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February 25, 2011

Not Forgotten

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February 25th is, for the men who served with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines at Khe Sanh, a day that owns a particular and personal infamy. We left a lot of good Marines on the field that day. Guest blogger Bill Jayne was in Bravo Company on February 25th, 1968. He shares some of his memories and his thoughts.

The story of 25 February is well-known. It was the day of the Ghost Patrol when Lt. Jacques’ 3rd Platoon was almost wiped out within about a thousand meters of the Khe Sanh perimeter. This is a story of the 1st Platoon, the reaction force that never reached the 3rd Platoon.

My memory says February 25, 1968 dawned relatively clear and a little cool on the Khe Sanh Plateau. I kept my too-small field jacket on. Although our hold on the area was related to the weather, it was much more important to note that two days before more than 1,300 rounds had impacted somewhere on the combat base and one of ours had died along with four others. Vinny Mottola was an 0351—rocket man—who was funny, irreverent, and always carried his own weight. He died with the crew of a 106mm recoilless rifle when something big, probably a rocket, hit them.

The next day, the 24th, Bravo Company had a few wounded from incoming but no KIA. After filling sand bags and other housekeeping chores most of the day, my fire team from the second squad of the 1st Platoon, had an LP on the night of the 24th. Out in that almost liquid darkness, when a Marine shifted his weight in our LP position, it sounded like Gen. Giap leading legions of NVA into position for a human-wave attack. When a piece of 782 gear scraped against the clay, it was the tanks that overran Lang Vei coming to gun us down. Maybe my fears were close to the truth. Military intelligence knew the NVA were digging trenches perpendicular to our lines so they could stage assault troops close to our positions.

Yet, by 0715 the next morning, we were back inside the wire. Very soon, we started hearing the noise of small arms fire out where Bravo’s 3rd Platoon was on patrol. Our squad and another from 1st Platoon saddled up and headed out the wire.

We paralleled the access road to Rte. 9, heading southeast. I thought I saw movement in a tree line ahead and told PFC Joe Battle “Get out on the right, you’re the only protection we have.” Joe immediately headed toward the brush growing alongside the road.

He was a big, lanky black Marine who said he was from Houston, Texas. Just about a week shy of his 19th birthday, he could be pretty funny. One time, Joe asked a bunch of us if we knew what “KKK” stood for. Nobody said a word until Joe, cracking up, informed us that the right answer was “Kool Kolored Kids!”

I don’t remember if Joe shot expert, but I know he was a good shot. One night in early February the fog was so bad they kept our LP outside the wire in the morning until the sun started to clear the mist. We saw a Vietnamese heading for our lines wearing nothing but a piece of parachute. “Dung lai!” we yelled, but he kept running. He was downhill and about 75 meters away but Joe stopped him with two M16 rounds that hit him in the arm.

A couple of weeks later, moving toward the sound of the fire that was consuming 3rd Platoon, Joe tripped the ambush that stopped 1st Platoon. The fire came at our squad from two sides and at very close range. Joe was down…out of sight, gone forever. Three or four of us hit the deck and returned fire. Had Joe saved our lives? I think so. What’s a “hero?” Joe did his duty and he has always been a hero in my mind.

We returned fire against the unseen enemy so close to us but it was going nowhere. We took a couple of wounded from the small arms fire and then, like the hammers of hell, mortars came down on top of us and we had to pull back.

Just a few meters behind us, the squad leader, Cpl. Don Whittaker lay dead. It looked like he’d gone down in the first burst of fire that hit us. A raw-boned, serious guy from rural Missouri, he was 19. Whittaker was fairly new to our squad. I think he was filling in for our regular squad leader. I don’t remember Whittaker well, but Mac McNeely recalls speaking to him at some length and says he considered “Whit” a friend. He had been hit several times in the chest, abdomen and trunk. There’s no doubt in my mind that he died facing the enemy trying to do his job.

A third member of the squad died that day: Hospitalman Lloyd W. Moore, the corpsman, the “doc.” He was about a month shy of his 22nd birthday. No one from Bravo Company really remembers him. He joined 1/26 (H&S Co.) on 27 January and probably spent some time at the Battalion Aid Station. I don’t know when he joined Bravo Company and 1st Platoon. How could it be that nobody remembered him? I don’t know. It seems like we had a revolving door for corpsmen around that time, but still…

He was from Wilmington, N.C., where I have made my home for the past five years and I’ve learned a lot about him. First of all, nobody called him “Lloyd.” His father was L.W. Moore, a prominent citizen of the city and when his son was killed in action at Khe Sanh, it was front page news. So, the son was known as “Whit,” short for his middle name, or even “Spider.” His sister, his cousins, his friends, other corpsmen he served with in Rota, Spain, and other stops in his service history remember him well.

He liked to hunt and fish and he graduated high school from Carolina Military Academy. Like Cpl. Don Whittaker—the other “Whit” from our squad—he was religious but a corpsman buddy said he enjoyed going on liberty, too. Another corpsman buddy said he had a presentiment of death before he shipped out to Vietnam. We didn’t know him long enough to learn any of that.

As our squad came apart, he moved around to help the wounded until he was felled by mortar shrapnel that hit him in the base of the neck. A hero? It almost seems like Navy corpsman and hero are synonymous. A posthumous Bronze Star valor award recognized his actions. I recognized him from a picture sent to me by a local veteran who had researched all those from this area who had been killed in action from WWI through Vietnam.

As I opened the digital photograph attached to an email from the researcher, I instantly recognized the dead corpsman on that little piece of earth that seemed literally “God forsaken.” I didn’t know his name (except from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and from Chaplain Stubbe’s research about Khe Sanh). I didn’t remember where he was from, or anything about him except his face and that he died doing his job.

“Lead” in my pack? The thought of that day and the almost unbelievable but irrevocable tragedy of the Ghost Patrol and our three dead from First Platoon has never been far from my consciousness in the 43 years since it happened.

Why was I spared? Why didn’t I do this? Why didn’t I do that? What would have happened if we had done this, if we hadn’t done that? Over and over.

Almost 30 years ago, I learned from reading a book that 25 February 1968 was a Sunday. Just like I didn’t know “Whit” Moore’s name or anything about him, I had no idea of the day of the week.

I was married, a father of two wonderful children, working in a very gratifying job helping fellow veterans. And, I was searching for answers, trying to learn how to make something other than crushing weight out of the lead in my pack. I was doing a lot of reading, thinking and talking about God and religion and I asked a priest if he could tell me what the readings were for that prosaically named “Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time.”

The second reading hit me like a bolt of lightening. It was St. Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 15, verses 54 through 58:

And when this which is corruptible clothes itself with incorruptibility and this which is mortal clothes itself with immortality, then the word that is written shall come about:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.
Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.

But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Therefore, my beloved brothers, be firm, steadfast, always fully devoted to the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.We knew no victory on that field in 1968. There was death, and failure, and regret, loss and pain; the story of human life on earth compacted into a diamond of humbling memory. Yet, God was there, too, and He left His message of victory and redemption to be discovered in His word and in the example of the steadfast heroes of Bravo Company.

Bill Jayne enlisted in the Marine Corps for two years in September 1966. Originally from the Hudson Valley of New York state he went to boot camp at Parris Island and joined 1/26 on Hill 55 in early 1967. He was a rifleman, 0311, but found himself in H&S Company and then Bravo Company as a clerk. An insubordinate streak landed him in 1st Platoon of Bravo Company in October 1967. Patrol, patrol, patrol; Hill 950, Hill 881S, etc. After college he ended up in Washington, DC, working for a small magazine and then a big lobbying organization involved with heavy construction. A chance phone call in 1979 led to the opportunity to serve as an early volunteer on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and then a career in the US Department of Veterans Affairs. He ran the National Cemetery Administration’s (NCA) State Cemetery Grants Program and later the Federal cemetery construction program. In his 20+ years with the NCA he had a role in the establishment of about 50 new cemeteries for veterans and their families, every one of them a “national shrine” to the memory of those who served in the military. He is now retired in Wilmington, NC.