the incoming rounds and the threat of more attacks wore on us like big-gritted sandpaper rasping on soft wood.

On March 6th, a C-130 with the call sign BOOKIE 762 flew to Khe Sanh from Danang with a load of Marines, Navy Corpsmen and the freelance photographer Robert Ellison whose photos of the Siege of Khe Sanh became famous and who we’ve written about before in this blog series.

A near mishap with another aircraft forced BOOKIE 762 to abort its landing. The C-130 flew away from the combat base and crashed into a fog-enshrouded mountain, killing all aboard.

Stretchers at Khe Sanh. Photo by Dave Powell.

There were at least five Marines from Bravo, 1/26 on that flight, most returning from R & R. There were also a number of PFCs listed as being with H & S Company, 1/26, some of whom I am sure were new guys bound for Bravo Company as replacements for the casualties of the Ghost Patrol.

There were two men on that flight that I knew or knew of: the photographer, Ellison, and Corporal Ron Ryan, a machine gun team leader who had been with Bravo since the fall of ’67.

When people you know, and people you are related to by virtue of being in the same company, die, the realization that they will not be coming back gets up on your shoulders and weighs you down, and when the deaths accumulate, the accumulated burden debilitates more and more and more.

When I think of those deaths now, fifty years later, the thoughts still dredge up images of those Khe Sanh days, reminding me of the stacks of stretchers we would see outside the battalion aid station or Charlie Med.

The American poet, Dorianne Laux has written, “No matter what the grief, its weight,/we are obliged to carry it.”*

And with the added burden of the deaths of the men on BOOKIE 762, our grief, its weight, drove us down down down further into the depths of despair. And as the verse says, we were definitely bound to bear the weight. Which we did. Which we do.

When the word came down of the wreck of that plane, a bunch of us were standing in the trench jiving around, and “shooting the moose,” as I recall it. And then we were informed of the deaths—more deaths—and it was like there was no end to death and there would be no end and we were there to receive it and see it and deal with it.

We choked on the words stuffed down our throats, wanting to let them out. But they were trapped inside. All of us sucked long, hard drags on a Lucky, a Winston or a Salem and stared at the red mud deck, the chiseled red walls of the trench. Our thoughts about those men, Ryan, and the others, shrouded us, left us wondering if we would be next. Would it be us?

Lance Corporal R, a former mortician’s assistant from Albany, Georgia, with whom I had served in Bravo Company for almost a year, looked at me and shook his head.

A genuine wit and one of the great homespun philosophers with whom I have ever come in contact, he shook his head again and whispered to me, “Lord, don’t you know it’s a terrible thing.”

He paused, and from experience I knew he had more to say on the subject. He looked me dead in the eye for what seemed like a long time—his eyes seemed bigger than normal, their whites like lighted flares in the night—and then he said, “Better them than me.”

Blogger Ken Rodgers at Khe Sanh prior to the beginning of the siege. Photo courtesy of Michael E. O’Hara.

The brutal honesty of that saying, that moment, bored right down inside my guts and made me stop and ask myself what the hell I thought I was doing in Khe Sanh, the Marine Corps. Was a world so brutal as what we found at Khe Sanh something I wanted to be part of?

And even though I realized I agreed with him, and secretly reveled in my survival, I still felt some kind of guilt, some kind of loss, because those men would not be coming back to us—their family in Vietnam—nor would they go back to hug their mothers and their sisters, their wives and girlfriends.

And there was a passel of grief tied up in the notions that bombarded me as I kept thinking of those men, thinking of Lance Corporal R’s words, feeling guilty because I was alive.

And the grief weighed down and I am obliged to carry it—even now.

*Dorianne Laux, “For the Sake of Strangers,” from her book of poems, WHAT WE CARRY.

****
If you or your organization would like to host a screening of BRAVO! in your town, please contact us immediately.

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. Please consider gifting copies to a veteran, a teacher, a history buff, a library, a friend or family member. For more information, go to https://bravotheproject.com/store/.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject?ref=hl.