Chasing Charlie by Richard Fleming

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War veterans are people who wrote a blank check payable to their nation for any amount, up to and including their lives. In this regard, Richard Fleming says that those who close with the enemy rank above support troops. He admits that men behind the lines sometimes endured bomb, mortar, and rocket attacks, but that exposure did not equate to facing an enemy.

Fleming makes his case in a memoir, Chasing Charlie: A Force Recon Marine in Vietnam (McFarland, 242 pp. $35, paper; $9.99, e book). Operating primarily from Da Nang and An Hoa during his post-Tet 1968-69 tour in the Vietnam War, Fleming took part in twenty-seven patrols, the most among his 1st Force Reconnaissance company.

Some men can tell you things you have heard before and make them sound brand new. Richard Fleming is one of them. His 20/10 vision exposes small details in the big picture. He sees inside men and situations. He portrays heroes and screw-ups.

Assigned to intelligence gathering missions, eight-man Force Recon teams helicoptered into areas controlled by the North Vietnamese Army in South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Their ultimate goal was to kidnap an NVA soldier worthy of interrogation, a feat they seldom accomplished.

Far too often, the team encountered superior-sized enemy forces. When they did, in an instant the hunter became the hunted. The unit did what they were trained to do: briefly engage, then run to the nearest landing zone for extraction or die. Fleming explains how the NVA slowly adjusted its counter-tactics to intercept recon teams.

Force Recon patrols lasted for indefinite periods, but usually stayed out for at least a week. In one instance, prolonged bad weather prevented helicopters from picking up Fleming’s team and the stranded men starved to exhaustion, barely able to walk.

Fleming’s most dynamic combat encounter occurred when his team joined with a contingent of grunt Marines and went head to head with NVA forces in a long and bloody battle that nobody won.

For Force Recon, fighting did not stop when team members returned to base. At that point, they encountered desk-bound leaders who, Fleming says, did not appreciate the recon units’ work in the field. The pettiness of officers and senior NCOs became tiresome and difficult to endure—even reading about it fifty years after the fact.

Fleming is particularly cogent in recalling his relationships with officers in the rear. He writes that he became a target for abuse because, while on guard duty, he accidentally embarrassed a drunken captain. Most of the staff officers sided with the captain and harassed Fleming with endless extra duties.

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A 1st Force Recon Marine unit in Vietnam

The book’s only flaw is that it contains too many typographical errors such as missing words, repeated words or phrases, and misspellings. I blame the publisher for this problem because it appears that editing changes were entered improperly. Otherwise, I enjoyed reading Chasing Charlie and learning about the idiosyncrasies of Force Recon operations from the perspective of an enlisted man.

“My knowledge of the war was limited to what I could see a few hundred feet in front of me,” Fleming says.

Within that range, he saw more than enough.

—Henry Zeybel

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Blood in the Hills by Robert Maras and Charles W. Sasser

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Co-written by Robert Maras and Charles Sasser, Blood in the Hills: The Story of Khe Sanh: The Most Savage Fight of the Vietnam War (Lyons Press, 288 pp. $26.95, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle) is a memoir of Maras’ Marine Corps service before, after, and primarily during his experiences when he took part in the April-May 1967 hill fights around Khe Sanh.

The book is organized into forty-six chapters; each is a stand-alone story. The reader gets immersed in virtually non-stop, down-and-dirty, grunt fighting directed at killing the enemy—and surviving long enough to go home.

Combat often has been called interminable boredom punctuated by moments of terror. The Khe Sanh hill fights were more like interminable terror punctuated by moments of boredom.

Maras produces some great thoughts and gallows humor in the midst of this interminable terror. To wit:

  • “When the shells exploded, they seemed to blast a hole in the universe through which you caught a glimpse of eternity.”
  • “For those who fight for life, it has a special flavor the protected shall never know.”
  • “It was shooting and killing for breakfast, shooting and killing for lunch, shooting and killing for dinner.”
  • “Golf’s Corpsmen had more guts than a gut wagon in a slaughterhouse”

Maras knew that back in the World, higher-up strategists were moving colored pins around maps. As they did, Maras’s commander would move his troops to mirror the pins. Maras asked himself: “I wonder if God has a map of the universe with colored pins.”

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The Khe Sanh hill fights concentrated around Hills 861, 881N and 881S.

The malfunctioning M-16 is covered at great length throughout this book. Despite their desperation and anger, and knowing the M-16 was defective and unreliable, Maras and his fellow stalwart Marines followed orders and without hesitation assaulted the enemy as if they themselves were kings of the hills—which, in the end, they proved to be.

Blood in the Hills is a must-read.

—Bob Wartman

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

Path to a Lonely War by Richard Schaefer

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In Path to a Lonely War: A Naval Hospital Corpsman with the Marines in Vietnam, 1965 (Texas Tech University Press, 163 pp. $29.95, hardcover) Richard W. Schaefer says he did not want to write a war story. But he includes several depictions of exciting and graphic battlefield action in this memoir of his Vietnam War experiences—where, he says—“we were involuntarily in the process of wearing away any remnants of innocence we had brought with us to this hellhole.”

Dick Schaefer’s main hopes in 1965 were to relate to others and to transform from an eighteen-year-old high school graduate into a battle-hardened man. As he tells that story, Schaefer shares his thoughts and analysis of the war in Vietnam and its effect on those at home.  After his four-year Navy tour, Schaefer returned to civilian life in Iowa, got married, and raised a family.

Some artists create pictures with lines and shapes. Schaefer creates pictures with words, artfully “painting” mind-drawn images throughout his book. For example, he writes that older generations sat and “watched” the radio, and from the mesmerizing words they heard visualized characters and scenes in their minds. In that manner, I did not so much “read” this book, as I “watched” it.

In his short, powering opening acknowledgements section, Schaefer shows a true understanding and respect for the Marines with whom he served. Eventually, he became one with them.

He uses the phrase “lonely war” not to depict sadness but to describe the isolation that he and others serving in the Vietnam War felt. I could sense this feeling of isolation from cover to cover.  Not a dark isolation, but a need to be alone in his thoughts and tend to his duties. Throughout it all, Schaefer shows a high degree of professionalism.

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The book and the author

Dick Schaefer was a typical Navy Corpsman: brave, strong beyond his size, and truly concerned for the health and well being of everybody around him. He received two Bronze Stars with V devices during his 1965-66 Vietnam War tour of duty.

After reading this book, I had mixed feelings. I felt I was missing something, so I read it a second time. I’m glad I did. I wound up loving Path to a Lonely War.

— Bob Wartman

 

Some Gave It All by Danny Lane and Mark Bowser

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Danny Lane is a Vietnam War Marine veteran whose decorations include two Purple Hearts. In his biography, Some Gave It All: Through the Fire of the Vietnam War (Made for Success, 230 pp., $16.75, paper; $8.99, Kindle; $24.95, recorded), Lane and co-author Mark Bowser write: “It was November 20, 1968, and Danny and his fellow Marines sat on the cold, wet tarmac in full combat gear awaiting liftoff.”

That’s a sentence filled with mystery and malice—foreboding, too.

Lane writes that he found himself wondering what he had got himself into. He was nineteen years old. Two days earlier he had been home, in total security. Now he and his fire team were about to enter the dense jungle of Southeast Asia where the Viet Cong would pursue them relentlessly.

It took Danny Lane forty-five years to decide to tell his story. Now here it is for all of us to appreciate and dwell upon, including those of us who served in the Vietnam War but never got near the jungle. Having your helicopter shot down is a decisive way to come into contact with the jungle and with the NVA.

This book reads like the draft for a blockbuster Hollywood movie, packed with action and adventure. The reader has a front-row seat to follow Lane and his comrades into the intense life of all-but endless combat that these young men endured.

The men were participating in Operation Meade River. It was late 1968, and Danny Lane was a grunt with the 3rd Battalion/5th Marines in the 1st Marine Division. His book ricochets back and forth between modern day and the war, and Lane tosses some curves that we could not begin to predict.

The book is smoothly written, and free from most of the usual Vietnam War memoir clichés. And it’s a spellbinder with a roller-coaster action plot.

Those of us who enjoy and seek out infantry stories filled with action have nothing to complain about with this fine book. Danny Lane has done himself proud. He and his co-author, Mark Bowser, have concocted a winner. I recommend you get a copy of this fine book.

There are some things in this book, though, that I’d never encountered before in any Vietnam War infantry memoir. Things that the authors ask us to believe on faith that sometimes are hard to swallow.

I had no trouble believing the book’s accounts of fragging, the showing of movie “The Green Beret” on the trip home, the singing of “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” the accusations of murdering little kids, the comparisons of the enemy to animals—especially rats—or the constant presence of mosquitoes, leeches, and jungle rot. But I believe the authors went too far in asking me to believe that the VC trained what they call rock apes in combat, specifically throwing hand grenades.

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Danny Lane & fellow Marine Sotere Karas at Fire Base Tomahawk, March 1969

“The Marines hated these crazy, grenade throwing monsters of terror,” Lane and Bowser write. They go on to attest that the rock apes “are descendants of the mythological Big Foot.” The capper is this conclusion: “That was the kind of war that was being waged against us in Vietnam.”

Now I’ve heard everything. I’d love to see the movie, though. Sort of a “Planet of the Apes” meets “Full Metal Jacket.”  I’d buy a ticket. Plenty of others would, too. Americans love a show, especially if it features apes.

The author’s website is dannylane.com

—David Willson

Big Guns Firing by Patrick Goodrow

Patrick Goodrow is a great raconteur. The stories he tells about his two tours in South Vietnam’s I Corps in Keeping the Big Guns Firing: The Vietnam Story You Do Not Know (History Publishing, 239 pp. $8.99, paper and Kindle) fascinated me from start to finish—and what a finish.

In 1965 Goodrow was among the first Marines on the scene at Da Nang. In his memoir, Goodrow first details his duties as an E-4 Section Head in a 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade Ordnance Maintenance Company in 1965-66. He then recreates events from his 1969-70 tour as an E-6. He kept everything from 4.2-inch mortars to 8-inch SP howitzers operational by solving nightmarish problems, sometimes with disasters included.

The book lives up to its title: It told me everything I did not know about maintaining big guns in a combat arena. Occasionally, Goodrow slips in what appear to be passages from tech orders, but does so in an easily understandable manner. These details enhance the impact of his stories and should connect with artillery aficionados.

His descriptions of events are both serious and funny and often come with unexpected twists. Early in the book, he resembles a babe in the woods. At the same time, though, he is the cleverest kid on the block. On his second tour, which is the best part of the book, he is a savvy, team-oriented pro. His flashes of comedic insight, coupled with a subtle, smart-ass attitude when confronted by irrational or misdirected leaders, scored smiles from me. At all times, he is highly likable.

Goodrow saw his share of needless death. He often ponders the fragility of life and the inevitability of death in combat, deliberate or accidental. His work took place mostly behind the lines, but he frequently went into the field to service guns.

“Many support troops faced just as deadly dangers as the grunts did,” he writes, “maybe a little more subtle and a little less obvious, but whatever position you held in Vietnam was just as deadly as the other.”

In his book Patrick Goodrow delivers worthy messages about war, duty, and leadership. He deserves to be read.

—Henry Zeybel

Parrhesia by Timothy M. Bagwell

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Tim Bagwell

Parrhesia is a Greek word that means “to speak candidly or to ask forgiveness for so speaking.”  It first appears in Greek literature in Euripides. It implies freedom of speech, as well as the obligation to speak the truth for the common good, even at personal risk.

The pages Timothy M. Bagwell’s Parrhesia (Anti-War Press, 67 pp.), are very different looking; they’re coil bound and are printed on “card stock.” It is beautiful and profusely illustrated book and contains a couple of dozen poems and many photographs

Bagwell is a Marine Corps veteran of the war in Vietnam. He was in Vietnam seven months, from January-July, 1969.  He had enlisted in the Marine Corps at 17 in June of 1968 and was out of Vietnam by age 19. “I do not believe war is anything but human choice embedded in lazy acquiescence,” he writes in this unusual book.

It is not easy to find a typical Bagwell poem to use as an example of what sort of poetry Bagwell has produced for this book.  But here is one example: part of “I died in Vietnam”:

I don’t know what day, what time, what killed me.

I didn’t know I died.

No blood spilled.

No pain screamed

No medic came.

No NVA bullet touched me.

No shrapnel broke my skin.

Jungle rot?  Yes, to the bone on both shins.

I died in Vietnam.

I can name it now—forty-four years later

Because I write hard poems recalling the foul film

My five senses seared deep inside my skull.

I died in Vietnam.

I used to think I had escaped.

I used to think I had survived—I didn’t.

This is one of Bagwell’spowerful, accessible poems that hit hard and take all readers as prisoners. You won’t be unscathed by this reading experience.

Near the end of this book is a full page photo of Tim Bagwell. He is an old man with a huge, fluffy white beard.  He’s wearing a black beret, and is surrounded by artifacts and shelves of books.  He looks like I wanted him to look—wise and grim and beyond war.

Good for him.  Thanks, Tim Bagwell, for a great book.

For ordering info, email antiwarpressindiana@gmail.com

—David Willson