Those Who Remain by Ruth W. Crocker


On May 17, 1969, a North Vietnamese booby trap killed Army Captain David Rockwell Crocker, Jr., the commander of Alpha Company, 22nd Infantry, and three of his men. Although Dave Crocker’s wife Ruth had his body cremated, she also held a full military burial for a casket filled with her husband’s dress uniforms, her wedding gown, and letters he had written to her during their four years together.

A few months later, Ruth Crocker went to Switzerland and scattered her husband’s ashes at the foot of the Eiger’s North Face, his favorite spot on earth. After that, as a war widow at the age of twenty-three, Ruth tried to forget Dave. Forty years later, she had the casket exhumed “to excavate [her] deep love for this young man who transformed [her] world.”

Ruth Crocker’s story in Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion After War (Elm Grove, 283 pp., $18.95 paper; $5.39, Kindle) is a tribute to the power of young love and the depth to which it bonds people. Ruth Crocker tells of her recovery from losing her husband: basically, she had to overcome suppressing her grief.

Burying his letters was a defense mechanism: “I’ll never look back. I cannot look back,” she writes. “I don’t want to remember how much he loved me.”

Prior to meeting Dave, Ruth was part of a family closed to outside influences. Her parents owned and ran a Mystic, Connecticut, nursing home. The young couple married the day after he graduated from West Point. He introduced her to the world at large through travels across the United States for military training and while in Germany as an infantry platoon leader and aide-de-camp. They even scaled an “easy” level of the Eiger’s west side.

Ruth Crocker

Dave Crocker died two weeks before Ruth was to meet him for R&R in Hawaii. Death was not new to her, except that she had seen it as a process that took time among old people. Instead, her young husband was gone instantly. The Army’s mismanagement of notification, condolences, and information regarding how he died compounded Ruth Crocker’s confusion and helplessness. Her only solace came from her and her husband’s families.

The story jumps from when she spread the ashes on Eiger to 2006 to when she first attended an Alpha Company, 22nd Infantry reunion. The men of the company taught her that “fallen friends are ageless, frozen in time.” Their memories of their Captain were as vivid as hers and validated her feelings for him. Since then, she has attended all of the company’s reunions. Encouragement from men at the reunions led her to dig up the gravesite.

Opening the casket produced shock and disappointment along with enlightenment. The uniforms, gown, and letters had dissolved into a soggy clump. Ruth Crocker remembered that she had delivered Dave to the Eiger: that part of the story was perfect—and perhaps enough.

The author’s website is http://ruthcrocker.com

—Henry Zeybel

One Man’s Story by Michael Clark

For Michael Clark the road to Vietnam was as twisty and convoluted as a walk through the forest: stunning and green with its richness, covered with underbrush and sticker bushes in other areas, smooth and flat and compacted where it should be.

In One Man’s Story: Memoirs of a Vietnam Vet (Lulu, 176 pp., $29.99, hardcover; $13.99, paper; $8.99, Kindle) Clark takes us through the four phases of his life, focusing on the most traumatic event of his life.

We get details of his childhood and youth; his draft induction, training, and misdirection in the Army; his 1970-71 tour in Vietnam with the 101st Airborne Division as a medic attached to the 85th Evacuation Hospital in Phu Bai, and his prolonged struggle to come to terms with what he endured in the war.

Clark’s childhood in Michigan gives way to outdoors as a youth, hunting, fishing, the Boy Scouts, high school, love, marriage, and the dreaded menace of a faraway war breathing on his neck. There is a not-so-funny recounting of how an Army trains, assigns, and mis-assigns people into military occupations. Clark wanted to be a Light Vehicle, Wheeled Mechanic, so they sent him to schools to be a medic and a physician’s assistant. When he arrives in Vietnam, there is no ‘open slot’ for him to fill.

Yet, as war heats up, choppers full of dead and dying men are medevaced and he is plunged into the nonstop gore: triage, eighteen-hour days, hideous wounds, burn casualties, blast injuries, limbs that cannot be re-attached or saved, shrapnel wounds, and the stress of doing everything, then losing more men than he can count. It’s a routine of ultra-long days, nights without food or rest, a dogged effort to survive, and memories seared into his soul.

Clark comes home in 1971 to an indifferent America, and begins the struggle to maintain a marriage, find work, and pay bills. He struggles with alcohol. The precision, the care, and the dedication of his work in Vietnam leads him to rebuild all of himself and his shattered psyche in slow measured steps.

During the next forty years Clark polishes his skills as a PA in operating rooms and emergency rooms. He also moves, changes jobs, restarts, and build houses, cabins, retaining walls, and wells–and he still feels the loss, anguish, and the isolation. He is blessed with a strong wife who struggles with him. It is clear that the cancerous growth that was his Vietnam experience eats at his psyche before he wrote his story and purged his soul of his war memories.

Throughout the book, we get Clark’s reluctance to serve, his opposition to the war, his reluctance to be drafted and be moved around for a disjointed mix of training and stateside military bureaucratic mistakes. Yet, when ordered to report for Induction, Michael Clark did his duty.

Michael Clark

Michael Clark’s post-war demons were not unlike those of many other veterans. In his last chapter, Clark goes into excruciating detail about the many repair, remodeling, and building projects he undertook, including what seems like details on every nut, bolt, and screw he used to rebuild homes, cabins, garages, wells, septic systems, and retaining walls to shore up his Wisconsin properties.

It is also clear that the detail, the precision, and the struggle to find and keep work—and to keep putting things in order–is Clark’s way to try to make sense his war experiences.

As the book closes, he gains a sense of how precious and fragile life, war, and devotion to family can be—and how lucky he is to have survived utter hell itself.

The book again proves how precious and fragile our allegiance to our great nation can be during very confusing and trying conditions. And it clearly demonstrates how a decent and honorable man earned the right to be called a citizen-soldier and a patriot through his courage, skill, determination, and will to survive.

The author’s website is www.vietnamvetmemoirs.com

—Robert M. Pacholik

Stone Pony by Stephen Paul Campos

Stephen Paul Campos enlisted in the U. S. Army in 1968 to avoid being drafted. He thought that if he enlisted, he would not be sent to fight in Vietnam. This myth was encouraged by his recruiter, no doubt.

As it turned out, Compos not only served in Vietnam with the 199th Light Infantry Brigade from 1968-69, but he put in another year of service when he returned to the United States. Campos wrote his novel, Stone Pony: Forgiven but Not Forgotten (Tate Publishing, 384 pp., $25.99, paper), he says, “to set the record straight.”

Several aspects set this memoir apart from other combat infantry rifleman books. The two main differences are the horrific accounts of so-called friendly fire incidents, and the frequent mention of God. More than once, Campos refers to Vietnam as “this land that God even seemed to hate.” He also writes that the first friendly fire incident “shakes him to his core.”  That’s the first of several uses of that phrase.

Compos bitterly complains about women back in America who “burned their bras trying not to conform.” I searched for one verified incident of bra burning in America at the time, and found none. I did find plenty of draft card burning and some flag burning.

Campos says draft card burners “should have been sent to Nam, not us.” That strikes me as strange because Campos also writes, “we felt proud to be there to defend the world from communism and to bring peace to Vietnam.” So, in essence, he’s saying that defending and bringing peace should be a punishment. And would he really have wanted to be fighting next to a man who had been sent to Vietnam as a punishment for burning a draft card?

Campos was glad to leave Vietnam behind. He refers to the place as a “hellhole of a country filled with death, despair and sorrow.” He also calls that land “this living hell hole.” He feels that “our military was doing a stellar job in the field. We had won every battle we fought in Nam.”

Campos believed that when he returned to America there would be a “great celebration for us.” That did not happen. “Joy turned into a nightmare,” he writes, when he hears protesters chanting, “baby killer, murderer, loser.”  That’s when he says his war just started because he’d expected people to be screaming, “Welcome home. You won the war. We’re proud of you.”  He was in shock. “It was a political war,” he writes. “We were not allowed to win.”

Stephen Paul Campos

We encounter John Wayne more than once, and we run into Ozzie and Harriet. Not David or Ricky, though. We “get out of Dodge” and we get a list with Audie Murphy, John Wayne, and James Stewart as American heroes who always win and end up with the girl. We hear about Black VD, Dear John’s, Tarzan and Jane, and the Bob Hope Show, which Campos attended but freaked out when he saw it was being filmed.

“I was hoping none of my friends or family would see me on television,” he writes. “They might think I was enjoying myself over here and not really fighting a war.”

Campos almost died of malaria because he was raised to mistrust doctors, but he pulled through. Perhaps the high fever muddled his memories a bit, as he refers to John Wayne as being in To Hell and Back.  That film starred Audie Murphy; Wayne was not involved.

Stone Pony is one of the more graphic and honest of the infantry memoirs, especially where the recounting of multiple friendly fire incidents is concerned.  If that is what you are looking for, I recommend this book.

—David Willson

 

 

The Legacy by Daniel B. Durbin

In The Legacy (CreateSpace, 254 pp., $49.95, paper) Daniel B. Durbin presents us with a comprehensive journey from his Sunfish, Kentucky, home to his role as Platoon Leader in I Corps in Vietnam in 1969. My own U.S. Army basic and advanced training would have been more meaningful and tolerable had I been able to read this book prior to my enlistment. This interesting memoir could be cataloged at least three ways: as a personal journal, a  Vietnam War history, or a self-help guidebook for a U.S. Army recruit.

So much information is included from the Internet and from Durbin’s on-site accounts and letters home that this volume would have benefited from more-detailed chapter headings and a complete index with a bibliography. Nevertheless, I highly recommend the book to veterans and civilians. The fact that everyone’s war experience is his own is borne out well in this work.

This serious study even has some humorous moments. “Though it was early June when I arrived at Fort Benning, the temperature was well into the nineties with oppressive humidity,” Durbin writes. “You only had to smile to sweat.”

A few months later Platoon Leader Durbin recalled that “the constant sweat and trudging through the jungle and rice paddies had worked its magic on my 171 pound arrival weight ‘in-country.’ I was now down to 150 again. More time in the field saw my weight fall away to 112 pounds.”

Durbin’s letters home are significant for what is left unsaid as much as for what is said. In his book Durbin fills in what was left out of his letters home. That includes his first close-up combat and calling in air strikes by radio to jet fighters and helicopters and to the battleship New Jersey.

On one occasion Durbin saved his own platoon by countermanding an officer’s call for artillery support that would have brought the ordnance on top of his soldiers and himself. Recalling the air support that saved many lives, he thanks the air crews “for a job well done. We may not have survived Vietnam without you.”

Included in this volume are the author’s observations on the Vietnam War. “Freedom is not free, it is priceless,” he writes. “The cost is measured in the number of lives lost, lives changed of the soldiers sent to defend our freedom. War veterans paid that price. A debt of gratitude is owed to them by every American that enjoys the freedom they preserved. Yes, even Vietnam veterans fought to preserve America’s freedom.”

Daniel Durbin also includes a “Final Letters” section for his son and grandchildren.

—Curt Nelson

Ruff Puff by Phil Tompkins

Before reading Phil Tompkins’s Ruff Puff: A ‘MAT’ Team Leader’s Story (Amazon Digital Services, 291 pp., $10.99, paper; $2.99, Kindle) I knew what Ruff Puff meant but had never heard of MAT. Tompkins wasted little time in informing the reader that it’s the acronym for “Mobile Advisor Teams.”

In 1969-70 he served as an Army officer with a five-man MAT team of Americans in Quang Ngai Province working with his “brothers-in-arms, the local militia soldiers and South Vietnamese government officials in this small part of a historic fight for the very survival of the Republic of Vietnam.”  Th locals were the South Vietnamese military’s Regional Forces and Popular Forces—RFPFs or Ruff Puffs.

I found this book fascinating because it was about a part of ther war in South Vietnam that I knew little about. It’s also a part of the war that gets little attention in the literature. What attention if gets is often dismissive of the Ruff Puffs. I encountered them in South Vietnam and always found them to be pleasant folks, but they seemed like poorly armed amateurs up against forces that would roll over them soon. The author shows a lot of affection for the most pitiful and ragtag of them all, in our efforts toward “war and ‘nation building’ at the rice-roots level.”

When Tompkins focuses his story on the Vietnamese local militias and the war he waged with them, his book is strong and interesting. It illuminates how things worked in the provinces with the province chiefs. Tompkins was warned when he arrived in South Vietnam, that the RFPF men “would sometimes run away in a firefight or even defect to the other side.”

They carried with them the necessities for cooking lunch, which they would have at a certain time of the day and then take a siesta. This went against Tompkins’s training, but he adapted to this custom, and to most of the customs of the Vietnamese he fought with.

“I was one of the few Americans that loaded up everything with the pungent nuoc mam—and when I would sweat (which was often) I smelled like a native!”  Tompkins loved the Vietnamese people he worked with and it shows on every page of his memoir.

Tompkins in Vietnam

He also mentions his reading, which included Catch-22.  He loved the book, which he calls “a totally irreverent military satire.”

But Tompkins strays from his worthy narrative often to indulge in rants. There is, for example, a not-uncommon anti-REMF tirade, which he describes rear echelon personnel as “the people that re-told the wildest ‘war stories’ and made the most of the souvenirs they had had once they got back to “The World.’”

When this REMF got back to “The World” in late 1967, no one wanted to hear about my war, let alone anything like a bloody war story. I kept my mouth shut, as did most of my recently returned veteran friends.

Tompkins complains bitterly about the news media, which he calls “the left-wing press.” And he has little good to say about the culture of the 1960s; “do-gooders who hated the war effort”; and the ARVN troops. He sees the Tet Offensive as a decisive blow against the Vietcong, not as the surprise to the American military who had claimed we had the enemy on the run.

Also, Tompkins is in denial about the ending of the war. “We didn’t lose,” he says. ” We quit.” He also has trouble believing that the Phoenix Program was as bad as some have said it was—and he can’t spell it consistently, either.

He also questions the reality and extent of the My Lai Massacre because of what he says was biased reporting by the U.S. news media. “We will never know the real truth about My Lai because of that,” he claims. It “was almost as if the American news media was the puppet of international communism.”

The book also suffers from the overuse of exclamation points! Not to mention that Tompkins’s use of commas is, at best, hit and miss.

The author states that Americans who opposed the war “weren’t really against the war, but were against the draft” and “were afraid they would wind up in our shoes—or in a body bag!” He says that those who were against the war “for selfish reasons of their own (cowardice in most cases)” embraced the “atrocities of My Lai as their own personal cross.”

If you are comfortable with these statements, read this book. In between all of the author’s rants is a lot of valuable information about the Ruff Puffs and their fight against communism.

—David Willson

Black Cat 2-1 by Bob Ford

It’s refreshing to read a memoir by a Vietnam veteran who underwent an action-heavy tour of duty and came home to live a full, successful life. That’s what happened to Bob Ford, who flew Hueys with the 282nd Assault Helicopter Company out of Da Nang. Ford, in fact, also had a happy upbringing before the war.

As Ford tells us in his memoir, Black Cat 2-1: The True Story of a Vietnam Helicopter Pilot and His Crew (Brown Books, 288 pp., $24,95), growing up in Shawnee, Oklahoma, he had “stern but loving parents,” liked “all of [his] teachers,” and “was blessed with a high school sweetheart.”

He took ROTC at the University of Oklahoma and proudly wore his Class-A uniform to his June 1966 graduation ceremonies—the only graduated to wear a military uniform at the event. During OCS, Ford’s weekends were “filled with athletics and all-around fun.” He excelled in helicopter training (“I had a knack for flying”), becoming one of the first in his class to solo at flight school. After flight school, Ford married his girlfriend Diane (“I couldn’t have been happier”), and then volunteered for Vietnam.

After he came home from the war, Ford put in a stint as an instructor pilot at Fort Wolters, an experience that was “the best year of [his] life.” When he got out of the Army in 1969 Ford, his wife, and new-born daughter moved back to Oklahoma and he began working for his father’s company, the Shawnee Milling Company. Today he runs the company’s flour mill in Okeene, Oklahoma. “It’s rewarding work,” he says.

In the four decades since Ford came home from Vietnam, he writes, “I’ve been able to enjoy school, community, and church activities,” and “have filled a leadership role in each.” An active athlete (“I played every sport available”), Ford has participated in hundreds of races, including marathons and triathlons, where he has excelled, winning state championships in his age group in “ten separate years.” Ford also enjoys “hunting, fishing, and raising cattle, as well as growing wheat and canola.”

Bob Ford today

In between growing up and coming home came an eventful 1967-68 tour of duty in the Vietnam War, which Bob Ford describes well and in detail in his memoir. He arrived in country in July of 1967 and took part in much combat, including the 1968 Tet Offensive and the Siege at Khe Sanh.

His book offers often many evocative descriptions of combat flying, replete with a good deal of reconstructed dialogue.

For Bob Ford, the Vietnam War was a positive experience, “flying at its most satisfying and thrilling,” as he puts it, and serving “with honor and dedication to our country as an army helicopter pilot with America’s best.”

The author’s web site is http://blackcat2-1.com

—Marc Leepson

Uniforms by David G. Duchesneau

“This book speaks from the heart and mind of everyone who has ever had the experience of attending a Catholic school with nuns, all those who were ever so fortunate to be a member of a drum and bugle corps, and all those combat veterans who served in Vietnam and experienced the rigors and sorrows of that war,” David Duchesneau writes in the Introduction to Uniforms (Xlibris, 150 pp., $22.70, hardcover; $19.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle).

As the title suggests, uniforms were the key to Duchesneau’s early life. He dressed in the slacks, white shirt, and blue blazer of Catholic schools and a bugler’s glittering attire before graduating to the uniform of the United States Marine Corps.

Duchesneau is graphic. He delivers his memoir in the vernacular of an eighteen-year-old Boston wise guy. His fuck-all attitude is what kept me reading.

His blow-by-blow description of a 1968 Marine boot camp should have been titled The Theory and Practice of Hell. (I know—that title has already been used.) Two sentences perfectly summarize the rigor of the training: “We had three marines who committed suicide in the latrine. Two hung themselves, and one boot cut his wrist and bled to death.” At that time, boot camp had been reduced from thirteen to nine weeks to shorten the pipeline between induction and Vietnam.

Hard times were nothing new for Duchesneau. Physically abused and bullied by his father, Catholic nuns, and his grandmother, he survived childhood by learning to go his own way. Duchesneau found freedom after his father forced him to join a drum and bugle corps at age eight. As a teenager, he became the bugle soloist in a corps invited to perform across the Eastern United States and Canada. He also worked part-time after school and became night foreman in a shoe factory.

David G. Duchesneau

His Marine Corps life included AIT before going to Vietnam, where he served from March 1969 to August 1970. Duchesneau says that this book is his first “recollection of the Vietnam War as [he] experienced it as a marine infantryman, a grunt. The dates and locations may be out of sequence, but the events are factual and actually occurred.”

He spent March to mid-September 1969 in combat, operating out of Vandergrift Firebase north of Con Thien. His company conducted operations mainly along and into the DMZ. The enemy was primarily NVA, the best fighters from the North.

Duchesneau’s squad was mostly guys drafted into the Marine Corps who couldn’t believe that he had enlisted. With them, he participated in walking point as an FNG; search-and-destroy missions; day patrols; night patrols; ambushes; manning listening posts; getting in skirmishes; destroying villages; blowing up bunker complexes; surviving heat, bugs, and snakes; humping and sleeping amid monsoons and mud; and enjoying a three-day R&R at China Beach.

On one mission, he and his buddies were issued their own body bags. “Now that was a real morale booster,” he writes. The large number of American deaths caused by friendly fire or by accidental shootings and detonations upset him as much as anything else.

Reward for his combat came mainly from a sergeant major who admired Duchesneau’s “sweet-sounding sound of those twenty-four notes of taps.” The book ends with Duchesneau turning down an opportunity to become a member of The Commandant’s Own Drum and Bugle Corps in Washington, D.C. Instead, he returned to civilian life.

Uniforms contains about thirty pages of photographs without captions. The pictures of Duchesneau speak for themselves, but readers might benefit from captions for the many pictures of otherwise unidentifiable landscapes.

—Henry Zeybel