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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Threeby 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.
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.
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.”
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.
Richard Foster’s Kilo 3: The True Story of a Marine Rifleman’s Tour from the Intense Fighting in Vietnam to the Superficial Pageantry of Washington, D.C. (Outskirts Press, 298 pp. $49.95, hardcover; $33.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is a well-told memoir focusing on a couple of years in the life of a teen-aged Marine—years filled with hellish combat.
This is one of those memoirs that does not deal with the author’s life before or after his military service. It starts off with a nighttime ambush patrol in the Vietnam War, and then stays focused mainly on a period of just a few months.
Foster joined the Marines at 17. He had been a rebellious teenager growing up in Henrietta, Texas, near the Oklahoma border, when he sensed he was being called to serve his country by fighting in the Vietnam War. After completing boot camp, he spent six months at sea because the Marine Corps didn’t send men to Vietnam until they were eighteen. Before going to the war, when home on leave, fellow Marines told him: “You can go home all you want, but you can never be at home again. Your childhood is over.”
Once in Vietnam, one of the first things Foster heard was someone say, “Ain’t no heroes here, just survivors.” When he was sent to the 3rd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment he was told he would be “seeing a lot of shit.” Foster joined Kilo Company because, he says, “they recently got wiped out.”
During his Vietnam War tour of duty Foster spent time in Dong Ha, Da Nang, Cam Lo, Con Thien, and Khe Sanh. He writes about jumping into five-man fighting holes, holding his .45 in his lap while getting a quick haircut from a Vietnamese barber, taking sniper fire, what it was like to go two months without a shower, and having to retrace your steps to get out of a minefield. There also are depictions of close-combat fighting and a helicopter crashing for a reason I had not heard of before.
A short but important part at the end of the book finds Foster being recruited for the prestigious Marine Corps Color Guard at the Marine Corps Barracks in Washington, D.C. He accepted the job with mixed feelings.
As to why he wrote his book, Foster writes: “As other wars erupt around the world, it’s never too late to understand the misery and brutality of fighting on the ground or the detached glitter of Washington that continues unabated.”
Overall, his war story is not that much different than those told in many other Vietnam War memoirs, but Foster’s better than most at telling it. The book includes one of the most evocative collections of photos that I’ve seen in a memoir.
Jack Estes’ Searching for Gurney (O’Callahan Press, 328 pp. $17, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a welcome return to high-quality Vietnam War literary fiction. Estes served as a rifleman with the 9th Marines and later with a CAP unit during his 1968-69 Vietnam War tour of duty. He’s written two other books that deal with the war: A Field of Innocence (2014), a memoir, and a A Soldier’s Son (2016), a novel.
With Searching for Gurney’s first sentence—“JT woke, but they were still dead,”—the reader is immediately enmeshed in the world of a Vietnam War veteran’s post-traumatic stress. The veteran, JT, believes he should be able to handle his new civilian job because, Estes writes, “he’d led men into battle, run patrols, set ambushes, called in gunships, destroyed villages and hillsides. He’d fired rifles, machine guns, tossed grenades, and killed enemy soldiers so often that not killing felt odd. So this mailroom job was a skate.”
JT’s wife says he’s been different since he returned home from war. He never smiles and seems to carry a sense of danger with him. She “thought violence was when he punched a hole in the wall or broke a doorjamb,” Estes says. “That wasn’t violence.”
For his part, JT believes that no matter how much he and his wife fuss, God meant them to be together. “Why else would he have survived Vietnam?” Though he is too young to legally buy beer, he often goes to bars and drinks. After getting into fights, he thinks maybe “he’d be better off back in Nam.”
Coop served alongside JT. He’s back home just long enough to attend his grandfather’s funeral before he has to return to the war. While contemplating the funeral service, he thinks, “This wasn’t death. Death was that first patrol. This was sleep.” He also drinks in the morning so he won’t “stick a gun in his mouth.” And he’s glad to be going back because he “wanted war and didn’t care if he died. It was only when he felt at risk that he felt alive.”
Hawkeye completes the trio. He winds up in the Marines to avoid a jail sentence and quickly discovers in Vietnam that the “one thing you can always count on is that you can’t count on anything.” A fourth important character, Nguyen Vuong, joins the three Americans in the book’s third act.
The Vietnamese who are engaged in war with the Americans, Estes writes, believe they are fighting “in a great and noble cause that will be remembered until the end of time.” They read Shakespeare and share their poetry with each other.
The Americans pop amphetamines to stay alert, carry sawed-off shotguns, and live by the philosophy, “They say go. We go.”
They find peacefulness when they can “listen to the silence,” and are confused by the strangeness of hearing rumors of peace talks in the midst of fierce fighting.
In this extremely well-written, time-tangled story, the boyish-looking Lt. Gurney doesn’t make his appearance until the last few pages. He then quickly disappears. That triggers the search in the book’s title, and the plot wraps around itself in an intriguing and satisfying way.
Searching for Gurney doesn’t read like a comic book as so many war novels seem to. It conveys the impact of war through the lens of literary fiction. It’s also one of the few books I reread immediately after I finished it.
Richard Camp’s Three War Marine Hero: General Raymond G. Davis (Casemate, 264 pp. $34.95, hardcover; $17.99, Kindle) is a biography one of the mostly highly decorated U.S. Marines. From humble beginnings in rural Georgia, we follow a young Marine through his early training and his service in World War II and the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
After graduating from Georgia Tech in 1938, Davis (1915-2003) received an Army ROTC commission as a second lieutenant—which he promptly resigned to accept the same commission from the Marines. After Marine Officers Basic School he met and married his lifetime companion, Willa “Knox” Heafner. They became inseparable, writing to each other daily whenever they were apart.
Camp devotes a great number of pages to meticulously recounting battles and encounters in which Davis was involved in the Western Pacific in World War II and later in Korea and Vietnam. Camp also covers Davis’ peacetime assignments and schooling.
As Davis’ career advanced, Dick Camp became his aide. They soon became confidants and now Camp—a military historian and the author fourteen books—has written Davis’ life story. His access to Davis has produced a detailed and comprehensive book that is long on battle scenes and minutia, but at times a bit short on details about Gen. Davis himself.
Davis went to Korea in 1950 as a lieutenant colonel. During his varied assignments, he planned, led, and successfully completed the rescue of a company of Marines from a perilous situation at Yudam-ni. For that action he received the Medal of Honor.
As the Vietnam War began to loom on the horizon, Davis became involved in the development of the air-mobile concept and its applications for the Marines. Davis later took command of the 3rd Marine Division in Vietnam, and served with distinction. In 1969, after his 13-month tour of duty, Davis returned to Marine Headquarters in Washington. He received his fourth star in 1971, served as the Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps, and retired in 1971
Three-War Marine Hero is a good book told by a competent author; it’s well researched and written. If you’re a Jarhead, it’s a must read.