Fate Unknown: Reflections of a Combat Tour (Labuela, 420 pp., $19.95, paper: $5.99, Kindle) pays tribute to the men of A Company of the 1/327th in the 101st Airborne Division during their deployment to Vietnam in 1965-66. The book follows the unit—called “Abu Company”—from its arrival by ship at Cam Ranh Bay to An Khe, and then through operations around Phan Rang, Tuy Hoa, and Dak To.
The author, retired Army 1st Sgt. Galen G. Mitchell, led an Abu weapons squad that spent eight months in the field. One of the more fully trained men in Abu, Mitchell had enlisted at age seventeen in 1961. He shipped home early from Vietnam after being shot in the face.
The book’s subtitle labels these stories as “Reflections,” and that is exactly what Mitchell provides. He pulls no punches analyzing combat and life in the field. The accounts of frequent encounters with the NVA provide a flow of facts and opinions about the learning curve of the Screaming Eagles, one of the first infantry units sent to Vietnam. He relates the behavior of men in his platoon to how their actions provided lessons for others.
Proud of his fellow warriors, Mitchell immortalizes them in chapter after chapter: Sgt. John T. Humphries, RTO Raymond T. “Rocky” Ryan, Pfc. Manual F. Fernandez, Staff Sgt. Billy R. “One Zero” Robbins, Pfc. Jimmie Lee Stacy, Lt. Eugene R. New, Pfc. James D. Wilson Sr., Pfc. Blair “T-Bird” Funderburk, Staff Sgt. Milton E. McQueeney, Spec.4 Reuben L. “Sweet Daddy Grace” Garnett Jr., and many more.
The strength of Mitchell’s memoir is his ability to personalize these men, both survivors and those killed in action. He respects his fellow soldiers without reservation.
“I can truly say that throughout my career, the best unit I ever served with was Abu,” he writes. In 1971 Mitchell served a second tour in Vietnam with the 173rd Airborne Brigade.
Mitchell’s experience of platoon-level combat more than qualifies him as an expert on the subject. Two chapters I found especially informative were “Collateral Damage” and “Gut Check,” which contain Mitchell’s deepest insights into casualties and leadership. He repeatedly lauds support fire provided by artillery and air power, from helicopter gunship strafing to B-52 carpet-bombing.
The last third of the book concentrates on his unit’s battle near My Phu, where Mitchell was wounded, and another near Dak To, which took place after his medical evacuation. He makes a sound case in faulting his Brigade Commander, Maj. David H. Hackworth, for the high American casualty count in both engagements. He chastises Hackworth for favoritism, a dearth of camaraderie, and, more so, for a lack of tactical savvy.
Mitchell also strongly criticizes Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara for mismanagement of the war, particularly the heartless treatment of men in Project 100,000 after the fighting stopped.
Although the book focuses on the men of Abu, Mitchell briefly mentions his childhood and his long Army and civilian careers. He devotes a chapter to explaining the origin and tradition of the Abu mascot.
Many photographs distributed throughout the book greatly enhance the text.