Bravo! The Project - A Documentary Film

Posts Tagged ‘Ghost Patrol’

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

February 25, 2022

February 25, 2022

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February 25, 2022

In Their Own Words

Fifty-four years ago today, one of the most despairing events of the entire battle known as the Siege of Khe Sanh occurred.

Third Platoon, Bravo Company, 26th Marines went out on a patrol and were ambushed.

Two squads from Bravo Company’s 1st Platoon went out to relieve them. They were also ambushed.

A lot of the survivors stumbled back into the perimeter over the balance of the day.

The memories still gnaw the guts of the men involved, as well as the men who watched.

What was it like?

Let some of the Marines and Navy Corpsmen who made it home tell you. These comments are from the original interviews done for the film BRAVO! COMMON MEN, UNCOMMON VALOR. You may recognize some of these remarks from the film and some of them you have never heard. Even though the interviews were conducted on an individual basis, the men often recollected the same events without anyone prompting. That was one of the amazing things about interviewing the men of BRAVO!.

The ambush and ensuing slaughter took on a name:

THE GHOST PATROL

The Ambush:

Cal Bright:

I ended up being point for a while and my team member, Clayton Theyerl, who was from Racine, Wisconsin, was directly behind me and motioned for me to stop. He says, “I’m going to take your place. This is your first patrol.”

Probably within five minutes all hell broke loose.

Theyerl was killed. My team leader, a Lance Corporal Thrasher from Oklahoma City, asked me to go up and retrieve the body. As I was dragging him back, the body was bouncing , was jumping back and forth and I could feel bullets whizzing past my head, and in a sense, his body protected mine.

Marines on The Ghost Patrol. Photo Courtesy of Robert Ellison/Blackstar

John “Doc” Cicala:

We crossed a set of trench lines and then they opened up on us and it was just pure chaos from then on.

I watched a guy drop and I took care of a couple of guys and then as I was crossing back over the road because another guy got hit, then the next thing I know I seen a guy pop out of a fighting hole. He hit me a couple of times in the chest.

And then a grenade landed between my legs, and I looked down and I seen it and I yelled, “Grenade.”

I curled up into a ball and it went off. I couldn’t hear or see anything for a minute with all the dirt and everything, and then when I could see my foot over there and I was thinking to myself, This ain’t good. My foot moved and I said, “Well at least it’s still attached.”

Steve Wiese:

You know, most of the guys went down in the first minute. The only reason I survived was I just happened to be standing in a bomb crater where it was like two, two and one-half feet deep where it blew the ground out and I just happened to be walking through that when the ambush opened up.

Ben Long:

Men were getting shot and you could hear that happening.

John “Doc” Cicala:

Lieutenant Jacques came running by and he looked down at me and he said, “Doc,” he said, “get out of here,” he said, “we’re all getting killed.”

1st Platoon tried to relieve the beleaguered Marines:

Peter Weiss:

Two squads, we actually split up, one squad went straight out towards where they were. The other squad went out to the right. And unfortunately he got trapped in the same kind of ambush and so of that squad, maybe ten men, I think, four were killed in that ambush.

They were ordered to retreat while the fight went on:

Mike McCauley:

You could hear it in the distance. We could hear it on the radio. The screams and stuff that was going on.

Steve Wiese:

As soon as I fired a round there were hundreds of guys shooting back.

Cal Bright:

I come across a radio operator who had been killed. To this day I have no idea what his name was.

All I could hear on the radio was, “Hello, hello, is anybody there? Anybody hear us?”

So I keyed the mike and said, “Hello.”

Somebody came back on and said, “Who’s this?”

“Well this is Cal.”

“Cal who?” And I told him and he said, “Who else is there with you?”

I called back and said, “Nobody.”

I could see little helmets in the background. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I was just a few meters from the NVA

trench line.

Marines on The Ghost Patrol. Cal Bright on the left. Photo courtesy of Robert Ellison/Blackstar

Escape:

Ben Long:

I just started seeing people coming back, not in groups but straggling back and some were wounded.

Cal Bright:

I was able to get out of there after some time. How long? I have no clue.

John ”Doc” Cicala:

They say I made it back to the base maybe six, eight hours.

Peter Weiss:

I went out to get him. Walked through the mine field, not you know, around the side, but through the mine field. And I was scared. Walked through the mine field, walked through the concertina, grabbed…and he was in absolute shock. Grabbed him by the arm and we walked back through the mine field into the perimeter.

Steve Wiese:

I worked my way out and moved down around the back and came back to the base. And it was just like, “Where is everybody?” and I just remember the guys saying, “You’re pretty much it.”

For those who watched and listened, who weren’t in the fight:

Dan Horton:

We knew they were getting hit. We…we wanted to go out. They wouldn’t let us go out. It was just…it all happened so fast and you know it was wild. And we wanted to go out and help them out and bring them in but Headquarters said no.

Ken Korkow:

A number of us went up to Battalion and we begged to go out and get those guys and bring them back. We had to watch while those guys were getting chewed up in front of us. The Marine Corps has this saying, “We always recover our dead.” Nobody said it was going to be over a month before we recovered them. Attitudes turned really bad inside the perimeter.

Lloyd Scudder:

When I finally get back to Khe Sanh, my platoon is wiped out. I don’t know anybody. I feel like I abandoned them, I’ve been trying to prove myself ever since that deal with the Ghost Patrol…I just feel guilty.

The enduring emotional pain was palpable:

Ken Rodgers:

That’s kind of the notorious event at Khe Sanh, was the Ghost Patrol, because all those guys got killed and they got left…the bodies got left out there.

Ken Pipes:

I think it broke all of our hearts.

As I wrote this blog, sadness got in my bones and showed me a bit of the agony that we all felt that day. You’d think one could get over this stuff. You hope you get over it.

But you don’t.

DVDs of BRAVO! are available @ https://bravotheproject.com/store/.

A digital version of BRAVO! is available in the US on Amazon Prime Video @ https://amzn.to/2Hzf6In.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject?ref=hl.

The new documentary film from Betty and Ken Rodgers, I MARRIED THE WAR, is now available to watch. Check it out at https://imarriedthewar.com/.

Eulogies,Khe Sanh,Marines,Veterans,Vietnam War

March 25, 2020

Requiem

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Steve Wiese was an American Hero. I think he would dispute that statement and would have said something like, “The real heroes are the dead, the ones who didn’t come home.”

But he was a hero.

Unlike so many of us who fought with Bravo Company, 1/26 at Khe Sanh, who did 12-month-and-twenty-day tours, Steve extended his time in country and served 18 Months. He joined up with his Bravo Marines when 1/26 was headquartered at Hill 55 southwest of Danang, and could have rotated home in late autumn of 1967, but chose to come back from his leave just in time to endure the Siege of Khe Sanh.

Marines of Bravo Company, 1/26, in Vietnam. Steve Wiese is the third man on the left in the front row. Photo courtesy of Steve Wiese.

In many regards, I think, he was the Marine’s Marine, a leader and a warrior who loved his Bravo Company mates.

A lot of Khe Sanh vets knew Steve better than I did, but what we shared was special: intense and intimate in the ways combat veterans share. We’d been to war and we’d made it home and after decades of keeping our traps shut about our experiences, we opened up and told our stories, separately and together.

And boy, did Steve’s stories impact the message that, after thirty-plus years, went out to America and the world.

Steve Wiese at a reunion of the Khe Sanh Veterans. Photo courtesy of Ken Rodgers

The things Steve said in BRAVO! COMMON MEN, UNCOMMON VALOR illuminated the service of all Vietnam Veterans. He said it like it needed to be said, blunt and bold and no-holds-barred. He bared his soul and revealed his vulnerabilities while edifying the men with whom he served.

There were a lot of tragedies in Steve’s life. In Vietnam, with Bravo, he was involved in every battle or firefight of any consequence that happened during his tour.

While I managed to not be in a number of the fights that Steve was in, I lived through enough to get an inkling what it was like for him.

On June 7, 1967, in what has lately been termed by historians to be the last clash in the Hill Fights segment of the Battle of Khe Sanh, Bravo went on a two-platoon patrol off the north end of Hill 881-S. Back then, we patrolled in soft covers and no flak jackets, and we generally ran patrols on the same routes every few days.

Photo of Steve Wiese, second from left along with, on the left, Marcia Franklin of Idaho Public Television’s Dialogue, Betty Rodgers, second from the right, and Ken Rodgers. Photo courtesy of Idaho Public Television.

So, when the NVA ambushed Bravo out there that day, the casualties were devastating. I wasn’t out there. Our squad stayed on the lines but I heard it and I saw it, and how it felt to me then, sticks with me now: emptiness, like some part of me hightailed it and can’t come back. So with that in mind I can only imagine how those men who fought that day—like Steve Wiese—felt.

He gained some notoriety that day when, upon coming in the gate after the patrol returned to the combat base, he barked at a colonel, maybe, or a lieutenant colonel, or a major who tried to soothe the returning warriors with platitiudes. (A load of officers came up on the hill at the end of that fight.)

After returning to his squad area, he expected to be standing tall in front of The Man because of what he said, but instead he was approached by a general, whose name I don’t think he ever enlightened me with, who told Steve to not pay attention to anything that officer had said.

On July 21, 1967, First Platoon of Bravo went out on a patrol on Route 9, east of Khe Sanh, which was ambushed. Steve was out there that day, too, and men with whom he served and bonded, died.

And then there was the Siege and all that came with it.

Including the Ghost Patrol. Steve was a squad leader on that debacle and even though he survived, a lot of the men in his squad didn’t. He carried a ton of grief and guilt over that. His narrative about how he managed to escape and evade the NVA to return to the base is one hell of a story.

Steve Wiese during his interview for BRAVO! COMMON MEN, UNCOMMON VALOR. Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers.

And then there was the savage Payback Patrol where he was a squad leader in First Platoon and again, lost a lot of good Marines.

After he came home, he put up with all the guff and lack of respect that came with being a Vietnam Vet, and he suffered tragedies that would break folks with less steel in their spine.

He loved his Marines and he cherished and honored them whether dead or alive.

IF you were one of his Marine Brothers, he supported you. He showed up when the manure hit the fan.

One of the strongest moments in BRAVO! Is when Steve says this, “I’ve had people say, ‘Well, that was 30, 40 years ago. Why don’t you get over it?’ You know, I wish I could. I wish I could get over it. But on the other hand, it’s like I don’t ever want to forget these guys. I don’t want to forget what I’ve seen, what I was witness to. And I don’t want to forget them and their memories.” And he never did.

Steve wouldn’t have called himself a hero, but I will.

***

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

March 21, 2020

Elation

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After the Ghost Patrol of 25Feb1968, no larger units sortied outside Khe Sanh combat base for almost a month. We sent out some listening posts but those were small and they went out after dark and came in before sunrise while the mist still hung low to the ground.

But on today’s date fifty-two years ago, as the sun threw up the first hint of daylight, we Marines of Second Platoon, Bravo, 1/26 stood in the trench and smoked our Camels and Winstons and Salems, flinched at the incoming rounds, heard the scrape of scuffed jungle boots in the red mud at the bottom of the trench. Noted some mumbles.

And if fear had sounds, they would have ricocheted in the deep trench, off the walls, against the sandbags. Being Marines, we needed to keep the fright quarantined to a slow boil at the bottom of our guts. We must not entertain the notion of fear because its insidious gnawing weakened us.

And then out the gate we went, crossed over the minefield, got on line and charged across the vale and up the ridge towards the NVA position in the vicinity of where the Ghost Patrol had traveled.

After the Siege. Photo courtesy of Mac McNeely

Our big guns on base boxed us in with ordnance, geysers of red mud, black smoke and the din of combat suddenly crammed in our ears and brains, sucking the breath out of our lungs. And as we headed towards our objective, our allies to the rear, on the base, fired machine-guns over our heads.

As the Marines of my old squad, Third Squad, reached the top of the ridge, explosions erupted among them and then .50 caliber rounds fired by our guys, our allies, our mates, ripped into the men of Third Squad. I saw the rounds hit; flashes and bodies pirouetting, falling.

The explosions I suspect were from NVA mortar rounds and RPG rounds, but the machine-gun fire was what we call friendly fire. Friendly fire.

Up top, while the wounded were medevacked, we got in the NVA trench and headed east. At one point elements of First Squad, who were on point, veered off to the north, away from the trench.

We’d been briefed to stay in the NVA trench because it was believed that the surrounding terrain was infested with booby traps.

When this went down, I had about fifteen days left in the field. I’d survived my twelve month-plus tour by being good at surviving, being lucky, not being heroic, just doing my job and keeping it as low profile as possible.

So I was shocked as I took off, out of the trench, sprinting behind the Marines of First Squad, yelling, “No, no,” and when several turned at my words—and as I think of it now, how they heard me in the furious din that boomed around us—how they weren’t blown up by some of that ordnance and how we all didn’t get blown to smithereens by the mines and booby traps out there where we had wrongly ventured, is a wonder to me to this day.

But, nobody lost legs or died or anything. We just got back in the NVA trench and drove on towards our goal.

Not far from our destination, a gate we could enter through the maze of our own mines and wire and booby traps, the man on point triggered an NVA booby-trapped grenade that went off. He went down, but then got up and a Corpsman went to succor him and after that, we went in, missing some of the men with whom I’d served previously in Third Squad. The squad leader, Corporal Jacobs’ back had been rent by one of those .50 caliber rounds that had been delivered by the friendly fire. He stood there among us like nothing had happened to him.

Author Ken Rodgers at Khe Sanh. Photo courtesy of Michael O’Hara.

After we all retired to our area, we shouted and jumped up and down and the Marines sent historians to record our thoughts. I remember relief. I remember a sense of satisfaction, and I also remember feeling extremely elated. How I imagined exaltation. I was bad, I was indestructible. I was alive.

And we’d gotten in their trench. Their trench.

We were…were…were unbreakable, we were shatterproof, we were everlasting.

The thing that sticks in my mind after all these years was that high, that feeling that I stood atop a throne at the apex of the world was at that moment so different from the almost two months of despair that permeated everything that I had lived through. Thousands upon thousands of incoming rounds that shook the ground—some that roared like railroad engines and some that hissed like sneaky spirits—and dismembered men I knew and didn’t know, who at that time and in that place were like twin brothers to me.

I realized that for two months I’d lived on huge doses of luck and that sometime, if the siege did not stop, I’d be hit by a whooshing chunk of shrapnel that would sever an arm or a leg, or I’d be sitting in my bunker and a rocket round would crash through the roof and my fellow Marines would be gathering my parts that were pasted on the sandbag walls, or a sniper would put a round through my brain.

So, having been in their trench, and having survived, and for at least a few hours, having been on top, the aggressor, the winner so to speak. Yeah, I was elated. I was bad.

***

DVDs of BRAVO! are available @https://bravotheproject.com/store/

A digital version of BRAVO! is available in the US on Amazon Prime Video @ https://amzn.to/2Hzf6In.

In the United Kingdom, BRAVO! is available on Amazon Prime Video UK @ https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B07BZKJXBM.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject?ref=hl.

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

February 25, 2020

Grief

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52 years ago today, one of the most significant events in my memory of Khe Sanh’s siege occurred in what has now become known as the Ghost Patrol. When Marines and Corpsmen from Third Platoon of Bravo Company 1/26 were ambushed by a battalion of NVA, a squad from First Platoon went out to relieve them, and they were ambushed, too. A lot of good Marines, young men with futures that would never be discovered and fulfilled, died that day.

I have written about this a lot over the years I suppose in hopes of finding resolution, and yet I still return to the memories almost daily.

I recall our skipper, Ken Pipes, talking about the event one evening, sadness drooped on his shoulders like a too-heavy mantle. He talked about a patrol on Guadalcanal—the Goettge Patrol, led by Lieutenant Colonel Frank Goettge—that was ambushed by Japanese forces and which lost almost its entire 25-man contingent.

Ken Pipes at Khe Sanh.

Skipper Pipes talked about how bad things happen in war and how the Ghost Patrol was another of the long list of actions where Marines were attacked and nearly obliterated. But his and my recognition of this fact of war had no effect, as far as I could tell, in lessening his profound sense of loss, and responsibility, related to the ambush of 25Feb68.

The Ghost Patrol has been the subject of a number of news articles, battle studies, and for a while was used as a case study in the Scouting and Patrolling class at the Marine Corps Basic School at Quantico, Virginia where all new Marine Corps officers and warrant officers are trained. One of the things they taught in that course was how it feels to lose your troops/mates in the chaotic heat of battle, and in retrospect, the ensuing grief.

One of the online dictionaries defines grief as “deep sorrow, especially the sorrow caused by someone’s death.”

Grief comes in a variety of types. According to the website WHAT’S YOUR GRIEF (https://whatsyourgrief.com/ ), grief can be prolonged, anticipatory, masked, disenfranchised, secondary, cumulative, inhibited, ambiguous, complicated, normal, traumatic, abbreviated, exaggerated, absent, prolonged, chronic, and collective, to name a few.

Blogger Ken Rodgers while at Khe Sanh. Photo courtesy of Michael E. O’Hara.

As far as I can discern from my short appraisal of the types of grief, I suffer—or have suffered, related to the events surrounding the Ghost Patrol: normal, prolonged, complicated, traumatic, chronic and collective grief.

Collective grief, in my case, means that besides my problems with the malady, I am joined by a relatively large number of my fellow Khe Sanh survivors in our grief that is also prolonged and chronic and traumatic.

The French playwright Moliere said, “If you suppress grief too much, it can well redouble.”

For years, for decades, I tried like hell to stuff the grief I felt from my mates having been massacred on today’s date fifty-two years ago. And from my experience, I can say it probably didn’t help to do that. In the Marines back then, and maybe now, too, you were just supposed to tough it out. War’s hell and all that kind of sentiment, or lack of sentiment thereof. But all my grief demanded to be let out.

I think again of Bravo Skipper Pipes and it seems to me that so much of the life he lived in the too-short time I knew him was dedicated to the memories of the men he led who died at Khe Sanh and especially to all those casualties on 25February1968. His grief was palpable. It was long term. It directed him to constantly search for ways to honor those who didn’t come home.

Steve Wiese. Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers.

Over the years, people have asked me why I don’t just get over it.

When we made BRAVO!, Steve Wiese said it best:

“I’ve had people say, ‘Well, that was 30, 40 years ago. Why don’t you get over it?’ You know, I wish I could. I wish I could get over it. But on the other hand, it’s like I don’t ever want to forget these guys. I don’t want to forget what I’ve seen, what I was witness to. And I don’t want to forget them and their memories.”

***

DVDs of BRAVO! are available @https://bravotheproject.com/store/

A digital version of BRAVO! is available in the US on Amazon Prime Video @ https://amzn.to/2Hzf6In.

In the United Kingdom, BRAVO! is available on Amazon Prime Video UK @ https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B07BZKJXBM.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject?ref=hl.

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

February 25, 2019

Ruminations

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Fifty-one years ago today at Khe Sanh, Marines from 1st and 3rd Platoons of Bravo/1/26 went out on patrol from the combat base and walked into an ambush that killed 27 Marines and Corpsmen and wrecked the psyches and memories of a hell of a bunch of young warriors.

This event, now known as the Ghost Patrol, has been written about a lot by both me and other folks, and it was the subject of a field problem in the Scouting and Patrolling Course at the United States Marine Corps Basic School where all new Marine Corps officers and warrant officers receive training. So what I say here isn’t any revelation of new events.

What strikes me now, after all these years, is how raw the memories can be when someone recalls the names, the weather, the terrain, the terror of that day.

For those who survived, the memories are indelibly scratched into the psyche and cannot be kicked out of the mind. For those of us there who witnessed that massacre in one way or another—what happened—the memories are also pretty much inescapable.

Marines on The Ghost Patrol. Photo Courtesy of Robert Ellison/Blackstar

But it’s not just the combatants who live with images of those men. There are also the families who haven’t been able to forget, either.
Since Betty and I made BRAVO!, we have had a lot of communications with folks who lost family members at Khe Sanh.

I recall one day picking up my cell phone and seeing I had a voicemail message from the brother of a Marine killed on the Ghost Patrol. He had found me by chance when he discovered a DVD of BRAVO! in a museum. He hadn’t known about the film until then, and was stunned to see his brother’s name listed in the litany of the dead from that terrible day, February 25. We talked a number of times and I told him I did not know his brother, but if I could help him with any info, I’d be happy to do so.

Then I remembered that a friend of ours had sent a donation to memorialize this Marine in the film credits. In fact, he had recovered the Marine’s remains when a patrol from Bravo and Delta Companies, 1/26, went out and retrieved them.

Here’s what really sticks with Betty and me. My Marine buddy and the brother were able to meet up and talk about memories, about what happened, and hopefully the get-together helped the deceased Marine’s brother process the recollections and questions that had flooded his mind for over fifty years.

Stark image from the Ghost Patrol. Photo courtesy of Robert Ellison/Blackstar

Not long after, I received a call from another man whose brother was also KIA on the Ghost Patrol. I knew that Marine, not well, but still, we’d arrived at Bravo Company about the same time and although he went to a different platoon, my recollections of his renown as a joker, a gung-ho Marine, an ebullient young man who entertained his comrades, matched the brother’s memories.

We discussed that Marine and the film and I could tell from the telephone conversation that what I said had helped him settle something in his thoughts—what it was I have no idea, but it was palpable over the phone.

When we set out to make BRAVO! it was an endeavor to tell the story, preserve the history if for no one else, at least for me. But the creation of the film has turned into so much more for not just Betty and me, but also for lots of other folks who have those memories and ties that they don’t want to chuck out like a set of dirty dungarees. After all the years, the intimate pain still grates.

BRAVO! lives on and as proof, we have more screenings coming up in March.

Blogger Ken Rodgers while at Khe Sanh. Photo courtesy of Michael E. O’Hara.

On March 9, 2019 at 5 PM the film will be screened at the Paramount Theatre in Casa Grande, Arizona—my hometown—in association with the Arizona Marine Corps League’s spring convention. The screening is open to the general public. The event will begin with a panel discussion followed by the film, then a Q&A will end the evening. Proceeds from the event—a $10 advance donation per attendee or $15 at the door or VIP seating at $15.00—will go towards funding the Marine For Life program that helps Marine Corps veterans and their families transition from active duty to civilian life, including education opportunities, employment and other veteran and community resources. More details about the event can be found here: https://m901.org/category/event/.

On March 29, 2019, BRAVO! will be shown in La Grande, Oregon (our Oregon premiere!), as part of the local Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans celebrations. More details soon.

We look forward to seeing you at these events, and greatly appreciate your help in spreading the word. Semper Fi.

***

BRAVO! is now available in digital form on Amazon Prime.

This link will take you directly to BRAVO!’s Amazon Prime site where you can take a look at the options for streaming: In the US you can stream at https://amzn.to/2Hzf6In.

In the United Kingdom, you can stream at https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B07BZKJXBM.

***

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

***

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

February 25, 2018

The Ghost Patrol—Fifty Years Gone

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3rd and 1st Platoons of Bravo Company, 1/26 walked into two ambushes that decimated 3rd Platoon and a little later, part of 1st Platoon while it moved to reinforce 3rd Platoon. The event remains one of the most horrifying of my memories of that long and terrible siege.

Prior to this date, back in 1968, Bravo Company ran patrols out on the south and east sides of Khe Sanh without much action, and it was a surprise when 3rd Platoon marched into the initial ambush that morning.

The patrol is well documented in books and films, and the action’s memories haunt the Marines and Navy Corpsmen who managed to work their way back to the combat base. For some of the men, it took hours to get back. Some don’t really recall coming back. It is a horror story. The few Marines I recall seeing and talking with that day looked at me with eyes haunted by the terrors of that fire fight.

For us, back in the base, the news about the debacle out in the field came through radio communications. If one stood radio watch, he heard the sad and frightening blow-by-blow account through the frantic calls of radio operators on site. We also got the news from the sounds of warfare out to our front.

Photo of Marines on the Ghost Patrol. Photo courtesy of Robert Ellison/Blackstar

It was misty that day, as it was on many days at Khe Sanh, but that didn’t deter the report of explosions and small arms fire that flew at us from out of the field.

We sat and waited and wondered if we would go out to relieve them. Several squads from our platoon, 2nd Platoon, mustered and saddled up and made way to the gate near the trash dump, and awaited orders to go out and help the Marines trapped in those ambushes.

Not picked to go out, I received orders to man a portion of the trench where our platoon was billeted. Instead of Marines in fighting holes all over the place, large gaps appeared between our manned positions. I recall thinking that if the NVA came at us right then and breached the concertina barrier, we were all, as the saying goes, “toast.”

That scared me. I recall Corporal A, who arrived at Bravo Company about the same time I did, being in charge of those of us manning the lines, and it was a great comfort to me when I heard the scuff of his boots in the red mud. I wasn’t alone.

Later, the Marines of 2nd Platoon who had been ordered to stand by to go out in the field began filtering back into our positions with wild tales of incoming pinning them down as they tried to move out the gate. They also cussed the higher-ups who put out the incomprehensible word that any relief for those wounded and dying Marines out there would not come to pass. Orders came down—some opinions I’ve heard and read attribute the orders to Lyndon B. Johnson, president at the time—for us to remain inside the combat base. We abandoned those men.

The stories that followed ate the inside of my guts, and that sensation remains with me today.

It took almost two months for the remains of those brave and forsaken men to be retrieved.

I recall, late on this date, fifty years ago, sitting in the trench with a Marine, Lance Corporal W, whom I knew from 3rd Platoon. A Native-American, he’d participated and lived through most of the combat action that Bravo Company had seen. He told me about what happened out there. About the death of 2nd Lieutenant Don Jacques, platoon commander of 3rd Platoon, about the ambush, and how he and others had carried the body of Lt. Jacques back. When he talked about bodies and wounds, the gunfire and death, I shivered.

Forty years later, when I first heard the fire fight of February 25th termed Ghost Patrol, I thought of cheesy movies and found the glib nature of the name offensive. But over the years, I’ve gotten used to it. I think it very appropriate, because the ghosts of those men keep appearing in my memory.

The ghosts show up in the families of the fallen, too. Last year I came in contact with a brother of one of the men who died on that patrol. He is haunted by the recollections of his brother back when they were young, and when his brother joined the Marines and went off for adventure and to do what generations of 20th Century America did: Joined up and fought. And what remains for him and for all of us, is the ghost, the ghosts.

Ken Rodgers at Khe Sanh. Photo courtesy of the late Dan Horton.

The men of the Ghost Patrol are now just names to most people but the images of them lying in bomb craters with red water in the bottom, waiting for us to save them inhabit my being.

The ghosts often show up in my dreams. Together we man a trench in a night so dark it is almost impossible to see. I hear them breathing, the sound of dungarees swishing with motion, the clink and clack of weapons. And occasionally, I see some light, maybe the moon, the stars, or a flare, reflecting off the whites of their eyes.

And it haunts me.

****

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

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. Please consider gifting copies to a veteran, a teacher, a history buff, a library, a friend or family member. For more information, go to https://bravotheproject.com/store/.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject?ref=hl.

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

February 21, 2018

February 21, 1968—Fifty Years Gone

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A lot of the great followers of BRAVO! have become personal friends, too. Back when we first dreamed of making a film, Lance and Pam Thompson became some of our initial mentors and have been supporters for years. Recently they gifted me a beautiful book of narrative and photographs titled REQUIEM centered on the work of all the photographers who were killed or went missing in the Indo-China, Vietnam and Cambodian wars of the mid-twentieth century.

One of the first photos I found as I thumbed through the striking pictures was a portrait of Robert Ellison who snapped a lot of photos of Bravo Company during the siege before his untimely death on a flight into Khe Sanh on the 6th of March, 1968.

Jarheads like me often sat around the trench aware that Ellison might sneak up and photograph one of us and if you were lucky enough for that to happen, you wanted to appear most vigilant, squared away, warlike, masculine. I doubt he was interested in capturing any image except what was to him, the emotional truth of a moment, the ragged determination, the fright, the courage the defenders of Khe Sanh exhibited.

Marines of Bravo Company, 1/26, on February 25, 1968. Photo by Robert Ellison. Used with permission.

We saw him often, in the trench with his camera, trying to be insignificant. But he knew his job was to portray the reality of war and so he willingly appeared at moments the grunts in the trenches tried to avoid such as the ammo dump going up in red and orange flame on 21 January, a trench full of very frightened men trying not to be pulverized by incoming 152 MM artillery rounds, the ambushed Marines of the Ghost Patrol. It was his job to show the world the ugliness of war in a stark and beautiful way.

My most memorable experience with him was on a day about a month into the siege when the base was taking an awful pounding from the NVA. When that happened—round after round after round of small stuff and big stuff and everything in-between shaking our world—I looked for a place to hide and so did most of the other Marines with whom I served.

We tried to get small. We tried to get away, but there was none of that—getting away. On the day in question, I sat in a bunker, back against a wall. On my left, the trenchline to the north, on my right, the trenchline to the south, and to my front, the trench itself passing right through the bunker where I sat.

I had my knees up against my chest and my head down on my knees, and I flinched with every explosion, and I bounced from the impact of the big ones that landed close and I…I don’t know if I can explain how it feels to be overwhelmed with the fear that all that artillery delivers along with the concussion and shrapnel and roar.

I do know that on that day, I sank deeper and deeper into an abyss. In reality, there was no escaping the physical aspects, the screams and the chaos, the men you knew were probably dying. No escape unless you could hide somewhere inside the mind.

Enduring the barrages allowed agony to creep into the small parts of your body, liver and lungs, vessels and veins, cells, molecules. It was physical input, what was happening outside, feeding what you were on the inside—the great and the ignominious.

Author Ken Rodgers at Khe Sanh. Photo courtesy of Michael O’Hara.

I recall it well, after fifty years. My mind hightailed it away from my body. I could see myself not just sitting on my butt in the damp red mud, but also walking on a tightrope, or maybe a roof peak. On my left was insanity. On my right, sanity but with a caveat that outside, the end of the world as I knew it stalked. I was confused and didn’t know whether to jump to the left, to the side that whispered to me of safety (and some sort of insanity), or to the right, into the outside, the known, the specter of death, or maybe a leg gone, or an arm. No eyes, no jaw.

Lucky for me, I heard the snap of a camera shutter which drew me out of my mind, my fear. I looked to my right and there knelt Robert Ellison, taking photos of me.

I think I had mixed emotions. He had found me in a battle inside my mind, maybe at one of my worst moments at Khe Sanh, maybe the worst moment of my life. I was vulnerable, exposed, caught in the act of battling cowardice. (You couldn’t afford to be a coward there. Peer pressure would gobble you up, not to mention the guilt that would ride your back, spurring you like a devilish master for the rest of your life.) But I also understood that his intervention in my moment of doubt probably saved me from going crazy. And that has earned him my undying thanks.

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

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. Please consider gifting copies to a veteran, a teacher, a history buff, a library, a friend or family member. For more information, go to https://bravotheproject.com/store/.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject?ref=hl.

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

August 29, 2017

A Bridge In Pocahontas

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On September 15 of this year the folks who live in Pocahontas, Virginia, are going to rename and dedicate the Center Street Bridge, Route 1103, as the “Donald R. Rash Bridge.”

Donald Rash was a Marine in Bravo Company, 1/26 who was killed in action on March 30, 1968 in what has become known as the Payback Patrol where the Marines of Bravo Company went outside the wire at Khe Sanh to kick some butt, get even and find their fallen comrades still out on the battlefield since the Ghost Patrol of February 25, 1968.

Photo of Donald Ray Rash in Marine Corps blues. Photo credit: Virtual Wall

I didn’t know Don Rash, or if I did it was by sight and not by name. He was in the third platoon and I was a radio operator with the CP for Second Platoon. I didn’t know a lot of the men I served with outside of those whose lives were tangled up with my routine—standing radio watch, mail call, patrolling, noshing on C rations, sitting around “shooting the moose.”

Don Rash was posthumously awarded a Navy Cross for his action on the Payback Patrol. A Navy Cross isn’t a medal handed out for anything less than life threatening actions performed without regard for one’s own safety to help save fellow warriors, and/or for extraordinary combat action.

Navy Cross Medal

An excerpt from his Navy Cross citation gives an idea of what Don Rash did to deserve his award:

“Company B suddenly came under a heavy volume of small-arms fire from a numerically superior North Vietnamese Army force occupying fortified positions. Although the majority of the hostile fire was directed at his squad, pinning down his companions, Private Rash disregarded his own safety as he unhesitatingly left a covered position and launched a determined assault against the enemy emplacements. Ignoring the hostile rounds impacting near him, he fearlessly advanced across the fire-swept terrain, boldly throwing hand grenades and delivering a heavy volume of rifle fire upon the enemy force. Although continuously exposed to the intense hostile fire, he resolutely continued his vicious attack until he had destroyed five enemy positions and killed numerous North Vietnamese soldiers. When his company was subsequently ordered to withdraw while under accurate enemy mortar fire, he steadfastly remained behind, and as he delivered suppressive fire to cover the evacuation of casualties he was mortally wounded.”

You can read Don’s entire Navy Cross citation here.

Pocahontas, Virginia

Sometimes it seems to me that these citations for actions above and beyond the call of duty read a little like a stiff collar. On page 274 of Ray Stubbe’s book about Khe Sanh titled Battalion of Kings the entry about Don’s actions reads more like someone telling us a story about Don’s heroism on March 30, 1968:

“PFC Donald Ray Rash, a Marine with the point squad of B-3, overcame 3 NVA positions with grenades and small arms fire. When the company was ordered to break contact, PFC Rash remained behind to provide effective suppressive fire for the evacuation of KIA and WIA, and was killed when he was struck with shrapnel from one of the NVA mortars.”

But I think the most gut-wrenching words that move me more than anything when I think about Donald Rash’s award come from his fellow warrior, Michael E. O’Hara, who states in the documentary film Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor:

“You just don’t know what it’s like to see a nineteen year old kid—I believe it was Rash, but I’m not sure, I think it was Rash—laid out on his belly in the mud, sticking his rifle in that direction and give you the thumbs up and tell you to go that (O’Hara points the opposite way) direction and he knows damned well he’s never going to get up out of that mud. He knows he’s dying for you.”

Pocahontas, Virginia, is an old coalmining town hard by the Virginia/West Virginia border in Tazewell County, and according to Wikipedia had a population of 389 folks in 2010.

So many of the men I served with in Vietnam were from towns the approximate size of Pocahontas. Maybe it was the Selective Service draft that was in place nationally back then that hastened young men to join the Marine Corps and/or maybe it was their patriotism that threw them in the trenches with me. Maybe it was something else.

Whatever the reason, we spent some intensely intimate moments together and not the romantic kind, but moments of fear and rage and revenge and redemption; moments of dark humor. I only met one or two Marines who set out to earn medals. Most of my comrades were just trying to survive, to do their jobs and to take care of their buddies.

I suspect that’s what Donald Rash was doing out there on March 30, 1968, just trying to survive, just trying to do his job, just trying to take care of his Marines. I bet he didn’t have any notion of being selfless when we first went outside the wire on that foggy morning.

Michael O’Hara. Photo credit: Betty Rodgers.

And thanks to men like Don Rash, I get to sit here and think about those days at Khe Sanh nearly fifty years ago when the Marines of Bravo Company, 1/26 stood knee deep in killing and misery.

So, here’s a salute to the memory of Donald R. Rash and what he did for us—all of us—on March 30, 1968. Semper Fidelis.

And may Don Rash’s bridge in Pocahontas be a suitable memorial to the price he paid in 1968.

If you are anywhere near Pocahontas on September 15, 2017, consider attending the dedication.

You can take a look at Don Rash’s Virtual Wall page here:

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On the screening front, BRAVO! will be screened on Idaho Public Television at 9:30 PM, September 21, 2017 in conjunction with Ken Burn’s documentary PBS series on the Vietnam War.

On November 1, 2017, BRAVO! will be screened at the Nampa Public Library, Nampa, Idaho. Doors open at 6:30 PM and the screening will begin at 7:00 PM.

On November 17 and 18th, 2017, BRAVO! will be screened in Santa Fe, NM. On the 17th, there will be an afternoon screening and an evening screening. On the 18th, there will be an afternoon screening. More details to follow.

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

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. Please consider gifting copies to a veteran, a teacher, a history buff, a library, a friend or family member. For more information, go to https://bravotheproject.com/store/.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject?ref=hl.

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

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. Please consider gifting copies to a veteran, a teacher, a history buff, a library, a friend or family member. For more information, go to https://bravotheproject.com/store/.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject?ref=hl.

Documentary Film,Khe Sanh,Marines,Other Musings,The Basic School at Quantico,Vietnam War

May 18, 2016

The Basic School at Quantico

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In the last BRAVO! blog we wrote briefly about a visit we made to The Basic School (TBS) at Camp Barrett on Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia.

While at the National Museum of the Marine Corps, BRAVO! Marine Michael O’Hara, his son-in-law Daniel Folz, Betty and I received an invitation from Marine Captain Joe Albano to come over to TBS and observe how Bravo Company’s ill-fated patrol of February 25, 1968 is currently being used to train Marine officers in the Scouting and Patrolling class. We were pretty excited about that, and surprised that they wanted to talk to us.

Aft the sand table at The Basic School. Left to right: Daniel Folz, Captain Josh White, Captain Jason Duehring, Ken Rodgers, Michael O'Hara,  Captain Joe Albano. Photo by Betty Rodgers

Aft the sand table at The Basic School. Left to right: Daniel Folz, Captain Josh White, Captain Jason Duehring, Ken Rodgers, Michael O’Hara, Captain Joe Albano. Photo by Betty Rodgers

Upon our arrival we were greeted by Captain Albano, TBS Commanding Officer Colonel Christian Wortman, and Captains Josh White and Jason Duehring, an impressive group of Marine Corps officers. Captains Albano, White and Duehring are instructors at TBS training the future leaders of the Marine Corps.

And we were not the only ones excited about the meeting, so were these young officers. They were excited to meet two Marines who had survived the Siege of Khe Sanh as well as some of the folks involved with the production of BRAVO!.

After our welcome, the captains took us to various classrooms where the Scouting and Patrolling Operations class is taught, including a visit to the sand tables where the new officers work out scouting and patrolling scenarios.

In the classroom. Left to Right: Captain Jason Duehring, Michael O'Hara, Ken Rodgers, Captain Joe Albano, Captain Josh White and Daniel Folz. Photo by Betty Rodges

In the classroom. Left to Right: Captain Jason Duehring, Michael O’Hara, Ken Rodgers, Captain Joe Albano, Captain Josh White and Daniel Folz. Photo by Betty Rodgers

From there, we went to a lecture hall where Captains Albano, White and Duehring talked about how they teach the class and how they researched and worked on the Case Study related to the events of February 25, 1968.

When we first walked into the room, we noticed the BRAVO! DVD was sitting on the table with the instructors’ materials, which was a nice surprise. Then Captain Albano gave us an abbreviated version of the class. What surprised and humbled us even more was learning that the captains included clips from our film as part of the lecture. And a lot of the clips aren’t specifically about February 25th, but more about introducing the new lieutenants to the humanity of the Marines and Navy Corpsman they will command in the future. The presentation included Bravo Company men talking about, among other things, combat and brotherhood and fear.

During Captain Albano’s lecture, the students are advised of the events surrounding the Ghost Patrol—as the events of February 25 are commonly referred to—and to the disposition of troops on the ground on the morning of that fateful day. Then, amid the Marines of BRAVO! talking to them with the sounds of war in the background, the instructors, in a suddenly chaotic classroom simulation, fire questions at the students asking how they are going to deal with threats that are killing their Marines.

On the way to The Hawk. Left to Right: Captain Joe Albano, Michael O'Hara, Daniel Folz, Ken Rodgers, Captain Josh White

On the way to The Hawk. Left to Right: Captain Joe Albano, Michael O’Hara, Daniel Folz, Ken Rodgers, Captain Josh White. Photo by Betty Rodgers

The class is taught, among other things, in a way that emulates the bedlam of combat, and if a student can’t come up with a solution to a question asked by the instructor within a matter of seconds, he/she gets told, “You just lost another Marine,” and the instructor turns to another student and fires questions at him/her. These simulated combat moments are intended to train the new lieutenants to think quickly and respond appropriately. The questioning is rife with tension and with an aura of the uncertainties encountered when opposing groups of warriors go to killing each other. Fear, confusion and pressure are recognized as elements one encounters in combat and which cannot be understood by a leader until they are experienced.

After Captain Albano finished up, we repaired to The Hawk—the club at TBS—for some refreshments and some time to talk about the film, war, Vietnam and the more current wars that the captains fought in.

At The Hawk. Captain Joe Albano, left, and Captain Josh White, right, discuss the Marine Corps. Photo courtesy of Daniel Folz.

At The Hawk. Captain Joe Albano, left, and Captain Josh White, right, discuss the Marine Corps. Photo courtesy of Daniel Folz.

For years we have thought of BRAVO! as a way to preserve history and to educate the public about the Siege of Khe Sanh and the horror of combat, about brotherhood and death and fear. What an overwhelming thought it is to realize the men of BRAVO! are also helping to train today’s Marines.

Thanks to Captain Albano and the instructors at The Basic School for sharing their efforts with us old-time Marines and our guests.

Semper Fi!

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

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. Please consider gifting copies to a veteran, a history buff, a library, a friend or family member. 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?ref=hl.