Memoirs of a Grunt by Gary Henderson

Gary Henderson’s Memoirs of a Grunt: On The Ground In Vietnam 68/69, (117 pp. $19.95, Paper; $3.99, Kindle) is not a story-telling book but a cut-and-dried memoir that reads much like a journal or diary. Reading it, I learned a lot about what Henderson did during his tour of duty in Vietnam, but struggled to visualize much of it. Henderson arrived in-country on August, 13, 1968. Three days later we was assigned to C Company in the 1st Brigade, 1/327th Infantry, of the 101st Airborne Division at Fire Support Base Bastogne west of Hue. He was immediately given the nickname “Tennessee,” and thrown into the mix of daytime patrols and nighttime ambushes. Throughout this memoir Henderson shows us much of what many U.S. Army grunts experienced in the Vietnam War.

Memoirs of a Grunt has a useful glossary and a list of items (including their weight) regularly carried by most infantrymen. It also has an annotated map identifying some of the places where Henderson saw action—and pics, lots of pics. You can find more of Henderson’s pictures on his website. memoirsofagrunt.smugmug.com

It’s a truism that war is often made up of long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of terror. In his book Henderson writes mostly about that boredom. But don’t let that scare you away from reading it. He is so open and honest that some of what he reveals is downright embarrassing, including things that many of us have done, but elect not to discuss.

He writes about career soldiers’ penchant for volunteering for combat duty for the sole purpose of building their resumes—and receiving rank and decorations. What happened in Vietnam was that many of those who had rank didn’t have the experience or competence needed to lead men in combat or to make good life-and-death decisions.

On March 23, 1969, Henderson was badly wounded and medically evacuated. He spent nearly a year and a half recovering in hospitals in Japan and at Ft. Campbell undergoing five surgeries and then was medically discharged.

I enjoyed reading Memoirs of a Grunt. I now feel that I know Gary Henderson. I believe others will enjoy reading it as well.

–Bob Wartman

100 Days in Vietnam by Joseph F. Tallon

From its first to final page, 100 Days in Vietnam: A Memoir of Love, War, and Survival (Koehlerbooks, 321 pp. $19.95, hardcover; $13.95, paper) deals with a conscientious man’s everyday trials living in war and peace. It focuses on retired Army Lt. Col. Joseph F. Tallon’s Vietnam War tour of duty flying OV-1 Mohawks for the 131st Aviation Company, operating out of Marble Mountain Army Airfield in 1972.

The Tallon family’s military service reflects dedication to the nation far beyond the norm. Joseph Tallon’s father served at Normandy as a Navy gunner on D-Day in World War II. His two sons became Army officers.

His account of his flying duties in Vietnam covers only half of the story of Tallon’s war service. He flew missions in Mohawks mostly at night, accompanied by a single observer seated alongside him. They primarily performed side-looking airborne radar (SLAR) surveillance parallel to the coast of North Vietnam in search of targets of opportunity. Unarmed, they radioed sightings to ground controllers. Harassed by antiaircraft artillery rounds although over water, Tallon once had to outfly an NVA SA-2 missile.

As a lieutenant, Tallon caught nearly all of his company’s extra duties on the ground. He spent daylight hours supervising the unit’s motor pool, an endless task that he accomplished with small bribes to contactors and by performing the same labor as the recalcitrant enlisted men who served under him. Discipline was lax and morale low in mid-1972 because the comparably few service members in Vietnam expected the war to end any day.

On his 95th day in-country Tallon’s Mohawk lost an engine on takeoff and crashed. He ejected but did not escape the fireball that engulfed the crash site. Severely burned and injured internally, he endured medical treatment—best described as torturous—in overseas and stateside hospitals.

Tallon’s storytelling relies upon handwritten letters he sent to his new wife Martha Anne, letters and transcriptions of cassette tapes she sent to him, and excerpts from contemporary newspaper articles. Tallon fills the role of a newlywed with daily letters to his young wife that overflow with promises of eternal love and the sorrow of being separated. 

Joe Tallon at the Marble Mountain Motor Pool office

Joseph Tallon’s son Matthew adds a lengthy afterward to the book by describing his success gaining recognition for his father’s fellow crewman who died in the Mohawk crash. Forty years after the fact, Matthew Tallon’s effort secured a Purple Heart medal for the family of Spec.5 Daniel Richards.

100 Days in Vietnam is filled with honesty about everything Joseph Tallon saw and did, pro and con, during the war, throughout his recovery, and beyond. All is relevant. His relationship with the Army fluctuated as he dealt with unpredictable acceptances and rejections of him as an individual. Confronted by overwhelming injuries and subsequent bureaucratic turmoil, Joseph Tallon has repeatedly proved his worth as a warrior and citizen.

Matthew Tallon’s website is matthewtallon.com/

—Henry Zeybel

Mohawk Recon by Russell Pettis

 Russell Pettis’ Mohawk Recon: Vietnam from Treetop Level with the 1st Cavalry, 1968-1969 (McFarland, 158 pp. $29.95, paper; $13.49, e book) is an interesting account of an unusual Army mission in Vietnam. Pettis, who served as an OV-1 Army Mohawk reconnaissance aircraft crewmember, has an easy-going writing style that takes the reader along on his one-year tour in the Vietnam War.   

The OV-1 Mohawk was unusual. It was a state-of-the-art, fixed-wing reconnaissance platform equipped with side-looking airborne radar, infrared target detection systems, and cameras. Unlike other Army aircraft, the Mohawk was equipped with ejection seats. At a time when the Air Force was taking possession of almost all of the Army’s fixed wing aircraft, the Mohawk remained in Army hands. However, the Air Force insisted in 1966, and the Army agreed, that  Army Mohawks would operate only in an unarmed configuration.

Pettis, flying as one of a two-man crew, was the enlisted operator of the onboard detection systems employed while the pilot flew at low levels on day and night recon missions over hostile territory. He ended up flying 315 missions and put in more than 1,000 hours in the air.

Anyone who served on operations in Vietnam is going to feel right at home with Pettis’ experiences as a member of the 1st Cavalry Division. He writes about sharing a shoddy GP Medium tent with rats, subsisting on C-rations, enduring frequent torrential rainfalls, being shot at, and enduring a bout of dysentery. He also enjoyed the company of Australian and New Zealand troops drinking the Vietnamese beer we called “Bah-me-bah.”

The author’s missions were varied, and included flying parallel to the Ho Chi Minh Trail looking for truck traffic and water sorties seeking out enemy sampans. He flew “down in the weeds,” as low as sixty feet, and on higher-altitude missions looking for enemy troop movements.

When Pettis described his first combat sortie I felt a shared moment with him. His pilot flew the Mohawk across the A Shau Valley at the same time when I was on the ground there during Operation Delaware. When he described his OV-1’s frequent exposure to ground fire, I recalled the time I saw a Mohawk land at Tay Ninh with bullet holes stitched across its fuselage. 

It was particularly interesting to read about a mission in which Pettis’ Mohawk’s navigational system failed while over featureless terrain and the pilot unknowingly flew into Cambodia.   Then discovered a North Vietnamese airfield with MiGs on the ground. Two enemy fighters then launched and pursued the Mohawk into South Vietnam until F-4s were scrambled to intercept the MiGs.   

Another amazing incident came to mind as I read the book. I had learned of a Mohawk pilot who engaged a MiG-17 at approximately the same time in 1968. In this case, the aircraft was configured with weapons in violation of the 1966 Army-Air Force agreement and the pilot shot down the MiG. Because of the weapons violation, the Army didn’t officially acknowledge that aerial victory until 2007. 

I immensely enjoyed reading Russell Pettis’ account of his exciting missions, along with his descriptions of day-to-day grunt life in Vietnam. I highly recommend Mohawk Recon.

–John Cirafici

There It Is by Charles Hensler

Charles Hensler’s There It Is…It Don’t Mean Nothin‘: A Vietnam War Memoir (289 pp. $9.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is a gripping account of Hensler’s tour of duty in Vietnam from April 1968 to May 1969. This unique memoir is written as a long letter to Hensler’s family. This creates an intimacy between the author and readers. In addition to his wartime experiences, Hensler provides a timeline of the war’s key events and the changing political landscape at home.

Hensler’s dual approach is compelling. With sober clarity he illustrates the growing number of American casualties and the dwindling support for the war. At the beginning of his tour nearly 14,000 American troops had died in Vietnam. One year later that number more than doubled.

After recounting his childhood in rural Pennsylvania, Hensler describes his decision to enlist in the U.S. Army in 1967, his training at Fort Polk, and arriving in Vietnam in the spring of 1968. He notes that during the Tet Offensive the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army had proved their resolve to win at any cost. Despite huge losses, they staged uprisings all over South Vietnam, shocking the American public.

Hensler served with the 199th Light Infantry Brigade northeast of Saigon. His descriptions of his first days, then months, in country are vivid. As a new mortarman, he carried heavy loads of equipment and ammunition on long patrols.

In addition to the risks of tripping mines and booby traps and being ambushed, there was the hostility of the environment itself. The triple canopy jungle was rife with leeches and red ants, forcing men to continually check for the first, and often strip naked to free themselves from the second. Staying dry was impossible in the heat, humidity, and constant rain.

Because wet underwear caused chafing, men rarely wore any. Even writing letters home was challenging. Trying not to drip sweat on the pages, Hensler says that he wrote in pencil because ink would quickly wash away.

In addition to the constant tension and fatigue from the long patrols and nights on guard duty, he and his buddies felt that they were there in Vietnam for nothing–a point perfectly summarized by the often-said G.I. phrases in the book’s title.

“Most GI’s in Vietnam,” Hensler writes, “felt they were getting screwed over by being there, at least in the post-Tet Offensive years when the country turned the corner on the war. It became apparent, even to the lowest private, that with the way things were run we were never going to win.”   

With his engaging, unsettling, often haunting style, Hensler imbues in readers a sharp sense of the conditions American infantrymen endured: Their exhaustion. Their loneliness. Their doubts, even despair. Their cautious anticipation of the end of their tours. Their dream of the Freedom Bird, the plane that would take them home.

A magnificent book, There It Is…It Don’t Mean Nothin’ will linger in my mind for a long time.

–Mike McLaughlin

Honor & Indignity by Gregory D. Doering

Although Gregory Doering’s HONOR & Indignity: An Unheroic Memoir (216 pp. $11.95, paper; $5.99, Kindle) is, as he puts it, an “unheroic” book, I can say with no uncertainty after reading it that Doering is anything but unheroic.

In December 1967, after finishing USMC boot camp, the Marine Corps decided his MOS would be 3531, motor vehicle operator. Doering had mixed feelings about that, but at the same time was elated that he was not going to be a rifleman. He arrived in Vietnam in April 1968, was sent to the 9th Marines at Camp Carroll, then was quickly moved 20 miles north to the Ca Lu Combat Base in Quang Tri Province where he was put to work driving an M274, a small light-weapons carrier vehicle known as a Mechanical Mule.

Within a month, the Marine Corps saw fit to change his job again and he filled an open position as an ammo humper in a mortar team and began seeing serious combat action. After several months of fighting along the southern edge of the DMZ, he was sent back to the rear. Arriving in Quang Tri with “the distant blank stare,” he was assigned to a headquarters Motor Transport unit.

This is where HONOR & Indignity turns dark. With abundant supplies of alcohol and drugs, Doering’s morale crumbled and his mental health deteriorated. All he cared about was getting out of Vietnam. On his return to The World, he was sent to the mental health ward at Camp Pendleton. As Doering describes what happened there, his book gets even darker.

With his mother’s persistence and help from the Red Cross, he was transferred to a VA Medical Center closer to home in Washington State. After being finally diagnosed with severe PTSD and getting discharged, he sought treatment and after several years began living a normal life.

His initial ignorance and shortcomings were common to newbies in combat zones. But unlike many who hide these embarrassing moments, Doering writes about then in great detail in his memoir. His honesty and candor are at sad, yet refreshing.

Greg Doering is, in my mind, a real hero. Not just for his performance under fire, but for this brave and selfless presentation of his life. You will be hard-pressed to find a more completely detailed and honest war memoir. 

HONOR & Indignity is very well written, but raw language and depictions of combat might offend some readers. Nevertheless, I highly recommend this book.

–Bob Wartman

Vietnam in My Rearview by Dennis D. Blessing, Sr.

Dennis Blessing’s Vietnam in My Rearview; Memoir of a 1st Cavalry Combat Soldier, 1966-1967 (McFarland, 222 pp. $29.95, paper; $13.49, Kindle) looks at Blessing’s 12-month tour of duty as a rifleman with the Cav in Vietnam beginning in March 1966. He served with the 1st Cavalry’s famed 7th Regiment.

Before leaving for Vietnam, Blessing told his wife he would try to write to her every day. He wound up writing 212 letters to her from the warzone. Fifty-four years later he read through those letters, which brought back memories of many places, times, and events in Vietnam—and enabled him to write Vietnam in My Rearview.

Blessing spent most of his tour fighting in and around the Ia Drang Valley in the Central Highlands. This region was always crawling with NVA and VC, and he saw a lot of action. Few pages of Vietnam in My Rearview pass without an excerpt from a letter to his wife.  Before and after each Blessing fills in details that he didn’t want to divulge to her at the time.

He fought in 11 operations and received a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. His many combat experiences included the vicious May 1966 fighting at Bong Son during Operation Masher, in which his platoon was nearly wiped out.

Being a grunt and spending long periods in the field without letup completely wore him out. Adding to his fatigue as Blessing got shorter was an incessant feeling that he would not survive. Therefore, when he was given the opportunity to spend his final two months in Vietnam to be his company’s supply clerk, he jumped on it.

Several passages in the book, including Blessing’s final words, have caused me to think more deeply about some of the causes of  PTSD. Blessing was discharged from the Army in 1968, and went on to graduate from college, raise a family, and work to retirement. He now lives with his wife of 55 years in the mountains of central California, near the western edge of Yosemite National Park.

Vietnam in My Rearview is well written and a pleasure to read. I recommend it.

–Bob Wartman

Coming All the Way Home by Fred McCarthy

Fred McCarthy’s Coming All the Way Home: Memoir of an Assault Helicopter Aircraft Commander in Vietnam (McFarland, 207 pp. $29.95, paper; $17.99, Kindle) is a superb memoir written by a very solid, complex, and accomplished man. As he was growing up in Washington State, Fred McCarthy envisioned becoming a Catholic priest. He attended Seminary for a few years, but in 1967, his yearning for adventure and a desire to fly caused him to leave the Seminary and enlist in the U.S. Army.

By his own admission, he was not the most talented G.I. going through Army training. As McCarthy tells it, he wasn’t the most tenacious trainee. Through sheer grit, though, along with a strong belief in himself and a solid moral foundation, he always seemed to succeed. Following his discharge in 1970, McCarthy moved back home, and became very active in education, politics, civic activities, and raising a family.

In December 1967, Fred McCarthy was sent to Soc Trang in the Mekong Delta as a Warrant Officer and assigned to the Army’s 121st Assault Helicopter Company. For 6 months, he flew Huey slicks, delivering troops and supplies to troops in the field. But that was not enough excitement for him and he volunteered to fly a Viking D-model Huey gunship to be able to engage the enemy directly. He got his wish and piloted a gunship until the completion of his tour in December 1968.

As I opened the pages of Coming All the Way Home, I was expecting to find a lot about McCarthy’s tour of duty in the Vietnam War—and a lot of action. I learned quickly that McCarthy, while proving himself to be a bona fide warrior, is by nature a teacher, historian, and philosopher. He spent 30 years of his post-Vietnam War life as a kindergarten teacher, private school principal, public school superintendent, and college adjunct professor.

In Coming All the Way Home he recounts snippets of combat, but also includes letters, poetry, history, psychological analyses, charitable efforts, and other noncombat activities. I wasn’t disappointed, though, as I found all of those sections interesting, educational, and a joy to read.

Coming All the Way Home is very well written and designed. In a few of the final chapters McCarthy presents a history of the wars that have been fought in Vietnam and his analysis of the American war. His reasoning is well grounded and well explained.

I highly recommend this book.

–Bob Wartman

Palace Gate by Richard L. Brown

Richard L. Brown’s Palace Gate: Under Siege in Hue City: TET January 1968 (Schiffer Publishing, 224 pp., $25.54), which was published in 2004, is a splendid little book. Retired USAF Lt. Col. Brown starts with biographical information before embarking on a good story built around his exploits as a Forward Air Controller pilot flying 0-1 and 0-2 Bird Dog aircraft over I Corps during his 1967-68 tour of duty in the Vietnam War—primarily in the A Shau Valley.

The late Lt. Col. Brown had flown fighters toward the end of World War II and in the Korean War, then mustered out to reserve status. He was recalled to serve out his last year-and-a-half of active duty as a FAC pilot and unit commander. Headquartered in Can Tho, the FAC mission in-country was called Palace Gate, which gives the book its title, although the subtitle describes the main story Brown tells in the book.

Told in a personal, conversational style, Palace Gate is filled with anecdotes and asides that support the major story line and add much to book. The daily coverage of his time stuck on the ground in Hue City during Tet ’68 is well written and informative. It’s augmented with a word-for-word transcription of some audio tapes Brown mailed to his wife. The book’s photos further augment his story and illustrate his mission.

We are taken along in the second seat of a one-seat aircraft on memorable—and mundane—missions in support of tactical air operations and on visual recon flights. From Brown’s aerial vantage point we see an often stunning countryside well beyond the war below.

Brown occasionally waxes eloquently and philosophically about his overall mission, his daily operations, the Vietnamese people, and war in general. He also questions some of the command decisions from U.S. headquarters in Saigon and from the Pentagon.

This is a very well-written, edited, and presented book—a readable and enjoyable effort.                                                   

–Tom Werzyn

Check Ride by Thomas McGurn

At the age of 21, Tom McGurn flew UH-1H helicopters in the Vietnam War during his 1969-70 tour of duty. A member of the 192nd Assault Helicopter Company in the 10th Combat Aviation Battalion of the 1st Aviation Brigade he operated out of Landing Zone Betty at Phan Thiet.

McGurn recounts his combat tour in Check Ride: Some Had It Better; Some Had It Worse (Deeds, 284 pp. $31.95, hardcover; $19.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle) finding meaning in life-threatening wartime tasks, even ones that took the lives of comrades.

I am a big fan of helicopter pilots. The deeds they perform in machines that truly should not get off the ground fascinate me. McGurn shares such feats with a humble view of the past, progressing from rookie copilot to the company’s senior command pilot. Seemingly, he and his fellow helicopter crewmen were on duty every day.

He recounts his year in Vietnam in a writing style that takes the reader along for the ride. McGurn, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, piloted UH-1H slicks, aircraft armed with machine guns fired from side doors by volunteer door gunners. Slicks primarily supplied ammo, water, food, and mail to grunts in the field. During medevac helicopter runs McGurn’s crew brought out the dead and wounded. They also regularly inserted and extracted LRRP teams, led combat assaults, and performed other missions conjured up by mobile warfare thinkers at the upper command levels.

McGurn displays boundless admiration for the grunts he and the other slicks carried. In citing the communal strength of infantrymen, he says, “As a squad, their courage, competence, and rationale is multiplied by ten. That is the true potency of any Military.”        

He describes once-in-a-lifetime flights that cheated death. More than once McGurn flew in and out of situations that challenge one’s imagination and once had a UH-1H practically shot out from beneath him. One time he actually backed into a poorly configured landing zone.

His recollections of maneuvering in total darkness during night flights in search of grunts in distress in the deepest jungle convey a precariousness that far transcends normal thoughts of danger. McGurn strengthens his storytelling with quotes from other helicopter pilots and official reports.

McGurn (center) and crew in Vietnam

There also are touches of black humor. While racing for a bunker during a mortar attack on LZ Betty, for example, his roommate grabbed him to use as a shield when a round landed much too close. Similarly, he describes flying early-morning sniffer missions in search of effluents unique to human beings. He made the most of it by observing that the jungle “was so beautiful this time of day, everything so tranquil, light ground fog over the streams, sun streaming through the lush vegetation… etc.”

McGurn served with the Army’s 42nd Infantry Division as a Tactical Operations Officer in the Iraq War in 2004-05. After 40 years as an Army aviator, he retired in 2008 as a Chief Warrant Officer Four.

—Henry Zeybel

Darkness Bravo by Edward R. Fedrick

Edward Fedrick’s Darkness Bravo: A Soldier Remembers 1966-1967, 1968-1969, (Covenant Books, 326 pp. $33.95, paper; $8.99, Kindle) contains 36 chapters of nearly nonstop, close-up, Army grunt action in the Vietnam War. It was a sheer pleasure to read. 

Ed Fedrick joined the Army in January 1966. He took a train from Memphis to Ft. Benning for Basic and AIT. He then found himself in Vietnam, based near Quan Loi not far from the Cambodian border, assigned to Bravo Company in the 2nd/8th of the 1st Infantry Division. He received two Purple Hearts during his first tour; after volunteering for a second tour he received two more.

Fedrick fought in five big battles, but most of the book is filled with details of his everyday, small daylight patrols and night ambushes. His descriptions are filled with so many details that you feel you are there with him. At one point during his two tours of day, Fedrick’s company had 54 consecutive days of enemy contact.

Throughout the book, he paints pictures filled with weapon and ammo weights, the pros and cons of different weapons, methods he and others devised to overcome the jamming problem of the M-16, physical characteristics of fellow soldiers, and tales of leadership and bravery. 

Ed Fedrick is painfully honest with his feelings about himself and his combat brothers. He speaks of himself as being mediocre and sometimes inadequate. But when you finish reading Darkness Bravo, you’ll find out that he is totally adequate—and a true hero.

Going on patrols an ambushes, his quiet thoughts included things such as, “I know I’m going to die today,” “I’m not going to live through this,” and the same thoughts in other words. Nearly everything he says about his fellow soldiers is complimentary.

After leaving the Army, Fedrick joined the Memphis Police Department. He has retired and with his wife Louise lives in the hills of Tennessee.

Darkness Bravo opens with a good Glossary that will be helpful to the uninitiated. The last 27 pages of this excellent book are filled with beaucoup pictures of Fedrick, his fellow Big Red One soldiers, and his wife. I suggest looking through these pics before reading the book to meet many of the people Fedrick writes about.

Two minor complaints: I would like to have seen a map of his areas of operation and a Table of Contents, or at least chapter titles on the page headers. 

That aside, Darkness Bravo is flawlessly presented.  Put reading this one on your bucket list.

–Bob Wartman