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Posts Tagged ‘Michael O’Hara’

Documentary Film,Guest Blogs,Khe Sanh

September 26, 2018

Michael E. O’Hara Muses On Navy Corpsmen and Marines

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FLEET MARINE FORCE

(FMF)

Navy Corpsman

In today’s guest blog, a reprint of an entry from January 2016, 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.

John “Doc” Cicala, US Navy Corpsman with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines 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.

Guest blogger Michael E. O’Hara at Khe Sanh

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.

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.

Guest blogger Michael E. O’Hara.

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.

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

May 5, 2018

Cinco de Mayo–50 Years Gone

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On Cinco de Mayo my leave was about done, but before heading back to Camp Pendleton I traveled down to Nogales, Mexico, with friends, and we attended a bullfight. There was a lot of hoopla at the arena: folks all dressed up, the men in suits and the women in fancy dresses. I recall the men wearing fedoras that matched the hues of their outfits, white and tan and other tints of light brown. The ladies looked to me like they should be going to Mass instead of to a bullfight.

The fancy red and black advertising bills that hung all over the walls of the city announced three matadors who would kill three bulls as part of a wider celebration to observe the holiday which commemorates the Mexican Army’s defeat of a French army at the Mexican city of Puebla in 1862.

The white walls of the arena reflected the bright light. It’s warm that time of year on the Arizona-Mexican border and besides the weather, the beer, Modelo, was warm and something that I’d prefer not to consume but I did. Every time I took a swallow it caught in the back of my throat and I wasn’t sure if it would go down and stay down or rocket out through my nose and my mouth all over my lap and the people sitting in front of me.

The Kill

The bullfights seemed steeped in a tradition I didn’t really understand; the honoring of the bulls as if they were heroes, the formal entrance into the ring by the participants that reminded me of Marine Corps ceremonies I’d been a part of. The matadors and picadors reminded me of ancient warriors, and the horses protected by what looked like quilted armor hinted at a more martial tone to the event. Bugles blew at what seemed like critical moments in the performance and I thought of bugle calls we answered to in the Corps: Taps, Reveille, Assembly.

And then the torment and killing of the bulls began. The toreros—bull fighters—stabbed the bulls with sharp, short spears called banderillas and men on horses stabbed the bulls with long spears and the matador used a cape to tire out the animal and to create a kind of performance art before killing the bull with one clean thrust of a sword that punctured his tortured and weakened heart through a soft spot behind its lowered head.

What bothered me was how the crowd loved the action and cheered at the torture the bulls were put through, the stabbing and the capes the matadors used to entice and lead the bulls around the bullring.

The first two matadors failed to kill the bulls cleanly and the crowds did not like that, hissing and acting like the bull had more of their respect than the men who were supposed to kill the animals.

The third matador, who was the star of the whole day’s shebang, did manage to kill the bull with some panache and I had to admire his apparent physical skills, even though the repeated stabbing of the bull on the neck and shoulders beforehand tipped the odds in the matador’s favor.

Watching the bulls stagger around made me dizzy and the beer turned pretty damned bitter and the crowd’s thirst for the savagery of it all surprised me. It seemed a metaphor for what I’d seen at Khe Sanh. Brutal battles, bayonets grinding into bone, death-maimed men, and all of us, on both sides—NVA and Yanks—debauched with savagery.

The bloody images of Khe Sanh, that bull fight, the cheering Mexican crowd rejoicing in the chaos, visions of dead men lying in the dust, the incompetent matadors down in the ring, the bulls staggering around the sandy arena with hearts as big as the State of Sonora were all mixed up in my mind. Ole! Dios mio!

I couldn’t get out of that place fast enough, almost knocking several men down as they stood on the steps in the aisle as I charged out of the bullring. I knew enough border lingo to understand the names they called me but instead of punching someone in the nose, I had to escape the scenes of the bulls being dragged from the sandy arena floor, the bouquets of red flowers and fedoras tossed into the ring. The scarlet of the flowers highlighting the burgundy tint of the blood on the ground.

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

Outside, I squatted in the shade up against the walls of the arena and waited for my friends to come out. They thought it was glorious and a righteous example of culture and history and the influence of Spain’s glory days upon the world.

That memory is clear in my mind and I have gone back to it many times, me sitting on my haunches looking up at them as they talked excitedly about the action in the ring, their smiles, me seeing the blood red mud of Khe Sanh, dead men dragged down the dusty road.

Dios Mio! The savagery.

***

NEWS!

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

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

***

ON THE SCREENING FRONT:

At 3:00 PM on May 27, 2018, BRAVO! will be shown in Paris, TN at the Krider Performing Arts Center. You can find out more about this event and the Krider Performance Art Center here.

***

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

***

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

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

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

April 11, 2018

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Fifty Years Gone—April 11, 1968

I fidgeted inside a Continental Airlines 707 in Okinawa waiting for the B-52s lined up on the flight line to take off. I glanced at the tattered and dog-eared pages of a Max Brand book I’d been trying to read for months about a buckaroo named Destry. Then I peered around at the others on the flight, all of them Marines (other than the crew), none of whom I knew. I looked out the port hole and studied the B-52s again. Their dark fuselages ginned-up images of hell, avengers and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. When the B-52s finally rolled forward, their long wings drooped and prompted metaphors of sharp-taloned hawks.

And then we were airborne, over the Pacific, headed for home, my thoughts saturated with scenes and noises and stenches of the battlefield. And even though I tried to read about Destry, nothing else managed to crowd into my mind except memories of Khe Sanh.

We flew over Iwo Jima. It looked like a distorted version of a figure eight and I wondered about all those men who had died over that little piece of volcanic rock.

Iwo Jima from the air.

At El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, we deplaned. I wanted to drop down, do a pushup and kiss the deck, but I didn’t. We put up with Marine Corps hassle as we processed to go on leave and then board a bus to LA and the airport.

After I got my airline ticket to Tucson, I called home, trying to tell someone that I needed a ride, but no one answered. I finally contacted the mother of my best friend who told me she’d make sure someone showed up to get me.

I waited in the airport lounge, smoking Camels and drinking real beer—Coors beer—wanting someone to say something about me being home, being alive, being a Vietnam vet who’d sacrificed for his county. Nobody said a damned thing except the bartender who muttered “thanks” when I left him a tip.

Not long before I climbed aboard my flight, a young Marine came in and plopped down at the bar in a seat next to me. He was going on leave before shipping out for Nam. He wanted to know what it was like. I said, “Keep your head down.”

On the flight to Tucson, I sat next to a girl who seemed about my age. She wouldn’t look at me. I could have struck up a conversation but I didn’t know what to talk about. I didn’t think she’d care about 152mm artillery rounds that shook the ground, severed arms and legs, and if they landed too close to you, forced blood out of the pores of your body.

At Tucson, my parents met me as I headed down a set of stairs to baggage claim where my best friend and his fiancé waited. I could tell by the way they all stared at me that I wasn’t quite the person they’d expected.

We went to a well-known Mexican food restaurant in Old Town. I craved green chili. After we sat, I ordered a Coke. I wanted a beer but didn’t think my mother would approve.

Our meals arrived and I talked about Khe Sanh, what I saw, how I felt. They didn’t look at me, just turned to on their ground beef tacos, their green chili and queso enchiladas.

For decades after, when thinking about that moment, the top of my father’s balding head would invade my mind. It was what they showed me as they ate: the tops of their heads.

Blogger Kn Rodgers at Khe Sanh in 1968. Photo courtesy of Michael E. O’Hara.

At the time, I thought nobody was interested in what happened and maybe, in general, that was the attitude of a lot of Americans; they didn’t want to have to consider the particulars of death and carnage. But now, I think, my family and friends just didn’t know how to respond to what I described, since the Siege inhabited a universe too far outside the ken of their experience.

So, I just shut up.

By myself in the back seat of my parents’ Buick, riding through the black Sonoran Desert night, I looked out the window and thought about Khe Sanh, the siege, the dead, my fear, the memories of which I naively imagined would just slip away.

***
NEWS!

BRAVO! is now available in digital form on Amazon Prime. Please check it out if you are interested, and please consider sharing this news with your friends and contacts whom you think might be interested in seeing the film. And please ask them to give us a review if they would. It will help get the film out to a broader audience.

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ON THE SCREENING FRONT:

At 3:00 PM on May 27, 2018, BRAVO! will be screened in Paris, TN at the Krider Performing Arts Center. You can find out more about this event and the Krider Performance Art Center here.

***

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

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

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

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

April 4, 2018

Out of This Place

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50 Years Gone—April 4, 1968

Early that morning, I got the word to go home. Staff Sergeant A stomped down the trench and told me as I sat with Marines of 3rd Squad sharing C-ration coffee and unfiltered Camels and palavering about women and GTOs.

He’d told me twice before that I was going home: once, the day after the Payback Patrol, and then two days later, only to find out he was joking, as he liked to call it. When he said that, “I’m just joking,” he laughed and leaned over and slapped his quadriceps.

I didn’t think it was funny. And on this particular morning, as I looked at him like he was full of crap, he glared at me like all staff non-commissioned officers in the Marine Corps were wont to do. I still didn’t believe him, and I sat there looking into his eyes and I’m sure my feelings swarmed across my face.

Photo of Dong Ha, 1968. Reminiscent of the transient barracks where the blogger spent the night of 4-4-68. Photo from Pinterest.

He said, “Get up and go home, Rodgers. That’s an order.” And he clomped off.

I followed him down to the platoon command post and stuck my head in and Lieutenant D said, “Good luck, Rodgers, you’ve been a pretty good Marine. Occasionally damned good. Sometimes not so good. Gather your gear and get down to the company CP and report to Captain Pipes.” He got off his cot and stuck out his hand. His big mitt enveloped mine as we shook.

I divvied up my M-16 magazines and poncho liners and other gear among any of the men who needed them and figured I’d fight it out later with the supply personnel when I showed up short of gear in Phu Bai.

I walked up and down the trench slapping hands and jive-assing with everybody in 2nd Platoon that I knew, and then marched for the company CP. When I stuck my face into the bunker men crammed the innards: radio operators, the company gunny, the executive officer and Captain Pipes who sat against the sandbagged walls with his arm in a sling and other parts of his head and torso bandaged due to the wounds he received on the Payback Patrol.

The executive officer told me I was a day early, and that I should go back to 2nd Platoon. Captain Pipes asked me what platoon I was in, and when I told him I was in 2nd Platoon and was the platoon sergeant’s radio operator, he asked me if I’d been out there on Payback (we didn’t call it that, then, we called it March 30th). I nodded and he smiled. In an earlier blog where I wrote about Christmas Eve, I said that when Captain Pipes smiled at me back then, it was the only time a Marine Corps captain had ever smiled at me. But it wasn’t because he smiled as I stood there at that moment. And he said, “Let him go.”

The executive officer sent me down to Battalion where I explained my situation to a bunch of corporals who sent me to see sergeants who referred me to staff NCOs who sent me on to see a major who sat alone in a big room in a deep bunker. This is one of the damndest memories I have of this experience. When he asked me if I’d been on the Payback Patrol and I said, “Yes, Sir,” he took my orders and signed them and then he stood, snapped to attention and saluted me. For a moment I felt flummoxed, and then I saluted him back. Then he shook my hand. That was pretty amazing, a major saluting me in reverse order of how it should be.

I headed for the LZ where the helicopters came in to deliver men and gear and pick up men and body bags filled with people killed in action.

On the way down there, I stopped and looked off to the southwest to Hill 471 which was under assault from elements of the Walking Dead, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines. As I watched the tiny figures head up that hill, I thought about hand-to-hand combat, bombs and incoming, dead people. And then I went on down to the LZ where I sat for hours as chopper after chopper came in. When I tried to get on each one, the crew chief would shake his head or yell, “That’s a negative, Marine.”

Sometime during my wait, another Marine showed up who’d been through training with me back in The World. He was also going home. He was a lance corporal whose last name was R. He looked battered, skinny, his face gaunt after seventy-some-odd-days of incoming and pitched battles. He needed a new set of dungarees.

We chatted, but not much, mostly just sat there as I pondered all I’d seen. The horrors and the blood and the flesh separated from the tendons and bones of men I’d come to revere. Every time a loud noise sounded, R would flinch and so would I, and I wondered if I looked as bad as he did, and then I understood that I did.

A pile of filled body bags were stacked against a sandbagged revetment. I kept looking at them and wondering if I knew any of the intelligences that had once inhabited the remains.

Blogger Ken Rodgers at Khe Sanh, 1968. Photo courtesy of Michael E O’Hara.

Late in the day, a CH-46 came in and R and I got on along with those body bags. On the flight to Dong Ha, even though I was ordered to do so, I refused to sit down in case we took anti-aircraft fire through the bottom of the bird. I wanted to make the smallest target possible.

At Dong Ha I checked into the transient barracks and spent over an hour in the hot shower trying to get the red mud of Khe Sanh out of the pores of my skin, as if cleansing myself of the dirt of that place would purge me of all that I had seen.

Later, after chow—real chow, hot chow—I stood outside the mess tent with a group of Marines, one of whom I’d known well in boot camp and ITR. For several hours I listened to men talk about Tet and Hue and Con Thien, including that Marine. I could tell by the way he kept staring at me that he wanted to hear my tale. But I didn’t say anything about anything.

No words could dig their way from my thoughts to my mouth.

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On the screening front: On April 7, at 1:00 PM Bravo will be screened at the Warhawk Air Museum in Nampa, Idaho. following the screening, there will be a panel of Khe Sanh survivors who will talk about the experience. You can find out more about the event and the Warhawk Air Museum here.

At 3:00 PM on May 27, 2018, BRAVO! will be screened in Paris, TN at the Krider Performing Arts Center. You can find out more about this event and the Krider Performance Art Center here.

***

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

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

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

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

March 21, 2018

Friendly Fire–Fifty Years Gone

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March 21, 1968

On the morning of March 21, 2nd Platoon, Bravo Company, went outside the wire. As far as I know, it was the first time anyone had ventured out into the hellscape surrounding the combat base since the Ghost Patrol debacle of 25February1968.

We went out early as the ever-present fog and mist lifted. We got on line, something Marines have done since the United States Marine Corps’ inception in 1775, and we swept off to the southeast towards one of the NVA’s trenchlines.

1st Squad was on the left, 2nd Squad in the middle and 3rd Squad on the right. The platoon sergeant and I were behind the formation, bringing up the rear. I was his radio operator.

Being a short-timer, I shivered and my mouth felt like the cracked bottom of a dry creek bed. I didn’t know what awaited. We went as feelers to test the enemy’s strength. I felt like a little chunk of chum to bait the NVA.

As we tread down an incline into a shallow valley, .50 caliber machine guns opened up from our rear, firing over our heads, giving all of us some cover. I could see the tracer rounds as they streaked like red jets into the tree line on the opposite ridge, our initial destination.

Grenade. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

As our formation neared the summit of the ridge, the .50 calibers firing from our lines were supposed to cease fire. As 3rd Squad reached the summit of the ridge, the .50 caliber fire continued. I witnessed as those big, hot rounds began hitting amongst our marines.

Busy monitoring the radio I carried made it difficult to process what I saw: that instantaneous chaos up there where that friendly fire had hit around our men.

That’s what we called it, “friendly fire,” like it was nothing to worry about. It was our friends shooting at us. So why worry?

My first encounter with friendly fire was on June 7, 1967, when the fire team I was in went out on an LP on Hill 881 South. One of our own men evidently hadn’t received the word about our departure. We exited the south gate and swung around on the west side below the wire a ways and settled in.

Not long after, something bounced in among us and the fire team leader, a seasoned warrior name John T. Poorman, said, “Grenade.” It went off right there amongst the four of us. We didn’t wait around, thinking it was the NVA sneaking up for an assault. We went straight up, with Poorman jabbering into the handset of our radio that we were “coming in.” We barged through the wire barrier in front of one of our machine gun bunkers.

Fortunately only one person was hit. It was Corporal Poorman, and his wound wasn’t serious.
We soon found out that one of our machine gunners, thinking the hill was about to be probed, lobbed that grenade down there. He was a “friendly.”

On a sunny morning in the fall of 1967, 2nd Platoon patrolled at the bottom of Hill 881 South when attacked by two Marine Corps Hueys. Lucky for us, a lot of big boulders were lodged in the creek we followed so we dove behind them and lay low while our lieutenant pleaded with someone out in radio frequency land to get those choppers to stop firing rockets and machine guns at us. They were friendly, too, and luckily, no one was hit this time.

But on 21March1968, someone did get hit, in the back, by friendly fire. Corporal Jacobs, 3rd Squad’s leader, took one in the back that destroyed his flak jacket and flayed the skin and muscles of his back. He required a lot of stitches but lived and went on to fight and earn laurels for his bravery and leadership in Vietnam. He was a hell of a Marine.

I have always marveled at the way the military, or large organizations of most kinds, like to coin a term for something that lowers war’s brutal nature to a case where the brutality appears less vicious, damaging, deadly.

Friendly fire. The word is accurate but infers incongruity, and if you are the one getting hit by friendly fire, it ain’t friendly.

People tend to blame things like friendly fire on the chaos of war and I suppose there is some truth to that, but there is also the human factor: not paying attention to what is going on and not doing your job, like passing along word about something, your own guys, your allies moving into harm’s way.

On 21Mar68 we made it back into the base and were exhilarated because, other than five Marines wounded by enemy activity and one by friendly fire, we got in the enemy’s trench, reached all our checkpoints and returned to our area without any of our own being KIA.

Blogger Kn Rodgers at Khe Sanh in 1968. Photo courtesy of Michael E. O’Hara.

At the time, I recall thinking that the enemy had finally hightailed it back into Laos or up north to their own country. But the next night, the NVA laid an artillery shelling on us like we’d only endured a few times. They pounded the hell out of Bravo Company’s lines and I spent the night with my face buried in a fighting bunker. Unbeknownst to us, not far from our lines, the NVA massed for an attack with the intent of overrunning us, killing us all, or if not all, then marching our remnants up the Ho Chi Minh Trail into years of captivity.

But that assault was shattered by our own air strikes and artillery and lucky for us, none of that supporting fire went awry to kill any of us with “friendly fire.”

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

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

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

March 14, 2018

50 Years gone—3-14-1968

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All through the 77-day Siege of Khe Sanh we learned how to live with less of everything except ammo and conflict. It was one of those exercises in finding out how little you could live with and how much you could live without.

What we had a lot of was death and fear, two things linked by chains that the mind manufactured. For some of us, even though we escaped death and maiming, we were wrecked by the accumulative effects of fear.

One of the things we didn’t get enough of was chow. Our major source of nutrition, C-rations, for me at least, were always the meal of last resort. If I could get A-rations (hot chow in the mess hall) or B-rations (hot chow delivered out into the field)), I’d take them over C-rations anytime (we received neither A or B-rations during the Siege.) But even our C-ration allotments were cut down from three meals to two per day, and sometimes even less, to one-and-one-half, or even one.

What was left of the post office at Khe Sanh where our packages from home might show up some time.

A lot of us got care packages from home loaded with things we loved to eat . . . chocolate chip cookies and carrot cake and other stuff, jerky, salami . . . but the perilous nature of flights into Khe Sanh made delivery an iffy deal and when packages came, they had often been in storage so long that everything would be moldy or crushed or rifled through by someone in the battalion rear at Phu Bai.

So it was of some interest to me when the platoon commander ordered me to lead a patrol, after dark, down to the battalion supply depot to procure some extra rations for all of us.

Procurement is an ancient and accepted activity in the military and is really nothing more than a form of theft, robbing from Peter to pay Paul, so to speak. The reality was, we were hungry, losing bulk, and someone out there had what we needed. Down at the supply dump it was damned important for them to hang onto whatever it was they husbanded, but our needs, in our minds, trumped their duty.

So we set out after dark. Six of us. We sneaked down the trench and out the back of our lines as the mist hung like a curtain. We crossed a flat area devoid of structures, then past a few bunkers where, if you got close, you heard men talking in low tones.

We came into the supply dump from the back, climbed under a half-assed fence and turned to on mounds of supplies that were covered with big tarps. We found a lot of stuff we weren’t looking for, but eventually we found cases of #10 cans of sliced pears and sliced peaches and grapefruit juice.

A couple of the men picked up as many cases as they could carry while still keeping ahold of their M-16s. We discovered stacks of C-ration cases and loaded up with those, too.

We struggled with our burdens as we tried to sneak back out without making a lot of racket.

At the fence we were challenged by a guard, “Halt, who goes there?”

I whispered something like, “Ignore him and get out.”

But he wasn’t having any of that. “Halt or I’ll shoot.”

I wasn’t sure if he’d shoot or not. I said something like, “Okay.”

We dropped our loads and for what seemed like an eternity we stood there, him pointing his rifle at us, us pointing our weapons—our M-16s and M1911A .45 caliber pistols—back.

I said something like, “Let us go. We’re starving to death down there in the trenches.”

He said, “Maybe so, but it’s my job to keep this stuff secure,” and he nodded at the piles of gear in the supply dump. “So,” and here he waved the business end of his M-16 at us, “I’ve got to turn your dumb asses in.”

Blogger Ken Rodgers at Khe Sanh, 1968. Photo courtesy of Michael E O’Hara.

It’s funny how you can panic at the littlest stuff. I thought, for a moment, about dropping my loot and threatening to light him up. Then I thought better of it, and then I didn’t know what to do.

Someone from my side took over, started rapping about Ohio—because he’d recognized the accent of the guard’s speech—and how they were both home boys, what my man missed about the Midwest: young women, summer nights, high school football.

The guard said, “Yeah, man, and I’m rotating out of here in three days.”

Somehow, my Marine talked him into letting us go with the loot. An exchange of Military Payment Certificates greased the squeaky wheel and we sneaked back to our platoon command post where the lieutenant took all of the #10 cans of fruit, all the grapefruit juice, and most of the C-rations.

When we got back to our squad area and opened the C-ration cases, we discovered those particular meals were manufactured during the Korean War. They were old and tasted like it.

We never saw any of the fruit or fruit juice.

***

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

March 6, 2018

March 6—50 Years Gone

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In late February and on the 1st Day of March, 1968, the NVA massed at least a regiment out to our front with the intention of overrunning the Khe Sanh Combat Base.

Deep down in our guts, where the kind of knowledge resides that keeps you alive—not the information we learn later in life, but the intuitive stuff that dwells in our guts from our early ages—we knew they were out there and that they meant to kill or imprison us all. Knowing that turned us into salty, irreverent and determined men. We cleaned and loaded our M16s, our M60s, our M79s and waited for death to show his face.

Lucky for us, B-52 raids and heavy artillery attacks on the massing enemy forces blunted the impending assault.

Ron Ryan, KIA 6March68. Photo courtesy of Michael E. O’Hara.

Even though we never had to face crack NVA sappers breaching our concertina wire barriers during the 77 day seige, the consistent pounding of the incoming rounds and the threat of more attacks wore on us like big-gritted sandpaper rasping on soft wood.

On March 6th, a C-130 with the call sign BOOKIE 762 flew to Khe Sanh from Danang with a load of Marines, Navy Corpsmen and the freelance photographer Robert Ellison whose photos of the Siege of Khe Sanh became famous and who we’ve written about before in this blog series.

A near mishap with another aircraft forced BOOKIE 762 to abort its landing. The C-130 flew away from the combat base and crashed into a fog-enshrouded mountain, killing all aboard.

Stretchers at Khe Sanh. Photo by Dave Powell.

There were at least five Marines from Bravo, 1/26 on that flight, most returning from R & R. There were also a number of PFCs listed as being with H & S Company, 1/26, some of whom I am sure were new guys bound for Bravo Company as replacements for the casualties of the Ghost Patrol.

There were two men on that flight that I knew or knew of: the photographer, Ellison, and Corporal Ron Ryan, a machine gun team leader who had been with Bravo since the fall of ’67.

When people you know, and people you are related to by virtue of being in the same company, die, the realization that they will not be coming back gets up on your shoulders and weighs you down, and when the deaths accumulate, the accumulated burden debilitates more and more and more.

When I think of those deaths now, fifty years later, the thoughts still dredge up images of those Khe Sanh days, reminding me of the stacks of stretchers we would see outside the battalion aid station or Charlie Med.

The American poet, Dorianne Laux has written, “No matter what the grief, its weight,/we are obliged to carry it.”*

And with the added burden of the deaths of the men on BOOKIE 762, our grief, its weight, drove us down down down further into the depths of despair. And as the verse says, we were definitely bound to bear the weight. Which we did. Which we do.

When the word came down of the wreck of that plane, a bunch of us were standing in the trench jiving around, and “shooting the moose,” as I recall it. And then we were informed of the deaths—more deaths—and it was like there was no end to death and there would be no end and we were there to receive it and see it and deal with it.

We choked on the words stuffed down our throats, wanting to let them out. But they were trapped inside. All of us sucked long, hard drags on a Lucky, a Winston or a Salem and stared at the red mud deck, the chiseled red walls of the trench. Our thoughts about those men, Ryan, and the others, shrouded us, left us wondering if we would be next. Would it be us?

Lance Corporal R, a former mortician’s assistant from Albany, Georgia, with whom I had served in Bravo Company for almost a year, looked at me and shook his head.

A genuine wit and one of the great homespun philosophers with whom I have ever come in contact, he shook his head again and whispered to me, “Lord, don’t you know it’s a terrible thing.”

He paused, and from experience I knew he had more to say on the subject. He looked me dead in the eye for what seemed like a long time—his eyes seemed bigger than normal, their whites like lighted flares in the night—and then he said, “Better them than me.”

Blogger Ken Rodgers at Khe Sanh prior to the beginning of the siege. Photo courtesy of Michael E. O’Hara.

The brutal honesty of that saying, that moment, bored right down inside my guts and made me stop and ask myself what the hell I thought I was doing in Khe Sanh, the Marine Corps. Was a world so brutal as what we found at Khe Sanh something I wanted to be part of?

And even though I realized I agreed with him, and secretly reveled in my survival, I still felt some kind of guilt, some kind of loss, because those men would not be coming back to us—their family in Vietnam—nor would they go back to hug their mothers and their sisters, their wives and girlfriends.

And there was a passel of grief tied up in the notions that bombarded me as I kept thinking of those men, thinking of Lance Corporal R’s words, feeling guilty because I was alive.

And the grief weighed down and I am obliged to carry it—even now.

*Dorianne Laux, “For the Sake of Strangers,” from her book of poems, WHAT WE CARRY.

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

February 14, 2018

14 February–Fifty Years Gone

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The big, new guy first showed up at Khe Sanh jammed, along with a lot of other Marines, into a C-130 that took incoming upon approaching the combat base. Lots of Jarheads sat on the deck and men on either side of the big, new guy got hit when NVA anti-aircraft fire perforated the skin of the plane. The flight returned to Danang, but he boarded another C-130 the next morning and returned to the combat base where they kicked the big, new guy off the plane before departure.

Corporal J put him in my fire team and there he stood, telling me about the blood and the flecks of flesh on that first flight as his head shook up and down like someone with palsy.

Khe Sanh Combat Base. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Jittery, he reminded me of quail, just before you bust them with a blast from your twelve-gauge. Those quail sense their impending death before they really know you are stalking them.

I put the big, new guy on first watch that night and I kept going out and to check on him.

I’d ask, “You alright?”

“Yeah, I’m alright.”

Khe Sanh took a lot of incoming at all hours of the day and night and he was so frightened of getting killed by an enemy 152 MM round that he hit the red-mud deck face-first every time one of our F-4 Phantom fighter-bombers flew nearby. Ditto with outgoing barrages from the battery of Marine 105 MM howitzers right behind our fighting holes. Down where my own fear resides, I sensed that his fear meant trouble.

I checked on him just before hitting the rack. Ambient light gathered in the mist so I could see him. He held a fragmentation grenade in his hands.

“What’s the reason for the grenade?”

He bent his knees and hissed, “Gooks!”

I ducked, too and slammed up against the wall of the trench. I peered over the lip but didn’t see anything but the usual; concertina wire and the dark night sky and a wooden shed that I think the Airedales used to help guide airplanes in for a landing.

“Where?”

He whispered, “Right out there.” He used his head to motion towards the concertina barrier.

All I could see out there that might look like a man was that wooden shed.

I talked fast and hard. “There’s nothing out there.”

He spit, “Bullshit, I can see them.”

I said, “Don’t stare at stuff out there, makes you think it’s moving. Let your gaze rove.”

I heard it before I saw it. He’d pulled the pin on that grenade.

I cajoled, I ordered, I almost begged him to put the pin back in the grenade. Then I grabbed his hands and we got into a push and shove. Like I said, he was big and like most Marines who’d been in the bush for almost twelve months, I wasn’t much thicker than a cigarette.

While all of this transpired, I imagined the grenade going off and what it would do to our arms and stomachs and chests and hearts, our faces.

He finally gave up the grenade and the pin and I got the damned thing squared away and stashed in the fighting hole before I began to slap him and punch him and kick him and talk nasty about his mamma.

He wrapped his arms around me and slammed me to the ground and asked me politely to quit hitting him.

Later that night, I told Corporal J to get him out of my fire team. J told me to settle down, but I wasn’t settling down. A man as frightened as that big, new guy would cost us lives. So away he went, to Weapons Platoon to be an ammo-humper for a machine gun team.

Over a month later, we assaulted a ridge southeast of the Gray Sector at Khe Sanh. By that time, I’d moved on from a fire team leader in a rifle squad to become a radio operator in the platoon command post.

Blogger Ken Rodgers at Khe Sanh just prior to the Siege. Photo courtesy of Michael E. O’Hara

Staff Sergeant A and I moved down a trench as the war hammered around us. Sallow-faced dead people littered the field. Explosions rocked the ground, throwing red dirt into the air. Everywhere you advanced, bullets snapped, guns roared, men yelled and men screamed.

Trying to stay focused on radio communications, I looked off to my right—to this day, the memory is one of my strongest—and I saw a machine gunner thumping a Marine’s head with the butt end of his M-60.

It stopped me cold in my tracks. In my mind, the Marine getting pummeled has always been that man with whom I’d wrestled over that grenade. As sure as those quail I wrote about earlier know you’re going to bust them with your shot, I knew—I know it now—it was the big, new guy getting his head bashed in.

I think all combat vets intuit this but don’t really want to talk about it, how fear can crush your throat and grab your gonads and twist you into someone you never imagined you’d become.

***

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

January 29, 2018

January 29–50 Years Gone

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Fifty Years Ago—29 January 1968

Right before the siege began, a bunch of new Marines arrived to beef up Bravo Company to nearly its full complement of warriors. One of those Marines was a staff sergeant whose real name I never knew. Upon his arrival, he spent a large portion of his supervisory time hard-assing all of us who had been with the company a while.

What rankled a lot was the fact that most of his Marine Corps service was as a reservist, so when he came down the trench line kvetching at us for not filling sandbags fast enough or for too much jiving around, we waited until he moved on before muttering about “Mr. Macho Gung-ho Green Machine Maggot,” or badmouthing him for being a “weekend warrior.”

The man talked trash and bragged that he could kick our asses and do serious damage to the NVA, too.

But it wasn’t long after January 21, eight days or so, when one of my buddies, Corporal A, came marching down the trench with news of Mr. Macho Gung-ho Green Machine Maggot. Corporal A had arrived at Bravo Company three or four days before me and we’d palled around some even though he was in Weapons Platoon (his killing specialty was rockets).

A stark image of the damage war can do. Photo courtesy of Mac McNeely.

Corporal A was a pretty quiet guy who wasn’t given to overemphasis, so it was a great surprise when he came dancing down the line, a big smile on his face.

He yelled at me, “Rodgers, he’s gone.”

“Who’s gone?”

“Staff Sergeant Macho Gung-ho.”

I said, “Already? Did he get hit?”

“Naw, man, he lost it.”

“Lost it?” Right then I felt a little surge rocket up through my legs.

“Yeah. He went total dinky-dow.”

Right then, a notion leapt into my mind that here we were, the men of Bravo, privates and privates first class, lance corporals and corporals—what we often called the “Snuffy Smiths” of the Corps—and none of us had gone total dinky-dow. (Dinky-dow is the American bastardization of the Vietnamese dien cai dao which roughly translates as “crazy.”)

In my mind, I could see Staff Sergeant Macho Gung-ho Green Machine, his face the color of blood as he hard-assed us for some stupid stateside Jarhead idea that he thought accounted for something in the trenches, and how we’d bitten our bottom lips so as not to tell him exactly what we thought.

I mused out loud, “Dinky-dow, hunh?”

Corporal A surprised me when he jumped up and down and yelled, “Hell, yeah, just like this,” before dropping down on his hands and knees, digging in the bottom of the trench like a dog attacking a gopher hole, then howling and barking like said canine.

“Aw, hell, I don’t believe that,” I scoffed.

He jumped up and said, “No, Rodgers, I saw it, after that last little barrage of 122-millimeter rockets came in and hit behind the open space up by 2nd Platoon’s command post. He was ordering me and the rest of my rocket team to make sure our gear was squared away when those rounds came in and scared the hell out of all of us. Then he started running back and forth in the trench with a face that looked like it had been stretched in seven different directions. Then he dropped down and started digging like a dog and barking.”

At the time, I didn’t feel sorry for Staff Sergeant Macho Gung-ho Green Machine. I felt . . . I felt vindicated, proud. I might have stuck my chest out. We didn’t like that Marine and he hadn’t been too smart about how he treated all us old salts, so his breakdown made me proud. I think it made Corporal A and the men in my fireteam and any other “Snuffy” who had experienced the distinct displeasure of one of his butt-chewings proud. We held up. We could stand up to the fury. We were the real Mr. Macho Gung-ho Marines.

I don’t know what happened to Staff Sergeant Gung-ho Green Machine, but I do know I never saw him again.

Of course, later, as the Siege drug on, I had my moments where I came close to losing it, although I never lost it as bad as that staff sergeant.

That Marine didn’t last long before the mental aspects of incoming got to him. Over the succeeding years, many of the rest of us ended up exhibiting our own symptoms of what has been called over the decades, “Soldier’s Heart, Shell Shock, Battle Fatigue and PTSD” as the effects of warfare picked and whittled at our attempts to be the young men we had been before it all began.

Blogger Ken Rodgers at Khe Sanh, 1968. Photo courtesy of Michael E O’Hara.

At Khe Sanh We were macho and we were tough. Emotionally fragile yet for the most part also supple, we survived the direct onslaught of mental effects that combat bestows upon those who survive. Yet the siege made us brittle, too, and deep down some of us shattered, went “Dinky-dow” on some level. Some of us sooner than later. And like Staff Sergeant Macho Gung-ho, some not just on the inside where most of us stuff our feelings about the war, but on the outside: prison, jail, alcoholism, suicide, insanity.

One of the things I pride myself most on in surviving the Siege of Khe Sanh is how I, for the most part, held myself together in the face of maiming, death and the constant pressure of fear. But as I said, I had my moments of being “dinky dow,” too, and sometimes (for decades) I wondered if the Siege of Khe Sanh would ever let me be.

Now, fifty years later, I don’t feel compelled to judge the staff sergeant so severely. War and fear take a heavy toll on all of us, leaders and “Snuffies” alike.

***

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

January 20, 2018

50 Years Ago Today–Spooky

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January 20

On today’s date, fifty years ago and the day before the Siege of Khe Sanh erupted, I woke my fire team before first light to go on a work detail.

One of the men in my team slept hard and didn’t like to wake up. This happened a lot. I finally told him if he didn’t get out of the rack and eat some chow, I’d kick his ass.

That was a mistake. We didn’t really think much of each other. He jumped up and wrapped me in a bear hug. A strong kid from Detroit, he squeezed and made mention about my heritage and my mother. I thought he’d crush my chest.

Somehow I struggled and freed my arms and with my left hand found a metal bucket on a shelf in the bunker. Using both my hands, I clutched it and drove it down on the top of his skull.

He dropped me as blood shot into his brown hair, down the sides of his head and over his forehead into his eyebrows.

Concertina Wire. Attribution: Wikipedia

My stomach churned at the sight of all that blood and I figured there would be hell to pay. I sent him to see the corpsman while we ate chow. Word came back that he went to the battalion aid station to get his head stitched up.

We went off and built a concertina wire barrier somewhere behind the main trench lines. All day I worried about the private, his split open head and the ramifications with which I would have to deal.

While we pounded posts into the ground and strung concertina wire, a Huey flew over with a man hanging below. It looked like his hands were tied to a cable. The helicopter had no markings that would identify it as an American chopper.

We all watched as the Huey flew above a line of ragged trees that grew along the south side of the base and dragged the dangling man through the tree tops. I still imagine the sounds I imagined at the time—snapped bones, ripped flesh, the wash of guts and other organs impaled on the remains of broken branches.

For years, I didn’t remember the incident of the chopper dragging that man but I did remember splitting the private’s head open. Not until the mid 1990s did I recall the Huey and the dangling man and it wasn’t until 2010 that I was sure I’d seen what I saw. I was worried that I had taken someone else’s memory and made it mine. One of the men who we interviewed for BRAVO! asked me, while we were filming him, if I remembered seeing the Huey and the man hanging below.

Fifty years ago, when we arrived back at our fire team area the private with the busted head waited. He seemed quite pleased with a head full of stitches and that he didn’t have to help string concertina.

As I stood there peering at the top of his head, someone down the line set off a claymore mine by accident. When I looked that direction I saw Marines charging into their fighting positions and for the first time, an inkling of what was to come at the Siege of Khe Sanh snuck into my consciousness.

A time lapse of Spooky firing it’s miniguns.

Later that night, I took first watch. A heavy mist hung over the combat base. I walked up and down the trench, thinking, I suspect, about the bloody skull and the man who’d been hanging from the bottom of that Huey. I know I thought about that claymore mine and the echoes of its explosion that bounded along our lines.

I heard a soft, low moan and shivered. A waving line of red tracer fire sketched out of the sky and out to the front of our position. We called that moaning weapon, an airplane, Puff the Magic Dragon but it was more commonly known in Vietnam as Spooky.

And spooky it was as the red tracers etched a curved crimson line into the misty night and the low, sad moan of its sound followed and made me think of lamentations from spirits of the dead.

Ken Rodgers prior to the beginning of the Siege. Photo courtesy of Michael E. O’Hara.

As I got ready to go off watch, I stood at the back of my hooch and stared into the night.

It was spooky.

***

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