Bravo! The Project - A Documentary Film

Archive for March 6th, 2018

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

March 6, 2018

March 6—50 Years Gone

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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.

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