Vietnam: The Last Combat Marines by David Gerhardt

Vietnam War veteran David Gerhardt waited forty-four years before deciding to write his memoir, Vietnam: The Last Combat Marines: Military and Political Times of the Baby Boomer War (G. Hart, 297 pp. $15, paper; $9.99, Kindle).

Gerhardt served in a variety of positions during his time with the 1st Marine Division in I Corps in 1970 and 1971. Starting out as a combat grenadier, he later worked for a while as an awards writer before becoming a squad leader. His platoon would be among the last Marines to leave the field.

He served during a time that’s been often associated with drug use, fraggings, and other forms of insubordination. Gerhardt pulls no punches when talking about these subjects.

He seemed especially concerned about what he saw as “the degeneration of the armed forces” as a result of the lowering of entry standards in order to provide an adequate supply of young men for the war. It was because of this that he believed he had to deal with an “enormous number of problem soldiers.”

Like many veterans, he wants to distinguish between Vietnam, the country, and Vietnam, the war. He writes, for example, that “Vietnam had the most beautiful night sky I will ever know.” And that it was “a war where rules were broken, and this was sometimes a place without rules.”

He interestingly notes that his men would occasionally camp in a cemetery, thinking it would be safer because “the natives were not going to wake up their dead with a rocket attack.”

A memorable part of the book is the author’s description of a time when one of his squads encountered a small group of Viet Cong face to face. It happened so suddenly that it startled both sides and no shots were fired.

Gerhardt confesses that he was the only man in his entire platoon who usually did not wear a helmet or flak jacket while in the bush. He says he did that because he was worried about carrying around extra weight. Now, looking back, he knows that he was wrong about that.

The book’s subtitle implies a cultural emphasis that can be seen in this comment about the occasional push to maintain haircuts among the troops: “Lifers hated gooks, but they hated hippies more.”

I really liked the way the book include dozens of end notes. They deal with such things as Agent Orange, casualty numbers among helicopter crews, Kit Carson scouts, the types and dangers of malaria, and diagnoses that could result in medical deferments from the draft.

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David Gerhardt

Being among the last Marines to leave the Vietnamese jungles and rice paddies—and recalling the losses his and other units had suffered—Gerhardt writes: “We instinctively understood that we would never be capable of celebrating our time in the Republic of South Vietnam.”

I liked the book’s structure. Being divided into six parts with six or seven shorter sections in each part added to its readability.

More than a dozen photos are included, as well as post-war updates on five of the more memorable men Gerhardt served with.

–Bill McCloud

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Memories Unleashed by Carl Rudolph Small

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Carl Rudolph Small’s Memories Unleashed: Vietnam Legacy (Casemate, 192 pp. $29.95) is a strange hybrid. Though billed as a memoir, it’s told as a series of short stories written in third person with no names mentioned. Small refers to himself as “the marine” or “the sergeant,” while his girlfriend at the time, now his wife, is “Her” or “my Love.”

Divided into forty-three short chapters, running four or five pages each, this story starts in a small Vermont community in 1969 and drops the Marine into combat his first day in Vietnam. He receives a “flesh wound” and expresses no sense of fear throughout the incident. He’s nineteen years old. He also tells of two men he knew who were killed before they had been in-country for a full day.

Small chose not to talk about his wartime experiences for more than forty years before deciding to write them down to share with his family. The book is based, he says, on his “memories and nightmares” of thirteen months as a Marine in I Corps, during which he engaged in search-and-destroy operations, day patrols, and night actions. He received three battlefield promotions.

Individual chapters tell of him burying a Vietnamese man without letting anyone know; running into his girlfriend’s brother who was also serving; almost accidentally killing a buddy in a friendly-fire incident; secretly carrying a dog on operations; and watching a competition among several men who intentionally went into water to see who could get the greatest number of leeches to latch onto them.

In other chapters Small refuses an order to take his squad into action because he doesn’t trust the ARVN troops who would be going along. One time when his men were denied service because they hadn’t cleaned up after returning from action where they had made contact, he went into the beer hooch and threatened to use a grenade if they didn’t get served.

Other stories involve a Dear John letter, a tiger caught in concertina wire, and discontent among black Marines. In one chapter he mentions a morbid “death letter” that he carries, just in case, in which he tells his Love he’s sorry he didn’t make it home. He’s also involved in a bayonet fight to the death.

The combat action is well-described and all the stories are well told. That said, some of the stories seem clichéd. Others stretch any sense of credulity, and I didn’t know exactly what to make of them.

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The concept of writing a “memoir” in third person worked for me, as did the very short chapters. Complete stories can be told in a small number of pages if you do it right, and Small frequently does.

I like the idea of every Vietnam War veteran’s story being told and listened to. I just wouldn’t want readers to think the things in this book are typical of what most veterans experienced.

—Bill McCloud

Time in the Barrel by James P. Coan

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During the Vietnam War, the Marine Corps combat base at Con Thien sat three clicks south of the demilitarized zone, always on alert for an incursion by the North Vietnamese Army into South Vietnam. In September 1967, the NVA began an intense bombardment of the Marines in Con Thien that lasted for forty days.

James R. Coan, a Marine lieutenant, led a Third Battalion/Third Division platoon of M-48A3 Patton medium tanks defending the base, his first combat command. He recalls the action from those days in Time in the Barrel: A Marine’s Account of the Battle for Con Thien (University of Alabama Press, 256 pp. $34.95, hardcover and e book).

While in-country, Coan kept a diary that he used to help expand his recollections in the book. He includes a copy of the diary in an appendix. For background, he presents a brief but highly informative history of I Corps prior to his arrival. Six pages of photographs enhance the memoir.

Coan describes Con Thien as a “three-pronged hill mass” and “the finest natural outpost along the entire lengths of the DMZ.” From its high ground, an observer had an unlimited field of view in all directions. On the other hand, the base also stood out as a perfect target.

Hidden within the densely vegetated DMZ, 20,000 NVA troops awaited orders to assault the base, he says. Meanwhile, enemy artillery, mortar, and rocket crews bombarded the base around the clock, once firing more than a thousand rounds in a day. Line of sight sniping with 57-mm recoilless rifles supplemented the NVA daylight firepower.

The situation produced a classic siege that Coan describes in detail. Fear of death—the “danger of enemy shells dropping out of the sky”—was the primary source of apprehension, he says. Every day, Marines died and were wounded. Unpredictable bombardments and sapper attacks; lack of food, water, and military supplies due to road cuts; monsoonal rains and mud; and rat infestation heightened the men’s anguish.

Coan—the author of Con Thien: The Hill of Angels, a 2007 book on the same subject—labels the fire base a “hell hole.” Based on what I saw around the time Coan was there, his description applied to all of northern I Corps. Nights were pitch black and days dimly lit. From I Corps, our C-130 crew carried away the dead in body bags on stretchers.

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In January 1968, the NVA shifted its strategy to besieging Khe Sanh.

Beyond his account of Con Thien, Coan wedges in non-combat material. His memories of screw-ups during high school and college years and the rigorous demands of Officer Candidate School interrupt the drama of the story.

Nevertheless, Time in the Barrel offers a worthwhile perspective of what, at the time, made headline news in America. The book unflinchingly illustrates humans’ ability to cope with the unbearable as a function of duty.

—Henry Zeybel

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

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