Vietnam War veteran David Gerhardt waited forty-four years before deciding to write his memoir, Vietnam: The Last Combat Marines: Military and Political Times of the Baby Boomer War (G. Hart, 297 pp. $15, paper; $9.99, Kindle).
Gerhardt served in a variety of positions during his time with the 1st Marine Division in I Corps in 1970 and 1971. Starting out as a combat grenadier, he later worked for a while as an awards writer before becoming a squad leader. His platoon would be among the last Marines to leave the field.
He served during a time that’s been often associated with drug use, fraggings, and other forms of insubordination. Gerhardt pulls no punches when talking about these subjects.
He seemed especially concerned about what he saw as “the degeneration of the armed forces” as a result of the lowering of entry standards in order to provide an adequate supply of young men for the war. It was because of this that he believed he had to deal with an “enormous number of problem soldiers.”
Like many veterans, he wants to distinguish between Vietnam, the country, and Vietnam, the war. He writes, for example, that “Vietnam had the most beautiful night sky I will ever know.” And that it was “a war where rules were broken, and this was sometimes a place without rules.”
He interestingly notes that his men would occasionally camp in a cemetery, thinking it would be safer because “the natives were not going to wake up their dead with a rocket attack.”
A memorable part of the book is the author’s description of a time when one of his squads encountered a small group of Viet Cong face to face. It happened so suddenly that it startled both sides and no shots were fired.
Gerhardt confesses that he was the only man in his entire platoon who usually did not wear a helmet or flak jacket while in the bush. He says he did that because he was worried about carrying around extra weight. Now, looking back, he knows that he was wrong about that.
The book’s subtitle implies a cultural emphasis that can be seen in this comment about the occasional push to maintain haircuts among the troops: “Lifers hated gooks, but they hated hippies more.”
I really liked the way the book include dozens of end notes. They deal with such things as Agent Orange, casualty numbers among helicopter crews, Kit Carson scouts, the types and dangers of malaria, and diagnoses that could result in medical deferments from the draft.
Being among the last Marines to leave the Vietnamese jungles and rice paddies—and recalling the losses his and other units had suffered—Gerhardt writes: “We instinctively understood that we would never be capable of celebrating our time in the Republic of South Vietnam.”
I liked the book’s structure. Being divided into six parts with six or seven shorter sections in each part added to its readability.
More than a dozen photos are included, as well as post-war updates on five of the more memorable men Gerhardt served with.