Pop Smoke by Bill Lindsay

Pop Smoke: The Story of One Marine Rifle Platoon in Vietnam: Who They Were, What They Did, What They Learned (Palmetto, 222 pp. $24.99, hardcover; $19, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is former Marine Bill Lindsay’s memoir of his time in the Vietnam War. Lindsay says the names in his book are fictitious, but the events are not. I found the book a refreshingly solid retelling of one man’s experiences without having to put up with outlandish tales that so many other memoirs seem to contain.

The first sentence of the first chapter, “My Arrival,” puts us in the plane Lindsay is on entering South Vietnam’s air space on February 6, 1970. I liked that.

This book knows what it is. It’s a description of a military tour of duty in the Vietnam War, pure and simple. The last chapter, “My Return,” should probably be titled “My Departure,” because the book ends as Lt. Lindsay is flying home from Vietnam. There’s nothing in this book about his life before or after the war. This book is focused.

Assigned to the First Marine Division, Lindsay flew into Da Nang and wound up in the Third Battalion of the Seventh Marine Regiment at LZ Baldy. His unit was in the thick of things, facing both Viet Cong and the NVA. Their success was measured by body count.

Someone handed him a flak jacket stained with mud or blood and told him he would be a platoon commander with India Company because they needed a new one. Lindsay says he never found out what happened to the previous platoon commander—and he never asked.

He had dreamt of commanding a platoon in combat after a challenge a Marine instructor had given him based on Ernest Hemingway’s words: “The only way to truly be a warrior and experience war was to be a soldier, on the front lines. You need to see the enemy and be able to look him in the eyes as you engage him in combat. That is the only way to really consider yourself a warrior.”

He was then told that the life expectancy of a new second lieutenant infantry platoon commander in Vietnam was “under an hour.”

Lindsay’s war experiences included going more than a month without a shower and losing thirty pounds while subsisting on a diet of C-rations. He trudged through monsoon rains. There were ambushes and times he’d sit down and cry as he thought of the dead and wounded. He put up with medical treatment for intestinal worms and malaria.

Bill Lindsay

When word came that it was his time to go home Lindsay was told that the helicopter picking him up would be there in a few hours. It was that quick.

His first reaction was that he wanted to remain with his men, but that request fell on deaf ears. He flew out with sad thoughts that “so many had been killed or wounded during my tour. I was leaving without a scratch. That fact seemed so unfair.”

And with that, Bill Lindsay’s Vietnam War story ends—a story of only his actual time in-country.

It’s a story that consistently rang true and is one of the best Vietnam War memoirs I’ve read.

–Bill McCloud

To Hear Silence by Ronald W. Hoffman

In To Hear Silence (CreateSpace, 412 pp., $16.99 paper; $9.99, Kindle), Ronald W. Hoffman says, “If you were to investigate Charlie Battery 1/13, you would find this unit at the Battle of Khe Sanh in 1968. Before that—and before this book—little to nothing has been published about this unit.” His subtitle clearly explains his book’s purpose: Charlie Battery, 1st Battalion 13th Marines, The First 15 Months (July 1, 1966-October 5, 1967): The True Vietnam Experience in Support of the 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines.

Along with teaching a history lesson, Hoffman offers a look at his Vietnam War experience with Charlie Battery 1/13. He smoothly ties together his diary entries, declassified Marine Corps documents, memories of fellow Marines, and letters he sent home to his mother.

A 1966 draftee, Hoffman opted to serve as a Marine. Two years earlier, poor eyesight had prevented him from enlisting in the Corps. He trained as a radio operator on a Forward Observer Team.

Along with 3/26, Charlie Battery traveled from San Diego to Vietnam aboard the USS Lenawee on her final deployment. With layovers at Hawaii, Okinawa, and the Philippines, the voyage took from September 4 to December 11, time that included combat training exercises. Hoffman’s account of the unit riding out a typhoon in the disintegrating twenty-two-year-old ship could make a book by itself.

Dong Ha was the unit’s first stop in Vietnam. Hoffman’s description of the base exactly matched my recollection of the place: an absolute shit hole. Shortly after arriving, 3/26 took part in Operation Chinook and spent seventy-nine consecutive days in the field.

Following Operations Chinook I and II, Charlie Battery accompanied 3/26 to Phu Bai to Leatherneck Square on the south edge of the DMZ, and finally into Khe Sanh—another part of the book that could stand alone. The mission was the same everywhere: find and destroy the enemy.

Hoffman recites Marine activities as day-by-day events of entire units. For example, he reports that “Kilo Company was hit with sniper fire from across the river” and “India detected a column of some three hundred VC troops that they engaged with mortar fire.” Generally, he identifies individual Marines only when they are killed.

The companies of 3/26 used Charlie’s 105-mm howitzers against practically everything they encountered. They even called for rounds on a single enemy soldier who loitered beyond rifle range. More often than not, the difficulty of verifying results created frustration for everyone because Gen. William Westmoreland demanded body counts. Time after time, Charlie Battery unloaded dozens of rounds on target areas with outstanding coverage, and then the men in the field found traces of blood but no bodies.

“Probable” kills outnumbered verified kills. So, digging up enemy bodies to determine the cause of death became a common practice to increase the number of confirmed kills. After one encounter, American forces hunted well into the night with artillery illumination to find dead enemy soldiers and try to double a body count.

Practically every day, Marines triggered booby traps. At one point, because of more casualties to the Marines than to the enemy, daytime missions were said to end; instead, companies were assigned sectors and expected to wait in ambush. Nobody followed the new plan and the tactics remained unchanged.

At the time, Hoffman wrote: “This isn’t at all what any of us thought war would be like.”

Meanwhile, the NVA largely switched from conventional warfare to guerrilla tactics. In small groups they hit and ran. When they had the numbers, though, the NVA employed human wave attacks against isolated American units.

Hoffman did plenty of homework. His meshing of different sources provides reams of facts to help readers reach their own conclusions about the effectiveness of American efforts during the early stages of the Vietnam War. Some might view Hoffman’s research as a study in frustration.

The book contains photographs, maps, and five appendices: The Vietnam War by the Numbers (a summation of all Vietnam casualties); September 1966 Convoy Ships; a Roster of Charlie Battery 1/13; Original 3/26 Members Killed in Action; Replacement 3/26 Members Killed in Action; and Marine Corps Acronyms and Definitions.

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

 

Stained With the Mud of Khe Sanh by Rodger Jacobs

Rodger Jacobs’s memoir, Stained with the Mud of Khe Sanh: A Marine’s Letters from Vietnam, 1966-1967 (McFarland, 260 pp., $29.95), is presented in the form of letters and interspersed comments written recently. It is a high-class, high-quality book, with photographs taken by Jacobs during his tour of duty. The book even has a useful index, something rare in a memoir. Warning, though: the index is not completely accurate.

I immediately checked the index for the usual things I look for in Vietnam War memoirs: Bob Hope, John Wayne, antiwar demonstrators, Joan Baez, Iwo Jima,. baby killers. None of them were in the index, but I found all of them in the book.

So the book is full of surprises. That is not a bad thing, but it does make the book more difficult to use as reference material. I did find body bags, body count, booby traps, Donut Dolly, and Bernard Fall, as well as just about every other thing a reader would want in a Marine Corps memoir.

Jacobs served in the Marines in Vietnam almost exactly the same time I served there in the U. S. Army. I therefore read his book with special interest and attention, finding some of his experiences similar to those I wrote about in REMF Diary.

But Jacobs’s entries are much better than mine. He was ninety yards away from Bernard Fall when the famed correspondent and historian was killed by a Bouncing Betty mine. When I heard the news on AFRTS that day, I was horror struck.  But imagine how Fall’s death struck Jacobs, who was right there. That is only one of hundreds of powerful and immediate sections in this fine book.

Jacobs gives us edited versions of his letters home, and he omits some entirely. He always tells the reader when he is doing this, but he does not tell us why.

Jacobs’s parents must be praised for keeping the letters and photos that his son sent home and for presenting them to him when he was past the most difficult times after coming home from the war.

Rodger Jacobs served with the First Battalion, Ninth Marines, “The Walking Dead,” during the last part of his tour in Vietnam. He was stationed first with A Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Division in Da Nang.

Jacobs is a guy who avoided formal education, but he comes from a middle-class family and his father was a World War II veteran and a veterinary doctor. His book is more evidence to disprove the notion that those of us who served in Vietnam, especially in the Marines, were dead-end kids who lacked smarts.

These letters are well-written and always of interest. Jacobs minces no words about sensitive issues, such as bad commanders and their bad decisions, and the tragic decision to take away M-14s and replace them with M-16s that often jammed.

The Inspector General, for whom I worked, was involved in an investigation about how the M-16 let down the Marines. So when I read how the Marines begged for their M-14s back and were denied them, I got teary about the deaths this casued. Sad stuff, powerfully presented by Jacobs and by his commander who has a letter in the book.

It took Rodger Jacobs many years to find himself after that war. He did it through the intervention of a father who loved him, the love of a good woman, and by finding a craft, wood-turning, through which he has created many fine works of art.

Jacobs can be proud of this work of art, too, one of the finest enlisted Marine Corps memoirs I have read. It stands tall, right next that great Marine Corps officer memoir, Welcome to Vietnam, Macho, Man by Ernest Spencer. I highly recommend Stained with the Mud of Khe Sanh.

—David Willson