Quang Tri Cadence by Jon Oplinger

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A Golden Oldie. That’s my category for Quang Tri Cadence: Memoir of a Rifle Platoon Leader in the Mountains of Vietnam (McFarland, 220 pp. $19.99, paper) by Jon Oplinger. The book is a reprint of the original 1993 edition.

Oplinger served in D Company with the 2nd/5th of the Army’s First Cavalry Division in 1968. His writing is lively, to the point, and humorous as he shows the drama and trauma of combat. His reflections on the behavior of young soldiers and old commanders fascinated me. More so, the practicality of Oplinger’s actions delighted me. At the platoon level he understood that everything he and his men possessed beyond their bodies was expendable—an attitude that went unappreciated by his superiors.

He shows how uncertainty prevailed during his platoon’s day-after-day, usually unproductive ambushes and search-and-destroy missions. Yes, he includes de rigueur topics such as subsisting on C-rations, humping heavy loads, and navigating through jungles while lost, but his explanations rest on an undertone of amazement more than anger.

Oplinger enlisted in the Army after flunking out of college. He earned a commission through OCS, went to Vietnam, and suffered wounds that hospitalized him for seven months. He returned to civilian life as a student at Kent State University just in time for the May 1970 riots.

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Oplinger

People who do not read the white spaces might classify Quang Tri Cadence strictly as a downer. But WTF—for most people, the entire Vietnam War was a downer.

Downer or not, Oplinger made me both laugh and shed a tear more than once over the trials of the infantrymen caught up in the thick of things.

Jon Oplinger is a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Maine at Farmington.

—Henry Zeybel

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

R.E.M.F.:  Vietnam’s Other GIs by John Vandevanter Carter

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John Vandevanter Carter was born and raised in Iowa and attended the University of Iowa before and after he served as a U.S. Army officer in the Vietnam War. His memoir, R.E.M.F.: Vietnam’s Other GIs (Sunbury Press, 468 pp. $19.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle), is much more than a commentary on the Vietnam War. It’s also about race relations in Vietnam during the war, and no book has treated the in-country Vietnam War drug culture more thoroughly than this one.

Van Carter served in Vietnam in 1970-71, the period that the war was beginning to wind down, and when drugs and race relations had started to become serious problems. I’ll mention here that I wrote a book, a novel, based on my tour of duty in Vietnam as an Army enlisted man, 1966-1967.  My book, REMF Diary, is very different from Carter’s.  There is almost no mention of drugs or race relations in the book, as during that period of time those issues were minor. Plus, I was writing from the point of view of an enlisted man.

Carter, on the other hand, was sent to Vietnam  in July 1970 as an infantry officer. However, due to his poor eyesight he served his entire tour of duty in the rear as an executive officer. Carter was stationed at Phu Tai at Camp Humper Stone.

Carter devotes much space in his book to his relationship with a young Vietnamese woman with whom he fell in love—and to describing the rampant corruption that the Americans brought with them to Vietnam. Carter himself participated in the corruption. He smoked carloads of marijuana, frequented houses of prostitution, defied the authority of the Army, and even visited an opium den. He struggled to get some of his men off of their addictions to heroin, and was successful with some.

Carter’s memoir is very well written and employs much humor. It is the best Army officer memoir I have read that deals with service in the rear. Carter’s wit and humor are evident on virtually every page. They make the book stand head and shoulders above most Vietnam War infantry memoirs.

Plus, he doesn’t beat the same old dead horses. I didn’t notice a single reference to John Wayne or Audie Murphy, for example, which was fine with me. Carter does deal with Agent Orange, baby killing, the Black Syph, fragging and crotch rot, which he was cursed with for much of his tour of duty.

I highly recommend Van Carter’s R.E.M.F. to those searching for a Vietnam War book that deals with that conflict from a different angle.

–David Willson

A Spear-Carrier in Viet Nam by Michael E. Tolle

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The strength of A Spear-Carrier in Viet Nam: Memoirs of an American Civilian in Country, 1967 and 1970-1972 (McFarland, 201 pp. $35.00, paper; $9.99, Kindle) derives from author Michael E. Tolle’s ability to reconstruct his youthful observations of what turned out to be a failed mission.

The book is “not a researched work of history,” Tolle says. A self-professed libertarian conservative of white privilege, he primarily worked from memory to draw a picture of a politically and economically corrupt South Vietnam. The broad cultural gap between American expectations and Vietnamese values, he says, doomed most projects on which he worked as a civilian.

Tolle’s first adventure in South Vietnam followed his sophomore year at Georgetown University. He spent that summer as a volunteer for the World Relief Commission, a Protestant missionary organization, in Da Nang. After graduating from college and completing a year of Vietnamese language training, he served a second tour with the U.S. Agency for International Development as an Assistant Relief/Rehabilitation Officer with MACV Advisory Team 38 in Bac Loc and Saigon.

His father’s position as a USAID education adviser helped Tolle enter diplomatic ranks as “both the youngest and lowest-ranking member of the USAID staff in Viet Nam,” he believes. “I made no policy while there, but only executed the policies of others,” he says.

Despite his underling status, Tolle accepted responsibilities beyond his pay grade and found himself engaged with a profusion of problems. His ability to circumvent rules (or the lack thereof) allowed him to perform remarkably well. Working mainly with refugees, Tolle’s tasks included:

  • Dealing with more than 10,000 Cambodians—overwhelmingly farmers with no belongings—who were fleeing ethnic cleansing.
  • Distributing building materials such as cement and 4-by-8-foot sheets of corrugated steel.
  • Finding use for food provided by America—such as bulgur wheat and a mixture known as CSM—that the Vietnamese considered inedible. Concurrently, guarding highly desirable vegetable oil from theft.
  • Preventing corruption and deceit that surrounded any project that involved doling out money to local contractors.
  • Briefing general officers who appeared to be merely filling squares.

In discussing his interactions with American and Vietnamese leaders, Tolle eventually resigned himself to their selfish behavior. “Siphoning off” America’s “copious material wealth was an understood fact of life at every level,” he says. Likewise, the Vietnamese ignored American pacification strategies.

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Michael Tolle

An assignment to Saigon made Tolle’s final year in-country relatively pleasurable. His American wife had a job in the city, and together they enjoyed short visits to Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos.

Tolle looks back on the war as a “transformative experience” for him. With a career in Foreign Service in mind, he had attended Georgetown because of its strong international relations program. By the end of his service in Vietnam, however, he determined that he “was simply not suited for that kind of work.”

Tolle also has written What Killed Downtown? Norristown, Pennsylvania: From Main Street to the Malls, and They’ve Been Down So Long, Getting Up’s Still On Their Minds, both of which deal with the demise of Pennsylvania steel mills.

His website is michaeltolle.com

—Henry Zeybel

Invisible Scars of War by Dick Hattan

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At the age of twenty-five in 1971, Dick Hattan served in the Vietnam War with the 101st Airborne Division at Phu Bai. His intelligence and his college degree qualified him for a clerical position at division headquarters, a job he readily accepted.

“I didn’t live through any firefights,” Hattan says in his memoir, Invisible Scars of War: A Veteran’s Struggle with Moral Injury (Woodstock Square Press, 188 pp. $15.30, paper; $7.95, Kindle). “I never really thought that I was out of danger, though.” The danger came from occasional mortar rounds that struck the base and guard duty he performed along the base’s perimeter.

“This was my war, my life,” he says, “eleven months gouged out of my young life.”

Hattan discusses his Vietnam War tour in Invisible Scars of War, which also recounts life-long emotional problems he has had that were caused by betrayals from the Army, the United States government, and the Catholic Church. He describes himself as “a man of peace” who “suffered wounds that were not visible to the naked eye,” and cites God for going AWOL during the traumatic periods of his life.

The institutions in his life, Hattan writes, forced him to “do something against my better judgment, antithetical to my own moral code.”  Conflicted emotionally, he hated himself for participating in an unjust war, although he was proud to fulfill his duty.

When he was drafted into the Army, Hattan believed he would be a citizen-soldier who owed allegiance to his nation. His father and other neighborhood World War II veterans, as well as his Army instructors, overwhelmed him by emphasizing “My country, right or wrong.” He never considered fleeing to Canada or claiming conscientious objector status.

He debates the morality of war and the taking of human life at length in his book. Much of his argument relies on the teaching of Jesus. Regarding the Vietnam War, he writes that the United States failed to meet even one of seven principles that decide whether or not a war is morally valid.

A former altar boy and wannabe priest, Hattan felt betrayed by the Catholic Church after realizing that its bishops’ neutrality in not speaking out against it, condoned the Vietnam War. The acceptance of war by Army chaplains particularly offended him. Eventually, he left the church.

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Dick Hattan 

To my disappointment, he offers no solutions to stop our government from arbitrarily starting new wars. Still, Hattan characterizes America’s long-time involvement in Iraq as “an unnecessary war.” Sometimes his arguments lapse into a low-key style that sounds as if he is trying to convince himself of the validity of his feelings and conclusions.

Hattan’s post-war life confirms his sincerity, however. During forty-four years as a health care executive, Dick Hattan discovered that his calling was healing. He worked with war veterans to mend what he cites as “fragmentation of the soul.” Performing pastoral care in his church led him to expand his education and become a priest in the Independent Catholic Church in 2015.

Hattan summarizes the Vietnam War as a “seminal event in the lives of many young men who did what they were asked, often unwillingly, but were afraid to refuse.”

His website is dickhattan.com

—Henry Zeybel

Call Sign Dracula by Joe Fair

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In Call Sign Dracula: My Tour with the Black Scarves, April 1969 to March 1970 (Sunbury Press, 220 pp. $16.95, paper; $6.99, Kindle), Joe Fair has given us an honest little gem of a memoir about his tour of duty with the First Infantry Division in the I Corps war zone of South Vietnam. His text runs a short 125 pages, with 67 pages of photos, and an extensive fourteen-page glossary of terms and acronyms.

Fair’s style is conversational rather than narrative. There are lots of paragraphs that begin with “I,” and just tons of very short sentences. You just want to have a beer with him as he reminisces and tells his war stories.

It’s a cathartic book for Fair, but not an overly melodramatic one. He has a story to share, and its telling will resonate with those of us who have smelled the cordite, the blood, and the stink of war and have told our own stories, in our own way, to our own listeners. The stories about his battalion’s Black Scarves and the call sign Dracula alone are worth the read.

Fair takes the reader through his entire time in the Army, filling in his backstory with color commentary . While there are some syntax and structural issues, his message is more than adequately delivered from his self-proclaimed, uninitiated “good ol’ boy” point of view and experience. Fair, in his last chapters, speaks to the “maturing process” most Vietnam War veterans went through as we compared our in-country experiences and perspectives on lessons learned.

Upon his return to the World, he tells of being denied a beer at an airport bar for being under twenty-one—after spending a year on the ground with enemy contact as a machine gunner. He was old enough to fight and risk death in Vietnam, but not old enough to legally have a beer back home.

–Tom Werzyn

Noble Canine by Jimmie Moore

To avoid the likely possibility of living a grunt’s life in the jungle, Jimmie Moore plotted his own course through the Vietnam War. With the draft breathing down his neck, Moore enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, completed basic training and Security Police School, and became a K-9 sentry dog handler. During his 1969-70 tour of duty with the 37th Security Police Squadron at Phu Cat Air Base he patrolled the perimeter every night but six, he says, with German Shepherds Duke II and Junior.

Interactions between handlers and animals constitute the core of Moore’s Noble Canine: Search for the Edge (Steel Crow Productions, 240 pp. $27.95, hardcover; $16.95, paper; $9.95, Kindle). He examines those relationships in totality in the book, and his candor makes enjoyable reading. Beyond that, Moore’s accounts of in-country activities parallel the experiences of many Vietnam War veterans.

Moore recalls the challenges of K-9 training at Lackland Air Force Base, a time when a seasoned sentry dog severely tested his ability to control him. In Vietnam, Moore faced similar challenges while working with Duke II and Junior, both of whom were later euthanized. Moore deplores Air Force policy that dictates death for sentry dogs that no longer can perform their duties; their aggression, the military argues, precludesthem from becoming pets.

A dog’s highly refined ability to hear and smell made it the team leader in nighttime patrolling. Dogs responded to anything approaching the base far sooner than handlers could. Moore often visualized life without a dog and how he might be shot and killed before recognizing a threat.

Jimmie Moore was nineteen years old while at Phu Cat. Initially, he spent as much time as possible in nearby Qui Nhon. He gets specific when reminiscing about local women and the pleasures they taught him. Eventually, following ten-hour night patrols, he grew contented with 8:00 a.m. beer drinking and poker games with eight other handlers he had trained with at Lackland.

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He recalls events meaningful to all of them. Viet Cong fighters attacked the base four times during the year he was there, but they hit distant ammunition and fuel storage areas. Along with Moore, the eight handlers ate in mess halls, slept in beds, and made it through the year unscathed.

Old documents, letters, and recollections frame this memoir. The book overflows with reconstructed dialogue as Moore took, he says, “a few liberties to fill in the blanks without infringing on the story’s truth.”

People who love dogs should love Noble Canine.

The book’s website is www.moorek9.com

—Henry Zeybel