To the Sound of the Guns by Grady T. Birdsong

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Concentrated reading about the United States Marine Corps has led me to one conclusion: The Marines make you the man they want you to be when they need you to be that man. Grady Birdsong personifies that conclusion.

In 2010 as a veterans advocate, Birdsong championed hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) as a new method for dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. He helped establish a non-profit HBOT clinic in Boulder, Colorado, that treats veterans from across the nation. In 2016, with Bob Fischer, he wrote the definitive book about HBOT: The Miracle Workers of South Boulder Road: Healing the Signature Wounds of War. Last November, the VA approved HBOT treatment for PTSD.

Now Birdsong has written To the Sound of the Guns: 1st Battalion, 27th Marines from Hawaii to Vietnam 1966-1968 (BirdQuill, 434 pp. $44.99, hardcover; $36.99, paper), a tribute to the unit he served with in the Vietnam War.

Grady Birdsong enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1966 and served two combat-heavy tours in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969. His accounts of his unit focus on securing the Hue City canal area out to the coast and deploying south of Da Nang to secure the Go Noi Island area in support of Operation Allen Brook.

His tome-like book is crammed with personalities and actions of all ranks. Birdsong provides a long list of interviewees he calls “contributors.” The length of the list made me think that he must have collected stories and photographs for years. He also discusses war and related world politics. Many photographs and maps support the text.

The desire of President Johnson and Gen. Westmoreland to increase American forces to more than a half million men in Vietnam rushed Bridsong’s undermanned battalion out of Hawaii and into battle at the end of February in 1968. In a thankfully short chapter, Birdsong’s account of the unit’s home at Duong Son, ten kilometers south of Da Nang, rehashes well-known topics such as rain, morale, food, shit burning, and other daily routines.

In a huge chapter titled “Tools of the Trade,” Birdsong inventories and explains the functions of equipment used by Marines in Vietnam, including C-130 transports and F-4 fighters, M50A1 Ontos anti-tank vehicles, tactical ground radar, and flamethrowers—even the P-38 can opener. He buttresses these descriptions with testimony from men who operated the equipment.

The book’s core chapters—“Deployed to Task Force X-Ray, Phu Vang District,” “Operation Allen Brook,”and “A Third Offensive”—describe the combat action of 1/27. By combining multiple points of view from participants, Birdsong creates a clearly defined picture of the role of the unit for its seven months in the war. Chapters such as “Victory Isn’t Always Glorious” provide insight that merits a second reading.

At the end of August 1968, short timers in 1/27 returned to Hawaii or Camp Pendleton. New guys, incluiding Birdsong, transferred to other units in-country.

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Grady Birdsong

The book’s final in-depth examines the grief felt by seven families who lost a 1st of the 27th Marine. Birdsong includes an Honor Roll of the battalion’s one hundred twelve men who were killed in action as compiled by Gary E. Jarvis.

With his writing of To the Sound of The Guns, Birdsong’s Marine training persists and he continues to fulfill needs of the Corps fifty years after the fact.

I admire him—and his books.

Birdsong’s website is gradytbirdsong.com

—Henry Zeybel

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Curse of the Coloring Book by Howard L. Hibbard

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Howard Hibbard quit college in 1967 to volunteer for the Army. He served as an infantry lieutenant in the Vietnam War, including a stint as a company commander.

Hibbard’s Curse of the Coloring Book: A Novel Inspired by a True Story (Ghost Dog Enterprises, 384 pp., $16.95, paper) is based on his combat and legal experiences, along with PTSD, which has been dominant in his life.

The novel, Hibbard’s first, is told in two back-and-forth sections: those dealing with the long ago past when main character Herald Lloyd was young and in Vietnam, and those recounting the recent, current life he is leading as an attorney who messed up some paperwork and whose career is in severe jeopardy. I found myself focusing more on the Vietnam War sections and being much less absorbed in the legal career Herald is fighting to hang onto.

When reading an infantry novel I tend to keep track of recurring motifs, and I did that with this book. The classic song for GIs of the Vietnam War, The Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” was referred to so many times I lost track of how many. That’s a first for me. The last reference takes up nearly an entire page and emphasizes the chaotic camaraderie of an entire platoon singing that song loudly and off key.

Another recurring motif—in this book and in many Vietnam War infantry books—is John Wayne, the man and the movie star. Not to mention REMFs, shit burning, fragging and western references such as Wild Bill Hickok, Custer’s Last Stand, “saddle up,” “died with his boots on,” and others. Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poetry collection, Coney Island of the Mind, is the backbone of the book, as Hibbard includes many quotes and references to it.

Much is made of the “fact” that Vietnam was always hot and never cooled off at night. That may have been true in some places, but I got cold enough at night many times in Long Binh to need a wool Army blanket.

Howard Hibbert

Howard Hibbard

The two stories—the legal mess of Herald’s adult life and the youthful adventure in the Vietnam War—were absorbing to a degree. The Vietnam War episodes were what I enjoyed reading. I’ve never been a lawyer so that might be part of the reason.

I did tire of the wacky characters in Vietnam with wondrous nicknames such as Dogman. But I’ve learned that is the price a reader pays for choosing to read a Vietnam War infantry novel.

As for the coloring book in the title, it is easily ignored with no loss of meaning to the novel.

The author’s website is howardlhibbard.com

—David Willson

War Stories by Conrad M Leighton

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Conrad M. Leighton’s War Stories: A GI Reporter in Vietnam, 1970-1971 (MacFarland, 340 pp., $25, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a jounal of Leighton’s year in Vietnam where his main assignment was with the 1st Cavalry Division as a Public Information Office reporter. Leighton bases the book on the many detailed letters he sent home from the war. The result is more a series of vignettes than a narrative.

Leighton did a 1970-71 tour in Vietnam, and he describes the entire spectrum of his in-country experiences. The reader can see the the changes in U.S. forces and tactics from the beginnings of the war until nearing the end of direct combat involvement.

Leighton worked as an embedded reporter with different 1st Cav brigades and his orders were to report back what he saw from the Army’s point of view. He details the struggles of conscience he had with superiors who wanted particular slants on his articles. Leighton spent time in the field and with every aspect of military life during that year, from the humdrum to the profane—from hunkering down under incoming enemy fire to the travails of traveling dentists who visited fire bases, to the problems with waste disposal.

He is honest in his reporting and does not pull punches as he writes about drug use—in particular, marijuana—among the troops. He is frank in his dislike of new officers with stateside ideas and discipline. His main joys were to be published in either the division or brigade newspapers, and occasionally having a story picked up by Stars and Stripes.

Leighton paints the GI’s lives in detail, including the humor and grit and grime that goes with an unpopular war in a foreign country fought primarily by draftees. A constant theme running through the book is how tiring it all was.

For anyone interested in details about the later aspects of the war in Vietnam, this is a good book. It captures the frustrations of the soldiers and the spotty leadership at the troop level.

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The book also will be helpful to historians as it provides another look at the units that fought in different places in earlier times in the war. The generational changes in attitudes and tactics will enlighten readers and help understand why so many veterans had widely varying experiences during the long Vietnam War.

For the acute observer, it is possible to extrapolate this story and interpret it to reveal the result of poor management from top U.S. political and military leaders. Reading between the lines, you can sense a lack of purpose, and a lack of clear direction from the top.

No wonder so many men on the ground kept asking:  Why take risks? Why am I here? What good am I doing?

–J.L. Bud Alley

US Navy F-4 Phantom II Units of the Vietnam War 1969-73 by Peter E. Davies

Fans of military aircraft cannot ask for more than what Osprey Publishing provides with its Combat Aircraft Series. The series authors and illustrators are historians who focus on specific models of aircraft and their crews during a narrow period of warfare.

US Navy F-4 Phantom II Units of the Vietnam War 1969-73 (Osprey, 96 pp.; $23, paper; $18.40, Kindle) is author Peter E. Davies’ twenty-third book in the series. For it, he interviewed Navy and Marine Corps fliers who operated from aircraft carriers.

Illustrator Jim Laurier, who has worked with Osprey since 2000, contributes thirty color profile paintings of F-4 Phantom IIs with distinct markings of their aircraft carriers. A history of each plane complements his artwork.

Nearly every page of the book contains a photograph of crewmen or an airplane. Captions provide related facts to enhance readers’ knowledge of Navy operations.

Davies first explains the fighter aircraft environment before the 1969-73 period that he concentrates on. He examines changes in the F-4 II airframe, its missiles and tactics, as well as the political climate—for good and for bad. Comments by pilots provide an insider’s view. For example, when discussing a Phantom-MIG Fresco duel, he quotes Lt. Cdr. Ronald “Mugs” McKeown, who says, “It’s like a knife fight in a phone booth.”

This format continues through the book. Vivid accounts by fliers who fought the war support theories and practices of the time—again, for both good and ill.

Davies presents a clear picture of what it was like for F-4 II crewmen when they hit problems in air-to-air, interdiction, and close support sorties. Along with striking targets in South Vietnam, carrier-based planes bombed North Vietnam and Laos. In addition to normal survival concerns, crewmen coped with problems ranging from frustration due to complex rules of engagement to the dealing with the rationale behind awarding medals. Davies emphasizes stories involving hunting and killing MIGs, the premier accomplishment of fighter jocks.

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To keep the ledger honest, Davies includes successes and failures of MIG pilots who challenged U.S. aircraft and ships.

Insights from the Navy fliers brought back many memories. Anyone with even a minimal interest in military tactics or warfare should find satisfaction with this book.

Davies has a talent for finding and reporting what is important. I especially enjoyed reading about idiosyncrasies of aircraft carrier operations. They reconfirmed my appreciation for my flying career with the Air Force.

—Henry Zeybel

The Gunpowder Prince by Michael Archer

My USAF C-130 crew flew LAPES and CDS supply drops over besieged Khe Sanh in 1968. Our best flight there, however, took place on the day the siege ended. We landed and on-loaded a hundred Marines led by a captain whose humongous grin is still imprinted in my brain.

“I’ve never been this happy to leave anyplace,” he said, and thanked us at least a dozen times.

Khe Sanh is legendary in military history as both a high and low point for Americans and North Vietnamese. Thirty thousand NVA soldiers surrounded 6,000 United States Marines for ten weeks at that remote combat base in Quang Tri Province. The NVA failed to capture the base. After the siege lifted, however, the Americans abandoned the base and destroyed it.

Michael Archer, a nineteen-year-old Marine PFC at the time, served as a radio operator in the Khe Sanh Fire Support Coordination Center. He helped keep aircraft free from the line of fire of outgoing artillery, working alongside Capt. Mirza Munir Baig, a man with “a head like a computer,” who programmed the artillery.

Archer pays tribute to Baig in The Gunpowder Prince: How Marine Corps Captain Mirza Munir Baig Saved Khe Sanh (Amazon Digital Services, 145 pp. $14.95, paperback; .99, Kindle). Born to a royal family of India, Baig became an American citizen and chose a warrior’s life. He arrived in Vietnam in 1963, two years ahead of Marine combat units, and roamed the countryside developing a spy network and interrogating prisoners. In 1966 he saw action as an artillery officer in Operation Hastings before returning to in-country counterintelligence the following year.

Baig’s leadership skill rested on three factors: knowledge of past tactics followed by Vo Nguyen Giap, which allowed him to anticipate enemy maneuvers; an ability to predict enemy troop deployments based on listening to audio pickups from a top-secret sensor system; and an art for segmenting terrain into target areas, which expedited delivering firepower ranging from artillery shells to B-52 bombs.

Additionally, when targeting, Baig took advantage of the NVA’s lack of radio discipline: They often led him to themselves. Archer shows how these talents stifled buildups of NVA men and equipment necessary to overrun Khe Sanh, thereby forcing the enemy to switch from assault to encirclement tactics.

Baig’s biggest problem was poor intelligence. He felt “uninformed and in constant peril” while awaiting information that sped up the chain of command but trickled down slowly, Archer writes. That information was “old, incomplete, and almost always useless” to him. My own Vietnam War experience also included intelligence briefings that lacked timely data.

While lauding Baig, Archer analyzes the siege from both sides. He discusses the decisions of President Johnson and Gen. Westmoreland, which are familiar to many Americans. Of greater interest, he presents the thinking of the North Vietnamese. They recognized, Archer writes, that “an absurd series of mishaps, flukes of incredible bad luck, and appalling security blunders” kept the NVA from repeating a Dien Bien Phu-type victory.

Recent English translations of Vietnamese books and articles are providing insights that confirm or deny ideas that, for half a century, have been speculation among western thinkers. Archer refers to such sources throughout his book.

Similarly, by researching NVA archives, Istvan Toperczer of the Hungarian Air Force revealed the enemy’s side of the war in his books, MiG-17/19 Aces of the Vietnam War and MiG-21 Aces of the Vietnam War. Furthermore, information is now available regarding inadequate NVA defensive actions along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, particularly efforts to reduce large-scale transportation losses to American AC-130 Spectre gunships.

The Gunpowder Prince is Archer’s third book about Khe Sanh. It contains a great deal of new material. Archer has done his homework and presents scholarly arguments. At the same time, he finds interest in everyday events.

He provides an array of photographs to enhance the text. Both of his previous books have won awards.

The author’s website is www.michaelarcher.net

—Henry Zeybel

Best We Forget by Bernard Clancy

For much of Bernard Clancy’s novel, Best We Forget (Indra, 420 pp., $16.50, paperback; $7.99, Kindle), we are locked inside the head of a young Australian serviceman, Donkey Simpson, where we are never far from what Clancy calls “a slice of madness.”

Donkey Simpson is stationed in Saigon for a year. He spends much of that time swimming in beer, hoping and praying to survive. But it’s not just his life Simpson wants to retain. It’s his sanity, his sense of order and, perhaps, his patriotism.

It isn’t long before the wide-eyed Simpson comes to realize there is no order here, only chaos. As for the mission, it changes from day to day, depending on who’s giving the orders and what mood they’re in.

There is occasional violence and a backdrop of intrigue. But mostly there is gnawing heat and relentless boredom. Simpson struggles to pass the time and lusts for a young Asian woman who turns out to be a spy. Given what he will learn about the lives of the “nogs,” as he calls them, Simpson is torn between a sense of sympathy and one of betrayal.

So he swings between caring and hatred—for her and for all the faces he passes on the street. The solution: bar girls, beer and—when he can find it—air conditioning.

Best We Forget is fiction. But the author, who served in Vietnam in 1968-69, paints a realistic picture of the desolation of the country, the lack of clarity in the mission, and the uncertainty of the allies’ commitment.

Truth and clear-headedness often comes—not from the leadership—but from privates and corporals, as we see in an early exchange between two young soldiers talking about the Tet Offensive.

That will never happen again, one says. “Don’t bet on it,” comes the reply. “Charlie’s got nothing to lose and everything to gain.”

After months of duty, Simpson begins to wear down.

“He began going out more often, drinking more,” Clancy writes. “He even began buying Saigon teas for bar girls, anything to relieve the boredom, to escape the crushing reality of what, like so many before and around him, he was beginning to see as a complete and utterly pointless exercise. Worse, he felt chained into a madness which suffocated and choked. And the more he squirmed, the tighter the chains twisted.”

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Clancy

Clancy paints a vivid picture of life in Saigon.

“As Matthews weaved the Land Rover through millions of motor scooters and motorbikes, pushbikes and the clapped-out relics of French cars, he saw a huge, filthy, stinking slum. People wandered listlessly among roadside huts made from cardboard boxes and slabs of American beer-can stamped sheet metal; rubbish, filth, refuse, everything just dumped everywhere. Buildings, filthy, old, dilapidated, falling to pieces.

“The stench almost turned Donkey’s stomach inside out. Exhaust smoke from the motorbikes blued the air. And God it was hot.”

 

Clancy is at his best when he shows us what he’s seen. For that reason, some readers might wish for a bit more description and a bit less escapism.

The author’s website is bernardclancy.net

—Mike Ludden

Michael Ludden is the author of the detective novels, Tate Drawdy and Alfredo’s Luck, and a newly released collection of newspaper remembrances, Tales From The Morgue

Saddle Up by John C. Hedley

Loyalty to the men who fought alongside him in Vietnam’s Central Highlands during 1969-70 forms the core of John C. Hedley’s memoir, Saddle Up: The Story of a Red Scarf  (A15 Publishing, 286 pp.; $24.99, paper).

Operating out of Fire Support Base St. George near Pleiku, Hedley led Fox Force Reconnaissance Platoon of E Company, 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry (the Golden Dragons) of the 4th Infantry Division. The platoon spent most of its time in the jungle and “made contact with the NVA or Viet Cong almost every time they left the firebase,” Hedley says.

Commissioned after graduation from West Point in 1968, Hedley found that running patrols and ambushes quickly taught him new decision-making skills. He challenged authority and did not hesitate to put his men’s welfare ahead of his career aspirations. And he led from the front when possible. Every meeting with the enemy taught him a lesson in survival.

He shows the depth of his concern for his men by recalling the challenges of three major encounters: a night-long battle in which sappers overran St. George; the pursuit of an NVA battalion; and the discovery of a massive NVA bunker.

Hedley did a lot of soul searching in Vietnam. He recognized his inadequacies when, two hours after receiving command of his platoon, he and his men were sent to protect a village ravaged by the NVA. A sink-or-swim situation, the assignment marked the first time that he fully understood his awesome responsibility for men’s lives in combat.

Hedley was pragmatic. His willingness to pry into his own psyche gives the book a leadership manual quality. He emphasizes the skills required for success in leading small units. In portraying the psychological and physical impact of the stress of battle before, during, and after contact, he emphasizes fear and how it can hinder a leader and his men.

Training had taught him that a leader could not show fear because it was contagious, and Hedley recalls his difficulty maintaining equilibrium following a fight early in his tour. “My hands started to shake, I couldn’t light a cigarette,” he writes. “I tried to hide the shaking and it took a while before it disappeared. There was no way I could take a much-needed drink from my canteen. I found that incredible amounts of adrenaline flow through your body when you are being shot at, and that ‘adrenaline drain’ afterward was a very uncomfortable feeling.”

His accounts of atrocities and other brutalities of war leave nothing to the imagination. What Hedley saw when Fox Force rushed to a village after it was hit by the NVA—and the efforts of his unit while defending St. George—borders on the unbelievable.

Parts of the book show the futility of America’s war effort under Vietnamization. The NVA and VC moved easily around the countryside, Hedley says, and they had support from all villagers in the area. Plus, “the night belonged to Charlie” because of his familiarity with the terrain.

The frequency with which Hedley’s men found enemy living areas, campsites, and even a hospital hidden behind a waterfall made me again rethink the grunts’ world of search-and-destroy. Why were they made to continue? The North already occupied the South. Nevertheless, Hedley’s platoon continued to count bodies, sometimes based on only bloody drag marks.

Relegated to a boring headquarters job toward the end of his tour, Hedley found relief by voluntarily rejoining his former battalion for the 1970 incursion into Cambodia. But that’s another story—or book, perhaps.

The “red scarf” in the title was worn “even in the field when on combat operations,” by men who proved their merit under fire in Fox Force, Hedley says. A few years earlier, a South Vietnamese commander, whose platoon wore the scarf, presented one to Fox Force for bravery during a combined op.

Starting in 2000, the symbolism of the bright red scarf motivated Fox Force veterans to reunite. What began as a yearly reunion evolved into frequent meetings. As a result, red scarf warriors have bonded tighter than ever before.

Hedley at a Red Scarf reunion

The book contains twenty-eight pages of then-and-now color photographs of soldiers and scenes from the war. Hedley closes with vignettes about events outside of Fox Force and “A Day in the Life…”, a chapter that summarizes how men lived in the field.

After twenty-four years of military service, John Hedley retired as a lieutenant colonel and then had a seventeen-year career with Raytheon Corporation.

His website is saddleup-redscarf.com

—Henry Zeybel