Discovery Launches American Heroes Channel with New Series, ‘Against the Odds’
Military Channel, a brand of the vast Discovery Communications, Inc. network, is becoming the American Heroes Channel (AHC) on March 3. Military Channel has provided a great deal of interesting programming on military history subjects over a number of years. The idea now is to expand the channel’s programming beyond this emphasis on war and combat and introduce stories of heroism by Americans in other dramatic and life-changing situations where individual heroism emerges. These stories include, for example, those of first responders in disasters, scientists advancing space exploration, and the spies and analysts who work in secrecy to protect the nation.
“We see a tremendous opportunity to provide more history-based, narrative-style documentary programming that viewers have come to know and love from Discovery Communications. The American Heroes Channel will be the next great platform for Discovery to engage and entertain an information-hungry audience with a network that provides an exciting intersection of military and history programming,” notes David Zaslav, President and Chief Executive Officer of Discovery Communications.
To introduce the reborn channel, a newly produced series will premier on March 3 at 10:00 p.m. (Eastern) entitled Against The Odds. Although the six programs in the series return to the familiar ground of combat and war, these vignettes emphasize the heroism of individuals and small groups of soldiers, rather than the overall strategy of the battles and campaigns featured. The roll-out show is entitled “The Marines at Hue” and features one of the most deadly and significant battles of the Vietnam War.
To introduce the new series to the media, Discovery Communications sponsored a panel of veterans featured in the series at the Television Critics Association semi-annual gathering in January. I had the opportunity to go one-on-one with the three gentlemen and I was immediately impressed with their knowledge and poise; they were excellent ambassadors for American Heroes Channel. The three men were William (Bill) Steele, Sr., a World War II veteran of the 8th Regiment, USMC; John Ligato, USMC, 1/1 veteran of Vietnam, and Perfecto Sanchez, USA, an infantry officer who served in the Iraqi conflict.
I asked them to recall some lingering impressions of their combat experience that they carried through the years. “I had some buddies that got killed there,” remembered Bill Steele. “And I get emotional every time I talk about it ‘cause … they were just down to earth people. I mean, we’d do anything for each other in any way, shape, form or fashion and … they got killed.”
“It’s funny what goes through your mind in certain situations,” recalled John Ligato. “I thought when bullets were hitting all around me in the crossfire, this is like a movie. It’s really weird that thought came into my head but then the difference is the smell. There’s a certain smell of Vietnam … that’s particular to Vietnam, and I’m sure to Tarawa and Ramadi … and the smell of wounds. And then the sounds … all those kinds of things that when you’re looking at television or the movies … they can turn the volume up all they want but your senses don’t get all that.”
“It was an honor and a privilege to lead men into combat,” said Perfecto Sanchez. “I was at West Point when the war started so I had four years to prepare myself and to think what it would feel like to look at someone through the crosshairs and pull that trigger. Most of our setting was an urban environment. It’s tough when you can’t differential the enemy. When the enemy takes the form of children … women, men. In the tides of war, you don’t know what it will look like.”
These memories are recalled in Against The Odds, challenging the veterans and the audience to relieve difficult, painful and sometimes controversial episodes in our nation’s recent conflicts. “The Marines at Hue” provides an interesting insight into one of the major battles of the 1968 Tet Offensive during which North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong units launched coordinated large scale attacks against cities and military bases across South Vietnam. The period during the Vietnamese lunar New Year that began on January 30 was supposed to be one of calm – a temporary truce – but became one of the deadliest periods of the war. In Hue, the historic colonial capital, 10,000 NVA troops swept into the city pushing aside light security forces at Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) HQ in the Citadel, the venerable fortress-like structure the old city; Tac Loc Airfield and the U. S. Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) compound, while they also disrupted U. S. Navy operations at the mouth of the Perfume River.
Three understrength battalions of U. S. Marines were protecting the Phu Bai Air Base about ten miles southeast of Hue. Attacks were occurring on the perimeter of Phu Bai but were being contained. Then the call went out before dawn on January 31 for Marines to go to the aid of the thin forces protecting the MACV compound. When they got the early morning orders to move out by truck for Hue they were under the impression the mission would be a day trip. “I remember I had on combat boots without socks and I had one bandolier of ammo because we were due back by noon,” recalled John Ligato. “I never did get back to Phu Bai.”
It was the toughest of situations for the Marines, holding onto a small sliver of the southern part of the city. They couldn’t reach the main force of NVA who held them at bay across the Perfume River. The enemy infiltrated the areas of the city around the MACV compound and set up a number of strongpoints. “We were being attacked in the left flank and the NVA cut us off from the rear,” said Ligato. “We couldn’t go to the right flank, we’d be totally exposed, so we pushed ahead into the city.” It was an urban style of fighting that these Marines were not trained for and had not experienced previously in the war. To make matters worse, bad weather eliminated the possibility of air support when the Marines arrived. Even when the weather cleared up, a policy decision curtailed the use of bombing from planes and land artillery – the historic and cultural buildings in the city could not be destroyed.
What the Marines did was what they always did; they adapted, they improvised and they fought on. Colonel Stanley S. Hughes, in command of the Marines in that sector, ordered his men to proceed building by building, room by room, to drive the enemy from the city. The slow, painstaking approach took a month. “The Marines had tremendous resolve,” explained Ligato. “We had Marines refusing to go back to get medical attention because they were afraid they were going to get “Medivaced” [evacuated by helicopter to an aid station] and they didn’t want to leave the other Marines.”
Eventually the ban against bombardment of the city was lifted and air strikes and other substantial bombing took place. Navy gunboats ferried Marines across the Perfume River and, together with ARVN and U. S. Army air cavalry units, they drove the NVA and Viet Cong from Hue. The battle was a victory over the Communist forces but the destruction of the city, mass killing of civilians (most intentionally slaughtered by the NVA) and high casualties for U. S. forces sparked the beginning of war weariness and anti-war sentiment in the United States that ultimately led to the withdrawal of American troops and loss of South Vietnam to the Communist regime of the north.
The program “The Marines at Hue” presents a very convincing picture of what the Marines of “Alpha,” “Golf,” “Fox” and “Hotel” Companies endured in their month-long ordeal at Hue. Stark visuals, the majority drawn from stunning color combat footage filmed at the heart of the action, reminds the audience that war is confusing and ugly. But the resolve John Ligato mentioned is evident in glimpses into the faces of the Marines seen in these images. The veterans who speak about their experiences in the program come from the different companies involved in the action, giving a variety of perspectives on what happened. They sometimes speak in voiceover shots of them sitting or moving about their current residences. This technique gives a pleasing introspective quality to their words.
The veterans drive the program and they include, besides John Ligato, G. Ronald Christmas, “Hotel” Company commander. A number of on-screen titles help keep track of time and place. The noted Marine Corps historian Colonel Joseph H. Alexander does an outstanding job of setting the scene and bringing it all together. In fact, the program would have been better served if Alexander had spoken more – the narration by Rob Lowe is weak and unconvincing. It’s not the best work of this prolific actor. And despite the confusion of this battle, a well-placed map or two would aid the audience in understanding just what the Marines were up against. This program has none.
In addition to the program premiering on March 3 are five others which include stories of heroism at Tarawa and Sugar Loaf Hill on Okinawa in the World War II Pacific Theater; action in front of Antwerp in the European Theater; Chosin Reservoir in Korea and “A Chance in Hell,” which includes the experience of Sanchez and others at Ramadi in Iraq.
A warning about Against The Odds. “The Marines at Hue” and “The Heroes of Tarawa,” which I also previewed, are not history lessons. They present the actions of a limited number of combatants in the context of larger battles and campaigns in which the coordination of many units and actions resulted in victory. Those already familiar with this history will understand this but others in the audience who are less familiar with these conflicts may not. This Band of Brothers approach is probably what the network has in mind in changing the emphasis from history to heroes. But as one of the most dependable providers of military history in the past, one would hope history in the larger scope will still find its way into AHC programming.
In finishing my talk with the veterans of “Against All Odds” I asked them what they thought their military service could teach current and future generations in understanding what makes a hero.
Bill Steele suggested, “When World War II was started … they had a cement of the military and political sections and the whole country was pulling together. And so, that’s what our nation needs now.”
Fighting for the man to your left and the man to your right, a theme evident in “The Marines at Hue,” was on John Ligato’s mind. “What I feel now is proud of these guys … my platoon sergeant [Alfredo Gonzalez] won the Medal of Honor … and I can’t tell you the number of Navy Crosses … 504 Purple Hearts in a four day period … 130 guys … and there should have been a thousand.”
Finally Perfecto Santo observed, “As Bill mentioned, if people did not rise to the occasion to defend our country and our way of life, we wouldn’t be here. If John … if his generation weren’t strong enough, despite what was happening politically, to perform under pressure, we wouldn’t be here. I hope that when someone’s looking at America Heroes Channel and sees what our country defines as a hero that they take great pride in what that means, and if we ever are faced as a country to go to another war, that our generation rises to that occasion.”
(Click here to download a media release that includes descriptions of all six episodes of Against the Odds.)
About the Author
Jay Wertz is a frequent contributor to ArmchairGeneral.com. He has interviewed dozens of World War II veterans for the War Stories book series from Weider History Publications, edited by ACG‘s editor in chief, Col. (Ret) Jerry Morelock.