Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
2013-076
25 September 2013
Review by Kyle Longley, Arizona State University
The Boys of '67: Charlie Company's War in Vietnam
By Andrew Wiest
Long Island City, NY: Osprey Publishing, 2012. Pp. 376. ISBN 978–1–78096–202–3.
Descriptors: Volume 2013, 20th Century, Vietnam Print Version

In The Boys of '67, historian Andrew Wiest (Univ. of Southern Mississippi) captures the memorable stories of some of the draftees who fought in Vietnam in Charlie Company, 4th Battalion, 47th Infantry, 9th Division of the US Army. These young men, randomly thrown together by the Selective Service system, served in the Mekong Delta during the heavy fighting of 1967. Theirs is a tale of comrades in arms, desperately trying in harsh conditions to defeat a determined enemy who extracted a terrible toll. Scores of them died, and those who returned home bore physical and psychological wounds that never fully healed. Their stories are typical of a generation of men who fought in Vietnam.

In the summer of 2000, Wiest visited the site of the Battle of Can Giouc with a group of students and veterans. That experience inspired the present book. Later, after contacting a Veterans Administration hospital to line up speakers for a course he was teaching on the war in Southeast Asia, Wiest realized that "the more I heard, the more I knew that the stories were truly special, that Charlie Company occupied a unique position in the Vietnam War. There was something there that needed to be told" (11). He set himself the Herculean task of gathering materials scattered across the country, including oral histories and letters by Charlie Company veterans.

Wiest opens with a discussion of the composition of Charlie Company. From the South, Midwest, and West Coast, the new draftees headed to basic training at Fort Riley, Kansas. Most were white; 15 percent were African American, 13 percent Latino, and a few Native American. Most had graduated from high school and 46 percent had attended college, though few had earned degrees (graduate school deferments still limited the pool).

The men of Charlie Company were trained as mobile infantrymen for a particular mission in the Mekong Delta. Atypically, their basic training battalion included commissioned and noncommissioned officers with whom they would serve in Vietnam. They were an "eclectic leadership group, some of them hard-bitten veterans, others still wet behind the ears" (52). Basic training included the customary verbal assaults by NCOs, strenuous physical exercises, the study of tactics, and weapons drill. More unusual in Charlie Company was the close bond between the men and their officers.

The strength of the book is Wiest's treatment of the individual lives of the men, the environment they found themselves thrust into, and the operations they had to carry out. Charlie Company arrived in Vietnam in January 1967, a time of vigorous offensives by US troops. The Company began operations in the Rung Sat swamp of the Mekong Delta, amid mud, rain, sweltering heat, and rats, snakes, and mosquitoes. After sleeping on inflated mattresses because of the saturated ground, they spent their days slogging through that hostile environment in search of an elusive enemy. Eventually, they were billeted on US Navy ships with amenities like warm beds and hot meals, although when they returned from a mission, the ships' crews used fire hoses to clean them before they boarded. After resting, they returned on small boats for amphibious assaults against enemy strongholds and long missions searching for the Viet Cong (VC) in a maze of rivers and jungle pathways. It was a long, brutal job for men less than a year removed from high school, working as mechanics, or surfing on California beaches.

The difficult combat duty took its toll. Some men drowned crossing swollen rivers, while snipers' bullets and land mines claimed others. And, too, the VC sometimes stood their ground and inflicted heavy casualties in hard-fought battles. Wiest excels in describing the horrors of combat and the men's sense of loss, highlighting several major confrontations that seared themselves into the minds of the young soldiers. For example, chapter 5, "The Day Everything Changed," recounts in detail the fierce battle of 19 June 1967, when Charlie Company stumbled onto a well positioned bunker system. Fire from Chinese 50-caliber machine guns ripped through the Americans as their rubber boats rounded a bend in a small river. Other GIs were stranded in a rice paddy, taking intense small arms fire from fortified bunkers. Throughout the day, other units tried to relieve their trapped comrades: artillery and aerial bombardments rained down on the stubborn enemy, but the fighting went on for hours. Only a heroic charge from river barges into the enemy fortifications saved the day.

Although few Americans have heard of this battle at the fork of Nui Creek and Ben Vai Creek (often called the Battle of Can Giouc or Ap Bac II), its aftermath "was like a scene from a nightmare. Each body had its story to tell. Some lay where they had been shot, killed instantly. Others were at the end of pitiful trails through the mud, where the wounded had tried to crawl to safety before being hit again or bleeding to death" (195). The Army's official reports claimed a victory against the VC forces, who had sustained heavy casualties, and duly recorded American losses of 38 killed in action (KIA) and 101 wounded in action (WIA). The toll for Charlie Company was 10 KIA and 40 WIA. Those who survived, of course, carried the scars of having seen the death of friends, whose families back home received the horrible news from Army officers at their doors. Young wives had lost their husbands and some of their children never met their fathers. By the time the original members of Charlie Company finished their year-long tours, the unit had lost 25 KIA and 105 WIA—an extremely high casualty rate.

Most Charlie Company veterans returned home by January 1968, usually by plane, in contrast to their journey over aboard the USS John Pope. They found themselves thinking about the "inexorable crush of war, the sudden cataclysms of mass death, the broken bodies and shattered lives of comrades ….. [T]he carefree life of their youth was extinguished in a transition jarring in its suddenness. The draftees had become warriors in all of their time-honored guises—some became killers, other survivors. Some had their young souls stilled, while others turned to God" (14).

Wiest also describes the lives of the men after Vietnam. Some became successful businessmen, others found themselves homeless and battling substance abuse.

There was no dominant veteran narrative of the war. Some of the members of Charlie Company locked the war away in the dusty corners of their attics and got back to the business of living, working, and raising families. The war haunted others for the remainder of their days, dogging their every step with bloody memories and nights of unimaginable terror. Some never overcame their fear and remain consumed by a long-ago war, while others found solace and redemption in religion. Some members of Charlie Company refused to allow grievous wounds to get the best of them and learned to walk on false legs or to live life undaunted though they would never walk again…. The only common thread that ties together the varied postwar experiences of the boys of Charlie Company is Vietnam. (16)

These words might well characterize a generation of American soldiers who fought on the nebulous front lines in Southeast Asia.

This wonderful, complex book does have one drawback: it tries to juggle too many individual narratives, making it hard for readers to keep straight where each man was from, who his friends were, whether he was married, and what happened to him. A useful biographical list of "The Men of Charlie Company" (346–58) only partly alleviates this problem. Wiest might better have adopted a novelistic narrative technique, developing certain central characters more fully than secondary ones.

Andrew Wiest's book has done for the men of Charlie Company in the Mekong Delta what Stephen Ambrose's popular Band of Brothers did for Second World War soldiers. This most welcome account of the experiences of American men at war in Vietnam will fascinate and inform casual readers and students as well as scholars of the war.

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