The Rakkasans by Andrew Robbins

rakkasans

Andrew Robbins’ stimulatingly dismal reflections on military life and combat triggered my entire repertoire of WTF reflexes. His book, The Rakkasans (December 1967 through October 1969): A Vietnam Veteran’s Memoir (CreateSpace, 298 pp. $18.95, paper) rounds up—and convicts—the usual suspects.

Robbins served in Vietnam with the 3rd Battalion/187th Infantry Regiment, aka the Rakkasans (“Parachutists” in Japanese), in the 101st Airborne Division. He confronted two big problems . First, he questioned the purpose of the war. Second, he despised the lack of leadership and battle skills of his officers. At one point, Robbins says, he seriously sought a sergeant’s approval to shoot a junior lieutenant who could not read maps and frequently became lost.

A teenage enlistee from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Robbins paid close attention during basic training, infantry AIT, and Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol school. Beyond that, while helping train reserve officers, he sat in their classes and learned combat tactics, mastering map reading. In his spare time, he “devoured writings on guerrilla warfare and Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse-tung, Chiang Kai-shek, Ho Chi Minh, and Che Guevara,” he says.

In Vietnam, along with taking part in many search-and-destroy missions, Robbins fought in three large engagements: Operation Rakkasan Chaparral in March 1968, Ap Trang Dau, and Fire Support Base Pope, both in September 1968. He describes the action in vivid detail . Between the first and second engagements, he spent three months locked up in Long Binh Jail. Upon returning to his unit, he voluntarily extended his combat tour.

Self-confidence based on his study of the guerrilla mentality prompted him to question superiors when they devised risky or incomplete operational plans. His habit of questioning authority led to the court-martial in a trial during which he was barred from the courtroom.

The book describes many Vietnam War leadership practices that defy reason. Robbins saw how irrational leaders destroyed esprit and caused unnecessary deaths. He provides example after example of avoidable combat disasters to prove his point. Based on his observations, the foremost goal of officers in-country seems to have been winning command positions to advance their careers. Victory was secondary. Furthermore, the way the military gave out medals to officers damaged military valor, Robbins says. He spends a chapter demeaning the combat awards of generals that he cites by name.

Robbins’ blunt complaints are supported by operation orders, daily entries in duty officer logs, eye-witness accounts, excerpts from the Abrams Tapes, other personal narratives, and his letters from Vietnam to his mother. His research reveals cover-ups of events that might have damaged officers’ careers and false battle claims such as inflated body counts.

The book takes on a tone of international intrigue after Robbins meets “SBC” (his moniker for a unidentified “Skinny Black Contractor”) and Mr. Q. while in LBJ. Based on Robbins’ map reading skill, LRRP training, and familiarity with firearms, the two mysterious men unexpectedly and without explanation enlisted him for secret missions.

Long after the war when Robbins worked for the Department of Defense, he met SBC at the Pentagon. Their conversation then proved equally as mystifying as their relationship had been in Vietnam. SBC related complicated ideas that finally showed Robbins the true purpose of the war. His explanation gives an entirely new dimension to Southeast Asia. At least that is how I read it.

To clarify a long-ago war for present generations, Robbins includes two appendices in The Rakkasans. The first reviews Vietnamese history. The second explains the influence Ho Chi Minh exerted on his nation. Robbins’ message: Vietnam’s savior built a dictatorship using imported revolution.

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Andrew Robbins

Following the account of his time in Vietnam, Robbins applies a logical approach to long-term health care by calmly discussing the war-incurred medical problems for which he sought treatment from the VA: malaria, hearing loss, exposure to Agent Orange, impaired vision, and Post-traumatic stress disorder. Unproductive encounters with VA doctors and administrators—as well as unreasonable policies that hindered his treatment—eventually reduces his logical argument to an emotional one unfavorably comparing the VA to “real hospitals” and “true medical” facilities.

He sums up years of unfulfilled VA medical care, particularly for PTSD, by saying: “I tried the VA’s mental health program and found it to be a complete failure. VA treatment is unreliable, inhumane and not in any patient’s best interest.”

In 2004, Robbins wrote It Took My Breath Away: One Man’s Experience May Save Your Life, an investigation into problems associated with working in toxic environments.

Robbins’ web site is http://www.therakkasans.com/page-4/

—Henry Zeybel

The Crouching Beast by Frank Boccia

Forty–five years ago the 101st Airborne Division went into South Vietnam’s A Shau Valley as part of Operation Apache Snow. The objective: to find, engage, and kill the 29th NVA Regiment on Hills 937, 900, 916, and Hill 800.

That battle is the basis of Frank Boccia’s chilling book, The Crouching Beast: A United States Army Lieutenant’s Account of the Battle for Hamburger Hill, May 1969 (McFarland, 472 pp., $40, paper). It’s a personal story of the 101st Airborne’s struggle to capture what became known as Hamburger Hill.

In forty chapters of small observations, exact conversations, clear insights, action, consequences, and emotions we learn how one of four under-strength 101st companies fought to destroy an entrenched NVA regiment on Dong Ap Bia mountain less than two miles from Laos in I Corps almost due west of Hue in Thua Thien Province.

In eleven sustained days of repeated, brutal combat assaults up a forty-degree vertical bamboo-infested mountain, with sawgrass-patch covered, vine-snarled ridges, draws, trails, v-shaped ravines, and stump-tough triple canopy forest, the men of the 101st’s Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 187th infantry—together with other Screaming Eagle troopers—lost  ninety two killed and nearly 500 wounded.

Nearly 2,000 American and ARVN troops engaged some 1,200 heavily dug-in, camouflaged NVA regulars in one of the most brutal battles of the Vietnam War. Some have likened what happened there to the carnage of on Iwo Jima. The NVA lost some 630 men, but Montagnard peoples of Laos say that about 400 were dragged off the mountain during the two-week siege.

For 1st Lt. Frank Boccia, a 25-year-old, Georgetown-educated, Italian-born junior officer who commanded a platoon in the 187th (the Rakkasans), it was a six-month, hideous odyssey from arrival to the crest of Hill 937 in May of 1969.

After nearly eleven full days of sustained fighting featured close-quarter assaults, crashed helicopters, a blinding rainstorm that turned the mountain to engulfing mud, and miscalculations of who and how many were holed-up in the mountain, the battle against a heavily fortified enemy came to a close.

Boccia

A unique feature of Boccia’s book is his uncanny accuracy recreating locations, reconstructed conversations, the weather, the sounds, and the personalities of the troopers who slogged up Hamburger Hill ten or more times until it was taken.

Also clearly articulated is the harshness and near brutality of Lt. Col. Weldon F. Honeycutt, AKA  “Black Jack,” who sent his troops repeatedly up the hill only to have them driven back by .51 caliber Chinese communist machine guns, small arms fire, grenades, RPGs mines, and booby traps. Rivers at the base of the Hill featured mosquitoes, snakes, leeches, fog, and soil that was a combination of rotting putrid vegetation, dead body parts, and stray animals.

Yet as Boccia settled in and got to got to know his men, this English Literature graduate and draftee came to learn how to lead his men to fulfill their mission. His short descriptions of the men he served with are both spot-on and finely crafted. This is a fine officer any man would be happy to serve with.

By the time Boccia’s men left Hamburger Hill on June 5, Alpha Company had thirty percent casualties; Bravo Company (Boccia’s unit) had fifty percent; Charlie Company had sixty percent after replacements; and Delta Company suffered over seventy-five percent.  During World War II units that sustained fifty percent casualties were classified as destroyed.

Throughout the book Boccia and his platoon suffer under-strength engagements, crashed helicopters, men blown to pieces by RPGs and heavy machine guns, confused and fragmented leadership, and true valor from nearly everyone who survived.

PFCs did incredible things; RTOs performed under unimaginable danger; helicopter pilots medevaced men away in overloaded, defenseless light observation choppers; medics did not give up no matter the terror; machine gunners stayed and fought when death was only twenty meters away.

Near the end, a nearly illiterate trooper stands up during the battle and curses the NVA, screaming that his “Rakkassans are going to kick their asses, and take this damn mountain, no matter what it takes.” They do.

In the end, Boccia and his men are spent, but hey have fulfilled their mission. And they served their nation with honor. We should stand in awe of their accomplishments.

—Robert M. Pacholik