Not for God and Country by William M. Murphy

William M. Murphy served as rifleman with the 9th and 27th Marine regiments in 1969-70 in the Vietnam War. In his Vietnam War memoir Not for God and Country (Koehler Books, 286 pp., $26.95, hardcover; $18.95, paper), he accomplishes three significant literary feats.

First, the many battlefield stories Murphy describes confirm the thesis inherent in the book’s title by emphasizing that he and his fellow Marines were fighting “to protect the life of the nineteen-year-old grunt next to us, and he was returning the favor.” In doing so, Murphy strongly illuminates the feelings of his comrades, who came to believe the war “did not have to happen.”

Riflemen fighting a war together form a strange brotherhood, Murphy says. Men who in the real world would not have been friends become friends. Grating attitudes and personalities are overlooked. Men who would never have been beer-drinking buddies back home bond. In the jungles of Vietnam they would die for one another. It was that simple, Murphy says. 

Second, Murphy examines Operation Allen Brook, an all-but-ignored sustained Marine attack on North Vietnamese Army reinforced bunkers on Go Noi Island south of Da Nang that lasted from May to August of 1968. He details the horrors of a stalemated battle replete with accumulating dead bodies. He withholds nothing in describing the effects of weapons on flesh and bone. Late in the operation, the Marines resorted to a near-suicidal frontal assault against heavily defended fortifications. The U.S. government downplayed Allen Brook in fear of a public outcry because of the high number of American casualties.

Murphy also vividly recalls his unit’s frequent engagements during Operation Dewey Canyon six months after Allen Brook, “wandering the mountains and seeking out the enemy.” His fascinating recollections center on the exploits of four Marine Medal of Honor recipients—three of whom were young enlisted men recognized posthumously.

Murphy’s recounting of Operation Allen Brook reminded me of Ed Sherwood’s Courage Under Fire: The 101st Airborne’s Hidden Battle at Tam Ky, which revealed fighting that also was kept under wraps by the U.S. government due to heavy American losses.

Murphy in country

Recalling his Marine Corps career from enlistment to separation constitutes Murphy’s third notable literary achievement. Basically, he provides a primer about an enlisted man’s military life in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

He describes the ins and outs of political influence on the military, on duty selection, training, deployment, and repercussions associated with returning to civilian life. He compares those who fought in the Vietnam War with today’s troops and the conditions under which they operated. The book is an excellent starting point for young people seeking knowledge about military service.

Not for God and Country closes with sections that break down Vietnam War casualties by deaths per year, followed by KIA data: age, home state, race, pay grade, branch of service, and country of occurrence. It also includes MIA information and the numbers of allied nations’ KIAs.

Bill Murphy served one enlistment. Afterward, for thirty-five years, he excelled in an environmental law career, and has written six guidebooks about touring the Great Lakes region. His website is williammurphyauthor.com/books

—Henry Zeybel

An Officer’s Journey by Richard A. Moore

Richard Moore’s An Officer’s Journey: Coming of Age in the Vietnam Era, (203 pp. $10, paperback; $1.99, Kindle) is written in the form of a journal covering Moore’s first engineering job after college and his two years in the U.S. Army, including one in the Vietnam War.

Rick Moore graduated from college in May 1969 with a bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering. Having also completed ROTC training, he was immediately commissioned a 2nd lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineers. For a few months, while awaiting his active-duty reporting date, he worked as a field engineer for a company that designed, fabricated, and installed large steel tanks.

In September, he reported to Fort Belvoir and spent a year teaching engineering principles and techniques to enlisted and commissioned Army personnel assigned to the Corps of Engineers. While at Belvoir, he received orders for Vietnam, where he served the balance of his two-year commitment as a platoon leader in the 815th Engineer Battalion in the 18th Engineer Brigade at Camp Dillard in the Central Highlands.

With the front cover showing the author in battle gear and toting an M-79, you might think the book contains accounts of wartime action. It doesn’t. In An Officer’s Journey Moore describes his thoughts about the possibility of attacks, but none took place during his tour of duty. Moore and others have surmised that the VC and NVA purposely did not often bother engineers, believing that they would win the war, and the more roads the American military built, the better shape they would be in when they eventually took over.

When the war strategy changed from search and destroy to Vietanamization, morale began to deteriorate. Moore discusses problems with drugs, booze, racial strife, and deteriorating discipline. 

Throughout the book, Moore is painfully honest about his actions and his feelings. He seems to have been affected by some of the same issues experienced by other Vietnam War veterans. Like many American troops, his overriding goal was to survive unscathed, go home, and get out of the military.

The two main themes in this book are Rick Moore’s personal dealings with life in general and his descriptions of civil engineering and road construction activities.

–Bob Wartman

Busted by W.D. Ehrhart

Busted: A Vietnam Veteran in Nixon’s America (McFarland, 173 pp. $19.99, paper), originally published in 1995, is a reissue of the third volume of W.D. Ehrhart’s three-part memoirs. That is good news, since Bill Ehrhart is one of the most significant American poets of the war in Vietnam, and it’s important to keep all of his works in print.

The first books of the series are Vietnam-Perkasie: A Combat Marine Memoir (1983) and Passing Time: Memoir of a Vietnam Veteran Against the War (1989). Ehrhart also has written many books of poetry and essays dealing with his Vietnam War service—and with war in general.

While you might think it’s best to have read the first two books in a series prior to reading the third, in Busted Ehrhart fills in all the backstory you need. The book begins just a few days after the end of the previous one. It’s not divided into chapters or broken up in any way. It just starts and goes in pretty much of a stream-of-consciousness style.

After completing his Marine Corps service and graduating from college, Bill Ehrhart took a job as a seaman on an oil tanker. He was busted by the Coast Guard for possession of pot, was fired, and faced federal charges unless he agreed to give up his seaman’s card, which he had no plans to do. In the book Ehrhart describes what he was thinking then and comments on the House Judiciary Committee’s hearings on the impeachment of Richard Nixon.

Ehrhart says his first night at boot camp on Parris Island was “the most terrifying experience of my life,” due to the harassment of the drill instructors. It didn’t help that a DI told him he was “going to die on this island.” That’s a lot to handle for a seventeen year old.

Then came orders for Vietnam. “What I found in Vietnam bore no resemblance to what I had been led to expect by Lyndon Johnson and Time magazine and my high-school history teachers,” Ehrhart writes (he would later become a high-school history teacher himself.). Because of his Vietnam War service, he says, “I had become something evil, but I did not know what it was or how it happened or why.”

Bill Ehrhart back in the day

He later joined the antiwar movement, then decided to go to sea in an attempt to escape the political and social chaos in the U.S.A. That’s how he ended up in his cabin in port at Long Beach, California, when his door banged open.

“I was scared shitless” are the first four words in the book. He later told his mom, “I’ve been smoking dope ever since Con Thien.” Then said, “So marijuana is illegal, but it’s okay to drop napalm on gooks.”

From time to time, Ehrhart—who received the Vietnam Veterans of America Excellence in the Arts Award in 2008—writes about Vietnam War atrocities and his visits from the hallucinatory ghosts of men killed in combat. The book ends with the conclusion of his trial.

Bill Ehrhart thinks like a poet and writes like one. And what he has to say is important. That’s why all of his books no longer in print should also be re-issued.

–Bill McCloud

Girls Don’t by Inette Miller

At first impression, Girls Don’t: A Woman’s War in Vietnam (Texas Tech University Press, 256 pp. $29.95, hardcover; $8.99, Kindle) seems implausible and irreverent. The cartoon illustrations on the book cover don’t help, but they accurately reflect the colorful, rebellious personality of Inette Miller, a 23-year-old journalist who married her draftee boyfriend in order to follow him to Vietnam in 1970. Their marriage was an ill-kept secret.

Besides being an unusual chronicle of the war, this memoir is a coming-of-age story. An emerging feminist who protested the war in college, Miller fought her own “war within” of conflicting pressures and emotions.

From 1965-73, a total of 1,742 accredited American reporters covered the Vietnam War. Only 232 were women. Half were in country less than a month and most, Miller claims, never left Saigon.

In contrast, Girls Don’t begins with Miller in a Medevac helicopter out of Khe Sanh. The chopper is hit and then “the worst” happens. Miller–who covered the war for Time magazine—lived to tell the tale, but the reader doesn’t know fully what the worst was until later in the book.

Covering January 1970 to March 1971, Miller draws from her journal and letters she sent home. Written mostly in the present tense, her descriptions and dialogue seem pulled verbatim from those sources, giving the narrative a sometimes disjointed, but vivid, flow.

Miller’s tone often seems naïve, or at least cringe-inducing. She describes skies above Quang Tri, for example, as “crystal blue like a chlorinated swimming pool” and the Ho Chi Minh Trail as “visible from above as a dirt road through a country fair.”

As events unfold, though, her voice evolves, and her observations become more insightful. Most notable are her descriptions of three trips into Cambodia. The first came when she flew to Phnom Penh in March of 1970, where she was “the only Western correspondent to enter Cambodia in years,” she says. (You have to take her word for it; some statements inspire skepticism).

In May she went with other journalists on a short press junket, which she compares to “a fifth grade field trip.” On the way there, an Army private told Miller: “I liked the Vietnamese when I got here. Now I hate them. They’re out to get us. I just want out of here. I want to go home.”

In June, she hitchhiked with two other reporters from Saigon to Phnom Penh, and saw burned villages and bodies and barely camouflaged landmines left on dirt roads by the Viet Cong.

Other chapters are equally vivid. Descriptions and reflections about life in Saigon, her marriage, Army pettiness, and the impact of the American presence on Vietnamese social and cultural norms are all intertwined. Many anecdotes are tragic; others ironic and humorous.

Assigned as a typist in the Army Provost Marshall’s office, Miller’s husband was busted after displaying antiwar cartoons around his desk. When not on duty, he donned civvies and curled up in “a private world” with Miller in a room she rented from a Vietnamese family.

Occasionally, her husband joined her to watch American movies with generals and colonels. During M*A*S*H, they “laughed [their] fool heads off” while the officers sat in “stony silence.”

On the streets of Saigon, they took once had to take cover as a sniper fired at motorcyclists. When an Army truck hit a 12-year-old boy and roared off, they stopped to help, only to be surrounded by an angry mob.

Inette Miller in country

The Medivac that barely made it back, Miller writes in the last chapter, had its tail “wrenched apart” and its body riddled with jagged holes—“the most dramatically destroyed helicopter I’d ever seen bring its crew and passengers back alive.”

By this time she has matured, and, in her telling, won the respect of male colleagues and combatants. Still, at that moment she felt “utterly exposed, raw and vulnerable.” The approval she had been seeking,” she realized, “had been my own.”

Inette Miller wanted to go home. With her husband’s tour of duty ending, they returned stateside in April 1971. Fifteen years later, they divorced.

Miller’s website is inettemiller.com

–Bob Carolla

Charlie Rangers at War by Darrel Gibson

In Charlie Rangers at War: An Infantry Soldier’s Journal, Vietnam (CreateSpace, 310 pp. $12, paper; $5.40, Kindle), Darrel Gibson provides a gripping account of his own Vietnam War experiences, as well as those of many fellow infantrymen. As an RTO in the Army’s 1st Infantry Division’s 1/16th Infantry (and later with the 9th Infantry Division’s 5/60th), Gibson was well placed to observe events, which he documented daily in a pocket notebook he kept wrapped in plastic.  

These notes are the foundation for this book nearly fifty years later, which Robert Cooper, his former platoon and company commander, helped Gibson put together. In 2017, Cooper was very ill, yet he worked tirelessly with Gibson through long, heavily detailed conversations by phone to craft this compelling history.

Gibson volunteered for the draft in January 1968, leaving his native Kansas City, Missouri, for six months of training, then arrived in Vietnam the following summer. 

Among the book’s many assets, a few deserve mention. First, by offering his own recollections and those of Cooper’s, Gibson adds those of other men from his platoon. Each man recounts his own experiences of the same action. When Gibson puts them together, they become a layered image of how, step by step, each action was fought. There are vivid details of the acrid smell of burnt gunpowder, the sight of enemy rocket-propelled grenades streaking close to the ground toward the Americans, and the near impossibility for the men to hear each other—let alone coordinate movements—as the lead is flying.

Then there are the descriptions of American tunnel rats who descended into the VC’s massive network of heavily reinforced and supplied tunnels. Filled with weapons and ammunition and supplies of nearly every kind, the tunnels also contained medical and maintenance facilities. These detailed accounts drive home the massive challenges American troops faced against a highly motivated enemy.

At the end of each chapter Gibson provides detailed accounts of the men in his unit who were killed in action. From the start, he drives home the point that each was more than a statistic—that his loss created a void in the world that could never be filled. 

–Mike McLaughlin

Kilo 3 by Richard W. Foster, Jr.

Richard Foster’s Kilo 3: The True Story of a Marine Rifleman’s Tour from the Intense Fighting in Vietnam to the Superficial Pageantry of Washington, D.C. (Outskirts Press, 298 pp. $49.95, hardcover; $33.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is a well-told memoir focusing on a couple of years in the life of a teen-aged Marine—years filled with hellish combat.

This is one of those memoirs that does not deal with the author’s life before or after his military service. It starts off with a nighttime ambush patrol in the Vietnam War, and then stays focused mainly on a period of just a few months.

Foster joined the Marines at 17. He had been a rebellious teenager growing up in Henrietta, Texas, near the Oklahoma border, when he sensed he was being called to serve his country by fighting in the Vietnam War. After completing boot camp, he spent six months at sea because the Marine Corps didn’t send men to Vietnam until they were eighteen. Before going to the war, when home on leave, fellow Marines told him: “You can go home all you want, but you can never be at home again. Your childhood is over.”

Once in Vietnam, one of the first things Foster heard was someone say, “Ain’t no heroes here, just survivors.” When he was sent to the 3rd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment he was told he would be “seeing a lot of shit.” Foster joined Kilo Company because, he says, “they recently got wiped out.”

During his Vietnam War tour of duty Foster spent time in Dong Ha, Da Nang, Cam Lo, Con Thien, and Khe Sanh. He writes about jumping into five-man fighting holes, holding his .45 in his lap while getting a quick haircut from a Vietnamese barber, taking sniper fire, what it was like to go two months without a shower, and having to retrace your steps to get out of a minefield. There also are depictions of close-combat fighting and a helicopter crashing for a reason I had not heard of before.

A short but important part at the end of the book finds Foster being recruited for the prestigious Marine Corps Color Guard at the Marine Corps Barracks in Washington, D.C. He accepted the job with mixed feelings.

As to why he wrote his book, Foster writes: “As other wars erupt around the world, it’s never too late to understand the misery and brutality of fighting on the ground or the detached glitter of Washington that continues unabated.”

Overall, his war story is not that much different than those told in many other Vietnam War memoirs, but Foster’s better than most at telling it. The book includes one of the most evocative collections of photos that I’ve seen in a memoir.

–Bill McCloud

Heavy Metal by Edward Roby

Edward Roby’s Heavy Metal: Memoir of a Distant War (112 pp., $20.99, hardcover; $11.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is a compelling look at the challenges faced by U. S. mechanized infantry units in the Vietnam War. In this anecdotal and highly detailed memoir Roby recounts his experiences commanding a First Infantry Division armored infantry company in the Central Highlands in Vietnam in 1967-68.

After graduating from West Point in 1964, Roby became a mechanized infantry officer in Germany. A captain three years later, he assumed command of a company in the Big Red One’s 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment. Operating on the Cambodian border, Roby and his men routinely intercepted NVA supply columns coming south from the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Roby notes that units like his spent more time in the field than leg infantry units. What’s more, because of the weaponry mechanized companies had, the enemy was less eager to engage them. Not that Roby and his men had an easy time of it, though, as too often the Viet Cong’s weapon of choice was landmines.

M113 armored personnel carriers were particularly vulnerable to mines. While Roby and his men made every effort to sweep for them, they never got them all. It wasn’t uncommon to see an APC stalled with wrecked tracks and road wheels blown free—or worse. As a result, most men rode on the tops of their vehicles rather than inside.

In one gripping passage Roby describes ordering an advance to help an infantry unit under fire. His men refused, certain that the road ahead was mined. True to his creed that no commander should give an order he wouldn’t follow himself, Roby led the column, telling his men to follow his vehicle’s track marks.

Roby also details health hazards his men faced, including a previously unknown strain of malaria that swept through the region in November 1967. With the standard anti-malarial pill ineffective against it, hundreds of men were incapacitated until the Army developed new medication.

An M113 APC of the 1st Infantry Division’s 2/2nd near Quan Loi,1969 

Agent Orange was used heavily in the zone, too. Many men exposed to the highly toxic herbicide suffered skin irritations so debilitating they had to be evacuated. At the time AO’s long-term effects were unknown. Many of Roby’s men later developed cancers and other serious illnesses caused by their exposure to Agent Orange after coming home from the war.

Perhaps most sobering is Roby’s recounting of a discussion he had with his first sergeant about how, by the spring of 1968, the character of the war had changed. The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese had suffered catastrophic losses after the Tet Offensive, but many people at home now believed that the war was unwinnable.

In Heavy Metal, Edward Roby weaves together a vivid account of one young infantry captain’s aspirations, burdens, and commitment to his men and his mission. It is well worth the read.

–Mike McLaughlin

Thunder: Stories from the First Tour by Jack Heslin

In Thunder: Stories from the First Tour (Outskirts Press, 284 pp. $19.95, paper), Jack Heslin presents a thoughtful, often hypnotic, account of his experiences as a UH-1 Huey assault helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War in Kontum Province in 1967-68. With an engaging and nuanced style, Heslin conveys the practical and emotional—and even sometimes the metaphysical—aspects of his first tour of duty. He informs his readers—and puts them in the cockpit beside him. 

Heslin attended Providence College and then was commissioned in June 1965. After Airborne training at Fort Benning, he joined the 82nd Airborne Division. Then came Rotary Wing School at Fort Wolters, after which Heslin joined the 57th Assault Helicopter Company at Fort Bragg.

When he arrived in Vietnam, Heslin learned that the 119th Assault Helicopter Company at Camp Holloway in the Central Highlands needed an aviation platoon leader. He immediately volunteered and got the job. During the next twelve months he flew hundreds of missions, was promoted to captain, and then became the company operations officer.

The 119th made many long flights during the Battle of Dak To, bringing troops and supplies to remote areas and taking out the wounded. Heavy enemy fire at the landing zones destroyed several helicopters and damaged many more in the Central Highlands’ rugged terrain. 

Heslin instills his words with warmth and humor, yet he readily acknowledges the fear that went with the work. He accepted it as an immutable condition, and acknowledged that if the worst happened, it happened..

Of exceptional interest are Heslin’s recollections of one supply mission to troops on a ridge line south of Dak To. Reaching them required making a vertical descent through a “hover hole” in the jungle canopy, barely wide enough to accommodate the ship. Any contact between the rotor blades and the trees could mean death.

Jack Heslin

Heslin relied on his door gunner and crew chief for constant guidance, such as “down two feet, now slide left three feet and come down ten feet.”  As they approached the ground, the canopy closed above them, blocking out the sky and immersing them in a shadowy world of green. 

“It was the most intense flying I had ever done up to that point,” Heslin writes. “I’d graduated from flight school with top grades for my flying ability, but nothing had prepared me for this kind of combat flying. I was at the extreme edge of my abilities and the capability of the Huey aircraft we were flying.”

Thunder illustrates the launch of Heslin’s extraordinary career as a pilot, operations officer, flight instructor, and more. Readers seeking a thoughtful, personalized account of flying over unforgiving terrain at the height of the Vietnam War should have Jack Heslin’s memoir on their bookshelves.

–Mike McLaughlin

Saigon Kids by Leslie Arbuckle

Saigon Kids: An American Military Brat Comes of Age in 1960’s Vietnam (Mango Media, 308 pp. $19.95, paper; $10.99, Kindle) is a tell-all book about the adventures of some self-proclaimed military brats, the sons and daughters of the American military service members, Foreign Service officials, and civilian families who lived in South Vietnam in the early 1960s. The book is an amalgam of accounts of teen-aged antics, along with a bit of gunfire, mortar fire, oppressive heat and humidity, Saigon traffic, and Buddhist Monk self-immolations.

Arbuckle, the second oldest of four sons of a U.S. Navy Chief Journalist who managed the Armed Forces Radio Station in Saigon from 1962-64, takes us along with his posse of friends as they navigated the heat, sounds, and smells of Saigon before the big buildup of American troops. His narrative toggles among angst-filled teenage dialogue, contemporary commentary about the U.S. war in Vietnam, and general philosophical impressions of what it was like living in the South Vietnamese capital at the time.

Arbuckle also regales us with tales of his family’s dealings with “just another duty station” in a “very hot place.” We get descriptions of his high-strung mother, his stern and demanding father, his two younger brothers, their Vietnamese maid, and how they interacted.

Some of Arbuckle’s stories about his social life—such as his quest for cigarettes and his visits to brothels and bars on To Do Street—border on the tedious. His stories of the goings on at the American Community School, however, enliven the narrative.

Arbuckle, who joined the Army in 1968 and was assigned to the 50th Army Band at Fort Monroe, Virginia, went on to became a professional musician. He played the saxophone and had a successful career. He writes about this talent in the book, but not to a great extent. We hear more about that in his author’s note at the end of the book.

Interestingly, in the Epilogue Arbuckle speaks of his own “struggles” with what we have come to recognize as post-traumatic stress. Some of what he has experienced does not differ from what those who fought in the war have gone through emotionally.

This is a well-written book with a cast of interesting characters.

Arbuckle’s website is lesarbuckle.com

–Tom Werzyn

Return to Saigon by Larry Duthie

Larry Duthie’s Return to Saigon: A Memoir (OK-3 Publishing, 295 pp. $27.95, hardcover; $16.77, paper; $11.77, Kindle) focuses mainly on the author’s time in Vietnam, which actually began a few years prior to his military service there during the war, and includes a visit he made to the country three decades later.

Duthie’s father was an engineer who took a job in Saigon in 1959 and moved with his family to Saigon. The author spent his senior year of high school attending the American Community School not far from Tan Son Nhut Airport.

In 1965 Duthie enlisted in the U.S. Navy. After a series of coincidences, he was selected from the enlisted ranks to train as a naval aviator. The following year he was in the seat of an A-4, attacking enemy targets in North Vietnam. Among other things, Duthie was shot down near Hanoi, and saved by a helicopter rescue crew that performed heroically under fire.

Throughout the book, I was tickled to read snippets of information of events yet to come, then quickly returned to the present. Later, out of the blue, these events would appear. This was done in a manner that flowed seamlessly, as in a conversation.

Duthie did a great job enabling me to visualize the action as I read. His terminology and descriptions are suitable for aviators and non-aviators alike.

I found two things that Duthie wrote about unsettling. One was that American policymakers’ large egos got in the way of proper action and lives were lost. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, for instance, once was aboard a ship and sat in on an air attack briefing. Because of his presence, the order-of-battle was not presented to the pilots. As a result, a pilot was shot down. 

Larry Duthie

Another instance involved the Air Force rescue team that had extracted Duthie from impending capture after he was shot down. The helicopter had headed back to rescue his wingman who had also been shot down.  A Navy admiral denied them permission to do so, stating, “The Navy takes care of its own.” Then a Navy rescue team failed in their attempt to extract that pilot. He was captured the next day and died in captivity as a POW.

Two minor complaints: I would have liked to have seen a map identifying Yankee Station and some of the land targets, as well as a few more images.

Duthie’s degree in journalism and his years in newspaper publishing are apparent in the book’s impeccable writing and editing. For that reason alone it was a very enjoyable read. But add to that the story Duthie tells, and Return to Saigon is a must read.

— Bob Wartman