Vietnam—the Teenage Wasteland: A Hippie in a War Zone by Tom Martiniano

If you have ever read the Tarzan stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs, you must have run onto the standard criticism that Burroughs placed tigers in Africa, when in fact they live—the few that remain—in India and Southeast Asia. Similarly, Tom Martiniano places chimpanzees and orangutans in his old AO of northwest South Vietnam. Chimpanzees come from Central Africa; orangutans from Indonesia. Martiniano probably saw monkeys, but they would have been macaques or gibbons.

Does this matter? Well, it’s a clue to the accuracy of his memoir, Vietnam—The Teenage Wasteland: A Hippie in a War Zone (CreateSpace, 338 pp, $14.99, paper), which turns out, like the title, to be all over the place. It’s in three parts: “Questions and Answers,” “The Tour,” and a short afterward entitled “Are We There Yet?”

“Questions and Answers” is a sort of a “What did you do in the war, Daddy?” treatise dealing with such topics as Vietnam weather, army weaponry, and the terrain. It’s discursive and anecdotal.

“The Tour,” however, is well-written. Its backbone is a gripping account of a prolonged Americal Division (Martiniano’s outfit) battle near LZ Professional against a well-trained NVA force numbering perhaps 5,000. LZ Pro sat in a place the American soldiers came to call “Death Valley,” while the NVA holed up in a mountain fastness nestled against Laos. This was in 1969.

Tom Martiniano

Martiniano refurbished a junk .50 Caliber with a bit of emery cloth, and began firing out some two miles at an NVA rocket launching site. It took him a while to get the range, and the enemy began, too, to get its range on Martiniano, so the battle became a race against time. It’s a great story, but then you think about those chimpanzees and orangutans. Not that the story is a fabrication, but over time perhaps it became stylized.

In what became the Americal’s historic battle, Martiniano, now Captain Kern Dunegan’s RTO, found himself caught in a crossfire,and he had to get out a call for help. He raised his radio with its high antenna, called in support, then hurried to a wounded soldier’s side to administer morphine.

Maybe so. Captain Dunegan received the Medal of Honor for his astounding efforts. As Martiniano tells it, he was Dunegan’s second-in-command, often running the company as a Spec 4. And he seemed to regard himself as an officer, constantly upbraiding lieutenants, captains less valorous than Dunagan, and colonels. Martiniano portrays himself as quite the hero, though, to be fair, he’s capable of screw-ups.

Part I can be skipped, Part III, dealing with Martiniano’s adjustments to the real world, you will have heard before, but Part II, “The Tour,” is an amazing story. Martiniano gets high marks for moxie, but he was certainly in the thick of it.

Buy the book. Decide for yourself.

—John Mort