Seed of Endurance by Rudy Cooper and Rosemary Wilkinson

Sgt. Maj. Rudy Cooper earned three Combat Infantryman Badges—in the Second World War, Korea, and Vietnam—along with many wounds. None of his wounds was as traumatic as the damage he suffered when his main and reserve parachutes failed to deploy during a nine-hundred-foot jump. That happened just twelve days before his scheduled retirement.

Cooper survived that fall. With Rosemary Wilkinson, he writes about his thirty years in the Army in Seed of Endurance: An Autobiography of SGM Rudy Cooper’s Military and Personal Life (Old Mountain Press, 285 pp., $20.00, paper).

I found the last third of Cooper’s book to be its most interesting. That’s where Cooper describes his almost continuous Southeast Asia service between 1965 and 1972. No regular U.S. combat units were in country when he reached Vietnam with the Special Forces in 1965. Americans were advisors to CIDG Strikers at Don Phuc, smack up against the Cambodian border, and on the Plain of Reeds, where Cooper worked.

The CIDGs’ task was to interdict Viet Cong forces. Cooper chose to accompany mainly night forays into the field rather than administrate. He operated from air boats, helicopters, and an O-1 Bird Dog. When necessary, he exceeded his advisory role to protect his own life or the lives of men lacking combat savvy. The missions found and destroyed a big VC aid station, a large-scale print shop for producing propaganda, and a mine and booby trap factory.

Rudy Cooper spent 1967 in Thailand teaching counterinsurgency tactics to Thai soldiers. In 1969, he returned to Vietnam as part of MACV SOG, which conducted highly classified SF operations in Cambodia. In 1971, Cooper was sent to Lop Buri, Thailand, on a special assignment that paralleled clandestine CIA activities in Laos. For that clandestine job, personnel had no rank and wore civilian clothes.

All of which is not to say that Cooper had it easy in his previous two wars. For him, Vietnam produced many flashbacks to his experiences in Europe and Korea.

The Second World War actions of Cooper and his life-long friend Clarence Ruff reminded me of the plight of Bill Mauldin’s Willie and Joe. With the barest necessities and envious of their officers, Cooper and Ruff defeated better-armed German soldiers. With Ruff driving and Cooper manning a 37-mm gun and .50-caliber machine gun in an M-8 armored car, they shot everything in their path.

From 1943-45 as members of the 805th “Hellcats” Tank Destroyer Battalion, Cooper and Ruff fought across North Africa and then made an epic combat journey up the Italian peninsula: Anzio, Casino, Rome, the Po Valley. All the while, they maintained constant surveillance for wine and women, usually finding their share of both.

Disenchanted with post-war civilian life, Cooper enlisted in the Regular Army in 1947, and became a Counterintelligence Agent in Vienna. When the Korean War began, combat proved irresistible. In 1951, he took a short discharge and reenlisted for assignment with the infantry in Korea.

Cooper’s episodes about Korea are spellbinding. His writing captures the absolute nightmare of the impersonal dispersion of death. His Infantryman is a hopeless victim of violence, as well as a god emerging from virtually limitless destruction. Cooper’s descriptions of battle overwhelm the imagination. He damns the political machinations surrounding peace talks and labels them “a cruel addition to the war,” providing momentary hope that repeatedly morphed into greater violence.

In the years between the Korean and Vietnam wars, Cooper often served as an administrator, a role he detested. Reflecting on the monotony of peacetime, he recalls the antics of bored SF troops, including pranks such as disrupting a retreat ceremony with booby-trapped trip wires and smoke grenades.

Rudy Cooper provides minimal details about his personal life. Rosemary Wilkinson was a devoted friend and was by his side for twenty years and helped him write this book. Cooper had two sons and two daughters. At early ages, the sons died in accidents.

Sgt. Maj. Rudy Cooper died in 2008, two years after he finished writing Seed of Endurance.

—Henry Zeybel

Thirteen Soldiers by John McCain and Mark Salter

War is its own reward for people who kill the enemy (the more, the better) and survive whole. At the same time, war is horrid, but can bring out the best qualities in people, according to former Navy aviator, U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, and Mark Salter, who served on McCain’s staff for many years and has co-written several other books with him.

In their new book, Thirteen Soldiers: A Personal History of Americans at War (Simon & Schuster, 384 pp., $28.00), the authors identify a single soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine from each of America’s thirteen major wars to eulogize for courage under fire. The eleven men and two women, they write, sacrificed for “something greater than self.” In essence, the book offers short biographies told with admiration, but without embellishment.

I first turned to the chapter on Vietnam—my war. It relates the exploits of  F-105 Wild Weasel pilot, prisoner of war, and Medal of Honor recipient Leo Thorsness. His exploits offer classic examples of courage, disregard for personal safety, and suffering.

The chapter follows the book’s basic format: setting the world stage, recalling the principal person’s pre-war life, and then describing that person’s performance of duty.

Overall, the book briefly reviews American military history from the Revolution of 1776 to today’s conflict in Afghanistan. It describes often-ignored engagements, such as the Spanish-American and Philippine Wars.

John McCain during the Vietnam War

The tale of the latter is highly enlightening: intended to depict the actions of Marine officer Littleton Waller “Tony” Tazewell Waller as one of the few compassionate leaders in the war, it portrays other American leaders and soldiers as racist murderers of Filipinos. The chapter offers a strong lesson in the misapplication of power.

In contrast, the World War II chapter focuses on Guy Louis Gabaldon, who wanted to save, rather than kill, his Japanese enemies. A Hispanic youth from East L.A., Gabaldon grew up around Nisei, first generation Japanese Americans, who taught him their language.

During the battle for Saipan, Gabaldon captured more than fifteen hundred Japanese, but also was forced to kill thirty-three who refused to surrender. While the fighting raged at night, he ventured behind enemy lines and talked Japanese soldiers into surrendering. After the island was secure, he convinced Japanese soldiers hidden in caves to become his prisoners rather than commit suicide. He was eighteen years old at the time. A Navy Cross recipient, Gabaldon forever blamed his failure to receive a Medal of Honor on racism.

The book’s other subjects comprise a diverse group. Two women are the most contemporary: Mary Rhoads from the Persian Gulf War, and medic Monica Lin Brown from Afghanistan. Two are black: Charles Black, a seaman and gunner in the War of 1812, and Edward Baker, a Buffalo Soldier cavalryman who received the Medal of Honor for his actions during the 1898 Spanish-American War.

The others range from familiar Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in the Civil War to little-known Elton “Lucky” Mackin, who fought in every Marine Corps battle in World War I.

—Henry Zeybel