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