“Napalm, the Smell of Victory”
March 1976, Laguna de Bay, Philippines
On the set of Apocalypse Now, starring Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, and Robert Duvall, I had just received the ‘casting call’ for the next week’s shoot. We had only a simple idea of the plot at this time. We had just finished the ‘village one sequence’ where Capt. Willard and the PBR crew meet with the eccentric CO of the 1st Air Cav, Airmobile Division, Lt. Col. Kilgore played by Robert Duval. We shot ‘village one’ on the shore of the largest fresh water body, Laguna de Bay, southeast of Manila in March-April of 1976.
The night party scene was being filmed that night, real beer, vintage coke bottles, and steaks, hotdogs, hamburgers, etc. were being consumed with pleasure by cast, crew, and background artists. Rumor had it that marijuana smoke was mingling with the scents of a great all American cook out.
Apocalypse Now (1979) - Robert Duvall as Lt.Col Kilgore; with Francis Ford Coppola.
After three months of shooting I was the Set PA (Main Production Assistant) for all extras at this time, working directly with 2nd A.D. Larry Franco, under 1st A.D. Jerry Ziesmer. I knew Mr. Duvall and other main cast members as one of my daily tasks was to inform them when they were needed on set. I called him “Colonel” which he enjoyed as he ‘got into character’. The Colonel was joking with his ‘troops’ which he often did between breaks, asking where they came from, and so on, when one extra asked what happened next in the movie. (At this time few of us understood the plot, knowing only that it was loosely based on “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad).
‘Col. Duvall’ gave us a brief outline of the next sequence of attacking the second village (filmed later at Quezon Province on the east coast) at the mouth of the river (i.e. Mekong). This would lead up the PBR and Capt. Willard to the Cambodian border and beyond. The PBR would be dropped by helicopter into the lagoon after the village is ‘suppressed’. Col. Kilgore is interested in the surfing champion ‘Lance’ and wants his two surfers to join Lance in surfing the point. It is during the high point of the attack that heavy mortar fire from the tree line causes even Capt. Willard to question the safety of surfing while under fire. Col. Kilgore then stands up and says that he’ll make the beach safe to surf and calls for a napalm strike to clear the tree line.
I remembered an incident during the Vietnam war, making a very memorable quote, just after we had done a bomb damage assessment on a hill. It had been targeted because a Viet Cong rocket company had been located in a hill complex honeycombed with tunnels. We circled high above in the command CH46 helicopter, waiting until two Daisy-Cutters, 15,000 lbs. each, were dropped within 15 minutes of each other from C-130 Hercules, with delayed charges that penetrated the hill before exploding. Finally napalm was dropped from F-4 Phantoms, ‘fast movers’, as a sort of “coup de grace”.
Our teams landed after the napalm had burned out and actually found a few enemy survivors stumbling out of tunnels on the hill and from escape tunnels nearby. The hill had collapsed in places and most of the dead we did find were only burned slightly. They died of suffocation because napalm sucks up all the oxygen. The lingering smell of gasoline, hung in the air, thus leading one Staff Sergeant to nod his head and say “Ah, napalm, the smell of victory”.
I thought of his noteworthy quote and interjected “Ah, napalm, the smell of victory”. Duvall looked at me, with intrigue and asked why I said that. I told him about this anecdote and he told me that he loved it and would talk to the director, Coppola about using it. Of course he did slight artistic changes but in essence keep the quote intact.
Here is the dialog after the napalm strike hits the treeline and the mortars are silenced.
“Smell that? You smell that!? Napalm, son.
Nothing else in the world smells like that…
I love the smell of napalm in the morning.
You know one time we had a hill bombed, for 2 hours.
When it was all over I walked up.
We didn’t find one of them, not one stinking ‘dink’ body.
The smell, you know that gasoline smell.
The whole hill, smelled like…
Victory…Someday this war’s gonna end…”
Yes, and one day I knew the film would ‘wrap up’ for me. I was already cast for a supporting role in Sid Furie’s “Boys of Company C” and I would be working under Ken Metcalfe and his wife Marie. Life would go on, but the best years of my life was working on this film epic, THE classic war movie of the Vietnam conflict. The next nine years were to be full of highs and lows, but “what a way to make a living”!!