The Arctic Jungles of Vietnam by Charles U. Smith

Charles U. Smith’s The Arctic Jungles of Vietnam (CreateSpace, 128 pp. $25, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a war memoir that Smith put together with the help of Constance Williams.

In it, Smith explains how he came to construct his story, then takes the reader on a short tour of his childhood growing up in segregated Prattville, Alabama, his high school graduation, and his enlistment in the U.S. Army three months later in September 1964. A less than stellar send-off speech by his school district’s superintendent gave Smith all the impetus he needed to get out of town and make a better life, beginning with joining the military. That, in fact, was the route his four older brothers took.

The strange title refers to the path Smith’s infantry training took—first to Alaska to train as a “snow trooper,” then to Hawaii for some jungle training, and finally, in late 1965, to Ch Chi in South Vietnam as a member of the 25th Infantry Division.

Smith’s describes his service as an infantryman in the Vietnam War as more-or-less uneventful, though he recounts near misses and tales of buddies lost, along with descriptions of the daily minutia of life in the warzone. He often speaks about his experiences as a Black man and as a Black soldier; several times Smith repeats stories, which likely is due to the stream-of-consciousness way in which he tells his war story.

After returning home, Charles Smith worked several jobs before settling into a career with Greyhound Bus Lines. He worked as an interstate driver and as a driver-instructor during his 30-plus years with the company.

This is a short book and a quick read—and a good look at one man’s unique experiences in the Vietnam War.

–Tom Werzyn

Letters Home by Leon Bly

Leon Bly served twenty-one years in the U. S. Army as a Special Forces enlisted man, a Green Beret. Letters Home: Diary of a Green Beret (Aegina Press, 126 pp., $19.70, paper) is a small book based on “letters “written to my aunt over a 21 period,” Bly writes.

Bly organized the letters to tell the story of Army career, with some focus on his time in Vietnam. “During my tour of duty in Vietnam, as I traveled through the Mekong Delta, with Viet Cong behind every bush, I escaped injury,” he writes, “only finding out on returning to the Alpha detachment camp that the air boat was riddled with machine gun holes.”

Bly’s book begins at Fort Meade, Maryland, on October 21, 1952, and proceeds to Fort Benning, Fort Bragg, Camp LeJeune, and to Camp Hale, Colorado, back to Fort Bragg, and then off to Bad Tolz in the former West Germany. His letters to his aunt give a good sense of what it was like to be in the Army in the 1950s. He also often offers comments on the situation in the world as it relates to protecting America from communism and other evil forces.

In his discussion of  “the new era of warfare,” Bly writes: “These are brush fire wars, new in intensity and ancient in origins. These wars are won by ambush instead of combat.  They’re won by infiltration instead of aggression. Victory is gained by eroding and exhausting the enemy instead of direct engagement.”

After Bly’s time in Germany, he returned stateside to Fort Devens, Mass. Then it was on to Fort Richardson, Alaska, via the Alcan Highway, “one thousand miles of bad road,” he calls it.

Bly finally gets to Vietnam in Chapter nine. He calls it “The Tarnished Goddess: Vietnam.” There are only ten pages dealing with his time in the war, which ran from June 9, 1967, to April 12, 1968. That encompasses the 1968 Tet Offensive, which Bly comments on. This chapter also contains his observations on the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, and the racial violence that erupted after that. Bly is African American, so when he describes the day as “the grimmest day in the history of black people” his comments hit home.

Memoirs and diaries by African American Army enlisted men are rare, which makes this volume even more precious for readers who seek first-hand accounts of what it was like to be in the Army of this long-gone era. I recommend this book for those who are interested in the evolution of the Green Berets and for collections specializing in African American contributions to America’s military.

—David Willson