Quang Tri Cadence by Jon Oplinger

quang-tri-cadence

A Golden Oldie. That’s my category for Quang Tri Cadence: Memoir of a Rifle Platoon Leader in the Mountains of Vietnam (McFarland, 220 pp. $19.99, paper) by Jon Oplinger. The book is a reprint of the original 1993 edition.

Oplinger served in D Company with the 2nd/5th of the Army’s First Cavalry Division in 1968. His writing is lively, to the point, and humorous as he shows the drama and trauma of combat. His reflections on the behavior of young soldiers and old commanders fascinated me. More so, the practicality of Oplinger’s actions delighted me. At the platoon level he understood that everything he and his men possessed beyond their bodies was expendable—an attitude that went unappreciated by his superiors.

He shows how uncertainty prevailed during his platoon’s day-after-day, usually unproductive ambushes and search-and-destroy missions. Yes, he includes de rigueur topics such as subsisting on C-rations, humping heavy loads, and navigating through jungles while lost, but his explanations rest on an undertone of amazement more than anger.

Oplinger enlisted in the Army after flunking out of college. He earned a commission through OCS, went to Vietnam, and suffered wounds that hospitalized him for seven months. He returned to civilian life as a student at Kent State University just in time for the May 1970 riots.

oplinger_cook

Oplinger

People who do not read the white spaces might classify Quang Tri Cadence strictly as a downer. But WTF—for most people, the entire Vietnam War was a downer.

Downer or not, Oplinger made me both laugh and shed a tear more than once over the trials of the infantrymen caught up in the thick of things.

Jon Oplinger is a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Maine at Farmington.

—Henry Zeybel

Tap Code by Carlyle “Smitty” Harris

More than a few American aviators have written about their time as prisoners in Hanoi during the Vietnam War. Tap Code: The Epic Survival Tale of a Vietnam POW and the Secret Code that Changed Everything (Zondervan, 256 pp. $26.99, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle);  $26.99, audio CD), a memoir by retired Air Force Col. Carlyle “Smitty” Harris, a POW for nearly eight years, differs because it intersperses chapters of his wife Louise’s experiences during his time in captivity. The two of them exemplify the highest form of dedication to the nation from an American military family.

Sara W. Berry, an author and publisher, helped Smitty and Louise Harris finish the book, which he had started writing in the late 1970s.

In the Vietnam War, Smitty flew the F-105, and on April 4, 1965, became the sixth American shot down over North Vietnam. He is best known for recalling a Second World War tap code that a sergeant taught him during an after-class chat at survival school. After he was captured, Smitty taught the code to fellow POWs who passed it on to others.

The code provided a communication system in an environment in which guards enforced silence and prisoners spent long periods in solitary confinement. In his memoir, A P.O.W. Story: 2801 Days in Hanoi, Col. Larry Guarino says that the code was “the most valuable life- and mind-saving piece of information contributed by any prisoner for all the years we were there.”

Smitty Harris’ account of his imprisonment parallels what other POWs have recorded over the past forty-five years. All of them, including Harris, endured brainwashing, torture, starvation, untreated illnesses, and isolation at multiple prison camps in the Hanoi area, including the infamous Hanoi Hilton. He recalls the names and behavior of fellow POWs, focusing on their ability to comply with the Code of Conduct. He emphasizes the importance of a religious belief in maintaining a positive mentality. “GBU”—God bless you—was the most frequent message tapped out in prison, he says.

Louise Harris also coped with challenges she never expected. She and the couple’s two daughters had accompanied her husband to Kadena Air Base, Okinawa. When the United States began to bomb North Vietnam, his F-105 squadron deployed to Korat Air Base, Thailand. Five weeks after Smitty Harris was shot down, Louise gave birth to their only son.

As “the first MIA spouse to return to the States,” Louise Harris encountered military regulations that were unfair to her and the children. Consequently, she faced down the Secretary of the Air Force and leaders of the VA, thereby helping clear the path for wives of those Americans who would be subsequently taken captive.

She solved another major problem by phoning the president of the General Motors in Detroit—collect. After settling in Tupelo, Mississippi, Louise Harris went on to play a role in planning procedures related to the POWs’ release.

Smitty Harris gained his freedom in 1973. He and his wife smoothly blended back together,  raised their children, and happily settled in Tupelo following his Air Force retirement. He explains how readjusting to life back home was not as easy for other POWs and their wives.

Americans who spent time in Hanoi prisons shared a deep friendship and enjoy frequent reunions. They recognize themselves as a breed apart.

—Henry Zeybel

Ghosts and Shadows by Phil Ball

Phil Ball’s memoir, Grunts and Shadows: A Marine in Vietnam, 1968-1969  (McFarland, 224 pp. $19.99, paper; $8.99, Kindle) tells the story of a young and—by his own admission—somewhat naïve Marine. It would be a nice selection for a reader not familiar with the Vietnam War. It also might make a good reading assignment for a high school AP English class.

Phil Ball, who died after the book came out, wrote a nicely developed presentation of his experiences as a Marine grunt who served in I Corps, the northern-most area of South Vietnam. He arrived in-country during 1968 after the Tet Offensive, and focuses his story on his assignment to Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines, which began operating close to Khe Sanh.

Ball takes the reader from his first days as a brand-new recruit in San Diego, through boot camp at Pendleton, to shipping out to Vietnam. Then he covers his tour in-country, and follows that with a heartfelt chapter on his return to civilian life. In a conversational style—leavened with some well-remembered  (or well-reconstructed) dialogue—he tells his war and post-war stories.

The book reads well, with appropriate military and battlefield jargon that doesn’t weight down the narrative. Ball described his buddies without the addition of drama or unnecessary rhetoric.

Ball also recounts his adventures during a Tokyo R & R, which included meeting a young Japanese woman, blowing all his money, and over-staying his leave. The return to Vietnam (and his temporary incarceration) provides perhaps a been-there-done-that for some of us.

Ball also describewsome of the racial tensions he saw and lived with in Vietnam, the disbelief and disillusionment with his own command structure and personnel, as well as the daily, all-pervading undercurrent of fear and unease.

In his Epilogue, Ball recountes twenty-plus years of great and small challenges he faced after coming home from the war. That includes dealing with the VA on several levels. He describes his realization that his diagnosis of PTSD may have laid to rest many questions and concerns. This book is the result of a cathartic, story-telling effort to release those demons and fears.

This is a readable, well-edited book, now it its second edition.

–Tom Werzyn

R.E.M.F.:  Vietnam’s Other GIs by John Vandevanter Carter

9781620067819_p0_v1_s600x595

John Vandevanter Carter was born and raised in Iowa and attended the University of Iowa before and after he served as a U.S. Army officer in the Vietnam War. His memoir, R.E.M.F.: Vietnam’s Other GIs (Sunbury Press, 468 pp. $19.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle), is much more than a commentary on the Vietnam War. It’s also about race relations in Vietnam during the war, and no book has treated the in-country Vietnam War drug culture more thoroughly than this one.

Van Carter served in Vietnam in 1970-71, the period that the war was beginning to wind down, and when drugs and race relations had started to become serious problems. I’ll mention here that I wrote a book, a novel, based on my tour of duty in Vietnam as an Army enlisted man, 1966-1967.  My book, REMF Diary, is very different from Carter’s.  There is almost no mention of drugs or race relations in the book, as during that period of time those issues were minor. Plus, I was writing from the point of view of an enlisted man.

Carter, on the other hand, was sent to Vietnam  in July 1970 as an infantry officer. However, due to his poor eyesight he served his entire tour of duty in the rear as an executive officer. Carter was stationed at Phu Tai at Camp Humper Stone.

Carter devotes much space in his book to his relationship with a young Vietnamese woman with whom he fell in love—and to describing the rampant corruption that the Americans brought with them to Vietnam. Carter himself participated in the corruption. He smoked carloads of marijuana, frequented houses of prostitution, defied the authority of the Army, and even visited an opium den. He struggled to get some of his men off of their addictions to heroin, and was successful with some.

Carter’s memoir is very well written and employs much humor. It is the best Army officer memoir I have read that deals with service in the rear. Carter’s wit and humor are evident on virtually every page. They make the book stand head and shoulders above most Vietnam War infantry memoirs.

Plus, he doesn’t beat the same old dead horses. I didn’t notice a single reference to John Wayne or Audie Murphy, for example, which was fine with me. Carter does deal with Agent Orange, baby killing, the Black Syph, fragging and crotch rot, which he was cursed with for much of his tour of duty.

I highly recommend Van Carter’s R.E.M.F. to those searching for a Vietnam War book that deals with that conflict from a different angle.

–David Willson

A Spear-Carrier in Viet Nam by Michael E. Tolle

aspear-carrierinvietnamcover

The strength of A Spear-Carrier in Viet Nam: Memoirs of an American Civilian in Country, 1967 and 1970-1972 (McFarland, 201 pp. $35.00, paper; $9.99, Kindle) derives from author Michael E. Tolle’s ability to reconstruct his youthful observations of what turned out to be a failed mission.

The book is “not a researched work of history,” Tolle says. A self-professed libertarian conservative of white privilege, he primarily worked from memory to draw a picture of a politically and economically corrupt South Vietnam. The broad cultural gap between American expectations and Vietnamese values, he says, doomed most projects on which he worked as a civilian.

Tolle’s first adventure in South Vietnam followed his sophomore year at Georgetown University. He spent that summer as a volunteer for the World Relief Commission, a Protestant missionary organization, in Da Nang. After graduating from college and completing a year of Vietnamese language training, he served a second tour with the U.S. Agency for International Development as an Assistant Relief/Rehabilitation Officer with MACV Advisory Team 38 in Bac Loc and Saigon.

His father’s position as a USAID education adviser helped Tolle enter diplomatic ranks as “both the youngest and lowest-ranking member of the USAID staff in Viet Nam,” he believes. “I made no policy while there, but only executed the policies of others,” he says.

Despite his underling status, Tolle accepted responsibilities beyond his pay grade and found himself engaged with a profusion of problems. His ability to circumvent rules (or the lack thereof) allowed him to perform remarkably well. Working mainly with refugees, Tolle’s tasks included:

  • Dealing with more than 10,000 Cambodians—overwhelmingly farmers with no belongings—who were fleeing ethnic cleansing.
  • Distributing building materials such as cement and 4-by-8-foot sheets of corrugated steel.
  • Finding use for food provided by America—such as bulgur wheat and a mixture known as CSM—that the Vietnamese considered inedible. Concurrently, guarding highly desirable vegetable oil from theft.
  • Preventing corruption and deceit that surrounded any project that involved doling out money to local contractors.
  • Briefing general officers who appeared to be merely filling squares.

In discussing his interactions with American and Vietnamese leaders, Tolle eventually resigned himself to their selfish behavior. “Siphoning off” America’s “copious material wealth was an understood fact of life at every level,” he says. Likewise, the Vietnamese ignored American pacification strategies.

headshot-cropped

Michael Tolle

An assignment to Saigon made Tolle’s final year in-country relatively pleasurable. His American wife had a job in the city, and together they enjoyed short visits to Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos.

Tolle looks back on the war as a “transformative experience” for him. With a career in Foreign Service in mind, he had attended Georgetown because of its strong international relations program. By the end of his service in Vietnam, however, he determined that he “was simply not suited for that kind of work.”

Tolle also has written What Killed Downtown? Norristown, Pennsylvania: From Main Street to the Malls, and They’ve Been Down So Long, Getting Up’s Still On Their Minds, both of which deal with the demise of Pennsylvania steel mills.

His website is michaeltolle.com

—Henry Zeybel

Call Sign Dracula by Joe Fair

35122833._sy475_

In Call Sign Dracula: My Tour with the Black Scarves, April 1969 to March 1970 (Sunbury Press, 220 pp. $16.95, paper; $6.99, Kindle), Joe Fair has given us an honest little gem of a memoir about his tour of duty with the First Infantry Division in the I Corps war zone of South Vietnam. His text runs a short 125 pages, with 67 pages of photos, and an extensive fourteen-page glossary of terms and acronyms.

Fair’s style is conversational rather than narrative. There are lots of paragraphs that begin with “I,” and just tons of very short sentences. You just want to have a beer with him as he reminisces and tells his war stories.

It’s a cathartic book for Fair, but not an overly melodramatic one. He has a story to share, and its telling will resonate with those of us who have smelled the cordite, the blood, and the stink of war and have told our own stories, in our own way, to our own listeners. The stories about his battalion’s Black Scarves and the call sign Dracula alone are worth the read.

Fair takes the reader through his entire time in the Army, filling in his backstory with color commentary . While there are some syntax and structural issues, his message is more than adequately delivered from his self-proclaimed, uninitiated “good ol’ boy” point of view and experience. Fair, in his last chapters, speaks to the “maturing process” most Vietnam War veterans went through as we compared our in-country experiences and perspectives on lessons learned.

Upon his return to the World, he tells of being denied a beer at an airport bar for being under twenty-one—after spending a year on the ground with enemy contact as a machine gunner. He was old enough to fight and risk death in Vietnam, but not old enough to legally have a beer back home.

–Tom Werzyn

Call Sign Chaos by Jim Mattis and Bing West

61hyegr21ll

Commissioned in the Marine Corps in 1972, Jim Mattis missed serving in the Vietnam War. But as he points out in Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead (Random House, 300 pp; $28, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle; $45, Audio CD), the Vietnam War generation of Marines “raised” him. In his book, written in collaboration with Bing West, Mattis shares what he learned during a forty-year Marine Corps career.

A four-star general who led troops into battle in Iraq and Afghanistan, Mattis recently served two years as the Secretary of Defense. In his prologue, Mattis describes himself as “old fashioned” and unwilling to “take up the hot political rhetoric of our day.” That’s why he doesn’t discuss his personal relationship with President Trump in the book.

Bing West served as a Marine grunt in the Vietnam War in 1966-68 and as an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan Administration. A journalist, who covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he was present for many operations Mattis led. West has written ten books on military topics.

From the rank of lieutenant colonel through lieutenant general, Jim Mattis led Marines the first Persian Gulf War in 1991, In Afghanistan in 2001-02, and Iraqi in 2003-04. He commander all U.S. forces in the Middle East (CENTCOM) from 2010-13. In describing the war zones, he often alludes to events from the Vietnam War. His thorough reading of military history allows him also to compare his decisions to those of leaders throughout history.

Call Sign Chaos is loaded with stories that reflect the application of positive leadership principles, more often than not under stress. Mattis illustrates the dichotomy between political and military thinking (and sometimes even within the ranks), particularly during the first battle for Fallujah, a stalemate. This separation of thinking prevailed even in his dealings with United States ambassadors in the Middle East when Mattis commanded CENTCOM during his final two years on active duty

n_mj_sevena_190904_1920x1080.jpg

Gen. Mattis and Big West

Nevertheless, Mattis presents leadership lessons applicable to occupations beyond the military. I particularly appreciated his arguments for designing a “lean staff” and delegating as much authority as possible. Regardless of the situation, Mattis remained fearlessly outspoken and true to himself.

Sixteen pages of photographs of people and events and four maps of operational areas support the Call Sign Chaos story line. Bing West shot a majority of the images in remarkably clear color.

—Henry Zeybel