Bravo! The Project - A Documentary Film

Posts Tagged ‘bayonets’

Documentary Film,Khe Sanh,Marines,Vietnam War

March 29, 2012

On Fix Bayonets and Payback

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I spend most of my time working on the film, Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor. As I do, my memory of experiences during the Siege of Khe Sanh keep simmering and bubbling. One of the salient parts of the film, and my memory, is what the surviving Marines and Navy Corpsmen of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment have named “Payback.”

Tomorrow, March 30, 2012 is the 44th anniversary of the only bayonet charge, as far as I know, in the entire Vietnam War.

The mist hung thick that morning, March 30, 1968, cloaking everything in its damp clutches except for the artillery and mortar fire that kaboomed through the fog and the muffled jingle and creak of our gear.

We eased outside the wire barrier in front of our lines and set up for an assault of a fortified NVA battalion in their trenches. Then the command came down from the Skipper. “Fix Bayonets.”

Marine Bayonet Training, from Wikipedia

For Marines, the command, “Fix Bayonets,” is one that sobers; cleans out all thoughts of home, girl friends in the back seats of blue Buicks, mothers baking chocolate chip cookies and sisters fighting for TV time. At that moment, for Jarheads, memories strain to recall the training: stabs, thrusts, slashes, vertical butt strokes. Hearts hammer like reports of fifty-caliber machine guns. Tongues and mouths grow suddenly parched.

As hard as I try to remember that March 30, 1968 command, “Fix Bayonets,” I can’t. Most of the other men who survived that assault remember the words being passed down from Skipper Ken Pipes to radio man Tom Quigley, who passed it on to the three platoons of Marines. I was a radio operator on that day, so I must have heard the command.

I suppose my inability to remember indicates the vehemence of what followed that command from the Skipper. My mind probably doesn’t want to remember those words. But it does recall, in some detail, the hours of battle that followed: vehement and bloody and vicious and exhilarating.

March 30, for a lot of the Marine combatants who fought that day, including myself, was the culminating event that punctuated the Siege of Khe Sanh. It was, in a number of ways, getting even; getting even for the deaths of our brothers on the February 25th “Ghost Patrol,” for our brothers killed and maimed at other times, for the lack of sleep and lack of chow and the lost weight and the fear…yes the fear…that rent us top to bottom. We were out there on March 30 for other reasons both tactical and strategic, yes. Yet for the snuffies who did the fighting, it was about getting even, whether we could articulate those emotions or not. And we got even. Here, 44 years later, that event, that bayonet charge, that in-the-trenches-satchel charges-flame thrower-hand-to-hand combat event, is known as “Payback.”

Not that the NVA didn’t get their licks in, because they did. Bravo Company took casualties that day. A lot of casualties. But in the give and take, take this, take that atmosphere of close-in combat, we kicked ass. It was payback.

When the siege began in late January 1968, for me it proved an exciting introduction to incoming, assault and danger. Heady stuff, adrenalin zapping the nerve endings, my thrilled innards lifted as if they were mortar rounds thumped into the never-ending. The January 21st initial attack and the ten days that followed were new, and compared to what would follow, subdued, and a fight most of us survived. I had no inkling that the siege would endure right up until March 30 and “Payback” and even beyond, into April.

February 1968 was the battering month for the men at Khe Sanh. We came to understand the horrors of combat. It was what we sought, I believe, in queuing up to be Marines. A test. A blooding. A chance to prove we were the match of our fathers and our uncles and our cousins who bled on the beaches of places like Iwo Jima and in the frozen hills of Chosin Reservoir. But I doubt any of us owned an idea of war’s true ferocity when we enlisted.

When I remember February 1968, that old adage comes to mind: Be careful what you wish for. You wish to prove you are among the brotherhood of the finest light infantry the world has ever known. Finding out that you are, or aren’t, is an onerous test. A deadly test. That was February, a deadly test…a test of physical stamina, mental stamina, spiritual stamina. February was the month of all-day artillery attacks, the fall of Lang Vei and the patrol of the 25th, the “Ghost Patrol.”

For us on the sidelines on February 25th, hearing those tortured hours, the loss, lives with us still. Time tends to dampen the power of emotion, but the infamous moments of February 25th still make my guts curl up and hide.

Yet my reaction now is nothing like it was my first thirty years after February 25th. For those thirty years my soul shrunk every time I thought of the foggy mist, the sounds of dying, the men of 3rd Platoon. I recalled smash-boom-blast of artillery, wounded and dead men carried inside the wire…not in a Marine Corps battle formation, but ones and twos, over hours and hours; I cringed, I felt like a failure. Even though the decision not to relieve the men of the “Ghost Patrol” was made way up the chain of command at regiment, division, or maybe (if rumor can be believed) in Lyndon Johnson’s war room, I still believe we let those men down. Marines relieve their embattled brothers, Marines don’t leave Marines behind. We let them down; me…even now, I believe, I let them down.

March was the month of reality whipping us again and again, as we lost men in front of the lines and behind the lines, eating chow, sleeping, flying in and flying out. Had enough bone-bending fright? Think you can’t go on anymore? Well, here’s some more, we will bash and batter you into minutiae.

And so, what happened on March 30 was a chance to recoup and get even, a chance to make a bullet point statement, a bayonet charge, a red blood and bone smash declaration…”Payback.”

Khe Sanh,Marines,Vietnam War

February 9, 2011

The Fall of Lang Vei

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43 years ago last Monday, the People’s Army of North Vietnam attacked and overran the US Army Special Forces camp at Lang Vei. Lang Vei was defended by 24 Americans, as well as detachments of South Vietnamese, Montagnard and Royal Laotian Army troops.

Lang Vei was located near the South Vietnamese-Laotian border about six miles west of where I, right then, stood watch along the Gray Sector perimeter at Khe Sanh. We had endured twelve days of rocket and mortar attacks since the siege of Khe Sanh began on the morning of 21 January 1968 and the attack on Lang Vei seemed, to me as I remember it now, a ramping up of action, a new punch in the nose from our enemy, the NVA (PAVN).

The night was foggy as I stood watch, and I don’t remember that specifically, that it was foggy, but I say that because it was always foggy at night. We got the word about the assault on Lang Vei through the whispered words of one man on watch to the next man. The word went around like a night creature in flight, changing form and function—messenger, harbinger, bringer of fright—as it flittered from bunker and fighting hole to bunker and fighting hole in and out of the thick mist. Growing larger, then smaller, depending on who was doing the whispering. Lang Vei is under attack. Lang Vei’s under attack.

During the night of 6 February and the dark morning hours of 7 February, the Khe Sanh combat base took a lot of incoming, often a round or two every few seconds, and the NVA, I suppose, intended to keep us in our bunkers and off Route 9 between our position and Lang Vei. We were on our faces in the trench when rounds came in, then on our feet, alertly watching into the mist because if the enemy was assaulting Lang Vei, they might assault us, too. Every Marine in our section of Gray Sector was on alert. The hidden red ends of burning Camels and Lucky Strikes, steaming cups of coffee and cocoa, our rifles locked and loaded, grenades lined up on the parapets to toss at Charlie when he rolled over the concertina and came at us with his screaming, fanatical attack, bayonets fixed on his AK-47s, ready for stabs and horizontal butt strokes to stomachs, chins and cheekbones.

Then the word “tank” flitted into the mix. “Tanks, they are hitting Lang Vei with tanks.”

All my memories of the Khe Sanh experience are tainted by time and by all that I’ve read and all that I have heard from other people who were and who were not at the siege. Yet, sieved out of those tainted memories, I see Lance Corporal “C” running from bunker to bunker, frantic whispers. “Tanks, the gooks have got tanks and they are overrunning Lang Vei right now. Hell, they might be done over there and on their way here.”

We had never faced the specter of hostile tanks and I remember in my mind the images of them rolling over the wire barriers to our front. I recollect the shock of it invaded the bottom of my spine, down at the pelvis, and snaked up my back. I shivered. I tried to hide it. I didn’t want anyone to know I shivered. Tanks.

Lance corporal “C” was a big man, bigger than most Marines who were small, tough kids tired of being pushed around a lot and joined the Corps to prove some things to themselves, and to others. “C” loved rumors, scuttlebutt. And he savored passing them on, one bunker to the next. He had begun his Nam stint with me in my squad back in March of ‘67 but somehow got himself moved up to Supply. Yet he never failed to show up and give us the word before the word was ever official. Whether the word had substance or not.

“C” must have had ears like fingers, good for plucking rumor out of the wind. And more than that, told it lasciviously. He’d hunch his large frame and get an impish look to his face, his big blue eyes darting left and right, left then right, then over his shoulder to see if Lieutenant “D” or Staff Sergeant “A” might come snooping down the trench line and catch him delivering forbidden goodies.
I remember my fright like the wings of miniature bats caught in my throat, their little claws scrabbling, intent on ripping through to the back of my neck. Tanks, and all that meant: crushed by steel tracks, blown apart by their cannons, the screams of elation of the NVA ground-pounders as they came in behind the tanks and caught us in crossfires as we tried to escape. Death…it was death, and it was coming at us on the rumbling engines of those tanks.

I remember, between dodging into the bunkers and hitting the muddy deck to avoid the whoosh, wham, zing of rockets, hearing the sound of those tank engines. Caught in the tiniest of breezes that moved the fog, the rumble and clank of those tanks….coming to get us.

And of course the sounds of those tanks I heard could have been nothing more than my imagination riled by the rumors that did, in fact, turn out to be true. Tanks did indeed overrun Lang Vei, although they did not show up to roll over the concertina wire around our position at the Khe Sanh combat base.

As the chaos of night battle amped up, we were ordered to saddle up and prepare to go save Lang Vei. But later, we stood down.

The next morning, the survivors of Lang Vei, showed up at the gates of Khe Sanh. The surviving Americans came in the gate and the indigenous people remained outside, confined in bomb craters and stripped of their weapons. I recall a lot of complaints back then—and probably there still are today—about how we, the Marines at Khe Sanh, didn’t go out and relieve those men at Lang Vei; and I have heard and read all the reasons why we didn’t. If they had ordered us to go save those men, we, the snuffies in the trench, would have dutifully gone to our probable demise. But we just sat and waited, all night, in the fog and mist as the rockets, mortars and artillery pounded us and we listened for the clank and rumble of those tanks.