Letters to Pat by Bill Eshelman

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Retired Marine Corps Major Gen. Bill Eshelman dedicates his book, Letters to Pat: A Year in the Life of a Vietnam Marine (Koehler Books, 182 pp. $26.95, hardcover; $16.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle), to his wife who “lived through the war” by reading the letters he wrote home.

Eshelman graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1959, then went into the Marines, becoming an instructor at The Basic School at Quantico. He enjoyed training young Marines to lead other young Marines, but once the men were sent to Vietnam, he decided to serve there as well. Eshelman hoped he could become an infantry company commander to be tested in combat.

Since he already was a captain, Eshelman feared he would be promoted too quickly to get much time in as a CO, so before being sent to Vietnam he requested training at Ft. Bragg’s school for advisers. He believed if he could be an adviser to a South Vietnamese unit it would ensure that he got more of a “first-hand look at the war.”

Arriving outside Da Nang in October of 1967 Eshelman was determined to relay his day-to-day thoughts on the war as he was living it by penning regular letters to his wife. In his book he adds notes from his combat journal to the two hundred or so letters.

His first job was as a battalion logistics officer, resupplying all battalion units with ammo, explosives, and other materiel. The battalion’s main mission seemed to be keeping the Da Nang airfield from being rocketed and keeping Highway 1 open to the north.

Being promoted to major, Eshelman became especially upset over all the paperwork his job entailed “to appease higher HQ.” Much of it involved incidents between Marines and Vietnamese citizens. Eshelman thought the cases were often unfair because the Marines were always required to prove their innocence.

Before long, he was sent south to III Corps to be a senior adviser with the 4th Battalion Vietnamese Marine Corps (VNMC). He was happy serving with Vietnamese troops because he knew that if “the war if it is to be won,” the South Vietnamese would have to do it, “not the U.S. Marine Corps.” During his time in Vietnam Eshelman saw combat action in all four Corp areas and was constantly running into men he knew back in the States.

During the major 1968 Tet Offensive Eshelman saw a great deal action in both Saigon and Hue. He used these letters home as a “way of letting off steam.” There were times when he and his men took part in operations in which they “swam more than we walked,” he writes, and times they had the simple pleasure of eating a fresh pineapple.

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Capt. Eshelman in Vietnam

He left South Vietnam in October 1968 for Thailand and carried one big takeaway from the war. Eshelman believed that the American advisory effort probably prolonged the war, maybe making it unwinnable, because it failed to give the South Vietnamese military a big enough role in over-all decision making.

This is an important addition to books covering what happened in the Vietnam War in 1967-68 and to those dealing with the relationship between the U.S. and South Vietnamese military.

The book’s website is letterstopat.com

–Bill McCloud

Survival Uncertain By Lee Cargill

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In writing about the Vietnam War experiences of eight 1963 U.S. Naval Academy graduates in Survival Uncertain (253 pp. $27.95, hardcover; $15.95, paper), Lee Cargill focuses on Lt. Jim Kelly Patterson, the only one that did not return home.

Cargill thoroughly describes the sustained but unsuccessful effort to rescue Patterson, the navigator and bombardier of an A-6A Intruder that was shot down by a Soviet SA-2 SAM missile on May 19, 1967. The plane’s pilot became a prisoner of war for six years, but Patterson simply disappeared.

Cargill broadly speculates about Patterson’s destiny, including the idea that he became “Moscow Bound”—traded to the Soviet Union by heavily indebted North Vietnam. Extensive post-war searches in Vietnam have failed to resolve Patterson’s fate, and he has attained legendary stature, although officially listed as KIA.

Among the seven other men (including himself) Cargill writes about, four were pilots, two served aboard ships, and one was a road construction engineer. Aside from being in the USNA Class of ’63, all of the men took part in Cargill’s wedding party at Annapolis on graduation day.

The men speak for themselves with Cargill providing continuity. Their stories are exciting, particularly those dealing with search-and rescue-missions. A few of them were troubling, however, such as a helicopter pilot reporting: “[We] knew the location of the downed pilot but were not allowed to enter the airspace over North Vietnam until clearance was received from Washington, DC, which took over an hour.”

The participants do not make a big issue about the voids in leadership and unproductive tactics because such stories often have been told before. Nevertheless, the rancor felt for higher headquarters mismanagement persists.

Cargill completes the book’s combat action with an appendix that provides details about the combat deaths of members of the USNA Class of 1963.

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Capt. Cargill

As a postscript, Cargill discusses court martial charges that he and five others faced based on a sailor’s death aboard the USS Ranger aircraft carrier in 1981. His study of the case provides a detailed look into the military justice system.

As the ship’s XO, Cargill was found not guilty of all charges. The administrative aftermath of the case, however, effectively ended Capt. Cargill’s career progression, and he chose an early retirement from the Navy.

Survival Uncertain confirms the camaraderie and mutual esteem that Annapolis graduates have for each other. Their unified spirit forms a foundation for Navy operations, most effectively during desperate times.

Profits from sale of the book will be donated to non-profit organizations that benefit young people, Cargill says.

The book’s website is https://survival-uncertain.com/

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

 

 

 

 

From the West Side to the Wardroom by Matthew J. Coffey

With the days dwindling down to a precious few for many Vietnam War veterans, the urge to tell all grows more compelling. A third generation sailor, Mathew J. Coffey, fulfills a need to recognize his family’s military achievements in his new memoir, From the West Side to the Wardroom: An Irish-American Journey (Xlibris, 142 pp. $26.95, hardcover; $16.95, paper; $3.99 Kindle).

Coffey, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, spent his one-year, 1968-69 tour of duty as a lieutenant aboard the USS Caddo Parish (LST-515), a World War II Class 491 LST that arrived in Vietnam in December 1965. Coffey recounts his wartime experiences in the middle part of the book. After four years of active duty, Coffey spent twenty years in the Navy Reserves and retired as a Captain.

With three-to-four page vignettes, Coffey sandwiches descriptions of his Navy hitch between slices of stories about his pre-war and post-war lives. He also includes details of the war-time achievements of his grandfather and father, veterans of the two World Wars.

To me, the book’s greatest value lies in Coffey’s reflections about people, events, and places from the past. For example, he vividly and evocatively describes a tough Italian Catholic chaplain, a bizarre funeral, and, of course, his ship’s wardroom. His short stories provide an education in themselves.

The Caddo Parrish in Vung Tau, South Vietnam, 1969

The book concludes with “The Pass Down Log”—a stage play with a cast of Matthew, his wife, father, and grandfather—which zeroes in on dynamic times in the family’s  history.

All proceeds from sale of the book go to an eighty-two-year-old priest—one of Coffey’s former high school teachers in Mineola, New York—who today works with poor people in Vietnam.

—Henry Zeybel