Coffins of Tin by J.C. Handy

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The pseudonymous J. C. Handy was drafted into the U. S. Army and served a tour in Vietnam in 1967. The prologue of his fine novel Coffins of Tin: The Unseen Angels of Viet Nam (Batlemente, 387 pp., $19.99, paper; $24.99, hardcover) informs us that the “remains of 58,193 soldiers were repatriated to American soil by Graves Registration personnel throughout Viet Nam.  Thirty-nine years after the war’s end, these compassionate and brave individuals die a little each day from invisible wounds inflicted by all they had seen and done to reclaim the Fallen. Coffins of Tin is the story of but a few.”

Graves Registration (GR) is the subject of the book. It opens in October 1967, and we are immediately introduced to the main character, Mitch McCasey. We follow him throughout his time in Vietnam. McCasey is stationed in Da Nang Air Base, aka Rocket City. He arrives, in fact, during a mortar barrage.

My first thought upon reading the first page of this novel is that Mitch would be in Vietnam for the Tet Offensive. I was right, but I had to get through most of this big book before that time arrived. During those many months we are introduced to every aspect of Graves Registration.

Mitch is a Conscientious Objector, and he is assigned by a vindictive sergeant to GR. Mitch accepts the assignment, even though he had the right to reject it. He accepts the assignment and the reader is not told why, although Mitch readily accepts every bad thing that comes his way. I had the thought that Mitch was paying penance for some sin that we don’t know about.

It turns out that I was right about that, but by the time we learn what the sin is, the book is just about over. By that time we have witnessed Mitch falling in love with a Donut Dolly named Beverly, who, like Mitch, is from Chicago. She’s blonde and petite like Sandra Dee and “as American as apple pie.” That works well, as we are told that Mitch resembles Bobby Darin.

Capt. Garcia runs GR and provides protection for “the remains,” which is what the bodies are called—and also for those who work for him. Dignity and respect are always priorities and are always maintained.

When I was stationed at Tan Son Nhut, I remember eating lunch with some GR guys. There was always room at their table in the mess hall. They exuded the faint odor of formaldehyde, which put a lot of soldiers off.

Handy introduces us to each function of GR as Mitch is, and we learn along with him. He learns to chart the remains as they arrive in body bags, which are not called body bags. They had a special name, as did everything in GR.

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Graves Registration personnel prepared transfer cases in Vietnam for shipment home. From “Assuming Nothing: How Mortuary Practices Changed During The Vietnam War” by Donald M. Rothberg in the Aug/Sept. 2001 print issue

This book is unlike any other I’ve read about tours of duty in the Vietnam War. But some things are similar, including the fact that John Wayne is mentioned several times. But far more space is devoted to charting and embalming than to any of the many dead horses of Vietnam War literature.

I highly recommend this well-written novel to all readers, as never before has the horrendous cost of war been more clearly explained—and in a way that is never boring.

Warning: The book tells a sad tale. How could it not? The relentless numbers of death are presented, both in the abstract and in the loss of characters we come to have affection for.

Read this book and weep. I dare you to do otherwise.

For ordering info, go to the author’s website, www.jchandy.net

—David Willson

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What Now, Lieutenant? by Robert O. Babcock     

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The book title’s question recurs throughout Robert O. Babcock’s What Now, Lieutenant? An Infantryman in Vietnam (Deeds, 422 pp., $19,95, paper; $4.99, Kindle), an incident-jammed memoir that links a stream of anecdotes—some gruesome, some humorous—that highlight the kaleidoscopic tour of a young, proud, and impressionable Army infantry officer in the early days of the Vietnam War.

Bob Babcock’s memory swarms with “alarms and diversions” as the old officer’s training manual put it. He presents these through excerpts from his letters home and adds extended commentary on the day-to-day operations while he served as leader of Bravo Company of the 1st Battalion/22nd Infantry Regiment in the 4th Infantry Division.

What is striking about this memoir is the degree to which—despite his experiences with friendly fire, obtuse and careless orders from the higher ups, and even a bout of malaria— Babcock “keeps the faith,” maintaining his respect for his fellow company officers, his troops, and the overall mission.

This is a record of the early days (1966-67) when the Vietnam War was being fought as crisis management and the main goal of the generals seemed to be publicizing (and often exaggerating) the daily enemy body count. Though Babcock and his men see little evidence of progress toward achieving any strategic goal, they continue to follow orders with courage and honor—though, of course, not always without grumbling.

Endemic command SNAFUs notwithstanding, the author repeatedly asserts he was proud to have served and, most importantly, to have won the respect of the men of Bravo Company. During his tour, the company lost only three (two to friendly fire) of the 180 who served in the unit.

Babcock quotes, apparently without irony, Gen. William Westmoreland’s Thanksgiving Day message from the back of the 1966 holiday menu sent to the troops in the field: “May we each pray for continued blessings and guidance upon our endeavors to assist the Vietnamese people in their struggle to attain an everlasting peace within a free society.”

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Bob Babcock

These words may have rung stirringly back at headquarters. But Bancock records his unit’s day-to-day operations in the field as a kind of endless rushing about to suppress enemy brushfires.

The memoir also reminds us that the war tactically changed year-by-year. For instance, the men of Bravo Company, serving in the Central Highlands in 1966, viewed the impoverished indigenous Montagnards with a mixture of pity and contempt. On the other hand, the increasingly guerrilla-savvy Army Special Forces at the same time were beginning to employ these very pro-American natives as trusted warrior-guides.

Aside from offering insights into the daily grind of a field unit in an early phase of the Vietnam War, the author describes what it was like to arrive back in The World after this tour of duty.  Babcock recalls that in 1967 there were neither welcome home celebrations nor antiwar protests. His discomforting conclusion at the time was that most Americans just didn’t care much one way or the other about the war that had drastically altered his life and the lives of his fellow Bravo Company infantrymen.

Babcock supplements his memoir with mini-bios of many of those men, tracing the survivors’ post-war careers and current status in civilian life. He also includes a chapter titled “Advice for Today’s Lieutenants.”

— Paul Kaser

Note: Babcock’s memoir—first published in 2008 and re-issued in 2014—should not be confused with Marine Corps Gen. Richard Neal’s 2017 Vietnam War memoir of the same title.

Sharkbait by Guy S. Clark, M.D.

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At the age of twenty-eight, Guy Clark went to Vietnam as a U.S. Air Force flight surgeon. During his 1966-67 tour of duty, Clark flew more than eighty-six combat strike missions in the back seat of the F-4C Phantom and kept a daily journal.

Sharkbait: A Flight Surgeon’s Odyssey in Vietnam (Weeping Willow, 628 pp. $42.50, hardcover; $3.03, Kindle), which overflows with Guy Clark’s exuberance for flying and appreciation for knowing the skilled and courageous pilots with whom he faced death, is based on that journal.

The fifty-year delay in transcribing his journal has not blunted Clark’s opinions. From June 1966, for example, Clark (the medical director of The Osteoporosis Institute and The Arthritis Institute of Santa Barbara) recalls that he had reached “the high-water mark in my lifetime search for adventure! Life is exciting!” At that point, he still had eleven months to go in Vietnam.

To gain a more complete picture of the war, he opted to fly to small and remote outposts by hitching rides in what he calls a C-130 “cattle box car” and other aircraft. Once he flew on an AC-47D Spooky gunship during a strike.

Point of order: Those of us who flew C-130s called them “Trash Haulers.”

In counterpoint to his enthusiasm for dropping bombs and napalm, Clark also writes of his disgust for war, coupled with compassion for those who lose their lives as a consequence.

Beyond his flying stories, Clark establishes himself as a war observer who is distraught by everything going on around him—except for people who cater to him. At the same time, he maintains a mental detachment through devouring books he always wanted to read and by writing his journal and letters to his wife.

Clark describes what he saw and did while stationed at Cam Ranh Bay practically down to each heartbeat of each event. His writing recipe demands details and more details based on his experience, historical facts, quotations (including words from Leonardo da Vinci, Lenin, and Churchill), and random dashes of poetry. He stirs together insights from nearly every day of his year in Vietnam.

The result is a memoir that gives readers an opportunity to learn more than they ever expected (or perhaps wanted to know) about F-4C Phantom and Air Force operations, for starters. Among other topics, Clark covers wasteful military practices, governments, shrews (the animal), the Vietnam War’s purpose, revolutions, lepers, the Air Force and Navy’s work with ground forces, William Faulkner, danger, and personalities—to name a few—along with many admonitions.

His breadth and depth of explanations reminded me of the old joke about the guy who tells you how to build Big Ben when you only want to know the time of day.

To his credit, Clark recognizes this rhetorical weakness and professes that, to him, “there is no such thing as useless knowledge.”

Dr. ClarkFundamentally, he searches for truth but understands the difficulty in finding it. In doing so, Clark reveals himself—whether or not the light is favorable. Facing the facts recorded in his journal puts the older Clark in an eye-to-eye confrontation with his youthful, cocksure, egotistical self. Can either man deny the other?

Clark’s prose is so distinct that it frequently made me smile. His sentences can be diagram-defying marvels of construction. He masterfully belittles people, places, and practices that he dislikes. He possesses a world-class intellect, but occasionally repeats himself.

Despite the drawbacks, Clark’s six-hundred-plus-page memoir provided captivating reading over many long stretches. His feats continually raised the high-water mark of adventure that he set during his first month in country.

The author’s website is guyclarksharkbait.com

—Henry Zeybel

 

Promise Lost by Dan Moore

Witnesses and their testimony form the foundation for good reporting. Former Marine Dan Moore presents a wealth of both as he reconstructs the meritorious life of his friend, Lt. Stephen Joyner, who died in action near Khe Sanh in South Vietnam in 1968.

Moore interviewed more than a hundred people who knew Joyner during his twenty-four years on earth. Moore has collected his research in Promise Lost: Stephen Joyner, the Marine Corps, and the Vietnam War (CreateSpace/Hidden Shelf, 212 pp. $16.95, paper; $5.99, Kindle), which he calls a long-delayed “memorial to a beloved friend.”

The book has three observers: Joyner, through letters he sent home; the interviewees Moore spoke to; and Moore himself, who recollects time he spent with Joyner.

Steve Joyner possessed an all-American boy image with his positive attitude, football prowess at San Diego State, and physical strength. He bypassed a possible professional football career after becoming “the man of the family” following his father’s death at age forty-seven. Instead of playing pro football, Joyner enlisted in the Marine Corps after he graduated from college.

Joyner and Moore became friends while serving in Vietnam at the same time in different divisions, which adds credence to Moore’s analyses of events that challenged the emotional stability of both of them. Moore draws vivid pictures of action involving Joyner in and around Leatherneck Square in I Corps as a member of the Third Marine Division.

The discussion of relationships between officers and enlisted men should be required reading for new lieutenants—and perhaps certain captains, majors, and colonels, as well. Moore also dissects relations between new and experienced officers. He explains how the enthusiasm that made Joyner a leader on his college football team did not work as successfully for him as a platoon leader in combat. Moore’s analysis of repetitive operational tactics provides more lessons in leadership.

Moore writes about new lieutenants’ lack of political understanding about South Vietnam’s “corruption” and “support for reunification.” These shortcomings, he says, clouded their approach to the war and reduced their effectiveness.

Dan Moore

Overall, he clearly shows the good and bad aspects of leadership among Marines in I Corps during the height of the Vietnam War in 1967-68.

Several segments of the book focus on Moore’s life more than Joyner’s. Moore served with the First Marine Division. Following active duty, he remained in the Marine Reserves and earned a doctorate in history. He then had a career with the CIA until retiring in 2014.

—Henry Zeybel

A Walk in the Park by Odon Bacque

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A question from one of Odon Bacque’s daughters opened the floodgates of his memory.  It seemed an innocuous question, “Daddy, who are you?” As he reflected on his civilian career and successes, Bacque’s mind kept wandering back to his Army days and how they shaped his entire life—as military service has done for most of those who served.

In his case, he wrote a memoir, A Walk in the Park: A Vietnam Comedy (CreateSpace, 200 pp., $14.95, paper; $3.49 Kindle). The book gives an honest look at a side of the Army Special Forces in the Vietnam War that most never saw or even knew existed.

Bacque, a native of Louisiana—or more properly, a Cajan—entertains the reader with bits of humor as he recounts his time as a soldier and the innocent beliefs in the system that led him naively into Infantry OCS, jump school, the Green Berets, and a tour of duty with the 5th Special Forces Group in Vietnam. As Bacque walks the reader through his year in Vietnam, he realizes he could not have had an easier or more choice job.

It turns out that not all Green Berets were “snake eaters.” Bacque reveals another side, replete with administrative chores and payouts that seemed to have become a major part of Special Forces by 1969 when he was in country. Reading this book, we realize that the Green Berets had REMFs. And, as it turns out, lucrative post clubs featuring a variety of entertainment and “palace guards.”

Bacque gives a very honest assessment of his own role as a lieutenant in the Special Forces, a non-combatant who spent his year doling out funds to the A Teams assigned to his B Team area. As he progresses through the year, Bacque sees more and more things he doesn’t quite understand or believe were right. He becomes increasingly disenchanted as he is forced to administer payouts with no accountability to the mercenaries operating with the SF teams. However, like most of us, he soldiers on, focusing on how much time he has left in his tour of duty.

Bacque is brutally honest in shining light on the U.S. government’s lack of oversight into operations such as those he was involved in—as well as the corruption caused by throwing millions of dollars into black holes with little or no expectations of a return. It is refreshing to find a man willing to admit that his time in Vietnam with the Special Forces was less-than heroic when so many exaggerate their wartime roles.

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Odon Bacque

This is a true book with a story that needed to be told. Bacque is honest with the reader and himself, as he shows that not all of those who served in the war were trigger pullers.  He did his job honorably. In the end, it is apparent that his life was shaped and his character molded by overcoming the obstacles he confronted in the military.

The book is an easy and entertaining read—especially for those have never seen Don Bacque’s side of the Vietnam War.

—Bud Alley

Grunts Don’t Cry by Richard Charles Martinez

For thirty-four years Richard Charles Martinez kept a journal dealing with his experiences as an infantryman in the Vietnam War. He recently published the journal as a memoir called Grunts Don’t Cry (Village Books, 191 pp. $12.95, paper).

Martinez writes in a style that conveys awe regarding what he saw and did. At times, he also projects an air of innocence that lifts him above the moment.

Becoming part of the war machine practically without warning, Martinez says, “It took about five months from the time I walked into the induction center till I set foot in Vietnam. It’s hard to believe it even now.” Actually, it took five months and two days for him to be inducted, complete basic and advance individual training, thirty days leave, and shipping out to Vietnam.

A twenty-year-old college dropout draftee, five-ten, and a hundred twenty-five pounds, Martinez found infantry duty difficult, but he performed as demanded. One day, weighed down with extra gear and breaking trail on a flank, he “passed out for a few seconds or longer,” he says. “When I came to, the file to my left was still moving and nobody noticed that I had gone down. So I walked fast to catch up and moved back into the file with my squad.”

Martinez served with the 1st Battalion/26th Regiment of the Army’s 1st Infantry Division stationed at Quan Loi and Lai Khe in 1968-69. He fought alongside Dave Wright who wrote a warm memoir called Not Enough Tears, from which Martinez quotes extensively when describing the most challenging actions of their unit.

“The first six months that I was in country, I seem to recall that on every operation we made some kind of contact with the enemy,” Martinez writes. “Either we ambushed the enemy or they ambushed us. This meant that we either had friendly KIA or WIA or we killed the enemy.” After three months, Martinez became an M-60 machine-gunner and a weapons squad leader.

He frequently reminds the reader about losing his memory. “There were many operations but I can’t remember them all,” he says. “The only operations that I remember were because someone got killed or wounded or something else that triggered my memory.” Later he explains, “I don’t remember very much of this operation after we had lost so much. My platoon took the worst of it. There were 22 to 24 people wounded or killed.”

Regarding a morning when his company helicoptered into a fire support base that had been overrun the previous night, he says: “With all that I saw that day, my mind must have gone into overload. Sometime during this time my mind just shut down. I just can’t seem to remember much about the horror that I saw that day.”

Martinez does not hesitate to spell out the high degree of fear he felt throughout his tour. As a leader, however, concern for his men came first, a practice also displayed by Dave Wright.

Although Martinez does not say so directly, Wright and a Sergeant A-hoe appear to have been his role models. He cites their leadership skills several times. When a new “lifer” platoon sergeant failed to act at a critical moment, Martinez says, “Sergeant A-hoe ended up calling for a Dust-off. Sergeant A-hoe always seemed to be in the right place at the right time.”

Fifteen pages of photographs help to bring to life many of the people mentioned in the text.

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Near the end of the book, Martinez’s style shifts gears for four short chapters: “Sights, Smells, and Sounds;” “Medics;” “Friends;” and “Dying and Killing.” In those chapters, he summarizes his Vietnam War tour with definitive pronouncements about each topic.

Some conclusions sound self-evident, but considering them in context with what he wrote earlier, his words profoundly summarize a lifetime of thought. The shock of combat and its aftermath “stays with you forever,” he says, “in memories and nightmares.”

I appreciate everything he says in those chapters. I especially admire one paragraph:

“I have laughed and cried the hardest in my life while in Vietnam. I have been so scared I could hardly move. I have done things that I can’t even believe I was capable of doing. War changes the person you are. I’ve asked my sister and anyone else that knew me before Vietnam, how much have I changed? I really don’t know. I hope I changed for the better.”

Reading the works of Richard Charles Martinez and Dave Wright provides a distinct lesson regarding young men who faithfully served their nation despite reservations.

—Henry Zeybel

Not Enough Tears by Dave Wright

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I try to read a Vietnam War memoirs as if it was the first book I’ve read on the subject. Despite that, I recognize similarities from previous books. Consequently, the depths to which a writer reveals personal experiences influences my reaction to a book. In other words, I often judge a book based on the writer’s willingness to share his or her most horrific war stories and reactions to them.

In Not Enough Tears (Author House, 277 pp. $14.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle), Dave Wright generously opens his mind and heart to tell what he did and saw as a twenty-three-year-old Army infantryman. He was assigned to the 1st Battalion/26th Regiment of the First Infantry Division at Lai Khe during his 1968-69 Vietnam War tour.

Wright took part in two encounters that wiped out his squad, but left him unscratched. He justified—but at the same time questioned—surviving those and other traumatizing events as the result of his faith, which began when he was eleven.

“God let me ‘sense’ when we were walking into trouble,” he says.

Draftee Wright hated the war. “By three months,” he writes, “I was sick of life as a grunt.”

Yet he strove to keep others safe, choosing to walk point to protect new guys after watching too many of them get killed too quickly. Because he was a few years older, his fellow soldiers called him “The Old Man” or “Father.” They admired his good luck.

A natural leader, Dave Wright developed a philosophy whereby, when possible, he bypassed the enemy. His rationale centered on the certainty that his men would suffer casualties regardless of how many VC they killed, wounded, or captured. So avoiding firefights protected them from harm.

Wright discusses progressive mental and physical problems that made him resort to a “sham” and other schemes to get an easier job after eight months in the field. “I needed someone to recognize that I had done all I could, for as long as I could,” he says.

He was reassigned to a newly formed recon platoon made up of twenty-five “eight balls from the whole battalion,” as he calls them. The job was safer, but he started having “anxiety attacks just hours before it was time to go out into the jungle,” he says, and “was getting closer and closer to becoming a mental casualty.”

Despite his covenant with God, Wright worried about the future: “What if I screwed up and made Him mad,” he thought. “Would He stop protecting me and all those around me?” Eventually, Wright ended up in a support company where he felt relief. But he also felt guilt for “getting off line almost two months early,” he says.

You don’t have to be Sherlock to figure out the cause-effect of Wright’s PTSD. He provides the facts of his experiences and the effects naturally follow. For example, he reached “a new low,” he says, when he ripped open a dead VC’s face to help another soldier extract a gold tooth. He acted atrociously and no punishment followed, which complicated his “Why me, Lord?” puzzlement.

Back home and newly married, Wright slowly recognized that he had little control over his life compared to the control he felt when walking point. Depression, anguish, and pain followed. Work and church became the foundation for his life.

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Dave Wright

By writing Not Enough Tears, Wright was able to examine the changes in his personality that had resulted from war experiences. God provided salvation. As he puts it: “My stories are certainly not of biblical quality, but they are a true record of what Jesus has done in my life.”

Originally published in 2004, Not Enough Tears was recently re-released with revisions and photographs.

Richard Charles Martinez, author of Grunts Don’t Cry, served in the same 1st Infantry Division platoon as Wright in 1968-69. Their books complement each other.

—Henry Zeybel