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

To the Sound of the Guns by Grady T. Birdsong

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Concentrated reading about the United States Marine Corps has led me to one conclusion: The Marines make you the man they want you to be when they need you to be that man. Grady Birdsong personifies that conclusion.

In 2010 as a veterans advocate, Birdsong championed hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) as a new method for dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. He helped establish a non-profit HBOT clinic in Boulder, Colorado, that treats veterans from across the nation. In 2016, with Bob Fischer, he wrote the definitive book about HBOT: The Miracle Workers of South Boulder Road: Healing the Signature Wounds of War. Last November, the VA approved HBOT treatment for PTSD.

Now Birdsong has written To the Sound of the Guns: 1st Battalion, 27th Marines from Hawaii to Vietnam 1966-1968 (BirdQuill, 434 pp. $44.99, hardcover; $36.99, paper), a tribute to the unit he served with in the Vietnam War.

Grady Birdsong enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1966 and served two combat-heavy tours in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969. His accounts of his unit focus on securing the Hue City canal area out to the coast and deploying south of Da Nang to secure the Go Noi Island area in support of Operation Allen Brook.

His tome-like book is crammed with personalities and actions of all ranks. Birdsong provides a long list of interviewees he calls “contributors.” The length of the list made me think that he must have collected stories and photographs for years. He also discusses war and related world politics. Many photographs and maps support the text.

The desire of President Johnson and Gen. Westmoreland to increase American forces to more than a half million men in Vietnam rushed Bridsong’s undermanned battalion out of Hawaii and into battle at the end of February in 1968. In a thankfully short chapter, Birdsong’s account of the unit’s home at Duong Son, ten kilometers south of Da Nang, rehashes well-known topics such as rain, morale, food, shit burning, and other daily routines.

In a huge chapter titled “Tools of the Trade,” Birdsong inventories and explains the functions of equipment used by Marines in Vietnam, including C-130 transports and F-4 fighters, M50A1 Ontos anti-tank vehicles, tactical ground radar, and flamethrowers—even the P-38 can opener. He buttresses these descriptions with testimony from men who operated the equipment.

The book’s core chapters—“Deployed to Task Force X-Ray, Phu Vang District,” “Operation Allen Brook,”and “A Third Offensive”—describe the combat action of 1/27. By combining multiple points of view from participants, Birdsong creates a clearly defined picture of the role of the unit for its seven months in the war. Chapters such as “Victory Isn’t Always Glorious” provide insight that merits a second reading.

At the end of August 1968, short timers in 1/27 returned to Hawaii or Camp Pendleton. New guys, incluiding Birdsong, transferred to other units in-country.

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Grady Birdsong

The book’s final in-depth examines the grief felt by seven families who lost a 1st of the 27th Marine. Birdsong includes an Honor Roll of the battalion’s one hundred twelve men who were killed in action as compiled by Gary E. Jarvis.

With his writing of To the Sound of The Guns, Birdsong’s Marine training persists and he continues to fulfill needs of the Corps fifty years after the fact.

I admire him—and his books.

Birdsong’s website is gradytbirdsong.com

—Henry Zeybel

Looking for Flyboys by Tom Messenger

After saying he enlisted for three years in the Army, Tom Messenger takes only eighteen pages to reach Vietnam in Looking for Flyboys: One G.I.’s Journey: Vietnam 1970-1971 (Hellgate Press, 209 pp., $16.95 paper; $4.99, Kindle). Virtually every one of those pages contains touches of humor, revelations, and the author’s resignation to the inevitable. Fortunately, Messenger’s clever touches do not end there and run through the entire book. I read several passages aloud to my wife, and together we laughed or shook our heads in wonderment.

Messenger says he created this book as part of his treatment for PTSD. If so, then the task completely cured his malady: He now views his past with his eyes and mind wide open. His buoyant personality has a presence on every page and makes him as visible as his six-foot-seven-inch height.

Twenty and single, Messenger enlisted in the Army to avoid the life of a nine-to-five Chicago mortgage holder. Flying in helicopters was all he wanted to do. The only Basic Training classes he enjoyed were the grenade pits and the rifle range. He took a nonchalant approach to the rest of it.

Messenger’s next stop was the Fort Eustis School for Aviation. He worked conscientiously before going to Vietnam with the goal of earning a flight engineer rating in a CH-47 Chinook.

His first in-country flight convinced him that he had done the right thing. “The pilots started the engines,” he writes. “The blades were turning and we taxied down the runway, and I can honestly tell you it was the best high I ever had.” His helicopter took ground fire and, by returning it, Messenger warped the barrel of his M-60—a perfect way to bust his combat cherry.

After a short time as a gunner and crew chief, his dream came true. Messenger (above) upgraded to become a flight engineer of a “beautiful new ship,” a “reconditioned B model made into a Super C with new and more powerful Lycoming engines.” He picked his own crew chief and gunner, and lived for his machine, which Messenger describes as “the fastest and most powerful helicopter in the free world at the time.”

His year in the Vietnam War was crammed with action that provides one good story after another. Flying out of Camp Holloway and Phu Bai, Messenger took part in Dewey Canyon II; Lam Son 719 in Laos; an unnamed, large-scale emergency rescue of refugee women and children from Cambodia; the relocation of Montagnards in Vietnam; and many other missions.

Messenger also gives women—Vietnamese, Australian, and American—their due. Chapters such as “Old Girlfriends Are Just That” detail his youthful adventures in the world of romance.

This guy—Ex Spec5 Tom Messenger—can write. Sparkles of wisdom periodically flash out of the text. To wit:

—Some guys could take a lot of trauma, which is another name for combat.

—Your close friends kind of held you together. Everyone needs somebody to put things in perspective. We all need a mental twitch from time to time.

—You mask [cowardice] with self-medication, such as booze and drugs; mine was bourbon. But most of all you mask it with silence and denial…. Another weapon was anger, sort of like a controlled rage.

—Then it was my turn to say, “Are you fucking nuts, sir?” You can say almost anything to an officer if you put “sir” at the end of the sentence

Messenger, by the way, now lives near Chicago with wife, kids, mortgage, and lots of bills. But part of his heart is still in that Chinook.

—Henry Zeybel