Rolling Coffins by Brian Richard Esher

The title and subtitle tell it all: Rolling Coffins: Experiences of a Mechanical Infantry Soldier in the Bloodiest Year of the Vietnam War, 1968 (Page Publishing, 442 pp., $19.50 paper; $9.99, Kindle) by Brian Richard Esher.

As an 11 Bravo light weapons infantryman, Esher spent six months in the Vietnam War in the field around Tay Ninh with 4/23 of the 25th Infantry Division. His company engaged the enemy practically every day in sweeps on foot, aboard APCs, and by helicopter. The men were continually undermanned, outnumbered, and inadequately supplied.

Esher’s pragmatic approach to training and combat made me admire him. He believed, he writes, that “the Army didn’t really care about draftees one way or another.” Therefore, he fought his superiors—mentally and physically—almost as vigorously as he fought the North Vietnamese. On both fronts, he employed tactics that drastically varied from normal behavior.

“I just didn’t like being pulled out of civilian life to be basically a slave to the Army,” Esher writes, “being constantly harassed and taking orders from everyone above me, which was basically everyone in the military. Some of them dumb as dirt!” His stories justify this attitude and frequent disobedience.

Rebel or not, when engaging the enemy, Esher performed courageously. Along with the CIB, his awards included the Distinguished Service Cross, the Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts.

The 25th Infantry Division had the highest number of casualties among U.S. Army divisions in Vietnam. The six months Esher spent in the field were the 25th’s bloodiest. His accounts of 4/23’s actions in the ten-day Battle of Tay Ninh during the Third Offensive and in a massive ambush the following month are spellbinding. By then, the casualty count had reduced squads to five or six men with Spec4s as squad leaders.   In the book’s Epilogue, Esher spells out what he believes were the Army’s failures in the Vietnam War. Although his views are familiar, his battlefield credentials validate them perfectly. His primary concerns are non-existent leadership, lack of comradeship, and inflexible tactics. “Before the Army, I was more independent than most, relying primarily on myself. After Vietnam, I was more independent than ever,” he says.

A voracious reader, Esher presents short history lessons on topics such as Robert S. McNamara’s Project 100,000 (aka U.S. Army Moron Corps), the fate of the USS Pueblo, the odds of becoming a casualty in the Vietnam War, and the reason Friday the 13th is considered unlucky.

Today, Esher is a successful, self-made businessman whose only war-related emotional problem is a recurring nightmare of being recalled and again going through basic training, destined for Vietnam.

—Henry Zeybel

McNamara’s Folly by Hamilton Gregory

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Hamilton Gregory volunteered for the Army, and served three years, including one in the Vietnam War in military intelligence. He was a strong believer in America’s fight against communism, and thought it was his patriotic duty to serve.

Project 100,000 was promoted as a great social experiment that would provide troops to the Army and, in turn, the Army would teach these men to read and write—and brush their teeth. But the Army never got around to teaching these men anything. They just got shipped to Vietnam.

The men in this group were referred to kindly by President Johnson as “second class fellows.”  They were the men who were too heavy, too thin, too short. They often had medical liabilities, psychiatric disorders, criminal tendencies, and maladjustment problems. After these men served, they were often separated under other than honorable conditions. LBJ looked to these men as a way to avoid displeasing middle class voters by doing away with college deferments and National Guard special treatment.

America’s military leaders were not in favor of Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara’s plan to induct men previously labelled unfit for military service. They had “grave doubts” and only went along with this plan with “bitter disappointment,” Gregory writes in McNamara’s Folly: The Use of Low-IQ Troops in the Vietnam War, Plus the Induction of Unfit Men, Criminals, and Misfits (Infinity Publishing, 262 pp., $16.95, paper; $7.95, Kindle).

It was the civilian bosses—McNamara and LBJ—who foisted this social experiment off on the military, which was ill prepared to educate the unfit.

Some military leaders felt that this plan showed that McNamara and LBJ had little understanding of the qualities a soldier had to possess to be successful at difficult and complex jobs such as handling loaded rifles and hand grenades. Do we want such men performing those tasks? I certainly don’t.

LBJ and McNamara

I went through basic training at Fort Ord with an unfit man, L.C. He scared us every day. We tried our hardest to communicate to our leaders what was wrong with the guy, but nothing got through.

The strongest part of this fine book is the section in which Gregory relates his own narrative about being in Special Training with unfit men at Fort Benning. Gregory ended up there due to physical problems and what he refers to as his “goofy” face.  He saw with his own eyes that “McNamara’s experiment in social engineering had the most awful results.”

His stories of the suffering of these men brought tears to my eyes. They were not supposed to be destined for a combat role in Vietnam, but guess what?  They went to Vietnam and many fought and died there.

Gregory began researching this book in the 1970s, but his experiences in 1967 at Fort Benning provided first-hand observations that became the bedrock of the story.

Gregory’s beloved wife, Merrill, believed her husband “was probably the only man in America who had the experiences and the commitment to tell the whole story of McNamara’s Folly.” I agree with her.

My only complaint about this fine book is that there was no photograph of Hamilton Gregory. I wished I could see with my own eyes his goofy face. Many saints have had less-than-ideal Ken Doll visages.

—David Willson

Think Snow by Kenneth Kinsler

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Vietnam War memoirs tell us that decades of learning about life were compacted into a year, or a month, or a week, or a day of combat–maybe  even a few hours.

Kenneth Kinsler learned his life’s lesson in his first firefight. After the NVA killed his squad’s point man and Kinsler dragged the body out of the line of fire, he reached his decision time: Kill anything that moved. His mind grew blind to everything except survival.

Kinsler needed the next forty years to understand that a man could live by a calmer philosophy, a learning process that he describes in his Vietnam War memoir, Think Snow (CreateSpace, 304 pp., $14.99, paper).

An unwilling 1967 draftee at the age of twenty-six, Kinsler did basic and AIT, then he sold his car and “gave everything else away.” Been there, done that—subliminal death wish. Kinsler made it to Vietnam in time for the 1968 Tet Offensive.

Kinzler

His favorite topic—which Kinsler usually approaches head-on but sometimes meanders around—is the many aspects of killing. Discourses on death complement that theme.

Kinsler views the subjects from the highly personalized perspective of a foot soldier not in charge of anything other than saving his own ass. He also lauds the NVA’s leadership at the expense of American officers, mainly by comparing the actual battlefield to West Point classroom training.

Occasionally, the book’s narrative borders on schizophrenia. At one point, in the space of four pages, Kinsler talks about kicking in doors, an unwinnable war, tank support, Charles de Gaulle, the NVA’s killing of civilians, finding a “good old fashioned liquor store,” and a fellow soldier who was a virgin. On his first sexual encounter, the virgin caught something that had not yet been given a name.  “They shipped him to the Philippines and [he] was not allowed to return home for the rest of his life,” Kinsler writes, repeating the well-known Vietnam War venereal disease urban legend.

Two paragraphs later, Kinsler says, “A good joint made life easier to understand.” He goes on to say that he stopped smoking dope immediately after failing to find his M16 during a firefight.

The guy tells stories on himself and you have to admire him for it.

Passages in which his mentality reverts to that of a man under extreme stress are revelatory. In therapy-like, stream-of-consciousness outbursts, fact and fiction (such as the virgin’s fate) blur and show a mind in utter turmoil.

Then, almost out of nowhere, Kinsler tells a complex story such as the one in a chapter called “Captain Napoleon,” and puts the entire world into perfect focus. The shrink that helped Kinsler whip his PTSD deserves a medal.

During his recovery Kenneth Kinsler developed a wide-angle philosophy of life. He includes quotations ranging from Socrates to Cool Hand Luke, including words from Cicero, Robert Frost, and Simon and Garfunkel, among others. His writing style is conversational, stretching the parameters of similes and metaphors. He speaks clearly enough on his own, so skip the Forward and Preface or read them last if you must.

Kinsler never exactly spells out details about where he served in Vietnam or his unit. But , along the way he does mention Pleiku and the 4th Infantry Division. He also talks about Hill 684, Kontum, and spending much time in the northern part of II Corps near Cambodia.

I’m not saying anything more about Think Snow because it is a roller-coaster ride that readers should experience for themselves. The ride is worth the price of the ticket. Kinsler has poured whatever remained of his post-Vietnam War soul into his writing.

The author’s website is www.thinksnowthebook.com

—Henry Zeybel

The Other Side of Me by D.L. “Tex” Swafford and Jim Bob Swafford

The resigned stare on the face that fills the back cover of The Other Side of Me: Memoirs of a Vietnam Marine (CreateSpace, 169 pp., $12.25, paper) pretty much tells the book’s entire story. The stare belonged to ammunition technician D.L. “Tex” Swafford, who served three tours in Vietnam, from 1966-70, and who died last year. Swafford called the book “my story in random narrative and prose, essays, awkward and sometimes dark poetry, thoughts and words of a man with a broken mind.”

The long duration and intensity of Swafford’s combat experience affected him to an extraordinary degree. Consequently, his post-war behavior went the way it did for many of those with PTSD: Swafford surrendered to “the potent power of alcohol” and drugs.

His book overflows with anxiety, tension, regret, guilt for surviving, shame for what he “had or had not done in the war,” and rage “unlike anything [he] had ever experienced.” His emotions form foundations for vignettes of a strained relationship with his father, a repugnant aftermath to a friend’s combat death, a trip to a “Jesus Saves” rescue shelter, and a love affair that he destroyed, along with other disillusioning events.

Perhaps to counterbalance his feelings, Swafford included a story by his brother Jim Bob describing their father’s dedication to family and work. Swafford also wrote poems and tributes of love and appreciation for his mother.

But Swafford’s poems mostly are cynical and sorrowful, with titles such as “Old Desperados,” “The House of Broken Minds,” and “Knuckles and Skulls.” He distinctly captureed the moods of outcasts and wastrels in “The Devil’s Carousel.”

Eight years of correspondence with a psychiatrist provided partial relief for Swafford’s delusions, flashbacks, and nightmares. The book includes samples of his letters to Dr. Carol at The Happiness Hotel, her safe haven construct for PTSD patients.

Swafford offers definitive insights to war and to what follows. As I see it, the conclusion that most concisely describes his mental condition applies to all young man who experienced combat that induced PTSD. Speaking from within a barricade of loneliness, he wrote:

Donald Swafford

“Madness is when the weight of the world is on your shoulders and your only escape is not to care; not to give a fuck. I could say this again and again, but at war there is no other choice but to stomach the inevitable. And the terrible reality of the whole thing is that deep down you do care.”

Donald Laverne Swafford died at age 69 in 2014. More of his Vietnam War writings and photographs are available at the Texas Tech University Visual Vietnam Archive Center.

—Henry Zeybel

21 Months, 24 Days by Richard Udden

Richard Udden enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1969 for two years. Not long after a tour in Vietnam, he got an early out, hence the title of his war memoir: 21 Months, 24 Days (CreateSpace, 304 pp., $14.95, paper). I read it. I enjoyed it.

“I did not want to write one of those typical war stories about battles won and lost,”  Udeen says. Instead, he recalls his military career by relating the stories behind photographs he took in Nam as an infantryman.  “I took my pictures between firefights,” he says, “not during them.” The book contains about a hundred pictures.

Udden served in the 2/12th of the 1st Cavalry Division, operating from Fire Support Base Button. His company carried out search and destroy missions along the Cambodian border. Many started with a helicopter assault. He describes them as “like hunting a mountain lion that was lying in wait for you.”

Initially, Udden writes in the innocent voice of the twenty-year-old he was in 1970. He easily accommodated to the rigors of Army training by paying attention and following orders. Proud of becoming a soldier, he knew that he had distanced himself from civilians forever. But the Vietnam War was a mysterious world that constantly presented new problems, physically and psychologically.

As Udden tells his story, the innocence in his voice takes on an overlay of resignation and then self-preservation. To escape the hardship of jungle fighting, Udden volunteered to become helicopter door gunner, but promotion to sergeant (with only ten months of total service) disqualified him for the job.

The frequency, intensity, and duration of firefights greatly increased during his company’s incursion into Cambodia in May and June of 1970. After a booby trap wounded him and killed a close friend, all innocence vanished. Udden simply wanted out of the war. Yet when his wounds healed, Udden did not object to returning to the jungle.

1st Cav troops during the 1970 Cambodian incursion

Like many Vietnam War memoirs, this one contains a large amount of material that will be familiar to readers of military literature. Udden details the use of rifles, Claymore mines, fragmentation and smoke grenades, uniforms, backpacks, C-rations, the P-38, LRP rations, heat tabs, C-4, and other equipment. Once long ago, these objects were wondrous to him; now, he wants the reader to understand their importance to his survival.

He makes a case for smoking marijuana based on the familiar declaration that, among lower ranks, smoking “ganja” was acceptable, but never in the field. A first-time smoker in Vietnam, he eventually learned to roll his own.

The oldest of six children in a blue-collar family, Richard Udden did not get along with his father. Self-reliant practically from birth, he “began work as a young kid” and paid his way through his childhood and teens. He joined the Army partially to leave home. A draft deferment had allowed him to complete a two-year machinist course following high school, and he expected to use that skill in the Army. Manpower needs assigned him to the infantry, which made him feel cheated, but he did not complain.

Again, like many Vietnam War memoirs, this book offers little that is new about humping through the jungle. But a good war memoir’s message is a matter of perspective. In other words, the progression of an author’s actions and feelings about the world before, during, and after exposure to combat often is the most interesting aspect of a war story. I partially judge autobiographies based on how much soul a writer is willing to bare. In this respect, Udden scores high.

He closes on an off-beat note. Back in the States, rather than being despised by the antiwar crowd or looked-down-upon by war hawks, he encountered indifference. Udden had completed the most dramatic period of his life and was “standing tall and feeling good” about himself. But no one seemed to notice or care.

“It was as if I was invisible,” he says.

Wait, wait, Richard. Our parade should be along any moment now.

The author’s website is www.21months24days.com/our-story.html

—Henry Zeybel

You Had to Be There by Gene Gorman

Thought for the day: There’s no such thing as a good deal that a GI can’t fuck up. A bunch of guys I served with believed that thought was gospel. In fact, some of us occasionally qualified as the sentiment’s poster children. But Gene Gorman beat all of us when it came to self-destruction.

In You Had to Be There: A Memoir of a Miraculous Life (Archway, 260 pp. $35.99, hardcover; $17.99, paper, $3.99, Kindle), Gorman sets some kind of record for successively running up ladders of success and then free falling from the top rung, loaded with beer. He performed his one-act play as both a Marine and a civilian.

His book is a good read because he pulls no punches. Gorman presents a classic alcoholic’s story by revealing himself at his absolute worst. Watching him is both tragic and funny, sort of like seeing LeBron James block his own breakaway, game-winning layup. Fortunately, we eventually see Gorman at his best.

Born in 1946, the second oldest of six children, Gene Gorman began working as a pre-teen door-to-door Christmas card salesman to supplement the family’s income. From then on, he never stopped selling a product or himself. He started drinking at fifteen—mostly beer. Told to leave home after high school, he enlisted in the Marine Corps.

His drinking steadily increased, even after he reached the fast track of driving an admiral. He did a tour in Vietnam, mainly leading a squad on search and destroy operations north of Dong Ha. Home from the war, Gorman received choice assignments while drinking his way to an honorable discharge.

In civilian life, Gene Gorman excelled in many different sales jobs, usually lasting around ninety days each. Once he lasted three years. But booze inevitably took control and he repeatedly walked away from work. Gorman seldom, if ever, got home before the bars closed in the wee hours of the morning.

Gene Gorman married and was divorced by the same women three times. They had two children. At the age of twenty-nine, Gorman resigned himself “to just being a drunk and waiting to see what happened to guys like [him].” Delirium tremens and repeated failures at detoxification finally forced him to admit he was an alcoholic and enter a twelve-step program at thirty.

Gene GormanThe book’s second half provides a message of hope for anyone trapped in addiction.  As a member of the Easy Does It Club, Gorman (at left) followed the guidance of recovery mentors and, working for others, maximized his talent for selling cars. Alone, he founded a program—The Winning Edge—that teaches leadership skills worldwide. You can look it up.

His managerial success led to building a used automobile sales corporation—Gene Gorman Associates—in  Punta Gorda, Florida. It now is nearly twenty years old. You can look that one up, too.

Simultaneously with his business success, Gorman started a new family and made amends with his first wife and older children. His story frequently takes on a well-earned proud poppa and grandpa tone. The book contains twenty-eight pages of pictures that closely resemble a family album.

The author’s website is www.genegormansbooks.com

—Henry Zeybel

Rockin’ In the Round-Eye Lounge by John D. Deaton

Dr. John Deaton served as an Air Force doctor in Vietnam in 1967-68 and witnessed the Tet Offensive. He arrived in country mid-August 1967, addicted to the barbiturate Seconal, seeking redemption. “At the 12th Hospital [in Cam Ranh Bay], I found the affirmation I had been seeking, and just in time to save my life,” Deaton writes in his memoir, Rockin’ In the Round-Eye Lounge (Amazon Digital Services, 417 pp., $9.99, Kindle). An internal medicine specialist, Deaton comments on several issues that I have found of interest as a Vietnam veteran.

“Again, it sounds small of me to mention it, but the peculiar military put down of having one person call another a “Remf” is, to me about as small as you can get,” he writes. And later: “By the way, Jane Fonda doesn’t deserve our loathing. Wishing to end the war, as we all did, she made a mistake. Big deal!”

This book gives us as good and intimate introduction to 12th USAF Hospital as we are ever likely to get. The most gory details of that hospital are there for the interested reader. Also the struggles of Dr. Deaton to deal with his Seconal habit, and to kick it, with the help of fellow doctors.

Deaton sings the praises of military nurses, and makes the point that at least 7.500 women served in the military in the Vietnam War. For those interested in details of how the Tet Offensive affected the 12th, no better book than this one exists I know of.

Another thing I loved about Deaton’s book is his comment on the word “’Nam.” To wit: “But in 1967, the last innocent year of our involvement there, we still called it Vietnam.”

Perhaps the wisest thing he says about the American war in Vietnam is: “Stopping a guerrilla war requires a ten to one superiority in numbers, the support of the local populace and a strong network of bases. We had none of the three.”

Deaton points out that the giant Cam Ranh Bay base had a miniature golf course, a bowling alley, and a massage parlor. Also a tennis court and a whorehouse. More reasons we lost that war.

I enjoyed this fine book, and I think that many others will too. If you’ve been an addict, you’ll especially appreciate it.

—David Willson