Bravo! The Project - A Documentary Film

Posts Tagged ‘Listening Post’

Documentary Film,Khe Sanh,Listening Posts,Marines,Other Musings,Vietnam War

August 27, 2014

The Agony and Ecstasy of Listening Posts–Redux

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Four years ago, when we were on the road to shoot interviews in Michigan, Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska and to conduct research at the National Archives and the Marine History Division in the Washington DC area, I wrote only our fourth blog about the making of BRAVO!. That particular edition joined what has become a hefty variety of pieces about BRAVO!, the Siege of Khe Sanh, and the men and women both in the film and who helped make this project a reality. We think a visit back in time to that fourth blog is an appropriate subject for this week’s blog.


While the grackles, the kingbirds, the cuckoos and kites sung and hunted over San Antonio, Betty, Mark Spear and I interviewed and filmed eight retired or former Marines and a former Navy corpsman. As we sat rapt, listening to the emotion gushing like rain water running down a red Khe Sanh trench, one of the repetitive memories we heard centered on listening posts.

Listening posts—rather mundane words for a mundane (most of the time) night duty related to combat activities in a hostile environment. In the Marine Corps, a fire team usually mans (or in my tenure manned) a listening post (LP). Four men and a radio go outside the outfit’s night perimeter to listen for approaching enemy combatants. Mundane, unless the enemy shows up, and then the men in the listening post become pretty much incidental to the good of the bigger unit, the ones they are doing the listening for. And doing their duty as Marines, they may be trapped and killed, maimed, captured, never to get back to lovers and sons, and if they beat feet towards the security of the perimeter, in front of the enemy, they may get shot by their own men because the listening post personnel are often indistinguishable from the enemy. In Bravo! the documentary, the danger associated with LPs will squeeze your gut.

Mark Spear at the 2010 Khe Sanh Veterans Reunion © Betty Rodgers 2010

Mark Spear at the 2010 Khe Sanh Veterans Reunion
© Betty Rodgers 2010

I recall an LP when the siege was raging. We waited until darkness fell and then crept out the east end of the Khe Sanh air strip finally stopping short of our assigned position. I always felt that we should never go to the same spot time after time. We crawled into the jungle grass and covered up with ponchos so we could read a map with a flashlight if we needed to. Below us, the Song Rao Quan cut a deep ravine as it rushed towards its conflict with the saltwater South China Sea. American jets shrieked over. So rocket and artillery shy were we, we cringed at the sound of the jets as they streaked over us and dropped bombs somewhere to our front. We heard the thunk of mortar rounds leaving the tube. In the dark of the night we spotted aiming stakes—enemy aiming stakes illuminated by some type of red lights. We estimated the position and called in artillery, “Fire mission.” The barrage whistled over us like the jets, but with less basso, more tenor, some alto harmonied in. Below in the Rao Quan River valley, the rounds crashed like they were landing in the next century. The aiming stakes still remained. I essayed that they were far beyond where the rounds landed. I whispered into the radio handset—based on where I thought I’d heard the rounds land—“Up 100 left 100.” The voice of the lieutenant repeated my words. We heard the gun mouths bark the next barrage and again it sung over us and landed far below. The enemy mortars still thunk, thunk, thunked. Somewhere to our rear the crash of a rocket round inside our perimeter. The aiming stakes still glowed in the misty pitch black. I adjusted my estimate, again, missed, and we spent the long night with arty going in and out, like a badminton shuttle cock going back and forth over the net. I don’t think we ever hit the target, though we may have scared the hell out of them, because the aiming stakes’ red lights disappeared. The lieutenant barked at me over the radio about ”What kind of spotter was I?” I pouted most of the night about that and in the morning just before the first light we sneaked back in. Off to the west, between Khe Sanh base and Hill 861, I saw rockets spew off the ground. Seconds later I heard them crash into the far end of the air strip. I might have called in and told them where those rockets had come from, but I was still pouting.

Khe Sanh Combat Base, Photo courtesy of

Khe Sanh Combat Base, Photo courtesy of

An LP wasn’t something you wanted to get sent out on, with all that death waiting in the black of the misty nights. A couple of our platoon big shots, the lieutenant’s radioman and the platoon right guide, both went to sleep on radio watch in the command post. We all were deprived of sleep, our eyelids like trap doors on a sniper’s hole. We couldn’t sleep because of duty’s call or because the NVA hammered us day and night, so I wasn’t surprised that they nodded off. I had a way of going half to sleep when I ended up as the platoon sergeant’s radio operator. I could somehow doze and somehow stay alert enough to call in my sit-reps every fifteen minutes and call out to the listening post and get their sit-reps, too. Being a big shot and then getting sent out on an LP was like a kick in the cojones. Everyone sniggered at you behind your back. I’m glad I never got caught sleeping on radio watch.

The last LP I remember going on was later in the siege and I got a surprise from the lieutenant about how it was to be conducted. My team was going out with a fire team of South Vietnamese Rangers. I rolled my eyes at that one and complained, “They can’t even speak English. How the hell we going to communicate?” The lieutenant told me, “Just get your asses out there when it starts getting dark and go out to those slit trenches at the end of the runway and set in for the night. Like you’re supposed to do.” I whined, “But, the NVA know exactly where that. . .” “Shut up,” he barked, “we know exactly where it is, too, so if something happens we can come out and get your asses. “ I kicked at the red clods in the bottom of the trench and said, “Aye aye.” He said, “And if you have to come in early, make sure you come in first so those Marines down there in Alpha Company don’t blow our Ranger friends away.”

There were four of them. Four of us. We Marines were skinny, half starved, but compared to them we were giants. They were bowlegged and short, wiry, though, and they all had flinty looks in their eyes as we sat in a deep Alpha Company bunker lit up with ten or twelve candles. We were wary of them, the rumors we’d heard about them all being North Vietnamese sympathizers. The way they sneaked glances at us made me ponder why they were wary of us.

After the night went totally black, we sneaked out the gate in front of Alpha Company and bent over like bugs scuffling across the airstrip. We hustled out to the two slit trench fighting holes at the end of the strip. I pointed to the left and the four Rangers slipped in and sat down. I could see what light there was reflecting off their eyes which were as big around as the bottom of a forty-millimeter anti-aircraft round. They sat as still as stones.

We Marines plopped in the other trench and I started whispering the watch schedule, two of us awake, two asleep, two hours on, two hours off. I tried to whisper some orders to the Rangers, but either they didn’t hear me or ignored me. The breeze whispered through the tall elephant grass out to our fronts. All night I imagined, or dreamed, a platoon of NVA sneaking up on us. Their helmets festooned with pieces of grass to hide their passage. They didn’t, though, because the next morning in the false light I elbowed the sleeping Marines on each side of me to wake up. I looked up at the Ranger fire team leader who was glaring at me. He took his right index finger and drew it across his Adam’s apple and then nodded to our front. I made a sign with my thumb for him and his team to get up. We bug-scuffled back in the opposite direction of the enemy to the Alpha Company gate. Me in front so they didn’t shoot the Rangers.

As I said in the beginning of this post, what got me thinking about LPs were the men we interviewed for our documentary.

On the screening front, BRAVO! will be shown in Nampa, Idaho, on September 25, 2014 at the Elks Lodge. Doors will open at 6:00 PM with the screening of the film at 6:30, followed by a Q & A session. Suggested donation, $10.00 to benefit the Wyakin Warrior Foundation.

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

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. For more information go to

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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!