Lullabies for Lieutenants by Franklin Cox

Gung-ho to the max but realistic nevertheless, Franklin Cox assembles a preponderance of war stories and several mini-essays in his Vietnam War memoir: Lullabies for Lieutenants: Memoir of a Marine Forward Observer in Vietnam, 1965-1966 (McFarland, 220 pp. $19.99, paper; $9.59, Kindle). His revealing war stories mainly relate to humping with his unit, the Second Battalion, Ninth Marines. Cox’s his mathematical magic guided artillery support for search-and-destroy missions against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army. His essays editorialize on situations outside the battlefield.

Cox’s chronology is a bit jumbled, but it doesn’t matter: Each chapter has a life of its own.

Franklin Cox’s adoration for the Marines does not hinder his ability to recognize the Corps’ weaknesses in the Vietnam War. He took part in the historic 1965 amphibious landing that began the big buildup of in-country manpower. He writes that beyond “a handful of senior offices and salty first sergeants,” the rest of the Marines were new to warfare. They soon became the first American troops assigned to “find and kill the enemy” south of Danang in “inhospitable” I Corps.

“When the last Marine units finally left Quang Nam province six years later the objective was never fully accomplished,” Cox notes.

His account of his first months in country overflows with tragedy. He writes about ten days of “incredible mistakes, one after another, that became numbing, commonplace events that befell the greenhorn battalion from the first days it landed.” In “one two-day period 2/9 took more than 45 casualties from snipers and booby traps and recorded not one official VC KIA.” Meanwhile, the rules of engagement that required multiple levels of cover-your-ass approval virtually eliminated timely artillery support. Inflammatory U.S. media reports further disrupted the Marines’ efforts, Cox says.

For the first half of his thirteen-month tour, Cox watched the world unravel from inside the battalion headquarters’ Fire Support Coordination Center. His life changed drastically when he joined the grunts in the field as a forward observer, and voluntarily took part in everyday combat tasks, including walking point. “Frustration and fatigue consumed us,” he writes, although Cox lavishes praise on superiors who skillfully led. He also bluntly disparages leaders who failed to meet their responsibilities.

Cox engaged in his share of intense fighting, and his combat stories sometimes resemble parables that become cryptic. He recalls, for example, watching a Marine platoon leader make a point—using six 106-mm recoilless rifles of an M-50 Ontos—by flattening a well-established schoolhouse after a village chief denied any affiliation with the VC despite booby traps that ringed the village and killed and seriously wounded three Marines.

The surviving “savage” Marines sadly looked away while women and children screamed and cried. The village chief showed no emotion even when the platoon leader called him a son-of-a-bitch. Cox ends the story by saying: “A few months later something happened to another Marine platoon when it entered the same village. Only someone pathetically dumb would have to wonder what happened.” Still, even today Cox respects the VC and NVA.

Cox in Vietnam

Like a goodnight kiss, he includes a short chapter at the end of what he terms unlearned lessons from the Vietnam War.

Cox offers no notes or bibliography. He derived “the essence of his experience” primarily from “scores of letters” written to his mother, he says. Occasionally, he writes about conversations with longtime friends. The book contains a scattering of in-country photos he took. 

Published in 2010, Lullabies for Lieutenants attained classic status among Marines after winning several awards, including the grand prize in the 2014 Story Pros Awards Screenwriting Contest.

—Henry Zeybel

A Backseat View from the Phantom by Fleet S. Lentz

   

I did time at Ubon, U-Tapao, Nakhon Phanom, and Don Muang Royal Thai Air Force bases during the Vietnam War. And I knew guys from Takhli, Udorn, and Korat. But I never heard of Nam Phong RTAFB until I read A Backseat View from the Phantom: A Memoir of a Marine Radar Intercept Officer in Vietnam (McFarland, 229 pp. $29.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) by Retired Marine Corps Col. Fleet S. Lentz, Jr.

As part of the wind down of the Vietnam War, the Marines moved the F-4 Phantoms of the VMFA-115 Silver Eagles from Da Nang in South Vietnam to Nam Phong in Thailand. From there, the squadron bombed targets in Laos, North Vietnam, and Cambodia for 15 months from 1972-73. Never completed for its original purpose, Nam Phong had been a “bare base” used by the CIA to support the dispersal and staging of theater forces.

Lentz served as a Radar Intercept Officer with the Silver Eagles. “To my knowledge,” he says, “no one has written of the Marine aviation effort during those final months.” By the time he arrived in Southeast Asia, Lentz writes, “Marine infantry had been pulled out of Vietnam, as had Army infantry. We were the last Marines in combat in Southeast Asia.”

Lentz wrote the book primarily from memory, but also used information from conversations he had with others stationed at Nam Phong, his Aviator Flight Log, and a Silver Eagles Cruise Book reminiscent of a high school yearbook. He identifies people by title, call sign, or nickname.

Lentz tells his tale in four acts from the viewpoint of a 26-year-old first lieutenant. The first—”My New World”—concentrates on the wealth of privations at Nam Phong, which Marines called the Rose Garden. The base featured a 10,000-foot runway that Lentz says resembled “a long hazy gash or a dirty flesh wound with a faint gray line down the middle.”

The living and working areas consisted of canvas tents above plywood floors on hardened dirt. The tallest building was “the shortest control tower I had even seen,” Lentz says. It looked like “a wooden water tank on stilts or maybe a deer blind.” The facilities, in other words, were deplorable. On the plus side, the Silver Eagles had an unparalleled commander.

Lentz plays a hyper-positive role in Act Two—”Hops”—the Marine term for a takeoff and landing. He learned by doing and tells all about perfecting Phantom crew skills: air-to-air re-fueling, in-flight emergencies, bomb runs, night operations in absolute darkness, missiles, air-to-air combat tactics, and frags (self-inflicted damage caused by flying through your own bomb shrapnel pattern).

“Air crews didn’t have much true intelligence as to their targets,” Lentz says. Generally, a crew flew to a designated area in Laos or Cambodia, hooked up with a forward air controller, and went after the targets the FAC designated. “We assisted allied ground forces, but we never knew for certain who they were,” Lentz says. After American combat troops pulled out of Vietnam in January 1973, bombing was limited to Cambodia.

Lentz carefully analyzes relationships between pilots and RIOs, who very much needed each other. Because the same pilot and RIO did not commonly fly together, irregular teaming up occasionally caused personality problems, and Lentz’s stories on the subject provide excellent entertainment.

His narrative style has a matter-of-fact quality that is more lesson-like than adventure-packed. Of course, the facts of combat and flying beyond Mach 1 need no hyperbole. His stories satisfyingly recollect good and bad times, and he sometimes even pokes fun at his own naiveté.

Act Three—”Special Times, Special People”—continues his dive into the psyches of fellow flyers. He offers insider views of combat pilot behavior that defy understanding and yet produce admiration. An underlying theme in most of his stories is the willingness of one man to help another. To improve a unit, “salts” (older Marines) shared their knowledge and experiences with new guys. “Unit loyalty in the Marine Corps was and is paramount,” Lentz says.         

The final act—”Things Changed”—discusses Operation Sunset, the departure of the Silver Eagles from the Rose Garden. Lentz moved to the higher echelon of Marine Air Group 15 as a supply and then an embarkation officer. He disliked the supply job until he was allowed to act independently. Some accounts of his cumshawing (scrounging) gear for Marines border on legend. For embarkation, Lentz directed 23 days of “shipping everything out,” he says, and was one of the last men to depart from Nam Phong, leaving the base either to the Thais or the jungle.

Visiting Officers’ Quarters as Nam Phong Air Base in Thailand

Scattered photographs dress up the book. A series of appendices add perspective about the war and Lentz’s squadron’s history and leadership.

Operation Sunset provided the final lesson in Fleet Lentz’s wartime career, but what he learned at Nam Phong impelled him to stay in the Marine Corps and make it a career. The men with whom he flew provided outstanding role models. Several pilots at the Rose Garden became generals.

The book’s most significant lesson is the importance of learning from one’s superiors and modeling one’s behavior accordingly when in a leadership role. Lentz mastered that task.

The book’s Facebook page is facebook.com/fleetlentz

—Henry Zeybel  

Tiger Papa Three by Edward F. Palm

Although Edward F. Palm titles his book Tiger Papa Three: Memoir of a Combined Action Marine in Vietnam (McFarland, 213 pp. $29.95, paper; $17.99, Kindle), it includes stories from his first seventy years of life told in an existential, nonlinear narrative. The subtitle for a self-published edition of the book more closely describes it: The Illustrated Confessions of a Simple Working-Class Lad from New Castle, Delaware.                      

Ed Palm started life as the child of a selfish mother in a broken home. He overcame that, and went on to earn a doctorate in English, appointments as a dean of two colleges, a fifty-year marriage, fatherhood, and a career in the U.S. Marine Corps. At eighteen, with barely an inkling about the war in Vietnam or the realities of life, he ran away from home, and enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps.

Along with many detours that recall other phases of his life, Palm includes descriptions of two distinct periods of his 1966-67 tour in the Vietnam War. During the first half the young Marine performed menial supply duties, which he loathed. So he volunteered for the Combined Action Program (CAP), a counterinsurgency plan that supplemented search-and-destroy tactics with self-help projects and better security to raise living standards for villagers—in Palm’s case, between Cam Lo and Dong Ha, ten kilometers from the DMZ.

Led by a sergeant, thirteen enlisted Marines and a Navy corpsman comprised the Tiger Papa Three CAP in which Palm served. The men worked with forty members of the Vietnamese Popular Forces, soldiers analogous to U.S. National Guardsmen. The U.S. Army offered no help or encouragement, Palm says. He labels CAP as the Marines’ “enlightened gesture of dissent” against a strategy that was “proving to be self-defeating.”

With a bow to Tim O’Brien, Palm says he tells it “the way it mostly was, which “could sometimes be fine.” His stories of fellow soldiers, combat, difficulties in working with the PFs, and attempts to win the hearts and minds of civilians provide entertaining and informative reading. His Tiger Papa Three teammates are his heroes.

When discussing life’s problems, Palm frequently finds support for his solutions by citing quotes from world-famous novelists and playwrights. He is critical of himself and analytic about his past. At the same time, he displays a restrained sense of humor. Logic, challenged by unpredictable and unexpected events, is his forte as both soldier and civilian.

Beyond reminiscences of the Vietnam War, Palm delves into common controversial aspects of life, particularly those related to women and the different forms of intercourse between the sexes. He also strives to clarify connections between politics and war.          

Ed Palm

An excellent collection of photographs, mostly shot by Palm, supplement the text.

Palm has written three other books—two about coming of age and one a very short political treatise. Anyone with even a vague interest in military matters or life in general should enjoy his insights in Tiger Papa Three.

The book’s website is edwardfpalm.homestead.com/TigerPapaThree.html

—Henry Zeybel

Waging the War Within by Tim Fortner with Elizabeth Ridley

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Waging the War Within: A Marine’s Memoir of Vietnam and PTSD (McFarland, 209 pp. $29.95, paper; $17.99, Kindle), by Tim Fortner with Elizabeth Ridley, pretty naturally divides into three parts. The first third of this relatively short book covers Fortner’s life before the Marines, then comes a recounting of his military experiences, mainly in Vietnam, and then a look at his post-war life up to today.

Fortner admits he was never concerned about grades in school but did, he says, “set new records for sexcapades in the back of a Chevy.” He writes that during his senior year of high school he had sex with one of his teachers over a four-month period, including at least once in the school building. He tried college but quickly dropped out.

With the draft breathing down his neck, he joined the Marines. It was late 1966 and Fortner was 18 years old. After serving stateside, he volunteered for Vietnam, arriving in-country in August of 1968.

Fortner was assigned to a CH-46D Sea Knight helicopter in Medium Helicopter Squadron 262 in the First Marine Air Wing based at Quang Tri Province in the far north of South Vietnam. He worked in the maintenance shop, and also flew as a gunner when not needed there. There are good descriptions of some of the missions he took part in, along with stories about a stolen Jeep, the accidental firing of a rocket on base, and the fragging of an NCO.

A bizarre episode involves Fortner taking his R&R in Hawaii, usually the place where married men met their wives. He asked to go there so he could spend time with his mother, who flew in from California. The story gets better when, Fortner says, they stealthily took a flight to San Francisco for a couple of days. More excitement: The plane he took back to Vietnam lost an engine, forcing it to return to Hawaii. Instead of staying in the airport as ordered during the delay, Fortner went back to the hotel to extend his visit with his mother.

On Okinawa, on the way home from Vietnam, Fortner took part in what he calls a “pretty unbelievable” massive food fight, then returned to San Francisco where he says he was spat on at the airport. After finishing his last few months in the Corps, he moved back home. One of his first jobs involved him digging around and removing a septic tank. After the job, disgusted with how his clothes smelled, he stripped naked and drove home. He had his mother spray him down with water while he scrubbed his body. She then threw him a towel.

After a failed relationship, a suicide attempt, and time in a “psych ward,” as Fortner puts it, went to the VA for help with hearing and back issues and was surprised to later be awarded a 100 percent service-connected disability rating for PTSD. Fortner has nothing good to say about his stepfathers, rear-echelon personnel in Vietnam, officers in general, and Jane Fonda.

Some of his stories push up to the edge of credulity, but I accept his description of the book as a “true” memoir. True or not, it’s not one that I’d recommend to my sons.

–Bill McCloud

Fifty Years in a Foxhole By Charles Kniffen

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Fifty Years in a Foxhole (Sunbury Press, 266 pp. $19.95, paper; $6.99, Kindle) is an account of Charles Kniffen’s seven months in the Vietnam War with the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines in 1966.  It is also a mosaic of the years since the war and the author’s struggles with PTSD. Kniffen writes with a rich style that has very vivid descriptions.

Some examples: “The Chief and I lounged like lizards in our bunker, playing with rats, chewing pineapple, and relaxing in the silence of the moment. Any time nothing is happening is a good time.” and “Or he’d manage to stay out of harm’s way, which was a tall order in these parts. Harm was as abundant and slick as a weasel in a tub of duck necks.”

I found two of Kniffen’s Vietnam War stories particularly well done. The first is about an ambush with a newbie named Henderson. Kniffen describes the noises in the jungle at night and the fear that NVA sappers were getting ready to attack. The choice was whether to blow the ambush or be quiet and hide. The second story involves Operation Prairie Map during which the author was wounded three times and survived a long night waiting to be medevaced out the next day.

The book jumps around and is hard to follow at times. In each chapter Kniffen tells a Vietnam war story, then flashes forward to say something about an incident from his life after the war. The after-war accounts were especially hard to follow

Kniffen talks about his ex-wife Claire and his two kids, Jim and Ivy. His also sprinkles in accounts of many sexual adventures with women such as Penny, Cindy, and his current wife, Rhonda. All of that left me asking many questions about his life that were left unanswered. Such as what happened to his first wife, why was his son in jail, how did he meet Rhonda, what motivated him to get an education and how long did it take to recover from his wounds. The book would have been much easier to follow if it was written in chronological order.

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Charles Kniffen

I found Kniffen’s epilogue the most interesting part of the book. “It was a stupid war motivated by fear of the unknown and, as is so frequently the case, political chicanery,” he writes. “Veterans of recent wars are more than usually afflicted with PTSD because these wars have been entirely without sound cause or purpose even after the supposed ‘lessons’ of Vietnam regarding unwinnable and inane military forays abroad.”

These opinions could have added some excellent perspective to the main sections of the book. Overall, though, the writing is first class and there are interesting sections, even as some readers may find it difficult to follow.

–Mark S. Miller

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