Bravo! The Project - A Documentary Film

Posts Tagged ‘Hills 881 North and South’

Documentary Film,Khe Sanh,Marines,Meet the Men,Vietnam War

May 3, 2012

Meet the Men of Bravo!–Mike McCauley

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As a youngster, Mike McCauley was hanging around the Boston Common when Boston Police Sergeant Haynes advised him to join the military. Mike took his advice and enlisted in the Marine Corps when he was nineteen.

Mike McCauley

Mike arrived at the Khe Sanh area in November 1967 when Bravo Company was into its second deployment on Hill 881 South, west of the Khe Sanh combat base. He served with First Platoon, Bravo Company, during his time in Vietnam.

He turned twenty the day the Siege of Khe Sanh ended on April 7, 1968. After his tour he returned to the States and over the years spent time in Massachusetts, Washington, DC, Maryland, Nevada and California before settling with his wife Ruth in the Seattle, Washington, region.

Mike McCauley

Mike spends his time doing woodworking and taking care of the family’s horses. When asked if he rides the horses, he says, “I’ve never ridden anything but a subway; I’m from Boston.”

Among other things, Mike is known among the men of Bravo for giving out sharp looking red (Marine Corps red) ball caps that say “Bravo Co. 1/26, Khe Sanh,” in snappy gold thread.

Documentary Film,Khe Sanh,Marines,Vietnam War

May 1, 2012

Memories of the Sixties and Bravo, 1/26

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Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor is a documentary film about the Siege of Khe Sanh, a seventy-seven day period in a war that went on in excess of eight years. Thinking about those eight years, I often ponder what my old unit was doing in Vietnam while I as home in the United States.

Today is May First, 2012. What was Bravo Company doing on various May Firsts while the battalion, my battalion…First Battalion, 26th Marines…was in Vietnam?

On May 1, 1966, neither the battalion nor Bravo had yet been in the Vietnam area of operations. They were on their way and soon would function as a battalion landing team up and down the coast of Vietnam.

I was in my second semester of college at Arizona State University studying Business Administration and as far as I can recollect, had no intention of joining the United States Marine Corps, or the service, or of ever venturing to Vietnam.

After a chain of events that saw me enlist and ship out for Vietnam, by May 1, 1967 I was already in the field with Bravo Company. First and Second Platoons were dug in at an old ville south of Hill 55, which was southwest of Danang in I Corps in the northern part of Vietnam. Third Platoon was dug in on a river crossing further south. Alpha Company of the battalion had already left the Hill 55 area for Phu Bai on the battalion’s journey that eventually led us to Khe Sanh where elements of the Third and Ninth Marine Regiments had been and were then locked in vicious fights for Hills 861, 881 South and 881 North.

On May 1, 1967, on patrol south of Hill 55, elements of Bravo Company found a 60MM mortar employed as an antipersonnel mine which they destroyed with a pound of TNT. They also found a Punji stake which was taken back to the company CP for examination.

On May 1, 1968, I had been home from Khe Sanh, the siege and Vietnam for over two weeks, and had been drinking, partying and pondering a trip with friends to Nogales, Mexico, for margaritas, street tacos and bullfights to celebrate Cinco de Mayo.

Bravo Company, gone from Khe Sanh, was defending Wonder Beach on May 1, 1968. First Platoon ran an ambush the night of April 30 and returned into the perimeter early on the morning of May 1. During the day, 9 rounds of incoming mortar fire were received and one Marine was wounded. The company also took incoming machine gun fire.

On May 1, 1969, I was deployed at Marine Barracks, 36th Street Naval Station in San Diego, California, where I worked in the Navy Brig Base Parolee dorms, harassing prisoners, holding snap inspections and throwing improperly arranged footlockers out the windows three stories down into the yard.

Bravo Company was part of a battalion landing team and took part in a heliborne and seaborne assault rehearsal north of the NamO Bridge near Danang in anticipation of more rambunctious action in the days to come.

On May 1, 1970, I was out of the Marine Corps attending a local junior college in Central Arizona and working as a sheetrock humper on the construction of some high schools in the Phoenix area.

Bravo Company and the 26th Marines no longer existed in terms of a combat unit in Vietnam on May 1, 1970. Their last activities in-country were in March of that year and Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment now exists in the history of the Corps and the hearts and memories of the Marines and Corpsmen who served.

Documentary Film,Guest Blogs,Khe Sanh,Vietnam War

March 20, 2012

The Larry C Banks Memorial

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Bravo! Marine Michael E. O’Hara muses on memories of his friend who was killed in action in Vietnam in 1967.

Larry C. Banks and I grew up together. He “VOLUNTEERED” for the Army in ‘67 and I volunteered to go into the Marines about the same time. We spent our last leave home together at the same time before going to Vietnam.

Larry was killed in an ambush after only 28 days in country at a place known as Srok Rung. It was in a rubber tree plantation in the IV Corps area northwest of Saigon. Larry died while serving as an assistant machine gunner. They literally melted the barrel out of the gun before being overrun. His squad leader, Robert Stryker, won the Medal of Honor that day. Larry and the gunner earned Bronze Stars for valor.

I was at Khe Sanh on Hill 881s when Larry was killed. No one back home would tell me until after I came home in 1968.

I remember in 1978 I was having a brief conversation with a lady who graduated same class with us. (84 grads) When I mentioned Larry she gave me an ill look and said Larry who? It just infuriated me.

In 1993 there was a memorial dedicated on the courthouse lawn to all who had served in all wars. It was the first time Larry Banks’ named had been spoken publicly since he perished. I lashed out at the crowd for never acknowledging his sacrifice as I read his name. When I boasted to my mother after it was over, she chided me publicly in front of all and asked me this question, “And what have you done?”

It was at that moment that the Larry C. Banks Memorial was conceived. Within 16 months a scholarship had been established with the newly formed community foundation (we were their first account) and the new High School Gymnasium bears his name to this day. Hundreds of folks pitched in to make that happen. It was my dream but other people made it happen.

This past Veterans Day was a special tribute in the gymnasium for Larry, presented by the staff and children at the school for the benefit of all our Veterans. NO one, and I mean no one, will ever say to me ever again, “Larry who.”

By the way, Larry served with 1st Battalion 26th Infantry Regiment USA. I served with 1st Battalion 26th Marine Regiment (infantry) USMC 5th Div. How about that!

Michael E O’Hara spends a lot of time researching and honoring all American veterans of all wars. He also spends a lot of time with his granddaughters.

Documentary Film,Vietnam War

October 22, 2011

It’s a Gas

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I have often mused, over the years, about how the NVA went about their manpower buildup prior to the beginning of the Siege of Khe Sanh. They must have been assembling most of the summer, yet through late summer and fall and early winter of 1967, any sign of them was sparse. During those months Bravo Company generally skated in the getting-hit-by-the-enemy department. Which suited me. By the time I had been in-country for three months, I hoped I’d get out of there without ever seeing any of the lambast-smash-mouth of combat.

As I write this blog entry, it is mid October 2011. By mid October 1967, Bravo Company had begun preparing to occupy Hill 881 South to the west of the Khe Sanh Combat Base. Some of us who had been in Bravo for a while had spent time on Hill 881 South soon after the 1st Battalion, 26th Marines arrived in the Khe Sanh area in early May of 1967 after the hill fights. After patrolling in the vicinity of the combat base and operations to the east and southeast, Bravo assumed control of Hill 881 South from late May through June of 1967.

By October 1967, a large number of Marines who had served with Bravo rotated back to the States and a draft of young Marines arrived to replace them. I came off R & R the day before a typhoon struck and as the typhoon whipped and battered our tents, we holed up in our bivouacs for a day or two until the storm blew itself out. Then we saddled up and hiked up from the combat base, through Hill 861 onto Hill 881 South. At the time, as I recall, Bravo Company, at least the second platoon, was a mess. We had a new lieutenant who had yet to earn his chops, and the old lieutenant had left a lot of Marines with sour tastes in their mouths. We had a new company commander, too, who was trying to square us away.

And it rained and the wind blew and once we were established on Hill 881 South, our hooch roofs leaked and the leeches were everywhere and our fingertips were perpetually wrinkled. In our squad, Third Squad, we couldn’t find a squad leader who was competent enough to lead us. We kept getting new leaders. They kept failing. We went on patrol after patrol, wet from top to bottom, red mud soaked into our skin. The whole time, the commanding officer of Bravo, Captain Bruce Green was on our case, our platoon commander’s case. He rode us pretty hard.

On one patrol, Captain Green gassed us. He had repeatedly given orders to us to carry our gas masks. We went on a company minus patrol, and after a frustrating day of getting lost in thick fog, we took five on a hill northeast of Hill 881 South and he threw gas grenades in among us. I saw him preparing to do it, so the men in my fire team put on their gas masks, which they carried, so we weren’t as panicked as the other men in the patrol. It was like a herd of horses headed for the barn. Rag tag collections of Marines splattered over the muddy red landscape, up one hill and into a valley, up another hill and into a valley, until all of us, thank goodness, reported back to the hill. There was some butt chewing going on with Captain Green doing the chewing. We all carried our gas masks after that.

Under Captain Green, we patrolled long and hard, got in condition, got sniped at from the ridge to the west, spent many a night soaked out on ambush or listening post as rain water dripped dripped dripped off the tips of tree limbs, off the sharp, pointed ends of elephant grass.

On patrol we often ran into sign that the NVA was around, anecdotal evidence, footprints squished in the red mud, and here or there a cartridge from an AK-47, a 61 MM mortar round or two. But we had no idea what was to come, the buildup of the two-plus NVA divisions, the siege. We just thought they were units passing through on their way down to the flats, to Con Thien and Cam Lo, Dong Ha and Phu Bai, where the fighting had raged all summer and autumn long.  We didn’t get into any firefights, but by the time Captain Green got promoted to Major and we had a new skipper, Captain Pipes, we were a bunch of seasoned, in-shape Marines.

All the while though, the NVA was building up and as I look back on it now, they were most likely often sitting in a tree line, watching us as we patrolled by them. I recall that sometimes, when I walked point, the sense  we were being watched was palpable. We knew the enemy was very close at hand…I don’t know how we knew, we just knew from the way the hair stood up on our arms when we approached certain pieces of terrain, or the strange smells we encountered from time to time, the old scent of fire, or bad tobacco. And we looked for him because that was our job, but we did not stumble over him and I suspect that was because he chose not to be stumbled over. He was waiting for something bigger…the Siege of Khe Sanh. I often think about that patrol where Captain Green gassed us and I wonder how many NVA soldiers hid out there in the jungle grass and the triple canopy copses that hugged the ever-present streams. I wonder if instead of picking us off, one by one, or capturing us, they didn’t almost die laughing as we stumble-bummed our way back to the hill.

On a different note, next week we will submit Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor to two more film festivals, Tribeca in New York, and South-by-Southwest in Austin, Texas. Last week we screened the film to a group of local supporters here in Boise who could not see the film at our previous private showing. There were a lot of film people in the group, and as has been consistent throughout our screenings, they were impressed; they were moved by the movie. As a result of that screening, we have received an unsolicited request for a film “screener” from a documentary distributor—an unusual occurrence for first-time documentary filmmakers. Ooorah!

Khe Sanh,Marines,Vietnam War

October 27, 2010

Old Voices

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Betty and I have been listening to a stack of oral interviews taped in 1968 concerning the siege of Khe Sanh. Cooks, truck drivers, Major Generals, Privates, ammo techs, armorers, artillery gunners, forward observers, grunts, Captains, Lance Corporals, intelligence staff, First Sergeants, Second Lieutenants, mortarmen, M-79 men, machine gunners, Corpsmen, radio operators, Lieutenant Colonels, and recon marines.

Listening to those voices from forty-two years past I ponder what they tell me now. I lived my own personal hell through the blasts and flashes, the shuddering felt through my own two jungle-booted feet anchored to the damp bottom of the trench, but after hearing these chilling tales, I realize there was more than one way to endure the siege. Trying to make coffee and pastries for the officers at Regiment while incoming pounded around you, wrecking your gas ranges. Trying to pull mortar rounds out of the ammo pit while incoming slammed into the adjacent ground, threatening to light up the whole ammo dump. Trying to call in artillery while bullets snapped by the side of your head. Trying to keep tires fixed after shrapnel has shredded them. Keeping the undetonated incoming enemy rounds cleaned out of the gun pits so your guys could shoot your big stuff back at the bad guys.
Betty and I listened to rationales for tactics, strategies, not saving this patrol, that position, why it was okay for some men to die for the greater good. Like those recon patrols that ran out from Khe Sanh before the siege began. Eight-man teams, no helmets, light weapons, a radio, a lot of tools to signal someone if you were in trouble. Out to our bastion on 881 South then into the jungle, maybe by chopper, maybe in a larger patrol of grunts , maybe by sneaking out at night, onto a trail through the head-high jungle grass that loved to find exposed flesh and slice, slice, slice.

A testy business, recon, running into large groups of the enemy and having to try and hide, or run away, getting shot in the back, leaving comrades’ bodies behind for another day (that’s a bitter salt tablet to bite into), sitting in tight 360s back to back to back to back firing away at the onrushing North Vietnamese soldiers intent on murdering you.

We ventured up to the spiny ridge on 881North (not 881 South where we lived in muddy bunkers, but 881 North, which was never occupied by the Marines) a number of times in my tour. I always seemed to be on point as we approached, the refuse of the big battle fought there in May 1967 evident. Maws of shell holes and bomb craters, the bush stunted. Snaggle-toothed trees on top of the ridge which reminded me of a razorback the way it cut at right angles to our search and destroy missions. On the demon’s spine, I knew, knew, knew, Charlie the Killer hid there, his machine guns, his AK 47s aimed right at my Adam’s apple. I could feel it. But no, they never raked us with enfilade fire. They stayed secluded in their spider holes like tarantulas, waiting. The sky was usually dotted with clouds and the place smelled of mud and mold and damp. A lot of men died on 881 North and the adjacent hills and valleys. I just patrolled around it, over it, climbed it, set up perimeters on it, ate beefsteak and potatoes cooked over a heat tab on it. Smoked Lucky Strikes and Camels and maybe Pall Malls on it. Got soaked.

The last time I was up there was on a patrol on Christmas Eve, 1967. The day started foggy but broke clear. We patrolled up 881 North, down the backside and in the direction of the DMZ. I drank water out of a creek that slithered over tiny flat rocks. The corpsman threatened to write me up for not using Halozone. “You’ll get liver flukes and they’ll eat your liver up.” I drank more and cursed him under my breath. I drank more just to show him—show him what? I don’t know.

We walked around fresh bomb craters with red mud shoved up as if giant subterranean dinosaurs had been at work. The trees hung over the trail and the jungle grass attacked us the same as every other day. No rest for our wicked butts, no rest because of Christmas. The same every day, patrols, patrols, fog, rain-soaked utility blouses, red mud stains on the skin, rain-soaked toes, mist. I wished for a cobra, a krait to show up in the trail and threaten one of us, maybe me. Some life . . . some life besides the deadly boredom of waiting, waiting for the surprise, waiting to die.

That night, Christmas Eve, back on 881 South we stood 100-percent due to a red alert even though there was a Christmas truce. Charlie the Killer probed around outside the wire. Fog choked the black morning after midnight and we couldn’t have seen Charlie if he’d been sitting ten feet from us.

Christmas day arrived magnificent, like Jesus coming out of His tomb, shards of dawn raking the grove-mottled ridges, the trees with their tops blown off. I led a five man fire-team-sized patrol down around the west side of Hill 881 South along the creek that bubbled and sang in the canyon. An easy patrol, only the imprints of unfamiliar boots in the mud, and here and there unusual ammo pressed into wet, red, muddy spots. Not like the times we patrolled in floods when men were swept down the canyon caroming off boulders as big as stateside houses, or the time the Hueys mistook us for Charlie and pinned us down as they circled around and around like voracious raptors intent on making a kill. They fired rockets and hot snaps from their nasty little mini-machine guns that brrrrrped, brrrped at us as the tracers lit up the dark spots beneath the bluffs. Mr. Dillon on the radio screaming “Cease fire. Cease fire. We are friendlies. We are friendlies.” Hidden beneath the lips of huge stones and roots as old as the Renaissance, we did not miss the balky, twisted humor there—friendly fire. But not this Christmas morning patrol . . . just a heated argument between me and Sergeant Deedee about grids and coordinates and clicks and trails and how best to follow the map from checkpoint to checkpoint.

After we struggled through the slick mud and ascended 881 South, hot chow arrived from the cooks at Khe Sanh. The choppers (our friends this day) whap-whapped onto the LZ with just-cooked turkey and ham, and mashed potatoes and gravy and dressing and green beans and hot rolls and pie and ICE CREAM (even though it melted by the time we got to eat it).

We left Hill 881 South the next day, after our two month stay up there, and dreamed of never having to ascend Hill 881 North again, and not long after this, Recon started getting their butts kicked out there on a daily basis. Ones, and twos and threes, they died out there in thick copses of tall hardwoods and the head-high jungle grass and the big red bomb craters. And with their dying, way down where one cannot deny what one knows, we knew it would not be a surprise. But we didn’t want to know it, so we acted like we didn’t. And ate our chow, and went on patrol and waited for . . . what? The greater good?