Bravo! The Project - A Documentary Film

Posts Tagged ‘Smedley Butler’

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

January 18, 2017

N-Day

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Winter has been ferocious in Idaho this year with lots of ice and snow, below-zero temperatures, then rain and flooding. One local weatherman predicted death and destruction, causing locals to clean out the shelves of grocery stores and hardware outlets in anticipation of days of dark and death and privation.

And even though the local weatherman’s predictions turned out to be overblown, the season’s hostile weather seems to act as a perfect metaphor for what did come to pass at Khe Sanh Combat Base on January 21, 1968.

During these cold days of winter in the 21st Century, the minds and memories of survivors of the early days of the Siege of Khe Sanh turn to the horrible events of the first day of the Siege.

It wasn’t cold and ice, but it was death and destruction, mist and fog, and the raining down of mortars, rockets and artillery from the North Vietnamese Army which had begun to surround us in the days leading up to 21Jan68. The NVA attack was then followed by our ammo dump erupting for hours.

Recently, I received a book in the mail from Reverend Ray Stubbe titled, PEBBLES IN MY BOOTS, VOLUME 4, which is a compilation of writings that Ray has written mostly concerning Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment (my old outfit and the subject of the film BRAVO!) at Khe Sanh.

Marines from Second Platoon, Bravo Company, Gray Sector, Khe Sanh Combat Base not long before the Siege. Photo courtesy of Michael E. O'Hara

Marines from Second Platoon, Bravo Company, Gray Sector, Khe Sanh Combat Base not long before the Siege. Photo courtesy of Michael E. O’Hara

Ray was the battalion chaplain before and during the Siege and is the foremost historian and memory keeper of all the men who served there. His informative books include VALLEY OF DECISION (with John Prados) and BATTALION OF KINGS.

One of the more interesting things about Ray’s most recent book is that he included information that has been translated from North Vietnamese records about the Siege. I learned some of the North Vietnamese combat lexicon referring to Khe Sanh including the term they used to denote 21Jan. They called it N-Day.

N-Day was one of those days when you woke up and found yourself trapped in a world that, even though you had pondered the possibilities,, was a thousand times worse than what you might have imagined.

What made the day even more chaotic for me was my earlier dogged refusal to believe it was approaching even though we were constantly warned about the impending arrival of an Armageddon of sorts.

As I look back on it now, I suspect my reluctance to believe in the oncoming holocaust was because I’d been hearing about imminent threats for months, none of which had come to pass, and I also suspect it was a naïve optimism that I would somehow waltz through a generally combat-free thirteen month tour and onto the flight that would haul me back across the pond to the good old USA.

Nevertheless, the manure hit the fan early the morning of 21Jan and it drove me out of my bunker and into the trench. It was like I would imagine the end of the world, the worst thing you could dream up. Loud, crashing, frightening, we were all facedown in the trench for a short while before our officers and NCOs kicked us in the butts and made us come to grips with the sorry stink and roar of battle.

I remember getting hit, believing I was paralyzed until one of my mates knocked red clay clods off of my back, laughing at me because I thought I’d never walk again.

And then the base ammo dump, not more than fifty meters away, went up in fireworks that added to the eerie reality of the Dante-esque morning. It was Hell in the real, not something from a movie or a poem, but the genuine Hades that all of us Marines had secretly hoped for when we sat in the classes at Boot Camp and heard the stirring stories of Marine heroes Presly O’Bannon during the First Barbary War, Smedley Butler during the Boxer Rebellion, Dan Daly at Belleau Wood in 1918 and John Basilone on Guadalcanal.

But be careful what you wish for because stories of heroism and grit in the face of death are a bit different than being gripped in the maw of chaos.

When the ammo dump went up, it was electric, voluminous, colorful, and loud, like the Devil’s own fireworks. Old Nick’s claws gnashed the sky and his big-gun drums thundered so that the hard red ground thrummed like a bevy of kettle drums. The CS gas grenades and ammunition stored in the dump also caught fire and spread across the trenches before settling in. We had to put on gas masks and looked like bugs, and when people spoke, it sounded like one was listening to those people talking from the insides of #10 fruit cans.

We watched the wire perimeter with the sure knowledge that Charley would be coming through the barrier any minute, sappers first, then a banzai assault of men intent on impaling us on the shafts of their bayonets.

A close up look at Khe Sanh after the Siege began. Photo Courtesy of David Douglas Duncan and Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas Austin

A close up look at Khe Sanh after the Siege began. Photo Courtesy of David Douglas Duncan and Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas Austin

My memories of it fit and start, and I suspect they reflect what it was like to me—alive in a world impossible to imagine and almost impossible to accept, except men were dying from the NVA incoming and men were lying in the trench with shattered bones where our own rounds that had cooked off in the ammo dump had rocketed straight up and then plummeted on top of them.

And it was N-Day and it was pure hell and after it calmed down later in the day, I remember thinking, “Okay, now I’ve experienced that, I suspect (or maybe I should say hope) that we won’t have any more of it.”

But once again, my naiveté was proven to be a shoddy and dangerous outlook, because what began on N-Day went on for another seventy-six days.

The anniversary of N-Day (and my wife and co-producer/director, Betty wonders if N-Day might refer to naiveté, too), which approaches, looms huge in the minds of those who survived it.

And thanks to Ray Stubbe, I can read extensively about what happened to Bravo Company from the perspectives of us and the NVA.

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.

America's Middle East Conflicts,Documentary Film,Film Screenings,Khe Sanh,Marines,Veterans,Vietnam War

June 26, 2015

On Reverence for the Old Breed

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I recently had a conversation with a veteran of the Middle East conflicts about the status of veterans in our country today. This young man is someone for whom I hold a ton of respect, someone who owns the permanent wounds, both physical and mental, as a result of his tours of combat duty.

In effect—and I am paraphrasing here—he told me that today’s veterans have it easy compared to what happened to Vietnam vets, especially when we, Vietnam vets, came home from our war. I am not sure that we had it any more difficult in Vietnam than the troops who have been battling in Iraq and Afghanistan, but I didn’t disagree or agree with him.

Several days later, as I left the house to go on a walk, I considered the idea that we had it worse than the current vets. In terms of our acceptance by the public back home and the recognition that PTSD and TBI are legitimate issues, he is probably right. But that is all ancient history, so to speak.

As I strode beneath the ash trees and the maples and the crabapples and heard the warning cries of the black-capped chickadees, I thought about war and veterans. That led me to consider the wars of the last one-hundred years: World War I, the Banana Wars as Marine Lieutenant General Smedley Butler called them, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Gulf War I and II, Afghanistan and all the other scrapes and skirmishes that have involved the United States’ military.

That led me to think about how I felt, when I was in the Marine Corps, about the veterans of previous conflicts.

Before pursuing those thoughts, though, I admit to having spent a childhood surrounded by relatives, family friends and school teachers who were Marines. In 1950 one of my first cousins was killed at Chosin Reservoir in Korea. So I already held the idea of Marines in high regards.

Then in boot camp we were inundated with nightly doses of Marine Corps history: Presley O’Bannon, Dan Daly, Smedley Butler, John Basilone, Chesty Puller and other famous Marines. We heard about Belleau Wood and Guadalcanal. Our drill instructors uttered paeans to the Marines of Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines and their gripping heroic battle to stave off annihilation at the hands of the Chinese Army at Chosin Reservoir during the early days of the Korean War.

As I strode on down the walking trail ignoring the barks of neurotic Irish setters and aged Akitas, I recalled, in May of 1968, going to a special training session for riot control–yes we were training to control riots back in 1968. One of the trainers, a Master Gunnery Sergeant served with the 4th Marine Regiment—the China Marines—before World War II began for the United States. At the time he was old and I marveled that he was still in the Marines and I wondered what it was like to have been in China back then and supposed maybe he was with the units of the 4th Marines who were at Corregidor and the pursuant Bataan Death March. Thinking about those things gave me a sense of awe, that I was in the same location with a warrior who had been in places and combat that had reached almost mythological planes. Yes, I was at Khe Sanh, but Corregidor, Bataan?

Smedley Butler

Smedley Butler

Regardless of your feelings about war—hate it, love it—it happens to humans and as such, the total array of human emotion comes into play: love, hate, rage, cowardice, callousness, disdain, on and on and on. People go through horrible experiences and some act above and beyond and others dismally fail or fall short one day and triumph the next, and as they soar and/or fail, the environment that compels them is monstrous in ways that those who have not fought in battle cannot imagine. And I revered that Master Gunnery Sergeant for what I supposed he went through.

Similarly, later, when I was stationed at 36th Street Naval Station in San Diego, working in the Brig, one of our brig wardens was a Chief Warrant Officer, a weapons specialist known as a Gunner. I don’t recall his name but I can see him in my mind’s eye. Old, to me back then at the ripe old age of 23. The Gunner was quiet, not like I thought he ought to be, loud and commanding. If I recollect correctly, he had been with Chesty Puller at both Guadalcanal and Chosin Reservoir. I believe he was Chesty’s Sergeant Major at Chosin.

There I was, working with a man who’d been with Chesty, at two of the Marine Corps’ salient history-making battles. And I revered him so much that I didn’t ask him about all that history. I was reluctant to approach him. He may have felt about his experiences in those places like I felt about Khe Sanh and at that time I really didn’t want to talk about what happened at Khe Sanh.

I suspect that one of the reasons we were indoctrinated during boot camp on the heroics of past Marines was to perpetuate the mythology of the Corps, but it also was intended, in my opinion, as a possible way to stiffen our backbones should we, as Marines, and later as men, encounter the kind of horrible events that precipitated the actions that made Basilone and Butler and Chesty, and all the other Marines who are enshrined in the Corps’ pantheon of heroes, heroes.

Years after I left the Marine Corps, I ran into Marines who served after I did, and they told me that the Siege of Khe Sanh had already become memorialized in Marine Corps lore. They told me that when the Drill Instructors held their nightly historical indoctrination of recruits, Khe Sanh was spoken of with reverence and the men who fought there were heroes, too.

And as time goes on, I suppose, the men and women who served in Vietnam will be viewed in an even more heroic light as our stories continue to be told. Bravo Marines like the men in our film will be viewed as icons of heroism instead of the losers we were thought to be by so many of our fellow citizens back in the late 60s through the early 90s.

Newer waves of Marine veterans have emerged from combat in places like Beirut in 1982 and the Gulf War in the early 90s and of course, the Middle East wars of this century, and as the century rolls on, there will, unfortunately, be more wars in which we will undoubtedly fight, and as the years go on, those new Marines will hold the old ones in awe. And the mythology will be enriched and the list of heroes will grow. It won’t make any difference whether the wars are good or bad as judged later, the men who fight them will go on to endure nightmarish events that will automatically log them in the small brotherhood called Warrior.

Make no mistake, there will be wars. More wars in the Middle East as we deal with a resurgence of Islamic culture and there will be battles in Asia as those countries flex their muscles and who knows, Africa and South America and Europe. People say the Europeans are cured of the centuries of conflict that racked the continent, but folks die and the collective memory of World War I and World War II also loses the intimacy of horror that dies with the individuals who lived through those conflagrations. There will be war in Europe.

Chesty Puller

Chesty Puller

And we will be involved. Good war or bad war, we will have our young people involved, and as each generation of warrior grows older, they will become the new generation of the revered veterans.

My young friend and his fellow warriors in Iraq and Afghanistan will be known for fights in Fallujah and Ramadi and Sangin and Dehaneh. They will be revered. They will be called heroes. They won’t see themselves as such, but they will be remembered as heroes.

On July 2, 2015, at 7:00 PM, BRAVO! will be screened as a fundraiser for the Eagle Field of Honor in Eagle, Idaho. The screening will be at Northgate Reel Theater at 6950 West State Street in Boise. Tickets are $10.00 with all proceeds going to the Eagle Field of Honor. Sponsored by Lithia Ford of Boise. For more information contact Heather Paredes at dhpare@yahoo.com or Betty Rodgers at bettykrodgers@gmail.com. Telephone: 208-861-7309 or 208-340-8324.

If you or your organization would like to host a screening of BRAVO! in your town this coming summer, fall, or winter, 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/buy-the-dvd/.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject?ref=hl.