Entwined with Vietnam by Theodore M. Hammett

For a guy who joined the U.S. Marine Corps because his father (a World War II Marine) threatened to disown him if he didn’t, Theodore M. Hammett has an interesting, if offbeat, tale to tell of of his 13 months as the 3rd Medical Battalion supply officer in 1968-69 in South Vietnam. That story makes up half of his memoir, Entwined with Vietnam: A Reluctant Marine’s Tour and Return (McFarland, 287 pp. $29.95, paper; $13.49, Kindle). The second half is an account of Hammett’s second Vietnam “tour” as director of an HIV/AIDS project from 2008-12.

A 1967 Harvard-graduate ROTC Marine lieutenant, Hammett did not see combat; drank heavily (often blacking out); frequently ignored military discipline; and seriously disliked the Vietnamese people, the Corps, and the war itself.

But he loved the girl he left behind and saved their letters and tapes, which he uses as the foundation for his recollections in this memoir. He also relies on quotes from like-minded Vietnam War veterans—including Ron Kovic, Tim O’Brien, and Lew Puller—who were closer to the action.

Above all, as Hammett recreates his Vietnam War experience, he relies on the words and music from songs of the era, which he constantly listened to back in the day. In the Forward, fellow Marine W.D. Ehrhart perfectly sums up one aspect of the book: “The whole first half of this memoir is like strolling through the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.”

Hammett dissects himself without apology. He admits to ambivalent feelings centered on a “persistent difficulty” he had that ended in what he calls the “dual cowardice” of fearing to fight in the war and fearing to speak out against it.

Hammett is not immune, however, to understanding what surrounded him. He sees his share of wounded and dead men at Phu Bai and Quang Tri hospitals. Late in his tour, he transcends his “tedious and boring endless paperwork” by voluntarily driving into the field with truck convoys, flying in a damaged C-130, and taking a seat on a helicopter night close support mission. A chapter titled “Seeking Danger” suggests his willingness to confront the issues faced by Vietnam war grunts.

Hammett shaking hands with Gen. Leonard F. Chapman, Jr., the Commandant of the Marine Corps in Quang Tri in 1968. Photo by Gretchen Ertl for The New York Times

Hammett says that during his first tour he saw the Vietnamese “variously as the reason for [his] misery.” He also discusses other Vietnam War aspects, including separation from home, the politics of war, needless casualties, and weak leadership.

As a post-war civilian, Hammett mainly worked for Abt Associates, an organization designed to improve people’s lives worldwide. He specialized in AIDS/HIV prevention among drug users, which led to training sessions for the Chinese government and then training of Chinese and Vietnamese. With Dr. Doan Ngu as his first true Vietnamese colleague and unofficial mentor, Hammett grew captivated by the country of Vietnam.

The second half of Entwined with Vietnam resembles an upbeat tour guide’s look at the culture, landscape, and climate of Vietnam. Hammett’s diverse experiences enlightened me. They are well worth reading. At the same time, Hammett recognizes the weaknesses of the Vietnamese government.

He and his wife (the girl who waited for him during his first tour) lived in Hanoi for four years as he continued working to better humanity. Hammett emphasizes that the Vietnamese people today welcome Americans, noting that “more than three-quarters of the people in Vietnam were born since the America War ended in 1975.”

In essence, his second “tour” was in a very different nation than the one in which he took part in a war five decades ago.

—Henry Zeybel

There It Is by Jim Talone

The title of Jim Talone’s memoir, There It Is: A Helicopter Ride and a Purple Heart  (337 pp. $25, hardcover; $20, paper; $10, Kindle)  a flat-voiced phrase that rings scary-true to virtually every Vietnam War veteran, refilling the memory with images, places, people, and things from long ago.

This is an excellent book by a talented wordsmith, a former high school English teacher. In the book Talone covers his 1967-68 tour of duty in the Vietnam War as a young Marine lieutenant leading B Company of the 1st of the 9th Marines in the 3rd  Marine Division in I Corps.

The story moves along rapidly with short, frugal, and crisp sentences telling a compelling narrative of “his men, his Marines,” and their lives in combat. Talone’s unit, known as the “Walking Dead,” earned that nickname after taking heavy battlefield losses early on in the Vietnam War.

Each of the months Talone served in Vietnam is a chapter in the book and each is filled with vignettes—some mere paragraphs long, others several pages in length. This is a pleasantly different format than most Vietnam War memoirs. The rather short Glossary could have been broader, but the main items of interest are covered.

The book contains a four-page “Reflections” sections in which Talone sets out his thoughts about his part in the war. There’s also a very powerful three-age soliloquy, “Khe Sanh Remembered.” And the poetic Preface alone is worth the price of admission.

This books is a great read by a talented author I’d love to see more from. There it is.

–Tom Werzyn

Combat to Conservation by F.J. Fitzgerald

F.J. Fitzgerald’s Combat To Conservation: A Marine’s Journey through Darkness into Nature’s Light (Koehler Books, 166 pp. $23.95, hardcover; $15.92, paper; $7.49, Kindle), is both haunting and inspiring. Fitzgerald presents an account of the horror of combat tempered with the beauty of nature with his life story beginning with a happy childhood and including details of his tour of duty as a Marine with the 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment of the 1st Marine Division in Vietnam.

Growing up in Southeast Minnesota farm country, Francis Fitzgerald loved the tranquility of the fields and woods. Walking and often sitting for hours, he came to love every animal, plant, and tree, especially white pines. His accounts are so compelling that readers can readily see themselves traveling the back country with the author.

Exceptionally bright and talented, Fitzgerald wanted a college degree and a career as a game warden. Yet doubts about his youth and his lack of experience, combined with a yearning for action and adventure, inspired him to join the U.S. Marine Corps after graduating from high school in the summer of 1969. He arrived at LZ Baldy, a fire support base in the hills south of Danang, in the spring of 1970.

Fitzgerald writes with exceptional style; his descriptions are at once spare and poetic. With tight sentences and concise accounts of what he saw and endured, he presents a stark picture of the environment in which the Marines operated. He includes one eerie anecdote after another from patrols in dense jungle, as he strained to find his way through a claustrophobic world too often dark—and always wet.

Particularly striking are his graphic depictions of the misery of trench foot and the difficulty of treating it in a place where dry feet were every Marine’s futile wish; of sitting next to a tree limb and finding himself face to face with a poisonous snake and realizing he was an intruder in the animal’s world. And of sighting and killing an elusive enemy, then feeling little afterward, except that it was a consequence of war, as certain as night following day.

Then there is Fitzgerald’s account of coming to grips with post-traumatic stress disorder. As a way to try to fight it, Fitzgerald returned to nature when he returned to civilian life. He found that every waking moment he spent in the great outdoors was a balm for his troubled spirit. To move and breathe in the air and the light—to be continually reminded of the beauty of the world—empowered him. It continues to sustain and heal him.

Combat to Conservation is an excellent read; it’s a book as subtle as it is inspiring.

Fitzgerald’s website is www.fjfitzgerald.com

–Mike McLaughlin

LZ Sitting Duck by John Arsenault

Many Vietnam War veterans well remember what it was like to be thrown into battle in a remote corner of South Vietnam, fighting for their lives in combat that ultimately would made absolutely no sense. Fire Support Base Argonne on the Laotian border just below the DMZ in Quang Tri Province was one of those places.    

In defiance of common sense, the men of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines in the 3rd Marine Division were compelled to attack Argonne, a former U.S. fire support base. The North Vietnamese Army always prepared defenses on abandoned bases, including booby traps, in anticipation of returning American troops. What happened at FSB Argonne was no different.  

Retired U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. John Arsenault’s LZ Sitting Duck: The Fight for FSB Argonne (Liberty Hill Press, 272 pp. ($32.49, hardcover; $17.40, paper; $8.99; Kindle) is a collection of vignettes taken from nearly two dozen Marines who went through hell just trying to survive as they fought tenaciously against a determined foe.    

From the moment the Marines assaulted the LZ they named Sitting Duck, they came under intense fire and began taking heavy casualties. That situation would not change much for the entire time they conducted operations. Snipers picked them off, mortar rounds rained down on them, and just when it seemed things couldn’t get worse, an artillery round intended for the North Vietnamese fell short, leaving no one unscathed.     

The highly regarded battalion CO, seemly invincible as he stood up to lead his men, became just one more KIA. That was one of many scary moments for a lieutenant who describes watching his CO take a direct hit to the head.

The Marines performed feats of pure heroism. Again and again, as one reads their accounts at Argonne there is a real feeling of being there amid the incoming fire, the chaos, and the confusion. The Marines fought in rugged terrain with little water to combat their dehydration from the overwhelming heat, all while attacking the enemy troops ensconced in well-prepared fighting positions.

Many of the book’s twenty-four vignettes describe the same battle scenes; but each one offers something new from a different Marine’s perspective. Their individual accounts are almost like reading a murder mystery in which different witnesses describe a crime scene with each one seeing things differently.

Collectively, this book adds up to an astounding account of perseverance, hardship, heroism, and endurance. One can’t help but coming away from reading these battle stories with admiration for the Marines who fought at Argonne.   

This is a sobering account of combat that should be read.

–John Cirafici

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

13 Months by Bruce A. Bastien

“It doesn’t take long to ‘saddle up,’” Bruce Bastien writes in his memoir, 13 Months: In the Bush, In Vietnam, In 1968 (iUniverse, 121 pp. $43.98, hardcover; $32.63, paper: 99 cents, Kindle), “when you’ve been sleeping on the ground in your clothes, wearing your boots, and all your gear has been packed tight waiting right next to you. So we got up and strapped on the backpacks, weapons and ammo, and everything else we owned. Off we went down the road.”

With a style that ranges from sobering to haunting, Bastien recounts his 1968-69 tour as a Marine mortarman with Kilo Company of the Third Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment in Quảng Nam Province, just southwest of Danang. He was one of countless Marines fighting during mini-Tet against the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong in the months following the January-February 1968 Tet Offensive.

Bastien describes compelling, sometimes poetic, scenes of men in action and at rest. He illustrates each with modest detail and invites the reader to visualize the rest. Especially striking is his recollection of the effects of going without water in a combat environment in 100-degree heat. He writes of exhaustion, misery and fear, as well as hallucinations. During one, he watched as—unable to endure the weight of his backpack anymore—his arms fell off.

Through the spring and summer of 1968, Bastien’s unit fought its way across Go Noi, an island in the Thu Bồn River. Heavily fortified by the NVA, rife with enemy bunkers and tunnels, Go Noi was the scene of three U.S. military operations.

Reflecting on the first, Operation Allen Brook, Bastein conveys the bleak challenges faced by every man there:

“From then on, we swept, searched, and destroyed. We looked to contact the enemy, and when it was made, we engaged, fought, and called in artillery or air strikes until they were killed or retreated—and then we pressed on and did it all over again. We covered the same territory again and again. This might go on for weeks. We did not know. In fact, we didn’t know what later that day would bring, let alone how long this would last.”

With no way of knowing, Bastien and his buddies did what men in war have done forever: They watched out for each other and they endured. Many of his buddies’ stories are shared here, which is to Bastien’s credit. His book is proof of his commitment to preserve his recollections and those of his fellow Marines after the website they had made for their unit came to an end. 

The many stories Bastien gives us and actual book itself deserve praise. Larger in size than most books, the text is well laid out, with good spacing between letters and lines. There are also many photos. The images are large, in color, and starkly show how young these men were. The pictures also testify that, despite the brutal conditions in which the Marines lived and fought, they were still capable of good cheer—and could still feel hope.

–Mike McLaughlin

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