Heroes to the End by Jim Smith

Jim Smith wrote for the Stars and Stripes newspaper in Vietnam during his 1971-72 tour. His only difficulty was his bosses’ demand that he not denigrate American policies or practices.

For one of his first articles, Smith exposed the incompetence and inadequacies of Bien Hoa’s First Team Combat Training Center. His editor told him to rewrite it or forget about it; otherwise, if the article were printed, Smith “would suddenly find [himself] slinging hash in a field kitchen in the Delta—at best.”

Smith chose not to buck the system. For seven months he “used helicopters as taxis and was ferried to every city in South Vietnam,” specializing in “secondhand accounts of heroism.”

Despite the censorship, Smith was able to report vignettes of people and events from the front lines to the rear. He had a knack for finding stories that undammed a flood of memories for me. He just might do the same for anyone else who spent time in-country.

Smith has collected all of his by-lined articles, along with previously unpublished work, in  Heroes to the End: An Army Correspondent’s Last Days in Vietnam (iUniverse, 337 pp.; $23.95 paper; $3.99, Kindle). The book separates people into nine categories such as “Combat Heroes,” “South Vietnamese and South Korean Units,” “American Units,” and “Invited Guests.”

During Smith’s tour, America’s war effort rapidly unwound as President Nixon cut troop strength with his Vietnamization strategy. Because we know what came to pass, Smith’s reporting of “Do Gooders” now resembles satire. He shows that as Americans departed in droves, the few remaining troops labored with greater misdirection than ever.

Smith also provides insights about weapon systems and the people who operated them. As counterpoint to battle action, however, he emphasizes the American soldiers’ desires to depart the country and to “let the ARVNs do it all.” Lacking fire support and facing newly introduced SA-7 heat-seeking missiles, a helicopter pilot said, “The only thing that’s destroyed when we go out on a search-and-destroy mission is us.”

The NVA’s 1972 Easter Offensive receives much of Smith’s attention. During that time, he spent weeks in and around Kontum City. His reports of the NVA victory at Tan Canh and the fighting in and around Kontum rank among the book’s highlights. The stories of these events, he tells us, “didn’t run” in the Stars and Stripes.

Smith patrolled the jungle with grunts and flew with helicopter crews to get first-hand views of the war. The longer he was in country, the more risks he took. “Whenever I wanted to find out what was really happening in a battle zone, I went to the helicopter people first. The hell with the information officers,” he writes. “Most of them were completely worthless and were just worried about putting a positive spin on things.”

In his section called “Clerk in a War Zone,” Smith discusses the five boring months he spent processing troops at Cam Ranh Bay before his reassignment to Stars and Stripes. The luxury he enjoyed in Saigon as a reporter should elicit (even after all these years) at least one WTF from former boonie rats. The fact is, however, that Smith had the talent to make the change—proof that at least one soldier was used to the best of his ability in that war.

The book contains twenty pages of photographs and closes with excerpts from letters Smith wrote to his parents. That includes:

“I’ve lived my life over mentally a hundred times since I’ve been here.”

“Well, nobody forced me into it…here I am out in the jungle 30 miles southeast of Saigon. That’s a damn poor lead sentence but so are my surroundings.”

“I’m down with the real people, as the Lt. says—the ones that matter in Vietnam.”

“I don’t know how anyone could keep his sanity if he had to do a full tour in the jungle.”

Smith confesses to feelings that surprised me with their depth of both love and hate toward the Army and its men, his job, and the war. His willingness to record his feelings shows a lot of courage.

Before enlisting to avoid being drafted into the infantry, Jim Smith worked as a reporter for Newsday on Long Island, New York, while earning a bachelor’s degree at Hofstra University. After the war, he returned to reporting and editing for that newspaper until 2014—a forty-five year career.

—Henry Zeybel

Company of Heroes by Eric Poole

During the first five months of 1970, wherever the men of Bravo Company (3rd Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division) operated, NVA troops seemed to be waiting for them. That was a time of what became know as Vietnamization when the South Vietnamese Army was supposed to be able to defend itself. Yet Bravo’s men found themselves in combat almost every day.

Bravo Company participated in three big operations during early 1970. Its first assignment was to drive the 7th Battalion, 22nd NVA Regiment, 3rd Division off Hill 474, a Central Highlands stronghold. The hill lacked tactical significance beyond the one thousand enemy soldiers quartered there.

In an initial sweep of the hill, four of Bravo’s men were killed instantly in an ambush. Bravo followed a routine of search and destroy tactics, battling the enemy, withdrawing, and starting over. Its encounters were grim and swift. By mid-March, hunting the enemy yielded diminishing returns as the NVA exfiltrated what had become a siege site.

Reassigned to the Crow’s Foot, southeast of Pleiku, Bravo continued search and destroy operations. Enemy booby traps frequently supplemented ambushes. In one encounter, “Of the first ten men in line, [Richard] Clanton was the only one not wounded,” Eric Poole writes in Company of Heroes: A Forgotten Medal of Honor and Bravo Company’s War in Vietnam (Osprey, 296 pp., $24.95). Again, firefights were short and costly to both sides.

Bravo’s next assignment was to support the incursion into Cambodia to cut trails that fed NVA supplies into South Vietnam. In Cambodia, Bravo found itself undermanned, outnumbered, and without air or artillery support. Nevertheless, in four days, Bravo found and destroyed an NVA  field hospital, more than forty other buildings, tons of rice, and livestock. On the fifth afternoon, NVA soldiers trapped Bravo’s Second and Third Platoons in an open clearing, killing eight men and wounding twenty-eight others.

During this encounter, Spec 4 Leslie H. Sabo, Jr. died in action nearly single-handedly fighting off a large enemy attack. That feat of valor earned him the Medal of Honor, but it was not awarded until 2012. The long delay resulted from the fact that the only account of Sabo’s heroism had been misplaced among his military records.

Eric Poole

The medal set the stage for this book. Author Eric Poole is a newspaper reporter from Ellwood City, Pennsylvania, Sabo’s hometown. Having never served in the military, Poole heavily relied on stories told to him by dozens of Bravo Company members who fought alongside Sabo. He conducted interviews from 2007-14.

The book centers on Austrian-born Sabo and his family, detailing both civilian and military life. The story of Sabo’s family contains twists and surprises thanks to Poole’s excellent investigative skills. And Poole does the same with the men he interviewed.

He weaves episodes from their pre-war civilian lives with what they experienced in Vietnam. Like Sabo, Bravo’s infantrymen were primarily draftees. Poole also recounts the stories of the eighteen Bravo Company members killed in action. He unobtrusively explains the history behind the war in general and gives details of battles, summoning comparisons from earlier conflicts.

To close the circle, the book explains the effort related to rescuing Sabo’s paperwork. It also details the PTSD, divorces, and other emotional turmoil that combat gave to many of Bravo’s soldiers, their wives, and their widows after the war. More than two dozen of Sabo’s comrades attended the presentation of his Medal of Honor by President Obama.

I believe that too many Vietnam War grunts never received the honors they earned. That is why books such as Company of Heroes are important.  They chronicle people and events on the verge of disappearing.

A researcher on Sabo’s case said, “The guy got lost in the shuffle and I didn’t care for that.” He added: “That company got the shit kicked out of it for a while. That seemed not to be right.”

Along with Sabo’s medal, Poole’s book gives full voice to the exploits of Bravo Company, which have been overlooked for far too long.

—Henry Zeybel