The year was 1968, it was January, and the Tet Offensive had begun. My unit, Bravo Co., was at a forward air base called Khe Sanh — now surrounded by a force of about 20,000 North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troops — and, for seventy-seven days, the Marines at Khe Sanh would endure daily artillery, rocket, and mortar barrages.
Within days we had dug deep into the ground to make bunkers and eight-foot-deep trenches, connecting them in an effort to find some level of protection against the endless barrages. All too often, the size of the artillery and mortar rounds made all that effort an exercise in wishful thinking.
Reunion and Reflection
That was 46 years ago. Today, I am in Sparks, Nevada, attending a reunion with my Marines from Bravo, 3rd Recon for the first time. It is proving to be a powerful experience. We are old men now. We were in our late teens and early twenties then. We were thinner, had all of our hair, and had the muscle and the energy of youth then. As life and luck would have it, we are old men, now in our late sixties and early seventies in varying stages of health.
But when we look at each other’s ID tags and remember those names, we embrace. That brotherhood born in the crucible of that far away war reignites, and we settle quickly into recounting our old memories. While some of the shared memories are full of the pathos of those days, there is much laughter in our conversations, too. Somehow we have always been able to use humor to deal with the weird reality we found ourselves in. Many of our conversations are born out of that mutual experience and a sense of wonder that we survived all of that and even went on to have families and careers. We made lives for ourselves. But we never forget those whose lives ended back there. They are still missed and mourned for as if it were yesterday.
Many of these men have been coming to these reunions for years. This is my first time to be back with my brothers from Bravo Co., 3rd Recon. It has surprised me how quickly I felt at home with them all. There are men from the whole Battalion here, so there are many that I did not know then and am meeting for the first time here. But that doesn’t make a difference — we are all Marines (even we Corpsmen).
Tedium and Terror
At the time the siege began Bravo, 3rd Recon about 110 men. At the end of it we had lost 19 of our brothers and many more had been wounded. We were a small unit on the base and our typical task of reconnaissance, being the “eyes and ears” of the 3rd Marine Division, had been rendered moot by the siege. We did not have to go sneaking around in the jungle looking for the enemy; the enemy had surrounded us and was at our perimeter. You could see them and their trenches creeping closer, testing our defenses every day. As a result we were often called upon to do other things.
For example, we were called upon regularly to collect the garbage on the base and then take it outside of the wires to the dump site. This was not as easy as it may sound, as the artillery and mortar barrages could come at any time. Getting caught out in the open, above ground, standing on a pile of garbage in the open bed of a truck, nowhere near a bunker was not good.
It seemed crazy, but it was an absolute necessity. We were already overrun with rats. They didn’t need any more encouragement. When we went outside the wire to the dump site, we went with weapons locked and loaded. We pushed that trash off of the back end of that truck like madmen and retreated back behind the wires as fast as we could. Corpsmen were assigned the duty of burning the waste in the outhouses every day. That meant being exposed to sniper fire, or being away from the bunkers and trenches while you were engaged in this nasty job. But we did it, every day.
We would be called on occasion to help out at Graves Registration too. This was the difficult job of identifying and body-bagging our fellow Marines. Most of us were 18-22 year old kids, but we already knew the reality of death intimately. We lived with the threat of it on a daily basis. We smelled it. We touched it. And it touched us.
Brothers, Again and Always
My Bravo Co. and some of the men from Delta Co. were the only elements of the Battalion at Khe Sanh, but we all went on Recon patrols in our small squads and share the unique realities of that experience. We all know what it means to have each other’s back. These men cared for one another, protected one another, helped one another with an affection unlike any other. This brotherhood is a phenomenon of war that much has been written about, but to be a part of it is one of the most cherished things in our lives. We are never strangers to one another. Even though we see each other rarely, when we do get together, we are brothers again.
Being here with my Recon Marines again has been a very moving experience for me. I am enjoying the old camaraderie and am taking it all in, for we will part again and go back to our homes to carry on with our lives as usual. But for these few days we can step out of the usual and remember that unusual reality that we shared and survived together so many years ago.
It is good to be with my Marines again. They are good men, one and all. I love them. They are my brothers.
1) Notes from a Veteran author, Dan Doyle, joins his Marine brothers for a photo shortly after his arrival at Khe Sanh, January 27, 1928. (courtesy: Dan Doyle)
2) A U.S. Air Force North American F-100 Super Sabre drops its bombs close to the Khe Sanh Combat Base, in 1968. (USMC photo)