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Posts Tagged ‘Ernie Pyle’

Documentary Film,Film Screenings,Khe Sanh,Marines,Other Musings,Vietnam War

August 6, 2014

The War Was In My Throat

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The war was in my throat; the need to shout it out. I thought I’d bust wide open. (1)

In the late 1960s I was asked not to talk about it. It bummed people out. People couldn’t look me in the eye when I tried to explain what happened to me at Khe Sanh.

In the 1970s I got told by veterans of previous wars that we (the men and women who served and fought in Vietnam) were the worst Americans who ever went to combat. My first wife informed me that I hadn’t undergone anything worse than anyone else had. I shut my mouth.

In the 1980s I worked with people who had no inkling that I had been a Marine, that I had survived the Siege of Khe Sanh. I didn’t talk about it, and neither did a lot of my fellow Vietnam vets.

Not that keeping your trap shut is just a phenomenon exclusive to Vietnam Veterans. I think silence about battle is common with all combat vets, no matter what the war.

Regardless, in the 1990s we started to talk about it: our war, our horrors. For me it came out through art. I wrote poems and stories, some fiction, some not; mostly autobiographical at the roots.

I was a witness to what happened at Khe Sanh. Not everything, of course. That would be impossible. Nevertheless, I was a witness and so I have been telling the story of my experience. Story is how humans pass on what we learn about life from one generation to the next. Does that mean that anybody learns from our story? Probably not. If they did, we wouldn’t be fighting war after war after war.

Notwithstanding the fact that we don’t seem to learn any of the human stuff passed from one generation to the next, it is still incumbent on us to tell the story.

Some of the incredible architectural detail inside the Pritzker. © Betty Rodgers 2014

Some of the incredible architectural detail inside the Pritzker. © Betty Rodgers 2014

While Betty and I were in Chicago screening BRAVO!, we went to visit the Pritzker Military Museum and Library. Several people familiar with the city had told us it would be worth our time to go there, and since the Pritzker co-sponsored our screening there, we were eager to show up and view the photography, the art, the architecture, the library.

The Pritzker has a steady stream of visitors arriving at their doors all through the day and researchers are in the library researching on the computer terminals, watching DVDs, sorting through stacks of books on library tables.

While at the museum, we met the coordinator of the veteran’s oral history project, Mr. Thomas Webb, who convinced me to give an interview, and we scheduled it for the following day. I asked how long it would take, and he said they liked to get a couple of hour’s worth of material.

Preparing for an oral interview at the Pritzker. © Betty Rodgers 2014

Preparing for an oral interview at the Pritzker.
© Betty Rodgers 2014

Since I was busy with Chicago, I said I’d give them an hour. I gave them three and one-half hours of war and horror and Marines and life. I could have gone on talking to my interviewer, Mr. Jerrod Howe, but I had things to do. My interview will show up as a podcast on their website later this year.

Mine was interview ninety-six. The previous ninety-five have been veterans of World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the First Gulf War, and the Middle East Wars of this century as well Bosnia, Somalia, and other foreign conflicts.

I am particularly thoughtful about those World War II vets. When I was a young veteran, I got told that all the men who fought in that war, that worst of all wars, didn’t need to talk about their war. And of course that was humbug. Guadalcanal Diary, From Here to Eternity, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Thin Red Line, Randall Jarrell’s poems about the Eighth Air Force, the photography that was available to all of us, and Ernie Pyle’s wonderful books about the troops are just a few of the stories that were told about this war. Those examples were mostly veterans telling their stories. And the ones who didn’t talk in 1946 or 1956 and who are still living are giving their histories to the Pritzker’s Holt Oral History Program and hundreds of other regional organizations intent on preserving memories of war.

Let’s face it, war is horrible and in the long run seems pretty senseless, but it’s one of the things that we humans do best, so it is incumbent on us as a species to understand this effort—this social effort—we get involved in quite regularly.

Here in Boise, Idaho, we have several organizations recording oral histories. I’ll bet, if you are a veteran, you can contact such an organization either in your area or elsewhere, and tell your story.

As a matter of fact, Thomas Webb at the Pritzker would like to hear from you because they want you to tell them your story. You don’t have to be in Chicago to get that done. They have multiple ways of chronicling oral history.

The interview. Left to Right, Jerrod Howe, Thomas Webb and Ken Rodgers, seated. © Betty Rodgers 2014

The interview. Left to Right, Jerrod Howe, Thomas Webb and Ken Rodgers, seated. © Betty Rodgers 2014

The Pritzker Military Museum and Library’s website is at http://www.pritzkermilitary.org/. You can find out more about the Pritzker’s Holt Oral History Program at http://www.pritzkermilitary.org/whats_on/holt-oral-history-program/stories-service/.

The mission statement for the Holt Oral History Program states:

“… the Holt Oral History Program is dedicated to conserving the unique Stories of Service of the Citizen Soldier—not just high ranking officers, recognizable faces from history, or soldiers who have had their stories told already—but every man and woman, from all walks of life, who has served and sacrificed for our country.”

We are all witnesses to our time. Share what you have seen and learned.

The war was in my mouth, right behind my teeth. It wanted out. (2)

(1) From the short story, “Party,” from the collection of short stories, The Gods of Angkor Wat, Ken Rodgers, BK Publications, 2014, p 137

(2) From the short story, “Party,” from the collection of short stories, The Gods of Angkor Wat, Ken Rodgers, BK Publications, 2014, p 138

On the screening front, BRAVO! will be screened in Nampa, Idaho on September 25, 2014 at the Elks Club. Doors will open at 6:00 PM with the screening of the film at 6:30. Screening will be followed by a Q & A session. Suggested donation, $10.00 to benefit Wyakin Warrior Foundation.

If you would like to host a screening of BRAVO! in your town this fall or winter, please contact us immediately.

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. For more information go to https://bravotheproject.com/buy-the-dvd/.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject/. It’s another way you can help spread the word about the film.

Documentary Film,Khe Sanh,Marines,Other Musings,Vietnam War

May 7, 2014

On Art and War

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We have art in order not to die of the truth.
Friedrich Nietzsche

Betty and I recently returned from a trip to California where we screened BRAVO!. On our way back to Boise we stopped in at the Living Memorial Sculpture Garden outside Weed, California, to look at the sculptures. The work exhibited here is the brainchild of a group of veterans from the Weed area who got together in 1988 and brought in sculptor Dennis Smith to create the work. Dennis Smith is a Marine who served with Bravo Company, 1/26, during the Siege of Khe Sanh.

Left to right: Ken Rodgers and Sculptor Dennis Smith. © Betty Rodgers 2014

Left to right: Ken Rodgers and Sculptor Dennis Smith.
© Betty Rodgers 2014

The sculptures at the Living Memorial Sculpture Garden are beautiful depictions of the human form as we might view it: engaged in war and yet at the same time reacting to the atrocities of war, or suffering from the aftermath. They are thought-provoking, expressive, and evocative of something more difficult to discover, the “Why” of war and it’s aftermath.

POW-MIA by Dennis Smith. Photo © Ken Rodgers 2014

POW-MIA by Dennis Smith.
Photo © Ken Rodgers 2014

In Smith’s sculptures there is a distinct conflict between art and war. Humans often thrive on conflict, on the junction of fear and redemption, good versus evil. We want conflict in our novels, in our movies, in our visual art. We say we don’t like conflict, yet we crave it on more than one level.

Some of our finest art is based on the never ending conflict between us. Consider Stephen Crane’s novella, The Red Badge of Courage, or Eric Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. These stories are verbal works of art that capture the pure energy, the agony, the ecstasy of war and humanity’s propensity for creating war and conflict.

In more recent literature, Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn and Nick Warr’s Phase Line Green are fine examples of stories written about the Vietnam War that expose the depth and breadth of war and humanity’s experience in that conflict.

And it is just not in story and sculpture, but in poetry, too, such as the Vietnam War poetry of Bruce Weigl and Yusef Komunyakaa. As an example of war poetry, check out the piece that follows by First World War British Officer Siegfried Sassoon. I like how it mixes the beauty of lyrical poetry with the horror of war:

Hero

‘Jack fell as he’d have wished,’ the Mother said,
And folded up the letter that she’d read.
‘The Colonel writes so nicely.’ Something broke
In the tired voice that quavered to a choke.
She half looked up. ‘We mothers are so proud
Of our dead soldiers.’ Then her face was bowed.

Quietly the Brother Officer went out.
He’d told the poor old dear some gallant lies
That she would nourish all her days, no doubt.
For while he coughed and mumbled, her weak eyes
Had shone with gentle triumph, brimmed with joy,
Because he’d been so brave, her glorious boy.

He thought how ‘Jack’, cold-footed, useless swine,
Had panicked down the trench that night the mine
Went up at Wicked Corner; how he’d tried
To get sent home, and how, at last, he died,
Blown to small bits. And no one seemed to care
Except that lonely woman with white hair.

(Siegfried Sassoon, “Hero,” from the website: http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/hero/.)

Another example of art applied to war in the form of poetry is Brian Turner’s “Here Bullet,” about the horrors of the war. Turner served in both Bosnia and in Iraq.

Here, Bullet

If a body is what you want,
then here is bone and gristle and flesh.
Here is the clavicle-snapped wish,
the aorta’s opened valves, the leap
thought makes at the synaptic gap.
Here is the adrenaline rush you crave,
that inexorable flight, that insane puncture
into heat and blood. And I dare you to finish
what you’ve started. Because here, Bullet,
here is where I complete the word you bring
hissing through the air, here is where I moan
the barrel’s cold esophagus, triggering
my tongue’s explosives for the rifling I have
inside of me, each twist of the round
spun deeper, because here, Bullet,
here is where the world ends, every time.

(Brian Turner, “Here, Bullet,” from the website: http://www.brianturner.org/poetry/.)

What about other examples of visual art? Below are two paintings created from events that occurred during the First World War. The initial painting, titled “Gassed,” is by the famous British artist John Singer Sargent, and the second, titled “A Battery Shelled, 1919” is by Wyndham Lewis. Both of these paintings depict the horrors of war via the beautiful tools of the painter, the tools of the mind, the memory and the painter’s genre.

Gassed, by John Singer Sergeant

Gassed, by John Singer Sergeant

(John Singer Sargent, “Gassed,” from the website: http://ind.pn/RksGnw.)

A Battery Shelled, 1919 by Wyndham Lewis

A Battery Shelled, 1919 by Wyndham Lewis

(Wyndham Lewis, “A Battery Shelled,” from the website: http://bit.ly/1mwza0q.)

The horrible glories that arise when art and war combine can also be portrayed through photography as in the following photo of Khe Sanh shot by the famous photographer, David Douglas Duncan, whose images are featured in BRAVO!.

Photo Courtesy of David Douglas Duncan and Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas Austin

Photo Courtesy of David Douglas Duncan and Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas Austin

Having participated in war, I think something aesthetic intrudes into our minds as we retch at the carnage that man heaps on man. I think that is one way we can come to terms with all the horror: through the art that depicts it.

On a quiet night in the war zone, nothing is quite as arresting as the sight of Snoopy, or as some of us called it, Puff, firing at the enemy:

Puff the Magic Dragon

Puff the Magic Dragon

(An AC-47, Puff, from the website: http://cherrieswriter.wordpress.com/2013/10/09/when-puff-ruled-the-night-the-birth-of-gunships/.)

Or the terrible beauty of napalm dropped on human beings:

Dropping Napalm

Dropping Napalm

(Napalm dropped on Vietcong targets, from the website: http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/vietnam/photoessay.htm.)

Or the sight of concertina wire etched against muddy terrain:

Concertina Wire

Concertina Wire

(Concertina wire, from the website: http://bit.ly/1o0mAWF.)

I just finished reading the late war correspondent Ernie Pyle’s book about World War II, titled Brave Men. Pyle generally had a no-nonsense style of writing and describing, but when he really tried to get at the essence of how we kill each other in combat, he waxed poetic in a way that takes us away from the lists and statistics and into the human aspects of war, and not just the horrible, but the sublimely beautiful. Here is an excerpt from Pyle’s book that, to me, shows what I am trying to get at:

From the scattered green leaves and the fresh branches still lying in the road. From the coils of telephone wire, hanging brokenly from high poles and entwining across the roads. From the gray, burned-powder rims of the shell craters, their edges not yet smoothed by the pounding of military traffic. From the little pools of blood on the roadside, blood that had only begun to congeal and turn black, and the punctured steel helmets lying nearby…From the scattered heaps of personal gear around a gun. I don’t know why it was, but the Germans always seemed to take off their coats before they fled or died.

(Ernie Pile, from: Brave Men, Grosset and Dunlap, NY, NY, 1943 and 1944, Pp 309 and 310.)

I began this blog with a quote from the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche that implies that we need art so that the truth of what we are doesn’t kill us. As horrible as war is—and believe me, anybody who has fought in one understands the essence of pure horror—we need to depict, portray and ponder how combat and its associated mayhem fit into who we are; and how can we best do that but through the beauty and truth we attain through art?

With that in mind, if you head in the direction of Weed, California, consider stopping in at the Living Memorial Sculpture Garden to see some of BRAVO! brother Dennis Smith’s beautiful sculpture that contemplates our horrible human endeavor, war.

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. For more information about purchasing BRAVO! DVDs, go to http://bit.ly/18Pgxe5.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject/. It’s another way we can spread the word about the film and the Vietnam War.

Documentary Film,Khe Sanh,Marines,Other Musings,Vietnam War

January 29, 2014

On Candles, Khe Sanh and Hand-dipped Candies

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This is a time of the year that I call the “season of the siege.” Memories of Khe Sanh in 1967-1968 always flood my mind, but in the winter and early spring of every year the memories infest me with louder shouts from the ghosts of my history.

Those ghosts showed up to bother my memories yesterday when I read a piece from Ernie Pyle’s book about World War II titled, Brave Men. In his books about that war, Pyle rarely mentioned generals and admirals, politicians, global strategy. He stuck to the mundane inconveniences, joys and heartaches encountered by the snuffy, the grunt, the flyboy, the squid, the dogface. Particularly interesting to me was Pyle’s reference to candles, specifically to the need for candles on the Anzio beachhead just south of Rome, Italy, in early 1944.

In Vietnam, we needed candles, too, so I suddenly felt an affinity with those men trapped in Kesselring’s Steel Ring that surrounded the American 5th Army at Anzio. Sure, the very fact that I went through boot camp, got shot at by the enemy, shot at the enemy, slept in the mud and rain, lived in a hole in the ground, provides plenty of common experience with the warriors at Anzio. But that need for candles, that mundane luxury, and it was a luxury, puts our—theirs and mine—shared misery and fear on a footing so common and un-heroic that it makes me smile just thinking of it.

Ken Rodgers, © Betty Rodgers, 2012

Candles were necessary and important because they allowed us to see in our hooches. We had no electrical power, we had no barracks, we had no lights dangling down from the sandbagged roofs of those holes we chiseled out of the hard, red ground of Khe Sanh.

We wanted light to read by and to fix our C-ration meals and to see the faces of the other men we were talking to. I don’t recall if the Marine Corps provided candles. They provided C-rations and chocolate and Big Hunk bars, they provided cigarettes and toilet paper and matches and heat tabs. But I don’t recall candles.

In my experience, the candles I burned on Hills 881S and 861 and at the Khe Sanh Combat Base came from my mother. A variety of candles, but mostly white, long and thin, tapered and not much bigger around than my thumb.

When packages from home didn’t show up due to weather or some other factor, we had to figure out how to manufacture our own candles. We learned the hard way not to throw out those mounds of spent candle wax that looked like the remains of lava that had run into a flat spot and pooled. After some nights of dark—the hooches were dark most of the time—without candlelight, we learned to save our spent candle wax so that we could make replacements.

The candles we made were never as effective as the ones we got from home, but they served in a pinch. I have clear images of two of us Marines bent over in the fluttering light of our last candle, with a thread from a piece of Marine Corps green canvas or two or three threads from a jungle dungaree entwined to create a wick, melting our stash of old wax so we could construct a new source of light.

Besides candles, mail from home brought us socks and books and Chapstick and goodies from our mothers’ kitchens. My mother and her friends sent me a lot of packages with so much stuff, I had plenty of goodies to spread around…cookies and hand-dipped bonbons and brownies, to name a few delights.

And after the siege heated up in February 1968, those packages became scarce and when they did arrive, they came in bunches and often the cookies were moldy and the candles had been taken out of our packages…by whom, we never knew.

As I look back on it now, what was more important to me, and probably a lot of the Americans and their allies at Khe Sanh, were the letters from our parents and our wives and our friends. Their expressions of love and concern helped harden our resolve to survive the horror of the siege.

The last month of my tour in Vietnam, I was charged with traveling up from the trenches to the company office to collect the mail for 2nd Platoon. I carried a red box that was full of letters written by Marines and Corpsmen in our platoon to someone back home. When I arrived at the office, I delivered the outgoing mail and picked up whatever was there for the men in our platoon. Since the mail arrived in fits and starts, sometimes if took me multiple trips across that deadly no-man’s land, so to speak, between the relative safety of our positions and where I picked up the mail.

The company office was an underground bunker that housed the Company 1st Sergeant and the office clerks. We usually met and gathered the mail in a big tent that was set up over the bunker. There was a hole that led down into the bunker from the tent.

I remember once, when I was diddy-bopping down the trench after sipping coffee and shooting the moose with some 2nd Platoon buddies, something slammed down onto the top of my helmet and jarred my head down into my neck. This was a feeling that wasn’t unusual, since all the times I had to traverse from trench to office I often found myself having to dive behind some kind of structure or into a hole with the arrival of mortars or rockets or artillery rounds. A lot of those times, I ended up jamming my helmet into a sandbag abutment or the wall of a fighting hole. After recovering from my initial shock, I saw that it was Staff Sergeant Alvarado, the platoon sergeant, who had bonked me on the head with that red mail box.

He said something to the effect, “It’s way past mail call, Rodgers.”

I was very familiar with Staff Sergeant Alvarado since I was his radio operator. He was a good NCO and did a fine job of helping lead 2nd Platoon. But right then, he’d gotten into my craw, and me, always looking for an appropriate moment to challenge authority, ripped into him about what he could and couldn’t do to me. I remember yelling at him that he could write me up or remove me from my duties, but he was not to ever touch me, hit me or assault me in any way. Of course, the vernacular of Khe Sanh required that I throw in more expletives than normal words, but I won’t go into those details here.

And to Staff Sergeant Alvarado’s credit, the only thing he did was grimace like I’d stung him in some way. I grabbed the mail box and off I went, highly irritated and not without some remorse for not doing my duty in the first place.

After the Payback Patrol of 3/30/1968, I remember (because I was so “short” I could walk underneath a short-legged table) taking my replacement up to that tent over the company office to get the mail. Men from all of the platoons were there, sitting around with piles of mail and a clerk in the middle calling out names of addressees. Bravo Company had so many casualties by that time—way over one-hundred dead and wounded—that it was hard to know who was where and who was alive or in Danang at the hospital or on a hospital ship or rotated back to the States.

Of all the things I recall about my time in Vietnam, this incident stands out in my memory. We hadn’t had mail for quite some time and all of a sudden piles were available and each platoon had a goodly heap of letters and packages, but the biggest mound was for the Marines not there.

As we were sorting the mail this way, three rocket rounds swooshed in and exploded outside. I had been in Vietnam longer than any of the other Marines sitting around that tent, and like a snake escaping a raptor, I was across the deck and down that chute into the bunker where the office was.

The top sergeant ordered me to get out, and for a second I felt like ripping into him for being a pogue and hiding down in that hole while us snuffies fought the war. But I didn’t. I climbed out and collected the mail, and along with my replacement, carried all that mail to 2nd Platoon.

When I got home, my mother was asking me if I got this, and if I got that, and no, I hadn’t, and since I was gone from the nightmare of that misunderstood war, I hoped that someone down there in 2nd Platoon ended up with my goodies and my white socks and my candles.

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. For more information about purchasing BRAVO! DVDs, go to http://bit.ly/18Pgxe5.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject/. It’s another way we can spread the word about the film and the Vietnam War.