Memories Unleashed by Carl Rudolph Small

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Carl Rudolph Small’s Memories Unleashed: Vietnam Legacy (Casemate, 192 pp. $29.95) is a strange hybrid. Though billed as a memoir, it’s told as a series of short stories written in third person with no names mentioned. Small refers to himself as “the marine” or “the sergeant,” while his girlfriend at the time, now his wife, is “Her” or “my Love.”

Divided into forty-three short chapters, running four or five pages each, this story starts in a small Vermont community in 1969 and drops the Marine into combat his first day in Vietnam. He receives a “flesh wound” and expresses no sense of fear throughout the incident. He’s nineteen years old. He also tells of two men he knew who were killed before they had been in-country for a full day.

Small chose not to talk about his wartime experiences for more than forty years before deciding to write them down to share with his family. The book is based, he says, on his “memories and nightmares” of thirteen months as a Marine in I Corps, during which he engaged in search-and-destroy operations, day patrols, and night actions. He received three battlefield promotions.

Individual chapters tell of him burying a Vietnamese man without letting anyone know; running into his girlfriend’s brother who was also serving; almost accidentally killing a buddy in a friendly-fire incident; secretly carrying a dog on operations; and watching a competition among several men who intentionally went into water to see who could get the greatest number of leeches to latch onto them.

In other chapters Small refuses an order to take his squad into action because he doesn’t trust the ARVN troops who would be going along. One time when his men were denied service because they hadn’t cleaned up after returning from action where they had made contact, he went into the beer hooch and threatened to use a grenade if they didn’t get served.

Other stories involve a Dear John letter, a tiger caught in concertina wire, and discontent among black Marines. In one chapter he mentions a morbid “death letter” that he carries, just in case, in which he tells his Love he’s sorry he didn’t make it home. He’s also involved in a bayonet fight to the death.

The combat action is well-described and all the stories are well told. That said, some of the stories seem clichéd. Others stretch any sense of credulity, and I didn’t know exactly what to make of them.

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The concept of writing a “memoir” in third person worked for me, as did the very short chapters. Complete stories can be told in a small number of pages if you do it right, and Small frequently does.

I like the idea of every Vietnam War veteran’s story being told and listened to. I just wouldn’t want readers to think the things in this book are typical of what most veterans experienced.

—Bill McCloud

Eye of a Boot by Jerry Lilly

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Looking back to when he was twenty years old, Jerry Lilly tells his readers, “I know that to relax can get me killed. I treat the Vietnamese respectfully.”

Much of what he recalls in his memoir, Eye of a Boot (CreateSpace, 160 pp. $24.95, paper), is told in what Lilly calls “progressive present tense.” In this way, readers can get a better sense, he says, of the “urgency, confusion, and intensity of being there.” In other words, Lilly’s style creates the illusion that his men and he are performing their duties right before the reader’s eyes.

From November 1967 to December 1968, Jerry Lilly served as a Marine infantryman in I Corps, most of the time as a squad leader. At first, he resisted taking the position. Then, he says, “someone of higher rank gave me the responsibility. I had to accept it.”

A deep sense of responsibility for his men’s welfare infused Lilly’s behavior. His worries were purposeful and productive. He tried not to expose his squad to VC or NVA attacks, yet he pressed fights with the enemy. In the field, he constantly believed he was under surveillance from an enemy waiting for the most opportune time to pounce.

His description and analysis of this attitude make the book an outstanding study in leadership. Many chapters provide lessons about the right and wrong ways to work with superiors and subordinates. Lilly describes missions that caused him to question the logic and sanity of his company and platoon commanders, but he nevertheless gave them his utmost support and effort.

The intense manner in which Lilly depicts the flow of combat had me reading well into the night. In particular, Lilly describes a two-day recon mission that ended in daylight when he single-handedly pursued and killed with hate and rage. Compassion emerged at the end, of the fighting, though, when the young Marine realized that he must never forget what happened.

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The imbalance of tactical skill and training between Marines and Viet Cong upset him. He stared at bodies and thought, “My God, look what I did to you. I’m sorry.”

Minutes later, what Lilly did paled in comparison to the actions of a fellow Marine who vengefully and barbarously murdered a wounded VC prisoner. In despair, Lilly wondered, “What is shock?” and “What is real?” His concern for his men grew stronger.

Jerry Lilly’s mind, heart, and soul fill every page of Eye of a Boot.

—Henry Zeybel

The Sun Sets on Vietnam by Robert B. Haseman

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During the Vietnam War, Robert B. Haseman strove to do the right thing straight from the get-go. He gave up his college deferment and enlisted in the Marine Corps. He completed boot camp, advanced infantry training, sniper school, Platoon Leader Class, and even Army Ranger school.

Then as a second lieutenant, he joined Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines and became an infantry platoon commander in Quang Tri Provence near Dong Ha. During his 1969 six-month tour, his “company suffered 21 dead and at least 54 wounded,” Haseman writes in The Sun Sets on Vietnam: The Firebase War (Lulu, 176 pp.; $10.99,  paper; $7.49, Kindle).

Haseman and his men “spent most of [their] time defending permanent combat bases, usually called firebases,” he says, and “conducting field operations in the mountainous jungle between the spread-out firebases. The strategy required most of the regiment’s troops just to occupy the firebase. It discouraged, but failed to prevent, the NVA from passing through the jungle on their way south or from attacking our firebases.”

Haseman saw that defensive strategy as “much less effective [than] the more traditional ‘attack strategy’ that is usually employed in war.”

While “accurate memories of events” remain clear in his mind, he writes, some names and conversations “faded from memory.” Therefore, he occasionally fictionalizes characters and combines events. In two instances, he uses information from John S. Brown’s The Vietnam War: An Almanac to expand stories about being overrun by sappers and taking heavy losses.

The book’s distinction is Haseman’s dedication to following lessons he learned in training. He spells out good and bad decisions, second guessing himself forty-six years after events took place. For example, based on his “recent Ranger School training,” he relates a wondrous tale of building three rafts from sticks and ponchos so that his six-man team could float home from a patrol—at night, under a nearly full moon. Enough said.

Haseman also claims to have been “one of the very few platoon commanders” who employed firing the Final Protection Line “at several prearranged times each night” to “keep the troops awake, alert, and well-practiced.”

The book closes with Haseman’s twenty-four page analysis of “Why we were there [in Vietnam].” A self-professed “amateur historian,” he combines military experience and years of studying the war to conclude that “U.S. policy toward Vietnam was always flawed.” Welcome to the crowd, Robert.

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Bob Haseman (left) in Vietnam in 1969

Nonetheless, he says, “At least I can say that when my country called, I tried to help.”

Haseman’s writing style is direct and he does not linger over details that are common knowledge. He credits Tim O’Brien’s famed novel, The Things They Carried, for inspiring him to produce this memoir. An average reader should finish Haseman’s book in one enjoyable afternoon.

—Henry Zeybel

 

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

 

The Adventures of a Helicopter Pilot by Bill Collier

In trying to nail down former USMC Capt. Bill Collier’s intention behind writing The Adventures of a Helicopter Pilot: Flying the H-34 Helicopter in Vietnam for the United States Marine Corps (Keokee/Wandering Star Press, 234 pp, $19.00 paper), I decided his goals were to explain why he suffered from PTSD, what it felt like to fear for one’s life constantly for a year, how flying H-34 helicopters provided an adrenaline rush, and the way helicopters worked. He succeeded in every category

In 1966, as a “nugget, a brand new gold-bar second lieutenant” flying copilot on his first night Medevac mission, Collier was so traumatized that he psychologically suppressed the event until 1994. As if that experience weren’t enough, four weeks later his wing man got hit by a friendly artillery shell.

“What I saw was burned into my memory forever, and will never leave me,” he writes. “YR-3 had exploded and was burning up in an intense sun-bright fireball right there off my wing, not 200 feet away.” These incidents triggered the onset of his PTSD, which doctors finally diagnosed in 1993.

Fear was Collier’s constant sidekick. His imagination compounded what he saw during his tour in I Corps: For example, watching a SAM zoom across the DMZ and destroy a low-flying, fast-moving A-4 in “maybe 15 seconds.” Premonitions of doom led him to volunteer for a two-week stint as a forward air controller rather than fly support missions for a sea assault.

On the ground, he encountered more danger than he anticipated. That included shrapnel dropping from the sky and a “short round” mortar dud (again, friendly fire) that nearly landed in his lap. By then he was a captain and ended up in command of a patrol, a duty he was unprepared for.

Collier had gone directly to flight school as a MARCAD and now thought, “I had never been to boot camp. I never attended officer training school at Quantico.” He had “minimal knowledge about grunt things.” Near panic, he instantly learned the value of an XO’s advice.

Collier’s stories exemplify the adrenalin rush inherent in combat flying. In eight months as a copilot, he watched aircraft commanders take risks and perform aerial feats that filled him with excitement, fear, and admiration.

After checking out as an AC, he thought: “I could now live or die by my own bad decisions.” He knew he was hooked. “To do one of those hairy, high-speed, high danger approaches, and then come out of a hot LZ with bullets flying and both machine guns blazing was an extreme adrenaline rush,” he writes.

Fear sharpened Collier’s awareness, thinking, and feelings throughout his entire body. As he puts it: “I became addicted to this adrenaline rush, craving it, seeking it out time after time.” Collier calculated that he “personally carried approximately 375 Medevacs aboard [his] machine while in Vietnam.”

Bill Collier

Collier devotes several pages to explaining “How a Helicopter Flies,” “Autorotations,” “The Collective Control and Throttle,” and a “General Description of the H-34D Helicopter.” The science in these sections seems contradicted by what occurred in reality.

Overall, his book convinced me that helicopters are unforgiving of even the slightest mistake. All you have to do is consider the large number of Marine deaths by aircraft accidents—during and following the war—that Collier recounts. Additionally, if the H-34 caught fire, its magnesium-aluminum-alloy air frame consumed itself and its crew in fifteen seconds, as Collier repeatedly reminds the reader.

Regarding his personal behavior, Collier pulls no punches. He confesses to “falling asleep on final approach.” He admits that “our main form of recreation was drinking alcohol. We simply got drunk almost every night. We were a bunch of drunken hellions.”

Of course, the drinking didn’t begin until the night missions ended. And Collier graciously remembers to thank “an attractive, charming lady a bit older than I” for a “great send-off to the war” by seducing him the night before he departed for Vietnam.

Apparently written mainly from memory, the book is jumpy at times, skipping from topic to topic like conversation in a bar. Nevertheless, its many stories are highly readable.

The book’s one hundred-plus photographs—most from Collier’s files—add to the narrative. Collier says this book set the stage for at least two more. Following thirteen months in Vietnam, he flew combat missions for thirty months in Laos with Air America, a tour more exciting than Vietnam. He then flew helicopters commercially for twenty-seven years all around the world.

The author’s blog is http://dawgdriverforever.blogspot.com/2014/09/my-book-adventures-of-helicopter-pilot.html

—Henry Zeybel

 

Charlie One Five by Nicholas Warr

Nicholas Warr grew up in Oregon. He graduated from high school in 1963, started college, but dropped out after two years and went to work in a plywood mill. “The mindless hard work and abject boredom of working graveyard shift took its toll, and I found myself in the Marine Corps recruiting office in Eugene [Oregon] in February 1966,” Warr writes in Charlie One Five: A Marine Company’s Vietnam War (Texas Tech University, 400 pp., $39.95), a detailed history of Ware’s Vietnam War unit.

Warr took to Marine life. He did so well in boot camp that a DI recommended him for OCS, which he took at Quantico. Then came Basic School, where Warr again thrived. Offered his choice of MOS, he thought about supply and logistics, but decided to go infantry after his Basic School platoon commander “made me a deal that I couldn’t refuse,” Warr says, “using a very effective guilt trip.”

Next came a six week “high-intensity Vietnamese language course” at Quantico, a thirty-day leave, and a flight to Vietnam in November of 1967. Warr spent his tour as a platoon commander with Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion, Fifth Marines.

His book is an in-depth Vietnam War history of Warr’s old unit beginning when it arrived in Vietnam in December of 1965. Warr spent years doing the research, using a combination of his own memories, his battalion’s Command Chronologies and Combat After-action Reports, along with other records, as well as interviews with dozens of other former Charlie One Five Marines.

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Warr—the author of Phase Line Green: The Battle for Hue, 1968 (1997)—wrote Charlie One Five, he says, to tell the truth about his unit’s Vietnam War history. He was “determined,” Warr says in his Preface, to show how the Vietnam War “tasted and smelled, looked and felt, and how it is remembered by those who rose to the challenge of serving their country, risking everything in that worthy endeavor.”

Much “of what has been written” about the war and “most of what was made into movies” focuses on “aberrations,” Warr says. “These lurid stories are mostly made up; if incidents similar to them did occur, at least in my experience, they were the rare exceptions, not the rule.
“For the most part, those who experienced combat in Vietnam served their country and the South Vietnamese with honor and then returned home and went on with their lives. That’s the Vietnam War I choose to write about.”
The author’s website is nicholaswarr.com
—Marc Leepson