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

August 16, 2017

Perfect Pitch

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I recently heard someone on the radio talking about an Austrian composer and violinist named Friedrich “Fritz” Kreisler who fought with the Austrian army during the early days of World War I.

Here is a short biography from Wikipedia about Fritz Kreisler:

Friedrich “Fritz” Kreisler (February 2, 1875 – January 29, 1962) was an Austrian-born violinist and composer. One of the most noted violin masters of his day, and regarded as one of the greatest violin masters of all time, he was known for his sweet tone and expressive phrasing.

Photo of Fritz Kreisler.

He served briefly in the Austrian Army in World War I before being honourably discharged after he was wounded.

On the radio show, the announcer talked about Fritz’s perfect pitch, or absolute pitch. According to Wikipedia:

Perfect pitch is a rare auditory phenomenon characterized by the ability of a person to identify or re-create a given musical note without the benefit of a reference tone.

Besides its value in the realm of music, Fritz’ perfect pitch endeared him to the men who served with him in the trenches during World War I. Perfect pitch enabled Fritz to distinguish the sounds of incoming and to tell his comrades where incoming artillery rounds were going to hit.

In his memoir, Fritz said this about the sound of incoming:

I, too, soon got accustomed to the deadly missiles, in fact. I had already started to make observations of their peculiarities. My ear, accustomed to differentiate sounds of all kinds, had some time ago, while we still advanced, noticed a remarkable discrepancy in the peculiar whine produced by the different shells in their rapid flight through the air as they passed over our heads, some sounding shrill, with a rising tendency, and the others dull, with a falling cadence.

Hearing about Fritz’ abilities to pinpoint artillery round sounds and the location they would strike led me to think about the trenches of Khe Sanh and how, if one survived long enough and had scrambled away from close encounters with 152 millimeter shells lobbed at us from Laos, then he may be gifted with the ability to tell where a round was going to hit.

I remember yelling at new arrivals during the months of February and March that it was time to move when I heard the report of certain 152s leaving the mouths of caves across the Laotian border on their way to wipe us out. There was a particular “thump” sound—more hollow than the sound of the rounds that fell farther away—that told me it was time to di-di mau for a safer place. Usually, the new guys would look at me like I was stupid or crazy, but if they survived that round, they paid attention to me the next time I announced it was time to move.

Michael O’Hara at Khe Sanh. Photo courtesy of Michael E. O’Hara.

Unlike Fritz, I couldn’t accurately predict the impact area for all the incoming: the 130 MM, the 122 MM, the various mortar and rocket rounds, the sniper rounds, all of which we received plenty.
And every one of them made a different sound.

I remember those big rounds, those 152s sounding like a train.

In our film, BRAVO!, Michael O’Hara made this comment on 152s:

“But it’s like a freight train coming through the bathroom when you’re taking a shower. And you know it’s coming and you can’t get out of the bathroom.”

Michael also said this about the big guns firing into Khe Sanh Combat Base:

“I thought to myself, this is crazy. People don’t understand what it’s like for all that artillery to come in like that. It’s just terrifying. It’s meant to do more than just tear up your body. It’s meant to tear up your mind. It will scare you to death.”

But it wasn’t just the 152s that could kill you. It was all of the various types of hardware the NVA threw at us.

The late BRAVO! Marine Lloyd Scudder said this about incoming:

“Every time there was incoming or the ammo dumps, you know, were blowing up, I was scared to death. That shhhheeeww and the whistling of the rockets and the poof of the mortars and the kapoof sheeeewhirwhirwhir. That right there scared the hell out of me.”

Yes, the big stuff could kill and maim, but the silent slap of a sniper round could get you, too. And the worst part about it, as anyone who has been sniped at knows, is you don’t hear the round coming because that sleek and stealthy killer travels faster than the speed of sound. I suspect that muzzle velocity is responsible for the old saying, “You don’t hear the one that kills you.”

BRAVO! Marine Ron Rees had this to say about snipers:

“ . . . rounds from a sniper. It was like a mosquito. They were buzzing your head constantly . . . you just realized that was a bullet.”

Lloyd Scudder. Photo courtesy of the late Lloyd Scudder

Besides being killed or maimed, there was the psychological assault–as alluded to earlier by Michael O’Hara–that all of that incoming delivered to each one of us in the Khe Sanh area; not just the Combat Base, but Hills 861, 861A, 558, 950, 881 South, Lang Vei, and Khe Sanh Ville.

Again, Ron Rees:

“You hear it leave the tube and then just the seconds that it takes . . . and you know how long it is . . . when you heard it leave the tube, you knew how long you had, and from the time you heard that round leave the tube until it hit, you imagined death; you’re thinking all along, Is it you?”

And as this happened, sometimes over a thousand times a day, day after day, it had an effect, a life-long effect.

When people plan for the future, near-term or farther out, and I’m involved in their plans, I often times find myself thinking, “Why are we spending all this time working on plans? We don’t know what the future will bring. This is all a waste of time. A minute from now we might all be dead.”

Ron Rees. Photo Courtesy of Ron Rees.

Ron Rees had something to say about that, too:

“I really learned to live—because of the incoming and counting and everything else—to live by the second. You hear people say they live like that, I mean they literally live like that. My whole life I’ve never stopped living like that.”

As I thought about Fritz Kreisler in World War I and the men at Khe Sanh during the Siege, I felt a strange sensation, a linkage, related, I suppose, to the notion that even though there was a span of more than fifty years between Fritz’ experiences with the horrors of war and mine, we both learned to survive, and in some instances that survival was related to our ability to employ perfect pitch or some facsimile thereof.

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