Bravo! The Project - A Documentary Film

Posts Tagged ‘World War II’

Documentary Film,Guest Blogs,Khe Sanh,Vietnam War

April 1, 2015

Composing for Khe Sanh

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It began about two years ago, when I sat down with Ken and Betty Rodgers over coffee to talk music. The Rodgers had completed a documentary film, a legacy project, honoring the heroic men of Bravo Company, First Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment. They were in need of a composer to finalize an almost-complete soundtrack, teeming with an impressive list of musicians that had eagerly contributed their talents.

I felt a growing connection to the Rodgers as I learned about their project: an authentic documentary honoring war heroes and their families, preserving priceless historic and emotional accounts of the brave Khe Sanh Marines both living and passed on. I wanted to learn more, and was honored by the possibility that my music might be part of something so universally important. I also started to realize that it could be important to me on a personal level as well . . .

My grandfather served in World War II as a Marine during the battle of Iwo Jima, and he had been an elusive mystery to my family ever since his return after the war ended. Growing up, I never had much of a relationship with my grandfather; he made it quite clear to the family that he preferred isolation—a need that was ever-increasing toward the end. When I found out he took his life, there were so many questions unanswered, and my family was left in emotional confusion.

Robin Zimmermann's grandfather in the USMC. Photo courtesy of Robin Zimmermann.

Robin Zimmermann’s grandfather in the USMC. Photo courtesy of Robin Zimmermann.

Briefly hearing Ken’s accounts, I started to think about the opportunity to learn about war, about the toll it takes on soldiers, from the men who have the most important stories to tell. For many reasons, I missed the opportunity to learn about war from my grandfather. Now I had the opportunity to do so, exploring a world foreign to me through something so personal—creating music.

Leaving the meeting with a DVD, I went home and watched Bravo! for the first time. It emotionally overwhelmed me, it challenged my thoughts, it changed everything I ever knew about war. The endless complexity of emotions, ranging anywhere from rage, fear, devastation, and emptiness, to youth, hope, family, love. It opened my eyes to the ravages of Khe Sanh, and to the horrors of battle that veterans such as my grandfather had seen.

I started to think how it could at all be possible to reflect war and its compound emotions by eight simple notes. I was more driven than ever to compose these pieces of music—but now the question was . . . how?

Accepting the challenge, and accompanied with the fear that I wouldn’t—even couldn’t—get it right, I got to work. I began by interviewing Betty and Ken, asking for words, colors, emotions, thoughts that they wanted to portray. A ritual with every filmmaker I work with, I’ve learned throughout the years that the emotions and thoughts I take away from watching a film may not be exactly the emotions the filmmaker wants to portray to the viewer. Emotions are different than messages, and messages are the bridge between the film and audience.

A young Robin Zimmermann with her grandfather. Photo courtesy of Robin Zimmermann.

A young Robin Zimmermann with her grandfather. Photo courtesy of Robin Zimmermann.

A lengthy back-and-forth ensued as I wrote, presented, Ken and Betty listened, and I altered as requested. Because there was so much complexity, there were lots of experiments with different approaches—sometimes from a female, motherly voice, sometimes brooding and dark, sometimes lilting and requiem-reminiscent.

Leaving my emotion aside and focusing entirely on the film in front of me was tough. Initially, I believe my thoughts got in the way and contributed to some cluttered and confused musical compositions. What instruments to employ was a topic highly discussed. Strings such as violin and viola sometimes seemed right, sometimes not at all. There was a delicate balance between an orchestral feel vs. too heavy-handed and hymn-like. One prominent color that Ken felt represented the film’s Ghost Patrol scene was gray—feeling cold, stunned, numb, isolated.

Repeatedly composing to scenes of devastation did take a toll on me. The more I watched the heroic men on screen, the more familiar they became to me, although we hadn’t met. Spending hours in a studio with no-one but your film protagonists, you develop a sense of familiarity with those you repeatedly observe, and their pain and tears become increasingly more personal. That familiarity, combined with a clear understanding of my grandfather’s pain, made for a highly challenging yet enormously rewarding journey.

Ken and Betty were wonderfully supportive in the creative process, and equally as supportive in helping me to understand my grandfather’s actions as a result of war. Their musical suggestions and edits pushed me and challenged me; I am a better composer because of it, and I feel a greater understanding and sense of catharsis about my grandfather. A heartfelt thanks to Ken and Betty for the life-changing experience, and to our war heroes who fought (and continue to fight) for our safety and freedom.

-Robin Zimmermann, 2015

Robin Zimmermann is a Los Angeles-based composer, performer and sound creator for independent film and multimedia. A musician for over 20 years with classical training in piano, flute and voice, her works span genres and fields, creating unique and eclectic soundscapes designed to heighten space and simulate environments. In 2010, Robin was honored as one of four internationally selected composer fellows for the Sundance Institute Composer and Documentary Lab.

Documentary Film,Film Screenings,Khe Sanh,Marines,Vietnam War

December 10, 2014

On Scuttlebutt

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In last week’s blog I wrote about the letters I sent home to my parents while I was in-country in 1967-68. In preparation for that article, I read each of the letters. I am glad I did because it clarified some events for me (I really did see elephants and coffee trees) and it cleared up some haziness in my memory about the timeline of my tour there.

I also noticed some recurring subjects one of which was “scuttlebutt.”

Scuttlebutt originally was a British nautical term that named a water cask kept on deck for sailors to get a drink of water. Over time, the scuttlebutt became a place for sailors to gather and share rumors or gossip. The term is quite old and was purloined sometime around the turn of the 20th Century to refer to gossip. In the Marines of the 1960s, the term scuttlebutt referred directly to rumors.

In my letters I refer to scuttlebutt in a number of instances and now, with the actual history of events available for comparison, what I thought was going to occur in any given period of time most often turned out to not happen.

Envelope sent from Vietnam by the blogger to his parents. © Ken Rodgers 2014

Envelope sent from Vietnam by the blogger to his parents.
© Ken Rodgers 2014

A few examples of the scuttlebutt going around in 1967-68 with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines follows, as recorded in my letters written at the time. I had not been in the field south of Hill 55 very long when I wrote this on 4/27/1967:

Rumor has it that the first of July or August, we will rotate to Okinawa for a month of training and then we will be sent afloat as an SLF (Special Landing Force) where we will make landings at trouble spots in Vietnam. We will be based out of Olongapo, the Philippines.

Bravo Company was located just south of Hue on May 8, 1967 when I sent this:

The engineers are building a 20 mile road to a hill southeast of Phu Bai. We will act as security. The country is “virgin.” The only Marines in there have been reconnaissance Marines. When we get to the hill, we will secure it and set up there.

On June 22, 1967, nowhere near the “virgin” country (we never went on that road-building operation), I wrote this from Hill 881 South west of the Khe Sanh Combat Base:

Rumor also has it that we shall be rotating to Phu Bai and then Okinawa in the next couple of months. I also hope that that is one rumor that comes true.

On September 1, 1967 I wrote:

By the 15th the battalion is supposed to be in Phu Bai. From there who knows? Maybe to Okinawa.

Ken Rodgers, photo courtesy of Kevin Martini-Fuller

I never made it to Okinawa until I rotated back to the States when my tour of duty was up. I never made it to Olongapo either.

The thing that gets my attention now is how the scuttlebutt usually had us going somewhere away from the war, to a place with women and food and beer. I am not sure if that’s the result of my own wishes—how I interpreted the rumors—or if it was a unit-wide desire. I suspect that my comments in the letters are a result of both my own optimism and the hopefulness of the unit in general.

I do know that one of the things that kept me going over there—that might have helped me stay alive—was my optimism, my hopefulness. The Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire said: “Optimism is the madness of insisting that all is well when we are miserable.”

During the siege, the world we inhabited was miserable, more than miserable, yet we laughed, we hoped, we dreamed of home.

I think all those references to being someplace other than where I happened to be, the misery of days of rain, the attacks by legions of leeches, the constant work and little sleep, the horror of the Siege of Khe Sanh, were nothing more than attempts to be optimistic.

I say “nothing more,” but as I think about it, that staying optimistic was a key thing in me staying alive. Since I had something to hope for, it made me work harder to stay alive.

My old buddy Joe Skinner who was a Marine Corps officer at the end of World War II once told me, “Hope is one step from despair.” When he told me that, I laughed hard. It’s true. When the jaws of despair are gnawing on you, whispering in your ear that all is folly, hope and optimism are the things that help keep you going, help keep you alive.

The 19th Century poet Emily Dickinson said it well:

# 254

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

On the screening front, mark your calendars for a fundraising screening in Casa Grande, Arizona on February 15, 2015 at the historic Paramount Theater. Doors open at noon, lunch served at 1:00 PM, screening of BRAVO! to follow. We will give you more details about this screening as they become available.

We are also pleased to announce that BRAVO! will be shown at Idaho’s historic Egyptian Theater in Boise on March 30, 2015. We will post updates to this event here as they become available.

If you or your organization would like to host a screening of BRAVO! in your town next spring or summer, 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 to stay up on our news and help raise more public awareness of this film.

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

August 6, 2014

The War Was In My Throat

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The war was in my throat; the need to shout it out. I thought I’d bust wide open. (1)

In the late 1960s I was asked not to talk about it. It bummed people out. People couldn’t look me in the eye when I tried to explain what happened to me at Khe Sanh.

In the 1970s I got told by veterans of previous wars that we (the men and women who served and fought in Vietnam) were the worst Americans who ever went to combat. My first wife informed me that I hadn’t undergone anything worse than anyone else had. I shut my mouth.

In the 1980s I worked with people who had no inkling that I had been a Marine, that I had survived the Siege of Khe Sanh. I didn’t talk about it, and neither did a lot of my fellow Vietnam vets.

Not that keeping your trap shut is just a phenomenon exclusive to Vietnam Veterans. I think silence about battle is common with all combat vets, no matter what the war.

Regardless, in the 1990s we started to talk about it: our war, our horrors. For me it came out through art. I wrote poems and stories, some fiction, some not; mostly autobiographical at the roots.

I was a witness to what happened at Khe Sanh. Not everything, of course. That would be impossible. Nevertheless, I was a witness and so I have been telling the story of my experience. Story is how humans pass on what we learn about life from one generation to the next. Does that mean that anybody learns from our story? Probably not. If they did, we wouldn’t be fighting war after war after war.

Notwithstanding the fact that we don’t seem to learn any of the human stuff passed from one generation to the next, it is still incumbent on us to tell the story.

Some of the incredible architectural detail inside the Pritzker. © Betty Rodgers 2014

Some of the incredible architectural detail inside the Pritzker. © Betty Rodgers 2014

While Betty and I were in Chicago screening BRAVO!, we went to visit the Pritzker Military Museum and Library. Several people familiar with the city had told us it would be worth our time to go there, and since the Pritzker co-sponsored our screening there, we were eager to show up and view the photography, the art, the architecture, the library.

The Pritzker has a steady stream of visitors arriving at their doors all through the day and researchers are in the library researching on the computer terminals, watching DVDs, sorting through stacks of books on library tables.

While at the museum, we met the coordinator of the veteran’s oral history project, Mr. Thomas Webb, who convinced me to give an interview, and we scheduled it for the following day. I asked how long it would take, and he said they liked to get a couple of hour’s worth of material.

Preparing for an oral interview at the Pritzker. © Betty Rodgers 2014

Preparing for an oral interview at the Pritzker.
© Betty Rodgers 2014

Since I was busy with Chicago, I said I’d give them an hour. I gave them three and one-half hours of war and horror and Marines and life. I could have gone on talking to my interviewer, Mr. Jerrod Howe, but I had things to do. My interview will show up as a podcast on their website later this year.

Mine was interview ninety-six. The previous ninety-five have been veterans of World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the First Gulf War, and the Middle East Wars of this century as well Bosnia, Somalia, and other foreign conflicts.

I am particularly thoughtful about those World War II vets. When I was a young veteran, I got told that all the men who fought in that war, that worst of all wars, didn’t need to talk about their war. And of course that was humbug. Guadalcanal Diary, From Here to Eternity, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Thin Red Line, Randall Jarrell’s poems about the Eighth Air Force, the photography that was available to all of us, and Ernie Pyle’s wonderful books about the troops are just a few of the stories that were told about this war. Those examples were mostly veterans telling their stories. And the ones who didn’t talk in 1946 or 1956 and who are still living are giving their histories to the Pritzker’s Holt Oral History Program and hundreds of other regional organizations intent on preserving memories of war.

Let’s face it, war is horrible and in the long run seems pretty senseless, but it’s one of the things that we humans do best, so it is incumbent on us as a species to understand this effort—this social effort—we get involved in quite regularly.

Here in Boise, Idaho, we have several organizations recording oral histories. I’ll bet, if you are a veteran, you can contact such an organization either in your area or elsewhere, and tell your story.

As a matter of fact, Thomas Webb at the Pritzker would like to hear from you because they want you to tell them your story. You don’t have to be in Chicago to get that done. They have multiple ways of chronicling oral history.

The interview. Left to Right, Jerrod Howe, Thomas Webb and Ken Rodgers, seated. © Betty Rodgers 2014

The interview. Left to Right, Jerrod Howe, Thomas Webb and Ken Rodgers, seated. © Betty Rodgers 2014

The Pritzker Military Museum and Library’s website is at http://www.pritzkermilitary.org/. You can find out more about the Pritzker’s Holt Oral History Program at http://www.pritzkermilitary.org/whats_on/holt-oral-history-program/stories-service/.

The mission statement for the Holt Oral History Program states:

“… the Holt Oral History Program is dedicated to conserving the unique Stories of Service of the Citizen Soldier—not just high ranking officers, recognizable faces from history, or soldiers who have had their stories told already—but every man and woman, from all walks of life, who has served and sacrificed for our country.”

We are all witnesses to our time. Share what you have seen and learned.

The war was in my mouth, right behind my teeth. It wanted out. (2)

(1) From the short story, “Party,” from the collection of short stories, The Gods of Angkor Wat, Ken Rodgers, BK Publications, 2014, p 137

(2) From the short story, “Party,” from the collection of short stories, The Gods of Angkor Wat, Ken Rodgers, BK Publications, 2014, p 138

On the screening front, BRAVO! will be screened in Nampa, Idaho on September 25, 2014 at the Elks Club. Doors will open at 6:00 PM with the screening of the film at 6:30. Screening will be followed by a Q & A session. Suggested donation, $10.00 to benefit Wyakin Warrior Foundation.

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 spread the word about the film.

Documentary Film,Guest Blogs,Khe Sanh,Marines,Vietnam War

June 25, 2014

A Beacon for All the Words that Remain Unspoken

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By Don Johnson

2.5 ~ 58,000 ~ 6,000,000 ~ 60,000,000 ~ 250

Numbers, the kind I’ve seen a lot of recently, the kind that makes me realize just how fortunate my number really was.

I’ve seen Bravo! twice now; 2.5 times, to be exact. The .5 was the time I tuned into its broadcast on the local PBS channel, but misread the schedule and tuned in an hour late. That’s a dumb way to watch this moving documentary; it can’t be cut up into pieces. Bravo! must be swallowed whole.

Bravo! doesn’t go down like honey. It’s a bitter pill, but turns into honey later once you get to know the minds and hearts of the veteran Khe Sanh
survivors who were interviewed for the film.

Don Johnson Photo courtesy of Crane Johnson

Don Johnson
Photo courtesy of Crane Johnson

I last saw this amazing and heart-wrenching documentary on May Day, at a showing hosted by our local camera club. It’s a small group, so we were treated to some genuine and rare personal time with Ken and Betty. We’re lucky to have such hometown heroes, and grateful that they could find time for us. Because of the intimate atmosphere, I was able to absorb the events on the screen as if it were being screened only for me. It made a huge impact, and not in the way I expected.

I’ve watched I don’t know how many war movies and documentaries on WWII, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, just like most people my age (63). But this one was different. Although I have a number of friends and acquaintances who served in Vietnam, including old high school classmates, none ever talk about it anymore. I don’t think they ever did, at least with me. So Bravo! is a beacon for all the words that remain unspoken.

A few days after the club screening, my wife and I were on a plane to Washington DC, and Bravo! was still on my heart. I spent a lot of time thinking about the Khe Sanh story, the men interviewed for the film, and what they said. It interested me that they didn’t speak in one voice. Every one of them served heroically beyond imagination, but not one behaved anything like a hero of the movies. I heard, along with the hard descriptions of their life and death situations, their humility and sacrificial love of their fellow Marines, acceptance of impossible circumstance, and surprisingly some tinges of doubt and criticism of the war effort, wondering now, decades later, why they had been sent and how they had been treated on their return. I wasn’t prepared for that. These were real human beings and their honesty floored me.

In DC, we visited all the war memorials on the Mall and around the Tidal Basin. We’d seen them before, but not with Bravo! on my mind. The numbers were overwhelming. 58,000, the number inscribed on the Vietnam Wall. Six million dead Jews named in the Holocaust Museum. Sixty million dead in WWII, 2.5% of the world’s population, causing FDR to say “I hate war.”

I Have Seen War Photo courtesy of Don Johnson

I Have Seen War
Photo courtesy of Don Johnson

It was about that point that I had a poignant realization, that my life could well have taken a different turn but for a certain number. That number was 250, my draft number in 1969. I vividly remember sitting around the TV with my family, as did all my high school buddies, watching the Selective Service lottery being drawn. Some of my friends drew low numbers and went off to boot camp before shipping off to Vietnam. One friend drew a 13 and headed off to Canada; another got a deferment to work in a Portland mental hospital. I drew number 250. I was safe and relieved of having to make any kind of decision to join in a war we watched every night on TV.

The men of Bravo Company, First Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment went to Vietnam and suffered the Khe Sanh siege in Ken and Betty’s harrowing tale that will stick with me permanently. It’s not untrue to say that they went in my place because of the random fortune of a number. Bravo! has reinforced my love for those who sacrificed their own safety to allow civilians like me to go on with our lives rarely thinking of war and our warriors. For me, 250 represents the gratitude I haven’t properly expressed.

The Wall Photo courtesy of Don Johnson

The Wall
Photo courtesy of Don Johnson

Thank you, Ken and Betty, and the warriors of Bravo Company for making this film. May it travel far and wide and open the eyes and hearts of peace-loving people everywhere. War no more.

Don Johnson is an Idaho photographer, blogger, and educator who loves to instill the joy of cameras and vision in others. His popular Facebook group, Photo Assignment, is open to anyone interested in becoming a more creative photographer. Don is owner of Arrowrock Photography, co-founder of Sawtooth Photo Pros, and author of his almost-daily blog, Motel Zero.

You can find out more about Don Johnson and his work at:

Facebook Photo Assignment: https://www.facebook.com/groups/photosign/
Arrowrock Photography: http://arrowrockphotography.net/
Sawtooth Photo Pros: http://www.sawtoothphotopros.com/
Motel Zero: http://robinstarfish.blogspot.com/.

If you would like to host a screening of BRAVO! in your town this summer or fall, 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 spread the word about the film and what it is really like to fight in a war.

Documentary Film,Film Screenings,Khe Sanh,Marines,Vietnam War

June 18, 2014

Notes on the Springfield, Illinois Screenings of BRAVO!

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Last week Betty and I flew into Chicago, rented a car and drove down to Springfield, Illinois, the burial place of our 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. We traveled there as the guests of the Staab Family and to screen BRAVO! at the Hoogland Center for the Arts as part of a Flag Day benefit for the planned Oak Ridge Cemetery Purple Heart Memorial in Springfield.

We arrived in town and were met by BRAVO! Marine Tom Quigley, a native son of Springfield who was instrumental, along with PJ Staab and the Staab Family, in making these events happen.

The next morning, Betty and I met Tom at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library where Tom and I were interviewed by local radio personality Jim Leach of WMAY radio. Betty, Tom and I were impressed with Jim’s knowledge of the Vietnam era and the Siege of Khe Sanh in particular. You can hear the interview here: http://wmay.com/assets/podcasts/20140612jlsBravo.MP3.

Later, Betty and I walked down to the Hoogland Center for the Arts where we met with their events manager, Vanessa Ferguson, and checked out the facilities for the screening. On the way back to the hotel, we stopped in at the First Presbyterian Church and looked at their seven fabulous Tiffany stained glass windows and the pew where the Abraham Lincoln family sat during church services.

Left to Right: Tom Quigley, John Cicala, Michael E O'Hara, Cal Bright, Ben Long and Bruce Stuckey. Photo courtesy of Ken Rodgers

Left to Right: Tom Quigley, John Cicala, Michael E O’Hara, Cal Bright, Ben Long and Bruce Stuckey.
Photo courtesy of Ken Rodgers

During the day, Bruce & Francine Jones and Bruce & Judy Stuckey arrived. Bruce Jones, alias T-Bone, was a radioman for 81 Millimeter Mortars and spent a lot of time on patrol with Bravo Company. Bruce Stuckey was a radio man for Bravo Skipper Ken Pipes. That evening, we all went out for dinner at Saputo’s Italian Restaurant where we were joined by Tom’s wife Nancy and daughter Erin Parsons and her family. If you are ever in Springfield, I suggest you try the fare at Saputo’s. It is rumored that Al Capone liked to dine there, and as we tucked into our ravioli and manicotti and other dishes, I imagined seeing Al parade in with his entourage, all wearing natty summer suits and two-toned fancy shoes, ladies of the night hanging onto their arms.

Also arriving in Springfield later that night was BRAVO!’s associate producer, Carol Caldwell-Ewart.

The day of the screening, Betty and I and BRAVO! Marine Michael O’Hara, who had arrived early that morning, toured the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum—definitely worth the fees and the time it takes to watch the films, view the exhibits and look at all the memorabilia.

BRAVO! Marines Cal Bright and Ben Long with his wife Joyce, and John “Doc” Cicala who was one of Bravo Company’s corpsmen, arrived that day too. We all met at the Hoogland before the screening and had a moment to visit while Carol, Betty and I worked with the staff to make sure everything was in order.

The very capable A/V tech estimated that over 300 folks came out to donate funds to help build the Oak Ridge Cemetery Purple Heart Memorial and to watch BRAVO!. The evening started off with a reception hosted by the Staab Family. Right before the film was shown, Master of Ceremonies PJ Staab introduced all of the Khe Sanh vets in attendance, and we were honored by an enthusiastic standing ovation from the audience. I haven’t ever been honored like that since my return from Vietnam in 1968. You must recall that the Vietnam Veteran wasn’t particularly popular back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Somehow we were blamed for our political leaders’ decisions, so the standing ovation was particularly heartwarming. And the ovations didn’t stop there! We were also honored at the end of the film as the credits ran, and yet again before a snappy and informative Q & A session that followed.

The scene at Staab Funeral Home in Springfield, just before the Ride in Honor bike run. Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers.

The scene at Staab Funeral Home in Springfield, just before the Ride in Honor bike run.
Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers.

The next morning, all of the BRAVO! folks met for a special breakfast and then as some headed home, five us—Michael E. O’Hara, John “Doc” Cicala, Carol, Betty and I—traveled over to the Staab Funeral Home where lines of motorcycles threaded across the parking lots in anticipation of the annual Ride in Honor, a bike run to four of the area’s veteran’s memorials.

I had never been around one of these bike runs—I’ve heard about them—so it was exciting to see all the bikes with their multi-hued frames and the colorful characters who were riding them. Again, the bikers chipped in funds to participate in this event with the proceeds going for the Purple Heart Memorial.

Just prior to the run, PJ Staab invited us to meet his Aunt Catherine, the last of the World War II era Staab generation. We of course said, “Yes,” and followed PJ upstairs to visit with Aunt Catherine for a while. And what a delight! She’s seen the film twice and wanted to meet us.

Then it was off in a roar of engines to the veteran’s shrines, the first being the Oak Ridge Cemetery where the planned Purple Heart Memorial will be built. Also located at Oak Ridge is President Lincoln’s tomb as well as commemorative tributes to the men and women who fought and died in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. Michael E. O’Hara, Doc Cicala, Bob Cowles, Tom Jones and I made up a detail that placed a wreath on the Vietnam War Memorial.

I have never been a part of anything like the placing of the wreaths, so it was humbling to be a participant. Both Bob Cowles and Tom Jones have been instrumental in getting the Purple Heart Memorial project off the ground. Betty and I first met Bob Cowles, a US Army veteran of the Vietnam War, when he arranged for us to interview Tom Quigley for BRAVO! in 2010 at the Springfield VFW Post. Tom Jones, also a Vietnam Veteran and Navy Corpsman who served with Force Recon, is the author of the novel LOST SURVIVOR about an African-American’s journey to fight in Vietnam.

Left to right: Bob Cowles and Tom Jones. Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers.

Left to right: Bob Cowles and Tom Jones.
Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers.

After placing the wreath at Oak Ridge, we proceeded to travel to the memorials at New Berlin, Spaulding and the National Veterans Cemetery at Camp Butler where we again placed wreaths at each location. We were treated to a poetry reading and to a trumpet rendition of “Taps.” Before departing Camp Butler, the crowd of bikers lined up and hugged and thanked each one of us for our service. It was intimate and humbling for each of us. For a generation of veterans who were pretty much shunned by their country, it is amazing, after 46 years, to be getting some thanks for what we did. We were young then, and wanted to do what was required, and we wanted to do it well.

We finished the day with another trip to Saputo’s, this time with PJ Staab and his lovely wife Ruth. For me it was sausage and peppers with a side of spaghetti. And they got the red sauce right.

Thanks to PJ Staab and the Staab Family, to Jessica McGee, to the Marine recruits who acted as ushers at the screening of the film, to the Hilton for our lodging and the Hoogland Center for the Arts for a screening venue, to all the folks who came to see BRAVO! and to Springfield with its wonderful memorials. And thanks to Carol Caldwell-Ewart and to the men of Bravo and their wives for traveling to participate in this special weekend.

If you would like to host a screening of BRAVO! in your town this summer or fall, 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 spread the word about the film and what it is really like to fight in a war.

Documentary Film,Guest Blogs,Khe Sanh,Marines,Vietnam War

April 16, 2014

Lou Kern Muses on Green Ghosts, Hill 950 and the End of the Siege of Khe Sanh

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I came down from the mountain a few weeks after the end of the Siege in June of 1968. I’d been up there for 11 straight weeks. Two of us radio operators from my company were stationed up on Hill 950 (3119 feet). We lived in a cave approximately 8 feet wide, 6 feet deep and 5 feet high which was dug into the hilltop. Large pieces of interlocking metal runway strips provided a ceiling that would not collapse. Of the dozen or so caves dug into the side of the hilltop, about half had metal ceilings and half had ceilings made from tree branches. The hilltop had been alternately “owned” by our forces and theirs and in the process had been overrun many times. The tree branched caves had been dug by the NVA, the caves with metal ceilings by American soldiers. We felt happy to have a cave made by our own Marines.

We managed to squeeze two cots, four radios, a lawn chair and everything we possessed into that space, as well as a few rats that became named companions. Most of the time up there was spent with Roy Hagino, a good-natured blue collar kid from Flint, Michigan, and proud of it. We two were running the radio relay for our recon teams in the jungle during the Siege.

Bits and pieces of that time still blow around in my mind. It was so unusual, so isolated, so beyond the reaches of safety, so frightening that those bits and pieces run out of my memory like sand out of an open hand. No shave nor showers, often without drinking water, eating C-rations dating from the early 50’s, sucking the juice out of cans of fruit to stay hydrated, constantly surrounded by the NVA and for one ten day period dead sure we would be overrun, writing final letters home and hoping an enemy soldier would bother taking them from our blood-soaked pockets and mail them.

We manned the radios in a 6-hour-on and 6-hour-off schedule to break the stranglehold of stagnant time as much as possible. There was absolutely nothing to do outside of our work. The mountaintop was about 30 yards by 30 yards, it had a sheer drop on three sides which is what made it defensible at all, and our caves were dug into the sides like earholes in a monk’s head. The place vibrated like an earthquake every time a chopper landed, which wasn’t very often. We were socked in by monsoon clouds about half of that time. The mouth of our cave was a small oval; there was a trench outside and outside of that a drop of about 400 feet. The jungle began at that distance and that was NVA territory.

Lou Kern © Betty Rodgers 2014

Lou Kern
© Betty Rodgers 2014

The NVA loved sniping at us, which meant that leaving the cave and exercising was risky business. Nothing to do but sit in that 5-foot-tall cave, monitor the radios, and try and rub out the knots that kept popping up in our muscles. I was taller and thin, Hag was built like The Hulk, his favorite comic book character. Our diet didn’t put weight on me, but Hag gained pounds like a snowball. Near the end of our stay a plump Hag would lay on his bunk, snoring and farting at the same time.

There are things I learned later about the Siege that I did not know at the time. There were about 6000 young men involved at the base camp and the rest spread out on the various mountains around the base: 881 South, 861, 861-A, 558, 64, 950, all famous among Marines and historians, each in their own way. There were more explosives dropped during the Siege than all the explosives of WWII combined. This in an area of about 2 square miles. That is a hard thing to image. It’s hard to imagine how most of us 6000 lived through all that, but we did, hunkering down in caves, bunkers and foxholes.

The ground shook almost constantly as the B-52s arc-lighted, and from the constant artillery, rockets, mortars, Gatling guns, grenades, machine gun fire, rifle fire and the screams of badly injured soldiers. We could see the B-52s on a clear day, 3 miles above, and we could see when they dropped their bombs because the giant aircraft suddenly lost half their weight and had to peel off or snap their wings. If we stared at the spot in the sky where they dropped their load long enough, the clusters of bombs themselves would become visible, shivering like cold dogs in their plunge into what had been for centuries a pristine sub-tropical jungle.

I also learned later that my small company was credited as the main factor in defeating the NVA at Khe Sanh. The enemy called us the Green Ghosts. We were always out there in the jungle in 4-man teams, our faces painted with camouflage, every item in our gear fixed so that it would make no noise, every surface covered or coated so it would not reflect light, every man a volunteer in what seemed to others like crazy suicide missions. Some were. We spied on the NVA right in their back yard. It caused them great grief. If they wanted to move a unit to assault Khe Sanh from a different angle, we knew. If they had a favorite supply route, we knew. We found their caches and blew them, we called in artillery or Phantoms or Skyhawks on their base camps, we took prisoners and captured sets of orders from runners we had killed.

Hill 950, 1968 Photo Courtesy of Lou Kern

Hill 950, 1968
Photo Courtesy of Lou Kern

In the cave, on the radio, all the conversations about the team’s activities passed through the relay Hag and I manned. Everything. Our activity, like all wars, was pure drudgery and boredom punctuated by raging, adrenalin-saturated chaos. During the days we tracked our teams on the maps we had pinned to the dirt walls. We relayed their situation reports, their calls for artillery or air support, their screams of “contact” which came through our speakers riding on a wave of rifle fire. At nights, if the teams were surrounded and dare not talk, we would ask them questions. “If the enemy is within 20 feet, click your handset twice.” We were their umbilical cord, their lifeline, the only reason they could survive at all in that environment. And the teams were the only reason we were up on this ancient mountaintop, hoping the NVA who surrounded us would let us live one more day. Hag and I agreed, they were monitoring our radios. That was more useful than killing us. They had tried that. 950 had been overrun many times. The NVA took it and we took it back. 1371 was taller but there was no place to land a bird. 1050, 950’s sister hill, was a perfect cone, the top just waiting to be attacked from any angle. But 950 was different, tall enough to be a radio relay, approachable on foot along only one narrow saddleback.

Eleven weeks of 6 on and 6 off, constantly in vicarious combat, our young bodies out of our own control from cramping, dehydration and a poor diet, engaging in long conversations about jumping off the 400 ledge if the enemy got to us, or at least throwing our radios off so the NVA could not use them. Last letters home, badly wrinkled photos taken in and out of a filthy pocket countless times. Isolating ourselves from the dozen grunts up there who shared our fate and whose job it was to guard us, protect us against what seemed the inevitable, perhaps the liberating AK-47 round to the head if it came to that.

Those guarding us were really kids. Hag was at the end of his tour and myself in the middle. The 26th Marines had decided not to waste any well-trained or hardened grunts up on 950, so they sent clerks and cooks, 18-year-olds who had not even been to infantry training. Hag and I were frightened with a reason; they were frightened without knowing why, and that is much worse.

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There was a young lieutenant with them. He stuck his head in Hag’s and my cave and began telling us what to do if we were overrun. He knew, or more probably just guessed, that we had more training and experience that his kids did not. “I want you two to man the machine gun right up by the saddle.” He showed us a sketch of the hilltop and his grand, Napoleonic plan. Hag shook his head sadly and replied, “Sorry Sir, but we are not under your command.” “I’m the highest rank up here, mister.” Hag hardened his expression and shook his head again and the Butter Bar stormed off. Hag then called our command back at our base camp. “Get the S-3,” he said and when the S-3 came on the radio Hag briefly explained the circumstances. And that was the end of that. The Butter Bar never spoke to us again. Hag told me, “I don’t mind being on the machine gun, but if we are in front of all these kids we’ll probably get shot in the back.”

In early May, NVA activity shifted and our ground artillery and the New Jersey sitting out in the Gulf with her 16-inch guns started firing right over our heads, nights and days on end with the constant whistling of 105s, 155s and the big 16-inch guns. The 105s went over with a whistle, the 16-inch shells like a freight train, wa-ruff wa-ruff wa-ruff. “Hope they don’t aim a little low,” Hag commented. A 16-inch shell, 2000 pounds of high explosives, would have vaporized the hilltop.

When the monsoons hit, it poured for days, then weeks, then a month, endless cascading sheets of water, isolating us even more from the outside world. Our cave exhaled the deep smell of the earth; it leaked, it creaked, the rats extended their stay to the days as well as the nights. Stuck up in the clouds like that, air support was not available. Artillery never had been. On a tiny peak like 950 an artillery shell even a few feet off dead center would miss altogether. The NVA got very bold. They set up camp in plain sight. We could hear them talking, see them silhouetted against their fires at night, watch them mill around in an easy manner during the day. The Butter Bar ordered his men to snipe at them; Hag rolled his eyes. He called S-3 again and the next day the sniping stopped. No need to aggravate them. If they came at us they came at us. Save your ammo for an assault. Hag and I tied our two repelling ropes together and together they still didn’t reach halfway down the 400-foot drop.

All the while the minutes dragged on like hours until a “contact” scream came over our radios and we did everything we could to assist a team out there in trouble for a short while.

Hag was getting short in Nam. Two weeks then one week and then dead time changed; he was busy ordering a new Firebird and obsessed with the details. His excitement helped me lean against the groaning of time. One day, one hour, one minute, then Hag stepped on a bird and a new guy jumped off. To this day I do not remember the new guy at all. Once Hag left I started calling S-3. “I’m seeing little people,” I said. After I told S-3 five days in a row about the little people S-3 promised to relieve me and a week after Hag was gone I was down from the mountain, ready, willing and able to soundproof my gear, paint my face and melt into the jungle like a green ghost.

Lou Kern on HIll 950, 1968 Photo courtesy of Lou Kern and Bob Fuller

Lou Kern on HIll 950, 1968
Photo courtesy of Lou Kern and Bob Fuller

Years later when the Internet came around, I tried to find Hag. I did, a year after his death. He died at age 50, leaving a family behind. He had tried to stop an armed robbery of the restaurant he managed and was shot four times. Never really recovering, he died a year later.

Lou says this about himself:

I grew up on a farm in Iowa. I graduated in 1965 as a state champion runner and a member of the National Honor Society. I got my draft notice in January of 1966 and enlisted in the Marine Corps. I trained first as a radio operator and then as a Force Recon Marine at Camp Pendleton in 5th Force Recon Company. Among other schools, I attended Amphibious Recon School, Naval Divers (SCUBA) School, and Army Airborne School. I went to 3rd Force Recon Company, I Corps Viet Nam in February of 1968 and left Viet Nam and the Marine Corps in December of 1968. During my tour I spent 11 weeks on radio relay at Hill 950 and ran 20 deep recon patrols in the I Corps area. After the Corps I wandered through college, had a series of white collar jobs and ended up in construction at age 29. I have spent 35 years specializing in residential staircases. You can see some of my staircases at http://www.functional-art.com/. I have 4 children and 9 grandchildren, all of whom I am very proud.

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. For more information about purchasing BRAVO! DVDs, go to http://bit.ly/18Pgxe5.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject/. It’s another way we can spread the word about the film and the Vietnam War.

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

January 29, 2014

On Candles, Khe Sanh and Hand-dipped Candies

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This is a time of the year that I call the “season of the siege.” Memories of Khe Sanh in 1967-1968 always flood my mind, but in the winter and early spring of every year the memories infest me with louder shouts from the ghosts of my history.

Those ghosts showed up to bother my memories yesterday when I read a piece from Ernie Pyle’s book about World War II titled, Brave Men. In his books about that war, Pyle rarely mentioned generals and admirals, politicians, global strategy. He stuck to the mundane inconveniences, joys and heartaches encountered by the snuffy, the grunt, the flyboy, the squid, the dogface. Particularly interesting to me was Pyle’s reference to candles, specifically to the need for candles on the Anzio beachhead just south of Rome, Italy, in early 1944.

In Vietnam, we needed candles, too, so I suddenly felt an affinity with those men trapped in Kesselring’s Steel Ring that surrounded the American 5th Army at Anzio. Sure, the very fact that I went through boot camp, got shot at by the enemy, shot at the enemy, slept in the mud and rain, lived in a hole in the ground, provides plenty of common experience with the warriors at Anzio. But that need for candles, that mundane luxury, and it was a luxury, puts our—theirs and mine—shared misery and fear on a footing so common and un-heroic that it makes me smile just thinking of it.

Ken Rodgers, © Betty Rodgers, 2012

Candles were necessary and important because they allowed us to see in our hooches. We had no electrical power, we had no barracks, we had no lights dangling down from the sandbagged roofs of those holes we chiseled out of the hard, red ground of Khe Sanh.

We wanted light to read by and to fix our C-ration meals and to see the faces of the other men we were talking to. I don’t recall if the Marine Corps provided candles. They provided C-rations and chocolate and Big Hunk bars, they provided cigarettes and toilet paper and matches and heat tabs. But I don’t recall candles.

In my experience, the candles I burned on Hills 881S and 861 and at the Khe Sanh Combat Base came from my mother. A variety of candles, but mostly white, long and thin, tapered and not much bigger around than my thumb.

When packages from home didn’t show up due to weather or some other factor, we had to figure out how to manufacture our own candles. We learned the hard way not to throw out those mounds of spent candle wax that looked like the remains of lava that had run into a flat spot and pooled. After some nights of dark—the hooches were dark most of the time—without candlelight, we learned to save our spent candle wax so that we could make replacements.

The candles we made were never as effective as the ones we got from home, but they served in a pinch. I have clear images of two of us Marines bent over in the fluttering light of our last candle, with a thread from a piece of Marine Corps green canvas or two or three threads from a jungle dungaree entwined to create a wick, melting our stash of old wax so we could construct a new source of light.

Besides candles, mail from home brought us socks and books and Chapstick and goodies from our mothers’ kitchens. My mother and her friends sent me a lot of packages with so much stuff, I had plenty of goodies to spread around…cookies and hand-dipped bonbons and brownies, to name a few delights.

And after the siege heated up in February 1968, those packages became scarce and when they did arrive, they came in bunches and often the cookies were moldy and the candles had been taken out of our packages…by whom, we never knew.

As I look back on it now, what was more important to me, and probably a lot of the Americans and their allies at Khe Sanh, were the letters from our parents and our wives and our friends. Their expressions of love and concern helped harden our resolve to survive the horror of the siege.

The last month of my tour in Vietnam, I was charged with traveling up from the trenches to the company office to collect the mail for 2nd Platoon. I carried a red box that was full of letters written by Marines and Corpsmen in our platoon to someone back home. When I arrived at the office, I delivered the outgoing mail and picked up whatever was there for the men in our platoon. Since the mail arrived in fits and starts, sometimes if took me multiple trips across that deadly no-man’s land, so to speak, between the relative safety of our positions and where I picked up the mail.

The company office was an underground bunker that housed the Company 1st Sergeant and the office clerks. We usually met and gathered the mail in a big tent that was set up over the bunker. There was a hole that led down into the bunker from the tent.

I remember once, when I was diddy-bopping down the trench after sipping coffee and shooting the moose with some 2nd Platoon buddies, something slammed down onto the top of my helmet and jarred my head down into my neck. This was a feeling that wasn’t unusual, since all the times I had to traverse from trench to office I often found myself having to dive behind some kind of structure or into a hole with the arrival of mortars or rockets or artillery rounds. A lot of those times, I ended up jamming my helmet into a sandbag abutment or the wall of a fighting hole. After recovering from my initial shock, I saw that it was Staff Sergeant Alvarado, the platoon sergeant, who had bonked me on the head with that red mail box.

He said something to the effect, “It’s way past mail call, Rodgers.”

I was very familiar with Staff Sergeant Alvarado since I was his radio operator. He was a good NCO and did a fine job of helping lead 2nd Platoon. But right then, he’d gotten into my craw, and me, always looking for an appropriate moment to challenge authority, ripped into him about what he could and couldn’t do to me. I remember yelling at him that he could write me up or remove me from my duties, but he was not to ever touch me, hit me or assault me in any way. Of course, the vernacular of Khe Sanh required that I throw in more expletives than normal words, but I won’t go into those details here.

And to Staff Sergeant Alvarado’s credit, the only thing he did was grimace like I’d stung him in some way. I grabbed the mail box and off I went, highly irritated and not without some remorse for not doing my duty in the first place.

After the Payback Patrol of 3/30/1968, I remember (because I was so “short” I could walk underneath a short-legged table) taking my replacement up to that tent over the company office to get the mail. Men from all of the platoons were there, sitting around with piles of mail and a clerk in the middle calling out names of addressees. Bravo Company had so many casualties by that time—way over one-hundred dead and wounded—that it was hard to know who was where and who was alive or in Danang at the hospital or on a hospital ship or rotated back to the States.

Of all the things I recall about my time in Vietnam, this incident stands out in my memory. We hadn’t had mail for quite some time and all of a sudden piles were available and each platoon had a goodly heap of letters and packages, but the biggest mound was for the Marines not there.

As we were sorting the mail this way, three rocket rounds swooshed in and exploded outside. I had been in Vietnam longer than any of the other Marines sitting around that tent, and like a snake escaping a raptor, I was across the deck and down that chute into the bunker where the office was.

The top sergeant ordered me to get out, and for a second I felt like ripping into him for being a pogue and hiding down in that hole while us snuffies fought the war. But I didn’t. I climbed out and collected the mail, and along with my replacement, carried all that mail to 2nd Platoon.

When I got home, my mother was asking me if I got this, and if I got that, and no, I hadn’t, and since I was gone from the nightmare of that misunderstood war, I hoped that someone down there in 2nd Platoon ended up with my goodies and my white socks and my candles.

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BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject/. It’s another way we can spread the word about the film and the Vietnam War.

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.

Documentary Film,Guest Blogs,Khe Sanh,Marines,Vietnam War

January 19, 2013

BRAVO!: An Appreciation

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BRAVO! supporter Jean Hegland muses about the film, history and the Vietnam War

Although I grew up with the Viet Nam war, it was never very real to me. I was born in 1956, and in the 1960s when my parents began to watch the nightly news on our family’s first television, reports of Viet Nam conflict were nightly fare when I wandered into the living room to check on dinnertime. After Walter Cronkite had finally announced, “And that’s the way it is,” and the television was turned off, discussions about the wrongness of the war and the inadequacies of the politicians who were promoting it were often a topic of my parents’ conversation as we ate.

But despite its frequent appearance in my family’s living and dining rooms, in many ways the Viet Nam war was an abstraction. I knew my parents were against the war—I couldn’t fathom how anyone could actually be for the crumpled bodies and destroyed landscapes I glimpsed on our TV screen—but no one I knew was directly affected by the conflict. My parents’ affiliation with the military had ended when they were discharged at the end of World War II (my father from the Army and my mother from the WAVES); and the draft was cancelled and the conflict in Viet Nam was officially over before any of my brothers or boyfriends were impacted. Later, when I went to college, there were few vets in the circles I ran in, and those I did meet—and occasionally even dated—seemed very reluctant to discuss their experiences in what they called “Nam.”

I suppose I was used to veterans staying silent about their war experiences. Although my mother privately told me that my father had been decorated for his service when he was a medic in the South Pacific, he himself never spoke of his experiences to anyone. I never heard my uncle or my aunt speak about their experiences in WWII, either, nor my other uncle who had been a fighter pilot in Korea, nor my great uncle who fought in France in WWI. And of course my ancestors who’d fought for the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War and those who fought for America during the Revolutionary War were also silent.

Novels such as Johnny Got His Gun, and The Red Badge of Courage, and later, Snow Falling on Cedars, The Things They Carried, and Matterhorn taught me a little about what war might be like for a soldier, but I have Ken and Betty Rodger’s remarkable documentary film Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor to thank for bringing the experience of soldiers at the Siege of Khe Sanh excruciatingly close.

I understand that no one who wasn’t there can ever really appreciate what those men endured during the 77 days of siege, and I also have some inkling of what a truly remarkable group that particular battalion of soldiers were, but after having watched Bravo! I feel I know much more than I did before about a soldier’s experience of the horror, pity—and glory—of war.

I wonder if anyone can listen to Cal, John, Daniel, Ken Korkow, Ben, Frank, Mike, Ken Pipes, Tom, Ron, Ken Rodgers, Lloyd, Peter, Steve, and Michael share their stories without experiencing both shudders and tears, if anyone can watch that film and not be haunted by it afterwards. Each time I watch Bravo!, I am appalled by the situation those men—then kids the age of my lovely son and his dear friends—were literally thrust into as they leapt out of moving planes and had to scurry to safety. I am heartbroken by the suffering they endured and the appalling waste that occurred. But I am also struck by the fierce, bright spirit of each of those men, by their commitment to each other in the face of such horrible odds. I am stirred not only by their courage in 1968 when they sacrificed so much to defend what turned out to be “a worthless patch of ground,” but also by their courage now, as veterans willing to risk further tears and nightmares in order to share their memories with the rest of us. Thanks to them, I feel I understand much more than I did before—not enough, to be sure, but a great deal more.

Bravo! has not changed the opinion I grew up with that the Viet Nam War was a horrible mistake, but it has deepened my sympathy for everything that those who fought in it endured, increased my appreciation for everything that they achieved, and my gratitude for the huge sacrifices that they made. It has given me fresh insight into all the silent warriors in my own family, too, and has encouraged me to reflect on the strange and compelling machine that war is, and why it is that we humans seem to have such a hard time getting beyond it. For all that, I am very grateful.

In addition to expressing my gratitude to the brave men who allowed their intimate stories to be captured on film, I also want to applaud Ken and Betty Rodgers, whose hard work and commitment brought Bravo! into being, and whose skill as interviewers (along with Mark Spear) and vision and craft as story-shapers helped to make Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor the compelling—and transformational—film that it is.

Jean Hegland is the author of the novels Into the Forest and Windfalls.

Guest Blogs,Khe Sanh,Marines,Vietnam War

July 3, 2012

On Merrill’s Marauders, Wars to End Wars and Vietnam

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Kitty Delorey Fleischman, photo courtesy of Sherry Ann Elizabeth Photography

Guest blogger Kitty Delorey Fleischman is publisher and editor of IDAHO magazine. She’ll tell you that one of the advantages of being old is that you’ve had time to do a lot of things. She taught school in Michigan and Alaska for eight years, has worked as a reporter at the Nome Nugget, and the Great Lander in Anchorage. Moving to Idaho in 1981, she worked part-time for United Press International before co-founding the Idaho Business Review in 1984. The IBR was sold to its current owners in 1999, and she started IDAHO magazine in 1999.

Kitty is married to Gerald Fleischman, an engineer working in the renewable energy field, and she has two children, eight grandchildren and seven (at last count) great-grandchildren.

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Now they’re called, “The Greatest Generation,” but when they went to serve, they simply wanted to put a stop to the evil and aggression that were engulfing the world in what was, at that time, called “The Second War to End All Wars.”

Both Lt. Donald Delorey and Lt. Mary Jane Healy were volunteers who went without being called. They were my parents, so from here on, I’ll refer to them simply as “Mom” and “Dad.” Seeing what was happening in the world, Dad signed up for the Army in July 1941. In fact, he was in Panama on Dec. 7, 1941, when news of the Pearl Harbor attack arrived. He and another soldier were immediately sent on horseback to map the coast of Panama, looking particularly for sites where the Japanese might try to land. The Panama Canal would have been a plum prize.

Donald Delorey in the United States Army

In early 1943, when President Roosevelt issued a presidential call for volunteers for “a dangerous and hazardous mission,” the call was answered by some 3,000 American soldiers. The volunteers came from stateside units, from the jungles of Panama and Trinidad. Some had been involved in the campaign in Guadalcanal, New Guinea, and New Georgia. Some were hardened and battle-scarred, some were new to war. Each was different, with one thing in common: they voluntarily answered the call of their nation. Dad was among the first to volunteer, and he went through his Ranger training at Ft. Benning, Ga. The unit was officially designated as the “5307th Composite Unit (Provisional),” Code Name: “Galahad.” Later it earned its more popular name, “Merrill’s Marauders,” in recognition of its leader, Brigadier General Frank Merrill.

After preliminary training, operations began in complete secrecy in the jungles of central India. The Marauders began the long march up the Ledo Road and over the outlying ranges of the Himalayas into Burma. It was men and mules. The Marauders had no Jeeps, no tanks or heavy artillery to support them, as they hacked their way, walking more than 1,000 miles through the foothills of the Himalayas. The path was through extremely dense, nearly impenetrable jungles. They were part of a “throw-away” force sent half-way around the world to delay the Japanese, because everyone was sure the Japanese could not be beaten.

Well, “everyone” didn’t know my parents.

Mom & Dad met on the USS General H.W. Butner, a troop transport on its way to India. Dad was assigned to the 5307th Provisional, and Mom was a member of the 44th Field Hospital. They met shortly after the ship pulled out of Norfolk, Va. Their unknown destination was Bombay. Dad spotted Mom instantly and proposed to her on the second day he knew her. A 26-year old “first louie,” Dad always claimed Mom said “yes” on the third day, something she vehemently denied until just a few months before she died, then adding, “Well, one of us had to keep our heads!”

It was not Mom’s way to stand back and ask others to do a job. Her older brother was serving in France, and Mom knew nurses would be desperately needed to care for the wounded. Mom was 22-years old when she shipped overseas, a registered nurse who didn’t quite meet minimum Army standards requiring that women be five feet tall and weigh a hundred pounds. While Mom and Dad always claimed Mom was five-feet tall, at five-foot-two, I was nearly half a head taller than Mom, who was 4-foot, 10.5-inches tall, and tipped the scales at 95 pounds, fully-clothed. But they weren’t checking nurses too closely in those days. Dad always told us, “Yes, kids, it’s true. Your mother did wear Army boots.” They were size 4 1/2s.

Mary Jane Healy

Their first date was in Cape Town, South Africa, when Dad escorted a group of nurses into town for the day and bought Mom a warm Coca-Cola. They spent their shipboard days planning their lives together with a little white house in the country and a flock of kids. When the ship landed in Bombay and they parted company, Dad promised he’d find her again.

With that, the Marauders were off on their assignment to throw stumbling blocks in front of the Japanese 18th Division, Emperor Hirohito’s elite “Chrysanthemum Troops,” the unit that wrought havoc across China, and Burma. The Marauders faced the Japanese in five major engagements, at Walawbum, Shaduzup, Inkangahtawng, Nhpyum Ga, and Myitkyina, as well as thirty minor engagements.

By always moving to the rear of the main forces of the Japanese, the Marauders continually disrupted the enemy’s supplies and communication lines. The conflict climaxed behind Japanese lines with the capture of the Myitkyina airfield, the only all-weather airfield in northern Burma. It came after four full months of marching and combat in the Burmese jungles.

It is said that no other American force except the First Marine Division, which took and held Guadalcanal for four months, has had as much uninterrupted jungle fighting as Merrill’s Marauders.

There also is solid basis to the claim that no other American forces ever had to march as far, fight as continuously, or display more endurance than the fast-moving, hard-hitting Marauders. Dad often told us about watching airplanes searching the valleys 10,000 feet below them, looking for them to drop supplies to them, while they were high above the planes on trails far up in the foothills. He talked about even the sure-footed mules falling off cliffs in the mountains as they made their way along ancient, treacherous paths, guided by locals.

The mules and muleteers of the Mars Task Force trained for the job in Colorado Springs, Colo., and they earned the full faith and respect of the unit. Some years ago I met with a number of the muleteers at a reunion they held in Boise. I’ve never talked with a Marauder who didn’t tear up at memories of those mules who shared their path in those hard times.

Emmett Payne, an old Marauder who spent his last days at the Idaho State Veterans Home, told me stories that Dad never told his daughter. I don’t know whether he told them to his sons. Emmett told about how the Marauders, all of whom—from Merrill on down to the lowliest private—were suffering horribly from dysentery and malaria. They didn’t have time to be sick, and there was no time for diarrhea, so they kept moving despite malaria, and they cut holes in the seats of their pants to deal with the diarrhea. They kept walking and fighting.

The Marauders carried all of their equipment and supplies on their backs or on the backs of their pack mules. They were often resupplied by airdrops, but also had to make clearings in the thick jungles so the supplies could be dropped to them.

When they took off from Bombay, Dad’s pack weighed 75 lbs., which was half of his body weight. Mom carried 40 lbs., which was 40 percent of her body weight. Dad was wounded three times. One was a flesh wound where a bullet passed through the fleshy part of his thigh. After he was treated, he tore off the tag and went back to his men. The second time, a bullet shattered the base of his thumb so he couldn’t pull a trigger. That put him out of commission for a little longer.

Following a plane crash that killed a number of the nurses from the 69th General Hospital, Mom was transferred from Bhamo to Ledo. There was never a shortage of work for the nurses, and Mom also helped to train nurses for Dr. Gordon Seagraves, “The Burma Surgeon.”

Donald and Mary Jane Delorey in 1946

In the Ranger tradition, every wounded Marauder was evacuated. The third time Dad was shot, he was 15 yards from the Japanese machine guns. His upper right leg was shattered. “It felt like a bag of wet marbles,” he said. He lay there for nearly an hour, applying a tourniquet, picking little tomatoes off a nearby bush, and savoring what he thought were his last moments. While Sgt. John “Tex” Texiera was directing mortar fire from a nearby hill, Capt. Jim Holland, Sgt. Pappy Meyers, Lt. Colonel Ken Harrell, and Capt. Brubaker from the headquarters company came out with a litter to bring Dad back behind the American lines. “What the hell are you doing here,” was Dad’s first question. “You didn’t think we were going to leave you here, did you?” Jim Holland asked. Dad said that, actually, he was pretty sure they would have to leave him, and he believed the only reason he was allowed to live was because the Japanese planned to kill those who they knew would come to rescue him.

Because they were a secret unit, there were very few photos, and only three reels of movie film ever taken of the Marauders. Two of those were destroyed in a plane crash. On the one remaining reel are images of Dad being carried back to the American lines while bullets snap leaves from nearby trees. So Dad began his long trip home on a Piper J-3 Cub.

Mom’s unit remained in Burma, nursing the troops. The Japanese army had been broken, however, so things were quieting after Myitkyina. Eventually her unit was sent to Okinawa, preparing for the invasion of Japan. Mom was assigned to wade ashore with the first wave of troops.

When the bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima ended the war, Mom was sent home, but not before Typhoon Louise, classified as a “Perfect Storm,” slammed the island, damaging, sinking or grounding 265 ships and leaving 83 men dead or missing. During the storm, Mom spent three days huddled under a butcher block with two other nurses after everything else they had was blown away.

Mom said the admiral cried when he came ashore and found the nurses with nothing—no food, no dry clothing, not a comb nor a toothbrush—nothing but the wet, filthy clothes on their backs. “American women should never have been treated like this,” was his first reaction, and the next thing they knew, there were naval commanders running all of the supplies they needed.

Shortly after that, the nurses were evacuated and, although the typhoon was still in evidence, Mom, a non-swimmer, refused to ride up in a basket like those who were too afraid to make the climb. Still in the throes of the subsiding storm, Mom said sometimes the scramble net was far away from the ship, sometimes it was slammed against the side, but Mom proudly climbed the 40-foot net up the side of the ship, satisfied with the knowledge that she had done her part in the second “War to End All Wars.” She had helped to make the world safe for democracy. She and Dad had both done their parts to assure a peaceful world for their children.

Twenty years later, almost to the day, my older brother Don, set foot on Okinawa, a young Marine on his way to Vietnam.

You can find out more about Merrill’s Marauders here. You can find out more about the China-Burma-India Theater here