To the Sound of the Guns by Grady T. Birdsong

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Concentrated reading about the United States Marine Corps has led me to one conclusion: The Marines make you the man they want you to be when they need you to be that man. Grady Birdsong personifies that conclusion.

In 2010 as a veterans advocate, Birdsong championed hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) as a new method for dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. He helped establish a non-profit HBOT clinic in Boulder, Colorado, that treats veterans from across the nation. In 2016, with Bob Fischer, he wrote the definitive book about HBOT: The Miracle Workers of South Boulder Road: Healing the Signature Wounds of War. Last November, the VA approved HBOT treatment for PTSD.

Now Birdsong has written To the Sound of the Guns: 1st Battalion, 27th Marines from Hawaii to Vietnam 1966-1968 (BirdQuill, 434 pp. $44.99, hardcover; $36.99, paper), a tribute to the unit he served with in the Vietnam War.

Grady Birdsong enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1966 and served two combat-heavy tours in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969. His accounts of his unit focus on securing the Hue City canal area out to the coast and deploying south of Da Nang to secure the Go Noi Island area in support of Operation Allen Brook.

His tome-like book is crammed with personalities and actions of all ranks. Birdsong provides a long list of interviewees he calls “contributors.” The length of the list made me think that he must have collected stories and photographs for years. He also discusses war and related world politics. Many photographs and maps support the text.

The desire of President Johnson and Gen. Westmoreland to increase American forces to more than a half million men in Vietnam rushed Bridsong’s undermanned battalion out of Hawaii and into battle at the end of February in 1968. In a thankfully short chapter, Birdsong’s account of the unit’s home at Duong Son, ten kilometers south of Da Nang, rehashes well-known topics such as rain, morale, food, shit burning, and other daily routines.

In a huge chapter titled “Tools of the Trade,” Birdsong inventories and explains the functions of equipment used by Marines in Vietnam, including C-130 transports and F-4 fighters, M50A1 Ontos anti-tank vehicles, tactical ground radar, and flamethrowers—even the P-38 can opener. He buttresses these descriptions with testimony from men who operated the equipment.

The book’s core chapters—“Deployed to Task Force X-Ray, Phu Vang District,” “Operation Allen Brook,”and “A Third Offensive”—describe the combat action of 1/27. By combining multiple points of view from participants, Birdsong creates a clearly defined picture of the role of the unit for its seven months in the war. Chapters such as “Victory Isn’t Always Glorious” provide insight that merits a second reading.

At the end of August 1968, short timers in 1/27 returned to Hawaii or Camp Pendleton. New guys, incluiding Birdsong, transferred to other units in-country.

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Grady Birdsong

The book’s final in-depth examines the grief felt by seven families who lost a 1st of the 27th Marine. Birdsong includes an Honor Roll of the battalion’s one hundred twelve men who were killed in action as compiled by Gary E. Jarvis.

With his writing of To the Sound of The Guns, Birdsong’s Marine training persists and he continues to fulfill needs of the Corps fifty years after the fact.

I admire him—and his books.

Birdsong’s website is gradytbirdsong.com

—Henry Zeybel

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When We Wore the Uniform edited by Barry Hugh Yeakle

 

10917801_370410826493601_5675899735985768310_oFor years, a bunch of former Marines calling themselves the Leatherneck Coffee Club sat down together in Northern Indiana, drank coffee, and swapped stories about their active duty days. One guy kept insisting on putting the stories together in a book and sharing them with the rest of the world. Another guy asked around and got help from writing professionals. That led to finding support from the Indiana Humanities and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

That effort created a printed book rather than one written in crayon, according to Barry Hugh Yeakle who edited When We Wore the Uniform: The Collected Stories of the Leatherneck Coffee Club (Leatherneck Coffee Club of Northern Indiana, 188 pp.). The book spans the years 1950-2001.  Marines of different ages, ranks, and specialties talk about their experiences in training, in garrison, at sea, and overseas. A a few reflect on it all.

The book contains about a hundred stories. Barry Yeakle, Monte Hoover, John Purcell, Ron Stefanko, Sr., and Carl Johnson III contribute multiple times.

The storytellers are veterans with a strong sense of pride in the Marine Corps, but who also find humor in its flaws. Their ambivalent feelings about first sergeants provide images that nicely fill the traditional mold. And beating-the-system stands out as a favorite endeavor. The section titled “It Happened Overseas” contains stories about the Vietnam War.

The accounts of combat are recollected with little embellishment. Facts pertaining to life-or-death situations are told indirectly. For example, the casualty rate is described as follows: “Attrition was so bad that you might be a rifleman one day, the fire team leader the next, and a squus_marine_corps_mugad leader by the end of the week.”

“We were dehydrated, hungry, exhausted and furious at the enemy” summarizes a day that ended with a unit lost and outnumbered. The straightforward and unpretentious style of the former Marines makes it easy to find commonality with them.

Books like this are enlightening because a reader is privy to a what amounts to a bitch session in which participants are no longer under anyone’s jurisdiction. No holds are barred. Yet reflections made during the years since the events occurred temper complaints and things past are seen more accurately.

The book’s gem of a glossary of “naval lingo” provided a few definitions that made me laugh out loud.  The highly distinctive art style of Claudia Viscarra illustrates many of the stories.

—Henry Zeybel

Vigilance by Ray Kelly

 

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Reading Ray Kelly’s memoir, Vigilance: My Life Serving America and Protecting Its Empire City (Hachette, 328 pp., $28.00, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle), is like reviewing New York City’s crime files from the mid-1960s to today. Kelly served forty-three years with the NYPD. He provides insight into fighting crime from the perspectives of the street cop up to the commissioner.

A lifelong New Yorker, Kelly was born in Manhattan and earned bachelor and law degrees from colleges in the city. His book ties together his efforts to improve the police force with various mayors’ ambitions to make New York City safer and more livable.

During the summer following his junior year at Manhattan College, Kelly earned a second lieutenant’s commission through the Marine Corps Platoon Leaders Course. His three older brothers had been Marines. Soon after, he also qualified to attend the police academy. So, on graduation from college, he “put the NYPD on hold” for three years to fulfill his military obligation.

Kelly became an artillery forward observer and fire-support coordinator after completing infantry warfare training. Newly married to Veronica Clarke, he was stationed at Camp Pendleton until he shipped out aboard the USS Gunston Hall to Vietnam in 1965.

Kelly underplays his role as an artilleryman in Vietnam. Initially, he led a team on amphibious-assault landings in amtracks. “We’d take modest sniper fire,” he says. He also writes that he enjoyed working with men from all parts of America, which refined his leadership skills. “Virtually everything I know about being a leader, I learned in the Marine Corps,” he writes.

“I spent most of my tour in the valleys near Hue and Phu Bai,” Kelly says. He took part in day and night helicopter assaults and Operations Harvest Moon and New York. His details of encounters with the enemy focus on other people as the performers of extraordinary actions.

Kelly felt pride in his young men for their dedication. His primary regret is that he and his men never had a “full understanding of the endgame.” Confusion, he says, “was a constant part of the Vietnam experience. He and his men often ran around in what he calls a “fog of war.”

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Ray Kelly in Vietnam

 

With the NYPD, Kelly frequently moved from one part of the city to another because of his ability to improve the efficiency of problem precincts.  Promotions came rapidly. He helped remove sex businesses from Times Square and reduced the city’s homicide count after it reached rampant proportions. That hard work led to his first appointment as police commissioner in 1992.

For the next twenty years, Kelly continued to lead police organizations in NYC, the federal government, and even overseas. From 2002-13, during his second appointment as commissioner following 9/11 , he determined his mandate to be “counterterrorism, crime fighting, and community relations.”

Ray Kelly, who retired to the private sector in 2014, carried a tremendous burden. I doubt anyone could report that trying period of police work with more accuracy and authority than he does.

—Henry Zeybel

 

It Wasn’t Like Nothing by Thomas J. Hynes

Clearly the double negative in the title is a clue to expect a no-nonsense chronicle about the hazardous realities of Vietnam War combat through the eyes of a United States Marine. It Wasn’t Like Nothing: One Marine’s Adventure in Vietnam by Thomas J. Hynes (iUniverse 270 pp., $20.95, paper; $3.49, Kindle) covers the author’s path from enlistment to fighting the Viet Cong and and NVA.

Hynes’s rapid change of venue after graduating from Georgetown Law School in September 1966, then taking the Marine Basic Course and Officer Candidate School and his subsequent assignment to Lima Company, Third Battalion, Fifth Marines near Da Nang all happened in less than a year. 2nd Lt. Hynes even somehow managed to fit in his marriage during a two-week leave.

A Catch 22-like assignment was the new Lieutenant’s introduction to Lima Company. Introducing himself as Captain K, his CO said, “Lieutenant, we have a problem. I already have three platoon commanders, and I don’t have a place to put you except as weapons platoon commander.” Captain K then told Hynes that there wasn’t a weapons platoon. A temporary mortar team was created and Hynes began “learning the hard way.” Talking to experienced members of Lima Company was more valuable than most stateside training.

This OJT often took place during platoon sweeps, patrols, and battalion-wide operations. Calling in artillery strikes and air support requires full knowledge of where your unit is and where the enemy is. “Just as the rifle was the basic tool of the infantryman, the map and compass were the basic tools of the platoon commander,” Hynes writes.

Responding to a firefight, another platoon commander “intentionally called in the mission on top of us. He thought we would get out of there in time and we would catch Charlie sneaking in behind us. He didn’t give us enough time to clear the area before the artillery came in.”

Hynes offers his opinions on the South Vietnamese military and civilians. “We went from village to village,” he writes. “The reaction of the villagers was one of studied indifference. The peasants were caught in the middle of this war. All they wanted was to tend their fields in peace. Regardless of who ruled their country, they had to raise enough crops to survive another year.”

One battle in which a Marine platoon advanced on a treeline responding to small arms fire from Viet Cong inside the forest did so without support from the the ARVN squad they were working with. The Vietnamese later explained, “we do not attack treelines.”

Although the book’s photographs are of poor quality, the author’s descriptions of his platoon’s combat actions are as vivid as any images on film. One such account describes a ground action that could have caused many friendly casualties.

A battalion operation was winding down as two companies were returning to their base camps. Lima Company detected incoming fire from the woodline in front of them and laid down a field of fire into the woods. Delta Company, advancing on the other side of the woods, returned fire toward Lima Company’s position. Miraculously, none of the thousands of rounds fired resulted in friendly fire casualties. The din of rapid firing drowned out cease-fire commands until radio transmissions halted the gunfire.

Operation Swift was among the most critical enemy engagements Second Platoon was involved in during Hyne’s year in country. His report on this series of battles reveals a startling action that had the Marines and their lieutenant thinking about the futility of such operations over a few kilometers of The Que Son Valley.

Marines ready for action during Operation Swift

Official reports often conflicted with what the grunts actually experienced. Lt. Hynes recalled: “I later read the after-action report on the operation, and it was my opinion the official version of Operation Swift was suspect.”

Hynes has written a remarkable personal journal enabling readers to appreciate the work of a group of brave Marines.

—Curt Nelson

Twin Marines in Hell by Jerry Byrne

Jerry Byrne’s Twin Marines in Hell: From Grade School to Vietnam (CreateSpace, 204 pp., $14,95, paper; $3.99, Kindle), is dedicated to his twin brother, John, who died at age 58 of cancer resulting from exposure to Agent Orange.

Jerry and John Byrne, identical twins, grew up in a family of four boys in Queens, New York. They learned to be good at fisticuffs, being raised in a tough neighborhood. Right after high school graduation in 1963, the twins joined the Marine Corps, and went through boot camp together. Jerry Byrne’s description of the harsh treatment they received at the hands of the drill instructors makes the reader truly comprehend the tough and unforgiving Marine Corps basic training at Parris Island back then.

In March 1966, Jerry Byrne, a long-time member of Vietnam Veterans of America, arrived in Vietnam and was assigned to 3rd Platoon, Kilo Company, 3rd Bn., 7th Marines in the Chu Lai area. Within days of his, the FNG went out on Operation Texas with his battalion. The author captures the intense loneliness and fear that a Marine new to his unit experiences in his first exposure to combat. He eventually attained the rank of corporal and became a squad leader.

U.S. Marines at Chu Lai in 1966

After five months, just when he began to think he had a good handle on being a squad leader, Byrne was transferred to the Chu Lai Defense Command along with fifteen other Marine “volunteers.” They were part of a newly formed CAP Unit (Combined Action Platoon) that worked with Vietnamese Popular Force soldiers to defend a village.

This is where Jerry Byrne’s growing disenchantment with the war really took off. He describes in detail the rampant corruption among the village leaders and his PF “buddies.” He even ran into his twin brother in the village one day, and the two of them managed to keep each other out of trouble.

Before Jerry Byrne got into official trouble due to his contempt for his PF allies, he was transferred to Camp Hansen, Okinawa, and served the rest of his overseas tour there. His welcome home from the war was nonexistent, even hostile. Like the rest of us, Jerry wasn’t prepared for the shoddy coming-home treatment he received. His writing captures the anger and disappointment he felt very well.

On the plus side, the book has nineteen pages of quality photographs. One negative is that more proof reading should have been done to insure that typos and misspelled words would be caught before the finalized manuscript went to press.

This powerful memoir is a bluntly told account of identical twin brothers growing up together, then facing their challenging journey together into the U.S. Marine Corps during the Vietnam War.

—Jim Coan

The Other Side of Me by D.L. “Tex” Swafford and Jim Bob Swafford

The resigned stare on the face that fills the back cover of The Other Side of Me: Memoirs of a Vietnam Marine (CreateSpace, 169 pp., $12.25, paper) pretty much tells the book’s entire story. The stare belonged to ammunition technician D.L. “Tex” Swafford, who served three tours in Vietnam, from 1966-70, and who died last year. Swafford called the book “my story in random narrative and prose, essays, awkward and sometimes dark poetry, thoughts and words of a man with a broken mind.”

The long duration and intensity of Swafford’s combat experience affected him to an extraordinary degree. Consequently, his post-war behavior went the way it did for many of those with PTSD: Swafford surrendered to “the potent power of alcohol” and drugs.

His book overflows with anxiety, tension, regret, guilt for surviving, shame for what he “had or had not done in the war,” and rage “unlike anything [he] had ever experienced.” His emotions form foundations for vignettes of a strained relationship with his father, a repugnant aftermath to a friend’s combat death, a trip to a “Jesus Saves” rescue shelter, and a love affair that he destroyed, along with other disillusioning events.

Perhaps to counterbalance his feelings, Swafford included a story by his brother Jim Bob describing their father’s dedication to family and work. Swafford also wrote poems and tributes of love and appreciation for his mother.

But Swafford’s poems mostly are cynical and sorrowful, with titles such as “Old Desperados,” “The House of Broken Minds,” and “Knuckles and Skulls.” He distinctly captureed the moods of outcasts and wastrels in “The Devil’s Carousel.”

Eight years of correspondence with a psychiatrist provided partial relief for Swafford’s delusions, flashbacks, and nightmares. The book includes samples of his letters to Dr. Carol at The Happiness Hotel, her safe haven construct for PTSD patients.

Swafford offers definitive insights to war and to what follows. As I see it, the conclusion that most concisely describes his mental condition applies to all young man who experienced combat that induced PTSD. Speaking from within a barricade of loneliness, he wrote:

Donald Swafford

“Madness is when the weight of the world is on your shoulders and your only escape is not to care; not to give a fuck. I could say this again and again, but at war there is no other choice but to stomach the inevitable. And the terrible reality of the whole thing is that deep down you do care.”

Donald Laverne Swafford died at age 69 in 2014. More of his Vietnam War writings and photographs are available at the Texas Tech University Visual Vietnam Archive Center.

—Henry Zeybel

You Had to Be There by Gene Gorman

Thought for the day: There’s no such thing as a good deal that a GI can’t fuck up. A bunch of guys I served with believed that thought was gospel. In fact, some of us occasionally qualified as the sentiment’s poster children. But Gene Gorman beat all of us when it came to self-destruction.

In You Had to Be There: A Memoir of a Miraculous Life (Archway, 260 pp. $35.99, hardcover; $17.99, paper, $3.99, Kindle), Gorman sets some kind of record for successively running up ladders of success and then free falling from the top rung, loaded with beer. He performed his one-act play as both a Marine and a civilian.

His book is a good read because he pulls no punches. Gorman presents a classic alcoholic’s story by revealing himself at his absolute worst. Watching him is both tragic and funny, sort of like seeing LeBron James block his own breakaway, game-winning layup. Fortunately, we eventually see Gorman at his best.

Born in 1946, the second oldest of six children, Gene Gorman began working as a pre-teen door-to-door Christmas card salesman to supplement the family’s income. From then on, he never stopped selling a product or himself. He started drinking at fifteen—mostly beer. Told to leave home after high school, he enlisted in the Marine Corps.

His drinking steadily increased, even after he reached the fast track of driving an admiral. He did a tour in Vietnam, mainly leading a squad on search and destroy operations north of Dong Ha. Home from the war, Gorman received choice assignments while drinking his way to an honorable discharge.

In civilian life, Gene Gorman excelled in many different sales jobs, usually lasting around ninety days each. Once he lasted three years. But booze inevitably took control and he repeatedly walked away from work. Gorman seldom, if ever, got home before the bars closed in the wee hours of the morning.

Gene Gorman married and was divorced by the same women three times. They had two children. At the age of twenty-nine, Gorman resigned himself “to just being a drunk and waiting to see what happened to guys like [him].” Delirium tremens and repeated failures at detoxification finally forced him to admit he was an alcoholic and enter a twelve-step program at thirty.

Gene GormanThe book’s second half provides a message of hope for anyone trapped in addiction.  As a member of the Easy Does It Club, Gorman (at left) followed the guidance of recovery mentors and, working for others, maximized his talent for selling cars. Alone, he founded a program—The Winning Edge—that teaches leadership skills worldwide. You can look it up.

His managerial success led to building a used automobile sales corporation—Gene Gorman Associates—in  Punta Gorda, Florida. It now is nearly twenty years old. You can look that one up, too.

Simultaneously with his business success, Gorman started a new family and made amends with his first wife and older children. His story frequently takes on a well-earned proud poppa and grandpa tone. The book contains twenty-eight pages of pictures that closely resemble a family album.

The author’s website is www.genegormansbooks.com

—Henry Zeybel