Road Gang by H. V. Traywick, Jr.

H.V. Traywick, Jr.’s Road Gang: A Memoir of Engineer Service in Vietnam (Dementi Milestone Publishing, 218 pp., $20, paper; $5.99, Kindle) is a classy book. Traywick ranks as a four-star raconteur. His self-deprecating sense of humor enlivens his story.

Traywick sets the stage by writing about arriving in Vietnam, then smoothly flashes back to his life at Virginia Military Institute and his training as a Ranger and parachutist. He arrived in-country in 1969 as a captain and was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division at Phu Loc. When the 82nd rotated home, he transferred to the 34th Engineer Battalion at Phouc Vinh.

Because he had a degree in Civil Engineering, Traywick was given command of a road construction company, the “Dusty Delta Road Gang.” His primary mission was to rebuild Highways 1A and 2A to an all-weather capacity. The roads were critical to supplying units along the eastern edge of the Iron Triangle, north of Saigon. The task had to be accomplished within the six-month dry season.

At that point, the book almost becomes an engineering text. In detail, Traywick describes how his unit built Fire Base Lobo, including its berms and bunkers, along with roads and culverts outside the wire. He explains the use of Rome Plows, sheep’s foot rollers, Clark 290 scrapers, graders, and D7E Caterpillar bulldozers. He also names seemingly every man who worked for him.

Traywick’s tongue-in-cheek writing keeps the narrative lively. He finds humor in his cautious improvisation of using a tractor as a minesweeper. While he and his men crept along a road, a column of APCs drove straight at them; the column’s colonel blistered Traywick with “very creative Angle Saxon,” demanding to know why he was “tooling along like that behind a funny looking rig running backward up the road.”

Later, when the VC sprang a mid-day attack on the Road Gang, Traywick rushed to the scene. His instincts told him “to do like Stonewall Jackson did at Cedar Mountain, and not shilly-shally around.”

The greatest danger to his men were mines and booby traps hidden in construction sites at night by the VC.Traywick did everything possible to protect his men, even when he was criticized for overreacting. When things went wrong, Traywick accepted the blame.

The book’s finest lessons are accounts of decision-making incidents that showed the dynamic differences between management and leadership. Zealous to meet deadlines, Traywick found flaws in a construction plan. Consequently, to save their reputations, at least two senior officers betrayed him. He was unaware of their treachery. As a result, Traywick’s battalion commander publicly insulted him and took away his command. “At this date I look back in wonder at how innocent of guile I was,” he says. The episode still rankles him.

H.V. Traywick

Following a rotation of leadership, working for a new battalion commander, Traywick redeemed himself and earned a Bronze Star. Nevertheless, he was disillusioned by the doubts surrounding his honor, and resigned his commission upon returning to the United States.

Throughout the book, Traywick repeatedly questions the norm. He is a man of traditional values predicated on a strong Southern background. He talks about seeing a staged version of the rock musical Hair while on R&R in Australia. That triggered him to discuss “freedom versus responsibility” and “self-denial as opposed to self-indulgence” for several pages. He also says: “No one in his right mind can advocate mixing men and women in the same military unit—unless his agenda is to undermine and demoralize it.”

Often while reading his book, I felt that Traywick would have been a most-perfect soldier in World War II—or, perhaps, in a war against Union aggression.

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

 

The Foot Soldier by Mark Rubinstein

Mark Rubinstein served in the U. S. Army in South Vietnam as a field medic tending to paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division. After his discharge he went to medical school, took a psychiatric residency, and became a forensic psychiatrist. He is now a professor of psychiatry at Cornell University Medical School. The Foot Soldier (Thunder Lake Press, 58 pp., $3.99, paper; $.99, Kindle) is his third work of fiction.

This novella features blurbs that give an accurate picture of the book. Warren Glaser, who served as a Marine Corps surgeon in Korea, says: “It brings you to the hell of wartime combat. It’s a compelling story.” Martin Isler says the book “is every bit as compelling as The Things They Carried.”  High praise, indeed, although a bit overreaching.

When the main character, Costa, arrives in South Vietnam, the heat hits him “like a blast furnace” as he and the other new arrivals are “herded like cattle into a replacement depot.”

I wasn’t thrilled to encounter those Vietnam War fiction clichés on the very first page of the book. They would be fine In dialogue, but not in Costa’s internal thoughts. They set my teeth on edge, to not coin a phrase. Furthermore, the heat there was not like a blast furnace. It was too humid for that.

Costa is assigned to Second Battalion, Bravo Company, Third Platoon, under the command of a Lt. Johnson, a stereotype of the redneck southern officer: fat, piggy -eyed, and prejudiced against northerners.  His first communication with Costa consists of asking him if he is “a guinea, a spic or wetback?”

I never heard that sort of talk in the Army. And I thought that a “spic” and a “wetback” were the same. Johnson is said to be a “ninety-day wonder right out of OCS.”

Costa’s first assignment is to “empty fifty-gallon drums of excrement from the company latrines.” No mention is made of burning the stuff.  Soon, Costa is on a search and destroy mission in Quang Ngai Province. A free-fire zone in VC country.

Rubinstein

Costa is assigned to walk point by the lieutenant, against the wishes of First Sergeant Davis,an old Asian hand who knows the score. Davis is also the designated tunnel-rat and is said to not have looked for a “rear flank assignment.”  At one point Lt. Johnson threatens Sgt. Davis with a “Section Eight.” Not likely.

Things don’t go well, and Costa finds himself at the point of Lt. Johnson’s .45 being ordered to kill a harmless old man in a village. Johnson already has shot several village pigs and demonstrated a “penchant for violence and sadism” as he “descended into some beastly valley of mindless hatred.” The lieutenant ends up dead; Costa is medevaced with a foot shot off. His tour of duty is over.

This novella is packed with grunt action and is well-written once it gets going. That said, it contains a few clinkers. Early on, the narrator tells us that a grunt spends a year in the boonies and then is reassigned to one year in the rear. That simply didn’t happen. After a year a grunt would be going home, if he were still alive.

I also would have liked to have been told straight out what happened to that excrement. I have fretted about its destination.

This novella is a good place for a reader to start with a brief entrance into literature about grunts in the Vietnam War, what the author calls a “war measured in clicks.”

The next stop should be Tim O’Brien’s classic The Things They Carried.

The author’s website is http://mark.markrubinstein-author.com

—David Willson