David H. Lyman’s Vietnam War memoir, Seabee 71 in Chu Lai (McFarland, 240 pp. $35, paper; $18.99, Kindle), is a pleasant departure from the blood, the cordite, and the personal tragedies that are such a big part of other books of its type.
In this short book, Lyman takes us through his experiences as a photojournalist with Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 71 in Chu Lai in northern I Corps in 1967. This well-researched and well-written story of his seven-month in-country tour chronicles the projects, people, and adventures of his unit. Lyman draws deeply from his notes he took at the time, as well from the many photos he took to construct a compact book that centers on the story of what the Seabees built and maintained in support of the U.S. war effort.
Part of his photojournalist’s mission was to create and publish a battalion monthly newsletter called The Transit. Lyman did the field research, took and processed the photos, did the writing, and brought the whole thing to Tokyo to be printed at the Stars and Stripes production facilities.
Dave Lyman was in his late twenties when he went to Vietnam, somewhat older than many of his fellow enlisted seamen and the officers he dealt with. This is as much a story of civilian contractors, representing nearly all the trades, going to war rather than one man’s personal experiences.
Lyman adds some of his own history, though, including the decision that led him to join the Navy. He writes that he enlisted in the Naval Reserves in 1963, “primarily to avoid the draft and stay out of a foxhole in Vietnam.” In 1966, he says, he “was commandeered off a Navy ship” to join the newly formed Battalion 71. His journey through boot camp and advanced training with the Marines provides a bit of levity—mainly because the guys he trained with were going to be swinging hammers, not throwing grenades.
Lyman also provides a history of his unit since World War II and gives thumbnail bios of many of the sailors he mentions in the book.
This is a refreshing offering as it’s a bit lighter in subject matter than most Vietnam War memoirs. Yet it’s quite readable and provides another perspective on the Vietnam War that, at some levels, still consumes many of us who served.
The author’s website is www.seabee71.com