Youth In Asia: A Vietnam War Novel
This the 50th anniversary of the start of America’s involvement in Vietnam. But that is not really true. If you know your history, America was deeply involved in Vietnam long before 1965. In fact, we were once closely allied with what became the leadership of North Vietnam as we worked together during WWII to defeat the Japanese. After the Japanese were defeated, France tried to reclaim their Asian territory, and things spiraled out of control from there, eventually leading to a “#Vietnam War” that include the French, and then us, as well as contingents from many other nations. As they say, it was “complicated”. Perhaps it was also unnecessary. But that was all politics. On the ground, there were soldiers and marines…
I grew up reading the brilliant, gut-wrenching novels and accounts of young American soldiers in the Vietnam War. Books such as Chickenhawk by Robert Mason, The 13th Valley by John M. Del Vecchio, Pleiku by JD Coleman, The Green Berets at War by Shelby Stanton, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home by Tim O’Brien, and of course We Were Soldiers Once and Young, by Moore and Galloway. And from an Australian soldier’s perspective of the war and Americans at war in Vietnam, I was fascinated by Lex McAuley’s When the Buffalo Fight. There were many more, but these are seven that stood out.
So “Youth In Asia” humbly follows in these footsteps, further informed by my own twenty-three years as an infantryman and an officer. I have published a number of articles in professional military journals, and I have a Masters Degree in Creative Writing. Together, these experiences and training have enabled me to depict infantrymen in the jungles of Vietnam, in the Central Highlands.
The story is concurrent with the start of the Marines’ battle at Khe Sanh, and is set shortly after the horrific fight for Hill 875 but just days before the start of the 1968 Tet Offensive that broke the back of America’s determination to continue the war. Tet was another major event in one of the most pivotal years in America’s history. The politics and riots were all a million miles away, though, for five young soldiers, lost and alone in the jungles of Vietnam. They just wanted to live through another day.
“Youth In Asia” is on sale at Amazon, and it has made it into the top 10 of seven Amazon bestseller lists in six countries. I will donate half of all proceeds to The Wounded Warrior Project and other organizations dedicated to helping fund programs and services to meet the needs of injured service members. So far the total is $650.
In November 1967, the 173rd Airborne Brigade took Hill 875, near Dak To, in what we called the Central Highlands of South Vietnam. The 173rd drove a North Vietnamese Army division back into Cambodia. This foreshadowed the slaughter that came in January: the Tet Offensive of 1968.
What happened on and around Hill 875 was a victory, we said. But the Airborne Brigade had lost almost two hundred men. Another 642 were wounded during the battles for Hill 875 and the area around Dak To. Though the NVA’s bigger formations fled across the border, the 173rd had to keep up the pressure so the enemy couldn’t regroup and return. To do so, the bloodied brigade was loading up with replacements.
I arrived in Vietnam in mid-November. I came from the Second Infantry Division in Korea, where I’d been patrolling the demilitarized zone. I’d hoped the Army would send me back to the States after my year in Korea, but with things really heating up in Vietnam, I got orders to go there instead. At the time, I figured a year in Vietnam wouldn’t be too bad. I had a year and a half left on my enlistment, and I wanted to go to college when I got out. At the time, I dreamed of being a teacher. I thought I had something to offer others.
I thought the occasional short firefights with the North Koreans, when I patrolled the DMZ, had prepared me for Vietnam. I quickly realized that what I had seen in the DMZ was nothing like the firefights I would soon see in the Central Highlands. But at the time I was confident in my ability as a soldier. Vietnam hadn’t started to get weird, so it didn’t intimidate me. I wasn’t happy about more time overseas, but I figured I could deal with it just as well as sweating out another year in Fort Polk or Hood or some other hole. I was twenty and not in much of a hurry.
When I completed my infantry training at Fort Benning, I’d then gone to airborne school because I had orders to go to the 82nd. The Army, though, changed its mind and rerouted me to Korea. Because I was jump qualified, I got orders to the 173rd when I got to Vietnam—not that there were many airborne operations there. But who knows how the Army thinks.
* * *
There was a pause. Then, “What? You mean like war?”
“Yeah! Exactly! Lots of famous writers were soldiers or sailors, see? Like Conrad and Hemingway and Mailer … and they learned—”
“Oh, man. Don’t tell me this is your idea of some kind of fucking field trip. You think this war is for you to get ideas or characters or whatever? God damn it.”
I heard Harrington kicking the dirt wall of his position before going on. “You stupid fuck. Man … I’ve been here for nine fucking months, okay? I got ninety-two and a wake-up, then I’m out of this slaughterhouse. And I can tell you, the shit here is going to get worse. I can just feel it. We’re right here up against Cambodia and Laos with fucking NVA running back and forth over the border and Viet Cong all over the fucking place. You want war? You should’ve been at Dak To and 875. You don’t know shit, cherry. You think this is some kind of bullshit game?”
Elvis said nothing. I started to feel sorry for him, but I was glad Harrington said what he did. Though I sympathized with Elvis, I didn’t think he understood the finality of Vietnam, of war, of losing your arms or legs or breaking your back falling out of a helicopter. What death really meant. I wanted to hear more, but I couldn’t wait any longer. It was almost 1830.
“Harrington?” I said.
I saw his white face in the shadows and gloom of the position, and I smelled the insect repellent he wore. I told him about the patrol and stand-to and waited while he pulled the clacker off the line.
“Romeo here thinks he’s in Vietnam to do a class study,” he said.
“Enough.” Louder, I called, “Elvis?”
He turned so I could see his face. “Yes, corporal?”
“You got one job over here: Pay attention and do what you’re told to do. Otherwise, you won’t live long enough to write shit. Is that clear?”
I stared at him for a few seconds, hoping he’d take to heart what I’d told him.
“They firin’ H and I tonight?” Harrington asked.
“Probably. Don’t know what time.”
“What’s H and I?” Elvis asked after a moment.
I turned to look at the skyward-pointing barrels of the six 105mm artillery guns clustered in the center of the firebase. Their dark barrels stuck up above the green sandbag berms we’d built around each gun.
Harrington answered our new man, his voice caustic. “Harassment and Interdiction. Our artillery fires on known and suspected enemy locations. We try to kill them. They try to kill us. It’s what we do here. This ain’t no fucking play.”
* * *
Shortly after 2330 we stopped again. Wicker came back to talk. I didn’t hear him until he was almost on me. One of Wicker’s best attributes—one of many—was that he worked hard to keep us all informed about what was going on.
“This is gonna be a long halt,” he whispered close to my face.
“New orders. We’re going a new way. Lieutenant is working up a course.”
“Yeah. Charlie Company came across a cache of ammo and rice. Fresh. We’re supposed to change directions so we can sweep the area at sunup.”
When he had nothing else to say I asked, “What the fuck happened to the Scouts? They’re supposed to be smarter than that.”
“Don’t know. You heard what I heard. Everybody’s luck runs out, so stay alert.”
We were a million miles from home playing a deadly game of cat-and-mouse in a black jungle, and it was getting harder to even remember why we were there. When we roared in on our helicopters in daylight, with fast movers ripping over us, protecting us, I felt like the hunter. Now I felt like the hunted. Stay alert.
* END *
If you are interested in more historical views of the Vietnam War with more on the political aspects, this list of ten of the most compelling books on the Vietnam War is very good. I’ve not read all of them, but collectively they are by men that were there or were orchestrating the strategy, such as it was.
And here is a newly released batch of photos of soldiers in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968. They were taken by Christopher Gaynor and provide a vivid sense of daily life as a solider.
And if you would like to learn more about The Wounded Warrior Project, check out this video. You can help by sending money, or volunteering your time:
Comments? Thoughts? Were you there or did you know someone who was there?