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

July 27, 2016

On Savagery

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“War produces many euphemisms, downplaying or giving verbal respectability to savagery and slaughter.”
― Patrick Cockburn

On a recent airplane flight that Betty and I made to screen BRAVO!, I busied myself by reading an article by George Packer in THE NEW YORKER that introduced an interesting notion about violence and warriors. The article got my attention and has me still thinking.

I interpreted that notion as follows: The world offers a variety of narratives in which one can choose to participate. Some narratives are peaceful, some career minded, some offer adventure. Sometimes the adventurous narratives proffer us the opportunity to experience our own inner savagery.

As I pondered the latter idea, I thought that it was ugly. But then I thought about it some more and decided that yes, the idea that we can take the opportunity to experience our own inner savagery is ugly, but maybe not that uncommon.

Photo of author, historian and Marine William Manchester. Photo from Veterans Today.

Photo of author, historian and Marine William Manchester. Photo from Veterans Today.

I recall reading William Manchester’s book titled GOODBYE DARKNESS about his service in the Marine Corps during World War II. What stuck with me more than any other ideas and incidents he wrote about were his comments about the battles with the Japanese. Marines quite often did not take prisoners. Neither did the Japanese. In many ways, the battles in the Pacific theater were no-quarter-given affairs. Manchester intimated that even when an enemy soldier tried to surrender, you killed him.

I know there were a lot of reasons why prisoners were not taken, but as I think about it, there is an element of savagery here that would shock the folks at home who have no knowledge of war.

Various definitions of savagery speak of barbarity and violence and brutality. And of course war is all of those things, and savagery may be necessary for the warrior when locked in battle.

I was involved in a nasty battle in Vietnam in which we assaulted a trench line held by a battalion of North Vietnamese soldiers. We got them on the run and moved through their fortifications, killing every enemy soldier we came upon.

At one point in the fight, as another Marine and I advanced through the maze of trenches, I noticed a group of Marines in a deep bomb crater nearby. Among them was what looked like a North Vietnamese soldier who must have surrendered. As I watched, in just the minute it takes for you to start to breathe, a barrage of enemy mortar rounds landed in and around the bomb crater, decimating the Marines and Navy Corpsmen inside the crater. As the smoke and dust cleared, I saw a Marine take a .45 caliber pistol and shoot that NVA prisoner in the head.

For years I doubted I had really seen this event take place. Not that I couldn’t believe it happened, but on that day, so much chaos and mayhem ruled the moment that I’ve wondered if the event was a figment of my imagination or a memory based on something someone else had told me.

Several years ago, I finally did some checking around and I am now convinced that what I saw did actually happen.

I am not saying that when the Marine popped a pistol round into the prisoner’s head that it was wrong, or right for that matter. I think each of us has to decide these things for ourselves. And I would like to throw into the thinking mix the notion that the question of whether it was right or wrong wasn’t even relevant to the moment. I don’t believe any of us were pondering the finer points of morality while this battle raged.

Would I have done the same thing? Even though I was a witness, I can’t really say since I wasn’t in that exact situation and that very particular place.

I wonder what was going through that Marine’s mind as he pulled the trigger and killed his prisoner. I know he was racked with fear—we all were—and he may have been cognizant that what happened when the barrage of mortar rounds landed was a catastrophe for everyone in the bomb crater and that the NVA prisoner looking at him was an enemy combatant who, if given the opportunity, would most likely do anything he could to help kill Marines.

Houses burned by American soldiers during the My Lai massacre on March 16, 1968 in My Lai, South Vietnam.  (Photo by Ronald S. Haeberle)

Houses burned by American soldiers during the My Lai massacre on March 16, 1968 in My Lai, South Vietnam. (Photo by Ronald S. Haeberle)

What I witnessed at that moment was a lot of things, including savagery.

Earlier in my tour of duty, some Marines arrived in Bravo Company from another regiment. They had been in-country for a while and were seasoned warriors. I got to know a few of them and more than once I asked how and why they ended up getting transferred to Bravo Company.

The Marines would blow me off or they’d look at each other and shrug, but finally, two of them told me they’d been involved in an operation in the mountains south of Khe Sanh. The operation, among other things, involved sweeping through a lot of rough country and a few of the local villes.

According to what these Marines told me, every time they went through one of the villes on search and destroy missions, one or more Marines would get shot, always after the Marines had left the ville. Evidently it happened so many times that one day, after several Marines were shot and killed after the company left a particular ville, the company got on line and swept back through the ville and killed everything: men, women, children, dogs, pigs.

I served with these men, some of them for quite a long time, and they were good men, so it makes me wonder if captured in a particular time and place, most of us aren’t susceptible to such momentary fits of aggression, rage or savagery.

As I compose this, I think of the incident at My Lai in 1968 where American troops slaughtered hundreds of Vietnamese people in a horror where savagery evidently got the best of a good number of the United States Army participants. I can’t imagine that all those men who were involved in that massacre are monsters now if they are still alive. They may have been monsters in that short time but then came home to not be like that at all, and when I think that, I wonder if most of us don’t have that person living inside us, that monster.

Is this kind of savagery a result of fear or is it a result of what we become in order to survive when faced with the possibility of imminent death; or is it that there is some kind of communal blood lust that happens in combat; or is it even more complicated than that? Is revenge considered savagery? A lot of questions, I think, and not a lot of answers.

Another photo of the action at My Lai on March 16, 1968. (Photo by Ronald Haeberle)

Another photo of the action at My Lai on March 16, 1968. (Photo by Ronald Haeberle)

Many people who read this will, without a moment’s hesitation, say, “No, people who act this way are monsters without exception.” But some of us who have been in combat won’t be so sure. We’ll think about what we saw and what it felt like to be confronted by another human intent on killing you and the person next to you, and who has the means to do so.

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

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

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

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

February 17, 2016

In Search of My Father (Part 2)

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Guest blogger Ron Reyes’ continuing story of his search to discover more about his father who was killed in action at Khe Sanh on March 30, 1968.

“We weren’t in Khe Sanh.” I am wondering what he is talking about. “We were overlooking it on a hill. Well, Ron, it was a bad day; there were a lot of bad days. We were sharing the first beer we had had in a month. The beer was warm, but it might as well have been the finest wine. Tommy had just gotten up out of the trench to grab an ammo box when BAM, incoming. Tommy goes down and it is not good.”

Pete skips through the next sequence of events. I find out later that Pete jumped out of the trench to grab Tommy as mortar rounds were splashing all over the place. He carries Tommy and BOOM gets knocked down, picks up Tommy and, BAM, down again. One more time, and WHAM. This time he makes it to the trench. Those few yards must have seemed like a football field. Pete gets to the edge and my dad is the first one there to help out. They grab a stretcher, put Tommy in it, and away they go. The group gets moving, BOOM, they drop Tommy. This is not Tommy’s day. Get going again, and BLAM. Silence, or so it seemed. Everyone was hit. My dad was killed and Pete was hit badly. I talked to Pete for about an hour. “He was a good Marine,” he said. Wow, this has really come together. Pete gave me a phone number for a Bill Cassell and told me to call. I called as soon as I hung up.

The answering machine picks up. I figure I had better leave a message. “Hi, this is Ron Reyes. I am Ronnie Reyes’ son. Pete gave me your number.” The phone picks up, “Hello,” silence, Bill was trying to get over the shock. He didn’t go to the reunion and hadn’t talked to Eddie or Pete. He said he was staring at the answering machine while his wife was telling him to pick up the phone. Bill watched everything happen that day. He knew my dad was killed. He knew my dad was going to have a child. He knew he was from La Puente, California. For the next 30 years Bill would wonder what happened to me. Was I a boy or a girl? He would drive to La Puente a couple of times and try to find our family, but no luck, and now here I am on the phone. We talked for about an hour. “Your dad was a good Marine.”

Ron "Baby Sanh" Reyes posing in a mortar pit with a  60 mm mortar. Photo courtesy of Ron Reyes.

Ron “Baby Sanh” Reyes posing in a mortar emplacement with a 60 mm mortar tube. Photo courtesy of Ron Reyes.

At this point, I am still not sure what to tell my grandparents. I talk to my mother after each phone call. She is happy, sad, excited, and scared, not really sure what to do, except let me figure it out. I should explain a little about my mom. She raised me on her own, made sure I had everything I needed and just about everything I wanted. My mother made sure that I never lost contact with my grandparents and that I spent a lot of time with them.

Thursday night the phone rings.

This time I answer the phone. “Hello, I’m looking for Ronnie Reyes.” “This is Ron.” Silence. I am getting used to this now. “My name is Tommy, and I knew your Dad.” I can’t wait for the rest of the story, and then I get thrown for a loop. “It was a bad day, and I don’t remember much of it. I was hit and your dad was one of the guys who helped me.” I had just assumed that Tommy “T” Wallis had been killed. This was great news. It was in this moment that I realized that my father didn’t die in vain, but for a fellow Marine, a 1/9er, and a brother. We spoke for about an hour.

Now I have to tell my grandparents. I make the call. I start talking really fast. My grandparents aren’t sure what I am trying to say. I finally stop and say, “I just talked to some men who were with my father in Vietnam.” I can tell they don’t know what to do. “Grandma, would you like to talk to them?” She doesn’t hesitate and says, “Yes.” I think I gave her Pete’s number. They spoke to a couple of 1/9ers over the next few days. They were happy I made contact.

Ron "Baby Sanh" Reyes holding a M1911A1 .45 caliber pistol while relaxing in a bunker. Photo courtesy of Ron Reyes.

Ron “Baby Sanh” Reyes holding a M1911A1 .45 caliber pistol while relaxing in a bunker. Photo courtesy of Ron Reyes.

On October 25th, 1998, my own son Ronnie was born. It is fun listening to my mom say, “Aye, Ronnie, you’re just like your dad.”

January of 2000, Tommy calls and wants to know if I would like to get together with him and Pete and go fishing some time later in the year. I have to go. This is the moment I have been waiting for. “One last thing, don’t tell Pete.” What? “It is a surprise. I’m going to tell Pete we are going to drive out to California after the fishing trip and meet you for a day.” I talk with Pete on and off and arrange a date and time to meet him. I fly to Tommy’s hometown to meet Tommy at the airport. We stop in the bar to break the ice and have a beer. Ok, maybe a couple. We pick Pete up and I introduce myself as Eddie Martinez.

Tommy explains how he is going to drop me off on the way to their fishing trip. We drive for about an hour and a half and stop at a gas station. I have been having a conversation with Pete about how he is going to meet his friend’s son, Ron. He tells me he is about my age. We stop at a gas station to take a break, and Tommy says he wants to take a picture. “Hey, Eddie, hand him your card.” Ok, I hand Pete my business card, he looks at it and smiles, and turns back to the camera. “Read it, Pete.” Ok, Citibank. He turns back to the camera. “Read the whole thing!” Why is it such a big deal? He reads it out loud, “Ron Reyes,” turns back to the camera, pauses, then he turns back to me. “I am Ronnie Reyes’ son.” After we have a moment, we are on our way. We proceed to badger and laugh at Pete for a while.

We spent a few days in Mexico. Then we drove to MCRD San Diego for graduation. We saw the last of the Quonset huts. Then we drove up towards LA. We stopped by the cemetery where my father is buried. Then we met with my Mom and had dinner. The next day my grandparents and my aunt arrived, and we spent all day together.

This is where my story ends…or so I think…

Next week, Ron continues with his story about searching for clues about who his father was and his resultant journey.

Ron Reyes lives in Moorpark, California. He has been married to his wife Lori for 23 years and is the father of 2. His son Ronnie is a junior in high school. His daughter Danielle is a junior in college and lives just 2 blocks north of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC.

Ron "Baby Sanh" Reyes on the left. Unknown on the right. Relaxing. Photo courtesy of Ron Reyes.

Ron “Baby Sanh” Reyes on the left. Unknown on the right. Relaxing. Photo courtesy of Ron Reyes.

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

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

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

Guest Blogs,Khe Sanh,Marines,Other Musings,Vietnam War

November 5, 2012

Happy Birthday

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BRAVO! Marine Michael E. O’Hara muses on tradition, the Marine Corps Birthday and one of the men of Bravo Company with whom he served.

Soon it will be 10 November, the birthday of the United States Marine Corps. Marines take this event very seriously holding “Birthday Balls” all over the world at Naval Bases, MCB’s, on board ships and our foreign embassies (provided they are there in the first place). Retired Marines hold small ceremonies as well in their local VFW halls and Marine Corps League facilities. The oldest and youngest Marines are honored and a cake cutting ceremony is usually held. If feasible the cake is cut with the traditional Mameluke Sword, which was presented to Lt. Presley O’Bannon in 1805 by Hamet Bey the rightful ruler of Tripoli when we were trying to subdue the Barbary Pirates during Thomas Jefferson’s administration. (He eventually paid the pirates ransom and sent Hamet packing. Some things never change.) Even in the Mayor’s office in Indianapolis there will be a cake cutting ceremony. Mayor Ballard is himself a retired Marine Officer.

It is a very special day for me as well. Being so close to Veterans Day, it always invokes past memories of “My Marines.” Those brave and courageous young men who I was so privileged to have known. I want to tell you all about just one. He isn’t technically a Marine. He is a USN Hospitalman, what we call “Corpsmen.” Marines revere their Navy Corpsmen. They train with Marines, they go into battle with Marines, armed only with their medical gear to treat the wounded and the dying. Many times over the history of our Corps they performed valiantly, many times giving their own lives trying to save Marines. They are a rare breed in and of themselves. I want to tell you about just one, Richard Blanchfield, USN.

I never really knew Dick. He was a new replacement for our third platoon, I believe, which had been decimated in late February. It was now March 30, 1968. We were in a pitched battle with the NVA. Many folks were getting banged up pretty bad. We were still in the advance when I came upon Doc. I found him at the bottom of a 500-lb bomb crater. He had been tending to two other Marines who were, by this time, deceased. He had taken a near direct hit from an 82mm Chi-Com mortar. When I got down to him his arm was nearly torn from his torso. He had already stuck two morphine needles into his leg and didn’t know or care about much. All I could do was tie two battle dressings together and compress his arm against his torso and try desperately to stop his bleeding.

But we were still in the advance stages and it was time to move on. Others would have to tend to him later, although I thought sure he would not survive his wounds. But he did. We made contact via the telephone in 1993 and that has been the only contact I have had with him since. Except. Every year since 1993 I have received a birthday card from Dick celebrating the birth of the Corps. He is as proud of being called a Marine as I am of being called his friend. These are the bonds that tie men together on the fields of war. They can never be broken, not even by death itself.

Semper Fidelis, Dick Blanchfield, and a Happy Birthday to you as well.

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

March 1, 2012

Meet the Men of Bravo!–Ken Korkow

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In today’s post, we introduce former Marine, Ken Korkow.

Ken Korkow, United States Marine

I was 20 when I arrived at Khe Sanh and 120 when I left – but had not celebrated another ‘birthday’ while in country.

I enlisted from Blunt, South Dakota – where I was in the top 10 of my high school class (because there were only 8 in my class).

At Khe Sanh, I volunteered for nighttime ambush duty, was temporarily in charge of the Bravo 1/26 3.5 rocket section, was 60 Mortar Section Leader (my MOS), was designated as ‘protestant lay leader’ by Ben Long, stole firearms and ammo from Graves & Registration, stole socks and food from the supply tent. I killed, hated, cried – until I vowed to never have friends or feelings again.

Now – I understand God doesn’t waste pain – and my wife and I share the life-changing message of new life in Jesus Christ with business and military men and women. What we have learned gives us insight into some of what others have experienced – plus gives us the credibility to have some degree of access into their private lives. To accomplish this – I personally must stay very close to my Lord – otherwise I can easily revert to my old ways.

Ken Korkow

Ken Korkow was wounded in combat at Khe Sanh and received the Navy Cross, the nation’s second highest award for combat valor. The Governor of South Dakota named a special day in his honor – as South Dakota’s most highly decorated Viet Nam veteran.

With degrees in Agri-Economics and Business Administration, Ken’s career path led him to where he is today, the Regional Director of Christian Business Men’s Committee USA Heartland, serving Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota.

He is a former member of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association; former president, Central South Dakota Board of Realtors; and former president, North and South Dakota Farm and Land Institute.

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

February 9, 2012

Meet the Men of Bravo–Ron Rees

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In this blog post, we introduce the first of the fourteen former Marines and Navy Corpsmen who were interviewed in the making of Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor.

Meet the Men–Ron Rees

 

Ron Rees as a young Marine

I enlisted in the Marine Corps August, 1967 in Des Moines, Iowa where I had attended Des Moines North High School.  I enlisted under the “Buddy Program” with my friend, Ed Olivetta, and entered the Marine Corps the day after my 20th birthday in September, 1967 and began my training.

I landed in Viet Nam around Feb 27th, 1968 at Da Nang Airport with my 0311 MOS  designation as a rifleman. Shortly after exiting the Continental Airlines plane and passing the long line of Marines who resembled zombies more than the soldiers we were used to seeing, I was about to find out why they appeared that way.

You cannot be trained—and I am not sure how one could ever be prepared—for the actual horrors of war. I was handed a set of orders and told that I would be going to Khe Sanh and assigned to Bravo Company as a “replacement” for one of the many Marines who had  been recently killed in an ambush just outside of their lines.

Upon arrival, I was assigned to Bravo Company’s 3rd Platoon. My assignment was a Claymore Mine bunker in the Grey Sector.  I had a new Marine in this bunker with me the night of March 22nd when all hell RAINED SHRAPNEL down on Khe Sanh yet again. We were on “Red Alert 100%” due to reports of an all-ground assault on the base that night.

At some point it all became a blur to me, and still is even now. I know that something very significant happened to our Claymore bunker.  The new Marine and I ran into the bunker where our squad leader was. We were told to go to another bunker in the trench where we could go off 100% duty and get some rest.

Next thing I knew I was above ground. EVERYTHING was in slow motion…smoke, shrapnel, I could see it all. And very clearly, people were yelling for CORPSMAN, CORPSMAN, CORPSMAN.  Then someone asked me if I needed a corpsman. I said No! Then a Marine came up to me and in an instant, reading his eyes and at the same time wiping the sweat from my face, I realized what was obvious to him:  It was blood, not sweat that covered my face.  My utilities were gone from the knee down and blood was shooting out of a wound in my knee. I have been told by my friend who went to Khe Sanh with me (Ron Semon) that I was blown over 30 feet back of the trench line from the inside of a bunker. I still cannot imagine!  How do you survive that?

I was taken to Charlie Med. I wish I knew by who, but I will never know that. I would love to thank those brave Marines who took me there during the HAIL OF INCOMING that was literally non-stop all that night. Years later I did meet Dr. Feldman, who helped repair my wounds, at my first Khe Sanh Veterans reunion in San Diego, where I was also reunited with our company commander, Ken Pipes, whom I have never forgotten.

Ron Rees

I have been in the trucking industry most of my adult life, and have been a coach for the past 8 years. For the past 6 years I have coached girls’ basketball, and for 4+ years coached middle school 8-man football. This past year I was invited to assist with our high school’s varsity football team.  I am blessed to have been very successful with all my teams.

I look at the flag at the start of every game, and along with everyone else take pride in all that she represents. But I ALWAYS look at her and thank first ALL THOSE MARINES WHO SERVED WITH BRAVO COMPANY AT KHE SANH AND THOSE WHO ULTIMATELY “GAVE THEIR ALL,” for it was because of them and all those other servicemen/women who made the ultimate sacrifice in combat that made it possible for our fine youth of today to have the opportunity, among other things, to participate in sports as so many of those MARINE HEROS did before joining the Marine Corps.

YES! I thank them every time, to give or to show them the respect they so rightfully deserve.  I know how precious life really is, and just how important these last years of true innocence really are (middle school through High school).

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!

Guest Blogs

March 27, 2011

Ammo Dump

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Today we learn reminiscences from former Bravo Company machine gunner Frank McCauley about an ammo dump explosion that occurred late in the siege, long after the notorious blow up of January 21, 1968.

Residing in Khe Sanh was a very sobering and challenging place to hang your helmet. It was the only place and time in my life where there was no distinct color contrast. It was a colorless world, but for the red clay and dust that attached itself to everything and anything; you could not clear the red hue that was ever-present in the air. The lack of color was actually noticeable; very strange, not unlike, I’m sure, being on a lifeless planet. I think that contributed to the eerie feeling of being in Khe Sanh.

The one thing you feared and expected to happen was a large, overpowering assault on our base. We were so far out in no- mans territory that help would have never arrived in time; we were outnumbered 7 to 1. I believe everyone felt vulnerable, isolated, and very much aware that the worst could happen at any moment. Yes, the tour bus had pulled out and you were left behind; so much for seeing the world. Not a very warm and fuzzy place to call home; it was not of this earth. Quiet moments were just pauses in the endless barrage of incoming rockets, artillery, and mortar rounds, and then of course, our artillery responding back. It would have been a nightmare, but you found yourself accepting all that insanity, because the alternative was death. Everything fell into a routine and no one expected anything less.

But then there was this one morning, like no other morning. I’m not sure of the date; sometime in April, 1968, I think, because shortly thereafter, we pulled out of Khe Sanh for good. I woke to an unbearable silence that made me feel very much afraid, abandoned, and alone. It was a very peculiar, uncomfortable and frightening way to wake. I rolled over on my side and stared towards the opening of my small sandbag quarters waiting to hear or see something that would reassure me that I was not alone. My senses strained to pick up any kind of sound that would put me at ease, allow me some relief. It was the worst form of silence. My first thoughts were that we had been overrun during the night and I, for whatever reason, had not awakened during the battle. I assumed I was the last survivor; why else would there be such a deafening silence? Obviously, the enemy had overlooked me, in my dark little hole.

I truly felt vulnerable, the only weapon I had was the M-60 machinegun that I hoped was still sitting in its place across from my quarters: in the bunker on the opposite side of the trench. What a bizarre feeling to slowly exit my hole-in-the wall bunker and find fellow Marines frantically scurrying around acting as if we were actually under attack. Yet, there was no sound, not even from their movements and haste. Finally someone stopped, grabbed me and said, “We all thought you were dead; no one had seen you all night during the attack.” Huh? What attack? I mean, yes my head felt stuffy, the sounds weren’t reaching me with any clarity or volume, it was much like you would experience if you were submerged under water. I was still baffled by what the guy had said. Why did they feel I must have been dead?

I asked him what had happened during the night and he said in amazement, and with some doubt as to my question, that an incoming rocket round had made a direct hit on our base’s ammo dump, and that during the entire night, massive explosions went off from the immense amount of artillery rounds—mortars, grenades, claymores, bars of C-4, all the ordinance used by every weapon on our base—and then, along with all that, the 55-gallon drums of fuel were sent skyrocketing up into the air like fireworks. It had been a very long, loud, and horrifying night for the Marines standing watch at their designated positions waiting for the inevitable ground assault on our base. It will never be clearly understood as to why the enemy didn’t launch that attack. More than likely, it was just a lucky hit and they weren’t prepared to follow through.

I was a bit confused; if all this had truly happened, then there was no way I would have slept through all that chaos, because my position was approximately 250 feet from the outer edges of the ammo dump. So being a bit curious and with some doubt, I pivoted and looked to my right down the trench line to where the ammo dump should have been, only to see the smoldering, rolled dirt edges of an enormous crater just 25 to 30 feet from my position. The trench ended there and the crater’s edges moved out from beyond our trenches towards our outer barbed wire perimeter fence. It all looked too surreal, this monstrous, smoldering crater within spitting distance of my machinegun bunker and residence. All the other outposts along the trench going towards the ammo dump and beyond were erased and were now just part of this amazing crater. This is why they believed me to be dead; it was assumed I had gone down to visit with one of the other posts during my watch and became just another casualty from that evening.

It was then that it became a little clearer to me. I had not slept through this event, but had been knocked unconscious from the initial blast. Bummer; that would have been a night to remember. Ah, but there would be so many more nightmarish events to occupy your mind. In one’s tour of Viet Nam, there were so many times when you barely skirted death, that you accepted the inevitable, and just hoped to go quickly. Not exactly normal thoughts of an 18-year-old fresh out of high school, but the truth just the same.

Frank McCauley was born on December 22, 1948, in Boston, Massachusetts. He was raised in San Diego, California, for most of his life. Later in life, he spent many years moving around the country: Texas, California again, Arkansas, and now back to Kerrville, Texas, where he has built his final resting place. Frank has been married to his wife, Linda, for 27 years. They have three very good sons, with two grandchildren from each of their marriages.

Guest Blogs

March 21, 2011

GHOSTIES/21Mar68

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Forty-three years ago today, Second Platoon, Bravo Company, First Battalion, Twenty-Sixth Marine Regiment went outside the wire at Khe Sanh. Michael E. O’Hara muses on his memories of that day.

“Flanders”, a novel by Patricia Anthony, is set in France in WWI. It tells of a Texas farm boy, Travis Lee Stanhope, who joined the British Army and fought there Mar/Dec 1916. As time passes and casualties mount, Travis Lee begins to have dreams, dreams of a beautiful garden, the sweet smell of lavender, and a girl in a calico dress who assures him she will watch over his friends, his “GHOSTIES”, buried in the glass covered graves there.

It is 21 March 1968. It has been nearly a month since Bravo lost the third platoon and has been confined to the trenches. The mud, the rats, the constant incoming artillery, sixty days without respite. Bravo just lost another five Marines on the 6th of March as we watched a C-123 get shot down, which was also carrying fifty-two other personnel. We are becoming very anxious and are about to tangle with Charlie once again.

The second platoon, Bravo, leaves the wire pre-dawn. We position ourselves in front of FOB 3 where the Army controls the wire. We sit down in an “L” formation and wait for first light. We begin to rise at about 8 a.m. and it starts immediately. Red tracers from our rear (USA) and green to our right (NVA), then the mortars and RPG’s. My squad leader, Quiles Jacobs (Jake), is right in front of me and his flak jacket explodes in my face. It causes him to stagger a bit but he does not go down. He has been hit by a .50 cal bullet (USA). To my immediate rear are Doug Furlong and Dan Horton. They go down, hit by an 82mm mortar barrage, along with others. We are getting caught in a crossfire from the USA and the NVA. Someone failed to get the word we are in front of U S Army lines. Fortunately the friendly fire is soon checked and our heavy artillery quickly silences the mortars and small arms fire coming from the enemy tree line. I find myself, literally, holding both Horton and Furlong as we apply first aid and wait for the stretcher bearers. Many years will pass before I ever hear their voices again.

Amazingly, we are ordered to continue the patrol even though nearly twenty have been wounded and I think four have been evac’d. After a while I notice much blood running over Jake’s trousers from under his jacket. When I ask if he is alright, he just tells me to take over the point so we can finish our mission and get back. When we do, they put over 120 stitches in his back without any anesthesia and he still refuses to be med-evac’d.

We have gathered much on this patrol. We found siege work trenches, way too close to our lines, meant for a jumping-off point for a full frontal assault on our positions. We were able to locate many probable mortar and machine gun positions. The enemy trenches were scattered with dead NVA and beaucoup booby traps. Little do we know it will only be nine days until we all re-visit the ambush site for our final revenge. Jake, still wearing his bandages, will lead our squad headlong into hell once again. Flamethrowers, fixed bayonets, overhead heavy artillery, close air support (I do mean close) and napalm will rule that day.

Tonight, all of Bravo will rest easy and dream of the beautiful garden, the sweet smell of lavender, and the girl in the calico dress who is watching over our “GHOSTIES” in their glass covered graves. Soon though, she will beckon thirteen more from Bravo to join her.

Present Day

Although Charlie did his best to lessen our numbers it would be a silent killer that would continue to cause casualties. Jake was the first on 19 April ’95 when the country’s eyes were on Oklahoma City. 1998, Bill Jayne and I would bury Don Quinn at Arlington. 2001 it was Doc Tom Hoody, then sometime along the way we lost Steve Foster. Many more would follow.

Dan Horton and I hooked up again in ’93 and had some really good times together. I was contacted around 2002 by Doug Furlong. He lived in Australia. I never saw him again but was able to enjoy our occasional conversation. Then in the fall of 2010 it was becoming obvious both these guys were in some serious danger. These were the two I held in my arms on 21 March 1968 and here they were both casualties again. Doug would leave for the garden on Halloween night and Danny, in all his glory, went there on 10 November, the Marine Corps birthday. I was absolutely STUNNED that it was these two who were wounded together, suffered together, and would die together some 42 years later. CANCER! All of them.

I attended Danny’s service in Detroit. He was laid out in his dress blues, rosary in his hand, and I found I just had no tears. I was so damn proud of him. He was Marine to the bone. Oorah!

God knows I miss them all so. I still set time aside each day just for “my” Marines.

As for me, I will continue to dream of the beautiful garden, and enjoy the sweet smell of lavender, as the girl in the calico dress watches over my “GHOSTIES” in their glass covered graves, until such time as she beckons me also.

Sweet dreams, Marines!

Michael E. O’Hara grew up and continues to live in Brown County in Southern Indiana.
Michael graduated in May 1966 and by April 1967 had voluntarily enlisted in the United States Marine Corps.

Michael “went for four” and served one tour overseas during the Vietnam war with the 26th Marine Regiment, 1st Battalion, Bravo Company during the “Siege ” of Khe Sanh.

Upon returning to the States Michael became a Primary Weapons Instructor for the Marine Corps 2nd Infantry Training Regiment at Camp Pendleton, Ca. Michael was Honorably Discharged on the early release program a year early.

Michael and his partner Maxine have been together 37 years having raised five children, nine grand kids and have two great grand children.

Michael is a retired custom home builder and has spent much of his life dedicated to Veterans affairs and in particular to those with whom he served. He is a life member of the Khe Sanh Veterans Organization.

Michael now spends most of his free time with two of his four smallest granddaughters flying R/C airplanes.

Guest Blogs

February 25, 2011

Not Forgotten

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February 25th is, for the men who served with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines at Khe Sanh, a day that owns a particular and personal infamy. We left a lot of good Marines on the field that day. Guest blogger Bill Jayne was in Bravo Company on February 25th, 1968. He shares some of his memories and his thoughts.

The story of 25 February is well-known. It was the day of the Ghost Patrol when Lt. Jacques’ 3rd Platoon was almost wiped out within about a thousand meters of the Khe Sanh perimeter. This is a story of the 1st Platoon, the reaction force that never reached the 3rd Platoon.

My memory says February 25, 1968 dawned relatively clear and a little cool on the Khe Sanh Plateau. I kept my too-small field jacket on. Although our hold on the area was related to the weather, it was much more important to note that two days before more than 1,300 rounds had impacted somewhere on the combat base and one of ours had died along with four others. Vinny Mottola was an 0351—rocket man—who was funny, irreverent, and always carried his own weight. He died with the crew of a 106mm recoilless rifle when something big, probably a rocket, hit them.

The next day, the 24th, Bravo Company had a few wounded from incoming but no KIA. After filling sand bags and other housekeeping chores most of the day, my fire team from the second squad of the 1st Platoon, had an LP on the night of the 24th. Out in that almost liquid darkness, when a Marine shifted his weight in our LP position, it sounded like Gen. Giap leading legions of NVA into position for a human-wave attack. When a piece of 782 gear scraped against the clay, it was the tanks that overran Lang Vei coming to gun us down. Maybe my fears were close to the truth. Military intelligence knew the NVA were digging trenches perpendicular to our lines so they could stage assault troops close to our positions.

Yet, by 0715 the next morning, we were back inside the wire. Very soon, we started hearing the noise of small arms fire out where Bravo’s 3rd Platoon was on patrol. Our squad and another from 1st Platoon saddled up and headed out the wire.

We paralleled the access road to Rte. 9, heading southeast. I thought I saw movement in a tree line ahead and told PFC Joe Battle “Get out on the right, you’re the only protection we have.” Joe immediately headed toward the brush growing alongside the road.

He was a big, lanky black Marine who said he was from Houston, Texas. Just about a week shy of his 19th birthday, he could be pretty funny. One time, Joe asked a bunch of us if we knew what “KKK” stood for. Nobody said a word until Joe, cracking up, informed us that the right answer was “Kool Kolored Kids!”

I don’t remember if Joe shot expert, but I know he was a good shot. One night in early February the fog was so bad they kept our LP outside the wire in the morning until the sun started to clear the mist. We saw a Vietnamese heading for our lines wearing nothing but a piece of parachute. “Dung lai!” we yelled, but he kept running. He was downhill and about 75 meters away but Joe stopped him with two M16 rounds that hit him in the arm.

A couple of weeks later, moving toward the sound of the fire that was consuming 3rd Platoon, Joe tripped the ambush that stopped 1st Platoon. The fire came at our squad from two sides and at very close range. Joe was down…out of sight, gone forever. Three or four of us hit the deck and returned fire. Had Joe saved our lives? I think so. What’s a “hero?” Joe did his duty and he has always been a hero in my mind.

We returned fire against the unseen enemy so close to us but it was going nowhere. We took a couple of wounded from the small arms fire and then, like the hammers of hell, mortars came down on top of us and we had to pull back.

Just a few meters behind us, the squad leader, Cpl. Don Whittaker lay dead. It looked like he’d gone down in the first burst of fire that hit us. A raw-boned, serious guy from rural Missouri, he was 19. Whittaker was fairly new to our squad. I think he was filling in for our regular squad leader. I don’t remember Whittaker well, but Mac McNeely recalls speaking to him at some length and says he considered “Whit” a friend. He had been hit several times in the chest, abdomen and trunk. There’s no doubt in my mind that he died facing the enemy trying to do his job.

A third member of the squad died that day: Hospitalman Lloyd W. Moore, the corpsman, the “doc.” He was about a month shy of his 22nd birthday. No one from Bravo Company really remembers him. He joined 1/26 (H&S Co.) on 27 January and probably spent some time at the Battalion Aid Station. I don’t know when he joined Bravo Company and 1st Platoon. How could it be that nobody remembered him? I don’t know. It seems like we had a revolving door for corpsmen around that time, but still…

He was from Wilmington, N.C., where I have made my home for the past five years and I’ve learned a lot about him. First of all, nobody called him “Lloyd.” His father was L.W. Moore, a prominent citizen of the city and when his son was killed in action at Khe Sanh, it was front page news. So, the son was known as “Whit,” short for his middle name, or even “Spider.” His sister, his cousins, his friends, other corpsmen he served with in Rota, Spain, and other stops in his service history remember him well.

He liked to hunt and fish and he graduated high school from Carolina Military Academy. Like Cpl. Don Whittaker—the other “Whit” from our squad—he was religious but a corpsman buddy said he enjoyed going on liberty, too. Another corpsman buddy said he had a presentiment of death before he shipped out to Vietnam. We didn’t know him long enough to learn any of that.

As our squad came apart, he moved around to help the wounded until he was felled by mortar shrapnel that hit him in the base of the neck. A hero? It almost seems like Navy corpsman and hero are synonymous. A posthumous Bronze Star valor award recognized his actions. I recognized him from a picture sent to me by a local veteran who had researched all those from this area who had been killed in action from WWI through Vietnam.

As I opened the digital photograph attached to an email from the researcher, I instantly recognized the dead corpsman on that little piece of earth that seemed literally “God forsaken.” I didn’t know his name (except from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and from Chaplain Stubbe’s research about Khe Sanh). I didn’t remember where he was from, or anything about him except his face and that he died doing his job.

“Lead” in my pack? The thought of that day and the almost unbelievable but irrevocable tragedy of the Ghost Patrol and our three dead from First Platoon has never been far from my consciousness in the 43 years since it happened.

Why was I spared? Why didn’t I do this? Why didn’t I do that? What would have happened if we had done this, if we hadn’t done that? Over and over.

Almost 30 years ago, I learned from reading a book that 25 February 1968 was a Sunday. Just like I didn’t know “Whit” Moore’s name or anything about him, I had no idea of the day of the week.

I was married, a father of two wonderful children, working in a very gratifying job helping fellow veterans. And, I was searching for answers, trying to learn how to make something other than crushing weight out of the lead in my pack. I was doing a lot of reading, thinking and talking about God and religion and I asked a priest if he could tell me what the readings were for that prosaically named “Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time.”

The second reading hit me like a bolt of lightening. It was St. Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 15, verses 54 through 58:

And when this which is corruptible clothes itself with incorruptibility and this which is mortal clothes itself with immortality, then the word that is written shall come about:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.
Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.

But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Therefore, my beloved brothers, be firm, steadfast, always fully devoted to the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.We knew no victory on that field in 1968. There was death, and failure, and regret, loss and pain; the story of human life on earth compacted into a diamond of humbling memory. Yet, God was there, too, and He left His message of victory and redemption to be discovered in His word and in the example of the steadfast heroes of Bravo Company.

Bill Jayne enlisted in the Marine Corps for two years in September 1966. Originally from the Hudson Valley of New York state he went to boot camp at Parris Island and joined 1/26 on Hill 55 in early 1967. He was a rifleman, 0311, but found himself in H&S Company and then Bravo Company as a clerk. An insubordinate streak landed him in 1st Platoon of Bravo Company in October 1967. Patrol, patrol, patrol; Hill 950, Hill 881S, etc. After college he ended up in Washington, DC, working for a small magazine and then a big lobbying organization involved with heavy construction. A chance phone call in 1979 led to the opportunity to serve as an early volunteer on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and then a career in the US Department of Veterans Affairs. He ran the National Cemetery Administration’s (NCA) State Cemetery Grants Program and later the Federal cemetery construction program. In his 20+ years with the NCA he had a role in the establishment of about 50 new cemeteries for veterans and their families, every one of them a “national shrine” to the memory of those who served in the military. He is now retired in Wilmington, NC.

Other Musings

December 13, 2010

Christmas Eve, 1967

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Christmas Eve day we worked our way from 881 South to 881 North. I walked point. The jagged line of damaged trees, the red scars of bomb craters, the misty remnants of December fog. The hairs on the back of my neck bristled. But Sir Charles chose not to hit us that morning, so we moved on. Our company-minus patrol like a snake along the ridges and swales, the valleys and the brief, rough canyons.
In the afternoon we worked our way back to 881 South. Map click after map click we forded swollen creeks, their flows confused and bent from B-52 attacks. The bamboo thickets like walls. The trails well worn by both Sir Charles and us.
The sun showed its eager face and we rolled up the sleeves of our jungle dungaree blouses. I drank from a wide shallow creek. Flecks of silver and gold in the round stones. The glint of sunlight in the riffs of the water flow got in my eyes and momentarily blinded me.
Fog, the dark came upon us right after we returned to C-rations and hot cocoa heated over a lump of C-4. Someone told me there was going to be a service—a Christmas service. I decided to attend. I’d been in-country ten months and had stayed far away from church services. But at that moment, loneliness for my Arizona home, my orange haired, chirpy-voiced mother, my sullen father, my sister, her kids, all jumped on my back and lashed me like penitents in an old holy movie.
So I stumbled in the foggy dark, down the trench, repeating “Merry Christmas,” to the voices I heard come out of the dense mist. Maybe I knew them, maybe I didn’t, but the hushed tone spoke to our common loneliness. Voices pregnant with reverence.
In a tent we jammed into tight seats and listened to the chaplain speak. He read verses from the Bible that I had heard in one form or another all my days of celebrating the birth of Christ, who by that time I was not sure ever existed. But I listened, and smelled the musty, moldy scent of old dungarees, unwashed bodies, stale cigarette smoke and I was comforted at least by the knowledge that these, my brothers, shared my loneliness, my longing for home, hopes for an end to monsoon rain, to blood-thirsty leeches, to slippery, sticky, red mud, to . . . dare I say it . . . war?
The chaplain served communion, but I resisted, and sat in my chair, my butt unable to get up. The notion of eating someone’s flesh, drinking their blood, if only metaphorically, seemed pagan to me . . . a close cousin to the savage that lived down inside all of us eighteen, nineteen and twenty-year-old Marines and Navy Corpsmen worshiping in that tent.
At the end of the service, the chaplain stood and his helper handed out some pieces of paper with words to a song. My damp and rumpled copy read, “The Navy Hymn.” The chaplain said, “We’ll sing the Marine Corps’ chorus here.” He held up his copy and pointed towards the bottom of the page. “And then repeat it two more times.”
As I tried to get a notion of the words, the chaplain blew on a pitch pipe and we all limped into the song.
“Eternal Father, grant we pray
To all Marines, both night and day…”
Outside in the nearby 81-millimeter mortar pit I heard someone say, “Fire Mission.”
The chaplain used his long right hand to keep time to the a capella music we tried to make.
“The courage, honor, strength and skill”
I heard feet pounding in the red mud, muffled voices from the gun pit. Sounds of metal rubbing metal, squeaks, snaps, rattles.
“Their land to serve, thy law fulfill.”
More mumbles, grunts, some words I could not cipher over the rising din of the song.
“Be thou the shield forevermore”
I heard the low guttural thunk of mortar rounds leaving the tube.
“From every peril to the Corps.”
The outgoing mortar rounds hissed as they departed our territory for some location on a nearby ridge, some nook in a draw, the header of a canyon. I heard the mortar men grumbling and a laugh or two, a cough.
We repeated the verse as the rounds repeatedly departed the perimeter. Somewhere out in the thick, dense night, I heard the crash of rounds, or thought I did.
We ended the song, “From every peril to the Corps.”
I heard a round hissing, hissing, like it was spinning, maybe wavering into the heavy sky. No light, no sun, no stars, just damp and darkness.