The Flying Grunt by Alan E. Mesches

Landing at Inchon, advancing to Seoul, fighting at the Chosin Reservoir, slogging through 189 days of combat, making seven narrow escapes from death, frostbite and wounds; providing leadership during the siege of Khe Sanh in Vietnam, flying 204 F-4 and C-117 interdiction and close air support missions, and receiving a Distinguished Flying Cross and 16 Air Medals. Those are the highlights of the 38-year military career of Richard Carey as recounted in Alan Mesches’ new biography, The Flying Grunt: The Story of Lieutenant General Richard E. Carey, United States Marine Corps (Casemate, 240 pp. $37.95, hardcover; $15.99, Kindle).

In 1945 at the age of 17 Carey enlisted in the Marine Corps. Four years later his leadership skills earned him a direct commission to second lieutenant and the command of a platoon.

In more than 100 hours of interviews Carey guided historian Alan E. Mesches through his life and military career. In telling Carey’s life story, Mesches, an Air Force veteran, includes summations of world events occurring at the same time.    

Carey’s war actions well beyond normal. At one point in Korea, for example, he tackled Gen. Douglas MacArthur to save him from a line of fire. Their subsequent exchanges became historic. Carey also recalls people such as Marine Corps legend Chesty Puller with whom he interacted.

Carey’s recollections of battling Chinese communist forces at Hagaru-ri, abutting the Chosin Reservoir, are especially dynamic. Half of his platoon died during that vicious fight in November and December of 1950. “A lot bled to death,” Carey says. Since then, he has championed the Marines who fought in that battle, known as The Chosin Few.

Shortly after Choisin Reservoir, a mortar round wounded Carey and he returned stateside for treatment. Following rehabilitation, he received the assignment he had wanted since he was 17: flight school. He then began flight training and won his pilot wings.

Gen. Carey

Carey went to Vietnam three times. In 1963, he spent two weeks there gathering intelligence as a major advisor. In 1967-68, he had charge of base support activities at Chu Lai and Da Nang as a lieutenant colonel and volunteered to fly combat missions.

In 1975, as a brigadier general, he coordinated evacuation plans in Cambodia and South Vietnam as the North Vietnamese Army overran the South. That task included political and personality conflicts and diplomacy.

The chapters dealing with the evacuation of Saigon are especially enlightening. Carey and Mesches offer arguments for readers to reach personal conclusions about the rights and wrongs of the withdrawal procedures.

In combat and administrative roles Carey vigorously pursued and solved large and small problems. He demonstrated a wide-angle view of leadership techniques while scaling the levels of command from platoon leader to Commanding General of the Marine Corps Development and Education Command before retiring at age 55 in 1983. 

In civilian, among other things, he worked with the Metroplex Marine Coordinating Council in the Dallas-Fort Worth area helping veterans and their families. His efforts helped build a Dallas-Fort Worth veterans cemetery, provide housing for homeless veterans and accommodations for families of hospitalized veterans, and instituted a VA shuttle service.

Most importantly, Carey–who is 95–worked to fund and erect an eight-panel monument in the Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery with seven panels containing battle scenes in tribute to The Chosin Few.

—Henry Zeybel

Dustoff by Arnold Hughbrook Sampson, Jr.

Arnold Sampson, Jr., takes an exploratory journey into the past in Dustoff: More than Met the Eye, Reflections of a Vietnam Medevac Pilot (BookBaby, 200 pp. $19.69, paper). This war memoir is exceptional because, in examining his role as a UH1-H medevac (Dustoff) helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War, Sampson admits to not remembering significant portions of what he did.

As he puts it: “Time has sopped up and blotted out some of the observations I thought I would never forget.” The events Sampson does remember add up to an in-depth appraisal of the ups and downs (pun intended) of a Vietnam War Dustoff pilot.  

Sampson, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, joined the 68th Medical Detachment (Helicopter Ambulance) in 1969, six months after the unit deployed to Chu Lai. As a newbie lieutenant and one of only a few commissioned officers in the unit, all of the non-combat administrative duties were dumped on him. He still flew missions, but it took seven months for him to reach an aircraft commander’s seat.

Flying in the Vietnam War proved to be both exceptionally rewarding and extremely dangerous, Sampson says. He tells stories about situations for which he had no training or inadequate information. He learned from mistakes that often began as creative ideas but failed in practicality, and continually calls himself to task for them.

His conflicted feelings about extreme situations such as rescuing a fellow pilot who accidentally shot himself did not finally resolve themselves until decades later. His acts of kindness such as doctoring a badly injured Vietnamese child who died practically in his arms took a heavy emotional toll. That child’s death still haunts his dreams.   

Sampson creates a nightmare of terror with his accounts of days of flying through rain, clouds, and zero visibility during the monsoon season. For a time, all aircraft were grounded except for Dustoff choppers. In the midst of that chaos, an extraordinary close call caused his crewmen to face him down with a mini-mutiny; Sampson merely walked away from them and the war continued. During that period, his crew saved lives on every mission.

A loner who did not drink or hang out at the club, Sampson was not particularly sociable. His overall view of the 68th is a group of skillful but self-centered warrant officers who did nothing but fly. Sampson’s piloting skill and willingness to help others improve their abilities earned him respect.

He challenges the necessity for the war and criticizes its execution. In closing, he honors the dead and recognizes the post-war suffering of survivors.

Arnold Sampson writes in an enjoyable, conversational style. Although many of his stories emphasize his shortcomings, the fact is that he flew 878 combat missions that evacuated 2,200 people, saving the lives of hundreds of them. 

—Henry Zeybel

The Fifth Special Forces in the Valleys of Vietnam, 1967 by Douglas Coulter

In his compelling memoir, The Fifth Special Forces in the Valleys of Vietnam, 1967: An Insider’s Account (McFarland, 240 pp. $29.95, paper; $13.49, hardcover), Douglas Coulter describes how he was kicked out of Harvard and wound up in the jungles of Vietnam to perform one of the war’s most dangerous assignments, a long range reconnaissance patrol leader.

Coulter, a privileged Mayflower descendant who died last year, volunteered for Vietnam and to be a platoon leader with Project Delta (the forerunner of today’s Delta Force), a small reconnaisance unit jmade up of American and Vietnamese Special Forces. He went on to lead three-to-five-day patrols off five-man LRRP teams up to 25 miles behind enemy lines in the highly dangerous A Shau Valley, well out of range of friendly artillery. 

He describes in gripping detail the terror, uncertainty, and fear he felt while leading these patrols. Coulter’s depiction of moving through the dense jungle, which he says “in all its aspects conspired to kill,” is graphic and the reader can almost feel the roots, thorns, and vines that his patrol had to defeat, as well as traverse, in the dark. The patrols, while terrifying, were only occasionally successful in gaining intel and made contact with the enemy only once—on his final patrol.

Because he clearly walked the walk, Douglas Coulter is entitled to talk the talk, including criticizing American involvement in the Vietnam War. He says that narcissism was the underlying issue that led to the war and attacks the notion of American exceptionalism. He believes that much of the war was window dressing and a show, and severely criticized how individual Americans treated their Vietnamese allies. On the other hand, he hated the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese soldiers, although he admired their commitment and their abilities.

Coulter criticizes by name and in detail many decisions by, and the character of, many American soldiers of all ranks. He contends that said decisions were born of impure reasons – professional jealousy, stupidity, the desire to look good, power and career over duty and honor, incompetence, bad judgment, cowardice, ass kissing, and lack of character. He describes an incident in which an officer unnecessarily got into a chopper and had it fly over a skirmish so that he could receive the Combat Infantryman Badge, not an uncommon occurrence in the Vietnam War.

A Project Delta LRRP Team

Not sparing himself, Coulter cites incidents of his own errors of judgment, incompetence, and stupidity. He goes on to say that experiencing the character of other men is one of the great things about serving in the military, but concludes that he hadn’t “gained a thing” from serving in the war, and hadn’t learned to act like a man. This reviewer disagrees with that assessment.

Coulter returned from the war and finished his Harvard degree, then added an MBA from its business school. He became a political organizer working for the 1972 presidential campaign of George McGovern.

Coulter and I had a close mutual friend at Harvard who idolized him. So did almost all of the men he served with, including Gen. Henry Hugh Shelton, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who was a Project Delta captain in the Vietnam War and who wrote the book’s foreword.

A Harvard rallying cry is, “Fight Fiercely, Harvard,” something Douglas Coulter did.

–Harvey Weiner

Warpath by A. J. Moore

A. J. Moore unravels his dynamic Vietnam War memoir centered on flying as an E-5 scout observer in the OH-6A Cayuse helicopter—the Loach—in Warpath: One Vietnam Veteran’s Journey through War, Disillusionment, Guilt and Recovery (Apache Press Books, 296 pp. $16.99, paper; $6.99, Kindle).

In the book’s opening line, Moore declares that he “was eager to go” into the military, and “was not waiting for the draft.” Because of his father’s history as a World War II rifleman and the influence of Hollywood heroic war movies, he says, “Sitting out the [Vietnam] war was simply not an option.” He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1967 at the age of 18.

Reading about Moore’s Loach missions is spellbinding. Operating from Vinh Long with the 1st Cav in 1969, Moore experienced events beyond imagination during low-level search-and-destroy missions.

On many flights whatever could go wrong went wrong. As often as not, problems evolved from unexpected enemy action or misdirected maneuvers by Moore and his pilots. They often escaped harm by performing seemingly impossible moves that surprised even themselves.

“Among all helicopter aircrew, the Loach crews had the highest casualty rates,” Moore writes. In Army and Marine jobs, he adds, helicopter crews ranked second-highest in casualty rates only to armored personnel carrier crews.

Most of his unit’s operations took place in free-fire zones. He describes in detail the gore resulting from blasting enemy troops on the ground with gunfire, rockets, and grenades.

He confesses to killing people in free-fire zones regardless of whether they fired at his helicopter. When operating with friendly ground troops, the Loach crews did not take prisoners. Body counts measured a mission’s success.      

Basically, Moore has written a story of discovery, namely that the positive beliefs he learned as a child shattered under exposure to war’s horrors. In-country, he soon met disillusionment with two sobering realizations: First, the Vietnamese actually wanted to kill him for no reason other than he was American soldier; and second, the ARVN’s hearts were not into the effort.

Moore trained as a helicopter maintenance man and won top honors through every phase of schooling. He reflects on the progression of his training with a keen appreciation for unfamiliar behavior by the men around him. In his description of Basic Training, for example, Moore writes about crises faced by other young men more than by himself. He does the same when looking back on his maintenance and flying experiences.

A.J. Moore in-country

For four months in Vietnam he performed the seven-days-a-week “monotonous drudgery” of a helicopter mechanic under a sergeant who specialized in make-work tasks. After volunteering three times, Moore was finally reassigned to fly alongside Loach pilots as another pair of eyes. For extra life insurance, the pilots taught him how to fly the Loach. 

Coming home was difficult. He decided not to pursue a military career he had been counting on. Guilt and shame overwhelmed him. His recitation of PTSD treatment he received describes excellent programs unfamiliar to me. He eventually shared his emotional rebirth with other war veterans.

As president of VVA’s Tidewater, Virginia Chapter 48 in Norfolk, he concentrated on elevating the social status of challenged Vietnam War veterans and providing college scholarships for veterans’ children.

Warpath more than fulfills its subtitle. Al Moore shows himself to be a man of integrity: By revealing the pros and cons of his Vietnam War story, he takes the glory out of war.

—Henry Zeybel

Standing Tall by Robert F. Foley

Coincidentally, I was reading Standing Tall: Leadership Lessons in the Life of a Soldier (Casemate, 240 pp. $34.95, hardcover; $20.99, Kindle) while waiting for my wife in the Newton, Massachusetts, hospital where the author, Retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Robert Foley, was born

In this autobiography, we learned that Foley’s mother believed that reading books was a sign of laziness and she forced him, as a child, to turn in his library card. He went to West Point as a 6’7” basketball recruit and his limited reading background may have contributed to him ranking of 497th out of the 504 in the USMA Class of 1963. 

His academic history also may partially inform the crisp style and content of this short autobiography, but it did not deter him from having a distinguished military career. As Foley indicates, his mother instilled in him a strong work ethic and it shows.

Bob Foley was a platoon leader and company commander with the 2nd/27th in the 25th Infantry Division in Vietnam in 1966-67. He received the Medal of Honor the following year for his extraordinary courage under fire during a vicious jungle fight in November 1966 near Tay Ninh. After Vietnam, Foley went on to serve in 25 assignments during his 37-year military career (1963-2000), which led to three stars.

He chronicles all of them in great detail, and sprinkles his thoughts about leadership throughout the book. There are photos, a list of 109 wreath-laying assignments, a summary of others, images of his citations and decorations, along with bibliography and an index. He has a short section on his thoughts about the Vietnam War and how the many opportunities over the decades to avoid it were squandered.

Foley’s West Point Yearbook Photo

The book is loud and clear on the sacrifices a military family must undergo to enhance a servicemember’s career. His three children went to nine different schools from first grade through high school, for example, and yet, even as teenagers, they were seemingly always supportive of him.

His wife could not have had a sustained independent career, although she did have take teaching and other jobs. She had to spend the bulk of her life raising the children, creating a home, and being a supportive military wife in all its aspects. Foley’s career would not have been as successful, or probably not successful at all, without his wife and children’s unqualified buy-in. He recognizes this and is deeply appreciative.

What is intriguing is that Foley’s success came despite his academic deficiencies and background. Some West Point dropouts, such as Edgar Allan Poe, James McNeal Whistler and Adam Vinitieri, have been successful in other endeavors. However, those who finished last in their West Point classes, including George Armstrong Custer, George Pickett, and Simeon Magruder Levy, did not fare well thereafter, at least in their final battles. 

Neither Dwight Eisenhower nor Ulysses Grant performed particularly well at West Point.  Yet they ended up as among the greatest of U.S. military leaders, also became U.S. presidents. 

Maybe Bob Foley’s mother had the right idea.

-Harvey Weiner

Training and Deployment in America’s Nuclear Cold Warriors in Asia by Steve Rabson

Steve Rabson’s Training and Deployment in America’s Nuclear Cold Warriors in Asia: Keepers of Armageddon (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 150 pp. $72) is a concise memoir by a Brown University professor emeritus and Japanologist chronicling his training and deployment as an Army nuclear weapons electronics specialist in Okinawa in 1967-68.

The book emanated from an email group of several alumni of the 137th Ordnance Company, many of whose writings appear in the book, and many of whom, including the author, had their later civilian careers greatly influenced by their time in Okinawa.

How did a nice University of Michigan Jewish graduate, who majored in English and minored in music (piano), end up electronically testing nuclear warheads in a Pacific island smaller than Oahu during the Vietnam War?  He was drafted into the U.S. Army.

Rabson, who had zero electronics training, speculates that a clerk at Ft. Jackson may have accidentally typed “engg” (engineering) instead of “eng” (English) as Rabson’s college major. This seems like a plausible military explanation. He never mentions that he was unable to do his military job, but does say that to boots-on-the-ground Vietnam War veteran, his year in Okinawa during the height of the war must seem like being in a safe summer camp.

There is a condensed history of Okinawa’s wars, of nuclear weapons in general, and of the usually negative American presence on the island. Okinawa was an R&R destination for American troops, mainly due to the well-known availability of Okinawan women, which was fictionalized in Fields of Fire, James Webb’s acclaimed 1978 Vietnam War novel.

A major support base for U.S. troops in both the Vietnam and Korean wars, Okinawa had “secret” nuclear weapons that everyone in the world new about. Even though it is now governed by Japan, Okinawa, 25,000 American troops are serving there on U.S. military bases. About 100 marriages between American men and Okinawan women take place each year and there is a large expatriate American retirement community on the island.

On a 2014 visit, Rabson revisited and interviewed the Okinawan owner of Koko’s, his favorite restaurant during his tour of duty, which is now a Tex-Mex diner, as well the Okinawan general manager of the 1967 PX.

Rabson is extremely critical of the injustices and inequities imposed on local residents by the American military. Land was expropriated, arbitrarily and without adequate compensation (he calls is a “second invasion”), and native Okinawans have been treated as inferiors by Americans. Rape by American troops is not uncommon, and there are frequent local protests against the U.S. presence on the island. 

Gen. Turgidson

Although radiation may have caused serious illnesses to both Americans and Okinawans, the VA has refused to recognize any connection and has denied all such veterans’ claims. The Japanese, who now govern the island, refuse to test the soil for radiation because there can never be nuclear weapons on Japanese land.

The author’s recent visit to the Nagasaki Museum ironically highlights the fact that his military job was to help make sure that the nuclear weapons under his control were ready to be used.

Although the themes of the 1964 movie, Dr. Strangelove, permeate the book—both in the words of the author and in the mind of this reader—Training and Development contains a real-life happy ending.

No nuclear weapon stored in Okinawa was ever fired in anger and all nuclear weapons are now gone from the island and from all American overseas bases. 

Take that, Gen. “Buck” Turgidson!*

–Harvey Weiner

*The fictional, ultra-aggressive Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff played by George C. Scott in Dr. Strangelove.

Vietnam Combat: Firefights and Writing History by Robin Bartlett

It should come as no surprise that a graduate of Claremont McKenna College with a BA in Comparative Literature and who eventually made a career in publishing should write a well-written and deeply researched memoir of his six-year military career. Nor should it be a surprise—except to some of the clannish West Pointers with whom he went through Ft. Benning Jump School and Basic Officer Infantry Course—that Robin Bartlett, an ROTC liberal arts major, was an effective, brave, and committed infantry platoon leader who saw substantial combat in the Vietnam War.

Bartlett’s Vietnam Combat: Firefights and Writing History (Casemate, 299 pp. $37.95, hardcover; $15.99, Kindle) includes photographs and drawings, a military glossary, a personal timeline, a bibliography, an index, and a list of veterans organizations—although I wish he had included the Jewish War Veterans of the USA, America’s oldest active VSO.  Also, Bartlett includes to great effect many of the alternative-reality letters he wrote home from Vietnam to family and friends.

Bartlett made the drastic change from being a party planner at Ft. Bragg to being an infantry platoon leader in 1968 when he joined the 1st Battalion, 5th Regiment of the First Cavalry Division in I Corps. When he did, he recognized that his expected life span was less than 90 days. 

Of the five new platoon leaders introduced to the battalion commander to replace five who had been killed in action, Bartlett was the only one who survived his tour of duty. He writes about the fatigue, intense heat, rain, mud, death, blood, firefights, deprivation, sweat, heat stroke, dehydration, and despair that he and his men experienced during frequent four-to-six-week forays into the boonies. Some humorous events, including an exploding shit barrel and the misadventures of a hard-luck private, and some positive things, such as a Christmas party at a Catholic orphanage, lighten the book’s tone.

Bartlett completed his time in the war with five months in II Corps working in the little-known Military History Detachment at Division HQ (“You fight it, We write it”). One of his main tasks was to write a history of a particular battalion engagement that had gone wrong. That was no easy task as the battalion commander and the S-3 refused to speak to him.

Without casting blame, his draft report criticized certain operation events at command level. But Bartlett’s superior made him change the report’s title (“Battle of Parrot’s Beak”), as well as his conclusion so as to blame the heroic on-the-ground company commander who was clearly not at fault. The brass protects its own when the losers get to rewrite history.

Bartlett in-country

Bartlett is frank in his assessment of the Vietnam War (“brave solders and bad politics”) and his resulting PTSD. He says writing this book was cathartic. Although he writes that his Vietnam War service was meaningless and a waste, the reader may conclude otherwise. 

Robin Bartlett exhibited courage, performed his jobs well, cared for those who served under him, and developed leadership and organizational skills. His brother, father, and grandfather, all of whom graduated from West Point, should be proud of him.

When greeting Vietnam War veterans, “Welcome home” is the Bartlett phrase uses. I have decided to do the same rather than the trite, “Thank you for your service.”

Bartlett’s website is

— Harvey Weiner

In Country by Forrest R. Lindsey

The simple fact is that Forrest R. Lindsey’s memoir— In Country: My Memories of Vietnam and After (Dorrance, 198 pp. $47, hardover; $36, paper; $34, Kindle)—is a confession. In it, Lindsey chronicles his transformation from a nearsighted, skinny 20-year-old to a dispassionate killer.

Lindsey tells his history with little interference from his ego. He mainly presents facts to the reader, and the most telling is: “I had picked up the habit of shooting whoever I hit after they went down, usually a burst of three rounds, just to make sure he stayed down.”

By the time that habit was ingrained, he had come to believe that death wasn’t that frightening and that “when you’re dead, you’re dead.”

A 1965 enlistee in the U.S. Marine Corps, Lindsey arrived in Phu Bai in January 1966 and progressed from an accident-prone 5-ton truck driver to an OJT artilleryman, a gunner, and then a scout with an Artillery Forward Observer Team as part of  Echo Company of the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines. He extended his 13-month tour to move up to the scout level where, along with directing supporting artillery, he became a rifleman.

“Grunts had their own uniquely dangerous war,”  he says. They “were always active. Every single day was spent out in the field and patrolling, looking for the enemy.” Lindsey was amazed to learn that all of his fellow grunts had been wounded—many as many as three times, which automatically qualified them to go home—but they self-doctored minor wounds so they could stay with the unit.

Ignoring regulations, Lindsey continued to use an M-14 rifle after American forces converted to the M-16. More than once, Marines looked to him for the riflery magic their weapons could not provide.

Lindsey took part in 19 operations before being wounded in May 1967. He writes about a Marine attack on a suspected Viet Cong battalion headquarters that easily qualified as a walk through hell. “I won’t describe what I saw,” he says, after watching an overhead 155-mm-howitzer-round booby-trap kill a dozen Marines and wound many more.

He is less hesitant to discuss his own wound—a “comminuted fracture” from a bullet that pulverized his thigh bone into a cloud of fragments. Surgeons put him in a full body cast and saved his leg. His two years in a hospital were nearly as horrid as his time in combat except that the new enemy consisted of Navy and Air Force nurses who outranked enlisted men and haughitly ignored their needs.

Discharged from the Marine Corps when his four-year enlistment ended, Lindsey finished rehabilitating his leg, went through post-traumatic stress, enrolled in college, married, divorced, and drank too much. In 1973, the Marine Corps invited him back and commissioned him as a lieutenant. After becoming an artillery battalion commander and serving a total of 27 years, Lindsey retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1996.

He says he has no regrets for his actions in the Vietnam War, and feels strong compassion for wounded and dead Marines. “The Marine Corps exists to kill people or to be killed in the process of killing people,” he says.

Although In Country initially offers the standard war memori litany of arriving in Nam, eating C-rations, and taking cold showers, Lindsey’s recollections about his three jobs and medical treatment presented surprises and facts that were new to me.

Forest Lindsey’s experiences went well beyond what most Vietnam War veterans encountered.

—Henry Zeybel

My Year in Vietnam by Phillip Elkins

If I had to choose one word to best describe Phillip Elkins’ My Year in Vietnam: How I Managed to Survive: June 1966 to June 1967 (Senior Felipe Press, 374 pp. $20, paper; $9.99, Kindle), it would be “ambivalent.” The book qualifies as a war memoir, as well as a tell-all tale about military life, a love story, a study in psychology, a tour guide, soft-core pornography, and an indictment of whomever or whatever the reader prefers.

Elkins, AKA “Senor Felipe,” pours out attitude, insight, and humor in abundance. He can describe taking a piss in a style that simultaneously educates, repulses, and amuses. He has perfected the mood and voice of a 19-year-old, unhappy draftee who lacks goals beyond the moment.

This is Elkins’ second book about his Army years. His first, Running from the Fire, tells of his growing up in East L.A. and training as an Army medic. A third, Coming Home from Vietnam, is in the works. Presently, he hosts the “L.A. Sounds with Sr. Felipe” show on KZFR-FM in Chico, California.

During the first half of his year in Vietnam Elkins served under the pseudonymous Sgt. Ulysses Sidell, who the men considered as more dangerous that the Viet Cong. They operated from Bien Hoa’s 3rd Surgical Hospital in the 1st Preventive Medicine Unit attached to 56th Med.

Their mission centered on reducing infectious diseases, water problems, food spoilage, mosquitoes, rats, and fleas. Sidell sent his men on unproductive cross-country trips to remote sites in the Viet Cong-controlled countryside. When the unit went to Dak To, the VC overran their compound.

Elkins’ descriptions of combat and post-battle scenes contain an uninhibited nakedness of emotions that are gut-wrenching. He does not dwell on gore; he makes concrete observations about death and moves on.  

Naturally, the men despised Sgt. Sidell. Elkins played a major role as spokesman for his fellow draftees. They sent protest letters to their commander and—surprise—Sgt. Sidell was reassigned.

At this point the story makes a U-turn. Under a new commander, Elkins found a broadminded friend. Because Elkins knew his job and did it well, the new lieutenant gave him almost unlimited freedom and Elkins took advantage of it.      

Elkins at An Khe, Christmas 1966

He continued to meet his obligations as a traveling preventative medicine lecturer and trained new troops to emulate his humorous, sex-centered, and highly effective manner of educating the masses on how to avoid sexually transmitted diseases.

Parallel with that throughout the second half of the book, Elkins does little more than frantically pursue women, day after day in Saigon and during R&R in Bangkok. The story becomes a sexual romp with a lineup of beautiful women with whom he falls in love. He promises the moon to each of them—after all, he was 19 years old.

Elkins repeatedly shatters today’s standards about sex and race. He warns the reader that he uses “some harsh words, some derogatory terms, and some graphic scenes.” He used them, he says, because he wanted his book to be “as realistic as possible.” He delivers in every department.

Phil Elkins loathed the Army. It stole a year of his life for no productive purpose, he believes. The book’s outrageousness shows, however, that despite the system, he followed his self-centered lifestyle, which makes his Vietnam War story one of a kind.

—Henry Zeybel

Fort Bragg to Hué by James M. Dorn

What is it with all these lawyers who, having served in the Vietnam War, after retiring from the bar, write a war memoir and not one about their lengthy legal careers. My theory is that their short war experiences are more memorable than their decades-long practice of law. 

One of the latest such war memoirs is Fort Bragg to Hué: A Paratrooper with the 82nd and 173rd Airborne in Vietnam, 1968-1970 (McFarland, 234 pp. $29.95, hardcover; $13.49, Kindle) by retired Army Maj. James M. Dorn. In this highly readable and lucid book, Dorn chronicles his two-year Vietnam War tour of duty, during which he served in three of the war’s four Corps—all except IV Corps in the Mekong Delta.

2nd Lt. Dorn and his 82nd Airborne unit—the Third Brigade—were sent to Vietnam on an emergency deployment in February 1968. He began as a Public Information Officer running a small brigade newspaper and added Post Exchange Officer to his portfolio. After five months, he was transferred and, as an XO, commanded his battalion’s defense perimeter at night for nine months. Then he was transferred to Saigon for five months to lead a platoon defending the U.S. Embassy. 

Dorn found his niche and his love as a platoon leader. Then he was transferred to the 173rd, where, for four months, he was in command of a recon platoon. After yet another transfer, he commanded another infantry platoon for six months. Then, after turning down an offer to be a staff XO, he ran squad-size patrols as a platoon leader in the pacification program. 

Dorn spent his final months in-country as an Assistant Operations Officer at battalion HQ.  He describes all those assignments in great detail.

A 173rd Trooper in-country

The strength of the book is how Dorn conveys the boredom, fatigue, mud, rain, leeches, and the endless and exhausting days humping the boonies on patrol without contact with the enemy. He pulls no punches in his criticism of some of the decisions made by superiors, several of which led to unnecessary casualties. He was relentless in his work ethic and preparation for operations and for the safety of his men. He was creative when necessary and—when deserved—praises his superior officers.

Dorn had limited contact with the Vietnamese people, but, after politely refusing to use nuoc mam (fermented fish) sauce at the one meal he had with a Vietnamese family, I hope he has since acquired a taste for it.

Dorn recounts a USO show in which he first thought the veteran actor and World War II veteran Tom Tully was a “wino.” In the book, he belatedly offers an apology and hopes that Tully will accept. Alas, Tully, who was nominated for an Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his role in The Caine Mutiny, cannot accept because he died in 1982. 

While on that Vietnam USO tour, Tully contracted a filarial worm, which ultimately led to the amputation of his left leg, as well as to pleuritis, deafness and serious debilitation, and alll but ended his acting career.

One can never imagine the story behind the person who pops out of a chopper for a USO show.

–Harvey Weiner