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From the jungles of Vietnam to the Academy Awards, William Broyles still has the work ethic of a Marine

Joel Searls Avatar
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Broyles in Vietnam on the left and in Hollywood, present.

Former Marine First Lieutenant William Broyles deployed to Vietnam, served as an infantry platoon commander and earned a Bronze Star and a Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Silver Star before his illustrious Hollywood career began. Broyles is known for creating the TV show China Beach and for writing such great screenplays as Apollo 13, directed by Ron Howard. Broyles also wrote Castaway and Polar Express, both directed by Robert Zemeckis, Jarhead, directed by Sam Mendes and Flags of Our Fathers, directed by Clint Eastwood. Broyles’ films have won Academy Awards for their merits. 

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Broyles with China Beach star Dana Delaney. Photo courtesy of William Broyles. 

Broyles starts off our interview saying, “I will do anything for the Corps,” which led the interview to take off as quickly and smoothly as an F-4 Phantom. Broyles was born during World War II and his parents were both very young. His mother learned of the Pearl Harbor attack while coming home from a football game with her then-boyfriend. Broyles grew up in a blue-collar factory town outside of Houston, Texas, named Baytown, home to the largest refinery in the world. Most of his friends’ fathers were World War II veterans. He idolized them in their experience of the war. Broyles shared, “It was this sort of mysterious experience they had all had and I kind of inhaled. I didn’t particularly want to repeat it. I was just fascinated by it.” 

He went to a segregated high school, which deeply impacted his world view. He went to Robert E. Lee High School where the marching band wore confederate uniforms and the school’s fight song was Dixie. He saw photographs of Blacks protesting segregation so he began to question his identity and got involved in the Civil Rights Movement. When the Vietnam War started, he went from the Civil Rights Movement to the anti-Vietnam war movement. In January 1968, he was in a basement of the Oxford University where he was a Marshall Scholar at the school, and witnessed a news report on the Battle of Hue in Vietnam that deeply affected him. Broyles shared about the Marine he saw on TV being interviewed about his survival: 

“I thought, ‘Oh my God! That is the same kid I went to high school with….so many of my friends went to Vietnam. Some of them had been wounded and some had been killed. It sunk in on me then that I had this moral clash that I didn’t believe in the war, but also my deferment meant that other kids I knew were going instead and I was taking advantage of that with the privilege I had to avoid it. It was just confusion.” 

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Broyles (left) with Jeff Hiers (radioman) and Tom Tomasiewicz (squad leader) in Vietnam with a 60mm mortar. Photo courtesy of William Broyles.

Broyles had two ethical values that clashed: one, all humans being equal in the sight of God and, two, he thought the Vietnam war was wrong. He joined the Peace Corps, but that was eliminated as a deferment. In October 1968, Broyles got his draft notice. He decided he was going to serve and not try to go to Canada — he thought dodging was morally wrong. He went to multiple different branches in an attempt to find what fit him. The Coast Guard, Air Force and the Reserves were unavailable. He walked by the Marine Corps recruiting office, which didn’t have a line and decided to walk in. The Marine recruiter was reading a novel by Charles Dickens which surprised Broyles. Upon speaking to the recruiter, Broyles was amazed at the Marine’s depth of knowledge and worldliness. The recruiter discussed with Broyles about how the Corps has programs for educated young men and women to serve the Corps with the opportunity for distinction. Broyles joined the Corps right then and there, and showed up to serve on January 2nd, 1969, in a coat and tie “to look presentable.” He recalled his Officer Candidate School (OCS) experience: 

“…of course, we are sitting in there (a hall) and these enlisted guys are very helpful….to fill out this application….we are sitting there, and it is just really quiet. Suddenly these double doors at the back open and we all turn around. The wind blows snow in and we hear, ‘Get the F&$# out of here you maggots you have two minutes.’ So, we all jumped up and I don’t know where my suit is. Lost in the snow.”

Broyles graduated OCS and worked extremely hard to be the number two officer out of the 250 in his class at The Basic School so he could go to the Defense Language Institute to utilize his Masters in English from Oxford. He was assigned to report to Vietnam per his paperwork. His roommate got into the DLI instead of Broyles. Broyles was told by the Colonel of TBS that his leadership was needed in Vietnam with Marines in the fight. He was sent to a three-week Vietnamese language course before heading to Vietnam, which was offered to him by the colonel. He was stationed up close to Da Nang and then he was sent to a small outpost. The camp had been bombed the night before his arrival and was shot up pretty bad. Broyles said, 

“Of those 55 guys I spent six months with, they were 18, 19, 20, 21. I might have had 15 high school graduates and I learned more from them than I did from Oxford. We were so tight. The only question they had about me was not my resume or what I did…they just wanted to know if this guy will get us killed….the war was winding down at that point…it was almost lost…what really comes out is that whole bedrock Marine Corps ethic of brotherhood…as an officer you eat last, you take care of your men’s feet before you take care of yours…. I was the only officer….the whole time we were out I might have seen my company commander….two times. My radio man, a 19-year-old kid from Jersey, totally had an attitude, he saved my ass a couple of times. Totally. I am still in touch with him. A few weeks before we had been hit I went into Da Nang to visit some guys in the Naval Hospital….I saw this window into the Naval Hospital in Da Nang and it looked like that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where they take the Ark of the Covenant into the warehouse and all you can see is boxes, all you could see was wounded teenagers….to see a concentrated thing… I literally fainted and broke my nose. 

“I came to with this nurse and thought, ‘How can you do this? You volunteered.’ When I came back (from the hospital)… I was on this ridge (in the jungle outside of Da Nang) and I was lying there thinking all night – friends from Oxford or college they are not here… they are going to law school, starting to work at Goldman Sachs, they are becoming doctors or dentists…and here I am in the mud with my guys…my platoon. I had such high hopes for myself and this is the end. You are going to buy it here and all those things you want to do are hopeless. I saw this light streaking across the star….thought it was a shooting star…to cut to the future that experience in the hospital was the basis for the TV show China Beach and that light that went across the sky was Apollo 13 on its way to the moon. So, at that moment when I thought my whole life was over…at that moment of deepest kind of failure and despair…at the same time I couldn’t feel like that because I had all these men, I was responsible for. There was the groundwork for the best things I did in my future.

“If I had been in law school or had been some schmuck at Goldman Sachs, I wouldn’t have met those guys and had that experience and I wouldn’t have learned what I learned in the Marines Corps…the pillars of my life were formed there and as well as my sense of discipline and teamwork and loyalty down. Lots of people have loyalty up, but loyalty down….my commanders were always just guys on the radio…that sense of loyalty down and how we are all in it together and each person counts….to see this kind of love these guys had for each other….they would give their last drop of water in the canteen or their last c-ration or their lives really for each other. It was exactly what I had not wanted….but it is exactly what I needed. It’s what made me who I am….also the best Marine officers I met in Vietnam….were some of the smartest, disciplined, most on task, most focused people I have ever met up to this day. The sense of commitment to your work and to the people who depended on you and to see what you do in your life not as a job but as a calling, that made an impression on me that I have never forgotten.” 

Broyles said the most specific thing he learned from his time in the Corps was if you think you can’t take another step and keep going, you can. Put your foot in front of the next one and keep going. He describes this thought process as a “muscle” that is not easy to teach people. Broyles believes people have to experience it for themselves just like he did, and many others have. He also shared that when in command to lead with body language. “[You have to] project a sense of confidence, not just in yourself but in them. It was key to my leadership learning in magazines, Newsweek, Texas Monthly and TV shows. You don’t learn that in college, you don’t learn that sitting in a classroom.”

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Bill Paxton (left), Kevin Bacon (center) and Tom Hanks (right) in Apollo 13. Photo courtesy of wusa9.com.

Broyles believes showing up on time is simply a great leadership trait to have and he believes people that pull rank in a military setting are “very ineffective.” He said, “If you have to say you are the boss or say you are in command, chances are you are really not.” Broyles felt his Marine experience in Vietnam was more of a horizontal command structure in many ways because it was so collaborative — the decision was passed along to him for final call. He believes to get buy in by leading by example and not ordering others around. He stated, “I could order people around in my platoon, but if I ordered them around too much, I would have gotten a grenade rolled under my hooch and that was it.” 

Broyles learned skills to take care of every specific item. He recalled learning to sew, something he didn’t know how to do before the Corps.  He reflected upon how if he got things wrong with his Master’s in Philosophy, people could tell him he was just “wrong,” but if he got things wrong as a lieutenant in the mountains of Vietnam, he could get people killed. He believes a leader must be aware of the conditions and morale of a team, which he learned in the Corps. 

A historic scene from Flags of Our Fathers. Photo courtesy of imdb.com.

He loves China Beach, Castaway, Apollo 13, Jarhead and Unfaithful. Castaway was the most collaborative, with so many people at the top of their game.  Broyles feels that as a writer, sometimes the reality of the film falls short based on expectations and who is involved while other times it exceeds expectations. He shared, “You can have a wonderful time and make a bad movie. You can have a miserable time and make a great movie…when you have a great time and make a great movie then you are blessed. You are blessed with your collaborators, Tom Hanks, Bob Zemeckis, Don Burgess our DP, everybody was at the top of their game. China Beach was close to the heart because it was the first one and also used Vietnam…it was that nurse. To try to honor the women that have been ignored and done so much in the war as nurses or support.” Broyles said about Castaway, “…it was my coming home from Vietnam movie.” 

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Tom Hanks and his “co-star” Wilson in Castaway. Photo courtesy of inlander.com. 

He believes you would never know watching it, but it’s about a person living their life normally, and is drafted into a new world that he had no idea about. He had experiences he couldn’t share with other people and then he was brought back to the world. When the person comes back, the world he had left was the same, but the man wasn’t, which is the story of Castaway on one level. As Broyles said, “….my plane didn’t crash like it did in Castaway it just left me in Vietnam.” Broyles describes Hanks’ character as being in one place and his mind is still back on the island, similar to his Vietnam experience and he didn’t want to make a traditional coming home from Vietnam experience. Castaway had similarities to the truths Broyles lived coming home from Vietnam and the Corps. Castaway to him had many similarities to the Marines Corps with people working together in the prime of their careers. He said, 

“I have great learning experiences out of all the ones that have gotten film and still have senses of loss about the ones that haven’t been made…I have gotten 10 made out of 30 scripts I have written….which is like a .333 batting average. That gets me into the Hall of Fame….I feel pretty lucky about that.”

When asked about Apollo 13, Broyles smiled. He was speaking with Jim Lovell when Lovell shared when things started going wrong on the mission it was time to focus on the problem and fix it. Broyles likened this mindset to the Marines when things go wrong it is time to think, adapt and improvise. The astronauts were on their own in many ways and had to work the problem out. Understanding the thought process of the astronauts as engineers helped, “…the tonal quality of the script…there would be no drama in the capsule…the antagonist was not a traditional human being….it was the problem and then outer space.” He wanted to show everyone working for a common goal in Apollo 13. 

For Jarhead,  Broyles put the Vietnam Veteran getting on the bus at the end in the film because of how he felt as a Marine having served in Vietnam. The scene in the film about the Marines watching Apocalypse Now was a recruiting film scene even though it is really an anti-war film. Jarhead was the opportunity to do a Samuel Beckett play into a film. One scene in Jarhead that reflects Broyles’ experiences was when the Swofford character played by Jake Gyllenhaal sees a group of Iraqi soldiers burned to a crisp sitting in a circle — likely where the Iraqis were eating their food rations. Broyles said of that scene, “I am always fascinated with what it is that lets us treat other human beings as less than human…we are raised to not kill.” 

Jake Gyllenhaal and Peter Skarsgard in Jarhead. Photo courtesy of imdb.com.

He returned to Vietnam in 1984 to make peace with his experience. He purposely sought out people he fought against to make peace with those of the NVA and VC. The Vietnamese didn’t rotate home; they were in the fight for seven or eight years. Broyles wanted to meet these men he fought while in Vietnam over tea or food. A point of the film Jarhead was: what is the point of training for war and then not employing your training — which in turn makes the Marines angry for not getting to use their training. Flags of our Fathers is the opposite of Jarhead as it features mythical characters Broyles experienced in his coming of age as a Marine. Those Marines fought the great war and won, he fought in the jungle and didn’t.

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Broyles (right) with General Amos, then Commandant of the Marine Corps and his daughter Susannah Broyles at the awards ceremony for the Marines Corps Heritage Foundation. Photo courtesy of William Broyles. 

Broyles believes we need to find good stories and especially good Marine stories to tell. Hollywood is cyclical as well with the types of stories the film industry wants. We are currently in the longest war we ever fought with Afghanistan which makes people weary. He stated, “People aren’t just going to see a Marine Corps film they are going to go see a great film that features a great story that features Marines. It’s just getting good stories. If you do a really good story and a really good script it will eventually get noticed.”  Broyles is incredibly proud of Texas Monthly, China Beach, Castaway, Apollo 13 and Jarhead, but mainly he is proud of his five children and of “…having raised really good human beings in the meantime.” 

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Broyles with the cast of the TV show “SIX”. Photo courtesy of William Broyles.

A few interesting notes, Broyles has a Marines Corps award named after him titled ‘The Lieutenant William Broyles Award’ and it is given for a distinguished play or screenplay by a playwright or screenwriter dealing with U.S. Marine Corps heritage or Marine Corps life. The award is given yearly through the Marines Corps Heritage Foundation. Broyles’ son David served as a Pararescue Jumper in the Air Force and conducted special operations missions during the War on Terror. David is now a writer in Hollywood and has worked on History’s TV show Six. Broyles also got to hear President Kennedy speak at his college, Rice University, about the plan for the United States to go to the moon.