Bravo! The Project - A Documentary Film

Posts Tagged ‘Payback Patrol’

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

March 29, 2017

On Payback and Recapture

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One of the things that I’ve discovered during the process of making BRAVO! is how the memories of various men who went through the same events are different. What I remember, someone else doesn’t remember at all, or remembers in a very different way, or maybe the only difference is in a detail or two.

And a follow-up to that notion is the question: Because we don’t remember events the same, are all, one, or none of the memories not the the truth? And that begs another question: Does it matter?

Tomorrow, March 30, will be the 49th anniversary—if that is the correct word—of what has come to be called the Payback Patrol.

On that day, March 30, 1968, I had just a few more days to make it through my thirteen month tour of duty without getting hurt or killed.

Bayonet and Scabbard for an M-16

We had been told, as I recall, that the patrol out the southeast gate of the Khe Sanh Combat Base was to be a standard patrol to bring back the twenty-seven Marines and Corpsmen we hadn’t saved or salvaged from the nasty events related to the Ghost Patrol of February 25, 1968.

I also recall that when I was told that the patrol would be “standard” some little message kept sneaking into my consciousness whispering something like, “Don’t believe them. It will be hell out there.”

And as it turned out, it was. Twelve Marines lost their lives and most of the other ninety or so participants on our side were wounded. I think, collectively, we killed a lot of our adversaries. But to make matters worse, we didn’t have the opportunity to retrieve our fellow Ghost Patrol Marines because we were locked in mortal combat with the entrenched NVA for hours.

While I was interviewing the men of the film, BRAVO!, it surprised me that some of them recalled the events of March 30 differently than I did. Some remembered that they were told we were going out to assault an entrenched battalion of the NVA’s best troops. Not something I heard or if I did, I chose not to believe it, and if I did that, why? Because I wanted to put the best face on it? I suspect that could be the answer. Optimism is something I have a healthy load of.

Tom Quigley at Khe Sanh

Tom Quigley at Khe Sanh.

One of the other things I don’t recall is the order that Skipper Ken Pipes gave to his radio operator, Tom Quigley, to, “Be advised, fix bayonets.”

Tom Quigley passed that order along to the rest of us via our radio network and as a radio operator, I must have heard that order.

No less than five of the interviewees of the film remember that moment very well—the fixing of bayonets and the inference they took away from the order: that they would be involved in up-close and personal combat, in some cases hand-to-hand battle, and all the images of death in close proximity that one’s mind could dredge up to scare the hell out of you.

With that many of the men spontaneously recalling the event at the interviews some forty-two years later, individually with no prompting from me, I have come to the conclusion that I must have blanked that memory out.

I wonder why. Was it because the thought was too horrible for me to deal with?

I wasn’t personally part of the combat where Marines and NVA soldiers were locked in fights that required the use of bayonets. And since I wasn’t, maybe my memory and my mind settled on the things that did happen to me: getting hit in the side of the head by mortar shrapnel, watching Marines satchel charge and flame throw bunkers with the enemy in them, running out front to call in artillery fire so we could begin to retire and collect our dead and wounded, watching Second Lieutenant Moscato trip a booby trap and get hit in the chin with a Willie Peter round that caused his face to smoke, to find my buddy David Aldrich’s body being carried back to the base after we retired from the battlefield.

It was a horrible day. One of those times, if you are thinking about the Marine ethos, that you associate with what happens when Marines go to war. Although not as long-lived, but over its four or five hour duration probably as savage, the Payback Patrol was akin to Belleau Wood, or Peleliu or Chosin Reservoir. On March 30, 1968, there were enough monstrous memories for every one of us who survived to store away a whole bevy of them and still not recall everything.

Ken Pipes

It’s curious what you do recall, sometimes, from those moments. One would think that the only thing that mattered was those ultimate instances where your survival was challenged in a terrifyingly personal way in a grippingly personal moment. But one of my clearest memories is of the faces of the dead. How the NVA all looked to me like they were fifteen years old and how the faces of the dead Marines began to change color, becoming sallow, and after a while they seemed to me to be no different in that regard—the tint of the skin—than the enemy. And of course, in the most important way—all of them being dead—they were no different.

I have been thinking a lot, over the past few months, of memory and how important it is for our mental health, that we have the ability to extract these mementos of horror and retell them so we can somehow better deal with the effects they have had on who we have become.

And if one man’s truth isn’t the same as mine in terms of what we recall, I don’t think it really matters. What matters in this regard, it seems to me, is that we learn to confront the reservoirs of monstrance that our un-dealt-with memories harbor.

I know that tomorrow a lot of men who were on the Payback Patrol will join me in recalling their own individual memories of those particular instances—fixed bayonets, charging the NVA trench, killing other men up close—and thinking about them.

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

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

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,Other Musings,Vietnam War

June 29, 2016

In the Blink of an Eye

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In Khe Sanh Marine Mike Archer’s latest book, THE LONG GOODBYE, he describes a scene from his memory of incoming artillery rounds:

“Then it struck. It was not quite a direct hit because the roof did not collapse, but it could have not been closer. There was absolutely no sound. We were inside the explosion. A vacuum instantly sucked dust, loose paper and other light objects out the bunker’s hatchway. A painful pressure pushed on my eardrums. Then, as swiftly as it happened, it was over…”

One thing that interests me about Mike Archer’s passage from this exemplary book is how it intimates the moments where close calls remind us how mortal we all are.

Call it luck or divine intervention or karma, but those moments where you don’t die because you happened to be in the right place at the right time leave a lasting impression on you.

On March 30, 1968, Bravo Company, 1/26, went out the wire at Khe Sanh on an assault that has come to be known as the Payback Patrol. I was radioman for Second Platoon’s platoon sergeant, Staff Sergeant Gustavo Alvarado. As the company charged through a valley and up a ridge into a trenchline full of North Vietnamese troopers, SSgt Alvarado and I brought up the rear of the line of march.

As the Marines of Bravo dove bayonet-first into the NVA positions, SSgt Alvarado and I worked our way towards the apex of the ridge. Somewhere near the top, amid a small stand of shell-splintered trees, a mortar round landed between the staff sergeant and me. We couldn’t have been more than four or five feet apart when the round hit and exploded.

The first thing I knew was that I was alive, or at least I thought I was. I was sitting on my butt in the red mud. I had the strangest sensation that I was the center of a ripple of energy, or sound, that was emanating from me as if I was a stone tossed into a pond. I had the same sensation on the left side of my head, where shrapnel had entered the side of my face near my temple. That metal’s still lodged there like a memory that won’t go away, as if I needed to be reminded in one more way of my time at Khe Sanh.

SSgt Alvarado was hit in the leg by the mortar’s tail fin assembly and he was on the ground, too. But after a cursory inspection of each other, we moved into the melee over the top of the ridge and lived to tell about that ecstatically stimulating and horrible day where death flew perilously close like a flock of angry hawks.

I often return to that scene and think about how lucky we were that we didn’t die, or lose a limb or an eye, or have hot shrapnel penetrate a temple and hack out half of our intellects.

Another incident that often comes to mind happened several weeks before the Payback Patrol. Again, close calls were the name of the game during the Siege of Khe Sanh and any survivor can deliver a litany of the times they managed to beat death or maiming because they happened to be in the right place.

Cover of Mike Archer's book, THE LONG GOODBYE.

Cover of Mike Archer’s book, THE LONG GOODBYE.

The other member of Second Platoon’s radio team was a man named Curtis Horn. I think Horn hailed from West Virginia. We spent a lot of time trading off on radio watch along with the platoon’s right guide. I don’t recall many specifics about Horn other than he was a damned good Marine and he didn’t talk much.

On this particular day we’d just spent quite a bit of time upgrading the platoon command post so that it could take (we hoped) a direct hit from a 152 mm shell, even one with a delayed fuse. Horn and I made the mistake of thinking that since we’d done the lion’s share of the work on the new bunker we would be allowed to bunk there. But we were sorely disabused of that notion and ordered by the platoon commander and SSgt Alvarado to bunk next door in the platoon ammo bunker.

The ammo bunker was a paltry excuse for a well-built facility. It had one layer of sandbags on top of a framework of pallets. The bunker was stuffed with machine gun ammo, rifle ammo, smoke grenades, willy peter grenades, hand grenades, mortar rounds, rocket rounds, claymore mines, pop up flares. Lots of things that burned, killed, smoked and exploded.

I didn’t like having to spend my rack time in that death trap, but it was late and we were tired and there were two cots inside, one on the floor and the other suspended off the walls above the one below.

As night settled in and the regular blanket of mist and fog descended on the combat base, Horn and I hit the rack. Always alert to the possibility of incoming, I lay in the cot and listened to NVA rounds hitting at the other end of the base.

I listened and listened until sleep wormed its way into my body, and I had just dropped off, I think, when I was jolted out of the bottom bunk with Horn soon crashing down on me from above. I didn’t have to think about it because escape is one of the original and fundamental human responses to imminent danger.

We scrabbled out of that death trap and into the command post. One of the higher ups, maybe the right guide, or maybe SSgt Alvarado, or maybe even the platoon commander, ordered us out of the bunker but I was scared and I was hearing none of it and I don’t think I threatened to shoot any of them but Horn and I spent the rest of that night inside the command post.

The next morning I crawled around the back of the command post and up to the top of the ammo bunker and saw where a round had hit near the southwest corner. There was an impact crater less than two inches from the roof. It looked like it must have been an 82 mm mortar round that, had it hit, would have probably spread little chunks of Horn’s and my bone and meat and gristle and red blood all over Second Platoon’s area of operation.

Blog author Ken Rodgers.

Blog author Ken Rodgers.

But it didn’t. It just scared the hell out of me and left an indelible set of images etched into my memory. And it also left me with an enduring wonder at how often we avoid death due to nothing more than blind luck.

One of the Marines, Ron Rees, in our film, BRAVO!, talks about how he lives his life a second at a time because that’s all it takes for you to be gone, snuffed, history, dead. Folks who have survived combat often tell me they exist from one second to the next. Living like that makes it hard to plan ahead, hard to think about how one might choose to live in years ahead because one second from now, you may not be alive; in the blink of an eye.

You can find out more about Michael Archer and his books about Khe Sanh and other subjects at http://www.michaelarcher.net/.

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

March 25, 2015

March 30, 1968

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Khe Sanh, Vietnam

30 March 1968. The most vicious battle of the Vietnam War is coming to a close. My Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment will depart the Khe Sanh Combat Base pre-dawn this day. A large percentage of our 120-man company are new replacements as we had been mauled badly on 25 February by the Communist North Vietnamese Army. Nearly thirty Marines had been killed during an unescapable ambush and we were ordered to leave them lie some 800 meters to our front.

It would be five long years before we were told that one of our fellow Bravo Company Marines, Sgt Ronald Ridgeway, whom we thought had been killed that day, was actually captured, and held prisoner, and survived the war.

Today, 30 March 1968, the score will be settled tenfold on what will later be known as the “Payback Patrol,” but at the cost of over a dozen more brave young Marine Warriors.

Michael E. O'Hara at Khe Sanh, 1968.

Michael E. O’Hara at Khe Sanh, 1968.

It begins with overhead artillery and what is known as a “Rolling Box Barrage” with the use of multiple batteries of heavy artillery. After the initial prep fires, the end of the box opens up as Bravo moves in to engage what turns out to be a battalion of Communist troops. Once in, the box closes behind us, trapping Marines and NVA alike inside. It becomes a fight of virulent fury.

To see those young Marines—some of whom only six weeks before had been home with their families—charging machine gun bunkers with their flamethrowers, satchel charges and fixed bayonets is a sight to behold. The Communist troops quickly learn what the Germans had learned at Belleau Wood some 50 years before when the German High Command asked: “Wer sind diese Teufelshunde? (Who are these Devil Dogs?)”

When it seems to be coming to a close, hours later, we begin to pull back, collecting our dead and wounded. We realize what a price we just paid. We have fought a very determined, well-disciplined enemy who will always command our respect as fellow warriors.

When our enemies try to reinforce, it is at that point, as they are bearing down on us, that we come to appreciate those Marines who are part of our “Air Wing,” as the F4 Phantoms scream in at treetop level with their napalm bombs, dropping so close we feel the heat of the inferno adjacent to our positions. As one of the pilots rolls his jet around to the left, we see him give us all a “Thumbs Up.”

Our company commander, Captain Ken Pipes, who is seriously wounded and loses most of his command group, maintains contact with the air and artillery and masterfully coordinates their firepower to our benefit.

After attacking numerous bunkers within the enemy complex, Donald Rash, one of our newest members, lays down on the edge of a bomb crater to cover our withdrawal, knowing full well he will never get up again. That kind of heroism and dedication to one’s fellow Marines brings a whole new meaning to the verse in John 15:13, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

In the end, Bravo would suffer more casualties (56 KIA’s) at Khe Sanh than any other company of the 26th Marine Regiment (REIN). For their valor, they would earn three Navy Crosses, our nation’s second highest award. Only one Marine would live to collect his medal. Don Rash’s mother would be handed a folded American flag along with his Navy Cross.

Michael E. O'Hara.

Michael E. O’Hara.

Ten Silver Star medals and fourteen Bronze Star medals with V for valor were awarded as well. Over two hundred Purple Heart medals were awarded, as many were wounded on multiple occasions. Numerous Navy Commendations were earned, and they contributed greatly toward the entire regiment earning the prestigious Presidential Unit Citation (PUC).

April brought new leadership to the company as many of our officers had been wounded or killed. New men arrived and the wounded were evacuated. Our fallen Marines from the patrol of 25 February’s remains were recovered within days.

It has now been nearly fifty years and those men, those brave young Marines will live in my memory forever. I hope the world will always remember as well.

Where do we get such men? What a privilege and an Honour it was to have served with and to have known them.
Semper Fidelis and may God always hold them in His arms

Michael E. O’Hara, Bravo Company 1/26 USMC 1967-1970

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 41 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.