To Hear Silence by Ronald W. Hoffman

In To Hear Silence (CreateSpace, 412 pp., $16.99 paper; $9.99, Kindle), Ronald W. Hoffman says, “If you were to investigate Charlie Battery 1/13, you would find this unit at the Battle of Khe Sanh in 1968. Before that—and before this book—little to nothing has been published about this unit.” His subtitle clearly explains his book’s purpose: Charlie Battery, 1st Battalion 13th Marines, The First 15 Months (July 1, 1966-October 5, 1967): The True Vietnam Experience in Support of the 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines.

Along with teaching a history lesson, Hoffman offers a look at his Vietnam War experience with Charlie Battery 1/13. He smoothly ties together his diary entries, declassified Marine Corps documents, memories of fellow Marines, and letters he sent home to his mother.

A 1966 draftee, Hoffman opted to serve as a Marine. Two years earlier, poor eyesight had prevented him from enlisting in the Corps. He trained as a radio operator on a Forward Observer Team.

Along with 3/26, Charlie Battery traveled from San Diego to Vietnam aboard the USS Lenawee on her final deployment. With layovers at Hawaii, Okinawa, and the Philippines, the voyage took from September 4 to December 11, time that included combat training exercises. Hoffman’s account of the unit riding out a typhoon in the disintegrating twenty-two-year-old ship could make a book by itself.

Dong Ha was the unit’s first stop in Vietnam. Hoffman’s description of the base exactly matched my recollection of the place: an absolute shit hole. Shortly after arriving, 3/26 took part in Operation Chinook and spent seventy-nine consecutive days in the field.

Following Operations Chinook I and II, Charlie Battery accompanied 3/26 to Phu Bai to Leatherneck Square on the south edge of the DMZ, and finally into Khe Sanh—another part of the book that could stand alone. The mission was the same everywhere: find and destroy the enemy.

Hoffman recites Marine activities as day-by-day events of entire units. For example, he reports that “Kilo Company was hit with sniper fire from across the river” and “India detected a column of some three hundred VC troops that they engaged with mortar fire.” Generally, he identifies individual Marines only when they are killed.

The companies of 3/26 used Charlie’s 105-mm howitzers against practically everything they encountered. They even called for rounds on a single enemy soldier who loitered beyond rifle range. More often than not, the difficulty of verifying results created frustration for everyone because Gen. William Westmoreland demanded body counts. Time after time, Charlie Battery unloaded dozens of rounds on target areas with outstanding coverage, and then the men in the field found traces of blood but no bodies.

“Probable” kills outnumbered verified kills. So, digging up enemy bodies to determine the cause of death became a common practice to increase the number of confirmed kills. After one encounter, American forces hunted well into the night with artillery illumination to find dead enemy soldiers and try to double a body count.

Practically every day, Marines triggered booby traps. At one point, because of more casualties to the Marines than to the enemy, daytime missions were said to end; instead, companies were assigned sectors and expected to wait in ambush. Nobody followed the new plan and the tactics remained unchanged.

At the time, Hoffman wrote: “This isn’t at all what any of us thought war would be like.”

Meanwhile, the NVA largely switched from conventional warfare to guerrilla tactics. In small groups they hit and ran. When they had the numbers, though, the NVA employed human wave attacks against isolated American units.

Hoffman did plenty of homework. His meshing of different sources provides reams of facts to help readers reach their own conclusions about the effectiveness of American efforts during the early stages of the Vietnam War. Some might view Hoffman’s research as a study in frustration.

The book contains photographs, maps, and five appendices: The Vietnam War by the Numbers (a summation of all Vietnam casualties); September 1966 Convoy Ships; a Roster of Charlie Battery 1/13; Original 3/26 Members Killed in Action; Replacement 3/26 Members Killed in Action; and Marine Corps Acronyms and Definitions.

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

 

The Court-Martial of Corporal Nutting by John R. Nutting

John R. Nutting wrote The Court Martial of Corporal Nutting: A Memoir of the Vietnam War (Skyhorse, 194 pp., $24.95, hardcover; $13.99, Kindle) with one purpose in mind: to set the record straight about his life as a Marine infantryman.

Nutting’s book is an outstanding account of combat as fought by the Marine Corps north of Dong Ha during 1966-67. Nutting joined the Marines straight out of a small-town Idaho high school because his family had a military heritage extending back to the American Revolution.

Leaving home for the first time, Nutting experienced a long list of “firsts,” including his first airplane ride and his first sauna/massage. His youthful wonderment and delight pervaded every new experience. His heart was pure.

At the same time, en route to Vietnam, he recognized that every new experience might also be his last.This part of his book easily could have been titled “Prelude to Disillusionment.”

Serving in the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Division in Vietnam, he saw people die in ways that easily could have shattered many minds. Several of the casualties were his closest friends. Nutting himself suffered shrapnel wounds and other physical injuries, twice spending time on hospital ships. Yet he endured.

He introduced me to the term “battlefield gratitude,” which he explains as “more than once having the unsettling feeling of watching a medevac disappear over the tree line, sorry for the guys in the bags and feeling so grateful that it wasn’t me.”

These kinds of mind-numbing events had to be filtered: “I could feel only so much, only allow in so much,” he writes.

Best of all, Nutting remembered his fellow Marines by name and tells extraordinary stories about them. His accounts too often end with a pronouncement of how and when a Marine was killed.

As a coping tool while in Vietnam, Nutting occasionally smoked marijuana with close friends hidden in a bunker between missions,and on R&R. He never used drugs in the field. Back in California, he was assigned to laboriously produce his unit’s diary. But on weekends he.succumbed to the vibrancy of the counterculture, “sliding into oblivion” with too much Scientology, wine, and reefer.

Nutting’s brief association with two Marines on the verge of dishonorable discharges resulted in his court-martial for marijuana possession. The “green vegetable residue” found in Nutting’s possession was “so miniscule it could not be weighed,” according to two special agents who testified for the prosecution.

All of this happened when commanders saw marijuana as the ultimate evil. Nutting waited six months through two nerve-racking delays before a board found him not guilty of all charges. Two weeks later his enlistment ended and he received an honorable discharge.

Letters to his parents supplement Nutting’s narrative. To them, he wrote factual accounts of military shortcomings. Subsequently, his influential father used the letters to convince legislators to bring about changes such as rushing night-vision sniper scopes to Marine units.

Nutting’s letters also complained that search-and-destroy missions added up to little more than “the wasting of lives on both sides fighting to take the same areas time after time.” He challenged Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara’s strategy by writing, “I would rather die storming Hanoi than watch my buddies be picked off one by one.” That letter stirred a state representative to apologize for the McNamara’s “sheer folly.”

John Nutting writes prose that flows and he can turn a phrase, both dramatically and humorously. After seventeen days without a bath, for example, he describes himself as smelling “like an old wino’s socks.” He does not spend time explaining the obvious: When Nutting uses military vernacular, he footnotes its meaning in a few words and continues the story.

If you liked Dominick Yezzo’s A G.I.’s Vietnam Diary, you will definitely enjoy Nutting’s book. Nutting, like Yezzo, projects a youthful exuberance tempered by the realities of combat. And—as Yezzo does—he shares details of his fascination with women.

—Henry Zeybel

Stone Pony by Stephen Paul Campos

Stephen Paul Campos enlisted in the U. S. Army in 1968 to avoid being drafted. He thought that if he enlisted, he would not be sent to fight in Vietnam. This myth was encouraged by his recruiter, no doubt.

As it turned out, Compos not only served in Vietnam with the 199th Light Infantry Brigade from 1968-69, but he put in another year of service when he returned to the United States. Campos wrote his novel, Stone Pony: Forgiven but Not Forgotten (Tate Publishing, 384 pp., $25.99, paper), he says, “to set the record straight.”

Several aspects set this memoir apart from other combat infantry rifleman books. The two main differences are the horrific accounts of so-called friendly fire incidents, and the frequent mention of God. More than once, Campos refers to Vietnam as “this land that God even seemed to hate.” He also writes that the first friendly fire incident “shakes him to his core.”  That’s the first of several uses of that phrase.

Compos bitterly complains about women back in America who “burned their bras trying not to conform.” I searched for one verified incident of bra burning in America at the time, and found none. I did find plenty of draft card burning and some flag burning.

Campos says draft card burners “should have been sent to Nam, not us.” That strikes me as strange because Campos also writes, “we felt proud to be there to defend the world from communism and to bring peace to Vietnam.” So, in essence, he’s saying that defending and bringing peace should be a punishment. And would he really have wanted to be fighting next to a man who had been sent to Vietnam as a punishment for burning a draft card?

Campos was glad to leave Vietnam behind. He refers to the place as a “hellhole of a country filled with death, despair and sorrow.” He also calls that land “this living hell hole.” He feels that “our military was doing a stellar job in the field. We had won every battle we fought in Nam.”

Campos believed that when he returned to America there would be a “great celebration for us.” That did not happen. “Joy turned into a nightmare,” he writes, when he hears protesters chanting, “baby killer, murderer, loser.”  That’s when he says his war just started because he’d expected people to be screaming, “Welcome home. You won the war. We’re proud of you.”  He was in shock. “It was a political war,” he writes. “We were not allowed to win.”

Stephen Paul Campos

We encounter John Wayne more than once, and we run into Ozzie and Harriet. Not David or Ricky, though. We “get out of Dodge” and we get a list with Audie Murphy, John Wayne, and James Stewart as American heroes who always win and end up with the girl. We hear about Black VD, Dear John’s, Tarzan and Jane, and the Bob Hope Show, which Campos attended but freaked out when he saw it was being filmed.

“I was hoping none of my friends or family would see me on television,” he writes. “They might think I was enjoying myself over here and not really fighting a war.”

Campos almost died of malaria because he was raised to mistrust doctors, but he pulled through. Perhaps the high fever muddled his memories a bit, as he refers to John Wayne as being in To Hell and Back.  That film starred Audie Murphy; Wayne was not involved.

Stone Pony is one of the more graphic and honest of the infantry memoirs, especially where the recounting of multiple friendly fire incidents is concerned.  If that is what you are looking for, I recommend this book.

—David Willson

 

 

The Legacy by Daniel B. Durbin

In The Legacy (CreateSpace, 254 pp., $49.95, paper) Daniel B. Durbin presents us with a comprehensive journey from his Sunfish, Kentucky, home to his role as Platoon Leader in I Corps in Vietnam in 1969. My own U.S. Army basic and advanced training would have been more meaningful and tolerable had I been able to read this book prior to my enlistment. This interesting memoir could be cataloged at least three ways: as a personal journal, a  Vietnam War history, or a self-help guidebook for a U.S. Army recruit.

So much information is included from the Internet and from Durbin’s on-site accounts and letters home that this volume would have benefited from more-detailed chapter headings and a complete index with a bibliography. Nevertheless, I highly recommend the book to veterans and civilians. The fact that everyone’s war experience is his own is borne out well in this work.

This serious study even has some humorous moments. “Though it was early June when I arrived at Fort Benning, the temperature was well into the nineties with oppressive humidity,” Durbin writes. “You only had to smile to sweat.”

A few months later Platoon Leader Durbin recalled that “the constant sweat and trudging through the jungle and rice paddies had worked its magic on my 171 pound arrival weight ‘in-country.’ I was now down to 150 again. More time in the field saw my weight fall away to 112 pounds.”

Durbin’s letters home are significant for what is left unsaid as much as for what is said. In his book Durbin fills in what was left out of his letters home. That includes his first close-up combat and calling in air strikes by radio to jet fighters and helicopters and to the battleship New Jersey.

On one occasion Durbin saved his own platoon by countermanding an officer’s call for artillery support that would have brought the ordnance on top of his soldiers and himself. Recalling the air support that saved many lives, he thanks the air crews “for a job well done. We may not have survived Vietnam without you.”

Included in this volume are the author’s observations on the Vietnam War. “Freedom is not free, it is priceless,” he writes. “The cost is measured in the number of lives lost, lives changed of the soldiers sent to defend our freedom. War veterans paid that price. A debt of gratitude is owed to them by every American that enjoys the freedom they preserved. Yes, even Vietnam veterans fought to preserve America’s freedom.”

Daniel Durbin also includes a “Final Letters” section for his son and grandchildren.

—Curt Nelson

Uniforms by David G. Duchesneau

“This book speaks from the heart and mind of everyone who has ever had the experience of attending a Catholic school with nuns, all those who were ever so fortunate to be a member of a drum and bugle corps, and all those combat veterans who served in Vietnam and experienced the rigors and sorrows of that war,” David Duchesneau writes in the Introduction to Uniforms (Xlibris, 150 pp., $22.70, hardcover; $19.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle).

As the title suggests, uniforms were the key to Duchesneau’s early life. He dressed in the slacks, white shirt, and blue blazer of Catholic schools and a bugler’s glittering attire before graduating to the uniform of the United States Marine Corps.

Duchesneau is graphic. He delivers his memoir in the vernacular of an eighteen-year-old Boston wise guy. His fuck-all attitude is what kept me reading.

His blow-by-blow description of a 1968 Marine boot camp should have been titled The Theory and Practice of Hell. (I know—that title has already been used.) Two sentences perfectly summarize the rigor of the training: “We had three marines who committed suicide in the latrine. Two hung themselves, and one boot cut his wrist and bled to death.” At that time, boot camp had been reduced from thirteen to nine weeks to shorten the pipeline between induction and Vietnam.

Hard times were nothing new for Duchesneau. Physically abused and bullied by his father, Catholic nuns, and his grandmother, he survived childhood by learning to go his own way. Duchesneau found freedom after his father forced him to join a drum and bugle corps at age eight. As a teenager, he became the bugle soloist in a corps invited to perform across the Eastern United States and Canada. He also worked part-time after school and became night foreman in a shoe factory.

David G. Duchesneau

His Marine Corps life included AIT before going to Vietnam, where he served from March 1969 to August 1970. Duchesneau says that this book is his first “recollection of the Vietnam War as [he] experienced it as a marine infantryman, a grunt. The dates and locations may be out of sequence, but the events are factual and actually occurred.”

He spent March to mid-September 1969 in combat, operating out of Vandergrift Firebase north of Con Thien. His company conducted operations mainly along and into the DMZ. The enemy was primarily NVA, the best fighters from the North.

Duchesneau’s squad was mostly guys drafted into the Marine Corps who couldn’t believe that he had enlisted. With them, he participated in walking point as an FNG; search-and-destroy missions; day patrols; night patrols; ambushes; manning listening posts; getting in skirmishes; destroying villages; blowing up bunker complexes; surviving heat, bugs, and snakes; humping and sleeping amid monsoons and mud; and enjoying a three-day R&R at China Beach.

On one mission, he and his buddies were issued their own body bags. “Now that was a real morale booster,” he writes. The large number of American deaths caused by friendly fire or by accidental shootings and detonations upset him as much as anything else.

Reward for his combat came mainly from a sergeant major who admired Duchesneau’s “sweet-sounding sound of those twenty-four notes of taps.” The book ends with Duchesneau turning down an opportunity to become a member of The Commandant’s Own Drum and Bugle Corps in Washington, D.C. Instead, he returned to civilian life.

Uniforms contains about thirty pages of photographs without captions. The pictures of Duchesneau speak for themselves, but readers might benefit from captions for the many pictures of otherwise unidentifiable landscapes.

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

 

Killing for Peace by Garry Farrington

Garry Farrington was a college dropout draftee who went through OCS. Even though he graduated first in his class in Armor School, when Farrington arrived in Vietnam in September 1968, he was assigned an infantry unit, the First Cavalry Division. He had an eventful Vietnam War tour, receiving eleven medals, including the Silver Star, Bronze Star with V, Purple Heart, and the Cross of Gallantry.

In  his memoir, Killing for Peace: Living, Fighting and Dying in Vietnam (Amazon Digital Services, 171 pp., $4.99, Kindle), Farrington says of those medals: “I was just at the wrong place at the wrong time.”

This Army officer memoir is anything but run-of-the-mill. Farrington’s opinions about the Vietnam War count for a lot for me, as he was involved in much combat. He describes that combat with a rare flare for language, and he does not pull any punches. War to him is where “old men send young men off to die in a foreign country because the country needs to be reshaped to match the old men’s dreams of what the world should be.”

Farrington also says that “the war was a crock and that some of them would die for nothing while old men argued about ‘Peace with Honor.’”

I’ve never read a better concise description of infantry life: “Hump the bush all day, dig in at night.” In one month in Vietnam, Farrington began to feel like an infantry officer. First, he and his men built LZ Mustang, occupied it, and then destroyed it, and moved away and built another, LZ Tracy.

“My original premise that we were in Vietnam to help a valiant population fight off the advances of sinister communism had been shelved long ago,” Farrington says. “The Vietnamese people wouldn’t recognize ‘democracy’ if it bit them in the ass.”  He concludes that “the whole reason for us to be out there in the shit was to keep each other alive to go home.” Garry Farrington is the officer I would have wanted if I had been unlucky enough to be in the infantry.

Farrington points out that about one in twelve of us who served in Vietnam were actually “in the shit,” so that REMFs surmised that anyone who had not “weaseled out of it” must be stupid. I admit that I (a former REMF) had that thought at the time. I no longer think that way.

The author mentions Audie Murphy, Gary Cooper, and John Wayne. Ham and lima beans make an appearance. “That shit made me gag,” Farrington says, but he ate it because he had no option. ARVN troops are worthless and not to be trusted. Peace symbols are common and so is marijuana smoking.

Blacks felt they were disproportionately represented in the fighting, and the author agrees. He and his fellow infantrymen got sprayed by Agent Orange and they tried to wash it off, knowing it couldn’t be good for them. They had transistor radios and listened to reports of the Paris Peace Talks.  And they kept on fighting.

I loved reading this book, and was disappointed when it ended. I give it high marks for language and story-telling skills, and for honesty on every page.

If you are hungry for a book about Army infantry action in Vietnam, this is the one for you.

The author’s website is http://garryfarrington.com

—David Willson