Fury by Joe Myles

Joe Myles wrote Fury: A Soldier’s Journey (Salt Water Media, 174 pp. $19.95, paper) to record his military experiences for his sons and grandchildren. In the book Myles describes his life as an infantryman with the Big Red One, the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Division, in the Vietnam War during his 1968-69 tour of duty. He also uses the book to teach his offspring lessons from experiences far beyond ordinary life.           

For example, after witnessing several members of his platoon die in combat, Myles says that he stopped dwelling on the loss of life. “I don’t feel I had become insensitive,” he writes. “I just shut down in some way, just to be able to cope. Our wonderful minds have a way of protecting us by putting us on automatic pilot to allow us to continue to function.”

As a draftee a year out of high school, Myles rapidly adapted to the Army’s demands. He demonstrated leadership skills and facility with weapons in infantry AIT and the accelerated NCO candidate course (AKA “Shake ‘n Bake School) at Fort Benning’s Infantry School, and during his brief duty as a drill instructor at Fort Polk. After less than a year on active duty, Myles was promoted to Staff Sergeant, E-6.          

How Joe Myles accomplished that feat is a marvelous story that takes up the first half of the book.           

Old timers resented his rapid rise through the ranks and questioned his abilities, which he more than adequately repeatedly proved to them while conducting search-and-destroy missions from Lai Khe Base Camp in South Vietnam. Assigned to a brigade woefully undermanned because of casualties, Myles was chosen to lead a platoon, a position normally filled by a lieutenant. Employing tactics he learned at Fort Benning made him more than the equal of OCS graduates. When a replacement lieutenant arrived, Myles’ company commander assigned him elsewhere and Myles kept his platoon leader slot.

Eventually, a glut of new lieutenants reduced Myles to the position of platoon sergeant. Soon after, however, the company commander called on him to pick a squad and lead a difficult rescue mission, a success for which Myles received a Bronze Star.                         

His strangest encounter occurred after his point men got lost in a rainstorm. His unit then walked into a firefight with NVA troops—at their Cambodian R&R camp. “We couldn’t report the battle results,” Myles says, “because we were out of country.”

After being hit by an RPG during an attack on Hill 178, his company commander’s last words appointed Myles to lead the company, which Myles did until his men reached the plateau and a lieutenant colonel replaced him. That’s when Myles suffered a horrendous chest wound. He survived and returned to his unit with four months left to serve in Vietnam. 

Myles’ accounts of combat make interesting reading because he experienced the Vietnam War from both the level of a grunt and that of a commander. Regardless of his leadership status or the task, Myles took part in everything his men did.

Despite an offer to remain on active duty with a choice between a commission as a second lieutenant or a promotion to Sergeant First Class, E-7—which would have made him the youngest SFC in the Army—Myles decided to accepted a discharge after arriving home in July 1969.

Big Red One troops in Vietnam

His final lesson to his offspring appears in an epilogue, and compares life to a roller-coaster ride.  As Myles puts it: “When you’re at the top of your game and taking a dive toward the bottom, throw your arms up above your head and enjoy the ride, because you won’t be at the bottom long.”

The book closes with twelve pages of color photographs. Their arrangement triggered flashbacks to the book’s major episodes, making them a perfect conclusion to the memoir of an exceptional warrior. 

—Henry Zeybel

Common Valor by S.T. Simms

I spent an entire day reading S.T. Simms’s slim Common Valor: Ambush at Srok Rung, November 7, 1967 (Little Miami, 103 pp., $14. paper), and I ain’t a slow reader. But I read many paragraphs more than once, fascinated by the battle scenes Simms recreated. His topic is the beating taken by the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry on November 7, 1967, near Srok Rung in South Vietnam.

Steve Simms was there. He talks about his participation, but the day’s drama comes primarily from eyewitness accounts of thirty other soldiers. Simms spent eight years finding and interviewing his fellow soldiers and researching the 1st Infantry Division’s Blue Spade Archives.

On that morning, with Alpha Company in reserve, Charlie and Delta companies of the 1/26 set out to find a North Vietnamese regiment believed to be in the area. The men knew that it would not be as easy day. As Chaplain John Talley, who accompanied them, put it, “Everybody was aware that this could be deep stuff.” Battalion Commander LTC Arthur Stigall reminded the men to travel with their “fingers on the triggers.”

Despite the warnings, that afternoon inside a rubber plantation the Blue Spaders walked into a U-shaped ambush by camouflaged NVA soldiers hidden high in trees and in ground-level brush. With an initial barrage of rocket propelled grenades, the NVA killed the entire 1/26 command element, including Stigall.

Valor was the order of the day for the men of the 1/26. On page after page, Simms describes the intensity with which they fought for their lives. Eighteen Americans were killed and thirty wounded before artillery and airpower drove off the NVA.

For unknown reasons, the Americans did not sweep the battleground or count enemy bodies. They recovered no documents and only a few enemy weapons.

Simms makes a strong case that the ambush never should have happened. He blames it on errors in judgment and training. For example, firepower was not employed early enough as the Americans chased NVA soldiers on foot rather than with artillery, which was waiting to be called. The Americans also failed to deploy cloverleaf patrol and withheld fire because they were unfamiliar with NVA uniforms and thought approaching troops might be ARVN soldiers.

On a broader scale, Simms faults the policy of rotating officers and NCOs between six months of combat and six months of off-line duty. “These policies led to dangerous mediocrity on the battlefield [and] to [poor] tactics, techniques, and procedures,” Gen. Paul Gorman said.

1st Infantry troops in Vietnam in 1967

Simms looks at the policy of using American troops as “bait” to entice the enemy to battle. Simms and Gorman condone using that tactic in the guise of search-and-destroy missions, noting that it was a good plan when executed properly. But Simms fails to examine how frequently offensive search-and-destroy missions became defensive nightmares as a result of NVA ambushes and countless well-placed booby traps.

Vietnam veterans who write autobiographies about their combat experiences these days tend to give greater recognition to the leadership and fighting skills of the North Vietnamese Army. Common Valor reflects that thinking. Simms notes that the NVA had the advantage of “concealment and surprise” and were “masters at camouflage and tunneling.” He also recognizes their ability to “hold on to the Americans by the belt,” which “rendered our artillery and air strikes useless.”

Unlike Simms, many writers often overlook the NVA’s fighting experience on their own terrain and their ability to design tactics that neutralized better-armed but less-determined opponents. Additionally, writers often ignore the fact that the NVA fought for posterity; while most Americans fought to survive for a year and return home.

Steve Simms found merit in NVA planning. Every maneuver made by the enemy in October and November of 1967, he says, was designed to help the Tet Offensive succeed a few months later. Attacking Loc Ninh was a rehearsal for the Tet attack on Saigon, seventy miles to the south.

In Simms’ skinny book, the pages are few, and the print is small, but the ideas are huge.

—Henry Zeybel