In To Hear Silence (CreateSpace, 412 pp., $16.99 paper; $9.99, Kindle), Ronald W. Hoffman says, “If you were to investigate Charlie Battery 1/13, you would find this unit at the Battle of Khe Sanh in 1968. Before that—and before this book—little to nothing has been published about this unit.” His subtitle clearly explains his book’s purpose: Charlie Battery, 1st Battalion 13th Marines, The First 15 Months (July 1, 1966-October 5, 1967): The True Vietnam Experience in Support of the 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines.
Along with teaching a history lesson, Hoffman offers a look at his Vietnam War experience with Charlie Battery 1/13. He smoothly ties together his diary entries, declassified Marine Corps documents, memories of fellow Marines, and letters he sent home to his mother.
A 1966 draftee, Hoffman opted to serve as a Marine. Two years earlier, poor eyesight had prevented him from enlisting in the Corps. He trained as a radio operator on a Forward Observer Team.
Along with 3/26, Charlie Battery traveled from San Diego to Vietnam aboard the USS Lenawee on her final deployment. With layovers at Hawaii, Okinawa, and the Philippines, the voyage took from September 4 to December 11, time that included combat training exercises. Hoffman’s account of the unit riding out a typhoon in the disintegrating twenty-two-year-old ship could make a book by itself.
Dong Ha was the unit’s first stop in Vietnam. Hoffman’s description of the base exactly matched my recollection of the place: an absolute shit hole. Shortly after arriving, 3/26 took part in Operation Chinook and spent seventy-nine consecutive days in the field.
Following Operations Chinook I and II, Charlie Battery accompanied 3/26 to Phu Bai to Leatherneck Square on the south edge of the DMZ, and finally into Khe Sanh—another part of the book that could stand alone. The mission was the same everywhere: find and destroy the enemy.
Hoffman recites Marine activities as day-by-day events of entire units. For example, he reports that “Kilo Company was hit with sniper fire from across the river” and “India detected a column of some three hundred VC troops that they engaged with mortar fire.” Generally, he identifies individual Marines only when they are killed.
The companies of 3/26 used Charlie’s 105-mm howitzers against practically everything they encountered. They even called for rounds on a single enemy soldier who loitered beyond rifle range. More often than not, the difficulty of verifying results created frustration for everyone because Gen. William Westmoreland demanded body counts. Time after time, Charlie Battery unloaded dozens of rounds on target areas with outstanding coverage, and then the men in the field found traces of blood but no bodies.
“Probable” kills outnumbered verified kills. So, digging up enemy bodies to determine the cause of death became a common practice to increase the number of confirmed kills. After one encounter, American forces hunted well into the night with artillery illumination to find dead enemy soldiers and try to double a body count.
Practically every day, Marines triggered booby traps. At one point, because of more casualties to the Marines than to the enemy, daytime missions were said to end; instead, companies were assigned sectors and expected to wait in ambush. Nobody followed the new plan and the tactics remained unchanged.
At the time, Hoffman wrote: “This isn’t at all what any of us thought war would be like.”
Meanwhile, the NVA largely switched from conventional warfare to guerrilla tactics. In small groups they hit and ran. When they had the numbers, though, the NVA employed human wave attacks against isolated American units.
Hoffman did plenty of homework. His meshing of different sources provides reams of facts to help readers reach their own conclusions about the effectiveness of American efforts during the early stages of the Vietnam War. Some might view Hoffman’s research as a study in frustration.
The book contains photographs, maps, and five appendices: The Vietnam War by the Numbers (a summation of all Vietnam casualties); September 1966 Convoy Ships; a Roster of Charlie Battery 1/13; Original 3/26 Members Killed in Action; Replacement 3/26 Members Killed in Action; and Marine Corps Acronyms and Definitions.