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Common Men, Uncommon Valor

By Pamela Kleibrink Thompson
4/11/2017 • Vietnam Magazine

“Everything around you is just riddled with shrapnel. You see that right away. There isn’t anything that isn’t torn open; sandbags are ripped open, buildings are just shredded.” That’s how former Marine Ron Rees describes the scene inside the base at Khe Sanh during the monthslong siege by the North Vietnamese Army in 1968.

Rees recalled the battle in an interview for Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor, a documentary that tells the stories of 15 survivors of the siege and reveals the long-term costs that the war had on their lives. First-time filmmakers Ken Rodgers, a lance corporal at Khe Sanh, and his wife, Betty, produced the documentary about Ken’s outfit, Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division, attached to the 3rd Marine Division, one of the units assigned to defend the remote Marine base in the northwestern corner of South Vietnam.”

The setting was just 14 miles south of the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Vietnam and only 6 miles east of the Laotian border and the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the primary route the North Vietnamese used to send supplies to Communist forces in the South. The Khe Sanh base, established in 1962 as an Army Special Forces camp and assigned to the Marines in 1966, was at the far end of a tenuous American supply line on Route 9, the northernmost east-west highway in South Vietnam. In the words of General William Westmoreland, overall commander of American forces, Khe Sanh was “the cork in the bottle” of the most likely enemy approaches to South Vietnam.

Bravo Company Corporal Steve Weise, far right, and his squad are entrenched at Khe Sanh. Wiese and Pfc. Mike McCauley, far left, were interviewed for the film. (Courtesy of Mike McCauley)

 

The base, covering 2 square miles, was tough to defend. Much of the high ground overlooking the base was under enemy control, the base’s water supply flowed through hostile territory and Khe Sanh was often fogged in during the early months of the year. By December 1967, at least two North Vietnamese Army divisions had positioned heavy artillery in the area around Khe Sanh. Some 20,000 enemy troops were poised to attack. The Marines and a small contingent of South Vietnamese army rangers defending the base totaled about 6,000. Westmoreland ordered the Marine commander at Khe Sanh, Colonel David E. Lownds, to “hold at all costs.”

The NVA began its assault on Jan. 21, 1968. After heavy fighting, the Marines threw back that initial attack, but the enemy controlled all land approaches to Khe Sanh, including the crucial Route 9. The siege began. Ten days later Khe Sanh was bumped off the nightly newscasts by the Tet Offensive, a nearly simultaneous series of attacks on cities, towns, villages and bases throughout South Vietnam during the country’s celebration of the lunar New Year.

Meanwhile, North Vietnamese artillery, from long-range Soviet 152mm and 130mm guns to closer-in mortars and rockets, bombarded Khe Sanh day and night. The Marines dug deeper trenches, fortified their positions, strengthened their shelters and moved underground. Resupply and evacuation were possible only by helicopter or cargo plane, and the Marines were always short of supplies.

But American airstrikes by fighters and bombers changed the odds of survival. Because the siege necessarily concentrated large numbers of enemy troops near Khe Sanh, American aircraft were able to inflict heavy casualties.

The NVA losses mounted, and in March the artillery bombardment eased, though it remained a constant threat. The enemy continued to extend its trench lines toward the Marine camp. But by early April, a steady decrease in NVA activity made it clear that the North Vietnamese were withdrawing. On April 11, U.S. Army engineers declared Route 9 open to vehicular traffic.

The siege of Khe Sanh was lifted. Although intense combat around Khe Sanh continued for three more months, American commanders decided the base had served its purpose, and by July 5 the Marines had evacuated all usable equipment, destroyed anything of value to the enemy and abandoned the base.

The precise casualty count is still uncertain, but several hundred American lives were lost in and around Khe Sanh, while the NVA lost thousands.

A KC-130F tanker from Marine Aerial Refueler Squadron 152 is ablaze after being hit while landing at Khe Sanh. (David Douglas Duncan)

“When I left Khe Sanh for good in early April 1968, I flew on a CH-46 to Dong Ha,” recalls Ken Rodgers, who now lives in Boise, Idaho. “When I deplaned I looked back to the west at the mountains where Khe Sanh sat, and I said to myself, ‘That’s a hell of a story.’ I’ve been wanting to tell that story ever since.”

For decades the story lingered in Ken’s mind. Then in 2009, during one of the annual reunions of the Khe Sanh Veterans Association, Betty Rodgers was listening to the guys as they sat around telling their stories. “It really sank in at that time that we somehow needed to preserve this, their history, their story,” she said.

And the best way to do that, Ken thought, was to let the men tell their own stories in a documentary film. Before the Rodgers undertook the project, Betty spoke with Bravo Company commander, Captain Ken Pipes, who retired from the Marine Corps as a lieutenant colonel, to get his blessing.

Although new to filmmaking, the husband-and-wife team had acquired related skills that were a big help. Ken, with a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of San Francisco, already understood the structure of storytelling, and Betty was a longtime photographer. Both had been watching and analyzing films for years.

But, admittedly, they still had a lot to learn. “We knew we would need to surround ourselves with talented and passionate people who could help,” Betty said. The couple joined Idaho Media Professionals, an organization that promotes the creative arts and provides networking opportunities for people involved in those fields. “They assured us we could do it,” Betty said, “and they gave us much sage advice along the way.”

The Rodgers funded the film with initial grants from the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation and one anonymous donor. They got additional financing from private donations and three rounds of crowdfunding managed by associate producer Carol Caldwell-Ewart. One of the largest sources was their retirement savings, Ken said.

The Rodgers hired a cinematographer, Mark Spear (who has since died), and the interviews began in mid-2010.

“We invited every member of the Khe Sanh Veterans Association who had been in Bravo Company during the siege,” Betty said. “Out of those, 14 agreed to an interview. We also tried to find others who had never joined the organization, but had very little luck with that.”

Ken’s interview in Idaho was filmed first. The next Bravo Company interviews were conducted at the July 2010 Khe Sanh veterans reunion in San Antonio with Captain Pipes and Corporal Steve Wiese from California, 2nd Lt. Peter Weiss from New York, Pfc. Ron Rees and Pfc. Lloyd Scudder from Oregon, Pfc. Frank McCauley from Texas, Pfc. Mike McCauley from Washington, Lance Cpl. Michael O’Hara from Indiana and Petty Officer 3rd Class John “Doc” Cicala, a hospital corpsman, from Michigan.

After the reunion, the Rodgers went on the road to talk with other members of Bravo Company who agreed to be interviewed. They traveled to Michigan to film Pfc. Dan Horton and Pfc. Cal Bright, to Nebraska for Corporal Ken Korkow, to Illinois for Corporal Tom Quigley and to Iowa for 1st Lt. Ben Long. Horton and Scudder have since died.

The filmmakers gathered additional information at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and the Marine Corps History Division at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia. Back in Idaho, they collected more photos and information, and Ken began transcribing the 22 hours of interviews.

“In January of 2011, we received a phone call from longtime sound and film editor John Nutt asking if we needed some help with the film,” Ken said. “He had read an AP article about our project while visiting his daughter in Tucson.”

Nutt is a Vietnam veteran whose work on the movie Amadeus earned him an award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. His credits also include the Vietnam War movie Ap≠≠ocalypse Now.

The final sound mix was done with four-time Academy Award winner Mark Berger at George Lucas’ Skywalker Sound facility in California.

Bravo! features never-before-heard audio—a gift from Wiese, who had recorded the people and sounds of Khe Sanh during the siege and sent the audio tapes home to his parents in California. “He assumed his mother had taped over them years ago,” Betty said. “Sometime after she passed away, Steve was going through his mother’s belongings, found the tapes and realized the originals were still intact.”

Wiese called the Rodgers to see if they might be interested in the recordings. “Of course we were thrilled,” Betty said. “We were in the middle of editing, so the timing couldn’t have been better. John Nutt expertly wove the sounds and voices into the soundtrack.”

The basic work on the film was completed in 2012, “but then we had issues regarding some of the future music rights,” Ken said. “We replaced that music and completed the final version of Bravo! in 2014.”

“Making Bravo! was cathartic to me on a number of levels,” Ken said. “I discovered, while conducting the interviews, that I wasn’t the only one who had survived the horrors of Khe Sanh. I knew it intellectually but not emotionally. Hearing the men tell their stories helped me understand that we shared the terrible memories.”

Later, while working with the film editor, Ken watched those interviews over and over again. “Initially, I would end a screening session feeling like someone had abraded my soul on my grandmother’s washboard,” he said. “But as time went on, the trauma lessened, and I think the constant viewing of the film has helped me put my Khe Sanh experiences in their proper place. I don’t think someone who endures what we lived through at Khe Sanh will ever get over the event, but we can learn how to place those memories in a mental spot that allows us to keep our lives in balance. Vietnam veterans didn’t talk about the war for over 40 years, and now we can. Bravo! often starts the dialogue, and that is cathartic in itself.”

In the film, Wiese opened up about an ambush of his platoon while on a patrol outside the Khe Sanh base. He was walking through a bomb crater when the enemy struck. Wiese hunkered down in the crater and made his way back to the base by jumping from bomb crater to bomb crater. It took the corporal all day to cover about 400 yards. 

“The only reason I survived was I just happened to be standing in a bomb crater where it was like 2½ feet deep,” he says in the film. “I just happened to be walking through that at the time the ambush opened up.”

“You don’t know what war is until you face it,” said Dan Horton in his interview. “And it’s not John Wayne. John Wayne has never been to war.”

Frank McCauley revealed that because of his Roman Catholic faith he did not want to kill anyone. “I was hoping I could get through this experience without ever using my weapon,” he said.

Nicholas Warr, a Marine lieutenant who described his Vietnam experiences in his book Phase Line Green: The Battle for Hue, 1968, said that the Rodgers’ film “captures the essence and the humanity of warfare, the physical and mental pain, the fear, the elation upon survival that instantly turns into guilt, and the suffering and sorrow of war as it was experienced by the young Marines of Bravo 1/26 who fought at Khe Sanh combat base in early 1968.”

Corporal R.J. Strik shoots his flame-thrower during the battle of Khe Sanh. (T.H. Nairns. Department of Defense Photo/National Archives)

Bravo! won Best Feature Documentary at the 2015 GI Film Festival in San Diego, and the Major Norman Hatch Award for Best Feature Documentary from the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation. Filmmaker Ben Shedd, whose The Flight of the Gossamer Condor won the 1979 Oscar for best short documentary, has praised Bravo! for its look and feel. “The pacing is superb, deliberate, delicate, harsh, real.”

The National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution honored Ken for his film by presenting him with its highest award, the Ellen Hardin Walworth Founders Medal for Patriotism, given to a person “who has displayed outstanding patriotism in the promotion of our country’s ideals of God, home, and country through faithful and meritorious service to our community, state and nation.” Betty received the DAR’s award for Excellence in Community Service for her part in producing the film.

The Rodgers have traveled all across the country for screenings of Bravo! They have been invited to diverse places, Betty said, “from San Quentin, to the Boston VA; from Brownwood and Dallas, Texas, to Moscow, Idaho; from the SS Jeremiah O’Brien [World War II merchant marine museum ship] at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, to universities and military bases; from Washington, D.C., to Chicago, Illinois; in private homes, and many, many more locations.”

The documentary was shown at the 2016 Justice for Vets Conference in Anaheim, California, on June 1.

Ken said that viewers will come up afterward and say, “Now I understand my dad,” or “I understand my brother” or “I understand people who had this happen to them and now they can’t function like the rest of us; now I understand why they were the way they were.”

Although the film focuses on one unit, it honors the service of other Vietnam veterans as well, Ken and Betty say. The word “bravo” was put in the title not only to represent Ken’s Bravo Company but also to applaud all of those who served in Vietnam.

Ken and Betty, both now 69, are producing another documentary. This one is about the wives of combat veterans. Ken Korkow, one of the Marines in Bravo!, once said to Betty, “You know, you wives are Vietnam veterans too, because you’ve had to live with us and the impact our combat experience had on us.” That comment spawned the new film, I Married the War.

The Rodgers received a grant for the project from the Idaho Humanities Council and have filmed an interview with Terri Topmiller, the widow of Robert “Doc” Topmiller, who was a medic at Khe Sanh during his time as a Navy corpsman.

The couple are seeking additional grants and corporate sponsors to fund the production. 

Bravo’s Battle at Khe Sanh

On Jan. 20, 1968, a Marine advance on one of Khe Sanh’s nearby hills met unexpectedly strong resistance. As the hill battle was raging, a lone North Vietnamese Army officer approached the camp at Khe Sanh and surrendered to Captain Ken Pipes, commanding officer of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division, attached to the 3rd Marine Division. The enemy officer confirmed not only that two NVA divisions—20,000 enemy soldiers—had surrounded the camp but also said they planned to attack the very next day. As the NVA prisoner had warned, the opening artillery bombardment hit the Marine base on January 21, and it signaled the beginning of the siege. The barrage struck a hard blow when one round hit an ammunition dump at the east end of Khe Sanh’s airstrip. The explosion detonated more than 1,500 tons of stored ammunition, multiplying the effect of the bombardment and killing 18 Marines while wounding many others. The unit at Khe Sanh closest to the exploding ammo dump was Pipes’ Bravo Company, which would play a critical role in the 77-day siege of Khe Sanh. During the siege, Marines still patrolled regularly, although never more than 500 yards from the base perimeter. On February 25, the Marine commander at Khe Sanh, Colonel David E. Lownds, needed fresh intelligence, the kind that could only be obtained from prisoners. Bravo Company was told to patrol outside the southeast perimeter, and Pipes assigned the job to Lieutenant Don Jacques, leader of Bravo’s 3rd Platoon. Fog was just beginning to lift as 3rd Platoon moved out beyond the protection of the wire and mines. At 9 a.m., three enemy soldiers leapt from their hiding places and ran into the open, directly in front of the surprised Marines. As soon as the Marines opened fire, the enemy soldiers disappeared into a tree line. Jacques received permission to pursue them, but Pipes warned him not to get into anything he couldn’t handle. It was possible that the three NVA were trying to lure the Marines into a trap. Jacques led his entire 3rd Platoon in pursuit, and it was ambushed from two sides by NVA heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars. The lieutenant called for artillery support, but he had strayed so far from his original course that artillery crews couldn’t fire for fear of hitting the platoon. Marines of Bravo’s 1st Platoon went out to relieve 3rd Platoon and also were ambushed. Jacques and 26 other Marines from the two platoons were killed, while few others escaped without wounds. Survivors trickled back to base in small groups or individually, leaving dead comrades on the field. On March 30, Colonel Lownds issued aggressive orders to Pipes: “Movement to contact.” In other words, leave the safety of the base perimeter and go looking for a fight. All three Bravo Company platoons would deploy to the same area where 3rd Platoon was ambushed a month before. One objective was to retrieve the Marines who had been killed in the ambush. The Marines of Bravo Company were ready for a fight. They had been pounded for over two months by the largely unseen enemy’s artillery and mortars. Their buddies had been ambushed. They wanted to avenge their deaths. If any man had doubts about what was coming, an order that passed through the ranks erased them: “Fix bayonets.” Captain Pipes led Bravo into the fight. The Marines assaulted the enemy trenches and bunkers aggressively and met strong resistance. North Vietnamese soldiers fought fiercely but could not turn back the tide. Bravo surged forward, taking casualties but never faltering. The enemy soldiers finally broke and abandoned their positions. Twelve Marines were killed on the patrol. A hundred more were wounded, including Pipes, who stayed in the fight despite serious wounds from a mortar round. The Bravo Company attack did not end the siege, but on April 6 a U.S.–South Vietnamese relief force reached Khe Sanh via Route 9, breaking the NVA stranglehold on the base. Even with the siege lifted, however, fighting continued in the surrounding area until Marine forces were permanently withdrawn from Khe Sanh and the combat base was abandoned in July. —Lance Thompson

Pamela Kleibrink Thompson, a career coach, speaker, writer and recruiter, has written for more than 100 publications. You can reach her at PamRecruit@Q.com. Her husband, Lance Thompson, a screenwriter who has written magazine articles for Air & Space Smithsonian and other publications, contributed to this article. You can reach him at scriptdoc88@gmail.com.

First published in Vietnam Magazine’s December 2016 issue.

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