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Posts Tagged ‘scuttlebutt’

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.

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.