Bravo! The Project - A Documentary Film

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Documentary Film,Vietnam War

October 22, 2011

It’s a Gas

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I have often mused, over the years, about how the NVA went about their manpower buildup prior to the beginning of the Siege of Khe Sanh. They must have been assembling most of the summer, yet through late summer and fall and early winter of 1967, any sign of them was sparse. During those months Bravo Company generally skated in the getting-hit-by-the-enemy department. Which suited me. By the time I had been in-country for three months, I hoped I’d get out of there without ever seeing any of the lambast-smash-mouth of combat.

As I write this blog entry, it is mid October 2011. By mid October 1967, Bravo Company had begun preparing to occupy Hill 881 South to the west of the Khe Sanh Combat Base. Some of us who had been in Bravo for a while had spent time on Hill 881 South soon after the 1st Battalion, 26th Marines arrived in the Khe Sanh area in early May of 1967 after the hill fights. After patrolling in the vicinity of the combat base and operations to the east and southeast, Bravo assumed control of Hill 881 South from late May through June of 1967.

By October 1967, a large number of Marines who had served with Bravo rotated back to the States and a draft of young Marines arrived to replace them. I came off R & R the day before a typhoon struck and as the typhoon whipped and battered our tents, we holed up in our bivouacs for a day or two until the storm blew itself out. Then we saddled up and hiked up from the combat base, through Hill 861 onto Hill 881 South. At the time, as I recall, Bravo Company, at least the second platoon, was a mess. We had a new lieutenant who had yet to earn his chops, and the old lieutenant had left a lot of Marines with sour tastes in their mouths. We had a new company commander, too, who was trying to square us away.

And it rained and the wind blew and once we were established on Hill 881 South, our hooch roofs leaked and the leeches were everywhere and our fingertips were perpetually wrinkled. In our squad, Third Squad, we couldn’t find a squad leader who was competent enough to lead us. We kept getting new leaders. They kept failing. We went on patrol after patrol, wet from top to bottom, red mud soaked into our skin. The whole time, the commanding officer of Bravo, Captain Bruce Green was on our case, our platoon commander’s case. He rode us pretty hard.

On one patrol, Captain Green gassed us. He had repeatedly given orders to us to carry our gas masks. We went on a company minus patrol, and after a frustrating day of getting lost in thick fog, we took five on a hill northeast of Hill 881 South and he threw gas grenades in among us. I saw him preparing to do it, so the men in my fire team put on their gas masks, which they carried, so we weren’t as panicked as the other men in the patrol. It was like a herd of horses headed for the barn. Rag tag collections of Marines splattered over the muddy red landscape, up one hill and into a valley, up another hill and into a valley, until all of us, thank goodness, reported back to the hill. There was some butt chewing going on with Captain Green doing the chewing. We all carried our gas masks after that.

Under Captain Green, we patrolled long and hard, got in condition, got sniped at from the ridge to the west, spent many a night soaked out on ambush or listening post as rain water dripped dripped dripped off the tips of tree limbs, off the sharp, pointed ends of elephant grass.

On patrol we often ran into sign that the NVA was around, anecdotal evidence, footprints squished in the red mud, and here or there a cartridge from an AK-47, a 61 MM mortar round or two. But we had no idea what was to come, the buildup of the two-plus NVA divisions, the siege. We just thought they were units passing through on their way down to the flats, to Con Thien and Cam Lo, Dong Ha and Phu Bai, where the fighting had raged all summer and autumn long.  We didn’t get into any firefights, but by the time Captain Green got promoted to Major and we had a new skipper, Captain Pipes, we were a bunch of seasoned, in-shape Marines.

All the while though, the NVA was building up and as I look back on it now, they were most likely often sitting in a tree line, watching us as we patrolled by them. I recall that sometimes, when I walked point, the sense  we were being watched was palpable. We knew the enemy was very close at hand…I don’t know how we knew, we just knew from the way the hair stood up on our arms when we approached certain pieces of terrain, or the strange smells we encountered from time to time, the old scent of fire, or bad tobacco. And we looked for him because that was our job, but we did not stumble over him and I suspect that was because he chose not to be stumbled over. He was waiting for something bigger…the Siege of Khe Sanh. I often think about that patrol where Captain Green gassed us and I wonder how many NVA soldiers hid out there in the jungle grass and the triple canopy copses that hugged the ever-present streams. I wonder if instead of picking us off, one by one, or capturing us, they didn’t almost die laughing as we stumble-bummed our way back to the hill.

On a different note, next week we will submit Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor to two more film festivals, Tribeca in New York, and South-by-Southwest in Austin, Texas. Last week we screened the film to a group of local supporters here in Boise who could not see the film at our previous private showing. There were a lot of film people in the group, and as has been consistent throughout our screenings, they were impressed; they were moved by the movie. As a result of that screening, we have received an unsolicited request for a film “screener” from a documentary distributor—an unusual occurrence for first-time documentary filmmakers. Ooorah!

Other Musings

November 17, 2010

Requiem

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Last Wednesday, 11/10/2010, the Marine Corps’235th birthday, Dan Horton, a former Marine from Garden City, Michigan passed into what awaits.

I served with Dan in Vietnam from June 1967 through late March 1968. We lived through long patrols, rain, mist, fog, filling sand bags, being attacked by rats, by leeches, sixty-some-odd days of the siege, until he was wounded during a patrol outside Khe Sanh on March 21, 1968.

Dan was a tough kid with a big chip on his little shoulder, not unlike a lot of Marines I knew in the 1960s. He was sarcastic, cynical, negative and often didn’t choose to cooperate.

But those aren’t the things I choose to remember today. He was also funny, kind, talented and loyal. Remember, I said he was tough, and when the bullets were flying, he’d show up with a loaded M-16, plenty of ammo and grenades, looking for a fight. And in Vietnam, in 1968, that was important. Although he might try to gold-brick out of a work party, he never shunned ambushes, listening posts, walking point, or often more difficult, taking a turn out on the flanks where lone Marines often meet their end.

But that’s not all I want to talk about, either. I want to talk about how Dan could sing. I remember many nights on watch with him, when he’d break into something by B J Thomas, like Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head. Dan was a top-notch warbler who could sing pop songs and ballads as well as anyone I have ever known. When the trench was roaring like a river at the tail ends of typhoons, or when the monsoon rolled on and on, the white skin of our hands, feet, and fingers wrinkled (and we wondered whether permanently), when some Lieutenant or sergeant would bust our asses for cooking coffee while on watch, or smoking Lucky Strikes, or talking jive about Detroit and Phoenix, he’d erupt into music that made my guts, my ribs, my heart shimmer. He was my pal. My main man in the hooch, the guy who ate with me, shared my toil, my war.

I recall one wet and soppy night when no one (neither the enemy nor us) could move because of the wet. We got drunk with a certain hated second lieutenant and plotted to assassinate him. Dan and I followed him into the officers’ mess where we helped the lieutenant eat parts of several gallons of ice cream: vanilla, chocolate, strawberry. Of course, we didn’t kill the lieutenant. What we did do was come to dappled with red Khe Sanh mud the next morning beneath the mechanical water buffalo with our dry mouths begging somebody to turn it on so we could get a drink of water and wash away the bitter remains of beer and ice cream.

And there were the listening posts where we hid beneath ponchos as the rain pounded down around us. We whispered about who was crazy enough to be out there moving around in the slippery red mud that set you on your butt again and again, soaking your ass, your utilities that were already damp enough to wring out. And the cold chow we ate when we couldn’t get a heat tab lit. And the red alerts when we weren’t allowed to sleep, and then long patrols the next day with the jungle grass slicing our hands, or wet feet forcing water out of our socks and jungle boots. He was my pal.

Then the siege began and we crawled around in the bottom of the trench and hid from the incoming, so close to each other we could feel each other’s heat. Again, we went on listening posts and called in artillery on enemy gun placements, their aiming stakes glowing an eerie green in the misty nights of late winter. And then I went on to become a radio man and moved out of the squad and he got wounded on patrol, March 21, 1968.

And in 1969 he came down to where I was stationed in San Diego. He climbed up the stairs of the barracks as I went to see who wanted to talk to me. And I saw him. And it was like a pariah had come down out of the hills to eat me. I didn’t want to talk, didn’t want to see him. Today, I remember him standing there trying to talk to me and I remember feeling like a perfect ass because I had nothing to say, and I remember him leaving and right then I hoped I’d never see him again.

Over the years I wondered why I shunned him like that, but then in those days, I was hesitant to talk to anyone about Khe Sanh. So I remembered the things about him that irritated me—the “I’ll kick your ass if you mess with me” attitude, the goldbricking, the negative comments about most things, the sarcasm. And I forgot him, for the most part. My pal.

In 1993 I attended the Khe Sanh Veteran’s reunion in Washington, DC and he showed up. I didn’t see much of him until he plopped himself down in a seat at a booth where Betty and I were eating lunch. He grinned at me and we talked a little bit about what each of us was doing, what had transpired in those 25 years, what we planned. We talked a little about memories of fire fights, the siege and other things. Then he smiled at me and said, “I miss your sarcastic ass.” And then he got up and he left and went home.

Later, we got in touch via e-mail and he sent me tons of forwards that illustrated his sense of humor, his outlook on life. Sometimes I wanted to tell him to stop, but then figured it showed that he was at least thinking of me.

Then all the cancers showed up, and I kept in touch with him on a different level. Here was a man whom I would never have befriended outside the realm of combat, but I was concerned. More than concerned, I was worried about him. What for? I’d shunned him in 1969, yet here I was worried about how long he would be around.

We met again at the reunion in 2009 in Denver. I didn’t recognize him at first, although he recognized me. He talked about his life and his past and his mistakes. We laughed. He’d made more than his share of mistakes. He knew it, but admitted that he’d make a lot more. I admitted some of my mistakes, too, but not my reaction to him in 1969.

Betty and I went to see Dan in August of this year and filmed him for the documentary we are making. I don’t think he really wanted to be seen in the condition he was in, or maybe it was his natural reluctance to revisit our shared travails all those years before. From the looks of him I didn’t think he’d last very long and he knew it too and our visit was tainted with that knowledge, but then tainted is a poor word. His imminent leaving cast a shield over us and we were at peace with our past, the war and all that shit.

As I write this, Dan is being interred at the Great Lakes National Cemetery, in Holly, Michigan. He’s going in his pressed dress blues, his spit-shined shoes, his polished brass.