The Tooth and the Tail by Lawrence Rock

Lawrence Rock, who put together The Tooth and the Tail: An Oral History of Support Troops in Vietnam (CreateSpace, 386 pp., $13.99, paper), was a sergeant in the Marine Corps from 1964-67. He put in a thirteen-month Vietnam War tour in 1965-66 with the 1st Marine Air Wing in Danang. Rock, a VVA member, served in Vietnam as a clerk and driver.

For this book, Larry Rock and his friend Tom Emmons interviewed 150 men and women who also served as support troops in Vietnam, beginning the project in 2010. He includes about sixty in the book.

Rock found fellow support troops by attending Vietnam veteran reunions. “Most of the participants,” he writes, “provided their stories during taped phone interviews.”

The author addresses the problem of the passage of time blurring some recollections. The goal was for the participants to describe their role in Vietnam, he notes. Of course, they describe much more than that.

On the back of the book we’re informed that the ratio in the Vietnam War between support troops and combat troops was 10:1, and that in World War II the ratio was 4:1. That means that ninety percent of those who served in Vietnam were support troops. Rock calls them “our Hidden Army.”

If they were hidden, they were in plain sight, but I know what he means. As far as most books, movies, and television specials are concerned, soldiers in Vietnam were in combat, and they were Marines, LRRPs, SEALs, Rangers, Green Berets, and the like.

This large and interesting book could use an index.  It does have a good table of contents, but the chapters listed are not given page numbers, so you need to turn a lot of pages to find a particular chapter—for instance, the one entitled “Stripes and Medals,” which is in the middle of this 386-page book somewhere.

There are thirty-nine chapters, divided into three chronological sections covering the early, middle, and late years of the war.  A persistent reader will find many revelations in this book. It also is a treasure trove of Vietnam War GI language, including the use of the word “jeep” as a verb.

Reviewer David Willson, who served as a U.S. Army stenographer in the Vietnam War.

This book also includes many interesting photos, which I wish had been reproduced better. Many are faded or muddy, but they are appreciated anyhow. They add to the book.

The editor’s juxtapositions of entries is often powerful and hard-hitting. In the chapter, “Homecoming,” for example, Vic Griguola’s memory of having been spat on and called a baby killer in the San Francisco Greyhound Station is right above the memory of Bernie Wright’s in the San Francisco Airport where he was treated by six pretty girls to being flashed when they lifted their shirts to salute him and his service in Vietnam. There was applause from nearby waiting passengers.

Every returning soldier was not met with derision. I appreciated this even-handed presentation of the oral records of returning veterans.

Rock has managed to produce a well-organized and always-interesting reference book from this huge mass of taped phone interviews. I highly recommend this oral history, which gives voice to those millions of us who served in Vietnam as support troops. Rock also has included a useful bibliography and footnotes.

The two books cited in Rock’s bibliography that I’d suggest an interested reader look for next are Chickenhawk by Robert Mason and Hell in Very Small Place by Bernard B. Fall. Neither are support-troop books, but both are classics of the Vietnam War.

—David Willson