Vietnam 1967-68 by David R. Higgins

Vietnam 1967-68: U.S. Marine Versus NVA Soldier (Osprey, 80 pp., $18.95, paper; $15,.95 e book) is an excellent book for readers unfamiliar with the Vietnam War. In it, author David R. Higgins, a veteran military historian, compares U.S. Marines and the NVA soldiers by dissecting three of their encounters in I Corps: the Hill Fights in April 1967, Operation Kingfisher in July 1967, and the Battle for Hue during the 1968 Tet Offensive.

The book provides background on the political origins of the war and on soldier-level topics such as training, logistics, leadership, morale, weapons, and tactics. Countless books have covered the latter material, particularly from the American viewpoint. Higgins stands out by discussing the Marines and the NVA separately and objectively emphasizing dissimilarities.

Fighting in the three engagements was ferocious and produced large numbers of casualties on both sides. Higgins’ accounts include information from both sides. Months prior to Tet, the NVA initiated a master plan that gave them superior positioning at the start of the offensive; American leaders failed to recognized the plan.

Higgins concludes that poor intelligence gathering also hindered the Marines in the Hill Fights and Kingfisher. At Hue, the confinement of city streets caused the Marines to operate independent of air and artillery support and reduced the effectiveness of armor. At the same time, he says, the ability to operate with less material and support than other U.S. forces gave the Marines greater flexibility to adapt to changing battle conditions.

              U.S. Marines during the fighting in Hue city, Tet 1968

Higgins identifies the use of irregular tactics, avoiding confrontation until establishing a superior position, and functioning with minimal supplies as factors that increased NVA combat success. Generally superior in numbers, NVA forces frequently ambushed the Marines. Furthermore, Higgins says, NVA soldiers had high levels of morale and motivation, which maximized their ability to learn and apply combat lessons.

This magazine-sized book contains excellent photographs and maps. Illustrator Johnny Shumate’s drawings of soldiers and combat scenes are extremely lifelike.

—Henry Zeybel

Darker Than Dark by John Admire

Retired Marine Corps Major Gen. John Admire in his novel, Darker Than Dark (Yorkshire Publishing, 412 pp., $19.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle), wanted to pay special tribute to the men with whom he served in Vietnam in 1966 and 1967. He more than accomplished his mission by creating four main characters to tell the story of courage and compassion of young Marines in the Vietnam War. In this book we see the darkest side of war, and hear the thoughts and discussions that took place away from the battlefield.

These young Marines formed a very effective fire team, but they also formed a family that shared suffering, support, and good-natured bantering. Thanks to Admire’s writing skill, I could sense the fear of ambushes and nightly patrols. The heat, the cold, and seemingly constant rain were almost palpable on the pages. At one place, I found myself blinking to clear my eyes in the dark jungle. Only a man who had been there could bring such realism to the page.

This story contains more than action-packed scenes. The fire team holds bunker talks on a regular basis to discuss the war and events back home. Through these chats, we get a much clearer picture of what was on the minds of the Marines as they tried to make sense of a limited war.  One PFC says it best:  “It seems we gotta use enough power to make the NVA know we’re serious, but not so much power that the war goes too serious on us.”

Admire begins each chapter with a quote from one of the main characters. I found the quotes worthy of being placed in a separate addendum to the book. They keep the reader in touch with the thoughts of the men, and—amazingly—they also ring true about today’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I was impressed at the complexity and strategy involved in routine patrols and ambushes. A corporal would call the men together after an action and discuss what went right and what went wrong. To a battlefield veteran, this may have been normal procedure, but this noncombatant gained greater respect and appreciation for the Marines.

John Admire

The team operates in several areas near the DMZ, taking part in, among other fights, the Battle for Con Thien (the “Hill of Angels”). The story climaxes with the intense fighting for the hills surrounding Khe Sanh. Along the way the reader is exposed to firefights, river crossings, and deaths by friendly fire.

Admire includes the severe problems with the introduction of the M-16 rifle. It malfunctioned so easily and so often the men would look for AK-47s on the bodies of killed NVA soldiers to use.

The description of fighting at Khe Sanh was the most vivid this reader has ever seen in print. The horrors and heroism seemed unending. If the author wanted his readers to understand the sacrifices of men at war, he clearly succeeded.

To bring this book to its conclusion, Admire gathers the main characters in a reunion thirty years later. They still don’t understand everything that happened in Vietnam, nor why the American people turned against the war. But they still believe freedom is worth fighting for—and sometimes is the only way to keep it.

Thank you, John Admire, for this great read.

For more info, go to https://darkerthandarkbyjohnadmire.wordpress.com

—Joseph Reitz

The Book of Joel, Part II by Joel Lee Russell

Readers of The Book of Joel, Book II (iUniverse, 320 pp., $15.95, paper) will appreciate Joel Russell’s recall of his coming of age in Ohio, his enlistment in the Marines, and his Vietnam War service as a member of a mortar squad in a weapons platoon—despite the fact that he “was never trained for mortars.”

Russell’s MOS was in “Rockets, 105’s, Demolitions, or explosives,” he tells us. After he received that specialized training, he writes, I “realized that I was actually going to go to Vietnam. I don’t remember signing up to go to Vietnam! What did I get myself into?”

Russell recounts his first patrol as a groundpounder at Marble Mountain with the Third Marines in 1967, as well as his pact with the almighty. “God, if you can get me out of here, I’ll live for you the rest of my life.” That was a reasonable covenant to make considering Russell went through his tour of duty during the war’s deadliest year, 1968.

Russell’s best writing in the book consists of his depictions of Marine Boot Camp, combat on “Foxtrot Ridge”, Khe Sanh, and at Dong Ha near the DMZ. It is all, told with horror, humiliation, and humor. War veterans will surely identify and appreciate the writing here, including this observation: “By this time I was the gunner of the mortar team. Due to process of elimination, I had been promoted. I tried not to get too close to people, because it was really hard to put some one you cared about into a body bag.”

Russell’s description from atop Foxtrot Ridge includes this passage: “It was better than the Fourth of July as the Napalm would light up a whole jungle. The little bombs looked like grappling hooks and  packed a wallop that I’ll never forget. I am thankful to the Lord our God that the enemy never had the planes and technology to use on us that we used on them.”

Russell rotated home on December 31, 1968, and was presented with a choice to make: re-enlist as a sergeant or accept an eleven-month early out. He opted out of the Marine Corps, and re-entered life as a civilian in June of 1969.

Joel Russell in Vietnam

His description of the next two decades of his life may require patience and understanding. Russell writes about moving many times, marriage, entrepreneurial failures and successes, making good on his war-time promise to God by “accepting Jesus,” and dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and being bipolar. Some fellow Marines helped him to come to grips with his Vietnam War service.

This may not be the conclusion of this engaging story if the author achieves his goal of seeing this volume became a screenplay and then go up on the silver screen.

—Curt Nelson

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

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

Assault from the Sky by Dick Camp

Dick Camp is a retired Marine Corps colonel. He served in Vietnam as a rifle and reconnaissance platoon commander and company commander with the 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines, and as 3rd Marine Division Commanding General Raymond G. Davis’s aide de camp during his 1967-68 tour of duty. Like every other American who took part in that war, Camp has vivid memories of flying on the conflict’s main mode of transportation: helicopters.

“I, for one, can never forget the stench of PJ-4 (jet fuel), the hot blast of engine exhaust, the drip of hydraulic fluid, the orange-colored nylon seats, and the leap of faith jumping off the ramp of a hovering [CH-46A] into the ten-foot high elephant grass and the medevac helicopter’s promise of life,” Camp writes in Assault from the Sky: U.S. Marine Corps Helicopter Operations in Vietnam (Casemate, 264 pp., $32.95).

“The memory of holding a critically wounded Marine’s head in my hands, and praying for the life flight, is still an open wound.”

Assault from the Sky is a well-researched, detailed history of Marine helicopters from the time the first ones arrived in Vietnam in 1962 all the way through to the helicopter-heavy evacuation of Saigon in 1975.

Author Dick Camp at the Khe Sanh exhibit at National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Virginia

Camp, who went on to become deputy director of the U.S. Marine Corps History Division, includes lots of facts and figures, black-and-white in-country photos, maps, and unit insignia images, as well as verbatim Bronze Star, Silver Star, Navy Cross, Distinguished Service Cross, and Medal of Honor medal citations. He also makes good use of personal accounts of helicopter pilots and other Marines in the narrative.

—Marc Leepson

Marines, Medals and Vietnam by William L. Myers

William L. Myers’s Marines, Medals and Vietnam (Redoubt Press, 392 pp., $25, paper) contains detailed descriptions of seventeen Vietnam War combat operations in which U.S. Marines took part. That includes large engagements such as the Siege at Khe Sanh and Operations Starlite, Orange, Dodge City, and Buffalo, along with other actions that never had any official name.

Myers, a former Marine, uses a variety of sources to tell the stories of these engagements, including memoirs, secondary sources, letters and official reports. Some are told in the first person; some in the third. Myers always includes the names, ranks, service numbers, and hometowns of the men who fought in the battles.

He ends the book with a fifty-page alphabetical listing of names—along with service numbers, unit, date of the award, age, and hometown—of Marines and Navy corpsmen who received the Medal of Honor, Navy Cross, Distinguished Service Cross, and Silver Star in the Vietnam War. 

—Marc Leepson