A Grunt Speaks by Ray Gleason

Ray Gleason is a retired Army Major. He served in Vietnam as a rifleman with A Company, 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry and was also a LRRP team leader with the 75th Infantry. He tells us in A Grunt Speaks: A Devil’s Dictionary of Vietnam Infantry Tales and Terms (Unlimited Publishing,232 pp., $14.99, paper) that he still has his P38. I have mine, too, hanging on my dogtag chain right next to my dogtags.

Gleason is a lecturer in medieval literature at Northwestern University in Chicago. He also teaches leadership and ethics at the Culver Academies, a boarding school in Indiana.

In many ways, I am the perfect reviewer for this handsome, well-written, well designed, and very unusual reference book. I’m an Army veteran, I served in Vietnam, and I spent thirty years as a college reference librarian. I’m also a great admirer of Ambrose Bierce, to whom the author pays homage in the subtitle, “Devil’s Dictionary.” I served in Vietnam for thirteen months, although in a very different role than Gleason’s. He was in the infantry; I was in the rear.

So I wondered how long I’d have to read before I’d encounter the term “REMF” in this grunt book. Not long. It is on the back cover, and it appears on the earliest numbered page in the book.

I’ve read all of the many reference books that attempt to include and explain the military terms of the American War in Vietnam, and I’ve developed a quick and dirty way to start my evaluation of a new one. The first term I look up is always “REMF.”

This book is usefully arranged alphabetically and the arrangement works.  As the first entry in the “R” section, I found a three-page entry under “REMF.” Early in the entry, Gleason chooses to perpetuate the near myth that REMF clerks used their skills to award themselves CIB’s (Combat Infantryman Badges.)  Maybe somewhere, sometime, a REMF did that.  But I consider it even more unlikely than the near myth of the long-haired, braless hippie girl at the San Francisco Airport spitting on a newly returned Vietnam veteran and calling him a baby killer.

I’m unconvinced that these things ever happened as described, but I confess my skepticism has its roots in my personal history. I never encountered either. Hippie girls were always nice as pie to me and the last thing I ever wanted was a CIB.

I knew a lot of clerks and jerks in Vietnam and since and none ever expressed any interest in bilking the Army out of a CIB. Besides, the clerks and jerks lacked the proper MOS for a CIB. From what I understand, you had to have be an 11-Bravo or another infantry MOS to be considered for a CIB. That was true even if you had received a Bronze Star for valor defending your air-conditioned office when it was overrun by VC during the Tet Offensive .

Gleason says in his REMF entry that “no one reading this would ever acknowledge that it describes them.” I do acknowledge that his entry applies to me. I suspect it also applies to hundreds of thousands of other clerks and jerks who served in the rear in Vietnam, and who relished—as Gleason puts it—“three hots a day, sleeping on a bunk out of the rain, sleeping entire nights without having to pull guard, having a club to drink cold beer and other forms of chilled alcohol, having access to hot showers, sleeping without boots, wearing clean pressed uniforms with patches and insignia of rank properly attached.”

Ray Gleason in Vietnam

Yes, I felt entitled to those things, and I especially gloried in the showers.  But so what?  Most grunts would have gloried in these comforts, too.Enough about the “REMF” entry, even if it does work well as an example of how this book operates. As the subtitle indicates, the book has both terms and tales. The anecdotes are intended to illuminate the definitions of the terms, and they usually do.

My next step was to look up the definition of “Ham and Motherfuckers” to see how Gleason deals with this delicate term. I turned to the “H” section to see what I could find. No ham and motherfuckers. Okay. So I went to the back of the book for a look at the index. Perhaps the term was buried in some other section. There is no index.

There was a notice that Gleason’s next book would be a “Gruntionary.”  Perhaps that forthcoming work will include an entry on this special term.Then I looked for “C-Rats,” and found four pages of useful information. Something Gleason calls “Ham and Bullets” is on his list of “C-Rats normally avoided.” This must be the usually loathed ham and lima beans which are usually referred to as “ham and motherfuckers” in the grunt literature, both novels and memoirs. The C-Rat entry is typical of most in this book: It’s detailed, helpful, and contains an interesting personal anecdote.

I went back and read the entire book, encountering a very useful entry on Agent Orange and a moving entry on Ann-Margaret. I found no entry on Jane Fonda, although she is mentioned in the book more than once.  Reference books seldom are best served by reading them straight through, but by dipping into them to get a quick answer. But this book held up to this treatment.

I will put this dictionary on the big shelf of Vietnam War books in my study and will consult it when I have a grunt term to look up. Gleason declares his focus in the title and the book does not let us down. Its bias is unashamedly “grunt.”  If this focus grates on a REMF reader, he or she has the option of producing a REMF reference book.

I thought of “A REMF Speaks.”  It’s a temptation, but I’ll pass. Book sales have already proven there is a much greater market and readership for grunt and LRRP books about the Vietnam War than for REMF books.

Which is odd because World War II produced many REMF bestsellers, books such as Tales of the South Pacific, Mr. Roberts, The Caine Mutiny, and From Here to Eternity.  These books were fundamentally non-combat books.

It was a different time.

—David Willson

The Light at the End of the Tunnel by J. Richard Ransel

J. Richard Ransel calls The Light at the End of the Tunnel: Baseball and Bullets in Vietnam (Shortimers Publishing, 326 pp., paper)  a “biographical novel.” The book, which reads more like a memoir, is organized in small, pithy sections with headings such as “Drugs and Arson,” “Red Cross Girls,” and “Liska’s Whore.”

I thumbed through the book and thought I wouldn’t have to read it all the way through to write a decent review. But when I started reading Ransel’s “memoir,” I enjoyed it so much I read the whole thing.

This “memoir” tells the story of Ransel’s tour of duty as a draftee in the Army serving in Vietnam in 1971 as a clerk and a lifeguard, even though he had been trained at Fort Monmouth Signal School in tactical microwave repair. The Army works in mysterious ways.

Because Ransel could type and because he was a trained lifeguard, when he reached Vietnam his assignment changed. Instead of being sent to Phu Bai, Ransel was assigned to the 12th Signal Group at My Khe, near Danang, on China Beach.

So Ransel went from Notre Dame Law School to being a clerk typist and go-fer for COL Philip Lowry. The sections in the book recounting Ransel’s  duties under COL Lowry are a powerful reminder of my tour of duty during which I performed similar duties in 1966-67 for COL Eddy in the Inspector General’s Office in Saigon. I never learned to swim, so I was not assigned to be a lifeguard, and didn’t get to save any lives, which Ransel did.

I loved this book. It’s written with a lot of humor and tons of salty language, and there is evidence on every page that Ransel knows what he’s talking about. The book is informed by Ransel’s considerable humanity and sympathy for the Vietnamese people.

I especially enjoyed his tales of delivering orders from his colonel to other officers of lesser rank. Working for the Group Commander gave him the powers of that officer in certain circumstances. As Ransel puts it: “It was sort of ironic that a 21-year-old draftee could tell a lifetime officer what to do.  And I didn’t get a big head about it. It was just another stupid part of the stupid war.”

I admit that Ransel was a better man than I. When I did a similar task for COL Eddy, my head did swell a hat size or two. Power did corrupt me—at least a little bit.

As the subtitle promises, this book delivers quite a large amount of baseball narrative. I never noticed baseball being played in-country during my thirteen months in Vietnam. Ransel sets this record straight. There was fast-pitch softball, and it was played seriously all over South Vietnam. I don’t know how much time the VC devoted to sports, but I suspect it was minimal.

Ransell wrung a few tears out of this reader when his narrative informed us that 12th Signal Group softball team was awarded the U. S. Armed Forces, Vietnam, trophy but only because the 101st Airborne Division team they were scheduled to play against in the Big Game went on a recon mission,  which resulted in the deaths of eight members of their fast-pitch softball team.

The 12th Signal Group had the names of those who died engraved on the giant trophy.  As Ransel puts it: “Just when you think you are going to do something important, reality sets in, war breaks out and tells you how insignificant you are.”

Ransel waits until late in the book before he gets to my favorite Vietnam War subject: Agent Orange. I have to confess my bias. I am dying of Agent Orange-caused multiple myeloma. Ransel’s Agent Orange section is detailed, hard-hitting and right on the money. He suggests that perhaps the U. S. government’s use of Agent Orange in Vietnam was a war crime.  Who am I to argue with an attorney who has a law degree from Notre Dame? He makes the case over four well-reasoned pages filled with facts and figures.

Golf, Medgar Evers, and Robert Johnson (the blues singer) all get name checks in this perfect little biographical novel. I’ve added the book to my short list of REMF classics of the American War in Vietnam.

The “R” stands for “rear.” The “E” stands for “echelon.”  I’ll let you figure out what the “MF” stands for. Hint—It doesn’t stand for “materiel finaglers.”

—David Willson

Land of the Homeless Brave by Aleda J. Marshall

Aleda J. Marshall’s Land of the Homeless Brave (CreateSpace, 126 pp., $6.99, paper) is a novel centered around a homeless Vietnam veteran. Told in the second person, the book is infused with many biblical quotations.

Here’s one example, a passage in which the author describes the thoughts of the homeless veteran about his marriage after his return from the war:

“All that women’s liberation stuff was spreading across the country like wildfire. It sure was not helping marriages. The divorce rate was on the rise. However, in your household, you were the boss, the King of your castle. Yep, you figured the world would be a better place if those women’s libbers would just read this portion of the Scriptures.

“Thank God your wife read her Bible and for the most part, that gave you peace. Back then, there would have been a lot more peace in more family homes, if more women focused on what the Bible told them. Continuing on in Ephesians, you read in verses 5:25, 28, and 29….”

The author tells us that fifty percent “of all net royalty proceeds will be donated to the housing of HOMELESS WAR VETERANS.”

—Marc Leepson