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

October 11, 2018

Why I Fought the War

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Recently Betty and I watched a documentary film titled FIVE CAME BACK about filmmakers who served in the American military during World War II. Those men, Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens, and William Wyler, produced some of the most iconic footage to come out of that conflict and in some cases placed themselves in great danger to get the shots to make the films.

One of the interesting aspects of discovering the military service of these men was how the films they made following their wartime feats changed and generally became more serious, thought-provoking pieces. Thinking about that, it comes to me that I also got a hell of a lot more serious about life after my service in Vietnam. My outlook became darker as I realized what we were capable of as human beings. Knowing it in the gut is different from knowing it in the brain.

As a filmmaker myself, I was also interested in why these men were compelled to go into harm’s way in order to document the events of WWII when they probably didn’t need to, and that led me to ponder why it is I went off to fight in Vietnam.

Over the years people have asked me if I “was drafted,” which I wasn’t, and I have found myself giving inconsistent answers when they subsequently ask me why I enlisted.

Blogger Ken Rodgers at Khe Sanh, 1967.

I don’t think what follows will be any great revelation about why a young man goes to war, but like others I served with and those before and after my time as a Leatherneck, I suspect I was moved by more than one reason.

Of course, unlike today, the draft was in effect when I enlisted in the Corps. I hadn’t received my draft notice but I wasn’t particularly interested in staying in college—they didn’t offer degrees in boozing and hell raising—so I expected the notice to arrive in my parents’ post office box as soon as the draft board got news that I wasn’t a serious student. So, maybe—and I want to stress the word “maybe” for all of the reasons that I lay out here—I decided to beat the draft notice and joined up.

How I joined is something of a story in itself that will remain for a later telling.

In World War I, II and Korea, members of my family served in the Army, the Navy, the Air Corps as it was known before Korea, and the Marines. I had five Marines in my family, one of whom was killed at Chosin Reservoir in Korea in 1950, and since my father, a top sergeant in the Army during World War II, regularly derogated Marines, and since he and I regularly banged heads over everything, of course I chose to be a Jarhead.

I could have joined the Army, the Air Force, the Navy, or I could have just waited for the draft notice to arrive and then maybe I could get a doctor to provide a bogus excuse so I could be 4F, or I could beat feet for Canada. But I didn’t.

I tell myself as I write this that the Marines were my choice, in part, because they had a reputation for being the best and toughest to get through. I knew folks, again my relatives and some family friends, some school teachers, who were Jarheads, and they all had things to say that made the Corps look like it was tough—really tough—and they all warned me off of the Corps, and I believe now that the notion I needed to find out if I was man enough to make it was one of the primary reasons I joined the USMC.

A notion kind of parallel to that was the idea that going into battle was a way to see if one could measure up. And even though I’d read some of the “anti-war” literature such as Eric Maria Remarque’s ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, I suspect that all those messages about the horrors of war only made the specter of charging into the jaws of danger somehow attractive.

And so I went and did my duty and survived the horrors of Khe Sanh. When I came back, I subtly tried to rub it in my old man’s face since he spent all of his war time behind a desk working for generals.

A lot of folks think that patriotism was a big motivator for me and I suspect, a lot of other young men who went and fought in Vietnam, but I’m not sure it was a conscious one if it was a reason at all.

Most of us, back then, grew up around relatives who had fought the Germans and Italians, the Japanese, the Chinese Communists and the North Koreans, so service for a lot of us was something taken for granted. And there was the notion that we all had a duty to stand up and serve our country. Is that patriotism? Maybe.

Ken Rodgers. Photo courtesy of Kevin Martini-Fuller.

I had a second cousin, whom I called Uncle Bill, who was gassed while advancing through the thick woods of the Argonne Forest in the fall of 1918. There was Uncle Frank, shot in the head while serving with Brute Krulak’s Battalion of Marine Paratroopers on the island of Choiseul in WWII. I own a frosty memory of talk about my 1st cousin Reed Plumb, killed in action at Chosin Reservoir on the first day of the breakout. I imagine him stacked like a piece of cordwood in the back of a six-by with other dead Marines, frozen solid. There was a legacy attached to my being a citizen and some of it was inscribed in the blood of my family.

And so, for that reason and all the others mentioned and probably a few I haven’t even considered, I enlisted. Like those filmmakers I talked about when I began this piece, I came back with a darker view of humanity, but I went willingly into that maw of death.

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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.

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

January 7, 2015

Author Julie Titone Muses on War and Writing

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When I drive U.S. Highway 95 through North Central Idaho, I often stop near the top of White Bird Hill. A shelter there overlooks the battlefield where Nez Perce braves tangled with the U.S. Cavalry in 1877 before taking their epic flight toward Canada.

One time, a Montana family was there beside me, surveying the high-country panorama. Two grade-school boys were debating who kicked whose butt in the historic battle. Finally the younger one turned to his mom and asked, “Did we lose?”

An older man who was with them replied. He said: “Everybody loses in war.”

Book cover for BOOCOO DINKY DOW, MY SHORT CRAZY VIETNAM WAR

Book cover for BOOCOO DINKY DOW, MY SHORT, CRAZY VIETNAM WAR

Uncle or grandpa, I don’t know. But I’d bet that man was a veteran. I heard his same weary conviction in the voice of Ken Rodgers when he told me once, “Nobody hates war more than a soldier.”

If you’re reading this, you know Ken served in Vietnam. He and his wife, Betty, created the “Bravo!” documentary about the siege of Khe Sanh, capturing the memories of Ken and the other Marines who survived those 77 hellish days. They travel widely to screen the film.

I know Ken and Betty because I’ve been on a similar journey, giving readings from the Grady Myers memoir “Boocoo Dinky Dow: My short, crazy Vietnam War.” The title comes from the way American soldiers pronounced beaucoup dien cai dau, a French-Vietnamese expression that meant very crazy. Off the wall.

I was married to Grady during the 1980s. Like Betty, I was the wife who decided those war memories should be preserved. Besides, as a journalist, I knew a good story when I saw one: A funny, artistic and nearsighted Boise teenager is transformed into Hoss, an M-60 machine gunner who nearly dies in battle.

PFC Grady Myers

PFC Grady Myers

I was the scribe for “Boocoo Dinky Dow.” Grady, a professional artist, provided illustrations. After he died in 2011, I published the book.

I found it satisfying to honor a talented man, the father of my son, by making his experiences part of the Vietnam War literature. “Boocoo Dinky Dow” is in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial archives and Texas Tech’s Vietnam Archive. It has found its way into libraries and veterans’ centers, has been discussed in book stores and living rooms. Grady’s war-related artwork is now in the permanent collection of the National Veterans Art Museum.

Publication did more than end a decades-long book project. It started a personal journey. My life is richer for the torrent of stories coming back at me in return for sharing Grady’s.

I’ve heard stories from Marines, Navy and Army vets. But also from nurses and protesters and USO performers. And COs who were conscientious objectors and COs who were commanding officers. And pilots and submariners, professors and cops. And women who waited for brothers and sons who came back unscathed, at least on the outside. I’ve talked to people forged by war and people broken by it.

Even the stories I don’t hear intrigue me. At “Boocoo Dinky Dow” readings, I’ve learned to watch for the guy at the back of the room, a guy in his 60s. He sits there, arms crossed, maybe nods a time or two. As others in the audience come up to chat, I look over their shoulders and see him head out the door. Can he not bring himself to talk about what he did in the war, having suffered what journalist David Wood calls “moral injury”?

Author Julie Titone and Vietnam Veteran Bill Crist at the National Veterans Art Museum

Author Julie Titone and Vietnam Veteran Bill Crist at the National Veterans Art Museum

Maybe he doesn’t feel worthy of recognition. Or doesn’t think he’ll get it. One combat vet told me, “I don’t want to be thanked for my service. I didn’t want to go. I was drafted.” Two sentences later, he was explaining how he worked hard not to resent Iraq and Afghanistan vets for having been welcomed home by the public.

Mixed emotions and complexity are the hallmarks of this war-story enterprise. How must it feel to have watched buddies die in a war that became a synonym for failure? Last time I Googled the words “another Vietnam,” there were 143,000 results.

I feel plenty of confusion myself. I grapple with the increasing awareness that, in addition to horror and waste, war yields friendship, pride, and the occasional vanquishment of evil. War is a stage for both despicable crimes and crystalline acts of conscience. As Grady’s memoir and the “Bravo!” documentary show, war can inspire art.

Author Julie Titone with Khe Sanh Veteran Steve Orr

Author Julie Titone with Khe Sanh Veteran Steve Orr

When Ken told me that “nobody hates war more than a soldier,” he was responding to some angst I shared with him. I was fretting about the fine line that exists between honoring warriors and promoting wars. I didn’t want to step over that line. Frankly, I’m still not sure where it is.

But Ken is right. Most combat veterans fully understand the words that Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe said in surrender. That he was tired of fighting. That he would fight no more, forever.

Julie Titone’s articles and photographs have appeared in regional, national and international publications as well as college textbooks and literary collections. She lives in Everett, WA. To learn more about the authors of “Boocoo Dinky Dow” and to order the book, visit shortcrazyvietnam.com.

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.