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Documentary Film,Guest Blogs,Other Musings,Veterans,Vietnam War

May 31, 2019

HAMBURGER HILL (MEMORIAL DAY 2019)

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Guest blogger Cobb Hammond’s article on the savage battle fought in May, 1969, originally published in the MEMPHIS COMMERCIAL APPEAL on May 24, 2019.

As Americans this weekend memorialize the casualties of our war dead, a small band of US soldiers of the 101st Airborne division will recall in their collective memories, comrades in-arms of a battle during the Vietnam War. The Battle of Hamburger Hill fought 50-years ago this month, is seared into the memories of its participants; a struggle in the heavily contested A Shau Valley. Fought over a specific mountain, known as Hill 937, denoted for its height in meters (approx. 3 thousand feet), it was also called Dong Ap Bia by the North Vietnamese, which translates into ‘Mountain of the crouching beast’.

Part of a chain of mountain ridges and numerous valleys, it sat one mile from the Laotian border and contained multiple ridges and fingers that came off the summit. The slopes of Dong Ap Bia were covered in extreme overgrowth of sharp elephant grass up to 7 feet, thick bamboo groves and triple-canopy jungle, making daylight appear as dusk. The entire area was a support system for the North Vietnamese infiltrating supplies and men into the South, and the general vicinity contained roads for trucks, major supply depots and the like.  After increased enemy activity had been noted by army recon teams in the valley, Operation Apache Snow commenced on May 10, utilizing a Marine Corps regiment, multiple airborne battalions and allied S. Vietnamese forces as well.  The 3rd battalion, 187th Regiment of the 101st – also known as the “Rakkasans” would be tasked with finding the enemy, on or around 937 and eliminating him. This understrength infantry unit was at 65% strength at the outset of the campaign due to recent engagements contributing to the attrition of the units.   The commanding officer of the battalion was Lt. Colonel Weldon Honeycutt, a no-nonsense career soldier and North Carolinian who had joined the army as a teenager at the end of WWII.

Hamburger Hill
Photo by Shunsake Akatsuka

On the morning of May 10, a one and one-half hour prep of the battlefield commenced, with multiple batteries of artillery opening, followed by dozens of sorties by attack aircraft and helicopters firing their ordinance.  At 7 am transport helicopters inserted the initial element of forces into landing zones in the valley, with one mission: find the enemy and make contact.  The first day drew only light contact for Alpha and Charlie companies. Due to the rugged terrain, extreme heat and thick underbrush progress was slow. Bravo and Delta, which were kept in reserve choppered in on the second day and incorporated into the general scheme of the attack.  The 1st battalion of the 506th regiment was working working its way north toward the area as well, but due to the hazards of the terrain and constant ambushes by the enemy would not arrive until the latter part of the battle, leaving the ‘tactical’ burden to the four rifle-companies of the 3/187. 

As day 2 absorbed into 3, the fighting intensified, clearly indicating to the commander that they were facing more of the enemy to their front than originally thought. In fact, as the battle progressed, the enemy, North Vietnamese, were able to fortify their forces on the hill. Little did US troops know at the time that they were facing the 29th NVA Regiment, which had distinguished itself in other battles previously. On May 14, the fourth day, Col. Honeycutt decided to attack more aggressively and could not wait for reinforcements, so orders were given to B, C and D companies to attack from different vantage points. Unfortunately, the attacks were unable to be well coordinated due to the terrain and because enemy resistance had become extremely heavy.  C Company which was counterattacked several times took the highest casualties on the day, losing its First Sgt, two of three platoon leaders, the company exec. officer and six-squad leaders; all either killed or wounded.  To compound matters, a helicopter gunship flew in and shot-up friendly troops, killing two and wounding at least twelve, mistaking them for the enemy. This was the first of three cases of fratricide during the battle.  As day fell to night after a day of fighting, the American soldiers could see enemy cooking fires above, which was usually unheard of in an engagement like this and could hear enemy troops hollering down at the men of the 3st battalion as well.

The topography of the landscape favored defense, and conversely the enemy did well in fortifying positions. They had built earthen-log bunkers- some 6-8 feet deep, with crisscross firing angles to take advantage of the slopes. The slopes also harbored dozens of spider-holes, allowing for a quick burst of gunfire or grenade throw with the enemy then stealthfully melting back into the earth. The NVA also had dozens of light and heavy machine-gun emplacements strategically placed and manned.

Hamburger Hill
Photo from M. Taringa

May 18th and 19th again witnessed the depleted airborne companies making progress, then gradually having to dig in, move forward or back down the steep slopes as the fighting devolved into a slugfest on the squad level; with each company making its own progress on sheer will.

On the morning of May 20, ten US artillery batteries opened fire on the hill and fired for almost an hour, before dozens of air sorties by tactical aircraft came in with napalm and 250 lb. bombs on the now denuded mountaintop. As fire stopped, up went the riflemen, working their way up the slopes and ravines encountering lighter resistance than previously encountered, and making it to the summit within two hours.

After enemy stragglers were cleaned out, the bloody mess of Hamburger Hill ceased.  623 enemy dead were counted, with a much higher casualty rate no doubt noted, as many were crushed in their earthen graves from bombs or taken by their comrades into Laos.  Of the airborne troopers of the 3/187, 39 were killed and another 292 wounded, more than 70% of the battalion. Total US losses were 71 dead and 372 wounded.  The battle although tragic, did accomplish its strategic task, albeit a costly one.

Guest Blogger Cobb Hammond

On this most reverent of days, remember these men, many which spent their last breath in that hellish place.  And one which was the most seminal event of their lives.

Cobb Hammond of Memphis, TN is a ‘Financial Advisor’ who writes on military history, military affairs and composes poetry. Cobb can be contacted @ chammond40@yahoo.com.

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

October 20, 2017

Fiddler’s Green

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Earlier this year, Betty and I saw a documentary film by the director/producer Terry Sanders, titled FIGHTING FOR LIFE. The film recognizes how doctors and other medical personnel are trained at “the medical school no one’s ever heard of,” the Uniformed Services University. Besides anatomy and physiology and biology and regular medical training, many of the people who attend this university are trained for going onto the battlefield to heal and patch up the warriors of our country.

I always assumed that medical training is medical training, but as the film shows, the way we are taught to treat the women and men who fight our wars is, in many instances, governed by a different set of needs revolving around combat. It’s a pretty obvious conclusion when I think about it right now, but until seeing the film it hadn’t occurred to me what special skills military doctors, dentists, nurses, medics and corpsmen require in their efforts to save and mend lives.

Miramar National Cemetery, San Diego, California. Photo courtesy of Miramar National Cemetery.

I bring this up because last Tuesday, October 17, 2017. Lt. Commander Dr. Edward Feldman was buried at Miramar National Cemetery in San Diego, CA, and his interment got me thinking about the medical folks I served with in Vietnam.

Dr. Feldman was one of the physicians who served with the 9th and 26th Marines during the Siege of Khe Sanh. And like so many of the doctors and corpsmen I served with, his story is remarkable. He arrived at Khe Sanh on January 3, 1968, eighteen days before the beginning of the Siege. Almost immediately, on the opening day of the big battle, January 21, 1968, Dr. Feldman was called upon to perform an amazing feat of surgery. He removed a live mortar round from the abdominal cavity of a Marine. For his action, he was awarded a Silver Star. Below is a quote from his Silver Star Award. I will let you read for yourselves what an astounding act this surgery was.

When the Khe Sanh Combat Base came under heavy mortar and rocket attack on 21 January 1968, a wounded Marine was taken to the Battalion Aid Station where preliminary examinations revealed a metal object protruding from a wound in his abdominal region. Further examination disclosed the possibility of the object being a live enemy mortar round. Quickly assessing the situation, Lieutenant Feldman directed the erection of a sandbag barricade around the patient over which he would attempt to operate and summoned an ordnance expert to identify the object and assist in removing the suspected explosive device from the injured man. Disregarding his own safety, Lieutenant Feldman removed his helmet and armored vest and exposed himself to the danger of a possible explosion as he began to operate. Displaying exceptional professional ability while performing the delicate surgery under flashlights, he succeeded in removing the live round from the Marine and directed an assistant to carry it outside for disposal. By his courage, exceptional professionalism and selfless devotion to duty at great personal risk, Lieutenant Feldman undoubtedly saved the life of a Marine and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and of the United States Naval Service.

You can read Edward Feldman’s entire Silver Star citation here.

Dr. Edward Feldman. Photo courtesy of Before They Go.

Dr. Feldman was also, during his tour of duty in Vietnam, awarded a Bronze Star with Combat V for his actions with Charlie Med at the Siege. The United States Army awarded him a Bronze Star for Valor when, just before he was to rotate back to the States, he went into the field to medically assist a company of Army warriors and ended up acting as the commanding officer when the unit’s officers and senior NCOs were either killed or wounded in action.

After his service in the United States Navy, Dr. Feldman went on to establish medical practices in New Jersey and then California.

I found a comprehensive interview on the internet that he gave to the Navy and you can access it here.

You can also read Edward Feldman’s obituary here.

The medical folks at Khe Sanh were necessary to the Marines and by virtue of their bravery, from both doctors and corpsmen, earned the undying devotion and respect of the Marines who inhabited that hellhole.

Medical personnel in action during the Siege of Khe Sanh. Photo by Dave Powell.

I don’t know if it was Dr. Feldman, or one of the other physicians who went out with us on the patrol of March 30, 1968, where the Marines of Bravo Company, 1/26 assaulted an NVA battalion entrenched on a ridgeline south-east of the combat base. I guess it doesn’t matter who it was, but in my mind I imagine it being him.

I don’t know what physicians do out on the battlefield except try to save lives, but I imagine there is a set protocol for particular procedures: triage for a quick assessment of a casualty’s chances of surviving, then application of tourniquets, bandages, administration of drugs like morphine and other forms of emergency treatment.

But the thing is, out there on that day, bullets were flying and incoming artillery and mortar rounds fell all around us, killing or wounding many of us. And the doctor, whoever he was, and his corpsmen, were subject to death and dismemberment by the same hostile fire that beset the rest of us.

We often think of doctors in an office, rushing down the halls of a hospital, or even attending to the wounded in a field hospital, but not treating wounded Marines in the bottom of a bomb crater. If Edward Feldman didn’t draw that duty on that day, if ordered to do so, he would have been out there with his scalpel and the other tools he’d need to save lives. I don’t doubt that.

Waiting for the wounded at Khe Sanh. Photo by Dave Powell.

My experience with doctors at Khe Sanh was almost nonexistent. If I had a problem, it was handled by a corpsman so I don’t know if I ever crossed paths with Dr. Feldman. Nevertheless, I salute him—and all the medical personnel who put their lives in danger to save others—for his courage and his skill in the face of imminent danger.

There’s an old Navy myth about a magical afterlife called Fiddler’s Green where sailors go when they die, where never-ending laughter and a fiddle that plays forever and echoes of dancing feet ring.

My company commander at the Siege of Khe Sanh, Lt. Colonel Ken Pipes, mentioned Fiddler’s Green when he alerted all of us old Jarheads of the passing of Dr. Ed Feldman.

Like so much of what makes up the naval milieu, there is a ditty about Fiddler’s Green that goes like this:

At Fiddler’s Green, where seamen true
When here they’ve done their duty
The bowl of grog shall still renew
And pledge to love and beauty.

Revel in your time at Fiddler’s Green, Ed Feldman.

Semper Fi!

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Upcoming creening information:

In conjunction with the Ken Burns documentary, the Nampa Public Library in Nampa, Idaho, will screen BRAVO! on November 1, 2017. Doors open at 6:30 PM and the free program will begin at 7:00 PM, followed by a Q&A. A panel discussion with Vietnam Veterans is scheduled for November 8. The Nampa library’s website is http://nampalibrary.org.

On April 7, 2018, the Warhawk Air Museum in Nampa, Idaho, will host a one-day symposium in recognition of the 50th Anniversary of the Siege. The event will encompass a forum for educating the public about the Siege of Khe Sanh and the Vietnam War, as well as an opportunity for a Khe Sanh Veterans Reunion. Activities will include a screening of BRAVO! and guest speakers remembering the battle. Khe Sanh Vet Mike Archer, author of two heralded non-fiction books on his Khe Sanh experiences, will be one of the featured speakers. You can see more about Mike at http://www.michaelarcher.net.

Mark your calendars now, as this will be a stellar event in a world-class air museum. We are still in the planning stage, so if you would like to participate and were involved with the siege, or just want to help, please contact me at 208-340-8889. An event like this can only happen with a core group of committed volunteers. We can’t do it without you! For more information on the Warhawk Air Museum, check out their website at https://warhawkairmuseum.org.

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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/.

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Guest Blogs,Marines

May 26, 2013

Cobb Hammond on the Second Battle of Fallujah

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On this Memorial Day, millions of Americans will honor the American service members who gave the final sacrifice in battle. Historically, we have remembered those who died in the great wars of the last century — World War I and World War II — or in the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. But we should also recognize that the others who died in our more recent wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, perished in no less suffering and gave no less a sacrifice.

One of the pivotal, and arguably most bloody episodes of the Iraq War was the second battle for Fallujah in November 2004. Early that month U.S. Marines commenced Operation Phantom Fury, an effort to clear the city of insurgents who had taken strategic control of the city the previous February. Fallujah’s 300,000 inhabitants had mostly vacated the city, leaving as occupiers 3,000-plus well-prepared insurgents, identified primarily as Iraqi Shiites, Syrian and Libyan rebels and mujahedeen-jihadists.

Cobb Hammond

Most of the residential structures in Fallujah had enclosed courtyards in the back, with double-thick walls and rooftop balconies, making the task of clearing and control difficult and extremely hazardous for U.S. riflemen. In addition, many of the alleyways, side streets and boulevards were planted with mines, booby traps and other improvised explosive devices, and the insurgents had constructed a labyrinth of defensive tunnels that extended for blocks and gave them a tactical advantage.

Not of help to the U.S. forces was the willingness of many of the enemy to fight to the death.

The assault commenced officially on Nov. 7, 2004, as Marines attacked across the entire northern axis, working south by southeast.

The operation was led by Regimental Combat Team “1,” which consisted of two Marine infantry battalions, supported by a mechanized Army battalion. They were designated to assault the western half of Fallujah. The other forces were designated Regimental Combat Team “7,” made up of two Marine battalions and an Army infantry battalion, along with other army and even Iraqi Army units. These forces would attack due south, and then southeast. British units also were active outside the city, keeping infiltration into the city to a minimum.

Many of the tactics employed came by way of difficult experience 36 years earlier during another Marine-led assault at Hue City in Vietnam.

As coalition forces advanced, building by building, enemy forces would allow entry into many houses, only to detonate explosives as gunfire rained down from stairwells and up from “spider traps” cut into floorboards. In other cases, front and back doorways would be barricaded with first a steel, then a wooden door (heavily booby trapped); the forces who penetrated the building would be welcomed by a fusillade of fire.

One of the most intense fights during the 10-day battle occurred at the Muhammadi Mosque in central Fallujah, where Marines found an almost impregnable fortress manned by approximately 200 insurgents. Company B, 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, fighting house to house, battled for 16 hours to capture the mosque, during which time they were attacked by every conceivable weapon, including suicide bombers. After much grit and spilled blood they gained control of the mosque, where they found tons of stored weaponry and munitions, and stores of narcotics for use by the insurgents.

The farther south coalition forces went, the more resistance stiffened. Many of the enemy they encountered wore the uniform of the mercenary jihadists who had infiltrated Fallujah the prior year — after the formal war against the Iraqi government was declared over.

For several more days the U.S. coalition rooted out the insurgents, ending on Nov. 18, except for the minor mop-up operations that continued well into December.

The final tally on coalition force casualties was 95 killed and 600-plus wounded; 51 of the dead and more than 450 of the wounded were U.S. Marines. Many Marines were wounded more than once, returning to duty with their secondary wounds not counted in the official tally. The number of dead among the enemy was placed at 1,200 with an equal number captured, most of whom were wounded. Hundreds of others undoubtedly escaped and avoided capture.

The bravery of the U.S. forces cannot be questioned, as two of the Marines were awarded Navy Crosses for valor and many others received Silver or Bronze stars for heroism in action. One of the U.S. Army battalions was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation, for professionalism and performance in continuous combat — an honor, it should be noted, that is not given out easily.

On this weekend of solemn remembrance, let us take note of these men who gave their all, and sacrificed much.

Cobb H. Hammond writes on military history and is an investment broker with Carty & Company Investments. A different version of this blog post appeared in The Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis, TN on May 26, 2013.