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Media Digest | The Every Day Courage of Grunts in Vietnam

By Warren Wilkins
April 2018 • Vietnam Magazine

Part photographic history, part battle anthology, Brutal Battles of Vietnam emerged from VFW magazine’s award-winning Vietnam series. The result is a visually spectacular, year-by-year account of the bloodiest battles waged by American forces in Vietnam.

In this book, skillfully edited by Richard K. Kolb, “brutal battles” are clearly, if subjectively, defined according to American casualties. “For battles fought from 1965 through 1968,” explains Kolb, “that number was generally 30. Starting in 1969 and running through 1972, it was roughly 20.” Numerous exceptions were made, however, to include the historically significant invasions of Cambodia (1970) and Laos (1971) and to ensure that every major U.S. ground unit is represented.

While the accounts detailing the most highly publicized battles of the war—Ia Drang, Dak To, Khe Sanh, Hue, Ripcord—will resonate with many readers, Brutal Battles of Vietnam, to its credit, also recounts dozens of equally deserving, yet largely forgotten, fights.

The shockingly violent Battle of Suoi Tre in March 1967, for example, nearly ended in disaster for elements of the 3rd Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, when hundreds of well-armed Viet Cong stormed Firebase Gold north of Saigon. Fortunately for the Americans, the enemy assault was eventually crushed by devastating airstrikes, artillery fired at point-blank range and the timely arrival of armored reinforcements. Later, American troops searching in and around the base counted more than 600 enemy bodies, quite conceivably the highest single-day total of the war.

The four- to six-page battle vignettes, dedicated primarily to the boots-on-the-ground “trigger pullers,” demonstrate the extraordinary courage and sacrifice of the average grunt in Vietnam. Sidebars, special features and firsthand recollections memorialize the men who fought, and quite often died, in vicious close-quarters combat.

Sgt. Bruce Allen Grandstaff, a fearless career soldier from Spokane, Washington, embodies the unsung heroes whose stories are told in Brutal Battles of Vietnam. Grandstaff requested artillery fire on top of his own position to prevent the North Vietnamese from overrunning his hopelessly outnumbered 4th Infantry Division platoon in May 1967. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

The human cost of that battle, as well as the toll in the more than 100 other actions covered in the book, is thoroughly documented with statistics that examine the characteristics of American casualties. Approximately 70 percent of the men killed in Grandstaff’s platoon were draftees, according to contributor Susan Katz Keating, and most died of gunshot wounds.

Kolb ensured that the exploits of the Navy and Air Force in Southeast Asia were also duly recognized and honored.

Few are likely to forget the remarkable story of Lt. Clyde Lassen, the only Navy helicopter pilot to receive the Medal of Honor. Landing in North Vietnam on the evening of June 18, 1968, with small-arms fire rattling past his UH-2 Seasprite helicopter, Lassen daringly rescued two stranded crewmen from a downed F-4 Phantom fighter-bomber.

The book also includes the combat experiences of the Air Force’s16th Special Operations Squadron as its AC-130 gunships, flying the perilous skies over Laos from 1968 to 1972, patrol the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail, destroying or damaging an estimated 10,000 enemy trucks a year.

Neil Sheehan, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book A Bright Shining Lie, ruefully observed that the Vietnam War was a “war without heroes.” Brutal Battles reminds us that the American fighting man in Vietnam was every bit as heroic as his more celebrated forebears.

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