Book Review – In the Company of Marines: A Surgeon Remembers Vietnam, by James O. Finnegan, M.D.

Dr. James Finnegan is a Philadelphia surgeon who has treated thousands of patients in a career that has spanned more that 40 years. But there is one year in particular that Dr. Finnegan can recall the details about his patients most vividly. That was the year when the young surgeon found himself in the midst of combat, assigned to the 3rd Marine Division in the northernmost provinces of South Vietnam. From September 1967 to September 1968, Finnegan experienced the war in Vietnam intently and shares his experiences and insights with readers in his memoir, In the Company of Marines.

In a crisp, no-nonsense writing style that eschews flourish and overdramatization, Finnegan sheds light on the reality of a doctor’s war. This no-frills book is an easy read, with a number of his 36 “chapters” very short, mere vignettes, really. But in a few hundred words on topics ranging from the stoicism of severely wounded NVA versus panicked and whimpering “dinged” ARVN, to the profound genital wounds to 19-year-old GIs that he tried to repair, Finnegan manages to convey poignant stories and searing visions that stick with you.

The author’s credentials are unassailable; he was the commanding officer of the Navy surgical team at Khe Sanh during the 77-day siege of 1968. Finnegan led the team of four physicians and 26 corpsmen, treating more than 2,500 casualties. His descriptions of the Khe Sanh fight offer readers vivid insights and clearly explain his undying respect, and love, for “his” Marines.

Finnegan remains modest about his own exploits, and admits to some embarrassment about his Purple Heart that resulted from a shrapnel wound suffered during a mortar attack. But there is little doubt that his Bronze Star Medal with Combat “V” for valor was well deserved. So too, his right to pen these words about Khe Sanh in his Epilogue: “Did we win anything? Did we save anything or anybody? Did we alter the fate of the Vietnamese people? Is the world a better place because brave, young American Marines fought and died on this tiny plateau and the surrounding hills? Have the disabilities resulting from thousands of wounds been properly treated and hopefully lessened? Answers? Anyone?”

Lulu, 2010

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