Lullabies for Lieutenants by Franklin Cox

Gung-ho to the max but realistic nevertheless, Franklin Cox assembles a preponderance of war stories and several mini-essays in his Vietnam War memoir: Lullabies for Lieutenants: Memoir of a Marine Forward Observer in Vietnam, 1965-1966 (McFarland, 220 pp. $19.99, paper; $9.59, Kindle). His revealing war stories mainly relate to humping with his unit, the Second Battalion, Ninth Marines. Cox’s his mathematical magic guided artillery support for search-and-destroy missions against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army. His essays editorialize on situations outside the battlefield.

Cox’s chronology is a bit jumbled, but it doesn’t matter: Each chapter has a life of its own.

Franklin Cox’s adoration for the Marines does not hinder his ability to recognize the Corps’ weaknesses in the Vietnam War. He took part in the historic 1965 amphibious landing that began the big buildup of in-country manpower. He writes that beyond “a handful of senior offices and salty first sergeants,” the rest of the Marines were new to warfare. They soon became the first American troops assigned to “find and kill the enemy” south of Danang in “inhospitable” I Corps.

“When the last Marine units finally left Quang Nam province six years later the objective was never fully accomplished,” Cox notes.

His account of his first months in country overflows with tragedy. He writes about ten days of “incredible mistakes, one after another, that became numbing, commonplace events that befell the greenhorn battalion from the first days it landed.” In “one two-day period 2/9 took more than 45 casualties from snipers and booby traps and recorded not one official VC KIA.” Meanwhile, the rules of engagement that required multiple levels of cover-your-ass approval virtually eliminated timely artillery support. Inflammatory U.S. media reports further disrupted the Marines’ efforts, Cox says.

For the first half of his thirteen-month tour, Cox watched the world unravel from inside the battalion headquarters’ Fire Support Coordination Center. His life changed drastically when he joined the grunts in the field as a forward observer, and voluntarily took part in everyday combat tasks, including walking point. “Frustration and fatigue consumed us,” he writes, although Cox lavishes praise on superiors who skillfully led. He also bluntly disparages leaders who failed to meet their responsibilities.

Cox engaged in his share of intense fighting, and his combat stories sometimes resemble parables that become cryptic. He recalls, for example, watching a Marine platoon leader make a point—using six 106-mm recoilless rifles of an M-50 Ontos—by flattening a well-established schoolhouse after a village chief denied any affiliation with the VC despite booby traps that ringed the village and killed and seriously wounded three Marines.

The surviving “savage” Marines sadly looked away while women and children screamed and cried. The village chief showed no emotion even when the platoon leader called him a son-of-a-bitch. Cox ends the story by saying: “A few months later something happened to another Marine platoon when it entered the same village. Only someone pathetically dumb would have to wonder what happened.” Still, even today Cox respects the VC and NVA.

Cox in Vietnam

Like a goodnight kiss, he includes a short chapter at the end of what he terms unlearned lessons from the Vietnam War.

Cox offers no notes or bibliography. He derived “the essence of his experience” primarily from “scores of letters” written to his mother, he says. Occasionally, he writes about conversations with longtime friends. The book contains a scattering of in-country photos he took. 

Published in 2010, Lullabies for Lieutenants attained classic status among Marines after winning several awards, including the grand prize in the 2014 Story Pros Awards Screenwriting Contest.

—Henry Zeybel