Bravo! The Project - A Documentary Film

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Documentary Film,Khe Sanh,Marines,Meet the Men,Vietnam War

February 9, 2012

Meet the Men of Bravo–Ron Rees

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In this blog post, we introduce the first of the fourteen former Marines and Navy Corpsmen who were interviewed in the making of Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor.

Meet the Men–Ron Rees

 

Ron Rees as a young Marine

I enlisted in the Marine Corps August, 1967 in Des Moines, Iowa where I had attended Des Moines North High School.  I enlisted under the “Buddy Program” with my friend, Ed Olivetta, and entered the Marine Corps the day after my 20th birthday in September, 1967 and began my training.

I landed in Viet Nam around Feb 27th, 1968 at Da Nang Airport with my 0311 MOS  designation as a rifleman. Shortly after exiting the Continental Airlines plane and passing the long line of Marines who resembled zombies more than the soldiers we were used to seeing, I was about to find out why they appeared that way.

You cannot be trained—and I am not sure how one could ever be prepared—for the actual horrors of war. I was handed a set of orders and told that I would be going to Khe Sanh and assigned to Bravo Company as a “replacement” for one of the many Marines who had  been recently killed in an ambush just outside of their lines.

Upon arrival, I was assigned to Bravo Company’s 3rd Platoon. My assignment was a Claymore Mine bunker in the Grey Sector.  I had a new Marine in this bunker with me the night of March 22nd when all hell RAINED SHRAPNEL down on Khe Sanh yet again. We were on “Red Alert 100%” due to reports of an all-ground assault on the base that night.

At some point it all became a blur to me, and still is even now. I know that something very significant happened to our Claymore bunker.  The new Marine and I ran into the bunker where our squad leader was. We were told to go to another bunker in the trench where we could go off 100% duty and get some rest.

Next thing I knew I was above ground. EVERYTHING was in slow motion…smoke, shrapnel, I could see it all. And very clearly, people were yelling for CORPSMAN, CORPSMAN, CORPSMAN.  Then someone asked me if I needed a corpsman. I said No! Then a Marine came up to me and in an instant, reading his eyes and at the same time wiping the sweat from my face, I realized what was obvious to him:  It was blood, not sweat that covered my face.  My utilities were gone from the knee down and blood was shooting out of a wound in my knee. I have been told by my friend who went to Khe Sanh with me (Ron Semon) that I was blown over 30 feet back of the trench line from the inside of a bunker. I still cannot imagine!  How do you survive that?

I was taken to Charlie Med. I wish I knew by who, but I will never know that. I would love to thank those brave Marines who took me there during the HAIL OF INCOMING that was literally non-stop all that night. Years later I did meet Dr. Feldman, who helped repair my wounds, at my first Khe Sanh Veterans reunion in San Diego, where I was also reunited with our company commander, Ken Pipes, whom I have never forgotten.

Ron Rees

I have been in the trucking industry most of my adult life, and have been a coach for the past 8 years. For the past 6 years I have coached girls’ basketball, and for 4+ years coached middle school 8-man football. This past year I was invited to assist with our high school’s varsity football team.  I am blessed to have been very successful with all my teams.

I look at the flag at the start of every game, and along with everyone else take pride in all that she represents. But I ALWAYS look at her and thank first ALL THOSE MARINES WHO SERVED WITH BRAVO COMPANY AT KHE SANH AND THOSE WHO ULTIMATELY “GAVE THEIR ALL,” for it was because of them and all those other servicemen/women who made the ultimate sacrifice in combat that made it possible for our fine youth of today to have the opportunity, among other things, to participate in sports as so many of those MARINE HEROS did before joining the Marine Corps.

YES! I thank them every time, to give or to show them the respect they so rightfully deserve.  I know how precious life really is, and just how important these last years of true innocence really are (middle school through High school).

Guest Blogs

March 27, 2011

Ammo Dump

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Today we learn reminiscences from former Bravo Company machine gunner Frank McCauley about an ammo dump explosion that occurred late in the siege, long after the notorious blow up of January 21, 1968.

Residing in Khe Sanh was a very sobering and challenging place to hang your helmet. It was the only place and time in my life where there was no distinct color contrast. It was a colorless world, but for the red clay and dust that attached itself to everything and anything; you could not clear the red hue that was ever-present in the air. The lack of color was actually noticeable; very strange, not unlike, I’m sure, being on a lifeless planet. I think that contributed to the eerie feeling of being in Khe Sanh.

The one thing you feared and expected to happen was a large, overpowering assault on our base. We were so far out in no- mans territory that help would have never arrived in time; we were outnumbered 7 to 1. I believe everyone felt vulnerable, isolated, and very much aware that the worst could happen at any moment. Yes, the tour bus had pulled out and you were left behind; so much for seeing the world. Not a very warm and fuzzy place to call home; it was not of this earth. Quiet moments were just pauses in the endless barrage of incoming rockets, artillery, and mortar rounds, and then of course, our artillery responding back. It would have been a nightmare, but you found yourself accepting all that insanity, because the alternative was death. Everything fell into a routine and no one expected anything less.

But then there was this one morning, like no other morning. I’m not sure of the date; sometime in April, 1968, I think, because shortly thereafter, we pulled out of Khe Sanh for good. I woke to an unbearable silence that made me feel very much afraid, abandoned, and alone. It was a very peculiar, uncomfortable and frightening way to wake. I rolled over on my side and stared towards the opening of my small sandbag quarters waiting to hear or see something that would reassure me that I was not alone. My senses strained to pick up any kind of sound that would put me at ease, allow me some relief. It was the worst form of silence. My first thoughts were that we had been overrun during the night and I, for whatever reason, had not awakened during the battle. I assumed I was the last survivor; why else would there be such a deafening silence? Obviously, the enemy had overlooked me, in my dark little hole.

I truly felt vulnerable, the only weapon I had was the M-60 machinegun that I hoped was still sitting in its place across from my quarters: in the bunker on the opposite side of the trench. What a bizarre feeling to slowly exit my hole-in-the wall bunker and find fellow Marines frantically scurrying around acting as if we were actually under attack. Yet, there was no sound, not even from their movements and haste. Finally someone stopped, grabbed me and said, “We all thought you were dead; no one had seen you all night during the attack.” Huh? What attack? I mean, yes my head felt stuffy, the sounds weren’t reaching me with any clarity or volume, it was much like you would experience if you were submerged under water. I was still baffled by what the guy had said. Why did they feel I must have been dead?

I asked him what had happened during the night and he said in amazement, and with some doubt as to my question, that an incoming rocket round had made a direct hit on our base’s ammo dump, and that during the entire night, massive explosions went off from the immense amount of artillery rounds—mortars, grenades, claymores, bars of C-4, all the ordinance used by every weapon on our base—and then, along with all that, the 55-gallon drums of fuel were sent skyrocketing up into the air like fireworks. It had been a very long, loud, and horrifying night for the Marines standing watch at their designated positions waiting for the inevitable ground assault on our base. It will never be clearly understood as to why the enemy didn’t launch that attack. More than likely, it was just a lucky hit and they weren’t prepared to follow through.

I was a bit confused; if all this had truly happened, then there was no way I would have slept through all that chaos, because my position was approximately 250 feet from the outer edges of the ammo dump. So being a bit curious and with some doubt, I pivoted and looked to my right down the trench line to where the ammo dump should have been, only to see the smoldering, rolled dirt edges of an enormous crater just 25 to 30 feet from my position. The trench ended there and the crater’s edges moved out from beyond our trenches towards our outer barbed wire perimeter fence. It all looked too surreal, this monstrous, smoldering crater within spitting distance of my machinegun bunker and residence. All the other outposts along the trench going towards the ammo dump and beyond were erased and were now just part of this amazing crater. This is why they believed me to be dead; it was assumed I had gone down to visit with one of the other posts during my watch and became just another casualty from that evening.

It was then that it became a little clearer to me. I had not slept through this event, but had been knocked unconscious from the initial blast. Bummer; that would have been a night to remember. Ah, but there would be so many more nightmarish events to occupy your mind. In one’s tour of Viet Nam, there were so many times when you barely skirted death, that you accepted the inevitable, and just hoped to go quickly. Not exactly normal thoughts of an 18-year-old fresh out of high school, but the truth just the same.

Frank McCauley was born on December 22, 1948, in Boston, Massachusetts. He was raised in San Diego, California, for most of his life. Later in life, he spent many years moving around the country: Texas, California again, Arkansas, and now back to Kerrville, Texas, where he has built his final resting place. Frank has been married to his wife, Linda, for 27 years. They have three very good sons, with two grandchildren from each of their marriages.

Guest Blogs

February 25, 2011

Not Forgotten

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February 25th is, for the men who served with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines at Khe Sanh, a day that owns a particular and personal infamy. We left a lot of good Marines on the field that day. Guest blogger Bill Jayne was in Bravo Company on February 25th, 1968. He shares some of his memories and his thoughts.

The story of 25 February is well-known. It was the day of the Ghost Patrol when Lt. Jacques’ 3rd Platoon was almost wiped out within about a thousand meters of the Khe Sanh perimeter. This is a story of the 1st Platoon, the reaction force that never reached the 3rd Platoon.

My memory says February 25, 1968 dawned relatively clear and a little cool on the Khe Sanh Plateau. I kept my too-small field jacket on. Although our hold on the area was related to the weather, it was much more important to note that two days before more than 1,300 rounds had impacted somewhere on the combat base and one of ours had died along with four others. Vinny Mottola was an 0351—rocket man—who was funny, irreverent, and always carried his own weight. He died with the crew of a 106mm recoilless rifle when something big, probably a rocket, hit them.

The next day, the 24th, Bravo Company had a few wounded from incoming but no KIA. After filling sand bags and other housekeeping chores most of the day, my fire team from the second squad of the 1st Platoon, had an LP on the night of the 24th. Out in that almost liquid darkness, when a Marine shifted his weight in our LP position, it sounded like Gen. Giap leading legions of NVA into position for a human-wave attack. When a piece of 782 gear scraped against the clay, it was the tanks that overran Lang Vei coming to gun us down. Maybe my fears were close to the truth. Military intelligence knew the NVA were digging trenches perpendicular to our lines so they could stage assault troops close to our positions.

Yet, by 0715 the next morning, we were back inside the wire. Very soon, we started hearing the noise of small arms fire out where Bravo’s 3rd Platoon was on patrol. Our squad and another from 1st Platoon saddled up and headed out the wire.

We paralleled the access road to Rte. 9, heading southeast. I thought I saw movement in a tree line ahead and told PFC Joe Battle “Get out on the right, you’re the only protection we have.” Joe immediately headed toward the brush growing alongside the road.

He was a big, lanky black Marine who said he was from Houston, Texas. Just about a week shy of his 19th birthday, he could be pretty funny. One time, Joe asked a bunch of us if we knew what “KKK” stood for. Nobody said a word until Joe, cracking up, informed us that the right answer was “Kool Kolored Kids!”

I don’t remember if Joe shot expert, but I know he was a good shot. One night in early February the fog was so bad they kept our LP outside the wire in the morning until the sun started to clear the mist. We saw a Vietnamese heading for our lines wearing nothing but a piece of parachute. “Dung lai!” we yelled, but he kept running. He was downhill and about 75 meters away but Joe stopped him with two M16 rounds that hit him in the arm.

A couple of weeks later, moving toward the sound of the fire that was consuming 3rd Platoon, Joe tripped the ambush that stopped 1st Platoon. The fire came at our squad from two sides and at very close range. Joe was down…out of sight, gone forever. Three or four of us hit the deck and returned fire. Had Joe saved our lives? I think so. What’s a “hero?” Joe did his duty and he has always been a hero in my mind.

We returned fire against the unseen enemy so close to us but it was going nowhere. We took a couple of wounded from the small arms fire and then, like the hammers of hell, mortars came down on top of us and we had to pull back.

Just a few meters behind us, the squad leader, Cpl. Don Whittaker lay dead. It looked like he’d gone down in the first burst of fire that hit us. A raw-boned, serious guy from rural Missouri, he was 19. Whittaker was fairly new to our squad. I think he was filling in for our regular squad leader. I don’t remember Whittaker well, but Mac McNeely recalls speaking to him at some length and says he considered “Whit” a friend. He had been hit several times in the chest, abdomen and trunk. There’s no doubt in my mind that he died facing the enemy trying to do his job.

A third member of the squad died that day: Hospitalman Lloyd W. Moore, the corpsman, the “doc.” He was about a month shy of his 22nd birthday. No one from Bravo Company really remembers him. He joined 1/26 (H&S Co.) on 27 January and probably spent some time at the Battalion Aid Station. I don’t know when he joined Bravo Company and 1st Platoon. How could it be that nobody remembered him? I don’t know. It seems like we had a revolving door for corpsmen around that time, but still…

He was from Wilmington, N.C., where I have made my home for the past five years and I’ve learned a lot about him. First of all, nobody called him “Lloyd.” His father was L.W. Moore, a prominent citizen of the city and when his son was killed in action at Khe Sanh, it was front page news. So, the son was known as “Whit,” short for his middle name, or even “Spider.” His sister, his cousins, his friends, other corpsmen he served with in Rota, Spain, and other stops in his service history remember him well.

He liked to hunt and fish and he graduated high school from Carolina Military Academy. Like Cpl. Don Whittaker—the other “Whit” from our squad—he was religious but a corpsman buddy said he enjoyed going on liberty, too. Another corpsman buddy said he had a presentiment of death before he shipped out to Vietnam. We didn’t know him long enough to learn any of that.

As our squad came apart, he moved around to help the wounded until he was felled by mortar shrapnel that hit him in the base of the neck. A hero? It almost seems like Navy corpsman and hero are synonymous. A posthumous Bronze Star valor award recognized his actions. I recognized him from a picture sent to me by a local veteran who had researched all those from this area who had been killed in action from WWI through Vietnam.

As I opened the digital photograph attached to an email from the researcher, I instantly recognized the dead corpsman on that little piece of earth that seemed literally “God forsaken.” I didn’t know his name (except from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and from Chaplain Stubbe’s research about Khe Sanh). I didn’t remember where he was from, or anything about him except his face and that he died doing his job.

“Lead” in my pack? The thought of that day and the almost unbelievable but irrevocable tragedy of the Ghost Patrol and our three dead from First Platoon has never been far from my consciousness in the 43 years since it happened.

Why was I spared? Why didn’t I do this? Why didn’t I do that? What would have happened if we had done this, if we hadn’t done that? Over and over.

Almost 30 years ago, I learned from reading a book that 25 February 1968 was a Sunday. Just like I didn’t know “Whit” Moore’s name or anything about him, I had no idea of the day of the week.

I was married, a father of two wonderful children, working in a very gratifying job helping fellow veterans. And, I was searching for answers, trying to learn how to make something other than crushing weight out of the lead in my pack. I was doing a lot of reading, thinking and talking about God and religion and I asked a priest if he could tell me what the readings were for that prosaically named “Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time.”

The second reading hit me like a bolt of lightening. It was St. Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 15, verses 54 through 58:

And when this which is corruptible clothes itself with incorruptibility and this which is mortal clothes itself with immortality, then the word that is written shall come about:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.
Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.

But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Therefore, my beloved brothers, be firm, steadfast, always fully devoted to the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.We knew no victory on that field in 1968. There was death, and failure, and regret, loss and pain; the story of human life on earth compacted into a diamond of humbling memory. Yet, God was there, too, and He left His message of victory and redemption to be discovered in His word and in the example of the steadfast heroes of Bravo Company.

Bill Jayne enlisted in the Marine Corps for two years in September 1966. Originally from the Hudson Valley of New York state he went to boot camp at Parris Island and joined 1/26 on Hill 55 in early 1967. He was a rifleman, 0311, but found himself in H&S Company and then Bravo Company as a clerk. An insubordinate streak landed him in 1st Platoon of Bravo Company in October 1967. Patrol, patrol, patrol; Hill 950, Hill 881S, etc. After college he ended up in Washington, DC, working for a small magazine and then a big lobbying organization involved with heavy construction. A chance phone call in 1979 led to the opportunity to serve as an early volunteer on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and then a career in the US Department of Veterans Affairs. He ran the National Cemetery Administration’s (NCA) State Cemetery Grants Program and later the Federal cemetery construction program. In his 20+ years with the NCA he had a role in the establishment of about 50 new cemeteries for veterans and their families, every one of them a “national shrine” to the memory of those who served in the military. He is now retired in Wilmington, NC.

Khe Sanh,Marines,Vietnam War

February 9, 2011

The Fall of Lang Vei

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43 years ago last Monday, the People’s Army of North Vietnam attacked and overran the US Army Special Forces camp at Lang Vei. Lang Vei was defended by 24 Americans, as well as detachments of South Vietnamese, Montagnard and Royal Laotian Army troops.

Lang Vei was located near the South Vietnamese-Laotian border about six miles west of where I, right then, stood watch along the Gray Sector perimeter at Khe Sanh. We had endured twelve days of rocket and mortar attacks since the siege of Khe Sanh began on the morning of 21 January 1968 and the attack on Lang Vei seemed, to me as I remember it now, a ramping up of action, a new punch in the nose from our enemy, the NVA (PAVN).

The night was foggy as I stood watch, and I don’t remember that specifically, that it was foggy, but I say that because it was always foggy at night. We got the word about the assault on Lang Vei through the whispered words of one man on watch to the next man. The word went around like a night creature in flight, changing form and function—messenger, harbinger, bringer of fright—as it flittered from bunker and fighting hole to bunker and fighting hole in and out of the thick mist. Growing larger, then smaller, depending on who was doing the whispering. Lang Vei is under attack. Lang Vei’s under attack.

During the night of 6 February and the dark morning hours of 7 February, the Khe Sanh combat base took a lot of incoming, often a round or two every few seconds, and the NVA, I suppose, intended to keep us in our bunkers and off Route 9 between our position and Lang Vei. We were on our faces in the trench when rounds came in, then on our feet, alertly watching into the mist because if the enemy was assaulting Lang Vei, they might assault us, too. Every Marine in our section of Gray Sector was on alert. The hidden red ends of burning Camels and Lucky Strikes, steaming cups of coffee and cocoa, our rifles locked and loaded, grenades lined up on the parapets to toss at Charlie when he rolled over the concertina and came at us with his screaming, fanatical attack, bayonets fixed on his AK-47s, ready for stabs and horizontal butt strokes to stomachs, chins and cheekbones.

Then the word “tank” flitted into the mix. “Tanks, they are hitting Lang Vei with tanks.”

All my memories of the Khe Sanh experience are tainted by time and by all that I’ve read and all that I have heard from other people who were and who were not at the siege. Yet, sieved out of those tainted memories, I see Lance Corporal “C” running from bunker to bunker, frantic whispers. “Tanks, the gooks have got tanks and they are overrunning Lang Vei right now. Hell, they might be done over there and on their way here.”

We had never faced the specter of hostile tanks and I remember in my mind the images of them rolling over the wire barriers to our front. I recollect the shock of it invaded the bottom of my spine, down at the pelvis, and snaked up my back. I shivered. I tried to hide it. I didn’t want anyone to know I shivered. Tanks.

Lance corporal “C” was a big man, bigger than most Marines who were small, tough kids tired of being pushed around a lot and joined the Corps to prove some things to themselves, and to others. “C” loved rumors, scuttlebutt. And he savored passing them on, one bunker to the next. He had begun his Nam stint with me in my squad back in March of ‘67 but somehow got himself moved up to Supply. Yet he never failed to show up and give us the word before the word was ever official. Whether the word had substance or not.

“C” must have had ears like fingers, good for plucking rumor out of the wind. And more than that, told it lasciviously. He’d hunch his large frame and get an impish look to his face, his big blue eyes darting left and right, left then right, then over his shoulder to see if Lieutenant “D” or Staff Sergeant “A” might come snooping down the trench line and catch him delivering forbidden goodies.
I remember my fright like the wings of miniature bats caught in my throat, their little claws scrabbling, intent on ripping through to the back of my neck. Tanks, and all that meant: crushed by steel tracks, blown apart by their cannons, the screams of elation of the NVA ground-pounders as they came in behind the tanks and caught us in crossfires as we tried to escape. Death…it was death, and it was coming at us on the rumbling engines of those tanks.

I remember, between dodging into the bunkers and hitting the muddy deck to avoid the whoosh, wham, zing of rockets, hearing the sound of those tank engines. Caught in the tiniest of breezes that moved the fog, the rumble and clank of those tanks….coming to get us.

And of course the sounds of those tanks I heard could have been nothing more than my imagination riled by the rumors that did, in fact, turn out to be true. Tanks did indeed overrun Lang Vei, although they did not show up to roll over the concertina wire around our position at the Khe Sanh combat base.

As the chaos of night battle amped up, we were ordered to saddle up and prepare to go save Lang Vei. But later, we stood down.

The next morning, the survivors of Lang Vei, showed up at the gates of Khe Sanh. The surviving Americans came in the gate and the indigenous people remained outside, confined in bomb craters and stripped of their weapons. I recall a lot of complaints back then—and probably there still are today—about how we, the Marines at Khe Sanh, didn’t go out and relieve those men at Lang Vei; and I have heard and read all the reasons why we didn’t. If they had ordered us to go save those men, we, the snuffies in the trench, would have dutifully gone to our probable demise. But we just sat and waited, all night, in the fog and mist as the rockets, mortars and artillery pounded us and we listened for the clank and rumble of those tanks.