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March 30, 2015

Skipper Ken Pipes Writes About March 30, 1968

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BRAVO! Skipper Ken Pipes remembers the actions of 30 March 1968 in the following piece that was published, among other places, in October 2014 for the Military Order of the World Wars.

One of the most sobering experiences in life is the responsibility of leading young Marines into the teeth of the enemy knowing that some of them will not come out of it alive. It takes courage, faith, an indomitable spirit, and an unfailing trust in the capabilities of the men entrusted to your care.

Fighting at Khe Sanh, Republic of Vietnam in 1967–1968, was an ongoing, brutal fight to the death between Marines and soldiers of the North Vietnamese Army. Subsequently, this battle has become the title of a two-hour documentary film, “Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor,” produced and directed by Ken and Betty Rodgers. Ken was a member of Bravo Company, First Battalion, 26th Marines, before and during the Siege of Khe Sanh.

The Skipper at Khe Sanh

The Skipper at Khe Sanh

On 30 March 1968, Company B, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines (B/1/26) proceeded from the perimeter of the Khe Sanh Combat Base to their pre-designated line of departure located near forward units of the North Vietnamese Army’s (NVA’s) 8th Battalion, 66th Regiment, 304th (Hanoi) Iron Division. Poised against each other in the coming attack were lineal descendants of one of the most famous divisions involved in the siege against the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and elements of the 26th Marines—one of three Marine regiments of the 5th Marine Division that led the assault against Japan’s island fortress of Iwo Jima in February/March 1945.

The attack was scheduled for first light, but it was delayed by heavy ground fog that obscured the entire objective area. As the blinding fog began to lift, our Marines, with bayonets fixed, crossed the line of departure outside the wire of the Khe Sanh Combat Base.

Immediately upon commencing the assault, the two lead platoons came under extremely heavy mortar, rocket-propelled grenade, automatic weapons, and small arms fire from the 8th NVA Battalion who occupied extensive, well-constructed, mutually supporting bunkers and trench systems.

Under the umbrella of withering fire from nine batteries of Marine and Army artillery that pummeled the flanks of the objective area and created a rolling barrage 50 to 70 meters in front of the two attack platoons, the Marines began breaching the NVA positions. The fight for fire superiority hung in the balance until the attached flame section and combat engineer detachment entered the fray. As their predecessors did on Iwo Jima, these units, covered and assisted by Marine riflemen, began to blind, blast, and burn their way into the NVA fortifications.

For the next four hours, the Marines of Company B, some of whom had undergone 70-plus days and nights of continuing, killing bombardment by NVA heavy artillery, rocket, mortar, and concentrated sniper fire, gained some measure of retribution as they routed the NVA soldiers from their fiercely defended positions. Within the breached positions, our Marine riflemen were literally walking over the dead and dying NVA defenders.

From the moment of close contact until some four hours later when we received the order to withdraw back into the combat base, the fight was hand to hand, bayonet to bayonet, knife to knife, grenade against grenade, and rifleman against rifleman, with the trump card being, as always, Marines using flamethrowers and combat engineers employing demolitions!

It may seem to some readers that this was just another example of a typical seasoned Marine combat unit doing its job. It was not. The Marine rifle company that attacked the NVA that Saturday morning was not the same company that had moved from Hill 881 South three months earlier to participate in a battalion sweep toward the Laotian border, and then moved into the perimeter of the Khe Sanh Combat Base. The continuous enemy bombardment while we were in the combat base had hurt B/1/26 more than any other similarly-sized defending unit, exacerbated by the tragic loss of most of an entire platoon on 25 February resulting from an ambush by a reinforced company from the 8th NVA Battalion.

Most of the Marines in Company B on 30 March had joined during the siege as replacements after the siege had begun. These young men had traveled a hard road including boot camp, skills training at the Infantry Training Regiment, Staging Battalion at Camp Pendleton, a flight to Vietnam, reporting in to the 26th Marines, exiting the aircraft at the Khe Sanh Combat Base under fire, reporting for assignment to 1st Battalion, and finally, still under fire, joining Company B. To a rifleman, they had no combat experience at the fire team, squad, platoon, or company level.

As it has always been in combat, if it had not been for the leveling skills of a handful of short-timer leaders, privates first class and corporals, led by an experienced company executive officer, company gunnery sergeant, and outstanding platoon commanders, the execution of this company-sized raid on 30 March 1968 would never have moved beyond our frontline trenches.

As noted by the commanding officer of 1/26 and the S–3 (operations officer) who planned the company raid, “The members of Company B performed individually and collectively in a manner normally expected only of seasoned and combat-experienced Marines.”

I believe that their brilliant feat can only be attributed to their deep and overriding desire to avenge the prior loss of Marines of their company, most of whom they never knew or met! To them and them alone goes the credit for executing, arguably, the first successful company-sized offensive assault outside the wire since the ambush of their mates on 25 February, and for making it such a success!

These Marines totally decimated the 8th NVA Battalion, including the enemy battalion commander and his staff. In so doing, intercepted enemy radio traffic revealed the Marines of Company B killed at least 115 NVA officers and soldiers and wounded an untold number of their survivors.

Skipper Ken Pipes © Betty Rodgers 2014

Skipper Ken Pipes
© Betty Rodgers 2014

Still later, Marines from B/1/26 (none above the rank of corporal) who had participated in the raid, were awarded two Navy Crosses, nine Silver Stars, eight Bronze Stars, and two Navy Commendation Medals with Combat “V” for valor for individual acts of courage, gallantry, and heroism! Additionally, Marines received over 100 Purple Hearts, with several of these Marines earning their awards for receiving a second and third wound.

Subsequent to the fighting on 30 March 1968, the company was the recipient of the following from the commanding general of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam:

Officers and men of B/1/26 USMC deserve highest praise for aggressive patrol action north of Khe Sanh on 30 March. Heavy casualties inflicted on bunkers and entrenched enemy forces indicate typical Marine esprit de corps and professionalism. Well done!

Gen William Westmoreland

Just as is the case with their predecessors from Iwo Jima, to a man, the Khe Sanh Marines of Company B remain intensely proud of their 26th Marines heritage! We will always feel we were privileged to serve with Bravo’s young, inexperienced, Marine infantrymen that fateful Saturday morning. We were truly in the company of men who were, are, and will always be, “The Immortals!”

Lieutenant Colonel Pipes was the Officer Commanding Bravo Company, First Battalion, 26th Marines, during the Siege of the Khe Sanh Combat Base, TET, 1968, RVN. Ken and his wife, Sharon, have lived in Fallbrook, California since their retirement from the Marine Corps in 1982. They have been married for 52 years. Ken, Sharon and their sons, Dan and Tim, are all members of MOWW’s MajGen Pendleton Chapter, CA.