Bravo! The Project - A Documentary Film

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

January 25, 2013

Stringing Concertina

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It’s the time of the year when veterans of the Siege of Khe Sanh seriously reflect on events that led up to and occurred during the months of January, February, March and April 1968. That’s forty-five years ago. I remember watching television back in 1986/87 and hearing people talk about the 45th anniversaries of some of the darkest days of World War II; Pearl Harbor, Guadalcanal. I remember thinking, man, that’s a long time, forty-five years, but here we are, forty-five years since the events that trigger the most violent memories I own.

The actual big bangs of the siege of Khe Sanh began for me on January 21st, 1968, but my mind often goes back to events that occurred the day before.

My fire team rose early and we went on a work party to the south side of the combat base where we strung concertina wire barriers. As we worked, C-130s and C-123s and Caribous landed and six-bys hauled building materials and the pace of preparation for the anticipated North Vietnamese attack was furious.

Myself, I doubted we would see much action of any kind and I held that opinion, reason one, because we had been warned and warned and warned of impending attacks, none of which had come to pass, the boy-cries-wolf kind of situation, and reason two I now suspect was denial. I had been in Vietnam ten months and had managed to miss any kind of significant action and figured I should be able to skate my way right through the rest of the war without encountering significant danger.

That January 20th, 1968, as we pounded stakes into the ground and attached the concertina wire to the stakes and ran strands of barbed wire through the inside of the concertina, an unmarked Huey began to fly around with something attached to the bottom of a line hanging off the chopper. When it approached us, we could see that the thing hanging from the line was a man. The chopper dragged the man through the air and the tops of trees and as we watched, I don’t recall any one of us saying a word. No “What the hell’s going on?” or “Looks like motivation time for a prisoner of war.” Not a word. As if we were each out there on our own seeing something that only we could see, and about which we could not comment.

In 2010 when we interviewed the men whose words and memories are the backbone of our documentary film, BRAVO!, one of them brought up that chopper. When he brought it up he posed the subject in the form of questions, did I see it? and was it okay to talk about it? Was it okay to talk about it in 2010, forty-two years later? Why couldn’t we talk about it back then, in 1968? I recall that, thinking that. Why didn’t we talk about it in 1968?

I remember when I first remembered the event. In the mid 1990s. Not remembered every day of the last forty-five years as I have so much of what happened at Khe Sanh. I remembered that chopper with its special cargo twenty-seven years later. Why did I not think about it before then, and why didn’t I think about it more often?

The Marine I interviewed who brought up that scene…how should I phrase it?…seemed flabbergasted about what had happened that morning in January 1968. There was a man hanging on a line being dragged by a helicopter. Yeah, sitting in San Antonio, in the safety of time’s passing and a totally different place, we should have been flabbergasted. There was a man hanging on the end of that line who was probably going to die because he wouldn’t tell whoever was dragging him what they needed to know, or needed to hear. And if he did not die, then he would be severely damaged.

But back in 1968, as we watched that event, we weren’t particularly flabbergasted, indignant, angry; or I wasn’t, anyway. We were just…or so I remember and it has been forty-five years now and maybe my memory is failing or faulty…we were just…ho hum.

When the interviewee asked me if I remembered seeing that event, I recall feeling a little sense of satisfaction or relief because when I think about it now, when I thought about it in the mid-nineties, I wasn’t sure if I really saw it, or if I had manufactured the memory, so it made me happy that he had seen it too…kind of made me happy.

When we saw it in 1968, we weren’t happy or sad, I suspect, or alarmed or anything, we were just…this is hard to get a handle on…we were just…just, well, it was just part of the scene, the business we were in, the killing and the mayhem and the fright. Just part of a day’s work, like stringing concertina.

When I first recalled seeing that man dangling from the cable, I wrote a poem about it, an attempt, I suppose, to translate experience into art. The poem showed up in my chapbook of poetry titled Trench Dining, published by Running Wolf Press, ©2003.

Tortures

by Ken Rodgers

We unrolled concertina wire
the German kind
with razors for slicing hide
in a hundred places

We pounded metal stakes
into red earth
and attached the concertina
ripped utility jackets torn hands

To the southwest
two hundred yards away
a Huey
with a body dangling
hands tied to a cable

The chopper maneuvered
some ponderous war hawk
towing the man
through the tops of conifers
surviving along the perimeter

Gazing at that scene
I bet myself
that for a hit off a Lucky Strike
and some hot chow
he would tell us
where to ambush
old Ho Chi Minh

He jerked on the cable’s end
when his feet caught
and flipped sideways
when he bounced off trunks

Years later
finally
when the drama
seized my windpipe
I heard him scream
I heard branches snapping
and other things snapping too

But at the time
looking up from the wire
I couldn’t hear shrieks
only the whap whap whap
of helicopter blades
the clang of hammers
driving stakes
the curses of men with razor ripped hands