Charlie Company’s Journey Home by Andrew Wiest

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A first produces a milestone for life: A first kiss. A first job. A first child.

Arguably, the dynamics of these experiences pale in insignificance compared to events related to war. Andrew Wiest examines this relationship in Charlie Company’s Journey Home: The Boys of ’67 and the War They Left Behind (Osprey, 400 pp. $28).

Wiest teaches history at the University of Southern Mississippi and is the founding director of the Center for the Study of War and Society. Two of his previous four books about the Vietnam War have won awards. His new book is a follow-up to The Boys of ’67: Charlie Company’s War in Vietnam, which was the basis for a National Geographic documentary.

Charlie Company fought in the Vietnam War, but the effects of battle also had a strong impact on their wives and girlfriends back home. “War [became] a part of their lives, and that of their families, forever,” Wiest writes. The women’s reactions to war are the focus of the book.

Wiest bases the book on nearly one hundred original interviews; corresponding documents from personal collections and national archives; and large letter collections. He identifies twenty-four Charlie Company wives and forty-six men of Charlie Company as his “cast of characters.”

The clarity and certainty of Wiest’s writing produces a highly personalized look into the long-distance interactions between overseas troops and their families back home. At its core, the book is a love story—as well as a war story.

We see the women go through various stages of maturity. Initially, they are young, vulnerable, and in love with men destined to go off to war in Southeast Asia. When that happens, without the benefit of electronic communications, they become dependent on letters and an unpredictable mail service as a lifeline. Uncertainty rules their worlds and Wiest explains how they contended with trying situations far beyond what they expected.

Andrew Wiest

Andrew Wiest

Within the framework of the women’s lives Wiest also describes bloody search-and-destroy missions in which Charlie Company battled the Viet Cong. Sharing “firsts” engendered by these encounters produced life-changing psychological upheaval, Wiest says.

Reading Charlie Company’s Journey Home might provide an eye-opening lesson for the average American. Today’s society often overlooks or takes its all-volunteer armed forces for granted.

In comparison, the men of Charlie Company were almost entirely made up of draftees whose lives were involuntarily disrupted by military service. The difference in self-sacrifice is incalculable and Wiest shows it.

—Henry Zeybel

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Sadec Province: by Gordon Bare

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Gordon Bare’s Sadec Province: A Memoir of War and Reconstruction in the Mekong Delta (Politics and Prose, 160 pp. $17.95, paper) is based on a journal the author kept during his two tours of duty in the Mekong Delta of South Vietnam. Bare served with U.S. Army as an Assistant Province Adviser with Army Advisory Team 65.

A retired Army Reserve Colonel who also worked in middle and high-level positions in the State Department, Bare now devotes time to Team River Runner, an organization dedicated to helping wounded veterans through whitewater kayaking. The proceeds of this book go to that worthy organization.

Sadec Province was initially a slow and laborious read mainly because of the scores of end notes. The reader would have been well served had these notes been embedded in the text or placed as footnotes on their associated pages. That said, this was a very good book for me to read

The first chapters set the stage with history, organizational structures, policy evaluations, and the like, and paint a fairly good picture of a part of the Vietnam War of which not too many of us are aware. The book is more than Bare’s memoir of his time in a small area inside the Delta. It’s a melding of those experiences and what he has learned about the war since then.

He has assembled a trove of information that brings to light obscure information about the war, the mindset of the Viet Cong, hidden successes of Vietnamization, mistakes of American strategists at the highest levels, how the war’s lessons learned are being applied today in the Middle East, and much more.

The final two chapters contain Bare’s afterthoughts and evaluations. Of particular interest to me was that as awful as the Vietnam War was on the people of South Vietnam, no one fled the country by boat. It took a communist regime to accomplish that.

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Also, that it has been suggested that the American war gave the rest of Southeast Asia time to get its act together and limit the falling dominoes to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. And that there has been no recognition of the culpability of Americans who denounced the war in Vietnam and then denied that a bloodbath occurred. These statements, and others, have given me a more secure feeling that our involvement in Vietnam was necessary and to a certain extent, successful.

I recommend Sadec Province to anybody who served in the Vietnamization programs—Phoenix, CORDS, USAID, MAGG, MACV—as well as to anybody who served in the Delta or to those simply interested in learning more of behind-the-scenes military activities in Vietnam during the war.

I am glad I read the book. I was truly enlightened.

— Bob Wartman

The Vietnam War: An Untold Story of Drugs by William E. Campbell

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In June 1971 President Richard Nixon declared war on drug addicts and traffickers. One tactic of the war—Operation Gold Flow—decreed that troops leaving Vietnam and returning permanently to the United States would be subject to urinalysis. Anyone who tested positive for drugs would be detoxified before begin allowed to go home.

At that time, LTC William Campbell commanded the 90th Replacement Battalion in Long Binh, one of two units that out-processed returnees to the United States. They also assigned in-coming replacements to units. In The Vietnam War: An Untold Story of Drugs (CreateSpace, 216 pp. $12.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle), Campbell tells a year-long story about his role in carrying out the requirements of Gold Flow during his second tour in Vietnam.

With merely four-days’ notice, Campbell and the commanders of the engineer, medical, and military police battalions practically rebuilt and re-manned parts of Bien Hoa and Long Binh to satisfy Gold Flow’s requirements. Bill Campbell’s account of performing this feat provides an excellent lesson in leadership. His stories about drug testing, detoxification, and disgruntled troops are informative and entertaining.

Day and night, the 90th overflowed with men in transit—awaiting either test results, a trip to detox, or a flight homeward. Detox required a seven-day departure delay. Concurrent with the push for Vietnamization, the out-processing of American troops accelerated in 1971-72. It reached a level of loading twelve airplanes a day—a total of thirty-six hundred people. Eventually, the drug-testing program expanded to include those going on R&R or leave, as well as in-coming personnel from the States.

“The pace of the withdrawal was insane,” Campbell says.

The job was further complicated by unannounced visits from generals, each with his own idiosyncratic demands. War correspondents arrived next and then members of Congress. After the release of The Pentagon Papers, interest in Gold Flow waned, Campbell says, but generals continued to visit and order misdirected tasks.

“To us, it seemed as if the actual shooting war had taken a back seat to the Army’s war against drugs,” he says.

Campbell had limited access to drug user statistics, which hovered between six and seven percent, he estimates. The majority were junior enlisted men, with a scattering of NCOs and young officers. Percentages among black and white users were equal, he writes.

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Col. Campbell back in the day

The 90th’s workload ended as abruptly as it had begun. Campbell inventoried the facilities—he called it “counting the buildings”–and was the last man to leave.

The book ends happily as Campbell learns of his promotion to full colonel.

Campbell wrote An Untold Story of Drugs in 1985 but shelved it until this year. His book presents a start-to-finish view of a phase of the war that—as the book’s title forewarned—was new to me.

—Henry Zeybel

A Soldier’s Story by Richard F. Hogue

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Just the other day, I was thinking about something that happened twenty years ago. No big deal, right, in a life that spans eight-plus decades?

That evening I picked up A Soldier’s Story: Forever Changed: An Infantryman’s Saga of Life and Death in Vietnam by Richard F. Hogue (Richlyn Publishing, 418 pp. $17.93, paper; $5.49. Kindle).  In it, Hogue talks about a lot of men who got killed—eight from his platoon in one morning. Seven from his NCO class. Only one was older than twenty-one.

Hogue went on and on until I felt a distinct rush of guilt for the many years I have enjoyed while other equally deserving soldiers didn’t.

As well as anyone who tackled the topic, he makes the point that in his unit “we were expected to perform like men, while most of us were still boys.”

“Hound Dog” Hogue served as a squad leader—and occasionally platoon leader—for the Third Herd of the 25th Infantry Division, which operated out of Cu Chi. For six months in 1969-70, he led Reconnaissance in Force missions that included the usual medley of helicopter assaults, setting up night ambushes, and being ambushed. Then he stepped on a mine and lost his left leg below the knee. He was twenty-three years old.

“I had taken only a few steps when I heard a seemingly muffled explosion different from any other explosion I had heard in Vietnam,” he writes. “I immediately felt a terrific force and a blast of heat from the explosion, and in what seemed like slow motion, I fell backward onto the ground.

“I slowly raised my head to see what had happened to me. What I saw scared the hell out of me. Blood was squirting out of my lower left leg with every beat of my pounding heart. I thought, ‘I’m going to bleed to death. Lord, don’t let me die this way.’”

Hogue’s account of his medical treatment and recovery pays tribute to the many people who saved him. Much later, he says, “After seeing my friends killed in action, I knew I was fortunate.”

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Hogue provides an interesting perspective on serving in Vietnam in a chapter titled “My War, Was It Worth It?” He had volunteered for the draft. After looking back on his wounds and post -war life, he concludes: “So my personal answer to the question…is ‘Yes.’”

A Soldier’s Story follows a path similar to We Were the Third Herd: An Infantryman’s Story of Survival in America’s Most Controversial War, Vietnam, which Hogue published in 2003. The latest book includes a detailed account of Hogue’s 2013 visit to Vietnam with fellow Third Herd veterans.

—Henry Zeybel

Vietnam War U.S. & Allied Combat Equipments by Gordon L. Rottman

The latest book in Osprey Publishing’s long-running “Elite” series of richly illustrated, concise compendiums of military forces, artifacts, people, and warfare techniques is Vietnam War U.S. & Allied Combat Equipments (65 pp. $19, paper), written by the much-published Gordon L. Rottman, who served with Army Special Forces in the Vietnam War, and illustrated by the veteran artist, Adam Hook.

This volume does a fine job focusing on showing and telling the things we American soldiers and Marines carried in Vietnam, along with sections on the combat equipment used by the ARVN, and the Australians. We’re talking about equipment here, not weapons so much—so, we get detailed explanations (and photos and sketches) of all manner of things such as weapon accessory cases, rucksacks, canteens, entrenching tools, machetes, bayonets, flashlights, gas masks, and much, much more.

—Marc Leepson

 

Focus on Vietnam by Steven Burchik

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Steven Burchik served as a sergeant with D Company of the 1st Infantry Division’s 2nd Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment in Vietnam in 1968-69. Burchik was a forward observer, not a photographer, but he often had his camera with him. During his tour he took more than four thousand photographs. None of combat, he notes, since that’s when he was using a rifle—not a camera.

Burchik mailed the film to his wife, and didn’t see his prints or slides for the first time until after he returned from Vietnam. “It was an amazing experience to view them and remember the circumstances surrounding each image,” he writes in the introduction to Focus on Vietnam (Sharlin-K Press, 120 pp., $29, paper).

After that memorable experience, Burchik boxed up the photos and rarely looked at them until he was asked in 2013 to make a presentation on the war to a high school English class. Speaking to the class reignited his interest in the Vietnam War, and he wrote and published Compass and a Camera: A Year in Vietnam in 2014, followed by Focus on Vietnam.

You won’t find any Great Photographs in this new volume—no decisive moments, no grand tableaux, no epiphanies, no perfect compositions, no “Oh my God” images. The Vietnam War produced many great photographers—many unheralded—who left a trove of images of the beauty, the horror, the cruelty, and the kindnesses that resulted from America’s involvement in the conflict. Burchik is not one of them.

He took for himself a more prosaic task: depicting the daily life of the combat soldier.

Focus on Vietnam is arranged thematically into short chapters, each with brief introductory notes combined with relevant photos. The chapters reflect the interests of young Americans serving halfway around the world: weapons and transportation, children and villagers, Saigon and stand-downs, wading through rivers and tracking through jungles, pacification and the rice harvest. Burchik, curious and fresh-eyed, kept his camera by his side and recorded the life that passed before him.

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That’s the book’s power: a record of one man’s life as it is swept into a tidal wave of events far beyond his control. Everyone else depicted in his book, both American and Vietnamese, has similarly been swept up by the war. Yet daily life goes on, perhaps having taken on a sort of exotic sheen or at least an awareness that those involved are living history.

Burchik’s book, perhaps, will be best appreciated by those who have served and those who may soon serve. His images are fascinating yet familiar.

The author’s website is stevenburchik.com

–Michael Keating

Vietnam Reflections by Michael T. Keene

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In Vietnam Reflections: The Untold Story of the Holley Boys (Ad Hoc, 246 pp., $14.71, paper), Michael T. Keene presents a story about people and places that would be overlooked elsewhere. The most important people are eight men who died in the Vietnam War. They all came from Holley, New York, a small town on the Erie Canal: Ronald P. Sisson, Howard L. Bowen, David D. Case, John P. Davis, George W. Fischer, Jr., Paul Mandracchia, Gary E. Bullock, and Gary L. Stymus.

The loss of eight men from a town of approximately 1,800 was one of the nation’s highest Vietnam War death toll for any community. Keene recreates the men’s lives through letters they sent home, official documents, and more than sixty interviews with their families, friends, and fellow soldiers.

An avid researcher, Keene opens the book with a history of Holley and recognition of the town’s prominent citizens as far back as 1802. He alternates chapters about the Boys with episodes arranged chronologically from Vietnam’s history, such as the 1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the 1963 Diem assassination, and the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident. This provides relevance between the deaths and the progress of the war.

The biographies of the eight offer many stories from their childhood and teen years but only limited information about their activities in the war. An award citation, an after-action report, and a condolence letter shed light on the war-zone lives of a few of the men. Enemy fire killed six of the eight. The first died in 1965 and the last in 1970. Their average age was slightly under twenty-three.

They were typical young Americans of their time. Growing up, they went to the same high school and took part in sports, marching band, Boy Scouts, and hot rod racing. Keene traces the occupations and lineages of some of their families.

Keene’s book brought to mind Beyond the Names: A Tribute to the Clermont County, Ohio, Vietnam War Dead, a work of love and admiration for forty men killed in the Vietnam War from Clermont County, Ohio. Gary L. Knepp wrote the book as a way to keep the sacrifices of the men from fading into obscurity.

Similarly, Eric Poole’s Company of Heroes: A Forgotten Medal of Honor and Bravo Company’s War in Vietnam tells of a company that lost eighteen men, all of whom are still fondly remembered by their comrades. Based on seven years of interviews, that book weaves together episodes from the men’s pre-war civilian lives with what they experienced in Vietnam.

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Michael Keene

Books such as these are important because too many Vietnam War grunts never received the honor and recognition they earned. These books chronicle people and events on the verge of disappearing and, in that manner, set examples for today’s young men and women who do not face the challenge of involuntary military service.

Vietnam Reflections contains four appendices, including one that analyzes the influence on the war of ten leaders such as Richard Nixon, Vo Nguyen Giap, and William Westmoreland.

Keene served two tours in Vietnam with the Marines. He has written many books about the people of upper New York State.

His website is ad-hoc-productions.com

—Henry Zeybel