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

January 11, 2018

Fifty Years Gone

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Today, we start with a series of blogs remembering fifty years ago at the Siege of Khe Sanh as recalled by BRAVO! filmmaker and Marine with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines, Ken Rodgers.

25 December, 1967, Christmas Day

I awoke on Hill 881 South to mist and fog and Christmas Morning. The night before had seen us stand one hundred percent watch because we were on red alert. A Christmas Truce was supposed to be in effect but like most truces of the Vietnam War, this one didn’t mean much.

The day before, Christmas Eve, we ran a company minus patrol out the north gate. I walked point for a large portion of that sortie, crossing the eerie and wrecked summit of 881 North then on down the back side a few clicks before being replaced on point.

As I stood beneath vines draping from some stout and tall tree, the new company commander, Captain Ken Pipes came by and actually grinned at me. That was the first and maybe only time a captain in the Marine Corps allowed me a smile.

Steve Foster showing off some Christmas bling. 1967. Photo courtesy of Michael O’Hara

On Christmas Morning, my fire team, accompanied by Sergeant Michael Dede, exited out the south gate of 881 South and humped down around the creek that ran by the west base of the hill. We stopped at various check points and radioed in to the Six that all was secure. We ended the patrol by going back into the perimeter through the north gate.

Soon to follow was a hot Christmas meal choppered in from the kitchen at Khe Sanh. I don’t recall what it was but I know without a doubt it was better than C-rations.

The next day we left the hill and went into the Gray Sector lines at the east end of the Khe Sanh Combat Base where, less than a month later, we would begin our hell in the Siege of Khe Sanh.

****

New Years Day, 1968

On December 22nd 1967, I wrote to my mother from Hill 881 South.”I’m going on R&R again. I don’t know where, but any place is alright.”

And fifty years ago today I awoke in a hotel in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

I don’t remember a whole lot about the trip now. I flew in on a small Pan Am prop job. My first morning, I went down to the hotel lobby and bought a toothbrush.

I went to a circus. I initially thought it hokey. Yet the man who walked the high wire didn’t fall. There were elephants and tigers. A fakir lay on a bed of nails. He didn’t bleed and he didn’t act like the nails hurt. I thought the name “fakir” was accurate. No one could lie on a bed of nails and not bleed. When I left the circus I saw the fakir’s bed and managed to touch the nails. They were hard and sharp. I wondered if I really knew what I thought I knew.

Marines of 2nd Platoon, Bravo Company, 26th Marines. L to R: Carwile, Foster, O’Hara, Jacobs, Furlong, Rodgers, Richardson. Photo Courtesy of Michael O’Hara.

Outside a man sat on a big green lawn next to the street. He had two baskets and a growing crowd of people gathering around him.

He pulled a mongoose out of one of the baskets and a small cobra out of the other. Immediately, the mongoose began to attack the cobra which attacked in return.

They were both quick. The snake sliding, slithering and striking at the mongoose which managed to dance, leap, and twist just out of reach of the cobra’s fangs. There was a lot of hissing and the sound of scrabbling feet, scales scraping the macadam.

I think the mongoose killed the cobra.

What I witnessed in the vicious little war between the cobra and the mongoose was a metaphor of what was to come at Khe Sanh.

***

11 January, 1968

I turned twenty-one at Khe Sanh.

I still hummed with memories of R and R. I had returned to the combat base with a quart of Smirnoff Vodka and a fifth of Johnny Walker Black Label Scotch.

That first evening back from R & R, January 8, 1968, a bunch of us 2nd Platoon Marines gathered in my hooch and got drunk. Later that night they called a red alert. We staggered out of various states of intoxication into the bright light of a full moon and officers and senior NCOs on the prowl.

As I talked with our platoon right guide, who’d had more than his share of Scotch, the company’s XO came barreling down the trench line. Unlike other XOs for Bravo Company, this gentleman was not popular.

The moonlight made it seem like day and we could clearly see the 1st Lieutenant approaching us like he was going to an important formation with captains and colonels and sergeants major. The right guide called out, “Who’s there?”

And the XO didn’t vary his march or respond. The right guide challenged him, “Who’s there and what’s the password?”

But the XO didn’t halt. He came on until he was almost parallel to the right guide and me. That’s when the right guide whipped out a M1911A .45 caliber pistol and jammed it right in the XO’s face as he said, “Who’s there?”

The XO managed to stop dead in his steps and glare at both of us as the right guide hissed, “If you don’t identify yourself and give me the password, I’m going to blow your dumb…”

To this day, I can see the business end of that side arm jammed up against the XO’s gleaming teeth.

Blog author, Ken Rodgers, looking like he’s in trouble. January, 1968. Khe Sanh Combat Base. Photo courtesy of Michael O’Hara

The XO barked his name, rank and delivered the password. The M1911A side arm went back into the holster, the XO sneered at both of us as he marched off.

The next morning, scuttlebutt had it that I was going up for a Captain’s Mast because so many of Bravo’s men had been drunk while on watch.

For over a week I tried to hide as we Marines of 2nd Platoon filled sandbags, built bunkers, deepened our trench.

My birthday was spent in anticipation of being deep in the manure pile of Marine Corps discipline instead of enjoying the cakes and cookies my mother and her friends had sent me.

***

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