Shrapnel Wounds by Tom Crowley

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Tom Crowley’s Shrapnel Wounds: An Infantry Lieutenant’s Vietnam War Memoir (Pacifica Military History, 198 pp. $24.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle) is a how-to book on leading men in combat, circa 1966, although the author sees the same thoughts and ideas as still valid today.

Crowley presents two themes. Mainly, he discusses the traits of a good combat leader, particularly at the platoon level. Secondly, he analyzes the Army’s promotion and rank structures.

The book’s strength is Crowley’s account of combat as a platoon leader in the 25th Infantry Division at Cu Chi. He deals with battle in a vivid and straightforward manner. He says that he worked hard to become a competent and respected officer who cared for his men. Often he proves a point by referring to an encounter. For example, in speaking of fear, Crowly describes a prolonged shootout that occurred after his platoon unexpectedly found a large number of VC in a supposedly abandoned village.

He believes that the best leaders make both physical and emotional commitments to their men. Crowley felt this type of involvement to a high degree in Vietnam, and it took a tremendous psychological toll. After receiving two dozen shrapnel wounds in one battle, despite doctors’ objections and still-open wounds, he returned to his platoon after only a week in hospital.

Crowley once considered a career as an Army officer. A college dropout facing the Vietnam War draft, he instead enlisted and earned a commission through OCS. Watching the contrivances of his peers and superiors with career development convinced him to leave the military at the end of his enlistment because, he says, “I just saw no future in it.”

He determined that an officer’s position in the Army pecking order depended on the source of his commission (West Point at the top, then ROTC, and OCS last) and type of commission (regular Army above reservist). Within that framework, officers maneuvered to complete a combat assignment, earn an efficiency report that reflected great leadership in battle, and win medals, Crowley says. Favoritism based on these many factors determined promotions and assignments. He cites instances in which field activities to achieve such ends cost enlisted men’s lives.

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Based on the self-centered behavior of his contemporaries, Crowley lost faith in the military structure. He believes that Vietnam was a “squad leader’s and platoon leader’s war” and higher levels of command made plans and decisions based on outdated experience, namely set piece battles. He says that reality for “virtually all of the military’s top officers wasn’t the Vietnam War, it was the war for promotion.”

Tom Crowley’s story contains twists and turns that I have not mentioned. That surprised me and gave greater meaning to his leadership qualities. Fundamentally, he has cared about people and has led a meaningful and productive life both in the Army and as a civilian.

The author’s website is www.tomcrowleybooks.com

—Henry Zeybel

Behind the Wire by James Stoup

 

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The word “paradoxical” perfectly describes the thoughts and actions of James Stoup as related in his “nonfiction novel,” Behind the Wire: A Story about Life in the Rear during the Vietnam War (Page Publishing, 318 pp., $17.95, paper: $9.99, Kindle). A member of the 25th Infantry and 1st Air Cavalry divisions in 1970-71, he gained the credentials of an Army war correspondent without covering combat. Furthermore, he called himself a war protester, but excelled as a reporter for the military establishment. While reading the book, I occasionally wondered if any of us fully understood what was going on back in the day.

Stoup, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America,  wrote a first draft of this book in 1994 and rewrote it in 2014. Surprisingly, his youthful emotions and opinions prevail, which makes the book valuable because it shows the contradictions felt by young men who supported the Vietnam antiwar movement. Stoup provides a wealth of stories about constructive and destructive behavior among rear echelon personnel, also known as REMFs.

Mainly, Stoup relies on personal observations and opinions to prove his points and seldom offers references to authoritative sources. His arguments usually rest on generalizations such as his friends’ estimate that sixty-five percent of enlisted men in Vietnam used drugs.

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Jim Stoup

 

His favorite topics are marijuana, marijuana, marijuana, and other drugs; incompetent lifers;  fragging; the quest for medals; and profiting from the war.

This paragraph perfectly reflects the heart of his REMF sentiments about the Army:

“There was still the occasional Army bullshit to put up with, like formations, police calls, inspections, starched fatigues, and polished boots. But those of us who escaped the stress and danger of combat figured we were lucky to be where we were, so we just put up with the lifers and the bullshit. And after the recent series of fraggings and tear gas incidents, the ‘off-the-record’ protocol that had been observed between the lifers and the EMs had now become more like a truce. After hours, they didn’t bother us and we didn’t bother them. They didn’t come into our living areas, unless necessary, and we stayed out of theirs. In other words, the troops could drink their beer, smoke their pot, and do their drugs in their haunts without fear of harassment or being busted. And the lifers could get falling-down drunk in their clubs without our snickering at them as they tripped and fell on their way back to their quarters.”

Frequent observations such as this show that for Stoup and his friends, protest against the war manifested itself as a schism between the ranks. In other words, protest among REMFs focused on daily living conditions.

In 1968 Jim Stroup brought Abbie Hoffman to lecture at Saint Joseph’s College. Stoup was president of the student body, and the FBI interviewed him about his intentions. He says, “Even though I never looked into it, I’m sure the FBI had a file on me.”

Stoup graduated from college in 1969. Certain to be drafted and fearing a sure trip to Vietnam as an infantryman, he enlisted in the Army as an officer candidate, even though commissioning required an additional year of service. Assigned as an infantry officer trainee, he resigned from OCS because he did not want responsibility for “the lives of young men drafted into the Army.”

From that point, he found other detours that bypassed the battlefield. Yet he grooved on meeting “seasoned-looking” soldiers who fought the war. He draws colorful pictures of men he admired for their courage. I especially liked Stoup’s description of one such group displaying “a blatant aberration of military discipline.”

Upon arriving at the 25th Division at Cu Chi, he sold his college education, writing skills, and ability to type ninety words a minute to an NCO and got a job in the Public Information Office.

Although he avoided combat situations, Stoup did go into the field and got in trouble for reporting exactly what he saw. His desire to tell the truth paralleled an incident described by correspondent Jim Smith in his memoir, Heroes to the End.

For one of his first stories, Jim Smith exposed the incompetence and inadequacies of the Combat Training Center. His editor told him to rewrite it or forget it; otherwise, Smith “would suddenly find [himself] slinging hash in a field kitchen in the Delta—at best.”

When Stoup wrote the truth about building a new bridge and its dedication ceremony, his commander told him: “I want you to cut the peace shit out of this story and rewrite it the Army way. And this better be the last time this happens, or you’re going to be spending a lot more time in the field.”

From then on, Stoup followed the party line and received commendations for his writing, along with increased responsibility. True to his contradictory nature, however, he simultaneously became a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

Because his editor restricted him from writing about problems such as poor leadership and drug use, Stoup secretly passed privileged information to television network correspondents. Often, it is difficult to understand Stoup’s motivation for his actions, which requires separating his hatred for the war from his hatred for his military superiors.

When the 25th Division rotated home in 1970, Stoup transferred to the 1st Cav at Phuoc Vinh, which was a total contrast to Cu Chi. For example, the Phuoc Vinh division information officer wore shorts and flip-flops to work. Stoup used his “portfolio of writing samples and press clippings” to secure an information specialist MOS.

In that job, his writing earned him a “direct field promotion to Specialist 5th Class (E-5),” and he became honorary editor of the division newspaper. Talent and a cooperative spirit made him a valued member of the Army establishment, although I doubt that he viewed himself in those terms.

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25th Infantry Division HQ at Cu Chi

Throughout his time at Cu Chi and Phuoc Vinh, Stoup and his friends used drugs—mostly pot—practically every night. Stoup describes how other men frequently overdosed on harder drugs. At that stage of the war, the problem was not a “problem” because nobody seemed to care.

A confessed member of the counterculture, Stoup nevertheless accepted two Army Commendation Medals, and on one occasion, filled a foursome for bridge at the Officers’ Club. Furthermore, he credits his leaders with teaching him everything he knew about journalism, which helped him in his post-military career. Most surprising of all, he turned down a forty-one-day drop during a force reduction.

His finest anti-war action took place during his last month in-country at Bien Hoa: he initiated Article 138, UCMJ action that brought positive changes of unexpected magnitudes to REMFs. In the midst of this activity, he questioned his behavior and attitude for the first time: “Was I out of my fucking mind? After all, without proceeding with this action, I’d be on my way home in less than ten days, with little chance of anything happening to me from the dangers of the war to, well, anything else. Was I out of my fucking mind!”

Although Jim Stoup might not agree, I believe he used the military system to benefit himself equally as much as the lifers he detested, which was, of course, justifiable behavior for anyone who did not want to be there in the first place and who was determined to avoid combat.

It takes great strength to row against a ceaseless tide. I admire those who do so. Therefore, I enjoyed Stoup’s story and classify him as a clandestine fighter.

By the way, James, here’s the deal regarding medals: You don’t have to accept them. That type of rejection is a protest. At the end of my twenty years, my boss offered me a Meritorious Service Medal. I wrote to him: “Don’t bother. I’ve already been compensated for my work.”

Or should you and I have said, “I don’t need no stinking medal for doing my everyday job”? Oh well, I must confess that insubordination had already wrecked my “lifer” career.

The author’s website is www.behindthewire-vietnam.com/home.html 

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

 

Marshall’s Marauders by Allan A. Lobeck

Allan A. Lobeck’s Marshall’s Marauders (Lulu, 396 pp., $33.92; $2.99, Kindle) has one unique feature: Of the hundreds of Vietnam War novels I have read, this is the only one that has no page numbers. I found that very frustrating, especially as this is a very large book.

Lobeck, a Vietnam War veteran, says that his book is based on his experiences leading an infantry platoon. He acknowledges that PTSD has affected his life, and that that VA doctors who heard his story in counseling sessions suggested he document his Vietnam War experiences “to help me let go of the pain I continue to suffer.”

I started reading this novel with intense curiosity how such a project would play out. The main character, Marshall Rooker, arrives in Vietnam, is sent to the 25th Mechanized Division Headquarters at Chi Chi and is assigned to the 4th Battalion, known as the Mohawk Battalion. The men spend their time in the Iron Triangle, “one of the hottest areas in all of South Vietnam.” 

Marshall Rooker, a second lieutenant when he arrives in Vietnam, tells us he enlisted so he wouldn’t be drafted into the infantry. He often talks about the beauty of the jungle and how he is destroying it. Much of the novel takes place in 1969. Rooker, who does not like TV reporters, says his unit is the “best fighting machine in the 25th Division.”

Rooker treats the ARVNs well and has good things to say about working with them. The book does not reflect the often-seen casual racism of American troops toward the Vietnamese. Rooker is happy to be in the “best mechanized platoon in all of South Vietnam.” His unit is nicknamed “Superman” by the enemy.

Allan Lobeck

After recounting 63 straight days of combat, and after Rooker suffers a head wound, the novel seems to enter an alternate reality. In this part of the novel, our hero goes into Cambodia with a special team and rescues four downed flyers. His group is called Marshall’s Marauders. He loses half his stomach and suffers two serious concussions.

Rooker is flown to the United States in Gen. Westmoreland’s private jet to get surgery.  He goes to Walter Reed and meets President Johnson, who awards him not one, but two Medals of Honor. Johnson also officiates in a White House Rose Garden wedding in which Rooker marries his girlfriend Susie.

Then Rooker is promoted to the rank of general, at the age of 23, a secret promotion. He is categorized with American war heroes such as John Paul Jones, George Armstrong Custer, Alvin York, and Audie Murphy.

For the frosting on this alternate-reality cake, our hero fulminates about Jane Fonda “going up to North Vietnam,” which he “had read about in the military newspaper.”  Rooker goes on and on in this vein, but during the time period of this novel the only thing Jane Fonda was getting press for in military newspapers was her much-praised role in the film Barbarella, which made her the most popular pinup in Vietnam.

So this rant is as anachronistic as having LBJ marry Rooker in 1969, after Johnson had left the White House. Rooker did take some hard knocks on the head, so I forgive the character these lapses, even as I take the author to task for them.

This is a Vietnam War infantry novel like none other. For those who are okay with no page numbers and want something very different, try this novel.

The author’s website is www.allanlobeck.com

—David Willson

Rolling Coffins by Brian Richard Esher

The title and subtitle tell it all: Rolling Coffins: Experiences of a Mechanical Infantry Soldier in the Bloodiest Year of the Vietnam War, 1968 (Page Publishing, 442 pp., $19.50 paper; $9.99, Kindle) by Brian Richard Esher.

As an 11 Bravo light weapons infantryman, Esher spent six months in the Vietnam War in the field around Tay Ninh with 4/23 of the 25th Infantry Division. His company engaged the enemy practically every day in sweeps on foot, aboard APCs, and by helicopter. The men were continually undermanned, outnumbered, and inadequately supplied.

Esher’s pragmatic approach to training and combat made me admire him. He believed, he writes, that “the Army didn’t really care about draftees one way or another.” Therefore, he fought his superiors—mentally and physically—almost as vigorously as he fought the North Vietnamese. On both fronts, he employed tactics that drastically varied from normal behavior.

“I just didn’t like being pulled out of civilian life to be basically a slave to the Army,” Esher writes, “being constantly harassed and taking orders from everyone above me, which was basically everyone in the military. Some of them dumb as dirt!” His stories justify this attitude and frequent disobedience.

Rebel or not, when engaging the enemy, Esher performed courageously. Along with the CIB, his awards included the Distinguished Service Cross, the Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts.

The 25th Infantry Division had the highest number of casualties among U.S. Army divisions in Vietnam. The six months Esher spent in the field were the 25th’s bloodiest. His accounts of 4/23’s actions in the ten-day Battle of Tay Ninh during the Third Offensive and in a massive ambush the following month are spellbinding. By then, the casualty count had reduced squads to five or six men with Spec4s as squad leaders.   In the book’s Epilogue, Esher spells out what he believes were the Army’s failures in the Vietnam War. Although his views are familiar, his battlefield credentials validate them perfectly. His primary concerns are non-existent leadership, lack of comradeship, and inflexible tactics. “Before the Army, I was more independent than most, relying primarily on myself. After Vietnam, I was more independent than ever,” he says.

A voracious reader, Esher presents short history lessons on topics such as Robert S. McNamara’s Project 100,000 (aka U.S. Army Moron Corps), the fate of the USS Pueblo, the odds of becoming a casualty in the Vietnam War, and the reason Friday the 13th is considered unlucky.

Today, Esher is a successful, self-made businessman whose only war-related emotional problem is a recurring nightmare of being recalled and again going through basic training, destined for Vietnam.

—Henry Zeybel

Napalm and Filet Mignon by John Jennings  

John Jennings’ ambitious memoir, Napalm and Filet Mignon (War Writers’ Campaign, 174 pp., $19.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle), loosely ties his experiences in Vietnam in 1969-70 to world events that took place simultaneously. Clippings from news stories, along with letters he wrote to his mother and sister, guide the reader through the book.

Jennings tells us how he went from patrolling the hills and rice patties ten miles south of Pleiku with an Army infantry company that often got lost, to duty in the opulence of the Fourth Infantry Division Commanding General’s Mess.

Along the way, the war profoundly affected him. The book’s stories illustrate many transformations that his service in Vietnam made in his life.

Jennings approached the Vietnam War with little outward emotion. He remembers the names of a few fellow soldiers, but mainly he was a loner who did not develop friendships because of the constant turnover of personnel. He was in-country to serve his 365 days—period.

Yet Jennings admits he did “just about anything for the guys [he] served with.” His performance under fire resulted in a promotion from rifleman to machine gunner in a matter of weeks. Being shot at scared the hell out of him, Jennings says, but  it also brought him to a stage of rage he had never experienced.

“I was completely astonished at this violent and uncontrolled anger that I felt,” he writes. “It would come upon me so quickly that all I wanted to do was strike back and waste the gook.” The M60 machine gun was the perfect weapon to vent that anger.

Unexpectedly, Jennings’ company commander selected him to compete for a Fourth Division Soldier of the Month award. Jennings faced off against two other finalists but did not win. Nevertheless, that experience led to the job of waiting on tables and tending bar in the Commanding General’s Mess.

The comfort of the job was paradise after five months in the field. Gourmet food and wine was the order of the day for the General, his officers, and guests such as Miss America and several pro football players. Although he shared in the goodies, Jennings felt “something didn’t seem right or fair” because “everyone in the field had been betrayed by this life of opulence by the officers, which now included [him].”

After five months, Jennings grew “tired of playing servant.” He wrote home: “I get so mad, especially when the lifer officers tell me that the General doesn’t want any special privileges. He wants anything available to him to be available to all the troops. Bullshit! I don’t remember having red wine with my c-rations when I was in the field.”

25th Infantry Division troops in Vietnam in 1969

Guilt gnawed at him when his former company invaded Cambodia and he remained safely behind.

Jennings grew up in Chicago in a strong Irish Catholic family. Letters from his large extended family and many friends provided a support system in Vietnam. “I wouldn’t say I got the most mail,” he says, “but I came close.”

The majority of the letters went to his 71-year-old mother for whom he soft-sold the war to ease her worries. Letters to his sister were more insightful. For example, on the same day that he wrote to his mother about a broken camera and the rain, in a letter to his sister, Jennings described a point man that a sniper shot in the head.

“He died almost immediately,” Jennings wrote. “It happened so suddenly. Then with all the confusion and the screaming by guys crying for help, it shook me up a little.” The point man was the first American that Jennings had seen killed. That image has never left him.

One of his letters about a sweep through a suspected VC village is a masterpiece of evoking the emotions and tension of soldiers and civilians during the operation. To me, those pages alone were worth the price of the book.

Jennings also touches on some of the usual Vietnam War memoir topics: marijuana, Agent Orange, fragging, war protestors, My Lai, and falling in lust on R&Rs. He does not moralize. He does, however, puzzle over the frequent “wasteful loss of life,” which made him question his Catholicism and all other beliefs.

After his discharge, psychologically burdened by the “graphic memories” of what he saw in the field and the guilt of working in the rear, Jennings drank his way through most of thirty-five years before he found help for his PTSD.

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Honor and Memory by Ray Bows and Pia Bows

Ray Bows, a retired U.S. Army Master Sgt., served in the Vietnam War with the 25th Infantry Division in 1968-69. His latest book is the gigantic In Honor and Memory: Installations and Facilities of the Vietnam War (Bows and Company, 722 pp., $59.95, hardcover), a richly illustrated and detailed compendium of more than 800 named U.S. military fire support bases, camps, landing zones, patrol bases, compounds, and other installations and facilities in Vietnam,Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Okinawa, and Guam.

I suspect that most Vietnam veterans will do what I did: immediately check the long, detailed index to see if the book includes the place where I spent twelve months of my life. And, in fact, Bows has a half page on Camp Granite outside the city of Qui Nhon where I served from December 1967 to December 1968 with the 527th Personnel Service Company.

Ray Bows

I learned that Camp Granite is located “on the east side of Route QL-1, just south of Phu Tai at the base of Vung Chau Mountain” in Binh Dinh Province in the former II Corps. I didn’t know that the camp was named “for the granite cliffs that faced” it—although I probably should have figured that one out.

The entry includes two pictures of Camp Granite.

The book is not available in stores. For ordering info and to find out more about the book, go to www.bowsmilitarybooks.com 

—Marc Leepson

Camp Granite

 

Journey Into Darkness and Battle At Straight Edge Woods by Stephen Menendez

Stephen (Shorty) Menendez served in Vietnam with Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment in the 25th Infantry Division. He has written two books about his tour of duty. His second, Battle at Straight Edge Woods (CreateSpace, 126 pp., $12.99, paper; $2.99, Kindle) is, in essence, an essay about on engagement that took place on April 7, 1970.

Menendez was designated the company tunnel rat due to his special training and his special physical attributes—being under five feet tall and weighing less than 100 pounds. This action near Nui Ba Den Mountain is sort of an afterthought to his much bigger book, Journey Into Darkness: A Tunnel Rat’s Story (St. John’s Press, 158 pp., 2004). If after reading that book, you wish to read Menendez writing mostly about combat, I recommend Battle At Straight Edge Woods.

Journey is not available to read on Kindle, so it was a struggle for me to read the physical book as I had to use a magnifier due to my failing eyesight. But so great was my motivation to read Menendezs’ book that I persisted.

The cover of Journey says: “He takes you deep into those enemy tunnels, making you taste the acrid gunsmoke and feel the cold black earth. Shorty’s below ground battles are nothing less than incredible.”  That blurb, combined with the great cover photo of Shorty peering out of a tunnel with a flashlight in one hand and a Ruger .22 pistol in the other (and a smile on his elfin face), totally sold me. I expected it to be a straightforward memoir.

But once I had read a few pages, I discovered that Journey Into Darkness is historical autobiographical fiction. The hero is named Mendez, not Menendez. The author tells us that all the names in the book are fictitious and “this is a story like any other. Some of it is true but mostly it is fiction.”

The book contains only two detailed accounts of Mendez descending into a tunnel in Vietnam. One comes near the beginning; the other near the end. I was disappointed as I was led to believe that the book contained non-stop, action-packed tunnel exploits.

Instead, most of the book deals with the details of a reunion of Mendez’s platoon. This is interesting stuff, but it is not what the book packaging and blurbs led me to expect. It made me wonder if the writer of the cover blurb had even read the book.

The author’s description of being in a tunnel deep underground armed with only a pistol and a flashlight was detailed and scary. I could feel the onset of claustrophobia just from reading the book, but there was no underground battle. That episode made me hunger for more.

The book is structured around the reunion and an encounter with a VC general who invites the men to return to Tay Ninh in Vietnam to revisit their battleground. The general has a hidden agenda based on a desire for vengeance for the men of the platoon having been responsible for the death of his nephew—the last of the general’s blood line.

The author deals with many of the perennial concerns of Vietnam War writers: Agent Orange, the notion that we didn’t lose the war, shit burning (which becomes almost a litany in the book), rage at the sight of the enemy’s flag, and the idea that Vietnam veterans not get “much of a homecoming.”

If you are interested in reading about the travails of having a unit reunion and about what a return trip to an old Vietnam battleground might be like, this is an excellent book for you, well-written and well-narrated by the author. The parts that deal with the protection of a firebase near the Cambodian border and the running of patrols all day looking for VC and the ambushes at night of “Chargin’ Charlie” Company make great reading.

I would have loved more of that and less of the reunion. Perhaps if the book had been honestly packaged as being about the reunion, I would have avoided the feeling that I had been snookered.

So if it is combat you wish to read about, Battle at Straight Edge Woods is the better choice of these two books—even though there is no tunnel rat underground battling.

—David Willson