Twin Marines in Hell by Jerry Byrne

Jerry Byrne’s Twin Marines in Hell: From Grade School to Vietnam (CreateSpace, 204 pp., $14,95, paper; $3.99, Kindle), is dedicated to his twin brother, John, who died at age 58 of cancer resulting from exposure to Agent Orange.

Jerry and John Byrne, identical twins, grew up in a family of four boys in Queens, New York. They learned to be good at fisticuffs, being raised in a tough neighborhood. Right after high school graduation in 1963, the twins joined the Marine Corps, and went through boot camp together. Jerry Byrne’s description of the harsh treatment they received at the hands of the drill instructors makes the reader truly comprehend the tough and unforgiving Marine Corps basic training at Parris Island back then.

In March 1966, Jerry Byrne, a long-time member of Vietnam Veterans of America, arrived in Vietnam and was assigned to 3rd Platoon, Kilo Company, 3rd Bn., 7th Marines in the Chu Lai area. Within days of his, the FNG went out on Operation Texas with his battalion. The author captures the intense loneliness and fear that a Marine new to his unit experiences in his first exposure to combat. He eventually attained the rank of corporal and became a squad leader.

U.S. Marines at Chu Lai in 1966

After five months, just when he began to think he had a good handle on being a squad leader, Byrne was transferred to the Chu Lai Defense Command along with fifteen other Marine “volunteers.” They were part of a newly formed CAP Unit (Combined Action Platoon) that worked with Vietnamese Popular Force soldiers to defend a village.

This is where Jerry Byrne’s growing disenchantment with the war really took off. He describes in detail the rampant corruption among the village leaders and his PF “buddies.” He even ran into his twin brother in the village one day, and the two of them managed to keep each other out of trouble.

Before Jerry Byrne got into official trouble due to his contempt for his PF allies, he was transferred to Camp Hansen, Okinawa, and served the rest of his overseas tour there. His welcome home from the war was nonexistent, even hostile. Like the rest of us, Jerry wasn’t prepared for the shoddy coming-home treatment he received. His writing captures the anger and disappointment he felt very well.

On the plus side, the book has nineteen pages of quality photographs. One negative is that more proof reading should have been done to insure that typos and misspelled words would be caught before the finalized manuscript went to press.

This powerful memoir is a bluntly told account of identical twin brothers growing up together, then facing their challenging journey together into the U.S. Marine Corps during the Vietnam War.

—Jim Coan

Sorry About That by Dick Denne

Dick Denne is a man who can think for himself, an ability that caused him a lot of trouble.

Halfway through Sorry About That: A Story from A Soldier’s Heart (CreateSpace, 172 pp., $15.95 paper, $2.99, Kindle), I almost stopped reading because I thought I saw what was coming: a my-country-right-or-wrong teenager who fights valiantly only to be punished for figuring out that the Vietnam War is totally wrong and for teaching that message to his fellow soldiers. But I continued reading, discovering that Denne’s punishment was worse than anything I imagined.

Dick Denne writes about his 1966-67 experience in Vietnam, which consisted of eight months in the jungle as an RTO and four months as a Huey door gunner, surviving four helicopter crashes. He goes on to describe years in and out of military prisons. His story is exceptional and well told.

Denne grew up as somewhat of a prodigy. His life’s goal was to become a standup comedian, and he started developing routines at age three. Along with performing in high school revues and plays, he studied history on his own. At age twelve, he learned to parachute and made it a weekend sport.

Expecting to be drafted, at seventeen Denne enlisted in the Army and signed up for duty with Special Services as an entertainer. Personnel demands detoured him into an 11 B infantry slot with the 327th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. Denne’s quick wit and sense of responsibility made basic, AIT, and jump school easy.

Dick Denne

Denne managed to land a gig as an entertainer on his second night in Vietnam. During in-processing a sergeant recognized Denne’s misassignment and arranged for him to perform at the NCO club. He bombed.

At the same time, the 327th and a superior-size NVA force were locked together in battle near Trung Luong. On his third day in-country, Denne joined that fight and remained in the field for the next eight months. His accounts of using humor to break the tension while waiting for combat to begin are memorable.

The transformation from model soldier to model protester is at the core of the book. Denne’s conscientious attitude made him a highly reliable infantryman and door gunner. It also made him speak out passionately after determining the war was wrong. The upshot: he was sent to prison within five months after returning from Vietnam.

For two years, until he received an honorable discharge, Denne alternated between military prison life and going AWOL. The abuse and torture he and his cellmates suffered matched the atrocities that took place at Abu Ghraib prison. Undoubtedly, Denne was a victim of PTSD, but nobody recognized the problem at that time.

He credits his change in belief to thinkers such as Martin Luther King, Noam Chomsky, Bertrand Russell, and the mysterious Tiger Man, whom he met while fighting alongside Montagnards in the Central Highlands near Pleiku. Denne lightens his philosophical sections with references to movies, television and radio shows, novels, songs, and poems. And he shares his conversations with Harvey, his six-foot-tall Pooka.

“What is the personal cost of war?” Denne asks. His answer is that combat influences every day of a soldier’s life that follows. Consequently, a nation must have an irrefutable reason for prosecuting war; otherwise, the nation betrays the citizens who do the fighting.

—Henry Zeybel

2nd Platoon: Journey of the Pack by Billy W. Smith

Billy W. Smith (in the photo above, donating a copy of his book to the Elba, Alabama, High School library)  served as an infantryman with Alpha Company, 1st of the 27th, the “Wolfhounds” of the 25th Infantry Division in Vietnam in 1968-69. His memoir, 2nd Platoon:Journey of the Pack (297 pp., $15, paper) “is about the facts and the experiences of a foot soldier’s life,” he writes. “Try to picture in your mind a group of 20-year-old men in jungle warfare and combat, in a foreign country engaged in battle with a very well seasoned enemy.”

Smith, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, notes that there “was no glamour of a Hollywood movie” in the Vietnam War. There were, he says, “plenty of horrors, death, seriously wounded men, burned, disfigured, mentally scarred, total exhaustion, men’s lives changed forever. There were no John Wayne’s, Rambo’s or other super heroes that were bulletproof and could whip an entire unit all by himself.”

The book follows Smith’s tour of duty and is based on the many letters he wrote to his sister Vivian Fuchs and a journal he kept in Vietnam. Smith also offers his thoughts on how Vietnam veterans were treated when we came home and what factors influenced the outcome of the Vietnam War.

This book will appeal to those who are interested in Smith’s wartime activities and those of his fellow Wolfhounds.

To order a copy of the book, contact Smith at 629 Co. Rd. 409, Elba, AL 36323 or email

—Marc Leepson

351 Days in Da Nang by Ray Norton

In 351 Days in Da Nang: Memories of a Navy Investigator (CreateSpace, 116 pp.,  $23.75, paper) Ray Norton tells us he never says he “fought in Viet Nam (because I didn’t). I do say I was stationed in Da Nang or land based with the Navy in Da Nang.” Norton, in fact, served as a security guard and Naval Support Activity (NSA) investigator. “Just because you are in the Navy,” he goes on to say, “does not mean you were on a ship.”

In his book Norton relates his experiences in Viet Nam, using that spelling to hearken back to the days before American intervention. He includes insightful contributions from two life-long friends, Bill Sanderson and Richard Madison. The three served at Da Nang at the same time, from August 1969 to July 1970, working in different fields.

Cheryl Norton also gets space to express her feelings about the year-long separation from husband Ray, during which she gave birth their daughter, Rebecca.

Ray Norton spent  only fourteen months on active duty in the Navy after joining the Reserves, opting to do so rather than being drafted into the Army. His basic training lasted two weeks; his account of it is a masterpiece of dry humor. Norton’s sense of humor unexpectedly pops up in other places in the book, too.

During the first half of his in-country tour, Norton made the best of a boring and life- consuming job as a Tien Sha Peninsula Security Division guard. He finished his tour with detective work as one of six NSA investigators at Camp Tien Sha, adjacent to Da Nang. He reviews a dozen of his most interesting investigations, which provide excellent reading.

At Monkey Mountain. The author is on the left.

The book contains sixty-seven photographs, including two of Military Payment Certificates and one of C-rations, featuring an open can, a plastic spoon, and a P-38. Norton occasionally explains what is common knowledge for old timers, but does not overdo it.

Of course, part of his motivation for writing this memoir was to pass on his experience to his five grandchildren, “who someday may actually read this thing.”

The author’s website is

—Henry Zeybel

The Secret Place of the Most High by S. T. Simms

The Secret Place of the Most High (Little Miami, 37 pp., $6, paper) is S. T. Simms’ testimony to the power of the 91st Psalm. The mother of Simms’ best friend called his attention to that New Testament psalm shortly before he deployed to Vietnam in 1967. Soon thereafter, it became his gospel.

With excellent writing, Simms takes the reader deep into the Vietnam War Valley of the Shadow of Death to explain his beliefs. On the second day of the 1968 Tet Offensive, Simms’ ten-man patrol walked into a point-blank-range NVA ambush in the jungle north of Saigon.

With muzzle blasts coming straight at them, not a man was injured, even after counter-attacking, pursuing the enemy, and attacking again. Second in line with a grenade launcher, Simms had fired as fast as he could with enemy RPGs exploding directly in front of him, but nothing touched him—”no blast, no shrapnel, no flying dirt…NOTHING.”

Steven Simms

Simms attributes his platoon’s survival to the power of the 91st Psalm. A month and a half later in another action, Simms took a piece of an RPG shrapnel in his left knee during a fight in which his unit had one man killed and six wounded. He offers his survival as evidence of the Psalm’s continuing power: “I was not invincible but still a candidate for ‘long life.'”

He later attributes a healing event regarding one of his children to the power of the same psalm. To know and trust God places one in The Secret Place of the Most High, Simms believes, and the believer will be delivered from harm.

Simms’ story is factual and unobtrusive–and informative rather than preachy. This makes his message acceptable for believers and non-believers alike.

—Henry Zeybel

Life on a $5 Bet by Edward J. Mechenbier with Linda D. Swink

Way back when, several Americans wrote about their experiences as POWs in the Vietnam War. The books by Robinson Risner and John Dramesi made a great impact on me because they graphically detailed the physical pain and deprivation suffered by Americans held prisoner by the North Vietnamese.

In Life on a $5 Bet (Little Miami, 323 pp., $30), Edward J. Mechenbier, with the help of Linda D. Swink, has written an account of his time as a POW in Vietnam, but from a different perspective. His recollections focus on the psychological interplay between prisoners and their guards.

Mechenbier does take the reader into the torture rooms, describing a rope technique and other relentless punishments. But mostly he looks at what he calls “the funny side” of prison life. He contends that humor was the “mechanism that made the serious aspects of prison life more palpable.”

Regardless of the prisoners’ aims, though,the laughs were few and far between for me. When a prisoner won a psychological battle too convincingly, guards frequently beat him to even the score. Smiles I received based on a prisoner’s experience were tempered by the sorrow I felt for his predicament. “Singing in the Rain” might be a better title for the first half of the book—or, better yet, “Singing in the Monsoon.”

Although Mechenbier cited the Code of Conduct as a guide to proper behavior for a POW, the Code’s overly restrictive rules caused more hurt than help. The “die-before-you-talk” restrictions of the Code trapped men in untenable positions. Mechenbier admits as much. He mentions the Code a dozen times in a positive way, but he does not discuss the post-war controversy that caused its revision.

Mechenbier names a lot of names, none more than Kevin McManus, his F-4 backseater and Air Force Academy classmate who was shot down with him in 1967. Frequently together, they made the rounds of the Hanoi Hilton, Plantation, Zoo, Camp Faith, Camp Unity, and Dogpatch prisons for five years, eight months, and four days.

After repatriation, Mechenbier returned to duty as a fighter-branch test pilot because flying was all he wanted to do. He resigned his commission, however, when regulations required him to move to a non-flying job after eleven years. By then, his wife and he had adopted three daughters—from Vietnam, Thailand, and Korea—and then conceived a son of their own.

After resigning from active duty, Mechenbier joined the Ohio National Guard to fly the F-100. He soon took command of an A-7 squadron, leading it for seven years. Recognizing greater opportunities for advancement, he transferred to the Air Force Reserve, giving up flying. He excelled as a high-level jack-of-all-trades and eventually attained the rank of major general. A specially designed program for generals allowed him to return to the cockpit of the C-141.

While performing his National Guard and Reserve duties, Mechenbier held several full-time jobs as a civilian in the flying industry, about which he tells many interesting stories.

His final official Air Force flight was piloting a C-141–known as “the Hanoi Taxi” because it was the plane that had brought him and the other POWs home from Vietnam in 1973—on a mission to Hanoi to repatriate the remains of two American MIAs in 2004, a fitting finish to forty-four years of military service. In the photo above, he is saluting the remains on the tarmac in Hanoi.

The title, by the way, is based on a bet between Mechenbier and his father regarding an appointment to the Air Force Academy.

—Henry Zeybel

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