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January 20, 2018

50 Years Ago Today–Spooky

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January 20

On today’s date, fifty years ago and the day before the Siege of Khe Sanh erupted, I woke my fire team before first light to go on a work detail.

One of the men in my team slept hard and didn’t like to wake up. This happened a lot. I finally told him if he didn’t get out of the rack and eat some chow, I’d kick his ass.

That was a mistake. We didn’t really think much of each other. He jumped up and wrapped me in a bear hug. A strong kid from Detroit, he squeezed and made mention about my heritage and my mother. I thought he’d crush my chest.

Somehow I struggled and freed my arms and with my left hand found a metal bucket on a shelf in the bunker. Using both my hands, I clutched it and drove it down on the top of his skull.

He dropped me as blood shot into his brown hair, down the sides of his head and over his forehead into his eyebrows.

Concertina Wire. Attribution: Wikipedia

My stomach churned at the sight of all that blood and I figured there would be hell to pay. I sent him to see the corpsman while we ate chow. Word came back that he went to the battalion aid station to get his head stitched up.

We went off and built a concertina wire barrier somewhere behind the main trench lines. All day I worried about the private, his split open head and the ramifications with which I would have to deal.

While we pounded posts into the ground and strung concertina wire, a Huey flew over with a man hanging below. It looked like his hands were tied to a cable. The helicopter had no markings that would identify it as an American chopper.

We all watched as the Huey flew above a line of ragged trees that grew along the south side of the base and dragged the dangling man through the tree tops. I still imagine the sounds I imagined at the time—snapped bones, ripped flesh, the wash of guts and other organs impaled on the remains of broken branches.

For years, I didn’t remember the incident of the chopper dragging that man but I did remember splitting the private’s head open. Not until the mid 1990s did I recall the Huey and the dangling man and it wasn’t until 2010 that I was sure I’d seen what I saw. I was worried that I had taken someone else’s memory and made it mine. One of the men who we interviewed for BRAVO! asked me, while we were filming him, if I remembered seeing the Huey and the man hanging below.

Fifty years ago, when we arrived back at our fire team area the private with the busted head waited. He seemed quite pleased with a head full of stitches and that he didn’t have to help string concertina.

As I stood there peering at the top of his head, someone down the line set off a claymore mine by accident. When I looked that direction I saw Marines charging into their fighting positions and for the first time, an inkling of what was to come at the Siege of Khe Sanh snuck into my consciousness.

A time lapse of Spooky firing it’s miniguns.

Later that night, I took first watch. A heavy mist hung over the combat base. I walked up and down the trench, thinking, I suspect, about the bloody skull and the man who’d been hanging from the bottom of that Huey. I know I thought about that claymore mine and the echoes of its explosion that bounded along our lines.

I heard a soft, low moan and shivered. A waving line of red tracer fire sketched out of the sky and out to the front of our position. We called that moaning weapon, an airplane, Puff the Magic Dragon but it was more commonly known in Vietnam as Spooky.

And spooky it was as the red tracers etched a curved crimson line into the misty night and the low, sad moan of its sound followed and made me think of lamentations from spirits of the dead.

Ken Rodgers prior to the beginning of the Siege. Photo courtesy of Michael E. O’Hara.

As I got ready to go off watch, I stood at the back of my hooch and stared into the night.

It was spooky.

***

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