The Gunny, Master Guns, and Bullets and Bandages by Raymond Hunter Pyle

Raymond Hunter Pyle is a two-tour Vietnam veteran who served in Da Nang, Cua Viet, and Dong Ha in 1967 and in Da Nang from 1968-69. I suspect he was a Marine Corps NCO, perhaps a gunnery sergeant who did a lot of recon. Those suspicions are based on the extreme realism and wealth of believable detail that Pyle displays in these three fine and rousing action adventure tales of a Marine Corps NCO.

What are my qualifications for reviewing Pyle’s Marine Corps novels, all of which take place in the thick of battle and often deep in the jungle of Vietnam—all three of which I thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend, with a few misgivings? I was not a Marine, and I never wanted to be a Marine, but my father was. He was a normal guy before he served in protracted combat in the World War II. For the rest of his life he was a bitter, difficult man who never talked about his war experiences.

To try to reach some understanding of why my father was the way he was, I have read hundreds of Marine Corps books, starting with his unit history. This was an enriching experience, but having a father who was present and communicative would have been much preferable.

Pyle is a great storyteller, and he presents us with flesh-and-blood characters we care about and get completely involved with. I would rank him right up there with Jack London and Edgar Rice Burroughs, two of my favorite action/adventure novelists. Long sections of The Gunny CreateSpace, 448 pp., $13.70, paper; $3.99, Kindle), in fact, in which the title character is alone in the jungle hunting the enemy with a knife reminded me vividly of similar scenes in a Tarzan novel in which the “King of the Jungle” killed Nazis with a knife.

Pyle’s scenes were every bit as thrilling and exciting as those of Burroughs’ Tarzan. That is high praise.

However, Pyle has not had the benefit of the editors that Jack London and Edgar Rice Burroughs had. The Gunny is the best edited by far of the three books. But even that book suffers from anachronistic rants such as: “During bull sessions between attacks, the Marines on the hill had talked about the hippies in California and how they would spit on military men coming back home from Vietnam and call them baby killers and worse.” That simply did not happen in 1967-68.

The other two books suffer from frequent dropped capital letters, missing prepositions, and erratic spelling. Pyle, for example, uses the term “nuke mom” for the common fish sauce (nuoc mam) of Vietnam. 

The Gunny also tests credibility with the meteoric rise to Gunnery Sergeant of Frank Evans, due to his saving the life of a Marine Corps general who demonstrates his gratitude by becoming Frank’s rabbi.  One of the most absorbing parts of the book is the lengthy section in which Frank is assigned to Khe Sanh to investigate the malfunctions of the M-16 for the general.  Pyle gets all of this right, and makes it interesting as well.

It’s mostly action with the occasional bit of reflection, such as: “Every man has a dark, violent spirit inside of him.”  Certainly Sgt. Frank Evans does.

Master Guns (376 pp., $3.99, Kindle) is a Marine recon novel and a fine one. Everything you ever yearned to know about Marine recon is in this novel and it all moves right along.

Rhodes, the main character, also rises rapidly in the Marine Corps. He makes the sudden jump from NCO to captain. I know a friend who managed to do that in the Marine Corps, so while it can be done, it is unlikely, but possible. The novel makes clear that the role of recon is to develop intelligence on terrain, enemy movements and numbers, and finding potential LZ’s for future operations, but there is no shortage of actual battle.

We get a long and educational disquisition on where the term “klick’ comes from as a measure of distance. There is also a great scene in which an artillery strike is called in on the Marines’ own position. We find out exactly why the 9th Marines were called “The Walking Dead.”

At Khe Sanh, the Marines were sitting ducks in a muddy pond, being hit with long-range artillery, mortars of all sizes, recoil-less rifles, 122 MM, 140 mm, and 155 mm rockets and even RPG’s fired by sappers just on the other side of the wire.

In Bullets and Bandages: A DMZ Story: Vietnam 1967 (BookBaby, 302 pp., $3.99, Kindle), two main characters’ lives are entwined by marriage, family ,and career: Staff Sergeant Marowski and Terry King, a Squid and a Navy Corpsman.

Marowski and King survive for weeks in the jungle near the DMZ after surviving a helicopter crash, evading the enemy, and undergoing just about every bad thing that can happen to someone in a jungle.

Pyle is a spell-binding teller of tales and he really knows the lives of Marine Corps professionals, and he has the writerly gifts to hold the attention of the reader.

The author avoids right-wing rants until the very end of the book. Vietnam veterans returned to a country, Pyle writes, “that didn’t care much about the war or its returning veterans.” The country “was mired in its own selfish and self-centered politics and social problems. The age of the spoiled brat society had begun.”

Pyle tells us that Marowski and King, “like thousands of others, got on with their lives and tried to make sense of it all. Few ever did.” That point is debatable, at best.

Based on my reading of many hundreds of Marine Corps books, I believe that some Vietnam veteran authors seem to feel sorry for themselves in a way that the authors of the World War II and Korean War Marine Corps books did not. Maybe that has something to do with Pyle’s reference to a “spoiled-brat society.”

I’m looking forward to Pyle’s fourth book in this series. I hope it will have a stern editor who will keep the faith on proper English punctuation and keep the rants out. Suggestion: Pyle could put his rants on a blog aimed at those who need them.

—David Willson