Edward Roby’s Heavy Metal: Memoir of a Distant War (112 pp., $20.99, hardcover; $11.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is a compelling look at the challenges faced by U. S. mechanized infantry units in the Vietnam War. In this anecdotal and highly detailed memoir Roby recounts his experiences commanding a First Infantry Division armored infantry company in the Central Highlands in Vietnam in 1967-68.
After graduating from West Point in 1964, Roby became a mechanized infantry officer in Germany. A captain three years later, he assumed command of a company in the Big Red One’s 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment. Operating on the Cambodian border, Roby and his men routinely intercepted NVA supply columns coming south from the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Roby notes that units like his spent more time in the field than leg infantry units. What’s more, because of the weaponry mechanized companies had, the enemy was less eager to engage them. Not that Roby and his men had an easy time of it, though, as too often the Viet Cong’s weapon of choice was landmines.
M113 armored personnel carriers were particularly vulnerable to mines. While Roby and his men made every effort to sweep for them, they never got them all. It wasn’t uncommon to see an APC stalled with wrecked tracks and road wheels blown free—or worse. As a result, most men rode on the tops of their vehicles rather than inside.
In one gripping passage Roby describes ordering an advance to help an infantry unit under fire. His men refused, certain that the road ahead was mined. True to his creed that no commander should give an order he wouldn’t follow himself, Roby led the column, telling his men to follow his vehicle’s track marks.
Roby also details health hazards his men faced, including a previously unknown strain of malaria that swept through the region in November 1967. With the standard anti-malarial pill ineffective against it, hundreds of men were incapacitated until the Army developed new medication.
Agent Orange was used heavily in the zone, too. Many men exposed to the highly toxic herbicide suffered skin irritations so debilitating they had to be evacuated. At the time AO’s long-term effects were unknown. Many of Roby’s men later developed cancers and other serious illnesses caused by their exposure to Agent Orange after coming home from the war.
Perhaps most sobering is Roby’s recounting of a discussion he had with his first sergeant about how, by the spring of 1968, the character of the war had changed. The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese had suffered catastrophic losses after the Tet Offensive, but many people at home now believed that the war was unwinnable.
In Heavy Metal, Edward Roby weaves together a vivid account of one young infantry captain’s aspirations, burdens, and commitment to his men and his mission. It is well worth the read.