Bravo! The Project - A Documentary Film

Posts Tagged ‘The Wall’

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

October 27, 2017

Donna Elliott

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I bet it seems to our readers that all we ever do is post memorials, requiems, obituaries. I guess it’s inevitable since the Vietnam War is five decades past. The Vietnam Veteran generation is approaching its eighth and ninth decades of life. It only stands to reason that we would be announcing the passing of people important to the story of Khe Sanh and the siege.

Today we wish to remember Donna Elliott, the sister of a soldier who went missing in action on January 21, 1968, while on a mission to relieve the soldiers and Marines who were under attack at Khe Sanh Ville. Donna’s brother, Jerry, was a staff sergeant in the United States Army who was acting as a door gunner on one of the choppers that flew in under fire at Khe Sanh Ville. Donna spent much of her lifetime trying to locate his remains.

Donna was a writer and journalist, and a United States Army veteran, who passed on October 22, 2017 and will be interred tomorrow, October 28, in Mountain Home, Arkansas.

Donna E. Elliott

In April of 2012, we shared a guest blog from Donna about her search for Jerry. In memory of Donna and her brother, we are re-sharing her post:

Guest blogger Donna E. Elliott shares her essay, The Blade and the Cross, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund’s Essay Contest prize winner, excerpted from her book, Keeping the Promise (Hellgate Press, 2010).

On 21 January 1968, my brother, SSGT Jerry W. Elliott was declared Missing-In-Action in Khe Sanh, Vietnam. When the 55th Joint Task Force (JTF) investigated the loss site in 1999, his buddy, Mike Teutschman and I were present. After interviewing two local residents who had scavenged the Old French Fort, the team presented me with a charred section of rotor blade from Black Cat #027. The blade had survived a B-40 rocket attack, laid undiscovered in the red dirt of Khe Sanh until found by a farmer, and then spent years holding up the corner of a cow pen. Jerry had left his position as doorgunner on a different chopper to assist survivors from this crashed and burning helicopter when he disappeared.

I brought it back to America. May 2000, found us in the Pentagon parking lot with Run For The Wall, waiting to ride in the Rolling Thunder parade and carry the rotor blade in a pine box to the Wall. Many notables mingled with the bikers, but I never knew the name of the man I remember the most. He stared at the blade for a long time before he spoke. He was one of two survivors from a chopper crash. The other crewmember had managed to return to the crash and recover a small piece of stainless steel from the helicopter, which he used to make two crosses. The vet reached into his pants pocket and a small piece of silver flashed in his palm. He explained this cross was never out of his sight; he carried it with him at all times as a reminder of the friends he had lost. Tears welled up in his eyes when he choked out, “I don’t know why I didn’t die that day; they were all such good men.” Around noon, the lead bikes began to roll out. As soon as the wheels stopped turning, strong hands reached out to carry the heavy wooden box to its final destination at Panel 35E in an honor guard procession. One by one, the riders touched Jerry’s name with bowed heads as a silent statement of respect. Overwhelmed, I left the Wall. Like a moth to a flame, I later returned. While bending over the pine box, which now overflowed with miscellaneous mementos, I lost my balance and leaned into the Wall to break my fall.

Donna Elliott at the Wall, 2000

That’s when I saw it. Tucked deep into a corner of the pine box was the small silver cross! For reasons unknown, the Vietnam vet from the parking lot had chosen to leave his talisman at the Wall in remembrance of Jerry. His gift an anonymous, selfless act, reminiscent of actions I’d heard combat vets share about their brother soldiers on the battlefield. I placed the cross on one end of the blade, where it gleamed boldly. I hope my nameless friend from the parking lot walked away from the Wall that day with as much peace in his heart as I felt at that moment.

Donna E. Elliott, a retired military photojournalist, values the peaceful surroundings of the family farm in the Arkansas Ozark foothills. In civilian life, she utilized her writing skills as a newspaper and radio news reporter, and freelanced as a human interest photojournalist. While in service, she earned the U. S. Army Command FORSCOM 4th Estate Award and three Minaret awards for excellence in journalism. Donna is a member of the Military Writers Society of America.

Used with permission of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (www.buildthecenter.org/) and Donna E. Elliott.

You can read Donna’s obituary here.

And you can find out more about her book, KEEPING THE PROMISE, here.

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

August 5, 2015

On Drones, Ghosts, Facebook and the O-2 Skymaster

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I recently ran onto a spoof written last summer that satirized both Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg and Google. In the article, Zuckerberg threatened to have Facebook shoot down all of Google’s drones. The piece, written by NEW YORKER satirist Andy Borowitz (you can read the entire Borowitz piece here), makes fun of the two gigantic social media and Internet companies, but the mention of drones as weapons owned by companies here in the United States got me to thinking about the insertion of drones into our everyday lives, not only as weapons but as tools for more peaceful tasks.

Both governments and businesses are using drones for a number of things. Last fall, while Betty and I traveled in the central California oil patch around Taft, we ran upon a drone hovering about forty feet in the air above the highway. I suspect that drone’s job was (or is) to provide security for the oil fields lining the road that runs north to south.

I had never seen a drone before, that I know of, but I have been paying attention to them a lot more now. As a filmmaker, I could buy one that would allow us to shoot movie footage from an aerial point of view. A quick look at a website curated by someone with the handle, “Droneguy,” lists a whole array of drones available for filmmakers to use. I suppose folks with other goals besides filmmaking might be interested in drones and the ability they allow a user to watch, record, spy. You can get a look at some of these drones at Droneguy’s site here.

It’s kind of creepy thinking about how your neighbor could buy a drone, attach a camera to it and watch what you or anyone else is doing. And not just watching. A few weeks back, some kid apparently attached a gun to a drone, so the potential of attack and defense by individuals and organizations other than the military are very possible.

When I think of drones as weapons, I think about twenty-year-old kids sitting in a command center somewhere in Colorado directing drones to exterminate terrorists in Somalia and Pakistan and Yemen. I imagine those twenty-year-old kids are also directing their drones to act as reconnaissance assets that can help the troops in the field.

Air Force photo of a drone.

Air Force photo of a drone.

We’ve come a long way in the last forty-seven years with the airborne tools we use to help the ground-pounders locate the enemy.

Around Khe Sanh in 1967 and 1968, long before drones, it wasn’t that unusual to see small, manned, fixed wing, propeller driven aircraft fly over the bush looking for enemy movement. One type of plane that operated out of Khe Sanh was the United States Air Force’s O-2A. According to Wikipedia, (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cessna_O-2_Skymaster), this plane was made by Cessna and owned the moniker, “Skymaster.” The plane was also known as “Oscar Deuce” or “The Duck.”

On January 17, 1968, four days before the Siege of Khe Sanh officially began, the men of Bravo Company, 1/26, watched as one of these Skymasters roared down the runway of the airstrip in an easterly direction, lifted off, seemed to stall and then tumbled out of the sky.

At the time, I recall it reminding me of hunting trips back home in southern Arizona and the way a quail would tumble out of the sky and then crash after I shot it with my shotgun.

The Skymaster fell and slammed into the red mud and dirt right out in front of our position. When I say, “our,” I mean Second Platoon, Bravo Company’s position.

It’s been over forty-seven years since that event and my memory may have veered a bit or grown a tad rusty, but as I recall that day, right after the plane came down, some of us, including me, ran out through the gate in the concertina barriers and the wire traps we had stretched across the terrain. We wanted to see if we could help the pilot.

I remember seeing two men inside. They frantically screamed at us but what they yelled I don’t recall. Maybe we couldn’t hear the particulars although I guarantee you we understood the gist of the situation.

The plane was smoking and burning and it must have been less than a minute when ammunition inside began cooking off from the heat. I don’t know if they were pistol rounds or rifle rounds or something larger, but as the fire grew and the heat burned our faces, we could hear the report of those cook-offs.

There were four or five of us Marines out there trying to liberate those men from that burning death trap. In my recollection two men in our film, BRAVO! COMMON MEN, UNCOMMON VALOR, were part of the rescue party. Those two Marines were Michael E. O’Hara and the late Dan Horton.

But the burning Oscar Deuce was too hot, and we couldn’t get close enough to the doors to open them and then someone, maybe our platoon commander Lieutenant John Dillon, maybe the platoon sergeant Staff Sergeant Gus Alvarado, or maybe both came and yanked us away from the heat and the cooking off rounds and the imminent threat of that plane exploding.

For years, I’ve been haunted by the image of a man’s face staring at me from behind a veil of smoke, a window, the face screaming, but very little sound in my ears.

We didn’t get those men out and they burned to death. As to the cause, the verdict is mixed. One report indicated the downing of the Skymaster was due to enemy fire, while another said the debacle was not the result of enemy fire.

I don’t recall hearing any small arms fire as the plane lifted off, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t any. To me, what matters a whole lot more than what caused that plane to go down was the fact that two men died in there, two men whom we could see and hear and could not save. Two men with families and friends were not going home except in a black body bag. And we who witnessed the event are left with the detritus of the memories.

Air Force photo of a Cessna O-2A.

Air Force photo of a Cessna O-2A.

Those two men were the pilot, Air Force Captain Sam Beach, and an observer, Army Sergeant First Class Donald Chaney. You can read more about Sam Beach and Donald Chaney on the Virtual Wall at http://www.virtualwall.org/db/BeachSF01a.htm and http://www.virtualwall.org/dc/ChaneyDL02a.htm.

As I write this, I think that the use of drones as a way to spot the enemy might be an improvement over manned aircraft. If that vehicle had been a drone, then I wouldn’t have those memories haunting me, those voices yelling through the smoke, the ghost of that horrified face looking at me through the Skymaster’s windshield and there would be two less names on The Wall.

If you or your organization would like to host a screening of BRAVO! in your town in late 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.

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

September 3, 2014

Dancing–Redux

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This week the blog revisits a poignant encounter we had at The Wall in Washington DC while photographing the names of deceased Marines of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment.

Bamboo flooring echoes like an old-time wood-floored hallway. The crack of sound rebounds into the corners of rooms and rackets irritatingly when you are trying to film an interview. When the old Marine you are interviewing is nervous and keeps tapping his feet it’s mindful of M-16 fire off in the distance, down in a canyon or a draw denuded of elephant grass and triple-canopy jungle, just raw, red ground pocked by the plague of bomb craters, trenches, and dead snags.

Betty and I found this out the way you usually find things out…the hard way. Right in the middle of an interview, you emerge from the monsoon mist into an ambush of recognition that you didn’t even think about: the need to muffle the sounds the floor makes, or that you need gloves to handle the lights, to keep them from sizzling the fat on your hands. Or from pinching the webbing between the thumb and forefinger, or that you better chat with your subject for a while about the rudiments of interviews so they aren’t in a state of sheer fright when the beams snarl at them and the red light on the camera blinks its message that the interviewee is suddenly naked to the world.

The Wall at night

The Wall at night

And there are other things necessary when you make movies: research—patience, patience, patience—and more research and checking the validity of info, of sources.

This week in Washington, DC, we are doing research at Quantico and the National Archives. We’ve located films and photos and command chronologies and after-action reports and oral interviews conducted during 1968.

And things are moving forward. We will have a final trailer in the coming weeks, and we will then begin the editing process to finish the film.

As my old Marine Corps mate, Michael E. O’Hara, says, Betty and I are pilgrims, pilgrims of the body and the mind, in the realm of movies and film and memories. Across the big flat green eastern United States, roaming around looking for the threads that help it all make sense. The threads of story.

We’ve been to The Wall twice this trip to take photos and film the names. Last Sunday we went down early while the Park Service was tidying up after the twin revivals conducted by Glen Beck and Al Sharpton. The sun glared and dew coated the grass. A few people moved among the endless plastic bags of trash that lined the paths and walkways.

The wall was damp and looked like it had been hosed off and there was little hope we could immediately take any pictures because each name was coated with tiny bullets of water. I dug out my trusty big blue kerchief and began to wipe the water off the names. I started at panel 35 E with Steven Hellwig and was interrupted from my chore by an earnest young man and woman who asked me how to find names, understand the logic on the wall. Inside, I said to myself , what logic, logic to all this? But I didn’t because there isn’t a logic. I said, “Where you from?”

He smiled and so did she. “We’re from Alabama and we’ve been here for the Beck revival and we thought we’d come pay our respects to some men from our town who served and died.” I expected wild-eyed Beck followers but these people were polite and earnest. I explained how The Wall works and then went back to drying names and worked through the subsequent panels until I was at 46 E on my knees wiping off Gregory Kent and Jimmie Lafon McRae when a short man about my age holding a digital camera knelt next to me and asked if he could borrow my kerchief to dry a name when I was done.

He was tanned and had a hard New England accent. For some reason, I blurted, “Who you looking for?”

“Gregory Kent. He and I ran track together in high school and . . .”

I blurted, “I know him.”

He stared at me. “You know him?”

I hesitated. “I knew him. We served together.” The stare on his face made me think he wasn’t sure he believed me.

I pointed my finger at him like a pistol and went on, “You’re from Boston, right?”

“I live in Florida, but yes, I’m from Boston.”

I looked down and wiped the name again. “I served with him until he was killed on March 28, 1968, with this fellow.” I pointed two rows down to Jimmie Lafon McRae.

He sat back on his heels and looked at me like someone contemplating stabbing a snake.

Panel at The Wall with the names of Greg Kent and Jimmie L McRae

Panel at The Wall with the names of Greg Kent and Jimmie L McRae

I hesitated again and then nodded. “They stepped out of a hooch and were talking along with Ron Exum from Philadelphia. A mortar landed between them and Kent and McRae were killed.” I could have told him that there were shrapnel holes in Kent’s chest that spewed like oil gushers, but I didn’t.

The man said, “My name’s Sully Grasso and, and . . .”

I looked at the names and brushed at them though they were already dry. I thought about Greg Kent, and how he liked to talk about dancing. He said he loved to dance, dance, dance.

Sully Grasso said, “Greg Kent won the state championship and could have gone to the Olympic trials but he joined the Marines instead. I’m here for Glen Beck’s memorial and I want to take a picture and a tracing and I want to write an article . . . this is a miracle.”

I don’t think I believe in miracles but I didn’t tell him that. I just cleared my throat as I looked away. He took my photograph, twice, as I knelt there. He asked my name and the pertinent details of Kent’s death.

I wrote on a piece of yellow-lined paper from my yellow pad the barest of details as I remember them. He went to get something to trace names. Betty and I tried to take photos. Sully came back and took some more pictures and traced the names, Gregory Kent and Jimmie L McRae. Then he walked up to me. Tears swelled in his eyes. I couldn’t look at him. He leaned towards me and I stuck out my hand to shake in order to avoid more intimate shows of emotion, but he pulled me close and hugged me. He said, “God knows my heart and he sent you here to meet me. He knows my heart. I didn’t have any idea about how Greg died and now I know.”

I’m not sure I even believe in God, but I didn’t tell him that. The steps of people walking by echoed off the smooth surface of the wall. A multi-colored wreath stood at the junction of the monument’s east and west wings and an old, scuffed jungle boot stood there by itself, in front of panel 22 W. A red rosebud stuck up from inside the boot. I nodded at Sully and thought about how Kent liked to prance around and dance, his energy exploding out of him, and then he was dead.

On the screening front, BRAVO! will be shown in Nampa, Idaho, on September 25, 2014 at the Elks Lodge. Doors will open at 6:00 PM with the screening of the film at 6:30, followed by a Q & A session. Suggested donation, $10.00 to benefit the Wyakin Warrior Foundation. http://www.wyakin.org Joining us for the screening will be BRAVO! Marine Ron Rees. Noted Boise author Alan Heathcock has agreed to be the Master of Ceremonies for this event.

If you would like to host a screening of BRAVO! in your town this fall or winter, 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 you can help us reach more people.

Khe Sanh,Marines,Other Musings,Vietnam War

January 17, 2014

Our Brothers’ Keeper

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Early in each year, my mind turns to events that happened forty-six years back at the Khe Sanh Combat Base in Vietnam. During the seventy-seven day siege that began on January 21, 1968, certain events ensued that are permanently emblazoned in my memory.

One of the most memorable—and for me, disastrous—events that occurred out of a litany of disastrous events is what has come to be called the “Ghost Patrol” that happened on February 25th, 1968, when the Third Platoon, Bravo Company, 1/26, went outside the Khe Sanh Combat Base on a patrol that turned into a catastrophe. The patrol, somewhere around fifty-four Marines and Navy Corpsmen, was ambushed by a much larger unit of the North Vietnamese Army, and twenty-seven Marines were KIA and a large number were WIA. For years we thought the count of KIAs was twenty-eight, but one Marine surprised us in 1973 when he showed up among the other 590 POWs freed from incarceration in the North Vietnamese prisoner of war camps.

Another one of the men on that patrol received serious facial wounds but survived, got back into the combat base and was medevaced out, eventually making it back to the States and then medically retired from the Marine Corps. Military doctors created a new face for this Marine, but more was damaged than the his body, and in the mid-1970s, he committed suicide.

In the last few years, one of this Marine’s Khe Sanh brothers, Seabee Mike Preston, set about to get that man’s name etched into the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (The Wall) on the National Mall in Washington, DC. Even though this Marine was not technically killed in action in Vietnam, many of the Khe Sanh veterans felt strongly that the man’s death eight years later was a result of his wounds received on 25 February 1968.

Mike Preston, who has a great deal of experience helping veterans, spent forty-five months working with attorneys (including the casualty section at USMC Quantico who encouraged Mike during his efforts), other veterans, medical personnel, doctors and the VA in attempts to see to it that the Marine would be properly honored as he deserved.

On the left, Mike Preston and on the right, Ken Rodgers, Sonora, CA 2013 ©Betty Rodgers 2013

Mike spends a lot of his time working with disabled vets. He’s helped get another Vietnam veteran’s name on The Wall. Mike has taken thirty to forty veterans to visit The Wall to “make their bones,” as he calls it. He counsels vets from our more current conflicts, trying to help them understand what all those feelings are inside them that they cannot comprehend, the unexplainable rage and paranoia and sense of distance from anyone who wants to love them. Mike says, “The healer is being healed by healing another. After all, we are our brothers’ keeper.”

Last November, over tacos in the Sierra foothills town of Jackson, California, Mike, Betty and I talked about Mike’s plight to honor the Vietnam veteran, specifically this Marine who was wounded on 25 February 1968. After his forty-five months of effort and sweat and rage at the system that sometimes makes it so damned hard to honor those who fight for this country, Mike received information about this Marine that negated all reasonable attempts to get his name on The Wall, which would have raised the number of recognized combat deaths from 58,286 to 58,287.

Even though this man had a clean record while in the Marine Corps, even though he’d been a real gunfighter who showed up whenever the manure hit the fan, even though he had gotten his brothers’ backs when they needed him, he will ultimately not be honored on The Wall as a casualty of the Vietnam War.

All along, Mike’s premise was that the war made this man what he had become and ultimately made him a casualty, even though the war had been over for three years by the time of his suicide. After his nearly four-year effort, Mike finally got a look at the man’s records. He found out that this Marine had a history of problems prior to his service in the Corps that would have prevented his attempts to even enlist in the USMC in the first place if the authorities had known about them. He also had a history of mental problems and drug abuse after his discharge, so claiming that the war forced him to terminate his own life became impossible to prove.

Mike says that the memorial fund he helped found in the name of this Marine paid for, and had placed on his grave, a military headstone that was due him from the country he served. Mike wishes to thank Mr. Bill Jayne, a BRAVO! Marine, who before retirement was with the National Cemetery Administration for the US Department of Veterans Affairs. Bill helped facilitate the purchase of the headstone. Semper Fidelis, Bill Jayne.

Mike also thinks the Marine Corps deserves a compliment because in just a matter of weeks they helped this individual perform honorably under what could be, at the very least, termed as trying circumstances. Civilian society, for whatever reason, could not do this.

Mike, Betty and I further mused on the proper way to honor a veteran of war. If he has serious problems as a result of the conflict, does it diminish his service? Does the fact that he was in trouble before he enlisted somehow diminish his service? How do you decide? Where do you draw the line? Mike Preston says that what is important in thinking about these issues is that this man should be remembered for what he did from the time he raised his hand and took his oath at induction until the completion of his military obligation, “nothing more, nothing less.”

Documentary Film,Khe Sanh,Marines,Vietnam War

October 8, 2013

On David Aldrich, The Wall and Khe Sanh

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David Aldrich

Panel 47E, Row 007 of The Wall.

The Wall, Panel 47E, Row 007

I’ve been having an ongoing e-mail conversation over the last several years with a Marine named Dave Evans who was in Marine Corps Training in the States with David A. Aldrich. Both of these Daves arrived together in Danang, South Vietnam in March of 1967 and one Dave went to Hill 55 with the First Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment. That was Dave Aldrich. I arrived on Hill 55 a day later. So Aldrich (that’s what we called him…we didn’t normally call anyone by first names in Vietnam) and I got to know each other fairly well, even though we were technically assigned to different platoons after our initial orientation while in the main battalion position on Hill 55. Aldrich, I believe, had an MOS of 0351 (the virtual wall states that he was an 0311) which meant he shot what we called “rockets” but which might be more simply understood as bazookas. I was an 0311, an infantryman, a grunt. I was assigned to Second Platoon and he went to Weapons Platoon, Bravo Company.

Aldrich was a quiet guy with a big smile, as I recall, and a mellow sense of humor. He stomped through mud and jungle grass with 1st and 3rd Platoons on patrol, too, but it seems like he was with us, 2nd Platoon, most of the time through the spring and summer of 1967 as the 26th Marines moved north from Hill 55 to the Khe Sanh Combat Base. He was with us through the monsoon season and up on Hill 881 South in the fall of the year. He was there, sharing chow with us, and jokes, playing cards, listening to the newest music on Corporal Mitchell’s portable record player…Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Aretha and Otis Redding and The Jefferson Airplane.

Those days through the fall of ’67 were hard, wet and dreary and Aldrich was along all the time, shooting his rockets when necessary. Dealing with the wet rounds that failed to go off. That was tough for him, getting those dud rounds, those wet rounds, out of those tubes without them cooking off and blowing his arms and face off. I recall how cool he was about it. If he was sweating, he remained unflappable, only the barest hint of tension in the grit of his teeth. But even if he was scared (and of course he was) he certainly didn’t want it to show…we were Marines.

When the siege began he came around my bunker a lot and stood watch with us and he and I talked about going home…home…like heaven. I remember one terrible day, February 25, 1968, our Third Platoon got ambushed and First Platoon went out to relieve them and they got ambushed, too. We, Second Platoon, were left to man the company’s lines. The NVA was pounding the trench line with sneaky 82 millimeter mortar, rockets and train-wreck 152 millimeter artillery, keeping us down, keeping us locked in the perimeter so we couldn’t go get our friends, our mates, who were dying out there within ear shot.

It was one of the worst days of my life. My whole body shook. I imagined the red fire and searing teeth of death and conflagration. The end was here and I didn’t want to face it. I wanted my life.

As this was going on, Aldrich came up and engaged me in conversation. He must have seen my shaking. I can only imagine how white my face must have been. How shrunken down into my utilities and flak jacket I must have been, as if that could have made any difference. But he didn’t act like he was seeing anything out of the ordinary. He soothed me with his words. He steadied me.

Aldrich and I survived a lot during the siege. We both made it all the way to the end of our tours. Then came March 30, 1968, what has been called the Payback Patrol. Aldrich had one day to go…he was scheduled to leave the field on March 31. I was scheduled to go on April 1. The evening before the patrol, the word got passed to me that Aldrich was looking for me so I went to his bunker, stuck my head in, saw he was slouched on a cot. I went in and sat down. He abruptly handed me an envelope. I said, “What’s that for?”

Ken Rodgers, co-producer, co-director of BRAVO!, photo courtesy of Kevin Martini-Fuller

“Make sure my parents get this?”

“What is it?”

“My dog tags.”

I began to yell at him. I refused to accept the envelope. He said, “If I go out tomorrow, I won’t come back alive.”

I yelled. I yelled. I yelled. “If you believe that now, that’s what will happen.”

He nodded. I said, “You’ve got to believe they can’t get you. If you believe they can’t get you, they won’t.”

He shook his head. We went back and forth, he resigned, me enraged, angry, and screaming. He wasn’t buying what I was saying. I didn’t accept the envelope.

The next day was four or five hours of speeded-up, slowed-down hell. It was like Dante says in his poem, Inferno, “Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here.” I survived it and a lot of Marines didn’t. I remember walking down the red dirt road after we were ordered back into the perimeter. Men staggered along the lane. Some wore bandages on their heads, their arms and legs; some wore looks on their dirty faces that reminded me of dead people. Two men dragged a body down the middle of the road. I passed them and looked down. Even though his face was turned into the red clay, I knew it was David A. Aldrich, Corporal, USMC.

I’ve been haunted by these images for over forty-five years. What could I have done to prevent Aldrich’s death? What could he have done? Did my failure to accept the envelope with the dog tags dishonor him? Maybe when I get done writing this, the images will stop coming.

Later that day the word came down the trench line asking if anyone had seen Aldrich. He was missing in action, they said. I went up to the platoon Command Post and told them I had seen his corpse. “You’re sure?” they asked me. “Yeah,” I said. The platoon sergeant went up with me to Battalion headquarters and I signed affidavits of some sort saying I’d seen him dead. I signed the papers. He was dead. Killed in action.

For years I’ve had a sneaking fear that somehow I was wrong, and David Aldrich is locked away in some prison cell in Hanoi. Seeing his name on the wall soothes that fear. Somewhat.

Dave Evans asks that if anyone knew David Aldrich, please contact him at usmcdevans@yahoo.com.

There will be a screening of BRAVO! in Santa Rosa, California on October 30, 2013. See details at https://bravotheproject.com/upcoming-screenings-of-bravo/

DVDs of BRAVO! are now for sale at https://bravotheproject.com/buy-the-dvd/.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please like us at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject/.

Guest Blogs

July 3, 2011

The Skipper Speaks

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The man who commanded Bravo Company at Khe Sanh, Ken Pipes, Lt. Colonel, USMC Retired, muses on events at the siege, as well as subsequent events.

I have been told by a small number of those that I love deeply and by many acquaintances—some of whom had no military service in their background—to get over thinking and talking of those days at Khe Sanh and Northern I Corps. “You just need to put those 13 months behind you and get on with your life. After all, it was so long ago!” I have often thought:  no, not so long ago, especially late at night…perhaps only yesterday.  For those that I care about I explain that first of all I don’t want to forget as it would be a great disservice to those with whom I served in 1967 and 1968:  Bravo Company, First Battalion, 26th Marines. More importantly, it would be a deliberate—and represent the absolute ultimate—disrespect shown to those who gave their lives so that others, like me and my family, could continue to live and enjoy ours. Finally, I could not and cannot forget, ever!
 
Then there are the coincidences that have happened since 1968 that are more than random occurrence. For example, there is a clock of black lacquer that has been sold nationwide for many years.  It has the statue of three bush grunts (one of the big attractions at the Wall in D.C.) superimposed upon the names of an unmarked section of that sacred black marble. Sharon and I were at the Pendleton uniform shop when I first noticed it 25 or more years ago. Out of curiosity I looked closely at it and was staggered–almost going to my knees. That unmarked section of this nationally distributed work of art contained the names of those lost by our Company on 25 February 1968. Forget? I don’t hardly think so! Don, Mac, Ken and Brellentin, Laderoute and the other Brave Marines who fell that day, and the day itself, came rolling back. They are with me now!
 
More than 30 years ago, while working my second job following my retirement from the Marine Corps, I returned home one evening and the phone rang. When I picked up the phone a voice on the other end said, “Bet you don’t know who this is!” Instantly, I said, “It is Ernie,” and it was! He wanted to know how the hell I knew.  Because, as Company Commanders together at Khe Sanh we talked constantly on the radio, either back and forth or listening to each other as we monitored the Battalion Tactical Net, and still later when he was the Battalion S-2 and I was the Assistant S-3. I just knew, and the hair on the back of my neck stood up.  How can you forget? I could not!
 
In the mid 1980s I went to a VA clinic located in Vista, California, seeking medical treatment. One of the counselors who assisted me noticed that I had served at Khe Sanh. He asked in what unit, and was amazed when I told him Bravo Company.  His uncle had served in our unit at the same time. We exchanged messages through his nephew, but never directly talked on the phone. Still, I think this is more than a mere coincidence. At the same clinic sometime later I saw a gentleman who obviously had served in our Corps of Marines. His name was Jim, a retired postman in Oceanside who was very seriously wounded in action in the First Battle of the Hills. What a story he had to tell—he too, had not forgotten; we never will!
 
Still years and many phone calls later, the phone rang, again. When I picked it up, what turned out to be a beautiful and wonderful lady, Naomi, was on the line. She said she had an important favor to ask:  Would Sharon and I come to her wedding to Jake the following week in Compton, California, as a surprise for her future husband? Remember, I had never met nor talked to this outstanding woman before and had not seen her future husband, Quiles Ray Jacobs, since we left Khe Sanh. What a reunion it was and how great it was to visit with Jake and to get to know the sweet lady that he married. As some of you know, Jake passed sometime ago from Agent Orange-related cancer. My friend Mike and I miss this powerful, gentle and Heroic Man, Marine and sterling Squad Leader, “Jake the Snake.” Who in their right mind could or would want to forget such a giant of a Warrior? Not Mike nor me—that is for sure!
 
One of the first of the Bravo Warriors to die the morning the Siege began was Steven Hellwig. Steve was in the Marines because he wanted to be; he was in Vietnam and at Khe Sanh because that is what he wanted. He was a communicator by choice and gained the respect of the other Platoon and Company Radio Operators because he, like my old comrade Tom, was a solid, calm professional and had a quick grasp of the situation. I reached him just after he passed. The story:  another phone call, this time from his younger brother, Ray. He wanted to come to San Diego from their home in Seattle, Washington, to spend some time with us to discuss the passing and circumstances of Steve’s death. We met at MCRD in San Diego, spent most of the day talking about his brother, and that place and time at Khe Sanh some of us remember so well.

But it did not stop there. Less than a year after Steve’s death, Ray said that he enlisted in the Marines, graduated from Boot Camp, went to Comm School, to Vietnam and, would you believe, was assigned to First Battalion, 26th Marines and, if I remember correctly, as the Battalion Radio Operator assigned to Bravo Company.  Ray did not volunteer for anything except his enlistment in the Corps.  He was in the unit at the same time as the now well-known screenwriter, Bill Broyles. Bill unexpectedly came by our house in Fallbrook just a day or two before he went to Hollywood as he was nominated for an Academy Award for Apollo 13. As a side note, Steve Hellwig, Jr., enlisted in the Marine Corps about three years ago, was a gunner with tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is now back home and starting the next phase of his life. Like his Uncle Steven and his father, Ray, Steve Jr. carried on the family tradition of service in our Green Family. All this a coincidence—not for a minute of it, at least not in my mind!
 
At the beginning of the week, the last week in June, I overheard one person ask another just what good came out of that war. The response was, “Great advancements in emergency medicine.” To that I would add something equally important:  The honor of staying in touch with men that I will never see the likes of again. Men of Honor, Courage and Commitment. We each have a second family—one our blood family sometimes finds hard to understand. In an unexplainable way, we love and care for each other—in a different but similar manner as the feeling we have about our wife and children. If it were not for the war, I would have never had the opportunity to meet and become Friends and Blood Brothers with such Warrior Giants as Mike, the Sgt. Major, Tom, Jake, Gilbert, Bruce, Steve, Pete, Matt, Bill, Ben, Ken, Dennis, Short Round and so many others! Oh yes, I almost forgot Craig—he was with us, helping defend our lines, fending off the barbarians.
 
Because of time and space constraints, I will close this heartfelt effort to explain that all that has happened to me and, I am sure with many others in Bravo Company, is not just happenstance. There is a power working that we all have yet to understand.  Perhaps, in some way, Ken and Betty’s project may help as they shine a bright spotlight on what, until now, has been an untold story. Perhaps they will become “Speakers for our Dead?’ Just maybe, their effort will cross the chasm that separates us and those Cherished Companions at Arms who are no longer with us; their long silent story will finally be told.
 
In this vein and in closing, at the end of last month, several members of Bravo were invited to attend a memorial service sponsored by the Atlanta Vietnam Veterans Business Association. Guess who they randomly chose to honor:  PFC Ted Britt, Killed in Action on 30 March 1968. His mother, who is still alive, and his younger brother, Tim Britt, Brigadier General, United States Army Reserve, with a tour of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan behind him, were the Guests of Honor.  Several hundred citizens of Georgia were in attendance. The entire program left us with moist eyes and cracking voices. The music was provided by the Marine Band of the Logistics Base in Albany—every detail accomplished with a precision and professionalism that would have met the very highest standards expected at Marine Barracks, Washington, D.C. The Guest Speaker was Retired Marine Colonel H. Barnum, Medal of Honor.  However, the real keynote address and tribute paid to PFC Britt was done by our own Lieutenant Pete Weiss and Bill Jayne. When these two members of Bravo Company concluded, there was not a dry eye in the area.
 
Bravo Company’s Ted Golab, Lieutenant  Hank Norman’s Assistant FO, was also present. In fact, Ted and his wife Pat put me up for the time that I was in Atlanta. Ted, like Mike, is another unsung Hero of 30 March.  When Hank passed, Ted and his radio operator moved to what was left of the Command Group and helped get our artillery support back in battery. Now it gets spooky and moves beyond coincidence—Ted leaned over to me and said that he and Ted Britt were born on the same day, same year, and were the exactly the same age when PFC Britt was KIA. For the details of the magnificent tribute of one of our own, Google the AVVBA and PFC Ted Britt. It will leave you spellbound–his posthumous Silver Star Citation is there for all to read. 
 
What follows, I hope, will make a fitting end to this article and indicate my strong feeling that we must never forget! The few short lines came to me late one night some years ago, when my thoughts turned to that place and to that time that is so indelibly imprinted upon each of us!
 
 
BRAVE RIFLES
 
YOU COMFORT US IN THE DARK OF NIGHT. WE SEE YOU IN THE EYES OF OUR CHILDREN.
 
YOU ARE BESIDE US IN THE SAFE, FORESTED TRAIL. YOU ARE ONLY A SMILE, A THOUGHT
 
AND A TEAR AWAY. OUR HEARTS ACHE FOR YOUR FAMILY EVEN TODAY. WE SPEAK PROUDLY OF
 
YOUR BRAVERY AT OUR ANNUAL GATHERING. YOU ARE THE BENCHMARK AGAINST WHICH ALL
 
ELSE IS MEASURED. REST IN PEACE AND HONOR, BRAVE RIFLES,
 
YOU ARE NEVER FORGOTTEN.

Ken Pipes is a retired Marine Corps officer who is beloved by the men he led at the Siege of Khe Sanh in the winter and early spring of 1968.

Guest Blogs

June 25, 2011

Part II

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Today, Betty Rodgers, Co-producer of Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor, muses on the history to date of the film’s genesis and development.

I can say with certainty that the incredible journey of making this film has gone far beyond coincidence.  Nearly every attempt at moving the project forward has been met and exceeded.  It has also been an education in filmmaking, in the bonds of friendship, in understanding and trusting our own intelligence and instincts.  The collaboration has enriched our marriage.

 The first hint that we were on the right path with our desire to record the history of Bravo Company during the siege of Khe Sanh was when we approached the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation for financial support early in 2010.  With much enthusiasm they said “yes” in the form of a check for seed money.  We now had the funds to get us started, and that meant it was time to get to work.

 I ceased working fulltime, and Ken and I became very active in the Idaho Media Professionals, a high energy group of positive and creative thinkers in the film industry.  We went to every meeting and workshop we could attend, learning as much as possible about our new endeavor and benefitting from the enthusiastic encouragement from Lance Thompson (a script genius) who saw the potential and kept telling us, “You can do it.”

One of our motivations for moving quickly was the knowledge we were gradually losing the men of Bravo Company, and with each one, their part of the story.  Knowing we would never become experienced videographers soon enough, we decided to hire an expert.  Mark Spear was the man, and he and Drew Allen filmed Ken’s interview.  Now we understood the process, and Ken understood how it felt to be filmed and interviewed.

We put out a call via email and snail mail to everyone we could find in Bravo Company.  Originally we were going to travel the country and film interviews in every veteran’s home.  But that could take two years, so we decided to do as many as we could at the annual reunion of Khe Sanh Veterans.  In 2010, that would be in San Antonio, Texas.  We took Mark with us, and nine men agreed to participate.

Originally, I was going to do the interviews because that’s something I like to do. At the last minute Ken decided he wanted to do them, and this proved to be a brilliant choice. How could they have ever explained their experience to me?  Far better that they told their stories to one of their brothers, a man who was there and understood exactly what they were talking about.  The results were powerful.

In the meantime, it became clear that the costs of making Bravo would far exceed our start-up funds and personal savings.  We had to learn how to be fundraisers.  Mary McColl helped us focus on that and coached us on how to begin.  To her, there is significance in the fact that the Vietnam War is part of our generation’s history.  Then our friend Carol Caldwell-Ewart stepped up to develop a fundraising site at www.indiegogo.com/bravo-common-men-uncommon-valor.  She, our online impressaria, has worked tirelessly to help us with our monetary goals and more.  Miraculously, friends and family and acquaintances and strangers have donated there.  Each one spurs us on.

Then my brother and his wife, Michael and Linda Hosford, asked what they could do, and we knew we wanted to get the word out to veterans everywhere who would want to know about the film.  So Michael and Linda started an email campaign to veterans’ organizations around the US, and have sent thousands of messages to date, with more on the way.

Our next step was to make what became an 8,000 mile road trip to Washington, DC, and back, to do research at Quantico and the National Archives.  We took the opportunity and interviewed five other men along the way.  My cousins, Chuck and Donna Dennis, made us welcome in their home  during those weeks, and we found photos, film footage, audio tapes, reports and more, all about Bravo Company during the siege of Khe Sanh.  Miraculously, we found audio tapes of two people in the film.

While we were there, we visited the Vietnam Memorial a couple of times, taking photos of the Bravo Company names representing the men lost during the siege.  The first morning we were there, the black granite was wet with dew.  Ken pulled out his handkerchief and squatted down to wipe the moisture away from Greg Kent’s name.  At that moment, a stranger bent down and asked if he could borrow the handkerchief to also wipe the moisture from a name.  He was looking for a Greg Kent. I still find this to be a remarkable memory, listening to the two men, 42 years later, meeting and remembering a likeable young man who had qualified for the Olympics before his life was ended by war.

And then shortly after we returned home, two months after his interview, our friend, Bravo Company’s Daniel L. Horton, passed away from terminal cancer.  We were thankful we hadn’t tarried.

I’ll continue our story in Part III.  In the meantime, we have 6 days left to reach our fundraising goal on the website linked above.  If you can help, or know someone who can (a parent, a veteran, a friend, a business, an organization), we ask for your help in reaching them. If you have already given your support, we offer our heartiest thanks.

Betty Rodgers is a photographer, artist, and haiku writer with a passion for people and their passions.