Lou Pepi served in the Vietnam War in 1969 with Alpha Company of the 1st Battalion of the 61st Infantry Regiment in the Army’s 5th Infantry Division. He displays life-long allegiance to that group with A Day in Hell on the DMZ: The Rocket Attack on Firebase Charlie 2 in Vietnam, May 21, 1971 (McFarland, 213 pp. $33.94, paper; $13.49, Kindle).
The book is based Pepi’s interviews with 20 men from Alpha Company. He recreates their actions prior to and following the May 21, 1971, event that killed 30 and wounded 33 when a 122-mm rocket caved in the roof of a recreational bunker. Eighteen of the dead came from Alpha Company. Firebase Charlie 2 was in Northern I Corps close to the Demilitarized Zone and easily within range of North Vietnamese Army artillery.
As a reporter, Pepi flawlessly did his homework. He follows the overall course of Alpha’s actions and includes interviewees’ comments at appropriate moments for each event, rather than record their recollections separately. Pepi shows the men in combat and the ways they developed as warriors. His account of an Alpha patrol trapped in an unmapped Con Thien minefield illuminates a nightmare of misguided intentions and disastrous results.
Even though it was late in the war, Alpha and the 5th Infantry Division endured height-of-the-war demands. Alpha spent 70 consecutive days in the field shortly before the events at Firebase Charlie 2. The Company played a major role in Operation Dewey Canyon II that literally paved the way (constructing 80 kilometers of new roads) for Operation Lam Son 719, the move into Laos that began in February 1971. Alpha’s job was to keep the road open throughout both operations.
Pepi does an excellent job incorporating expert opinions about the planning mistakes of Lam Son that doomed the South Vietnamese Army mission practically before it began.
A Day in Hell on the DMZ pays tribute to all of the men in Alpha Company, with special recognition for those killed in the rocket strike. As Pepi shows, their courage and dedication went above and beyond.
Company Commander Capt. Robert Dean was the driving force in Alpha until he suffered a horrendous injury and was shipped stateside for eight months of hospital care. Unhappily, multiple wounds shortened his first Vietnam War tour as well. His combat career totaled 20 months that resulted in 22 months in hospitals.
Dean’s feats in battle, as reported by Pepi, set a standard that his men admired: He asked nothing of them beyond doing what he would do himself. Dean’s pragmatic approach and success in desperate situations overwhelmed me. Pepi gives him the final word in nearly every situation, which he earned and deserves. Robert Dean died in 2018. He deserved to live to 100. I came to idolize the guy.
The book contains many pages of communication logs, plus 14 pages of after action reports dealing with the events of May 21, 1971. Their hour-by-hour accounts provide material for hard-core history buffs.
This book is Pepi’s second about the Vietnam War. He previously wrote My Brothers Have My Back, which centers on a three-day engagement known as the “November Battle,” in which he participated in 1969. During his time with Alpha Company Pepi served as a machine gunner, APC driver, and squad leader. https://vvabooks.wordpress.com/2018/12/27/my-brothers-have-my-back-by-lou-pepi/
Episodes of counterinsurgency warfare fill A Day in Hell on the DMZ and give readers a treasure trove of facts over which to speculate what might have been, if only….