Compass and a Camera by Steven Burchik

Steven Burchik did a 1968-69 tour of duty in the Vietnam War mainly in the rice paddies northeast of Saigon as a forward observer with the Army’s First Infantry Division. He served as a sergeant in D Company, Second Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment. His memoir, Compass and a Camera: A Year in Vietnam (Sharlin-K Press, 286 pp., $15, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is about that year. Burchik used the daily letters he wrote to his fiancee as the basis for this book and included many photographs he took.

Because of the letters and the photographs, Burchik’s book has an enormous amount of detail, which I see as a good thing. He explains exactly how search and destroy missions operated and how night ambushes were set up. The ritual of Saigon Tea is explained in a way that makes it unnecessary to read another description of how that works in a bar.

Several times his unit is visited by Red Cross workers and their role is gone into in some great detail. Once again, I found myself wondering who thought it was a good idea to send hundreds of young women into harm’s way to play games with soldiers. Burchik says they all were college graduates.

Burchik’s descriptions of filling sandbags and sitting on a bridge at night on guard duty convey tedium effectively without being boring to read. He lists the many movies he sees (including In the Heat of the Night), and the television shows he watches such as Laugh In and Combat. The men enjoyed laughing at the stupid stuff the squads did in Combat, such as bunching up when on patrol.

He spends time at places that echo and pay homage to movie westerns such as Fort Apache and Fort Pawnee. Late in the book we even encounter John Wayne in his classic film, Hell Fighter. Burchik praises Corky Trinidad, the cartoonist for Pacific Stars and Stripes who created “Nguyen Charlie” for the enjoyment of the troops. The author’s eye for pop culture makes this book more interesting than most.

Burchik tells is about hurrying up and waiting, and about how war is an imperfect enterprise. He goes out on a limb and says that he didn’t believe that God was on our side. Leeches and red ants and ARVN troops appear and are commented on then vanish. The song, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” is heard.

Steven Burchik

No bands greeted Borchik when he returned to the United States. He was not spat upon or called a baby killer. He survived the boredom and drudgery of the Army and was eager to get on with his life, which he did. Steven Burchik became a successful marketing executive and continues to pursue his lifelong interest in photography. His many fine photos enrich this memoir.

If you are in the market for an infantry memoir, I highly recommend this one.

The author’s website is www.stevenburchik.com

—David Willson

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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