In January 1968, military enlistments began to decline when Americans entered into a patriotic lull, and Selective Service administrators reflexively sent greetings from Uncle Sam to just about every healthy recent college graduate. That included Robert F. Fischer. A year later, Fischer arrived in Vietnam.
For most of his first year in the Army, he attended a series of schools that eventually qualified him as a personnel management specialist. Upon learning that he could play a trumpet, though, assignment personnel in Vietnam ignored his training and sent him to the 9th Infantry Division band at Dong Tam. Fischer recounts his Army band experience in Combat Bandsman: Memoir of a Tour in Vietnam with the 9th Infantry Division, 1969 (McFarland, 256 pp., $29.95 paper; $9.99, Kindle).
Generally, Robert Fischer writes like a pro. He deftly weaves together humor, history lessons, insights, and his own unusual experience wrapped in cynicism. But he is a stickler for detail and sometimes tells his story as if a reader has no hint about what Army life in Vietnam was like during the war. Consequently, he explains things such as MPCs, REMFs, Saigon tea, etc. etc. etc. At one point, he devotes four pages to describing an uneventful forty-mile drive from Dong Tam to Saigon.
Combat Bandsman made me wonder why we had bands in a war zone, and Fischer feels the same way. He calls his band the “personal property” of the division commander, “utilized as he pleased for his own enjoyment and that of his subordinates and guests.” Fischer tells how the band performed at daily and weekly base functions, graduations, retreat ceremonies, the general’s mess parties and dances, honor guard ceremonies, awards ceremonies, memorial services, and an endless number of change of command ceremonies that glorified high-ranking officers.
“I never quite understood the frivolities demanded by those in the higher division echelons,” Fischer says. “For them the war was more of an inconvenience than a struggle for survival. The higher the pecking order, the more luxuries and sandbags.”
Along with wanting not to die, Fischer had no desire to kill. Despite his relatively safe job, he still had concerns for his life. The band mostly traveled from job to job in un-escorted trucks. That’s why some band members carried as much firepower as possible, which they never used because they never were ambushed.
Fischer fired his weapon in anger once when spending a night at an ARVN outpost that came under attack. “I grabbed my M-16 and took a position on the berm,” he writes. “Lying on my back to expose as little of my body as I could and using my thumb to pull the trigger, I fired off one magazine rock ‘n roll style over my head.” Before he could reload, the fight ended.
Additionally, the NVA and VC mortared or rocketed Dong Tam practically every night, attacks that killed several of his acquaintances. For a while, incoming arrived at 2200, 0200, and 0400—similar to the “10, 2, and 4” schedule for drinking Dr. Pepper, Fischer says. As a result, he focused on one thought: “Stay alive until DEROS.”
Combat Bandsman differs from most Vietnam War memoirs in that it contains a Glossary, Chapter Notes, Bibliography, and Index. The notes are exceptionally well written and interesting, but I think their information would have worked better if they had been incorporated in the text.
At the completion of his tour, Fischer felt disassociated from a “mean and disillusioned” Army with, “an officer corps saturated with career-oriented commanders, totally unclear military objectives, ever-increasing reliance on reluctant draftees to fill the ranks, and dwindling support on the home front displaying disdain for its soldiers.”
And that’s a wrap.