The 9th Engineer Battalion, First Marine Division, in Vietnam: 35 Personal Accounts, by Jean Shellenbarger, McFarland, Jefferson, N.C., 2000, $35.
Unlike most units that served in Vietnam, the U.S. Marines’ 9th Engineer Battalion was created in November 1965 specifically for service overseas. It was deactivated in October 1970, after it was no longer needed in that country.
Shellenbarger’s book is short on actual history but long on the flavor of daily existence, relying on individual accounts drawn from diaries and postwar memoirs. Thus the book is very interesting from the point of view of a social historian, but of less importance for the historian of campaigns and battles.
Here, for example, is an entire entry from Lance Cpl. Robert Sperling, Service Company, who served in 1966 and 1967: “One of my worst patrols was the one where the Army opened up on us with .50-caliber machine guns from their towers on the defensive perimeter of Chu Lai. These towers had been built for the Army’s Americal Division by the 9th Engineers USMC.” Well? What happened? Why did the Army fire on the Marines? What were the results? This is typical of the many items dropped in without any attempt to flesh out the stories.
Captain Jim O’Kelley apparently kept a diary, which was against military orders, and excerpts are reproduced without any editorial comment. One finds entries such as the following, for August 21, 1967: “Went north to new C Company campsite near Thang Binh. Went to Mag 13 about USAFI Physics Group Study for troops. Got PDD shot. Raining. Carried dud M-26 from Thang Bihn to B CP!” Some explanation of what this all means would have made the work much more worthwhile.
That having been said, The 9th Engineer Battalion does shed some light on the social aspects of the war, such as the vast gulf between enlisted men and the officer corps. Anyone interested in such topics will likely find Shellenbarger’s book of great value.