A Rumor of War: The Classic Vietnam Memoir

Posted on September 15, 2017

by Philip Caputo

The 40th-anniversary edition of the classic Vietnam memoir—featured in the PBS documentary series The Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick—with a new foreword by Kevin Powers.

For I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me: and I say to this man, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it. —Matthew 8:9

The old salts used to tell us that the most memorable experience in an officer’s life is his first command. It is supposed to be like first love, a milestone on the road to manhood. They claimed, these veteran majors and colonels, to remember almost everything about the first platoons they led on Guadalcanal, or in Tientsin, or in Korea. “Why, it seems like yesterday, lieutenant . . . I had this rifleman, Lance Corporal . . . poor guy was killed by a Jap machine gun when we were taking Bloody Nose Ridge . . . And there was this sergeant in mortars, big redhead, damn if he couldn’t put an eighty-one down a smokestack at maximum range.”

I do not have such powers of recall. My first command was a rifle platoon in a battalion of the 3d Marine Division, which I joined on Okinawa after graduation from Basic School and a month’s leave in San Francisco. There were about forty men in it, but I can remember only a few. What remains in my memory is a partial roster of 2d platoon, C Company, 1st Battalion, 3d Marines:

Corporal Banks, 1st squad leader in place of Sergeant Gordon, who had been temporarily attached to D Company. Banks was a soft-spoken black who had fought in Korea and was therefore regarded as a living relic by his teenage squad. He was, in fact, not more than thirty or thirty-one.

Corporal Mixon, the 2d squad leader, was thin and almost delicate-looking, with a shy, diffident manner.

Corporal Gonzalez, 3d squad leader—short, stocky, pugnacious but likable.

Lance Corporal Sampson, an old man of twenty-five whose seven-year career in the Marine Corps was as checkered as a chessboard. He had twice risen to corporal, had been busted down to private both times, and was again on the ascent when I took over the platoon. A sloppy, careless man with a heavy beard that gave him a perpetual five o’clock shadow, Sampson was an archetypal service bum in garrison, but a good field soldier. It was as if he needed the stimulus of hardship or danger to display his better characteristics.

Lance Corporal Bryce, a tall Kansan and one of the most taciturn men in the company. Something seemed to be preying on his mind; whatever it was, he kept it, as he did everything else, to himself. I did not hear him speak more than a few dozen words the whole time I knew him, and in July of 1965, a grenade silenced him completely and forever.

Lance Corporal Marshall, in civilian life a freelance knight of the quarter-mile strip, given to telling tales about back-road jousts won on his chrome-gilt steed, a chopped Chevy with a California rake, four-speed stick, four-eleven rear end, and a fuel-injected mill that idled with a throaty rumble and exploded like Vesuvius when he wound her out, red-lined the tac, and did zero to sixty in five flat, goddamn, leaving the other dudes like they were standing still. Ambition: to save enough money in the Corps to buy an even hairier beast when he got out and spend the rest of his life watching telephone poles whip past in a blur.

PFC Chriswell, the platoon’s seventeen-year-old radioman, a reedy, sandy-haired kid who should have been shooting baskets in some small-town gym instead of a rifle ten thousand miles from his home. He had the irritating and unbreakable habit of addressing officers in the archaic third person: “Would the lieutenant like me to clean his pistol?”

PFC Lockhart, quiet, sensitive to the point of tenderheartedness, but a survivor of life on the harsh streets of Chicago’s South Side. For some reason, I remember the insignificant fact that he had a hard time doing push-ups.

PFC Devlin, Lockhart’s buddy, an all-American-boy, nineteen, with blond hair, blue eyes, and the physique of a middleweight wrestler.

PFCs Bradley and Deane, an inseparable pair of North Carolinians who, like their rebel ancestors, were natural infantrymen. They could walk forever and through anything, shoot straight, and feel nothing but a cheerful contempt for physical adversities.

Corporal Sullivan, whose machine-gun squad was attached to my platoon for a while. He exasperated some of the lifers because he was up for sergeant but refused to behave like one. A sergeant was supposed to be a swaggering tyrant; Sully was a gangly egalitarian, a “goddamned diddy-bopper,” as one of his detractors described him, referring to his casual, loose-jointed gait. He had an irreverent sense of humor and gave orders that sounded more like requests. At twenty-two, he was too young for a third stripe, and the fact that he was getting one, the lifers complained, was yet another sign that their Corps was degenerating. “By God, when I went in we didn’t have no pimple-faced buck sergeants. Took you five years just to make E-4.”

As for the rest, they are now just names without faces or faces without names.

A few generalizations can be made about all of them. They were to a man thoroughly American, in their virtues as well as flaws: idealistic, insolent, generous, direct, violent, and provincial in the sense that they believed the ground they stood on was now forever a part of the United States simply because they stood on it.

Most of them came from the ragged fringes of the Great American Dream, from city slums and dirt farms and Appalachian mining towns. With depressing frequency, the words 2 yrs. high school appeared in the square labeled education in their service record books, and, under father’s address, a number had written Unknown. They were volunteers, but I wondered for how many enlisting had been truly voluntary. The threat of the draft came with their eighteenth birthdays, and they had no hope of getting student deferments, like the upper-middle-class boys who would later revile them as killers. In some cases, a juvenile-court judge had presented a Hobson’s choice between the Corps and jail. Others were driven by economic and psychological pressures; the Marines provided them with a guaranteed annual income, free medical care, free clothing, and something else, less tangible but just as valuable—self-respect. A man who wore that uniform was somebody. He had passed a test few others could. He was not some down-on-his-luck loser pumping gas or washing cars for a dollar-fifty an hour, but somebody, a Marine.

The platoon sergeant, William Campbell (“Wild Bill” to his friends), was a veteran of Korea and countless barroom brawls in most of the ports between Naples and Yokohama. He fit the Hollywood image of a Marine sergeant so perfectly that he seemed a case of life imitating art. Six feet three inches and two hundred and twenty pounds of pure mean, he believed in the Marine Corps the way a Jesuit believes in the Catholic Church, and felt only didisdainor the Navy, the Army, the Congress, motherhood, and officers—in that order. It was a sight to watch him walking down a street, straight-backed and swaggering in a uniform bleached white by tropic suns, his eyes glaring scornfully from beneath the bill of a faded cap.

The redhaired giant walked with a slight limp, a souvenir of the frostbite he had suffered in the Chosin Reservoir in 1950. At that time, before names like Khe Sahn, Hue, and Con Thien were added to the Corps’ battle-streamers, the fighting withdrawal from “frozen Chosin” was considered to be its greatest contest, a trial by fire and ice. Over the years, the campaign attained the dimensions of an epic—even the most sober military historians compared it to the march of Xenophon’s Immortals—and any marine who could say, “I was at Chosin” was likely to be regarded with a great deal of respect. And Campbell was among those few who could.

His relationship to the platoon was that of a chieftain to a warrior clan. Those forty marines constituted his private fiefdom, in the rule of which no one was allowed to interfere. It was his con- viction, and he was probably right, that discipline in a regular army is ultimately based on fear. He had inculcated that emotion in the platoon, and it was a fear not of military law, but of him. They had been convinced that risking the possible consequences of obeying an order was preferable to Wild Bill’s wrath, the certain consequence of disobeying it. “You are fuckin’ up my Marine Corps,” he would say to the offender, these words usually preceding an invitation to step behind the barracks.

The platoon did not resent Campbell’s violent methods. There is an ineradicable streak of machismo, bordering on masochism, in all marines, and I think the platoon was proud that its sergeant was reputed to be one of the toughest in the division. Besides, his man-to-man way of meting out punishment was preferable to the impersonal retribution of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. If nothing else, it kept their records clean and saved them from losing rank or the chance for promotion.

Campbell’s abiding passion in life was close-order drill, at which he had gained considerable skill during a tour as a DI at Parris Island, the Marine recruit depot. Drill was an art form to him, and no choreographer could have derived as much satis- faction from staging a ballet as Campbell did from marching his marines around a parade deck. Once, about two weeks after I ar- rived on Okinawa, I watched him at work. He was standing off to one side of the field, hands on his hips, bawling commands to which the platoon responded with machinelike precision. It was an impressive demonstration of the thing he did best, and when he asked if I would like to give it a try, I said no, I could not do half as well as he, let alone any better. “That’s right, lieutenant,” he replied with a sneer. “Ain’t nobody better’n me.”

I had a hard time convincing him that I was the platoon commander. I am not sure if I ever succeeded. He always seemed to tolerate me as an unavoidable nuisance, which is the way he felt about most officers. For all that, I grew to admire and even like him. In the modern army that Robert McNamara had molded into the corporate image of the Ford Motor Company, an army full of “team players” who spoke the glib jargon of public relations and practiced the art of covering their tracks, there was something refreshing about a profane, hard-drinking maverick like Campbell. He played by his own rules, as much as was possible in the service, and he did nothing halfway. He was what he was one hundred percent, with no apologies to anyone, a sergeant of marines.

The battalion was suffering from an epidemic of island fever when I joined it in January 1965. Except for a brief period of cold- weather training in Japan, One-Three had been on Okinawa since September, waiting for something to happen. Their boredom was compounded by isolation. They were stationed at Camp Schwab, “Home of the Third Marines,” which, with its stark ranks of one- story concrete barracks and chain link fences, looked more like a minimum security prison than a home. It was the most remote base on the Rock, at the edge of the jungled hills that covered the northern third of the island. The closest thing to civilization was a short taxi ride away, a squalid collection of honky-tonks with names that read like a lesson in American geography: Bar New York, Club California, the Blue Hawaii Lounge. The town was named Heneko, and the marines went there at night to fight over meager honors, get hustled by the bowlegged bargirls, and drink in the heavy, reckless way of young GIs overseas for the first time.

The days followed the time-honored routine of garrison life: reveille, roll call, calisthenics, morning chow, working parties, noon chow, close-order drill, working parties, calisthenics, evening chow, liberty call for those who had liberty, guard mount for those who did not, evening colors, taps, lights-out.

It was a bleak existence, and did not at all fulfill my expectations, ever romantic, of what it was like to be a marine in the Far East. My first lesson in the facts of life was administered by Fred Wagoner, the company first sergeant, a heavyset man whose thin, gray hair and steel-rimmed glasses gave him the look of a stern grandfather. Like most top sergeants, Wagoner had a reverence for the formalities of military bureaucracy. On the day that I re- ported into the company, I had signed some blank fitness report forms and laid them on his desk before going into an introduc- tory meeting with the skipper, Captain Lee Peterson. When I came out, Wagoner stopped me, his eyes baleful and magnified behind the glasses, which slipped down his nose; he pushed them back up with a stubby finger, snorted, and said, “Mister Caputo, you signed these with blue ink.” I replied that I had, my ballpoint was blue. “Damnit, sir, don’t they teach you anything at Quantico anymore?” he asked rhetorically, shoving fresh forms at me with one hand and offering his pen with the other. “Black ink, sir. Everything written in the Marine Corps is written in black ink.”

“Top,” I said, “what the hell difference does it make?”

His tone changed to one of indulgent exasperation, as if he were speaking to an idiot child. “Please, sir. Use my pen. Black ink. That’s the system, lieutenant, and if I’ve learned anything, it’s that you can’t beat the system.”

And that is how I spent my first few weeks overseas, learning the system and signing blank forms in black ink, and drinking coffee in the company office with the other platoon commanders. So much for Hollywood and John Wayne. With little to do, I was soon as restless as everyone else. In fact, I was more so. The idle- ness and tedious housekeeping chores of life in camp got on my nerves because I was eager—some would have said overeager—for a chance to prove myself.

This keenness had been aroused by my status in the One- Three; I was not only its most junior officer, but an outsider as well, an uncomfortable position in what must have been one of the most tightly knit outfits in the service. One-Three was a “transplacement” battalion, part of a unit-rotation system used by the Marine Corps between the Korean and Vietnam wars to maintain both the proficiency and the esprit of its Pacific forces. A cadre of veteran officers and NCOs—men like Sergeant Campbell—formed the nucleus of each of these battalions. The ranks were filled with enlisted men who had gone through boot camp together, the junior officer billets with lieutenants who had graduated from Quantico in the same year. Marines assigned to a transplacement unit thus had something in common from the day they joined it; and they generally remained with the unit for the balance of their enlistments, about three years. They spent half that time training with the 1st Division at Camp Pendleton, California, and then sailed to Okinawa for thirteen months’ duty in the Far East with the Third. Because they did everything and went everywhere together, shared the same experiences and hard- ships, a high degree of comradeship developed among them. Like the marriage of cells in a body, each marine, each squad, platoon, and company was bonded to the other to form an entity with a life and spirit all its own, the battalion.

Such, anyway, was the case with the marines in One-Three.

Their individual identities had become inextricably bound up with its identity; they were it, it was them, and in their view, it was the best battalion in the best branch of the service, an elite within an elite. Their clannish, cliquish attitude was almost palpable. I was aware of it from the beginning and was, therefore, painfully conscious of being a stranger. In the mess, I often felt like a guest in some exclusive men’s club—not unwelcome, but not a member either.

My “parent unit” was regimental headquarters company, which had assigned me to One-Three for ninety days, the period I was required to serve in a command billet to qualify in my military occupational specialty, or MOS. This meant that I was merely at- tached to, rather than a part of, the battalion; and when the ninety days expired, I would probably be recalled to HqCo to work in some dull staff job. I was told, however, that this fate might be post- poned, even avoided altogether, if the battalion accepted me as one of its own. That, in turn, depended on whether I demonstrated an acceptable degree of competence and won the respect of both my platoon and my fellow officers. Neither would be accomplished eas- ily. The other platoon commanders in Charley Company—Glen Lemmon, Bruce Tester, and Murph McCloy—had anywhere from one to two years’ experience, while I had none at all. Compared to them, I seemed inept, an amateur ignorant of the most elementary facts. “Blue ink!” the first sergeant had said, embarrassing me in front of his enlisted clerks. “Don’t they teach you anything any- more?” I was alliteratively known as the “boot brown-bar,” slang for a raw second lieutenant.

There were rumors floating around camp about a possible de- ployment to Vietnam. They had begun earlier in the month, when Delta Company was sent to Danang to provide internal security for the American compound there. It was an unexciting mission and, according to the official word, a temporary one. But the un- official word had it that the rest of One-Three would be on its way to Vietnam soon. Still, as the weeks went by and nothing happened, I began to despair of ever seeing action.

In February, the company was sent up to the Northern Training Area, a jungled, mountainous region, for counter-guerrilla-warfare exercises. This was my first test in the field; anxious to pass, afraid of making the smallest mistake, I bungled it, at least at first. Hesi- tant and unsure of myself, I gave orders that were often misun- derstood by the platoon. Leading patrols in the Okinawan jungles turned out to be far more difficult than it had been in Quantico’s forests, which seemed parklike by comparison. I nearly got lost several times, only proving the truth of the old service adage that the most dangerous thing in the world is a second lieutenant with a map and compass. The crowning indignity came during a tacti- cal problem involving an “attack” on a simulated guerrilla base camp. While the platoon was waiting to move to the jump-off point, Campbell lit the smoking lamp, apparently because he felt like having a cigarette. Seeing him do so, I figured it was all right and lit up. But I had hardly finished the first drag when an enraged instructor emerged from a bamboo thicket.

“What the hell is going on here?” he yelled. “The problem isn’t secured. Lamp is out till I say it’s lit! You do something like that in Vietnam, you’ll draw fire and get your men killed. And take that goddamn thing out of your mouth. You’re supposed to set the example.”

Chewed out in front of the troops. As if that weren’t enough, Joe Feeley, the company executive officer, gave me a lecture later in the day. The instructor had reported the incident to Peterson, who, Feeley said, was willing to make certain allowances because I was green. But another mistake like the one today and the skipper would begin to doubt my competence. “As for your platoon sergeant, lieutenant, you had best teach that bullheaded son of a bitch who’s the honcho before he gets you in trouble again.” Having taken my verbal twenty lashes, I returned to the platoon, re- membering the words of a character in a war novel I had read once: “By God, there’s nothing like command.” By God, there wasn’t, and I wondered if I would ever get the hang of it. I did eventually. Resolved to endure no further reprimands, I turned into a regular little martinet, and the platoon’s performance for the rest of the exercise, although far from brilliant, was at least respectable.

Looking back, I think that much of my behavior later in Vietnam, good as well as bad, was determined by the rebukes I re- ceived that day. They instilled in me a lasting fear of criticism and, conversely, a hunger for praise. The last thing I wanted was to be thought of as inadequate, not quite up to the mark for mem- bership in the tough, masculine world of a Marine rifle battalion. Had I been older or more seasoned, I would have taken Feeley’s remark for the unimportant thing it was; but I suffered from a youthful tendency to take things too seriously. That is how I ap- pear in the comments various commanding officers made in their fitness reports on me. I still have copies of these mixed re- views, and they show an ardent, somewhat reckless officer who is trying too hard to live up to what is expected of him. “Lieutenant Caputo is fearless in the face of the enemy”; “an aggressive and eager young officer with a desire to succeed”; “a little too quick on the trigger”; “tends to rush impulsively into things”; “does not plan ahead”; “performed well in combat.” Napoleon once said that he could make men die for little pieces of ribbon. By the time the battalion left for Vietnam, I was ready to die for considerably less, for a few favorable remarks in a fitness report. Words.

The exercises lasted two weeks; two weeks of incessant rain dur- ing which we gained some familiarity with the miseries peculiar to jungle warfare—leeches, mosquitoes, constant dampness, the claustral effect created by dense forests that dimmed the brightest noon and turned midnight into the absolute blackness known by the blind. I cannot say we learned much else that proved useful. We practiced tactics perfected by the British during the Malayan uprising in the 1950s, a conflict that bore only a facile resemblance to the one in Indochina. Nevertheless, it was the only successful counterinsurgency waged by a Western power in Asia, and you could not argue with success. So, as always seems to be the case in the service, we were trained for the wrong war; we learned all there was to know about fighting guerrillas in Malaya.

Some attempts were made to instill in us those antisocial at- tributes without which a soldier fighting in the jungle cannot long survive. He has to be stealthy, aggressive, and ruthless, a combination burglar, bank robber, and Mafia assassin. One of our instructors in these lessons was a beefy sergeant whose thick neck blended smoothly into shoulders that looked as wide as an M-14 rifle is long. He was always stressing the need to annihilate every enemy soldier who entered the killing zone of an ambush. The first burst of fire, delivered at waist level, was to be followed by a second at ankle level, the object being to finish off whoever had survived the initial volley. To whip us into the vicious mood required for cold-blooded slaughter, the sergeant began his first lesson like this:

He came into the classroom, let out a spine-chilling war cry, and buried a hatchet in one of the wooden walls. Without saying a word, he wrote something on a small blackboard, concealing it with his V-shaped back. He stepped aside, pointing to the writing with one hand and to a marine with the other. “You, what does that say?” he asked.

Marine: “It says ‘ambushes are murder,’ sergeant.”

Sergeant: “Right.” Shouts, “AMBUSHES ARE MURDER,” then returns to the blackboard, writes something else, and again asks, “What does that say?”

Marine: “And murder is fun.”

Sergeant: “Right again.” Removes hatchet from wall and bran- dishes it at the class. “Now, everybody say it. AMBUSHES ARE MURDER AND MURDER IS FUN.”

Class, hesitantly, with some nervous laughter: “Ambushes are murder and murder is fun.”

Sergeant: “I can’t hear you, marines.”

Class, this time in unison: “AMBUSHES ARE MURDER AND MURDER IS FUN.”

Unshaven and filthy, the company returned to Camp Schwab in time to learn that while it had been murdering fictitious guer- rillas, real ones had caused mayhem in Vietnam. The Viet Cong had attacked the American air base at Pleiku, inflicting what was then considered heavy casualties: about seventy airmen had been killed or wounded. A few days later, the first U.S. planes began to empty their explosive bowels over the North. The sustained bombing campaign that came to be known as Operation Rolling Thunder had begun.

The battalion had fallen back into its domestic rut, but the news of these two events—the Pleiku raid and the retaliatory bombing—rekindled the rumors about “going South” and changed the atmosphere in camp from boredom to expectancy. The ru- mors were denied on February 15, when we got word that One- Three was going afloat in a week, its destination Hong Kong or the Philippines. They were then confirmed on the 17th, when we were alerted to mount out for Danang on the 24th.

Thus began three confusing weeks of alarms and counter- alarms, stand-tos and stand-downs. Charley Company was sent back into the bush for another two days of exercises, presumably as a rehearsal for the live-ammunition drama in which we would be playing by month’s end. The weather, bright and warm while we were in garrison, turned sodden, giving us additional practice at being miserable. The platoon was nonetheless enthusiastic, all but Sergeant Campbell.

“Seventeen cotton-pickin’ years I been doin’ this,” he said as we sloshed in the rain across a silty, salmon-colored stream. “Too old for this boy-scout bullshit, lieutenant. I’d like to get back to Parris Island, get my twenty in and get the fuck out. Spend some time with my old lady and my kids for a change.”

“Hell, this ain’t nothing but red clay, Sergeant Campbell,” said Bradley, who was behind us. “Me and old Deane here usta walk through stuff like this just coming home from school.”

“I was talkin’ to the lieutenant, turdbird.” “Yes, sir, Sergeant Campbell.”

“Like I was sayin’, lieutenant, get my twenty in and get out. You know, there’s eighty acres I bought in South Carolina and I figure to retire on that.”

I laughed, “Wild Bill Campbell, the gentleman farmer.” “Well, sir, go ahead and laugh. But I’m gonna get on the State

Troopers when I get out and with that and my retirement, I figure old Wild Bill’s gonna have it number fuckin’ one while the rest of these turdbirds’ll still be walkin’ in this shit.”

“Shee-hit,” someone said. “I ain’t gonna be walkin’ in this any longer’n I have to. I ain’t no friggin’ lifer.”

“That’s because you ain’t good enough, you silly little shit.”

Finishing the exercises with a ten-mile forced march, we swung through the main gate looking and feeling warlike. But on the 24th, the battalion found itself still on the Rock. For over a week, orders were cut, then countermanded. We heard that the Danang operation had been called off. We were going to Hong Kong after all. Then word came that One-Three was to stage for a landing on the Danang airfield. It was scheduled for March 1. On the 1st, it was postponed to the 3d, and on the 3d to the 5th, when it was canceled altogether. According to the Word, that anony- mous source of truths, half-truths, and falsehoods in the service, the battalion would remain on Okinawa until April 8, when it would sail for the Philippines.

I don’t know if this series of countermanded orders was a planned deception or simply an example of the confusion that precedes most major military operations. If it was the former, it did not succeed in deceiving anyone but us. The bargirls in Heneko, always founts of accurate intelligence, spoke disconso- lately of our impending departure. “You from One-Three Battalion, go Vietnam skoshi-skoshi. I tell you true. Maybe sayonara all Third Marine. Number ten [the worst], no money Heneko no GI here.” Another omen appeared in the island’s English-language newspaper, which reported that sixty prostitutes had migrated from Saigon to Danang “in anticipation of a rumored landing of U.S. Marines.” There were other, more serious indications that the South Vietnamese Army, the ARVN, was nearing collapse. The news in the Pacific Stars and Stripes and on the armed forces radio network was a litany of defeats: outposts overrun, relief columns ambushed, airfields raided and shelled.

Despite these signs, we no longer expected our future to be a violent one. Concluding that the past alarms had been drills to test the battalion’s “combat readiness,” we settled down for a pro- longed confinement on the Rock. Boredom reigned again and was combatted in the usual ways. On Sunday, March 7, at least half of One-Three’s thousand officers and men were enjoying a weekend of I-and-I—intercourse and intoxication—in Kin and Kadena, Ishakawa and Naha, city of the Teahouse of the August Moon.

One who remained on base was Glen Lemmon, the battalion duty officer for that day. Early in the afternoon, a message arrived at HQ, where Lemmon sat, yawning and making entries in the OD’s logbook. He read it and, quickly snapping out of his leth- argy, picked up the phone to call the CO, Lieutenant Colonel Bain.

See author Philip Caputo in the landmark documentary series THE VIETNAM WAR, airing Sunday, September 17, 2017 on PBS.

Philip Caputo is an award-winning journalist—the co-winner of a Pulitzer Prize—and the author of many works of fiction and nonfiction, including A Rumor of War, one of the most highly praised books of the twentieth century, and the novel Some Rise by Sin. He and his wife, Leslie Ware, divide their time between Norwalk, Connecticut, and Patagonia, Arizona.

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