US Army Infantryman in Vietnam 1965 – 73 by Kevin L. Lyles and Gordon L. Rottman tells the compelling story of the average United States Army infantryman in Vietnam. Beginning with conscription, enlistment, Basic Training, and Advanced Individual Training at the Armed Forces Induction Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana (the infamous “Tigerland”), it goes on to explore the day-to-day realities of service in Vietnam, from routine tasks at the firebase to search-and-destroy missions, rocket attacks, and firefights in the field. Weaponry, clothing, and equipment are all described and shown in detailed color plates. A vivid picture of the unique culture and experiences of these soldiers emerges – from their vernacular to the prospect of returning to an indifferent, if not hostile, homeland. The contents include: chronology, conscription, training, appearance, equipment, barracks life, on campaign, experience in battle, belief and belonging, aftermath, museums and collections, glossary, and a good bibliography Read by Jimmie A. Kepler.
Viet-Nam 1968-1969: A Battalion Surgeon’s Journal by Byron E. Holley, M.D. is gritty, gutsy, and grueling. It is the true story of a surgeon’s experience on the bloody battlefields of Vietnam. Holley spent the longest years of his young life as an infantry surgeon, living like a swamp rat in the Mekong Delta. In a land torn by generations of bloodshed, he witnessed firsthand the heartbreaking courage of the men who fought and died in a terrible war. Read and reviewed by Jimmie A. Kepler.
Eight Stars to Victory: A History of the Veteran U.S. Ninth Infantry Division by Joseph B. Mittelman was written for and published by the Ninth Division Association in 1948. The book tells of how eight battle stars were won. It covers from the shores of North Africa, in 1942, to the banks of the Elbe, in 1945. Over 50,000 men served in the Ninth Infantry Division during World War II. The division had nearly 25,000 casualties including 4,747 killed in action. The copy of the book I read was found through the Dallas Public Library.
The book is 408 pages and begins by telling the story of the activation of the division and its participation in World War I.
Next the author goes into extensive detail about the division’s reactivation in 1940 at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Stories are shared of living in tents and not having enough hot water.
We learn how in late 1942 the Ninth Infantry Division was split between the Eastern and Western Task Forces and of the division’s role in the invasion of North Africa. Part of the Ninth Infantry Division made a beach landing in French Morocco. The other part of the division landed in Algeria.
The division’s role in the Sicilian campaign is examined next. We learn of their involvement in the fighting in the mountainous heart of the island along the central route toward Messina. After Messina was taken and Sicily fell, the Ninth Infantry Division remained on Sicily. It did not move to the Italian mainland. The division’s next destination was England.
The author then informs of the Ninth Division’s time in England. He tells of the city of London, English pubs, and Constable Lane. He shares about training and planning for the invasion. We learn that although the division had heavy amphibious experience they entered the continent on D-Day + 4 at Utah Beach. The Old Reliables were involved in the campaign on the Cotentin peninsula and the assault on Cherbourg. They fought in the battles in the hedgerows. In early August the division assisted in the final breakout by American forces. They were involved in halting of the Mortain counter-offensive. They entered Belgium on September 2nd. They were involved in battle of the Huertgen Forest.
Next the Ninth Division went on to the Battle of the Bulge. They held the northern shoulder of the front. They captured Roer dams. The Ninth Infantry Division was among the first across the Rhine River and instrumental in the capturing of the Remagen bridgehead. From here we move to the final stages of the war with the battle of the Ruhr pocket and the division plunging eastward to the banks of the Elbe as the German army crumbled.
The book concludes with the Ninth Division’s role as Occupation forces and the deactivation of the division at the beginning of 1947.
The book has numerous maps, photos, and coverage of each campaign that earned the division its eight battle stars. The book falls between a divisional souvenir and a hard hitting historical research. It is what it is. It will disappoint the serious scholar. Reviewed by Jimmie A. Kepler.
Victory Road by Robert C. Baldridge is a great World War II memoir. It is the gripping story of a determined young soldier in an artillery battalion of the famous 9th Infantry Division of the U.S. First Army. The Ninth Division invaded Normandy in June 1944 and fought on through five battle campaigns to victory over Germany in May 1945 at the Elbe River.
Robert C. Baldridge accurately and compellingly describes a soldier’s experiences in Army basic training. He describes what is like being shipped overseas to England in December 1943 on the ocean liner Queen Mary. He gives a clear picture of further training in England. We learn the story of crossing the English Channel to Utah Beach in Normandy on D-Day + 4. We experience fighting the German forces for almost a year while living in the field during all four seasons. This book is available online from Merriam Press. Read and reviewed by Jimmie A. Kepler.
There are a lot of stories about the war. Some have been made into movies. If you are looking for sensationalism, you won’t find it here. If you have an interest in what war was like to a 20-year-old in the Infantry, Nudge Blue comes close to describing that experience.
The combat portion of this story was written directly from notes accumulated during the actual fighting. In the over 50 years since, facts about places and unit action have been verified to assure accuracy. It includes action in several places that are famous—the Hürtgen Forest, the Bulge, the Rhine River crossing at Remagen and contact with the Russians on the Elbe River.
Lavender’s experiences in combat make for fascinating, insightful reading, and an excellent companion to Bob Baldridge’s Victory Road, showing what it was like to be an infantryman in the 9th Division during World War II. Read and reviewed by Jimmie A. Kepler.
This is a short (225 pages) historical fiction novel written in 1952 by Shelby Foote. I read it in five days. The book is greatness. Foote uses a unique approach to tell the story of the American Civil War battle of Shiloh. He employs the use of first-person perspectives of one protagonists per chapter, Union and Confederate, except chapter six where he uses the twelve members of a squad to give a moment-by-moment commentary of the battle. The novel is divided into seven chapters. Each of the chapters is closely concerned with one of the characters again except for chapter six which gives the views of twelve squad members.
The first chapter takes place the day before the battle and is told by Lieutenant Palmer Metcalfe. He is a young aristocrat from New Orleans. We learn a year early he had been a student at the Louisiana State Seminary under William Tecumseh Sherman. He serves as a staff officer under Confederate commander General Albert Sidney Johnston. He watches as the Confederate army marches through the Tennessee countryside in preparation for a surprise attack upon the Union troops at Pittsburg Landing where their “horses will drink from the Tennessee River tomorrow”. His self-satisfaction is evident as he remembers the complicated attack plan he helped draft. He thinks back on the struggles Johnston went through in bringing his army together for this anticipated decisive blow. The Confederate troops are inexperienced and noisy, and some of Johnston’s generals believe the element of surprise has been lost. Johnston says they will fight despite the conditions.
Chapter Two is the story of Captain Walter Fountain, an Ohio regimental adjutant in the Union Army encamped at Pittsburg Landing. He is the Officer on Duty (OD) though he feels he should not have be an OD as he is the adjutant. He spends night writing a letter to his wife. Through his thoughts, we learn about the Union army’s deliberate advance through Tennessee under General Ulysses Grant. Fountain is homesick yet confident that the war will be over soon. As he writes his letter, he notices the birds and animals becoming noisier and more agitated. Suddenly the Confederate soldiers attack the Union troops. The chapter ends abruptly. I was left with the assumption that Fountain is killed in the initial attack.
Chapter Three comes from the viewpoint of Private Luther Dade. He is scared but determined to do his duty. When the fight does come, Dade is disturbed when he realizes the dead bodies of old friends mean no more to him than those of stranger or Yankees. He stresses of combat are too much for him. He does well in combat. He sustains a minor arm wound and is sent to wait for a doctor. Hours pass. He gets no medical attention. Dade’s arm begins to show signs of infection. He moves toward the sound of firing in search of a doctor. He finds himself in a clearing near Shiloh Church. At the church is Johnston’s staff, gathered around their wounded and dying commander. Dade is captivated by the drama of the scene. He begins to pass out from his wound as the chapter ends.
Chapter Four is narrated by Private Otto Flickner, a Minnesota artilleryman. It is now the first night of the battle. Flickner is trembling at the riverbank with hundreds of other deserters. He rationalizes his actions by quoting what a sergeant of his had said, “I’m not scared, I’m just what they call demoralized.” His search for justification leads him to remember the day’s events: the devastating surprise attack, one failed attempt after another to stand and fight, the endless concussions of incoming enemy artillery fire, and finally his running away because “so much is enough but a little bit more is too much.” He and the other deserters are taunted at and called cowards by some reinforcements that pass by. The taunting forces Flickner to realize that a coward is exactly what he has been. He leaves the riverbank roving through the woods searching for his unit. Somehow he comes upon them getting ready for one last stand. His sergeant who witnessed his simply walking away greets him as if nothing had happened. He returns to his old gun.
Chapter Five concerns Sergeant Jefferson Polly, a Texas cavalryman serving under Nathan Bedford Forrest. A former seminary student, sailor, and soldier of fortune, Polly joined the army because “I wasn’t any better at being a bad man than I was a good one.” His mature and contemptuous point of view tells him that the Confederate army, even though successful on day one, is fighting a inadequately planned and shoddily coordinated battle. That night, Forrest leads Polly and his squad on a reconnaissance mission to Pittsburg Landing. While there they see thousands of Union reinforcements disembarking from steamboats. Forrest and Polly try to alert the confederate generals without success. With the coming of the next day he resigns himself to a day of defeat beside Colonel Forrest.
Chapter Six focuses on an Indiana squad. It is under the command of General Lew Wallace. We hear from all twelve members in the squad. They tell of their efforts to reach the battlefield. We learn of the wrong turn that delayed them for a day. We see the contempt that was poured on them by other troops for their slowness. When the battle’s second day begins, the Indianans and the rest of Wallace’s division are at the forefront of the resurgent Union attack. At the end of the fight, two of the Indianans are dead. The ten survivors wonder why they lived and the others died.
Chapter Seven returns to Lieutenant Metcalfe as he staggers down the road to Corinth. We see him as one of the beaten Confederate army. He remembers the death of General Johnston. He recalls how events spun out of control in the aftermath of the general’s death. He reflects on how the disorganized and leaderless Confederate army fell victim to a surprise Yankee attack the next day, how Johnston’s old-fashioned gallantry had been no match for the reality they had encountered. In the disorder of the retreat he falls in with Forrest and Polly. He participates in their valiant rearguard action at Fallen Timbers. Metcalfe decides to join Forrest’s unit; even as an enlisted man if necessary. His viewpoint changes to believing that any hope the Confederacy has lies with men like Forrest rather than men like Johnston. The book ends with Metcalfe tending to a delirious amputee in a wagon. I assume it is Luther Dade.
Read and reviewed by Jimmie A. Kepler.
The Best and the Brightest (1972) by David Halberstam is an account of the origins of the Vietnam War. The book provides great detail on how the decisions were made in the John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson administrations that led to the war. The book focuses on the period from 1960 to 1965. It also covers earlier and later years up to the publication year of the book.
I am a fan of the late David Halberstam. I had the opportunity to hear him speak at the Tate Lecture Series held by Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas five years ago. I also had the pleasure of meeting him at a meet and greet held in concert with that event.
I first read this book in late 1972. I reread the book after hearing Halberstam speak at SMU.
When I reread The Best and the Brightest I found it as fresh as when I read it back in late 1972. Halberstam does an excellent job of showing how bad decisions, deceitfulness, a reluctance to face facts and complete rudimentary stupidity got America into a war that was lost from the start. The book makes known how so many smart, highly successful people, the best and the brightest of the American foreign policy and military were so unbelievably mistaken for so very long.
Halberstam examines diverse factors that contribute to America’s involvement. We learn that the Democratic Party was still haunted by claims that it had ‘lost China’ to Communists. They did not want to be said to have lost Vietnam also. During the McCarthy era the government lost or got rid of experts in Vietnam and surrounding Far-East countries. We learn that early studies called for close to a million US troops in order to fully defeat the Viet Cong. It would be impossible to persuade congress or the US public to deploy that many soldiers. We discover the fear that declarations of war, and excessive shows of force, including bombing too close to China or too many US troops might have triggered the entry of Chinese ground forces into the war, and greater Soviet involvement (and perhaps repair the growing Sino-Soviet rift).
Halberstam points out some war games showed that a slow escalation by the United States could be evenly matched by North Vietnam. He shares that every year 200,000 North Vietnamese came of drafting age. They could possibly be sent down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to replace any losses against the US. In essence the US would be fighting the North Vietnamese birthrate. Interestingly he makes us aware that both administrations believed any show of force by the US in the form of bombing or ground forces would signal the US interest in defending South Vietnam. This would therefore cause the US greater shame if they were to withdraw.
We see Lyndon Johnson’s concern and belief that too much attention given to the war effort would jeopardize his Great Society domestic programs. These programs were his personal priority. Additionally, the effects of strategic bombing policy were examined. Here we see the wrong belief that North Vietnam valued its industrial base so much it would not risk its annihilation by US air power. There was the false belief that the North Vietnamese would negotiate peace after experiencing some limited bombing, but others reflected back that even in World War II strategic bombing united the victim population against the attacker and did little to encumber manufacturing output.
Halberstam also mentions the simplistic Domino Theory rationales. Interestingly we learn the thought that after placing a few thousand Americans in harm’s way, it became politically easier to send hundreds of thousands to Vietnam with the promise that with sufficient numbers they could defend themselves, and that to abandon Vietnam now would mean the earlier investment in money and lives would be thrown away.
The book shows that the gradual escalation chosen allowed the LBJ Administration at the outset to avoid negative publicity and criticism from Congress. Gradual escalation also avoided a direct war against the Chinese, but at the same time removed the possibility of either victory or withdrawal. Read and reviewed by Jimmie A. Kepler.