The Boys of ’67: Charlie Company’s War in Vietnam, by Andrew Wiest, Osprey, 2012
As Major General William Tecumseh Sherman famously observed, “War is hell.” Yet it is also a profoundly human affair with the power to remake men. Nowhere is this inalienable truth more evident than in Andrew Wiest’s riveting tale that chronicles the transformation of Charlie Company, 4th Battalion of the 47th Infantry, 9th Infantry Division, from a seemingly disparate rabble to a hardened band of brothers.
Concerned with the apparent resurgence of the Viet Cong (VC) in the strategically vital Mekong Delta, Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) planners in 1965 began exploring the possibility of basing U.S. infantry in the region and eventually proposed wedding naval vessels with army infantry. Highly mobile, this joint Army/Navy force would base troops on ships and conduct operations to oppose VC control of the Delta and its numerous waterways.
In February 1966, the 9th ID was reactivated and ultimately tabbed to serve as the infantry component of the Mobile Afloat Force, later renamed the Mobile Riverine Force (MRF). Naturally the newly reactivated 9th—the only division “raised, drafted, and trained for service in Vietnam”—needed men to flesh out its burgeoning ranks, and that May draft-eligible young men across the country received telegrams instructing them to report for induction into the Armed Forces of the United States. Thus was Charlie Company, 4th of the 47th Infantry “born.”
Shuffled off to Ft. Riley, Kan., for months of military training—which, incidentally, would consume the subordinate units of the 9th ID until the division deployed to Vietnam—the young draftees were asked to coexist in a remarkably heterogeneous outfit. Racially and culturally diverse, Charlie Company featured soldiers from virtually every walk of life. Pacifists and class clowns served with patriotic idealists, just as black kids from the segregated South soldiered alongside longhaired white surfer boys from the California coast. “Everyone was there in the newly raised company,” writes Wiest, including “the nerdy guy…the gung-ho true believers…the everyman who just wanted to get through unnoticed.” Subjected to the constant demands of training, the young troopers quickly realized that they had to bond and work together if they hoped to survive.
But here Wiest delves deeper, weaving the story of the individual into the narrative so artfully that the reader comes to know these soldiers intimately, making it impossible not to mourn the loss of each life in the inevitable combat to come.
Dispatched to war with the rest of the 9th ID, Charlie Company arrived in Vietnam in January 1967 and soon began combat operations in the Rung Sat Special Zone, a marshy wasteland and VC sanctuary south of Saigon. Naively, some of the Charlie Company boys lamented the lack of early action, but in the watery mine- and booby-trap-infested Rung Sat, the company sustained its first casualties, and suddenly an empty bunk was all that remained of a once-beloved buddy. “All innocent thoughts that this was somehow ‘not a real war’ had long since been banished,” Wiest explains. Chastened by the loss of their buddies, however, the originals—the Ft. Riley boys who had been together from the beginning—drew closer still.
Leaving the Rung Sat behind, Charlie Company entered the volatile Mekong Delta in earnest in May 1967, only to tangle with large Viet Cong units in battles as violent, if not as famous, as some of the more celebrated clashes of the war. As the losses mounted and a steady influx of replacements slowly changed the composition of the company, the remaining originals resolved to fight even harder to bring one another home alive.
Wiest, a professor of history at Southern Mississippi University, also recounts the unique manner in which Charlie Company, as an element of the MRF, operated. Converted WWII-era landing craft, for instance, served as the primary means of troop transport to and from battle, and the company frequently billeted aboard floating barracks ships (Mobile Riverine Base) while on operations.
Nonetheless, it is Wiest’s extraordinarily human account of young men suffering, fighting and mourning as one, coupled with the role that those brave men played in the development of the MRF, that distinguish The Boys of ’67 from other books in the genre.
Originally published in October 2012 issue, Vietnam magazine.