When It Rains in Hell by Harry R. McCoy

Harry R. (Randy) McCoy served in two recon platoons in E Co., 3rd of the 39th Infantry in the Army;s 9th Infantry Division in Vietnam. In his memoir, When It Rains in Hell (CreateSpace, 300 pp., $15, paper), McCoy writes eloquently about that experience.

McCoy has throat cancer, “which debilitated [my] voice and ability to eat food,” he writes. He was often exposed to Agent Orange during his tour of duty, and his book includes some powerful writing about that poison. “We grunts suspected the chemical was bad for our health,” he writes, “but the Army maintained it was perfectly safe and only affected vegetation for a while.”

McCoy’s recounting of walking through a desolate area that had been hit by Agent Orange is a dystopian vision that chilled my blood—blood, by the way, that is currently under attack by Agent Orange-caused Multiple Myeloma.

McCoy started his tour assigned to road-clearing trips every morning as well as pulling convoy escort duty, bunker guard and listening posts. This might sound fairly safe and harmless, but it wasn’t; it involved dealing with booby traps of high explosive. His unit then went out in the jungle “looking for Charlie.” Often McCoy and his fellow infantrymen found him. The book is filled with well-written descriptions of close combat.

Randy McCoy is not the typical grunt, if there were such a thing. He quotes John Donne from memory: “any man’s death diminishes me.” His facility with the English language and his philosophical pondering about what he terms “vexing questions” elevates this infantry memoir. He often tells the reader that our leaders in that ill-fated war failed to heed the edict to “know thine enemy,” and because of that we were doomed to lose the war.

McCoy arrived in Vietnam in early 1968. He is clear about his dedication to the M-16. He says that the bugs had been worked out of it by then and it was a fine weapon for use in the jungle. It had to be pried out of his hands when he left combat situations.

There is no racist ranting about the inferiority of the Vietnamese people in this book. McCoy makes it clear that he liked and respected the Vietnamese. He also thanks the Boy Scouts for training him and preparing him for survival in Vietnam.

Randy McCoy

My great respect for this memoir slipped a tiny bit at the end when McCoy indulged in a brief rant about Jane Fonda. He went  on to say, though, that he no longer hates protesters and war activists of the 1960’s.
“I can now quite clearly see they were right in their actions,” he writes. “Their efforts ended the war quicker than it would have happened otherwise.  However, I am still not ‘fonda Jane.’”

This memoir moves back and forth in time—from Vietnam to the future. It reflects on how McCoy’s tour of duty affected his later life, especially his first marriage. This literary device works well.

The book does not stop when he boards the “Freedom Bird” to go home. The reader finds out where McCoy’s life goes next and what demons tormented him in his post-war life. He dealt with these demons by isolating himself in his garage working on restoring cars—a pursuit that was solitary and had clear parameters, unlike the challenges of being a husband and father.

McCoy’s ability to summon up stark details of long-ago combat in Vietnam makes this memoir stand out as one of the best. His thoughtful reflections about that time held my interest throughout.

I highly recommend this memoir to those interested in the infantry experience in Vietnam.

—David Willson

Mekong Mud Dogs by Ed Eaton

Ed Eaton’s Mekong Mud Dogs: The Story of Sgt. Ed Eaton (Eaton, 278 pp., $17.45, paper), is a recounting of the author’s experiences with B/3/60 of the 9th Infantry Division in Vietnam. Read this book if you have the stomach to face confronting the worst of the Vietnam War on a daily basis.   

My experience was photographing the second phase of the Tet Offensive around Saigon and Cholon during early May of 1968 when  Eaton company and other 9th Infantry Division units slugged it out in house-to-house fighting in a factory complex near the edge of Cholon, as well as in rice paddies adjacent to the Kin Doi Canal ship channel, while snipers and 107mm rockets lobbed death from a distance. The American grunts, artillery, and helicopter gunships did their best to destroy them.

I was one of the hated FNG/REMFs Ed Eaton speaks not so fondly of in his book. He, on the other hand, was an 11B10, Light Weapons Infantryman, based on a spit on land next to the My Tho River deep in the Mekong Delta, serving as part of the Mobile Riverine Force.

In eighteen bruising chapters, we get almost every sight, taste, smell, instinct, comment, and attitude an infantryman shares with his buddies. They are in the business of killing at close range. We get details about sighting in on a enemy’s torso, steadying the rifle, and dropping the charge for the kill. Ed Eaton does not waste time or mince words about the experience. He fought, and he survived. That says enough.

Eaton earned his Combat Infantryman Badge the hard way—by patrolling, walking point, checking on his guys, helping medevac out the wounded and dead, surviving multiple deadly ambushes, and killing with an M-16, a M-79 grenade launcher, and later with an XM-21 match-grade sniper rifle.

Ed Eaton

Early on, Eaton survived a 55-gallon drum mine explosion on a Navy Supply Tender ship after which he was forced to swim through a river of oil, find a hatch, get through it into another compartment of oil, and then swim toward the deck of a ship that was sinking in mid-river and listing badly as she settled on the bottom.

From there, we move to multiple search and clear insertions, search and destroy missions, “recon-by-blood” probes, and chilling remain-over-night occurrences where mosquitoes, leaches, immersion foot, ringworm, sheer exhaustion, and probing VC are the only things you focus on. Ten year-old C-rats with canned fruit salad and stale pound cake are all that you eat—if you can force them down.

Ed Eaton moves up from being a basic infantryman, to point man, to sergeant, to platoon leader, to platoon sergeant, and eventually to an elite sniper school in Vietnam. It is a ghastly experience in which his humanity, his fears, his losses, and his resignation that death is near at every moment, are ever present. Yet he soldiers on. What we have here is a good man doing his best in utter hell.

As his tour progresses, Eaton’s vigilance stays focused on movement in the shadows, shapes that do not look right, distances to tree lines, booby traps and punji sticks, along with mud, the damnedest stickiest, oozing, slimy, filthy, shit-filled canal water, and utter exhaustion. Near the end of his tour he interacts with REMFs, drinks too much beer, “shines-on some bullshit” to NCOs and officers, and slides closer to a PTSD crackup.

During a brutal all-day firefight, Eaton crash-lands hard, damaging his spine, and then works feverishly to rescue a Captain who was also badly wounded. The images, smells, and emotions eat away at him in long, sleepless nights afterward.

After coming home, Eaton can no longer hunt (something he loved doing), and crashes through jobs, college, alcohol, women, and more alcohol. He damn near dies in another plane crash. After that, he begins a four-decade long recovery.

Ed Eaton, despite his feelings toward FNGs, REMFs, and dumb-ass lieutenants, has told a fine story of a tortured man who is rebuilding himself, after surviving the Vietnam War. Read it if you want to know the truth of what war can do to humans who experience it at the combat level.

The author’s web site is www.mekongmuddogs.com

—Robert M. Pacholik