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Posts Tagged ‘NVA’

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.

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

April 25, 2018

April 25–50 Years Gone

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On leave at home in Arizona, waiting to head to Camp Pendleton for my next Marine Corps billet, I spent a lot of time partying and sleeping and driving around at five AM on dusty farm roads, moving at 70 MPH or faster in my parents’ brown Buick LeSabre, a chilled can of Coors on the seat between my legs.

Feeling guilty because I’d promised the men of Bravo, 1/26, special things that I would send along when I got home: brownies, cookies, a fifth of Chivas Regal. Instead of arranging to send those goodies, I got drunk and ate home-cooked chow and aimlessly drove amongst the cotton and alfalfa fields like a sheriff’s deputy speeding to a bank robbery.

Cotton crop ready for harvest near the author’s original home in Arizona

Later in the Arizona mornings, with a newspaper on the kitchen counter and a cup of Folgers steaming in my hand, I read about the war. Most of what I read concerned news about battles in places I did not know, head counts of dead people, both the enemy and our folks. I suspect I hoped for news about the men I’d served with, but 1968 was a tumultuous year for the war and a host of stories were out there; too many, I imagine.

Even though I tried, I couldn’t shove scenes of my year at war out of mind. Wrecked helicopters and busted sandbags and triple canopy jungle that hid who knew what, the tangle of vines, and the last two-and-one-half months of my tour, the thump and thunder of incoming, incoming, incoming.

All the images and sounds of war got mixed up in keg parties in the foothills north of Tucson and me in the Buick LeSabre, sitting in the drive-through lane at six in the morning at Pinal Liquors waiting for them to open, or on a date in Tempe with one of my old girl friends, me not having anything to say about anything that was familiar to her about English 101 or Sociology or what kind of swimming suits her other friends were planning to wear when they went water skiing at Saguaro Lake the next weekend.

On Easter, my mother demanded I go with her to church where she had volunteered me to deliver a speech about the war in Vietnam. I stood up in a church for the last time—unless it was for a wedding or a funeral—and tried to get the words out that might enlighten folks about what it was like to crawl through mud and slime to save your life.

Afterwards, all the ladies in the church who were friends of my mother’s cornered me with attempts to tell me how glad they were that I made it home, but to me it was like being trapped, under attack by an enemy I could not understand. I didn’t think I could somehow explain that instead of a brotherhood based on Jesus like we’d heard about that day, I survived because of a brotherhood based on the 7.62mm bullet and the bloody bayonet and the M79 grenade launcher, and that my salvation at Khe Sanh came in part from men I didn’t even know—nor probably ever would—who sortied out of Thailand and Guam with B-52s loaded with tons of bombs and by jet pilots who dropped napalm on the NVA hidden in the valleys to our front and all the supply flights that kept us knee-deep in ammo and fed with a minimum amount of chow.

So I fled church for a Camel cigarette and another sortie down to the liquor store for a six-pack of Coors and a pint of Old Crow. Ooorah! And then I drove around the streets I used to know, and thought and remembered.

When I pondered then and think now about Khe Sanh—the Americans who died in that place, and who knows how many of the enemy—I see the red dust on everything and the red mud that got on your hands and face and stuck like cement to whatever it came in contact with: M16s, entrenching tools, jungle boots. I see trenches roaring with runoff from rain, rain, incessant rain, and I see Marines standing knee-deep in the torrent as the black night surrounds them, choking down their thoughts of home. I see men crammed into bunkers sharing lies about sex and home and cars and fighting. I see grunts storming up the sides of steep hills choked with jungle grass that sliced their skin. I see bodies on the ground, their faces the yellow tint of the dead. I see myself leaning over to find out if I know who the dead might be. I see a hell of a waste of lives spent over a piece of land that, when matters settled out, wasn’t that important.

Blogger Ken Rodgers at Khe Sanh just before the siege began in January 1968. Photo courtesy of Michael E. O’Hara.

I see young men who went to war as Marines and who for the most part proved eager to quash the evil of the world. In my mind’s eye I see many of their names etched into the black stone on The Wall and who they were and what they did in Vietnam will weigh down my thoughts as long as I am able to think.

The memories of the dead—and the living—are strong.

***

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.

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,Khe Sanh,Marines,Veterans,Vietnam War

March 30, 2018

Cutting the Mustard—March 30—Fifty Years Ago

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In situations where folks failed to accomplish a goal, my father used to say, “He can’t cut the mustard,” like Mickey Mantle striking out with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth inning in game seven of the World Series. He’d say, “Couldn’t cut the mustard.” So as I write this, I wonder if one of the big reasons I joined the Marine Corps was to see if I could “cut it.”

A lot of folks join the Marines because they think it offers excitement and adventure and an opportunity to test one’s mettle. My experience at Khe Sanh tested me in ways I never imagined beforehand, and none sticks in my mind so much as March 30, 1968. Some images that come forth:

– Before dawn, the fog, the trench prior to going out the gate to attack a battalion of NVA. Not a word uttered, just Marines weighed down with grenades, M72 Light Anti-tank Weapons, magazines for M-16s, belts of machine gun ammo. Warriors leaning against the red mud trench walls smoking cigarettes, the fiery ends like beacons at the edge of the world. And then out we go.

– A mortar crashing between Staff Sergeant A and me, blowing both of us onto our butts. A chunk of shrapnel embedded in my head. In my mind, a sensation like the ripples one sees after a stone is tossed into a pool of water. A peaceful few seconds where I am not caught in a life-or-death sequence of savage events.

What Khe Sanh looked like at the end of the Siege. Photo courtesy of Mac McNeely.

– At the top of the ridge, watching First and Third Platoons in the enemy trench. The noise, the smoke, the death. Getting doctored by the Corpsman while the Gunny worries if I’m alright. His hands shaking. And that shakes me up—that old battler being frightened.

– Then into the enemy trench as Marines drop grenades and satchel charges into bunkers manned by the NVA. Our guys burning them out with flame throwers.

– The dead littering the trenches, the shattered ground around. Sallow-faced dead men, and hard to know if they are theirs or ours.

– Moving to the front of the battle, seeing a machine gunner thump an ammo humper with an M60. Me knowing that the humper didn’t cut the mustard.

– Running past the Company Command Post that’s hunkered in a bomb crater. A North Vietnamese prisoner on his knees. A barrage of enemy mortars falling into the command post. Smoke clouds and mud eruptions. As the chaos clears, most of the Marines lying on the deck, dead or wounded, and if not, standing there drenched in blood. Someone shooting the prisoner with an M1911A .45 caliber pistol. The prisoner’s head jerking as he falls on his back.

– Being out front in the blasted terrain where our advance ends, calling in an artillery barrage to protect us from their counter attack as we retire and gather our dead and wounded.

– Being sent with Lieutenant M who has lost his radio operator. He keeps jumping out of the trench as we head back to the combat base. I keep telling him to get back in the trench because he will set off booby traps. But he is a lieutenant (although a very new one) and I’m an enlisted man. The next time he jumps out of the trench, he does what I feared. He trips a booby trap. A round erupts out of the ground and strikes him. Since his back is to me I can’t see what happens but it stops him cold and I know it is a white phosphorus round of some kind because the squiggly white guts of the thing come flying at me and some of them hit me in the face. I curse him. Not once, but many times and scold him as I approach to see what kind of damage he’s encountered. When I get even with him and then in front, I see the round has smashed him in the chin and lower jaw. It’s all white smoke and stink and Willie Peter (what we call white phosphorus.) I pack his face with red mud, since Willie Peter burns on contact with oxygen. I get him to the temporary aid station at the rear of the battle field. Willie Peter, I keep thinking at the time, is poisonous. I imagine that the white phosphorus that hit my face is burning deadly holes in me, so I pack red mud on the spots. I curse the lieutenant again.

– On the way back into Khe Sanh Combat Base, the sky is yellow and filled with smoke. Explosions from our stuff, 105mm artillery and bombs dropped by our Phantoms.

Blogger Ken Rodgers at Khe Sanh. Photo courtesy of the late Dan Horton.

-Marines walking down the road and hitting the deck every time enemy rockets scream in. Hitting the deck jolts my head, my neck, my knees, jams the lip of my helmet into my upper spine.

– I spy two Marines dragging a dead body. I get close and see the back of the corpse’s flak jacket and even though the dead Marine is dragged face down in the dirt, I know it is Corporal A, who begged me the night before to take his dog tags and a letter to his parents telling them he would die on this patrol. I didn’t take the letter or his dog tags. I screamed at him, “if you feel that way, it’s what will happen.” It bothers me that he is being dragged like that, like he is something not worth picking up and carrying. But I don’t do anything about it.

Something about my failure to help him still haunts me and the shrapnel still resides in my skull.

***

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.”

****

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 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.

****
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

February 25, 2018

The Ghost Patrol—Fifty Years Gone

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3rd and 1st Platoons of Bravo Company, 1/26 walked into two ambushes that decimated 3rd Platoon and a little later, part of 1st Platoon while it moved to reinforce 3rd Platoon. The event remains one of the most horrifying of my memories of that long and terrible siege.

Prior to this date, back in 1968, Bravo Company ran patrols out on the south and east sides of Khe Sanh without much action, and it was a surprise when 3rd Platoon marched into the initial ambush that morning.

The patrol is well documented in books and films, and the action’s memories haunt the Marines and Navy Corpsmen who managed to work their way back to the combat base. For some of the men, it took hours to get back. Some don’t really recall coming back. It is a horror story. The few Marines I recall seeing and talking with that day looked at me with eyes haunted by the terrors of that fire fight.

For us, back in the base, the news about the debacle out in the field came through radio communications. If one stood radio watch, he heard the sad and frightening blow-by-blow account through the frantic calls of radio operators on site. We also got the news from the sounds of warfare out to our front.

Photo of Marines on the Ghost Patrol. Photo courtesy of Robert Ellison/Blackstar

It was misty that day, as it was on many days at Khe Sanh, but that didn’t deter the report of explosions and small arms fire that flew at us from out of the field.

We sat and waited and wondered if we would go out to relieve them. Several squads from our platoon, 2nd Platoon, mustered and saddled up and made way to the gate near the trash dump, and awaited orders to go out and help the Marines trapped in those ambushes.

Not picked to go out, I received orders to man a portion of the trench where our platoon was billeted. Instead of Marines in fighting holes all over the place, large gaps appeared between our manned positions. I recall thinking that if the NVA came at us right then and breached the concertina barrier, we were all, as the saying goes, “toast.”

That scared me. I recall Corporal A, who arrived at Bravo Company about the same time I did, being in charge of those of us manning the lines, and it was a great comfort to me when I heard the scuff of his boots in the red mud. I wasn’t alone.

Later, the Marines of 2nd Platoon who had been ordered to stand by to go out in the field began filtering back into our positions with wild tales of incoming pinning them down as they tried to move out the gate. They also cussed the higher-ups who put out the incomprehensible word that any relief for those wounded and dying Marines out there would not come to pass. Orders came down—some opinions I’ve heard and read attribute the orders to Lyndon B. Johnson, president at the time—for us to remain inside the combat base. We abandoned those men.

The stories that followed ate the inside of my guts, and that sensation remains with me today.

It took almost two months for the remains of those brave and forsaken men to be retrieved.

I recall, late on this date, fifty years ago, sitting in the trench with a Marine, Lance Corporal W, whom I knew from 3rd Platoon. A Native-American, he’d participated and lived through most of the combat action that Bravo Company had seen. He told me about what happened out there. About the death of 2nd Lieutenant Don Jacques, platoon commander of 3rd Platoon, about the ambush, and how he and others had carried the body of Lt. Jacques back. When he talked about bodies and wounds, the gunfire and death, I shivered.

Forty years later, when I first heard the fire fight of February 25th termed Ghost Patrol, I thought of cheesy movies and found the glib nature of the name offensive. But over the years, I’ve gotten used to it. I think it very appropriate, because the ghosts of those men keep appearing in my memory.

The ghosts show up in the families of the fallen, too. Last year I came in contact with a brother of one of the men who died on that patrol. He is haunted by the recollections of his brother back when they were young, and when his brother joined the Marines and went off for adventure and to do what generations of 20th Century America did: Joined up and fought. And what remains for him and for all of us, is the ghost, the ghosts.

Ken Rodgers at Khe Sanh. Photo courtesy of the late Dan Horton.

The men of the Ghost Patrol are now just names to most people but the images of them lying in bomb craters with red water in the bottom, waiting for us to save them inhabit my being.

The ghosts often show up in my dreams. Together we man a trench in a night so dark it is almost impossible to see. I hear them breathing, the sound of dungarees swishing with motion, the clink and clack of weapons. And occasionally, I see some light, maybe the moon, the stars, or a flare, reflecting off the whites of their eyes.

And it haunts me.

****

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

February 21, 2018

February 21, 1968—Fifty Years Gone

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A lot of the great followers of BRAVO! have become personal friends, too. Back when we first dreamed of making a film, Lance and Pam Thompson became some of our initial mentors and have been supporters for years. Recently they gifted me a beautiful book of narrative and photographs titled REQUIEM centered on the work of all the photographers who were killed or went missing in the Indo-China, Vietnam and Cambodian wars of the mid-twentieth century.

One of the first photos I found as I thumbed through the striking pictures was a portrait of Robert Ellison who snapped a lot of photos of Bravo Company during the siege before his untimely death on a flight into Khe Sanh on the 6th of March, 1968.

Jarheads like me often sat around the trench aware that Ellison might sneak up and photograph one of us and if you were lucky enough for that to happen, you wanted to appear most vigilant, squared away, warlike, masculine. I doubt he was interested in capturing any image except what was to him, the emotional truth of a moment, the ragged determination, the fright, the courage the defenders of Khe Sanh exhibited.

Marines of Bravo Company, 1/26, on February 25, 1968. Photo by Robert Ellison. Used with permission.

We saw him often, in the trench with his camera, trying to be insignificant. But he knew his job was to portray the reality of war and so he willingly appeared at moments the grunts in the trenches tried to avoid such as the ammo dump going up in red and orange flame on 21 January, a trench full of very frightened men trying not to be pulverized by incoming 152 MM artillery rounds, the ambushed Marines of the Ghost Patrol. It was his job to show the world the ugliness of war in a stark and beautiful way.

My most memorable experience with him was on a day about a month into the siege when the base was taking an awful pounding from the NVA. When that happened—round after round after round of small stuff and big stuff and everything in-between shaking our world—I looked for a place to hide and so did most of the other Marines with whom I served.

We tried to get small. We tried to get away, but there was none of that—getting away. On the day in question, I sat in a bunker, back against a wall. On my left, the trenchline to the north, on my right, the trenchline to the south, and to my front, the trench itself passing right through the bunker where I sat.

I had my knees up against my chest and my head down on my knees, and I flinched with every explosion, and I bounced from the impact of the big ones that landed close and I…I don’t know if I can explain how it feels to be overwhelmed with the fear that all that artillery delivers along with the concussion and shrapnel and roar.

I do know that on that day, I sank deeper and deeper into an abyss. In reality, there was no escaping the physical aspects, the screams and the chaos, the men you knew were probably dying. No escape unless you could hide somewhere inside the mind.

Enduring the barrages allowed agony to creep into the small parts of your body, liver and lungs, vessels and veins, cells, molecules. It was physical input, what was happening outside, feeding what you were on the inside—the great and the ignominious.

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

I recall it well, after fifty years. My mind hightailed it away from my body. I could see myself not just sitting on my butt in the damp red mud, but also walking on a tightrope, or maybe a roof peak. On my left was insanity. On my right, sanity but with a caveat that outside, the end of the world as I knew it stalked. I was confused and didn’t know whether to jump to the left, to the side that whispered to me of safety (and some sort of insanity), or to the right, into the outside, the known, the specter of death, or maybe a leg gone, or an arm. No eyes, no jaw.

Lucky for me, I heard the snap of a camera shutter which drew me out of my mind, my fear. I looked to my right and there knelt Robert Ellison, taking photos of me.

I think I had mixed emotions. He had found me in a battle inside my mind, maybe at one of my worst moments at Khe Sanh, maybe the worst moment of my life. I was vulnerable, exposed, caught in the act of battling cowardice. (You couldn’t afford to be a coward there. Peer pressure would gobble you up, not to mention the guilt that would ride your back, spurring you like a devilish master for the rest of your life.) But I also understood that his intervention in my moment of doubt probably saved me from going crazy. And that has earned him my undying thanks.

***

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

February 9, 2018

9 February 1968—Fifty Years Ago Today

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Early in the sequence of events that make up this blog, I sat on top of a bunker with a Marine as he fired a fifty-caliber machine gun at anything that moved outside the concertina wire. F-4 Phantoms, F-8 Crusaders and A-4 Skyhawks swooped down and dropped bombs and napalm. Suddenly, in flames, enemy warriors erupted from a depression in the landscape. Like burning matchsticks with legs, they ran and we pomp-pomp-pomped at them with that fifty-caliber.

Almost immediately the whistle of rockets sent us diving for cover. In a memory that periodically crashes into my consciousness, I recall a Marine sprinting across a stretch of open ground just before I hit the deck.

When the shock of landing on my head retreated and the stench of explosives cleared my nasal passages, I heard screaming. The fifty-caliber machine gunner and I leapt out of the trench and scrabbled over to the Marine who’d been running. A chunk of shrapnel from one of those incoming rockets had severed his arm and blood shot out like a rampant river.

We tried a tourniquet as we hollered for a corpsman who, mercifully for both the wounded Marine and us, showed up.

That was just the beginning of a series of events that set me to gnawing fingernails.

In the early hours of 5 February, NVA troops attacked and breached the perimeter of Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 26th Marines’ perimeter on Hill 861-A. We hunkered down in our fighting holes on Red Alert and waited to be attacked.

PT-76 Tank

The following night, the NVA attacked the Special Forces installation at the ville of Lang Vei, a community a few miles southwest of the combat base. Again we were up all night on Red Alert.
Word slithered down the trench like a four-foot spitting cobra that the assault on Lang Vei included tanks.

TANKS!!!!

All night I heard the clank of metal, like the sounds tank tracks make as the vehicle turns. The NVA did employ PT-76 tanks that night. I often wonder if those sounds that shivered me with terror were real or if I just made them up, my imagination fueled by fear.

For me the ring of death began to choke our esprit de corps. Facial expressions seemed grimmer, teeth gritted tighter, eyes stared out of sockets like they watched the end of the world. The humor grew as dark as the nights into which we peered. And the incoming kept slamming into our bunkers and trenches, sending debris and red dust flying.

C-130 taking off at Khe Sanh.

On 8 February, Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, the celebrated “Walking Dead,” had a platoon overrun in one hell of a nasty firefight near the “rock quarry” west of the main combat base. Again, we stood prepared on Red Alert.

I wondered if I’d ever see my mother again, or my best friend, or my girlfriend—even though I really didn’t have a girlfriend. The pit in my stomach felt bigger than Arizona, where I’m from. I walked around in a perpetual state of dry mouth, trying to keep my hands from shaking, talking a tough, vulgar patois to the men with whom I served. For the most part, I reckon they were doing the same thing.

The next day, the 10th, a C-130 plane approached the combat base. This plane, call sign “Basketball 813,” flew south of the base and the men in my fire team and I watched it as we filled sandbags.

Antiaircraft fire struck “Basketball 813” which struggled around to the west end of the strip. Smoke and fire flared out of the fuselage as it landed. The plane roared down the runway until it careened off the south side of the tarmac and pitched into a ditch. It erupted in flames.

We all broke for the wreckage which wasn’t that far away. One of the most vivid memories I have of my time at Khe Sanh is watching men come out of the cockpit through those big windows at the front of the plane. They hung by their hands and dropped to the earth. It was a long drop.

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

As I watched that conflagration, it seemed almost unreal. Revulsion, fear, despair did not rear up in me as I realized that whoever was in the back of the plane would burn to death. I was immune. Mayhem and catastrophe were an everyday occurrence. This realization haunts me.

****

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

January 21, 2018

Fifty Years Ago Today–The Big Shebang

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Fifty Years Ago Today—January 21, 1968

I jerked awake as one of the Marines in my fire team yanked at my leg and screamed, “Incoming.”

Explosions roared and the earth shook. Dust filled the air along with the scent of fright.

Outside in the black of early morning, Marines screamed, rockets and artillery rounds boomed, our ammo dump went up like ten thousand 4th of Julys.

Men sprinted hear and there.

Khe Sanh Combat Base

My head spun and a notion of what waited out in the dark infected my mind. Along with a lot of other Marines, I fell down in the bottom of the trench and buried my face in the mud.

Something hit my back and burned through my flak jacket. I yelled, “I’m hit, I’m hit.”

The Marine whose skull I split open the day before crawled over and began to laugh.
I thought, “He’s getting even.”

His hand swept across my back as he leaned next to my right ear and whispered, “Clods, Rodgers. Just clods.”

The CS gas that was stored in the exploding ammo dump began sneaking down the trench lines.

I found my gas mask, pulled it over my head and face, and crawled inside the nearest machine gun bunker. The gunner knelt behind his M-60 as we stared out at the edge of our lines. We all knew what would come, an assault led by sappers breaching our concertina wire and then hard core warriors of the NVA following through the holes blasted in our perimeter.

Everyone looked like weird beetles. It was the gas masks.

The platoon right guide sat against the north wall. A nasty gash on his right shin dripped blood. A corpsman came and patched him up after telling him, “Aw, hell, it’s nothing. You’ll get a Purple Heart.”

I don’t know how long we waited for the attack to come. But as the light of day glowed, it seemed we weren’t to be overrun.

Outside, the ammo dump continued to cook off like the worst artillery attack in the world.

Sometime later, a runner came down from the platoon command post and told me the lieutenant wanted to see me. I followed the messenger out the bunker’s back hatch and down the trench.

The lieutenant told me that the unit to our left could not be contacted and he wanted me to go down and see if I could assay the situation.

I didn’t want to go down that trench to see what was happening, but I did. I passed the men of 1st and 2nd squads then came to a bend in the trench, closer to the ammo dump, which by that time had calmed down.

I wondered if there were NVA soldiers around that crook in the trench and that’s why no one could contact the Marines who manned that area.

Debris at Khe Sanh. Photo Courtesy of David Douglas Duncan.

I crept, my M-16 ready if I needed it.

A Marine lay in the trench. He looked like he was dead. All around him spent ordnance that had come from the ammo dump littered the red mud.

I duck-walked up and leaned close. His eyes opened and he blinked. I knew this man. We had arrived at Bravo Company about the same time. I don’t remember his name.

He had a jagged hole ripped in his right trouser leg and the flesh looked like raw hamburger.

He said, “One of those 155 rounds in the dump went up and came down on my leg.” He laughed.

I said, “Need some morphine?”

He shook his head, “I’ve had plenty.”

Ken Rodger at Khe Sanh. Photo courtesy of the late Dan Horton.

The next Marine I found had been hit between the legs by Willie Peter (white phosphorus). I don’t remember the conversation between us but remember wondering if he’d lose his family jewels.

On down the trench, I found men in similar situations—wounded. And if not wounded, in a state of shock that reminded me of stories from World War I.

But they weren’t wiped out.

I reported back to the lieutenant and then marched back to my bunker.

It was day one.

***

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

January 11, 2018

Fifty Years Gone

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Today, we start with a series of blogs remembering fifty years ago at the Siege of Khe Sanh as recalled by BRAVO! filmmaker and Marine with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines, Ken Rodgers.

25 December, 1967, Christmas Day

I awoke on Hill 881 South to mist and fog and Christmas Morning. The night before had seen us stand one hundred percent watch because we were on red alert. A Christmas Truce was supposed to be in effect but like most truces of the Vietnam War, this one didn’t mean much.

The day before, Christmas Eve, we ran a company minus patrol out the north gate. I walked point for a large portion of that sortie, crossing the eerie and wrecked summit of 881 North then on down the back side a few clicks before being replaced on point.

As I stood beneath vines draping from some stout and tall tree, the new company commander, Captain Ken Pipes came by and actually grinned at me. That was the first and maybe only time a captain in the Marine Corps allowed me a smile.

Steve Foster showing off some Christmas bling. 1967. Photo courtesy of Michael O’Hara

On Christmas Morning, my fire team, accompanied by Sergeant Michael Dede, exited out the south gate of 881 South and humped down around the creek that ran by the west base of the hill. We stopped at various check points and radioed in to the Six that all was secure. We ended the patrol by going back into the perimeter through the north gate.

Soon to follow was a hot Christmas meal choppered in from the kitchen at Khe Sanh. I don’t recall what it was but I know without a doubt it was better than C-rations.

The next day we left the hill and went into the Gray Sector lines at the east end of the Khe Sanh Combat Base where, less than a month later, we would begin our hell in the Siege of Khe Sanh.

****

New Years Day, 1968

On December 22nd 1967, I wrote to my mother from Hill 881 South.”I’m going on R&R again. I don’t know where, but any place is alright.”

And fifty years ago today I awoke in a hotel in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

I don’t remember a whole lot about the trip now. I flew in on a small Pan Am prop job. My first morning, I went down to the hotel lobby and bought a toothbrush.

I went to a circus. I initially thought it hokey. Yet the man who walked the high wire didn’t fall. There were elephants and tigers. A fakir lay on a bed of nails. He didn’t bleed and he didn’t act like the nails hurt. I thought the name “fakir” was accurate. No one could lie on a bed of nails and not bleed. When I left the circus I saw the fakir’s bed and managed to touch the nails. They were hard and sharp. I wondered if I really knew what I thought I knew.

Marines of 2nd Platoon, Bravo Company, 26th Marines. L to R: Carwile, Foster, O’Hara, Jacobs, Furlong, Rodgers, Richardson. Photo Courtesy of Michael O’Hara.

Outside a man sat on a big green lawn next to the street. He had two baskets and a growing crowd of people gathering around him.

He pulled a mongoose out of one of the baskets and a small cobra out of the other. Immediately, the mongoose began to attack the cobra which attacked in return.

They were both quick. The snake sliding, slithering and striking at the mongoose which managed to dance, leap, and twist just out of reach of the cobra’s fangs. There was a lot of hissing and the sound of scrabbling feet, scales scraping the macadam.

I think the mongoose killed the cobra.

What I witnessed in the vicious little war between the cobra and the mongoose was a metaphor of what was to come at Khe Sanh.

***

11 January, 1968

I turned twenty-one at Khe Sanh.

I still hummed with memories of R and R. I had returned to the combat base with a quart of Smirnoff Vodka and a fifth of Johnny Walker Black Label Scotch.

That first evening back from R & R, January 8, 1968, a bunch of us 2nd Platoon Marines gathered in my hooch and got drunk. Later that night they called a red alert. We staggered out of various states of intoxication into the bright light of a full moon and officers and senior NCOs on the prowl.

As I talked with our platoon right guide, who’d had more than his share of Scotch, the company’s XO came barreling down the trench line. Unlike other XOs for Bravo Company, this gentleman was not popular.

The moonlight made it seem like day and we could clearly see the 1st Lieutenant approaching us like he was going to an important formation with captains and colonels and sergeants major. The right guide called out, “Who’s there?”

And the XO didn’t vary his march or respond. The right guide challenged him, “Who’s there and what’s the password?”

But the XO didn’t halt. He came on until he was almost parallel to the right guide and me. That’s when the right guide whipped out a M1911A .45 caliber pistol and jammed it right in the XO’s face as he said, “Who’s there?”

The XO managed to stop dead in his steps and glare at both of us as the right guide hissed, “If you don’t identify yourself and give me the password, I’m going to blow your dumb…”

To this day, I can see the business end of that side arm jammed up against the XO’s gleaming teeth.

Blog author, Ken Rodgers, looking like he’s in trouble. January, 1968. Khe Sanh Combat Base. Photo courtesy of Michael O’Hara

The XO barked his name, rank and delivered the password. The M1911A side arm went back into the holster, the XO sneered at both of us as he marched off.

The next morning, scuttlebutt had it that I was going up for a Captain’s Mast because so many of Bravo’s men had been drunk while on watch.

For over a week I tried to hide as we Marines of 2nd Platoon filled sandbags, built bunkers, deepened our trench.

My birthday was spent in anticipation of being deep in the manure pile of Marine Corps discipline instead of enjoying the cakes and cookies my mother and her friends had sent me.

***

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