Richard Udden enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1969 for two years. Not long after a tour in Vietnam, he got an early out, hence the title of his war memoir: 21 Months, 24 Days (CreateSpace, 304 pp., $14.95, paper). I read it. I enjoyed it.
“I did not want to write one of those typical war stories about battles won and lost,” Udeen says. Instead, he recalls his military career by relating the stories behind photographs he took in Nam as an infantryman. “I took my pictures between firefights,” he says, “not during them.” The book contains about a hundred pictures.
Udden served in the 2/12th of the 1st Cavalry Division, operating from Fire Support Base Button. His company carried out search and destroy missions along the Cambodian border. Many started with a helicopter assault. He describes them as “like hunting a mountain lion that was lying in wait for you.”
Initially, Udden writes in the innocent voice of the twenty-year-old he was in 1970. He easily accommodated to the rigors of Army training by paying attention and following orders. Proud of becoming a soldier, he knew that he had distanced himself from civilians forever. But the Vietnam War was a mysterious world that constantly presented new problems, physically and psychologically.
As Udden tells his story, the innocence in his voice takes on an overlay of resignation and then self-preservation. To escape the hardship of jungle fighting, Udden volunteered to become helicopter door gunner, but promotion to sergeant (with only ten months of total service) disqualified him for the job.
The frequency, intensity, and duration of firefights greatly increased during his company’s incursion into Cambodia in May and June of 1970. After a booby trap wounded him and killed a close friend, all innocence vanished. Udden simply wanted out of the war. Yet when his wounds healed, Udden did not object to returning to the jungle.
1st Cav troops during the 1970 Cambodian incursion
Like many Vietnam War memoirs, this one contains a large amount of material that will be familiar to readers of military literature. Udden details the use of rifles, Claymore mines, fragmentation and smoke grenades, uniforms, backpacks, C-rations, the P-38, LRP rations, heat tabs, C-4, and other equipment. Once long ago, these objects were wondrous to him; now, he wants the reader to understand their importance to his survival.
He makes a case for smoking marijuana based on the familiar declaration that, among lower ranks, smoking “ganja” was acceptable, but never in the field. A first-time smoker in Vietnam, he eventually learned to roll his own.
The oldest of six children in a blue-collar family, Richard Udden did not get along with his father. Self-reliant practically from birth, he “began work as a young kid” and paid his way through his childhood and teens. He joined the Army partially to leave home. A draft deferment had allowed him to complete a two-year machinist course following high school, and he expected to use that skill in the Army. Manpower needs assigned him to the infantry, which made him feel cheated, but he did not complain.
Again, like many Vietnam War memoirs, this book offers little that is new about humping through the jungle. But a good war memoir’s message is a matter of perspective. In other words, the progression of an author’s actions and feelings about the world before, during, and after exposure to combat often is the most interesting aspect of a war story. I partially judge autobiographies based on how much soul a writer is willing to bare. In this respect, Udden scores high.
He closes on an off-beat note. Back in the States, rather than being despised by the antiwar crowd or looked-down-upon by war hawks, he encountered indifference. Udden had completed the most dramatic period of his life and was “standing tall and feeling good” about himself. But no one seemed to notice or care.
“It was as if I was invisible,” he says.
Wait, wait, Richard. Our parade should be along any moment now.
The author’s website is www.21months24days.com/our-story.html