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

Letters to Pat by Bill Eshelman

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Retired Marine Corps Major Gen. Bill Eshelman dedicates his book, Letters to Pat: A Year in the Life of a Vietnam Marine (Koehler Books, 182 pp. $26.95, hardcover; $16.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle), to his wife who “lived through the war” by reading the letters he wrote home.

Eshelman graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1959, then went into the Marines, becoming an instructor at The Basic School at Quantico. He enjoyed training young Marines to lead other young Marines, but once the men were sent to Vietnam, he decided to serve there as well. Eshelman hoped he could become an infantry company commander to be tested in combat.

Since he already was a captain, Eshelman feared he would be promoted too quickly to get much time in as a CO, so before being sent to Vietnam he requested training at Ft. Bragg’s school for advisers. He believed if he could be an adviser to a South Vietnamese unit it would ensure that he got more of a “first-hand look at the war.”

Arriving outside Da Nang in October of 1967 Eshelman was determined to relay his day-to-day thoughts on the war as he was living it by penning regular letters to his wife. In his book he adds notes from his combat journal to the two hundred or so letters.

His first job was as a battalion logistics officer, resupplying all battalion units with ammo, explosives, and other materiel. The battalion’s main mission seemed to be keeping the Da Nang airfield from being rocketed and keeping Highway 1 open to the north.

Being promoted to major, Eshelman became especially upset over all the paperwork his job entailed “to appease higher HQ.” Much of it involved incidents between Marines and Vietnamese citizens. Eshelman thought the cases were often unfair because the Marines were always required to prove their innocence.

Before long, he was sent south to III Corps to be a senior adviser with the 4th Battalion Vietnamese Marine Corps (VNMC). He was happy serving with Vietnamese troops because he knew that if “the war if it is to be won,” the South Vietnamese would have to do it, “not the U.S. Marine Corps.” During his time in Vietnam Eshelman saw combat action in all four Corp areas and was constantly running into men he knew back in the States.

During the major 1968 Tet Offensive Eshelman saw a great deal action in both Saigon and Hue. He used these letters home as a “way of letting off steam.” There were times when he and his men took part in operations in which they “swam more than we walked,” he writes, and times they had the simple pleasure of eating a fresh pineapple.

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Capt. Eshelman in Vietnam

He left South Vietnam in October 1968 for Thailand and carried one big takeaway from the war. Eshelman believed that the American advisory effort probably prolonged the war, maybe making it unwinnable, because it failed to give the South Vietnamese military a big enough role in over-all decision making.

This is an important addition to books covering what happened in the Vietnam War in 1967-68 and to those dealing with the relationship between the U.S. and South Vietnamese military.

The book’s website is letterstopat.com

–Bill McCloud