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

March 21, 2018

Friendly Fire–Fifty Years Gone

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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.”


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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

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

March 19, 2018

Tear in the Fabric

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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—
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—
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

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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

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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.

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

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

February 25, 2018

The Ghost Patrol—Fifty Years Gone

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3rd and 1st Platoons of Bravo Company, 1/26 walked into two ambushes that decimated 3rd Platoon and a little later, part of 1st Platoon while it moved to reinforce 3rd Platoon. The event remains one of the most horrifying of my memories of that long and terrible siege.

Prior to this date, back in 1968, Bravo Company ran patrols out on the south and east sides of Khe Sanh without much action, and it was a surprise when 3rd Platoon marched into the initial ambush that morning.

The patrol is well documented in books and films, and the action’s memories haunt the Marines and Navy Corpsmen who managed to work their way back to the combat base. For some of the men, it took hours to get back. Some don’t really recall coming back. It is a horror story. The few Marines I recall seeing and talking with that day looked at me with eyes haunted by the terrors of that fire fight.

For us, back in the base, the news about the debacle out in the field came through radio communications. If one stood radio watch, he heard the sad and frightening blow-by-blow account through the frantic calls of radio operators on site. We also got the news from the sounds of warfare out to our front.

Photo of Marines on the Ghost Patrol. Photo courtesy of Robert Ellison/Blackstar

It was misty that day, as it was on many days at Khe Sanh, but that didn’t deter the report of explosions and small arms fire that flew at us from out of the field.

We sat and waited and wondered if we would go out to relieve them. Several squads from our platoon, 2nd Platoon, mustered and saddled up and made way to the gate near the trash dump, and awaited orders to go out and help the Marines trapped in those ambushes.

Not picked to go out, I received orders to man a portion of the trench where our platoon was billeted. Instead of Marines in fighting holes all over the place, large gaps appeared between our manned positions. I recall thinking that if the NVA came at us right then and breached the concertina barrier, we were all, as the saying goes, “toast.”

That scared me. I recall Corporal A, who arrived at Bravo Company about the same time I did, being in charge of those of us manning the lines, and it was a great comfort to me when I heard the scuff of his boots in the red mud. I wasn’t alone.

Later, the Marines of 2nd Platoon who had been ordered to stand by to go out in the field began filtering back into our positions with wild tales of incoming pinning them down as they tried to move out the gate. They also cussed the higher-ups who put out the incomprehensible word that any relief for those wounded and dying Marines out there would not come to pass. Orders came down—some opinions I’ve heard and read attribute the orders to Lyndon B. Johnson, president at the time—for us to remain inside the combat base. We abandoned those men.

The stories that followed ate the inside of my guts, and that sensation remains with me today.

It took almost two months for the remains of those brave and forsaken men to be retrieved.

I recall, late on this date, fifty years ago, sitting in the trench with a Marine, Lance Corporal W, whom I knew from 3rd Platoon. A Native-American, he’d participated and lived through most of the combat action that Bravo Company had seen. He told me about what happened out there. About the death of 2nd Lieutenant Don Jacques, platoon commander of 3rd Platoon, about the ambush, and how he and others had carried the body of Lt. Jacques back. When he talked about bodies and wounds, the gunfire and death, I shivered.

Forty years later, when I first heard the fire fight of February 25th termed Ghost Patrol, I thought of cheesy movies and found the glib nature of the name offensive. But over the years, I’ve gotten used to it. I think it very appropriate, because the ghosts of those men keep appearing in my memory.

The ghosts show up in the families of the fallen, too. Last year I came in contact with a brother of one of the men who died on that patrol. He is haunted by the recollections of his brother back when they were young, and when his brother joined the Marines and went off for adventure and to do what generations of 20th Century America did: Joined up and fought. And what remains for him and for all of us, is the ghost, the ghosts.

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

The men of the Ghost Patrol are now just names to most people but the images of them lying in bomb craters with red water in the bottom, waiting for us to save them inhabit my being.

The ghosts often show up in my dreams. Together we man a trench in a night so dark it is almost impossible to see. I hear them breathing, the sound of dungarees swishing with motion, the clink and clack of weapons. And occasionally, I see some light, maybe the moon, the stars, or a flare, reflecting off the whites of their eyes.

And it haunts me.


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

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

February 21, 2018

February 21, 1968—Fifty Years Gone

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A lot of the great followers of BRAVO! have become personal friends, too. Back when we first dreamed of making a film, Lance and Pam Thompson became some of our initial mentors and have been supporters for years. Recently they gifted me a beautiful book of narrative and photographs titled REQUIEM centered on the work of all the photographers who were killed or went missing in the Indo-China, Vietnam and Cambodian wars of the mid-twentieth century.

One of the first photos I found as I thumbed through the striking pictures was a portrait of Robert Ellison who snapped a lot of photos of Bravo Company during the siege before his untimely death on a flight into Khe Sanh on the 6th of March, 1968.

Jarheads like me often sat around the trench aware that Ellison might sneak up and photograph one of us and if you were lucky enough for that to happen, you wanted to appear most vigilant, squared away, warlike, masculine. I doubt he was interested in capturing any image except what was to him, the emotional truth of a moment, the ragged determination, the fright, the courage the defenders of Khe Sanh exhibited.

Marines of Bravo Company, 1/26, on February 25, 1968. Photo by Robert Ellison. Used with permission.

We saw him often, in the trench with his camera, trying to be insignificant. But he knew his job was to portray the reality of war and so he willingly appeared at moments the grunts in the trenches tried to avoid such as the ammo dump going up in red and orange flame on 21 January, a trench full of very frightened men trying not to be pulverized by incoming 152 MM artillery rounds, the ambushed Marines of the Ghost Patrol. It was his job to show the world the ugliness of war in a stark and beautiful way.

My most memorable experience with him was on a day about a month into the siege when the base was taking an awful pounding from the NVA. When that happened—round after round after round of small stuff and big stuff and everything in-between shaking our world—I looked for a place to hide and so did most of the other Marines with whom I served.

We tried to get small. We tried to get away, but there was none of that—getting away. On the day in question, I sat in a bunker, back against a wall. On my left, the trenchline to the north, on my right, the trenchline to the south, and to my front, the trench itself passing right through the bunker where I sat.

I had my knees up against my chest and my head down on my knees, and I flinched with every explosion, and I bounced from the impact of the big ones that landed close and I…I don’t know if I can explain how it feels to be overwhelmed with the fear that all that artillery delivers along with the concussion and shrapnel and roar.

I do know that on that day, I sank deeper and deeper into an abyss. In reality, there was no escaping the physical aspects, the screams and the chaos, the men you knew were probably dying. No escape unless you could hide somewhere inside the mind.

Enduring the barrages allowed agony to creep into the small parts of your body, liver and lungs, vessels and veins, cells, molecules. It was physical input, what was happening outside, feeding what you were on the inside—the great and the ignominious.

Author Ken Rodgers at Khe Sanh. Photo courtesy of Michael O’Hara.

I recall it well, after fifty years. My mind hightailed it away from my body. I could see myself not just sitting on my butt in the damp red mud, but also walking on a tightrope, or maybe a roof peak. On my left was insanity. On my right, sanity but with a caveat that outside, the end of the world as I knew it stalked. I was confused and didn’t know whether to jump to the left, to the side that whispered to me of safety (and some sort of insanity), or to the right, into the outside, the known, the specter of death, or maybe a leg gone, or an arm. No eyes, no jaw.

Lucky for me, I heard the snap of a camera shutter which drew me out of my mind, my fear. I looked to my right and there knelt Robert Ellison, taking photos of me.

I think I had mixed emotions. He had found me in a battle inside my mind, maybe at one of my worst moments at Khe Sanh, maybe the worst moment of my life. I was vulnerable, exposed, caught in the act of battling cowardice. (You couldn’t afford to be a coward there. Peer pressure would gobble you up, not to mention the guilt that would ride your back, spurring you like a devilish master for the rest of your life.) But I also understood that his intervention in my moment of doubt probably saved me from going crazy. And that has earned him my undying thanks.


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

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

February 14, 2018

14 February–Fifty Years Gone

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The big, new guy first showed up at Khe Sanh jammed, along with a lot of other Marines, into a C-130 that took incoming upon approaching the combat base. Lots of Jarheads sat on the deck and men on either side of the big, new guy got hit when NVA anti-aircraft fire perforated the skin of the plane. The flight returned to Danang, but he boarded another C-130 the next morning and returned to the combat base where they kicked the big, new guy off the plane before departure.

Corporal J put him in my fire team and there he stood, telling me about the blood and the flecks of flesh on that first flight as his head shook up and down like someone with palsy.

Khe Sanh Combat Base. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Jittery, he reminded me of quail, just before you bust them with a blast from your twelve-gauge. Those quail sense their impending death before they really know you are stalking them.

I put the big, new guy on first watch that night and I kept going out and to check on him.

I’d ask, “You alright?”

“Yeah, I’m alright.”

Khe Sanh took a lot of incoming at all hours of the day and night and he was so frightened of getting killed by an enemy 152 MM round that he hit the red-mud deck face-first every time one of our F-4 Phantom fighter-bombers flew nearby. Ditto with outgoing barrages from the battery of Marine 105 MM howitzers right behind our fighting holes. Down where my own fear resides, I sensed that his fear meant trouble.

I checked on him just before hitting the rack. Ambient light gathered in the mist so I could see him. He held a fragmentation grenade in his hands.

“What’s the reason for the grenade?”

He bent his knees and hissed, “Gooks!”

I ducked, too and slammed up against the wall of the trench. I peered over the lip but didn’t see anything but the usual; concertina wire and the dark night sky and a wooden shed that I think the Airedales used to help guide airplanes in for a landing.


He whispered, “Right out there.” He used his head to motion towards the concertina barrier.

All I could see out there that might look like a man was that wooden shed.

I talked fast and hard. “There’s nothing out there.”

He spit, “Bullshit, I can see them.”

I said, “Don’t stare at stuff out there, makes you think it’s moving. Let your gaze rove.”

I heard it before I saw it. He’d pulled the pin on that grenade.

I cajoled, I ordered, I almost begged him to put the pin back in the grenade. Then I grabbed his hands and we got into a push and shove. Like I said, he was big and like most Marines who’d been in the bush for almost twelve months, I wasn’t much thicker than a cigarette.

While all of this transpired, I imagined the grenade going off and what it would do to our arms and stomachs and chests and hearts, our faces.

He finally gave up the grenade and the pin and I got the damned thing squared away and stashed in the fighting hole before I began to slap him and punch him and kick him and talk nasty about his mamma.

He wrapped his arms around me and slammed me to the ground and asked me politely to quit hitting him.

Later that night, I told Corporal J to get him out of my fire team. J told me to settle down, but I wasn’t settling down. A man as frightened as that big, new guy would cost us lives. So away he went, to Weapons Platoon to be an ammo-humper for a machine gun team.

Over a month later, we assaulted a ridge southeast of the Gray Sector at Khe Sanh. By that time, I’d moved on from a fire team leader in a rifle squad to become a radio operator in the platoon command post.

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

Staff Sergeant A and I moved down a trench as the war hammered around us. Sallow-faced dead people littered the field. Explosions rocked the ground, throwing red dirt into the air. Everywhere you advanced, bullets snapped, guns roared, men yelled and men screamed.

Trying to stay focused on radio communications, I looked off to my right—to this day, the memory is one of my strongest—and I saw a machine gunner thumping a Marine’s head with the butt end of his M-60.

It stopped me cold in my tracks. In my mind, the Marine getting pummeled has always been that man with whom I’d wrestled over that grenade. As sure as those quail I wrote about earlier know you’re going to bust them with your shot, I knew—I know it now—it was the big, new guy getting his head bashed in.

I think all combat vets intuit this but don’t really want to talk about it, how fear can crush your throat and grab your gonads and twist you into someone you never imagined you’d become.


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February 9, 2018

9 February 1968—Fifty Years Ago Today

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Early in the sequence of events that make up this blog, I sat on top of a bunker with a Marine as he fired a fifty-caliber machine gun at anything that moved outside the concertina wire. F-4 Phantoms, F-8 Crusaders and A-4 Skyhawks swooped down and dropped bombs and napalm. Suddenly, in flames, enemy warriors erupted from a depression in the landscape. Like burning matchsticks with legs, they ran and we pomp-pomp-pomped at them with that fifty-caliber.

Almost immediately the whistle of rockets sent us diving for cover. In a memory that periodically crashes into my consciousness, I recall a Marine sprinting across a stretch of open ground just before I hit the deck.

When the shock of landing on my head retreated and the stench of explosives cleared my nasal passages, I heard screaming. The fifty-caliber machine gunner and I leapt out of the trench and scrabbled over to the Marine who’d been running. A chunk of shrapnel from one of those incoming rockets had severed his arm and blood shot out like a rampant river.

We tried a tourniquet as we hollered for a corpsman who, mercifully for both the wounded Marine and us, showed up.

That was just the beginning of a series of events that set me to gnawing fingernails.

In the early hours of 5 February, NVA troops attacked and breached the perimeter of Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 26th Marines’ perimeter on Hill 861-A. We hunkered down in our fighting holes on Red Alert and waited to be attacked.

PT-76 Tank

The following night, the NVA attacked the Special Forces installation at the ville of Lang Vei, a community a few miles southwest of the combat base. Again we were up all night on Red Alert.
Word slithered down the trench like a four-foot spitting cobra that the assault on Lang Vei included tanks.


All night I heard the clank of metal, like the sounds tank tracks make as the vehicle turns. The NVA did employ PT-76 tanks that night. I often wonder if those sounds that shivered me with terror were real or if I just made them up, my imagination fueled by fear.

For me the ring of death began to choke our esprit de corps. Facial expressions seemed grimmer, teeth gritted tighter, eyes stared out of sockets like they watched the end of the world. The humor grew as dark as the nights into which we peered. And the incoming kept slamming into our bunkers and trenches, sending debris and red dust flying.

C-130 taking off at Khe Sanh.

On 8 February, Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, the celebrated “Walking Dead,” had a platoon overrun in one hell of a nasty firefight near the “rock quarry” west of the main combat base. Again, we stood prepared on Red Alert.

I wondered if I’d ever see my mother again, or my best friend, or my girlfriend—even though I really didn’t have a girlfriend. The pit in my stomach felt bigger than Arizona, where I’m from. I walked around in a perpetual state of dry mouth, trying to keep my hands from shaking, talking a tough, vulgar patois to the men with whom I served. For the most part, I reckon they were doing the same thing.

The next day, the 10th, a C-130 plane approached the combat base. This plane, call sign “Basketball 813,” flew south of the base and the men in my fire team and I watched it as we filled sandbags.

Antiaircraft fire struck “Basketball 813” which struggled around to the west end of the strip. Smoke and fire flared out of the fuselage as it landed. The plane roared down the runway until it careened off the south side of the tarmac and pitched into a ditch. It erupted in flames.

We all broke for the wreckage which wasn’t that far away. One of the most vivid memories I have of my time at Khe Sanh is watching men come out of the cockpit through those big windows at the front of the plane. They hung by their hands and dropped to the earth. It was a long drop.

Blogger Ken Rodgers prior to the beginning of the Siege. Photo courtesy of Michael E. O’Hara.

As I watched that conflagration, it seemed almost unreal. Revulsion, fear, despair did not rear up in me as I realized that whoever was in the back of the plane would burn to death. I was immune. Mayhem and catastrophe were an everyday occurrence. This realization haunts me.


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January 29, 2018

January 29–50 Years Gone

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Fifty Years Ago—29 January 1968

Right before the siege began, a bunch of new Marines arrived to beef up Bravo Company to nearly its full complement of warriors. One of those Marines was a staff sergeant whose real name I never knew. Upon his arrival, he spent a large portion of his supervisory time hard-assing all of us who had been with the company a while.

What rankled a lot was the fact that most of his Marine Corps service was as a reservist, so when he came down the trench line kvetching at us for not filling sandbags fast enough or for too much jiving around, we waited until he moved on before muttering about “Mr. Macho Gung-ho Green Machine Maggot,” or badmouthing him for being a “weekend warrior.”

The man talked trash and bragged that he could kick our asses and do serious damage to the NVA, too.

But it wasn’t long after January 21, eight days or so, when one of my buddies, Corporal A, came marching down the trench with news of Mr. Macho Gung-ho Green Machine Maggot. Corporal A had arrived at Bravo Company three or four days before me and we’d palled around some even though he was in Weapons Platoon (his killing specialty was rockets).

A stark image of the damage war can do. Photo courtesy of Mac McNeely.

Corporal A was a pretty quiet guy who wasn’t given to overemphasis, so it was a great surprise when he came dancing down the line, a big smile on his face.

He yelled at me, “Rodgers, he’s gone.”

“Who’s gone?”

“Staff Sergeant Macho Gung-ho.”

I said, “Already? Did he get hit?”

“Naw, man, he lost it.”

“Lost it?” Right then I felt a little surge rocket up through my legs.

“Yeah. He went total dinky-dow.”

Right then, a notion leapt into my mind that here we were, the men of Bravo, privates and privates first class, lance corporals and corporals—what we often called the “Snuffy Smiths” of the Corps—and none of us had gone total dinky-dow. (Dinky-dow is the American bastardization of the Vietnamese dien cai dao which roughly translates as “crazy.”)

In my mind, I could see Staff Sergeant Macho Gung-ho Green Machine, his face the color of blood as he hard-assed us for some stupid stateside Jarhead idea that he thought accounted for something in the trenches, and how we’d bitten our bottom lips so as not to tell him exactly what we thought.

I mused out loud, “Dinky-dow, hunh?”

Corporal A surprised me when he jumped up and down and yelled, “Hell, yeah, just like this,” before dropping down on his hands and knees, digging in the bottom of the trench like a dog attacking a gopher hole, then howling and barking like said canine.

“Aw, hell, I don’t believe that,” I scoffed.

He jumped up and said, “No, Rodgers, I saw it, after that last little barrage of 122-millimeter rockets came in and hit behind the open space up by 2nd Platoon’s command post. He was ordering me and the rest of my rocket team to make sure our gear was squared away when those rounds came in and scared the hell out of all of us. Then he started running back and forth in the trench with a face that looked like it had been stretched in seven different directions. Then he dropped down and started digging like a dog and barking.”

At the time, I didn’t feel sorry for Staff Sergeant Macho Gung-ho Green Machine. I felt . . . I felt vindicated, proud. I might have stuck my chest out. We didn’t like that Marine and he hadn’t been too smart about how he treated all us old salts, so his breakdown made me proud. I think it made Corporal A and the men in my fireteam and any other “Snuffy” who had experienced the distinct displeasure of one of his butt-chewings proud. We held up. We could stand up to the fury. We were the real Mr. Macho Gung-ho Marines.

I don’t know what happened to Staff Sergeant Gung-ho Green Machine, but I do know I never saw him again.

Of course, later, as the Siege drug on, I had my moments where I came close to losing it, although I never lost it as bad as that staff sergeant.

That Marine didn’t last long before the mental aspects of incoming got to him. Over the succeeding years, many of the rest of us ended up exhibiting our own symptoms of what has been called over the decades, “Soldier’s Heart, Shell Shock, Battle Fatigue and PTSD” as the effects of warfare picked and whittled at our attempts to be the young men we had been before it all began.

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

At Khe Sanh We were macho and we were tough. Emotionally fragile yet for the most part also supple, we survived the direct onslaught of mental effects that combat bestows upon those who survive. Yet the siege made us brittle, too, and deep down some of us shattered, went “Dinky-dow” on some level. Some of us sooner than later. And like Staff Sergeant Macho Gung-ho, some not just on the inside where most of us stuff our feelings about the war, but on the outside: prison, jail, alcoholism, suicide, insanity.

One of the things I pride myself most on in surviving the Siege of Khe Sanh is how I, for the most part, held myself together in the face of maiming, death and the constant pressure of fear. But as I said, I had my moments of being “dinky dow,” too, and sometimes (for decades) I wondered if the Siege of Khe Sanh would ever let me be.

Now, fifty years later, I don’t feel compelled to judge the staff sergeant so severely. War and fear take a heavy toll on all of us, leaders and “Snuffies” alike.


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January 21, 2018

Fifty Years Ago Today–The Big Shebang

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Fifty Years Ago Today—January 21, 1968

I jerked awake as one of the Marines in my fire team yanked at my leg and screamed, “Incoming.”

Explosions roared and the earth shook. Dust filled the air along with the scent of fright.

Outside in the black of early morning, Marines screamed, rockets and artillery rounds boomed, our ammo dump went up like ten thousand 4th of Julys.

Men sprinted hear and there.

Khe Sanh Combat Base

My head spun and a notion of what waited out in the dark infected my mind. Along with a lot of other Marines, I fell down in the bottom of the trench and buried my face in the mud.

Something hit my back and burned through my flak jacket. I yelled, “I’m hit, I’m hit.”

The Marine whose skull I split open the day before crawled over and began to laugh.
I thought, “He’s getting even.”

His hand swept across my back as he leaned next to my right ear and whispered, “Clods, Rodgers. Just clods.”

The CS gas that was stored in the exploding ammo dump began sneaking down the trench lines.

I found my gas mask, pulled it over my head and face, and crawled inside the nearest machine gun bunker. The gunner knelt behind his M-60 as we stared out at the edge of our lines. We all knew what would come, an assault led by sappers breaching our concertina wire and then hard core warriors of the NVA following through the holes blasted in our perimeter.

Everyone looked like weird beetles. It was the gas masks.

The platoon right guide sat against the north wall. A nasty gash on his right shin dripped blood. A corpsman came and patched him up after telling him, “Aw, hell, it’s nothing. You’ll get a Purple Heart.”

I don’t know how long we waited for the attack to come. But as the light of day glowed, it seemed we weren’t to be overrun.

Outside, the ammo dump continued to cook off like the worst artillery attack in the world.

Sometime later, a runner came down from the platoon command post and told me the lieutenant wanted to see me. I followed the messenger out the bunker’s back hatch and down the trench.

The lieutenant told me that the unit to our left could not be contacted and he wanted me to go down and see if I could assay the situation.

I didn’t want to go down that trench to see what was happening, but I did. I passed the men of 1st and 2nd squads then came to a bend in the trench, closer to the ammo dump, which by that time had calmed down.

I wondered if there were NVA soldiers around that crook in the trench and that’s why no one could contact the Marines who manned that area.

Debris at Khe Sanh. Photo Courtesy of David Douglas Duncan.

I crept, my M-16 ready if I needed it.

A Marine lay in the trench. He looked like he was dead. All around him spent ordnance that had come from the ammo dump littered the red mud.

I duck-walked up and leaned close. His eyes opened and he blinked. I knew this man. We had arrived at Bravo Company about the same time. I don’t remember his name.

He had a jagged hole ripped in his right trouser leg and the flesh looked like raw hamburger.

He said, “One of those 155 rounds in the dump went up and came down on my leg.” He laughed.

I said, “Need some morphine?”

He shook his head, “I’ve had plenty.”

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

The next Marine I found had been hit between the legs by Willie Peter (white phosphorus). I don’t remember the conversation between us but remember wondering if he’d lose his family jewels.

On down the trench, I found men in similar situations—wounded. And if not wounded, in a state of shock that reminded me of stories from World War I.

But they weren’t wiped out.

I reported back to the lieutenant and then marched back to my bunker.

It was day one.


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