Quang Tri Cadence by Jon Oplinger

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A Golden Oldie. That’s my category for Quang Tri Cadence: Memoir of a Rifle Platoon Leader in the Mountains of Vietnam (McFarland, 220 pp. $19.99, paper) by Jon Oplinger. The book is a reprint of the original 1993 edition.

Oplinger served in D Company with the 2nd/5th of the Army’s First Cavalry Division in 1968. His writing is lively, to the point, and humorous as he shows the drama and trauma of combat. His reflections on the behavior of young soldiers and old commanders fascinated me. More so, the practicality of Oplinger’s actions delighted me. At the platoon level he understood that everything he and his men possessed beyond their bodies was expendable—an attitude that went unappreciated by his superiors.

He shows how uncertainty prevailed during his platoon’s day-after-day, usually unproductive ambushes and search-and-destroy missions. Yes, he includes de rigueur topics such as subsisting on C-rations, humping heavy loads, and navigating through jungles while lost, but his explanations rest on an undertone of amazement more than anger.

Oplinger enlisted in the Army after flunking out of college. He earned a commission through OCS, went to Vietnam, and suffered wounds that hospitalized him for seven months. He returned to civilian life as a student at Kent State University just in time for the May 1970 riots.

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Oplinger

People who do not read the white spaces might classify Quang Tri Cadence strictly as a downer. But WTF—for most people, the entire Vietnam War was a downer.

Downer or not, Oplinger made me both laugh and shed a tear more than once over the trials of the infantrymen caught up in the thick of things.

Jon Oplinger is a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Maine at Farmington.

—Henry Zeybel

Tap Code by Carlyle “Smitty” Harris

More than a few American aviators have written about their time as prisoners in Hanoi during the Vietnam War. Tap Code: The Epic Survival Tale of a Vietnam POW and the Secret Code that Changed Everything (Zondervan, 256 pp. $26.99, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle);  $26.99, audio CD), a memoir by retired Air Force Col. Carlyle “Smitty” Harris, a POW for nearly eight years, differs because it intersperses chapters of his wife Louise’s experiences during his time in captivity. The two of them exemplify the highest form of dedication to the nation from an American military family.

Sara W. Berry, an author and publisher, helped Smitty and Louise Harris finish the book, which he had started writing in the late 1970s.

In the Vietnam War, Smitty flew the F-105, and on April 4, 1965, became the sixth American shot down over North Vietnam. He is best known for recalling a Second World War tap code that a sergeant taught him during an after-class chat at survival school. After he was captured, Smitty taught the code to fellow POWs who passed it on to others.

The code provided a communication system in an environment in which guards enforced silence and prisoners spent long periods in solitary confinement. In his memoir, A P.O.W. Story: 2801 Days in Hanoi, Col. Larry Guarino says that the code was “the most valuable life- and mind-saving piece of information contributed by any prisoner for all the years we were there.”

Smitty Harris’ account of his imprisonment parallels what other POWs have recorded over the past forty-five years. All of them, including Harris, endured brainwashing, torture, starvation, untreated illnesses, and isolation at multiple prison camps in the Hanoi area, including the infamous Hanoi Hilton. He recalls the names and behavior of fellow POWs, focusing on their ability to comply with the Code of Conduct. He emphasizes the importance of a religious belief in maintaining a positive mentality. “GBU”—God bless you—was the most frequent message tapped out in prison, he says.

Louise Harris also coped with challenges she never expected. She and the couple’s two daughters had accompanied her husband to Kadena Air Base, Okinawa. When the United States began to bomb North Vietnam, his F-105 squadron deployed to Korat Air Base, Thailand. Five weeks after Smitty Harris was shot down, Louise gave birth to their only son.

As “the first MIA spouse to return to the States,” Louise Harris encountered military regulations that were unfair to her and the children. Consequently, she faced down the Secretary of the Air Force and leaders of the VA, thereby helping clear the path for wives of those Americans who would be subsequently taken captive.

She solved another major problem by phoning the president of the General Motors in Detroit—collect. After settling in Tupelo, Mississippi, Louise Harris went on to play a role in planning procedures related to the POWs’ release.

Smitty Harris gained his freedom in 1973. He and his wife smoothly blended back together,  raised their children, and happily settled in Tupelo following his Air Force retirement. He explains how readjusting to life back home was not as easy for other POWs and their wives.

Americans who spent time in Hanoi prisons shared a deep friendship and enjoy frequent reunions. They recognize themselves as a breed apart.

—Henry Zeybel

Ghosts and Shadows by Phil Ball

Phil Ball’s memoir, Grunts and Shadows: A Marine in Vietnam, 1968-1969  (McFarland, 224 pp. $19.99, paper; $8.99, Kindle) tells the story of a young and—by his own admission—somewhat naïve Marine. It would be a nice selection for a reader not familiar with the Vietnam War. It also might make a good reading assignment for a high school AP English class.

Phil Ball, who died after the book came out, wrote a nicely developed presentation of his experiences as a Marine grunt who served in I Corps, the northern-most area of South Vietnam. He arrived in-country during 1968 after the Tet Offensive, and focuses his story on his assignment to Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines, which began operating close to Khe Sanh.

Ball takes the reader from his first days as a brand-new recruit in San Diego, through boot camp at Pendleton, to shipping out to Vietnam. Then he covers his tour in-country, and follows that with a heartfelt chapter on his return to civilian life. In a conversational style—leavened with some well-remembered  (or well-reconstructed) dialogue—he tells his war and post-war stories.

The book reads well, with appropriate military and battlefield jargon that doesn’t weight down the narrative. Ball described his buddies without the addition of drama or unnecessary rhetoric.

Ball also recounts his adventures during a Tokyo R & R, which included meeting a young Japanese woman, blowing all his money, and over-staying his leave. The return to Vietnam (and his temporary incarceration) provides perhaps a been-there-done-that for some of us.

Ball also describewsome of the racial tensions he saw and lived with in Vietnam, the disbelief and disillusionment with his own command structure and personnel, as well as the daily, all-pervading undercurrent of fear and unease.

In his Epilogue, Ball recountes twenty-plus years of great and small challenges he faced after coming home from the war. That includes dealing with the VA on several levels. He describes his realization that his diagnosis of PTSD may have laid to rest many questions and concerns. This book is the result of a cathartic, story-telling effort to release those demons and fears.

This is a readable, well-edited book, now it its second edition.

–Tom Werzyn

R.E.M.F.:  Vietnam’s Other GIs by John Vandevanter Carter

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John Vandevanter Carter was born and raised in Iowa and attended the University of Iowa before and after he served as a U.S. Army officer in the Vietnam War. His memoir, R.E.M.F.: Vietnam’s Other GIs (Sunbury Press, 468 pp. $19.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle), is much more than a commentary on the Vietnam War. It’s also about race relations in Vietnam during the war, and no book has treated the in-country Vietnam War drug culture more thoroughly than this one.

Van Carter served in Vietnam in 1970-71, the period that the war was beginning to wind down, and when drugs and race relations had started to become serious problems. I’ll mention here that I wrote a book, a novel, based on my tour of duty in Vietnam as an Army enlisted man, 1966-1967.  My book, REMF Diary, is very different from Carter’s.  There is almost no mention of drugs or race relations in the book, as during that period of time those issues were minor. Plus, I was writing from the point of view of an enlisted man.

Carter, on the other hand, was sent to Vietnam  in July 1970 as an infantry officer. However, due to his poor eyesight he served his entire tour of duty in the rear as an executive officer. Carter was stationed at Phu Tai at Camp Humper Stone.

Carter devotes much space in his book to his relationship with a young Vietnamese woman with whom he fell in love—and to describing the rampant corruption that the Americans brought with them to Vietnam. Carter himself participated in the corruption. He smoked carloads of marijuana, frequented houses of prostitution, defied the authority of the Army, and even visited an opium den. He struggled to get some of his men off of their addictions to heroin, and was successful with some.

Carter’s memoir is very well written and employs much humor. It is the best Army officer memoir I have read that deals with service in the rear. Carter’s wit and humor are evident on virtually every page. They make the book stand head and shoulders above most Vietnam War infantry memoirs.

Plus, he doesn’t beat the same old dead horses. I didn’t notice a single reference to John Wayne or Audie Murphy, for example, which was fine with me. Carter does deal with Agent Orange, baby killing, the Black Syph, fragging and crotch rot, which he was cursed with for much of his tour of duty.

I highly recommend Van Carter’s R.E.M.F. to those searching for a Vietnam War book that deals with that conflict from a different angle.

–David Willson

Call Sign Dracula by Joe Fair

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In Call Sign Dracula: My Tour with the Black Scarves, April 1969 to March 1970 (Sunbury Press, 220 pp. $16.95, paper; $6.99, Kindle), Joe Fair has given us an honest little gem of a memoir about his tour of duty with the First Infantry Division in the I Corps war zone of South Vietnam. His text runs a short 125 pages, with 67 pages of photos, and an extensive fourteen-page glossary of terms and acronyms.

Fair’s style is conversational rather than narrative. There are lots of paragraphs that begin with “I,” and just tons of very short sentences. You just want to have a beer with him as he reminisces and tells his war stories.

It’s a cathartic book for Fair, but not an overly melodramatic one. He has a story to share, and its telling will resonate with those of us who have smelled the cordite, the blood, and the stink of war and have told our own stories, in our own way, to our own listeners. The stories about his battalion’s Black Scarves and the call sign Dracula alone are worth the read.

Fair takes the reader through his entire time in the Army, filling in his backstory with color commentary . While there are some syntax and structural issues, his message is more than adequately delivered from his self-proclaimed, uninitiated “good ol’ boy” point of view and experience. Fair, in his last chapters, speaks to the “maturing process” most Vietnam War veterans went through as we compared our in-country experiences and perspectives on lessons learned.

Upon his return to the World, he tells of being denied a beer at an airport bar for being under twenty-one—after spending a year on the ground with enemy contact as a machine gunner. He was old enough to fight and risk death in Vietnam, but not old enough to legally have a beer back home.

–Tom Werzyn

Noble Canine by Jimmie Moore

To avoid the likely possibility of living a grunt’s life in the jungle, Jimmie Moore plotted his own course through the Vietnam War. With the draft breathing down his neck, Moore enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, completed basic training and Security Police School, and became a K-9 sentry dog handler. During his 1969-70 tour of duty with the 37th Security Police Squadron at Phu Cat Air Base he patrolled the perimeter every night but six, he says, with German Shepherds Duke II and Junior.

Interactions between handlers and animals constitute the core of Moore’s Noble Canine: Search for the Edge (Steel Crow Productions, 240 pp. $27.95, hardcover; $16.95, paper; $9.95, Kindle). He examines those relationships in totality in the book, and his candor makes enjoyable reading. Beyond that, Moore’s accounts of in-country activities parallel the experiences of many Vietnam War veterans.

Moore recalls the challenges of K-9 training at Lackland Air Force Base, a time when a seasoned sentry dog severely tested his ability to control him. In Vietnam, Moore faced similar challenges while working with Duke II and Junior, both of whom were later euthanized. Moore deplores Air Force policy that dictates death for sentry dogs that no longer can perform their duties; their aggression, the military argues, precludesthem from becoming pets.

A dog’s highly refined ability to hear and smell made it the team leader in nighttime patrolling. Dogs responded to anything approaching the base far sooner than handlers could. Moore often visualized life without a dog and how he might be shot and killed before recognizing a threat.

Jimmie Moore was nineteen years old while at Phu Cat. Initially, he spent as much time as possible in nearby Qui Nhon. He gets specific when reminiscing about local women and the pleasures they taught him. Eventually, following ten-hour night patrols, he grew contented with 8:00 a.m. beer drinking and poker games with eight other handlers he had trained with at Lackland.

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He recalls events meaningful to all of them. Viet Cong fighters attacked the base four times during the year he was there, but they hit distant ammunition and fuel storage areas. Along with Moore, the eight handlers ate in mess halls, slept in beds, and made it through the year unscathed.

Old documents, letters, and recollections frame this memoir. The book overflows with reconstructed dialogue as Moore took, he says, “a few liberties to fill in the blanks without infringing on the story’s truth.”

People who love dogs should love Noble Canine.

The book’s website is www.moorek9.com

—Henry Zeybel

Letters to Pat by Bill Eshelman

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Retired Marine Corps Major Gen. Bill Eshelman dedicates his book, Letters to Pat: A Year in the Life of a Vietnam Marine (Koehler Books, 182 pp. $26.95, hardcover; $16.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle), to his wife who “lived through the war” by reading the letters he wrote home.

Eshelman graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1959, then went into the Marines, becoming an instructor at The Basic School at Quantico. He enjoyed training young Marines to lead other young Marines, but once the men were sent to Vietnam, he decided to serve there as well. Eshelman hoped he could become an infantry company commander to be tested in combat.

Since he already was a captain, Eshelman feared he would be promoted too quickly to get much time in as a CO, so before being sent to Vietnam he requested training at Ft. Bragg’s school for advisers. He believed if he could be an adviser to a South Vietnamese unit it would ensure that he got more of a “first-hand look at the war.”

Arriving outside Da Nang in October of 1967 Eshelman was determined to relay his day-to-day thoughts on the war as he was living it by penning regular letters to his wife. In his book he adds notes from his combat journal to the two hundred or so letters.

His first job was as a battalion logistics officer, resupplying all battalion units with ammo, explosives, and other materiel. The battalion’s main mission seemed to be keeping the Da Nang airfield from being rocketed and keeping Highway 1 open to the north.

Being promoted to major, Eshelman became especially upset over all the paperwork his job entailed “to appease higher HQ.” Much of it involved incidents between Marines and Vietnamese citizens. Eshelman thought the cases were often unfair because the Marines were always required to prove their innocence.

Before long, he was sent south to III Corps to be a senior adviser with the 4th Battalion Vietnamese Marine Corps (VNMC). He was happy serving with Vietnamese troops because he knew that if “the war if it is to be won,” the South Vietnamese would have to do it, “not the U.S. Marine Corps.” During his time in Vietnam Eshelman saw combat action in all four Corp areas and was constantly running into men he knew back in the States.

During the major 1968 Tet Offensive Eshelman saw a great deal action in both Saigon and Hue. He used these letters home as a “way of letting off steam.” There were times when he and his men took part in operations in which they “swam more than we walked,” he writes, and times they had the simple pleasure of eating a fresh pineapple.

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Capt. Eshelman in Vietnam

He left South Vietnam in October 1968 for Thailand and carried one big takeaway from the war. Eshelman believed that the American advisory effort probably prolonged the war, maybe making it unwinnable, because it failed to give the South Vietnamese military a big enough role in over-all decision making.

This is an important addition to books covering what happened in the Vietnam War in 1967-68 and to those dealing with the relationship between the U.S. and South Vietnamese military.

The book’s website is letterstopat.com

–Bill McCloud