Bravo! The Project - A Documentary Film

Posts Tagged ‘Fix Bayonets’

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

March 29, 2017

On Payback and Recapture

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One of the things that I’ve discovered during the process of making BRAVO! is how the memories of various men who went through the same events are different. What I remember, someone else doesn’t remember at all, or remembers in a very different way, or maybe the only difference is in a detail or two.

And a follow-up to that notion is the question: Because we don’t remember events the same, are all, one, or none of the memories not the the truth? And that begs another question: Does it matter?

Tomorrow, March 30, will be the 49th anniversary—if that is the correct word—of what has come to be called the Payback Patrol.

On that day, March 30, 1968, I had just a few more days to make it through my thirteen month tour of duty without getting hurt or killed.

Bayonet and Scabbard for an M-16

We had been told, as I recall, that the patrol out the southeast gate of the Khe Sanh Combat Base was to be a standard patrol to bring back the twenty-seven Marines and Corpsmen we hadn’t saved or salvaged from the nasty events related to the Ghost Patrol of February 25, 1968.

I also recall that when I was told that the patrol would be “standard” some little message kept sneaking into my consciousness whispering something like, “Don’t believe them. It will be hell out there.”

And as it turned out, it was. Twelve Marines lost their lives and most of the other ninety or so participants on our side were wounded. I think, collectively, we killed a lot of our adversaries. But to make matters worse, we didn’t have the opportunity to retrieve our fellow Ghost Patrol Marines because we were locked in mortal combat with the entrenched NVA for hours.

While I was interviewing the men of the film, BRAVO!, it surprised me that some of them recalled the events of March 30 differently than I did. Some remembered that they were told we were going out to assault an entrenched battalion of the NVA’s best troops. Not something I heard or if I did, I chose not to believe it, and if I did that, why? Because I wanted to put the best face on it? I suspect that could be the answer. Optimism is something I have a healthy load of.

Tom Quigley at Khe Sanh

Tom Quigley at Khe Sanh.

One of the other things I don’t recall is the order that Skipper Ken Pipes gave to his radio operator, Tom Quigley, to, “Be advised, fix bayonets.”

Tom Quigley passed that order along to the rest of us via our radio network and as a radio operator, I must have heard that order.

No less than five of the interviewees of the film remember that moment very well—the fixing of bayonets and the inference they took away from the order: that they would be involved in up-close and personal combat, in some cases hand-to-hand battle, and all the images of death in close proximity that one’s mind could dredge up to scare the hell out of you.

With that many of the men spontaneously recalling the event at the interviews some forty-two years later, individually with no prompting from me, I have come to the conclusion that I must have blanked that memory out.

I wonder why. Was it because the thought was too horrible for me to deal with?

I wasn’t personally part of the combat where Marines and NVA soldiers were locked in fights that required the use of bayonets. And since I wasn’t, maybe my memory and my mind settled on the things that did happen to me: getting hit in the side of the head by mortar shrapnel, watching Marines satchel charge and flame throw bunkers with the enemy in them, running out front to call in artillery fire so we could begin to retire and collect our dead and wounded, watching Second Lieutenant Moscato trip a booby trap and get hit in the chin with a Willie Peter round that caused his face to smoke, to find my buddy David Aldrich’s body being carried back to the base after we retired from the battlefield.

It was a horrible day. One of those times, if you are thinking about the Marine ethos, that you associate with what happens when Marines go to war. Although not as long-lived, but over its four or five hour duration probably as savage, the Payback Patrol was akin to Belleau Wood, or Peleliu or Chosin Reservoir. On March 30, 1968, there were enough monstrous memories for every one of us who survived to store away a whole bevy of them and still not recall everything.

Ken Pipes

It’s curious what you do recall, sometimes, from those moments. One would think that the only thing that mattered was those ultimate instances where your survival was challenged in a terrifyingly personal way in a grippingly personal moment. But one of my clearest memories is of the faces of the dead. How the NVA all looked to me like they were fifteen years old and how the faces of the dead Marines began to change color, becoming sallow, and after a while they seemed to me to be no different in that regard—the tint of the skin—than the enemy. And of course, in the most important way—all of them being dead—they were no different.

I have been thinking a lot, over the past few months, of memory and how important it is for our mental health, that we have the ability to extract these mementos of horror and retell them so we can somehow better deal with the effects they have had on who we have become.

And if one man’s truth isn’t the same as mine in terms of what we recall, I don’t think it really matters. What matters in this regard, it seems to me, is that we learn to confront the reservoirs of monstrance that our un-dealt-with memories harbor.

I know that tomorrow a lot of men who were on the Payback Patrol will join me in recalling their own individual memories of those particular instances—fixed bayonets, charging the NVA trench, killing other men up close—and thinking about them.

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Documentary Film,Khe Sanh,Marines,Vietnam War

March 29, 2012

On Fix Bayonets and Payback

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I spend most of my time working on the film, Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor. As I do, my memory of experiences during the Siege of Khe Sanh keep simmering and bubbling. One of the salient parts of the film, and my memory, is what the surviving Marines and Navy Corpsmen of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment have named “Payback.”

Tomorrow, March 30, 2012 is the 44th anniversary of the only bayonet charge, as far as I know, in the entire Vietnam War.

The mist hung thick that morning, March 30, 1968, cloaking everything in its damp clutches except for the artillery and mortar fire that kaboomed through the fog and the muffled jingle and creak of our gear.

We eased outside the wire barrier in front of our lines and set up for an assault of a fortified NVA battalion in their trenches. Then the command came down from the Skipper. “Fix Bayonets.”

Marine Bayonet Training, from Wikipedia

For Marines, the command, “Fix Bayonets,” is one that sobers; cleans out all thoughts of home, girl friends in the back seats of blue Buicks, mothers baking chocolate chip cookies and sisters fighting for TV time. At that moment, for Jarheads, memories strain to recall the training: stabs, thrusts, slashes, vertical butt strokes. Hearts hammer like reports of fifty-caliber machine guns. Tongues and mouths grow suddenly parched.

As hard as I try to remember that March 30, 1968 command, “Fix Bayonets,” I can’t. Most of the other men who survived that assault remember the words being passed down from Skipper Ken Pipes to radio man Tom Quigley, who passed it on to the three platoons of Marines. I was a radio operator on that day, so I must have heard the command.

I suppose my inability to remember indicates the vehemence of what followed that command from the Skipper. My mind probably doesn’t want to remember those words. But it does recall, in some detail, the hours of battle that followed: vehement and bloody and vicious and exhilarating.

March 30, for a lot of the Marine combatants who fought that day, including myself, was the culminating event that punctuated the Siege of Khe Sanh. It was, in a number of ways, getting even; getting even for the deaths of our brothers on the February 25th “Ghost Patrol,” for our brothers killed and maimed at other times, for the lack of sleep and lack of chow and the lost weight and the fear…yes the fear…that rent us top to bottom. We were out there on March 30 for other reasons both tactical and strategic, yes. Yet for the snuffies who did the fighting, it was about getting even, whether we could articulate those emotions or not. And we got even. Here, 44 years later, that event, that bayonet charge, that in-the-trenches-satchel charges-flame thrower-hand-to-hand combat event, is known as “Payback.”

Not that the NVA didn’t get their licks in, because they did. Bravo Company took casualties that day. A lot of casualties. But in the give and take, take this, take that atmosphere of close-in combat, we kicked ass. It was payback.

When the siege began in late January 1968, for me it proved an exciting introduction to incoming, assault and danger. Heady stuff, adrenalin zapping the nerve endings, my thrilled innards lifted as if they were mortar rounds thumped into the never-ending. The January 21st initial attack and the ten days that followed were new, and compared to what would follow, subdued, and a fight most of us survived. I had no inkling that the siege would endure right up until March 30 and “Payback” and even beyond, into April.

February 1968 was the battering month for the men at Khe Sanh. We came to understand the horrors of combat. It was what we sought, I believe, in queuing up to be Marines. A test. A blooding. A chance to prove we were the match of our fathers and our uncles and our cousins who bled on the beaches of places like Iwo Jima and in the frozen hills of Chosin Reservoir. But I doubt any of us owned an idea of war’s true ferocity when we enlisted.

When I remember February 1968, that old adage comes to mind: Be careful what you wish for. You wish to prove you are among the brotherhood of the finest light infantry the world has ever known. Finding out that you are, or aren’t, is an onerous test. A deadly test. That was February, a deadly test…a test of physical stamina, mental stamina, spiritual stamina. February was the month of all-day artillery attacks, the fall of Lang Vei and the patrol of the 25th, the “Ghost Patrol.”

For us on the sidelines on February 25th, hearing those tortured hours, the loss, lives with us still. Time tends to dampen the power of emotion, but the infamous moments of February 25th still make my guts curl up and hide.

Yet my reaction now is nothing like it was my first thirty years after February 25th. For those thirty years my soul shrunk every time I thought of the foggy mist, the sounds of dying, the men of 3rd Platoon. I recalled smash-boom-blast of artillery, wounded and dead men carried inside the wire…not in a Marine Corps battle formation, but ones and twos, over hours and hours; I cringed, I felt like a failure. Even though the decision not to relieve the men of the “Ghost Patrol” was made way up the chain of command at regiment, division, or maybe (if rumor can be believed) in Lyndon Johnson’s war room, I still believe we let those men down. Marines relieve their embattled brothers, Marines don’t leave Marines behind. We let them down; me…even now, I believe, I let them down.

March was the month of reality whipping us again and again, as we lost men in front of the lines and behind the lines, eating chow, sleeping, flying in and flying out. Had enough bone-bending fright? Think you can’t go on anymore? Well, here’s some more, we will bash and batter you into minutiae.

And so, what happened on March 30 was a chance to recoup and get even, a chance to make a bullet point statement, a bayonet charge, a red blood and bone smash declaration…”Payback.”