Echo Among Warriors by Richard Camp

Echo Among Warriors: Close Combat in the Jungle of Vietnam (Casemate, 288 pp. $22.95, paper) by Richard Camp is an intense, you-are-there, fictionalized consideration of close-quarters fighting during the American war in Vietnam. The final ten chapters are as realistically and breathlessly action-packed as you will read anywhere.

Col. Camp served for 26 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, including a 1967-68 Vietnam War tour of duty as a company commander with the 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines. He has written 15 military history books, including a recent biography of USMC Gen. Raymond Davis.

All of the action in Echo Among Warriors takes place during two days in the fall of 1967 in dense jungle near Khe Sanh, an area in which Col. Camp saw action. The story is told in alternating chapters through the eyes of American and North Vietnamese participants.

It begins with Marines searching through the jungle for a reported NVA troop buildup in the area. At times, the men follow sandal prints as they move “deep in Indian Country.” They come across a heavily used trail at the same time they receive intelligence from Montagnard tribesmen that large numbers of North Vietnamese troops are heading their way.

A short time later contact is made. Heavy fighting ensues. From this point, the story alternates chapters, taking us into the minds of the troops on both sides. Sometimes an action will be taken by the NVA in a chapter, and we read the result from the American side in the next one.

There’s a lot going on here. We read of men being captured by both sides, booby-trapped bodies, hand-to-hand fighting, fighting through pain, and the “stink of death.” When large helicopters land, they stir up elephant dung. Men fail to use proper radio procedure while under stress. Incoming artillery rounds land a little too close. There are fears of accidentally engaging other Americans at night, resulting in “intramural firefights.”

Since this book only covers two days it includes quite a bit of welcome detail and minute-by-minute dialogue. A glossary explains the mil-speak so that the dialogue is both realistic and those unfamiliar with the terms can look them up while the rest of us rip along with the story.

The novel is dedicated to the late military historian Eric Hammel. I’m sure he would be pleased to be associated with this heroic story.  

–Bill McCloud

Korean Odyssey by Dale Dye

If you don’t recognize the name Dale Dye, whose latest book is Korean Odyssey: A Novel of a Marine Rifle Company in the Forgotten War (Warriors Publishing Group, 353 pp. $26.95, hardcover; $9.49, Kindle), you’ll almost certainly recognize his face. Dye served twenty years in the U.S. Marine Corps, rising from the enlisted ranks to retire as a Captain. That included three tours of duty in the Vietnam War, during which he took part in 31 major combat operations. Today he runs Warriors, Inc., the leading military training and advisory service to the entertainment industry.

Dye has acted in or worked in some way more than 40 movies, including Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Casualties of War, as well as the acclaimed the HBO miniseries, Band of Brothers and The Pacific. He has a degree in English Literature and has written twenty books, including the novelization of Oliver Stone’s Platoon.

His new novel starts in the summer of 1950 with Marine Capt. Sam Gerdine trying to build a rifle company around him at Camp Pendleton. Gerdine is a career Marine and Silver Star recipient of WWII action in the Pacific. With the outbreak of war in Korea, the cry goes out at Pendleton: “From now on it’s double-time all the time in this camp.” With most of the rifle companies being short-handed it is not uncommon for NCOs to search for available men and add them to their companies. The result is a command “manning up with raw recruits, malcontents, shanghaied clerks, and a few brig-rats,” Dye writes.

The war news meanwhile, is “dismal. Doggies were getting their asses handed to them. The gooks were raising hell.” Training becomes more intense.

With training complete, the Marines land in South Korea, and soon find themselves in the thick of the action—an “ugly reality check,” as Dye notes.

Dale Dye in Platoon

Then comes No Name Ridge and hand-to-hand fighting. Before long, it’s winter, and the Korean cold envelops the battle space. The firefights and hand-to-hand fighting continue, but this time in blinding snow. Then comes the Chinese offensive.

Dale Dye writes with an authenticity that cannot be denied. His writing expresses a warrior spirit that is a constant no matter what war he’s dealing with.

I could almost hear his voice when reading sentences like: “How about you people stand back and let a real rifle company show you how to take a hill.”

This is an important addition to the literature of ground-level-view fighting in America’s “forgotten war” in Korea.

–Bill McCloud

On Full Automatic by William V. Taylor Jr.

Theirs not to reason why,

Theirs but to do and die.

Those lines from Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” were very evident during William V. Taylor’s early days serving with Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion in the 3rd Marine Regiment in Vietnam in 1967-68. But as time wore on, casualties and rotations took experienced leaders off the battlefield. They were replaced with inexperienced leaders who were more concerned with their own survival and careers than with the survival and success of their men.

In his amazing new memoir, On Full Automatic: Surviving 13 months in Vietnam (Deep Water Press, 352 pp. $34.95, hardcover; $19.95, paper; $6.99, Kindle) Taylor recounts his nightmarish Vietnam War experience. The book opens on April 26, 1967, with 18-year-old Bill Taylor on board the USS Duluth, an amphibious transport ship. He and his fellow C/1/3 Marines were about to be helicoptered to a field 20 miles south of Da Nang. That’s when Taylor’s tug-of-war began, as the Marines took a location, only to give it back and return later to take it again.

Taylor tells of many enemy engagements, some large and some small, some won and some lost. In nearly all of them, there were two common denominators: incompetent leaders and casualties. He describes his tour of duty in a way that put me right there with him. Throughout the book I experienced fear, anger, and sadness—and very little jubilation.

Taylor’s humility and matter-of-fact honesty overwhelmed me. As did his unwavering bravery and aggression on the battlefield. He includes some raw language used at that time and place. Some readers might find that offensive, but I found it essential in bringing me into the action.

I highly recommend On Full Automatic.

–Bob Wartman

Taylor’s website, which includes a photos of C/1/3 Marines in Vietnam, is williamvtaylor.com

The Grotto: Book Two by Harold G. Walker

Like countless veterans, retired Marine Corps Lt. Col. Harold Walker began writing a war memoir for his family—in his case, to chronicle his service as a Marine helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War in 1969-70. The result is The Grotto, a three-volume series documenting his tour of duty, along with his thoughts and meditations and praise for his Marine brothers.

The Grotto: Book Two: Vietnam 1970, Marble Mountain (Dragonfly Publishing, 487 pp. $25, hardcover; $22, paper; $4.99, Kindle) begins in February 1970. Walker was three months into his tour and Vietnamization was underway. American troops were leaving the country as the South Vietnamese took control of combat operations.

In a single day, his squadron, HMM-262 (“The Flying Tigers”), of CH-46 transport helicopters left the Phu Bai Combat Base near the city of Huế. With their fellow squadrons of Marine Air Group Sixteen, they flew southeast to their new home at the Marble Mountain Air Facility outside Da Nang.

Walker’s accounts of time in Vietnam is so inspired that readers will feel that he is speaking to them personally. Each chapter begins with a date, the number of hours Walker had flown to that time in the war, and the total since he completed flight training. He also provides details about key events at home, including the rising protests against the war, and his thoughts about the future of South Vietnam—and the U.S.A.

The Flying Tigers’ job was to ferry Marines and supplies wherever they were needed. They also flew countless “red ink” missions, so named because those combat missions reports were written in red. These included medevac flights and recoveries of Marine recon teams when they were in grave danger. Many missions went satisfactorily. Others did not.

In one disturbing passage, Walker describes how a helicopter nearly crashed after a single bullet struck the aircraft, killing the pilot and badly wounding the co-pilot. The young crew chief, who had some experience flying helicopters, managed to help land the craft safely.

In another, a .30 caliber bullet hit a pilot in the center of his chest plate leaving him stunned but alive. He was able to land, take on supplies, and fly off again, only to crash from being overloaded. Only the men in the cockpit survived.

The author in the cockpit in Vietnam, 1970

Walker also presents a sobering dilemma from one mission when he realized that another pilot—an officer far senior to him—lacked the requisite experience to fly helicopters. The man had long flown A-4 Skyhawk jets, yet he lacked the skills and finesse for rotary-wing flight. Because aviation protocol decreed that a pilot’s word was law, what was a better-qualified co-pilot supposed to do?

After one such flight, a co-pilot formally declared the senior officer pilot unfit to fly. By doing so, the junior Marine risked his career and he knew it. Yet his superiors agreed with him, and the other pilot was removed from flight duties. It was a clear example of moral courage with a Marine putting the good of others far above his own.

The Grotto: Part Two is worth the time, and is ample reason to look forward to the third volume.

The author’s website is haroldgwalker.com

–Mike McLaughlin

A Smoldering Wick by Ron Brandon

Ron Brandon’s A Smoldering Wick: A Vietnam Vet Chronicles His Life from Hell to Redemption (CreateSpace, 206 pp. $8.20, paper) is an unmitigated exposure of Brandon’s dark side, the ugly things he did, and his transformation into a good person.

The book opens with Brandon’s childhood, which was loving, yet sometimes violent. He calls his family and home “dysfunction junction.” Although he spent a lot of time at church and reading the Bible, Brandon, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, says he learned very little about life when he was growing up.

In May 1965 he joined the Marine Corps as a way to get away from home—and from civilian life in general. Brandon says he was naïve and immature and a pathetic candidate for any military branch, much less the U.S. Marine Corps. In December 1966 he shipped out to Vietnam and was assigned as a rifleman in the 3rd Marine Division in Quang Tri Provence. He was immediately sent to Razorback Ridge, near the Rock Pile south of the DMZ. A lot of combat ensued. Most of his fighting was done in that area, including at Cam Lo, Con Thien, along Highway 9, Dong Ha, and Khe Sanh.

He describes his tour of duty in 35 short sections, each detailing many combat engagements. He gives an up-close-and-personal picture of the fear, sorrow, and anger that he experienced in the war. He unabashedly describes some of the crazy and stupid things he did, although later in the book Brandon apologizes for much of it.

On Brandon’s return to the world, he was unable to adjust. He gambled, drank, did drugs, and turned to crime. He spent a lot of time behind bars, including a dozen years in prison. He continually struggled with the demons inside his head fueled by PTSD. He did a lot of praying, but mostly to no avail.

Finally Brandon’s life made a turn for the better and he stopped his illicit activities and settled down. Today, with his wife, he runs Unchained Prison Ministry, in which works incarcerated veterans and others in local and state prisons. 

Brandon grew up believing in the power of prayer. While my religious beliefs differ from his, I was able to read his book without judging or naysaying. I recommend it. It was painful at times to read, but overall is an enlightening life story. 

The book’s website is asmolderingwick.com

—Bob Wartman

Bury Him by Doug Chamberlain

In  Bury Him: A Memoir of the Viet Nam War (Love the West Publications, 348 pp., $19.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle) Doug Chamberlain, a former U.S. Marine Corps Captain, has penned a well-written and engaging look at his time in the Corps, concentrating on his 1967-68 tour of duty commanding Echo Company, in the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines in the 1st Marine Division in South Vietnam.

Chamberlain, who grew up in eastern Wyoming and western Nebraska, writes about his rural childhood and upbringing, which was agrarian and lonesome, a theme he follows throughout the book. He joined the Marines to avoid the draft, he says, and writes about his basic and advanced training with little fanfare.

He also talks about of the “agony” of deciding finally to write this book, and the support of friends who helped him in that undertaking. His return to The World was unheralded, even by family and friends. He describes his ensuing PTSD and its continuing effect on his life and careers.

The book’s title becomes apparent about half way through when Chamberlain writes about what happened when his unit came across the decomposing body of a fellow Marine and he called for a Medevac chopper to recover the remains. Someone at headquarters refused to authorize that, then told him: “Bury Him. Don’t Rock The Boat. This Is An Order.” The patrol did bury the remains, with the regret and horror that came with breaking the “leave no man behind” military credo.

Chamberlain goes on to write about the turmoil, both physical and psychological, that he and his fellow Marines faced after they tried to recover the remains of the Marine they were ordered to bury, including dealing with a decision to bomb the area to obliterate the remains. The man’s family had to endure two funerals—one for the initially recovered left leg, and the other for the rest of the remains. Chamberlain lived with that deceit and dishonor for more than 40 years before he chanced upon an investigator who helped him discover the details that went into writing this book.

On its face, Bury Him is one man’s story of redemption and closure—and a well written one at that. More deeply, it’s the story of Doug Chamberlain exposing a deeply flawed command layer that pervaded the entire Vietnam War.

Chamberlain’s website is marinedougchamberlain.com

–Tom Werzyn

Honor & Indignity by Gregory D. Doering

Although Gregory Doering’s HONOR & Indignity: An Unheroic Memoir (216 pp. $11.95, paper; $5.99, Kindle) is, as he puts it, an “unheroic” book, I can say with no uncertainty after reading it that Doering is anything but unheroic.

In December 1967, after finishing USMC boot camp, the Marine Corps decided his MOS would be 3531, motor vehicle operator. Doering had mixed feelings about that, but at the same time was elated that he was not going to be a rifleman. He arrived in Vietnam in April 1968, was sent to the 9th Marines at Camp Carroll, then was quickly moved 20 miles north to the Ca Lu Combat Base in Quang Tri Province where he was put to work driving an M274, a small light-weapons carrier vehicle known as a Mechanical Mule.

Within a month, the Marine Corps saw fit to change his job again and he filled an open position as an ammo humper in a mortar team and began seeing serious combat action. After several months of fighting along the southern edge of the DMZ, he was sent back to the rear. Arriving in Quang Tri with “the distant blank stare,” he was assigned to a headquarters Motor Transport unit.

This is where HONOR & Indignity turns dark. With abundant supplies of alcohol and drugs, Doering’s morale crumbled and his mental health deteriorated. All he cared about was getting out of Vietnam. On his return to The World, he was sent to the mental health ward at Camp Pendleton. As Doering describes what happened there, his book gets even darker.

With his mother’s persistence and help from the Red Cross, he was transferred to a VA Medical Center closer to home in Washington State. After being finally diagnosed with severe PTSD and getting discharged, he sought treatment and after several years began living a normal life.

His initial ignorance and shortcomings were common to newbies in combat zones. But unlike many who hide these embarrassing moments, Doering writes about then in great detail in his memoir. His honesty and candor are at sad, yet refreshing.

Greg Doering is, in my mind, a real hero. Not just for his performance under fire, but for this brave and selfless presentation of his life. You will be hard-pressed to find a more completely detailed and honest war memoir. 

HONOR & Indignity is very well written, but raw language and depictions of combat might offend some readers. Nevertheless, I highly recommend this book.

–Bob Wartman

Navy Corpsmen in the Vietnam War by Harry Spiller

Harry Spiller’s Navy Corpsmen in the Vietnam War: 17 Personal Accounts (McFarland, 215 pp. $35, paper; $21.99, Kindle) contains just about everything you need to know about the U.S. Navy enlisted medical specialists who served with U.S. Marines in the war. Spiller, who served ten years in the  Marines with two tours in Vietnam, put together this book primarily with interviews of 17 corpsmen whose combat duties in the war stretched from July 1967 to October 1970. Seven of them were in-country during the 1968 Tet Offensive.

Spiller has written 17 books, including  World War II and Korean and Vietnam War oral histories. A former sheriff in Illinois, he was an associate professor of criminal justice at John A. Logan College.

Although the 17 corpsmen in the book enlisted in the Navy as sailors, in Vietnam they primarily performed as infantrymen in I Corps, exchanging fire with the enemy until somebody called, “Corpsman up,” which meant someone had been wounded and needed immediate medical attention. After completing medical studies in the Navy, the corpsmen underwent Marine Corps field medical training. That training strengthened them physically, familiarized them with weapons, and taught them how to perform medical procedures in combat with an emphasis on keeping their butts down at the same time. To a man, they saved lives—and became Marines at heart.

Spillman tells each man’s story in a chapter of its own. The men’s recollections of caring for the wounded and dead fascinated me because on the Corpsmen’s high degree of selflessness as they came to the aid of others. In their minds, they felt they never did enough and believed there was always one more person they should have helped or saved.

As former Corpsman John Cohen puts it: “I would just go into a mode of not paying attention to what was going on around me” as he performed first aid and triage seemingly endlessly. Paul McCann and Leon Brown say they maintained “tunnel vision,” disregarding what was going on around them. “Fighting sometimes lasted for hours, and sometimes for days,” Leon Brown says. His twin brother Loren Brown, who served side-by-side with him, said, “All the combat just made us numb, with no grief.”

The book overflows with remembrances of battles. As soon as he arrived at Da Nang, for example, Lamar Hendricks says his commander put him on a helicopter and dropped him into a rice paddy where his new company was in a firefight. Corpsmen suffered high losses and were in great demand. “The chances of getting killed at Con Thien,” Paul Douglas Reininger says, were “about 50 percent.” Little wonder the Marines nicknamed the DMZ the “Dead Marine Zone.”

Although all of the men experienced unusual combat situations, Daniel Milz provides the book’s most gruesome accounts. Coming upon a burned-out crash site, he says, “There were 17 briskets that looked like people in the helicopter.” He also remembers a priest at a helicopter pad who performed last rites for men leaving on a mission. Dennis Kauffman tells of operating from patrol boats as part of the Mobile Riverine Forces, a job that came with many types of of saving and killing.

Occasional Combined Action Platoon duty pleased all of the corpsmen, particularly doctoring children, because it provided tangible help to relatively helpless people.

Navy Corpsmen in the Vietnam War is an insightful collection of exciting, happy, and heartbreaking tales that played out in an environment that should be wished upon nobody. Corpsmen faced limitless responsibilities in the midst of almost indescribable chaos. They were fighting men who saved other fighting men under horrendous conditions.  

—Henry Zeybel         

War in the Villages by Ted N. Easterling

Men of the U.S Marine Corps Combined Action Platoons in the Vietnam volunteered to live with and protect South Vietnamese villagers in I Corps. Ideally a CAP was made up of fifty men—14 Marines, one Navy corpsman, and 35 South Vietnamese Popular Forces troops, although in reality the teams often fell below those numbers. The program, designed to fight guerrillas during the night and help villagers during the day, was in place in Vietnam from 1965-71, and was the subject of controversies between upper echelon Marine and U.S. Army commanders. In essence, the Army favored the search-and-destroy strategy, and the Marines wanted to emphasize hearts-and-minds counterinsurgency programs.

In War in the Villages: The U.S. Marine Corps Combined Action Platoons in the Vietnam War (University of North Texas Press, 247 pp. $29.95, hardcover;  $23.95, Kindle) Marine Vietnam War veteran Ted Easterling tells the story of the effectiveness of CAPs against the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army. Easterling holds a doctorate from the University of Akron where he taught history. Relying primarily on secondary sources in his book, Easterling concludes that CAP never realized its potential.

The book’s lengthy introduction details the principles of guerrilla warfare, communist ideology, and revolutionary warfare to show the formidable military challenge posed by the communist forces in Vietnam. Easterling also explains a range of counterinsurgency tactics designed to meet the challenge, the core of which fostered disagreement between Marine Gen. Victor (Brute) Krulak and his boss, U.S. Army Gen. William Westmoreland.

Easterling conscientiously takes the reader through all the stages of CAP’s existence, a struggle intensified by the program’s limited size and insufficient support from the South Vietnamese government. Even when CAP became a separate command, a lack of supplies hampered progress.

A Combined Action Program unit near Dai Loc, Nov. 5, 1970

Several recently released books about the CAP have reached conclusions similar to Easterling’s. In Spreading Ink Blots from Da Nang to the DMZ, for example, the British military historian David Strachan-Morris rates CAP as successful—a minor success, perhaps, but nevertheless successful. For him, counterinsurgency is an effective way to achieve a specific objective, within a specific area, and (ideally) for a specific period of time. Beyond those parameters, he says, it is ineffective.

A more personalized view of CAP comes from Tiger Papa Three by Edward F. Palm, a former CAP Marine who lived with villagers between Cam Lo and Dong Ha, ten kilometers south of the DMZ in 1967. Palm reports that villagers acted indifferently to the Marines, did not buy into civic action projects, “and never had any great call for our medical services.”

What’s more, he says that the South Vietnamese Popular Forces avoided taking risks, and the U.S. Army offered no help or encouragement. He labels CAP as the Marines’ “enlightened gesture of dissent” against a strategy that was “proving to be self-defeating.”

Regardless of the degree of CAP effectiveness, War in the Villages provides an in-depth study of a controversial program that once again shows the high degree of commitment by the U.S. Marine Corps.

—Henry Zeybel

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