Saddle Up by John C. Hedley

Loyalty to the men who fought alongside him in Vietnam’s Central Highlands during 1969-70 forms the core of John C. Hedley’s memoir, Saddle Up: The Story of a Red Scarf  (A15 Publishing, 286 pp.; $24.99, paper).

Operating out of Fire Support Base St. George near Pleiku, Hedley led Fox Force Reconnaissance Platoon of E Company, 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry (the Golden Dragons) of the 4th Infantry Division. The platoon spent most of its time in the jungle and “made contact with the NVA or Viet Cong almost every time they left the firebase,” Hedley says.

Commissioned after graduation from West Point in 1968, Hedley found that running patrols and ambushes quickly taught him new decision-making skills. He challenged authority and did not hesitate to put his men’s welfare ahead of his career aspirations. And he led from the front when possible. Every meeting with the enemy taught him a lesson in survival.

He shows the depth of his concern for his men by recalling the challenges of three major encounters: a night-long battle in which sappers overran St. George; the pursuit of an NVA battalion; and the discovery of a massive NVA bunker.

Hedley did a lot of soul searching in Vietnam. He recognized his inadequacies when, two hours after receiving command of his platoon, he and his men were sent to protect a village ravaged by the NVA. A sink-or-swim situation, the assignment marked the first time that he fully understood his awesome responsibility for men’s lives in combat.

Hedley was pragmatic. His willingness to pry into his own psyche gives the book a leadership manual quality. He emphasizes the skills required for success in leading small units. In portraying the psychological and physical impact of the stress of battle before, during, and after contact, he emphasizes fear and how it can hinder a leader and his men.

Training had taught him that a leader could not show fear because it was contagious, and Hedley recalls his difficulty maintaining equilibrium following a fight early in his tour. “My hands started to shake, I couldn’t light a cigarette,” he writes. “I tried to hide the shaking and it took a while before it disappeared. There was no way I could take a much-needed drink from my canteen. I found that incredible amounts of adrenaline flow through your body when you are being shot at, and that ‘adrenaline drain’ afterward was a very uncomfortable feeling.”

His accounts of atrocities and other brutalities of war leave nothing to the imagination. What Hedley saw when Fox Force rushed to a village after it was hit by the NVA—and the efforts of his unit while defending St. George—borders on the unbelievable.

Parts of the book show the futility of America’s war effort under Vietnamization. The NVA and VC moved easily around the countryside, Hedley says, and they had support from all villagers in the area. Plus, “the night belonged to Charlie” because of his familiarity with the terrain.

The frequency with which Hedley’s men found enemy living areas, campsites, and even a hospital hidden behind a waterfall made me again rethink the grunts’ world of search-and-destroy. Why were they made to continue? The North already occupied the South. Nevertheless, Hedley’s platoon continued to count bodies, sometimes based on only bloody drag marks.

Relegated to a boring headquarters job toward the end of his tour, Hedley found relief by voluntarily rejoining his former battalion for the 1970 incursion into Cambodia. But that’s another story—or book, perhaps.

The “red scarf” in the title was worn “even in the field when on combat operations,” by men who proved their merit under fire in Fox Force, Hedley says. A few years earlier, a South Vietnamese commander, whose platoon wore the scarf, presented one to Fox Force for bravery during a combined op.

Starting in 2000, the symbolism of the bright red scarf motivated Fox Force veterans to reunite. What began as a yearly reunion evolved into frequent meetings. As a result, red scarf warriors have bonded tighter than ever before.

Hedley at a Red Scarf reunion

The book contains twenty-eight pages of then-and-now color photographs of soldiers and scenes from the war. Hedley closes with vignettes about events outside of Fox Force and “A Day in the Life…”, a chapter that summarizes how men lived in the field.

After twenty-four years of military service, John Hedley retired as a lieutenant colonel and then had a seventeen-year career with Raytheon Corporation.

His website is saddleup-redscarf.com

—Henry Zeybel

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Fire to Light by Charles Malone

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Charles Malone was drafted into the U. S. Army, and served a tour of duty in the Vietnam, War with the Provost Marshall’s Office in Saigon. Malone got nowhere near the jungles or rice paddies of Vietnam—along with most of the rest of us who served in Vietnam.

He spent his 1971-72 tour, Malone writes in Fire to Light: A Memoir of Family, Race, and War (Paramount Press, 316 pp., $13.99, paper; $5.99, Kindle), on “the streets of wild and woolly Saigon—a place of crazy traffic, drugs, women, music, graft and tension among the troops as America’s role in the war was winding down.”

This memoir is written like a novel, complete with elaborately reconstructed conversations from decades ago. The country was in the throes of Vietnamization, an ordeal that President Nixon claimed to place a lot of faith in. Those of us who had served in South Vietnam placed no faith in it at all. To most of us it was a con job—another way to bilk money out of the American taxpayer.

Charles Malone grew up in North Carolina in a small town where Jim Crow was a way of life. In the U. S. Army, however, there was no segregation or institutionalized discrimination against African Americans.  Thousands of southern white soldiers had to adapt to that. It wasn’t easy.

Malone includes many anecdotes in his memoir related to the struggle to accept the coming of a new age of race relations. He often marvels when he witnesses African Americans in positions of power, such as master sergeants bossing around white soldiers.

Many statements in the book rankled me, such as “the guys that wound up in Vietnam tended to be those with the least means or smarts to get out of it.” That rankled because I didn’t (and don’t) want to think of myself as that guy.

On the other hand, a few sentences later Malone writes that “None were craftier in figuring out how to stay out of harm’s way than the future chickenhawks, neoconservatives and other ferocious noncombatants who would in the future have no problem pushing other people besides themselves—or their own kids—into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” No way I’d argue with that.

Charles Malone

Charles Malone

This is an enjoyable, readable book that could have benefited from some judicious editing. Malone says some things twice and some three times. Once was enough.

Still, it was pleasant to encounter a mention of Arlo Guthrie, and also a frank admission that Saigon was “the rear” and a far safer place to spend the war than in the field. It’s brave to say that straight out.

So thanks for this book and thanks for a look at Vietnam War as it wound down.

Early on, Malone makes the point that Vietnam is a stinky place. But to his credit, unlike most authors, he goes on to say that the Vietnamese no doubt thought of Americans as stinky, too.

I’m sure they did, and not just in the way he means.

Malone’s website is charlesmalonewrites.com

—David Willson

Some Gave It All by Danny Lane and Mark Bowser

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Danny Lane is a Vietnam War Marine veteran whose decorations include two Purple Hearts. In his biography, Some Gave It All: Through the Fire of the Vietnam War (Made for Success, 230 pp., $16.75, paper; $8.99, Kindle; $24.95, recorded), Lane and co-author Mark Bowser write: “It was November 20, 1968, and Danny and his fellow Marines sat on the cold, wet tarmac in full combat gear awaiting liftoff.”

That’s a sentence filled with mystery and malice—foreboding, too.

Lane writes that he found himself wondering what he had got himself into. He was nineteen years old. Two days earlier he had been home, in total security. Now he and his fire team were about to enter the dense jungle of Southeast Asia where the Viet Cong would pursue them relentlessly.

It took Danny Lane forty-five years to decide to tell his story. Now here it is for all of us to appreciate and dwell upon, including those of us who served in the Vietnam War but never got near the jungle. Having your helicopter shot down is a decisive way to come into contact with the jungle and with the NVA.

This book reads like the draft for a blockbuster Hollywood movie, packed with action and adventure. The reader has a front-row seat to follow Lane and his comrades into the intense life of all-but endless combat that these young men endured.

The men were participating in Operation Meade River. It was late 1968, and Danny Lane was a grunt with the 3rd Battalion/5th Marines in the 1st Marine Division. His book ricochets back and forth between modern day and the war, and Lane tosses some curves that we could not begin to predict.

The book is smoothly written, and free from most of the usual Vietnam War memoir clichés. And it’s a spellbinder with a roller-coaster action plot.

Those of us who enjoy and seek out infantry stories filled with action have nothing to complain about with this fine book. Danny Lane has done himself proud. He and his co-author, Mark Bowser, have concocted a winner. I recommend you get a copy of this fine book.

There are some things in this book, though, that I’d never encountered before in any Vietnam War infantry memoir. Things that the authors ask us to believe on faith that sometimes are hard to swallow.

I had no trouble believing the book’s accounts of fragging, the showing of movie “The Green Beret” on the trip home, the singing of “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” the accusations of murdering little kids, the comparisons of the enemy to animals—especially rats—or the constant presence of mosquitoes, leeches, and jungle rot. But I believe the authors went too far in asking me to believe that the VC trained what they call rock apes in combat, specifically throwing hand grenades.

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Danny Lane & fellow Marine Sotere Karas at Fire Base Tomahawk, March 1969

“The Marines hated these crazy, grenade throwing monsters of terror,” Lane and Bowser write. They go on to attest that the rock apes “are descendants of the mythological Big Foot.” The capper is this conclusion: “That was the kind of war that was being waged against us in Vietnam.”

Now I’ve heard everything. I’d love to see the movie, though. Sort of a “Planet of the Apes” meets “Full Metal Jacket.”  I’d buy a ticket. Plenty of others would, too. Americans love a show, especially if it features apes.

The author’s website is dannylane.com

—David Willson

Shot At & Missed By Neal E. Morgan

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Introducing his book of thirteen and a half months of memories about his time in the Vietnam War, Neal E. Morgan writes: “This story revolves around the perspective of a payroll clerk doing a mundane job in insane circumstances. If you are expecting an action-packed battlefield diary or intense account of heroic exploits, you will have to look elsewhere.”

Morgan goes on to temper his warning by saying, “We were all in harm’s way.” A somewhat innocent draftee, Neal Morgan learned to hate the war back then and still does so today.

Morgan, a member of Vientam Veterans of America, writes that he spent “7 days a week in the ‘office’ for 8 to 12 hours” at Di An, the headquarters of the Big Red One, the 1st Infantry Division. When outside the office, he experienced “a lifetime of memories” as he writes in Shot At & Missed: Vietnam October 1967 to November 1968 (CreateSpace, 294 pp. $12.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle).

Morgan’s tour exposed him to the rigors of grunt life starting with the Tet Offensive when admin personnel manned the base perimeter (but remained unscathed) while, within their sight, Saigon and an ARVN camp went up in smoke.

He offers an insightful thesis on his love-hate relationship with guard duty based on unpredictable dangers inherent in a relatively routine task. He validates his emotions by recalling a morning base perimeter sweep as the point man who confronted two NVA soldiers, practically face to face. He also describes his one mission as a door gunner on a UH-1.

Morgan tells equally good stories about unusual actions such as a Rome plow leveling a town’s black market and red-light district, and a lightning strike that detonated every hard-wire device around him—including “foo gas” [fougasse] cannons.

Adding to the lore of Vietnam War oddities, he describes thirty fellow REMFs who, in response to Tet, formed a volunteer search-and-destroy team—”The Admin Badmen.” They trained during off-duty hours and eventually conducted night patrols, but never engaged in a firefight.

“I thought they were nuts,” Morgan says, “but admired their courage and dedication.”

Morgan intersperses entertaining stories with accounts of day-by-day routines that include detailed explanations of things that are now common Vietnam War knowledge, such as Claymore mines, C-rations, pink malaria pills, and ao dai dresses. That writing slows the pace of the book.

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First Infantry Division HQ at Di An, 1967

He adds historical perspective with chapters about Vietnamese history from 500,000 B.C. to 1975. In his epilogue, Morgan says he is “not a historian,” and excuses himself for including “names, events, and references [that] are exaggerated or incorrect, [because] none of those things were the real goal of this work.”

Morgan says that his “real purpose” was “a need to reveal the sad history that dragged America down a spiraling path into the painful and deadly bedlam that resulted in the Vietnam War.”

All things considered, Neal Morgan presents an interesting view of his involvement in the war as a twenty-two-year-old. His sincerity and his message’s relevance are unquestionable. Plus, he knows how to tell a story.  His focus and organization, however, blur at times.

Still, Shot At & Missed is his first book, and as he says, “This chronicle was simply something I needed to do for and by myself.”

—Henry Zeybel

Big Guns Firing by Patrick Goodrow

Patrick Goodrow is a great raconteur. The stories he tells about his two tours in South Vietnam’s I Corps in Keeping the Big Guns Firing: The Vietnam Story You Do Not Know (History Publishing, 239 pp. $8.99, paper and Kindle) fascinated me from start to finish—and what a finish.

In 1965 Goodrow was among the first Marines on the scene at Da Nang. In his memoir, Goodrow first details his duties as an E-4 Section Head in a 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade Ordnance Maintenance Company in 1965-66. He then recreates events from his 1969-70 tour as an E-6. He kept everything from 4.2-inch mortars to 8-inch SP howitzers operational by solving nightmarish problems, sometimes with disasters included.

The book lives up to its title: It told me everything I did not know about maintaining big guns in a combat arena. Occasionally, Goodrow slips in what appear to be passages from tech orders, but does so in an easily understandable manner. These details enhance the impact of his stories and should connect with artillery aficionados.

His descriptions of events are both serious and funny and often come with unexpected twists. Early in the book, he resembles a babe in the woods. At the same time, though, he is the cleverest kid on the block. On his second tour, which is the best part of the book, he is a savvy, team-oriented pro. His flashes of comedic insight, coupled with a subtle, smart-ass attitude when confronted by irrational or misdirected leaders, scored smiles from me. At all times, he is highly likable.

Goodrow saw his share of needless death. He often ponders the fragility of life and the inevitability of death in combat, deliberate or accidental. His work took place mostly behind the lines, but he frequently went into the field to service guns.

“Many support troops faced just as deadly dangers as the grunts did,” he writes, “maybe a little more subtle and a little less obvious, but whatever position you held in Vietnam was just as deadly as the other.”

In his book Patrick Goodrow delivers worthy messages about war, duty, and leadership. He deserves to be read.

—Henry Zeybel

  We Few by Nick Brokhausen

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Nick Brokhausen’s We Few: U.S. Special Forces in Vietnam (Casemate, 360 pp. $32.95) reminded me of Dale Dye’s Run Between the Raindrops and Hunter Thompson’s Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga. Brokhausen mixes irreverence, perversity, and sarcasm with touches of gonzo journalism to recreate his 1970 tour with the Military Assistance Command Vietnam Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG), his second  of the war.

Guided by a captain company commander (a former E-7), Brokhausen, Mac, and Cookie (three sergeants) led Recon Team Habu, which was made up of Montagnard fighters. They helicoptered into areas controlled by the NVA, most frequently near Quang Tri and Phu Bai.

They also worked Laos, targets north of the DMZ, “and a few other places best left unmentioned,” as Brokhausen puts it. Primarily, Habu conducted secret missions to observe or disrupt operations behind enemy lines. Their most anticipated but unfulfilled goal was to capture a high-ranking NVA officer.

Brokhausen and his men considered themselves above the normal rules of social behavior. In the field, Habu displayed “pure aggression and murderous efficiency,” he says. Off duty the sergeants acted like members of an outlaw motorcycle gang. According to Brokhausen, they regularly got drunk; stole Jeeps and other equipment; outsmarted or bribed people; and fought or bullied drunken outsiders, MPs, rear echelon personnel, officers,  Air Force “zoomies,” drug users—and even Donut Dollies.

From its opening, the book’s negative intensity irritated me. Consequently, I read only a few chapters a day over the course of a week—cover to cover. Brokhausen provides a constant flow of outrageous figures of speech, quips, one liners, and bitches, along with lots of reconstructed dialogue. He leans heavily on superlatives. He categorizes people, places, situations, and events as the best or the worst with little middle ground.

Nevertheless, Brokhausen draws convincing pictures of his fellow Green Berets’ combat skills and idiosyncrasies and the areas in which they operated. He taught me lessons about Special Forces tactics and weapons—more than I learned from Ken Burns’ television saga on Vietnam, which I never finished watching.

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Brokhausen, third from left, with his Recon team

“A war zone encourages the eccentricities in all of us,” Brokhausen says. Overall, he recreates what he did and saw back in the day—for good and for bad, and far beyond bad.

Since his Army service, Brokhausen has had a successful civilian career in security and military-related businesses.

We Few was originally published in 2005. According to Brokhausen, “This [edition] is the first of two” detailing SOG operations.

—Henry Zeybel

 

Reflections on the Vietnam War by Warren E. Hunt

Former Army draftee Warren E. Hunt’s Reflections on the Vietnam War: A Fifty-Year Journey (CreateSpace, 142 pp., $12.95, paper; .99, Kindle) records his views of military life. It’s based on a questionnaire he received from a high school history class project.

The questionnaire motivated Hunt to recall “how he joined the military, his duties in Vietnam, his impressions of the Vietnamese, his typical day, his frightening experiences, his leisure time, and his postwar adjustment to civilian life.” Hunt’s concentrated view from fifty years after he went to Vietnam gave new meaning to the war, he says, along with his role in it—and its influence on him.

These thoughts in the book’s forward and introduction made me eagerly anticipate a flow of Hunt’s profound thoughts about war and life in general.

Initially, my expectations were too high. Hunt starts by presenting a litany of info on the draft, training, travel to Nam, assignment to a unit (in his case, the Big Red One at Lai Khe as a radio teletype operator), and the unit’s history. He also provides time-worn history lessons about how the U.S. became involved in the war and compares American military tactics to those of the North Vietnamese Army.

At best, the beginning of this book is a primer for readers uninformed about the Vietnam War.

Approaching the midpoint of this “remembrance,” as he calls the book, Hunt shifts gears and talks about the drama of the war as he saw it during his July 1968 to July 1969 tour of duty. Although he did not experience face-to-face combat, Warren Hunt went through more than enough danger to hold my attention. His duty area stretched beyond Lai Khe to what he calls the “hellhole” of Quan Loi, five miles from the Cambodian border.

Hunt’s perspective is infused with naiveté enhanced by empathy and compassion. What he did and saw registered deeply. He tells interesting and informative stories about mortar and rocket attacks, the Nui Ba Den massacre, Lai Khe race riots, fragging and associated threats, drugs, and other incidents. He explains how each event influenced his attitude toward life.

Hunt closes with a heartfelt recollection of attending the 1982 dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., when he renewed friendships with men he had expected never to see again. The ceremonies made him more active in Vietnam Veterans of America and with projects to benefit veterans.

Warren Hunt

In this slim book, Hunt repeats what has been written before. But at the same time he reconstructs events that provide fresh looks at military life under combat conditions.

One could call Hunt’s work a prequel to Steve Atkinson’s one-thousand-page Liberating Strife: A Memoir of the Vietnam Years, which focuses on Big Red One desk duty at Lai Khe in 1969-70 and includes letters from a long-distance love.

Warren Hunt’s Reflections on the Vietnam War: A Fifty-Year Journey tells a better story.

The book’s Facebook page is facebook.com/rvw50

—Henry Zeybel