Memoir of Vietnam by William S. Fee

A memoir normally has a purpose beyond simply recounting what the writer did over a given period of time. William S. Fee follows this pattern in Memoir of Vietnam 1967 (Little Miami, 122 pp. $15) by describing how military training and combat turned his infantry squad into a family.

Fee took part in search and destroy missions as a member of Delta Company, 1st of the 18th in the 1st Infantry Division from July to November of 1967 in the Iron Triangle. During the battle for Loc Ninh, he suffered a crippling shoulder wound that led to an early discharge from the Army after four complicated operations.

At age nineteen, Fee gave up the “inanity” of college and enlisted as an infantryman. He felt obligated to serve his country because, he says, “So many young men were drafted against their will to fight this war.” Fee believed his participation would “make a difference” and influence “friends who seemed not to care about the war.” He also sought the “intoxication of a dangerous adventure.”

Fee found himself in an unusual situation. The men he trained with in basic at Fort Knox and Infantry AIT at Fort Polk and Fort Lewis remained together after schooling. Aboard the USNS Geiger, they sailed to Vietnam and formed a new company in the Big Red One.

Fee fondly recalls all of his squad members, living and dead. He describes the high level of camaraderie that evolved from spending so much time together. The climactic event for him was the fighting at Loc Ninh during which a rocket propelled grenade nearly tore off his right arm. He credits his survival to the special care he received because his squad mates were long-time friends.

Based on his experience, Fee believes that the practice of sending single replacements to rifle companies in the field in the Vietnam War was a major cause of PTSD. Men treated in this manner were victimized by being alone, both during and after the war, he believes.

In the post-war world, Fee faced survivor’s guilt and his life lost purpose. He married but soon divorced his sweetheart—Sally—who had waited for him throughout his time in the Army and in hospitals. Psychiatrists and the VA were unprepared to deal with PTSD in the mid-1970s and provided no help in curing his illness.

By talking to himself in mirrors, Fee overcame his disorders on his own, but retained residues of fear. He tells us that in battle he developed “the sensation that an enemy soldier had me trained in his rifle sight. It is a fear I carry with me to this day.” Regarding death in combat, he still frequently wonders, “Why not me?”

Following his rehabilitation, he and Sally remarried. Fee began a long career in the television industry. And had children. He also had a second family— the men from Delta Company who periodically hold reunions and remain close.

A 1st Infantry Division soldier cleaning his weapon in the field

Fee pays great tribute to his battalion commander, Lt. Col. Richard Cavazos, who later became a four-star general. Cavazos fought shoulder to shoulder with his men on the battlefield. Today, he still maintains friendships with Delta’s veterans.

Fee presents a viewpoint new to me related to search and destroy strategy. He says: “Colonel Cavazos was a conservative war tactician. As soon as our patrols were ambushed, he ordered our retreat back to the perimeter, and immediately called in air strikes and artillery on our positions as we withdrew” (italics added).

In other words, Cavazos did not require his undermanned units to duel with superior forces while awaiting massive fire support, as virtually everyone else did. Overall, Fee shows that Cavazos’ tactics saved many lives, including the author’s.

—Henry Zeybel

Compass and a Camera by Steven Burchik

Steven Burchik did a 1968-69 tour of duty in the Vietnam War mainly in the rice paddies northeast of Saigon as a forward observer with the Army’s First Infantry Division. He served as a sergeant in D Company, Second Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment. His memoir, Compass and a Camera: A Year in Vietnam (Sharlin-K Press, 286 pp., $15, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is about that year. Burchik used the daily letters he wrote to his fiancee as the basis for this book and included many photographs he took.

Because of the letters and the photographs, Burchik’s book has an enormous amount of detail, which I see as a good thing. He explains exactly how search and destroy missions operated and how night ambushes were set up. The ritual of Saigon Tea is explained in a way that makes it unnecessary to read another description of how that works in a bar.

Several times his unit is visited by Red Cross workers and their role is gone into in some great detail. Once again, I found myself wondering who thought it was a good idea to send hundreds of young women into harm’s way to play games with soldiers. Burchik says they all were college graduates.

Burchik’s descriptions of filling sandbags and sitting on a bridge at night on guard duty convey tedium effectively without being boring to read. He lists the many movies he sees (including In the Heat of the Night), and the television shows he watches such as Laugh In and Combat. The men enjoyed laughing at the stupid stuff the squads did in Combat, such as bunching up when on patrol.

He spends time at places that echo and pay homage to movie westerns such as Fort Apache and Fort Pawnee. Late in the book we even encounter John Wayne in his classic film, Hell Fighter. Burchik praises Corky Trinidad, the cartoonist for Pacific Stars and Stripes who created “Nguyen Charlie” for the enjoyment of the troops. The author’s eye for pop culture makes this book more interesting than most.

Burchik tells is about hurrying up and waiting, and about how war is an imperfect enterprise. He goes out on a limb and says that he didn’t believe that God was on our side. Leeches and red ants and ARVN troops appear and are commented on then vanish. The song, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” is heard.

Steven Burchik

No bands greeted Borchik when he returned to the United States. He was not spat upon or called a baby killer. He survived the boredom and drudgery of the Army and was eager to get on with his life, which he did. Steven Burchik became a successful marketing executive and continues to pursue his lifelong interest in photography. His many fine photos enrich this memoir.

If you are in the market for an infantry memoir, I highly recommend this one.

The author’s website is www.stevenburchik.com

—David Willson

My Cross to Bear by Tom Conti

Tom Conti’s My Cross to Bear (Janet Conti, 280 pp., $16.95, paperback), his self-described “novel’s narrative,” is awash with misspellings, grammatical errors, and unsubstantiated Vietnam War “facts.” The book does have meaningful passages and humorous anecdotes, along with tragic war recollections as it ebbs and flows randomly between the author’s truck-driving missions in the war and his present- day ministry as a chaplain to veterans and his Gospel of Jesus Christ ministry.
Conti’s reliance on his memory and his in-country journals are the strong points of this historical—and occasionally hysterical—work. Entering Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut Airport in October 1966 he spotted a sign saying ” Welcome to Vietnam—over 500,000 Americans are vacationing here this year.”
Conti was assigned to the Army’s First Infantry Division as a light supply truck driver. He kept a daily diary of his year in country, providing the basis for this book, as well as the strongest, sometimes comical, writing.
For instance: ” I came across a photo of a soldier sitting on a bunker somewhere in Nam. There was a sign on the bunker that said, ‘This Place Is No Place. This place is no place for there is no place on Earth like this place, so this has to be no place.'”
Recalling his truck convoys Conti writes: “By far the most dangerous cargo was troops. One day while loading troops the first one in slams his M-14 down. The bullet went through the truck cab and instantly killed the driver.”
Among the author’s wartime memories are several unauthorized procurement missions .”It was discovered that one of our trucks had a pallet load of Heineken beer, the personal stash of General Dupre,” Conti writes. “A hole was made in the camouflaged box which covered the beer labeling it as tomato juice to discourage theft. Well, it was a long convoy but we saved the General a six pack.The supervising Sergeant went ballistic but there was nothing he could do. Score one for the troops.”
Conti took more than forty years to write this “novel.” I hope he will write a sequel as he suggests. If he does, I encourage him to include more on events such as this second one involving Gen. Dupre:
“One Sunday we heard shots from a shotgun, not a common thing. A couple of us, curious enough to check it out, saw General Dupre and some ‘Bird Colonel’ breaking clay birds on the perimeter. The friendly Sergeant Major was throwing them up with a hand-held device. Only in Nam.”
Conti credits “Jesus and his Angels” with saving his life in Vietnam so that he could become a minister after his discharge and live on to complete this book. 
Thinking back on his Army career, Conti writes: “After all is said and done I would not change too much. This was the hand I was dealt at the time and I had to play it to the best of my ability, with God’s help”.
Tom Conti took his honorable Army discharge and eventually became a veteran chaplain and ordained minister. He describes his life from 1968-1985 as “my closet years.” When he “came out” as a Vietnam veteran he became a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America and served as a State Chaplain for VVA in New Jersey.
I encourage him to think about compiling an anthology using his war diary and possibly organizing them as essays in lieu of chapters.
I would also urge other veterans to take inspiration from Tom Conti and put into your own words what you have experienced to share them with generations of readers to come.
For ordering info, call Lakeside Press at 800-371-5849 or 239-313-100.
—Curt Nelson

Dogface Charlie by Tom Mercer

In Dogface Charlie: Soldiers’ Recollections of Vietnam and the Big Red One (Caligny Military History Series,  264 pp. $20, paper) Tom Mercer brings together soldiers’ recollections of the Big Red One’s days in the Vietnam War, from 1965-69.

After several officers hold forth—most notably Col. Paul Herbert with his succinct summary of the 1st Infantry Division’s history in the war—Mercer lays out the recollections of grunts, including himself.

Larry Van Kuran graphically describes the miseries of swamp warfare. Bill Sullivan recalls a bad case of jungle rot and the kindness of a colonel who came to his rescue. Mercer himself meditates on how to walk point. And, in what must be a one-of-a-kind occurrence, Bob Norris meets his father at an LZ deep in the jungle.

Big Red One infantrymen in Vietnam

Patrick McLaughlin delivers a long, fiercely partisan memoir that mixes descriptions of procedures, recognizable to any former grunt, with intense recollections of combat. It’s a well-written piece that dominates the collection.

Mercer—who served as a fire-team leader a Big Red One rifle company in the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry—broadens the collection considerably by including accounts from wives, including his spouse, Joyce. She relates how her husband struggled with his memories of the war and longed to speak again with his old comrades. His efforts at last resulted in the reunion that inspired this book.

Dogface Charlie is without politics, other than to note that the war was “unpopular.” There is little historical context here, or meditations on policy. But any former infantryman will recognize himself in these well-edited recollections.

The book is a model for the ambitious ex-soldier who wants to put down in words what his friends and he went through so long ago.

– John Mort

Boots by Stephen L. Park

Stephen Park was drafted into the Army in July of 1966 at age twenty. He was given the opportunity to go to OCS and took it. Park arrived in Vietnam in February of 1968 and put in a year with Delta Company of the 1st Battalion/18th Infantry in the 1st Infantry Division, most of it in the field as a platoon leader operating out of the Big Red One’s base camp at DiAn.

“Although drafted, I was glad to be [in Vietnam] in a perverse way,” Park writes in Boots: An Unvarnished Memoir of Vietnam (Writers AMuse Me Publishing, 284 pp., $13.99, paper), a readable, well-written book that focuses almost exclusively on his year in the war zone. “War had its own strange lure, and I accepted the fate of my role long before arrival. I trained for it, bought into the idea of war, with a surplus of youthful naivete to be perhaps overly curious about war.”

When he arrived in country, Park “still possessed the feeling of innate immortality,” he writes, “but the false bravado of group roars, growls, and chants repetitiously performed in training was gone.”

Stephen Park

Changes “within myself,” he says, “were to come quickly, subtly, almost intangibly within the next two weeks. I could feel it inside as I changed from sentimental ideals to the cheap reality of war, the ‘learning curve where a year of aging could be done in a month’ type of shit. It was something no amount of training could duplicate. It was part of becoming hardcore.”

The author’s website is http://stephenlpark.webs.com

—Marc Leepson