One of the things that I’ve discovered during the process of making BRAVO! is how the memories of various men who went through the same events are different. What I remember, someone else doesn’t remember at all, or remembers in a very different way, or maybe the only difference is in a detail or two.
And a follow-up to that notion is the question: Because we don’t remember events the same, are all, one, or none of the memories not the the truth? And that begs another question: Does it matter?
Tomorrow, March 30, will be the 49th anniversary—if that is the correct word—of what has come to be called the Payback Patrol.
On that day, March 30, 1968, I had just a few more days to make it through my thirteen month tour of duty without getting hurt or killed.
We had been told, as I recall, that the patrol out the southeast gate of the Khe Sanh Combat Base was to be a standard patrol to bring back the twenty-seven Marines and Corpsmen we hadn’t saved or salvaged from the nasty events related to the Ghost Patrol of February 25, 1968.
I also recall that when I was told that the patrol would be “standard” some little message kept sneaking into my consciousness whispering something like, “Don’t believe them. It will be hell out there.”
And as it turned out, it was. Twelve Marines lost their lives and most of the other ninety or so participants on our side were wounded. I think, collectively, we killed a lot of our adversaries. But to make matters worse, we didn’t have the opportunity to retrieve our fellow Ghost Patrol Marines because we were locked in mortal combat with the entrenched NVA for hours.
While I was interviewing the men of the film, BRAVO!, it surprised me that some of them recalled the events of March 30 differently than I did. Some remembered that they were told we were going out to assault an entrenched battalion of the NVA’s best troops. Not something I heard or if I did, I chose not to believe it, and if I did that, why? Because I wanted to put the best face on it? I suspect that could be the answer. Optimism is something I have a healthy load of.
One of the other things I don’t recall is the order that Skipper Ken Pipes gave to his radio operator, Tom Quigley, to, “Be advised, fix bayonets.”
Tom Quigley passed that order along to the rest of us via our radio network and as a radio operator, I must have heard that order.
No less than five of the interviewees of the film remember that moment very well—the fixing of bayonets and the inference they took away from the order: that they would be involved in up-close and personal combat, in some cases hand-to-hand battle, and all the images of death in close proximity that one’s mind could dredge up to scare the hell out of you.
With that many of the men spontaneously recalling the event at the interviews some forty-two years later, individually with no prompting from me, I have come to the conclusion that I must have blanked that memory out.
I wonder why. Was it because the thought was too horrible for me to deal with?
I wasn’t personally part of the combat where Marines and NVA soldiers were locked in fights that required the use of bayonets. And since I wasn’t, maybe my memory and my mind settled on the things that did happen to me: getting hit in the side of the head by mortar shrapnel, watching Marines satchel charge and flame throw bunkers with the enemy in them, running out front to call in artillery fire so we could begin to retire and collect our dead and wounded, watching Second Lieutenant Moscato trip a booby trap and get hit in the chin with a Willie Peter round that caused his face to smoke, to find my buddy David Aldrich’s body being carried back to the base after we retired from the battlefield.
It was a horrible day. One of those times, if you are thinking about the Marine ethos, that you associate with what happens when Marines go to war. Although not as long-lived, but over its four or five hour duration probably as savage, the Payback Patrol was akin to Belleau Wood, or Peleliu or Chosin Reservoir. On March 30, 1968, there were enough monstrous memories for every one of us who survived to store away a whole bevy of them and still not recall everything.
It’s curious what you do recall, sometimes, from those moments. One would think that the only thing that mattered was those ultimate instances where your survival was challenged in a terrifyingly personal way in a grippingly personal moment. But one of my clearest memories is of the faces of the dead. How the NVA all looked to me like they were fifteen years old and how the faces of the dead Marines began to change color, becoming sallow, and after a while they seemed to me to be no different in that regard—the tint of the skin—than the enemy. And of course, in the most important way—all of them being dead—they were no different.
I have been thinking a lot, over the past few months, of memory and how important it is for our mental health, that we have the ability to extract these mementos of horror and retell them so we can somehow better deal with the effects they have had on who we have become.
And if one man’s truth isn’t the same as mine in terms of what we recall, I don’t think it really matters. What matters in this regard, it seems to me, is that we learn to confront the reservoirs of monstrance that our un-dealt-with memories harbor.
I know that tomorrow a lot of men who were on the Payback Patrol will join me in recalling their own individual memories of those particular instances—fixed bayonets, charging the NVA trench, killing other men up close—and thinking about them.
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