Bravo! The Project - A Documentary Film

Posts Tagged ‘1st Battalion 26th Marines’

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

February 24, 2016

On February 25th

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Forty-eight years ago on February 25, 1968, Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment’s Third and First Platoons were trapped in a nasty ambush that has since become something of a legend in the lore of the Marine Corps.

Third Platoon, on a patrol outside the wire at Khe Sanh Combat Base, was ambushed by troops from the North Vietnamese Army and when elements of First Platoon attempted to relieve Third Platoon, they were also ambushed.

I wasn’t out there that day. I was sitting inside the wire, peering in the direction from which the gunfire and explosions were coming, and listening to the strained voices of men in extreme danger come over the radio.

I have written about the event—now known as The Ghost Patrol or the Lost Patrol—before, and one of the reasons I keep writing about it is because the memories of that day and the men we lost preys on my mind.

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

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

At the time, and for some time after, we, the Marines and Corpsmen of Bravo Company, didn’t call it The Ghost Patrol or the Lost Patrol. I don’t think we called it anything. We didn’t need to because it loomed large in our psyches and in some regards, for some of us, it remains so today.

Unfortunately for mankind, this kind of event is fairly common in warfare and I suspect will remain so as long as we humans send our warriors into harm’s way.

You don’t have to go back very far in history to find record of the mayhem that ensues when a combat operation falls apart. S. L. A. Marshall, in his book titled THE RIVER AND THE GAUNTLET about the American 8th Army’s debacle in Korea, describes in detail fire-fight after fire-fight in which American troops were wounded, killed and captured, their units chewed up by the Chinese Army in November of 1950.

The thing that’s on my mind now, as I write this, is that if it is so common, why is it so devastating to us? Of course it’s because these sorry, dismal events happen to real people. More than maps and strategies, the things that we as warriors often remember are the faces or our comrades before and after the combat, the memories of a shared can of peaches or pears, three on a match, telling stories about back home as we brew coffee in a C-ration over the heat from a chunk of C-4. It’s personal.

In our film, BRAVO! COMMON MEN, UNCOMMON VALOR, we manage to capture some of that sense of loss that we, the men of Bravo Company, felt, as the events of February 25 tumbled about us. The loss. Such a waste. If only things had occurred differently. But they didn’t. They don’t. And of course, it wasn’t just us. Every service has had and will have the moments where close comrades are lost as an operation falls apart.

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

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

There was a civilian photographer at Khe Sanh (there were several) when the events of February 25 happened, and his name was Robert Ellison. Ellison captured some graphic and profoundly revelatory photographs of some of the Marines and Corpsmen involved in The Ghost Patrol. He was roaming around outside the base perimeter, helping wounded Marines struggle in while he took photos of the faces of war. What he captured on film reveals the men in ways that are heart rending. I share a few of his photos in this blog.

Unfortunately, Robert Ellison became a casualty of the Vietnam War on March 6, 1968, while aboard a plane on its way back to Khe Sanh from the coast. That plane crashed into a mountain outside the combat base and Ellison was killed along with all the other men on that flight. The photographs he left us are a powerful legacy.

Marines hauling a casualty during the Ghost Patrol. Photo courtesy of Robert Ellison/Blackstar

Marines hauling a casualty during the Ghost Patrol. Photo courtesy of Robert Ellison/Blackstar

Yes, combat is about people and personal loss and the things that happen to our souls when we go through the nightmares of war. In many ways, I think, our souls are damaged, often until the end of our lives.

If you or your organization would like to host a screening of BRAVO! in your town this coming spring, summer, fall or next winter please contact us immediately.

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

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

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

February 25, 2015

On the Ghost Patrol and a School at Khe Sanh

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For years I wasn’t sure what date it was but I sure as hell could remember what I now know are the events of February 25, 1968. Now we call it the Ghost Patrol, but back then it was only heeled into my memory as the day of catastrophe.

Mark me, I was a lucky man in Vietnam. Even though Bravo 1/26 saw lots of action, I missed most of the face-to-face fire fights. The Ghost Patrol was one of those events I missed. What I didn’t miss was the mental and emotional responses that arose as a result of me being there at Khe Sanh, watching, listening to, the horror of the Ghost Patrol. Yeah, we could see it, kind of, and we could hear it out there and we watched the survivors straggle back in and we knew that there were Bravo Marines out there, dying, being bayoneted, shot, maybe tortured but we couldn’t go out and get them. Some higher-ups put a stop to the company’s attempts to rescue their brothers.

You probably know that United States Marines pride themselves on the fact that they don’t leave their dead and wounded behind. We bring them back. We go get them. But we didn’t go get them. Not until much later when all hopes of survival were extinguished. So for 47 years, we have been—I say we because I suspect the rest of the men in BRAVO! who missed the action on February 25, 1968 feel like me—ashamed, angry, distraught and, yeah, I know you can’t change the past but sometimes the memories of that day are more like the present; the breath of a deadly mist hanging over the sopping sandbags lining the trench; the sound of Hueys firing rockets; bombs and napalm roaring in the ears. The smell of death and cordite. Yeah, shame and anger.

For years I thought we’d left 33 men out there. I don’t know where that came from. Could have been that’s what the unofficial official figure was. When we went back out to get them on 3/30/68, that’s how many I thought we’d pick up. And for years I’d lie awake in the middle of the night with the memory jabbing me to remember those 33 bodies lying out there doing what dead bodies do. Now I know it was not 33, but 27 men left out there. But the numbers belie the real issue: Warrior brothers left to die out there in the aftermath of the Ghost Patrol on February 25, 1968.

Kids at Khe Sanh school

Kids at Khe Sanh school


Pha
On a more hopeful note, I received a message from a Mr. Bill Shugarts who served with the United States Army in Vietnam and who is now a docent with National Park Service at The Wall. Bill is also involved with a group of folks who travel to Vietnam and help out the locals there with schools and housing.

I told Bill I could put up some photos and info on the BRAVO! blog about what he and others are doing in Vietnam with Global Community Service, a 501(c)(3) non-profit. Here’s a link to the website for the organization: http://globalcommunityservice.org/.

Here is a notice about one of the schools their work within Khe Sanh and some of the items Global Community Service provided through the donations they received from folks like you and me:

Khe Sanh Library Project’s Phase 2

Students and teachers at Pa Nho School, a satellite branch of Khe Sanh Primary School, now enjoy a computer, a reading table for ten students, ten reading lamps, four outdoor reading benches, a Cassette/CD player, four big bookshelves, and many new books. In December, over 130 young children enjoyed the new items.
Here’s an anecdote from one of the students at Pa Nho School:

I love the bookshelf very much. It is colorful and it has many books. I like reading picture books. And I also love the CD player. I thought it was for playing music but you can also study English, shared Ho A Dinh (age 9).

As I write this, I think about the dichotomy of it all. Ghost Patrol, bayonets, AK-47s, bodies left behind. A school in Khe Sanh, 47 years hence, pencils and CD players, bookshelves. Maybe there is some good to come from all this. Bill says the people he meets in Vietnam love Americans. Maybe some good came from all that. Was it bad, what occurred…or was it just part of being human?

If you are so inclined, consider putting your computer curser on that web link for the Global Community Service organization (http://globalcommunityservice.org/) and send along a donation, large or small, to help the kids in Khe Sanh.

More kids at Khe Sanh school.

More kids at Khe Sanh school.

On the screening front:

On March 30, 2015, BRAVO! will be shown at the Egyptian Theater in Boise, Idaho. Doors open at 6:00 PM. Program begins at 6:45 PM. Following the screening there will be a panel discussion moderated by Boise author extraordinaire, Alan Heathcock. The panel discussion will include veterans, some of whom are in the film. Proceeds will benefit the Idaho Veterans’ Network and Veterans’ Treatment Courts. Discounted advance tickets are available online from the Egyptian Theater here at http://www.egyptiantheatre.net/event/2886/?instance_id=28.

Additional Idaho screenings to support the Veterans’ Courts and the Idaho Veterans’ Network will be held at the Williams Conference Center at Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, Idaho, on March 27, 2015 from 6:00 PM to 9:00 PM, suggested donation of $5.00, and there will be beverages and snacks provided; Twin Falls, Idaho, on March 31, 2015, at the College of Southern Idaho’s Fine Arts Building, 6:00 to 9:00 PM; Caldwell, Idaho, on April 1, 2015, at College of Idaho’s Langroise Recital Hall, 6:00 to 9:00 PM; and in Pocatello, Idaho, 6:00 to 9:00PM.

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

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

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject/. It’s another way to stay up on our news and help raise more public awareness of this film.

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

January 28, 2015

On Memory, Leeches and Hill 471

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January 28th at Khe Sanh seems to have no place in my memory. Several Marines were killed that day by incoming but I don’t remember anything about it. That’s one of the things that bugs me about enduring the siege. I have great gaps in what I remember.

The American educator and philosopher, John Dewey, said: “Time and memory are true artists; they remould reality nearer to the heart’s desire.”

If I think about that quote it leads me to conclude that today, based on my recollections as I write this, my heart’s desire must be that the bulk of my memories of living the Siege be hidden. Am I off base to make that claim? And yet so often I still find myself struggling with trying to remember what happened there.

Memory of the siege comes in spurts. Thinking of day one, I remember that horror. I also remember the listening posts, work parties, standing watch, eating chow, but not when they happened. I recall some conversations, some battles, and other isolated moments during my time there.

I remember watching the ARVN’s 37th Ranger Battalion move in front of us sometime around January 28. I remember how I felt having them out there. I remember thinking that if they got overrun and retreated to our lines, we would probably have shot them all. They were Vietnamese. Good guys or bad, we thought they all looked alike. I’m glad I don’t have to deal with those memories. Being overrun. Killing my allies because they looked like my enemy.

I remember the fall of Lang Vei, and the many days where we received in excess of a thousand rounds of incoming. I remember lying in the trench as the shells battered battered battered the red ground. The kaplunk they made when leaving their tubes. It was creepy suddenly realizing that the round was on its way by the time you heard that kaplunk. And there was the whistle or the scream or the roar they made coming at you. Messengers singing a deadly song aimed at me.

I remember feeling like I was in a little cocoon and all the world around was shaking and rattling and attacking that cocoon. The cocoon wasn’t safe, but it was all I had. What became critical was my ability to stay within my own mind—the last bastion of protection, the kernel, the essence of who I was. That cocoon.

One day, early on, I was lucky enough to survive a near hit. The thing that was branded into my memory right then was the sound I heard when that round left its tube, how it sounded on its way to greet me.

I learned to listen for the sounds of those rounds. 120 MM and 130 MM and 152 MM pieces banging away at me sent me not-so-subtle messages that they were on the way. Funny, thinking about that now: that as they intended to kill me, they also warned me. It was like a game, with weird rules. We’re going to kill you, but with that in mind we’re going to help you out. We’re going to send you a message.

I must have gotten pretty good at hearing those warnings because I’m still alive. That ability to sense where incoming rounds would hit and a healthy dose of luck saved me.

Ken Rodgers. co-producer of BRAVO! Photo courtesy of Kevin Martini-Fuller

Ken Rodgers. co-producer of BRAVO! Photo courtesy of Kevin Martini-Fuller

Right this moment I wish that something would have saved my memory. Was my experience there so fraught with fright, so laden with the horrors that man can deliver to man that I have to forget it?

It’s funny, yet much of what I do recall is some of the more mundane events at Khe Sanh, especially before the siege ever began, before it was even a possibility.

If I don’t recall anything about January 28 nor 29, 1968 when a team of Army personnel and some of their Bru cohorts (Bru were local montagnards who often fought with US forces) went out towards Hill 471 and got into a nasty dustup with the NVA, I do remember Hill 471 from an earlier encounter.

In late May of 1967 we went out on a company-sized operation towards the high ground around Hill 471 when the Khe Sanh TAOR still had vegetation that wasn’t blasted to smithereens. Hill 471 was covered with trees. We approached the summit and 3rd Platoon ran into some NVA and shot and killed one. Then we called in air strikes. I recall sitting on the edge of a bomb crater watching A-4 Skyhawks, F-4 Phantoms and F-8 Crusaders swoop down and drop bombs, strafe with cannons and machine guns, and shoot rockets. It was up close and made my heart hammer and the big basso whine of shrapnel winging through the sky sounded like the song of hell. Big chunks of bomb landed all around us and hissed when it hit in damp spots in the bottoms of craters.

That operation is where I met my first leech. Didn’t notice it until it was the size of my thumb. Maybe that’s because they were the size of pencil lead when they latched on and hard to see. I didn’t know what to think and all the old Vietnam salts laughed at me.

That’s where I saw my first bamboo viper, too. Corporal Fritsche and I chased it through—you guessed it—the bamboo, but it eased away like life leaving a wounded man. Besides Fritsche, I remember a lot more names from that time than during the siege: Ward, Blankenship, James, Poorman, Little John, Deedee, Pacheco, Carswell, Callahan, Fideli, Steinhardt, “Fearless” Bosowski, Enyart, Bowers and Lens.

We patrolled around Hill 471 and set up a perimeter for the evening. I recall sitting on top of a ridge most of the night on watch, unable to drift into sleep watching for the NVA to creep between the trunks of trees and slither out of the bamboo thickets to our front. But they didn’t come.

More than once I’ve wondered if I shouldn’t have a shrink hypnotize me and take me back to relive every second of my time at Khe Sanh. I wonder if the hypnotism shouldn’t be taped and transcribed. But as I think about it, I always decide not to do that. I think there may be a good reason why my memories of a lot of my time at Khe Sanh are subdued, hidden, masked.

The American writer John Irving said, “Your memory is a monster; you forget – it doesn’t. It simply files things away. It keeps things for you, or hides things from you – and summons them to your recall with a will of its own. You think you have a memory; but it has you!”

All my Vietnam events are filed away, I suppose, and available to show up if prodded by something…a dream, the way a tree looks in winter, its fallen leaves, the way its naked branches fling shadows on a bank of snow. Or the sound of a truck running down the highway, the rumble trapped against the sides of a retaining wall, the rap rap rap. Or a white bird soaring over a field of snowy corn stubble. The sound of a gun.

On the screening front, mark your calendars for a fundraising screening in Casa Grande, Arizona, on February 15, 2015, at the historic Paramount Theatre. Doors open at Noon, lunch served at 1:00 PM, screening of BRAVO! to follow at 2:00 PM. Ticket cost: $15.00 advance purchase or at the door. Proceeds will benefit the Mobile Veterans Center and Emergency Veterans Services in Pinal County.

On March 30, 2015, BRAVO! will be screened at the Egyptian Theater in Boise Idaho. Doors open at 6:00 PM. Program begins at 6:45 PM. Following the screening there will be a panel discussion moderated by Boise author extraordinaire, Alan Heathcock. The panel discussion will include veterans, some of whom are in the film. Proceeds will benefit the Idaho Veterans’ Network and Veterans’ Treatment Courts. Tickets are available online from the Egyptian Theater here.

Additional Idaho screenings to support the Veterans’ Courts and the Idaho Veterans’ Network will be held in Lewiston, Idaho, on March 18, 2015, time and location to be determined; Twin Falls, Idaho, on March 31, 2015, at the College of Southern Idaho’s Fine Arts Building, time yet to be determined; Caldwell, Idaho, on April 1, 2015, at College of Idaho’s Langroise Recital Hall, time to be determined; and in Pocatello, Idaho, at a time yet to be determined.

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

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

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject/. It’s another way to stay up on our news and help raise more public awareness of this film.

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

August 13, 2014

New Honors for the Fallen of Khe Sanh

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We posted a blog in June of this year that pondered, among other things, a firefight that occurred northwest of Hill 881 South on June 7, 1967. Two platoons of Bravo Company, 1/26, were involved in that battle. Before the acrid scent of gunpowder had disappeared, it was clear that Bravo had taken a significant number of casualties.

One of the men killed in that action was HN (Corpsman) Gregory Vercruysse. Last month I heard from Gregory’s younger brother, Dean. Dean and I have traded e-mails about that day, about Gregory, about memory and honor.

Marines on Hill 881 South. Photo courtesy of NamViet News

Marines on Hill 881 South. Photo courtesy of NamViet News

In November of this year, Gregory is to be posthumously honored by the city of Liberty Lake, Washington. Greg (as his brother Dean refers to him) will be memorialized at the City of Liberty Lake’s Fallen Heroes Circuit Course by having a circuit station named after him. First dedicated in September 2013, the course’s stations will all be designated in the name of one of Liberty Lake’s fallen.

This isn’t the first time that a blog we have written about one of the men who served at Khe Sanh has given rise to a member of the family contacting us. We receive queries about loved ones who were killed in action or who were wounded or who managed to get home in one piece but who are now gone.

Sometimes all this blogging and filmmaking and creating art and recording history about the events centered around the Khe Sanh locale gets to be a heavy load. Yet, when it starts to feel like we are spitting into the wind, someone like Dean Vercruysse contacts us about his brother or a cousin and suddenly the importance of what we are doing becomes clear again.

If you are interested in seeking out more about the City of Liberty Lake’s Fallen Heroes Circuit Course, you can find information HERE.

Bravo Blogger Ken Rodgers looking back at you.

Bravo Blogger Ken Rodgers looking back at you.

On the screening front, BRAVO! will be shown in Nampa, Idaho, on September 25, 2014 at the Elks Lodge. Doors will open at 6:00 PM with the screening of the film at 6:30, followed by a Q & A session. Suggested donation, $10.00 to benefit the Wyakin Warrior Foundation. http://www.wyakin.org.

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

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. For more information go to https://bravotheproject.com/buy-the-dvd/.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject/. It’s another way you can help us reach more people like Dean Vercruysse.

Documentary Film,Marines,Other Musings,Vietnam War

July 2, 2014

On The Many Faces of Fear and the Quest for Closure

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I recently received a telephone call from a gentleman I met last year at the Khe Sanh Veterans reunion in Nashville, TN. He reminded me that he had come to the reunion back in September to see if he could find out information about his cousin, Glenn Sanders from Alpha Company, 1/26 who was KIA at Khe Sanh in late June, 1967.

When we met in Nashville, I couldn’t help him because Glenn Sanders was with a different outfit than mine, so I introduced him around to some of the men I knew who were in Alpha 1/26 and that’s the last I knew of him until he called me last week.

Khe Sanh Combat Base, Photo courtesy of www.authentichistory.com

Khe Sanh Combat Base, Photo courtesy of www.authentichistory.com

Here’s some background: In the early morning hours of June 27, 1967, the NVA rocketed and mortared the Khe Sanh Combat Base, killing and wounding a number of Marines from 1/26. Later that day, elements of CAC Oscar-3 and the Third Battalion, 26th Marines, first probed and then assaulted Hill 689 southwest of Khe Sanh where the incoming from that early morning was fired.

A number of men were killed and wounded before Hill 689 was secured by the Marines of 3/26. All tolled, the number of men KIA on those days, according to Reverend Ray Stubbe’s Battalion of Kings, was 28.

I was up on Hill 881 South with Bravo Company when all this action took place. We could hear the combat and were on 100% alert while the fighting occurred.

During the dark hours the fog was so dense you could carve it with a K-bar. Jim Richardson from Albany, Georgia, and I manned a bunker on the west side of the 881 South. We whispered back and forth to each other. Jim had been a mortician before enlisting in the Corps, so we probably whispered about death and dead bodies. We did that to keep our minds off what was out there crawling around, intent on killing us.

I recall one instance in particular when we heard something out to our front. The mist was so thick that water dripped off the top of the bunker and down onto the sandbagged parapet at the front of our position. Drip, drip, drip. But what we heard beyond that was more distinct. It was scraping, like maybe someone was crawling up to the concertina wire in front of our bunker. We snapped our M-16s off safe and leaned against the parapet.

Hill 881 South, photo courtesy of www.talkingproud.us

Hill 881 South, photo courtesy of www.talkingproud.us

It happened in less time that it took for one of those drips to leave the moldy green sandbags and fall the foot or so to the parapet below. An enormous rat—he must have been two-and-a-half feet from the end of his tail to the tip of his nose—leapt down on the parapet right in front of Jim and me.

At first I thought a grenade had hit the front of our position. Both Jim and I ducked as the rat slapped the sandbag and still not sure what had hit the parapet, we fell to the deck and covered our necks until we heard the critter scrabble off the sandbags and into the night.

How we had the discipline not to light up the night with our M-16s and send that rat to rodent hell, I do not know. Or maybe it wasn’t discipline at all; maybe we were too frightened to do anything more than react.

We both laughed. We laughed so loud that the platoon sergeant and the squad leader came down the line and hissed at us to shut up.

Ken Rodgers, © Betty Rodgers, 2012

Ken Rodgers, © Betty Rodgers, 2012

The dichotomies and ironies of combat were and are never ending. Down below us at the combat base and out on Hill 689, Marines and Corpsmen were dying. NVA soldiers were dying. And we were up on Hill 881 South giggling that we had been attacked by a rat. And we were so relieved that it was only a rat, all we could do was laugh.

One of those dying men was Glenn Sanders, the cousin of the man who I met in Nashville and who called me last week. He wanted to report that he had made contact with a number of the men in Alpha Company, 1/26, and even though none of them remembered Glenn, they did tell him the circumstances of the attack the early morning of June 27, 1967.

Consequently, this man who was searching for clues and information about his cousin’s death has been able to pass on to friends and relatives news about this Marine who didn’t make it out of Khe Sanh. And furthermore, on Memorial Day, 2014, this Marine who was killed at Khe Sanh was honored by the family’s local church. It may be 47 years late, but at least the honoring happened and hopefully those friends and family who remain alive, who knew this Marine, have some kind of closure.

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

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. For more information go to https://bravotheproject.com/buy-the-dvd/.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject/. It’s another way you can help spread the word about the film and what it is really like to fight in a war.

Documentary Film,Guest Blogs,Khe Sanh,Marines,Vietnam War

June 25, 2014

A Beacon for All the Words that Remain Unspoken

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By Don Johnson

2.5 ~ 58,000 ~ 6,000,000 ~ 60,000,000 ~ 250

Numbers, the kind I’ve seen a lot of recently, the kind that makes me realize just how fortunate my number really was.

I’ve seen Bravo! twice now; 2.5 times, to be exact. The .5 was the time I tuned into its broadcast on the local PBS channel, but misread the schedule and tuned in an hour late. That’s a dumb way to watch this moving documentary; it can’t be cut up into pieces. Bravo! must be swallowed whole.

Bravo! doesn’t go down like honey. It’s a bitter pill, but turns into honey later once you get to know the minds and hearts of the veteran Khe Sanh
survivors who were interviewed for the film.

Don Johnson Photo courtesy of Crane Johnson

Don Johnson
Photo courtesy of Crane Johnson

I last saw this amazing and heart-wrenching documentary on May Day, at a showing hosted by our local camera club. It’s a small group, so we were treated to some genuine and rare personal time with Ken and Betty. We’re lucky to have such hometown heroes, and grateful that they could find time for us. Because of the intimate atmosphere, I was able to absorb the events on the screen as if it were being screened only for me. It made a huge impact, and not in the way I expected.

I’ve watched I don’t know how many war movies and documentaries on WWII, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, just like most people my age (63). But this one was different. Although I have a number of friends and acquaintances who served in Vietnam, including old high school classmates, none ever talk about it anymore. I don’t think they ever did, at least with me. So Bravo! is a beacon for all the words that remain unspoken.

A few days after the club screening, my wife and I were on a plane to Washington DC, and Bravo! was still on my heart. I spent a lot of time thinking about the Khe Sanh story, the men interviewed for the film, and what they said. It interested me that they didn’t speak in one voice. Every one of them served heroically beyond imagination, but not one behaved anything like a hero of the movies. I heard, along with the hard descriptions of their life and death situations, their humility and sacrificial love of their fellow Marines, acceptance of impossible circumstance, and surprisingly some tinges of doubt and criticism of the war effort, wondering now, decades later, why they had been sent and how they had been treated on their return. I wasn’t prepared for that. These were real human beings and their honesty floored me.

In DC, we visited all the war memorials on the Mall and around the Tidal Basin. We’d seen them before, but not with Bravo! on my mind. The numbers were overwhelming. 58,000, the number inscribed on the Vietnam Wall. Six million dead Jews named in the Holocaust Museum. Sixty million dead in WWII, 2.5% of the world’s population, causing FDR to say “I hate war.”

I Have Seen War Photo courtesy of Don Johnson

I Have Seen War
Photo courtesy of Don Johnson

It was about that point that I had a poignant realization, that my life could well have taken a different turn but for a certain number. That number was 250, my draft number in 1969. I vividly remember sitting around the TV with my family, as did all my high school buddies, watching the Selective Service lottery being drawn. Some of my friends drew low numbers and went off to boot camp before shipping off to Vietnam. One friend drew a 13 and headed off to Canada; another got a deferment to work in a Portland mental hospital. I drew number 250. I was safe and relieved of having to make any kind of decision to join in a war we watched every night on TV.

The men of Bravo Company, First Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment went to Vietnam and suffered the Khe Sanh siege in Ken and Betty’s harrowing tale that will stick with me permanently. It’s not untrue to say that they went in my place because of the random fortune of a number. Bravo! has reinforced my love for those who sacrificed their own safety to allow civilians like me to go on with our lives rarely thinking of war and our warriors. For me, 250 represents the gratitude I haven’t properly expressed.

The Wall Photo courtesy of Don Johnson

The Wall
Photo courtesy of Don Johnson

Thank you, Ken and Betty, and the warriors of Bravo Company for making this film. May it travel far and wide and open the eyes and hearts of peace-loving people everywhere. War no more.

Don Johnson is an Idaho photographer, blogger, and educator who loves to instill the joy of cameras and vision in others. His popular Facebook group, Photo Assignment, is open to anyone interested in becoming a more creative photographer. Don is owner of Arrowrock Photography, co-founder of Sawtooth Photo Pros, and author of his almost-daily blog, Motel Zero.

You can find out more about Don Johnson and his work at:

Facebook Photo Assignment: https://www.facebook.com/groups/photosign/
Arrowrock Photography: http://arrowrockphotography.net/
Sawtooth Photo Pros: http://www.sawtoothphotopros.com/
Motel Zero: http://robinstarfish.blogspot.com/.

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

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. For more information go to https://bravotheproject.com/buy-the-dvd/.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject/. It’s another way you can help spread the word about the film and what it is really like to fight in a war.

Documentary Film,Khe Sanh,Marines,Meet the Men,Other Musings,Vietnam War

May 21, 2014

Anatomy of a Photograph

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One of the seminal images associated with BRAVO! COMMON MEN, UNCOMMON VALOR is a photo provided to us by BRAVO! Marine Mike McCauley. When we interviewed nine of the men in San Antonio in July 2010, Mike brought a copy of the image presented below and we knew immediately that it would be an important addition to the film. The men in this photo were in Third Squad, First Platoon of Bravo Company, 1/26.

3rd Squad, 1st Platoon, Bravo, 1/26. Photo by Author Smith Photo Courtesy of Mike McCauley

3rd Squad, 1st Platoon, Bravo, 1/26.
Photo by Author Smith
Photo Courtesy of Mike McCauley

One of the major desires we had as filmmakers was to make sure that as many of the images and sounds as possible were generated during the actual time of the battle. This includes photos, film, video, and oral interviews, so having a photo like this, taken of men who were actually in Bravo Company in that time and place was very important to us. Not only were we interested in the photo being genuine, we were interested in the aesthetic value the picture holds. I say holds because there is something organic to this particular image that captures the sadness, the sorrow, the horror, the stoic courage and the brotherhood experienced by the men who fought at the Siege of Khe Sanh.

The Marines in the photo are listed below. Please note that in the Marine Corps in the 1960s, you rarely called anyone by their first name. You probably didn’t know their first name. In regards to the “unknown” there were so many men who came and went as replacements-in and casualties-or-deaths-out, that you often didn’t have time to know their names. You may not have wanted to know their names, because that meant you would have to get to know them and you did not want to get to know them because if they were killed you had to deal with the personal grief that ensued as a result of their deaths. Please also note that some of the names may not be spelled correctly since we are relying on memories of over forty years.

Back row, left to right:

Black, Paben, Shockley, Unknown

Front row, left to right:

McCauley (Mike, from the film), Britt (Ted), Sinkowietz, Beamon, Roper and Wiese (Steve). Steve Wiese was the squad leader of 3rd Squad and is also one of the men featured in the film.

According to Mike McCauley, this photo was taken by Author Smith who was killed in action in what has come to be called the Payback Patrol which occurred on March 30, 1968. According to Steve Wiese, Author Smith was KIA while overwhelming a NVA machine gun bunker. You can read more about Author Smith here: http://www.virtualwall.org/ds/SmithAC03a.htm.

Mike McCauley

Mike McCauley

Of the other men in this photo, Ted Britt was also KIA on March 30. He was posthumously awarded a Silver Star for his actions on that date. According to Ted Britt’s Silver Star citation:

While reorganizing to continue the attack, his squad was suddenly pinned down by hostile mortar and machine gun fire. Realizing the seriousness of the situation, Private First Class Britt alertly pinpointed the primary source of fire and unhesitatingly left his covered position to assault the automatic weapons emplacement. Fearlessly moving across the fire-swept terrain, he reached the fortified bunker and, delivering a heavy volume of accurate fire, killed four enemy soldiers and silenced the hostile fire. Continuing his determined efforts, he launched another attack against an enemy fighting hole, and while boldly advancing, he was fatally wounded.

You can read Ted Britt’s entire Silver Star citation here: http://projects.militarytimes.com/citations-medals-awards/recipient.php?recipientid=23309.

Photography is a way for us to record the present so folks can understand what was happening at a given moment. Photography is journalism but it is also art that allows us to acquire the visceral, personal knowledge that can’t always be given us in words. We feel the moment, the subject, the place.

Steve Wiese

Steve Wiese

This photo of the men in Third Squad, First Platoon, Bravo 1/26 gives us a peek at the time and the place and the sadness, again, of the Marines of Khe Sanh. That peek is related to the aesthetic power photography holds. The image is in black and white and captures the mood of the men at the siege. Somehow, that array of grays and blacks and whites reveals messages to us.

The faces in this photo are gaunt and mildly disturbed. The men you see are young, none of them over twenty years old. Fear has aged them. They are not happy yet they seem determined. They are a team, a brotherhood, and they are not creations for a Hollywood film. Some of them are not coming home and they may know that. Some of them were probably wounded soon after this photo was taken. Some of them were killed later at Khe Sanh, as well as after Bravo 1/26 moved south. Some of them are probably trying, right now, to forget what happened to them and their comrades at Khe Sanh.

And some of us remember and feel we have…and I emphasize the “have”…to tell the story of what happened at Khe Sanh, to the men of BRAVO!, to all women and men in all wars, and this photo, with its real men, its real heroes, plays a critical role in helping us create the narrative.

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. For more information about purchasing BRAVO! DVDs, go to https://bravotheproject.com/buy-the-dvd/.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject/. It’s another way we can spread the word about the film and the Vietnam War.

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

May 7, 2013

On Hill 55, Sonora and Soledad

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This is the season of May Day when the flowers bud and a sense of new life comes to mind, the scent of lavender, the new green on aspen trees, the longer days announced by the five-thirty-AM song of the mating robin.

May Day is a big holiday in some countries with strong legacies of unions and socialism.

Spring and May Day (as do many other stimuli) make me think of my early days in Vietnam and what we, the men who fought at the Siege of Khe Sanh, were doing not long before our lives collided with the mayhem that was Khe Sanh.

On May 1, 1967, the 1st Battalion 9th Marines was on Operation Prairie IV in the Dong Ha area of operations. The 3rd Battalion 26th Marines was operating around Phu Bai. The 2nd Battalion 26th Marines was on Operation Shawnee with the 4th Marines in Thua-Tien Province. The 1st Battalion 26th Marines…my battalion…was operating in the Hill 55 region southwest of Danang.

I arrived at Hill 55 sometime towards the end of March 1967 or early April 1968. I recall the smells and the tastes in the mouth, the burning heat, the occasional night-time mortar attacks. All of it was new and exciting. Seeing bamboo vipers and lepers and elephants and the hope of seeing tigers, looking at the punji stakes and booby traps, and of course getting a chance to fight the enemy. And why not, that was what we were in Vietnam to do. To fight the enemy and Communism and to keep it from spreading around the world.

Whether we were successful or not at stopping Communism I will leave to the reader, but for me, there it was. I wanted adventure, and today I think I was in Vietnam because I wanted to fight.

And early on I got my chance. Not long before the 1st of May, 1967, a Seabee drowned in a river not far from Hill 55. I do not know the river’s name because it was all too new to me…the smells, the men I served with, the environment.

Two CH-46 helicopters showed up as our platoon—2nd Platoon, Bravo Company, 1st Battalion 26th Marines—queued up with weapons, flak jackets and a lot of excitement. The platoon sergeant, a gunny with a championship handlebar mustache and toting a Browning semi-automatic shotgun, told the other new guy and me that we weren’t going on this Sparrow Hawk operation because we weren’t “real” Marines. I remember feeling the disappointment of being left out, like when the girl you hankered after in high school started hanging out with all the older guys.

As we sulked off towards our hooch, the gunny called us back and motioned us onto the chopper. I have no idea what transpired in those moments after we turned away from the whapping chopper blades and the faces of our fellow grunts—faces taut, eyes round and large, and I imagine now, dry mouths. Regardless of what was said to the gunny or why he changed his mind, I felt like a kid full of balloons.

Without questioning the why of our redemption as “real” Marines (because as Marines, “Ours is not to question why, ours is but to do and die”), we crammed ourselves on the CH-46. How long we were in the air, I have no sense, but I doubt it was very long because all I recall was looking at that other Marine Corps-green CH-46 chopper flying behind us, the green jungle below, the grim faces of the silent men jammed into the body of the airship, and as we descended, the wide river and the big sand bar in the middle of the water that was our LZ.

The two choppers settled into the sand and being the last man on, I was first off. I knew what to do. I’d show that damned gunny that I was a “real” Marine. I knew we needed to get off the chopper and establish a perimeter around the helicopters until we had all disembarked.

As I ran across the white sand, I noticed little eruptions at my feet. I heard things snapping past my head and an instant later I heard hollow pop sounds coming from a tree line off to our front. I slowed to get a better idea of what was making the sand erupt as well as those sounds.

Someone kicked me in the butt. Hard. Someone knocked me into the sand. I started swearing—after all, I am a Marine. I am sure I cussed—and looked up to see who had knocked me down, but before I could see who was treating me this way, the face of my fire team leader, Lance Corporal Pacheco, was right before my eyes. He hissed at me. “You want to get shot? Keep down and start firing your rifle. They are shooting at you.”

As if to show me what to do, he cranked off a short burst from his M-16 and then rolled over and started talking to the other new guy. I started shooting, too.

All of a sudden everybody jumped up and got on line and we charged that tree line shooting into the jungle, and when we burst into the tree line there was nothing there but a ten-foot-wide strip of vegetation, and beyond, more white sand and no sign of the enemy.

We got the word to assemble back on the landing zone and as we boarded the two CH-46s we hooted and hollered and the gunny was gripping hands and yelling stuff I don’t remember and he even hugged my shoulder like I was a “real” Marine. Riding back to the company’s base of operations, I mused on those bullets that had been hitting at my feet, snapping by my head. I was lucky no one shot me.

And later, at the siege, I was lucky many times. Very often not at the wrong place at the wrong time. I survived to go home sometime in early April 1968, just before the siege ended. But my comrades who still had time on their tours of duty went on to endure more at Khe Sanh and then beyond.

By May 1, 1968, the 1st Battalion, 26th Marines was at Wunder Beach. The 2nd Battalion, 26th Marines was on Operation Lancaster II in the Camp Carroll area. 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines was south and west of Quang Tri City. 1st Battalion, 9th Marines was on Operation Kentucky in the Cam Lo district not far from the DMZ. I was on leave in Arizona. 

On a separate note, BRAVO! will be screened twice in Sonora, California, on Armed Forces Day, May 18, once at 5 PM and again at 8 PM. These screenings are being ramrodded by Khe Sanh brother Mike Preston and presented by the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 391 and Columbia College. See more details about the screenings here. Please help us pack the house; it is a fundraiser for the local VVA chapter.

On May 28, 2013, BRAVO! will be screened at Soledad State Prison (Salinas Valley State Prison) in Soledad, California. This screening is not open to the public but is remarkable because of the large number of veterans incarcerated there who will be able to see BRAVO!

If you would like to see BRAVO! screened in your area, please contact us.