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Guest Blogs,Khe Sanh,Marines,Other Musings,Veterans,Vietnam War

March 22, 2017

Ghosties–Redux

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Forty-nine years ago yesterday, Second Platoon, Bravo Company, First Battalion, Twenty-Sixth Marine Regiment went outside the wire at Khe Sanh. BRAVO! Marine Michael E. O’Hara muses on his memories of that day in this re-posting of a guest blog he wrote six years ago.

“Flanders”, a novel by Patricia Anthony, is set in France in WWI. It tells of a Texas farm boy, Travis Lee Stanhope, who joined the British Army and fought there Mar/Dec 1916. As time passes and casualties mount, Travis Lee begins to have dreams, dreams of a beautiful garden, the sweet smell of lavender, and a girl in a calico dress who assures him she will watch over his friends, his “GHOSTIES”, buried in the glass covered graves there.

It is 21 March 1968. It has been nearly a month since Bravo lost the third platoon and has been confined to the trenches. The mud, the rats, the constant incoming artillery, sixty days without respite. Bravo just lost another five Marines on the 6th of March as we watched a C-123 get shot down, which was also carrying fifty-two other personnel. We are becoming very anxious and are about to tangle with Charlie once again.

Left to right: Michael Carwile, Steve Foster, Michael O’Hara, Quiles Jacobs, Doug Furlong, Ken Rodgers. Photo courtesy of Michael O’Hara.

The second platoon, Bravo, leaves the wire pre-dawn. We position ourselves in front of FOB 3 where the Army controls the wire. We sit down in an “L” formation and wait for first light. We begin to rise at about 8 a.m. and it starts immediately. Red tracers from our rear (USA) and green to our right (NVA), then the mortars and RPG’s. My squad leader, Quiles Jacobs (Jake), is right in front of me and his flak jacket explodes in my face. It causes him to stagger a bit but he does not go down. He has been hit by a .50 cal bullet (USA). To my immediate rear are Doug Furlong and Dan Horton. They go down, hit by an 82mm mortar barrage, along with others. We are getting caught in a crossfire from the USA and the NVA. Someone failed to get the word we are in front of U S Army lines. Fortunately the friendly fire is soon checked and our heavy artillery quickly silences the mortars and small arms fire coming from the enemy tree line. I find myself, literally, holding both Horton and Furlong as we apply first aid and wait for the stretcher bearers. Many years will pass before I ever hear their voices again.

Amazingly, we are ordered to continue the patrol even though nearly twenty have been wounded and I think four have been evac’d. After a while I notice much blood running over Jake’s trousers from under his jacket. When I ask if he is alright, he just tells me to take over the point so we can finish our mission and get back. When we do, they put over 120 stitches in his back without any anesthesia and he still refuses to be med-evac’d.

We have gathered much on this patrol. We found siege work trenches, way too close to our lines, meant for a jumping-off point for a full frontal assault on our positions. We were able to locate many probable mortar and machine gun positions. The enemy trenches were scattered with dead NVA and beaucoup booby traps. Little do we know it will only be nine days until we all re-visit the ambush site for our final revenge. Jake, still wearing his bandages, will lead our squad headlong into hell once again. Flamethrowers, fixed bayonets, overhead heavy artillery, close air support (I do mean close) and napalm will rule that day.

Quiles Ray Jacobs and Dan Horton. Photo courtesy of Michael O’Hara

Tonight, all of Bravo will rest easy and dream of the beautiful garden, the sweet smell of lavender, and the girl in the calico dress who is watching over our “GHOSTIES” in their glass covered graves. Soon though, she will beckon thirteen more from Bravo to join her.

Present Day

Although Charlie did his best to lessen our numbers it would be a silent killer that would continue to cause casualties. Jake was the first on 19 April ’95 when the country’s eyes were on Oklahoma City. 1998, Bill Jayne and I would bury Don Quinn at Arlington. 2001 it was Doc Tom Hoody, then sometime along the way we lost Steve Foster. Many more would follow.

Dan Horton and I hooked up again in ’93 and had some really good times together. I was contacted around 2002 by Doug Furlong. He lived in Australia. I never saw him again but was able to enjoy our occasional conversation. Then in the fall of 2010 it was becoming obvious both these guys were in some serious danger. These were the two I held in my arms on 21 March 1968 and here they were both casualties again. Doug would leave for the garden on Halloween night and Danny, in all his glory, went there on 10 November, the Marine Corps birthday. I was absolutely STUNNED that it was these two who were wounded together, suffered together, and would die together some 42 years later. CANCER! All of them.

I attended Danny’s service in Detroit. He was laid out in his dress blues, rosary in his hand, and I found I just had no tears. I was so damn proud of him. He was Marine to the bone. Oorah!

God knows I miss them all so. I still set time aside each day just for “my” Marines.

Michael E. O’Hara during his interview for Bravo! Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers.
Photo by Betty Rodgers

As for me, I will continue to dream of the beautiful garden, and enjoy the sweet smell of lavender, as the girl in the calico dress watches over my “GHOSTIES” in their glass covered graves, until such time as she beckons me also.
Sweet dreams, Marines!

Michael E. O’Hara grew up and continues to live in Brown County in Southern Indiana.

Michael and his partner Maxine have been together 43 years.

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Khe Sanh

September 8, 2011

If Memory Fails Me

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One of the things that has been resolved in the course of creating the film, Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor, is the questioning of my memory. When it comes to the Siege of Khe Sanh, I have questioned if I really saw this or that over the years. Maybe what I thought I saw on a particular occasion was something that someone else told me about and over a period of decades became my memory, my experience.

But over the last eighteen months, a number of things I thought I saw, and then discounted as the memories began to fade, have been rekindled as my special truths.

For instance: February 13, 1968.

The NVA (North Vietnamese Army) had a 57 MM recoilless rifle emplacement out in front of the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam—South Vietnamese Army) lines and harassed us (both the ARVNs and the Marines), sending their shells into our lines, scaring the hell out of us. Some men were hit, maybe some killed, and on February 13 the 37th ARVN Ranger Battalion sent out a six man patrol to silence that gun. Second Platoon—my platoon—of Bravo Company sent out a squad to back up that ARVN patrol.

By then I was a short-timer in Vietnam and the siege was really beginning to heat up. So as we wended our way outside the wire and down into the valley below the ARVN lines, I felt the cold fingers of fear squeezing my spine. I had a fire team to command and I had to keep my guard up so that I didn’t appear frightened. I tossed my usual bravado (which at that moment was pretty counterfeit) around like hand grenades.

We sat up in a bamboo thicket on a line perpendicular to a well used game trail that wore a lot of sign of human traffic too. The bamboo was so thick you couldn’t see two feet in any direction except back towards the trail. We all set in and began to look to our front, our sides, and our rear. I remember sweat on my upper lip as I licked my chapped lips.

The thicket was too quiet. Like nothing in the world was alive. Even though planes were taking off and landing not three hundred meters to our rear and artillery rounds and rockets were flying overhead into the NVA positions to our front and from the NVA into our trenches in the combat base. I remember my mouth was dry and I quickly drank a canteen of water. I wanted to smoke a Camel but feared the smell would draw someone to kill me. I looked for bamboo vipers and leeches. I looked for the enemy. I listened for him.

Suddenly gunfire erupted to my front. Men were yelling in Vietnamese and there was screaming like someone was in pain. At least one someone, maybe more. Unbeknownst to me, the ARVNs had ambushed the 57 MM recoilless rifle crew and killed most of the North Vietnamese, capturing the gun. In the course of the fight, the ARVN lieutenant in command of the patrol had been wounded and found himself isolated from his men. As they took casualties trying to rescue him, he killed himself so they wouldn’t have to endanger any more men. I didn’t know any of this then, I could only hear the racket and the gunfire and the screaming and soon I could hear someone coming back up the trail. With my M-16 ready, the safety clicked off, I watched as the ARVN patrol hurried by with the captured 57 MM weapon and some wounded men. They waved their arms as they moved by, jumping around and rapidly jabbering in Vietnamese.

Right after they passed through our position, we formed up and followed them into Khe Sanh Combat Base. I was the last man into the file, so I pulled tail-end Charlie all the way back waiting for the enemy to sneak up and shoot us.

Later that night, a runner came down from the platoon commander and ordered me to bring one of my fire team members with me up to the command bunker. The mist hung down like a mother’s breath on a child just found dead in the crib. Flares fired from 105 MM howitzers lit the night and clanked and squeaked on their parachutes as they floated towards the ground. You could hear them hiss as they burned, and their smoke trails snaked away in the nighttime breeze.

At the command bunker, two ARVN stood out in the trench with a shrouded body on a stretcher. The lieutenant told me to take them up to Graves Registration. At the time, I was under the impression that the corpse on that stretcher was an NVA officer, but now I believe it was that ARVN lieutenant who killed himself. Nevertheless, it was my duty, along with Furlong, or Foster, or O’Hara, or Horton (I do not remember who) to escort the Vietnamese soldiers and the corpse through our lines and into the middle of the base so that no one shot the ARVN troopers, thinking they were the enemy.

No lights. Thick fog. We stumbled around and responded to halts, who-goes-there from a number of positions—artillery units, cooks, motor pool outfits, and who knows who else—before we located Graves Registration. I walked in; the ARVNS close behind with their dead officer. As I talked to the NCO in charge, I heard the thump of feet running down a hall somewhere in the rear of the bunker. Suddenly a Marine burst out, looking back over his shoulder with his hands up like Green Bay Packer wide receiver, Boyd Dowler. A foot floated out from the corridor that the Marine had just vacated and dropped into his outstretched hands. As he caught the foot, he yelled, “Touchdown.”

It was ugly, macabre, sick, demented and pretty damned funny, or so I thought at the time, because I burst out laughing. Something we do to retain our humanity in moments of extreme horror, we laugh, joke, grin. Even to this day, I still smirk—I could say smile, but that is too beautiful a word for this occasion—when I think about that foot, which is quite often.
 
The ARVN Rangers we escorted to Graves Registration dropped the stretcher and vacated the premises. We laughed harder at that than at the foot flying into the hands of the pranking Marine mortician. Outside, I found them huddled in a niche of the trench, squatting like Vietnamese were prone to do. Like wild animals trapped in a cage, their eyes darted left and right as I approached. What little light could be captured from the night gleamed in the whites. We escorted the ARVNs back to Second Platoon’s command bunker, or we must have, because I retain absolutely no memory of what happened after seeing that night-gleam in their eyes.

On another note, we have been showing an almost finished version of the film to private invitation only screenings. The response has been…well…extremely gratifying.

You can see more about what is happening with Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor, at our Indiegogo cloudfunding site at www.indiegogo.com/Bravo-Common-Men-Uncommon-Valor. You can also find us on FaceBook at www.facebook.com/bravotheproject.