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April 16, 2014

Lou Kern Muses on Green Ghosts, Hill 950 and the End of the Siege of Khe Sanh

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I came down from the mountain a few weeks after the end of the Siege in June of 1968. I’d been up there for 11 straight weeks. Two of us radio operators from my company were stationed up on Hill 950 (3119 feet). We lived in a cave approximately 8 feet wide, 6 feet deep and 5 feet high which was dug into the hilltop. Large pieces of interlocking metal runway strips provided a ceiling that would not collapse. Of the dozen or so caves dug into the side of the hilltop, about half had metal ceilings and half had ceilings made from tree branches. The hilltop had been alternately “owned” by our forces and theirs and in the process had been overrun many times. The tree branched caves had been dug by the NVA, the caves with metal ceilings by American soldiers. We felt happy to have a cave made by our own Marines.

We managed to squeeze two cots, four radios, a lawn chair and everything we possessed into that space, as well as a few rats that became named companions. Most of the time up there was spent with Roy Hagino, a good-natured blue collar kid from Flint, Michigan, and proud of it. We two were running the radio relay for our recon teams in the jungle during the Siege.

Bits and pieces of that time still blow around in my mind. It was so unusual, so isolated, so beyond the reaches of safety, so frightening that those bits and pieces run out of my memory like sand out of an open hand. No shave nor showers, often without drinking water, eating C-rations dating from the early 50’s, sucking the juice out of cans of fruit to stay hydrated, constantly surrounded by the NVA and for one ten day period dead sure we would be overrun, writing final letters home and hoping an enemy soldier would bother taking them from our blood-soaked pockets and mail them.

We manned the radios in a 6-hour-on and 6-hour-off schedule to break the stranglehold of stagnant time as much as possible. There was absolutely nothing to do outside of our work. The mountaintop was about 30 yards by 30 yards, it had a sheer drop on three sides which is what made it defensible at all, and our caves were dug into the sides like earholes in a monk’s head. The place vibrated like an earthquake every time a chopper landed, which wasn’t very often. We were socked in by monsoon clouds about half of that time. The mouth of our cave was a small oval; there was a trench outside and outside of that a drop of about 400 feet. The jungle began at that distance and that was NVA territory.

Lou Kern © Betty Rodgers 2014

Lou Kern
© Betty Rodgers 2014

The NVA loved sniping at us, which meant that leaving the cave and exercising was risky business. Nothing to do but sit in that 5-foot-tall cave, monitor the radios, and try and rub out the knots that kept popping up in our muscles. I was taller and thin, Hag was built like The Hulk, his favorite comic book character. Our diet didn’t put weight on me, but Hag gained pounds like a snowball. Near the end of our stay a plump Hag would lay on his bunk, snoring and farting at the same time.

There are things I learned later about the Siege that I did not know at the time. There were about 6000 young men involved at the base camp and the rest spread out on the various mountains around the base: 881 South, 861, 861-A, 558, 64, 950, all famous among Marines and historians, each in their own way. There were more explosives dropped during the Siege than all the explosives of WWII combined. This in an area of about 2 square miles. That is a hard thing to image. It’s hard to imagine how most of us 6000 lived through all that, but we did, hunkering down in caves, bunkers and foxholes.

The ground shook almost constantly as the B-52s arc-lighted, and from the constant artillery, rockets, mortars, Gatling guns, grenades, machine gun fire, rifle fire and the screams of badly injured soldiers. We could see the B-52s on a clear day, 3 miles above, and we could see when they dropped their bombs because the giant aircraft suddenly lost half their weight and had to peel off or snap their wings. If we stared at the spot in the sky where they dropped their load long enough, the clusters of bombs themselves would become visible, shivering like cold dogs in their plunge into what had been for centuries a pristine sub-tropical jungle.

I also learned later that my small company was credited as the main factor in defeating the NVA at Khe Sanh. The enemy called us the Green Ghosts. We were always out there in the jungle in 4-man teams, our faces painted with camouflage, every item in our gear fixed so that it would make no noise, every surface covered or coated so it would not reflect light, every man a volunteer in what seemed to others like crazy suicide missions. Some were. We spied on the NVA right in their back yard. It caused them great grief. If they wanted to move a unit to assault Khe Sanh from a different angle, we knew. If they had a favorite supply route, we knew. We found their caches and blew them, we called in artillery or Phantoms or Skyhawks on their base camps, we took prisoners and captured sets of orders from runners we had killed.

Hill 950, 1968 Photo Courtesy of Lou Kern

Hill 950, 1968
Photo Courtesy of Lou Kern

In the cave, on the radio, all the conversations about the team’s activities passed through the relay Hag and I manned. Everything. Our activity, like all wars, was pure drudgery and boredom punctuated by raging, adrenalin-saturated chaos. During the days we tracked our teams on the maps we had pinned to the dirt walls. We relayed their situation reports, their calls for artillery or air support, their screams of “contact” which came through our speakers riding on a wave of rifle fire. At nights, if the teams were surrounded and dare not talk, we would ask them questions. “If the enemy is within 20 feet, click your handset twice.” We were their umbilical cord, their lifeline, the only reason they could survive at all in that environment. And the teams were the only reason we were up on this ancient mountaintop, hoping the NVA who surrounded us would let us live one more day. Hag and I agreed, they were monitoring our radios. That was more useful than killing us. They had tried that. 950 had been overrun many times. The NVA took it and we took it back. 1371 was taller but there was no place to land a bird. 1050, 950’s sister hill, was a perfect cone, the top just waiting to be attacked from any angle. But 950 was different, tall enough to be a radio relay, approachable on foot along only one narrow saddleback.

Eleven weeks of 6 on and 6 off, constantly in vicarious combat, our young bodies out of our own control from cramping, dehydration and a poor diet, engaging in long conversations about jumping off the 400 ledge if the enemy got to us, or at least throwing our radios off so the NVA could not use them. Last letters home, badly wrinkled photos taken in and out of a filthy pocket countless times. Isolating ourselves from the dozen grunts up there who shared our fate and whose job it was to guard us, protect us against what seemed the inevitable, perhaps the liberating AK-47 round to the head if it came to that.

Those guarding us were really kids. Hag was at the end of his tour and myself in the middle. The 26th Marines had decided not to waste any well-trained or hardened grunts up on 950, so they sent clerks and cooks, 18-year-olds who had not even been to infantry training. Hag and I were frightened with a reason; they were frightened without knowing why, and that is much worse.

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There was a young lieutenant with them. He stuck his head in Hag’s and my cave and began telling us what to do if we were overrun. He knew, or more probably just guessed, that we had more training and experience that his kids did not. “I want you two to man the machine gun right up by the saddle.” He showed us a sketch of the hilltop and his grand, Napoleonic plan. Hag shook his head sadly and replied, “Sorry Sir, but we are not under your command.” “I’m the highest rank up here, mister.” Hag hardened his expression and shook his head again and the Butter Bar stormed off. Hag then called our command back at our base camp. “Get the S-3,” he said and when the S-3 came on the radio Hag briefly explained the circumstances. And that was the end of that. The Butter Bar never spoke to us again. Hag told me, “I don’t mind being on the machine gun, but if we are in front of all these kids we’ll probably get shot in the back.”

In early May, NVA activity shifted and our ground artillery and the New Jersey sitting out in the Gulf with her 16-inch guns started firing right over our heads, nights and days on end with the constant whistling of 105s, 155s and the big 16-inch guns. The 105s went over with a whistle, the 16-inch shells like a freight train, wa-ruff wa-ruff wa-ruff. “Hope they don’t aim a little low,” Hag commented. A 16-inch shell, 2000 pounds of high explosives, would have vaporized the hilltop.

When the monsoons hit, it poured for days, then weeks, then a month, endless cascading sheets of water, isolating us even more from the outside world. Our cave exhaled the deep smell of the earth; it leaked, it creaked, the rats extended their stay to the days as well as the nights. Stuck up in the clouds like that, air support was not available. Artillery never had been. On a tiny peak like 950 an artillery shell even a few feet off dead center would miss altogether. The NVA got very bold. They set up camp in plain sight. We could hear them talking, see them silhouetted against their fires at night, watch them mill around in an easy manner during the day. The Butter Bar ordered his men to snipe at them; Hag rolled his eyes. He called S-3 again and the next day the sniping stopped. No need to aggravate them. If they came at us they came at us. Save your ammo for an assault. Hag and I tied our two repelling ropes together and together they still didn’t reach halfway down the 400-foot drop.

All the while the minutes dragged on like hours until a “contact” scream came over our radios and we did everything we could to assist a team out there in trouble for a short while.

Hag was getting short in Nam. Two weeks then one week and then dead time changed; he was busy ordering a new Firebird and obsessed with the details. His excitement helped me lean against the groaning of time. One day, one hour, one minute, then Hag stepped on a bird and a new guy jumped off. To this day I do not remember the new guy at all. Once Hag left I started calling S-3. “I’m seeing little people,” I said. After I told S-3 five days in a row about the little people S-3 promised to relieve me and a week after Hag was gone I was down from the mountain, ready, willing and able to soundproof my gear, paint my face and melt into the jungle like a green ghost.

Lou Kern on HIll 950, 1968 Photo courtesy of Lou Kern and Bob Fuller

Lou Kern on HIll 950, 1968
Photo courtesy of Lou Kern and Bob Fuller

Years later when the Internet came around, I tried to find Hag. I did, a year after his death. He died at age 50, leaving a family behind. He had tried to stop an armed robbery of the restaurant he managed and was shot four times. Never really recovering, he died a year later.

Lou says this about himself:

I grew up on a farm in Iowa. I graduated in 1965 as a state champion runner and a member of the National Honor Society. I got my draft notice in January of 1966 and enlisted in the Marine Corps. I trained first as a radio operator and then as a Force Recon Marine at Camp Pendleton in 5th Force Recon Company. Among other schools, I attended Amphibious Recon School, Naval Divers (SCUBA) School, and Army Airborne School. I went to 3rd Force Recon Company, I Corps Viet Nam in February of 1968 and left Viet Nam and the Marine Corps in December of 1968. During my tour I spent 11 weeks on radio relay at Hill 950 and ran 20 deep recon patrols in the I Corps area. After the Corps I wandered through college, had a series of white collar jobs and ended up in construction at age 29. I have spent 35 years specializing in residential staircases. You can see some of my staircases at http://www.functional-art.com/. I have 4 children and 9 grandchildren, all of whom I am very proud.

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