Winter has been ferocious in Idaho this year with lots of ice and snow, below-zero temperatures, then rain and flooding. One local weatherman predicted death and destruction, causing locals to clean out the shelves of grocery stores and hardware outlets in anticipation of days of dark and death and privation.
And even though the local weatherman’s predictions turned out to be overblown, the season’s hostile weather seems to act as a perfect metaphor for what did come to pass at Khe Sanh Combat Base on January 21, 1968.
During these cold days of winter in the 21st Century, the minds and memories of survivors of the early days of the Siege of Khe Sanh turn to the horrible events of the first day of the Siege.
It wasn’t cold and ice, but it was death and destruction, mist and fog, and the raining down of mortars, rockets and artillery from the North Vietnamese Army which had begun to surround us in the days leading up to 21Jan68. The NVA attack was then followed by our ammo dump erupting for hours.
Recently, I received a book in the mail from Reverend Ray Stubbe titled, PEBBLES IN MY BOOTS, VOLUME 4, which is a compilation of writings that Ray has written mostly concerning Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment (my old outfit and the subject of the film BRAVO!) at Khe Sanh.
Ray was the battalion chaplain before and during the Siege and is the foremost historian and memory keeper of all the men who served there. His informative books include VALLEY OF DECISION (with John Prados) and BATTALION OF KINGS.
One of the more interesting things about Ray’s most recent book is that he included information that has been translated from North Vietnamese records about the Siege. I learned some of the North Vietnamese combat lexicon referring to Khe Sanh including the term they used to denote 21Jan. They called it N-Day.
N-Day was one of those days when you woke up and found yourself trapped in a world that, even though you had pondered the possibilities,, was a thousand times worse than what you might have imagined.
What made the day even more chaotic for me was my earlier dogged refusal to believe it was approaching even though we were constantly warned about the impending arrival of an Armageddon of sorts.
As I look back on it now, I suspect my reluctance to believe in the oncoming holocaust was because I’d been hearing about imminent threats for months, none of which had come to pass, and I also suspect it was a naïve optimism that I would somehow waltz through a generally combat-free thirteen month tour and onto the flight that would haul me back across the pond to the good old USA.
Nevertheless, the manure hit the fan early the morning of 21Jan and it drove me out of my bunker and into the trench. It was like I would imagine the end of the world, the worst thing you could dream up. Loud, crashing, frightening, we were all facedown in the trench for a short while before our officers and NCOs kicked us in the butts and made us come to grips with the sorry stink and roar of battle.
I remember getting hit, believing I was paralyzed until one of my mates knocked red clay clods off of my back, laughing at me because I thought I’d never walk again.
And then the base ammo dump, not more than fifty meters away, went up in fireworks that added to the eerie reality of the Dante-esque morning. It was Hell in the real, not something from a movie or a poem, but the genuine Hades that all of us Marines had secretly hoped for when we sat in the classes at Boot Camp and heard the stirring stories of Marine heroes Presly O’Bannon during the First Barbary War, Smedley Butler during the Boxer Rebellion, Dan Daly at Belleau Wood in 1918 and John Basilone on Guadalcanal.
But be careful what you wish for because stories of heroism and grit in the face of death are a bit different than being gripped in the maw of chaos.
When the ammo dump went up, it was electric, voluminous, colorful, and loud, like the Devil’s own fireworks. Old Nick’s claws gnashed the sky and his big-gun drums thundered so that the hard red ground thrummed like a bevy of kettle drums. The CS gas grenades and ammunition stored in the dump also caught fire and spread across the trenches before settling in. We had to put on gas masks and looked like bugs, and when people spoke, it sounded like one was listening to those people talking from the insides of #10 fruit cans.
We watched the wire perimeter with the sure knowledge that Charley would be coming through the barrier any minute, sappers first, then a banzai assault of men intent on impaling us on the shafts of their bayonets.
My memories of it fit and start, and I suspect they reflect what it was like to me—alive in a world impossible to imagine and almost impossible to accept, except men were dying from the NVA incoming and men were lying in the trench with shattered bones where our own rounds that had cooked off in the ammo dump had rocketed straight up and then plummeted on top of them.
And it was N-Day and it was pure hell and after it calmed down later in the day, I remember thinking, “Okay, now I’ve experienced that, I suspect (or maybe I should say hope) that we won’t have any more of it.”
But once again, my naiveté was proven to be a shoddy and dangerous outlook, because what began on N-Day went on for another seventy-six days.
The anniversary of N-Day (and my wife and co-producer/director, Betty wonders if N-Day might refer to naiveté, too), which approaches, looms huge in the minds of those who survived it.
And thanks to Ray Stubbe, I can read extensively about what happened to Bravo Company from the perspectives of us and the NVA.
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