Rolling Coffins by Brian Richard Esher

The title and subtitle tell it all: Rolling Coffins: Experiences of a Mechanical Infantry Soldier in the Bloodiest Year of the Vietnam War, 1968 (Page Publishing, 442 pp., $19.50 paper; $9.99, Kindle) by Brian Richard Esher.

As an 11 Bravo light weapons infantryman, Esher spent six months in the Vietnam War in the field around Tay Ninh with 4/23 of the 25th Infantry Division. His company engaged the enemy practically every day in sweeps on foot, aboard APCs, and by helicopter. The men were continually undermanned, outnumbered, and inadequately supplied.

Esher’s pragmatic approach to training and combat made me admire him. He believed, he writes, that “the Army didn’t really care about draftees one way or another.” Therefore, he fought his superiors—mentally and physically—almost as vigorously as he fought the North Vietnamese. On both fronts, he employed tactics that drastically varied from normal behavior.

“I just didn’t like being pulled out of civilian life to be basically a slave to the Army,” Esher writes, “being constantly harassed and taking orders from everyone above me, which was basically everyone in the military. Some of them dumb as dirt!” His stories justify this attitude and frequent disobedience.

Rebel or not, when engaging the enemy, Esher performed courageously. Along with the CIB, his awards included the Distinguished Service Cross, the Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts.

The 25th Infantry Division had the highest number of casualties among U.S. Army divisions in Vietnam. The six months Esher spent in the field were the 25th’s bloodiest. His accounts of 4/23’s actions in the ten-day Battle of Tay Ninh during the Third Offensive and in a massive ambush the following month are spellbinding. By then, the casualty count had reduced squads to five or six men with Spec4s as squad leaders.   In the book’s Epilogue, Esher spells out what he believes were the Army’s failures in the Vietnam War. Although his views are familiar, his battlefield credentials validate them perfectly. His primary concerns are non-existent leadership, lack of comradeship, and inflexible tactics. “Before the Army, I was more independent than most, relying primarily on myself. After Vietnam, I was more independent than ever,” he says.

A voracious reader, Esher presents short history lessons on topics such as Robert S. McNamara’s Project 100,000 (aka U.S. Army Moron Corps), the fate of the USS Pueblo, the odds of becoming a casualty in the Vietnam War, and the reason Friday the 13th is considered unlucky.

Today, Esher is a successful, self-made businessman whose only war-related emotional problem is a recurring nightmare of being recalled and again going through basic training, destined for Vietnam.

—Henry Zeybel

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