Not for God and Country by William M. Murphy

William M. Murphy served as rifleman with the 9th and 27th Marine regiments in 1969-70 in the Vietnam War. In his Vietnam War memoir Not for God and Country (Koehler Books, 286 pp., $26.95, hardcover; $18.95, paper), he accomplishes three significant literary feats.

First, the many battlefield stories Murphy describes confirm the thesis inherent in the book’s title by emphasizing that he and his fellow Marines were fighting “to protect the life of the nineteen-year-old grunt next to us, and he was returning the favor.” In doing so, Murphy strongly illuminates the feelings of his comrades, who came to believe the war “did not have to happen.”

Riflemen fighting a war together form a strange brotherhood, Murphy says. Men who in the real world would not have been friends become friends. Grating attitudes and personalities are overlooked. Men who would never have been beer-drinking buddies back home bond. In the jungles of Vietnam they would die for one another. It was that simple, Murphy says. 

Second, Murphy examines Operation Allen Brook, an all-but-ignored sustained Marine attack on North Vietnamese Army reinforced bunkers on Go Noi Island south of Da Nang that lasted from May to August of 1968. He details the horrors of a stalemated battle replete with accumulating dead bodies. He withholds nothing in describing the effects of weapons on flesh and bone. Late in the operation, the Marines resorted to a near-suicidal frontal assault against heavily defended fortifications. The U.S. government downplayed Allen Brook in fear of a public outcry because of the high number of American casualties.

Murphy also vividly recalls his unit’s frequent engagements during Operation Dewey Canyon six months after Allen Brook, “wandering the mountains and seeking out the enemy.” His fascinating recollections center on the exploits of four Marine Medal of Honor recipients—three of whom were young enlisted men recognized posthumously.

Murphy’s recounting of Operation Allen Brook reminded me of Ed Sherwood’s Courage Under Fire: The 101st Airborne’s Hidden Battle at Tam Ky, which revealed fighting that also was kept under wraps by the U.S. government due to heavy American losses.

Murphy in country

Recalling his Marine Corps career from enlistment to separation constitutes Murphy’s third notable literary achievement. Basically, he provides a primer about an enlisted man’s military life in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

He describes the ins and outs of political influence on the military, on duty selection, training, deployment, and repercussions associated with returning to civilian life. He compares those who fought in the Vietnam War with today’s troops and the conditions under which they operated. The book is an excellent starting point for young people seeking knowledge about military service.

Not for God and Country closes with sections that break down Vietnam War casualties by deaths per year, followed by KIA data: age, home state, race, pay grade, branch of service, and country of occurrence. It also includes MIA information and the numbers of allied nations’ KIAs.

Bill Murphy served one enlistment. Afterward, for thirty-five years, he excelled in an environmental law career, and has written six guidebooks about touring the Great Lakes region. His website is williammurphyauthor.com/books

—Henry Zeybel

77 Letters by Susan P. Hunter

Susan Hunter’s 77 Letters: Operation Moral Booster: Vietnam (Dakota Publishing, 286 pp. $14.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle) stems from a mission the author’s mother, Joan Hunter, embarked on during the Vietnam War: to write letters to as many troops in Vietnam as she could. She began simply, by writing to a few commanding officers in the First Cavalry Division, enclosing letters that she asked to be distributed to men who weren’t getting any. Her letters, composed on a 1964 IBM electric typewriter, were filled with positive news about her home life with an adoring husband and three toddlers. They brought lots of replies.

As Susan Hunter writes, her mother enlisted Scout troops, students at her children’s school, and teenagers taught by her husband at a Boston high school to participate in her letter-writing campaign based at her home in Scituate, Mass.

A reply from career Army Sgt. Robert Johnson caught Joan Hunter’s eye. Soon, they were corresponding regularly, the beginning of a connection that would continue for many years. Their “conversations” dealt with child-rearing, combat injuries—Bob Johnson received four Purple Hearts during his four tours of duty—interracial marriage, poetry, the visual arts, and good-natured maternal counseling. Johnson visited the Hunters during one of his stateside leaves.

The book came about after Susan Hunter found a box in the corner of the attic filled with the 77 letters that her mother and Bob Johnson wrote, along with photos, drawings, and newspaper clippings. When she began reading the letters to her mother, who was suffering from dementia, they proved to be therapeutic.

The letters trace Joan Hunter and Bob Johnson’s relationship through ups and downs in the lives of both. After they finished sharing the letters, Susan Hunter began an Internet search for Johnson. She made contact with his daughter, which opened a new chapter in the story.

77 Letters is a nice read from a first-time author.

The author’s website is susanhunterbooks.com

Tom Werzyn

Running Toward the Guns by Chanty Jong

Running Toward the Guns: A Memoir of Escape from Cambodia (McFarland, 167 pp., $29.95, paper; $17.99, Kindle) is a sleeper. At first glance it seems to be a pleasant little book that recounts, in almost transcription-from-interview prose, an eight-year-old girl’s escape from Cambodia in 1975. But soon the reader realizes that nothing pleasant happened to Chanty Jong after she was taken by the murderous Khmer Rouge and forced to endure what became a holocaust against the Cambodian people.

Jong’s father was an elementary school principal in Phnom Penh. She was in the third grade and just learning to read. That meant she was on the way to joining a learned family in the eyes of the Khmer Rouge, who were wreaking havoc on the Cambodian people during the infamous Pol Pot regime.

The descriptions of her tribulations written by Jong with the help of her American family physician, Lee Ann Van Houten-Sauter, are graphic in their details of the violence and the jungle camps where she was forced to work as child slave laborer, building roads by hand, as well as the areas she fled through as she made her way to a refugee camp in Thailand. She survived there for months until an interview with a UN aid official afforded her the opportunity to emigrate to America.

During her captivity, the Khmer Rouge camps were overrun by Heng Somren fighters, supported by the Vietnamese. During one raid Jong ran toward the oncoming troops through a hail of bullets in an effort to escape the Khmer Rouge, a act that gives the book its title.

Learning English was always one of the her goals, yet she arrived in the U.S. with the barest knowledge of vocabulary or grammar. She began studying the language in earnest after she arrived. Jong came to the realization, through meditation and self-examination, that all was not right within her psychologically. She describes the best self-diagnosis of intense PTSD I’ve ever read.

In the last 50 pages of this book, Jong takes the reader through the memories and mental jungles that have populated her sleep—and nearly every waking moment. She also describes her therapeutic use of deep meditation, grounding techniques, identifying triggers, compartmentalizing, and memory confrontation.

Even with a few grammatical and punctuation errors, this book offers a true, self-help opportunity for struggling survivors of most traumatic events—not just the horrors of war. This small book also was a pleasure to read—and to experience.

–Tom Werzyn

Echoes of Our War by Robert L. Fischer

Warfare engraves unforgettable memories in the minds of its participants, a fact convincingly confirmed by the Vietnam War veterans whose stories are told in Echoes of Our War: Vietnam Veterans Reflect 50 Years Later (BookCrafters, 286 pp. $29.95, paper), which was put together by Retired Marine Col. Robert L. Fischer. Some memories are as vivid as the events were a half century ago.

In reacting to witnessing a wartime atrocity committed against Vietnamese civilians in 1968, for example, former Navy Corpsman Dennis E. Sedlack says: “I experience gut-wrenching terror. I am so angry, and I have horrific rage at God, my government, and life in general. My feeling is I want to kill everyone in sight. The desire to kill all or to flee has never gone away. To this day, when life closes in and gets too heavy, that same urge still shows up.”

Sedlack provides a dynamic study in sheer terror and exposure to carnage. He records what he saw and did in Vietnam with astounding honesty, particularly the fear and anger. His battlefield stories and thoughts rank among the most revelatory I have read in reviewing more than 300 books about the Vietnam War. He sets the standard for the recollections of nine Marines—eight one-time grunts and one F-4 Phantom jock—in Echoes of Our War.

Paralleling Sedlack, the other veterans offer life-altering accounts of their war experiences. PFC Bill Purcell describes 13 days of “seemingly hopeless” combat in Hue City during the Tet Offensive before wounds took him out of action. His description of building-to-building fighting is a masterpiece of observation and recall.

Reporting battles on the eastern edge of Hue, Corp. Grady Birdsong complements Purcell. Birdsong served an extended 20-month tour starting in February 1968. He is the foremost contributor to the book. Along with his experiences, he provides a footnoted analysis of the entire war, including a short history of how the U.S. became involved going back to 1880.

Recollecting his 26 days in Hue, Corp. Gary Eichler gives a different view of door-to-door and room-to-room fighting. He finished his year by patrolling the area near Khe Sanh. His writing reflects a mood of “What the fuck am I doing here?”

Sgt. Tom Jacobs, also in-country for Tet ‘68, recreates just about the ugliest ambush that a company has ever experienced. He survived untouched, but four months later a mortar round explosion took him out of the war with a 100 percent disability wound.

Lt. Bob Averill and MSgt. John Decker also add their version of the war’s history to their personal accounts. Averill succeeded as a company commander by relentlessly using massive firepower. He then led a Combined Action Company and developed an overwhelming sense of responsibility toward the Vietnamese that continues to this day. Decker served two tours separated by seven months spent recuperating from the effects of wounds. He chops through fields of government, media, and military mistakes as if harvesting history. His thinking is original and his writing style flows with an entertaining voice.      

Capt. Dan Guenther, Lt. C.R. Cusack, and Lance Cpl. Mike Frazier write the book’s shortest chapters with differing perspectives of the war. Guenther discusses the logistics of his 19 months in Amphibious Tractor operations. Cusack tells a couple of flying stories focused on other people. Frazier walked point on at least forty patrols before a wound ended his tour. He sticks to facts and tells it like it was.

Dedication to the U.S. Marine Corps is a dominant theme of the book. Men who fought at Hue express fault the U.S. Army’s lack of cooperation in procuring food, water, and ammo and its undisciplined approach to combat. Most of the veterans sling accusations of incompetent decision making at American presidents. They label politicians as “consummate cowards” and inefficient administrators as “pogues.” One says Gen. William Westmoreland was “a pompous showboat and fool.”

The book is the brainchild of Bob Fischer. The ten writers were selected from more than 160 Denver-area veterans from all wars, members of “Cooper’s Troopers,” a group founded by Fischer, “China Marine” Ed Cooper, and Iwo Jima veteran Al Jennings that meets monthly. Co-editors Guenther, Birdsong, and Mark Hardcastle finalized the manuscript.

Fischer and his crew gave the writers a list of questions dealing with combat assignments, their thoughts on past controversies, the value and morality of the war, examples of its impact on an individual, racial problems, regrets, and lingering personal issues such as PTSD.

Photographs, maps, and a large glossary round out this informative collection of timeless memories.

—Henry Zeybel

An Officer’s Journey by Richard A. Moore

Richard Moore’s An Officer’s Journey: Coming of Age in the Vietnam Era, (203 pp. $10, paperback; $1.99, Kindle) is written in the form of a journal covering Moore’s first engineering job after college and his two years in the U.S. Army, including one in the Vietnam War.

Rick Moore graduated from college in May 1969 with a bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering. Having also completed ROTC training, he was immediately commissioned a 2nd lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineers. For a few months, while awaiting his active-duty reporting date, he worked as a field engineer for a company that designed, fabricated, and installed large steel tanks.

In September, he reported to Fort Belvoir and spent a year teaching engineering principles and techniques to enlisted and commissioned Army personnel assigned to the Corps of Engineers. While at Belvoir, he received orders for Vietnam, where he served the balance of his two-year commitment as a platoon leader in the 815th Engineer Battalion in the 18th Engineer Brigade at Camp Dillard in the Central Highlands.

With the front cover showing the author in battle gear and toting an M-79, you might think the book contains accounts of wartime action. It doesn’t. In An Officer’s Journey Moore describes his thoughts about the possibility of attacks, but none took place during his tour of duty. Moore and others have surmised that the VC and NVA purposely did not often bother engineers, believing that they would win the war, and the more roads the American military built, the better shape they would be in when they eventually took over.

When the war strategy changed from search and destroy to Vietanamization, morale began to deteriorate. Moore discusses problems with drugs, booze, racial strife, and deteriorating discipline. 

Throughout the book, Moore is painfully honest about his actions and his feelings. He seems to have been affected by some of the same issues experienced by other Vietnam War veterans. Like many American troops, his overriding goal was to survive unscathed, go home, and get out of the military.

The two main themes in this book are Rick Moore’s personal dealings with life in general and his descriptions of civil engineering and road construction activities.

–Bob Wartman

Stay Low and Circle Left by Floyd Winter and Daniel DiMarzio

Floyd Winter and Daniel DiMarzio’s Stay Low and Circle Left: The Story of Floyd “Bad News” Winter (232 pp. $12.99, paper) is an account of Floyd Winter’s life growing up that includes a chapter about his tour of duty in Vietnam as an Army infantryman. Mainly, though, it focuses on one of the most formidable Greco-Roman wrestlers and coaches in the world.

We are not talking here about Wrestle Mania, WWE, or UFC, but the places where many participants in these sports got their start: freestyle, catch, and Greco-Roman wrestling.  Randy Couture (the famed former UFC fighter), a Floyd Winter protégé, starts the book off with an admiring and inspirational Foreword and then tells his own story in the book’s Afterword. Co-author Daniel DiMarzio has written books on catch wrestling, machete fights, and jiu-jitsu.

The first half of Stay Low and Circle Left is filled with stories DiMarzio elicited from Winter. It paints a picture of Floyd Winter from his perspective as a long-time military wrestler and wrestling coach. It is very interesting and sometimes riveting. The chapter on his tour in Vietnam is very good. We learn that he is a combat-tested grunt with a Purple Heart.

The second half of the book is a compilation of interviews DiMarzio had with 23 people whose lives were touched and altered by Floyd Winter. The stories relate what Winter has done for them, in wrestling and in life in general. Together, they paint a picture of Floyd Winter as a very humble and caring man. This short list of 23 comes from a very long one that includes military men, Olympic medalists, and movie stars. Wherever he went, people knew, liked, and respected Bad News Winter.

Being a military spouse takes a special person. That would make Floyd Winter’s wife Paula a Superwoman of sorts. Because of Floyd’s involvement in Army Wrestling (and much more), their military-spouse issues were multiplied several times over.

I recommend this book to wrestlers and non-wrestlers alike.

–Bob Wartman

Busted by W.D. Ehrhart

Busted: A Vietnam Veteran in Nixon’s America (McFarland, 173 pp. $19.99, paper), originally published in 1995, is a reissue of the third volume of W.D. Ehrhart’s three-part memoirs. That is good news, since Bill Ehrhart is one of the most significant American poets of the war in Vietnam, and it’s important to keep all of his works in print.

The first books of the series are Vietnam-Perkasie: A Combat Marine Memoir (1983) and Passing Time: Memoir of a Vietnam Veteran Against the War (1989). Ehrhart also has written many books of poetry and essays dealing with his Vietnam War service—and with war in general.

While you might think it’s best to have read the first two books in a series prior to reading the third, in Busted Ehrhart fills in all the backstory you need. The book begins just a few days after the end of the previous one. It’s not divided into chapters or broken up in any way. It just starts and goes in pretty much of a stream-of-consciousness style.

After completing his Marine Corps service and graduating from college, Bill Ehrhart took a job as a seaman on an oil tanker. He was busted by the Coast Guard for possession of pot, was fired, and faced federal charges unless he agreed to give up his seaman’s card, which he had no plans to do. In the book Ehrhart describes what he was thinking then and comments on the House Judiciary Committee’s hearings on the impeachment of Richard Nixon.

Ehrhart says his first night at boot camp on Parris Island was “the most terrifying experience of my life,” due to the harassment of the drill instructors. It didn’t help that a DI told him he was “going to die on this island.” That’s a lot to handle for a seventeen year old.

Then came orders for Vietnam. “What I found in Vietnam bore no resemblance to what I had been led to expect by Lyndon Johnson and Time magazine and my high-school history teachers,” Ehrhart writes (he would later become a high-school history teacher himself.). Because of his Vietnam War service, he says, “I had become something evil, but I did not know what it was or how it happened or why.”

Bill Ehrhart back in the day

He later joined the antiwar movement, then decided to go to sea in an attempt to escape the political and social chaos in the U.S.A. That’s how he ended up in his cabin in port at Long Beach, California, when his door banged open.

“I was scared shitless” are the first four words in the book. He later told his mom, “I’ve been smoking dope ever since Con Thien.” Then said, “So marijuana is illegal, but it’s okay to drop napalm on gooks.”

From time to time, Ehrhart—who received the Vietnam Veterans of America Excellence in the Arts Award in 2008—writes about Vietnam War atrocities and his visits from the hallucinatory ghosts of men killed in combat. The book ends with the conclusion of his trial.

Bill Ehrhart thinks like a poet and writes like one. And what he has to say is important. That’s why all of his books no longer in print should also be re-issued.

–Bill McCloud

Agent Orange Roundup by Sandy Scull & Brent MacKinnon

Agent Orange Roundup: Living with a Foot in Two Worlds (Bookstand Publishing, 210 pp. $24.95, hardcover; $15.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle), by Sandy Scull and Brent MacKinnon, is a unique, poetic condemnation of the massive use of defoliants and herbicides by the United States during the war in Vietnam. It is also an educational resource to help people learn more about the development, use, and devastating effects of Agent Orange. Along with poetry, the book contains artwork, stories, and essays.

Scull and MacKinnon served with the Marines during the war; they first met in 1988. They both have received Stage 4 cancer diagnoses that they believe are associated with being exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam.

The first part of the book consists of poems by Scull, including this couplet:

“We return to you with a souvenir

 Of present and future Death”

He goes on to describes AO as “the round we didn’t hear, and it is killing us.”

He says that today, “I like my steak tartar/shrapnel-cut and raw –” and refers to war as a “big bang without the theory.”

Here’s more:

“When memory of war joins a poem, it’s more

than a blood trail, it has a voice and is free

to move with and punctuate its own rhythm.

Those imprinted lines of sacrifice now curve.”

Scull writes that he arrived in Vietnam with a “dread of what would come.” Here’s what he says about the American military’s policy of war by body count:

“This number game had faces.

My face. And mothers. My mother.”

At one point, he’s running to catch a plane leaving Khe Sanh, “wondering how many/rotting Marines want into my jungle boots leaving.” He also questions “How much blood can this soil absorb?”

We learn from Scull that when you smash your M-16 against a tree out of grief for five men lost to rifle jams, it comes apart this way: “The plastic butt stock shattered first, then the hand guard, the trigger and rear sight.”

MacKinnon begins his part of the book by declaring: “These poems and prose are by two combat Marines sentenced to slow death by the country who sent us in harm’s way.”

One of his poems mentions those who are “soon to die,” “already dead,” and “almost dead.”

He cries out to the U.S. government: “I don’t want money. Just say you did It/Say you killed me with Agent Orange/say you did it.”

Scull and MacKinnon (Lt. Scull and Cpl. Mac) bring the reader right into the poem-writing process with a line like, “You say, cut this last stanza –” and a title such as, “These Are Not Your Poems!”

There are poems here that deal with receiving cancer treatments and living with cancer. Scull sums things up beautifully when he says: “Though the subject matter of these poems may seem like a downer, my hope is that the human spirit of love and connection bleeds through.”

Overall, this is a strong collection of material written by two war veterans who have made a pact with their readers that they are going to go out fighting.

–Bill McCloud

Charlie Rangers at War by Darrel Gibson

In Charlie Rangers at War: An Infantry Soldier’s Journal, Vietnam (CreateSpace, 310 pp. $12, paper; $5.40, Kindle), Darrel Gibson provides a gripping account of his own Vietnam War experiences, as well as those of many fellow infantrymen. As an RTO in the Army’s 1st Infantry Division’s 1/16th Infantry (and later with the 9th Infantry Division’s 5/60th), Gibson was well placed to observe events, which he documented daily in a pocket notebook he kept wrapped in plastic.  

These notes are the foundation for this book nearly fifty years later, which Robert Cooper, his former platoon and company commander, helped Gibson put together. In 2017, Cooper was very ill, yet he worked tirelessly with Gibson through long, heavily detailed conversations by phone to craft this compelling history.

Gibson volunteered for the draft in January 1968, leaving his native Kansas City, Missouri, for six months of training, then arrived in Vietnam the following summer. 

Among the book’s many assets, a few deserve mention. First, by offering his own recollections and those of Cooper’s, Gibson adds those of other men from his platoon. Each man recounts his own experiences of the same action. When Gibson puts them together, they become a layered image of how, step by step, each action was fought. There are vivid details of the acrid smell of burnt gunpowder, the sight of enemy rocket-propelled grenades streaking close to the ground toward the Americans, and the near impossibility for the men to hear each other—let alone coordinate movements—as the lead is flying.

Then there are the descriptions of American tunnel rats who descended into the VC’s massive network of heavily reinforced and supplied tunnels. Filled with weapons and ammunition and supplies of nearly every kind, the tunnels also contained medical and maintenance facilities. These detailed accounts drive home the massive challenges American troops faced against a highly motivated enemy.

At the end of each chapter Gibson provides detailed accounts of the men in his unit who were killed in action. From the start, he drives home the point that each was more than a statistic—that his loss created a void in the world that could never be filled. 

–Mike McLaughlin

Agent Orange: An Insidious Legacy by Raymond H. Gustafson

Raymond Gustofson’s Agent Orange: An Insidious Legacy (148 pp. $14.99, paper; $7.99, Kindle) is a short book with just 138 pages of text, but it contains a big message. Virtually every Vietnam War veteran is aware of the enormous amount of of toxic herbicides the U.S. military rained down upon South Vietnam—and, by default, upon U.S. and allied troops on the ground. “Deny the enemy sanctuary” was the mantra of Operation Ranch Hand, the spraying mission that went on from 1962-71. Agent Orange was the main—but not the only—chemical agent involved.

Gustafson writes about growing up and his decision to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps at age 17 right after high school. Coming from a family that traced its military service back through to the Civil War, it seemed like the right and logical thing to do. Service was in his bloodline.

He goes on to describe his time in-country beginning early in 1966 with the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines in the 3rd Marine Division, including getting wounded, medevaced, being put back together, returning to the war, and then extending his tour for seven months. Throughout, Gustafson includes details about AO, including how it was manufactured and dispersed, its long and short-term effects on humans, and how the Department of Veterans Affairs has handled research and benefits.

After his discharge, Roy Gustafson, like many other Vietnam veterans, buried his war deeply inside himself. He did not talk about his experiences in Vietnam until he confronted serious medical issues related to AO exposure, along with post-traumatic stress issues.

The book is not confrontational, but informational. There is no excoriation of the VA that other books about AO contain. Gustafson does describe VA administrative missteps, but does not dwell on them. He backs up what he writes with excellent references throughout the book and in his bibliography.

Over all, Agent Orange: An Insidious Legacy is a heartfelt effort and a good beginning point for readers to learn the basics of this important issue, especially the serious health issues for Vietnam War veterans and their children and grandchildren.

–Tom Werzyn