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Posts Tagged ‘Hill 881 South’

Documentary Film,Khe Sanh,Marines,Veterans,Vietnam War,Warhawk Air Museum

June 14, 2017

On the Warhawk Air Museum and Journeys Through the Trenches of My Memory

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Last week I had the privilege of speaking before 150 folks at Nampa, Idaho’s Warhawk Air Museum. I talked about the making of BRAVO! and my experience at the Siege of Khe Sanh.

Most of the attendees were veterans, many of them men who fought in World War II and Korea. There were also a good number of Vietnam War veterans as well as men and women who fought in the wars of the Middle East. We even had active duty United States Air Force officers, a front seater (pilot) and a back seater (weapons officer), who fly F-15E Strike Eagles out of Mountain Home Air Force Base in Mountain Home, Idaho.

Guest speaker Ken Rodgers and Barry Hill of the Warhawk Air Museum discussing the display screen prior to the event. Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers.

The Warhawk Air Museum is a local marvel as far as military museums go. Lots of old planes and choppers, but the most amazing thing to me is the personal testimonials and memorabilia available to view. As one of the men who attended the screening said, “It’s a very personal museum.”

The Warhawk also records video interviews of veterans talking about their combat experiences, sponsors field trips for school children and has educational classes so students in the area’s schools can learn about the military and wars directly from veterans, the folks who know the emotional aspects of combat.

Visitors who travel through Idaho go to see the museum as they pass through, and for some, a trip to the Warhawk is a destination in itself.

Thanks to Sue Paul and Barry Hill and the staff and volunteers at the museum for their support on my presentation as well as all they do for veterans and the memory of those who have served our country. If you are interested in finding out more about the Warhawk you can find their webpage at http://warhawkairmuseum.org/.

Some of the folks who attended the event at the Warhawk Air Museum. Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers

Several weeks back I blogged about June 1, 1967. Today I want to write about June 14, 1967 at Khe Sanh. On today’s date in 1967 Bravo Company was dug in on Hill 881 South and still staggering from the events of June 7 when a patrol ran into an NVA ambush and we lost 19 good men.

Besides living with our collective grief and agony, at 16:15 on June 14, 3rd Platoon Bravo received an incoming sniper round and responded by calling in an 81 MM mortar mission that evidently silenced the sniper. Whether the sniper was actually nullified or if he moved to another location was not known.

Elsewhere in 1/26’s area of responsibility in the Khe Sanh region, Charlie Company discovered an enemy bunker and destroyed it with five pounds of C-4.

A look at Route 9 outside Khe Sanh. Notice the rough terrain.

The battalion’s command chronologies for 6/14 made the area sound relatively quiet for a war zone.

It was about this time that Bravo went out on patrol to Hill 881 North and beyond, and in the process of digging around in the old battle sites of the Hill Fights which happened in March and April of 1967, found the scattered remains of human bodies partially sticking out of the mud where a fresh torrent of rainwater had eroded what looked like a burial site.

Someone spotted a ragged uniform remnant and that led to someone else digging around in the red-mud mess and then a femur appeared out of the muck with swatches of what we assumed was an NVA uniform still attached. The bone was yanked out of the ground and the femur soon hung off the jungle dungaree trousers of some Marine whose name I cannot recall.

In my memory, I cannot see the Marine’s face but I can see that leg bone dangling off the left side of his dirty dungarees. I don’t think that lasted long. I suspect the platoon sergeant or some officer spotted the bone on the belt and delivered an order that the bone was to be disposed of. You hear stories over the course of your life about a Marine who cut off and collected the ears of his enemy or Marines who pulled the gold teeth out of the mouths of enemy corpses. I never saw any of that, but I did see the bone dangling off the leg.

I usually have a good memory for names and faces of the men I served with in Vietnam, but during this time frame, subsequent to the ambush of 6/7, the faces that haunt my memory are like a maze of eyes and mouths and skin colors. We were an ethnically diverse group, I believe, because that’s how it was back in the 60s before the draft was killed.

What became 2nd Platoon of Bravo 1/26 was a mix of men from both 2nd and 1st Platoons, which had taken the bulk of casualties from the event of 6/7/67. We had, for a short time, a new platoon commander, Ben Long, who went on to command 1st Platoon and then became Bravo Company’s XO during the Siege in early 1968.

A look at the mountains around Khe Sanh.

I often think how difficult it must have been to run an efficient platoon filled with a number of men who had no familiarity with each other. I know the Marine Corps prides itself on the ability of the NCOs to run the ship, but when you don’t know the man who’s got your back, it’s hard to trust him and if you don’t trust him, he knows it and if he knows it, he won’t trust you as much as he might need.

Fortunately we had a strong set of NCOs: Staff Sergeant Ward and Sergeant Blankenship and Sergeant Martinez, Corporal Dede, Corporal Poorman, Corporal Fideli and others whose names I can’t remember.

The Marines of 2nd Platoon were a dirty, ragged bunch, but Lieutenant Long and the NCOs held us together. We became a unit of Marines. We learned to trust each other and to work with each other despite a number of obstacles in leadership that kept coming to the fore after Lieutenant Long went to on to command the newly reconstituted 1st Platoon.

As the summer wore on, we moved from Hill 881 South to the combat base and then some of us went out on Route 9 for over a week after 1st Platoon busted up an NVA ambush intended to fry bigger fish, traffic of heavy guns going up to Khe Sanh. Then we moved on to Hill 861 and then back to the combat base and rivers of rain.

It was a summer of long patrols and nights spent out in the mist and rain waiting for an enemy that would not show up. Occasionally we took sniper rounds or someone got a glimpse of the enemy, but there was little action and when there is not action, Marines turn to work to keep themselves out of trouble.

So we dug and dug and filled sandbags and installed culverts made from 55 gallon drums with both ends cut out so the trenches would drain and we wouldn’t have to stand knee deep in the water that accumulated from the incessant precipitation.

We were damp and dirty and often soaked. But we persevered.

____________________________

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,Listening Posts,Marines,Veterans,Vietnam War

May 31, 2017

Fire In The Hole!

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Spring started off with a bang for BRAVO!. The City of Idaho Falls in conjunction with Idaho Humanities Council and the Veterans Affairs Committee of Eastern Idaho sponsored a screening of BRAVO! in Idaho Falls’ historic Colonial Theater on April 6, 2017.

Over one hundred folks attended the screening which was followed by the audience’s spirited discussion of the film with a panel of Vietnam vets, a Vietnam-era vet, and a veterans’ counselor. Thanks to Mr. Ed Maronh and Mr. Bob Skinner and Idaho Falls Mayor Rebecca Casper along with the folks at the Idaho Falls Arts Council, the Colonial Theater, the City of Idaho Falls, the Idaho Humanities Council and the Military Affairs Committee of Eastern Idaho for their efforts in making the screening a big success.

Entrance to the Colonial Theater, Idaho Falls, Idaho

One of the most gratifying experiences for us was the number of youngsters who came to the event and who had a number of great questions about the history of the war and about current affairs including US involvement in the wars of the Middle East.

A number of folks also introduced themselves as teachers and college professors who entertained interest in showing the film to their students. We always love seeing BRAVO! used as an educational tool.

Coming up on the screening front: On or around Veterans Day, 2017, BRAVO! will be screened in Santa Fe. Please stay tuned for details.

Since since tomorrow is June 1, 2017, we thought a look back at some events and experiences in Vietnam fifty years ago, around June 1, 1967, would fit the moment.

The men of Bravo Company, 26th Marine Regiment, were dug in on the crest of wet and breezy Hill 881 South, not far south of the DMZ, not far from Laos, and west of the Khe Sanh combat base. At that time we Marines were patrolling off the hill, down tree lined draws, into monstrous swamps, along the ridges and into the shattered tree line of Hill 881 North, wearing only soft covers and no flak jackets.

That behavior would soon change, and we’d begin to go out of the wire wearing flak jackets and helmets. On June 7, 1967, elements of Bravo would walk into an ambush sprung by North Vietnamese troops that would leave 19 Marines and Navy Corpsmen dead and because the men were not wearing helmets and flack jackets, the damage inflicted by the NVA was much worse.

I remember enjoying going out on patrol without worrying about flak jackets and helmets, all the extra weight and the rivers of sweat they generated. But after June, 7, I didn’t mind wearing that extra gear.

As for June 1 itself…according to the command chronologies of the 1st Battalion 26th Marines, Bravo Company didn’t even go outside the wire on that date other than the requisite listening posts and ambushes (referred to quite often as “night activities”) that sneaked outside the concertina wire after dusk and hustled back before the sun came up.

It might have been about June 1 that we knocked down the copse of tall trees that obscured the fields of fire in front of 2nd Platoon’s sector down on the southern end of the hill.

I remember being on a work detail with a combat engineer—I think his name was Treadway—stuffing a satchel of C-4 plastic explosives inside a big roll of barbed wire. We inserted a blasting cap into one of the C-4 sticks, ran the wire back to a claymore mine detonator, and then we all ducked.

“Fire in the hole!”

What had once been a stately stand of very tall trees was gone. We knew it before the smoke cleared from the explosion. We knew it because as we knelt in the trench the overhead whine and whistle of what once was barbed wire and statuesque trees hurtled over our heads..

After that, we could see quite well, down to where the bend of the terrain turned steep towards the creek that babbled way below.

We needed to see so the NVA didn’t sneak up on us in the night and cut our throats. We had to destroy the trees and underbrush to clear our fields of fire. It was going on all over the Vietnam war zone from south to north. The enemy used the cover to his advantage and we destroyed the cover. Fire, explosives, bombs and Agent Orange. We needed to kill the trees.

The trench line on Hill 881 South.

Those early days of June 1967 were also encounters with huge rats and snakes and dripping mist and nights on listening posts with leeches crawling up your nose and into your mouth. It was violent thunderstorms with barrages of hail and so much precipitation that the runoff barreled down the trenches.

We were covered in mud and shivered, the skin of our hands wrinkled with too much moisture. Nasty sores that oozed puss day and night and hurt every time you moved appeared on arms and legs. Huge hives hung in the bamboo patches with the meanest bees in the universe. When they attacked, they came full bore and in depth, leaving the Marines who were unlucky enough to disturb the hive with hands and faces swollen several times their normal size.

But yeah, compared to what we encountered a week later on 6/7/67, or seven months later when the Siege of Khe Sanh began, these inconveniences were really nothing.

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,Guest Blogs,Khe Sanh,Marines,Vietnam War

April 18, 2016

THE LONG GOODBYE: Khe Sanh Remembered

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Today’s guest blogger, Mike Archer, is an author, Marine and survivor of the Siege of Khe Sanh. Mike shares information on his books, his friend Tom Mahoney and efforts to find Tom’s remains forty-eight years after Tom disappeared at Khe Sanh.

IN THE CLOSING HOURS of the fight to hold the Khe Sanh Combat Base, after the longest and bloodiest battle of the Vietnam War, Tom Mahoney inexplicably walked away from his platoon, unarmed, and was shot to death by enemy soldiers hiding nearby. His fellow Marines made several desperate attempts to recover their well-liked comrade from under an intense enemy ambush, but were finally forced to leave him behind―though never forgotten.

Tom and I were high school friends who joined the Marines together in June 1967. My latest book, The Long Goodbye: Khe Sanh Revisited, released in April 2016, and a sequel to my first, A Patch of Ground: Khe Sanh Remembered, chronicles my exhaustive search for answers to his mysterious July 6, 1968 stroll into oblivion. This quest eventually led me though an improbable series of connections: from Tom’s childhood friends and fellow Marines, past the frustration of ineffective attempts by the U.S. government to locate his remains, and eventually teaming up with a Vietnamese psychic intent on communicating with Tom’s “wandering soul.”

Mike Archer at Khe Sanh, 1968.

Mike Archer at Khe Sanh, 1968.

Along the way, I discovered the unexpected compassion of former mortal enemies from that battlefield, now wishing to help honor the memory of a lone American among the tens of thousands on both sides who were sacrificed in the great meat grinder of Khe Sanh. Swept up in this increasingly bizarre pursuit of clues, I was drawn back to that infamous battleground and eventually tracked down and interviewed the last remaining eyewitness to Tom Mahoney’s death―one of those who killed him.

UPDATE:
In June 2016, the Defense POW-MIA Accountability Agency (DPAA) will be taking three former members of Tom’s unit back to where he was killed on Hill 881 South in an effort to identify the exact site and excavate. It is not the first time the DPAA has searched for Tom’s remains, but it is the first time they have taken witnesses who were on the scene moments after hearing the gunshots that killed him.

An excavation in August 2014 was unsuccessful because the DPAA was looking on the wrong hill. But the expectation of success is higher now, as one of these three Marine veterans of that fight had worked his way to within just a few yards of reaching Tom’s body from under an intense enemy ambush, when darkness fell forcing the men to call off the effort.

The cover of Mike Archer's Book; THE LONG GOODBYE

The cover of Mike Archer’s Book; THE LONG GOODBYE

Another reason for optimism is a series of successful identifications of remains from the Khe Sanh area by the DPAA over the last eleven months. These three American soldiers were killed at different locations just a few months, and a few miles, from where Tom fell. Vietnamese and Laotians, dealing in the illegal, but booming, bone trade, provided these partial remains; two of the sets confiscated in 1989 and turned over to U.S. officials, where they became part of over one thousand sets of human remains backlogged and being warehoused in the Central Identification Laboratory near Honolulu.

But is there evidence of bones being found on Hill 881 South?

In January 2007, U.S. and Vietnamese MIA researchers met at Khe Sanh with two elders from the village of Lang Ruon, located down a steep slope on the north side of Hill 881 South, about five hundred yards from where Tom’s body was last seen. They told the researchers that after their return to Ruon in the early 1970s, they’d heard nothing about the discovery of remains or the personal effects of an American soldier. However, as the villagers began forays up the hill to collect metal to sell, they regularly saw bones. “Many buffaloes died,” one elder explained, “and when people saw the bones, they were unsure what kind of bones they were.” Perhaps some were collected and sold to bone traders and, although it is a slim possibility, Tom’s remains may already be at the Central Identification Laboratory in Honolulu.

AUTHOR PHOTO

Mike Archer

But, more likely, they are still on the hill which, unlike the highly acidic deep, rust-colored volcanic soil in the lowlands surrounding it, is comprised of metamorphic rock, like schist, thus giving hope they have been better preserved. Everyone involved in this upcoming mission back to Hill 881 South in a few weeks is very excited and hopeful. I will keep you in the loop as things progress and thanks to so many of you for your interest in The Long Goodbye.

Michael Archer
April 13, 2016

MICHAEL ARCHER grew up in northern California and served as a U.S. Marine in Vietnam during 1967-1968. His books include A Patch of Ground: Khe Sanh Remembered, an acclaimed first-person account of the infamous seventy-seven-day siege of that American combat base; A Man of His Word: The Life and Times of Nevada’s Senator William J. Raggio, about one of Nevada’s most courageous, honorable and admired citizens; and The Long Goodbye: Khe Sanh Revisited, chronicling the author’s search for answers to a friend’s mysterious death at Khe Sanh. Michael lives in Reno and, in addition to his writing, is a staff member with the Senate Committee on Finance at the Nevada State Legislature. You can find out more about Mike Archer and his books at www.michaelarcher.net.

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.

Documentary Film,Eulogies,Khe Sanh,Khe Sanh Veteran's Reunion,Marines,Veterans,Vietnam War

March 9, 2016

Requiem for Ex

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One of the things about the war in Vietnam was the importance of body counts of enemy dead. Yet what body counts don’t tell you is the human side of those people who were killed. So much of what we read about in war news is related to the big picture and not to the little picture, the details of what happened on the day, at the place where the people in a particular body count died.

On March 28, 1968, according to Chaplain Ray Stubbe’s Battalion of Kings, eight men died at Khe Sanh Combat Base. Two of those men, Greg Kent and Jimmie McRae, were Marines from Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines. Those two men, along with Ron Exum, were standing in a trench when an incoming round landed near them and that was the end.

Ron Exum at the 2012 Khe Sanh Veterans Reunion

Ron Exum at the 2012 Khe Sanh Veterans Reunion

For years, after this event, I was under the impression that Ron Exum had also been killed in action, so it was with great surprise and some relief that I sat at a table with him at the 1993 reunion of the Khe Sanh Veterans. He sat there with his son and looked at me and I don’t think he recognized me until I smiled, because it was then that he nodded and said, “Yeah.” He smiled back and if you knew Ex, because that’s what we called him, you knew one of the premiere smiles on Planet Earth.

He first showed up at Bravo Company in mid-June of 1967. The company was on Hill 881 South. We had just lost a bunch of good Marines and Corpsmen in a nasty fight with the NVA and everyone in the company was staggered, so to speak.

Ex brought us some sunshine. He livened us up and made us laugh. I remember sitting with him and some other Marines in a hooch one afternoon after we had just finished a meal of C-Rations. He led us all in an off-key (not Ex, but the rest of us singing with him) medley of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles songs.

Those nine months that I knew Ex in Vietnam, he always seemed to have that smile on his face. It may be in the dark of the night, a mist so heavy it drooped down on us like the breath of doom. You’d hear his big voice challenging someone moving down the trench. “Who’s there?” When the other voice identified itself and gave the password, something very American, like “Joe DiMaggio,” then you’d hear the smile. Yes, you’d hear it.

Or out on patrol, humping straight up the side of some steep hill, the rain dripping off the triple canopy jungle, the leeches lying in wait to ambush you when you brushed some jungle grass, the red mud clutching the bottom of your jungle boots. You’d see him and he’d smile.

Some of the men of Bravo Company, 1/26 at the 2012 Khe Sanh Veterans Reunion. Ron Exum is in the second row, second from the right. Tom Steinhardt is in the second row, third from the left.

Some of the men of Bravo Company, 1/26 at the 2012 Khe Sanh Veterans Reunion. Ron Exum is in the second row, second from the right. Tom Steinhardt is in the second row, third from the left.

Every few years Ex would travel from Philadelphia to the Khe Sanh Veterans reunions and you’d get to laugh and reminisce with him. And still, there was always that smile.

Ron Exum was a fine man, a spiritual man.

Several weeks back I got a call from Tom Steinhardt who served with Ex and me in Bravo. Steinhardt told me that Ex had passed on unexpectedly. It was a surprise to Tom, to me, and I think to everyone who knew Ron.

Sometimes we think that the people who inhabit our lives, the really good ones, will be with us forever. And then they aren’t. I will miss Ron Exum.

Semper Fi, Ex.

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

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

January 16, 2016

On Navy Corpsmen

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FLEET MARINE FORCE

(FMF)

Navy Corpsman

In today’s guest blog, BRAVO! Marine Michael E. O’Hara muses on Navy Corpsmen and Marines

The latter part of 2015 was not especially kind to me. I had a serious surgery in September and in November I suddenly fell ill once again and suffered a somewhat sustained period of time in the VA hospital, about 45 days all told. I am now home and greatly improved, Thank You very much. I mention that only because it reminded me of a time long ago and the special folks who endeared themselves to me.

Never, in our glorious past has any one group of individuals EVER earned the respect and the admiration of Marines across the globe than our FMF Navy Corpsmen, more commonly referred to as “Doc.” Most folks have no idea what these brave men have endured just to be called Doc. They train with the Marines, they deploy with the Marines, and they patrol with the Marines. They are as much a Marine as anyone can be without actually enlisting. Not a patrol goes through the wire without Doc.

Doc is everywhere. He was on the beach at Tarawa and on every island campaign in the Pacific. There was even a Doc who helped raise the flag on Iwo Jima. Doc was at the “Frozen Chosin” Reservoir when Chesty Puller’s men were withdrawing through that awful frozen (-30) tundra of North Korea. Doc not only tended to the wounded but was required to deal with many horrific amputations due to frostbite. Sometimes they had a real M.D. to help, but not very often.

Doc was in Lebanon in 1958 and again in 1983 when the Marine Barracks was attacked and over 200 Marines were lost. Doc is everywhere. Doc has been to all the little unknown conflicts most people have long since forgotten. Doc also went to a place that became known as “The Nam.”

2 January 1968. Bravo Company, 1/26 had been deployed Oct-Dec to 881 South. When we left the hill the day after Christmas, 1967, we ran a long operation up the Rao Quan River to the north. It was January when we got back and were assigned to the combat base. The NVA had broken a truce (SOOPRISE) and we were called back to the base. We sacked in with Alpha Company on the north side of the runway. By midnight, Danny Horton and I were delirious. We had not used our purification tablets which made our water non-potable, and as a result were really sick.

Michael E. O'Hara at Khe Sanh.

Michael E. O’Hara at Khe Sanh.

Our platoon sergeant, Staff Sergeant Gus Alvarado, was dispatched to tend to us and we were taken straight away to a tent. A firefight had just erupted with members of Lima Company close to the tent we were in. I was so sick I never moved from the table. Everyone else was on the ground. This was the beginning of my very first hospital stay, if that is what you would call it.

I think I was there 16 days, maybe. They finally said we had amoebic dysentery. It can kill you if not properly treated. But Doc was there. This tent was known as the BAS, Battalion Aid Station. It was a dark, sandbagged hole in the ground. I don’t remember much of the first ten days but I know Doc took wonderful care of me. Soon I was discharged from BAS and sent back to Bravo. I was very weak.

I would see or hear about Doc’s brave actions many more times during the Siege. You see, the reason Marines love Doc is because they know that if they take a bullet, if they lose a limb to a mortar round and call for Doc, he will come, just like he has always done. It makes no matter how heavy the volley, Doc will charge into the guns to tend to his wounded Marines. He has always done so and he continues to do so to this day. Make no mistake, Doc for sure is one of our most unsung Heroes.

Doc Cicala from our 3rd Platoon, Bravo Company, is a fine example. Shot through one of his lungs and with grenade fragments to his groin, he still continued on the day of the 25 February ambush doing what he could to help guide others who were literally crawling back to the perimeter on their stomachs.

Second Platoon’s Doc Thomas Hoody, who spent many nights braving the incoming artillery patching up Marines, would visit me in the night twice during the month of March to check on my wounds.

I am sure the Docs in first platoon showed every bit as much raw courage and bravery as well. But one of the most searing moments of my tour came on 30 March when Doc and I met up close and very personal when our roles were reversed in the middle of one of the bloodiest damn firefights of the entire war.

Richard Blanchfield had served better than 6 years as a United States Marine. He got out, enlisted in the United States Navy and became a Doc. He was a replacement for the Third Platoon on 30 March. He had only been there a few days at the most. I didn’t even know him.

By the time I met him, the entire company was at “Fix Bayonets” and we were definitely engaging Charley. In fact, we were all in a virtual dead run to get these guys who had killed so many of our fellow Marines. Doc Blanchfield was well ahead of me. He had already tended to a wounded Marine and had just got up on the edge of a bomb crater when mortars simply rained down on him and the whole command group as well.

When I reached the edge of the crater, he was about halfway down and sliding in the loose dirt. There were two dead Marines and numerous dead NVA in the crater. Those two Marines certainly earned their pay that day. Doc had, by this time, stuck 2 morphine needles in his own leg. His arm was nearly blown off at the shoulder. At first I was in as much shock as he was, but I regained my composure and began to tie him off. After slowing down the bleeding, I tied two battle dressings together and wrapped him all around so he at least wouldn’t do any more damage to what was left of his arm. I thought he would die.

The battle was still in full assault so I laid him back and comforted him as well as I could and left him. I have not seen him since but he did survive and miraculously his arm was saved.

Michael E. O'Hara

Michael E. O’Hara

After getting involved with the Khe Sanh Veterans in 1992 I found out Doc Blanchfield was living in Oceanside, California. We talk once a year on the phone. He has never failed to send me a card for each and every holiday since that first call. I still have not seen him. He was very pained by what happened to him and I understand. He did say Thank You that first call.

Like I said earlier, I was in the hospital over this past Veterans Day holiday. Most folks understand that 10 November is the Marine Corps Birthday, so we were also celebrating 240 years of glorious history. That is a very long time for sure, a time in which we have come to celebrate the lives and courageous acts of many from our ranks. I could write pages, even a book or two recounting all of our Heroes for sure.

A wheelchair-bound Marine (a volunteer) was my only visitor on this Marine Corps Birthday. He had lost both legs in Vietnam. We had a grand conversation. He brought me candy, S/F.

I have read a great deal about the wars of the last ten years and the men who have gone in my stead now that I am old and grey. Don’t ever let anyone tell you this generation is lost. I am just as proud of our young Marines today as I ever have been.

And never forget this: Wherever you find these Marines, you will find Doc, ready, willing and able to charge into the guns if necessary. He will, as he has always done, come when he hears the word Doc.

Semper Fidelis to our Navy Corpsmen everywhere you serve.

Michael E. O’Hara served with 2nd Platoon, Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines at Khe Sanh during 1967 and 1968. He earned three Purple Hearts.

If you or your organization would like to host a screening of BRAVO! in your town this winter, spring or summer, 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.

Documentary Film,Guest Blogs,Khe Sanh,Marines,Vietnam War

December 31, 2014

Author Gregg Jones Blogs About Writing His Book, LAST STAND AT KHE SANH

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The Americans who fought and bled and stood firm at Khe Sanh in 1968 will be a part of my life forever. That’s the payoff I treasure most after writing Last Stand at Khe Sanh. Among the extraordinary people who graced my life during this project were Ken and Betty Rodgers. Their powerful film on the men of Bravo 1/26 was a source of early inspiration for me. At the invitation of Ken and Betty, I’ve put together a Q-and-A about my Khe Sanh literary experience. It draws on questions I’ve gotten from Khe Sanh veterans and readers at large, as well as my personal reflections on this unforgettable journey.

WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO WRITE ABOUT KHE SANH?

I discuss this at some length in the introduction to Last Stand at Khe Sanh. The Vietnam War was a great and tragic event that hung over my childhood. My early fascination with the American Civil War piqued my curiosity about what American soldiers were experiencing in Vietnam. My mother had lost her oldest brother in World War II, and that deepened my interest in the war and the rising human cost of the conflict. I identified with the men who answered the call and served in Vietnam. I always believed that I would have been a grunt in Vietnam if I had been born ten years earlier. When I decided to write a book about Vietnam, Khe Sanh drew me in. It was a high-stakes showdown in the war’s pivotal year, and a dramatic setting for an examination of the American combat experience in Vietnam.

Cover of LAST STAND AT KHE SANH by Gregg Jones

Cover of LAST STAND AT KHE SANH by Gregg Jones

WHAT WERE THE STORYTELLING CHALLENGES YOU ENCOUNTERED IN WRITING A NARRATIVE HISTORY ABOUT KHE SANH?

I knew I would have to limit the scope of the book to the siege months to tell the human story in some depth, but that still meant constructing a complicated narrative that unfolds over four months, from January to April 1968. Another challenge was the fact that the action at Khe Sanh plays out in several different locations: the combat base; Hill 881 South; Hill 861 and 861 Alpha; the Rock Quarry and Hill 64; Khe Sanh village; and Hill 558. Contemporary readers expect a cinematic experience in a work of narrative history, and that entails conveying a story through the experiences of compelling characters. I wanted to turn a spotlight on as many men as possible without overwhelming the reader. It was a constant balancing act. There was one final narrative challenge: Khe Sanh didn’t end with a big pitched battle or a scene like Santa Ana’s soldiers pouring over the walls at the Alamo, or Pickett’s charge crashing against Union lines on Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg. The closest thing to a dramatic final act at Khe Sanh was the 3/26 assault on Hill 881 North on Easter Sunday, April 14, 1968. But even that wasn’t really the final act: The killing and dying at Khe Sanh continued for another three months, out of the spotlight, before the base was abandoned.

WHAT WERE YOUR MOST REWARDING MOMENTS IN WRITING LAST STAND AT KHE SANH?

It was gratifying to give a voice to men who had not been heard before. I was trying to find a mix of representative characters, from the COC at Khe Sanh Combat Base down to the grunt-level of line platoons on the hill outposts. Obviously, some of the men who populate the narrative of Last Stand at Khe Sanh had appeared in previous books, but many hadn’t. I also was very inspired to tell the stories of men who had lost their lives at Khe Sanh, to put a face on brave and selfless souls who had faded into the mists of history. I wanted readers to know something about the final moments of men like Tommy Denning, Jesus Roberto Vasquez, Joe Molettiere, Eugene Ashley, Jonathan Nathaniel Spicer, and so many others. They deserve to be remembered, as do their comrades who returned from Vietnam.

WHAT WERE SOME OF THE PROJECT’S MORE TRYING MOMENTS?

It took much more time than I expected to identify and correct the errors in historical records and previous books about Khe Sanh, and to reconcile discrepancies in the accounts of eyewitnesses I interviewed. There were a couple of instances where individuals had clearly created embellished accounts to recast themselves as heroes. It took a lot of digging and checking to get it right. Finally, it was painful to have to edit and tighten the manuscript and lose the stories of so many men.

WHAT WOULD YOU DO DIFFERENTLY?

With unlimited time and money, I would devote another three years to interviewing Khe Sanh veterans, digging through the archives, walking the battlefield and tracking down NVA veterans. I would spend another year or two writing, fact-checking, proofreading and polishing the manuscript. A publisher’s deadlines never seem to leave enough time for everything that needs to be done.

HOW ARE SALES OF LAST STAND AT KHE SANH?

My editor at Da Capo Press, Bob Pigeon, had very high hopes for Last Stand at Khe Sanh. He loved the finished manuscript, and this fall submitted the book for three major prizes. Leatherneck magazine called Last Stand “a classic,” and scores of veterans have told me that Last Stand captured their Khe Sanh experience better than any previous book. But the fact is that Last Stand at Khe Sanh hasn’t found the “larger audience” that I hoped it would find. The men who fought at Khe Sanh deserve to have their story told, and word of mouth is a powerful force in the history genre. Last Stand at Khe Sanh is still selling, and the paperback edition will be out next spring.

Gregg Jones

Gregg Jones

WOULD YOU DO IT AGAIN?

Absolutely. I became a journalist because I wanted to experience history as it happened. I witnessed some extraordinary history in my thirty years in journalism. When I left daily journalism in 2010 to devote myself to chronicling American history, I dreamed of writing books like Last Stand at Khe Sanh. Getting to know some of the men who fought at Khe Sanh and telling their story has been one of the most satisfying experiences of my life.

Gregg Jones is the author of three critically acclaimed nonfiction books: Last Stand at Khe Sanh, Honor in the Dust, and Red Revolution. He reported from Afghanistan in 2001-02, and has covered insurgencies, revolutions and other major news events on five continents during his four decades in journalism. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Washington Times, Dallas Morning News, Boston Globe and other U.S., British and Australian newspapers and magazines. He has been honored with numerous awards and has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He was based in Asia from 1984-89 and 1997-2002.

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

December 10, 2014

On Scuttlebutt

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In last week’s blog I wrote about the letters I sent home to my parents while I was in-country in 1967-68. In preparation for that article, I read each of the letters. I am glad I did because it clarified some events for me (I really did see elephants and coffee trees) and it cleared up some haziness in my memory about the timeline of my tour there.

I also noticed some recurring subjects one of which was “scuttlebutt.”

Scuttlebutt originally was a British nautical term that named a water cask kept on deck for sailors to get a drink of water. Over time, the scuttlebutt became a place for sailors to gather and share rumors or gossip. The term is quite old and was purloined sometime around the turn of the 20th Century to refer to gossip. In the Marines of the 1960s, the term scuttlebutt referred directly to rumors.

In my letters I refer to scuttlebutt in a number of instances and now, with the actual history of events available for comparison, what I thought was going to occur in any given period of time most often turned out to not happen.

Envelope sent from Vietnam by the blogger to his parents. © Ken Rodgers 2014

Envelope sent from Vietnam by the blogger to his parents.
© Ken Rodgers 2014

A few examples of the scuttlebutt going around in 1967-68 with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines follows, as recorded in my letters written at the time. I had not been in the field south of Hill 55 very long when I wrote this on 4/27/1967:

Rumor has it that the first of July or August, we will rotate to Okinawa for a month of training and then we will be sent afloat as an SLF (Special Landing Force) where we will make landings at trouble spots in Vietnam. We will be based out of Olongapo, the Philippines.

Bravo Company was located just south of Hue on May 8, 1967 when I sent this:

The engineers are building a 20 mile road to a hill southeast of Phu Bai. We will act as security. The country is “virgin.” The only Marines in there have been reconnaissance Marines. When we get to the hill, we will secure it and set up there.

On June 22, 1967, nowhere near the “virgin” country (we never went on that road-building operation), I wrote this from Hill 881 South west of the Khe Sanh Combat Base:

Rumor also has it that we shall be rotating to Phu Bai and then Okinawa in the next couple of months. I also hope that that is one rumor that comes true.

On September 1, 1967 I wrote:

By the 15th the battalion is supposed to be in Phu Bai. From there who knows? Maybe to Okinawa.

Ken Rodgers, photo courtesy of Kevin Martini-Fuller

I never made it to Okinawa until I rotated back to the States when my tour of duty was up. I never made it to Olongapo either.

The thing that gets my attention now is how the scuttlebutt usually had us going somewhere away from the war, to a place with women and food and beer. I am not sure if that’s the result of my own wishes—how I interpreted the rumors—or if it was a unit-wide desire. I suspect that my comments in the letters are a result of both my own optimism and the hopefulness of the unit in general.

I do know that one of the things that kept me going over there—that might have helped me stay alive—was my optimism, my hopefulness. The Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire said: “Optimism is the madness of insisting that all is well when we are miserable.”

During the siege, the world we inhabited was miserable, more than miserable, yet we laughed, we hoped, we dreamed of home.

I think all those references to being someplace other than where I happened to be, the misery of days of rain, the attacks by legions of leeches, the constant work and little sleep, the horror of the Siege of Khe Sanh, were nothing more than attempts to be optimistic.

I say “nothing more,” but as I think about it, that staying optimistic was a key thing in me staying alive. Since I had something to hope for, it made me work harder to stay alive.

My old buddy Joe Skinner who was a Marine Corps officer at the end of World War II once told me, “Hope is one step from despair.” When he told me that, I laughed hard. It’s true. When the jaws of despair are gnawing on you, whispering in your ear that all is folly, hope and optimism are the things that help keep you going, help keep you alive.

The 19th Century poet Emily Dickinson said it well:

# 254

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

On the screening front, mark your calendars for a fundraising screening in Casa Grande, Arizona on February 15, 2015 at the historic Paramount Theater. Doors open at noon, lunch served at 1:00 PM, screening of BRAVO! to follow. We will give you more details about this screening as they become available.

We are also pleased to announce that BRAVO! will be shown at Idaho’s historic Egyptian Theater in Boise on March 30, 2015. We will post updates to this event here as they become available.

If you or your organization would like to host a screening of BRAVO! in your town next spring or summer, 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 to stay up on our news and help raise more public awareness of this film.

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

November 26, 2014

Last Memorials

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November is a thoughtful and busy time for veterans of the United States military. Celebrations, parades, reunions and remembrances occur from big cities to small towns up and down and all across the country.

While a large number of the Men of BRAVO! were in San Diego with the Khe Sanh Veterans group participating in Veterans Day ceremonies, in Liberty Lake Washington, former Navy Corpsman Greg Vercruysse was being honored with a memorial at the Liberty Lake Fallen Heroes Circuit Course.

The mayor of Liberty Lake and Greg Vercruysse's mother cutting the ribbon for the ceremony honoring Greg. © Dean Vercruysse 2014

The mayor of Liberty Lake and Greg Vercruysse’s mother cutting the ribbon for the ceremony honoring Greg.
© Dean Vercruysse 2014

I have written to some extent about Greg and the other men of Bravo Company who were killed and wounded on June 7, 1967 in an ambush off of Hill 881 South, so return readers to this blog are familiar with Greg’s story as well as what occurred to the other twenty men who were killed in that action.

With that in mind, I am not going to belabor the memory anymore except to state that what happened at Liberty Lake on 11/11/2014 was a fine example of the honors that have belatedly come to a lot of veterans of the Vietnam War.

Former Bravo Company Corpsman John Kerr being interviewed by KREM-TV. © Dean Vercruysse 2014

Former Corpsman John Kerr being interviewed by KREM-TV.
© Dean Vercruysse 2014

Also remarkable to me was the fact that Navy Corpsman John Kerr, also with Bravo Company at that time and Greg Vercruysse’s buddy, traveled across the country to Liberty Lake to honor Greg’s memory along with Greg’s mom and brother and respectful citizens of Liberty Lake.

You can read more about the event at http://spokanevalleylibertylake.kxly.com/news/news/143231-liberty-lake-honors-sailor-killed-vietnam or watch a well-produced news report from TV station KREM here.

Navy Senior Chief Spinden and former Staff Sergeant Bob Wiese were instrumental in honoring Greg. © Dean Vercruysse 2014

Navy Senior Chief Spinden and former Staff Sergeant Wiese were instrumental in honoring Greg.
© Dean Vercruysse 2014

The pictures in this blog post of the Liberty Lake event are courtesy of Greg’s brother, Dean Vercruysse.

Semper Fidelis from the men of BRAVO! to the Vercruysse family.

On the screening front, we are pleased to announce that BRAVO! will be shown at Idaho’s historic Egyptian Theater in Boise on March 30, 2015. We will post updates to this event here as they become available.

If you or your organization would like to host a screening of BRAVO! in your town this spring or summer, 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 to stay up on our news and help raise more public awareness of this film.

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

October 22, 2014

More on October 1967

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Last week we wrote about the month of October around the Khe Sanh Combat Base. One of the main themes of the blog was that the most difficult thing to deal with was the weather. We don’t think that was the case in the rest of Vietnam. Operations were conducted from north to south searching for both North Vietnamese and Vietcong combat units. Thousands of men and women died on both sides, the troops led by the forces of the United States and those fighting for the overthrow of the South Vietnamese government. The fighting was brutal and the body counts high.

The airstrip at Khe Sanh. Photo courtesy of David Douglas Duncan

The airstrip at Khe Sanh.
Photo courtesy of David Douglas Duncan

But not at Khe Sanh. For a time and place that saw the savage springtime battles centered around the hills, 861, 881 South and 881 North, the battle action was strangely non-existent in October 1967. Compared to the conflagration of the Siege and associated fights, October 1967 at Khe Sanh was almost Paradise. Leeches, patrols, rain and mist, work parties, slick red mud and too much water were all, in the big picture, little to nothing.

According to Reverend Ray Stubbe’s Battalion of Kings, the men killed in action at the Khe Sanh TAOR in October 1967 were as follows (if you are interested in knowing more about these men, please check out the links to the virtual wall following each name):

On October 13, 1967, Marine Corporal Melvin Sink (http://www.virtualwall.org/ds/SinkMF01a.htm) was killed by friendly fire while leading an ambush off Hill 881-South.

On October 15, 1967, Army Sgt. Charles Baney (http://www.virtualwall.org/db/BaneyCL01a.htm), and crewmembers Airman 1st Class Lawrence Berneski (http://www.virtualwall.org/db/BerneskiLA01a.htm), Captain Erle Bjorke (http://www.virtualwall.org/db/BjorkeEL01a.htm), 1st Lieutenant James Hottenroth (http://www.virtualwall.org/dh/HottenrothJR01a.htm), Tech Sergeant Edward Mosley (http://www.virtualwall.org/dm/MosleyEx01a.htm) and Airman 2nd Class John Snyder (http://www.virtualwall.org/ds/SnyderJH01a.htm) were killed when the C-130 they were either inspectors on or crewing, crashed and burned at the east end of the Khe Sanh airstrip.

On October 30, 1967, Captain James Bennett (http://www.virtualwall.org/db/BennettJH01a.htm) died from injuries sustained in the crash of an Air Force O1-E spotter at the Khe Sanh air strip.

Even when the war was quiet, in terms of combat, the dangers of operating in bad weather, in tough terrain, in the light and in the night was dangerous and took the lives of good men and women such as those represented herein…

We look forward to the upcoming screening at the Meridian Library in Meridian, Idaho, at 6:30 PM this evening, October 22.

Also on tap is a screening in Oceanside, CA, 10:00 AM on November 1 at the Veterans Association of North County, 1617 N Mission, Oceanside, CA. Donations go to renovate the VANC Resource Center. Seating is limited. Please RSVP to Vanc.events@gmail.com.

Oceanside Screening Info

Oceanside Screening Info

Later in November, a screening will be held at American Legion Post 291, Newport Beach, CA, 215 15th Street, Newport Beach. Screening begins at 10:00 AM on November 15, 2014. Proceeds go to benefit the Fisher House of Southern California.

Please join us for one of these events and please invite your friends.

If you would like to host a screening of BRAVO! in your town this winter or spring, 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 to stay up on our news and help us reach more people.

Khe Sanh,Marines,Vietnam War

October 15, 2014

On October Cruel

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April is the cruelest month . . .

–T. S. Eliot

But October 1967 was pretty cruel for the men of Bravo Company. Or so we thought. It rained. Everything was soaked. We ran patrols in red mud and slick jungle grass. We went on LPs when you couldn’t see three feet in front of you. The same with ambushes. It was a time when everything dripped and leaked and water ran down the trenches like creeks in a flood. Your feet were soaked and wrinkled and if you were lucky you got foot rot and went on light duty. It seemed like everybody was on light duty. For those of us who weren’t, the workload was cruel. Working out in the downpour for the battalion pogues, working on our own trenches, our own bunkers, our own fighting positions. Going on patrols. Running ambushes in the black of night. Listening posts, too. Falling asleep on our feet while standing watch and tumbling into the muddy red water that flowed around our knees.

For the bulk of folks here in the States who don’t know combat, these words call up images that intimate cruel notions.
During October 1967 the company conducted operations on Route Nine. In the drizzly fog. We ran patrols out to the east and to the north. We endured the blast of a typhoon. Then with a gaggle of new men and a new company commander, we humped up to Hill 881. It didn’t rain that day as we struggled up the east side among the remnants of blasted trees and thickets of bamboo.

The mist smothers Khe Sanh. Photo by David Douglas Duncan

The mist smothers Khe Sanh.
Photo by David Douglas Duncan

After that, for the most part, the sky intermittently drenched us, then spit on us almost every day, and most nights the dark was invaded by heavy mists. We were sniped at from a ridge to the east. And we patrolled that ridge and sought the enemy. On the days when the sun graced us with its warmth, farther west into Laos, we sat in our fighting holes and watched the North Vietnamese move their war goods. We watched the B-52s pound the ridges and the highways of Laos, the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

But if my memory is correct, those sunny interludes were sparse. For I remember rain.

Rain sluiced off the lips of our helmets. It drizzled off our helmets’ back ends and down our necks. The rain alternated between warm and chill. It got in our beans and franks, it ruined our Lucky Strikes and Old Golds. The sulfur heads of our matches dissolved when we tried to strike them. Inside our boots our feet became harbors for leeches. We cleaned our weapons every evening but the next morning I often had to kick my M-16 bolt open. Rust had seized its innards.

A trench line on Hill 881 South. Photo courtesy of marines.org

A trench line on Hill 881 South.
Photo courtesy of marines.org

Down to the east, on the flats of Vietnam, men were dying at places like Gio Linh and Con Thien. But we were soaked and wrinkled like prunes and we thought life was tough. October blew a cruel breath. Or so we thought.

But that was before January 21, 1968, before the beginning of the Siege, when life grew very cruel.

We look forward to upcoming screenings at the Meridian Library in Meridian, Idaho, at 6:30 PM on October 22; Oceanside, CA, on November 1; and Newport Beach, CA, on November 15, 2014. Please join us and invite your friends.

If you would like to host a screening of BRAVO! in your town this winter or spring, 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 to stay up on our news and help us reach more people.