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

December 10, 2014

On Scuttlebutt

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In last week’s blog I wrote about the letters I sent home to my parents while I was in-country in 1967-68. In preparation for that article, I read each of the letters. I am glad I did because it clarified some events for me (I really did see elephants and coffee trees) and it cleared up some haziness in my memory about the timeline of my tour there.

I also noticed some recurring subjects one of which was “scuttlebutt.”

Scuttlebutt originally was a British nautical term that named a water cask kept on deck for sailors to get a drink of water. Over time, the scuttlebutt became a place for sailors to gather and share rumors or gossip. The term is quite old and was purloined sometime around the turn of the 20th Century to refer to gossip. In the Marines of the 1960s, the term scuttlebutt referred directly to rumors.

In my letters I refer to scuttlebutt in a number of instances and now, with the actual history of events available for comparison, what I thought was going to occur in any given period of time most often turned out to not happen.

Envelope sent from Vietnam by the blogger to his parents. © Ken Rodgers 2014

Envelope sent from Vietnam by the blogger to his parents.
© Ken Rodgers 2014

A few examples of the scuttlebutt going around in 1967-68 with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines follows, as recorded in my letters written at the time. I had not been in the field south of Hill 55 very long when I wrote this on 4/27/1967:

Rumor has it that the first of July or August, we will rotate to Okinawa for a month of training and then we will be sent afloat as an SLF (Special Landing Force) where we will make landings at trouble spots in Vietnam. We will be based out of Olongapo, the Philippines.

Bravo Company was located just south of Hue on May 8, 1967 when I sent this:

The engineers are building a 20 mile road to a hill southeast of Phu Bai. We will act as security. The country is “virgin.” The only Marines in there have been reconnaissance Marines. When we get to the hill, we will secure it and set up there.

On June 22, 1967, nowhere near the “virgin” country (we never went on that road-building operation), I wrote this from Hill 881 South west of the Khe Sanh Combat Base:

Rumor also has it that we shall be rotating to Phu Bai and then Okinawa in the next couple of months. I also hope that that is one rumor that comes true.

On September 1, 1967 I wrote:

By the 15th the battalion is supposed to be in Phu Bai. From there who knows? Maybe to Okinawa.

Ken Rodgers, photo courtesy of Kevin Martini-Fuller

I never made it to Okinawa until I rotated back to the States when my tour of duty was up. I never made it to Olongapo either.

The thing that gets my attention now is how the scuttlebutt usually had us going somewhere away from the war, to a place with women and food and beer. I am not sure if that’s the result of my own wishes—how I interpreted the rumors—or if it was a unit-wide desire. I suspect that my comments in the letters are a result of both my own optimism and the hopefulness of the unit in general.

I do know that one of the things that kept me going over there—that might have helped me stay alive—was my optimism, my hopefulness. The Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire said: “Optimism is the madness of insisting that all is well when we are miserable.”

During the siege, the world we inhabited was miserable, more than miserable, yet we laughed, we hoped, we dreamed of home.

I think all those references to being someplace other than where I happened to be, the misery of days of rain, the attacks by legions of leeches, the constant work and little sleep, the horror of the Siege of Khe Sanh, were nothing more than attempts to be optimistic.

I say “nothing more,” but as I think about it, that staying optimistic was a key thing in me staying alive. Since I had something to hope for, it made me work harder to stay alive.

My old buddy Joe Skinner who was a Marine Corps officer at the end of World War II once told me, “Hope is one step from despair.” When he told me that, I laughed hard. It’s true. When the jaws of despair are gnawing on you, whispering in your ear that all is folly, hope and optimism are the things that help keep you going, help keep you alive.

The 19th Century poet Emily Dickinson said it well:

# 254

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

On the screening front, mark your calendars for a fundraising screening in Casa Grande, Arizona on February 15, 2015 at the historic Paramount Theater. Doors open at noon, lunch served at 1:00 PM, screening of BRAVO! to follow. We will give you more details about this screening as they become available.

We are also pleased to announce that BRAVO! will be shown at Idaho’s historic Egyptian Theater in Boise on March 30, 2015. We will post updates to this event here as they become available.

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

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. For more information, go to https://bravotheproject.com/buy-the-dvd/.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject/. It’s another way to stay up on our news and help raise more public awareness of this film.

Documentary Film,Guest Blogs,Khe Sanh,Vietnam War

April 17, 2012

Why Khe Sanh? Why Now?

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Today’s guest blogger, nationally recognized historian and journalist Gregg Jones, muses on the Siege of Khe Sanh.

In the autumn of 2010, I had just finished writing a nonfiction book about America’s rise to world power in the Spanish-American War and the subsequent colonial war in the Philippines that bedeviled Theodore Roosevelt’s young administration. While my editor read my manuscript, I began weighing possible subjects for my next book. I had spent years researching the death of my uncle and eight comrades on a B-24 bomber crew in World War II, and so that story was high on my list. At the same time, another subject called to me: America’s war in Vietnam.

My interest in the Vietnam War had its roots in my lifelong love of American history. Growing up in a small southeast Missouri town, the American Civil War had been my passion, and I had devoured books by Bruce Catton and Shelby Foote. I was nine years old in the summer of 1968 when we piled into our ’64 Chevy Impala for a family vacation to Washington, D.C. I persuaded my parents to stop at every Civil War battlefield in our path, but each day our journey into America’s past was jolted back to the present by newscasts and headlines about the widening war in Vietnam. As we walked through Arlington National Cemetery a few days later, we could not help but notice all the fresh graves. We watched in solemn silence as a flag-draped coffin passed the Custis-Lee Mansion on a horse-drawn caisson, and then, some minutes later, the sound of Taps echoed over the hallowed hills. Back home in Missouri, my family followed events in Vietnam on the CBS Evening News and in our local newspaper. Every so often, the paper wrote about some hometown boy who had died in America’s service in Indochina. Eventually, fourteen young men from my hometown of 15,000 people would never return.

Gregg Jones

Two years ago, as I began to seriously consider a book on the Vietnam War, I debated two questions: What should be my focus? And could I write something of lasting historical value? Three events occupied my thoughts: the battle for Khe Sanh; the Tet offensive; and the fall of Saigon. As a student of American military history, I had long been fascinated with the former two events. While I read everything I could about Khe Sanh, I initially decided to take a broader approach and chronicle the experiences of several men who fought in Vietnam in 1968.

Almost from the beginning, I found myself drawn deeper into the epic story of Khe Sanh.

Three Khe Sanh veterans—Michael O’Hara, Tom Quigley and Dennis Mannion–were my first interviews in the project. When I first contacted Michael, he was wary. He wanted to know who I was and why I wanted to write this book. They were fair questions, and I answered these and others in detail. I explained that I had been a Pulitzer Prize finalist in my 29 years as an investigative journalist and foreign correspondent, and I had spent 10 years in Southeast Asia.

I told Michael about the years of work I had done on weekends and holidays to unravel the mysteries of my uncle’s lost bomber crew, tracking down family members of the men and arranging for a memorial to be placed in the Austrian meadow where the bomber crashed on the afternoon of October 1, 1943. When I told him that the remains of my uncle and his comrades had been returned to the United States in early 1950 and buried in a group grave at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, he could barely contain himself. Michael had stood almost in that exact spot, paying tribute to several comrades from Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines. It turned out that some of the Marines killed in the “Ghost Patrol” of 25 February 1968 had been buried in a group grave just a few yards from my uncle’s crew.

Months passed and Khe Sanh continued to dominate my thoughts. Michael, Tom and Dennis shared their experiences and generously put me in touch with other men who had served there. I became an associate member of the Khe Sanh Veterans Association. Last summer, I drove up to Rochester, Minnesota, to attend the annual reunion as Michael’s guest.

Those three days I spent with the Khe Sanh veterans rate among the most memorable 72 hours of my life. I met some exceptional men and their families, and witnessed the extraordinary bonds that forever sustain Khe Sanh survivors. I spent hours recording the experiences of Ken Pipes and other Khe Sanh veterans like Ghost Patrol survivor Cal Bright. (I also witnessed some priceless karaoke performances by such iconic Khe Sanh Marines as Tom Eichler and Bruce “T-Bone” Jones.) I left Rochester inspired by these men. On the drive back to Texas, I resolved to focus my book on what the defenders of Khe Sanh had endured and achieved in those red clay hills in 1968.

Four weeks later, I handed my literary agent a 40-page proposal that laid out the book that had begun to take shape in my head—a narrative history of the epic battle for Khe Sanh, based on extensive interviews with enlisted men and officers who were there. My agent sent the proposal to a dozen top trade publishing houses in New York and Boston. There was immediate interest, but ten publishers eventually retreated to the tired conventional wisdom regarding books on America’s most unpopular war: We like the proposal, but Vietnam War books just don’t attract enough readers…. I wanted to say: Well, they should! Fortunately, two publishing houses believed in my vision for a new book about Khe Sanh. I settled on Bob Pigeon at Da Capo Press, who told me that he had long wanted to do a major book about Khe Sanh.

And so the project, now a book focused solely on Khe Sanh in 1968, took life.

The project timetable calls for me to deliver a manuscript to Da Capo by 31 December of this year. As of this writing, I have interviewed 52 men who served at Khe Sanh in 1968, and I will be speaking with many more in the coming days. I have been moved and inspired beyond words by the accounts I have heard, testaments to the camaraderie and indomitable spirit of the men who served at Khe Sanh. The great challenge I face in the months ahead is transforming these hundreds of hours of priceless interviews into a narrative worthy of these men and their service.

Among the powerful accounts I have gathered is that of a fellow writer who had been a young Marine rifleman from Arizona in 1968. Spending time with Ken Rodgers and his wife Betty at the Rochester reunion had been one of my personal highlights. I had become aware of their film, Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor, even before I began contacting Vietnam veterans. Later, Ken and Betty generously invited me to attend the private screening of their film with Bravo Company veterans. I thought I had steeled myself for the experience, but the power and raw honesty of Ken and Betty’s interviews swept away my defenses. I’ve never shed more tears than I did while watching the scarred survivors of Bravo Company speak of their experiences at Khe Sanh.

As I move ahead with my own modest effort to preserve the history of Khe Sanh, I am closely following Ken and Betty’s important work to bring Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor to a wide audience. Financially and emotionally, they put themselves on the line to make this film. It is an extraordinary piece of documentary art. Whatever your opinions of the war, the young Americans who served our nation in Vietnam deserve to have their stories told in movies like Bravo!, and in books like that which I hope to create. If I may paraphrase Ken and Betty’s powerful prologue, this is not a pro-war or anti-war statement. This is about what happened. And, as Americans and intelligent beings, we need to remember.

A Missouri native, Gregg Jones is the author of Honor in the Dust: Theodore Roosevelt, War in the Philippines, and the Rise and Fall of America’s Imperial Dream (New American Library/Penguin, 2012) and Red Revolution: Inside the Philippine Guerrilla Movement (Westview Press, 1989). He is currently writing a narrative history of the 1968 battle for Khe Sanh, which will be published by Da Capo Press in 2013. He was a Pulitzer Prize-finalist investigative reporter and foreign correspondent before writing books full time.