Release Date: January 17, 2022
The siege at Khe Sanh began on January 21, 1968. For 77 days, 6,000 Americans — mostly Marines — held their positions against an all-out assault by more than 30,000 enemy troops. Hear personal stories from two men who survived the siege and then returned, decades later, to Khe Sanh.
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(BRUCE): [00:00:05] And I remember the Lieutenant from headquarters battery came up in a Jeep, big grin on his face and drove up to my position on this Firebase said [00:00:15] to me, Lieutenant, I have good news for you and bad news for you. And I said, he said, What do you want to hear first? And I said, Well, give me, give me the good news, he said. Your R&R has been cancelled. And I said and the bad news. He said, You’re going up to Khe Sanh tomorrow.
(HOST): [00:00:30] By [00:00:30] the time Bruce Geiger got to Khe Sanh, the American combat base was about three weeks into a siege that would last more than two months. About 6000 U.S. troops, mostly Marines, were defending the base and the surrounding hills from an estimated 30 [00:00:45] to 40000 enemy troops and a relentless barrage of artillery.
(DENNIS): [00:00:50] Everybody in the world knew what was coming at Khe Sanh. Everybody did.
(HOST): [00:00:57] In this episode, we’ll hear the personal stories of one Soldier [00:01:00] and one Marine. Both would survive Khe Sanh. Both would be defined by it and eventually both would return to it. From the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, [00:01:15] founders of the Wall. This is Echoes of the Vietnam War. I’m your host, Michael Croan, bringing you stories of service, sacrifice and healing from people who still feel the impact of that conflict. Nearly 50 years later. This [00:01:45] is Episode 20 Remembering Khe Sanh. Well, happy New Year, everybody. It’s good to be back with you after a little holiday break. We’re grateful for your support as we launched [00:02:00] our little podcast last year. Our first 19 episodes were heard a total of 30000 times, so thank you for listening. Thank you for sharing your stories with us. And thank you. Thank you. Thank you for sharing this podcast with [00:02:15] each other. We’ve got big plans for 2022. As we approach the 40th anniversary of the memorial’s groundbreaking, the opportunities for storytelling are only getting richer. So if you haven’t already, please subscribe to this podcast to make sure you never [00:02:30] miss an episode. Speaking of anniversaries, January 21st is the 54th anniversary of the beginning of the siege at Khe Sanh, located in Quang Tri province, about 14 miles below the DMZ and just six miles from the Laotian [00:02:45] border.
(HOST): [00:02:46] Khe Sanh’s position along Highway nine and its proximity to the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos made it strategically important to both the allies and the enemy. For seventy seven days, Communist Forces pounded the U.S. combat base [00:03:00] almost nonstop and shot at every allied aircraft that attempted to land there, making it difficult to resupply the base, evacuate our wounded and killed in action, or bring in replacement troops. Dennis Mannion was an artillery forward observer [00:03:15] or FO at Khe Sahn. That job was usually done by a lieutenant. But thanks to a shortage of line officers, then Corporal Mannion found himself on top of Hill 861 registering targets and calling in artillery on enemy positions. [00:03:30] He had been promoted twice in one morning so that he could do that job. Dennis had enlisted in the Marines, he says, not out of any particular sense of duty or patriotism, but to get out of West Haven, Connecticut, and seek adventure. He [00:03:45] found it.
(DENNIS): [00:03:47] Stupid, really foolish, and I joined the Marines, particularly because that’s where I wanted to go. And if they sent me to Korea or send me to Embassy School where I went to an embassy, or I would have resented it, I really would [00:04:00] have.
(HOST): [00:04:01] Having arrived in country in September, Dennis had seen a bit of Vietnam already. Da Nang, Dong Ha, Camp Evans. He was on his way to Con Thien when he got orders to turn around and head to Khe Sanh instead. It was December 1967 [00:04:15] and Khe Sanh was still very quiet
(DENNIS): [00:04:18] And we flew in in helicopters and I expected to be looking down and to see real stuff going on and the helicopter banks over the runway there and then swirls around and you [00:04:30] see people down on the ground there in soft covers. They don’t have helmets on, they don’t have flak jackets on. They got their little trays going to the mess hall. You know,
(HOST): [00:04:39] Dennis and his radio operator Dave Crum were assigned to Hill 861, about 3000 meters west [00:04:45] of the combat base. Their job was to protect the hill from enemy positions to the north and west. They would remain there until April.
(DENNIS): [00:04:54] We were on our own. He assigned us to, he said here, this would be a good spot for you guys and all the bunkers were above [00:05:00] ground at that point. They had tried to put them in the ground. But during the monsoons in the fall, they just all washed away or flooded and they just knew they couldn’t. They couldn’t, possibly even the ones in the trench actually worse because the water would just roar down the trench line, just [00:05:15] eroding all those fighting holes in those positions. So the bunker that we, wasn’t, it was an above ground bunker made out of sandbags, and that’s where we stayed and we went on patrols every day from the twenty seventh until I think it was [00:05:30] the 15th. It might have been the 16th of January where the Marines were told to seal up the barbed wire. Get rid of the gates. No more patrolling. They knew it was coming.
(HOST): [00:05:41] For weeks, the enemy had been building up its presence around Khe Sanh [00:05:45] in the early minutes of January 21st they began to make that presence known.
(DENNIS): [00:05:51] It was just 20 minutes after midnight. We’re still both wide awake. We’re standing in this bunker that we had started to dig. And captain Jasper called on [00:06:00] the landline. It’s just the phone wire buried in the dirt from one bunker to another. And he said some of the marines south of the LZ have spotted a couple N.B.A. out in the fog. I need you go down there and check that out. So you go, but you also [00:06:15] bring everything you have to bring your helmet, your flak jacket, you can’t leave that stuff behind you. Dave and I go down there, which means you go to the top of the hill, go down this dirt pathway down to the LZ, cross over the LZ and get in the trench line. Nothing, nothing. There’s nothing to be seen, but it’s [00:06:30] mist and fog, and we wait. And then all of a sudden on the western ridge a green flare went up. And the whole northwest corner of the hill got pounded where we had just left from by [00:06:45] rockets and RPGs and recoilless rifle fire and mortar fire, I mean, they were hitting everywhere on the hill, but their primary focus was the northwest corner.
(DENNIS): [00:06:56] So Dave and I said, we’ve got to get back up, so we go back up towards [00:07:00] the top of the hill. We’re right by the CP bunker and company Gunnery Sergeant was out laying on the ground. He’d been killed and the whole CP bunker was a shambles. Had been hit with an RPG. Captain Jasper was wounded. Radio operator was wounded. So [00:07:15] I said, Dave, we can’t. We can’t go this way. We’ve got to get to where they’re where they’re probably coming from. So we went back down the hill to the LZ and then crossed over and got into the Western trench line. And we kept working our way up the trench line with all the gunfire and explosions. [00:07:30] And we pass marine after marine and we got to a certain point. I’d say, is anyone to your right? Dave would say, I don’t think so. I don’t think so. And we got up to a point where we were just at the curve of the northwest corner and you could start to see in the muzzle flashes and flares [00:07:45] were being dropped. You could see people out there trying to get through the wire. They had already penetrated the wire. I didn’t know that then.
(HOST): [00:07:54] When the Sun came up, the Communists began attacking the combat base.
(DENNIS): [00:07:58] They were firing almost [00:08:00] perpendicular to the runway, and artillery is notable for being accurate once you get the distance. They don’t go long or short, so they could get around to land on the runway. Then you just have to shift left or shift right, and they could walk [00:08:15] those rounds right down the runway. You know, the rocket battalions were to the north, behind eight eighty one north. Most of the rocket battalions. Rockets, they tend to be long or short. So once they got the distance from where they were to the runway, they’re shooting [00:08:30] literally down the runway from ten thousand meters away. And those guys would travel right over the top of 861 on their way. And if they were short or long, it didn’t matter. They were still hitting the runway.
(HOST): [00:08:45] The [00:08:45] situation at Khe Sanh was red hot by the time Lieutenant Bruce Geiger got there a few weeks later. The army was providing heavy fire support for convoys and positions all along the DMZ, including the combat base at Khe Sanh. Bruce [00:09:00] was coming to take charge of the Army’s Dusters and Quad 50’s at Khe Sanh. Those are armored vehicles, kind of like tanks with open turrets on top and large crew served weapons.
(BRUCE): [00:09:13] I had three guys that [00:09:15] were going to replace people that were up at Khe Sanh one from the Quad Fifty battery and two, two of my platoon guys and we went to the airport, we try to get a ride up to Khe Sanh at that time on was really under heavy attack and [00:09:30] nothing was flying into Khe Sanh because they were getting shot out of the air. It was really bad news for aircraft going in there. I remember it was a CH-53 sea stallion. Big great helicopter came drop down, dropped his rear [00:09:45] rear deck and a jeep rolled off and some guys go off there and they waved us onto the helicopter. I had my three guys, they were at least a dozen or more grunts that were going up as replacements to Khe Sanh. And strangely [00:10:00] enough, the crew chief was a master gunnery sergeant, and the pilot was a major unheard of that they would be flying this aircraft. I didn’t know it at the time. This was a mercy mission, basically a volunteer mission. They were going into Khe Sanh to pick up [00:10:15] a lot of wounded and dead marines. And I remember you get on, get on the helicopter. And the first thing this gunnery sergeant said said to us was, you guys get all your gear on the floor and get on top of it because [00:10:30] when we get to Khe Sanh and start coming down through the through the ceiling, they’re going to start firing their fifty one calibers at the sound of our engines.
(BRUCE): [00:10:39] And every one of us had the exact same thought at the same time. There is nothing in my bag [00:10:45] that I’m carrying that’s going to stop a fifty one caliber round from coming through and hitting me. So we were all kind of terrified and he was absolutely right. Fortunately, it was a day with a ceiling over Khe Sanh, which only a couple of hundred feet. And [00:11:00] as soon as they heard engines coming over the base, they started shooting at us. We were watching green tracers coming up around it through the windows all over the place. We, we got down. He actually never landed. What he did was he hovered, dropped his his tailgate and [00:11:15] literally dumped us. All of us out the back like like a garbage truck empty out because he couldn’t win. There were rounds hitting all around him and he would get shot down if he stayed there much more than it did. And we all scrambled like rats [00:11:30] into the trenches around around the helicopter landing here. And they never they never picked up any dead or wounded that were waiting to get on this helicopter.
(HOST): [00:11:38] With the runway under relentless attack, getting food, water and ammunition into question was a constant challenge.
(BRUCE): [00:11:45] It [00:11:45] was a pretty tough seven weeks. Fortunately, there was resupply from aircraft, but unfortunately they were shooting fixed the fixed wing, the C-130s and 123s where the cargo planes that were trying to fly in there. But they stopped [00:12:00] flying and C-130s because they were shooting them, literally shooting them out of the air or shooting them as soon as they were on the ground. Shortly after I was there, they’d rather than land the 130s on the runway they would fly like. Less than 10 feet off the runway, [00:12:15] and when they got to a certain point, they with the back deck open, they would throw the parachutes out the back and when they opened up, they would drag these pallets which were on rollers, drag them at the back of the runway. I think [00:12:30] the second time they tried that, they had a load of of 105 artillery rounds on pallets, which were very heavy, obviously, and the pallets literally skidded all the way down off the West End of the runway and took out a bunker. [00:12:45] I think it killed two or three marines, a bunker that was at the end of the runway. So they stopped doing that because they really couldn’t control where these things were going. And finally, they realized the only way they could resupply this base was to fly over the runway from east to west. [00:13:00] And when they got near the end of the runway, they would just literally point their nose with full throttle up in the air and they would send supplies out on parachutes. And it was basically a parachute drop, with dozens of pallets coming out that way, and they would [00:13:15] drop them just around the West End of the the perimeter. And, you know, the grunts would have to go out there, salvage up all this stuff, some of which they didn’t get, some of which they did get.
(HOST): [00:13:27] Meanwhile, up on Hill 861, Dennis [00:13:30] and Dave are reliant on helicopters to keep them supplied.
(DENNIS): [00:13:34] Everything on the hill in terms of resupply had to come by helicopter. Water came by helicopter C rations, ammunition. Ammunition was the first priority. Water [00:13:45] is the second and then C rations were third, and by February we were down to one canteen of water a day and sometimes two C ration meals a day and for periods of time when they couldn’t get resupply and it would be one ration, [00:14:00] one box of C rations a day. The last week of November, ’67, that was the last time I saw soap and water to wash with until the last week of April in 1968. Never washed, never washed. I [00:14:15] wipe my hands on my pants. I wipe my hands on my shirt. You know, during the siege, we were on the hill. We were living in the ground, sleeping on pieces of cardboard in the ground, and then the water came in by helicopter. So there was no chance to [00:14:30] wash at all. You know? And that went on for like that was 70 days of sleeping on cardboard, but we slept. I also didn’t get a lot of sleep because I was the FO, so if there was [00:14:45] trouble, they woke me up. I would say in seventy seven days, roughly when it started until we left. I don’t think they ever slept more than two hours at a time. It was always 90 minutes, woken up. Be awake for an hour. Go back to sleep. Forty five minutes later, get woken up. [00:15:00] I still have terrible sleep habits today. As a result of that, I wake up a lot.
(HOST): [00:15:04] With such sustained fighting among relatively fixed forces, the two sides got to know each other pretty well.
(BRUCE): [00:15:11] We were surrounded by the better part of three divisions [00:15:15] of North Vietnamese, which with a fourth division in reserve, and those divisions would just without without any of their attachments, were 8000 men. With their attachments, there easily could have been 30000 to 40000 North Vietnamese [00:15:30] surrounding the base of Khe Sanh.
(DENNIS): [00:15:33] They looked filthy. Know they look. They looked as filthy as we did. I mean, they were living in the ground like we were.
(BRUCE): [00:15:38] We would get hit every day by long range artillery, by short range, by rockets, you [00:15:45] name it. They were always a couple of hundred rounds every single day and or more. And so it was a dangerous place. You couldn’t you couldn’t get up and walk from one place to another. Above ground unless it was foggy, if we were fogged in. That was [00:16:00] the only time we could get up and do work on the equipment or go pick up supplies if there were any when it cleared. You better stay in your hole if you’re going to get shot at.
(DENNIS): [00:16:10] They were tenacious, and I would say they were braver than I would have been. I mean, I [00:16:15] don’t know. I mean, I don’t you can’t judge your own bravery and how you act. I did what I had to do, but they did things. I can give you an example. We got napalm. A lot from air strikes on napalm strikes five hundred meters away. We [00:16:30] were so close to that at five hundred meters when the when the napalm hit the ground seven hundred and fifty pound canister and all goes up in one big, you could feel the heat. Five hundred meters away, you could just briefly, but you could. You could feel the heat. And one day these [00:16:45] jets were running there, running north to south because they never go east to west that crosses right over the top of us. So all their missions were north to south on that ridgeline in the ravine between the two hills and on the back of that ridge. But this guy was he was coming in. He’d already dropped one canister [00:17:00] of napalm. He did a big loop and he’s coming around again. And he’s on the approach to that ridge line, and an NVA soldier jumped up with an AK 47 and started shooting at the jet, who’s coming at him at two hundred miles an hour, maybe 100 [00:17:15] hundred feet above him. And then the guy releases the napalm and it tumbles forward and it hit the ground just in front of him and just like a big wave in the ocean. It knocked the guy back about 15 or 20 feet onto [00:17:30] his back, and then the fire rolled over on top of him. The force of the explosion drove the guy in the air backwards, and he hit the ground and then the napalm rolled over. And then he was obviously done. But I thought I would never do that. I mean, you know, but he thought [00:17:45] he was going to be able to shoot down a jet with his AK 47, and I guess it was brave.
(BRUCE): [00:17:50] The twenty second of March, we have been on a 100 percent alert because the intelligence saw the buildup of troops, [00:18:00] and they were absolutely convinced that we were very close to a full, full out attack on the base, trying to overrun the base and on the twenty second of March. And this is the only time I remember my whole trip did that. [00:18:15] We got we had incoming at night other than that aircraft. But that that evening, probably around seven seven at night, they started shooting at us with their artillery rounds and mortars and whatnot, and all hell broke loose. It [00:18:30] was heavy, nothing that I’d ever seen before, even having been at Con Thien. I was really nervous. I wanted to make sure my guys were getting up on the guns. I ran up to the Quad 50 to make sure these guys were up on the guns and ready to fire. [00:18:45] And the Marines always thought we were nuts because, you know, the first place they would go in incoming came is they either get in the bunker, in the trench, get their heads down. Of course, when you’re up crew served weapons, you got to get up on the weapon to fire it. And they [00:19:00] used they used to joke with us and they would say, You know, how do they get you guys in these units and you get up on the weapons when any company comes in? What do they do? Pick the dumbest guys in the unit and say, OK, you’re on a duster crew. And they were already on the guns, but I [00:19:15] didn’t know what was going on down the other end of the runway had lost. The land line had been blown up. I couldn’t communicate with them, so I started to make my way down the trench line and right in front of me, the Charlie company, C.P.
(BRUCE): [00:19:29] Bunker. [00:19:30] I was no more than 50 50 meters from from their bunker. Right in front of me, I watch a direct hit hit this bunker big ground, I thought I thought it might have been a rocket. It was at least a big 150 artillery round, but [00:19:45] it hit it and it literally destroyed it and immediately started. The flames started burning it up. There were about 10 or 12 guys in this in this bunker when it got hit. At the time, I didn’t know how many guys were seriously injured or killed, [00:20:00] and I still had to get. We’re still under fire here. I had to get past this down the runway, three quarters of a mile to my other guns, which I made my way very slowly down there and eventually got there. And these guys were up on the guns, waiting, [00:20:15] waiting for an attack, also to fire. This attack went two or three hours. They counted twelve hundred plus rounds that night. I think the only the only time they had more rounds was the initial attack. By ten o’clock at night, it was over. And [00:20:30] a lot of damage. There were a lot of destroyed bunkers and whatnot. The CO was killed. He’d only been there a month. The gunnery sergeant was killed and [00:20:45] the XO was killed, so the whole command of this company was killed and there were two other guys killed, I thought it was in that bunker. As it turned out, a bunker in front of them also got a direct hit and killed PFC and a corporal. So there [00:21:00] were five guys in that company got killed that night. It was pretty horrific.
(DENNIS): [00:21:10] They knew what they were doing. They just [00:21:15] they knew what they were doing.
(BRUCE): [00:21:26] The operation to relieve the base began around the beginning of April, [00:21:30] and it was called Operation Pegasus. And right around right around that early in the first week, it got really quiet at Khe Sanh no incoming nothing. It was almost as if the North Vietnamese knew. [00:21:45] We knew that the rescue was coming and they were getting their asses out of there. So if you can imagine three reinforced divisions of North Vietnamese making their way. Out of the area, basically, [00:22:00] so there is nothing really going on. There was some rear echelon shooting that was going on, but nothing at the base. And so the Marines were ecstatic. They were out on the tops of their bunkers and in lounge chairs, literally. During [00:22:15] the whole next week when the other forward elements, the 3rd Marine Division elements and the 1st Cav with their hundreds and hundreds of [00:22:30] helicopters flew in. The Marines were really pissed off with the first Cav was announcing they rescued Khe Sanh the worst thing you could tell a, you know, a battalion of marines is that [00:22:45] you rescued them after 77 days of holding off three divisions with five or six thousand guys.
(DENNIS): [00:22:55] The 26th Marines are leaving based on on the 15th and the 16th [00:23:00] of April for good and other units are coming in and we’re down on that flat hill, 800 and I had become really close friends with one of the lieutenants Fordham, and he’d gone to Baylor. So he’s Texas [00:23:15] football I’m Notre Dame football. We both read, we exchanged books when we got them from home at night, when it was just the two of us, he’d come by my foxhole, you know, and we sit and shoot the shit and he’d look through the binoculars and the scope. And I always I called [00:23:30] him, Steve, it was Benjamin Stephen Fordham, but he went by his middle name. And so now on the last day is April 15th. It’s Easter Monday. His platoon was the final chopper going out because they had LZ security. So they’re scattered throughout the [00:23:45] 360 perimeter and I’m next to him in the dirt. And you know, we’re just, you know, I’m glad to be going. Me too. I can’t wait to get the hell out of here. The promise is cold beer and steak dinners. That’s what we had heard and a shower when we got to Quang Tri. [00:24:00] So then two rounds hit to his right butt out about four hundred meters away. And I look over and he looks over and looks back at me and I go, Jeez, I said, I hope nobody’s adjusting those things. He said if they’re as bad as you are, they [00:24:15] couldn’t hit shit, you know? Don’t worry about it.
(DENNIS): [00:24:17] And then two helicopters leave what the first two platoons the third helicopter is for the CP group, I’m getting up to run to the ramp of that forty six and get on. And he squeezes my hand and he says, I’ll see you at the combat base and [00:24:30] it’s like a five minute flight. So as I’m leaving before the ramp comes up, I’m one of the last people on, I can see that he’s already up standing by waiting for the next the last helicopter to land. And his men are starting to get up and converge and [00:24:45] then the ramp goes up. And I don’t see it and I get down to the base and I wait. And seven, eight minutes later, they land and they’re carrying three guys off the helicopter who are dead and one of them is Lieutenant Fordham. The round that hit right at his feet, right at [00:25:00] his feet and killed two other marines right there, wounded at least nine or 10 of them because that FO was good. And he put those rounds right in the landing zone and it cost Steve Fordham his life. His [00:25:15] was the first name I found on the wall when I went in nineteen eighty two. And then we got on a helicopter and we landed a Quang Tri and there [00:25:30] was a shower unit there, there was no band, there was no cold beer. There was no steaks. But we did get to stand under these showers and the water just ran red down into the drains.
(HOST): [00:25:43] As Dennis rinsed that red clay [00:25:45] down the drain, he may have thought he was rinsing Khe Sanh from his psyche. But Khe Sanh would call him back decades later and Bruce too, and we’ll hear about those returns after the break. Stick around. The [00:26:30] 40th anniversary of the groundbreaking for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is on November 7th of this year. On November 7th of last year, we began a virtual reading of every name on the wall. Each [00:26:45] day at three p.m. Eastern, we read the names of all the wall honorees who died on that date in alphabetical order. This is an addition to the live in person reading of the names that will be held in Washington, D.C., beginning on November 7th. [00:27:00] You can visit vvmf.org/rotn. That’s ROTN for reading of the names. For more information about the daily virtual reading and about the in person event. We [00:27:15] know it isn’t easy for everybody to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. So VVMF created The Wall That Heals an exact replica of the wall at three quarter scale that travels to communities all across America. The Wall That Heals [00:27:30] and the mobile education center that travels with it will be in 29 cities this year to see the tour schedule and to learn how you can bring The Wall That Heals to your town. Visit vvmf.org. Do you have loved ones who [00:27:45] served in the Vietnam War and later died as a result of their service? Would you like to honor them at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial? We’re still accepting applications for the 2022 In Memory honor roll through March 29th. Oh, and we also have an In Memory Facebook [00:28:00] group with nearly 12000 members.
(HOST): [00:28:02] So be sure to join that if you want to feel part of a community of people who’ve experienced a loss similar to yours. You’ll find the In Memory honor roll application and a link to the Facebook group by going to vvmf [00:28:15].org And clicking on In Memory. And finally, if you’d like to be a part of VVMF’s enduring legacy, consider making a gift to our new legacy endowment unless we act now. The service and [00:28:30] sacrifice of Vietnam veterans may be forgotten when their generation is gone. For 40 years, VVMF has led the way to help heal our nation. Remember those who gave all and honor, all who served. The legacy endowment will ensure that we can continue honoring [00:28:45] Vietnam veterans for the next 40 years and beyond. We’re launching the Legacy Endowment with a $500000 matching gift campaign. The Legacy Challenge through November. Each new outright gift or gift established [00:29:00] through a will will be matched up to 50 percent with a maximum of $50000 matched per gift. All qualifying gifts established or newly identified before November 12th are eligible for the match. Learn more at [00:29:15] vvmf.org/legacy. Having [00:29:30] survived Khe Sanh, Dennis Mannion and Bruce Geiger each served out their military commitments and return to civilian life. Neither would talk about Khe Sanh or their Vietnam service to anyone for decades, but [00:29:45] eventually each one got connected to other veterans through organizations like the Khe Sanh Veterans Association and others. For both Dennis and Bruce, these new connections brought back old feelings, and those feelings, in turn, led each of them to return [00:30:00] to Vietnam and to Khe Sanh. Here’s Bruce.
(BRUCE): [00:30:04] In April of 96. I ended up going to my first reunion. We had an organization called the Dusters, Quads and searchlights. I mean, I came out of the closet [00:30:15] that year. My wife didn’t recognize me after that. And that July, because some of these guys are also Khe Sanh veterans took me to a Khe Sanh Veterans reunion in Philadelphia. When you first got back, you had nobody [00:30:30] to talk to. All of a sudden, you’re meeting groups of guys. Who you may not have known in Vietnam, but you understand each other without knowing each other. You know, you’re accepting each other automatically because you know what, the other guy [00:30:45] had to have gone through much of what you went through. I became closer with with these guys, particularly my duster friends, than I am with either of my brothers. We just never had the same kind of relationship because as I have with my veteran brothers and [00:31:00] of course, it became the same way with my Khe Sanh brothers. You know, I met some guys that I didn’t know then who I served with on their line, including a couple of the officers. I’ve been very much involved with both of the organizations we used to escort Gold Star mothers. [00:31:15] We used to had a very close relationship with them back in the certainly in the 90s, over a period of 11 years, we ended up taking 23 mothers and one Gold Star father back to Vietnam. And we raised the money so that their trips cost them nothing [00:31:30] from door to door. And the mothers described it as, I’m walking in my son’s footsteps. It was very cathartic experience for us.
(HOST): [00:31:39] Dennis Mannion’s returned to Khe Sanh was decidedly more personal. He wanted to stand [00:31:45] on Hill 861 and honor the comrades he’d lost during the siege. He was resolute. If he couldn’t stand on that hill, he wouldn’t make the trip. Finally, in July 2000, after a few years of being told that those hills were off limits, [00:32:00] Dennis went back to Khe Sanh. He did not go empty handed.
(DENNIS): [00:32:04] Sometime in April, when Joan and I were coming out of church on Palm Sunday, I grabbed a whole handful of palms, blessed palms and got to the car. And Joan said, What are you doing? [00:32:15] I said, Oh, I’m thinking about something for the trip, you know? So what I did was I made strips about three inches long that were firm, and I put twenty eight of them together and I write the name of the twenty eight friends that I knew who were on the wall and [00:32:30] I’d write their name the day they died. And then repeat.
(HOST): [00:32:38] Dennis traveled to Vietnam with a handful of other veterans and the sister of an army helicopter crewman who was killed in action on the [00:32:45] first day of the siege. Also among the group was a former student of Dennis’s. Dennis had been a high school English teacher, and this former student was making a documentary film about the trip. You can see the film on YouTube. Just search for Khe Sanh A [00:33:00] Walk in the Clouds. The group spent some time in Hue and on a rainy day in July, they loaded into a van and drove to the former combat base at Khe Sanh.
(DENNIS): [00:33:10] It was my first look at 861 since I had left, you know, and it’s sitting [00:33:15] up there just like it did in my pre siege photos from the combat base.
(HOST): [00:33:20] While the group took in the combat base and looked around for the original runway, Dennis remained single minded in his focus. He wanted to get up to Hill 861. They camped [00:33:30] that night in the pouring rain, and the next day, Dennis separated from the group and climbed the hill he had defended for four months. Thirty two years earlier.
(DENNIS): [00:33:39] I wanted to go back so I could say goodbye in a proper kind of way to those friends that I [00:33:45] lost there, if not directly on that hill in that contest. And that was really my reason for going. And as I said earlier, if I couldn’t have gone on the hills, I never would have made the trip. The next thing you know, I came to this real bump and I thought, Jesus Christ, this is the trench line. This [00:34:00] is the old trench line right here. And then I had to come up about two feet and I’m on the landing zone. And I thought, Jesus, the last place I was standing when I left this hill back in April of nineteen sixty eight, I could see the bomb craters over there [00:34:15] and artillery craters, and I thought, Man, I’m responsible for some of that, and it’s thirty two years ago. I was standing in the hole in the ground that spot that had been my bunker and it was it was beyond belief to be there. So [00:34:30] I stayed at least three hours. I took out the Les Palms and I stood in the wind. I sat in Our Father and I said a Hail Mary, and then I just pulled him out at random. They weren’t. They weren’t chronological. I just pulled [00:34:45] one out. Stephen Fordham, 15th April sixty eight.
(DENNIS): [00:34:50] May God have mercy on your soul. Let the wind take it. Next guy, next guy, next guy, and the wind [00:35:00] was so hectic, they all didn’t go in the same way, someone that way. Some, a couple fell close to me, but I didn’t touch them because that was my let them go and others went on the breeze and just disappeared into the mist and I was crying [00:35:15] a little bit. And then I gathered up the little bit I had on the top a little bag and I got down to the landing zone. And I was feeling pretty, pretty broke up, and so I was working on my [00:35:30] pack and I was getting the stuff strapped on and I looked up and in my imagination it was my imagination. The wind, is it real? I don’t know. But I could see figures standing up by the top of the hill. They were in jungle pants and they had ponchos [00:35:45] on. The ponchos were moving in the wind and they were standing in a loose line, just looking down where I was looking. I blinked my eyes. I turned away and then I looked back and they were still kind of standing there just looking at me. And [00:36:00] then I stood up and I saluted one time and I turned my back south and I never looked back.
(HOST): [00:36:19] Our [00:36:15] thanks to Dennis and Bruce for letting us share their stories with you and to their wives for letting me occupy so many of their husbands’ hours during the holidays. As always, [00:36:30] these interviews are heavily edited for this format, but we will post them in their entirety on our YouTube channel. The siege of Khe Sanh took place in a larger context. Of course, we’re talking about the Tet Offensive. We’ll be back in two weeks [00:36:45] with a look at that pivotal event in the Vietnam War.
(HOST): [00:36:48] See you then!
Full Interview with Dennis Mannion
Full Interview with Bruce Geiger
- VVMF Wall of Faces: Benjamin S Fordham – https://www.vvmf.org/Wall-of-Faces/16704/BENJAMIN-S-FORDHAM/
- VVMF Reading of the Names – https://www.vvmf.org/rotn/
- VVMF The Wall That Heals – https://www.vvmf.org/The-Wall-That-Heals/
- VVMF In Memory program – https://www.vvmf.org/In-Memory-Program/
- VVMF Legacy Endowment Challenge – https://www.vvmf.org/Legacy/
- Khe Sanh: A Walk in the Clouds documentary (David Kniess) – https://www.youtube.com/c/DavidKniess/videos
- Full Bruce Geiger Interview – https://youtu.be/7o4KLp0Jlbo?si=Fpz72Pw2HB3dIMBz
- Full Dennis Mannion Interview – https://youtu.be/q4MG0_52g0Q?si=ZJKgkS9Fe9hEmrG4
- YouTube Echoes of the Vietnam War Interview playlist – https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLK63b6Cn53unMMj-yZYEch0RuYy1YN1zl