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

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