Ghosts and Shadows by Phil Ball

Phil Ball’s memoir, Grunts and Shadows: A Marine in Vietnam, 1968-1969  (McFarland, 224 pp. $19.99, paper; $8.99, Kindle) tells the story of a young and—by his own admission—somewhat naïve Marine. It would be a nice selection for a reader not familiar with the Vietnam War. It also might make a good reading assignment for a high school AP English class.

Phil Ball, who died after the book came out, wrote a nicely developed presentation of his experiences as a Marine grunt who served in I Corps, the northern-most area of South Vietnam. He arrived in-country during 1968 after the Tet Offensive, and focuses his story on his assignment to Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines, which began operating close to Khe Sanh.

Ball takes the reader from his first days as a brand-new recruit in San Diego, through boot camp at Pendleton, to shipping out to Vietnam. Then he covers his tour in-country, and follows that with a heartfelt chapter on his return to civilian life. In a conversational style—leavened with some well-remembered  (or well-reconstructed) dialogue—he tells his war and post-war stories.

The book reads well, with appropriate military and battlefield jargon that doesn’t weight down the narrative. Ball described his buddies without the addition of drama or unnecessary rhetoric.

Ball also recounts his adventures during a Tokyo R & R, which included meeting a young Japanese woman, blowing all his money, and over-staying his leave. The return to Vietnam (and his temporary incarceration) provides perhaps a been-there-done-that for some of us.

Ball also describewsome of the racial tensions he saw and lived with in Vietnam, the disbelief and disillusionment with his own command structure and personnel, as well as the daily, all-pervading undercurrent of fear and unease.

In his Epilogue, Ball recountes twenty-plus years of great and small challenges he faced after coming home from the war. That includes dealing with the VA on several levels. He describes his realization that his diagnosis of PTSD may have laid to rest many questions and concerns. This book is the result of a cathartic, story-telling effort to release those demons and fears.

This is a readable, well-edited book, now it its second edition.

–Tom Werzyn

Call Sign Chaos by Jim Mattis and Bing West

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Commissioned in the Marine Corps in 1972, Jim Mattis missed serving in the Vietnam War. But as he points out in Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead (Random House, 300 pp; $28, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle; $45, Audio CD), the Vietnam War generation of Marines “raised” him. In his book, written in collaboration with Bing West, Mattis shares what he learned during a forty-year Marine Corps career.

A four-star general who led troops into battle in Iraq and Afghanistan, Mattis recently served two years as the Secretary of Defense. In his prologue, Mattis describes himself as “old fashioned” and unwilling to “take up the hot political rhetoric of our day.” That’s why he doesn’t discuss his personal relationship with President Trump in the book.

Bing West served as a Marine grunt in the Vietnam War in 1966-68 and as an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan Administration. A journalist, who covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he was present for many operations Mattis led. West has written ten books on military topics.

From the rank of lieutenant colonel through lieutenant general, Jim Mattis led Marines the first Persian Gulf War in 1991, In Afghanistan in 2001-02, and Iraqi in 2003-04. He commander all U.S. forces in the Middle East (CENTCOM) from 2010-13. In describing the war zones, he often alludes to events from the Vietnam War. His thorough reading of military history allows him also to compare his decisions to those of leaders throughout history.

Call Sign Chaos is loaded with stories that reflect the application of positive leadership principles, more often than not under stress. Mattis illustrates the dichotomy between political and military thinking (and sometimes even within the ranks), particularly during the first battle for Fallujah, a stalemate. This separation of thinking prevailed even in his dealings with United States ambassadors in the Middle East when Mattis commanded CENTCOM during his final two years on active duty

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Gen. Mattis and Big West

Nevertheless, Mattis presents leadership lessons applicable to occupations beyond the military. I particularly appreciated his arguments for designing a “lean staff” and delegating as much authority as possible. Regardless of the situation, Mattis remained fearlessly outspoken and true to himself.

Sixteen pages of photographs of people and events and four maps of operational areas support the Call Sign Chaos story line. Bing West shot a majority of the images in remarkably clear color.

—Henry Zeybel

 

Operation Starlite by Otto Lehrack

In Operation Starlite: The Beginnings of the Blood Debt in Vietnam, August 1965 (Casemate, 233 pp. $19.95, paper), first published in hardcover in 2004, former Marine Otto Lehrack offers a tightly developed and very well researched and engaging telling of the story of the first major combat action of the Vietnam War.

In late August 1965, three battalions of U.S. Marines engaged with the 1st Viet Cong Regiment outside the newly created Marine base camp of Chu Lai in I Corps. This action included the first amphibious Marine landing since 1950 during the Korea War, and began the heavy use of helicopters, both offensive and defensive, in the coming escalation of the Vietnam War.

While this was the first important and successful battle of the war, it is often overlooked. About three months later the First Cav moved into the Ia Drang Valley and ran into a massive North Vietnamese Army force. The ensuing battle has been immortalized in Hal Moore and Joe Galloway’s We Were Soldiers Once and Young, and the movie based on it, as well as other books and magazine articles.

Lehrack’s extensive interviews with survivors from both sides of the battle provide him the context to fully flesh out the timeline and background of the engagement. His visits to the battlefields and camps after the war further expanded his ability to describe what took place. As he tells the story of the battle, Lehrack—who served two Vietnam War tours of duty—successfully integrates information about units, locations, battlefield developments, and the personal stories of the Marines involved, as well as the experiences of former Viet Cong .

During his conversations with the one-time VC fighters Lehrack learned about the lessons they learned from facing the American Marines’ method of engaging, attacking, fighting, and retrieving the wounded and fallen—as well as the employment of supporting arms and force multiplier weapons and tactics.

Otto Lehrack

In the introduction and epilogue, Lehrack speaks of the long history of aggression against the Vietnamese people. He notes the oft-disregarded idea that the Vietnamese simply sought their own sovereignty and relief from outside oppressors, including by the Americans

“It is one of the great tragedies of America, and of Vietnam War, that American policymakers were not more familiar with Vietnam’s history of dealing with foreign invaders,” Lehrack writes.

“America’s enemy, at least after 1965, consistently and successfully portrayed the war as the result of American Colonialism, and painted the South Vietnamese as American puppets.”

This is a good book, with a good battle history. Highly recommended.

–Tom Werzyn

Editor’s note: We briefly reviewed the book after it come out in hardcover in the March/April 2005 print edition of The VVA Veteran.

Arabic with a Redneck Accent by Aaron D. Graham

Aaron Graham, an assistant poetry editor for The Tishman Review, is a Marine Corps veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq where he served as an analyst and linguist.  He is working on a PhD in literature at Emory University and teaches English Lit and writing at Kennesaw State University in Georgia.

His chapbook, Arabic with a Redneck Accent (Moonstone Press, $10, paper), contains twenty-six pages of poetry, much of which has been published in small magazines and journals such as Grist, Digging Through the FatThe Seven Hills Review, and The Taos International Journal of Poetry.

These are short poems, mostly about one page in length. They are all very powerful. Here’s one, “Mohave Viper,” an example of Graham’s fine work:

The nearest civilization

The world’s

Biggest thermometer

Is a palm tree

On our horizon

Approaching the plywood MOUT town

The first seconds of light

Breached the horizon—

The silence of darkness

What exploded before us

Was not shrapnel, prosperous

Or tetanus-seeping Philips-head screws,

Explosions were

Refracted light bouncing from

Microfilament spindle silk

Strands left by Tarantula-legions

Covering their cacti overnight

Like a police tape perimeter

Made of muslin

A crystalline kingdom of perfection

So delicate only the infant

Rays of sun would hold in focus.

 

In predawn hours

The Mohave sand

Already instructing—

The cost of invasion is

How something beyond

Fathom is lost—

Or, rather

Comes to end

 

under retread souls—

Issued combat boots.

Fine stuff and well worth savoring at great length while—as I did—drinking my morning cup of mint tea with honey. No better way to start my day.

Aaron Graham

Reading a poem in the morning is a great way to jump-start a day in Maple Valley, Washington, or anywhere for that matter.  It’s better than reading a chapter in a war memoir, which tends to be a downer.

For ordering info, go to squareup.com/store/moonstone-arts-center/item/arabic-with-a-redneck-accent-1

–David WIllson

Unfortunate Sons by Joe Tyson, Sr.

The subtitle of Joe Tyson, Sr.’s Unfortunate Sons: The Beginning of Marine Corps Tanks in the Vietnam War and How I Survived Vietnam as a Marine Tanker (Friesen Press, 552 pp., $31.49, hardcover; $27.49, paper; $6.99, e book) covers the seventeen months in 1965 and 1966 that Tyson served as a young Marine tanker with B Co. in the 3rd Tank Battalion. In his book, Tyson describes the daily routines of patrols and combat situations. The story unfolds from his “internal foot-locker” of memories, as Tyson puts it.

Before he went to Vietnam, Tyson witnessed a mid-air helicopter collision that resulted in nine deaths and was on board a C-130 that made a rough landing in a blizzard and ended up sideways in a cornfield. He had been in the Marines for nearly two years when he volunteered for duty in Okinawa, “the Party Capital of the Marine Corps,” as Tyson puts it.

When Tyson arrived in Da Nang in March 1965, his unit was among some of the first tanks to deploy in the Vietnam War. His tank company operated around Marble Mountain in support of the 9th Marine Regiment.

Tyson and the members of his platoon had their time in-country involuntarily extended twice. All that time, he points out, they never saw a USO show or received any R&R on China Beach.

For the first five months the tankers were not involved in much action. But then things became more serious, including regular mortar attacks. When that happened, Tyson says, routine daily inspections ended and everyone began carrying loaded weapons.

The men seemed to spend most of their time battling heat, bugs, and snakes, but also had to be constantly on alert for anti-tank mines and grenades tossed at them.

Tyson carried with him a reputation for always saying what he was thinking. That led to a few run-ins with officers, usually lieutenants. He points out several times how decisions in Vietnam often were more trustworthy when they were made by someone with experience in-country, regardless of rank.

His time consisted of conducting sweeps with infantry, some company-sized and some with just a few squads. Some days there would be no enemy contact, other days a lot.

Joe Tyson, Sr.

As the months dragged on, Tyson and many of his fellow Marines become bitter over how the war was being fought, mainly because they felt that nothing was being accomplished. Looking back, he has nothing positive to say about members of the peace movement back home.

Tyson uses a lot of detail, especially in describing the firing of tank weapons, which becomes pretty repetitive by the end of the book, although that could be his point.

The book is filled with much reconstructed dialogue, Tyson’s way of pulling the reader into his story.

Dozens of photographs are spread throughout the book.

—Bill McCloud

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

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