Behind Ripcord with Producer Martin Hinton

Martin Hinton (in red) and crew review a potential camera angle
We sat down with this "War Stories" producer to learn a little bit more about how he goes about fitting hundred of pages of history into an hour-long show.
How did you come about doing the story of the Siege at Firebase Ripcord?

Several years ago there was a cover story in Sports Illustrated about a guy named Bob Kalsu who was an offensive lineman for the Buffalo Bills and the only professional athlete to die in Vietnam. I did a story about that back then, and it introduced me to a book called “Ripcord” by a man named Keith Nolan. After reading the book, I did a second segment about some of the men in this battle, and was able to get the show interested in doing a full hour on it.
Tell me a little bit about the guys you spent some time with:

I went to a reunion last fall for the Ripcord Association and there I met, I would say, 50 or 60 of the men who fought this battle. And they are a pretty spectacular group of people. I think in some respects they are very special and in some respects they are just like everyone else. Most of the people who fought in Vietnam actually volunteered despite what you might think about the draft. These are people who at 18, 19, 21, 22 were put in a situation where their country needed soldiers and they were either asked, or knew they were going to get drafted. So they volunteered, which allowed them to have some control over their deployments and their mission. They answered their country’s call.

"None of them wanted to be the last man to die there. But not fighting, and not fighting for your buddy was sure death. And they realized that without having to be told."
What can you tell us in general about the "War Stories" experience?

More than anything, what I’ve taken from meeting these veterans is the sense that they feel there is not that much special about what they did. They’re very proud of what they did, but they view it as price of admission to America. They’re not looking for medals or ribbons. They want two things: They want people to be grateful, and they want people to remember who died. Those are the only heroes. That’s a cliché. You hear that line a lot, but that’s what people believe in my experience. It’s all about honoring the dead. Describe the situation at Firebase Ripcord as it was described to you by those who lived it:

In this part of Vietnam, there were no villages — very few people period. This is rugged, unfriendly mountainous jungle. It’s a triple canopy forest. Tigers, if I’m not mistaken, are as common as people. This was the area where the Ho Chi Minh trails were, where supplies came down from North Vietnam to supply initially the Viet Cong, and later in the war the regular NVA forces. These are uniformed soldiers coming down these trails through the Ashaw valley. The U.S. would establish these bases when weather permitted, and these bases would support infantry with artillary and would interdict (shoot at) these supplies and these troops. That was the plan; the beginning of a much larger operation into the whole area. However, it didn’t really get started. Once this firebase was built on this mountain called Ripcord, the NVA came and tried to remove it. They said, “You know what? We own this country, not you. We’re winning this war.” To a large extent they were right. America had already announced that we were going to withdraw from Vietnam. We had already pulled out 40% of the troop strength we ever had in there, and we were leaving without having won. And that’s a tough situation to be put in because you’ve got this enemy that’s buoyed by their success and they’ve gotten you to leave. So the NVA stayed and fought. And they outnumbered us. They knew the terrain, they had a steady supply of ammunition and people, and they were determined to win. What was the most startling thing you learned about this battle?

What’s amazing is that in this horrible situation — Americans fighting a war that has been declared lost by politicians — they still found something to motivate themselves. With everything that was going on in America, with all sorts of things changing, you had these guys sort of caught up in all this, stuck in Vietnam. None of them wanted to be the last man to die there. But not fighting, and not fighting for your buddy was sure death. And they realized that without having to be told. They "fought like lions," I think is the line we use in the show, and I thinks it’s very true. Was this a censored battle?

To a large extent, the battle was not covered, and I actually spoke to a radio operator on the phone who heard his commanding officer, Col. Lucas, say to a helicopter pilot who was flying in with NBC camera personnel, that if he tried to land the helicopter he was going to get shot down. The reason for all this is probably a little unclear. But a year earlier there was a very famous fight for a hill called Hamburger Hill involving six or seven U.S. assaults up this hill. When the 101st Airborne succeeded in taking it, it cost them 56 dead, which is a very high casualty count for any modern war.  But afterwards, they just abandoned it. Fighting for something like a piece of land and then abandoning it seemed to make no sense. And back then everyone was like, “What are you doing? Why are you fighting like this? Why are these guys dying this way?” Later on with Firebase Ripcord they decided, “Well, we’ll avoid the controversy and not let anyone know about it.”  In fact, the only other footage that exists, other than the stuff we got from the men who fought the battle, was taken by an Army camera crew who visited the base in defiance of orders. The guy who led this team came back and was royally chewed out by his superiors for having disobeyed orders. But without this guy it would have been very hard to tell the story. Some of these photos have never been seen before. Certainly no one has done a story like this on television about this battle. Did the troops have the support they needed? There was some controversy over that.

Whether or not they had enough support is debatable. There are some people who think there were no reinforcements sent in because they were trying to avoid a bigger battle. The man who planned this operation is dead, so we won’t know all the details. More than anything, the U.S. troop withdrawals meant that they were about 200,000 less men in the country. They had the same responsibilities that they had in years past, but they had less people to do it. So even if the 101st Airborne had wanted to really pile people on, they would have had to take from units in other places where there was fighting to be done and move them.  So in the greater context of things, were there any troops to send? I think probably there weren’t, is the simplest explanation. And sometimes the simplest explanation is the most accurate. When you have to tell a story of such magnitude, in general, what is your approach to story telling?

It’s about refining an event like this down to a few key features. Anyone who was there is going to know a lot more than what we fit into an hour, but I think what you come away with is the sense that there were some ordinary Americans who did something because their country asked them, and not because they were terribly excited about it. And they did it really well given the times and the situation. So you try to figure out what the story is and how you want people to come away from it — what they need to know to appreciate these people. Unfortunately, you have to take out a lot of good stuff; the great stories about the guys arriving for the first time in the heat of Vietnam, and the time they were on patrol and a tiger wandered into the perimeter and the commanding officer didn’t believe them and they had to carry the tiger back to their base. These are stories that people told us that’ll be in our book I suppose.

I hope that time is helping separate the political war and the actual war. And also helping separate the politicians from the young men and woman who fought this war, whether or not we should have been there, how we prosecuted the war and the mistakes that were made. The soldier is someone who should be appreciated and honored, and they shouldn’t be mixed in with all the other noise that they so often can be. I hope people see this and they see fine young Americans and realize that they were the ones who fought this war.