Bravo! The Project - A Documentary Film

Posts Tagged ‘Christmas 1967’

Documentary Film,Khe Sanh,Marines,Vietnam War

December 14, 2018

Christmas in Nam

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The Christmas season is upon us and as I do every year, I think about many of the Christmases I’ve lived through including my tour with the 26th Marines in Vietnam.

In the house where I grew up, we celebrated Christmas with lots of hoopla and family and giving and eating and singing Christmas carols, getting bicycles and sleeping bags and new shotguns. So when I went to Nam, I harbored expectations that Christmas might still be something special. But it wasn’t, at least not in the traditional sense of the festivities to which I was accustomed.

A story that I often see mentioned in articles on the internet describes Christmas on the Western Front, World War I, 1914. Across the British-German trench lines, combatants on both sides met and observed spontaneous and unofficial truces and exhibited a more Christ-like behavior to one another than they had been practicing during the preceding months. Although in some places, this apparently did not happen and there were some vicious battles fought on Christmas Day between Allied and German troops.

Christmas on Hill 881 South, 1967. Jimmie McRae. Photo courtesy of Michael E. O’Hara.

I don’t think Christmas truces happened in World War II or Korea, but I believe the opposing powers, the NVA and Vietcong and the US and its allies, declared one every year from 1965 through 1972 in Vietnam. It seems to me the truces served as an attempt to recognize that some level of humanity remained in the most savage of human interactions.

In 1967, the Christmas truce was in effect, but few of the Marines with Bravo 1/26 up on 881 South believed it would come to pass.
We ran a long patrol the day before Christmas, we ran a short patrol on Christmas Day followed by hot chow that was delivered up on the hill via chopper from the combat base. We got some mail and although I can’t say for certain, I suspect I received hand-dipped chocolate bonbons and cookies and white cotton socks and candles from my family, all of which I shared around the squad.

On Christmas Eve, we had a church service and before I went on watch, I decided to go down and participate. On the way to the tent where they held the service, I listened to men softly speaking about the holiday and whether or not the truce would hold.

Blogger Ken Rodgers at Khe Sanh, 1968. Photo courtesy of Michael E O’Hara.

In the church tent, the chaplain and his assistant led a non-denominational service that included some songs, communion, a sermon with some readings from the Bible. One of the songs, I think it was the last one we sang—which I didn’t sing even though we had been given reproduced copies of the words—was altered from the original “Eternal Father, Strong to Save,” (also known as the Navy Hymn) written by William Whiting and adapted with the all-service lyrics and an added stanza composed specifically for the Marine Corps which read:

Eternal Father, grant , we pray,
To all Marines, both night and day,
The courage, honor, strength and skill
Their land to serve, Thy law fulfill;
Be Thou the Shield forevermore
From ev’ry peril to the Corps.

While everybody else was singing I heard the words, “Fire Mission called in to the 81mm mortar battery just outside the church service. That was followed by mortars leaving the tube, the crash of them off to the west, towards Laos, and I wondered who was out on Christmas Eve, during the Christmas truce, that needed a fire mission. Maybe it was just the regular interdiction barrages we sent out, or maybe it was a recon team out there in danger.

I thought it all pretty weird. Truce and Christmas and Jesus’ birthday and the words to that hymn and killing and 81mm mortars.

It jarred me on a spiritual level. Deep and hard and so damned incongruous.

I went back and hit the rack but soon was awakened by the words, “Red Alert.” So, there wasn’t a Christmas truce at all, and I wondered who decided there was or wasn’t, and we all stood watch, all night, the fog so thick you could almost lean up against it. Gloomy and full of the ghosts of doubt and death and fear.

But we weren’t attacked that night. We didn’t hear any sound of sappers sneaking up to the wire. We didn’t hear anything but the occasional cough of a Marine on watch or the soft cries of someone in a nightmare.


On a separate note:

Betty and I are making another film titled I MARRIED THE WAR, about the wives of combat veterans from World War II until the present. We have finished interviewing eleven dynamic wives and have now embarked on turning their stories into a documentary film.

I Married the War

We are soliciting donations to help us get this movie edited, sound mixed and color corrected. If you are in a giving frame of mind, please check out the website for the new film at and scroll down to the section about donating.

We appreciate our friends and followers and know we cannot succeed at our filmmaking efforts without their generous support.


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Khe Sanh,Marines,Vietnam War

October 27, 2010

Old Voices

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Betty and I have been listening to a stack of oral interviews taped in 1968 concerning the siege of Khe Sanh. Cooks, truck drivers, Major Generals, Privates, ammo techs, armorers, artillery gunners, forward observers, grunts, Captains, Lance Corporals, intelligence staff, First Sergeants, Second Lieutenants, mortarmen, M-79 men, machine gunners, Corpsmen, radio operators, Lieutenant Colonels, and recon marines.

Listening to those voices from forty-two years past I ponder what they tell me now. I lived my own personal hell through the blasts and flashes, the shuddering felt through my own two jungle-booted feet anchored to the damp bottom of the trench, but after hearing these chilling tales, I realize there was more than one way to endure the siege. Trying to make coffee and pastries for the officers at Regiment while incoming pounded around you, wrecking your gas ranges. Trying to pull mortar rounds out of the ammo pit while incoming slammed into the adjacent ground, threatening to light up the whole ammo dump. Trying to call in artillery while bullets snapped by the side of your head. Trying to keep tires fixed after shrapnel has shredded them. Keeping the undetonated incoming enemy rounds cleaned out of the gun pits so your guys could shoot your big stuff back at the bad guys.
Betty and I listened to rationales for tactics, strategies, not saving this patrol, that position, why it was okay for some men to die for the greater good. Like those recon patrols that ran out from Khe Sanh before the siege began. Eight-man teams, no helmets, light weapons, a radio, a lot of tools to signal someone if you were in trouble. Out to our bastion on 881 South then into the jungle, maybe by chopper, maybe in a larger patrol of grunts , maybe by sneaking out at night, onto a trail through the head-high jungle grass that loved to find exposed flesh and slice, slice, slice.

A testy business, recon, running into large groups of the enemy and having to try and hide, or run away, getting shot in the back, leaving comrades’ bodies behind for another day (that’s a bitter salt tablet to bite into), sitting in tight 360s back to back to back to back firing away at the onrushing North Vietnamese soldiers intent on murdering you.

We ventured up to the spiny ridge on 881North (not 881 South where we lived in muddy bunkers, but 881 North, which was never occupied by the Marines) a number of times in my tour. I always seemed to be on point as we approached, the refuse of the big battle fought there in May 1967 evident. Maws of shell holes and bomb craters, the bush stunted. Snaggle-toothed trees on top of the ridge which reminded me of a razorback the way it cut at right angles to our search and destroy missions. On the demon’s spine, I knew, knew, knew, Charlie the Killer hid there, his machine guns, his AK 47s aimed right at my Adam’s apple. I could feel it. But no, they never raked us with enfilade fire. They stayed secluded in their spider holes like tarantulas, waiting. The sky was usually dotted with clouds and the place smelled of mud and mold and damp. A lot of men died on 881 North and the adjacent hills and valleys. I just patrolled around it, over it, climbed it, set up perimeters on it, ate beefsteak and potatoes cooked over a heat tab on it. Smoked Lucky Strikes and Camels and maybe Pall Malls on it. Got soaked.

The last time I was up there was on a patrol on Christmas Eve, 1967. The day started foggy but broke clear. We patrolled up 881 North, down the backside and in the direction of the DMZ. I drank water out of a creek that slithered over tiny flat rocks. The corpsman threatened to write me up for not using Halozone. “You’ll get liver flukes and they’ll eat your liver up.” I drank more and cursed him under my breath. I drank more just to show him—show him what? I don’t know.

We walked around fresh bomb craters with red mud shoved up as if giant subterranean dinosaurs had been at work. The trees hung over the trail and the jungle grass attacked us the same as every other day. No rest for our wicked butts, no rest because of Christmas. The same every day, patrols, patrols, fog, rain-soaked utility blouses, red mud stains on the skin, rain-soaked toes, mist. I wished for a cobra, a krait to show up in the trail and threaten one of us, maybe me. Some life . . . some life besides the deadly boredom of waiting, waiting for the surprise, waiting to die.

That night, Christmas Eve, back on 881 South we stood 100-percent due to a red alert even though there was a Christmas truce. Charlie the Killer probed around outside the wire. Fog choked the black morning after midnight and we couldn’t have seen Charlie if he’d been sitting ten feet from us.

Christmas day arrived magnificent, like Jesus coming out of His tomb, shards of dawn raking the grove-mottled ridges, the trees with their tops blown off. I led a five man fire-team-sized patrol down around the west side of Hill 881 South along the creek that bubbled and sang in the canyon. An easy patrol, only the imprints of unfamiliar boots in the mud, and here and there unusual ammo pressed into wet, red, muddy spots. Not like the times we patrolled in floods when men were swept down the canyon caroming off boulders as big as stateside houses, or the time the Hueys mistook us for Charlie and pinned us down as they circled around and around like voracious raptors intent on making a kill. They fired rockets and hot snaps from their nasty little mini-machine guns that brrrrrped, brrrped at us as the tracers lit up the dark spots beneath the bluffs. Mr. Dillon on the radio screaming “Cease fire. Cease fire. We are friendlies. We are friendlies.” Hidden beneath the lips of huge stones and roots as old as the Renaissance, we did not miss the balky, twisted humor there—friendly fire. But not this Christmas morning patrol . . . just a heated argument between me and Sergeant Deedee about grids and coordinates and clicks and trails and how best to follow the map from checkpoint to checkpoint.

After we struggled through the slick mud and ascended 881 South, hot chow arrived from the cooks at Khe Sanh. The choppers (our friends this day) whap-whapped onto the LZ with just-cooked turkey and ham, and mashed potatoes and gravy and dressing and green beans and hot rolls and pie and ICE CREAM (even though it melted by the time we got to eat it).

We left Hill 881 South the next day, after our two month stay up there, and dreamed of never having to ascend Hill 881 North again, and not long after this, Recon started getting their butts kicked out there on a daily basis. Ones, and twos and threes, they died out there in thick copses of tall hardwoods and the head-high jungle grass and the big red bomb craters. And with their dying, way down where one cannot deny what one knows, we knew it would not be a surprise. But we didn’t want to know it, so we acted like we didn’t. And ate our chow, and went on patrol and waited for . . . what? The greater good?