War Stories by Stephen G. MacDonald

In War Stories: An Enlisted Marine in Vietnam (CreateSpace, 250 pp., $9.95, $2.99, e book) author Stephen G. MacDonald takes us through his time at Parris Island for basic training and Camp Geiger for advanced training. MacDonald had a good idea of what was coming for him when he dropped out of Tufts University as a sophomore and joined the Marines as his brother had done a few months earlier. His memoir carefully takes us through the training in March-April 1966—eight weeks compacted from the twelve weeks originally deemed necessary for Marine basic training.  At that time they were in a hurry to get bodies in Vietnam. 

MacDonald’s book reads a lot like Gustav’s Hasford’s The Short-Timers and reminded me also of the movie made from that book, Full Metal Jacket. If you have read Hasford’s book or seen the movie, you have a good idea of what this book is like. 

But War Stories stands on its own and is worth reading for MacDonald’s thoughtful comments and his analysis of Marine Corps training. He comments prophetically: “My twenty-four months in the Marine Corps were all going to be unpleasant.”

After Geiger, he had two weeks of leave , three weeks of radio operator training at Camp Pendleton, and then even more training at Camp Lejeune. Then came the inevitable orders for Vietnam.

But first, three weeks leave. “I’m going to Vietnam—helping to keep the South Vietnamese people free,”  MacDonald writes.

Because he was well trained, MacDonald was convinced he would be okay there. Six months in the Marine Corps and he was already a Lance Corporal.  He’d also had escape and evasion training, so he believed he was ready for the worst that Vietnam could throw at him.

Then MacDonald got detoured to duty in Okinawa where he soon made Corporal. Finally, he arrived in Vietnam where he ran the radio section of his infantry battalion.

I treasured one of the early comments about duty in Vietnam. “Nobody ate ham and lima beans. Very few people liked them.”

Arriving in country, he went down the side of a ship on netting just like in Victory at Sea. He comments that he missed the great music that played in that series. MacDonald was stationed at Camp Carroll where he was responsible for perimeter defense. He later moved to Khe Sanh where MacDonald says the troops were surrounded by the North Vietnamese.

MacDonald comments about moving through defoliated areas and also has trenchant observations about the M-16 and how it jammed and resulted in dead Marines if it was not kept very clean. “What kind of field weapon is that?” he asks.

Later, MacDonald was involved in an assault on Hill 881. There were two Hill 881’s. His was on the one in which the Marines encountered no enemy troops. He lucked out.

MacDonald has nothing good to say about Marine Corps officers. He goes on at length about how angry the Marines he knew were, “ready to explode at the slightest provocation.” Generalizations are always dangerous, but his comment hit home with me, the son of a Marine who served at Iwo Jima.  

MacDonald left the Marines in March 1968, just a few months after I left the Army behind. I returned to the welcoming arms of the University of Washington, but MacDonald found that Tufts didn’t have that “Welcome Home spirit,” so he enrolled at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. 

MacDonald has written one of the best Marine Corps enlisted men’s memoirs. His matter-of-fact voice and the excellent writing make this book enjoyable to read, as well as a refreshing, non-gung-ho take on being a Marine in the Vietnam War.

The author’s website is: http://stephengmacdonald.com

—David Willson

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